Exterior of a large stadium with yellow supports
Europe,  People,  Sunday Stills

Memories of following the Toon in Europe

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)
Three men in a bar with football scarves
Drinking the bar dry

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.

xxx

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)
Group of football fans on a cafe terrace drinking beer
Celebrations after the match

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.

60 Comments

  • Annie Berger

    What a fun post, Sarah, about following your football team around Europe and getting a few hours to visit cities you may want to return to in the future. The story about the non-taxi driver in Athens made me smile! Monreale was a new one to me. Hope you’ll get a chance to follow your team again and traipse through some new cities!

  • Kirstin

    We love watching “the real football” according to my daughter…lol. Both my girls played from the time they were 4, all the way through HS. Club and school. We love watching both American soccer and European Futbol. 🙂 Loved your walk down memory lane.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Kirstin 🙂 Great to hear your girls are both so keen. I get the impression that ‘real football’ is catching on more and more over there, but I bet you’ll always refer to it as soccer 😂 ‘Two nations divided by a common language’!

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Great memories, for sure. Unfortunately I was just too young when my team were competing in European Cup and UEFA Cup so I only saw the home games. I therefore spent my teenage years looking forward to years of going to away games in Europe, never dreaming for a moment that nearly 50 years later we’d still be waiting! I’ve seen domestic matches on two of those grounds though – Lisbon and Marseille. (As an aside, I was in the crowd at Wembley when Malcolm McDonald scored all five England goals against Cyprus)

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Even home European games are special I think. There always seems to be a particular something in the air, in Newcastle at least, especially for the bigger games – almost an electricity! But the away games have so many great memories for us because of the whole experience – not just the match but the meeting up with other fans and visiting places we might not otherwise go. Not Lisbon necessarily, as we’ve been there several times without football as a reason, but little places like Sochaux and Herenveen, or ones that have been off our radar like Gent (lovely city!) and Palermo.

      I’ll tell my husband about the Super Mac game, he’ll be jealous. Of course he saw him many times for Newcastle but never for England. We’ve only been to Wembley twice, both times for very poor finals involving Newcastle – the Charity Shield and FA Cup, both against Man Utd.

  • ThingsHelenLoves

    Good old Newcastle! I’m not big into football, but I do love the atmosphere of match day. I only need to hear a little bit of ‘Local Hero’ and I’m transported. My husband is a die hard supporter, much to his chagrin his only son is a Dortmund supporter. Great post, sport and travel make a good combination.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Helen – yes, there’s something special about match day. You can feel in the air all over Newcastle and ‘Local Hero’ always gives me goose bumps 🙂

  • Easymalc

    Another cracking post Sarah, but I can’t say that I’m not a teeny bit jealous that you follow a team that at least has achieved something.

    I’m not sure if you noticed or not, but I’ve put a ‘Not Going’ to the Newcastle Euromeet. I’ve really wrestled with this, but I’m afraid the mind might be willing, but the body is weak. It’s not beyond the possibility though that I can still make it up to London at some point as it’s easier to manage. Let’s hope so.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Malcolm, and yes, I guess success or the lack of it is all relative, depending on your team and your expectations! At the moment I’d settle for mid-table mediocrity and it seems we may just pull that off 😀

      I fully understand about the Newcastle meet, although it would have been great to see you there. Maybe when the warmer weather comes you may feel able to make it up to town – if so let me know and I could maybe pull a mini-meet of London members together.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          We can but try, although he’s pulled out of the last two meetings he was due to attend (he didn’t feel well enough on one occasion, and had a fall at Kings Cross on his way to my Newcastle meet last September). But he’s been away since, to Broadstairs, so maybe he could make it!

  • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter

    When I lived in Newcastle (68-73) Joe Harvey was the manager and the star player was Malcolm MacDonald. I’m not a football fan and never went to any of the games, but my best friend was a big fan and I remember the chant learned from her.

    Hey ho, hey ho, we are Joe Harvey’s boys,
    Hey ho, hey ho, we are Joe Harvey’s boys,
    We’re gonna win the Football League, we’re gonna win the Cup,
    We will follow United!

  • sustainabilitea

    Sounds like following has given you some excellent times. We’re more familiar with Newcastle’s rugby team as we (my husband used to play) watch Premiership, Six Nations, Sevens, and whatever else we can get. 🙂 Thanks for mentioning Ukraine too.

    janet

  • rosalieann37

    My grandson was a fan of Southhampton. He was on a student exchange for several weeks to Oxford in 2017 and he got tickets to the Southampton FC’s match against Brentford, and went to the match. The local fans were astounded (He’s very tall- 6’5″ and stands out in a crowd) to see someone from the USA at their game. (the game was a draw so he said that was a win) His parents and his grandmother watch the games on TV when they are available.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I can understand their surprise. Visitors from abroad usually choose the ‘glamour’ sides to watch, like Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United. Southampton is an unusual choice! Glad he got to see a match 🙂

      • Anonymous

        Before I went on the cruise to Hawaii (I just got back), his parents and sister watched a game Southampton against MU. I was surprised that the game was available but I guess it was because it was a MU game and not because it was a Southampton game

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Haha yes, almost certainly! They’re not doing as well as they used to some years ago but I reckon they’re still the team that’s most followed outside England!

  • Suzanne@PictureRetirement

    I love reading about this part of your life. I have never been a sports fanatic of any kind but I enjoy many sports and appreciate dedication such as yours. To combine your love of sport and travel is toontastic! The closest thing in my life that resembles this is when we used to travel and play golf. After about four years of playing some beautiful golf courses throughout the states, we realized that what we enjoyed most was being on the road and seeing the local sights. These days, we leave the golf clubs at home.

