Never again we said in 2014. Again they said in 2019. And so again it was. But this time was different. Well, not the heat, but the outcome.
Once the dates were set there was no getting away from it, it had to happen. Saturday May 18 in My Dinh, Hanoi. As you can see from the chart below, in the days leading up to the competition the temperature steadily, incessantly increased, the heat inescapable even at night when it was still in the high twenties and humid as the back of a dry-cleaner’s. Of course as soon as everyone left the temperature eased off again for the rest of the month!
So this was Gaelic football as an endurance sport, a wild experiment in trying to keep 300 odd (very odd) ‘bong da Ai Len’ aficionados hydrated and chilled while at the same time encouraging them to go out and sweat it all out running jagged, jaunty angles around the gloriously grassy fields of My Dinh of an elongated Saturday under the unforgiving, unrelenting, uncompromising Hanoi sun.
To spend time out in the sun was to be slowly cooked, to feel yourself melting and all your energy evaporating, Deep into the second half of a game and after a couple of quick shuttles people would be keeling over, gasping for air that was not there. It really was like a collective endurance event, the only goal to get all the games played and try to still appreciate all the little moments that make up these events.
The reunions with old friends, old team-mates, the likes of Thanh and Justin and others Viet Celts back in town, Connla still a Saigon Gael. Sightings of lads and lassies who have been opponents for years, chats with a few and a few new connections, new stories, new achievements and memories, while those who are part of the old memories but could not make it also sent their salutations.
New friendships made on and off the pitch, togging out with people you’d never met before and going up against people who were the mirror image of you, all in it together against this maniacal heat. Nothing to be done but smile and shrug and do one’s best, push one’s body as far as possible in the heat until it told you to stop or just shut down of its own accord. Out to represent the Viet Celts of past, present and future.
The groups and games were set up as laid out in the photos below, with a mix of teams from Hanoi, Saigon, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan.
The Cambodian team are still in their early stages but brought great spirit and enthusiasm to proceedings. We were also delighted to have the Hanoi Swans put out a team too (and were also delighted when our A team got to play them first, as we knew they’d improve across the day, natural athletes all just a little slow on the uptake at times…!)
Our men’s first team was Irish with one most honourable Australian exception, our ladies team equally freckle-faced but with a healthy smattering of Vietnamese players across the team. The other two men’s teams also had a few of the local lads playing, most notably Quan and Hieu who have graduated from Blue Dragon GFC to full Viet Celt status, as well as our Mr Consistent, Tin.
A massive thank you must be given to the people who supported and made the day possible, from the Asian County Board and the Irish Embassy in Vietnam, to Friends of Ireland and Republic, as well as the people at My Dinh stadium and the individuals who put in hours of effort in the run up to the tournament – Thu and Luke Kenny and Gareth O Hara in particular – as well as the team who made it happen on the day, with David Cunningham on scores and Shane and Finbar on the microphones, keeping everyone entertained with an array of insightful comments and entertaining guests, their sales pitch for a Honda Win that had been driven up from Saigon, Bamboo water bottles and Nutter’s Butter all keeping people in stitches throughout the day. In the afternoon they even took over from the increasingly absent Cunningham and started organising the fixtures and pitches too, with the no-nonsense assistance of the amazing Ciara from Australia.
After a gruelling morning of sport with some high scores and great team performances, intermingled with individual efforts that generated gasps of admiration from the gathered crowds, we arrived at the knock out stages.
The ladies qualified out of their group into the Cup after some hard fought wins in the morning. They were unfortunate to lose to Saigon 1, who went on to beat Malaysia in the Cup final.
Both Viet Celts 3 and Swans Men’s teams scuppered their own plans to meet in the Bowl final for a glorious contest by inadvertently winning their last group games, thus qualifying themselves for the Plate, where the turds lost to the seconds and the Swans lost to Cambodia. So it lay to Viet Celts 2 to try and win the Plate for Hanoi, but it was not to be against a Cambodian side who are growing stronger with every tournament, having created a good blend of styles incorporating their local players. In the other competitions, Malaysia 2 Men’s and Ladies’ won their respective Bowls and Singapore won the Ladies’ Plate (so at least they won something…)
As for the heroes of the day, the lads who could really play, they were a team of players determined to make up for last year’s disappointment in the final and new players looking to show what they could do, unfettered by the trammels of Viet Celts history and other lads who were neither one nor the other but a bit of both and then some. Never has a Viet Celts team put so much time in on the training ground before a competition and in the end this extra energy, allied with the finessed skills up front, was too much for any of the other teams to handle.
They started with a win against the Swans, then went on to beat Malaysia 2, Singapore 1 and Saigon 2, with their points difference being the best of all the groups. In the quarter finals they beat Thailand 2 comfortably, then it was Saigon 1 in the semi’s. In this game they opened up what seemed a comfortable lead, but – not content to make things easy for themselves, or perhaps content to make things more interesting for their fans, assembled behind Dan Coloe’s goal and along the sidelines – then Barry got sinbinned and options for kick-outs got limited. Saigon squeezed and we got nervous. They scored a goal and then another and on the sidelines we had no idea what the score was, panic but calm, not letting it transmit to the players. Then finally a clean move up the pitch and a goal. Surely that’ll be enough?! Surely? And then the final whistle and the lads celebrating and we were into the final against the aul’ nemesis, Singapore.
It was a high scoring day and the final was no different, the early goals a soothing balm for those unsettled stomachs still churning from the nerves at the end of the previous game. But the Celts, our Celts, soon settled into their stride, dictating the pace, stretching the game wide one way then the other then razor sharp incisive sprints towards the goals resulting in billowing nets and another 3 points, another step closer to that cup, to being crowned current champions of this little corner of the cosmos. And Singapore scored too, but not enough, although they came closer as the game neared its end, enough to make us a tad nervous, to frantically ask everyone around us what the score was, with a six-point swing in the suggestions presented! But the lads on the pitch knew, keeping the ball to wind down the clock, darting in towards goal then back out again.
Cool, calm and collected, a far cry from the frantic efforts of previous eras, a well-oiled machine with all its components in top nick, their collective energy and calmness easing our nervousness and then finally, the final whistle, and finally, champions, winners of the cup, after all these years going one step closer, one step further, from not winning games to winning a few to winning the bowl and the plate, then becoming almost good enough for the cup, the final four, then not quite good enough, then good enough again and belonging there and now this is our time, this is the one we won!
Then the hugs and high-fives, the gleeful grins and affirmative assurances, the hands shaken and commiserations doled out, the photo shoots with the team, with everyone, with each other. Then just basking in it for a while before collecting one’s bits and pieces and starting the trip home from My Dinh, or straight to Sidewalk for the awards and after party.
At the end of it all people were almost too tired to celebrate, just hanging in there until the speeches had been made and the trophies and medals awarded to the myriad winner from the day’s competitions. Almost too tired but a quick nap in the tattoo parlour, ‘oh what’s that on my ankle?’ and off into the night they went, our champions, the lads who finally won the South Asian Men’s Cup for the Viet Celts young and old who have been part of this club since 2008.
Most of the photos were taken by Colm Pierce (or from facebook, but the best images are Colm’s) and you should check out his other work on the various social media, he has some great old images from Dublin for instance, as well as from his travels. Big thanks to him for his efforts and energy on the day.