Well in a way, it has taken me well over three years to condense this amazing trip into words for a weblog, so here goes, and bear with me, we bunged a hell of a lot in here. This post is basically the third out of a four part 25th birthday celebration for me during Easter 2005. The other three parts have already been done on separate posts. As part of my 25th birthday I did five cities in a week, which were London (to party with John), Manchester (to watch England v. Northern Ireland), Berlin (to see the German capital on route to Warsaw), Warsaw (for my 25th birthday and for Poland v. Northern Ireland) and Loughborough (to represent Bournemouth University at the NASTAs). This particular post will cover my 25th birthday itself, the most memorable birthday I’ve had to date, and one which I spent in the Polish capital of Warsaw. If you feel the need to follow the story in its four parts, dig out the following posts in this order:
4-0 and you still don’t sing (Manchester, England)
Orangeburger Street (Berlin, Germany)
The NASTAs (Loughborough, England)
An explanation of the title will come later, its not an in-joke, its not even a joke.
So there I was on board the “party train” from Berlin Ost Bahnhof to Warsaw. The journey would take us through gorgeous countryside over a period of 6 hours of drinking. We passed through Frankfurt Oder and Poznan on the way to Warsaw on what was a excellent train journey. I couldn’t find a seat on the train, so I took my place in the corridor next to the Northern Ireland fans, my four pack of Becks and my CD player plus a range of CDs. Michael and Gavin were tired and found the three of us a wee “booth” which would be shared with two Polish people. I didn’t feel like sleeping at the time, it was pure adrenalin and an 8 day blitzer so I was going to enjoy myself. The previous few nights in Berlin we had mixed with the Glentoran NISC and North of England NISC boys in the bars of Berlin, and they were all on board the same train, as had been the original plan. So the party train was off and I found myself in the aisle without a seat next to Toddy, Rob, Nolers, Owen and loads of other Norn Iron fans. There were many comedy moments on what will always be known as the first ever “party train”
These moments included a Polish chav, clearly he was only about 15 but he saw us drinking and having a laugh, so he kept coming up and asking for beer. We took pity on him and he was a decent lad – quite a poor one, so in the end I think we gave him a tin and a half of beer – he was happy! I also visited the restaurant on the train, which was full of Northern Ireland fans. I got something quick to eat and started on the Polish beer there and then. It was Lech and I think I bought 3-4 bottles to top me up as the Becks was running out. Garreth Todd, or Toddy as he is most commonly known had his trademark green and white snake on the party train. This made for some photo opportunities and amusement among some regular travellers. Then there was the surreal “Anastasia moment”. Basically a pretty young Polish student came up to us on the train and we were all chatting to her, she spoke a wee bit of English which was great. Then we asked her what she studied and also what she had in her enigmatic black case. She said she was a music student and had a violin in her case. Cue a bit cheer from all of us begging her to sing us a song! So under the pressure of the hardcore GAWA, Anastasia got her violin out and started serenading us with a classical Polish number as we sipped beer on our way through Poland. A big rendition of “There’s only one Anastasia” rang out in the carriage, a pun there clearly being that the “famous” singer Anastasia (sorry I cant remember any of her hits) was not as good as this young lady. Soon Anastasia had hopped off the train at Poznan and another memory had faded, while I pumped Magic’s CD of Northern Irish tunes onto my wee CD Player.
