Northern Ireland v Qatar
Gresty Road / International Friendly / 31st May 2015
87 games, 74 grounds, 31 new grounds for me, 277 goals, 100s of laughs, a shed load of beer drunk and around 470 double thumbs up photos taken. However, as Jim Morrison once sung, ‘This is the end, my beautiful friend’. Here we are at my final game of the season. Game number 88 – a number I’m happy to finish on with 88 being the year of my birth.
Last year I finished in North Wales and with a pitch invasion, as I joined Bangor fans on the pitch to celebrate their Europa League qualification, after they had triumphed over their fierce rivals Rhyl. It was a perfect finale and a brilliant day in the wonderful city of Bangor. So what about this year’s season finale? What could better that? This season has been wonderfully wacky for me at times, so something wacky to finish would do nicely. How about Qatar v Northern Ireland? Okay, where? How about at Crewe’s Gresty Road home Matt? Well, that would do bloody lovely thanks. Just one problem really…
Crewe. The word now strikes fear into me. I very much enjoyed my only real trip to Crewe itself to watch Bournemouth triumph over the Alex, but when I ended up there at the start of April, specifically the train station, it was a disaster. 6 hours in bloody Crewe train station. 11.30am – 5.30am. Soul-destroying stuff. Following my night at Walsall v Crawley, a late night train-to-rail replacement bus change was required at Crewe station to complete the final leg of my journey to Manchester. Whether it was the beer in my system or not I do not know, but I never found that bus and thus I was stranded in Crewe station until the first train back to Manchester at 5.30am with only two random drunks and Belgian lager for company. It was a long morning for me. I’ve been through Crewe on the train a couple of times since and still wince in anguish at the memory every time. As well as football, today was about exorcising my Crewe demons.
If there is one person who fears Crewe more than me it is fellow groundhopper George, after he had a series of unfortunate events occur to him in the Cheshire town. George would be joining me on today’s venture to the railway town and I found him waiting for me at Manchester Piccadilly before our 11.55am train to Crewe.
On arriving in Crewe we met Lost Boyos debutant and Walsall fan Stu, who had agreed to join us for the day. Although we couldn’t leave the station without me pointing out where I had spent my time trying to sleep on that fateful morning in Crewe.
Our first port of call was the ground itself, which can be found almost adjacent to the railway – hence the club’s Railwaymen moniker. We acquired our tickets for today’s bizarre fixture for a measly £5 and then with just over 4 hours until kick-off, Crewe was our oyster; admittedly, not a very lavish oyster.
As we walked through the streets, we already started declaring our surprise at the amount of Northern Irish fans who were arriving into town. Some had taken to cladding their head in tea-towels in an attempt to play up to some sort of middle-eastern stereotype. Borderline casual racism, but humorous nonetheless. We decided that this was as close as we would get to seeing a Qatar fan today (and we were correct). We were to see a hell of a lot more of the Northern Irish and their fun side later in the day.
Unlike my last evening out in Crewe, this Sunday afternoon I actually made a point of visiting the town centre. There wasn’t too much to it really and it was far from eye-catching, but I was happy to tick off another Wetherspoons as we visited the excellently-named Gaffers Row (although I’m sure there should be an apostrophe in the name). Standard Spoons, standard Spoons clientele and no real sign of football fans in here. After a customary Tuborg, we moved on.
I thought the Grand Junction across the street looked a bit too much like a mock-up Wetherspoons and I wanted something with a bit more character. I had noted the Duke of Bridgewater en route to the town centre and so we headed back there.
Bar one man at the bar, we were the only customers in the pub. It was actually a lot nicer inside than I imagined and it was far more of a classic pub, even with the Nantwich Town home and away shirts hanging from hangers behind the bar. After last week’s antics at Selhurst Park, I snubbed the ‘2 Jagerbombs for £5’ offer though.
It was time to move on to Crewe’s main pub/bar strip: Nantwich Road. I enjoyed my time frequenting the alehouses here on my last trip and so I made a point of heading back here with the ground only being a 5-10 minute walk away. Fair to say, the party we found going on on Nantwich Road was far more lively than we imagined.
