Chasing the Dragon : A Wales Away Mid-90s Trilogy

 

My first Wales home game was on my 14th birthday in 1981, at home against Iceland down the Vetch, in a game notable for floodlight failure, and crushing, heartbreaking failure. Having previously only seen my Wales heroes on TV, the noise and colours of that Vetch Field night changed my life and when, a decade later, I went to my first Wales away game, a 1-1 draw in Brussels (Saunders) I knew that nothing in this world could ever come close to the adrenaline rush of that chevron away top or Wales, away in the football. Wales. Away. I had to get more of it.

 

The three articles which this blog will post in the coming weeks have been lost for more than 20 years, presumed gone forever. They were written shortly after each of the three matches (Romania, RCS and Moldova) and this week were joyously re-found. We offer them here as a nostalgic window back into a world of no mobile phones, no internet, Wales taking only a few dozen away, to places we’d never heard of, countries that weren’t even countries. One of them was translated into Welsh for inclusion in Dylan Llewelyn’s Awe book (Dylan is @iawnde), and my English was so convoluted that no-one could translate it into Welsh until they sent it to a Professor of Welsh Language. It was my excitement, see.

 

I hope you like the pieces. Thanks to Ralph for doing the blog for me. We are honoured that the articles will also be in Dial M for Merthyr Fanzine later in the season. Solidarity to all those there fighting for the existence and the soul of that brilliant football club.

 

Thanks to friends I made on these trips and subsequent mid-90s ones , who are among the greatest people I have ever met – Wolvesey, Dylan, Tommie, Gary, Bryn, Iwan, Griggy, Gwilym, Rhys and Alun, Ade Colley, Sean Passmore, Stuart Clutterbuck amongst so many others, as well as my normal crew. Me and Ralph became lifelong best mates when we got arrested by mistake on the way to another humiliating defeat – more of that in the Moldova instalment.

 

Wales in the football have changed now but the Wales away family continues to welcome people now as it welcomed me then.

 

I salute every man, woman and child amongst you. Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae.

 

 

Romania – The Final Frontier

 

Romania 5, Wales 1, May 20th, 1992

Steaua Stadium, Bucharest, World Cup Qualifier

 

And there you were on that fateful night in May, down the local, watching Hagi and his boys knocking goals in against us like they were going out of fashion, 5-0 down after 34 minutes and thinking to yourself “Oh well, we got stuffed, glad I didn’t go”. Such was the meagre solace you sought over your pints of SA, but let me tell you the truth. This was a hell of a trip – the worst ever Welsh defensive performance (yes, even worse than Cologne all those years ago), a night that made Nuremburg a trip to Ashton Gate look like a friendly picnic and made that made Gica bloody Popescu look like a world-beater. Believe it or not, this could have been the time of your life…..

 

It all seemed such a good idea to start with. Ten days off work, an inter-rail ticket and a chance to take in games in Germany and Belgium, as well as Wales continuing to assert their dominance of European football as first evidenced in Brussels and at home against Germany. That was the theory, but the reality was so much better. Off on the Saturday morning before the big game, armed with a few cans of Brains, a large Wales flag and a host of expectations. We knew that we were to be in Hamburg by nightfall in time for the St Pauli game the next day, and a Saturday night out in Hamburg to misspend before then. It’s a hard life…..

 

A blurry beery night on the Reeperbahn led into a similar day at the Millerntor the next day to see St Pauli. The game was a forgettable 0-0 draw with 2nd Division champions Bayer Uerdingen, highlight being the St Pauli fans, kings of Bohemians, showed a seriously cool attitude at all times and sinking a good few before the game. My Wales flag on the fence at the match was greeted warmly and it was a long-drinking day of peace, love and understanding all round.

After the game it was time to get to Berlin for a mammoth 34 hour (count ‘em!!) journey by train to Bucharest, in the land of not-plenty. Bear in mind that it was midnight on Sunday, about 65 below zero and the fact that we were knackered after the exertions of the night before and you can imagine our dismay at the fact the train was the most filthy, decrepit, god-forsaken dump you’ve ever seen. Oh well, heads down and hope that we didn’t need to eat, drink or breathe for a day and a half. Down we went through Dresden, Prague and Budapest in relative comfort until it happened. We reached the Romanian border.

