Day Trip To
Bangor City 0-3 HJK Helsinki (13-07-11)
Champions League Qualifier
"Oh my God, I've married a nutter" said my wife as I diverted the car towards Farrar Road, home to Welsh Champions, Bangor City FC. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to have a cheeky look around, even though, granted, it was 24 hours before the match - which was being played.......35 miles away. In Rhyl.
We were in North Wales for a weeks holiday. A chance to unwind in the glorious countryside; to soak up that magnificent and varied scenery by day, before popping on my Real Betis slippers ('tour treasures' from a recent EFW), and fully recharge the AA Alkaline's by night. Pah! Who am I kidding?
A few weeks prior to this trip, I had dispatched a warms set of balls to UEFA for them to use in their forthcoming Champions League qualifying draw. Incidentally, these are the same set used by the Scottish FA to keep Rangers and Celtic apart in cup draws. I sat and watched the draw unfold, mopping my brow as the men in suits pulled out.....a home tie for Bangor City, the nearest team to my little holiday cottage in Pont-y-pant. A success. My wife for one couldn't have rolled her eyes any further into her sockets as I broke the tremendous news. We were off to our first ever Champions League game, together. Who said romance is dead? I did a little dance before sliding across the kitchen floor on my knees. I'm 39.
The game had been moved to the Belle Vue - home to The Citizens arch rivals Rhyl - because Bangor's current stadium doesn't have enough seats to cope with demand for a match of this magnitude. I've always dreamed of working for UEFA in the role of grading stadiums, so, as part of my application form for that job, I did, as I say, pop in to have a nose around at their current set up. With it's excellent transport links - right next door to the station, no less - and for having bags full of character, I'd have given it 5 stars any day of the week. As I type, however, I've yet to receive a reply back from Nyon regarding my new job. Tsk.
Farrar Road. Unfit for Champions League football according to UEFA suits.
Not even a neat bit of paintwork and a yellow hose could make them change their minds.
I've heard bits and bobs about this Champions League lark, and so to drink in every aspect of this magical occasion, we arrived in town six hours early. I'd been tipped off that the Bangor City 'Fan Zone' was already in full swing in the Vegas Bar near to Argos on Bodfor Street. But in an attempt to secure a few wife-pleasing-points in the calm before the storm, we opted first to go for a walk up the River Clwyd for a shag or two. It was great to see them spreading their wings as they dried off the water after a long flight.
A pre-match shag along the River Clwyd. Recommended.
The Champions League was just another notch on every conceivable type of entertainment you can enjoy in this popular holiday resort on the North Wales coast. It's got a fine sandy beach, an indoor (indoor!) Sun Centre, and if static caravans are your thing, then you've hit the bloody jackpot here in the Welsh equivalent of Las Vegas.
Arriving at the ground we asked around for the clubhouse. "I don't work here" said one steward, "This is my first day" said another, shrugging his shoulders. And finally "They haven't got a bar mate, they're in the process of building one," said a friendly local bobby. So up the road we trooped to the local alehouse. Once we'd swung through the doors I immediately doffed my Stone Roses 'Reni' sunhat to the 20 or so HJK fans present. They'd flown into Manchester from Helsinki, hired a mini bus to take them to Wales, and were now sinking pints and bottles of wine at great speed. Overhead clapping to you chaps, you did your team proud.
During the week, I'd inadvertently become the official Bangor correspondent for the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. No really, it's true. I took the opportunity to tap them up for information on the opposition in the process. So back off Wikipedia, here's the EFW guide to HJK:
I) They normally goose up their European games against "weaker" opposition.
II) Their holding midfielder, Alexander Ring (18), is one of the best talents in Finland at the moment.
III) Striker Teemu Pukki (21), played well for the Sevilla B-team a couple of years ago and was another 'player to watch'.
IV) HJK played in the Champions League group stages in the 1998-99 season. The only time a Finnish team has ever done so.
V) I was under orders to abuse midfielder Aki Riihilahti who had previously become a legend among, spit, Crystal Palace fans.
VI) What's this? Only the greatest Finnish player of all-time, Jari 'Litters' Litmanin plays for HJK. But these days, only when he feels like it. And this wasn't to be one of those days, sadly.
oiled refreshed after a pre-match with the Finns, we entered the ground past, Brian and his pal...Brian selling programmes, and made our way to the temporary Bangor City club shop. Yes of course replica shirts, yes, yes, souvenir Champions League T-shirts. But the third and only other item for sale on the night: boxer shorts (boxer shorts!). Not Bangor City boxers either. "It's the only time blokes ever go shopping for clothes" said my wife. A very good point well made. I purchased two pairs.
Replica shirts? No thanks, boxers shorts all-round.
The two teams took to the pitch in glorious sunshine. Sadly, not to the tune of the Champions League anthem. They didn't have official Champions League balls, either. UEFA had sent a new flag to fly over one of the stands, but evidently their budget doesn't stretch to a CD and a couple of Adidas footballs. Another letter has gone out in the post to Nyon. This won't do.
UEFA had failed to send a shipment of CL balls, so we had to make do with the Macron, Super Brilliant 09.
"Singing aye, aye, Bangor, Bangor, aye...." sang the "home" faithful. "Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi – Helsingfors Fotbollsklubb, clap, clap, clap clap clap clap...." retorted my new friends from Finland. The bulk of the Bangor fans even changed ends at half time. The Champions League eh? A competition I'd previously thought was on the bones of its arse, during the groups stages, anyway. And here I was, in my new pants, loving every minute.
Bangor certainly didn't disgrace themselves, far from it. In fact they were the better team for large periods of the match, and pretty much dominated the second half. The visitors - seasoned European campaigners, and confidence oozing off the back of a ten match winning streak - had three shots, and scored three goals. Two of them came from the prolific former Leeds United man, Berat Sadik making it 17 goals in 19 games for him this season. (£3 on the match programme well spent there - Ed.).
And it's LIVE! (on S4C)
In true CL-style, HJK keeper Ville Wallen rolls around on the floor. The home faithful are unimpressed.
Still, Bangor fans left Rhyl with their heads held high. Despite the scoreline the whole night had been a success. It's ludicrous that a crowd of this size should rattle around at Wrexham's Racecourse Ground, which was the alternative venue mooted for this match. Here, at Rhyl, it felt like an occasion. Closer to home for those vocal and passionate City fans as well.
"Do you still think I'm a nutter?" I said to my wife after the match. "No, and furthermore, I thoroughly enjoyed it as well" she replied. Just as well, because I fancy going back to see Bangor City in their splendid Farrar Road ground next time. Young love eh?
Bangor City: Unity is Strength.
For loads more photos of this game and Bangor City's Farrar Road stadium CLICK ME
Further reading: EFW goes to Llanelli v Motherwell. And 'Should Welsh teams be banned from Europe' asks @ffwtbol.