One night in May


Fulham to Hamburg via Zurich

billp



The ‘E Block crew’ out in Hamburg (from l to r): Stevie H, Honk, Kev’, Rio, Simon, billp.


After more fantastic performances at Craven Cottage we finally made it into a major European final, heading back to Hamburg to meet Atletico Madrid. But despite narrowly losing so cruelly late in the game, what a fantastic night and what a terrific season it’s been! And what a phenomenal effort by all concerned (not least by the stoic band of fans who’ve overcome considerable obstacles, including the spewings of an irate volcano, to follow FFC to so many European outposts).

Well, it all seems so long ago now and it’s difficult to put into words but, like so many others, the journey the seven (10 when the three Irish contingent are included) of us made to be present at Fulham FC’s most historic moment to date seemed to be as epic an undertaking as the Team’s meanderings through the Tournament. Admittedly, all we had to do was decide which of the many options available to us should we take.

As we only knew that we would indeed be playing in the final very late in the day, in common with most Fulham fans, we had little time to decide and then arrange the trip. It’s fair to say that apart from the odd overseas friendly, we haven’t had a great deal of experience at this European Competition malarky. Little did we know, but it transpires that the followers of the ‘Big Teams’ book tickets for the final before they’ve even kicked a ball in the early stages, that’s how it seemed anyway judging by the amount of Liverpool fans that arrived in Hamburg despite their semi-final defeat.

One thing we had decided, before the Semi-Finals, was that if our team made it all the way to the Final, for us there’d be no one-day trip there and back. No, we’d make a short break of the occasion. Given the problems encountered by some, I reckon that turned out to be a sound move!

Next the not un-thorny problem of guaranteeing that we could actually get hold of match tickets. As we discussed this on the way back to Putney immediately after the home Semi-Final victory we didn’t realise that the Club would make the ridiculous assumption that every season ticket holder would need 4 tickets each. Just who on God’s Earth do the Club employ these days that sorts this stuff out. I’m pretty certain that they are not fans, do not work in the ticket office and probably have never herd of ticket touts (remind me, ticket touting is actually a criminal offence is it not?). From my perspective there is a rather good chance that the interviews for some of these decision-makers took place in the monkey house at London Zoo. Well nuts to the lot of ‘em!

Anyway, we decided the best way would be to do what we usually do for away games, one of us volunteers is nominated/coerced into being the Ticket Gatherer. As the red column in my bank statements is larger than the credit column I was ruled out, therefore Kev’ took charge of our Season Tickets before we went our different ways home. “I heard that they go on sale at the Cottage Ticket Office at 7.00am tomorrow”, quoth he, “I can be there when they open”.

It transpired that was not quite true as Kev’, in keeping with many other early-birds who decamped outside said TO at 05.30 the following morning discovered.

Had it not been for an Angel of Mercy in  the form of Ticket Office Manager (and life-long and devout Fulhamite and generally lovely person) Sandra Coles who must have had a sleepless night and suddenly realised with a bolt from above that, maybe, just maybe, the announcement over the Club PA after the game would probably not be heard by the majority of delirious fans leaving the scene who would be totally oblivious to the news that, no, tickets on sale online or ’phone only at 07.00!

So when Sandra arrived at 07.15, she found the bleary-eyed thing and gave them the good news. This caused an outburst of Blackberrying/iPhoning/Nokiaing etc, all with the same effect... no chance!

Obviously, as anyone who has attempted to arrange tickets online or by the telephone ticketing system will tell you, this can be hit or miss even for the most routine of games. For a chance to go to a European Final, in Europe surely an impossible task.



To compound the problem, with every season ticket holder permitted FOUR tickets each, they’d each take the entire Accrington Stanley fan-base along for the ride too (some of those unfortunates who missed out through no fault of their own will assert that this was written in the Bible!). Suffice to say that despite me forgetting that my son Simon no longer has a season ticket due to weekend work commitments so was left out in the initial ticket-round, Kev’ came up trumps some time after arriving at his office. Luckily but after an entire morning on various telephones on various calls to various people, I also managed to get a ticket for Simon at least in the same part of the stadium, albeit some way away from the other seats.

On to the seemingly less complicated travel and accommodation arrangements. While in the Stadium Club Shop the day after the Semi-Final, I flukily obtained the details of a Hotel whose owner had rung FFC offering a discount rate for FFC fans. Job done – three nights booked, and flights arranged via Swiss Air. Booking transport proved to be easier said than done, it took a frustrating couple of days online attempting to sort out. it appears that booking travel for parties of up to six is a doddle, factor in a seventh passenger and the fun begins. Anyway all’s well… except I parked in Wandsworth on the way back home from  the Cottage so that Rio could visit a bank. I mis-read the Red Zone timing restrictions and was awarded a £80 ticket, so sure was I at the time that I’d been stitched up that I photographed the signs… I admit it, I was at fault, we arrived at 15.45 but overstayed by five minutes, I couldn’t resist ogling the classic car showrooms around the corner!


