October 3rd, 2022: Cologne Celtics v St. Finbarr’s: the Player Experience

On October 3rd, 2022, the Cologne Celtics played in their first match on Irish soil, and we faced up against the mighty St. Finbarr’s. This match was built on the foundation of Cork and Cologne’s twin city arrangement and with the aim of building sporting connections between the two cities.

The full report of our first club trip to Cork can be found under our Cork Trip: Club Report, but this piece is about the match itself. Please note this is not an official match report and is instead a more personal approach detailing the experience of playing in the game. Bain sult as:

The Aftermath

The final whistle has been blown, and there are handshakes and hugs all around. What a game, what a laugh! That was a fantastic experience and one that will live long in the memory. No one has a clue who won or lost; honestly, it is completely irrelevant. The referee informs us that Cologne has won!

The teams after the match

Standing there in a St. Finbarr’s jersey; this is all a bit bizarre, especially as the chairperson of the Cologne Celtics GAA Club and a Blackrock man. No one really cares what the final score is, as instead, we know that this is just about building the connections between Germany and Ireland, Cork and Cologne, and the Barrs and the Celts. We’ve all had a brilliant time in a unique setting.

We gather together for photos, and a party atmosphere is in the air! The Köln-Cork Twinning Society, their travelling group, and the Cologne Orchestra Society (Kölner Orchester-Gesellschaft) have all come out for the match and made a tremendous atmosphere in this setting. Throughout the game, they’ve been singing “Viva Colonia” and other Cologne songs… the Barrs lads were dancing to the songs, and all of it has been recorded on videos somewhere.

We all get together for photographs, and all I’m thinking is, “oh no, I can’t be seen in a Barrs jersey two weeks before Blackrock play them in the County Final!” The other part of my brain realises that there are probably hundreds of cameras and many hundreds of photos here; it can’t be changed! The pictures are already out there.

Everyone in the photo celebrating the links between Cork and Cologne.

Many photos are taken, and we get the chance to just take in what we have done. Here we are, at Páirc Uí Chaoimh – the home of Cork hurling – facing off against St. Finbarr’s GAA Club – one of Ireland’s most historic sporting institutions, and the realisation that this is just the beginning. What a game, what a sport, what a moment…

Earlier that Day

To say I “woke up” is to imply that I slept. To cut a long story short, I haven’t slept at all… It’s not the nerves of the match; it’s something else. After 3 nights out in a row and terrible sleep, my body and brain are so tired that they are no longer functioning properly… It has also been a strange experience to bring one part of my life – the German part – into a direct collision course with everything related to Cork… It has been an incredible few days, but also it is a lot to take in and process.

There are so many thoughts running through my head that in my desire to continue the conversation, my brain decides to chat to itself… all night… In that time, I’ve created a deep psychological profile of myself going back to childhood; I’ve written three website articles, been interviewed for “The Sunday Game”, and drafted and edited four different speeches… The one thing I have not accomplished is finding any sleep… After a couple of days without much sleep before this, it is really going to be a long day.

I meet the team in the centre of Cork City, and from there, we go explore Cobh. I am a zombie. My body feels incredibly lethargic, my eyes are in danger of sealing shut, and my brain cannot function normally. Words appear before me, but I cannot make logical functioning sentences – this feels like the worst hangover of the lot… and I wasn’t even drinking the night before.

The thought of playing an hour of hurling tonight is not one I can even imagine at the moment. I return early from Cobh as I need to get some sleep. There is no way I can play like this.

The Orange Boots

“This is a disaster; I’m here in a St. Finbarr’s jersey, with hundreds of cameras around, and I’m wearing luminous orange boots to point out to the world exactly where I am! How did it come to this?”

Originally when I joined the Celts, I bought a cheap pair of football boots from Decathlon with the idea that once I started full-time work, I could get a better pair, and it meant if things didn’t work out at the club, I hadn’t invested too much into football boots that I wouldn’t use. That cheap pair of temporary shoes lasted three and a half years… They haven’t been good, but I’ve played in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, Darmstadt, Munich, Düsseldorf, and countless training sessions with them. During the Cork Trip, they finally give way and rip apart. I have no real desire to rescue them, but it does mean I need something for tonight.

I arrive back from Cobh, and all I want to do is sleep, but I need to get some football boots for tonight. I go to Mahon Point to buy some and even venture into „Sports Direct“ for the first time in my life. I eventually find the football boots section in the labyrinthine shop and see all the usual advertising. If these boots could make me run as fast as professional sportspeople who dedicate their entire lives to self-improvement, like Haaland, Salah, Ronaldo etc., they’d really be miracle workers…

The orange boots…

I pick out a couple of pairs of boots. “Do you have them in size 11 (size 45)?” It takes a while for a customer support person to appear to answer this question. They look around and find some in size 10 (44) that are just a bit too small. The next pair of boots are only available in size 9 or 9.5. At this stage, I just want to go home and sleep before the match. “Do you have anything suitable for Astroturf in size 11? I’ve a match in just over 2 hours’ time.

