Eventful, eh? Belgian hospitality at its best and worst over three days of following City in the Europa League play-off round. We’ve tried to remember as much as we can…
I travel on North Sea Ferries to Zeebrugge every year but when you’re on with your mates instead of your family, going to football instead of a driving holiday through France, it becomes a wholly different experience. Dump the bags, allocate the beds, dive into the bar. There was a female children’s entertainer dressed as a pirate who wasn’t probably expecting a stack of beery lads to be surrounding her stage when she began her act. What few kids were on board got to do the Macarena and then she was off, fully aware that her true audience was being kept away from her territory.
The band were okay, though resident bands on ferries are resident bands on ferries for a reason, but it really began to take hold as a football trip when the DJ took over. With every Tigers flag over the windows of both bar and casino, the clientèle rose as one to sing Caravan Of Love, arms aloft, in a moment that got the hairs on the back of the neck right up. As everyone slipped further into their drinking socks, it was noted in our small party that someone renowned as a hardened drinker had done one. He was to be found in the cabin, snoring on one of the top bunks. So now Andy’s reputation has crashed further – scared shitless of flying, he was also now prone to seasickness. Or so he claimed.
Tony has an alarm on his mobile phone that resembles a nuclear attack warning and could awaken the most decomposed corpse. Given that he looks like a decomposed corpse when he’s asleep (and quite often also when awake) it is all the more annoying that the only person his carelessly uncancelled alarm didn’t rouse at 5.50am was Tony. And it isn’t helpful to the hungover. Moreover, we were still late off the ferry and missed the connecting bus because two of our number couldn’t get up in time, costing us an extra €50 for a cab. It wouldn’t be the last time on this trip that we’d a) hear the alarm; b) get pissed off by it; and c) fail to alert Tony to it due to his comatose status.
I like beer and I like drinking sessions, but I’ve never been one for cracking open a can during the post-breakfast period. I was ribbed without mercy by Andy when it took me until 9.30am before I whipped the top off a bottle of lager on the Minibus Of Decadence that took us to Southend in the FA Cup in January. So as we boarded a train at Bruges and headed for Gent, I declined – and took the verbal brickbats that questioned my masculinity – as Andy and Tony cracked open two cans of local ale which they subsequently declared to be weak and tasteless (but still finished anyway). The journey was brief and soon we were piling into a Gent taxi, heading for our B&B, which turned out to be the greatest accommodation provider I’ve ever experienced. Clearly it was once a building of authority or municipal usage, but the owners had turned two large boardrooms into luxurious mini-dorms, and we had a quad room with a jacuzzi. We weren’t planning to spend much time in the room, but it was still tremendous. Ablutions followed and, via Tony’s request to eat the B&B’s pet rabbit, we headed into Gent again, this time on the tram service, aiming as soon as possible for Lokeren, where word had reached us that the market square had been turned into a beer and music gala for our enjoyment. Imagine Hull City Council trying something like that on West Park next week.
We were joined on the tram by our Hull-born but Irish-resident friend Chris, who promptly initiated young Max in his ways of long-term football supporting by sexually propositioning him in song. There are only 33 years between them…
So we arrive in Lokeren around lunchtime and the techno music is thumping out of several speakers on the market square. Like our experience in Žilina, it appears that the locals have gallantly taken the opportunity to set up a free party for their visitors from Hull, and hundreds of City replica shirts of varying vintage are already on show. We initially choose a beer garden, appropriately called the Golden Tiger, before joining the heaving throng in the square. The flags are tied around the trees and the Jupiler supplies are eagerly consumed. Come the early evening, Lokeren fans start arriving, fresh from work, and playful songs are exchanged along with games of volleyball and head tennis with the many plastic footballs being indiscriminately kicked around. There are few police officers about, but they are in standard issue dress (including berets) and choose not to even patrol or chatter. Their profile is admirably low.