An expensive 5 minutes!


Our journey was as smooth as could be, Heathrow to Zurich, Zurich to Hamburg, the reverse for the return. Listening to the various horror stories from other mates about their travels certainly made me realise how lucky we’d been when deciding to make a mini-break of the Final. It left us plenty of time to enjoy the city, the food and particularly the German Bier……Prost!

So uneventful were our travels that it’s hard to dress up our time in Germany as anything other than routine. No difficulties travelling, no problem getting from the airport to our hotel, although it proved to be somewhat in the middle of nowhere in particular. We had an afternoon in Hamburg (avoiding the rowdiest of the watering holes which were full of Fulham fans who all appeared to have been drinking for three days) and a terrific session back at the hotel.

Next morning, more tourist behaviour and a civilised day in all before dipping back for a couple of nerve-soothing drinks and a meet-up with the three members of the Irish Branch of E Block who had arrived by road that morning.


Stevie H outside the Rathaus.


Getting to the stadium on match day and the return into Hamburg Central though proved rather more interesting. To say that German efficiency was totally absent from parts of the arrangements would be on the button, but the laughably poor policing and directing/assisting of both sets of supporters to get from the Reeperbahn to the Nordbank was pathetic. It’s a miracle that there were no accidents on the platforms in Hamburg Central, so crowded were the platforms and so ebullient/wasted/drunk seemed so many fans.

The fact that there was only one minuscule display board at one end of the platform (entrances to the street came in from both ends) which seemed to have been produced on a school kid’s classroom PC. This explained that there there were two destination stations, each catering for the two sets of fans and both reached by differently designated routes from the same platform. The problem was that it was by the bottom of the stairs at the opposite end of the platform to the entrance that lay nearest the Main Reeperbahn entrance. Hence it was visible to roughly one percent of those coming onto the platform, as 99% of them were arriving from the other end.

Needless to say, there were no officials from the Station, the Police or UEFA to help with this so naturally the hordes swept into the first train to appear. The weight of numbers meant it was going nowhere as despite resembling a 17th Century Slave ship packed to the gills, more and more ebullient/wasted/drunk fans still tried to squeeze on.

We hadn’t bothered trying to get on as it was clearly the Atletico train, now filled with a noisy mob comprising both sets of fans. It was total melt-down, the train was going nowhere. When a train came in on the other platform going the other way, we took and boarded the appropriate train one stop down the line and when we made it back to Hamburg Central, witnessed the whole scene repeated from the comfort of our seats.

On arrival at our destination about a 10-minute drive to the Stadium, buses were provided, sadly order here was almost as slack although we had armed police to stop us from stepping off the kerb while waiting for transport. Buses though were in short supply and the continental system of queuing was in operation, ie non-existent! So what with the masses of people forced on the pavement waiting patiently, the even larger masses arriving from each train and the scarcity of buses, it was beginning to appear as if we may never make kick-off.

Ten minutes later with an ever-increasing thong of Atletico and FFC fans waiting, a bendy-bus arrived. Good old manners went the way of Elton John’s hairline and I’m not proud to say I legged it and used my elbows like the best, frankly it was the only way. Unbelievably all seven of us were on the same bus, although it wasn’t until we alighted at the stadium that we knew that, so crowded was it.



Kev said he hadn’t been touched like that since public school.



Approaching the Nordbank Arena, at this stage still hopeful of a successful evening.


No point in describing the game, although we went as mad as any Fulham fans when Simon Davies drilled home the leveller. We all know only too well how it turned out but regarding more mundane matters, we were gobsmacked to find wandering beer-sellers (no not Bier Kellars) doing the rounds all over the stadium, something we weren’t expecting considering the UEFA ruling. I wasn’t tempted as I reasoned it’d be over-priced, warm and only make frequent visits to the gents a certainty. We didn’t discover from others when we finally made it back to our Hotel at some unearthly hour, that it was all of those things, and in addition, alcohol-free!

It’s also worth mentioning the choice of ‘music’ that Diddy was told he had to play. The Atletico followers had a song they all knew and bellowed it out with gusto. Great, I thought, our turn next... but instead of ‘Viva El Fulham’ (ok, ok, cheesey, hackneyed, out of date etc but at least everybody knows it) or one of the current fan anthems such as ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ we were given a ditty from the Black Eyed Peas. Nice tune, but one for the players (apparently), not us fans. Cue sideways looks from all of us and numerous shrugs of shoulders – and virtually no Fulham fan singing. What a chance missed! 1-0 to the Spaniards and an own goal by whoever drew up the playlist!