 

Let me paint you a picture. There you are, it’s midnight and you are cold, hungry, tired, unwashed and thousands of miles from home, when all of a sudden some crazy Johnny in an army uniform comes into your carriage, waves a gun at you and shouts at you in some incomprehensible scream to give him your passport. He then takes it away for half an hour. Ever felt lonely? Oh, how I wished we had gone on one of the packages.

 

Somehow we got to Bucharest, which looked like the dark side of the moon but worse on Tuesday morning. First thing I did was get robbed on the concourse of the station and then we spent the rest of the day sorting out a hotel. Went to the players’ hotel where a scared manager told me it was full. I know I looked scruffy and desperate, but I had more dollars than Clayton Blackmore has girls (well, almost), but he wasn’t interested. Thanks a lot to Barry Horne and Deano for walking straight past me and not helping, even though it was obvious that I had just crossed an entire continent to watch them cave in. So it was back into town and off to Dorobanto to meet up with the rest of the boys. If ever I had to award one medal to anyone in the world, Mother Theresa would have to queue up behind Mike Lambert, I am afraid, who baled us out big time.

 

Off we went to the Under-21 game at the splendidly maintained ground of Rapid Bucharest. Obviously they never bothered translating the Taylor Report into Romanian, or this place would have been closed down quicker than you can blink. Wooden benches all round, except where they were smashed or so rotten they had ceased to exist. Which was most of it. To be honest I can’t remember most of the game except that we won 3-2, there were a few penalties, Nathan Blake is a god (but you knew that already) and some haggard woman sold us loads of ridiculously cheap Royal Dutch lager during the game (I think that’s the reason I can’t remember much). Made friends with a few Rapid lads, but not with Alan Evans, FAW head honcho, who had allowed us to pay 15 quid for tickets for the next day’s game, which actually cost a massive 30p. A few of us pinned the corpulent creep up against a wall outside the ground to let him know what we thought of him. Cheers, Al.

 

Then it was off for some ridiculously cheap steak and chips, with as much drink as could manage (a lot). Pity the poor waitresses confronted with us rabid savages. The night on the town developed into a long search for beer and entertainment, which we eventually found in a very select and too-respectable-for-us cabaret bar. Serious abuse of Elephant beer and shelling out lei like we were millionaires. This was the life – our under-21s were kings of the world, we were riotously drunk in a one-bar town and the following day the boys were going to sort it all out in the big game. The last thing I can remember was walking around town about 3am with Orient Rob lading glorious out of tune renditions of Anti-Nowhere League, Pistols..etc.. Cultural ambassadors the lot of us. And I cut my head open when I got back to the hotel so had to go round looking like Al Pacino for the rest of the trip. Well, would you trust the Romanian National Health Service to put stitches in your head? I didn’t.

The day of the game dawned with many an aching head. Most of the day was spent trying to navigate around the worst metro system in the world in a vain attempt to do some sightseeing. There just wasn’t any. As soon as we sussed that out we retired to the hotel for a few beers (how were they selling Tesco own brand lager?) and then on to the coach to the ground. Not long to go before we sort them out and send shockwaves through world football.

I can honestly say that the 3 hours we spent at the ground were the most depressing I have ever had. There we were, sitting next to the Wales under 21s, no Wales end, we were just slap bang in the middle of the Romanians, surrounded by 16 year old coppers who were more interested in selling us hats, guns (!) and truncheons than in looking after us, whilst the locals threw stones, sunflower seeds and on-fire newspapers at us for a couple of hours. The Romanians got even louder straight after kick-off when they proceeded to bang in 5 goals in the first 34 minutes, without Wales getting a touch. Let’s be honest, those who were there: the Romanians play was sublime. Just perfect, a delight to watch. It was like we were in a dream, because you just wouldn’t have believed we could be so completely torn apart. We’d beaten Germany and Brazil you know and drawn in Brussels. We were the heirs-apparent to the throne of world football. Forget it.

 

Rushie gave us something to sing about in the second half and sing we bloody well did. No point going all that way, playing awfully and then not being proud to be Welsh. The Romanians were thoroughly confused by us. Who played well? Hagi was a dream and for us Speed and Giggsy had a go. The rest of the rabble don’t even merit a mention. Thoroughly shell-shocked by the end and USA 94 seemed a long way off. Still, at least we were there.

