Turned over in Moldova

 

“A longer version of this third slab of mid-90s memories was featured in Welsh in Dylan Llewelyn’s book Awe, brilliant tales of glorious shambolic trips since the 1980s.

Unearthed recently, this is @chsingthedragon ‘s report of the original Moldova, was one of the most iconic trips of all time. We got stared at as if we were aliens for three whole days and nights, as we were the first away fans (all 72 of us) ever to ship up there. Jason Bowen wandered around the players’ hotel in Swansea training gear, we had a chat with Gary Speed and told him he was playing centre forward in the game (in retrospect, we wish he had), and oh aye yeah obviously we got nicked.

 

When we got home and saw the game on TV, it was like one of those games that looked like it was being beamed back from the moon. Cockroaches, shops with literally nothing in them.

 

Of the four of us who travelled in our group, two emigrated and the other one we never heard from again. The rest of the Chisinau 72 are the usual beautiful headers you still see to this day.

 

Wales away: losing to countries you’ve never heard of, since 1876. “

 

@chsingthedragon

 

 

CHASING THE DRAGON : Turned over in Moldova

 

 

 

 

The joy of being a Wales fan is the greatest thing in the world, even when we win. To see us play away somewhere weird is even sweeter. Do it at least once in your life or you haven’t lived. A small, intrepid band of Wales away fans have lived a lot and loved a lot.

 

This is a tribute to the triumph of hope over experience, a talk of how the world’s most beautiful sporting outfit can seep into the very core of an otherwise barren life, elevating mind and body alike to a higher plane of existence. It is a story of the bling love and devotion that a group of men can inspire in you, even though you have never met them, men you would probably not even like if you did meet them. Saving souls and scoring goals, a vision of shimmering seduction, I give you the Welsh national football side, sent to us from heaven, via a hotel just outside Newport.

 

At the risk of sounding like the kind of emotionally stunted loser you would cross the street to avoid, all I have ever wanted in the whole world is to see Wales qualify for the finals of a major football championship. I used to count our appearance in the Kirin Cup, but to be fair there were only three teams in it and .crucially, it was by invitation. The bitter experience of repeated failures against hastily assembled teams of bin men and chimney sweeps all over Europe made me realise a long time ago that we may never qualify unless we blag it and get to host a tournament.

 

Moldova away in October 1994 was the stormiest episode so far in a beautiful, shambolic love affair, kicked from pillar to post by the unforgiving jackboot of fate, ultimately to be smashed in the teeth by my all too fallible heroes. Like all Wales fans, I had long since lowered my hopes to levels so low it would make your mother weep. In the sure-fire absence of us ever being successful, my personal holy grail had been downgraded to a sad and desperate yearning to see us win away, anywhere, against anyone. Having skilfully missed early 90s wins in Cyprus and Luxemburg, I pinned my hopes on us netting a maximum haul in Moldova and packed my flag for the hike.

 

Moldova, a country that had only just been born from painful collapse of the USSR , that never even played a home game until Wales went there, as a country seemingly invented just to bring us happiness into the drab, meaningless existence of the 78 lost, but happy souls who went there from Wales. Surely even Wales couldn’t mess this up and my search for the inner happiness would be over at last. I have never been so wrong in my life.

 

Spurning the simplicity of a direct flight to Moldova, we thought we would be clever and fly to Bucharest and then get the train to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. So, there we were, already exhausted and way off the beaten track. It’s Tuesday morning, the day before the game and we pull up at the crack of dawn at the Moldovan border, dreaming of friendly locals, gallons of cheap wine and Nathan Blake’s burgeoning career as a world-feared striker. Full steam ahead to Chisinau was the plan and time to get our bearings before worshipping at the shrine of sporting excellence that is, to this very day, the Wales U21 side. The nice ticket lady would do a quiet inspection, run through her newly developed “welcome to my lush and bountiful country, have a nice day” routine and Lenin’s your uncle.

 

Except the nice lady was in fact a crack squadron of the erstwhile Soviet army and they’d not been to charm school. They had is at their mercy and a nightmare descent into hell itself began. In the blink of an eye we were turfed unceremoniously and placed under armed guard by a bunch of bored Kalashnikov-touting psychopaths. You hadn’t seen this on Sgorio. For hours, our only crime was that we were foreigners and therefore could not possibly want to go to Moldova. No-one had ever been there before and certainly not for football. Our border nightmare was to last a total of 24 hours.

