I’m typing this on the train into London – and I honestly don’t know why I’m sat here. Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m knackered. Physically and mentally. I arrived back at Medway Services on the M2 at about 5pm last night, complete with sunburn, after one of the most draining weekends of my life – both for me and my bank account.
I was offered the opportunity to go to Gelsenkirchen for the quarter final match between England and Portugal. It was a coach trip, the weather was sodding hot, and we were going to be on the road for in excess of 8 hours just to get there, but nonetheless I accepted. After all, there was a chance I might actually get to see the game, provided I could acquire a ticket when we were out there.
After an interminably long trip, during which I’m sure we got lost at least twice, we arrived at our hotel in Monheim, which is about 40 miles from Gelsenkirchen and, it appeared, the same distance from any sort of civilisation. An Italian restaurant, annexed onto the hotel itself, was the only form of R&R within walking distance of the hotel. If you felt particularly outlandish and wanted to make a real night of it, there was a petrol station about 20 minutes down the road. Party on!
But in fairness, we all knew we’d be in the arse-end of nowhere. The point was – we were in Germany, within a short drive of Gelsenkirchen, and we were all off to the match. Some on our coach had tickets, but most didn’t, but as it turned out, tickets were in plentiful supply. It was just down to you to convince the touts to part with them for less than the cost of a small used car.
We got to the stadium, had a walk round and eventually found ourselves at the main tram station outside the stadium entrance. We decided that the best plan to get tickets would be to hang around outside the stadium and try to suss out the market for tickets and aim to get them as cheap as possible. We were told not to buy straightaway, as prices would be sky-high, but rather to wait as long as possible. Those prepared to risk not getting a ticket at all had the best opportunities of getting the tickets at the cheapest prices, but as we found out, the constant stream of England fans arriving at the ground meant the prices stayed high. Very high. Some touts were asking, with a completely straight face, for 1,000 Euros for ONE ticket.
After a while, a couple of the guys I travelled with had decided to buy the last two tickets from a German lad who we’d been talking to and sussing out for a fair while. They were in. Me and my Gills-supporting mate Mike, however, weren’t. We waited another hour or so and after a chat with a couple of lads who’d just bought tickets for a knock-down price, I was given a cardboard sign on a piece of string, with the words “TICKETS NEEDED” scrawled on it. I was told it would work like a dream and to our amazement, it did. I looked a prize tit, but I had only worn the thing for five minutes before we negotiated a deal with a tout for two tickets in the England section of the ground.
Buying tickets off touts is a bit like paying commission to bad estate agents. You know they’re the scum of the earth and they don’t deserve a penny of your money, but it’s a necessary evil and you do it through gritted teeth. However, we went away feeling very pleased with our little transaction as not only had we acquired two genuine tickets in the English end of the ground, we’d done so at a price of 100 Euros LESS than we’d agreed with them. The reason being we counted the money out into the tout’s hand in a rather haphazard manner, and in doing so, he totally miscounted. Thankfully, Mike spotted this and simply gave him 100 less to fit in with the tout’s dodgy counting skills and we walked away with at least some money left. The tickets cost around £300 each, which is more than I spent on my Gills season ticket a month ago, but this was the World Cup quarter finals, this was England, and this was one of the things on my “must do before I die” list. An opportunity like this might not come round again, so it was a no-brainer. Pay the money and enjoy the match.
Obviously the place was crawling with England fans, but there were very few Portugal fans there at the AufSchalke Arena. I reckon there was a ratio of 1 Portugal fan to every 100 England fans outside the ground pre-match. There were a lot of German fans there too, but almost all the Germans I saw that day were supporting England. Many were even bedecked in crosses of St. George – a sight you wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. We spoke to a few of them before the game, both in the stands and in the concourse outside, and they all said the same. “We’ll meet you in the final”, and “Don’t let it go to penalties”. We echoed their sentiments and wished them well. The Germans are having the time of their lives at this World Cup. They expected very little from this German team – and now they look the best attacking side left in the tournament. From being also-rans in many people’s eyes (including those of the German public as a whole), Germany are now serious contenders to win the title in their own back yard – and they are loving it. This World Cup has done wonders for the overall reputation of the German people. All stereotypes have gone out of the window now. My experience of them during my short stay in their country was they were warm, friendly and enthusiastic. Many wouldn’t have put those three words into a description of a German fan before the tournament, but that’s the way it is.