After the game, all the boys were off to some club and oh how tempting it was to stay and try and bunk on their plane the next day. Alas, it was not to be and in true inter-railing style we had to catch the midnight train to Budapest. While waiting for the train we met the two Man City fans from Port Talbot who’d been jumped after the game. It was one of those nights, as Romania fans smashed our train up carriage by carriage all through the night as it trundled to the Hungarian border. God knows what they’re like when they lose.

The homeward journey took 5 days and took in Budapest, Vienna, Zurich and Paris, where I finally got to a hospital and had some stitches in my head. Then on the Sunday we had arranged to meet some mates in Ghent (nr Brussels) and went to KAA Ghent’s last game of the season. Much merriment after Ghent’s 1-0 win. Spent the next few hours teaching all their boys (and girls) various Wales songs (“I’m from Norway”, thanks to Griggy). Much swapping of scarves, hats and badges and they all promised to come over for Wales v Belgium.

Then it was homeward bound. Tired, but with a bagful of memories. Things we have learned from our trip include – Andy Melville is not the best defender in the world. However, Georgie Hagi is the best midfielder. Bucharest is not nice, but Budapest is. (Helpful hint- when we play in Prague in April try to get yourself down to Budapest for a couple of days – you won’t be disappointed). Following Wales abroad is the most rewarding thing you could ever do, even if we do occasionally play like a bunch of old donkeys. My mate Orient Rob had the time of his life and he’s not even Welsh. Ok, we played awful, but half of Europe know of Tara Gallilor now. We went 7000km, made loads of mates and sang our hearts out. And what for? For the glory, for the beer and for the chance to be there. Not long until Cyprus………

 

 

Opa(va)tunity Knocks in Silesia

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17th November is a significant date in Czech history. 1989 spelt the end of 41 years of communism and the start of a new era in Czechoslovakia, as it was back then.

It’s also a state holiday and an opportunity for us to head north to Opava for some Friday afternoon football. We’d learned earlier in the week that the governing body for football in Moravia and Silesia had decided in their wisdom that Blansko’s season would end last Saturday, denying Craggy a final game of the season and the rest of us a chance to meet up with our pals at Slovan Rosice. However, a quick perusal of the fixture list brought up an intriguing game between SFC Opava and Hradec Králové. We also knew that there were a couple of breweries in town, so that was us sold.

Oh and before we forget, we should thank Czech Railways for providing us with free travel, thanks to their points system.

Trips like these require a bit of research and one of our students recommended the castle in Hradec nad Moravici, a 15 minute train journey from Opava. After missing out on the castle in Letovice on our last TBK day out, we were keen to make amends and even though we were on a tight schedule, we knew it would be possible.

7.00 am on a Friday morning, you would expect Brno train station to be fairly quiet… well, think again. The whole of Brno had decided to leave for the day and on our train too. We were not too sure where they were all going, but they had brought enough okurky to feed the entire Czech Republic.

First stop was a favourite train station of ours – Ostrava Svinov, the basis of deciding what makes a good train station is it’s pub and Svinov has two, so what’s not to like. A quick Radegast and we were on the train to Opava, a lovely town on the Czech/Polish border and the historical capital of Czech Silesia. During World War 2, it became an independent city and part of Nazi Germany. For some of the older generation, German is still their first language.

As mentioned above, we like to try and fit some culture and history into every trip, so upon arrival at Opava Východ we hailed a taxi and went to Hradec nad Moravici to see the castle, just to see it as from October to April all castles are closed here. Our Taxi driver raced through the country lanes, he must have felt the urgency of our trip or just wanted to be another Nigel Mansell. A friendly guy, he told us that he used to play football until he was seriously injured in a car crash. At this point we asked him to slow down a bit as with the current situation at FK Blansko, we may be asked to play this season.

At the castle, we were greeted by a bus load of Austrian tourists or given their age, they might have been from Opava. We explored the grounds, took some photos and walked down the hill into the town centre for a late-morning beer. The only place open was the “cultural house” which had been recently converted into a Chinese restaurant and we were the only paying customers. When our beers arrived we knew exactly why we were on our own… the house beer was Staropramen. Friends of the blog will know that we that we rate this beer as one of the worst in the country (possibly only Vyškov ranks lower).