He brings them out; it’s a box with bright orange boots… Every pair of football boots I’ve ever owned have been black. I’m not skilful enough in any sport to ever wear bright orange boots… I don’t want that attention – I’m not that guy… but I don’t want to be here any longer than I need to be… I need to get some sleep to be somewhat refreshed before the long night ahead… “How much are they?“€45”. I take the boots and go home.

Warming Up at Páirc Uí Chaoimh

I wake up after taking what people who regularly post on LinkedIn call “a power nap”. I feel refreshed; I feel alive. It is not so much “a second wind” as it is “the first wind”. I shower and then eat a chicken and pasta dinner, feeling like a proper player, before making my way down to the Páirc.

The rest of the Celts are already there, having made their way from Sheila’s by bus. The staff at Páirc Uí Chaoimh don’t believe us when we tell them that we’re playing at the Páirc tonight and ask, „are you 100% sure?”. We reassure them that we are and then get access to the changing rooms.

The changing rooms are enormous, and that allows the feeling to sink in. We are really playing a match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The only time I’ve ever featured here was at a Féile match at u14 level for Blackrock against Castleknock from Dublin, and I’m not sure if I even came off of the bench during that match. When I stopped playing hurling with the Rockies as a teenager, I never expected that I’d be involved in a match featuring St. Finbarr’s at Páirc Uí Chaoimh!

We go out on the Astroturf, and it is enormous. This pitch is far bigger than anything we’ve played on before, and it is a delight to puck around on. We enjoy our moment alone as a team on the pitch. The Barrs lads slowly arrive, and these lads are definitely not the over-45s “social hurling team”. Loads of them arrive of all ages, from 18 to lads in their mid/late-30s. There are a couple of camogie players, and it turns out that they are senior camogie players for the Barrs. This is an impressive turnout.

Picking Teams

Familiar faces appear, including Mick Finn and Kieran Edwards. Kieran introduces me to the Barrs lads, and they are sound. I meet a group of 18-year-olds coming in, and I ask them what team they’re with… “Well, we’re on the minor team, so hopefully, we’ll get some game-time tonight…” I look at them and reassure them that, of course, they will be! They’re 18… they can run around all night – they’ll get plenty of hurling.

Another lad tells me that he’d heard it was up to them to represent Ireland in this international match. They were a bit surprised to find their opponents speaking in the same Cork accent back to them… “Yeah, lad, we’re representing Germany, biy!

In the changing room, we meet the Barrs lads proper and outline that we have 8 players – the Barrs obviously have more. One of the boys says: “So is it 15 v 8?” we tell them it won’t be. The suggestion comes that maybe put all 8 of the Cologne players on one team with a couple of the Barrs players, but the obvious solution is an even split. 4 Celts on each team, and the rest as Barrs players.

The Cologne Celtics crew before the game starts, and we divide into our teams

As much as our players are advancing in their skills, you can’t compare players who’ve either taken up the sport in their 30s, have huge gaps in their playing careers or just train once a week in a park in Cologne to these highly-trained whippets – Junior, Minor and Intermediate players – senior camogie players! – from the Barrs. It’s just another level over here.

Corky at Páirc Uí Chaoimh

The Cologne players are divided into Malte, Chris, Wolfgang, and Ger on one team and Finbar, Fabian, Laura, and I on the other. In chatting to the Barrs lads, I don’t realise that Malte has brought his team straight to the jerseys, and I see that they are putting on the Celts‘ jerseys. The realisation dawns on me… that means we’re in Barrs jerseys! Two weeks before Blackrock faces off against St. Finbarr’s in the County Final, I’ll be playing in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in a Barrs jersey…

I keep my “Cologne Celtics head” on instead of my Rockies head and reluctantly go ahead with it. I can’t turn around and say something else, especially if they are not complaining about wearing our jerseys. At least the only time I’ve ever worn a Barrs jersey is as chairperson of our club, with a crowd here at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and I’m wearing bright orange football boots… it could be more obvious… not sure how, though!

The Match: The First Half

With the teams picked and the crowd in place, we only have an hour to get this done. The question arises as to whether we should warm up, but no one wants to do that. No warm-up, no team talks, no strategies – just hurling. I line out in half-forward with Fabian in the corner ahead of me. The sliotar is thrown in, and straight away, it comes in my direction; I strike it forward on the ground. At least it has started!

The second ball comes in my direction. I get it under control and put it over the bar for a point. Brilliant! Whatever happens, at least I’ve scored and done alright in half-forward. If I stay in my position and do what I can, maybe I can get a couple more scores or assists.

However, there is no semblance of strategy here or positioning. This match is pure anarchy. The “Cologne team” are cutting through us from the middle of the field, as sometimes we have about 6 half-forwards, 3 full-forwards, one midfielder and very few defenders… I drift back and back, trying to at least close these lads down as they drive forward. I end up in midfield at times and then half-back The sliotar is cleared, and there’s a gap on the wing where I should be, so I run back to half-forward; I end up playing all over. Facing the young bucks of St. Finbarr’s and their speed and acceleration, I am deeply regretting the many pints, pizza, snack boxes, and lack of sleep over the last couple of days… this is one way to wake up!

