Once we were warriors

my-senior-teamBack in the day (which means more than 5 years ago) I rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sven Goran Ericsson, Steve McLaren and Stuart Pearce as a manager of our national teams.  Whilst they got luxury travel, five star hotels and a pool of the “golden generation” to choose their teams from, my experience was slightly different.

In 2005 I was appointed player/manager of the England Fans Senior team, the high point in my otherwise low level playing career in the various leagues up and down North Kent and Middlesex. England Fans are the official supporters group controlled (and I use that word correctly) by the FA.  Unless you were a member, obtaining tickets for major tournaments and away games was very very difficult.  That all changed in 2008 when we failed to qualify for Euro2008 and hundreds of members simply had enough of the way they were treated by the FA and didn’t rejoin.

I held the role for 3 years, overseeing spectacular defeats in Croatia, Belarus and Estonia, and only missing one away game which coincided with our first win (in Israel).  It was a bit of a pain to be truthful carrying shin pads to such exotic locations, and even harder to explain to the security on the turnstiles why you would have a pair of size nines and some vaseline in your bag.

But the highlight of my time is still the trip to Macedonia where I think our importance and status was someone lost in translation.  We were given a police escort through the streets of Skopje to a top league game where a crowd of a few hundred (higher than average for the top level in Macedonia) and TV cameras awaited our arrival.

For the first time, footage of the game has been released.  It’s not pretty, especially when a 40 year old 22 stone opposition player runs rings around your defence but makes a perfect stocking filler for Christmas.

It’s in the shops…..

Passport to footballThe UK locked in a frenzy with the launch of “Passport to Football” .  Thirty chapters, thirty unforgetable trips (well, the bits we can remember in between all the foreign beer) and of course a fair few classic games.  Who can forget Hvidovre v AB, FC Orgryte v Jonkopings Sodra and Akademia Sofia v Radovski Sevlievo – well quite a few of us actually but many will want to remember Euro2008, France v England or Palermo v West Ham.

All your favourites are in here.  The “Jugtastic” CMF, Football Jo and all of her perversions and a cast of literally a dozen.  None of the tales can be found anywhere else apart from in the hallowed pages of “Passport to Football”.  So buy a copy by clicking here – you know you want to!

Well done to Neil Campbell who found an obscure interview I did some years ago and that my first ever game was between West Ham and Burnley from April 1976

So where the bloody hell is Macedonia anyway?

When the draw was made for UEFA 2008, there was a collective sigh from England Fans when the name Macedonia came out. After all it was less than 3 years previous that the two teams had last met in Skopje (I am sure that TinTin once rescued King Ottaker’s Sceptre from here, or something) in a game that was infamous for the fact that the FA refused an allocation of tickets, fearing for the safety of their fans. This time around it was different – in fact drawn in a qualifying group with Russia (gun crazy), Israel (Still at war with at least half a dozen neighbouring states), Croatia (always going to be volatile) and Estonia (Stag do heaven), Macedonia looked a positive walk in the park for the fans.

And so this was one trip I had to do. Unfortunately not one single airline flew direct to Skopje from the UK. Fans soon found ways to reach the country – by taxi from Sofia in Bulgaria, train from Saloniki in Greece, rickshaw from Llubljana in Slovenia, or paragliding from Albania all seemed viable options instead of the day trip from Thomas Cook.

Ask a 100 people in the street where Macedonia is, and I guarantee you that less than 5 will know where it is. It is one of those unusual landlocked countries – not bad considering how close the Black and Mediterranean Sea actually are. It is also almost unique in Europe in being surrounded by four countries – Serbia to the North, Bulgaria to the East, Greece to the South and Albania to the West. The country gained its independence in 1991 after ceding from Yugoslavia. The country has a population of just over 2million, with a quarter living in the capital Skopje.

What made this trip even more appealing was the offer of a game of football against the Macedonian fans. Now as a team we are pretty well organised – I mean I bet Sir Alex doesn’t conduct training via email – but that’s what we did. In fact, faced with a team selection issue (i.e I did not know one single player), I opted for the approach, taken by many a new foreign manager when they arrive in the UK – pick the players whose names should like footballers. And so as I sat on the plane on the way to Skopje I filled my team with 5 Paul’s, a Rob, a Bob, a Mark, a Jamie and a Tim – after all as the player manager I thought that by shouting Paul I would get it right 50% of the time!

It was with some trepidation that we landed in the tiny airport in Skopje. Some of the people on the plane had actually been at the game played 3 years to the day when England had won 2-1, buying tickets for peanuts from locals. Our ever cautious official guide published by the FA mentioned that the locals hadn’t yet got round to giving up their guns after the Yugoslavian Civil Wars and to be on our guard. Even Lonely Planet said it was one place in the world where gypsies would pester you to death. Sounded great!

As we drove towards the city centre in our convoy of coaches, with police outriders no less, we passed through the shanty town of gypsies – only to see them being bulldozed – “We are making way for the new American Embassy” said our guide “This hill has the best spot in the city”…Asked where the gypsies were being housed he quipped “Albania, although neither party knows that yet!”……The coaches parked across the river from the smart stadium, and the long line of fans headed into the city, and for my team the meeting point in the bar of the Holiday Inn….What we encountered in the city was an eye opener…expecting poverty and war torn buildings we found cafes and bars that would not look out of place in some of the smartest resorts in the Med, and the locals certainly did not look as if they were struggling after the war for independence.

Anyway in the bar I saw Garth Crooks, Glenn Hoddle and Andy Gray – alas none of which were available for selection for the team. We then found out that perhaps we had talked up our importance a little too much – the games were being shown on live local TV at a 1st division ground! In fact posters had been professionally produced and posted around town advertising our game…..A police escort took us to the small stadium (think Rymans League and not Championship League) where a small crowd had gathered. My pre match talk over we lined up for the national anthems and sang our heart out much to the amusement of the gathering local crowds.