Drinks paid for and to get an idea of our bearings I asked the waitress if she could point us in the direction of the train station, which surprisingly she didn’t know the answer to. It was a bizarre conversation and one which made us question her employment contract. Her Czech was poor and the impression we both had was living and working in Hradec nad Moravici was not her choice.

On the way to the train station we found a much more pleasant drinking den in Pivníce na Staré poště, where the beer was better and full of pub regulars enjoying a midday drink. Radegast 12s downed we continued to the train station where a single carriage train full of Opava fans took us back into town.

We followed the crowds of football fans along the Opava river to the stadium. It struck me as I was walking to the ground how much I miss the stream of scarf wearing supporters walking and talking on their way to the ground. When you follow a smaller team, you see just one of about 50 regulars and very rarely do we meet other supporters on our strolls to various football “arenas”. Oh, and I love floodlights and Opava have four beauties.

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Now, I am writing this in January, so the details of the game are hard to recall, but what I can tell you is the game was five goal thriller and definitely the best game we have seen for a while. Hradec took the lead twice and with 5 minutes remaining, the home team scored twice to take the three points. It was 90 minutes of scintillating football and an added bonus was the club were handing out free beer, well it was a bonus until we became aware that the free beer was in fact Gambrinus. We apologise for becoming pivo snobs, but there are a few breweries that are definitely a “no thanks” and two of them we’ve mentioned in today’s blog.

We followed the sea of yellow and blue back into the centre of Opava bidding them farewell on Pivovarská (Brewery Street) as we had one more item on our tick list before heading back to South Moravia, the microbrewery Nová Sladovna.

On my previous visit, some 11 years ago, the old brewery was still standing, however in 2007 the Ministry of Culture refused its application to become a listed building and it was knocked down and in its place a huge ugly modern shopping centre was built in 2010. The old Opava beer “Zlatovar” is still produced, not in the city, but miles away in Uhersky Brod.

Neither of us are fans of modern shopping centres, but this one was home to Nová Sladovna and with feeling a bit peckish and thirsty, we swallowed our pride and joined city shoppers and a handful of Opava football fans in the pub for a wonderful spicy guláš soup and an equally delightful local beer… you will pleased to read that we refrained from doing our weekly shop.

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Bellies now full, we made one final stop in the centre of the city for photo opportunities. In our humble opinion, Opava has more than enough to keep you occupied for a weekend should you ever find yourself in Silesia.

In the above paragraph, I did say the centre was our final stop, However, I have just reminded myself that we did go for one final beer in Stredoveka Krcma for a pint of the “local” Zlatovar. Both of us drawn to the pub by a man standing outside smoking and drinking wearing a pig’s head… like you do, maybe it’s the fashion in these parts. As he high-fived us on the way in I stopped myself from asking him why he didn’t go the whole hog… I fear it may have been lost in translation.

A great day.

Highlights:

Opava – it’s a lovely town.

The soup and beer at the brewery.

The match (best we’ve seen this season).

Hradec nad Moravici, a castle worth a a few hours of your time.

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2017: A look back at our top trips

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As the year draws to a close and we hammer mince pie shaped nails in to 2017, we at TBK have decided to go over some highlights from what must have been our most “interesting” year yet. From some of the most remote villages to some of the best beers, via the scrappiest games to the most beautiful castles – we have gone in search of adventures and found them at every turn. So here are some highlights from the last 12 months.

Landek Mine in Petřkovice, Ostrava

We went “mining” for points in Petřkovice and literally ended up in a mine. Attempting to win a well deserved point and pleasant service at the local restauarant proved both to be just as gruelling work. The visit to the mine was a treasure though, as was another trip to Ostrava which always seems to bring about the biggest Klobasa drinking sessions. This was no different. (Read more here)

Budapest – The Musical

TBK love a trip to Budapest anyway but this was a real highlight of 2017. After four hours in the dining car of the train along Ralph’s favourite river we arrived in Budapest to a rollercoaster of a trip which found us queing up for the whole first half of a Honved game for a second 45 minutes of purely forgettable football. And it was all downhill from there (well physcially anyway) as we ran around Hungarian’s capital taking in as many pubs as possible, Craggy getting the come-on from dodgy guys selling belts and being asked if we’d like some cocaine with our sausage. We even dreamt up a musical production. Click here to find the soundtrack – apologies in advance.

