Belfast Telegraph

Meet the man tasked with ensuring Northern Ireland's tour to Central America goes without hitch

By Paul Ferguson

When it came to packing for a 10-day trip to Central America many of the Northern Ireland players left it to the last minute.

Toiletries, underwear, flip-flops and the all-important sunglasses more or less does it for a professional footballer travelling to sunny climes in team attire on international duty. Maybe a favourite shirt and jeans thrown in should the boss turn a blind eye to a night out immediately after the final game.

But pretty much everything else is catered for by the Irish FA.

And although the players were throwing a few things into a bag on Friday morning before making their way down to the team hotel for an overnight stay at Heathrow, David Currie, the Irish FA's head of international administration, ensured the kit, training equipment and everything else needed on a foreign tour was packed up and sent on its way to Panama at the end of March - two months prior to the Northern Ireland players arriving in Central America.

With Panama City over 5,000 miles away from Belfast, no charter flight and multiple stops on scheduled flights making it impossible to move the huge amount of luggage needed on a 10-day tour, the Irish FA decided to use the high seas.

Currie said: "Just one week after the Korea game we packed up all our kit and sent it down to Belfast docks to be placed in a sealed container.

"It was shipped to Antwerp (in Belgium) before it was placed on an even larger ship and put on a slow sail across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal.

"It arrived last week and was collected by a logistics firm who then delivered the kit and all we packed into the sealed container to our hotel on Friday for the team arriving on Saturday and the first training session yesterday morning."

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has been forced to make numerous changes for this tour from the squad that faced South Korea. In the last week, Ollie Norwood and George Saville have pulled out to be replaced by Jordan Thompson and Ryan McLaughlin, while Bailey Peacock-Farrell was part of the under-21s in March.

But Currie explained that none of the shirts that travelled across the Atlantic have the players' names on them.

"All the shirts are blank when they arrive in a country," stressed Currie. "We never print any names on in advance. We bring our own printing press and kit man Raymond Millar presses all the names and numbers into the shirts ahead of the game." After the match in Panama City, early on Wednesday, UK time, the Northern Ireland players will take a short flight to Costa Rica and this time their kit will be travelling with them.

Currie said: "For Costa Rica we have our own charter plane and so we will take all the kit, luggage and training gear with us on the plane, but then once the match is over we will pack it all up, put it in a sealed container and return it on the slow ship to Antwerp before it reaches Belfast at the start of July."

For Currie, next Sunday's match in San Jose will be the end of a six-month project which started with him working with agents to identify teams for a tour at the end of December before getting them signed off by O'Neill, IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson and the IFA board.

Then came discussions with the travel agents, the Panama and Costa Rica football federations, logistic companies, airport personnel, coach companies and the British Embassy in both countries.

Currie continued: "We have to plan it meticulously from start to finish so myself and the IFA's national security officer Stephen Grange did a dry run of the tour a number of weeks ago.

"We needed to cover things like how the players made their way through the airport in Miami when they had their layover before getting a second flight to Panama, making sure there are no problems with US customs or immigration

"Stephen and I met with the British consulate as we are expecting around 125 Northern Ireland fans at the games and we need to be able to give contact details should it be needed."

A large percentage of those fans are expected to come from north America with the ex-pats travelling down to Central America along with the diehard fans who have travelled from home.

So what should the supporters expect in Panama City and San Jose? "Panama City is like any major place throughout the world, there are good and not so good areas," said Currie.

"In the city centre you have your skyscrapers and all the bars and restaurants.

"San Jose is a sprawling big city.

"It's a vibrant city with all your bars and restaurants and then within a short drive you could be in the rainforest."

Currie, though, with players and a manager to cater for, has little time to be a tourist guide.

However, he could certainly do with a holiday when this is all over - just don't expect him to bring any excess baggage.

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Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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