The European Tour Minus Kazan.
In about August I completely randomly decided to go to both Bruges and Maribor. By an astonishing quirk of fate and an amazing coincidence, when I got to both those towns ……… Wigan Athletic happened to be playing football.
Even the P & 0 cross channel ferries had painted their funnels Blue and White for Wigan’s first foray into Europe. The omens were good, the sea state calm and the skies blue. All Tom Toms and Garvin sat navs were set at 51.2167° N, 3.2333° E. Soon we’d be in Bruges.
In the main square the Blue and White Army were slowly, bus by bus, plane by plane, train by train, arriving to sample the local ale. 15 flags and banners were draped around the metal railings and the choir was warming their vocal chords. The melodies and rifts of the sublime and subtle songs that the Wigan lyricists had come up with needed even more practice.
The police were present but unconcerned about the recent immigrants to Bruges. I rather liked that they had ‘Politie’ on their backs or was it just bad spelling and it should have been Politee.In fact it looked as if they rather enjoyed the harmonies of the choir. The Belgium beer, over 123 of them, had to be sampled. An isolated passing shower (or beer) was quickly followed by a low flying patio chair. It was midnight and it gave the staff a good excuse to close down as quickly as we were expecting to see our first goal, in 12 hours time.
It was odd, in the context of football to bump into people in Bruges, and so completely out of any other context. At the top of the Belfry I turned to look at the other view and there was Stuart, last seen at WBA. I sauntered out of the Picasso museum and I have the unexpected pleasure of a hug from Lorraine.
At 5.00pm we meet in the ‘square’ to be loosely kettled to the stadium, a mere 6 kms away and an hour and quarter walk in the drizzle. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter and spirits weren’t dampened. Locals looked from their apartment windows in bemusement but smiling and waving. It’s all very happy and relaxed. Still the choir keeps singing.
Ranks of busses from the North West were parked up. Programmes have sold out and only alcohol free beer is served. We are searched in a cursory way as if we are about to take a flight to Bruges. Inside the tempo rises, the choir carries on, and then a mighty roar goes up as the Lords Army comes out. Lord Whelan with a beaming smile comes to our end and by clapping above his head thanks us all for our efforts. A nice touch.
It was a good game, but disappointing not to get at least one of those close shots on goal going in. It’s not often preying hawks miss their catch. We traipsed back in the rain, disappointed but optimistic that things would be ok!! As we arrived back in the city centre, the rain stopped and the clouds cleared. There had been a lot of singing and some re-lubrication was essential.
Our waiter was very complimentary of the Wigan supporter’s behaviour. “You drank plenty of beer; you sang and made a noise but no trouble at all. Not like the others (a certain N.E. club) who were like animals”.
We’d had a good time. We said good-bye to new friends expecting to see them in either Kazan or Maribor.
I was tempted to go to Kazan, but darned work gets in the way. Work, ugh!
For every route there is to get to Maribor, someone from Wigan took it: via London, Manchester, Munich, Frankfurt, Graz, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Venice, Paris, Vienna, Klagenfurt, Budapest and probably even the Serengeti. Some of these routes started at 8.00 am in Wetherspoons, and why not? Despite fog only at Heathrow, being delayed 5 hours and 170 flights from London being cancelled we arrived in Zagreb to be welcomed by Joanna who had organised a seamless coach transfer. Croatian Airlines primed us with good wine and delicious green olive tapenade named, I kid you not, Uwe, (actually it was named Uje, but they spelt it wrong). Sandra, Joanna’s Slovenian helper introduced us to the quirks of Slovenia including the arrival and confusion of the introduction of roundabouts.
The choir from Bruges were on tour and had finally arrived in Maribor. The flags were out, all except ‘Empty seats on Tour’. The square was a lake of Blue and White, and the choir was in good voice. The ‘Shaun Maloney’ was watched with delight by two 75 year old Mariborians who smiled and laughed. The pensioners left, turning on a twirl, kicked a leg in the air, laughed and cheered ‘Bravo Bravo’.
Slovenian beer was ok, but it was the hot red wine that really touched the places others don’t. Maribor was cold but a walk to the top of the cable car, some hot wine, a walk around and then missing the down car meant that more hot wine was needed as reward on arrival at the hotel.
With full body armour the police looked as if they were preparing or an invasion of NUFC, Milwall supporters and Colonel Gadafi’s henchmen on a bad day. A helicopter hovered above using its infra-red cameras. We pointed at it and chanted ‘Whelan, Whelan, Whelan’. They didn’t even find that mildly amusing!!
Unlike the Bruges police where our kettling was over about 2 kms, robocops had us snuggled in tightly on the road, and woe betide you if you ventured onto the pavement. Their ranks were broken when a wonderful Wiganner smiled, walked across the pavement and wrapped his Wigan scarf around a small child who was sitting on a bench watching the whole rigmarole go before her. She smiled, and then she beamed. It was a glorious moment. Her Mum waved.
Excitement flourished as we heard that Jean B, Roger Roger, Jordi were all playing. We were likely to see real football again. We entered the ground and were searched as if we were boarding a flight to Baghdad. The irony is that when Maribor scored their fans set off a flare. (When we scored …… we didn’t.)
The team played like a team. Roger trod on every blade of grass. Jordi was as solid in the attacking midfield role as a Slovenian robo-cop. Captain McCarthur controlled the crew. Mcmamamanauamaumn danced around the ball as if he should be with the Royal Ballet and there was a belief that Carson will be ‘England’s number 1’, soon. Boycee came on and despite being too old played in defence and then in attack, covering his territory like an ageing cheetah in the Serengeti.
The choir was ready to win ‘Clash of the Choirs’. ‘Uwe doesn’t wear shorts’; ‘Uwe’s Grandad’, ‘Jordi scores when he wants’, ‘U-We’ (stolen from ‘ooo-ahhh’) and of course ‘Boyceeee’ were all sung so they could be heard in the DW. And it was all wrecked by the Ref.
The game ended and we had to remain in the stadium whilst the Mariborians all went home for cocoa. The highly protected police assumed we were going to pull the whole stadium down; forty of them lined half of the goal line – that’s about 1 every yard, hiding behind riot shields and wearing full face helmets. We squeezed through the narrow exit from the terraces and had to funnel down the slope to go through a gap the width of a single door. We’re just lucky there wasn’t an emergency evacuation.
Back to the town, disappointed with the result and ‘gutted’ with the ref. The pie nd peas, and vegetarian curry in The Living room was delicious, but the mood was subdued.
The European Tour has been a cheerful and fun time. It gave memories that we’ll live with for ever. Happy and fed up. Above all it showed Wiganners in their best possible light. Fun, cheerful, quick witted and as the hotel receptionist, the owner of the Living Room and a cafe waiter all said ”you have been fun, no trouble”.
What a shame it has come to a premature end.
But even the local Zagrebians were supporting us.