Thursday, 11 December 2014

Lille OSC v Vfl Wolfsburg. 11/12/14

"When the waiter said 11, I presumed he meant the cost of the round not the strength of the bloody beer."

Lille OSC 0-3 Vfl Wolfsburg. Stade Pierre-Mauory.
Thursday 11/12/14
Christmas is becoming a more and more popular time to head off to the continent for a few days. You've got Christmas markets, mulled wine, the chance to shop for gifts for loved ones and the final round of matches in the Europa League.

And that is why, two weeks before the big man in a red suit does his rounds we were boarding the Eurostar to Lille. Regular readers will know that despite being more than happy to watch any German team, I do actually support one - Vfl Wolfsburg. This came about because of a long winded obsession with Schteve McClaren and although the man of a thousand accents may have long since departed Volkswagen Arena, the love for Die Wolfe remains.

Standard ferris wheel and giant tree
Wolfsburg found themselves back in European competition after a five year absence for this season and as luck would have it, their final group game threw up a trip just 90 minutes and only £60 from London St Pancras to Lille on the Belgian border. The 10th and final McCarthy's Football Travels trip of 2014  had practically booked itself.

Lille Christmas Market - frankly, a disappointment
Lille Christmas Market itself was something of a disappointment. It had the standard issue massive tree in a square as well as a ferris wheel but the stalls themselves left a lot to be desired - especially for those of us who go to these things in the search of beer. The only beer that could be found was mulled beer - an invention as terrible as it sounds.

Mulled beer - as disgusting as it sounds
Take a small glass of strong Leffe, heat it up to radioactive levels, shove a piece of lemon in it and you have mulled beer. A drink so disgusting that the only way to get rid of it effectively is by necking it - something far from advisable when a liquid is hotter than a fragment of the sun. Thankfully, there was plenty of the more traditional mulled wine on offer to take away the taste as well as a decent selection of food including a human head sized slice of what amounted to bread with cheese in it that went down very well with Andy the Vegetarian.

Drink driving laws differ in France
While the market may have left a lot to be desired, the city itself did not. Like most places in France, the bars didn't really kick into life until early evening due to everybody being on strike during the day but we found plenty of them to drink in. Lille's close proximity to Belgium meant that not only were decent French beers on offer but plenty of ridiculously strong Belgian ones as well.

Pay attention in GCSE French, otherwise you can end up
erroneously ordering an 11% beer in a ridiculous glass
If Nicky Morgan is reading this and is looking for suggestions to improve GCSE French, then here he is one - add a significant unit on ordering drinks. Had this have been in the syllabus a decade ago, its probable that the sort of problems that can arise from mistakenly believing that eleven is the price of the round as opposed to the strength of beer could have been avoided and my memory of the rest of the day would not be as fuzzy from that point on. Michael Gove would almost certainly take this on board...

20 beers on tap = BEER HEAVEN
What probably didn't help matters and can in no way be attributed to the language barrier was finding a bar after Beerstrengthgate that had 20 (TWENTY) different beers on tap. Attempting to have a half of each to complete the set was again something that you'd have to say a British Secretary of State for Education is unlikely to be able help with.

Stade Pierre-Mauroy was around a 20 minute metro ride from the city centre. It opened in 2012 and is built a long way out of town but with surrounding hotel complexes, restaurants and bars you can arrive there reasonably early and have plenty to do - namely, more drinking. The stadium itself looks suspiciously like the Allianz from the outside until you get closer and realise the entire exterior is in fact transparent.

Stade Pierre-Mauroy's transparent exterior
Stade Pierre-Mauroy 
Lille OSC - decent home ground
Inside it is three tiered all the way around and for our visit the roof was shut which led to a decent atmosphere and the unusual scenario of it being relatively warm inside the ground despite being freezing cold out. We'd sourced tickets in the home end and given the stories of the fun and games that Everton had while out there for a previous group game, decided to keep our heads down and not give away the fact that we were English supporting Wolfsburg fans for fear of a) violent reprisal and more potently b) having to explain why we support Die Wolfe.

