Tuesday 13th June 2000, Charleroi
Slovenia 3-3 Yugoslavia (15,000)
We weren’t sad to leave the Metropole, (ecstatic actually) and the shiteness of the aforementioned hotel was only emphasised when we arrived at the Hotel Noga in Brussels, our latest port of call. For less francs we found ourselves in a friendly, clean, elegant establishment with excellent breakfasts. The rest of the guys settled for a day of exploring after we’d eaten whilst Chay and I caught a football special down to Charleroi. Another Gills fan, Nigel (the ex-Minsk Gill) had joined us with his brother Stewart for the trip to a game which didn’t promise much. The Slovenians were rank outsiders, an unknown quantity. We arrived in the unfashionable industrial town and explored the central area trying to spot where the England fans might choose to riot. It didn’t take us long, slap bang in the middle of the town was a square. The square was surrounded by bars, off the square were lots of other narrow streets full of bars. In the middle was a huge football fountain with jets of water spurting across the square. The place was packed with Yugoslavian and Slovenian fans drinking and singing and giving interviews to the assembled media. You might recognise it… it was on television a lot after the England vs. Germany game for some reason.
We finally found a quiet local bar away from the crowds to watch what transpired to be a tedious encounter between the hapless Spanish and the dull Norwegians. Nigel was all ready to leave the game when Flo went and scored to liven it up – a bit. Would we get to see a giant-killing too? We then split up, Nigel went in search of food, we headed for the ground. Infuriatingly the sign-posts in Charleroi was somewhat lacking and we ended up having to walk round half of the town just to reach the infamous triple decker stand in which we had tickets – for the top deck naturally.
The wild goose chase we embarked upon might have been a tad irritating, but it did mean one thing, we met Tony Pulis! There he was standing on a street corner chatting to Mike Trusson. Well as you can imagine this was a shock to the system. We recovered our composure sufficiently to give him a cheery “Up the Gills!” as we walked past. He turned and replied “Hiya lads” and we got talking. He did most of the questioning, where were we staying, what games had we seen etc. but he also chatted about the Gills. He didn’t mention his dispute with Scally other than to suggest that losing two managers in the space of eleven months was a bit careless… but he did state that he’d heard that Hessenthaler had been offered the Gills job for 2000-01 way back in December. He was pleased as punch about the play-off victory and genuinely was looking forward to the Gills vs. Portsmouth games. We told him about the post-Wembley celebrations in Trafalgar Square and the subsequent hike in tickets prices which caused him to laugh out loud and joke about Scally’s financial expertise(!?!). He then explained that he had just flown out for the one game to watch a player, but before he could get any further the other blokes in suits with him dragged him away. Still it was a bizarre way to spend ten minutes of our day in Charleroi…
We approached the towering stands hemmed in on three sides by houses with trepidation. After the Liege experience we feared another attack of vertigo, but having bought a programme (they’d arrived at last) and climbed the steps we found ourselves in a less scary situation. The seats had backs on them for starters, the place was barely half full, our bit only a quarter full, and we were near the front of the top deck. We had a stunning view of most of proceedings which began with the excitable Slovenians. It was their debut in the final stages of a major international tournament. Their fans were all kitted out in the same white T-shirt. The design was quaint, it included mountains and flowers to symbolise their nation. They sang throughout the evening, their favourite song sounding a lot like “Normal-burger, Chicken-burger, HEY! HEY! HEY!” – they waved their arms in unison, it was very impressive. It shook their stand, we could see the scoreboard moving. Their response to the Yugoslavian national anthem was incredible. The entire Slovenian section turned their backs on the rival fans, shouldered arms, embraced and ignored them. Apparently a big insult in the Balkans. The Slovenians were a joy to behold in the stands, their variety of songs wide and original. Their team weren’t bad either.
The actual game was a classic. The half empty ground didn’t do it justice. Both sides were full of invention, the passing and movement was exceptional and both sides treated it like the local derby it was. It soon became obvious that the Slovenian side were really up for it and crucially were good enough to make the Yugoslavians wobble. After 22 minutes they surprised everyone, not least themselves by taking the lead. Zahovic’s low skimming header sent the Slovenian contingent into ecstasy. They should have scored again before half-time but it remained 1-0. The break brought a troop of scantily clad Brazilian-style dancers onto the terraces below us, they staged an impromptu display jigging along to the music played over the tannoy and attracting plenty of attention from any males within fifty yards. Weird.
The second half was bizarre, the underdogs doubled their lead on 52 minutes when Pavlin headed number two. Cue Balkan pandemonium at one end and stunned silence at the other. The Yugoslavians just lost the plot, their petty gamesmanship and poor attitude did nothing for their cause. After 57 minutes Mihajlovic’s square pass was intercepted by Zahovic who raced on and dispatched the ball joyfully in front of the disbelieving white t-shirted masses. Such was the shock that Mihajlovic decided he didn’t want to play any more, pushed an opponent, gained his second booking and walked off grinning inanely.
We assumed that the Yugoslavians were now doomed, but we hadn’t reckoned on Savo Milosevic, the Villa reject and figure of fun. On 67 minutes he turned home a consolation goal from six inches following a near post lob-cum-cross which clipped the post. The mad men in blue sensed the Slovenian unease, six stunning minutes later they were level. After 70 minutes Drulovic smacked the ball smartly home amid confusion in the Slovenian defence. Milosovic then sent their previously silent support balmy by touching home from close range. Even one of their photographers behind the goal forgot all about his job to celebrate wildly.
Slovenia were as stunned as the rest of us, five goals in eighteen minutes had transformed the game. Both sides still went for the winner but neither side took their chances, the best of which saw a Slovenian header cleared off the line in stoppage time. Our only real worries at the time were unrelated to the game, but to weird rumblings echoing around us. Was the infamous stand about to collapse? It was probably some local steelworks but it unnerved us none the less. Finally it was time to go, we found our way back to the station, bought some food and were offered beer at a snack stall despite strict local instructions not to do so. We didn’t bother but a couple of complete arseholes did. They were English naturally and they were the first idiots we’d met on our travels. Their mixture of ignorance, arrogance and gross stupidity made you ashamed to be English. Still mustn’t grumble – a great game to be sure.