European Away nights in the 90s

The ’94-’95 season offered the enticing prospect of European competition for the first time in my match going life, and I mean proper competition, not the Batesy fabricated Cross Channel Cup! This was going to be mental, Chelsea away IN EUROPE!!! I’d been to Italia ’90 as an 18 year old boy and couldn’t wait to get that more intense buzz of Chelsea away on foreign soil.

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Having decided to go to the 1st away leg no matter where it might be (after all knowing Chelsea it could well be our one and only away day) my mates and I were left massively under whelmed with the draw, Viktoria Zizkov?! We were reaching for our maps to try and find where the hell Viktoria Zizkov played.

I thought I had a decent knowledge of European footy but was in the dark about our first round opponents. When we realised a trip to Prague was in the offing the mood was lifted, although in a disappointing move the authorities, basing their decision on the undoubted trouble that would follow Chelsea wherever we went, decided to move the game to some backwater on the Polish border. None the less the trip was booked. Chelsea safely negotiated this tie over 2 legs after a 4-2 home win and a fairly uneventful 0-0 away draw.

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SweetFA at Zizkov’s actual ground

Next up out of UEFA’s dodgy hat was Austria Vienna. At least this time we should be able to make plans to go to the home team’s actual home ground? Vienna away was booked and after John Spencer scored my favourite ever Chelsea goal we progressed via away goals. Chelsea were in the Cup Winners Cup Quarters!

Next out the hat came FC Bruges, and for our older supporters this brought back memories of a titanic tussle in the same competition in 1971 when we came back from 2 down in the away leg to smash them 4-0 at the Bridge. If this tie had the same drama then bring it on!

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Due to the close proximity of Bruges combined with the anticipated away following’s reputation for aggro we started to hear of a few warnings not to travel without a match ticket. The only time I had ever been on any official club trip had been the Zizkov match. I wanted to 100% guarantee my ticket and travel for our first Euro away day in over 20 years so I went for the safe option. Having been unimpressed with the treatment on that trip I had decided to revert to travelling independently with my mates and the freedom that brings. We’d nearly always managed to get in to either Chelsea aways or England games…after all “you can’t ban a Chelsea fan”!

As there were a few of us going and some of our number had experienced a few problems with foreign authorities before there was an assumption that the more predictable routes would be manned by Old Bill looking to pick off as many travelling fans as possible before making the continent. Armed with our paranoia we turned up at Dover the evening before the game to jump on the ferry to Calais. The trip across was the standard fare of bar / duty free / fruit machine and then off the other side. We’d got across the water and our number was intact, onwards to Belgium! The train from Calais to Lille was full of French commuters wondering why a bunch of boisterous English early twenty somethings had joined their packed carriage. A quick change at Lille saw us on our way to an overnight stop in Brussels (clearly we couldn’t go directly to Bruges with the Old Bill on the lookout for such notorious fans!).

By the time we rolled into Brussels it was around midnight and being quite well oiled on duty free cans and not having eaten for ages we piled into the first cafe we came across, where upon entry it dawned on us that this was some sort of holding pen for toothless North Africans who seemed to get very twitchy with our appearance. After some negotiation which involved a lot of arm waving and gesturing it seemed that the barman/owner was happy for us to use the one room upstairs to get our heads down that wasn’t already housing a mixture of Moroccans and Algerians presumably living there illegally. So we spent a couple of hours drinking some quality Belgian beer, whilst trying, mostly successfully, not to offend the “locals” until it was time to get some shut eye. Our room had 3 beds in it and a lot of floor space, but what was remarkable was how many splattered cockroaches there were on the walls, ceilings and floor…now wonder it was so cheap! I opted to sleep sitting up against the cleanest bit of wall with my jeans tucked into my socks, more socks over my hands pulled over my sleeves leaning against my zipped up bag. A fairly terrible few hours of broken sleep followed but I was with my mates and we’d had a wicked night, albeit a strange one.
In the morning we declined the owner’s offer of breakfast and headed off for the main station and our train to Bruges. A cockroach free breakfast was soon demolished by all of us at the station, tiredness and hangovers making for a subdued gathering.
The train to Bruges took an age as it ambled through the bland Belgian countryside, but the journey cleared our heads and the match day adrenaline started to kick in. We arrived in Bruges and went for a wander, you always want to take in a bit of the city you’re in and assess numbers of Chelsea around the town. Word had spread that the press from home would be out here in greater than usual numbers as actor/comedian Stephen Fry had undergone some sort of breakdown and done a bunk from his West End show. He’d chosen Bruges to hideout for some peace and quiet, never mind Lord Melchett…

Requiring somewhere to crash after the game we decided to pool our resources again and pay for one room, and we ended up getting a room at an Ibis for a decent price. The receptionist didn’t seem convinced that the room was only for 2 of us when 7 of us came down minus our bags. We’d booked in my name which meant that she had my passport so I felt an added pressure to convince her our intentions were pure. Once we’d left the unconvinced receptionist behind the serious business of finding the best watering hole for the day became of utmost importance. We tried a few bars and cafes but most of them seemed to be full of tourists who were in town for more cultural pursuits than the footy, by all accounts Bruges is renowned for it’s lace?

