Doable. That’s Ralph’s verdict. It’s always Ralph’s verdict. And, as ever, that’s enough for you to agree to go along for the improbable; the unrecommended but ultimately possible. Wales Under 21s play in the Czech Republic’s northern tip on Monday evening. Within 24 hours of that final whistle the senior team kick-off 600 miles away in Serbia. Attending both is, apparently, doable. So you question not how, you simply book flights. And then, feeling confident, you chuck in three more games across Friday and Saturday, because if you’re going to commit to doing silly challenges like these things you should commit fully. Cardiff. Doncaster, twice. Jablonec. Novi Sad. Five matches. Five days. Four countries. Doable.
Friday 7th September
Wales 0-2 Belgium
Game day. When you’ve much to cram in, it’s important to trim the fat, eliminate the unnecessary extravagances. So, in from work at 2am and booked on the first train of the day out of Scarborough you elect to dispense with unnecessary fripperies, luxuries like shaving, or sleeping. Get off on the right foot. You’ve done enough sprints through train stations in your time. So you turn up in the half light of 6:10am, only to find the station locked. When you intend to start as you mean to go on, walking smack into a locked automatic door doesn’t bode well.
Two trains later and you’re in Sheffield, killing time before your first bus of the day. There are more direct routes from the North Yorkshire coast to the Welsh capital, just not on your budget. In the Interchange you ask a bloke at a help plinth “Where’s the National Express bus go from?” He raises his eyes from his paper just enough to nod over your shoulder at the big white National Express bus behind you. It’s already been a long day. On board, signs on every seat ask you to text feedback on your service, so you do.
Bus number two delivers you from Birmingham to Cardiff sound-tracked by an uncomfortably long phone conversation about bikini waxing between the girl behind you and a Newport beauty salon. After nine hours on road and rail you take an hour’s sleeping time-out before donning your lucky Wales shirt – the one you once saw them win in – and heading to the pub. In the city centre all you see wear red, black and gold; the Belgians are here. An installation across the facade of Chapter states “The end of living and the beginning of the survival” aka the start of another Wales Qualifying campaign.
In the stadium you’re beneath The Barry Horns. A mixed blessing. The Barry Horns are much the good the bad and the ugly, a theme you suspect they’ll inevitably play at a game in the future. When they give backing to familiar Wales songs the atmosphere is lifted, but what good is a jaunty knees-up “Always shit on the English side of the bridge” against Belgium? And then there’s the inexplicable tangents; Theme from Rocky? James Brown? In the words of Ains stood next to you; “Where are we? Fucking Ronnie Scott’s?” Supporting Wales is hard enough without spending a game concerned that ‘conceding a goal to a jazz funk’ is about to go slap bang at the top of your list of ‘low points watching the national side’.
On the field Wales look satisfyingly OK. Not threatening much, but rarely under threat themselves. But then Belgium break, and James Collins lunges, and a red card is produced, and then that’s pretty much another qualifying campaign over already in one man’s inability to think. Incredibly people around you applaud Collins as he trudges off. Why? Imagine one off your colleagues stood up, pulled out your office internet server, tucked it under his arm, and then buggered off home for the afternoon. Would you applaud him?
And so a strong Belgium side, that looks only likely to get stronger between now and when you next meet, has the run of the Cardiff turf, and cheers greet any spells of Welsh play as if you’re the plucky non-leaguers in an FA Cup tie. Eden Hazzard cushions a pass into the path of a team-mate using his back. During a chant of “Shoes off for Gary Speed” you notice just how many people wear flip-flops of an evening these days. Eventually Belgium cash in their possession for two goals, and you find yourself applauding another reasonable effort in another damage limitation exercise.
Saturday 8th September
Rossington Main 0-5 Teversal
Doncaster Rovers Belles 1-1 Bristol Academy
Game day. Times two. The race north for a 3pm South Yorkshire kick-off sees you check out of your hotel before breakfast and before sunlight to be on another 6:30am train. No sooner has the last carriage rolled beyond the platform of Cardiff Central then you are surrounded by the sound of snoring. Plan A, a Rovers & Belles double header has been scuppered by international call-ups from the Oldham Athletic squad, about as unforeseen as circumstances can be, but you’ve found an ample substitute in your home village and that’s where you intend to be in nine hours time.
You’re in Birmingham before 9am, plodding round a town centre half awake, picking your way through delivery trucks and traders hurrying between car boots and market stalls. Down through Digbeth, and onto another coach. This one is packed and you’re joined by a pleasant Polish girl who sadly only chooses to engage you in conversation for the final five minutes of a two hour slog. In Sheffield you swap coach for train, and in Doncaster you swap train for bus, and by twenty past three you’re walking through an open turnstile.
