Monday, 20 June 2016

Slovakia v England. 20/06/16

"I don't mean to worry you about the flat we are staying in, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out Jihadi John was our next door neighbour."

Slovakia 0-0 England. Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
Monday 20/06/16
There have been many inventions that have changed the world down the years. The wheel, sliced bread, the internet, fried chicken. But could Airbnb go onto become the greatest of them all? Even better than Colonel Sanders secret recipe of 11 different herbs and spices coated over a bit of poultry? If the latest instalment of my Euro 2016 travels are anything to go by, yes it could.

One of the problems with following England away, particularly in tournaments with the number of fans who travel, is the cost of finding a bed for the night. The Slovakia game was a particular nightmare. Saint-Etienne where the game was to be played isn’t exactly known for its booming tourism industry and so available rooms were rarer than a good Jordan Henderson set piece. The hoteliers of neighbouring Lyon showed the capitalist traits you simply wouldn’t think existed in a country where everybody goes on strike at the thought of having to work more than six hours a week by whacking all their prices up for the influx of up to 30,000 English supporters.

And this is where Airbnb comes in. For as cheap as just £24 a night in this case, you can rent a room in somebodies house or indeed their entire abode if they are away. For Joe and myself, this was an absolute God send as we decamped to a small flat a few tram stops from Lyon’s main station.

Our Airbnb accomodation - no French SWAT teams
on site as yet
There is of course an element of risk with this arrangement as, although you can view photos of the accommodation before arriving, you never know exactly what you are going to get. Take our first impressions here. We were renting off a young female student who had gone away for a couple of days to visit a friend in Auxerre. On arrival at the location, it appeared as though the flat was on the sort of estate that you traditionally see being raided by police for suspects in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Now I’m all for trying new things and experiences, but staying in a potential ISIS stronghold might have been a step too far.

But first impressions are a funny thing. Take my first impressions of Les Dennis joining Coronation Street. What a bloody terrible decision, you can’t have a bloke who presented Family Fortunes on the Street. But Michael has been a revelation and, once you got past the fact that French riot police could burst onto the scene at any minute, so was this flat. Sure, there were a few problems like not being able to work out how the window opened when it was 27 degrees outside and my sofa bed being riddled with creatures that bit when you were asleep but for £12 each, there could be few complaints.

A comfortable "bed" for Sunday night in Gatwick's North Terminal
And at least there was a bed, which was a far cry from the previous evening when a bed consisted of a seat in Gatwick’s North Terminal that afforded about two hours of sleep before the 6am flight to Geneva. Having three hours to kill in Geneva struck the sort of fear into my wallet that seeing John Leslie wandering down a corridor strikes into a young lady but in a blog that is fast becoming a gushing piece handing out praise left, right and centre (don't worry, it won't last) then Geneva is another that needs to take a bow for providing the first ever sub £8 pint I’ve had in Switzerland. The last time I visited everyone’s favourite home of Nazi gold was a trip to Basel in 2014 where it was £12 a pint yet here in Geneva a delightful Feldschlosschen weighed in at £5.70. Keep them flowing please barkeep.

Lake Geneva
It had to be photographed - a £5.70 pint in
From Geneva, it was a two hour train journey to Lyon through the rolling hills that represent the Swiss-French border and from Lyon, another 45 minutes onwards to Saint-Etienne. I’ve always had a soft spot for AS Saint-Etienne, ever since a trip to Bordeaux seven years ago when in a rash decision that had nothing to do with a lot of French beer, I went into a sports shop and forked out €80 for a full ASSE kit – shirt, shorts and socks – based purely on the fact that it’s combination of three shades of green was one of the best things I had ever seen. So to visit Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was going to be a real treat, even if it was to watch England rather than Les Verts.

Fun and game in Saint-Etienne's main square
But before heading off to the Green Hell as the locals refer to it, there was plenty of fun to be had in the city centre. A right party was underway on in the main square where people were flocking from many of the bars around. The traditional boot a football as high as possible into the air game was going on as one of the local cafes blared out a playlist that included Three Lions, Vindaloo, The Beatles, Oasis and of course Will Grigg on fire – or in this case, Vardy on fire - the teaching of whose lyrics to a group of a young local ladies who had come to join in the fun proved to be no easy task. England fans danced around throwing beer, pot plants and in the case of one particularly cultured individual, red wine into the air. One bloke came onto his balcony above the square to watch events. He was greeted with a huge cheer when he headed the ball that was booted up to him back down into the crowd. An even bigger cheer went up when he introduced his wife to the crowd. And then an even bigger one for his daughter, no more than five years old, who waved and led the crowd in a Mexican wave. Bloody English hooligans eh?

Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was a 10 minute tram ride from party central and on arrival we were met with huge queues to get into the stadium. Could there be thorough security checks here for the first time at an England game in the tournament? Perhaps they had heard a couple of England fans were staying on an ISIS estate in Lyon and might have been radicalised? No. The queues were actually being caused by the genius decision to have just four entrances to the stadium on each of the four corners. Each entrance was manned by no man than five security staff responsible for patting down every person entering. So a 42,000 seater stadium, four entrances, an average of over 10,000 people per entrance and five staff. Now I’m no mathematician but that was never going to add up without complete chaos which needless to say ensued.

