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………

 

 

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