 

There were four of us and it turned out there was something wrong with our visas. No-one knew whether we would be sent home, starved to death or summarily executed. Even worse, we might miss the game and I’d promised my mates programmes. Romanian army guards immediately post- Ceausescu had little time for decadent Western ideas like time being important, so hours drifted by, a whole day of perfect drinking opportunities slipping through our finger… and us helpless. Our cunning plan of telling the guards in woeful Romanian that we were in fact Welsh international footballers off to play our Moldovan cousins was met with understandable incredulity. We repeated for hours “ footballista Tara Galilor”, knowing that “Tara Galilor” is Romanian for “Wales” and using “footballista” in the desperate way we hope it means “footballer” everywhere east of Brussels. In a frightening glimpse into the inner workings of my psyche, I swore blind to a man with a gun that I was in fact David Phillips and demanded to be released immediately. This understandably cut no ice with our captors. Why didn’t I say I was Mark Hughes, we would have been let off easily. As it was, they just walked off shaking their heads.

 

Nine hours into our incarceration and having now lost the will to live, I persuaded the bloke with the biggest moustache to lend me a phone and I somehow got through to FAW supremo Alan Evans, in the team hotel in Chisinau. Evans was an international trouble-shooter if there ever was one and never happier when he was preventing Welsh football fans being mercilessly ripped off by unscrupulous foreign football federations and law enforcement agencies. Despite the litany of human rights abuses I outlined to the great man as I pleaded for UN or FAW intervention to help our plight, he was unmoved. “Sorry, sir”, he said with impeccable politeness, “there’s absolutely nothing we can do”. The crackly line went dead and a part of me died too, forever. If even the supreme fixer and fans’ friend Alan Evans couldn’t help us, we were in bigger trouble than we had thought.

 

A whole day passed and we were starting to contemplate suicide. To make things worse I was playing chess against a bored army conscript, as a kind of “hands across the ocean” trick to get him to let us go. Only problem is, I was one move away from winning. He didn’t look like he would like losing and was lovingly fondling his Russian assault rifle under his arm. Here’s the dilemma – checkmate and risk my life or let him off and live to see Wales again? This is the sort of every of everyday existentialist crisis that you can only get from following Wales away and it’s part of the reason why we love it so much. You don’t get this down B&Q choosing between magnolia or off-white. Death or glory, hero or zero, your life’s destiny shaped by the move of a rook. I had to let him win, I had Iwan Roberts to go and watch and besides, getting shot over chess, even on a Wales trip, would have been a bit careless.

 

Sixteen hours after they dragged us off the train, the army kindly shoved us on the midnight slow train back to Bucharest. Refused entry to Moldova. They could have told me at the Embassy in London, it would have saved a load of hassle. We had waited an entire day, with no food or beer, to be turned around on a train going away from Moldova. Surely this doesn’t happen to normal people? I was already wondering whether Giggsy would do the same for us.

 

Like good Welsh boys, we jumped off the train at the first station we came to, no-horse town at two in the morning and persuaded a scared looking toothless local to drive us 100km to the next border crossing. It was pitch black, the car had no lights and the driver appeared to be drunk. Pretty much your average Wales away taxi. We were so scared we wanted to go back and get shot to get it over and done with.

 

So, then we pitched up at the second border crossing at 4.00am and after a mere four hours of pleading and bare-faced bribing, we were finally let into Moldova, a trifling 24 hours after we got there in the first place. 50 dollars and 20 fags each it cost, well they could have told us that the day before, moody or what? Deliriously happy at the prospect of seeing our world-beating heroes slay the disorganised rabble that Moldova would put out, we were even delighted to find that the only way to Chisinau was to bunk on a coach full of grim-faced Serbs on holiday (great destination). We quickly realised that we wanted to see Wales more than we wanted to discuss human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia, so we shut up being Jeremy Paxman and vowed never to do this again, until the next time.

 

We eventually got to Chisinau a few short hours before the big game, filthy, starving, demoralised, 30 hours late, but luckily having missed an ominous but characteristic defeat for our Under 21s. Imagine how edifying it was when the first person we saw, Wales player Jason Bowen, who was mates with one of our group, asked us what the hell we were doing there. As if that hadn’t occurred to us a million times over. A four-day traipse to the farthest depths in Europe and the players didn’t even bat an eyelid. My heroes.

