Baku or Bust by Moppy

Cast your mind back to around 5pm on Saturday 30th November 2019. Can you remember where you were, who you were with and what you were doing? You can’t? Understandable, it was well over 18 months ago. I can though, in fact I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was sat in Gareth Bale’s boozer opposite Cardiff Castle, I was with some work colleagues for a pre Xmas do meet up and I was watching a television nervously waiting for the draw for the finals of Euro 2020 to commence. Seeing as, in 40 years of watching Wales at home and 25 years of watching them away I’ve only ever been in that position once before (4 years previously), events like that are burned in my memory. Four years previously.

I was a little slow of the mark booking accommodation for the 2016 finals and ended up with some, er, right ropey joints. So this time I, along with my two regular Wales Away travelling pals, Ritchie Question and Mackie, took it serious. We knew that we could only play in two groups, Baku/Rome or St Petersburg/Denmark. Using the ‘book now with free cancellation’ option on, we covered all bases and booked a load of rooms. All we had to do now was book flights - but we couldn’t do that until the draw. But we could work out the cheapest preferred routes depending on where we played and who would book them.  So that’s how I came to be sitting in Gareth Bale’s pub, phone in one hand, credit card in the other, eyes glued to the telly. Once the names started being pulled out, it didn’t take long for everything to fall in to place Soon enough flights were booked for our London - Kiev -  Baku - Tbilisi - Milan Bergamo - Rome - London trip. So with everything booked within minutes of finding out who Wales’s opponents would be, we could now sit back, relax and wait until the tournament started in June 2020 and I could go off into the night and enjoy my Xmas do. 

But of course the tournament never did take place in June 2020. Because how was I to know that as sipped my expensive and vile tasting Coke (I’m teetotal) and booked flights from London to Baku via Kiev words I’d never paid any attention to before would soon loom large and become part of my daily vocabulary - Corona, Covid, furlough and lockdown. And as the enormity of the Covid pandemic quickly became apparent, it also became obvious that a having football tournament spread out all over Europe in the middle of the worst global health crisis in years probably wasn’t a good idea. As the whole chaos of the pandemic unfolded, I felt really guilty and selfish that I felt disappointed that a football tournament wouldn’t take place whilst millions of people were dying and suffering. But I did feel disappointed. 2016 was so good and the chance to do it again was too good to miss. Also the fact that two games would be played in Baku, an absolutely fantastic city that I’d been to the previous November and there was going to be a big turn out of MTFC fans only compounded matters. Still, as my late mother used to say, it could be worst, you could be dead. 

And so UEFA duly said that the tourney wouldn’t be going ahead. I was gutted even though it was inevitable. And when the day that I should have been flying to Baku for the Switzerland game came I was feeling extremely sorry for myself, so much so I was going to phone in sick from work because I was so morose. And I told myself that this was justified because I’m one of the few people who puts country before club. A fully paid up member of the Gareth Bale Club of you like.

But my spirits were lifted when UEFA said the tourney would be played in 2021 with pretty much the same dates as 2020 would have been. So myself, Ritchie Question and Mackie thought f**k it and again booked flights and accommodation (5 * hotel too) for Baku even though we had no idea if we would be allowed to travel, and began the epic struggle to get refunds back for the 2020 flights (which could be a separate article in itself). 

As 2020 turned into 2021, the last thing on my mind was that I’d be able to go and see Wales play their two games in Baku. I was pretty convinced that it would go ahead, but with fans in attendance? That remained to be seen but it seemed as likely as Boris Johnson telling the truth and doing a bit of graft. 

But lo and behold it seemed that a miracle was happening - a vaccine had been created and was starting to be rolled out in the UK. And as the roll out gathered pace I was more and more optimistic that I would be in Baku to see Wales strut their stuff on on a big stage. Also international travel was now being allowed, but subject to a traffic light system. Azerbaijan was on the amber list which meant that you could go, but the Govt didn’t want you to go (which invalidated a lot of insurance policies) and you had to have tests before you went, whilst you were there and two when you came back. Oh, and you had to self isolate for ten days when you came back. Did that put me off? No, no f**king way. But it would stop the thousands of Welsh fans who would have loved to gone. And that made me sad and angry. Fuming in fact. 