Not the only English idiots supporting Wolfsburg it would seem...
It soon became apparent that the first point wasn't going to be a problem and so at half time (with the visitors leading 1-0 through Vieirinha) we found a friendly steward manning the segregation fence, explained the predicament without thankfully having to mention Schteve and were allowed to join our fellow Wolfsburg fans for the second half.

This was a good move as Wolfsburg went onto add another two goals through the seasonal figure of Jesus Christ look-a-like Ricardo Rodriguez. That despite going down to ten men thanks to a red card for Joshua Guilavogui. Lille couldn't find a way past the inspired Diego Bengalio, who even saved a penalty to preserve the clean sheet and 3-0 win to send Die Wolfe into the knockout stages and a meeting with Sporting Lisbon.

Ole ole ole!
The Wolfsburg fans were held in the ground afterwards but that wasn't a problem as the players came over to do some dancing in front of the away support to celebrate the victory - a theme that was taken up by the fans in the bars of Lille afterwards.

One of the golden rules of football trips abroad is never go to an Irish bar but we abandoned that to visit O Scotland - the French don't do irony or a sense of humour in general so this must have been a genuine mistake in terms of naming. The reason for ignoring that long held guideline? The place was packed with the strange mixture of Wolfsburg fans and delegates from a French/British conference on ecology that was taking place in the city.

Discussing football.....and ecology in O Scotland
Quite the crowd but a great one if you wanted to discuss Rodriguez's free kick, Bengalio's penalty save or the importance of Nicklas Bendtner on Wolfsburg's mightily impressive campaign to date alongside the less important issues of ecosystems and the worlds environment.

All of which we were naturally fluent in by the time that 3am rolled around and O Scotland was shutting for business. Who knew that female chamois in France age faster than those in Switzerland? It is amazing what 11% beer can help you learn.

The Wolfsburg massive
Good nights work for Die Wolfe
Stade Pierre-Mauroy empty as the Wolfsburg fans are locked in
Lille OSC: Vincent Enyeama, Simon Kjaer, Djibril Sdibe, Papa Souare, Marko Basa, Sebastien Corchia (Ronny Rodelin), Florent Balmont, Idrissa Gueye (Souahilo Meite), Ryan Mendes (Nolan Roux), Rio Mavuba, Divock Origi.

Vfl Wolfsburg: Diego Bengalio, Sebastian Jung, Naldo, Robin Knoche, Ricardo Rodriguez 2, Vieirinha 1 (Bernard Malanda Adje), Ivan Perisic, Kevin De Bruyne (Daniel Caligiuri), Luiz Gustavo, Joshua Guilavogui, Ivica Olic (Bas Dost).

Attendance: 33,559.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Scotland v England. 18/11/14

"I'm not sure going in this Rangers pub wearing a green hoodie and green trainers, with ID saying my surname is McCarthy and looking look Paddy McCourt is a good idea."

Scotland 1-3 England. Celtic Park.
Tuesday 18/11/14
Watching England is 90% of the time a complete and utter chore. But every now and again you get one game that comes along and makes all that time, money and inevitable disappointment worth it. Scotland v England was one of those games.

History and geography ensures there is more than enough spice to fixtures with Scotland without needing to add fuel to the fire. But hey, what the hell. If you want to add to the already feverish atmosphere guaranteed to surround the clash, then holding it less than two months after an extremely close fought independence referendum and choosing Celtic Park as the venue should do it.

Duke of Wellington complete with cone
In fairness to the SFA, their hands were tied somewhat by the unavailability of Hampden Park which is still undergoing work to transform it back following its use for the Commonwealth Games. Celtic Park was their next best option in terms of capacity and raking in the money which at £50 a ticket they certainly did.

Quite why nobody raised the prospect that England playing in a stadium owned by a club whose supporters are known for their Irish republicanism and who have a minority that have even sung in support of the IRA in the past might lead to "inappropriate and offensive chanting" is a total mystery. Only answered by the fact that they are thick, as shown by the FA's apology. Here's to the day when we play Afghanistan in a game and have to say sorry for offending the Taliban with our songs.

