Sunday 11th June 2000, Bruges

France 3-0 Denmark (29,000)

All the match tickets were colour coded and we were in the blue section. In theory this entitled us to a free bus ride to the ground but on arrival at the train station we discovered only a chaotic free-for-all. After several aborted attempts we managed to scramble aboard for a magical mystery tour of Bruges. Our bus route was designed to take in several of the official park and ride schemes which resulted in us zigzagging through the outskirts of the town for what seemed an eternity. The only light relief on a hot and crowded bus was the reaction of the local inhabitants. Perhaps Bruges is usually an extremely dull and boring place, maybe they just had nothing better to do, they might have just been keeping a beady eye on their property, but scores of locals just stood on their doorsteps and watched us go by. Many of them even felt happy to wave enthusiastically as if we were royalty. As we got nearer the ground people even gathered on their lawns lazing on easy chairs or chatting with their neighbours while the steady stream of buses lurched past with their human cargoes. It was a bit like being at the zoo and we were the exhibits on show.

Eventually we were dropped off near the blue sector and made our way towards the first set of check-points. All tickets were examined for colour and match details but nobody appeared to have their identities checked against the names on their tickets despite all the pre-tournament promises. In fact I didn’t have my passport examined until I returned to England eight days later – so much for the security checks then… Then a major flaw in the ticket design became apparent. The plan was that one corner of each ticket would be torn off at the first set of gates and a second corner on entering the ground – simple eh. Well it would have been had the tickets not been practically indestructible and lacking in proper perforations. They were made of the sort of shinny paper which seems to have a plastic-like elasticity. The poor people at the gates were having terrible trouble ripping the tickets which led inevitably to delays.

On arriving within the stadium our troubles were not over because shock horror there were no programmes. I was miffed to say the least and asked at the official merchandise outlet (a trestle table in a tent) – all I got was a big cheesy grin, a shrug and the cryptic “exceptional circumstances” and the cheery news programmes would be available on the Friday. Mystified I joined Chris in our seats directly behind the goal. They weren’t ideal, we had some netting erected to stop missiles in the way plus the goal itself, but it was compensated for by the fact that we were so close to the action. You felt like you could reach out and pat Barthez on the shoulder as he warmed up.

Technically we were in the “neutral section” adjoining the official Danish seating but as with both Euro 96 and France 98 the neutral areas were populated by large numbers of fans from both competing nations. As usual the black market appeared to have done a roaring trade, the local Belgians in particular being conspicuous by their absence… the largest proportion of neutrals came from England… We were surrounded by them. I had two Arsenal fans beside me and wherever you looked you could see English club flags and English club shirts, mostly of the lower division variety.

The game itself was a bit of a revelation due to the exceptional form of the world champions and two of their players in particular – Messieurs Zidane et Henry. Zidane was simply on a different planet from the other players on the pitch. His touch, his vision, his trickery, his strength, his passing and his all round contribution was gob-smacking. Some of the little tricks and feints had the whole crowd gasping in admiration. We had a true great performing at the top of his game just yards away from us. Best of all though was his control and complete mastery of the football. Whether it was coming at him from fifty yards or five, dipping, at pace or spinning he was able to kill it stone dead or take it into his stride without even looking up. It bordered on the supernatural…

By contrast Henry’s qualities were more simple, they consisted of pace, pace and more pace. He was lethal, once he had half a yard on an opponent he was away and gone, they might as well have gone for a quiet lie down in a darkened room. In combination with the genius of Zidane in his pomp and an already excellent existing team their Danish opponents minus the Laudrup boys looked like they might get a good chasing. In the end they did, but not until they’d missed two golden opportunities to take the lead. The first came from a Desailly cock-up but the livewire Barthez smothered the threat, the second was so easy it took Sand almost by surprise and the chance was gone. Thereafter it was only a matter of time and on sixteen minutes they were punished.