What you don’t expect to find just inside is the home team’s goalkeeper. “You won’t save many standing there Apps”. It transpires he’s already been sent off, and Rossington are already behind. “1-0?” you ask your dad who’s leaning against the home dugout. “2-0 now” he replies, and you won’t see it improve any over the course of the afternoon. The heat stifles any hope of a Main comeback, and despite the best efforts of centre-half Dave Holvey deputising in goal, Teversal run in three more goals before full-time.
“He’s off to watch Wales in Serbia,” your dad tells one of the players as you leave. The player’s mouth says “Yeah?” his eyes say “why?” You duck in the clubhouse to grab a programme, and because you’re carrying a bag two of the opposition by the door say “well played mate”, perhaps encapsulating how rarely Rossington got close to Teversal after the sending off.
A bus ride later and you’re taking a seat at the back of an encouragingly populace East Stand just in time for the clanging of bells that greets the teams’ entrance. Doncaster Rovers Belles have found their feet in the FA Women’s Super League lately, a win and a draw in the last two games ending a succession of defeats, and there’s a noticeable spring added to their step from when you last saw them, chasing Arsenal’s shadows.
A subdued first half blossoms into an end to end, enthralling second, played out beneath an equally dramatic Doncastrian sky. Goalless at the break, but all signs suggest it won’t end that way; the ball bouncing round penalty areas with increasing regularity. And then finally, four hours and eight minutes into your weekend’s football, Jess Sigsworth gives you reason to be cheerful, as she finds the far corner of the net to put the Belles in front. Typically, Bristol soon equalise, but the Belles survive the advancing Academy to pick up a hard earned point from a pulsating game.
You’ve time for a pint before the trip home, and with the aid of some familiar faces, that one pint turns into three and a live gig from Frankie & The Heartstrings outside the back of the Corn Exchange. It’s already been that kind of weekend. Two trains later and you’re back on the Yorkshire coast, bracing yourself for the next leg.
Sunday 9th September
No game today, but a significant bout of travel, and a first race against time. Via another train you’re at a packed Leeds Bradford Airport, though a run of flights to Palma, Tenerife and Alicante thins the crowds. You’re eyeing the departure board with a touch of nervousness. You’ve an hour and a half between scheduled arrival in Prague and the departure of the bus to Liberec from the other side of the city. You take-off on time, but as the woman behind you spends the next two hours alternating between “Oh God, Oh God” and “I want to get off, I want to get off” calm never quite befalls you.
You land at Prague on time and rather than a madcap bus and metro uncertainty, you play safe and opt for a taxi. Driver Marek is the spitting image of Marcus Hahnemann, he looks like he’ll run a red light if you need him to, so you say “Černý Most prosim,” and settle in for the ride. Sometime later Marek pulls up at a bus stop nowhere in particular and triumphantly announces “Černý Most!” Thankfully a protracted and stilted conversation reveals “InterCity bus” to be a fairly global term, and a few minutes later Marek deposits you by some stairs. At the top there are three possible paths to take, each has the sign of a bus above it; second time lucky you find platform 6, and a grinning Ralph.
In Liberec Ralph has booked a Penzion, and the keys are waiting in the letter box along with somewhat cryptic instructions. Unsure how you exit without colour you head back into the town, but it’s late Sunday night, and you’ve already been the last customers of two bars when your search for a third takes you down a side street toward a glowing sign. You open the door to be greeted by a cage; behind the bar a pony-tailed barman weighs you up, before buzzing open an iron gate. After pouring the beers the barman then takes a seat barely three feet away from you. The one other patron leaves, so now it’s just you, the barman and the inevitable shotgun at his feet. You forgo a second round and wait to be buzzed back through the cage, finally discovering the meaning of exiting without colour.
Monday 10th September
Czech Republic 5-0 Wales
Game day. And as it is set to end with football you let it start with football with a nosey round Slovan Liberec’s stadium. Floodlights photographed you take a seat at the bar outside. Slovan striker Honza Nezmar comes out, clambering into his car which is parked right next to a huge poster of himself advertising a local sauna. He’s not the only player hanging around. Inside four of the Slovan Liberec side are propping up the bar watching match highlights of themselves on the big screen. You head back up the hill to the city centre, and wait for your fifth mode of transport in 24 hours; the tram that will take you the 9 miles to Jablonec.