Suddenly Snow Patrol were rocking Poland! Well on the old dukebox at least. At this point, John Hart of the North of England Northern Ireland Supporters Club came down, he had somehow managed to get past security, passport control and the border despite not having a ticket. Lucky git, I still don’t know how he managed it. However Mike, Gav and me all had our tickets bought in advance and simply got a check and a passport stamp by some hardcore peelers. Out of interest, the passport stamp was the first I’d ever got with a train logo on it, and it read…Frankfurt Oder, having been the second German city with the name Frankfurt, and this one the least well known and right on the border with Poland. I wasn’t really understanding the definition of “The Iron Curtain” but yet I knew I had passed into it. On the party train I stood with John Hart as Snow Patrol’s ‘Run’ came on the stereo, and we made up our own lyrics to it, it was something like: Sing up Ulster, we’ve followed you all our lives, even though we’ve had more lows than highs, we’ll be in the stand to cheer…”, many more tunes followed including plenty of Ash, where we discussed whether Tim Wheeler actually did write “Girl From Mars” about a “Girl From Ards.” As Dave Watson (the hardcore Bangor fan) joined in the conversation he remarked that both are the same thing. To be honest I still don’t know if there is any irony in the title of that song. One thing is for sure, it got a good Northern Irish singalong on the party train, as random Polish people refused to bow down to our lunacy, which at least was inspired by Polish alcohol, so in essence they caused it.
Its funny how certain random moments stick out in your memory, I vividly recall playing “Stand By Me” rather loudly (it is still my favourite Oasis, and therefore favourite, song) and Dave Watson was chatting away to me saying “did you know Lyla is the new song?” At the time I knew Lyla was the next Oasis single, and that Don’t Believe The Truth was to be the next Oasis album, what I didn’t know was the date that it would be first played on BBC Radio One. Dave told me the date and we had a good old Oasis reminiscing as the Polish chav kept asking for more beer. Soon I had been talking complete shite with Owen Millar, who I found out lived in Bristol. Suddenly there was a chance there and then to form a South of England Northern Ireland Supporters Club, give it a few months later and some inspiration from Basingstoke’s Tim Beattie and the club was formed. Another moment of insane beauty on a red coloured train in bleakest Poland. As I sipped my final drop of Lech, the train pulled up in Warsaw and we had arrived. My mates told me to cover up my stereo (hold on I’m an 80s kid, so ghetto blaster!) in case I got mugged/robbed. I hadn’t really prepared properly for the poor situation in Poland’s capital. So I covered up, we exited the train and Gavin, Michael and Dave led us within 4 minutes to the posh, soave Intercontinental Hotel, a five star almost eclipsing even the Palace of Culture and Science in this grey brick world. On checking in at the hotel we learned that the entire Northern Ireland squad were staying there, some 25th birthday present that!
Probably the most famous person who would recognise me is Warren Feeney, and that is because I have met him countless times, and as Dave Watson once said “Jonny loves to stalk Warren Feeney.” He’s a crackin lad, and never a dull moment with the enthusiastic East Belfast man. As I got into the lift to go up to our room, there was Warren Feeney, who happened to be staying in the room next to me and Gavin. He remembered me back then, as I had seen him and got his autograph and photo a few times at Dean Court. My wee brother has his autograph on a few AFC Bournemouth programmes. Feeney and I talked about the Cherries and then how Warren had left in tough circumstances and was shipped off to Stockport where he played under Sammy McIlroy. Warren, at this point had just joined Luton Town, who were then top of the third division (League One), and I joked that I’d see him again in a few weeks as I attended the AFC Bournemouth 0-1 Luton Town match. As far as celebrities go, Warren Feeney will ALWAYS stop and talk to you, no matter how busy he is, he will even laugh at people boo-ing him (as happened on his return to Bournemouth’s Dean Court), and he will always have a laugh. It was nice to see him in good form and so relaxed ahead of our match in Poland, which incidentally is the reason I was there – Poland v. Northern Ireland!!!
