It all started so well. Was it an omen? The clerk at Sarajevo’s Lion Hostel (Grrrrrrr!) asked: “English?”
He’d heard of us!
“Wales? Jimmyfloydhasselbaink! Very good game against Coventry.”
Blimey, how does Dutchman Jimmy feel about being identified with our wonderful country just because he plays for Cardiff? It was a suitably surreal start to Sarajevo – a trip made by about 15 Welsh fans for reasons I shall try to explain in a few moments. But it’ll still be hard to erode your scepticism. Yes some of us are clinically insane.
I first came to Bosnia in 1996, as a reporter, to cover the United Nations’ peace-keeping activities for the Brighton daily paper.
The country is gorgeously, stunningly beautiful – the mountains were topped by a rich blue sky that sparkles like champagne.
Alongside the beauty, there was the haunting horror show. Towns and villages were littered with mines there were hundreds of dead pigs in the streets (the last thing Serbs fleeing their homes would do before abandoning their homes would be to shoot their pet pigs) and many houses were literally blown to bits if their owners happened to be from the wrong side of the ethnic divide.
Serbian churches were booby trapped and the British troops we stayed with were housed – symbolically perhaps – in an abattoir.
We were trying to think of more beautiful cities where we’d seen Wales get hammered and could not think of one more beautiful than Sarajevo.
The narrow river literally roars through the centre with the melting winter snow -the water an unnatural colour – clay, like a cup of tea. Sarajevo’s river is tea!
But again the beauty belies its bloody past as the origin of World War One and the scene of recent ethnic warfare.
Cemeteries dot the city, stark white memorials sprout like toadstools from the ground to mark the graves of young people. Just two hundred yards from the stadium is a huge graveyard and the sight of memorials to children killed in the war of just 14 years ago was a shock.
On arrival in Bosnia, it occurred to us that this is probably the best Wales under-21 team ever.
So it might not be saying much, but is undeniably true having on and off witnessed their matches since 1991 in Kortrijk, Belgium, when the local coppers’ idea of a warm welcome was to frogmarch every Welsh fan down to the copshop to have their mugshot taken. Everyone except me.
They took one look at my mush and decided not to risk an expensive lens. I took against Belgium from that moment on and have heartily enjoyed every defeat they have suffered since.
Recent history has left some of us talking about the under-21s. And going to games.
Look at the facts – they’ve hardly ever been in with a shout of qualifying for anything and here we are deservedly leading group 10.
You can’t argue with a 4-2 win over the Frogs can you? Or beating Sweden 4-3 after being 3-1 down in a friendly.
Win the group, or finish as one of the best runners-up, and there’s a play-off in October and who knows, we could be heading for Sweden in June next year – some 50 years after our last famous outing in Scandinavia when we would have won the 1958 World Cup if John Charles had been playing against Brazil in the quarter-final.
Our reasons for going:
Pompey fan Roland: “I’ve been to Luxembourg and I like the Balkans. I particularly like the kebabs here.”
Sheffield United fan Alan: “I like going to competitive games and this one is more important than the Luxembourg match.”
Wrexham fan Stu (who changed his mind twice and then flew out on the day of the game – top effort): “I didn’t want you fuckers to have all the fun. Oh yeah, and having been to Malta and the game in Grenoble I’ve followed them closely.”
Me: I’d just finished working in Ukraine and needed a break.
One fan was out in Sarajevo for health reasons – he was recuperating from a heart attack suffered two weeks ago. Not sure, speaking generally, I’d recommend watching Wales as therapy following a heart seizure.
With five minutes to go the stewards guarding the 12 fans in the away end must have wondered why these people had come all that way – we must have looked like a bunch of donkeys with stomach ache. Yeah, I know – you (and the Belgian police) already thought that anyway.
There was almost no match report to speak of until a frankly freakish last five minutes which left you feeling like you’d been mugged – only these muggers had actually given you some cash instead of robbing you. Let’s just say that even pleasant suprises can shake you up violently.
Views differ but this fan reckons the result was a travesty. A welcome travesty. The game was a stinker salvaged by two Welsh goals bestowed by a heavenly thunderbolt.
