Sunday, 8 October 2017

Lithuania v England. 08/10/17

"Scott, this isn't what I imagined watching England would be like."

Lithuania 0-1 England. LFF stadionas.
Sunday 08/10/17.
When my girlfriend asked me what I wanted to do for my 30th birthday, she probably had a number of ideas in mind. Now I'm not one to dive into the female psyche, but I'm willing to bet that none of them involved "Lithuania away for four days for a pointless World Cup Qualifier, via Estonia and Latvia and spending a night sleeping on a bus." Yet here we were, setting off from London Stansted at 6.50am on a Friday morning bound for Tallinn, capital of Estonia for a whistle-stop tour of the Baltics.

Katie had never been to any of our three destination countries before, nor been to an England game - an away match in Vilnius is as glamorous a start as you can get - while I was looking forward to actually seeing some of Tallinn this time, having famously been so hungover on our 2014 visit that I slept through the entire Estonia v England game in my hostel.

Firstly, we had to get there though which Ryanair were seemingly determined to make as difficult as possible. A spectacular cock up from the budget airline meant that they were having to cancel 2,000 flights over October and November due to a lack of pilots. Somehow, ours was one that escaped the cull and so there was deep joy when we touched down in Tallinn against all the odds.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
My desire to see some of Tallinn this time rather than laying comatose in bed with the sort of hangover that would drive a lesser man to cutting his own head off was fulfilled as we wandered around the old town, up Toompea Hill for some stunning views of the city and we even visited several churches. No alcohol passed our lips until late in the afternoon, a McCarthy Football Travels record of five hours between touch down and first beer.

Tallinn Old Town from the top of Toompea Hill was a fantastic view
That first beer took place in a little side street pub called Bear Bar. I'd been here alone in 2014 while waiting for some friends to arrive and found it very friendly and a good place to drink by myself. This amused Katie for reasons I was unable to fathom until she pointed out that we were in fact in a gay bar. I refused to believe this until the evidence became overwhelming; the glittery table clothes, the blaring out of boy band tunes and the fact that every other patron bar Katie was a bloke.

While outing yourself as a possible homosexual while abroad with your girlfriend isn't an ideal turn of events, it could have been much worse given I'd been raving about the local beer beforehand. Luckily, I never referred to it by name, otherwise telling her "I love Le Coq" along with the fact I had a great time alone in a gay bar might well have bought a premature end to the trip.

Pint of Coq in the Bear Bar
Pint of Coq in the Bear Bar done, it was off for birthday food and drinks which consisted of a medieval banquet of bear, wild boar and elk and some strong honey mead and then a pub crawl through Tallinn's finest bars for Coq and the local speciality, vodka. This crawl of course included Labor, the bar famous for selling shots of some horrific concoction called cocaine in test tube shots. Five of these each to toast 30 years on the planet left me feeling nearly 60 years old the next morning. Katie meanwhile had contrived to do the impossible and drunkenly lose one shoe at some point between entering the hostel and getting back to the room.

Bear, elk, wild boar - the medeival banquet
Labor - when will the lesson be learnt that any shot coming in
a test tube isn't going  to be good?

There was another McCarthy Football Travels first on Saturday as we went to an art gallery, Kumu. The Estonian's know how to do culture well as Kumu also sold beer although, unfortunately yours truly was too hungover to enjoy the paintings with a bottle. This cultural activity was offset by some more traditional behaviour, namely getting into Kadriog Stadium, home of FC Levadia Tallinn for a nose around.

Kadriog Stadium, home of the nine times Estonian champions
Classic Eastern European Stadium
Before A Le. Coq Arena was built, Kadriog Stadium had been the home of the national team. It had everything you want from a small nation home ground - two small stands, a running track, no roof and a huge scoreboard. We probably could've got on the pitch if we wanted for a kick around - Katie informed me she used to be a handy defender back in the day - but out of respect for the nine times Estonia champions, we decided not to. That and the burly security guard who was wandering slowly around the ground having second guessed what was about to happen. 

If there was one part of the trip that was being approached with something akin to dread, it was the overnight bus. Katie likes to get a good night's sleep and how much sleep you can get in eight hours between Tallinn and Vilnius is debatable.

"Strictly no alcohol is allowed on the bus"
The answer, it turned out, was quite a lot if you load up on Jim Beam whiskey in a bar beforehand outside the bus station, and then blatantly ignore the no alcohol rule and  take a large bottle of the stuff onto the bus with you. It helps that the Lux Express has to be one of the most comfortable coaches around and that it was so empty that we were able to spread out and have two seats each to lie across. We left Tallinn at 10.30pm Saturday and by 6.30am we were in Vilnius.

Welcome to wet and windy Vilnius
After a two hour stay hiding from the wind and rain in a McDonalds outside the bus station in which we were only accosted on four different occasions by the homeless, we were able to check into our hotel a few hours early. Despite being Lithuania's capital, there was actually very little to do in Vilnius other than attempt to haggle with market sellers over the price of a flat cap or go to the pub where we soon met up with the usual England away crowd of Mark, Kevin, Fiona and Sara.

Mark in particular was having a good time of it, a root canal tooth probem meaning he was on antibiotics and had been unable to drink on the trip so far. Within 10 minutes of our arrival, we'd driven him to take up a strong local beer and within a pint of that he was absolutely hammered, which provided probably the best entertainment of the day given how dire the football would turn out to be.