Schmeichel the red-nosed reindeer had already seen Anelka round him and miss when again the grump from Madrid carved his way through. The ball was parried only for Blanc to steer home the rebound. Game over. The Danes tried hard thereafter but were simply out-classed. The French toyed arrogantly with them to such a degree that it was a miracle the score remained 1-0 at half-time. We just watched in awe whilst nurturing the forlorn hope that the Danes could sneak a goal just to see if the French would up another gear or three. The French actually took pity on the Danes but still added two more goals. Inevitably the first involved both Zidane and Henry on 64 minutes. “Zizou” put the speeding Henry through, Schmeichel stood his ground but the Arsenal player nonchalantly passed the ball into the corner of the net. The keeper ranted at his helpless defence and screamed at the heavens, he even shouted at a day-dreaming ball boy but it was no use. The rather clumsy substitute Wiltord tapped in a third goal in injury time which ended a move which had seen two French players in blatant off-side positions but the Danes were too punch drunk to care. Even the Danish fans were reduced to a stunned silence. Time to go in search of a pub with a television the Netherlands kicked off against the Czechs in less than an hour.

De Pub Full Of Gills

The cunning plan was to meet up at De Pub if we got separated but things didn’t go to plan. We managed the separated bit but not the De Pub bit. We were all hot and bothered, gasping for a drink and took one wrong turning amongst the medieval streets of Bruges. In the end Lee and Dave made our minds up for us, they spotted an Irish bar they’d already tried the night before which definitely had a television. We piled in against my better judgement, (well we were in Belgium and fake Irish bars were bottom of my list of places to visit) purely because the Dutch game had already kicked off. The place was heaving and the view of the proceedings limited so we settled for looking up when something noisy happened. The Dutch stole a fortunate victory thanks to a dubious penalty in the 89th minute after the plucky Czechs had contrived to miss the best chances and smite the woodwork more than once. The Belgians in the bar showed their feeling by roundly booing at the end, but our attention was already taken by our bumping into another Gills fan based in Germany along with his mates who followed Preston, Sunderland and Darlington. We were destined to meet up with this motley crew repeatedly during our sojourn across the low countries…

The evening climaxed with a crazy night in De Pub. My memories are somewhat clouded by alcohol but I think they went a bit like this… We were all reunited after the Dutch game and joined the international melee in and around the tight little square containing the De Pub. Lee, Dave and Sean resplendent in their yellow Gills shirts had to spend much of their time pointing out to drunken Danes that they were not Swedish, but wearing club shirts acted as an instant ice-breaker with all the other English fans milling around. Within ten yards of our good selves in the space of five minutes we encountered someone claiming to be Carl Asaba’s best mate, a whole posse of Queen of the South fans who thought Andy Thomson was “God” and some Wigan fans who entertained us with a song about jumping off Wigan Pier after their Wembley defeat.

Inside the bar things were no less riotous with a jolly old sing song taking place. Ahem, Gills songs were high on the menu and the Danes and Dutch in the bar were more than happy to join in with the “Oh Rodney Rowe” song amongst others. The “Two Nil And We Fucked It Up” anthem got an airing or three when a stray Manchester City fan wandered in and naively expressed amazement that we were still upset about Wembley ‘99, but that was nothing compared to the moment a Blackpool fan walked through the pub to the toilet. He had to run the gauntlet of a dozen happy Gills fans who, on discovering his club identity booed him all the way through the crush until the chant of “Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!” drowned out the booing. Welcome to Bruges Nigel. Yes, it was that sort of night, I’d known him at Hull University but hadn’t clapped eyes on him for ten years. He took it all rather to heart and stormed off to his hotel to get his club shirt.

The rest of the night was pandemonium. It was a glorious continental summer evening. It was shorts and T-shirt weather at two in the morning and we just carried on the drinking and singing until it was time for bed. Plenty of Gills graced the tiny dance-floor, their usual inhibitions drowned in beer. Suffice to say Singe received plenty of attention but she outlasted the lot of us. She was trying to drag us off to a night club even when the most energetic of our number were flagging badly. Not a bad start to Euro 2000 really!


The Binman


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