A long-serving and respected regular from Amber Nectar stops me as I make my way from the khazi to return to my ale. He points out a plain clothed group of lads, looking moody but not especially menacing, who have just arrived from across the border from the Netherlands. A second Dutch faction from an opposing group are also infiltrating somewhere else. There appears to have been some reassurances from them that it had nothing to do with City fans and, as the AN regular put it, some mediating was required. “I’m like bloody Kofi Annan here!” At this stage, I thought no more of their presence…
We knew we were going to be marched to the game by the police, but when it happened it felt over-urgent and heavy, even though the atmosphere had been nothing short of convivial all afternoon. The walk was a long one too, and after crossing the square and the river we were going through residential streets, the Lokeren equivalents of Council Avenue, whereupon the locals waved, smiled, took our photo and offered the thumbs up as we looked up their way. This was as civilised a football day out as I’d known in years. Then we reached the main road, where the traffic had been stopped to allow us across and we caught our first sight of the convoy of Belgian jam sandwiches and, eventually, the watercannon wagon.
I took a photo of it and, as I turned to rejoin our party, a loud roar sounded from behind it and bottles started flying. There weren’t many, but they were full and viciously aimed, and one landed about a metre from me, smashing around my feet. The police quickly stopped these rapscallions from aiming further missiles and we maintained our walk. I’ve seen plenty of bother over the years but always from a safe distance. Even after 27 years, this is new territory for me.
The remainder of the walk was long but straight and untroubled, and more residents greeted us as we approached the stadium, passing an apparently empty pub called De Mierennest on our right that was set into the terraced buildings of the street. Admission to the ground was chaotic, with only two turnstiles open to 1,200+ fans, and eventually a gate was opened that allowed quicker and safer entry. Someone was sensible enough to conclude that people who had paid hundreds of pounds to be at Lokeren, and had gone through the mild indignity of being paraded through the streets by police and momentarily coming under fire from glassware, were not going to tolerate not seeing the start of the match.
In the end, everyone got in, though the seating arrangements in the central pen of the main stand were so lax that the staircases were full up and nobody, at all, could move without a lot of effort. I left this stand after ten minutes, unsure of its safety, and went to the open stand at the side which, despite a lack of shelter in the event of a downpour, was very amenable to watching football.
The game was shocking, as was Steve Bruce’s team selection. Resting five of our Premier League shoo-ins all at once – Davies, Huddlestone, Livermore, Elmohamady and Jelavić – while introducing Harry Maguire for the very first time and playing James Chester out of position all seemed very slapdash. The team played poorly but could only be partially culpable as there was savage unfamiliarity running through the whole formational and tactical plan. And we appear to have the Robbie Brady of three seasons ago again – only bothered about himself.
Lokeren were spirited but limited, yet had the nous to sense that City were disjointed and gave it a go. Their goal was giftwrapped by Allan McGregor but they could have had a couple more during a second half purple patch. City had late chances through Meyler and Aluko, the best two performers on the night, but never truly looked like scoring. The plusses came just from the narrowness of the final score; the first airing of the third kit – white shirts with aqua shorts, reminiscent of how England looked when they played Argentina in 1986; and the unfurling of a No To Hull Tigers banner in the home end midway through the first half, which was a truly moving moment.
I had a sausage sandwich at half time. There had been much talk of ‘horse sausage’ as a local delicacy throughout the trip, but I couldn’t identify the animal from which my emulsified offal tube had been sourced. But at least I asked for a sausage, which was the term used on the kiosk signage, and I felt despair for the personable Belgian girl behind the counter as one of the renowned Goole Tigers asked over and over again for “‘ot dog” with an intoxicated grunt and then got ratty when she didn’t understand.
So then, after the game.
Initially we weren’t allowed off the open-air concourse of the away end, but it didn’t take long for a walkie-talkie conversation to take place and the gates to open. There was no rush for our train to Gent, but others wanted to catch earlier services to differing towns and cities, and one or two had driven from the channel coast and were going home there and then. So returning to the cars and stations was their only priority, and nothing should preclude them.
