Banik on the Streets by Mark Ainsbury
RCS 1, Wales 1, World Cup 1994 Qualifier, 28 April 1993, Bazaly Stadium, Ostrava
This is the second report unearthed recently of early ‘90s far-flung voyages with Wales, a match played at a time when Czechoslovakia had just broken up, and today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia were not yet formed. This meant that Wales’ opponents were the snappily-monickered representation of Czechs and Slovaks, against whom we later drew 2-2 in an astonishing return in Cardiff. It also meant that we played not in Prague but got shipped off to a tough city tucked in right by the Polish border, the heavy-industry heartland of Ostrava, whose fans carried a fearsome reputation, and whose town was said to be a total dump. Perfect. An inaccessible, rough ugly place. I’m bang up for that. As it happens, this one went down in folklore as one of the iconic trips of the last 30 years. Even at the time it was like being in a different universe. We played in candy stripes, there was widespread trouble at all times in the main game, we drew in the u21s and the seniors, and we had a brilliant time. Here’s what @chsingthedragon wrote once his head cleared a week after the game. Even now, a quarter of a century down the line, Banik is a vivid memory for those lucky enough to have found the place.
Wales away in Ostrava, 1993. Another step on the road to USA ’94. When I got home the weekend after the match, I was given a Radio Wales commentary of the match to help me relive that magical sunny night in the north of the Czech Republic. I settled down, Brains SA in hand and when the guest summariser Ian Walsh (he of the 1980 brace against England) said “the Wales fans are in great voice, here in Ostrava, but goodness knows how they got here”, To be fair, even I wasn’t sure how I had got there after a headspin of a week in industrial Czech Republic, but Walshy’s dulcet tones transported me back to that Wednesday night a couple of weeks ago when the lucky 500 of us went manic at Banik. Let’s take it from the top....
Initially, I was a bit (only a bit) dubious about going in the first place. We’d lost every game we’d ever played in Czechoslovakia and the game was to be played in Ostrava, a town that the guide books described as being covered in a cloud of sulphurous smog from all the factories and sounded like a bit of a nightmare all round. Oh well, I thought, it would be a week off work, it would be cheap (important when you’re skint), Prague is rumoured to be one of the world’s greatest cities and the local beer is the best in the world. Add the chance to do a bit of cultured sightseeing (some hope!) and the fact that Sir Ryan Giggs was bound to be able to run rings around politically-confused Czechs and Slovaks and I knew I had to be there. We set off from dreary London on the Sunday afternoon, having opted for the sumptuous delights of 24-hour coach travel. It might sound like a nightmare, but it was 85 quid return and that meant that we’d have more pivo money to sample local culture. Ideal. All of the coach was made up of Czechs returning home after sampling the very dubious delights of England, so we settled down for a quiet few beers and a long overnight trek through France and Germany. The only notable event of the night was the stop at a German service station where the only other Wales fans on the bus were given 3 minutes to clean up the bus or get chucked off. A bit strict on the old discipline there – they’d only had a few cans of beer. Needless to say, they displayed better sweeping up skills than Clayton Blackmore and we were back on the road.
We arrived in sun-drenched Prague early Monday afternoon with the welcome news that Wrexham John (who had gone out on the bus before us) had got talking to a local girl on the journey who had the taste and grace to let us stay at her mother’s house in the flats in Prague’s suburbs. Great – a chance to have a shower and somewhere to leave our stuff for a few days. Gabriela – thanks a lot, your mother does the best breakfast omelettes that we've ever had. We’ll be over again in a few weeks (I wish!).
Early Monday night and we were off into the centre of Prague to suss out the scene and we found we could get a pint for about 10 pence, so we knew we were in for a good time. The only problem was, we knew we had to be up at 4,30am to get the train to Ostrava for the u21 game, so it was a few beers in the best pub in Europe we’d ever been in, U Fleku, and then happily home for heads down by midnight and dreams of Nathan Blake conquering the Czech youngsters the next day.
Tuesday morning began far too early but Gabriela’s mum did us proud by staying up all night (really!) to cook us omelettes and cake for breakfast and with a few gallons of warming tea inside us, we headed off for the first tram into the centre of Prague. This was a pretty surreal day already and that was the way it was to continue. The railway station in Prague at 6am had a heartening number of Wales fans huddled around all trying to inject liquid caffeine into themselves as quickly as possible. All aboard the 0615 to Ostrava, with our bodies on autopilot with our brains (and Brains) not yet operational. When we arrived in Ostrava 4 hours later we used all the navigational skills to get on a tram that was going in completely the wrong direction and were treated to a 45 minute free ride around the suburbs of Ostrava. It was industrial alright, but not as bad the book had said and certainly no worse than driving up the M4 past Port Talbot. And, I might add, the temperature was pushing mid 80s.
