St Patrick’s Athletic v Shakhter Karagandy, Europa League Second Qualifying Round, Second Leg, 21 July 2011.
The car door creaked open and a hat emerged. A small, dark, pillbox hat embroidered with colourful sequins and beads; the kind that’s piled high in the street markets all along the Silk Road.
Further vertical progress revealed that it was perched atop the shoulder-length grey hair of a large, middle-aged man wearing a St Patrick’s Athletic replica shirt. He closed the car door, stretched and swung a jacket around his shoulders.
A woman got out of the passenger seat and slammed the door. She looked across the roof of the car.
“Would you ever just take that hat off?”
“No, I’m wearing me hat. That’s the end of it.”
It’s probably safe to say that the paths of Inchicore and Kazakhstan have rarely crossed, but such idiosyncratic cultural fusions are part of what make the recondite early rounds of European competitions so enchanting. This couple had clearly been to the first leg of the tie in Karaganda, the capital city of the central Kazakh province that gives the Shakhter Karagandy club its name, and the male half of the duo wanted everyone at the return leg at Richmond Park last night to know, even at the expense of domestic harmony.
Saints trailed 1-2 going into last night’s game and the talk in the club shop and ticket office next to the funeral parlour was that their away goal could well prove crucial. Inside the ground the nervous anxiety thrummed through the very foundations. Richmond Park, rebranded apparently with a straight face as ‘The Stadium Of Light’ a few years ago, is a proper, old-fashioned football ground, its idiosyncratic undulations and freeform boundaries giving it the feel that it’s made itself comfortable in its surroundings over the decades, a bit like an old shoe moulded to the shape of the foot that wears it.
Only two sides were open last night due to UEFA regulations: uncovered seating behind one goal and the cramped main stand where my friend Arthur and I sat, knees pressed against the back of the seat in front and swaying this way and that as the action passed behind the pillars and floodlight pylons between us and the pitch.
The Kazakhs were a challenge to St Pat’s in more ways than one. The stadium announcer tried his best with names like Tokrar Zhangylyshbay and Aldin Dzidic, but in the end was reduced to announcing players apparently called Igor Shhhhhhov and Andrei Prrrrrrrrrv. The fact that their names were on the back of their shirts in Cyrillic only added to the exoticism of the visitors.
They were also massive. Two giant Bosnians stood at the heart of their defence like the Poolbeg chimneys. Up front wearing number 91, Sergei Khizhnichenko (“Nomber noynty-one, Sergei Ki…Kizzzzzhko”) should probably have been wearing lights to alert planes approaching Dublin airport.
Despite this the game was fast-paced and played along the floor. Pats levelled the tie on aggregate with a goal on the quarter-hour – a close range header from a cross that somehow evaded the threshing machines playing at centre-half for Shakhter.
The tie was won for the home side by a brilliant volleyed goal midway through the second half, the crowd’s response to which nearly lifted the roof clean off the stand. The visitors became scrappy, picking up yellow cards as their frustration grew and they began to realise the game was lost. Saints had started the game nervously but were now knocking the ball around with the assured confidence of champions.
At the final whistle as the Saints players ran to each other with arms outstretched and the crowd leapt to its feet with clenched fists aloft, the pitch became littered with prostrate Kazakhs. Some lay on their backs in the evening dew that glistened silver under the floodlights, staring glassily at the sky, others dropped as if winded to their haunches and contemplated turf that suddenly seemed a very long way from home indeed.
Passing home players would pat them consolingly or haul them to their feet for handshakes and commiseration, the international football sign language of shrugs, clapping of palms, meshing of fingers and the mimed plucking of jerseys to arrange later shirt exchanges.
These were scenes being replayed right across the continent, from volcanic Iceland to the sandy fringes of Asia: joy and despair, the thrill of the unknown still to come weighed against broken dreams and crushing disappointment.
When the Champions League final comes around again in May and two of Europe’s finest, most expensively assembled teams square up across the halfway line, think back to occasions like last night, to the long-forgotten rounds and thrilling cup runs, the players who played the games of their lives and saw nations and cities they couldn’t even have dreamed of, the vast extremes of emotions soaking into pitches across the continent, the lifelong memories created before the players in the final had even returned from their summer holidays.
Somewhere in that joyful crowd after the final whistle last night, a hand would have clamped onto a small pillbox hat, the floodlights glinting back off its beads and sequins, to stop it being lost in the clumsy dancing embrace of delicious victory.