The first half was like the Ghosts of Under-21 games Past and I found myself bird-watching. Could that be a hawk high up in floodlights or was it a crow? The first shot on goal came from Bosnia after 33 minutes and flew 25 yards wide. Half time was a welcome wake-up because we could all moan about how cold it was getting and why couldn’t we get a bloody programme.
It seemed to be depressingly familiar. In the 53rd minute Bubucar Dialiba of Sarajevo side Zeljeznicar caught the central defenders on the hop and was able to shoot home past Owain Fon Williams (any relation to the composer?) with a 20-yarder. That was when we questioned our sanity.
Twelve minutes later the home coach, no doubt snorting: “That Gunter might be a Premiership full back for Spurs but he doesn’t look much cop to me”, substituted his goalscorer in what has to one of the dumbest replacements in the history of world football.
Virtually nothing else of note happened – Stu remarked: “It’s just like watching Wrexham” – until the last ten minutes when, first, Yeovil’s Simon Church missed from a sharp angle and then Walsall’s Mark Bradley hit the keeper with the goal gaping.
In the 86th minute Joe Jacobson skipped down the left past two players into the penalty box and slipped the ball to substitute Church (any relation to Charlotte?) whose first touch swept it into the net. This was a goal from nowhere and, having crossed Europe to get here, it was a welcome gift.
Seconds later, Church deftly controlled a ball into the box, slipped a short lateral pass to Ched Evans. Evans swivelled to his right to beat his marker and calmly slotted the ball in from about eight yards.
I’d like to say we all went as mad as slavering wolves pursuing a moose and howled our heads off.
But, as it’s the under-21s, it’s hard to feel comfortable about going absolutely crazy. You invest less emotional energy in the outcome and so you’re not at fever pitch level like you were in, say, Moscow where I left my teeth marks in the seat and the match seems like a personal psychodrama which I’m still recovering from.
So, … we were mildly chuffed.
The players were ecstatic. They knew they didn’t deserve it. And now, statistically, Evans ranks as the greatest player ever to play for the under-21 team.
The whistle came after three minutes of add-on time and we could have gone 3-1 up by the end (would that have been a double travesty?).
The abiding memory was of the Bosnian centre-half lying on the centre circle, clearly astonished that his side had lost a game in which he was probably the best player. You felt for him.
But you also felt for this Wales team too. They played with heart, occasional swagger and a confidence that, believe me, no other under-21 side in recent history has ever come near. Some players from the past have looked as though they were in detention after school.
You could even argue that this side is blessed. They’ve pulled off several wins against the odds and they clearly never give up. Afterwards it was difficult to pick out a single player who stood out.
Cardiff’s Aaron Ramsey looks like he could be felled by a falling snowflake but has Hoddle-esque passing vision and was rarely bullied off the ball. Swansea’s Shaun MacDonald was full of beans and never stopped running but the key performance was the 20 minutes from Church, brought on for Sam Vokes, whose willingness to shoot and move created the equaliser and his touch set up an implausible winner. So hats off to Brian Flynn for throwing him on.
The BBC website had some top typos to take the piss out of. Many thanks for that, I might start avoiding the TV detector Gestapo and start paying the licence fee if they can promise more giggles. Apparently our Bournemouth centre forward is ‘Sam Voles’ – a big improvement I would have thought, change your name Sam, I dig it. It rhymes with goals – journalists all over the UK will have lots of fun with it and you’ll be remembered for the rest of your life.
And we apparently last qualified for a tournament in 1858. Well it bloody well seems like it doesn’t it? Oh and if any Beeb types are reading, I need some freelance journalist work because I’m fed up of teaching.
Wales under-21 play England at Wrexham on May 15 in a friendly. The team’s next Most Important Game Ever is against Romania at home on August 20. A win means qualification for the two-game play off.
Don’t hold your breath but you if you go you might just witness history. And if we qualify then maybe Jimmyfloydhasselbaink really is a Welshman.
WALES: Owain Williams; Jacobson, Rhys Williams, Gunter, Michael Williams; Allen (Brown 55), Collison, Ramsey (Bradley 72), MacDonald; Vokes (Church 72), Evans.
Goals: Church 87, Evans 88.