We left the stadium after the team had done their rounds and Woy waved goodbye (cynics amongst us commented that it appeared to be a ‘adieu’ moment rather than an ‘au revoir’). Our return to base was sadly worse than the journey to the game, again due to the lack of signage, direction of help from the organisation, we followed the crowds out from the Fulham End expecting to collect our buses. After what seemed an interminable trek through a forest surrounded lane, completely unlit by any street lights, guess what, no sight of any buses, just a dual carriageway resembling the North Circ’.


We asked a copper, he directed us down said dual carriageway, ‘only five minutes walk to your station,’ quoth he. Honk navigated from the very basic map in the UEFA guide, he’s very good like that, however, we walked for 15 minutes before the iPhone proved we’d been sold a pup and had walked the wrong way to a fictitious station. Then a convoy of the buses like that one we’d travelled to the stadium in, roared towards us and disappeared back the way we’d by now walked for around 30 minutes. Needless to say, after another 15 minutes, they passed us going in our correct direction, crammed full of Fulham fans… at this point, we hailed the first two cabs we’d seen all night!

At last we made it back to the hotel where the friendly and generous Atletico contingent stood us drinks. We were then presented with bandanas publicising the bar of one of the Spanish fans, see the pic of us with the ‘Giant Underpants’ in the gallery below.

At least we had a whole day after the game to spend more time in the fascinating City of Hamburg, spending most time around the dock area, visiting the Queen Mary ll where Rio was able to point out the cabin in which he and his lovely missus had been wonderfully looked after. We also made friends with a Hamburg fan who was on duty at his café manning the outdoor sales kiosk. Cheers René, those complimentary coffees and pastries were well appreciated.


Hamburg fan René Olgammer makes the nicest fish delicacies in Hamburg!


As most are aware, another must-visit location in Hamburg is the miniature railway, although that is to sell it short – ‘Miniatur Wunderland’ is mind-boggling, it’s more than just a model railway, it’s a model Earth!


A little clip of Miniatur Wunderland.


The closest thing to anything marginally amusing happening on the return trip occurred while we were waiting for our Flight’s Gate to be announced about 10 minutes walk from the gates in a rather open and spacious waiting area. It was all very pleasant and so much better than the tight and convoluted Heathrow equivalent. Anyway, Stevie H went for a nature break and while he was away, two extremely large gentlemen appeared, and sat 10 yards in front of where we were perched. When I say large, these guys were 30 stones each minimum. Hey, that’s even larger than ‘Big Jim’ Stannard!

Stevie H’s face was a picture when, on returning from powdering his nose, these fellas were pointed out to him. “I bet you’ll have one either side of you on the plane mate,” I teased. “Better blooming not, they shouldn’t be allowed to fly carrying that much weight!” was his size-ist retort.

The expression on his face and the fact that he kept going on and on in a most indignant and pained way just made us all laugh and of course ladle it on by the bucket load. He was an easy target, although the more he whinged the louder his voice became. I’m sure the blokes could hear him – I hoped they were non-English speakers. Mind you, I reckon we’d outstrip them if we had to leg it!

When eventually we were called to the gate, Steve almost exploded when he saw they were there too. “They’d better not be on our ‘plane,” he spluttered, eyes popping and his cheeks afire, “the plane’ll crash with all that weight!” In the event we didn’t see them as we boarded and he sat across the aisle from me with an empty seat next to him.

Then, just as we were preparing for take-off, a stewardess came down the aisle, followed by, yup, you guessed it, our big mates! They had two seats each and sat two rows in front of us... laugh, I should have taken a photo’ of Stevie’s face, he was genuinely panicking that the plane wouldn’t be able to leave the ground. Needless to say we wound him up the entire flight. It turned out the blokes were from Liverpool who’d obtained tickets well before their team got dumped out. Considering that they’ve subsequently nicked our manager, I hope they get relegated and bounced out of every competition next season... fat chance!

Back on terra firma and with the new season approaching, it’s still hard to take in that we were ultimately edged out by one offside goal and a deflected strike just three minutes from the end of extra time. Fulham make it to a major European Final after a series of heroic displays and here we are gutted to have been beaten by the narrowest of margins. My how times have changed!



An exclusive overhead shot of the Nordbank Arena taken for TOOFIF by billp from his personal helicopter  – which, in fact, looks uncannily like Hamburg’s stadium as depicted at the city’s ‘Miniatur Wunderland’.





 

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