Azer By Jarj by Donovan
I qualified the time of writing this article so you understand the statement that follows. “Other than Wales being there”…. This was the terrible tournament. It seemed good as it was being compared to the previous 15 months of Covid hell, but in reality, it was a tournament of poor organization that denied the supporter the chance to see their team play. It had drab games, played by many unadventurous teams, that lacked any star performance – Spinazolla, Chiellini, Sterling, Pogba, Xhaka, Roberts and Orlo aside. Of course, the English got to play 6 out of their 7 games at home – so this really was a hosted, home tournament for them. Many other teams benefitted from a home group stage, whilst other less fortunate teams got to bounce around the continent like nomads. It was no surprise that all 4 semi finalists played their groups at home. The tournament had its moments, but you can count the good games on one hand.
But as I said - “Other than Wales being there”….and yes we were there again. It shouldn’t shock us, we were the 12th ranked team in Europe going into the tournament, but it’s just not what we’ve been accustomed to, so it still take some getting used to. We’d been to the semi five years ago, so we should be confident going into the games knowing that we can do well. And we will always compare any tournament to that month in France. We were truly spoilt back then and it has taken the edge of everything that will follow for us all. The format of the tournament was crap, sending teams here, there and every bloody where was never going to work. Throw in a pandemic and it turned to farce.
As soon as the draw was made in 2019, fourteen of us booked up for Baku with a handful going onwards to Rome. This was going to be epic. As the initial flights were cancelled, we signed up for other flights and then the tournament got moved on a year, so we shunted on our hotels, match tickets and bought other flights. Only to see those flights get cancelled. So with 3 weeks to the first game all we had were match tickets and a hotel room. We were down to just 4 travelers (Myself, Mackie, Moppy and Will), as only “the office boys” who could isolate and work from home on their return could realistically go. It was really shit for the rest of the lads. They had to grin and bear it and used the hashtag #BetterthanBaku as they watched the games from the football club. We missed them all in Baku and I’m sure they would have traded a kidney to have been there when Connor Roberts netted that injury time goal.
With options on flights scarce and needing to avoid certain countries, only direct flights were an option. So for the first time we signed up to travel with Wonky Sheep – Wales’ official supporters travel company. You pay a little extra - £750 for return flights from Cardiff direct to Baku, but they took the risk out of everything (money back if Azerbaijan went to a red country) and Dave Wonky and Laura Wonky handled all the Covid testing processes for the whole group. I’d recommend them to anyone.
The day before we travelled we had to visit the airport for a Covid test, we’d have one, two days before we travelled home and then a further two when we did our 10 days of isolation. £300 lighter too. When we got to the airport for the test you quickly saw what the pandemic has done to the travel industry. The long stay car park was locked up and the short stay only had about 40 cars in it. In the airport there were just two flight that day (Alicante and Dublin) and the next day were three (Dublin, Belfast and the Wonky Bird). Tests done and back home. The first of two nervous waits on test results that week. Fail this one and you don’t go. Disaster. Fail Tuesday’s tho and its 14 nights in the plague hotel in Baku, with just porridge, no Wi-Fi and Buchan (we will get to Buchan later) to keep you company.
Beep – Moppy posts to the group – Negative result. Then I get a Negative. Then Moppy calls me. I knew something wasn’t right. Moppy proceeds to tell me that Mackie was on his way back to the airport. He needed a re-test. 6 hours later and Mackie got the negative test needed and that meant a 4am start the following day. Quite apt 4am as it was the same time we set off in our campervan for Bordeaux 5 years to the very day. By 8am, 4 pints and breakfast to the good, but £35 lighter – Dick Turpin Airport – and the 114 Welsh fans on the charter are in the air. None of us said a thing, but all breathed a sign of relief as we realized this was finally happening.