To say we had a footballing lesson is a bit of an understatement. At 5-1 I brought myself on for the final 10 minutes to shore up the defence – by this stage I had been routinely humiliated on a sweltering hot day in the dugout by the local fans who kept shouting Arsene Wegner everytime I shouted instructions to the team – I tried to think of a famous Macedonian to retort back with and could only think of Alexander the Great! Anyway, the British Ambassador turned up for some backslapping, and a few drinks in the bar and some feeble attempts by the Macedonians to convince us to swap shirts (they tried to say their 1980’s nylon shirts were official Macedonian ones!).

And so back to the city centre for the game. We were given a list of things we couldn’t take into the stadium, but fortunately shin pads were not on that list – although many fans had cigarettes removed (although at the end of the game the police set up long tables where they could be re-united with their owners like a strange boot sale). For once we were housed in along the side of the stadium – opposite one of the biggest stands in the region – the stadium itself held 15,000, with over 10,000 in the one curved shaped stand. The England fans were housed in a shallow open air stand opposite which posed a real problem for the flag bearers who had nowhere to place their flag.

As for the game, England huffed and puffed, going into the half time break all square. In fact the Macedonians had the upper hand in the first half, and many fans were reminded of the amazing 2-2 draw they got the last time they played England at St Mary’s in 2003. A few minutes into the second half, plan B worked with Peter Crouch grabbing a goal despite calls from the home team that the ball had not crossed the line.

So a 1-0 win was not convincing, and hopefully not a sign of things to come in later qualifying. We had been instructed on getting back on the coaches as soon as the game ended – which we managed within 30 minutes. But we had not been prepared for the route we took back to the airport – the direct 15 minute route back to the airport took 35 minutes before we were pulled over by the side of the road, only to see a bigger police escort pass with the team coach – of course they did not want to see their fans!

So 12 coaches arrived en mass at the airport, 1,800 fans simply dumped on the roadside and left to fight their way through 2 passport guards and the usual security checks to try and board one of the 6 flights leaving for the UK – another great piece of organisation from Thomas Cook……So another stamp in the passport, another country under my belt and now I know where Macedonia is, although the chances of me returning are about the same as the gypsies being invited to tea by the US Ambassador.

The National Stadium – The City Stadium
Home to FK Rabotnicki and FK Vardar as well as the national team, the city stadium currently holds just over 18,100. The stadium was full the last time England played here – actually 3 years to the day of this year’s qualifier. England won that game 2-1 with goals from Rooney and Beckham although officially no England fans were present as the FA decided not to take up an allocation due to the political situation in the country at that time. This time around the stadium will undoubtedly be full of England fans as our allocation should be around 3,500.
The stadium is dominated by the very steep main stand that has over 12,000 seats. This stand offers protection from the elements, although the wind blowing across the river can be a bit biting during cold nights. The remaining three stands are open and consist of 8-10 rows of plastic bolted direct to the old terraces. There is a small perimeter fence around the pitch as well as a 6-lane running track. Views are ok from most stands, although from the first few rows it is not the best. The seats at the back of the stand are also quite steep and so if you do have a ticket for this area then try not to drink too much before the game in order to prevent a nasty fall on the way up.

How to get to the Stadium
The stadium is located slightly north west of the city centre, close to the River Vardar and in the City Park area. The area close by the stadium is certainly where all of the action is, with the major nightclubs (Colosseum, Cabrio and Havana) located across the road from the ground, as well as the Zoo and Natural History Museum being within a 2 minute walk. From the North of the Vadar, and in the region of the Swan English Pub head north up Stiv Naumov away from the river and then turn left onto BD Goce Delčev. Follow this past the Kale and across the river, where you can then turn right onto the riverside path to the stadium. The walk should take 15 minutes at the most.

If you are south of the river, in the region of the Holiday Inn, Irish Pub or the main square then just simply follow the river westwards, past the Stone bridge and you will reach the ground in about 10 minutes. Allow an extra 15 minutes if you are coming from the main station (follow BD Jane Sandanski towards the river where you will see the riverside walk)

Whilst England have been allocated a fair allocation this time in Skopje of 2,700 seats, demand for this match was high and over 6,000 registered an interest in a ticket. A fair number of fans who did not get a ticket via official means will still travel and hope to pick up a ticket from the locals on the day of the game. When they last played here two years ago, hundreds of England fans ignored the official request not to travel and managed to pick up tickets from locals who were only too pleased to sell them their allocation for less than £10. There is no guarantee that the same situation will exist this time – However, it should be possible to pick up some tickets on the day of the game – although the going rate will undoubtedly be significantly higher than £10. Touts will be found around the station, close to the Irish Bar as well as around the stadium in the run up to the match.

How to Get to Skopje
Skopje is one of the hardest capital cities in Europe to reach from the UK. There are no direct flights – even BA don’t serve this outpost, whilst the country as a whole only has 922km of railways, which basically stretch out southwards from the capital down to Thessalonkia and Tetovo, and a small link which used to go into Serbia which is yet to re-open. Whilst other major cities are close enough to act as transit locations, the onward travel element into Macedonia is more often than not the logistical nightmare.

Flying to Macedonia
Macedonia has two International airports – Skopje and Ohrid. The former has around 10 international flights landing per day, with the latter currently having just one daily flight from Belgrade.

SkopjeSkopje International Airport (Airport code SKP) is located around 8km southwest of the city centre. It was relatively unaffected by the 1963 earthquake, which allowed the airport to be used as a base for humanitarian aid. In 1987 a new terminal was opened allowing an expansion of the services offered daily to the capital. There are currently no flights direct from the UK.