The normal rules of engagement on a match day are visit several pubs and see the city. Given the fact that it was more miserable than the Tory Party Conference outside, that went out the window as we stayed within the shelter of Artistai until 30 minutes before kick off. Some of us were even hoping the game would be called off due to a waterlogged pitch. That was pretty unlikely given that the pitch is artificial, but nothing would surprise me any more after that debacle in Poland five years ago of a waterlogged pitch in a stadium with a retractable roof. Unfortunately, there was no failure of Eastern European technology this time and so we had to make the 20 minute walk to LFF stadionas.

LFF stadionas in all her glory
Ku Klux Klan (a)

Now came the challenge of getting Katie a ticket for the game. Thankfullly, this challenge proved fairly straightforward and we had in our possession one home end ticket at face value. One kind hearted England fan then swapped his away end ticket for that home end one and boom, Katie was in for her first England game. As an added bonus, our knight in shining armour definitely ended up with the better deal of a stand with a roof and alcohol inside the ground.

"Scott, this isn't what I imagined watching England would be like", Katie turned to me midway through the first half and said. And she had a point. When you are used to watching the Three Lions on television from Wembley or in huge stadiums at big tournaments, then LFF stadionas will come as a bit of a shock.

The cover included trees
Holding a total of 5,067 people, it was essentially Withdean Stadium or a pre season friendly in Scandinavia. The away fans were in a tiny stand behind the goal so close to the pitch you could hear exactly what was going on on it, including some delightful industiallanguage from Aaron Cresswell on his first start, Along one side was another small stand, meant for home fans but with at least 50% England. This had some cover towards the back in the form of some lovely trees while the opposite side held the main stand. Behind the other goal was just a set of tents making it look like a village fete rather than an international football ground.

While the home end had cover and alcohol, the away end had ponchos and tea. Stewards on the turnstiles were handing out green and yellow ponchos and with every single person in the ground wearing them, it looked like the Ku Klux Klan were holding a rally in their away kit. There might have been no beer in the away stand but at one end of the tents selling refreshments, you could pick up a 'sweet tea'.

1-0 England and time for the flare
Given that there was sugar freely available and so you could add as much as you liked to a normal tea to make it sweeter, a cynic, or someone who had spent the previous night drinking whiskey straight to knock themselves out for a bus journey, would say that the 'sweet' element in this special sweet tea was in fact whiskey. The tea certainly helped take the edge of the cold and more importantly, the mind numbingly boredom that the game inflicted on everyone.

Harry Kane got the only goal in front of the away fans in the first half from the penalty spot, a goal that was greeted with a flare going off. The owner of said flare rather boldly let it off before Kane had even struck the ball which led to some regret that Kane actually scored it given that a miss followed by a bloke wondering what the hell to do with his lit flare would have been fantastic.

Actually, it would have been the highlight of the game as nothing else happened. Jack Butland made one save of note and even that was from his own defender Michael Keane. Large swathes of the England support left at half time seeking the solace of beer, warmth and Baltics special garlic bread and you couldn't really blame them. It was a typical performance under Gareth Southgate for England - dull, pedestrian and lifeless but it got the job done, even if Lithuania were arguably the better side. Had they have had a striker, it could have been an embarassing result for the Three Lions.

Thank God that game is over...
We stayed until the bitter end before walking back into the centre to meet up again with Mark, Kevin, Fiona, Sara and the rest for some post game beer and vodka straight to get into the Lithuanian spirit. They were all playing the long game, hanging out in the pub until closing and then going straight to the airport, given that they had a 6am flight from Vilnius back to Gatwick. Mark in particular looked to be in a world of trouble by this point, somehow believing that he was in Glasgow rather than Vilnius. The only possible similarities were the dreary weather but even so, this was a fine advert for why drinking on antibiotics is an excellent idea.

We on the other hand had a bed for the night and an 8am coach onwards to country number three of the trip, Latvia. That was a mere four hour journey, giving us enough time to have a look around Riga's old town, eat some traditional Latvian meatballs and experience some Latvian beer.

Country number theee - Latvia

Yes, that is a monkey in a space suit;
no, no idea either
Last time I was in Riga I was too hungover to drink but I did at least make a game of football, Latvia taking on Turkey in a game that was nearly as boring as Lithuania v England. Nearly, but not quite. This time we stumbled across one of the stranger statues in existence of a 30 foot tall monkey in a space suit. Answers on a postcard as to what that is all about, please. 

That night it was homeward bound from Riga to Stansted on another surprisingly successful Ryanair flight, which brought to an end our Baltics tour and Katie's first ever England game. So, did she enjoy it? She did, which is great news given her birthday in March coincides with the Netherlands away.

Amsterdam, here we come.

Lithuania: Erenstas Setkus, Valdemaras Borovskis, Linas Klimavicius, Edvinas Girdvainas, Vytautas Andriuskevicius, Arturas Zulpa, Arvydas Novikovas, Ovidijus Verbickas, Fedor Cernych, Vykintas Slivka (Karolis Chvedukas), Darvydas Sernas (Deivydas Matulevicius).

England: Jack Butland, Michael Kane, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, Jordan Henderson, Harry Winks, Aaron Cresswell, Michael Rashford (Daniel Sturridge), Dele Alli (Jesse Lingard), Harry Kane 1.

Attendance: 5,067

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