Before the game priorities are ticked off; beer, food, plug for Ralph to charge his various electronica, location of bus-stop for the next leg. All present and accounted for you go on to the Stadium and head in the direction of the away end. The steward is surprised by your presence, even more so by Ralph speaking Czech. The away end is locked. You ask if you can go in. “I’ll check”, he says and turns to speak into his radio. “No”. Can we put our flag up? “I’ll check… Yes”.
The Wales players out warming up watch the flag unfolding with evident surprise and bemusement. Moving to your side of the field to do sprints they keep glancing over. Rarely in modern football are professional players grounded enough to not expect support. You both cheer the announcement of the line-up to the amusement of the Czech fans around you. And then when the players are out you end the anthem with yells of “Waales!” and applaud the players as they head to your end. Maybe the two of you can make a difference. “Ashton, give us a wave” you chant at centre-half Williams and with a grin of embarrassment he acknowledges you with a slight of hand.
Wales start encouragingly enough; decent touches in midfield, a couple of shots flash over the far end goal, but then the Czechs find their feet, and they press when Wales have the ball, and ultimately use their own possession more effectively. From a cross from the right they go 1-0 ahead. 1-0 becomes 2-0 and already you know the only uncertainty in this result will be the margin of victory. The Czechs are a good side; in the second-half they run in three more goals and you sing “We’ll never qualify”. At full-time the players shake Czech hands and then, to their credit, turn and move to the middle of the field to applaud the Wales fans. Both of you.
Out the ground and down the hill you stand at the bus stop. You’ve forty-five minutes to wait. “Beer?” “If there’s a bar round that corner yes, but we can’t miss this bus.” You go round that corner. There’s a bar. Beer drunk, back to the bus stop. Another man is waiting. Always a good sign. As the time of the bus nears more people appear. Ralph talks to a man about the game. “But now, where are you going?” he asks. “Serbia,” Ralph replies. The man presumes his question has been lost in translation.
The bus takes you up the hill, and up another hill, and up another hill, continually turning bends and heading ever upwards into the Czech darkness. At the front of the bus an electric clock taunts you as the driver chats with a passenger. With everything on schedule you’ve only six minutes between this bus arriving in Železný Brod, and the train departing there for Pardubice. The bus was two minutes late when you got on. Your Plan B involves chasing said train across Northern Bohemia in a taxi. There is no next train, and therefore no Plan C. And if you’re not in Pardubice in time for the night train to Budapest, then for you there will be no Serbia.
Eventually, through the darkness shine the distant specks of streetlamps and windows, and the bus finally ceases climbing. The chatty passenger has disappeared into the night. The bus now descends. 20:48. Twelve minutes to go, and still you’re snaking down hills. 20:50 and you’re on the fringes of a town. 20:53 you’re pulling up… at a bus station. 20:54 back on the move. You’re the only passengers left aboard. 20:55. Arrived. Through the station. Across the tracks. On board. On the move again.
The journey’s critical point has been bridged. It’s plain sailing on to Pardubice, seemingly not just for you, but the driver too, as he forgets to stop at Smiřice. The station blurs past before he slams on the breaks. “He’s not going to reverse back to the station is…” you cut short your question as that’s exactly what happens. In Pardubice, with two hours to kill, you search out a Herna, and then search out a second one which looks more likely you’ll live to tell people of. Despite strip-club-esque blue neon lighting it does the trick. And has a plug. “Ještě dve piva prosim”. Beer sunk, appliances charged and you’re on the night train to Budapest, being directed toward your cabin by a grumpy train steward. An unimpressed dosing Chinese woman already occupies the bottom bunk, you take the top and between cracking assorted limbs on the ceiling watch Ralph struggle to make it into the middle one without treading on the poor woman beneath him. Lights out. Sleep.
Tuesday 11th September
Serbia 6-1 Wales
Game day. Clumsy footsteps on a wobbly ladder. A shaft of light. Ralph is up. You peer down from above the door. As you chat the woman from the bottom bunk returns from the bathroom. “I’m gonna stretch my legs, you go back to sleep,” says Ralph. “Ok, yes, thank you” says the Chinese woman unaware he was talking to you. One of the last possible obstacles has been overcome; the train is on time. You arrive in Budapest at 8:35am, you walk the length of one platform at Keleti, check the departures board, walk the length of another Keleti platform, and board another train; the 9am service to Belgrade.
It’s six hours to Novi Sad; you dose and you read, and you watch what seems to be the same corn-field roll past for an hour. At the border station of Kelebia a man with a long-handled hammer wanders the length of the train, occasionally stopping to strike something metallic. At Subotica, on the Serbian side of the border, another man with a hammer walks the line and hammers back into place whatever his Hungarian equivalent knocked out of joint.