I win a soft free. My own bad touch led to getting a free when I should have controlled it. I drive it forward, and we score from it. Delighted! I put in a couple of blocks and miss a couple of hooks, but at least I’m trying to cover the runs. As I close in, though, they find that extra acceleration, and I think it is finally time to get a gym membership when I get back to Germany…

These Barrs lads, though, are on another level. The speed, strength, and agility they show… Just incredible. They kill the sliotar on their stick, round you effortlessly, and put it over the bar for a point before you’ve even realised it. They can go left, go right, and place perfect passes without even thinking about it. This is hurling.

It is clear that their skills are the product of years and decades of training. As a club, we’re at the stage where we are reading the instruction manual to build the machine; in contrast, they have over one hundred years of history, and these players are cogs in a fighter jet… Having trained religiously from age 5 upwards, they are flying it. It is to be expected, really.

The goals and points fly in. The players are having fun, and it could be any score. To be honest, no one really cares about it.

The Second Half

I decided at half-time that I wanted to play in an actual position as opposed to whatever I was doing in the first half. In the first half, I had no idea whether I should stay forward to try and get a few more points, drop into midfield to cover the runners, or go into defence to help out there – although I ran a lot, the game has passed me by due to that uncertainty.

I end up playing in corner-back – there’s a first time for everything! Since joining the Celts, I’ve played in goal, midfield, half-forward and even full-back at times; I’d never played outside of the forward line when I was in Ireland… But in this match, I need to find a position and have one job that I can feel useful doing.

I end up marking Chris, with Laura marking Malte next to me. The first two balls come down my wing, and I win them and clear them away. However, Chris is an experienced player, and there is an ocean of space in the forward line for him to use. He drags me all over the backline, from side to side. He wins a couple of balls as the game goes on. It is a 50-50 battle throughout.

My legs want to drive forward… The open space is calling to me… Although I don’t have the rapid acceleration that these lads have, the legs feel like they can run all day on this surface… Early morning jogging has paid off, as I feel like I could play here forever… That inbuilt desire for points and goals wants to get involved with the madness higher up the pitch, but I can’t leave Laura to defend against the two lads by herself! And, here at least, I know I’m doing something for the team…

I try to man-mark, but usually, I’m in the position of trying to lose the defender (not that I’m very good at it) … It’s a strange experience to be playing corner-back – but to be honest, none of this is normal! As the game goes on, I start to feel the lack of sleep and mental sharpness setting in – hurling under floodlights is also a new experience!

Covering Malte and Chris, playing corner-back is a new experience (look for orange boots).

A ball comes down the wing, and I am firmly focused on it… until I’m not… Blinded by a floodlight, I lose track of the sliotar. Chris stays concentrated and catches it; he’s away! The sliotar ends up going across our goal, and Malte is on to it like a flash. He doubles on it, and it sails over for a point.

He would score a goal in a similar fashion later, but Laura also had her standout moment when a high ball came in, and she caught it clean over her head. She then drove out, gave the pass, and it was cleared. Cue cheers from all around!

Laura’s catch caught on camera

Wolfgang had a brilliant game in goal, spreading the ball wide with puckouts and blocking more than he left in – which is always a good sign for a goalkeeper! Ger and Finbar are right in the thick of the action and don’t look out of place here at all. Malte is on the scoreboard, Chris is causing me problems, and Fabian is working industriously in the corner. It’s a weird feeling to play a match and to also be keeping an eye out for the Celts in the crowd of bodies to see how well they’re doing. We’re holding our own, though, and not cowering, which is the main thing.

Throughout the second half, the points and goals go in. It is complete anarchy but absolutely brilliant to be a part of it. As the final whistle approaches, I get to the stage where I’ll be happy to call it a night. I don’t want to make any massive mistakes in front of the crowd, especially with family in the audience, and my concentration levels are falling…

Coming off the field in a St. Finbarr’s jersey – I’ve since been disowned…

The final whistle is blown, and we all come together for handshakes. According to the referee, it finished 9:14 to 4:19 – a “Cologne” win. A famous win for the Rheinlanders!! When the history books are written, this will rank amongst our most famous results – hopefully, the truth will be forgotten by then! If the truth is ever forgotten, I will be the first to claim at least a hat-trick of goals.

This is the first match between Cologne and St. Finbarr’s, and it is a game that we will never forget!

Afterwards, we go back to the St. Finbarr’s clubhouse for the celebrations and to hand out the game’s medals. We have a fantastic time in the clubhouse, with live music, medal presentations and just craic with the Barrs lads. A highlight of the night involved Kölner Karneval music ringing out from the bar! We cannot wait to bring them back to the Domstadt!

I was not looking forward to it earlier that day, but what a great match to be involved in – that was fantastic! Here’s to many more matches in Cork in the future!

Kölle abú! Corcaigh abú!

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