 

Moldova away, along with the 5-0 gubbing in Georgia a month later, is the low point in the history of our national side and my raging desire to see us win away was to be denied me, yet again. The Republican Stadium in Chisinau was what it must be like in hell. It was gloomy, ramshackle and the pitch was freshly ploughed. Playing only their second ever game and in a kit that most discerning pub teams would have turned their noses up at, Moldova came from behind to beat Wales 3-2. This had the hard-pressed locals whipped up into an orgy of nationalistic fervour and disbelieving delight that the world had produced a team actually worse than them. We were in the lead, we had a goal disallowed, we hoofed chances over the bar and we deserved to lose. Luckily, the Wales fans were drunk and in some cases dressed as women for no apparent reason. As ever we made the best of a bad job, ignoring much of the game to entertain our hosts and ourselves with non-stop singing in the face of adversity. Not for the first time it occurred to me in Moldova that random selection of any 11 od the Wales fans, no matter how drunk, would have done better than the 11 clowns on the pitch.

 

This is the essence of Wales away, really. Despite having one of the worst times in my life in and around Moldova, I would and no doubt will, do it all again at the drop of a hat. The thrill when the draw is made for qualifying groups, working out what football outposts we can go to. How else would I have been to Moldova, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Azerbaijan and the time of my life with people who know how much it means? I’m only gutted I missed Armenia, Belarus and Georgia. The camaraderie, togetherness and sheer unbridled stupid fun of going away with a group who look out for each other come what may, meeting old friends making new friends and even getting an occasional good performance by Wales thrown in, well it’s just perfect.

 

Now, under the guidance of the deity Mark Hughes, success beckons for the first time in living memory and it’s a glorious, disorientating feeling. Used only to failure on the field and the time of our lives off it, regular travellers can scarcely believe it. Although we love it, we’ve been there all the time and are hard to impress with mere transitory greatness. We’ve been rubbish for longer than we’ve been good and we will be rubbish again. In a way, we liked being rubbish. It left us free to have a laugh, unencumbered by trouble, or working out permutations. We’ve made friends for live and loved every minute of it (apart from Belgium) and we’ll be there forever, the finest sets of fans in the world. It’s the greatest thing I have ever done. Don’t tell anyone or they will all be there.

 

 

P.S I finally saw us win in Copenhagen in 1998 and I cried. If we ever qualify, I will explode.

 

 

 

 

Banik On The Streets Of Ostrava : A Moody, Marvellous Moravian Adventure

RCS 1, Wales 1, World Cup 1994 Qualifier, 28 April 1993, Bazaly Stadium, Ostrava

 

This is the second report unearthed recently of early ‘90s far-flung voyages with Wales, a match played at a time when Czechoslovakia had just broken up, and today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia were not yet formed. This meant that Wales’ opponents were the snappily-monickered representation of Czechs and Slovaks, against whom we later drew 2-2 in an astonishing return in Cardiff.

 

It also meant that we played not in Prague but got shipped off to a tough city tucked in right by  the Polish border, the heavy-industry heartland of Ostrava, whose fans carried a fearsome reputation, and whose town was said to be a total dump. Perfect. An inaccessible, rough ugly place. I’m bang up for that.

 

As it happens, this one went down in folklore as one of  the iconic trips of the last 30 years. Even at the time it was like being in a different universe. We played in candy stripes, there was widespread trouble at all times in the main game, we drew in the u21s and the seniors, and we had a brilliant time.

 

Here’s what @chsingthedragon wrote once his head cleared a week after the game. Even now, a quarter of a century down the line, Banik is a vivid memory for those lucky enough to have found the place, and one of the trips that made Wales away something that none of us can get enough of…..

 

 

Wales away in Ostrava, 1993. Another step on the road to USA ’94. When I got home the weekend after the match, I was given a Radio Wales commentary of the match to help me relive that magical sunny night in the north of the Czech Republic. I settled down, Brains SA in hand and when the guest summariser Ian Walsh (he of the 1980 brace against England) said “the Wales fans are in great voice, here in Ostrava, but goodness knows how they got here”, To be fair, even I wasn’t sure how I had got there after a headspin of a week in industrial Czech Republic, but Walshy’s dulcet tones  transported me back to that Wednesday night a couple of weeks ago when the lucky 500 of us went manic at Banik. Let’s take it from the top….

 

Initially, I was a bit (only a bit) dubious about going in the first place. We’d lost every game we’d ever played in Czechoslovakia and the game was to be played in Ostrava, a town that the guide books described as being covered in a cloud of sulphurous smog from all the factories and sounded like a bit of a nightmare all round. Oh well, I thought, it would be a week off work, it would be cheap (important when you’re skint), Prague is rumoured to be one of the world’s greatest cities and the local beer is the best in the world. Add the chance to do a bit of cultured sightseeing (some hope!) and the fact that Sir Ryan Giggs was bound to be able to run rings around politically-confused Czechs and Slovaks and I knew I had to be there. No competition really. One phone call to Wales away stalwart Orient Rob and the trip was on, having picked up our Wrexham correspondent and accommodation expert John, aka Wrexham John, on the way.

