Sunday, 28 August 2011

Dnipro v Fulham

Down, down, Dnipro on down

Dnipro 1-0 Fulham (25:08:11)

Fulham took 67 fans to their Europa League game with Dnipro, Eddie Fremantle was one of them...

If you look at a map more than 25 years old, you won’t find Dnepropetrovsk, as the conurbation of more than a million inhabitants was a closed city under the Soviet regime because of its nuclear, ballistic weapons and space rocket building. Since foreigners were allowed back in from 1987, Dnepropetrovsk is easier to spot in an atlas but it is still pretty difficult to get to.

There are a number of different ways to reach the city and Fulham fans going to their side’s second leg Europa League play-off round match against FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk – I’ve no idea why the football club is spelt different from the city - mostly flew to Kiev for leg one of the journey. From there, some took the overnight train to the south-eastern city. It was, by all accounts, a hot and uncomfortable seven-hour journey with no buffet car, even in the 50-dollar first class cars.

Harry and I flew Wizzair from Luton to Kiev Zhulyany, a magnificently outdated airport on the edge of the city, and took a transfer to Kiev Boryspil, where they have built a new terminal, terminal F, in readiness for next year’s European Championships. Terminal D is in the process of being built. When it is finished there will be five terminals at Boryspil, A, B, C, D and F, though it is hardly Heathrow. Who knows why there is no E? It could be something to do with the Cyrillic alphabet in use in the Ukraine.

Our driver Olexander tells us that Dynamo Kiev’s new stadium that is being rebuilt for Euro 2012 is ‘80 per cent finished.’ At the little café near terminal A, where our flight to Dnepro leaves from, we spot Derek, a Fulham fan who lives in Belgium. He has flown from Brussels to Boryspil. Remarkably, Derek went to every Fulham game last season. Something just can’t keep him away. Another friend of ours, Mike, flew out of Gatwick via Berlin and is waiting for us at the Reikartz Hotel in Dnepro when we arrive around 10.30pm. They are two hours ahead of British summertime and it has taken eight hours to reach the Reikartz from Luton.

The Reikartz is brand new and expensive by Dnepro standards at around £50 a night for a single, £75 for a double. They don’t mind serving a meal at this time of night but we have to make do with beer as some bureaucratic oversight means their wine and spirits licence has not come through. It is a hardship with which we can cope before a welcome sleep.

After a magnificent breakfast, we take a stroll up to the ground, bumping into a couple of Fulham fans. One of them is Peter. Peter goes to just about all the away games and is an avid collector of Fulham memorabilia, possessing the largest collection of programmes imaginable. He says they are going to have a drink at the Shamrock at one o’clock. Every city in the world has an Irish pub, it seems.

There’s a queue of around 40 at the ticket office, one of two elegant kind of mock Georgian, in the British sense of the word, gatehouses at the main entrance to the ground. Match tickets start at 15 Hrivna, around £1.20. We paid £4.25 for ours from Fulham, including booking fee. Ripped off again.

They only queue for the Fulham. The ornate ticket office.

30 Hrivna for a ticket. Rip-off Ukraine. That's nearly £2-50.

The Dnipro Arena was opened in 2008. It is built into the side of a hill and impressive from the outside. Because of a UEFA ruling that 33,000 is the minimum capacity to be considered, the lovely 31,000 Arena will not be hosting any Euro 2012 games and that’s a pity. Despite one of our party not being keen to climb up to the top of the incline to see the rest of the ground – “it’s just a concrete bowl” – he is soon snapping pictures of the main stand on his phone.

Back at the ticket office, a guy waves a Dnipro-Fulham half and half scarf from an upstairs window. Mike asks where he bought it. “Magasin, magasin,” he says. “Shop?” asks Mike and the man comes down, points to a woman and tells us to follow her. Her name is Ira, who can’t speak any English but takes us to the club shop via a housing estate. There is some building work going on and graffiti on the corrugated wall. One message reads ‘FUCK OFF KHARKIV’, a reference to Dnipro’s hated rivals Metallist Kharkiv. There may not be much English spoken round here but a certain Anglo-Saxon phrase crops up a fair bit.
The shop has loads of gear if you are into that sort of thing. The replica shirts include, oddly, a Middlesborough shirt from the 888 sponsorship days. A few jokes are cracked about twin towns and air pollution. We buy scarves, t-shirts and a pin badge or two but leave the Smoggie shirt on the peg.