The Hunt For Pav the Drummer in Blansko

As far as happy endings go the finale to this trek through the snowy streets of Blansko on the hunt for our missing game-day drummer is right up there. Early in the year we braved 90 minutes of below freezing tempatures watching the mighty Blansko host Bohunice before we went off in search of Pavel, who had been missing for many months from the Blansko stands. Our search took us to several pubs in this industrial Moravian second home of ours before a spectacular conclusion in the final pub we tried.

Milan Pacanda – Lost and Found

Although you may well have never heard of him, Milan Pacanda could have been one of the European greats alongside other famous Czech names. This year he was at Vicemilice, where one third of TBK headed to catch a glimpse of his footballing genius. (Read the full story here).

Opava

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Opava is a nice town in itself but a trip there was extra special this year. We visited it on 17th November – the anniversary of the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, and we began the trip in the small town of Hradec nad Moravaci which has a pretty fancy castle and a great “post office” pub. The highlight though turned out to be the game of the season – Opava came from 1 – 2 down to win 3 – 2, scoring 2 goals in the last 20 minutes. Crackin’.

Kid Gloves

Wingy, Wingy, Wingy

Wingy, Wingy, Wingy

With it being the end of the year we’ve been running a bit behind with all things Klobasa as we attempt to get to grips with cold, hard reality. So, in the run up to Christmas we will be catching up with a few pieces about touring Moravia and also the end of the football season, before we begin our annual countdown of good tidings. Wingy, who has a new dog, takes us back to the home game against Polna. Take it away Wingster…

If you’ve been following this blog (and why wouldn’t you?) you will be aware that Blansko have been having a rough time of it of late. Two five-nil defeats in a row away from home, no home wins, and only one win overall would suggest a team in crisis. And yet there have been reasons to suggest that things might get better, as the young team start to gel .

We weren’t expecting a great deal from our latest home game, as it was against third-placed Polná. The last time I’d seen Polná was the season before last when we beat them 3-1 to gain promotion to the MSFL.. That day we had a crowd of nearly 1100, but when we arrived we were shocked to see  a crowd of maybe a tenth of that. But one good thing – the re-appearance of Pavel the drummer, who was back on tannoy duties. This time around we were minus Craggy, who was rehearsing with his band (and nursing a monster hangover,apparently). Unfortunately for him, he missed a cracker, as Blansko started with all guns blazing (not a cliche that I’ve needed to use much of late, it has to be said). And the pressure paid off just ten minutes in, as after a spell of sustained pressure with Blansko forcing three corners on the trot, the third swung deep into the penalty area and there to head it in was the ever-dependable Honza Trtílek. Better was to come in the thirty-second minute,this time Luboš Chloupek netting after a rather fortunate rebound fell virtually at this feet. After that, the result was never much in doubt. And so it was for the rest of the game. Polná were deeply unimpressive, and seldom seriously troubled our goal, whereas they were handicapped by having a keeper who resembled Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce (and I don’t mean in his playing days. I mean Bruce now). Blansko, for their part, played some nice football, with Trtílek yet again a cut above , and Martin Smerda impressive in midfield, until subbed for his son, Domiík I like the look of Smerda Junior (I’ve already dubbed him ‚The Blansko Juninho‘ and for a Middlesbrough fan there is no higher honour), he’s got a lot of promise, although he’s got a long way to go before he’s the finished article (and he’s so short that he has to tuck one side of his shirt into his shorts, or he’ll look like he’s wearing a mini-dress). And a special mention must go to reserve keeper Zdeněk Veselý, who despite his young age (he’s 17) came in and did an excellent job. Blansko have been lucky to have had a couple of excellent keepers in recent years in David Juran and Jirka Floder, so hopefully he will follow in their footsteps and become an FKB regular. Well done kid!

So, an enjoyable day. A home win (at last), a good team performance and some pleasing individual performances. The most enjoyable game I’ve seen for quite some time! Come on Blansko!