Then, a couple of weeks before we were due to fly to Baku via Budapest, disaster struck. Our Wizz Air flights were cancelled. And not only that but replacement flights were getting scarcer due to Turkey being on the red list. It appears we were heading up Shit Creek paddle free. And then I had a phone call from Mike D - ‘there’s a charter flight going from Cardiff ran by Wonky Sheep. But it’s £750’. Now this was shit or bust time. That’s a lot of money. And there were still loads of hurdles to jump, especially regarding tests. And so it came to pass that four intrepid MTFC fans booked, Mackie, Mike D, Will and Moppy (yours truly). Due to a twist of fate with his job Ritchie Question couldn’t make it. I was gutted for him, but not as gutted as he was. 

Remember I said something about hurdles earlier? Well it was time to start jumping. First up - the Azerbaijani visa. This was  a relatively painless task apart from having to shell out on a new printer (Wolvsey had informed us EVERYTHING had to be printed out to get into Baku). 

Second hurdle - arranging day 2 and day 8 PCR tests for when we came back. In England you can use any company - the cheapest we found was around £90 for the two. However, in Wales you can only use one supplier. Cost - £160. Those that know me will know only too well HOW MUCH THIS IRRITATED ME. I hate being ripped off. But it was a necessary evil. So I stumped up.  

Third hurdle - travel insurance. This was potentially the trickiest bit. As Azerbaijan was on the amber list the FCO said that you should not travel. Not couldn’t travel, shouldn’t. Because of this normal travel policies wouldn’t be enough and wouldn’t cover you for any Covid related issue.  Luckily Wonky Sheep provided details of a few companies that provided cover in case the worse happened. 

Fourth hurdle - arranging a PCR test in Azerbaijan do that we could leave the country. Again this was handled by Wonky Sheep, who I have to say were fantastic all trip. 

Fifth hurdle - arranging a PCR test to leave the country. I found a company (Nuffield Health) based at Cardiff Airport, who you test you and send you the results in 4 hours for £120. We all piled in and booked for the day before we flew. So down we traipsed to Rhoose where I found a magnificent example of Rip Off Britain. One hundred and twenty pounds to have a swab rammed up my nose for about 5 seconds. That was it. We were in there for 90 seconds. I was tamping. 

I was still fuming when Mackie dropped me off after we came home. I soon calmed down when they emailed me the test results - negative. At least I could leave the country. Mackie was not so lucky though. He phoned me up in a high state of panic ‘Mopp, my result was inconclusive’. I had a panic attack for him. As he was speaking to me, he was driving back down to get tested again. If that was me my anxiety levels would have been 15 out of ten and I’d have had to have been sedated. But a couple of hours later Mackie received a negative result so we were all good to go the next day. 

Due to it being an 8am flight to Baku, it’s was at 4am start from Merthyr. Mike D drove us down to the airport, there was plenty of masked, nervous chatter, mainly around the topic of failing the PCR test you had to have to leave Azerbaijan. But more of this later. 

We were met at departures by a few film crews hoping for a few interviews with some departing Welsh fans, we dodged them and checked in. I hadn’t flown since a trip to Düsseldorf for Mike D’s 50th birthday the previous February so it was all a bit strange. But the chat soon started to flow and soon enough a few familiar Wales Away faces turned up. At times It almost felt like a normal Wales Away trip. But I want to emphasise to word ‘almost’. It wasn’t for a million reasons. And I want to emphasise who lucky I was to be in that position 

After an unremarkable flight. arrival and departure from Baku airport was smooth and pain free. All they wanted to see was my match tickets. A quick taxi took us to our home for the next 6 nights, The Fairmont Hotel in The Flame Towers. To say the chaps were suitably impressed was an understatement. And a little shocked that I had booked such a classy joint. So classy in fact that the Turkish team would be staying there. 