We got quickly showered and changed in the hotel room and then we were ready for some food and beer. It was my first time in Eastern Europe (well, the old communist block) and I had brought a wee bit of money for a change (aided by student loans and three different jobs I’d had in the previous year or so), and so we splashed out and enjoyed ourselves. We ate in the INtercontinental Hotel’s restaurant, The Hemisphere Bar downstairs in the basement. Sealed away from this former communist enclave, we ate and drank like kings watching Sky Sports news of Northern Ireland’s team news. It was the night before my 25th birthday. At the meal, I had some traditional Polish dish, of which I sadly cannot remember. That is because the eating of the meal was eclipsed by the one and only Dave Watson. Dave, on looking at the menu had opted for the “big burger” or the “monster burger” or whatever it was, it cost the equivalent of about a tenner (in Sterling) and the Polish waiter on taking the order said to Dave “you do know its a big burger right?”. Dave nonchalantly feeling hungry, said “Aye a know.” As we all sipped beers and spoke about all things from communism to Keith Gillespie to the party train to plans for the night, the food began to arrive. And there it was…Dave’s burger (photographed somehwere on here), which came on a large tray, and the burger itself was enough to feed me for five days. Not joking, it was a massive burger, with chips and salad, it really had to be seen to be believed. As we all munched our grub, we laughed at Dave’s attempt to eat the burger, which bate him and some was left, obviously…another hilarious moment from my archives of supporting Northern Ireland around the world. Its moments like this, above and beyond the football itself, that make sure I don’t give up this hobby of following my country at huge expense just yet!
Polish beer was Lech and I hung around with Michael and Gavin waiting for a few others to arrive that night as we would all go into town together. A “kitty” was sorted and I met up with Peter and Marc from the Bangor NISC, both new faces and then there were the Glenavon boys. This included Ian “Skin” McKinney, a very well cultured and educated young man, with a ferocious and vivacious sense of humour. I had met Skin in the Four In Hand (re-named then as Ryans) after a 4-1 defeat to Norway in 2004. I’ve often wondered how people like Skin aren’t famous, and his honesty alone is remarkable. The same man, after a 1-1 draw in Sweden in 2007, declared “I’m far from happy with that result, we still have Nigel Worthington in charge.” Anyhow Skin was there as we met many other Northern Ireland fans in Champions Bar, a very eloquent sports bar right opposite the train station in Warszawa. Flegs of many countries adorned the walls as did sporting heroes and a host of Northern Ireland fans filled “the ring” as it was known, a large raised section of the bar resembled a boxing ring. “You like it in the ring” was the stereotypical homosexual chant from the boys. The banter was great and a few Polish lads wished us good luck at the bar.
Grasping tankards, Mike, Marc and I began to think of songs about Poland and Warsaw we could sing. It had been the theme of the previous 7 days or so to sing “Is This The Way To Amarillo?”, which had been re-released by Tony Christie for charity. Marc mentioned that Legia Warsaw play at the Polish Army Stadium, where tomorrow night’s match was to be held, and we drafted the words “Is this the way to Legia Warsaw?” we sang it on its own in the bar, until Mike came up with the rhyming word “Coleslaw” and so a new song was born, “Every night I’ve been eating my coleslaw.” Ingredients of coleslaw then? Carrots, cabbage and mayonnaise, fitted perfectly into the final line of the song, and we had a new tune for the trip, one which I later sang live on FM Radio for Nerve in England. Also in the bar and in the hotel was Gareth Walker, who I went to school with, but strangely never spoke to at school. He was with his mate Chris and suddenly we were speaking in the bars about the match and the fact that it was my birthday the following night. As we finished a few more tankards in Champions Sports Bar, some NI fans had vanished for the night into places like the strip clubs, hotel bars and in to the old town. Some were merely saving themselves for the carnage of the following night – the big match!
Over the three years I’ve lost track of who exactly was in the bars with me at what times. What I do know is that we left Champions Sports Bar that night around 10 pm and headed into the Old Town. We ended up putting flegs up and getting the DJs to play Northern Ireland songs in the Irlanski Pub, a plastic paddy pub if you like on the very edge of Warsaw’s beautiful Old Town. In there they had signs up for Belfast and to please Skin they even had an old Glenavon top, which was clearly donated by a Glenavon fan when they had played against Legia Warsaw some years before. In the Irlanski pub that night were the Newtownards and Bangor boys, enjoying a wee bit of club to club banter as well. On the dancefloor however Mike had assembled some Northern Irish boys to give me “the bumps” just after midnight. That kind of fitted as I was born as 2.41 am, so I was basically 25. I didn’t mind the bumps and the sip of lager just after it was sweet as we had an amazing night in a pub which didn’t appear to know when to stop serving alcohol. Or was it that we didn’t want to go home.
