After a long, barren and parched summer, I needed a fix. Football is back! It’s August in Europe and most typical football destinations are prohibitively expensive and blighted by over-tourism. Never mind, because Michael O’Learys fine folks at Ryanair have a penchant for the unfrequented and lesser visited locations. Where else but Poznan and Eindhoven? I have been released from my pre-season prison.
The first stop is Poland, and after an eye wateringly early departure, I land at the tiny airstrip masquerading as a commercial airport. In the west of the country, Poznan is the 5th largest city and one of the oldest, and on my cultural exploration of history, art and architecture, also cheap vodka. A beautiful renaissance style old town is a delight to walk around in the midday sun, heightened by a short stop at Pijalnia wódki i Piwa, where a beer, vodka and sandwich can be procured for less than 20 zloty, or approx £4. If you want to groundhop on a budget, this is the place.
The city holds a strange juxtaposition, as it’s clearly a very old, storied, slightly decrepit town, but brand new trams and a thriving independent boutique scene. Time to head to my reasonably priced but opulent hotel for a quick rest (read, beer) and get ready for the match. As I leave the hotel, I spot a coach out front and note that it happens to be for tonight’s opposition team, Slask Wroclaw. I talk to two men in branded tracksuits who turn out to be coaches, I tell them I am coming to the match, they ask with no small hint of incredulance “Are you crazy?”. Quite. I offer them luck as I head for the match (which I would later regret), and think briefly about asking them for a lift. One thing I did notice as I was walking away, was a small boy of no more than 10 skipping away from the hotel with a huge grin clutching a homemade A3 poster with signatures of the Wroclaw players, the innocence and audacity of youth raised a smile.
The INEA Stadion is a 42,000 capacity, relatively newly built and sanitized modern arena built for Euro 2012, has a curved canvas roof which does a great job of keeping atmosphere in, and the now seemingly compulsory, LED exterior.
The atmosphere is exactly what struck me at first, a large group of Ultras congregated behind one goal to my right and did not stop with flags, banners, tifo and chanting. Honestly, never quite heard a racket like this. The away fans, despite the vast distances of awaydays in Poland, turned up in good numbers, leading an intimidating corteo around the stadium.
It’s kick off time, top plays third, and the only player I recognise is Football Manager 19 wunderkid Robert Gumny who has been linked with Celtic. Another thing that hit me was the intense smell of turf, that sounds strange as it should be a given at a football match but it isn’t, and it transported me back to the halcyon days of sunday league and Puma Kings. If you are after a match report, you have come to the wrong place, as I spent a lot of the time staring at the rampant home fans who continued to dazzle, and despite being 3-1 down at half time, on 70 mins, let of flares and smoke bombs of biblical proportions to create a thick, red smog that engulfed the stadium. 3-1 is how the game finished (told you I shouldn’t have offered the Slask coaches luck), a truly memorable atmosphere from fans who never booed their team and a new stadium with character, it’s off to the local Irish bar to recover!
Another early morning and it’s back to Poznan airport for a short hop back across Europe to Eindhoven. The Eredivisie is a groundhopping dream, or so I thought. The fixtures are announced at the start of the season for the entire year both the date and kick of time, and rarely change. The conditional rarely is doing a lot of work here, as a few days before travelling, my plans were thrown into disarray.
I had a ticket purchased for PSV Eindhoven (a ten minute walk from my hotel), but FC Basel very selfishly beat them in a Champions League qualifier, which meant PSV dropped into the Europa League and Thursday night matches, and therefore their fixture was moved to Sunday at 17:45, some four hours after I was due to take off for home. Never fear in the Netherlands is a maxim worth remembering, as it’s a very small and flat country, with an excellent Intercity rail network and a quick look at the fixtures informed me Willem II were playing on Saturday night, a mere 35km or 20 minute train ride away from Eindhoven. Never doubt the Eredivisie and the fixture gods!
A quick email to the ticket office and my place is reserved in Vak E. Tilburg, the quaint student city, happened to be hosting Flag Week, culminating in Flag Day on the Saturday (I know, exciting times!) where everyone hangs Willem II paraphernalia all over the town. I am told this emanates from Bristol City, who do the same thing before their first home game of the season, and the two clubs have a friendship. These friendships, or gemellagi are a very strange thing, for example, Juventus and Notts County, Ado Den Haag and Legia Warsaw, and Ajax and Millwall and Vicenza. Nonetheless, this useless knowledge would come in handy for me.
The 14,500 capacity Koning Willem II is a tidy little stadium with a curved roof and a wonderful brick facade that wouldn’t look out of place on a terraced house on the commuter belt. I make my way to the stand to try to find my seat and struggle to, so ask a steward who tells me to just sit anywhere. I find a plot and within seconds a large gentleman asks me to move, I of course apologise profusely and we strike up a conversation. He asks where I am from and points to the terrace behind the goal. He says in the most monotone and matter of fact way “they make the atmosphere, we make the fights”.
I then tell him, without a second’s hesitation, I support Bristol City. It’s the smartest move I make all weekend as he high fives me, nearly knocks me over and introduces me to the rest of his friends, each bigger than the last, and tells me he is going to buy me a beer! I felt like a combination of Danny Dyer and Louis Theroux at this point, but I couldn’t be safer. Right next to Vak E (home of the hooligans) is the away mob for Vitesse Arnhem and my eyes are drawn to a rather large, bald man sporting a Stone Island jumper whose best days were no doubt behind him, but you still wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark Vak. It’s a fractious atmosphere and Vitesse take a 1-0 lead. Cue beer throwing, and lots of banging on the perspex that separates the two groups of ultras. The aforementioned large gentleman tried in vain to scale the fence to comedic effect.
As the game petered out, there were dueling Allez Allez Allez chants (Liverpool have a lot to answer for here) and not much else. A late second from Vitesse meant game over and I had an Intercity to catch back to Eindhoven. Side note, well done to the diligent Dutch police who questioned me at length when I left for taking so many pictures, they said they thought I was a terrorist. I showed them my Diaries of a Groundhopper Instagram as proof I was just a really cool Groundhopper, a quick check of my passport, handshakes all around and I’m away. A memorable trip with some spectacular atmosphere, intimidating fans, average football and almost a night in a Dutch prison. Where next!?