But enough politics. Glasgow was a brilliant city full of brilliant pubs and brilliant people. Shockingly, this was my first ever visit to the place and only my second time in Scotland following a brief swaray to Edinburgh when on the way to watch Brighton at Carlisle a few years back (don't ask).

Full Scottish breakfast - the epitome of health
For just £15, the good guys at National Express went from London Victoria at 10.30pm on Monday to the city's Buchanan Street bus station at 7am Tuesday morning. Even a blocked toilet by the time we had got to Manchester (not guilty m'Lord) couldn't spoil the money saving both on transport and accommodation.

Arriving in Glasgow before most of the city had woken up, let alone started the working day meant a decent snoop around the sights, a check out of the high standard of girls at the massive University of Strathclyde campus, a good old fashioned Scottish fry up including potato bread and lorne sausage and getting in the pub early doors. All of that went according to plan bar one major hitch in the works - nowhere was serving alcohol until 11am. This meant the alien concept of two pints of orange juice before that first glorious Tennants could be consumed. It honestly felt like putting diesel in a petrol car.

One TARDIS - needed to travel back in time to when
Scotland were good
The FA in their wisdom had decided to make every one of the 5,000 England fans collect their tickets from Candlerigg Market in the city. Getting there for 10.30am meant missing the queues and being able to meet up with a couple of fellow fans in the Blackfriars pub.

It was here I had my first ever experience of haggis. As a man who would quite happily eat a dead cat if you plonked it down on a plate in front of me, this was something that needless to say went down a treat in the form of a chicken and haggis pie washed down with copious beers.

Mark's idea of "taking it easy"
Mark had decreed we should "take things easy" in the run up to the game given the importance of it, which naturally meant heading to one of the finest Wetherspoons in the country in the Counting House which was full of passionate Scot's having a sing song of Flower of Scotland, then onto Committee Room Number Nine opposite Georges Square which was the scene of some of the more lively rioting after independence was voted against, then onto a German market for mulled wine before heading to Celtic Park on the train.

Rangers pub in Glasgow's East End. As you do
There are no stations around Scotland's biggest stadium, the nearest ones all being ten or 15 minutes away and as luck would have it we got off at Bridgeton and walked right into the surreal sight of a Rangers area in the east end of Glasgow. There were several pubs here, all draped in red, white and blue and they were heaving with England fans. Get to the ground in good time for kick off? Of course not, a pint in this most extraordinary of circumstances was a must. Even if yours truly was wearing green shoes, a green hoodie and supporting a Paddy McCourt-esque beard.

The big game...
Security was tight as you'd expect. We had to walk through a plethora of stewards all wanting to check tickets to the point where you simply had to walk through holding your tickets out in front of you like an identity plate. Comparisons to being branded with the Star of David in 1930s Germany were probably a little over the top but you get the picture.

It's not hard to see why the Scots are one of the most obese nations on earth if the catering inside of the ground was anything to go by. Take the "Burger supper", which actually consisted of a battered, deep fried burger and a family sized portion of chips. One bite of said item was enough to clog an artery and in truth the local emergency services should have been more concerned with healthy Englishman keeling over and dying from the Scottish diet than injuries as a result of fighting between the fans.

Rob enjoys his "burger supper"
Celtic Park itself was excellent. Three tall two tiered stands, one smaller main stand and England packed into one corner. The teams entered to a plethora of fireworks which just highlighted that this was Scotland's cup final and the atmosphere was electric for God Save The Queen (completely drowned out with boos) and Flower of Scotland.

*Avoids inappropriate and offensive IRA joke*
And then ten minutes in, it went quiet. We'd all heard in the build up to the game how the Celtic Park atmosphere was going to help the Scots to a famous win and that it would be so loud that even Rosetta would hear it on that comet 6.4 billion miles away. But from that point on it was all England - and not just inappropriate and offensive chanting either.

