Everyone who knows us has been bored with this a million times already
but following England away is all about climbing the ladder of the
loyalty scheme by accumulating "caps" awarded for each match attended.
Inevitably its a chicken and egg thing: no tickets-no caps...no caps-no
tickets. For away games, the loyalty scheme allocates 70% of
available tickets to those members with the most caps leaving remaining
members to fight it out over the other 30%. Naturally the
to break through the glass ceiling into the rarefied air of the
so-called "top cappers" who effectively always fall in the top 70%. But
that requires commitment.
Prior to the Croatia game me and Bev were percolating just below the glass ceiling (in fact for the World Cup allocation we were a long way short due to the stingy ticket allocation of 8% granted by FIFA, but thats for another day) and we were thrown in with the 30% to try our luck. We dipped out. But due to the practicalties of these things a second chance was available. All members allocated tickets are invited to purchase on a specific date and anyone failing to do so loses their allocation and these tickets become available again in the "second sale".
The second sale is a free-for-all scrabble whereby at a specific time all members can access a website or phone to purchase a ticket. As on previous occasions me and Bev were setup ready to go at 11am, fingers over mouses, phone on redial. 11.01, all sold out. But Bev was in the queue and by-hook or by-crook managed to get through the website process and purchase us 2 tickets for the Croatia game :-) Babbling over the phone no doubt with sweaty palms Bev let the tension out and promptly took an early liquid lunch.
This seemingly small triumph provided the critical breakthrough to "top-capper" stardom (if only for a short time). The tickets for the upcoming friendly against Holland in Amsterdam were soon to be on sale. Fortunately Englandfans decided to add the provisional caps from the Croatia game to our caps total for use in the Holland allocation and we slipped in under the 70% "like a dream".
On a gorgeous autumn morning we drove to Zagreb arriving in 7 hours via the E57 route to Graz stopping over to view the picture-book Mondsee lake. The roads were empty and despite the millions of road works it proved to be a stress free ride. This could not be said of any potential return journey via this route. The Slovenia-Croatia border near Krapina (hee hee) is quick going into Croatia but a nightmare in the other direction. Work on a new multi-lane highway is in progress but currently only a single lane blocked with lorries awaiting clearance services the croation side. All car drivers looked frustrated with murder on their minds. Our return journey was therefore confirmed via Ljubljana.
Mark Perryman a Spurs fan works doggedly to promote a positive england support abroad. Working independently of the FA but backed and sponsored by all relevant parties he undertakes to organise events in and around the venue town of each England away game. During the World Cup Bev was his right-hand-woman when organising a visit to Dachau and we decided to get involved in Zagreb.
A group of about 30 fans assembled in the main square and we were split up into groups for visiting a number of local schools. Me and Bev along with Daniel a proud Dagenham and Redbridge fan were assigned to visit Gymnasia XVI, class 4A under escort from representatives of the British Council of Croatia who organised the event locally. Mark warned us of the anticipated furore awaiting us and under no circumstances were we to give out any freebies until after the meeting and any special gifts were to be given solely to the headteacher. Crikey.
He was right. The "kids" turned out to be 16-18 year olds and they spotted our troop approaching and spilled out onto the school steps. The word spread and the foyer was full of kids hanging from every vantage point. The famous VIPs had arrived. It was going to be a great day for everyone. Croatian TV thrust a microphone in Bev's face for the first of many "star interviews". Apparently the Fan-Friendly events received lots of coverage on telly but we never did see ourselves. Quite frankly the interviews were unnerving and I just hope I didn't say anything too foolish.
The kids turned out to be language students with no obvious sporting interests but that didn't matter as the real emphasis was on talking english. Some notably bright students speaking excellent english took us through a presentation of their country and school. We fired some questions at them and they fired back with the tawdry but playful "are you hooligans?". Touching on a footy theme they played us a terrace song and as luck would have it I had packed my DVD on Euro2004 and so we ended on a rendition of The Farm's "Alltogethernow". Pure poetry. Following another interview with the TV crew I donated my book "English Football Heros" to their school library! Sorry Mum but its gone to a greater cause. A thousand handshakes later we departed to calls of "we love you". Love and peace man, love and peace. Job done.
We high-tailed it over to a training ground near the Maksimir Stadium where we whiled away the afternoon doing beer and kebabs with some croaty locals. Mark had organised a Fan-Friendly 5-a-side footy event and the english teams were dutifully despatched leaving 2 croat teams to fight it out in the final. Swapped some gear with an ardent Dinamo Zagreb fan who had travelled to their Champions League qualifier with Arsenal. He is now the proud owner of a Saints enamel pin badge. I have a "kick racism out of football" t-shirt...in croatian.