I stood on a table with Silver (Alan Ferris), Rodney, Geordie, Stuart and others from the Bangor NISC singing all sorts of random tunes and drinking Polish vodka till the sun came up. I don’t think I made it that far. We had planned the next morning to do the sights and walk around the city to the Old Town, so I wanted to get some sleep. I was now 25, and somehow got back to the posh hotel to rest my head for the night. Soon it was breakfast in the hotel, and the boys were all looking fresh for the big day, I roomed with Gavin, we were both up pretty early and waited in the foyer. As we did this the rather attractive Claire McCollum came up with her microphone doing interviews. I really cannot remember if it was BBC or UTV, but somebody said “we want to filim some Northern Ireland fans outside the Palace of Culture and Science.” And there was our wee chance to be on TV back home. We danced doing the conga to “Is This The Way To Amarillo?” outside the Palace and the hotel. I can’t remember who all was in the video, I’m sure that there were three girls with pink and green t-shirts with “GAWA girls” written on it, one of them was the girlfriend of Ian Moore (“bald eagle”) from the Bangor NISC. The others in the mini dance included Skin, Dave Watson, Dean Nutt from Londonderry and Gavin and Michael. Gavin later told me that the whole event was videoed and later shown on UTV/BBC. I have never seen the footage, if anyone has it, I’d love to see it. That would be me in Warsaw on my 25th birthday dressed in green and white and doing the conga next to one of Stalin’s buildings. Surreal, but so real.
After that there followed a catch up breakfast in McDonalds (one on a corner on the walk down to the Old Town). I’d already eaten enough of the breakfast buffet included at the hotel to do me for most of the day, as it happenned. The walk down was on a chilly cold typical March morning in Eastern Europe. Someone announced on leaving the hotel to wear a coat because “its baltic out there.” “No, it literally is…” remarked the ever witty Skin as we pretended we weren’t in stitches on the peaceful dander down to the Old Town. The walk down included seeing a few other Northern Ireland fans and a boy in a green and white scarf. I shouted “green and white army” at him, getting no response and a totally bewildered look. It turned out he was a Legia Warsaw fan (who play in green and white) and he had no idea what I was talking about. On the walk down we passed the Pope’s Church. I think all of us were Protestants (could be wrong) but still we grabbed a photo opportunity and somebody stated “the poor lad is due to drop any minute.” And he was; within days the Pope was dead. I managed to get a wee video and some photos in the church that day, the videos of which could be transferred into digital form somehow. We also passed the University (noticed by a black fleg) and several poor Polish tramps begging for gold or money.
On arrival at the Old Town, bright pink and brown buildings eclipsed the sky and we all posed for many and various photographs, with Skin and Mike adding in some relevant points from history lessons. To be honest I don’t know a lot about Polish history, I shall have to get my many Polish friends to enlighten me further. Many market stalls were in view in the Old Town and I felt I should buy something. On such a chilly sunny day, I bought a “willy warmer,” I think it was probably just a green armband really, but Lauren would have found it funny so I bought it, and some postcards, one of which I must have posted to my housemates in England and one to family in Northern Ireland. I’m traditional like that, I send postcards from everywhere to my family, specifically to my kid brother Daniel. Much better than a text message, phone call or e-mail. Postcards have culture and travel, and personality. We then met Neil and Bob Millar and Scott Williamson on the walk. They had all travelled from Bangor as well and were old BB friends from the 1990s. There were certainly much more Northern Ireland fans than I expected. I remember meeting Richard Henry that morning, and he said something like “there were 8 of us in 2002 in Vaduz, 80 in 2003 in Armenia, just over 100 in 2004 in Estonia and now look at the Northern Ireland away support. It had grown enormously, there were around 600 I think in Warsaw that day for the match (check your stats).
