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“Oh yeah, I was in Romania last night”

14 March, 2013

In 2003, Saints were runners up in the FA Cup, and as Arsenal had already qualified for the champions league, this meant we would play our first European football for nearly twenty years. The story of that cup run, the sobbing at Villa Park as I realised we were actually guaranteed to be in Europe again, the weekend in Cardiff, the washing machine, the winnebago… all that can wait for another post. This is the tale of my daytrip to Romania

I had seen us play European home legs before, even win a few. But that was back when I was too young to travel, and in the intervening time I had promised myself that next time we got to Europe I was going. Wherever it happened to be. Maccabi Tel Aviv, Galatasaray, Total Network Solutions, anywhere. We were drawn a tricky tie against Steaua Bucharest and although most my mates thought “hmm I’ll wait till we get Barca or Inter in the 2nd round”, I was definitely going – I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance again. And so it was that I was at the ground at 4am on my birthday to be first in the queue when the tickets went on sale. I found one friend who was also going, we handed over £300 each and booked up for the trip.

We got a 1-1 draw in the first leg so we didn’t have huge hopes of progressing, but I didn’t care, we were playing in Europe and I had a ticket.

On the day of the game we had to be at the airport at 6am, and we arrived in Bucharest around noon. As soon as we cleared customs I went to the cash machine in the airport to withdraw some local currency for beer and food. I reckoned about £10 should cover all my needs as these essentials cost next to nothing, but then I saw the exchange rate displayed as about 50,000 Lei to the pound. A quick bit of mental maths told me £20 would be a million, and how many times in our lives do we get to withdraw that much from a cash machine? For a few hours, I was a millionaire.

Our plane load of fans was greeted by representatives of Steaua, the local tourist board and the local police (uniformed, riot and secret varieties). They had laid on coaches to take us to the game, but first they would give us a tour of their beloved city. Thanks, we all agreed, that’s lovely but can you make it quick, you’re using up valuable drinking time. As we travelled around the city, we saw many groups of Saints fans dotted about, every hotel had a flag or shirt in the window and it was clear that we had brought a following far above the one official plane. The tour went on and on and in all, we were bussed round and round for about three hours while the guide pointed out buildings of increasingly questionable interest, and it became apparent that our tour was more to keep us out of the pubs than to show us the sights. Bucharest is not a pretty city, has its moments, but it was exactly as I expected a poor Eastern European capital to be – grey concrete, a lot of which was crumbling, and still showing the scars from the various wars it had been involved in, and a revolution only a dozen years before.

Eventually, the buses parked up. We were given a couple of hours of freedom, and headed for various bars to sample the local ales and hospitality. The beer was stupidly cheap, the vodka cheaper and the locals incredibly friendly. I was with a group of four – we sang, we drank, we drank, we sang, we drank, we bought drinks for our new friends, tipped extravagantly (no point in keeping the money, when would we need it again), and argued over the right to pay the bill to use up the enormous wealth we found ourselves with which covered our costs several times over. There were occasional suggestions that we go and eat something, none of us had eaten since breakfast, but then another round would arrive and food got pushed further and further down the agenda. And then it was time to dash back to the bus in time to be driven to the ground. Our voices were already going from all the singing in the pub, we were drunk but happy and excited about the game. Another lengthy bus tour and we got to the ground about 6pm for an 8pm kick off.

I have been to some grim grounds in my days, but this was the worst ever. The terrace was crumbling, most of the seats were broken or missing, there was no cover against the wind and rain which was now beginning. There was no bar, no little kiosk selling beer, Bovril, tea, coffee, burgers etc. But about an hour later a local arrived, set up his trestle table and opened his holdall to lay out the spam sandwiches he had shrinkwrapped, alongside some packets of sunflower seeds. This was the refreshments table. I declined, but treated myself to a bottle of water. By this time, the beer was taking its toll, and a visit to the gents was soon needed. Except there wasn’t a gents, and there wasn’t a ladies. But there was a clump of trees we were invited to stand or squat behind as we saw fit. Just a quick reminder at this point – this wasn’t a Sunday pub side or a non league outfit, this was one of the top clubs in Romania. And there weren’t any toilets in the away end.

All this time, the ground was filling. The home fans started arriving when we did, started singing as soon as they arrived, and didn’t stop. The atmosphere from them was the loudest and most exuberant I have ever seen. In England, you will get a good atmosphere behind the goals which sometimes spreads and at moments of high excitement, the whole ground will sing for a minute or two. At this match, EVERYBODY sang continuously and at full volume. Even the riot police. The word awesome is overused, but I truly was in awe of the support.

At around the time the game started, I started to sober up, a painful experience as a hangover also kicked in. This, combined with the fact I had eaten nothing all day and the rain being as refreshing as you would imagine October in Romania to be, I felt awful. I felt sick, tired, I could barely see through my headache, and the water had run out. But I still tried my hardest with the other 2000 saints fans that had made the trip to outsing the home fans, or at least make ourselves heard.

The game itself was largely forgettable. We played okay but not well enough and lost 1-0 to a goal in the second half. The better team won. And then it was time to leave. We were kept in the ground for about half an hour afterwards, but this gave some of us time to swap shirts and scarves with the Steaua fans on the other side of the fence, and to chat to those of the riot police who spoke English. Then the coaches took another half an hour to get moving, so it was nearly midnight when we reached the airport. With the flight time and time difference we got back to the UK at about 4am, and I headed home for bed 24 hours after I had woken up.

A win would have been nice, but the football was only a small part of the trip, even if it was the reason for going. But even if we didn’t get a result, I still have the memories of a great day, the envy of those friends who decided to skip this leg, and 50,000 Lei in cash. I only have one regret – that I was off work the next day. Exhausted as I was, I would have loved to be in the office for 9am so that when anyone mentioned the football, I could nonchalantly say “oh yeah, I was in Romania last night.”


From → Blogging, Football

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