With the recent change in fortunes of our football team, Newcastle United, following the (some would say controversial) sale to rich owners, there is a sense of optimism among the Toon Army. And who are the Toon Army, you ask? They are the fans who follow the Toon (Geordie dialect for ‘town’) through thick and thin, good times and bad.
We have been through some of those less good times under the previous owner. But back in the 1990s and early 2000s we regularly managed to qualify to play in the European tournaments, the Champions League or what was then known as the UEFA Cup, now the UEFA Europa League. Short trips away to watch the match were regular features in our travel diaries. And win or lose, we always had a good time. Newcastle fans are quite used to losing; we take it philosophically, as long as the team tries hard and gives us some exciting moments during the match. We also always made time to see something of the towns and cities in which we played. Football took us to many places we wouldn’t otherwise have visited.
So for Terri’s Sunday Stills challenge theme of Meaningful Memories this week, let me share with you a few of the more memorable among those trips, in the hopes that one day soon we will be able to again follow the Toon in Europe!
Feyenoord, Rotterdam (2002/3 season)
We had a particularly memorable win here; a late goal by Craig Bellamy took us into the final stages of the Champions League. Unusually for us we didn’t stay in the city overnight but in a small seaside town some distance away which our friend knew from family holidays. The following morning we celebrated with a walk on the beach!
Olympique Marseille (2003/4 season)
Our main memory of our UEFA cup semi final away leg in Marseille isn’t of the match itself, which was a disappointing defeat, but of drinking one of the bars dry before it! Yes, we were drinking in one of the harbourside bars with many other Toon fans when the barman announced they were out of beer, ‘forcing’ us to move to the next bar along.
Our sightseeing the next morning saw us return to the harbour area, where there was some sort of military ceremony in the Fort Saint Jean. We also had a walk and lunch in the old town.
Panionios, Athens (2004/5 season)
We nearly missed the start of this match! Our flight from London was delayed by an air traffic controllers’ strike; but a slightly maniacally taxi driver got us from airport to hotel (to dump bags and pick up our friend) and then to the stadium on time for the 1-0 victory!
It’s a small team and ground in an Athens suburb, so after the game we had a challenge getting back to the centre. Another friend who was with us hailed what he thought was a cab. But it turned out to be a private car. We took the driver’s backwards nod to mean agreement to drive us to our destination. Only later did we remember that in Greece that nod means no, not yes!
So we piled in and the bemused driver followed our somewhat garbled directions and kindly dropped us near the square where we celebrated long into the night, enjoying the unaccustomed November warmth as well as the result.
The next day, as is our habit, we took the time to see something of the city. But you can’t really do Athens justice in a day; we must go back some time!
Sporting Lisbon (2004/5 season)
This was the first of two football visits to Lisbon; the other was for a match against Benfica in the 2012/13 season, our last competitive match in Europe, for the time being at least! We lost both games; and this one was a particularly disappointing result as we’d been doing well and had reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA cup, beating Sporting in the first leg at home. Despite these defeats however the city remains one of my favourites in Europe!
After this match we gathered with friends in a city centre bar to drown our sorrows. It didn’t take too long; we’re accustomed to losing and the evening soon became one of friendly reminiscence and a few songs from one of our number.
And as always we made time for some sightseeing the following day.
Lillestrom, Oslo (2006/7 season)
This was an early season Intertoto match. Our previous visit to Oslo for football had been for a game against Vålerenga in midwinter a couple of years earlier; now we were here in bright summer sunshine! We had a comfortable 3-0 win, the first step in a run of successes that would take us into the main UEFA Cup competition.
One of our friends had friends in the city; so we met up with them the next day for a boat ride, admiring the summer houses on the little islands, although the sunshine had deserted us that day.
Palermo, Sicily (2006/7 season)
This match was memorable for several reasons. Firstly, Palermo had played West Ham, another English club, a few weeks before and there had been some trouble after the game. We rightly assessed this to have been mainly the fault of the visiting fans (for instance, leaving bars without paying). So we took the risk of going, but many other Newcastle fans were put off; there were only about 180 of us in the away end. Secondly, and in contrast to the West Ham experience, we met a group of very friendly Palermo fans before the game which helped to dispel any lingering concerns we might have had. And thirdly, we won, which is always something to remember!
For our post match sightseeing we found time not only for a brief look at Palermo (another city we want to go back to) but also a visit to Monreale and its stunning cathedral.
There have been many other memorable trips. And as I said, we hope to make more such memories in the future. But I can’t finish without mentioning another football trip, the memory of which has become all the more meaningful and poignant in recent days. In early 2013 we were in Kharkiv, Ukraine, for a match against Metalist. I already shared some impressions of the city elsewhere in this blog; so I’ll simply add here that my thoughts are with the people there and all the people of Ukraine.