Tel Aviv was always going to be one of those trips where at the back of your mind you wished we weren’t playing. The horror stories that everyone has heard about Israel seemed to become more common and frequent the nearer the match became. In fact at one point it was odds on that we would be heading off to Cyprus to see this one when the troubles on the border with Lebanon kicked off again – surely the overpaid primadonna’s wouldn’t be allowed to set foot on the hallowed soil for fear of swarms of middle eastern terrorists trying to get at them? Well the fans seemed to think it was a goer, and so flights via almost every European capital were hastily snapped up.
Being short on the old annual leave just 3 months into the month it was with a heavy heart that I agreed to book a day trip with our friends from up north, Thomas Cook. Now spending 10 hours on a plane is not the best idea in anyone’s book, but to spend it in Economy, squashed up with 250 other England fans is even less appealing. But we must suffer for our art, and so I pitched up at Gatwick at 2am on Saturday 24th March with my IPOD and a book, having deprived myself of sleep in preparation.
Everything went smoothly – checked in and sat with friends awaiting our 4am departure, captain Paddy Doyle came on and told us we had a problem with the windscreen heater – “Only a small problem Ladies and Gents” – we will be on our way in a mo….20 minutes later and a decision was made to vacate the plane, for a spare one across the runway. Now swapping planes is not as simply as borrowing the wife’s car when yours has no petrol in – not only do you have to move 250+ passengers, you have to move the crew, the bags and the catering – ah the catering. So an hour later we were on the new plane, fuelled, loaded with bags and warmed up – but wait! The food for the return flight was missing. “It’s OK ladies and gents, we have asked the ground staff to go and fetch it from the other plane” 30 minutes later we were told that the ground staff in question had actually pissed off for the rest of the day. A further 20 minutes passed before the captain made an executive decision “We’ve decided not to wait for the food, but to get going”…What he should have said was “After waiting on the tarmac for 2 hours dear ripped off, tired and squashed customers I have decided that I could actually get a sandwich in Tel Aviv to stop me getting hungry on the way home, and actually now fly this bugger to Tel Aviv so that you actually get to see some of the city before the game”……Anyway, after this 2 hour delay – not the fault of Monarch (the airline) or Thomas Cook (the Charter company) of course as they repeatedly told us – (The word here is Accountability boys) we took off…4 hours 51 minutes later we touched down in a sunny and surprisingly busy Tel Aviv.
So we were expecting guns, troops, shitty little airport and hostility – what did we get? A Clean, modern airport, plenty of smiling locals and a T-shirt and hat that said “Israel loves you”….Immigration was a formality and 20 minutes after landing we were on our coaches. The plan was to drop us in the old port area for a few hours before busing us to the stadium “for security reasons” at 6.15pm….Our coach driver proceeded to give us a rundown of the city, and then how scared the locals were of the English drunken fans! He also pointed out that as the Sabbath wasn’t due to end until the “3rd star appeared above the belt of horizon” or something, everywhere would be quiet – yeah right!
The Israeli bar owners had obviously chosen to ignore their religious beliefs of thousands of years for the once in a lifetime opportunity to double their annual profits by opening all day. Hence the whole seafront was more akin to San Antonio or Faliraki – bars were overflowing and offering some of the most hospitable surroundings. After all, when was the last time England Fans got to drink on the beach before a game (lets exclude the beach bars set up in Germany last year)…..We decided on a traditional meal, in traditional surroundings with the best looking waitresses of course….Plate after plate of humus with onion, with garlic, with chili and so on appeared before the main course of meat appeared – all washed down with the local Carlsberg – what a perfect way to spend an afternoon – and the locals seemed impressed too – “Look” you could here them say “Look England fans eating Humus – perhaps they will pillage our city later”. We were far too relaxed to even think about that – instead we ate merrily and then got the bill, only to be charges an arm and a leg for those humus dips that no one asked for and ate! The 12% mandatory tip was not forthcoming and we made it quite clear we would not be returning there again! Instead we headed down the cost to look for the celebrity hangouts – word had reached us that Glenn Hoddle had been spotted and the Wolves fans amongst us wanted to have a word – I am sure it was similar to the word or two the 16 West Ham fans had with Paul Ince when he checked into the same hotel as us in Dublin in 1999…
Unfortunately we could not find the chap and so we spent the rest of the afternoon playing the usual English game of “Woodya”…..Coaches arrived on time and as the sun fell, then the England Fans rolled into the Ramat Gan Stadium full of hope of a win….The stadium was surrounded by police check points and despite thorough searches we were soon inside. Word got round that my team (or is it my ex team) of the England Seniors Fans team had won their 2nd consecutive game – and also the 2nd game in a row that I had been absent. The stadium is completely open air, and with a running track it seemed as if there would be a lack of atmosphere – but the locals had gone out of their way to make this a special night. Jugglers, fire eaters, marching bands and local pop stars entertained the crowd and the national anthems were certainly stirring – albeit with the sound being pumped out of huge speakers in front of the England section….Or was it the England section – every so often a definitely local face would appear in seats close by – in fact a whole family of Israelie’s appeared and immediately showed their grasp of English language – “McLaren is a cunt” seemed very popular in Tel Aviv….
And so to the game – the low point of the day…witless, clueless, spineless, passionless and gutless could be used to describe England’s performance – Too many players just couldn’t be arsed and a 0-0 draw was an unfair result on Israel. But McLaren did not see it that way – he saw it that it was almost the perfect performance – just a goal needed – the bloke spent too long at Middlesborough if he thinks that is anything like acceptable, let alone perfect!
The immediate concern was whether we would make it back through the airport before the 2am curfew…Fans ran down the steep slopes around the ground and onto the coaches and we were off……No repeats of waiting in lay-bys for the pampered ones tonight – straight to the airport, straight into the anticipated questions “Why were you here?” “What football match? Israel played but not England” “Is McLaren ever going to drop Lampard?” “Why is Phil Neville even in the squad let alone playing” – and other tough questions, but we made it and at 1am we were all ready to board the flight – all apart from the crew who of course had not had their 12 hours rest yet (And why is that Paddy Doyle??) so with minutes to spare we took off….Of course landing at 5.35am on a Sunday at Gatwick you would expect to breeze through the airport – oh no…Of course you wait for 30 minutes as customs as they only had two people on – because they work closely with BAA on these arrival plans you know…..
I did make it home and in bed by 7am…The current Mrs Fuller asked the killer question – “So was it worth a 10 hour flight and a 250% increase in the chances of DVT?” err no – but at least I have a new stamp in my passport!