It warms our hearts when we hear about some of the trips people make to see football around Europe. This week our beloved Brian Parish and Dagenham Dan teamed up with long-suffering Wolves fan Neil Shenton and hopped across the Channel to fit in an astounding four games in four countries in just over 48 hours. Jealous? Who would be:-
It was during half time at a home game towards the end of last season (which Dan assures me was the Easter fixture at home to Plymouth Argyle) when the ideafor this trip was first formed. Having not done a non-Spanish league game for a while, we decided that we should try and get to a couple of games in Europe over a weekend, just by way of a change. The Bundesliga was the unanimous choice, and so we set about thinking about where in Germany we would like to visit.
Within a couple of days, the trip had been increased to a two game trip, with the notion that we should try and get to a game on the way to Germany. Soon it was three then four, and then the best selling point of all. Four games, in three days, in four different countries.
Of course, we had to wait until the fixtures were announced, and so while we had all these ideas of where we would like to go whirling around, it was all pointless until we could see who was playing and when. With three of us (Dagenham Dan, Neil Shenton and myself) making this trip, we would have to wait to see if there was a weekend where we wouldn’t miss a home game for any of our teams.
So when the English fixtures were announced, we settled on February 23-25; the Daggers would be at Plymouth, and Wolves were scheduled for a trip to Newcastle. The French fixtures are released ridiculously early, seemingly almost as soon as the last whistle has been blown on the season. With both Lens and Boulogne in the French second division, and with the games in that division set for a Friday evening, this took on the mantle of our first game of the weekend.
We also wanted to attend games in Belgium, Holland and Germany, and now it was an attempt to find fixtures that would allow us to get to and from the others without too much bother. We all wanted to attend Borussia Dortmund, so that was a stick on for the German game. All we needed now was a Belgian and Dutch game, and we were complete.
Dan got in contact with VVV Venlo because (as I am sure that you are aware), theoretically you can’t attend a game in Holland without having a membership card. So, after Dan had completed the relevant forms, he became a member of Venlo, in order to get our tickets.
This just left Belgium to arrange, and Oostende became our number one option. To this day, I can’t recall why, but it just did. So now we had our four games. All we needed was the kick off times to be confirmed, and we could then sort out the route we would take between venues.
With the kick off times for the Belgian and Dutch portion of our trip decided early on, we were left waiting a while for the French and German arrangements. By the middle of January, our German plan was up in the air, as the Bundesliga had scheduled the Dortmund game for Sunday afternoon. In fact, of the games that were due to be played on the Saturday afternoon slot that we had allocated, there were only seven in the top two divisions that were taking place, and of those just two were within the time frame that we had to get from there to Venlo. So, we settled for Köln against Bayer Leverkusen, although that would rely on Herr Campbell managing to obtain the tickets. If that was unsuccessful, then we would need to get to a third division game at Münster. And at this point, not even their kick-off times were confirmed.
Then we had to wait for the French League. I had noticed that Lens had been playing home games on a Saturday, rather than Friday night, but Dan assured me that it was because they were trying to save on the costs of floodlights, and that the whole division had been doing it. By the time we were due to go, they would be back to playing on Fridays. And anyway, if they did maintain the habit of playing on Saturdays, then Calais were at home that weekend, and we could just go there instead.
So finally with all the games sorted out (after a bit of hassle and re-arrangement), all we had to do now was to enjoy the three days, travel to four countries and take in four games, all in around 48 hours. It may not be quite in the class of Thomas Sarren, who covered 31 games in 31 days last season (and whose exploits were covered on this very website) or perhaps Stuart and the EFW crew, who covered several games across Central Europe earlier this season, but time and money constraints dictate that this is our limit. So, having booked the train to northern France, got the bags packed, booked the hotels, got passports at the ready, and made sure that we each had enough on the credit cards to get a souvenir from each ground, we were off.
With Dan having arranged all of the match tickets and hotels, and all the routes sorted out between the various grounds, the last thing we needed was for anything to go wrong beforehand. So, ten days before we were due to leave, I had a phone call from Dan. Neil had been in a car accident, and had damaged his own vehicle. Thankfully, Neil was unharmed which is the main thing of course, but this meant that alternative transport had to be arranged.