Five minutes later and we were in a wee square in the Old Town. There all the Northern Ireland fans were drinking already, the pubs must’ve only just opened. There some photographers from Legia Live came up and took photos of me and Mike. We made it onto their website at the time, I don’t know where the address is anymore, but for some reason Mike had a flower in his mouth and I held up the NI scarf looking strangely like a terrorist (which someone else even mentioned at one point). There was a bar right there called “Drink Bar” so we all enjoyed a cool beer in the cold sun and the mini Square, where I also spoke to John Hart and Owen Millar. We were up for walking back to the hotel, having a swim in the pool getting some more food and drink before heading for the big match, so after a beer in “Drink Bar” we headed to do that.
I remember only me and Skin having a swim in the exotic leisure suite on the top floor of the Intercontinental Hotel. Overlooking the whole of Warsaw, it was one of the best swimming sessions ever. I also enjoyed a sauna and the steam room after this, even though they were filled with naked Polish and German guys. I think in Eastern Europe people go naked much easier, I wore my swimming trunks, but was happy that my willy was bigger than at least one of the naked guys, so Lauren needn’t have complained…after a brief swim it was beer and ready for the night out. Just before we did though, Mike had somehow lost his match ticket. Devastation all round for about 28 minutes until Northern Ireland kit man Derek McKinley stepped in with a free spare ticket. What a great guy!
I had a beer at the Plus One bar in the Hotel while I waited for the others, then it was back to Champions Bar for a few beers before we were due to join the official “Green and White Army March” to the Polish Army Stadium. In Champions I think Colin and I played against 2 Polish guys and lost. It was good fun. I remember seeing Ulster Jim, Steven Commando, Toddy and Jim Rainey all in there. These were some of the faces from Northern Ireland away matches, that I had read about in Our Wee Country and TAWSIE fanzines in the late 1990s. As I sold Here We Go…Again next to Marty Lowry he used to ask “when was the last away match you were at?” My answer was always the same “I haven’t been to one, but I go to EVERY home match.” Now suddenly I was in Warsaw for an away match and Marty wasn’t going to be there. Turning tables and changed times. My passion for the Northern Ireland team has always been the same.
A few quick beers in Champions bar and soon we were out on the streets with plastic glasses filled with beer. I found myself with wee Dean Nutt at this point as we joined in the massive march to the stadium all dressed in green and white and with Northern Ireland flegs. The march involved a lot of singing and spontaneous songs such as “Can we see the green man yet? No Oh!” We walked down many streets cheered on by locals and straight faced Polish peelers. I didn’t see or witness any trouble. As we neared the stadium, down a big hill, everyone needed a piss at the same time and all the boys pissed against the same wall in unison. One big happy family, eh? Once inside the stadium I was reunited with Gavin, Michael, Dave, Colin and everyone as we took a position bang in the middle of the Norn Iron support which was on the right hand side by a corner fleg next to the Polish support. There were a few Polish fans very close to us, but we witnessed no hostility at all. It was all friendly as I sang our anthem “God Save The Queen” and the boys in green and white kicked off. Early on James Quinn went off injured I think, as we sang his name and wee Warren Feeney came on as sub. We weren’t pressing Poland that much, but in the cold night, we were holding our own. Even with Colin Murdock in defence the Poles were kept at bay and of course we kept singing in the stands.
It was standing room only and half time chat was all about how we could snatch a 0-0 draw. The Poles were much fancied and had just bate Azerbaijan 8 or 9-0 a few days before. Their fans did Mexican waves and even “the bouncy” as the second half got underway. We continued to sing and time and time again, our goalkeeper Maik Taylor kept us in the match. That was until the 85th minute or so, when from the jaws of a draw, Poland snatched a 1-0 victory. We didn;t mount an effort to get an equaliser, there was no time. We had lost 1-0, and we all stood behind applauding a great performance, if not a draw or a win. The Polish fans to our surprise also stayed behind and sang “Northern Ireland!” in a Polish accent. It was great, and on a wee video below, you can see them singing it again the night we bate England 1-0 some months later.
