BBC BLOGS - Austin O'Callaghan

Irish hoping to celebrate in Tallinn

Austin O'Callaghan | 13:42 UK time, Thursday, 10 November 2011

This is unusual. When the Republic of Ireland reached this stage of the qualification process for a major tournament in the past, they were normally billed as the plucky underdogs. But not in Tallinn. In this Estonian football pond, the Irish are the big fish.

It is a sensation which is taking a bit of getting used to for the 3,000 or so travelling supporters.

Yes, I know the FAI received just 1,400 tickets for the game. But that has never stopped ticketless Irish fans from making the journey in the past. So, why start now?

Along the cobbled streets of this charming medieval city, the first Irish flag we notice just happens to be draped over the doorway of what is, to all intents and purposes, a strip club. Opportunistic marketing? Don't they realise the fans are here purely for the football?

Flags of the Republic of Ireland and Estonia in Tallinn

A warm welcome awaits Republic of Ireland fans from the business community in Tallinn

If it is true that France and Germany have been considering new economic proposals this week aimed at reducing the size of the Eurozone, Estonia could have reason to be a little jittery. It joined the Euro in January of this year. Last in first out?

Yet football is clearly the new currency on an upward curve here.

This is new territory for Estonia. They have never qualified for the finals of a major football tournament. But having shown Northern Ireland the qualification exit door in September, the Baltic state genuinely fancies its chances of repeating the feat against another Irish football team.

Renee Iliste would certainly convince you anyway. He runs a medieval market stall near Tallinn's Town Hall square. But a glance at what he is wearing suggests Renee would look equally at home on the set of a Robin Hood film.

Austin O'Callaghan and Renee Iliste in Tallinn

Austin O'Callaghan with market stall trader Renee Iliste in Tallinn

"The times have changed," he says triumphantly. "We are getting famous around the world for our football. I will be dancing everywhere to celebrate if we win. We love the football."

If he is wearing the same outfit, we may have to come back with a camera to see that.

But there is confidence amongst the visiting support too. Seamus Given, who we bump into, is one of boys in green with a ticket. Mind you, it would be a major surprise if he did not have one seeing as his son Shay is in goal on Friday evening.

"Confident?"

"Yes."

"Is he (Shay) nervous?"

"Not really no. He is too professional to be nervous. As they say back home, he is too long in the tooth now to get nervous. He just loves playing."

Several members of the current Republic team were not even born the last time the Republic of Ireland qualified for the finals of the European Championship [Germany 1988]. Given senior believes the time has come to do something about that.

"We will not accept a draw tomorrow. We are going all out for the win," added Given Sr.

And who are we to argue with Dad?

Ulster opener comes under fire

Austin O'Callaghan | 10:17 UK time, Monday, 16 May 2011

Donegal and Antrim were in a no-win situation at Ballybofey. As the only Championship match on Sunday, the level of analysis was predictably going to be more intense with every nook and cranny of the game explored and dissected.

There is unlikely to be another provincial match this summer which will be stripped down to the bone to such an extent.

Donegal's Ryan Bradley in action against Kevin Brady of Antrim

Donegal's Ryan Bradley gets to the ball before Antrim opponent Kevin Brady in the Ulster Championship match at Ballybofey

Just about everybody I spoke to on the way out of McCumhaill Park was scathing of the quality of football. The game was poor - not even the Donegal and Antrim teams are arguing with that.

Watch Liam Bradley's post-match interview on this website. He summed it up best by admitting he would not have been willing to pay into see it.

But what were we expecting from this match in the first place?

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My predictions for the 2011 National Football League

Austin O'Callaghan | 14:09 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011

My 'to do' list at work this week has largely revolved around preparations for our live radio coverage of the new National Football League season - and buying an umpire's white coat.

It could well become a collector's item now that the GAA has revamped its wardrobe for match officials.

The white coats will be a thing of the past as GAA umpires get a makeover for 2011

There are two Sportsound programmes on BBC Radio Ulster 1341 medium wave this weekend, Saturday evening from 7 - and Sunday afternoon from 2, and we are spoilt for choice in terms of commentary matches.

The most atmospheric venue is likely to be Armagh v Dublin at the renovated Athletic Grounds. Supporters who have bought tickets for the front rows of the new stand will think they are actually playing themselves, such is the proximity of the front seats to the sideline.

Apart from the lively banter between fans and sideline personnel, Armagh will probably be hoping it unsettles the visiting Dubs a little. This game also marks another first for the GAA - it will be the association's first fixture to be broadcast on TV in HD.

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