 Stade Geoffrey-Goichard. Another very English stadium
Fantastic floodlights behind the goals

But what about when inside the stadium? Well it isn’t hard to see why ASSE are famed for having one of the best atmospheres in France. The acoustics of Stade Geoffroy-Guichard are superb and despite the lack of inspiration on the pitch from England in a turgid 0-0 draw, the Three Lions support was loud and proud throughout. Around 80% of the ground was England and it really did feel like a home game – if a home game at the corporate bowl that is Wembley had any atmosphere at all, of course.

Just like the venue for the Bales game in Lens four days previously, this was another stadium with an English feel to it. Four separate stands, all two tiered raising into the sky with some fantastic floodlights perched under the roof behind each goal. Thank Christ the stadium and the atmosphere was something to marvel at as there was bugger all on the pitch to. Roy Hodgson made six changes and while that garnered a lot of criticism, the fact is England had 29 shots and 61% possession. England didn’t play terribly, they just couldn’t get past a stubborn Slovakian defence. Whereas in the Bales game on Thursday you just knew at the 60 minute mark that England would eventually go onto win, here the clock ticked past an hour and everyone could sense that even with the introduction of Wayne Rooney, it was finishing as a stalemate. Better to concentrate on relentlessly singing The Great Escape and having the news filter through that Wales’ hammering of Russia would relegate England to second place in the group, putting them in the same half of the draw as the likes of Italy, France and German. At least there shouldn't be the need to break through an 11 man blockade to score against any of those three.

Everyone under the England flags to keep out the rain in the queue
for the station
If the queuing system to get into the ground was bad then back at Saint-Etienne Station afterwards it was farcical. Even Paul and Barry Chuckle would have blushed as it took three hours to get onto the station platform for a train back to Lyon. We’d booked on the 00.45 but one of the police guarding the line said rather helpfully “Don’t worry about tickets, just get on the train. They will run until this queue is cleared." £10 well spent on a worthless bit of paper then. Things got even worse when it began hacking down with rain until England supporters began unfurling their flags and passing them over heads to use as makeshift marquees.

Upon finally reaching the station entrance it became apparent as to why we had been kept out in the rain for twice as long as the game we’d come to see had lasted. The station staff were taking the Noah’s Ark approach to loading up the trains and counting people in two at a time to ensure that there was not so much no overcrowding as a lack of crowd at all. While it was pleasant for everyone to have a seat for the journey back to Lyon, I’m certain most people would have traded having to stand for the journey for an hour and a half less spent in a queue. We finally boarded a train at around 2.45am, arriving back at ISIS HQ at 4am for some well deserved sleep that was thankfully not interrupted by anti-terrorist police raiding the building.

The French-Swiss border. It is goodbye to the EU here...
The following morning Joe and myself went our separate ways – he to spend 20 hours and a night in Lyon airport before a flight home on Wednesday, me to the French border town of Saint-Louis. After walking into Switzerland where the beer was more expensive – see, it’s not always brighter out of the EU – I returned to France and what must rank as the best pub of Euro 2016 so far. Tabac Altay was its name and confined within was a stunning piece of technology. The television in the bar was showing horse racing and this contraption allowed you to place a bet direct with a bookmaker via an ATM style machine. You could pay with cash or card and pick up your winnings as soon as the race was over. Why do we not have these in England? If this hadn’t have been the trip I discovered Airbnb, then the gambling machine would easily have won best invention of the trip.

Bet direct with a bookies with this fantastic machine inside a
pub. A genius idea
After dragging myself away from Tabac Altay it was onwards to the continents most confusing airport, Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg. Straddling the border between France, Switzerland and Germany, it has one big terminal that is split into a two – a Swiss side and a French side. The Swiss side deals in Swiss Francs, the French side in Euros. This resulted in a steak dinner (not horse this time) in France and seeing as I was flying from the Swiss area, a few beers in Switzerland.

Managed to get a steak that wasn't horse this time
Stunning sunset at Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg
There was a beautiful sunset to send us off from Switzerland and after 48 hours in which sleep had been confined to two hours in Gatwick and five hours on a bug ridden sofa, it was a relief to finally get home and climb into bed in a building were there was little worry of being dragged out handcuffed by some balaclava clad SWAT team. We'll save that one for the next Airbnb experience.

Slovakia: Matus Kozacik, Peter Pekarik, Martin Skrtel, Jan Durica, Tomas Hubocan, Robert Mak, Juraj Kucka, Viktor Pecovsky (Norbert Gyomber), Marek Hamsik, Vladimir Weiss (Milan Skriniar), Ondrej Duda (Dusan Svento).

England: Joe Hart, Nathaniel Clyne, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Ryan Bertrand, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Jack Wilshere (Wayne Rooney), Daniel Sturridge (Harry Kane), Jamie Vardy, Adam Lallana (Dele Alli).

Attendance: 39,051

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