Chelsea legend counsels caution ahead of Armenia match
Bobby Tambling, former English International and Chelsea superstar, had the distinction of leading the first team from Ireland into competitive action in Yerevan where Ireland will open their challenge for the UEFA 2012 Championship on Friday against Armenia.
The year was 1974 and Tambling had been persuaded to come out of retirement a year previously by the now defunct Cork Celtic. He repaid Celtic's initiative by helping the club win the League of Ireland Championship for the first and only time in their history in May 1974.
Tambling is a legend at Stamford Bridge where he has a suite named after him. He holds the all-time scoring record of 202 goals in 370 games for the club.
His success with Cork Celtic in 1974 was, however, his only League Championship medal. Celtic's win earned them a place in the European Champions' Cup - the forerunner of the today's Champions' League - in which they were drawn to play Omonia Nicosia in the first round.
The Cypriots withdrew from the competition and Celtic advanced to the second round where they were drawn to play the champions of the old Soviet Union, Ararat Yerevan. Their experiences still resonate with the former Chelsea captain, who lives in Crosshaven, Co. Cork, and speaks warmly and enthusiastically of his time in the League of Ireland.
"I know Ireland are going to Armenia to play on Friday" he said, "so what happened in 1974 is not really relevant. But the standard of football we encountered was an eye-opener, even though I had played for England and had experience of playing in Europe with Chelsea.
"We knew they were going to be good and better than us. Cork Celtic had part-time players after all but the fact that they were champions of Russia (the Soviet Union) and they had six or seven internationals (Soviet Union internationals). They were very, very good."
"We knew nothing about Ararat Yerevan as you can imagine" he said when interviewed especially for www.FAI.ie, "it wasn't like today where every match is seen live on TV. This was a journey into the unknown but one we enjoyed immensely despite the result of the matches."
Ararat Yerevan travelled to Cork for the first leg and won a match in which Cork Celtic defended stoutly at Flower Lodge by 2-1. But they opened up in the second leg to win 5-0 and 7-1 on aggregate.
Dinny Allen was a member of that Cork Celtic team. He captained Cork's Gaelic Football team to All-Ireland success in 1989 and in 1974 was an Irish amateur international and was being monitored by a number of English professional clubs.
"They were in a different league to us" he said, "we played as well as we could and did reasonably well in Cork. But in Yerevan they blew us away and we could hardly get a touch ... we were almost hugging one another when we got a corner kick."
Twelve months ago Tambling he was invited back to Stamford Bridge and was honoured when the club made a presentation to him in the middle of the pitch at a home match to mark his enduring record.
Ararat Yerevan went out of the European Champions' Cup in 1974 when they were narrowly beaten by Bayern Munich. The Germans went on to clinch the second of three consecutive wins in the tournament by beating Leeds United in the final. Yerevan were good enough to have won the competition in Tambling's opinion.
"We had been told that Yerevan were not a typical Russian team who were known to play strong and dour football" he said, "we were told Yerevan preferred a more artistic and skilful game and so it proved. They were very talented.
"They were big, strong athletes as well, of course, but I could appreciate how good they were when I watched them in training. They moved around in circles as all teams do while working the ball from one to another but they did it at great speed and they fired the ball from one to another. Their control and the skills they had were brilliant."
Ireland are favourites to open their campaign with a win, the odds with some bookmakers is 4/6 on an Irish win. Bobby Tambling believes they have the strength and quality to do so, but he counsels caution.
"So many players now are not playing in the own country; the better players are playing all over Europe and they are bringing that experience back to their national team" he said, "All of the international teams are well-organised and difficult to beat nowadays.
"In my time you could regard a trip to Malta or to Cyprus as something of a holiday, but not anymore, they cannot be taken for granted. Ireland have found that out in recent years with Cyprus, for example.
"There's no such thing as an easy match in international football, especially away from home."