We're rapidly approaching the hour when Ireland will learn its Euro 2016 fate. Irish fans, too, are counting the hours --- not just to find out our opposition but to learn the cities we'll be invading with a shoe in one hand and an inflatable hammer in the other.
The venues we're drawn in will shape our memories of the summer. It's worth remembering that had Ireland been drawn in a group based in the Ukraine for Euro 2012, our memories of the tournament would likely be far less rosy. Instead we amused ourselves in western Poland, a two-hour flight from home.
Thankfully, UEFA have already determined the venues for each game, which provides us with the opportunity to forecast the groups we want most. We'll be drawn in the fourth pot, which means playing the third seed first, the second seed second, and the first seed last. The games will get harder as the competition goes on. We've studied the logistics around navigating each group, and the eejitry potential of each venue, and come up with the following rankings.
Informing our ratings were the following truths, which we hold to be self-evident:
- The south of France is where we'd rather be if we could choose
- Paris is best avoided until the semifinal stage
- We'd skip the northeast entirely if given the option
The good news is that we have a 50% chance of playing in Bordeaux. We also have a 50% chance of playing in Paris.
Creme de la creme
1. GROUP E
Two out of three fixtures in this group are in the south of France, which is a win, and if we must play in Paris, best to start the journey there. This is the ideal camper van group. You can head right from Cherbourg to Paris for the first game, before enjoying a wonderful six-hour drive to small and welcoming Toulouse, for what should be the peak fixture in the group. Nice, then, is a mere hour up the coast road, through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe.
2. GROUP F
The only 'all-southern' group. It is perfect for convoying and encompasses most of the beautiful parts of France. The first fixture is in Bordeaux wine country along the Atlantic. We'd then embark on a spectacular 10-hour jaunt across the south of France to Marseille before taking a three-hour trip up the A7 to Lyon. Some may say that Marseille is rough, but it's on the sea and is perfect for an Irish beach takeover.
That said, if we are destined to play England, we want nothing to do with this group.
3. GROUP C
There's a logic to these fixtures, and we're guaranteed one game in Provence. Realistically, an ideal group for bus/rail travel as the football begins at the most distant point. For camper vans, all the hard driving is done on the trip down. This group involves a lot of time spent in beautiful, but expensive Nice.
The subsequent trips to Lyon and Paris are both roughly about 4 hours. If Ireland go out in the group stages, we're not too far from home.
4. GROUP D
- Saint Etienne
Again we would be working our way gradually south in this group, which is a win. The journey starts in Paris and heads for the less-celebrated city of Saint Etienne before culminating in Bordeaux for what could be a damp squib in the final group game. Two five-hour drives and a camper van trip up the east coast. It could be worse.
5. GROUP B
- Saint Etienne
Things start positively here with the fixture in Bordeaux but they get less and less exciting as the journey goes on. There's a six-hour drive across the middle of France to get to the very unexciting northeastern city of Lille before another long drive into the interior to Saint Etienne. The possibility for magic dwindles as the week goes on.
Everton fans were teargassed by French cops in Lille ahead of a Europa League tie there last year.
6. GROUP A
I have serious misgivings about this group. Ireland would start out tucked into the northeast corner of France in Lens. From Calais, we would then travel to the capital before heading east again to play France in Lille. No sun-kissed beaches. No wine country. No Tour de France mountains. Just overdeveloped cities and five-lane motorways and a game against France that will be hard to get tickets for. Group A is the Group de Mort for craic as far as we're concerned.