 

We set off from dreary London on the Sunday afternoon, having opted for the sumptuous delights of 24-hour coach travel. It might sound like a nightmare, but it was 85 quid return and that meant that we’d have more pivo money to sample local culture. Ideal. All of the coach was made up of Czechs returning home after sampling the very dubious delights of England, so we settled down for a quiet few beers and a long overnight trek through France and Germany. The only notable event of the night was the stop at a German service station where the only other Wales fans on the bus were given 3 minutes to clean up the bus or get chucked off. A bit strict on the old discipline there – they’d only had a few cans of beer. Needless to say, they displayed better sweeping up skills than Clayton Blackmore and we were back on the road.

We arrived in sun-drenched Prague early Monday afternoon with the welcome news that Wrexham John (who had gone out on the bus before us) had got talking to a local girl on the journey who had the taste and grace to let us stay at her mother’s house in the flats in Prague’s suburbs. Great – a chance to have a shower and somewhere to leave our stuff for a few days. Gabriela – thanks a lot, your mother does the best breakfast omelettes that we’ve ever had. We’ll be over again in a few weeks (I wish!).

 

Early Monday night and we were off into the centre of Prague to suss out the scene and we found we could get a pint for about 10 pence, so we knew we were in for a good time. The only problem was, we knew we had to be up at 4,30am to get the train to Ostrava for the u21 game, so it was a few beers in the best pub in Europe we’d ever been in, U Fleku, and then happily home for heads down by midnight and dreams of Nathan Blake conquering the Czech youngsters the next day.

 

Tuesday morning began far too early but Gabriela’s mum did us proud by staying up all night (really!) to cook us omelettes and cake for breakfast and with a few gallons of warming tea inside us, we headed off for the first tram into the centre of Prague. This was a pretty surreal day already and that was the way it was to continue. The railway station in Prague at 6am had a heartening number of Wales fans huddled around all trying to inject liquid caffeine into themselves as quickly as possible. All aboard the 0615 to Ostrava, with our bodies on autopilot with our brains (and Brains) not yet operational. When we arrived in Ostrava 4 hours later we used all the navigational skills to get on a tram that was going in completely the wrong direction and were treated to a 45 minute free ride around the suburbs of Ostrava. It was industrial alright, but not as bad the book had said and certainly no worse than driving up the M4 past Port Talbot. And, I might add, the temperature was pushing the mid 80s. Good stuff!

Eventually we got into the town centre and the first thing we found was the players’ hotel, where our heroes had just returned from afternoon training. A few words with Ryan Giggs (“how you doing, Giggsy?” “alright, yeah”) and a shake of the hand and I was happy enough. We found ourselves a hotel (a fiver a night, damn) and found the whole corridor had been taken over by Wales fans. Same as ever. We’d discovered the u21 match was to be played in a small town called Frydek-Mistek (half an hour away by bus), so we picked up a few bottles of pivo and headed off to the bus station, still in plenty of time for the 5 o’clock kick off. After a couple more pivos in the centre of Frydek it was off by another bus to find the ground, which nestled picturesquely between the rolling hills on one side and some well-dodgy flats on the other. The ground itself was lovely and the clubhouse was overflowing with Wales boys spreading the gospel of international camaraderie. And drinking. The whole occasion was lovely – there was none of the tension you get at the main game and everyone was getting very mellow.

 

Inside the ground and strange intergalactic forces had been writing the programme notes, as there was a Cardiff City forward playing by the name of Martian Dlake. Spaceman he may have been, but he notched a great opening goal from a good cross by Lee Jones, but RCS (as they are locally known) bagged an equaliser, which I think was a header from a free-kick, but I can’t be too sure as my view was obstructed by my cup of beer. It wasn’t a great game, but Searley was solid and Lee Jones missed a real sitter at the very end, but 1-1 sent everyone back to the bar happy with life, the universe and everything. We somehow managed to miss the last bus back to Ostrava (well, the pub was open and full of locals who loved us) but the vibes were good. 24 hours to the big game and everyone was being extremely friendly. Bliss so far….

