This is a break from the usual travel and lifestyle posts on here and I’m glad to be finally writing about watching football again, not just on my own site but I’ve done a load of football articles recently, including on UFWC. Football has played a big part in my travels, it’s a MASSIVE part of my life and when things went wrong, I had to pick myself up and ponder on what might have been. I should be known as the football backpacker in fact – the visa tips and travel essentials will have to wait as I write about my long awaited return to Norn Iron (Northern Ireland) matches in October 2013.
When Don’t Stop Living started in 2007, I was chairman of the South of England Northern Ireland Supporters Club. I was based in the south of England at the time and I was a season ticket holder at AFC Bournemouth and a block booker at Windsor Park in Belfast in Northern Ireland. Somehow, in the madness of it all, I managed not to miss a Northern Ireland home match from 1996 – September 2009, yes and I still did a load of backpacking and cheap travel trips in those days too.
Yet, I haven’t been to a Northern Ireland home match since 2009. Before that I had already backpacked to places like Russia, Germany, USA, China and New Zealand (all in 2004 – 2007) and I eyed up Taiwan, Australia and South America next. Within a week or two of Northern Ireland’s home defeat to Slovakia in 2009, that was it – I was off – I was backpacking through Taiwan, loving life again after being suicidal for most of 2009. But I made the decision in February 2009 not to attend any more Northern Ireland matches, except those already booked (I had my tickets already for a few). I said I would NEVER go to a match again, Bournemouth, Glentoran or Northern Ireland. I was on a down and out of touch. Life had to change and I was done with the past and moved on. Bang – that was it. A light backpack was all I had as I headed for the city of Xinying on Taiwan.
From Taiwan onwards, things changed for me. I was happy again. I had new friends. My lifestyle improved, this blog progressed into a business, my travels took me to all seven continents, I met the best girl ever in Antarctica and I decided to base myself in Hong Kong for a while, working both online and in local schools and bars. I still loved and watched Northern Ireland everywhere I went though – the entire time. Even though I tried to change – I couldn’t – it was in my heart. Nobody could get me so down or depressed that I would miss a Northern Ireland match. Nobody.
I watched the matches on my laptop, I kept tabs via Facebook, BBC and Our Wee Country. I just didn’t attend the matches anymore. I even formed two new Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs on the move – one in Tasmania in 2010 and one in Hong Kong in 2012. When 2013 came round I looked at the fixtures and fancied the Azerbaijan away match so I set my mind on it. It seemed like the closest match to my base in Hong Kong and my girlfriend Panny was up for it. Neither of us had been to the Middle East properly before and it was our next backpacking adventure. We had the option of free tours and hostels thrown into the mix through my travel writing and we were off – Israel, Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Jordan etc… Another mate of mine was also meant to come to the match, but pulled out. We didn’t even have a visa for Azerbaijan until the day before we entered the country! We got our visas in Batumi, Georgia. I contacted the Irish FA in Belfast and got 2 tickets sorted and it was happening.
I was off to watch Northern Ireland again. I’m a big Northern Ireland fan. I still have my Mexico 86 scarf that my Dad bought me for the World Cup. I was there all through the 90s too and even the Healy years – when we beat England, Spain and Sweden. Those were the glory days. These days, we’re not quite as good! It had been almost 5 years since an away match and over 4 years since any match at all and I was happy to be back again.
Life had taken a turn for the better and I was looking forward to becoming part of the Green and White Army once again. A few of my old Northern Ireland buddies were going – Nial Coulter, Andrew Milliken (Moby) and Garreth Todd. The hardcore fans would be at this one though oddly my good old NI supporting buddy Graham Anderson wasn’t there. But all was set! Bring it on!
After arriving in Baku by train the day before the match I headed out with some lads for a few beers – I couldn’t believe there were only about 13 of us in a wee bar in central Baku. I met Davy McKinley, Kibby and Paul Ballard in there and we enjoyed the local pints of Xirdalan (I believe).