It wasn't just in the stands England dominated but on the pitch as well. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain securing a first half lead with Wayne Rooney doubling it two minutes into the second period. The stadium did spring back into life when Andrew Robertson pulled one back but they were silenced within 120 seconds, Rooney rounding off one of the best passing moves England have produced in years and celebrating with some gymnastics. 3-1 in your cup final sang the Three Lions support.

England flags on display
3-1 England. An excellent result
There are worse places to be kept behind
That was that. Beating Scotland 3-1 meant that nobody much minded being held in the ground for 15 minutes afterwards or the merry dance of a walk around the east end that the police had set up to allow the Tartan Army to vacate the area and offset the chances of trouble. We even had time to head back to the Station Bar for another beer, unfortunately just too late to join in the bingo evening which had just finished and saw all manner of unflinching elderly Scottish ladies spilling into the streets with England fans for another one of those surreal moments.

Ibrox was visited on Wednesday to clear the lingering hangover and complete the Old Firm set and several more of the cities finest pubs were frequented before the flight back to Gatwick in the evening.

Fair to say Rangers fans were supporting the No vote
Old Firm ground 2/2 done
I'd had my doubts about Scotland and Glasgow before the trip, as any self respecting individual would about a place where men wear skirts. But what a place. Anywhere that the local cuisine can cause you to put on two stone just by looking at it is fine by me.

Just please try and give us a bit more of a game on and off the pitch next time, yeah?

Celtic Park - cracking ground
Not even The Bill employed this many extras
Wayne Rooney celebrates the second
Scotland: David Marshall (Craig Gordon), Steven Whittaker, Russell Martin, Grant Hanley (Steven May), Andrew Robertson 1, Shaun Maloney (Johnny Russell), Charlie Mulgrew, Scott Brown (Darren Fletcher),  Ikechi Anya (Barry Bannan), Steven Naismith, Chris Martin (James Morrison).

England: Fraser Forster, Nathaniel Clyne, Gary Cahill (Phil Jagielka), Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw (Kieran Gibbs), James Milner, Jack Wilshere (Ross Barkley), Stuart Downing (Adam Lallana), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 1 (Rickie Lambert), Danny Welbeck (Raheem Sterling), Wayne Rooney 2.

Attendance: 55,000

Monday, 13 October 2014

Latvia v Turkey. 13/10/14

"Marian Pahars, Pahars, Pahars, he's taking us to Paris, to Paris, to Paris, and that is why we like him, we like him, we like him."

Latvia 1-1 Turkey. Skonto Stadions.
Monday 13/10/14
When Michel Platini came up with his idea for the international week of football - spreading qualifiers for Euro 2016 from a Thursday through to a Tuesday - most people described it as crazy and a cynical idea just to help boost Uefa and television companies coffers.

Of course, it is fashionable to slag off anything that football governing bodies do these days without giving a second thought to what it could actually mean. This brainchild of Monsieur Platini's is a case in a point as it actually turns out to be a fantastic idea.

Riga Old Town - a delightful area
Yes, you've read that right. Absolutely no grumblings from the good people at McCarthy's Football Travels. How can there be when the week of football is the sole reason you can take in a spine tingling international encounter between two heavyweights of the game like Latvia and Turkey?

Without it, this trip to the Baltic's would have been as pointless as giving a kiss of life to a rasher of bacon. The whole purpose of it was of course to watch Estonia v England but unfortunately beer, vodka and women conspired to create the mother of all hangovers which meant I ended up missing the entire game fast asleep back at the hostel.

Can't whack a bit of Soviet architecture
These Latvian's have certainly got their priorities right
I did however wake up in time for another heavy night on the sauce post-England game, meaning that the Monday bus journey from Tallinn back to Riga was about as fun as colonic irrigation (Google image search it if you are unsure). Having had just a few hours stopover in the Latvian capital en route to Estonia, this was a good chance to explore and it was a wonderful place. Not quite in Tallinn's league in terms of old town and drinking, but nonetheless a fine city with the added bonus of a fair bit of Soviet architecture thrown in. We do love a big Soviet building.