In the heat of Novi Sad, you jump in a taxi outside the station. The driver establishes you are from Wales; “Ah I lived in England. In Bedford. Two years. Alexander Road.” It’s going to be one of those trips. The driver gives you a brief tour of the city, pointing out the stadium, and the way to the centre, en route to your hotel. “You need a taxi while you’re here, just call me,” he says clumsily keying his number into Ralph’s phone as you get out.
Checked in. Showered. Wales shirts on. You ask the friendly receptionist for a restaurant recommendation, and she points you in the direction of the Dvor. As you step onto the veranda, a group of older men at another table greet you “Wales. Wales. You are hooligans from Wales?” Friends not hooligans you reply and take a seat. One of the men comes over. It is his restaurant. “I am ex-international Serbian referee, I am now in charge of referees” he tells you. You talk about the game. “I think 2-1 to Serbia,” he says, and given the plushness of his restaurant you contemplate asking him whether he thinks it will be 2-1, or knows it will be 2-1.
A man with wild grey hair follows him over. “I am owner of the local team,” he tells you, but his chat is cut short by a phone call. Five minutes later, a car bearing the FK Vojvodina crest pulls up outside. A woman gets out with two club bags. The wild haired man brings them to your table. “These are for you,” he says, “a gift from Novi Sad and my team,” inside each bag is a bottle of wine, a gorgeous club scarf and a clutch of other club merchandise. You don’t know how to express your gratitude. No manner of “thank you” seems quite enough, and you resent the fact you’ve nothing to give back. You’re genuinely touched.
Around an hour later and you’re taking a look at the stadium and you can sense some unease. You’ve enough wits about to you to know you’d be better off elsewhere, a thought confirmed as one young Serb, who you had exchanged ‘good luck’ with minutes earlier comes over and says “You should not stay around here… be careful”. You retreat to ‘The Pub’, a bar on the main thoroughfare, but they’re not serving alcohol. A nearby coffee shop boasting typically stunning Serbian female clientele makes an adequate alternate stop to consider your next move.
You try the next right and your luck is in. A man leans against the wall of a bar, beer by his side. You head over and in. The walls are clad in FK Vojvodina memorabilia, with a curious smattering of West Ham flags and signage. You have the same thought at the same time, but Ralph voices it; “I think this might be the Ultras’ pub”. It is. A few more men arrive out front, and the barmaid goes outside. Though you won’t acknowledge it until later, at this brief moment you both feared she had moved to allow the men to come in and deal a hit or two to your own Vojvodinas. Thankfully, she’d just gone to take their order.
One of the men comes inside, sits at the next table, flicks through the television channels with disinterest, then turns to speak. “You are Wales? …No-one normally finds the local pub,” he says, and you get his meaning. Despite his reassurances that “hooligans do not attack fans”, you’ve long decided to just have the one beer here. As you’re about to leave, there is a roar from the street. You can hear chanting getting louder. Through the window a marching mob comes into view. Those at the front have their faces covered, and one carries a Serbian flag. One of the leaders gives a Nazi salute to the guys outside the bar; you sink lower in your chairs and both move a hand over your Wales crests. “Kosovo is Serbian” they chant, and continue past the bar. Had you not nipped to the gents you’d have walked right into them. For the second time this trip you exit without colour.
The stadium is lined with an improbable number of police; you traverse four lines of armed officers to reach the away end. You head to the back of the small stand you’ve been afforded, between you and the pitch is a bank of empty seats, a running track and a Ford Fiesta. To your left a semi-detached house contains the changing rooms; to great acclaim from the fans around you Wales leave their front door, line up with their next-door neighbours and head out onto the field. The first lines of the Welsh anthem are applauded by the Serbian support; the one Wales fan who starts to boo the Serbian anthem is quickly silenced.
