Friday 16th June 2000, Bruges
France 2-1 Czech Republic (28,000)
After a two day period of rest and recuperation in Brussels it was time to return to Bruges and the Inter Hotel, De Pub and the Jan Breydal Stadium and another look at the fantastic French. Their opponents were to be the Czech Republic in a crunch match for the Czechs who had to avoid defeat at the very least. They promised to be more worthy opponents than the Danes and their support promised to be lots of fun if Euro ‘96 was anything to go by.
Being back in Bruges felt like “coming home” although for Chay and Bjorn it was to be their final game and their last night in Belgium, so they really wanted to make the most of it. We met up with the trio of fellow Gills Lee, Dave and Sean who’d been joined by Lee’s brother. Whilst we’d been travelling round Liege and Brussels they’d remained in Bruges and had some wild stories to tell. The best of these involved a very late night indeed. Suffice as to say that after a very long day and night on the booze Dave was feeling understandably sleepy and went back to their hotel. The dirty stop-outs Lee and Sean weren’t all that far behind him but they found themselves locked out. Dave thought he’d left the hotel front door open but it must have blown shut. Anyway Sean opted for the wander round cafes drinking coffee to stay awake option. Lee went for the more direct approach, spotted an old wooden pallet in the street and some rubbish and made a bed for himself there and then.
Some hours later Dave was awoken by chants of “No Surrender” in the street, realised Lee and Sean were still missing looked out the window and saw Lee lying in the street. He feared that Lee had been beaten up and charged down the stairs of the hotel and into the street wearing just his underpants to find Lee fast asleep and oblivious to all the fuss. Sean then reappeared and they were all re-united… bless.
The organisation for the game in Bruges had been greatly improved. There were fences and stewards and proper queues for the special colour coded buses. We still had to weave our way tediously through the back streets of Bruges and the locals were still standing on their doorsteps waving us cheerily on our way (they were obviously easily pleased) but it was more relaxed, we knew what to expect. Within the “cordon of steel” i.e. the first set of gates were a row of local bars. Outside them were a large group of boisterous Czech fans. We were in the Czech end of the ground and paused to watch them drink beer and wave their flags in the sunshine. One upstairs balcony had a primitive sound system set up and the Czechs were led in their singing over a booming p.a. The atmosphere was wonderful, warm, friendly but passionate too.
Inside the ground were programmes (hooray) plus the usual assortment of English club flags. Yet again there were hundreds of English fans in the neutral section. The Czech fans were still smarting after their defeat by the Netherlands and the perceived injustice of the late penalty given by Collina the mad bug-eyed shaven headed Italian referee. One group of Czech fans all had alien masks on and one huge banner simply read “Collina Go Home!”. Our seats were near the front of the lower tier in the corner. Not an ideal position with photographers and camera men in the way plus bits of fence and gate. At least the goal and “safety netting” weren’t obscuring our view too. Being so close to the action did have it’s compensations though. Some of the play occurred just yards away from our noses. Watching such world class players at close quarters was pretty thrilling.
Before the game we’d all opted to back the Czech underdogs against the French. Finding ourselves in the Czech end confirmed our support but it didn’t do them much good. The French didn’t quite touch the heights of the Danish game with any consistency but still looked a class act. Zidane was as regal as ever but never needed to extend his talents fully. The Czechs were a quality side and the lanky freak Koller was always a threat but they gifted the French an early goal and never really recovered.
Only seven minutes were gone when a dodgy Czech back pass was intercepted by the speeding Henry. The goal was inevitable, his pace took him clear and he toe-poked the ball in. The French section which amazingly weren’t full erupted in delight but neutrals in the group looked a bit resigned. Was the game already as good as over? To the credit of the Czechs they went forward in search of an equaliser with no little skill. The French were exhilarating in short bursts, but a bit complacent in others. A single goal lead is never secure and on thirty-five minutes the Czechs were presented with a gift.
The referee for the fixture was Mr Graham Poll. Yes England’s representative. He did not cover himself with glory. He had a stinker, it was the worst display of refereeing we saw in the whole tournament except… except for Hugh Dallas (the Scotish referee) during the Yugoslavia vs. Norway game – so it wasn’t just our players who looked out of their depth. Nedved found himself through on goal, Deschamps challenged him outside the box. It wasn’t even much of a foul but Poll signalled a penalty. Cue much French confusion but Poborsky slammed the kick down the middle of the goal to give the Czechs hope.
The equaliser was great news for us too. The French would now have to up their play in search of another goal. The first half had been a bit of a thriller. The early stages of the second half saw Barthez save brilliantly from Nedved but you always felt the French would do something magical to win the game. It fell to Henry and his pace to do just that on the hour. His run down the right wing caused havoc, he pulled the ball back and the substitute Djorkaeff thumped the ball home before running right over to us to celebrate with his illustrious team mates just feet from us.
The Czechs looked beaten but still should have equalised at the end but Koller directed a towering header onto the bar rather than in and the game was over. The Czech fans sulked through the last five minutes resigned to their fate. An inglorious end to their campaign after the heroics of Euro 96. The final whistle brought qualification for the French and a wild party in their sections of the ground. Time to go down the De Pub…
The evening was a crazy one. We watched the Netherlands labour against the plucky Danes for nearly an hour before breaking through and romping to a 3-0 win. The many Dutch fans in and around the square and De Pub were in a party mood as were the French and the many neutrals including assorted Scandinavians and the inevitable Scottish, Irish and huge English contingents. Our affable hosts from De Pub agreed to show us the sights later in the evening (well next morning) which they did although all started to get a bit much for some of our number.
With all the tables and chairs removed there was space for a crazy multi-national party which would have had the hard line Euro-sceptics in the Tory party reaching for the brandy. Inevitably we also met some middle aged Gills fans who claimed to be mates with a Jersey businessman all set to invest in the club. We didn’t really believe them and neither did their wealthy mate so we had to sing Gills songs down a mobile phone to prove how many were partying in Bruges that night. All the usual songs got an airing on a balmy night. It was virtual football heaven with people from all over Europe getting their first taste of the “Gills experience”!
We ended up going to a party-cum-club next door to De Pub, but soon left and went in the night-club across the square where we partied until dawn. Well I would say we but I just propped myself up against a wall and watched Bjorn and Chay dance themselves into oblivion… A fitting end to their own odyssey.