Skonto Stadium through the gloom of a Riga Monday evening
After an afternoon of hungover walking around, it was off to Skonto Stadions, home of Latvia and Skonto Riga. The popularity of this game was such that you could walk up to a small booth outside the entrance to the carpark and part with £10 worth of Euros for a ticket. An absolute bargain to see Southampton legend Marian Pahars' boys in action.

And that wasn't the only bargain available at Skonto. Any food inside Wembley Stadium is like paying £72 to have a lump of dead horse served up between two stale pieces of bread yet here was £3 for a gigantic plate of sausage, potato and sauerkraut. Sod stadium snacks, this was a full blown meal for two that would not only leave you full up for at least two hours but also clog an artery in an instant.

Stadium food doesn't come much better than this
I wasn't the only England fan taking advantage of the week of football - there were two England flags inside the ground and countless people from our septic isle spread throughout. That meant the Latvia merchandise kiosk - which consisted of a table and a couple of shirts hung on a wall - did a roaring trade with yours truly getting swept up in Euromania and purchasing a delightful scarf.

The Latvian merchandise kiosk doing a roaring trade
Skonto Stadion itself is bloody weird. Behind one goal the stand only stretches around 2/3rds of the pitch before meeting a huge brick building from whence the teams emerged. Behind the other goal there isn't even a stand - just a car park. Small single tiered efforts abound down both sides and with most of the noise escaping the wide open spaces the atmosphere was best described as flat.

The English get behind Latvia for the evening

Latvian Gasheads
That was despite the best efforts of the English contingent (Latvia for tonight, we're Latvia for tonight, we know we are we're sure we are we're Lativa for tonight etc etc) and the group of what seemed to be ten thousand schoolchildren situated in one corner just shouting LAT-VI-A over and over again.

Car parking behind the goal is very League Two

The main stand of Skonto Stadions
Skonto Stadions

The football itself wasn't particularly appealing either. Turkey dominated the first half as you would expect and went ahead through an absolute rocket of an effort from Bilal Kisa early in the second. The lead didn't last long, Latvia equalising through Valerijs Sabala from the penalty spot.

You know it has been a poor game when the highlight is undoubtedly supplied by the chairman's column in the programme, as it was on this occasion with the Latvian FA man telling his supporters they could expect the team "to fight for every ball and the middle square centimeter" - whatever that is.

Inspiring words about the middle square centimeter
A 90th minute red card for Latvia's Gints Freimanis came too late to allow the disappointing Turks to take something from the game. And that was that.  Having set off from London Gatwick three days earlier looking forward to Estonia v England, having to settle for a rubbish game between Latvia and Turkey wasn't exactly an ideal return for four days of traveling the Baltics no matter what brilliant, brilliant countries both Estonia and Latvia are.

But at least I got see a 11 blokes kicking a ball around eventually. And for that, hats off to Michel Platini. Long live the week of football.

Latvia v Turkey - games don't come bigger than this

The crowd go wild as Latvia equalise from the penalty spot
Latvia: Aleksandrs Kolinko, Kaspars Dubra, Aleksejs Visnakovs, Vladislavs Gabovs (Gints Freimanis), Janis Ikaunieks, Valerijs Sabala 1, Eduards Visnakovs (Deniss Rakels), Artus Zjuzins (Viktors Morozs), Aleksandrs Fertovs, Antons Kurakins. 

Turkey: Volkan Babacan, Semih Kaya, Gokhan Gonul, Umut Bulut, Arda Turan, Gokhan Tore (Hamit Altintop), Oguzhan Ozyakup (Bilal Kisa 1), Mehmet Topal, Ozan Tufan, Caner Erkin, Olcay Sahan (Buyuk Adem).

Attendance: 6,342

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Estonia v England. 12/10/14

"You came all the way to Estonia and have just slept through the game? You English are so crazy."

