*BS*On the day I turned 50, I vowed I would never lose the ability to surprise myself. Five years on, it’s my belief that I’ve been pretty successful in this respect, but not in the way I’d planned.*BF*
Loosely speaking, I had half-formed plans to learn a language or two, master the alto saxophone and suddenly become irresistible to attractive ladies half my age. At no time do I recall making drunken or tentative plans to wander around the coalfields of Upper Silesia with a giggling, gurning Geordie in search of a Polish football team who weren’t half bad circa 1970.
But having made a “three new countries a year before I pop my clogs” pledge to myself, that’s essentially what came to pass a month or so ago.
Though domestically a fan of the non-league game, I’ve belatedly discovered the inestimable joys of spending some time in Europe and watching a little top flight football from a neutral perspective. Having returned from a long weekend in Krakow – where your Zlotys just seem to stay in your wallet no matter how much you try and fling them about – I guess I’m better placed than most to advise that the curate’s egg that is Polish football is something that should be experienced by any fan with a little adventure in his soul.
Looking back, a trip to take in Polonia Bytom v Slask Wroclaw wasn’t ideal on a bitterly cold Friday night. Earlier, a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau had proved as sombre and unforgettable as it was obligatory. If you ever need reminding of just how lucky you’ve been throughout your life, you should visit. If you don’t, visit anyway.
Accordingly, The Clown Prince of Prudhoe and I were a little short of light-hearted banter as we passed through Silesia’s vast industrial wasteland around Katowice en route to Bytom. Arriving at the Edwardia Szymhowiaka stadium – a two-sided 6,000 capacity affair that would need the builders in to earn a Conference A-Grade – we came to the conclusion that only a Papal visit could justify the amount of security employed for the evening. Even speaking from a position of ignorance as to what may or may not have occurred at this fixture in the past, we estimated that three coach loads of Wroclaw fans were outnumbered by scary baton-wielders of assorted persuasions by about 3 to 1.
Despite the attacks of both sides being more of a mild reproach, a 0-0 draw proved a decent enough game. And we soon found out why the coach was the preferred mode of transport for the travelling supporter.
Despite being a bit antiquated, the Polish rail network is ridiculously cheap. Hence you make allowance if timetables are a bit hit-and-miss, but become rather less tolerant when nothing at all turns up. Such was the situation we found ourselves in at 8.30 on a Friday evening, when the station of a city that is home to 180,000 citizens closed down for the night, duly writing off our train back to Krakow. Standing on a darkened platform with two Krakow-bound student fans of AS Linz, all that was lacking from a classic Tarantino location set was a nutter with a big drill in his holdall, offering us a bed for the night.
However, perhaps the beauty of Poland is that whenever it disappoints it doesn’t take long to redeem itself. Hence our delight at finding a cab driver who was happy to take the four of us back to Krakow – around 60 miles away – for 75 (about £16) Zloty a head.
Having travelled pretty extensively around the continent over the last 3-4 years, I’d suggest there’s nowhere better than Krakow in which to spend a day; eat, drink and watch the world go by. In this wonderfully ornate city that’s rich in history, a stroll around the Jewish quarter and a hike to overlook the Vistula River from the Wavel castle is a must. If nothing else, it’s a tidy trek that will make you feel you’ve earned the right to stuff your face with ale and tuck for the remainder of the day.
In a bar off the city’s palatial main square is where you’ll pay top dollar for a pint of Tyskie; a potent and mellowing Polish lager I hadn’t come across before. Top dollar in this instance meant about £1.75 (we’d paid over EIGHT QUID in similar circumstances in Milan) and if you’re drinking away from the city centre, you may reasonably halve that price. Given that Krakow is something a carnivore’s delight, I’d heartily recommend what’s called a Polish plate. Though just a mixed grill, your waiter-waitress will bring it to you staggering under the weight of what’s essentially a wooden manhole cover laden with enough meat to choke a Bengal Tiger. It cost about £7 and we chewed ruminatively as we watched Krakow’s implausibly beautiful female population pass us by; literally and without so much as a sideways glance. Still, the football wasn’t half bad either!
We’d known for some time that Wisla Krakow’s Henryka Reymana Stadion was being rebuilt ahead of the Euro 2012 championships for which it will be a reserve venue. So knowing that half the stadium would still be under construction for the visit of Lechia Gdansk, we’d opted to buy our tickets at the ground within a couple of hours of stepping off the plane. It proved a wise move, as there didn’t seem too many spare seats, if any, in a stadium that temporarily held just over 16,000.
In Poland, though I couldn’t begin to tell you why, some clubs enjoy special relationships with others, as they pool their collective invective and hurl it at the likes of Legia Warsaw. So whereas the previous night’s occasion had all been about big sticks and slavering Alsations, this was all about bonhomie and back slapping as the fans mixed happily both inside and outside the ground. Though I expect they were around somewhere, Plod sensed they weren’t needed and kept a very low profile indeed.
Quite what happened over the course of the 90 minutes is something I find difficult to describe. From Margate to Milan and Bath City to Benfica, I have truly never experienced an atmosphere as natural, happy and spontaneous as that created by the Wisla regulars and their friends from the Baltic coast. You’d have thought the locals didn’t have too much to get excited about. They hadn’t won in five games and had recently been knocked out of Europe by a team from Azerbaijan; losing both legs.
Even in mid-October, this fixture had the look of an engagement between mid-table also-rans. But nobody saw an evening at the match as anything other than all-singing, scarf waving celebration of the fact that when football is good, its fans are the luckiest people alive. We lapped up every minute and felt truly privileged to be there.
Playing in front of a crowd like this must have felt like a privilege too, as Wisla and Lechia were clearly keen to enjoy and express themselves from the first whistle. If I have seen a more open, attacking game I really can’t remember when that was, as both sides went at it like seven-year-olds given the freedom of a sweet shop. It might reasonably have ended up as a 10-10 draw (really!) but eventually Wisla ended their poor run by winning 5-2.
As a little treat to ourselves, we’d shelled out for top price tickets; about £11 a pop. If someone had asked us to pay again on the way out, I really don’t think we’d have turned them down.