  • Smitha V

    Wow! It’s wonderful that you make it a point to travel to see the championships. I’ve never traveled to see a sporting event. But I can imagine the thrill.

  • wetanddustyroads

    Your football team sounds like our favourite rugby team (Western Province) – we also had great times in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but since then it’s a bit of a miserable story.
    Love the images of your tours with your team – especially those in Marseille and Athens (what a funny story of the non-cab driver in Athens 😁). Oh, and beautiful Lisbon!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I do hope your Western Province team see a revival at some point, as we seem to be doing right now. Fortunes change constantly in sport and today’s losers can be tomorrow’s winners 🙂 Glad you liked these glimpses of some beautiful cities too!

  • Manja Maksimovič

    Ha! Sarah is una tifosa, as Italians say, a fan! Quite a surprise. You do it well, I can see. Lots of drowning. 😀 And then culture the next day! You’ve done many road matches, well done. I went only once to a basketball match abroad (never soccer), to Milano. We were in an (ugly ugly) group of 6 buses from Slovenia. It was a horrible experience, everything about it, except the game itself was a beauty and we won. I swore never to be in an organised anything ever again (religion, cult, fan group).

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I like that, yes, I’m una tifosa 😀 I guess you could say that Toon Army is Geordie for tifosi! A shame you had such a poor experience with your basketball trip. We tend to avoid the organised tours, partly because they all start in Newcastle (naturally) and we live in London, but also because they typically fly in for just the match and an overnight stay whereas we like to make a proper short trip of it.

  • Alison

    You are a real die hard fan Sarah but what fun you’ve had following them around and also manage to see the city as well. It’s a great way to make friends too. Wonderful memories

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Alison 🙂 Football has given us the chance to meet up regularly with our friend Pete, who lives in Germany, and to make new friends among the supporters too, as you say. We now have (had) quite a large group who try (tried) to gather for these games!

  • Nemorino

    Great that you got around so much while following the Toon. I remember reading about some of these back on VT.

  • maristravels

    What great memories and, even better, you’ve got photographs to prove you were there. Now, that I haven’t got. We followed Arsenal, Nick because he’s a Londoner and me because I fetched up in Highbury where I lived for a few years with a family who were great Arsenal supporters. Our worst experience, ever, was the time we bought tickets to the Scotland v. England match at Wembley, from a friend of a friend, and the tickets turned out to be right in the middle of the Scottish stand. It was a nightmare to sit through the match surrounded by whiskey drinking Scottish supporters who kept on passing us the bottle. We were afraid to speak which would confirm our enemy status, so we just nodded thanks – a refusal would have been very suspicious! I will never forget that Saturday.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’ve been to more than a few matches at Highbury, and more recently at the Emirates. We saw a good win for the Toon at Highbury once – the one that Uri Geller claimed to have influenced by touching the outside of the stadium during the match and willing us to win 😂 But I also watched a terrible performance and defeat while sitting in the home section, in seats bought off a tout for a lot of money, so I can sympathise with your Wembley experience. I never know whether it’s worse to be in the wrong section while losing, when you have to endure the cheers all around you, or while winning, when you can’t celebrate the goals!

      • maristravels

        I should have mentioned as well that one of the things we always had to do when travelling, was tour the main stadia – that was my husband’s main treat!. We managed Madrid (the favourite), Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Cartagena, Trinidad (but I think that was for the cricket), Las Palmas, Gothenburg, Rome, Naples, Dubai, and some of the smaller ones. If there was a match on while we were there, we always attended.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          We haven’t done tours abroad but we did make a point of going to a match at the Maracana in Rio. Normally however we stick to just watching our own team 😉

  • margaret21

    Haha! It turns out we might not have so much in common. I always say that my husband was ‘the one’ because he has no interest in sport, and I’m only partly joking. One of the best days of my life was when my twin grandsons begged me not watch them play football, because they always lost when I turned up. Result! And it worked too…

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Haha Margaret – well, we can’t have EVERYTHING in common but I’m sure we have some (other) things 😀 When I first started to going to matches with my husband Newcastle always won the ones I attended so his relatives begged me to keep going! I can’t say the magic lasted, I’ve seen lots of defeats over the years, but I guess that early run of successes helped turn me into a fan 🙂

  • CliffClaven

    Toon Tales – abridged version! I have both books recounting your trips and travails around Europe in search of Newcastle’s holy grail: a trophy, any trophy…..

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Very very abridged Michael 😆 I forgot you might have those books (actually there were three of them). If some of these photos look familiar it’s because Pete and Barry used some of mine in the books, not because I pinched them! But to be honest we’re not as desperate for a trophy as the media often claims, we just want passion, commitment and excitement – and some victories!

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    How cool, Sarah, to be fans of your football team to follow them to their games and cheer them on! That takes dedication, but pays off with years’ worth of memories of good and bad times and good friends. This reminds me of our whole process for setting up our windsurf camp in the Sacramento delta and years of memories and fun. There is really nothing quite like these experiences and I’m sure you will cherish forever. Thanks for sharing your toon’s sport and memories with us!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      The only dedication involved was to stick with them when things aren’t going well. Our patience has been tried in recent years but we seem to have turned a corner and can dream of better times again, maybe even more European matches! So thanks for giving me a reason to post this and reflect on these memories 😀

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