Friday 24th February, RC Lens v AC Arles-Avignon, French Ligue 2, Stade Felix Bollaert
Having originally been scheduled to be on board the 11.50am train from Folkestone, we were able to catch an earlier crossing, which meant that we were in Northern France sooner than expected for the sixty-odd miles journey from the train terminal to our first venue, Lens. This also meant that we could get an earlier than planned start on trying to solve the Euro crisis by buying up a load of Lens kits. And with the tickets already arranged, all we have to do is collect them when we get to each ground. What could be simpler?
Well, for a start, none of us speaks French, so collecting the tickets for game number one could be hard work. Having seen Dan trying to get the tickets before, I was predicting a wildly gesticulating Englishman at the ticket office window but fortunately (or unfortunately), it proved easier than expected.
A few years ago, Dan, Liam “Magoo” Ryan and I made a trip to Lens for a French Cup game. On a freezing cold day, with snow falling and the very real threat that the game might be called off, we all bought Lens shirts, which was at the time, a very fetching red and yellow checkered number. We are all thankful then that their kit this time around is a bit more sedate, although last years away effort of dark grey and pink has mercifully been binned. We’ve visited twice, and seen two draws, the second of which was the afore mentioned snow game, which was a mind numbingly tedious 0-0 draw in the French Cup, and was only lightened by the penalty shoot out at the end.
Thankfully, while it’s a bit on the breezy side, there is no snow. Having spent more than enough on souvenirs, we have fun and games trying to find a section of the car park that we can actually leave the car in, before we walk into town.
Lens is an old mining town, and as such, there isn’t a huge amount for visitors to do. We wander up the main high street, but eventually decide that we all want something to eat, and settle for that most French of eating establishments, Pizza Hut. One medium pizza later, and we won’t have to eat again for the rest of the day. In this case, the walk back to the ground is definitely needed.
After a rest back in the car, the gates open ninety minutes before kick off, and we wonder in, avoiding the temptation to go back to the store to spend more on Lens stuff. The floodlights are only just coming on, and so it’s a bit dark, but the small crowd of people in the ground are entertained as kick off approaches by a relay race involving two families, balloons and a couple of slips that would embarrass the Keystone Cops. Eventually, the teams emerge for the game, and after the obligatory handshakes, the game starts.
The first chance doesn’t arrive until eleven minutes into the game, when David Pollett digs the ball out from under his feet and gets a shot away which leaves the Arles goalkeeper rooted to the spot, but hits the post and rebounds to safety.
In response to the near miss, the home fans situated directly below us let off a couple of flares which sends smoke across the stadium. It disperses really quickly though, but if the truth is told, that is about as good as the first half gets. Arles come close thanks to a clearance by a home defender than just goes wide of the post, but that is probably their closest effort. If Lens could be as good as the noise generated by the fans in the noisy section, then they would be much higher in the league.
The entertainment involving fans continues at the interval, with a crossbar challenge. The first two efforts are not successful, but the third is, and is celebrated by the successful player completing a lap of honour, while the other participant tries (and fails) to hit the target.
The second half resumes, but although it appears that Lens have much of the ball, they don’t create much with it, and at times resort to lumping the ball up to the tall front man in a most un-continental style. The long ball flounders because in the heart of the visitors defence is Bobo Balde. Now 37 years old, the former Celtic defender (yes, it’s that Bobo Balde), wins everything in the air, and seems to have the situation totally under control.
The half doesn’t give us too many chances for a goal (Arles have a shot which flashes across goal, but goes wide, and another near miss thanks to a home defender), but there are a few yellow cards, and the regulation six substitutions, that with a couple of injuries combine to give us five minutes of added on time. As we move into the stoppage time period, Lens have a left wing corner, which is headed at goal by Alaeddine Yahia, but this is saved by the Arles keeper, Ludovic Butelle. However it rebounds back to Yahia, who lifts the ball back over the keeper and over the bar. With it, the last chance of a goal has gone.
Or so we think. As the referee looks to blow the final whistle, Arles launch one last attack, and win a corner. This is lifted into the penalty area but cleared, and then once the ball is cleared, the whistle is blown for the end of the game.
If we are going to see one goal-less draw over the weekend, then this was probably going to be it. But as we make our way from the ground, the thought occurs that this might be the first of four that we see over the weekend. Having already travelled 167 miles today, that would definitely not be a good thing.