I had expected a few hearty Northern Irishmen to head over from their homeland and a few England-based fans to head to Crewe, but on this overcast Sunday afternoon, Crewe was a carnival of green in the various pubs.
We could hear the drums of the Green and White Army as we strolled up the road and we headed into the Brunswick pub, as some policemen exited.
“Lets do the Game Of Thrones theme tune!” was the first thing I heard as I entered the pub. This got me excited as I love the theme to the hit series, which is actually filmed in Northern Ireland, but sadly the men around the drum never quite mastered it and even argued over how the tune went. However, the ginger lad, who came and took over drumming duties for the afternoon, really was excellent and certainly very enthusiastic when it came to drumming. The atmosphere in the pub was immense! Me and Stu commented on how much fun it was singing the names of such random players who are clearly revered by the Ulstermen. After a few beers we were heartily joining in renditions of songs that were in ode to footballing Goliaths like Jimmy Quinn, Chris ‘Bairdinho’ Baird and Gareth McAuley.
My personal highlight was the rousing rendition of the ‘George Best song’. For those who may have missed it, this was a chant created by Manchester United fans a few weeks ago and has since exploded all over the internet. Of course, the words are perfectly fitting for Northern Irish fans too, since Best was Belfast’s boy wonder. So to the tune of Spirit in the Sky, everyone join in:
Goin’ on up to the spirit in the sky / That’s where I’m gonna go when I die / When I die and they lay me to rest / I’m going to go on the piss with Georgie Best!
Even the ardent England fan who we befriended at the bar was singing and bouncing around eventually, after originally claiming to be far too much of a patriot to join in with the Northern Irish chants. They were very welcoming to say the least.
More strange was the fact that I ended up spending most of the afternoon drinking with a man dressed as 1980s Brazilian football legend Socrates. Apparently, the gimmick was related to a film being made by one fan called Shooting for Socreates, a film about Northern Ireland’s 1986 World Cup campaign, where they took on a Brazil team featuring Socrates. It actually turned out that we were drinking with the director of the film himself and we were even invited to the premiere if we could get to London in a few weeks. I declined.
The hours spent in the Brunswick in Crewe were some of the most fun of my season and I was actually quite sad to leave. But leave we had to, shortly after we were joined by Rob Clarke and my Swans pal Egi and his missus Jen. We did leave with a memento though.
“But hide it under your clothes, as they might not let us in with them.” This was in reference to the anti-Qatar cards being handed out amongst the support. Of course, such placards were particularly relevant this week with the FIFA bribery scandal hitting the press with suggestions that Qatar earned the right to host the 2022 World Cup as a result of bribery (SHOCK HORROR!) Inevitably, Socrates was determined that I have a sign of protest and so I exited the pub working out how best to smuggle my protest into the ground.
Soon enough, we were outside the Main Stand of Gresty Road with me having a large placard stuffed up the back of my shirt. “They’ll never pat my back,” was my post-beers logic. The stewards did check my bag, but nothing else.
On the huge concourse of the Main Stand, it felt a bit like a groundhopper’s convention as I bumped into groundhopper and Man City supporter Tony Morehead; Jack who I had met at Cefn Druids earlier in the season; and I finally got to meet fellow Jack Bastard and one of the men behind Groundhop UK, Chris Berezai. It was great to briefly chat to the trio, before I headed to get a prematch pie.
FORKS! I forgot about this problem from my last visit! What do Crewe have against forks?! For some reason, the club refuse to stock any kind of forks and so as I headed up to our seats, I was forced to battle my way through my hot chicken balti pie with my hands alone. Fairplay though, the pie was a beauty.
I know many regularly brand Gresty Road a bit of a ‘shithole’ but I actually really like the place. I like its strange lop-sided look with the three tiny, old stands standing pathetically alongside the huge Main Stand. The stand really is a monster for a club that plays in the lower regions of the Football League and from the top it feels like you can see pretty much all of the north-west of England.
It was up here in the heavens and far corner of the Main Stand that we found Egi and Jen and so we took our seats in front of them with the noisier contingent of the Green and White Army dominating the middle of the stand. They were still going strong singing about Jonny Evans and an afterlife piss up with George Best.