We also saw our fair share of celebs, too. We saw Talksport’s Mike Parry and former West Ham stalwart Alvin Martin outside the ground, as well as Didi Hamann. The German midfielder was the guest pundit on a German TV outside broadcast on the lawn next to the patio bar where we were milling about. By the time they went on air a few hundred England fans had congregated around the impromptu tv set and proceeded to serenade Hamann and the German television viewers with hearty renditions of “5-1, in your own back yard” and the slightly more demeaning, “5-1, even Heskey scored”.
But for one of our number, it was to be a very special day indeed. While we were trying to acquire tickets, a bloke wearing an England Supporters Band t-shirt and cap came over to us and had a chat. He was carrying a trombone and said he needed a ticket. I recognized him, but didn’t know where from. I assumed it was because I’ve bumped into the Supporters’ Band before and that it was simply because of that. However, after helping him get a ticket from a tout, one bloke recognized him as Bernie Clifton, he of the Ostrich suit and the funny walk.
After telling Mike’s boss Ian who it was, he was both amazed and disappointed. He was dead impressed that it was Bernie Clifton, but was gutted (and I mean absolutely gutted) that he missed an opportunity to have a photo taken with him. Luckily for him, as he was repeating his tale of woe at missing out on a photo with Bernie a few hours later, the man himself appeared, complete with trombone and ostrich – and Ian got his photo. It was all he went on about. We were at the World Cup quarter finals, we’d just got tickets and he was more excited about having just met Bernie Clifton! He’s a Charlton fan, so I guess that’s why he was so excited – I doubt he’s been excited in a in or around a football ground for a fair few years. Judging by his reaction to meeting Bernie Clifton, how Ian makes it through panto season is beyond me…
After calming Ian down, we made our way into the stadium, which was without doubt the most impressive I’ve ever seen, just beating the Dragao stadium in Porto. Inside the ground the atmosphere was electric. There was a pocket of Portuguese support in one corner of the ground – about 5,000-8,000 at the most – and the rest of the stands were filled with the white and red of England. The roof of the stadium was shut, so all the noise was kept in – and the result was a cauldron of noise.
I need not say too much about the game itself, it was tense, tight and, from my position in the upper tier of the AufSchalkeArena, England looked the better of the two sides. Even after we lost Wayne Rooney to a red card, I never thought we looked particularly troubled by the Portuguese. They passed the ball around in front of the England defence, and spread the play well, using the full width of the pitch, but a couple of dangerous crosses and aside, they were restricted to hitting speculative shots from outside the box. I thought we looked relatively comfortable, considering the circumstances.
The match stats would almost certainly have shown the Portuguese had the lions’ share of the possession, and more efforts at goal. But our chances were more clear-cut, and we should have taken at least one of them. Frank Lampard was a revelation last season, but in the World Cup he looked tired and burnt out. He missed a series of chances again – and Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole spurned two of the best chances of the match. I watched the game absolutely convinced that we would score in extra time, but the goal never came. Sadly when it got to penalties and the whole ground joined in the singing of “Que Sera”, I’d already resigned myself to defeat. I was desperate to see us win, but deep down I knew we wouldn’t.
We lost the tie and tumbled out of the World Cup. The press will criticise Rooney for his supposed stamp on Ricardo Carvalho (I’ve seen it a couple of times and I’m not 100% convinced it was deliberate, nor am I convinced the ref saw it), but for me the blame has to lie with Sven. But the day as a whole was one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve had in my life. The England fans were absolutely amazing – and when the ground exploded into full voice, which it did on countless occasions during the match, it made your hairs stand on the back of your neck. It was an experience of a lifetime – a real “I was there” moment. We were even interviewed for German TV station ZDF after the match, where we struggled to express just how disappointed we were. We all thought we’d win it, but we all knew we’d lose when it came to pens.
Sadly, it was another match of glorious failure for our team – and the trip back to the hotel was rather quieter than we’d hoped. There was a bit of joking and laughing as we tried to raise the spirits, but for us, and for England, it was time to go home.