Estonia 0-1 England. A. Le Coq Arena.
Sunday 12/10/14
London Gatwick to Tallinn is, according to the ever accurate source that is Google, 1125 miles as the crow or in this case, Air Baltic plane flies. So a return trip to Estonia's capital weighs in at a hefty 2250 miles. You would therefore have to be a total idiot to travel all that way for a game of football which you end up sleeping in your hostel through then, right?

Right. And that well and truly leaves me in the idiot category. A  browse through previous entries will quite quickly highlight that that is clearly the case, but even in the unruly world of McCarthy Football Travel's nobody has ever gone on a trip for a game of football and failed to make the game.

Pint of Coq
How did this happen? Quite simply, beer and women. It's a dangerous mix, like a wheelchair and an escalator. One minute you are looking forward to England taking on Estonia, the next you are drinking test tubes of a vile green substance suspiciously called cocaine, the next you are going home hammered at 3am, the next you are going out again with a girl you've just met at 3.30am and finally you are leaving a nightclub with the sun already up and people heading to church.

There were such high hopes for this Estonia trip as well. Leaving Riga - the capital of wonderful Latvia - early on Saturday morning, a swift four hour luxury coach journey was all that was required to reach Tallinn.

Russian flag flying in Tallinn - might be revisiting
this photo in a few years if Mr Putin get's his way
The main bus station in Tallinn was handily placed miles out of town and with the six other Brighton fans who had rendezvoused on the bus, the decision was taken to try and walk into the Old Town. Nobody seemed prepared for how cold it was going to be (Estonia, a former part of Russia, cold?! Who'd have thought it) and so the search was called off early in favour of "a quick beer and food stop" - which lived up to its name if you define "quick" as five pints and three hours.

Test tubes of cocaine
That was the start of a slippery slope. From there the famous Pub With No Name was found. This is a pub genuinely called the Pub With No Name, as opposed to a pub that hasn't got a name and it became apparent this was the main place to drink for England fans. The beer of choice? A pint of cock, or A Le Coq to give it its full and proper name which was surprisingly good and easy to drink given the standard of some of the stuff you get in the Baltics. Too good, in fact.

Nels returns with another round of test tubes. A dangerous game
After The Pub With No Name came a bar where said cocaine was taken. These were strange, luminous green shots that came in test tubes and were meant to leave the drinker feeling legless. They certainly did that at €1 a pop and after an unhealthy amount of cocaine and 3am beckoning, it was home time.

Or at least it should have been. Back in the hostel you see was a girl who worked there and, having finished her shift,  was desparate to go out. And what better opportunity for a young English chap to soak up the sights and sounds of Tallinn then with a local taking him clubbing at 3.30am on a Sunday morning? Only an idiot would turn it down....

Future wife number 137
Early confusion led to me accusing her of just wanting to go out so she could marry me and get a visa. Once we'd established that as an EU citizen she didn't need one, things went swimmingly including visiting a club that had a cage around it's dancefloor and a heated debate with a passionate local after a song involving the terms "Vladimir Putin" and "he's coming to you" came to the fore.

Leaving a club at sunrise - never a good sign
It's always a risk when you leave a club and it is daylight and that risk came back to bite me well and truly on the bottom by the time I finally woke up - at 3pm local time. No worries - a quick walk around the city to do some sightseeing, a quick beer in the Market Square and then a quick nap and kick off at the Le Coq Arena would definitely be made. Famous last words those, as that quick nap ended with half time already out the way and England about to score through Wayne Rooney to win 1-0.

England fans gather ahead of the big game

Old Town Square
Missing a game you've traveled over 1000 miles to should be lesson learnt. Well, no not quite as having slept all day we powered through the beer again all night, being the only people in the quaint Venus Bar until 3am when  the entire club was quite incredibly shut for Mike attempting to take his t-shirt off for the 3rd time.

Beautiful Tallinn - if you are awake to see it
Tallinn was a beautiful place, England got a vital three points in the same round of games that the likes of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands all struggled - and I missed most of it in bed. Still, at least there was plenty of Coq to be had.