It was me, Mackie and Mike D in a room. Two double beds and a camp bed. Galant as ever, Mackie took the camp bed. A quick refresh and we were ready to hit Baku. Will, who wasn’t originally staying with us decided he wanted to after seeing the hotel so shelled out for a suite on his own. As we made our way to downtown Baku we bumped into a few Swiss fans who were charm personified. We all agreed that our countries had been shit on by UEFA and wished each other luck for the next day. I didn’t really mean it though. And I’m sure they didn’t either. 

At first seeing crowds everywhere in Baku was a tiny bit unsettling. None of us had seen that for yonks. Not many had masks on. But the reported cases were very low in Azerbaijan, we were masked up and all of us has received at least one vaccine jab so what could possibly go wrong? We didn’t see many other Welsh fans on a balmy Baku night, but the ones we did see, like us, were amazed that they had made it this far. Baku was still heaving as we approached midnight so we decided to head back to the hotel for a much needed kip after a, quite frankly, mental day. 

Saturday - game day. I thought this would be the hardest game of the lot - the Swiss are a decent team. We needed a good start, just like in 2016. Our plan of action for the day was this, a bit of breakie, a pre match stroll, back to the hotel for a spruce up then a taxi to the stadium. Taxis, amongst lots of things, are cheap in Baku so it was a quick drive to a waterside bagel bar to fill our boots with breakfast. After we had smashed a tonne of food, it was off for a walk, in scorching, glorious sunshine. We were soon spotted by a BBC camera crew and asked for an interview. Although I could talk a glass eye to sleep, doing so I front of a camera isn’t for me so I left the others take the limelight. Again we didn’t see many Welsh fans mooching around downtown Baku which made me feel sad but privileged and lucky at the same time. After a quick look at the Formula 1 pit lanes (the Azerbaijan GP was the week before and Mike D is a big fan) is was off to the ground. 

The ground itself was way outside town with nothing really around it but did look impressive. Getting into in took a while, but the staff and volunteers were helpful and happy. Once inside we took our spots in the shade as the sun was now mercilessly hot. My only trip into the scorching rays was to get our flag up, a tribute to Merthyr fan Twiggy who had passed away in tragic circumstances. Little by little the small band of Welsh fans arrived, until I’d say there were around 250-300 as the teams walked out. We belted the anthem out, and then settled down to watch a cagey first half in a near deserted stadium. As games go it wasn’t the best, the Swiss were the better team and it was no surprise when they took the lead. Things looked grim until big Keiffer dragged us back into the game. We went nuts, but it wasn’t to be the best celebration of the day. That was saved for VAR cancelling out what looked like a late Swiss winner. The final whistle blew, honours even. 

Having lost the rest and now nursing a very sore foot, I limped back to the hotel to be met by security everywhere. It quickly became clear that the Turkish team were staying there and had literally just arrived from Rome. Over the next couple of days you would see what looked like a player completely surrounded by security. I did get talking to two in the lift - they were very nice but very confident of an easy Turkish win. 

The time in between the Swiss and Turkish games was spent like this - breakfast at the bagel bar followed by lazing by the pool then a stroll around Baku. Boring? Certainly. But at least we were being boring in Baku. And that’s what counted. Anyway, it was too hot to do anything other than lie down, eat and wind up those who weren’t there. 

And so to the event that would shape the whole trip, which would decide if the whole jaunt would be a success or a disaster. No, it wasn’t the game against Turkey, it was the pre departure PCR test. If I’m honest, I was shitting myself. The last thing I wanted to do was spend 14 days in the Baku Plague Hotel at £100 a night self-isolating. Mike D sensed this and did what most people would do, he went into wind up mode. And it worked.  But as we made our way to the appointed hotel to get the test even Mike D was feeling a bit nervous. The feeling of impending doom got worse as a Welsh fan, who had just been tested, said ‘Those nurses have got the bedside manner of Harold Shipman. With that ringing in my ear I was beckoned in and made to sit down for what only can be described as an frigging assault. Firstly I thought the angelic looking nurse was removing my tonsils with the swab, then she stuck it so far and so fast up my nose she lifted me off the chair. ‘WHOA MUN!!!!’ I screamed. It didn’t seem to phase her. I was a shaking wreck. I just preyed for a negative result. 