Match day arrived and I was interviewed on Sky Sports along with Shaun Schofield. In the intervening years, I had written a chapter for Shaun Schofield’s book “Albania to America with Belfast in between”.
We collected our tickets on the same day that we toured the James Bond Oil Fields, the amazing Qobustan Rock Inscriptions and the Mud Volcanoes. In our hostel dorm in the Caspian were two Polish girls who were due to leave Baku early the next morning, so we invited them to the match and low and behold, not only did they come to the match, but they wore green and they were issued with free tickets from the IFA!
A few beers by the sinking sun over the Caspian Sea and it was time to head to the stadium. It was emotional.
Azerbaijan are not a great team. In fact they are dire. I really believed in my heart that we would win. The problem was I had only watched Northern Ireland online for the last 4 years on my travels. I didn’t really know we weren’t that good any more. I was actually a bit out of touch – I didn’t even know all the songs anymore! But I got into the new ones pretty quickly – they didn’t even have anything to do with football! “Gerry knew”, “We are the Peru 2” and “You can lick my hole again”.
We had our own small green and white section in the crowd, some 39 of us and we all sang loud and proud for our wee country. By half time we should have been winning, but it was 0-0. That is – if possession counts for anything. It doesn’t. The only thing in football that is important is scoring goals. It’s fact. Nobody cares how you score them. Yes, we would all love to be like Maradona or George Best and score exquisite goals every time, but at the end of the day, just putting the ball in the net will do.
I was surprised to learn that on a few websites, Azerbaijan were actually the online favourite for the match, probably because of home advantage as both teams are mediocre if truth be told. At half time though, it was 0-0 and we had played better. Despite a bit of half time optimism, we all knew the story. When you support Northern Ireland the word “conceding” becomes all too common.
It took the Azeris just 13 minutes of the second half to score their first. From there, realistically we were trying to salvage a point. Then in the last minute, Jonny Evans ridiculously launched into a crazy tackle, got himself sent off and gifted Azerbaijan a free kick within shooting range. They scored it. We lost 2-0.
Life had gone FULL CIRCLE again and freaked me out. My first ever Northern Ireland match had finished 0-2 (a home defeat to Yugoslavia in September 1990), my “last ever” Northern Ireland home match had finished 0-2 (a home defeat to Slovakia in September 2009) and I should have seen it coming. The 2-0 defeat was inevitable. Match Report on the BBC.
At the Final whistle, we headed to meet the players. We had a right to. Some of these lads had spent a fortune following the team in the previous few years, only to suffer horrendous results – a 1-1 draw in the Faroes, a 3-2 defeat in Luxembourg, a 6-0 crushing by Holland etc.
A few of the players spoke to us. Alan Mannus, our reserve goalkeeper gave me his top kindly. Thanks Alan! I have worn it in a few places around the world since. But the team were woeful. We made amends the following Tuesday with a 1-1 draw in Israel, but my return to watching Northern Ireland had ended in defeat.
After the match the Azerbaijan FA gave a load of Northern Ireland fans free shirts. It was incredible. The hospitality was immense. I got free shirts and socks, plus a football programme for my collection. Then we headed to the Shakespeare Bar for a mega drowning our sorrows party. It was my first Northern Ireland match in my 30s and I felt it, though I still partied until about 4am. Whiskey and beer go hand in hand when following Norn Iron: “Drinking all over the world”.
The Azerbaijan FA put a $200 US tab on the bar and gave us all free whiskey. Amazing hospitality. We toasted to their win – we weren’t good enough over the 90 minutes. After the music and drinking in the Shakespeare, I ended up with Kyle from Lurgan and his English girlfriend in a wee local bar called Vertigo drinking creme de Menthe.
It had been an emotional return to watch my beloved Northern Ireland and by chance I would get to see the boys AGAIN the following month in a fluke friendly in Adana, Turkey.
Bring on the next one. I’m back.
Green and White Army!
* Apologies to my regular readers who were expecting more backpacking tips, travel essentials etc. today. This is my travel lifestyle blog and I love to mix it up. I don’t want to be an also ran.
Safe travels one and all.