As we walked out of the stadium, the code word of Coleslaw was used for those in our group if we got lost. We sang “Sweet Northern Ireland” a few times, with “If yer goin to the tittybar clap yer hands.” If was my 25th birthday and although I had a girlfriend back in Bournemouth (Lauren – and the relationship wouldn’t last forever anyway) I felt I had to go to the tittybar. We walked back to the hotel, at which point my camera and filims had run out and I had no photos left. This was a big regret of mine, as within 10 minutes I was chatting away to the entire Northern Ireland team. Keith Gillespie took the vacant seat at our table “Alright if I sit here lads?” Of course it was!! Great lad our Keith, and we talked for quite a bit over a beer and a cigarette. Keith Gillespie was one of our better players on the night and we went to the same school. I mentioned that I had met Keith before, 3 years ago in The Northern Whig in Belfast watching the World Cup Final. Gillespie was brilliant, stopping for autographs, and as I had no camera, I turned on my mobile phone and got a photo with him on that (albeit a blurred one). I also spoke to David Healy, Maik Taylor and Andy Smith that night. I was one of the rare Andy Smith fans. Most Northern Ireland fans didn’t have much time for Andy, who always worked hard and gave 100%, but just wasn’t up to the standard of international football. He played brilliantly for us against Spain in 2002, had been guilty of a terrible miss in the Greece match in 2003, and here he was enjoying a wee beer with me in Poland on my 25th.
The funniest thing about Andy Smith was that in his head he thinks he is a legend! That particular night he walked into the bar wearing a red and white Russian style communist jacket. It was actually pretty decent, and he admitted he had just bought it that day round the corner for about a tenner. The lads ripped the piss out of him. It gets surreal when you’re in a bar in Warsaw on your birthday taking the piss out of international footballers because of their dress sense. The entire Northern Ireland team that night signed my CD sleeve of “Is This The Way To Amarillo?’,” even Gerry Armstrong and Lawrie Sanchez signed it. It was a great night. As the beer flowed, the lads talked of the “tittybar”, I wanted to see some boobs and fannies, but was still wearing my green wig and Northern Ireland top. Peter from the Bangor NISC told me to take the wig off and dress sensibly!! e were going to a tittybar for fuck sake! I did take the wig off but kept the NI top on. The entry price was around £10 and hot blondes dangled their bits in front of us…
In the Polish Tittybar/Stripclub (off a side street near the main train station – I could take you to it) I drank a few beers and also a blue curacao and lemonade, my tipple. I bought two private lapdances, and Marc from the Bangor NISC paid for one since it was my birthday. One of these was in a room on its own, round the back and I took my pants off for it, with the Estonian lap dancer feeling me up as well and she also let me feel her fanny. That was unusual for a strip club, I really enjoyed it, but knew that Lauren back home would get rid of me if I had sex, so I didn’t and to be honest I’d rather have shagged Lauren than some hot Estonian at that particular time. During the entire time in the lapdancing club, there were some rather bizarre moments. There was the chant of “Northern Ireland!” and “Who are ya?” as THREE Northern Ireland internationals walked into the strip club. Seeing the place was oozing with fans, they quickly turned around and walked back out. I know who the players were I even spoke to one of them in there, but I won’t admit it on here, one of them no longer plays football. After all Northern Ireland internationals are humans, if they want a lap dance, why not? They’re just the same as you and me. Michael and Skin were also in the stripclub, but turned down lapdances cos they also had partners back in Northern Ireland. By 4 am I was with Toddy, John Hart and Magic in there singing “Brazilians, its just like watching Brazilians”, and before I knew it I was back in the hotel knowing we had a 9 am flight back to London Luton.
I quickly got changed, no time for sleep, grabbed some breakfast where I met Kibby from the UUJ NISC (he was only there to meet the players) and me, Colin, Michael and Gavin got a taxi back to the Frederic Chopin Airport. I didn’t have a beer there, my throat was sore from singing. I just rested waited on my flight and thought back on memories of a wonderful three days in Warsaw. Happy times, good times, and possibly as mad as life ever got. Once you know youve had a beer and been in a stripclub with an international footballer, there’s not a lot of sanity left in you. Believe me…