The thought of an extended stay in Baku was still on my mind as the day of the Turkish game dawned. But I was soon distracted by what appeared to be the whole Azerbaijani army camped in our hotel. As they day drew on the lobby was filled with newly arriving Turkish fans checking in. They looked confident. We didn’t. Even though the Turks were battered in Rome they were considered a deal horse. We were poor against the Swiss. This was pretty much a home game for them, what with most Azerbaijanis wanting them to win. So we weaved our way through the security and soldiers to make our way to our taxi to the ground. But it was late. And for good reason. The whole of downtown Baku had been shut down because the Turkish President was driving past. After what seemed like an age the biggest convoy of cars I have ever seen whizzed past our hotel.

Now this was a different atmosphere to the game on the previous Saturday. For a start there was a crowd. And 99% of it wanted Turkey to win. So the 1% that didn’t want Turkey to win suddenly turned into the Wales away support of the 90’s. Small, loud, loyal and belligerent. The world versus us. We had gone through what seemed like an SAS selection course to get here. So if this was where Wales were going to bow out of the tourney, we would do anything we could to support the team. 

We literally sang from the time we got in the ground (2 hours before kick-off) to long after the final whistle. Getting behind the team had my undivided attention. Which meant I didn’t notice Mackie getting as drunk as a lord. The drunkest I’ve ever seen him in fact. And when he’s drunk his effing and jeffing takes on epic proportions. So when Aaron Ramsey missed a few golden chances in the first half, Mackie let him knew how he felt about it. 

As the first half wound to its conclusion, I was quite happy with the performance. We had a few decent chances and defended well. They were there for the taking. It was all to play for. And then it all happened in slow motion - Mackie said something to me so I turned to my right to look at him. As I did it seemed every Welsh fan was suddenly shouting ‘GO ON’. Then chaos. Rambo scored. One nil to Wales. I was suddenly in the middle of a beautiful, shambolic mess of sunburnt arms and legs. Mackie and I got covered in beer. Like we cared. We were still going nuts when the referee ended the first half. It was one of my best moments in the 25 years I’d been following Wales away. What could top that? Well being told that our PCR test results were negative meaning no Baku Plague Hotel. The party went into overdrive. This was going to be our night. And it got better when Wales were given a (soft) penalty. Up stepped Bale. He’d never miss. But he did. And missed by a mile. And now, for the first time, the Turkish fans made themselves heard. Things got nervy in the stands and it was end to end on the pitch. A proper slug fest. Just hang on boys.

Time ticked by oh so slowly. Mackie had by now drunk himself sober. The 90 mins were up. Wales were attacking. ‘Just put it in the f-ing corner’ screamed every Welsh fan. Bale had other ideas. He had a point to prove after the missed penalty. Wales had a corner. Bale took it and sprinted towards the goal. ‘What he doing?’. As he played the ball into the box, Connor Roberts, cool as you like, stroked the ball into the net. Two f**king nil. Yet more chaos.  And at that point I felt even more sorry for the fans that didn’t make it. Because it was one of the best moments ever. Sheer delirium. So much joy after 18 months of shit. The final whistle went. We were pretty much into the knockout phase. Even when we were told that we would have to wait 30mims before we could go, we were delighted. 

We didn’t want this party to end. Mackie had lapsed into a stupor again. Me and Mike D were now his carers. We made our way back to the hotel. The Turks mood was somber. We were respectful. But over the moon. The most unlikely trip ever had ended in one of the sweetest victories ever. 

That night was pretty sleepless for me - I was too excited and Mackie snored louder than a jet engine. And after what seemed like a ten minute sleep the alarm was sounding. Time to head for the airport, a six hour flight home, ten days self-isolation and a £1500 credit card bill. The craziest trip ever had come to an end. But it did prove one thing - memories last longer than dreams.


Popular posts from this blog

25 years of Dial M For Merthyr Fanzine

Showing your support by Wolvesy

Great Expectations by Guardy