“Ella, Ella, Under my Umbrella”….just five days prior to our arrival in Poland’s third biggest city, those words has reverberated across the Stadion ŁKS as one of the most famous and sought after artists in the world, Rhianna played in front of a sell out crowd in the adjacent Atlas Area. One hundred and fifteen hours later, Danny Last and I were wrapped up like Michelin men outside the football stadium, huddled under a canopy, waiting to pick up our press passes from ŁKS Łódź . Now don’t get me wrong, I love Danny Last but he’s no Rhianna and so when he uttered the chorus line for the umpteenth time I told him exactly where he could stick his bloody “Ella” and I wandered off in a huff to find some football socks for my collection.
Our trip to the frozen central plains of Poland had begun like that of thousands of heroes before us at Stansted Airport at 5am on a Saturday morning. We had endured the 2 hour mind torture that is Ryanair and had completed a quick recce of Poznan where the Irish will be playing next Summer (question – when the Irish go abroad, do they seek out the nearest English pub and drink watered down Fosters and watch episodes of Only Fools and Horses with their Roast Beef and two veg?). From Poznan we had travelled east in 1st class Polish train luxury to Warsaw as you can read over at EFW. Let’s hope they have finished the tram link to the stadium as it is a long walk otherwise. We also discovered after what seemed liked an eternity that Polish train stations are not allowed by law to sell alcohol. So now we know why they all head over to England!
Sunday morning saw us rise early from our 5 star luxury abode. Events of the previous day/night slowly started to unfold. Mobile phones tend to leave a history and looking at my call/text/Twitter log left me in no doubt I had had a few too many. All I will say is that no, I don’t think we should do that, yes it was very hairy and Mum, I was only joking. The noise of the Legia fans was still ringing in our ears, and after a quick Poznan across our Westin hotel room we headed out into the freezing day trying to jointly piece together the evening.
There had been a lock-in at the pub we eventually found. It was a Polish Karaoke bar, hosted by Chris Evans (at 2am he could’ve been his twin brother anyway) who kept plying us with Lech’s, with the mistaken belief that we were journalists and would write nice things about Pub Ślusarna in ul Waliców 12 in the official (ish) guide to Euro2012. Well, we can’t be bought that easy! And if you thought we were joining in in getting up on a table you would have grossly mistaken our outlook on life.
Of course two hours later it was all different. Peer pressure got to us, and to avoid a Polish girl grinding into my knee anymore (I wasn’t giving up by bar stool for anyone!) so Danny belted out an N-Dubz version of (White Man) in Hammersmith, whilst I brought the house down with my slurred version of Summer of 69. “Encore, Encore” they shouted and so we paired up for one last time on stage (well, a very small table) for a version of Islands in the Stream like no other.
Our plan was to head south west to Poland’s third largest city, Wooge – well that is how I was told it was pronounced. The fact that the lady at the train station understood what I meant suggested I was right and we boarded the 9:49 “express” that would see us in the city by 11.15am. All was going well as we sped through the Polish countryside, spotting grounds left, right and centre. We pulled in just after 11am at Łódź Widzow station which was to the east of the city. We wanted the other station, which was to the west – Kalinka…But our train was going on to that one so we stayed on. Fifty minutes later we were still travelling at a speed that SouthEastern trains would have called slow, stopping every few hundred yards so the driver could have a chat with the locals on their allotments.
ŁKS Łódź is the city that brought to the world the founder of Max Factor, co-incidently called Makysmillian Faktorowicz (and butt of one of my favourite jokes of all time – “Why did the make up blush? Because Max Factor!”) and Roman Polanski. Martin Scorsese was also in town, doing the Łódź double over the weekend no doubt with Rhianna.
We picked up our passes, which were as big as a copy of the Times and then headed to the bar (obviously), sharing a brief moment with the world famous Czech groundhopper Christof who had endured a nine hour bus trip for two days in Łódź . As you can start to see, Łódź is the place to be at the moment of that there is no doubt.
We had been warned the ground was “quirky”…Ok, what someone had actually said was it was the worst in the top league of Polish football. The story why is a tale of woe, broken promises and general disappointment. With two top league sides in the city, there was some momentum behind a big for one of the places in the Euro2012 host city lists. However, Łódź, along with similar placed Krakow missed out, although for a brief period there was a hope that Ukraine would simply have their games taken away and then Łódź would have been in the frame. Alas, UEFA deemed that cities such as Donetsk and Lviv where there are barely enough hotel rooms for the two teams, let alone the concept of 40,000 fans wanting to watch a game are more than ready and so funding for a new stadium was never forthcoming. The kick in the teeth here for ŁKS was the construction in 2010 of the Atlas Arena next door.
We entered the ground via the magic blue door, following the mascot as he seemed to know where he was going. The gallant knight (for that was him forsooth), walked down some steps and into what appeared to be a school gym. It had that gym smell of sweaty socks and rubber mats, and the ropes hung forlornly down from the ceilings. We walked across the floor, assuming we were in the wrong place, then up the other side of the steps and into the stadium. Strangest entrance to a ground ever – fact!