Once we found the main square our options increased as the place was full of bars and full of Chelsea taking in the spring sunshine and local brews. Once the strains of “baggy trousers” were heard belting out of a Tudor fronted pub across the square it was obvious where we would be drinking! A very loud and manic few hours ensued as the Chelsea boys who’d hijacked the DJ’s booth went through the entire Madness back catalogue at least twice. Of all my away days following the mighty Blues this is one of my happiest memories, the windows were completely steamed up as a couple of hundred Chelsea boys of all ages bounced around together in a huge sweaty mass of beer fuelled stomping. There were a few fellas in there who you wouldn’t want to make eye contact with on a Friday night in your local, but we were all in it together, on the lash on foreign soil for the Boys in Blue!

With a couple of hours to go before kick off it was decide to leave the party and head for the stadium. Getting to the stadium has always been a magical mystical experience for me when abroad, I have never had any idea of where it is in relation to where I am in the town but I have always managed to find it no matter how much my senses are distorted. The intangible homing sense got us to the stadium with about an hour before kick off, now came the task off getting in. There seemed to be a lack of any touts and I was too well oiled to try anything as daring as bunking in.
We soon found ourselves confronted by some fairly unthreatening Belgian Old Bill who directed us to the ticket office which they promised us was round the corner. Unfortunately as soon as we rounded the corner we found ourselves boxed in by a temporary pen and we were told to produce match tickets by some more serious looking coppers. Not being able to do so resulted in being bundled into the back of a Belgian meat wagon, bloody great. One of the coppers who marched me into the back of the van informed me that due to the large numbers of Chelsea expected to descend on Bruges the authorities had introduced a by law for 24 hours which stated that it was illegal to attempt to gain entry to a sports arena in Bruges without a valid ticket….f*ck*ng what??!!

So here we are, in the back of a van being driven away from the ground to who knows where? After a fairly short drive out of town we arrived at our destination; a barn which seemed to double up as storage for knackered Police vehicles. There were already a good hundred or so Chelsea in here, segregated into pens like cattle. I was fairly certain this was against my human rights but when I tried to voice this opinion to any of the coppers present they seemed uninterested.

After a quick scan of our surroundings it became clear that a couple of our number had evaded capture but there were a lot of irate Chelsea fans off all ages penned up. This was bang out of order. Tensions started to rise and a few songs started up to let our captors know they hadn’t broken our spirit. People had the right hump because all our belongings had been taken from us and this meant no fags for the smokers, and we all know how grouchy that makes them. It wasn’t long before more van loads of bemused fans started getting deposited into the already crowded pens. This just had the result of raising the tensions even more and the more vocal and aggressive fans started making it fairly obvious that they intended to end this situation. The pens were being dismantled from the inside, this made the Old Bill present very twitchy, their response was to bring a water cannon into the barn! things had reached a critical point.
The cannon was revved up as a threat, this was met with aggressive posturing from those amongst us who had reached boiling point. Some of the boys present actually goaded the water cannon operator into action and next thing…whoosh! The water cannon was turned on, can you imagine the bedlam of a water cannon being used on people at point blank range in a confined space? Suffice to say that chaos ensued, the pens were all destroyed and as there was no longer anything keeping us in the vast majority of us in there had it on our toes into the Belgian night. However as I was legging it down a dark road to god knows where it dawned on me that back in the barn was my wallet, fags and lighter. So after running for about 3 minutes I decided to turn round and head back to the chaos. By the time I ambled back in it was clear that most of the escapees had the same realisation.
The Belgian old Bill looked a bit weary now and a truce of sorts broke out, they even gave us back our belongings which meant I could have a fag for the first time in hours. Over the next hour or so the odd straggler came back in to be greeted with cheers or ironic applause, one guy had swum across a river only to get picked up the other side as he climbed the river bank!

At some point in the small hours some proper coaches started arriving and we were informed that we would be boarding them. We were then driven to the port of Ostend and put on a ferry, no passport and no luggage, both of which were back in the Ibis in Bruges. By now the overwhelming feelings of being cold, wet, and hungover meant most of us couldn’t be arsed to argue and no one seemed to be checking for passports as we boarded the ferry.

Once aboard the ferry I managed to locate all my mates who had been pinched back in Bruges, it seemed we were all intact even if we were all equally miserable by now. What followed was the worst Chanel crossing I have ever had the displeasure of undertaking. The ferry which was only inhabited by us Chelsea fans and a few dozen lorry drivers was no match for the storm we had to get through, the ferry was tossed about like a kids toy in a bath, this remains one of only 2 times that I was convinced I was going to die, and by drowning too. Anyone aboard that old ferry who didn’t think it was going down was either mad or a more experienced mariner than Uncle Albert, I am neither so I was sure my time was up.

Anyway after hours of being tossed about and trying to keep myself from rolling off the bench I had found in the canteen we pulled into Ramsgate and disembarked with no one around to check our lack of passports. We were greeted by camera crews eager to film the returning “hooligans” and get a story, unsurprisingly the likes of “news reporter” Martin Frizel weren’t interested in hearing the truth about our ridiculous treatment from the Belgians.

I have harboured a grudge against Belgium and Belgians ever since, which is slowly being lessened by the performances of a certain Mr Hazard….

Oh yeah, we lost 1-0.

Follow Neil on Twitter @rusperneil

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One response to “European Away nights in the 90s

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