The Northern Ireland teamsheet had some familiar names on it, largely from the Football League, but the Qatar team less so. Taking to Twitter, I learned that Qatar actually had virtually no Qatari born players on the pitch with the nation taking to nationalising players playing within their own wealthy league.
Unsurprisingly, I did not join in the Northern Irish national anthem of God Save The Queen – not exactly a Welsh favourite – and then we were treated to the Qatari anthem, performed with the team behind a FIFA ‘fairplay’ flag. Oh, the irony.
It will perhaps come as little surprise to hear that an international friendly between Northern Ireland and Qatar offered very little excitement on the pitch with Northern Ireland in their blue away kit and Qatar in their white away kit. In fact, we had more fun playing the ‘Guess the nationality of the Qatar manager’ game. He did look particularly dapper in his suit and with his tidy mop of greying hair and so we all punted for either South American or Mediterranean countries. Jen was the closest with her Argentina shout, as after a few tense minutes, Wikipedia informed me that his name was José Daniel Carreño and he was Uruguayan. With that game over, it was back to watching the mediocre football.
One thing that was evident within minutes was that Qatar have a hell of a lot to do and they are going to need a lot more non-Qatari ringers if they are going to be ready to be competitive in a World Cup in 7 years time. Quite frankly, they were crap. Really crap. They looked physically strong when they lined up at the start of the game, but they didn’t really show it, and, more importantly, it looked like they didn’t have a clue how to control or pass a football.
However, Northern Ireland may have had a lot more of the ball, but they really didn’t do much with it. Most of the game was spent on the halfway line with Manchester United’s Paddy McNair playing in an unfamiliar defensive midfield role (which I thought he looked very good in actually).
It was all a bit…’meh’.
Half-time: Northern Ireland 0 – 0 Qatar.
The others opted to stay in the stands during half-time, but I wanted to go get a beer and to join in the festivities on the concourse, so down into the bowels of the Main Stand I went. Once again, the party from across the Irish Sea were having a whale of a time singing something about German bombers, whilst a man dressed as a sheikh danced around them. I was less enthused by the David Healy song though (just ask any Wales fan, we really don’t like him).
One thing I did learn in Crewe is that it is apparently a hotbed for Lost Boyos fanboys, as during half-time I was approached twice by strangers who read the blog and dubbed me a ‘legend’. This had also happened twice in the pub earlier when 2 Crewe fans approached me saying that they’ve read regularly since I wrote my Crewe blog two years ago. So…’Hi Crewe!”
After some more singing and bouncing about with the green-clad fans, I headed back up into the stands as the second half was about to get underway. And lucky I headed up in time actually, as it took a mere 52 seconds into the second half for Northern Ireland to grab the lead.
A cross from the right by Niall McGinn was headed towards the back post by Will Grigg, where Brentford’s Stuart Dallas came running in to fire a left footed shot home. With Dallas the scorer, I’ve been desperately scrambling for some sort of Dallas/JR type pun, but nothing is coming to me. Feel free to send me your ideas.
With the fans in the middle of the stand getting louder, we decided to go join the party too and soon enough we were back bouncing around singing along with “Go on the piss with Georgie Best!” However, the chants started going in a different direction now too. A far more anti-FIFA direction.
“Shall we take a bribe for you?” and “Bribery, bribery – if you come from Qatar you’re into bribery” were just two of the numbers that resonated from the away end and like many others around me, I now had an excuse to unleash my placard. Whilst the chants resonated around the Main Stand, some fans even took to waving money at the players down below. I did start feeling a bit sorry for the Qatari players who were taking the brunt of the anti-FIFA chants. Nevermind though.
“You’re not Northern Irish!” came the retort from the green, blue and white-wigged man next to me. I’m certainly not and I was soon informing him that I am indeed Welsh, before rambling on about all sorts of stuff to him. He seemed engaged in our conversation but perhaps had had enough of me, so to shut me up he gave me a Northern Irish pin badge. Legend.