I’d not been to Baku, but Moppy and Mackie had, and it was nothing like I’d imagined. It was hot, it smelt of oil on occasions, but it was more modern, clean, and more welcoming than any city in the UK. I loved it. If you don’t have a job in Baku you get a broom or a lawnmower from the government with some encouragement to use it. We’d missed the Formula One GP by a few days so as they were taking down all the safety fences, we got to walk the course – a damn good excuse for a pub crawl. The old town is amazing, everyone wanted us to enjoy their city and the food there is excellent.
Moppy didn’t disappoint with the hotel. We had to share with the “Captains” (Captain Kirks – The Turks - the Turkish team stayed there too), marriage to Lian has elevated his standards. And other than the last night Mackie kept the snoring down to an acceptable level. I had no complaints.
The games for once, were the highlight of the trip. The Saturday game against the Swiss was not the best performance wise, but just getting through the gates on to the concourse felt like a victory. We sang ‘Merthyr Boys we are here’ for a good five minutes as we cleared security. Moppy had a flag made for the trip in honor of our good mate Twiggy who would have been there with us in a different life – nice touch Michael. The anthem was sung by the team, staff and the 400 Welsh fans like the result depended on it. When Kiefer scored it was bedlam. Nothing is ever like when Wales score. That moment when you lose control of every emotion is something that you should be able to bottle. Even at 50 you get to feel like a kid again.
We celebrated the draw like a win, it felt like we’d got out of jail and had set ourselves up for Wednesday when Turkey would be under pressure to beat us.
Over the next few days we watched games on TV in between drinking, eating and cooling off in the pool. The local taxi app is called BOLT and you can get from one end of the city to the other for £3. But we like an adventure and we found a gang of illegal taxi boys working just by the old town and they would take us back to our hotel for £5, so more expensive. But what we got for the extra £2 was Buchan and his self proclaimed “worst taxi in all of Azerbaijan”. Many of the streets are very steep and are cobbled and the Buchanmobile had a dodgy clutch and bald tyres. Which meant for a rally style drive up to the hotel. Buchan didn’t give a f**k tho, spoke little English and loved handbraking the car around the hairpins. He thought he was Max Verstappen. Every panel of the car had dents, whilst the interior in contrast was all beautiful red velvet. The first few trips were in the day, but only when we got him to drop us back on the Monday night did we realise the only light on the whole car was in the heater. Buchan was alright by us Merthyr boys.
The hotel had a gang of Scottish oil workers living there and their reaction to the Czech’s scoring from the half way line will live with me for a long time. “Its shite being Scottish” said one of the gang as he stormed off seconds after Marshall got tangled in the back of his own net. Perfect Trainspotting reference young man. Perfect.
Now this Tuesday PCR test was mentioned about a thousand times during that week. I could see it getting under Moppy’s skin. Always in jest, about the ‘Plague Hotel’ – what we all feared though, was being denied the flight home. That would cost a few quid and I’m sure a dim view at work would be taken. We’d have to wait until Wednesday night for the results too – something other than the weather to make us sweat.
Wednesday against the Turks was humid, much hotter than the Saturday. We were promised 30,000 Turks in attendance, with President Erdogan in town. Azerbaijan had been fighting with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabajh area for decades, but once the Azeri got Turkey to intervene on their side, the conflict was over in 44 days. Everyone we met wanted the Turks, “Our Brothers” to win. What we had in the stadium was 20,000 mostly locals in Turkish shirts, so the promised atmosphere from hell turned out to be quite tame. And once the game started 80% of the crowd were happy to just watch the Bale and Ramsey run the show.
And what a game it was. Wales outclassed the Turks, as we danced and sang. Rambo scored a brilliant goal and we all got the clear PCR test news from Wonky Dave at half time. It was a party and made every bit of messing about we had been put through worth it. Connor Roberts (one of us) scored in injury time to send us into the heavens. And Mackie….. well Mackie drank the stadium dry. He had the snoring dial turned up mega loud that night too.
Here’s to three years’ time in Germany. I can see a full turnout from the Dial M crew at that one, unless someone starts eating bats or hedgehogs in the meantime.