 

The Wednesday began about midday with goulash, dumplings and a few pivos to settle a dodgy stomach. Then it was off to the main square, where all the Welsh fans were gathered, to soak up the sun and the atmosphere. All the flags were well in evidence and we sang ourselves silly, much to the delight of the local TV crews. Damon Searle and a couple of the other u21 boys were lurking around and all too soon it was time to walk to the ground where, shock of all shocks, Terry Yorath gave us a load of free grandstand tickets for the match as he came off the coach. And who said the FAW are a bunch of insensitive bureaucrats? Well, me for a start, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt in this case.

The ground, the home of Banik Ostrava, was quite impressive, with open seats on 3 sides and a main stand that was Premier league standard. The whole thing was about half full (about 8000 I think). We decided to dump our stand tickets and go behind the goal with the main Welsh contingent and get on with the singing. Plenty of flags – mainly City, but also Pwllheli, Bala, Bangor, Newport, Caernarfon and (unusually) a large Swansea City flag.

 

Which brings me to my next point. At the start of the game there was a minute silence for ( as we later found out) the Zambian national side who had been killed that day on the way to their World Cup game. Right, so you respect the minute’s silence, which all the Wales fans did. (England fans at Wembley on the same night did not. That’s their problem). But one thing happened during the minute silence that has deeply upset and angered me as a Welsh supporter. As in Luxemburg in the Europeans, a Cardiff fan took it upon himself to pull the Swansea flag off the fence. Why? In fairness, some other Cardiff fans put it back up, but that’s not the whole point. This so-called attitude that Swansea fans can’t come and watch Wales makes me feel sick. If City play Swansea, I hope City win, but that’s as far as it goes and when we’re a couple of thousand miles away from home supporting our country, let’s not bother with all that rubbish, eh? I actually bumped into the Swansea lads in the bar in town after the game and they were great. Why should they feel intimidated out of going to watch Wales?

 

Anyway, back to brighter things. As you know, our team had been hit by suspension and injury so we were all a bit pensive at the start. No need to worry – the new stripy pyjamas kit put the opposition off. Sex god Clayton played sweeper like he’d never been away and Symons had no recurrence of his nightmare lapse in Brussels. Giggs was quite quiet, a combination of good marking, blatant fouls and the fact the Czechs had moved the touchline in about 10 yards. Very cunning, these East Europeans. All was going well and then we were sent to the heavens as Ryan skipped down the right pulled the ball back to Hughes on the edge of the box. A dummy, a surge and a delicate shot into the corner. We had scored for the first time ever on Czech soil and for the 9 minutes the lead lasted we made the most of it. Ok, the Czechs equalised from a move that had the look of obstruction about it and for much of the 2nd half we were penned back. No problem. In traditional style we took to singing our hearts out in the hope that the hywl would pull the team through and yet again, it did.

 

I don’t want to sound greedy but we should have won. The RCS were below strength, lacking confidence and incentive AND the crowd wasn’t behind them much. Please, Terry, let’s attack next time and do the fans justice. I can see it now – we’ll go to the Faroes, play 5-4-1 and hope for a draw. Well, perhaps not, but you take my point. Still, a World Cup point gained and we can certainly qualify now. And the team acknowledged us at the end – thanks a lot, especially to Ian Rush.

 

One element of the game is that there were frequent long running battles along the terraces, throughout most of the game. All a bit surreal as I didn’t want to be involved so just stood to the side, and watched it continuously kick off, as a slow-motion drunken backdrop to the match. At the end after the players had gone off, we ducked our heads down and did a quick exit back to Oscar’s bar in town, where we basically stayed until 6am with a random mixed crowd – they didn’t care where you were from as long as you were able to drink heavily. For all that we had been told we were certain to find our deaths in this no-nonsense town by the Polish border, the people were nice, we treated them with a bit of respect and we were then able to enjoy ourselves. Although this was only my second trip to a far-flung Wales away destination, my eyes were already on stalks at the fact you could see all these weird places, and Mark Hughes at the same time.

 

An hour or so after leaving he bar it was the train back to Prague and a chance for some sightseeing and more beers with our hosts in the evening. By this time we were totally exhausted, having had no food and virtually no sleep for 60 hours, but it was Wales away so we were on a different level of consciousness and mere human tiredness didn’t matter. This was a brilliant trip which felt like we had earned our stripes. Magical country, friendly people, Sparky scored and we drew. All’s well with the world. Onward now for tales of bobble hats, puffins and illegal booze in the Faroes. We might even win that one. Now, when’s the next bus back to Prague?

 

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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