A stroll down Karl Marx avenue that dominates the city centre reveals shops, restaurants and bars and we take a look round the St Troitskiy Cathedral. Dodging the delights of the Shamrock, where Peter and his mates are holed up by now, we reach the bank of the River Dnieper, which is around a mile wide here and wends its 1,400 mile way to the Black Sea. The staff of the August Restaurant by the river are welcoming but we don’t speak Ukranian or Russian, can’t read Ukranian or Russian and they don’t speak English, not one word. By a combination of sign-language, crude drawings and google translate – there is free wifi in just about every establishment in the city – we manage to order three beef shashliks and a steamed river fish. The fish is for Derek, who endures a long wait. The food is excellent but arrives at wide intervals, as at the Reikartz the previous night. Diana and Sergei are most attentive but they have a bit of a tiff when we ask for a mixed salad. Diana says we can’t have one but Sergei insists that we can. They get it done, make up with each other and pose for a picture.

One half of Sergei and Diana of the August are Dnipro fans.

Dnipro club shop and Peter is nowhere to be seen.

It's all Greek to Mike and Derek on the August menu.

To walk the lunch off we stroll down the riverfront and over the bridge to the Monastery Island. The monastery is long gone, sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century, but there is a huge statue of Shevchenko, not at all like the one that was at Stamford Bridge a few years ago. Taras Shevchenko was the father of Ukranian literature, a kind of Shakespeare figure for the country. Born in 1814, he had a few run-ins with the Russian rulers, being banged up in St Petersburg by Tsar Nicholas I, exiled for a spell and died at the tender age of 47. His statue is being renovated with a couple of blokes with a chainsaw perched round his considerable neck.

Shevchenko never moved as quickly at the Bridge.

Further along the island is a kiddies amusement park with a mini zoo and an aquarium and a long man-made beach. A few brave ones have taken the plunge in the river – cue more Boro/Chernobyl jokes – and there are a couple of groups playing volleyball. They don’t look as though they are Olympic standard but there are a couple of 70-year-olds who are far fitter than any of us. It is noticeable how few people look overweight compared to England or even Kiev.

On the way back to the Hotel we stop for a drink in a bar and buy a couple of bottles of wine from a supermarket for the evening meal. On the way, we are twice stopped by locals who want to wish us good luck. We hope it won’t be needed. We made a rick with the first bottle of wine as it turns out to be a dessert wine. Sickly sweet. We still drink it with the meal, which is good, although served slowly as usual. There is a Newcastle spy staying in the hotel, ready to report on Fulham’s performance ahead of their game at St James’s Park on Sunday. He has not been as impressed with the city of Dnepro as we have.

When we reach the ground, we enter via what we think is the away end and turn out to be at the other end of the stadium but have no problems walking round the inside to the opposite end where a tiny band of Fulham fans are gathering, almost outnumbered by soldiers and police. The official count is 67. None of us can work out why Fulham, with around 14,000 season ticket holders, have such pitiful away support. It’s expensive to come abroad in August but Fulham fans are supposed to have more disposable income than any others in the Premier – a survey says so.

Come and have a go at the East End turnstiles.

Dnipro, playing better than they had at the Cottage, gain an early hold on the midfield, making sure Fulham sorties into their half are halted, even if it means a cynical foul or three, particularly from Bobo Zenden lookalike Vitaliy Denisov – there’s another Boro joke there somewhere - and Yevhen Shakhov. Shakhov scores a goal that has the home fans bouncing back and forth along the terrace and we fear the worst.

The second half brings a series of scares. Fulham are not playing well and their only meaningful attack brings a blast over the bar from Pajtim Kasami with 15 minutes to go. He really should have scored and calmed our nerves. Despite plenty of hairy moments, Fulham do not concede again and go through to the Group Stage 3-1 on aggregate.

We are told we are going to be kept in for 15 minutes and when we go downstairs there are Dnipro fans waiting for us. But they don’t want a fight, they want souvenirs. They plead for scarves, shirts, tickets. Anything to do with Fulham. A couple of half and halfs bought in the Dnipro club shop are swapped for home scarves, others exchange shirts. Harry gives someone his ticket from last week’s away game at Wolves. The expression on the guy’s face is pure delight. There is a party atmosphere.

The police want to put us on a coach back to hotels or the station but some of us don’t want to go. Eventually, it's sorted after negotiation with Fulham’s excellent fan liaison chappie, Tommy Guthrie and Peter, who tells them we are staying at the Sports Hotel. Peter is being a little economical with the truth as the Sports is a bar just around the corner, where he and his mates drank before the match. The soldiers and police buy it and we are given an escort. It’s all pretty unnecessary but all is friendly and as we walk into the bar the Dnipro fans give us a round of applause. They certainly don’t want to ruck with our motley crew. They just want to have a few drinks and a chat. Peter announces that he is going to buy all of us a drink. 17 beers comes to 85 Hrivna – around seven quid.