Then, from absolutely nowhere, undoubtedly the one moment of magic in the game happened. Qatar dispossessed their opponents on the halfway line and broke forward. A recovery tackle was made around the edge of the Northern Irish box, before the ball rolled to French-born Karim Boudiaf 25 yards out from goal. What a hit. In one fluid motion, Boudiaf unleashed a fierce side-footed left foot shot that flew over substitute goalie Michael McGovern to make it 1-1. Qatar’s first shot on target and their first even real attack. But what a goal and it is definitely one of the best I’ve seen on my travels this season. It would prove to be the last I see this season and it was certainly a superb one to finish with. Despite the earlier chanting against Qatar, everyone in the stadium stood and applauded too. It was thoroughly deserving of such an ovation.
Jonny Evans came off the bench much to the joy of the fans in the crowd to ensure his home nation wouldn’t concede again. In fact, Evans really should have won the game when he rose unmarked above everyone else only for his powerful header to bounce wide of the post. That was to be the last action of the game.
Full-time: Northern Ireland 1 – 1 Qatar.
And with the blowing of the final whistle, I was done. Lost Boyos over for another season. I felt sad. Obviously, I wasn’t letting it finish with the blowing of the whistle and so I insisted that everyone go back to the pub to toast the season. No-one argued.
Just as we were about to go I did bump into Birmingham fan Lee Hinton, who I’d promised a double thumbs up photo for ages. Plus, I owed him a thank you for his excellent ‘cultural’ advice on what to do on my day out in Birmingham a few weeks back.
As we worked our way back down from the top of the Main Stand towards pitchside, we were presented with the opportunity to step a few yards onto the hallowed Gresty Road turf to get some photos. We also bumped into Jack and Chris again so we invited them to join us on the pitch too. We said our goodbyes to them and Gresty Road and then it was to the pub!
The Corner Pub, located on the corner (shock) down the road from the ground and opposite the station, was lively with the Northern Irish without being packed to the rafters. So drinks were purchased and toasts were made before we then said goodbye to Stu, who was off back to Shrewsbury. Top Lost Boyos debut from the Walsall fan and hopefully he’ll join us on the road again next season.
I headed outside to make a phone call, but when I came back in it seemed that George had caused a bit of a barmy. First of all, he was always going to be open to abuse in such a climate surrounded by the Northern Irish just for being English. Yet somehow he had suggested to one female fan that she wasn’t really “British”. George is far from being an outspoken person, so it didn’t surprise me to learn that he had not launched a verbal attack on her nationality and instead there had been some sort of communication breakdown. I intervened as a Welsh peacekeeper with the situation not really boiling over too much. However, my peacekeeping was unorthodox to say the least: I danced. I bloody danced to Uptown Funk and soon enough Northern Irish girl was dancing with me and happy as could be. By the time the dancing had finished, and others had joined us, the argument was forgotten and everyone was good pals. I should work for the UN! I am the Lord of the Dance said I.
The last drink of the season was consumed and now I was sad as the minutes ticked down towards the 20:29 train out of Crewe and the end of the season. Fittingly, the last double thumbs up photo of the season would be with George and his new-found Northern Irish friend; Welsh, Northern Irish and English all in one photo – a symbol of how Lost Boyos can unite the footballing world.
And that was it. I departed into the Crewe sunset and said goodbye to 2014/15. I’ll save most of the soppy, sentimental stuff for the ‘Lost Boyos Awards’ blog coming soon (watch this space),but I will say that today was a more than a fitting finale. I wanted something fun to finish with and the fixture alone, Northern Ireland and Qatar in Crewe, suggested that by itself, but the day turned out far more surreal than I ever could have imagined. I got stopped by randoms like some sort of Z-list celebrity, partied with Socrates whilst singing about getting drunk with George Best; I protested against Qatar 2022; then saw Qatar score a wonder goal and somehow I had diverted a ruckus from occurring with some inspired dance moves. Yes, today was a perfect way to see out the season and a huge thanks to the Northern Ireland fans for being so much fun and so friendly – it was a pleasure.
I can safely say I exorcised my Crewe demons. You’re back on the good list Crewe.
Highlights: The Brusnwick, the Northern Ireland fans (unreal fun and very friendly), the chants (“Go on the piss with Georgie Best!”), drinking with Socrates, £5 a ticket, good party atmosphere in the stands, Qatar’s wonder goal, peacekeeping dance moves.
Low Points: poor game, GET SOME FORKS CREWE!
Check out all my photos from our day in Crewe here.