But 100 metres or so further along, the riot police were lined up – and tooled up.
An Oxford professor of EU law of our acquaintance, a man of many titles and letters, shouted “Oh f**king hell” just as loudly and frustratedly as any other City fan there. As the Tiger Nation gathered in full numbers, a lone police officer – presumably nominated due to his English skills – stood at the plastic cordon and explained to one pleading lady, with children, that they were under orders to keep us there for the time being.
That turned into a good half hour, at least. They were lined up with full riot gear at the ready – visors, shields, batons (the massive ones) and there were guns spotted too. Two large vans were behind them, across the breadth of the exit road. The City fans were vocally dismayed and although the odd rush was attempted at the front, they were half-hearted enough for nobody to get their collar felt, though the tape cordon did come down and I managed to rip up a strip of it for souvenir purposes. Then one of the vans began to reverse slowly, opening up a gap as if to reveal something extraordinary underneath, with the kind of dramatic sound effect added by the City fans akin to the final box being opened on Deal Or No Deal when only the 1p and £50,000 options remain. Eventually, the watercannon truck came into view behind it and the reaction was brilliant. “What the f**king hell is that?” sang the City fans, boisterously, while others alternated between getting the hell out of its way and placing themselves directly into its firing line, just in case. Clearly some were hoping to have a footballing badge of honour pinned to their lapels.
The only thing the Tiger Nation truly got wrong was its interpretation of history. There weren’t exactly loads of German bombers hovering over Belgium in the early 1940s, and “Where were you in World War Two?” got derisory snorts from older sages among the collective. Our Europhile professor friend was seen to raise his eyebrows in a quite disdainful way. Still, as watercannon points at you, it’s not the time to push to the front of an angry mob in the name of pedantry.
Eventually, we set off. I’m about ten metres from the front. The watercannon truck leads, with the mounted police behind, then the City fans. As we pass two locked gates for home stands, hearty and cordial applause is exchanged between the home fans who have stayed behind and the Tiger Nation walking past them. All appears well. Then we get to the residential street that had been also so welcoming in the earlier daylight hour of kick off. It isn’t brilliantly lit – hosstod incidents are plentiful – but it’s okay. Then it starts.
I saw the first bottle. There really was just one to begin with, as if it had been chucked as a tester for the reaction from the police and the City fans. There was a brief hush, but as the street was rammed with people one poor sod got that bottle, and that was enough for the City fans to howl in protest and look towards De Mierennest, empty before the game and on the “no go” list issued to us before kick off. A few seconds later, the hail of glass began. The police turned towards the pub but did nothing to try to stop the initial crossfire nor protect the lambs to the slaughter – of all ages – now desperately trying to avoid this unprovoked assault. One City fan, seriously bloodied on his face, took his Tigers flag out of his bag to mop up the blood after a plea for medical help from the flanking police officers fell on deaf ears.
It took time, but eventually the rozzers went into the beer garden and restored enough order to allow us past, and the remainder of the walk to Lokeren station passed by without further incident. We got on to a train for Gent angry, flustered and bamboozled. And while the lamebrains behind the fence of the beer garden were ultimately responsible for the trouble, the police were notably irresponsible when it came to our safety. Their unwillingness to use the riot gear with which they were armed to the teeth was remarkable once the possibility of turning it on to their own became an issue. Much discussion between cops and City fans continued on the platform of the station until the trains took us to the sanctuary of Gent and beyond.
I went back to the B&B after walking through Gent with Andy, Tony, Max, James, JR, Skelly and Dublin for a while. I was happy with my alcoholic fill for the day and longed for my bed. My feet were also killing. I caught a cab back to our spectacular restored authoritarian B&B and fell asleep, knowing I’d have to let three drunken louts through the front door before long. Though “before long” was actually 4.30am, and while I was always resigned to being woken by them, Andy’s continual habit of turning on the bright light above my bed so he could see where the drinking hole of his can of beer was made me want to punch him. They went to bed at 5am.