Saturday 24th February, FC Köln v Bayer 04 Leverkusen, RheinEnergieStadion
Having stayed in Lens overnight, we were up early for the three and a half hour drive from France to Germany. Leaving the ticket arrangements to Dan has made my job very easy for this trip; Neil drives, and Dan arranges where we stay and the tickets, which means that all I have to do is write it up. With Dan having sorted out the tickets out for this prior to leaving, we were able to arrive in Köln with our seats for this derby game reserved.
On the way through to Germany, we are make a pit stop in Leefdaal, which is where Neil worked for a couple of years. We take the opportunity to visit Pallekeshof (know as Viv’s to the English workers who live in the area), which is Neil’s old local bar, before visiting a chocolate shop, in order to stock up before we continue our journey towards Köln.
We cross the border into Germany around mid-day, and we arrive in Köln a short while later. Having parked the car, we head from the car park straight towards the stadium, which is a familiar journey for both Dan and Neil, having visited in June 2006 for the World Cup game between England and Sweden. Dan had already received the tickets through the post, so we don’t have to worry about trying to pick them up, and instead have a wonder around the stadium, stopping only to sample the bratwurst. Sections of the area surrounding the stadium are closed off to home fans, so we get a group picture outside the arena on the main walk way up to the stadium, before we walk back round to our gate, and enter the stadium. Inside, we are once again at the bratwurst (the currywurst is definitely worth a go), and once we have filled up, we head towards our seats.
Leverkusen start the game in sixth place in the league, while the hosts are fifth from bottom. The visitors are missing Michael Ballack through injury, but do start with Vedran Corluka, recently of Tottenham. For the hosts, Lucas Podolski is up front, and they also have the North Korea striker, Chong Tese on the bench. If the name isn’t instantly recognisable, then he was the striker who cried when they played the North Korean anthem at the World Cup in 2010.
The tension that is undoubtedly in the air is increased a couple of notches when the Leverkusen fans light up their flares, and launch a few at the pitch, while the teams are lining up for the pre-match formalities.
It takes a quarter of an hour before the first chance is created; a dipping volley is tipped round the post by Rensing in the home goal. From the resulting corner, any thoughts of a goalless trip are banished, as Leverkusen take the lead, when Lars Bender applies the finishing touch to a half hit shot that should not have travelled half as far as it did.
Köln try to respond, but the difference in league position is evident. The vocal home fans in the south stand are giving it everything, but just before the half hour, they finally have something to get excited about, when a move including several passes results in a cross from the right being put wide by Novakovic. Two minutes later, they are even more excited, as Podolski chases a ball over the top of the defence but is flattened by the onrushing Yelldell in the Leverkusen goal. All around us are howls for a penalty, but the referee gives nothing. The closest to a home goal though arrives with about six minutes to go before the break. It is at this point, that Dan points out that almost all of the fans inside the stadium are wearing denim, and for the next minute or so, all three of us look around the stadium, and can’t see one person that is bucking the trend.
Having finished our glance at the local fashions, Köln midfielder Sascha Riether wins the ball, and passes it into the inside left channel, where Novakovic shoots. His shot is parried, but although Podolski is there, so is a covering Leverkusen defender, and his attempt at a shot on goal is blocked. As the teams leave the field at the interval, Leverkusen are still 1-0 up.
As they re-emerge for the second half, Tese is on for Novakovic, and the home side start well, with a chance emerging almost immediately, but the decision is to shoot at the near post, instead of pulling the ball back for an onrushing forward.
It is a decision that will cost Köln. Five minutes into the second half, Leverkusen score the second, clinching goal. The ball is lost in midfield, and it ends up with Bender again, who this times slots the ball past the keeper and just inside the far post. This sends the away fans into understandable raptures, but there is an air of resignation amongst the home support.
Podolski is offering only a sporadic threat, and his opportunity arrives just after the goal, when he is able to turn a defender on the edge of the area. He hurries his shot at goal though, and it just dribbles through to the keeper. Even with twenty five minutes to go, Köln just do not look like scoring, whereas Leverkusen could probably get another if they tried.
Indeed they hit the crossbar with a quarter of an hour to go, through Stefan Kessling, but that is the end of the goal scoring opportunities. We have the remaining substitutions, but in truth the game is up. Even so, there aren’t too many leaving, although it becomes more of a stream of people, rather than a trickle as the games edges ever closer to its conclusion. In the end, there is just one minute of stoppage time, and as the board is held up, we move to a few empty seats closer to the exit. At the final whistle, we will have a ten minute walk back to the car, before we can begin the journey to Venlo.