Our seats were front row and amongst the WAGS. What was good to see is that it is an EU regulation that WAGS have to be orange in colour, wearing FMB’s and generally show disdain for everyone else around them, and the game itself. Whereas Danny and I could not take our eyes off the unfolding drama right in front of us.
ŁKS Łódź 1 Śląsk Wrocław 2 – The ŁKS Stadion – Sunday 11th December 2011
This was a banker away win. Top of the table Wrocław could open up a four point gap at the top if they won, thanks to Legia’s goal less draw yesterday, whilst ŁKS had struggled all season and languished too close to the drop zone. Let’s clear up one myth straight away without having to get those strange ginger Americans involved – Poland is December is cold. It wasn’t…it was ball-freezing, ice-breaking, cock-shrivelling cold. Even with our hats (yes, Danny and I both wore silly hats) and our GTC Media issued standard gloves we were freezing. So cold in fact that neither of us got our GTC Media issued iPads, or even the GTC Media issued scrap of paper to write any notes down on, so don’t expect the Gettysburg address when it comes down to match details.
Whilst we were all done up ready for the next Ice Age, only a few players were actually wearing long sleeve shirts, let alone gloves. These Poles are made of strong stuff – so strong that this season they are even playing on Christmas Day. Perhaps it is the numerous types of vodka that the locals consume (17 different varieties at the airport when we left btw) or that Zurek they quaff so much of (Sour Rye soup).
The stadium was unusual in the fact the main hardcore fans stood along the side of the pitch. The away fans unfurled a huge flag that covered the whole away end with almost precision dimensions. They kept it in place for the first ten minutes of the game, obviously sure in the knowledge that they would miss nothing. The home fans “hardcore” fans stood out like a thumb, behind a big banner that just said “Troublemakers”…
The match itself was fairly uneventful. The home keeper, looking like a chap pulled in off the streets in his baggy track suit bottoms didn’t fancy taking goal kicks and it was from one of the toe-pokes of the defenders taking them in his place that the opening goal came when Lukasiewicz headed home against the run of play. The home fans, not used to seeing such events even stopped their singing and dancing for a minute in shock. Current form has only seen one point in the past five and goals as rare as a spare hotel room in Kiev during June 2012.
Śląsk didn’t seem too bothered by the goal and they played as if they knew they would win for the remainder of the half. With the cold shrinking our bladders we set off in search of toilets. Back into the sports hall (which was now the scene of amusing incidents as the players tried to keep their balance on the shiny wooden surfaces in their boots), up the steps and outside. However, the way was blocked. About fifty riot police were trying to keep some rogue home fans at bay and stopping them reaching the away end. We didn’t need the little boys room that much all of a sudden and went back the way we came. And then a door opened up in front of us, as if the God of Football Stadiums himself had said “Let the lads in here to warm up”. We walked into a room with hot soup (Zurek if you really want to know), pasta with meat (no idea what meat as the tin didn’t have a label on) and beer. All free of charge. This was our reward for making the journey to the forgotten city of Polish football. And did we pray at the feet of the God. Oh yes.
As we stumbled back out we found a port-a-loo. These are very common all over Poland these days. Toi-Toi’s are the main brand, which apparently have extra base ballast to stop the age old toilet tipping japes. Very welcome it was too and as I came out I noticed a previously hidden passageway. This was literally the stairway to heaven, a route now blocked off to the “closed for safety reasons” upper tier. With my “I’m English” excuse ready if I was stopped I climbed to the top, to be rewarded with a view and a half. I returned to my seat with “that smile” as Danny says, which means I have found something. It didn’t disappoint him either.
With twenty minutes to go the atmosphere in the ground changed. A flare was thrown/fired from the outside of the stadium into the away fans. It actually missed and ironically landed on the grill set up for the sausages, giving a new meaning to the word “bangers”, but it incensed the away following. They started taking down their banners (these are prized possessions and the loss of one is seem as a major humiliation for the fans) and climbing the fences to get at the home fans, who in turn had taken theirs down and were mustering at the far end of the side terrace. A nervous stand-off took hold with both sets trying to show bravadery, but not having the bottle to make the first move.
It was events on the pitch that broke the spell as firstly Kazmierczak and then Wasiluk scored for Śląsk to put them in the lead. The away fans went mental, putting up a set of new banners, forgetting all about starting fighting. The final whistle followed and it was time for us to depart. We fought our way through the riot police, in place to keep the fans apart and get some practice in for next year before we hoped in a taxi. “Airport, please?” I said in my best Roger Moore voice, adding a slight eyebrow raise. “Huh?” said the driver. Danny Last, pulling on all of his experience as a translator at the United Nations made a flapping bird motion and the driver said “Ah English – Lublinka” and away we went.
One weekend, two games in two days, three goals, four dumplings, a five star hotel, six taxis, seven buses and trams and about a million beers – all for less than £150. Poland is officially the new Germany.