Mutual respect affected, the game gets underway. Wales try to play their way out from the back. Serbia press them, and Wales struggle with the confinement. A soft foul on the corner of the box gives Serbia a free-kick; “Over the wall, Myhill’s top left” you say. It goes exactly there and three sides of the stadium bounce beneath arms and flags and flares. Midway through the half Aleksander Kolarov ambles into the Welsh penalty area, he’s tackled four times, but still has the ball at the by-line where he squares for a team-mate to score a frankly comedic second. On the half hour mark comes hope. A Gareth Bale free-kick from an improbable distance flies straight in, and in front of you red sleeves and arms flail wildly. “Scored under Coleman, we’ve fucking scored under Coleman,” you sing. But this is Wales. And hope never springs eternal. It comes in short bursts, mere minutes of joy to be quashed by the sloppy defending of fate. And so it is that Filip Djurcic makes it 3-1 before the break. “We’ll never qualify…”
A disappointing first half gives way to a disastrous second. Serbia score, and score again, and score again. Wales stumble, and fumble and collapse. You’ve seen your fair share of Wales defeats, and probably someone else’s share too, but this is as bad as it’s been. Not plucky, nor unfortunate, just downright bad. At the end of the game, the Wales players have to pass the Welsh fans to reach their changing two-up-two-down and they look visibly shocked by the boos, the “What a load of rubbish,” and the “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” which greets them. They really shouldn’t be. As the Serbian team follow them off the Welsh end applauds and even chants “Serbia!” to amused and bemused claps from Kolorov and co.
Outside the stadium the line of unnecessary police remains, stretching as far as you can see, like a Fenland hedgerow. You mope through their ranks and off into the city, chatting to a group of young Serbian kids as you do. Ralph supports Swansea “Michu is very good,” says one. “No, Danny Graham is best,” says another. You de-Wales your attire at the hotel and feeling more Sad than Novi go off into the night for consolatory beer. It’s still nagging at you; whilst you don’t expect to win, you at least hope to be ably represented, to be given hope and pride. Tonight you’ve been let down.
In the city centre you walk from a lazy side street cafe across Liberty Square and round the imposing Name of Mary church before stumbling on a narrow street of pounding music and partying Serbians. It doesn’t exactly suit your mood, so you take a seat outside the bar at the end of the strip. As you enjoy a beer the proprietor joins you. “You are Vels?” he asks. And from there the night escalates. He provides another round of drinks, and then another, and you talk about Serbia and football, he laments that “Now, the game is too global”. He’s your kind of person.
Still at the bar, now inside. The beer keeps coming, and the proprietor’s friends bowl in. “We are best friends,” he says grabbing hold of the largest of the group, “He is Rodney, I am Del Boy.” And you look to one another. That is what he said. Only Fools and Horses, it transpires, is must watch television in Serbia. “Every Monday night, 8 o’clock, all of Serbia watches,” he explains. And the beers keep coming.
Wednesday 12th September
On the station platform the morning after a typically odd Wales away night before you sit and eat a breakfast of bread and cheese. You’ve beer for afterwards which, sitting in the heat, you concede you may have bought out of habit rather than appetite. The number your Bedfordian cab driver gave you didn’t work, and so you were delivered here by a hairy unspeaking man eating an ice-cream; his fourth of the day, if the number of sticks in his ash-tray was anything to go by. As you wait you piece together the night before, and realise the 1000 Dinar you chivalrously left in the Ze Bar to cover the tab that took you through until nearly 5am was actually about £8.
You choose the first compartment, bringing you the company of fellow Wales fan Nick, and Serbian architecture student Felipe. The conversation flows, Felipe’s grasp of English is only surpassed by his passion for architecture, and throughout the journey he points out notable buildings visible from the train. You have one key question to ask him though. “Yes,” he replies, “Only Fools and Horses is very popular, also we like Allo Allo” Felipe leaves you at Subotica, as do Ralph and Nick who go off in search of beers for the remainder of the journey. Whilst they’re gone the train lurches forward to the border check-point; something of a concern given that you have both passports and tickets.
From outside you a shout of “Vels! Vels” travels along the platform and through the window you can just about see Ralph and Nick jogging across the border line and clambering aboard the back end of the train. Their quick trip for beer, it transpires, was delayed by Felipe, “If you look over there is a perfect example of a Gothic church”. Back in the carriage the border police reach your compartment. “Why were you in Serbia?” asks the border guard with a grin on his face that shows he knows full well why you were in Serbia. “Six one,” he laughs and shakes his head and moves on down the train. As you arrive in Budapest once again the sun is setting. You take a table at the plush station bar at Keleti, drink a beer and mull over future trips, because, despite all you have watched in the last five days, each of you know, it’s never just about the football.
A day later you’re in Prague. After an evening plodding the streets you crash out on your hotel bed and turn on the television. Via dubbed American dramas and incomprehendable chat-shows you find a ball hitting a net. The camera switches to supporters in red jumping up and down. It looks like… it is… it’s you. Happy and buoyant and oblivious to the pain that’s set to follow in the next hour. Leaving yourself in a good mood, you turn off the television and turn out the light.