We all agree that our first experience of the Bundesliga has been a great experience, and that we will all be back. But for now, we have to move, as in just three hours time, we need to be in Venlo for game three of the weekend.
Saturday 24th February, VVV Venlo v Heracles, Seacon Stadion
So from Köln, we had just over a couple of hours to travel the 100km to Venlo, find our way around the town, check into the hotel, get to the stadium, and then to collect the tickets. Dan had already put in a bit of work on this game before Christmas, sorting out a club membership so and generally smoozing the ticket office staff into reserving our seats.
Thankfully we had managed to make a quick getaway from Köln, and were on the autobahn within twenty minutes. Having arrived in the Netherlands, we got to Venlo quite quickly, and performed one of the quickest hotel check ins of recent times. Once we had dumped the bags in the room, it was a run back to the car, for the drive back to the stadium.
Having paid our €3 to park next to the stadium, we collected our tickets and headed into the stadium. The stadium is best described as “quaint”. The main entrance looks impressive enough, with glass frontage and a giant crest on it, but once through the ticket checks and security, is a bit like being transported to a non-league ground in the seventies. That is not to say it’s horrible, because it isn’t, but it could be a bit of a culture shock for some visitors.
Our seats are behind the goal, and a row from the back of the stand. It’s also just two blocks away from the away fans who are completely caged in. It’s a very small away section as well, so I can not imagine what it must be like when a big club visit.
The game starts, and it is Heracles who begin the game the better side. They have much the better of the early possession, and so it is a bit of a surprise when the opening goal is scored by Venlo. Uche Nwofor is played through and is one on one with the goalkeeper. He manages to keep his nerve and just about gets the ball past the goalkeeper before wheeling away in celebration. The away team looked a bit stunned, and well they might be. For the next ten minutes, Venlo gain the upper hand, and look the more likely to score. Gradually though, Heracles get over the shock of the goal, and begin to get back their early dominance.
In keeping with the game, just as Heracles are on top, Venlo score again. There is a moment of controversy in the build up, as Nwofor is flagged for offside, but as Heracles have the ball, the referee allows play to go on. They then manage to lose the ball, and it breaks to Yanic Wildschut on the Venlo left. He beats one defender, then cuts inside another and as he is approached by the Heracles goalkeeper, he tries to slot the ball past him. Nwofor is lurking by now at the back post, and as the ball breaks to him, he taps it over the line. We all look to the linesman, thinking that he may be offside, but there is no flag this time and once again, Venlo can celebrate. Not in such a happy mood is the Heracles coach, and after he is finished remonstrating with the match officials, is sent to the stands.
Venlo now start to get the break of the ball again, and the 50/50 balls are suddenly breaking their way. Shortly before the break, an attack down the Venlo right allows Steven Berghuis to cut inside the Heracles left back, and get a shot away, although it is deflected off target for a corner, which is wasted. So, when Venlo are on top as half time approaches, Heracles score. A long, diagonal ball from the left back goes over the head of a Venlo centre back, and is controlled by Lerin Duarte, before he then plants it past the goalkeeper to reduce the deficit. Seconds later, the whistle blows for half time.
The game resumes with the home team looking the better side for the first ten minutes of the half, although Heracles have a couple of opportunities to break quickly, and look dangerous. It is the visitors who have the first near miss of the half, although the glancing header by Everton is just wide. It sparks a period of away team domination now, and there are further chances, but none are good enough to beat Gentenaar in the Venlo goal. The game continues going end to end, and is proving to be the best contested game of the trip so far.
Venlo remove Nwofor with a quarter of an hour to go, sending on Michael Uchebo in his place. Within thirty seconds, he is leaving the field of play, having managed to get injured in his first involvement. He re-appears a minute or so later, and is involved again. Given the ironic cheers that greet every successful attempt to either control or pass the ball, he must have the status of cult hero or something. There is something about his style of play that reminds me of Paolo Wanchope, with the pineapple head haircut more reminiscent of Jason Lee in his pomp.
In the final minute, Venlo seal the points. Yaric Wildschut exploits a gap between the Heracles right back and centre back to get into another one on one position with the goalkeeper; he is forced wide by the keeper, but manages to retain enough composure to square the ball across the six yard box, where Cullen is on hand to tap home. The home fans are more than happy, and attempt to remove part of the fencing keeping them from the pitch at the opposite end of the stadium, prompting several stewards to venture in to keep the peace. The final whistle is blown a few minutes later, on a Venlo 3-1 win. There is time for us to get back to the club shop, before we head back to the car, and the ten minute drive to the hotel. The day ends in the hotel bar, with the make or break day of the trip successfully completed. Now we just have a drive to Belgium for tomorrow, and then home.