Then a bizarre moment. We were asked to stay a little longer
the visit of a top croatian parliamentary minister, who for PC purposes
wished to swoop in and grab a photo with english-croaty footy fans
waving anti-racism slogans. Time ticked by with beer laden footy types
left waiting on some bird to drop by at the risk of missing the game
itself. Nothing gets between a fan and his footy. There was some
dissent and Daniel legged it off to the stadium. But the minister got
there just in time and no sooner had the official photographer grabbed
his shot did the fans let out a cheer, dropped the banners and piled
onto the waiting coach, leaving the ministerial party looking
they'd said something wrong. Priorities dude, priorities.
Its been subsequently well reported and the police CCTV was aired on
Sky a few times but there was some trouble at the ground. Within the
critical 10-minutes-before-kick-off window it kicked off at the gate,
the only entrance for England fans. I didn't see it, so I'm not going
to speculate but the CCTV shows a flare up between fans and police
whereby the police tried to block the entrance and some hoolies reacted
with beer throwing and shouting. Fans on the terrace piled up to the
top to peer over at the ruckus but we stayed where we were and could
only assume what was going on. Clutches of fans game onto the terraces,
some cheering, some mouthing off about heavy handed police and so
forth. The police formed a large barrier of riot gear helmets, shields
and batons at both sides of the terrace entrance where they remained
for the rest of the match. There was no further provocation or unrest
although we were "obliged" to remain behind for an hour after full-time
until the croaties had gone home, which is normal practice.
In comparison to Liechtenstein (Euro2004) where the "last-10-minuters" unsuccessfully stormed the outer control cordon, Zagreb had woefully inadequate control cordons mounting to no more than police presence itself. Two conclusions can be drawn 1) for away games avoid the beer laden 10-minutes-before-kick-off hoolie brigade by getting to the ground sufficiently early and 2) the fashionable multi-layer control cordons popularised at Euro2004 and WC06 keep the trouble away from the terraces by placing the police at a distance from the entrances. Unlike in Bratislava for Euro2004 where police stormed the terraces causing panic and mayhem amongst hoolies and law-abiding fans alike the croaty bobbies didn't storm, but they might have done and so we should be thankful for that.
You maybe forgiven for thinking that the day was now over and we simply
trundled off back to the hotel under mutterings of "McClaren" and
"Out". But no, the police had fun and games in mind. We sat in the
coach park for about half an hour before the police gave the go ahead
to pull-away and following the coaches in front we pulled out of the
ground and steamed away at full speed ignoring all traffic lights and
sundry signals. "WE GOT RSELVES A CONVOY" went the song. The police
blocked off all oncoming roads and with sirens blazing the line of
footy buses screamed throught the Zagreb suburbs...heading for the
airport. Inevitably it was necessary for the passengers to point out
the error as I think the driver was happy just to play along and take
us for a ride around town. But once it was obvious even to him that the
convoy was airport bound he suddenly pulled up in the middle of a dual
carriage-way much to the disgust of the following coppers.
Huge discussions along the lines of "the plan is you go to the airport" and "there is no plan B" ensued but eventually police HQ bit the bullet and siphoned off our own police escort for the trip back into town. Further stops and deliberations followed and the driver passed on police instructions that we were heading into the DANGERZONE and that on arrival all passengers were to run into the nearest hotel and await further police protection for escort back to our respective abodes. The mantra was repeated. Tension rose. Was Zagreb ablaze with rioters wrecking the streets? I thought "good, at least Bev's by the window, I can duck the bricks".
Left, right, left, right, through the streets of Zagreb. Through red lights and following the flashing blue lights in front. I thought hey-ho, talk about a sitting target, might aswell hang a big sign over the bus saying "HERE THEY ARE". The intended hotel was right in the centre of Zagreb, it was called Hotel Central afterall and I could see it now on Sky News all ablaze with people hanging from windows with banners demanding food and water.
The bus pulled up at the end of the street to Hotel Central and the doors opened. There was no one there. Not a dicky-bird. The streets were empty and Hotel Central stood there as folornly as before. Would we go in anyway so as not to embarrass the chief of the Naked Gun operation? Nah. So we legged it.
Thanks to Bev's prudence, diligently collecting bonus points
able to stay at Starwood's 5-star Westin
Hotel in the heart of Zagreb.
With swimming pool, fitness room and HUGE mega-kingsize beds it was
well worth the no charge ;-) We even indulged ourselves with
breakfast-in-bed, which I think was a first, for me at least. The
upshot of being in the top-notch abode in town is having to share it
with every B-list and has-been footy celebrity involved in
covering the game and during the visit my autograph book, if I had one,
would have been adorned with David Platt (oh yes, he of the Italy
WC90 119th minute winning wonder volley against Belgium),
Scudder from Sky News and Danny Fullbrook from The Daily
Star who also covers sports for Sky. I like him on the telly
enamoured myself to him forever by walking between him and the camera
during a recording whilst on my way to the car with the suitcases. Do
anything to get on telly me!
We followed Platty through the streets of Zagreb one morning, but he never did recognise us.