Tony’s nuclear alarm then went off at 6am, then again twice more in the next 20 minutes. In the end, I put the bloody thing next to my bed because only his snooze function worked – you couldn’t turn the alarm off completely without the phone’s PIN – and he was so comatose through ale that he had no interest in providing it. Mercifully, he’d only set it to three snoozes. At 8.30am, Andy and I got up for breakfast – Andy borders on obsessive when it comes to acquiring breakfast in hotel establishments – and after cereals, boiled eggs, yogurts, fruit and an awful lot of coffee, we each received calls from radio stations back home to go on air and discuss last night’s troubles. Media whoring is our forte. Max and Tony were, meanwhile, three quarters dead in the room still, though Max did eventually manage to shovel down some of the bread and cheese from the table. Tony’s subsequent activity in the bathroom lasted longer than an hour and didn’t involve a shower, the cleaning of teeth or plucking of nostrils. No further detail necessary.
We signed the guest book and checked out, tramming it back into Gent. A livener was sought – Tony and I drank Leffe but only I decided that it was too strong to repeat, something Tony later would regret not replicating – and we were leaving a very attractive city and on the way back to Bruges. By now, we’d heard that the Dutch factions that had turned up in Lokeren were likely to be responsible for the fun and games the night before by going into the pub and goading each other, with the banned Lokeren contingent siding with those from their border. And we were the sitting ducks in the middle of it.
Tony was grumbling about not having a beer in his hand all the way from Bruges station to the coach pick-up point, which the rest of us insisted we find for our later final journey back to the ferry, having missed it on the way out. It began to rain heavily at this point, but luckily we found a bar close to the coach stop next to one of Bruges’ many beauty spots, and with three hours or so to kill, here we holed up for our final refreshment before going back to port. Tony was still on Leffe, drinking it slowly for someone as hardened as he, and he fell asleep in the bar at least once.
Eventually we got to boarding time and headed for the coach, whereupon Tony nodded off on Andy’s shoulder and then in his lap. He was a lethal mixture of exhausted and shitfaced but none of us even considered what would happen next.
We reached check-in at Zeebrugge and the chap in the P&O uniform took one look at Tony and asked him to leave the queue and take a seat. We all joined him. A conflab with his colleague later, during which time every other foot passenger had checked in and gone, he was returning to Tony and asking him for his name and date of birth. Tony remembered both but was so incoherent that the decision was made there and then not to allow him on board. With Max and I due at work the next day, Andy, though grateful that his throwing up like a massive wuss on the journey out was now going to be largely overlooked, was left with Hobson’s choice and had to stay behind in Zeebrugge to sober Tony up and get him on the next night’s ferry in a fit state. The two of us going home had to be quick with our check-in as they were keeping the foot passenger access door open specifically for us before firing up the engines.
JR said “to absent friends” a couple of times as we raised glasses in the Pride Of Bruges bar during the evening, wondering where they’d end up and how much it would cost. Caravan Of Love got an outing again, but the night was subdued by comparison to the outward journey, mainly as numbers were lighter, and this author proved to be particularly lightweight by going to sleep at 11pm.
A text arrived upon the return of the phone signal the next morning, stating that Tony had achieved 14 hours sleep (and was still snoring) and Andy had managed to purchase crossings and hotel rooms on his oblivious cohort’s credit card. We left the boat and checked out in decent cheer because of this, though being filmed by Look North as we emerged from passport control’s door on the lip of Hedon Road took us slightly by surprise – after all, a few Belgian bottles had made us still newsworthy even upon our return to British terra firma. Back to life, back to reality. And bloody hell, we’ve got a game tomorrow…
Meanwhile, this tweet was sent from a hotel lobby somewhere in Zeebrugge…
No, @DuttonTony, we are f**king well NOT finding somewhere in Zeebrugge to watch the eggchasing this afternoon…
— Andy Dalton (@JWhittlesElbow) August 23, 2014
Diary kept and written by Matt. Thanks to Andy Medcalf for donating some photos.