Sunday 25th February, Oostende v Royal Antwerp, Albertspark Stadion
After a hectic Saturday, today was not going to be as busy. Today’s drive to Oostende is a mere two and a half hours (according to the sat nav), but with a 2pm kick off, it still meant that we had to be up and away from the hotel by 9am. From Oostende, we would then be on the way back to Calais, and then back to the UK.
Once again, Dan had come up trumps. Thanks to a contact of Danny Last, our Dan had managed to charm Oostende into getting us press passes for this one, which meant that (apart from the away sections) we could wonder pretty much wherever we liked.
Well, I say 2pm, because that was the kick off time that we had thought it was, but in fact it was 3pm, so we had an extra hour in the town. I’m sure Oostende is very nice in the summer, but while we were walking around, it was grey, cold and miserable, which meant that a stroll along the promenade was not as nice as I’m sure it is.
So, we had time to visit the local branch of SportsDirect (yes, there is one, and it is quite close to the ground as well), collect our tickets and still had time to kill so after wasting another twenty minutes or so just sitting in the car, we walked back round to the turnstiles and waited for them to open.
Whereas each previous game of this trip has been preceded by thumping dance music, today there is a local brass band providing the pre-match music. This is led by three big costumed mascots, and the whole procession is booed every time they walk past the away fans. The away fans, aside from being totally unimpressed by the band, are singing almost all of their songs in English, which takes some time getting used to.
Both teams are quite high up in the Belgian second division, and it is a cagey start, taking a while for the first chance to arrive. The away fans are winning the noise battle, and almost have the first goal to celebrate as well. John Cofie is allowed to get a shot away which eludes the dive of the home goalkeeper, Jeremy Dumesnil, but hits the post and rebounds into the grateful Dumesnil. Cofie is on loan from Manchester United, and looks good in patches, but disappears at times.
The home side are denied what looks like a certain penalty mid way through the half, when the Antwerp goalkeeper drops a routine catch, and appears to haul down the Oostende attacker. From our vantage point, it looks a definite penalty, but he waves play on, to the fury of the home fans, which is made even worse when he awards Antwerp a soft looking free kick on the half way line. For the rest of the half, he is not exactly Mr Popular.
However, he does allow the goal that Oostende score, five minutes before the interval, as a free kick from Yohan Brouckaert is forced home by Luissint at the near post. The home fans, quiet up until now, are singing again. It remains 1-0 until the half ends, and the interval ushers the marching band once more.
The second half resumes and there are near misses for both sides as the game progresses. The referee appears to be taking the easy option out on the big decisions, and elects not to award a penalty again to the home team when Vandamme is bought down in the box. This is an even contest, but there is enough lack of quality at times to make you wonder how both of these teams are at the top of the division. However, clearly over the course of the season, they have been good enough to win enough to be there.
Twelve minutes before the end, Oostende have a great chance to seal the points. Vandamme is clear through on goal and is faced by an Antwerp goalkeeper who has rushed from his goal. The keeper doesn’t manage to get the ball off him though, but does force him wide. However, Vandamme retains possession, and manages to get the ball over to a team mate, Disa. The ball is over-hit, but he manages to get a cross back across goal, where Vandamme is waiting, marked by a defender. He is challenged enough though that his header goes wide.
Antwerp have one last chance, which arrives in stoppage time, but the shot is over the bar. The final whistle brings unmitigated joy from the home fans, as well as the team. However, even before the players have left the pitch, we are on our way from the stadium.
The weekend has gone really well. The only potential trouble that we could all see was on the Saturday, getting from Koln to Venlo, and that went as well as it possibly could. With Oostende being only an hour’s drive to Calais, we’ve even managed to get an earlier train back. The driving has gone well (top marks Neil, or “Des” for designated driver as he has now become known), and we’ve only had to fill up once. Prior to the trip when it had been mentioned about what we were trying to do, people looked at us as though we were nuts; however, we have now done it, and are all feeling quite proud of ourselves. Of course, now that we have done this, we have to try and beat our own record, so another twelve months of planning beckon…