'17 pints please'

The soldiers leave but not before asking us if we want them to stay but there’s not going to be any trouble. In any case, there are three coppers in their blue shirts in the corner having their supper. The beer continues flowing as we try to chat to the Dnipro fans. One of them says his name is “Hervé.” “Like Harvey,” I ask. “No, Heavy,” he replies, showing his muscles. “If I told you my real name you wouldn’t understand.” Photos are taken and the Dnipro boys are particularly impressed with one of the Brothers’ England and Fulham tattoos. The pair of Brothers have not missed a Fulham game for more than six years, home and away, friendly and serious. They should not be confused with another older pair of brothers who have barely missed a game in 20 years. They wound Peter up earlier in the day by telling him they had bought a Dnipro poster for 100 Hrivna from a bill sticker. He believed them for a while, thinking he had missed out on a coup for his collection. Peter, although generous with the beer, is still upset he couldn’t find the club shop. It’s the sort of thing that gets to him, goodness knows why.

Heavy speaks pretty good English from school and college and is drinking with Alech and Max. Heavy and his pals couldn’t come to Craven Cottage. Apart from the expense, they find it almost impossible to obtain visas to enter the UK. “You are lucky, you are free men. We are not free men but we live in paradise. We have cheap beer and prostitutes everywhere,” quips Heavy. “When England played here, we drank all night with Liverpool fans. I love Liverpool,” he says, even though he has never been there. But he’s not pleased by Dnipro’s season so far, nor their fairly new manager. “What do you think of Juande Fucking Ramos?” he asks. When he doesn’t get much of a response, he rings a mate to have confirmation that Dnipro’s manager is a hopeless case. “We got a 0-0 with Vorksla last week. They are not a team.” “Normaal,” says Alech, with a long emphasis on the ‘a’. Alech says ‘normaal’ a good deal. It is hard to tell whether it means good, bad or indifferent. Apparently, both Fulham and Dnipro are ‘normaal’. We’ll take it to be indifferent, then.

Despite being comfortably the most drunken person in the place, Alech insists on escorting us the half-mile to the Hotel. “Security,” he grunts as he sways with us out of the door. “Metallist guv’nor, I’m the Metallist guv’nor,” he chants as he sashays impressively over the considerable potholes and pitfalls of the pavements. His mood darkens as he sees something not ‘normaal’. It is the huge building of the Interior Ministry, lit up in the darkness. “That is the SBU, Ukrainian KGB. Bastards.” This and the derelict buildings opposite the Reikartz are reminders of this great city’s history. “The Russians did that,” says Alech, without elaborating. He is not in much of a state to elaborate. But as he bids us goodnight and totters off into the night, he says, “Dnipro is my life.”

Alech (centre) leans on Mike and Harry to pose with Max (rear)

He's not Heavy, he's my brother.

'The Russians did this,' said Alech without elaborating.

Back in the Hotel, the Newcastle scout is at the bar. His name is Dave Goodwin and it turns out he has been watching a different game from us. Goodwin is full of praise for a “thoroughly professional defensive performance.” He goes on, “I was hoping they would have the legs run off them in the last half-hour to tire them out for Sunday but Jol shut up shop.” We wished we’d known that, because it didn’t look shut up to the Fulham fans with last-ditch tackles from Baird and Hughes preventing apparently certain goals. Mind you, Dave had a better view from the VIP area. Dave says he has visited 94 countries, six in the last month, including Sierra Leone, watching football and looking at players. He discovered Rio Ferdinand and recommended him to West Ham, where he then became chief scout for Harry Redknapp. Glenn Roeder took him to Newcastle around ten years ago. He knows what he is talking about. The second bottle of wine goes down well. This time it’s dry and wellworth the 37 Hrivna - £3. Bed is at 2am. It’s a long way back from Dnipropetrovsk.

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Britski Belasi said...

67 sounds like more than Arsenal took to Udinese on Tuesday! Great story, good luck, I'm sure if you play Slovan in the knock-out rounds you'll bring more than 67 ;-)

Tom C said...

Fascinating read, sounds like a great experience. It's seeing these sort of games that really makes me wonder what kind of away fan actually bothers going, but now I can really see why you would. I wonder who'll be first into the Europa League, Ipswich or Union Berlin...

Anonymous said...

against FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk – I’ve no idea why the football club is spelt different from the city

Dnipro is the name of the river. In Ukrainian. Dnepr is in Russian. The city was named Dnipropetrovsk in 1926 under Soviet Union.

Best regards from Kiev. :)