Team Poland turning heads
THERE HAVE BEEN times in the recent, dismal past when the Polish national team struggled to get 5,000 people in to see their games.
So the sight yesterday of a crowd of 15,000 punters filling up a football ground in Gdynia, on the Baltic coast of this intriguing country, just to watch the Irish team train is a fascinating backdrop to the European Championships.
Seven years after the EU welcomed Poland into its arms, this week Poland is welcoming football to the country with open arms, a warm heart and sunny beaches.
As long as the memory of Paris 2009 burns for some people, the notion of The Luck Of The Irish won't apply. Older fans cast their minds back to Brussels in '81, Sofia in '77 and wonder how many times we've been robbed because we are a small nation which is never favoured by luck.
But fortune has smiled on Ireland and the Irish team even before a ball has been kicked because of where we are for the tournament. No offence to our many Ukrainian readers, but Ireland's players and fans are blessed by the fact that we have avoided Ukraine for the group stages - though of course we do want to visit Ukraine for the quarter-finals with a game in either Kyiv or Donetsk for Ireland should the team get out of Group C and Ireland could stay on in Ukraine for a possible semi-final also in Donetsk should we progress that far.
The draw for the groups was not ideal for Ireland - we avoided the Grupa Smierci (that's group of death in Polish) containing Holland, Denmark, Germany and Portugal but we could have lived with being placed in Group A with Poland, Greece, Russia and the Czech republic.
But the location of Ireland's games could not have been better, for fans and for players. The team's base on the Baltic coast - the team hotel is in Sopot, the training ground's in Gdynia and one of the group games is in Gdansk, all very close together in what is effectively three cities in one - is ideal.
At Euro 2008 this reporter spent some time covering the Polish team in Austria. They trained in a small town similar to Malahide but their hotel was stuck up a forbidding mountain drive, 10km away from any civilization.
Away from the distractions of fans and the media and remote from the temptations of the local fleshpots, but also away from anything of interest. The result of their isolation was a group of players who became bored and frustrated and the team exited at the first hurdle.
In Sopot, the Irish team hotel is on the beach, with the famous pier just a Shay Given-style long throw away.
Last week in Italy at their training camp in Montecatini, the Irish players commented on how they enjoyed being given some freedom by Giovanni Trapattoni to leave their hotel and amble around the pretty town. Just being able to go for a wander and stop in for a coffee was a welcome release from the cabin fever of being in camp with 22 other grown men every day.
The players' wives and families will be staying in a separate hotel only three minutes' walk from the team hotel, and if Trapattoni has any sense he will let the players off the leash occasionally and allow them hook up with their families and spend time on the beach.
Richard Dunne, father of two small kids, has already pointed out that his children don't really know what the Euros is all about, all they know is that they're going somewhere new for a holiday this month, and for a six-year-old a new Hello Kitty bucket and spade has the same attraction whether it's bought in an exclusive resort in the Caribbean or in a place called Sopot on the Polish coast.
Other countries at Euro 2012 are facing nightmares in terms of logistics. A legacy of the Fabio Capello era for Roy Hodgson to deal with is the fact that England have chosen Krakow as their base, for their main hotel stay and their training camp. Even though their matches are in Ukraine, with Donetsk (host venue for the France game) a bum-numbing 1,500km away.
Ireland have just two trips from their coastal base, the relatively stress-free jaunt from Sopot to Poznan. The journey from the team hotel to the stadium in Gdansk for the Spain game is precisely 12km - the players could do that by bike while England's heroes trek warily across the European landmass.
Travel sickness could be a factor for the English or the French as they are all dreading their trips across Europe to reach Donetsk, all the way down there close to the Sea of Azov. But Ireland can have no such complaints because the draw and geography were so kind to us.
So what can the players and fans expect in Poland? Despite scare-mongering by TV shows which laid on the fears of hate crime from neo-Nazis with a trowel, Irish fans will get a warm welcome in Poland and can have no fears about attacks or trouble.
Boozed-up skinhead fans of Legia Warsaw don't think about Ireland or the Irish too much, they'll spend most of their time trying to find fans of other Polish clubs to go after, or maybe a few English skinhead types.
Because Poland has a strange relationship with football and their football team. They love their football here but many Poles have far more interest in the affairs of the English Premier League or the Bundesliga than their own Ekstraklasa.
The national side has periods when they are simply stunning (finished third at the World Cups in '74 and '82) and stinking. They have a giddy sense of excitement about hosting the Euros this summer.
The rip-offs which sprang up just after the draw was made, all those awful €30-a-night hostels pushing up their prices to €1,000 a night since disappearing with more value coming on stream.
Even the currency is easy to work out, with 4 zloty to the Euro (in contrast to the mind-boggling era in the aftermath of communism, with a rate of 35,000 zloty to the pound for this reporter's first visit there).
One of the main attractions of Sopot, the main hub for the Irish team, is the world-famous wooden pier. It's free to access off-season but to raise some revenue the local authorities charge a fee (under €2) to walk the plank, so to speak, in summer time.
They have already made a concession to their guests by stating that the Ireland squad have been given a pass and can walk the pier for free at any time.
My guess is that after a few days, just wearing a green shirt, whether you're Sean St Ledger or Standard Punter, will be enough.
Let the games begin.