Eventually we got into the town centre and the first thing we found was the players’ hotel, where our heroes had just returned from afternoon training. A few words with Ryan Giggs (“how you doing, Giggsy?” “alright, yeah”) and a shake of the hand and I was happy enough. We found ourselves a hotel (a fiver a night, damn) and found the whole corridor had been taken over by Wales fans. Same as ever. We’d discovered the u21 match was to be played in a small town called Frydek-Mistek (half an hour away by bus), so we picked up a few bottles of pivo and headed off to the bus station, still in plenty of time for the 5 o’clock kick off. After a couple more pivos in the centre of Frydek it was off by another bus to find the ground, which nestled picturesquely between the rolling hills on one side and some well-dodgy flats on the other. The ground itself was lovely and the clubhouse was overflowing with Wales boys spreading the gospel of international camaraderie. And drinking. The whole occasion was lovely – there was none of the tension you get at the main game and everyone was getting very mellow. Inside the ground and strange intergalactic forces had been writing the programme notes, as there was a Cardiff City forward playing by the name of Martian Dlake. Spaceman he may have been, but he notched a great opening goal from a good cross by Lee Jones, but RCS (as they are locally known) bagged an equaliser, which I think was a header from a free-kick, but I can’t be too sure as my view was obstructed by my cup of beer. It wasn’t a great game, but Searley was solid and Lee Jones missed a real sitter at the very end, but 1-1 sent everyone back to the bar happy with life, the universe and everything. We somehow managed to miss the last bus back to Ostrava (well, the pub was open and full of locals who loved us) but the vibes were good. 24 hours to the big game and everyone was being extremely friendly. Bliss so far....
The Wednesday began about midday with goulash, dumplings and a few pivos to settle a dodgy stomach. Then it was off to the main square, where all the Welsh fans were gathered, to soak up the sun and the atmosphere. All the flags were well in evidence and we sang ourselves silly, much to the delight of the local TV crews. Damon Searle and a couple of the other u21 boys were lurking around and all too soon it was time to walk to the ground where, shock of all shocks, Terry Yorath gave us a load of free grandstand tickets for the match as he came off the coach. And who said the FAW are a bunch of insensitive bureaucrats? Well, me for a start, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt in this case.
The ground, the home of Banik Ostrava, was quite impressive, with open seats on 3 sides and a main stand that was Premier league standard. The whole thing was about half full (about 8000 I think). At the start of the game there was a minute silence for ( as we later found out) the Zambian national side who had been killed that day on the way to their World Cup game. Right, so you respect the minute’s silence, which all the Wales fans did. (England fans at Wembley on the same night did not. That’s their problem). But one thing happened during the minute silence that has deeply upset and angered me as a Welsh supporter. As in Luxemburg in the Europeans, a Cardiff fan took it upon himself to pull the Swansea flag off the fence. Why? In fairness, some other Cardiff fans put it back up, but that’s not the whole point. This so-called attitude that Swansea fans can’t come and watch Wales makes me feel sick. If City play Swansea, I hope City win, but that’s as far as it goes and when we’re a couple of thousand miles away from home supporting our country, let’s not bother with all that rubbish, eh? I actually bumped into the Swansea lads in the bar in town after the game and they were great. Why should they feel intimidated out of going to watch Wales?
Anyway, back to brighter things. As you know, our team had been hit by suspension and injury so we were all a bit pensive at the start. No need to worry – the new stripy pyjamas kit put the opposition off. Sex god Clayton played sweeper like he’d never been away and Symons had no recurrence of his nightmare lapse in Brussels. Giggs was quite quiet, a combination of good marking, blatant fouls and the fact the Czechs had moved the touchline in about 10 yards. Very cunning, these East Europeans. All was going well and then we were sent to the heavens as Ryan skipped down the right pulled the ball back to Hughes on the edge of the box. A dummy, a surge and a delicate shot into the corner. We had scored for the first time ever on Czech soil and for the 9 minutes the lead lasted we made the most of it. Ok, the Czechs equalised from a move that had the look of obstruction about it and for much of the 2nd half we were penned back. No problem. In traditional style we took to singing our hearts out in the hope that the hywl would pull the team through and yet again, it did.
I don’t want to sound greedy but we should have won. The RCS were below strength, lacking confidence and incentive AND the crowd wasn’t behind them much. Please, Terry, let’s attack next time and do the fans justice. I can see it now – we’ll go to the Faroes, play 5-4-1 and hope for a draw. Well, perhaps not, but you take my point. Still, a World Cup point gained and we can certainly qualify now. And the team acknowledged us at the end – thanks a lot, especially to Ian Rush.
One element of the game is that there were frequent long running battles along the terraces, throughout most of the game. All a bit surreal as I didn’t want to be involved so just stood to the side, and watched it continuously kick off, as a slow-motion drunken backdrop to the match. At the end after the players had gone off, we ducked our heads down and did a quick exit back to Oscar’s bar in town, where we basically stayed until 6am with a random mixed crowd – they didn’t care where you were from as long as you were able to drink heavily. For all that we had been told we were certain to find our deaths in this no-nonsense town by the Polish border, the people were nice, we treated them with a bit of respect and we were then able to enjoy ourselves. Although this was only my second trip to a far-flung Wales away destination, my eyes were already on stalks at the fact you could see all these weird places, and Mark Hughes at the same time.
An hour or so after leaving he bar it was the train back to Prague and a chance for some sightseeing and more beers with our hosts in the evening. By this time we were totally exhausted, having had no food and virtually no sleep for 60 hours, but it was Wales away so we were on a different level of consciousness and mere human tiredness didn’t matter. This was a brilliant trip which felt like we had earned our stripes. Magical country, friendly people, Sparky scored and we drew. All’s well with the world. Onward now for tales of bobble hats, puffins and illegal booze in the Faroes. We might even win that one. Now, when’s the next bus back to Prague?