The first thoughts that entered my head included where am I, how are England going on in Australia and where was my phone. The ship (boat?) was still moving, so I guessed I was somewhere off the coast of Holland. My phone was in my jeans pocket, but on checking the screen it was no use as there was no service in this particular section of the North Sea-a bit difficult to erect one of them masts that look like a giant ear bud in hundreds of feet of icy water I suppose. I needed my phone for First Ashes Test text updates from mates in the UK, and also for any news on my brother, who earlier that summer been diagnosed with what ended up being terminal cancer. So my room mate (Chris, my step Dad) and I quickly got dressed, and headed for the main bar area of the ship, where we had spent the whole of the night before drinking in what felt like a floating version of the bowling alley place at that Middlebrook in Horwich .
The bars empty stage now had a large projection screen hanging down in it, and a very sketchy TV signal was trying to show Sky News. The cricket score began to become obvious, despite the lack of an actual scorecard, from the body language of the interviewees of each side, which revealed (yet) another great day for the Aussies. Then as the boat rumbled into The Hook Of Holland, the picture got better and suddenly a rash of text messages dropped into my phone as we pierced the first reception bubble of continental Europe.
Sure enough England were getting paggered-it was the day of Harmisons Über wide opening delivery. They were 300 odd for about 1 wicket. Bad start to what we hoped would be a Sporting Weekus Mirabilis. Through the windows (portholes?) of the boat, the stark industrial landscape of endless quays, lit by an eerie mixture of the weak dawn sunlight, neon lighting and general air pollutants, passed by slowly. A proliferation of mini wind farms, those stunning modern windmills (this was Holland remember) broke up the endless multi coloured range of containers , occasionally interspersed with a refining plants burn-off rig shooting flames into the sky, reminding me of something from Bladerunner. After what seemed an age, we got into dock and disembarked.
A short bus ride into Rotterdam itself followed and within an hour we were both in a café in the city centre drinking coffee and eating Danish (pastries, not bacon or actual people from Denmark). The usual hotel checking in followed, then back into the bars for a day of it before the challenge of getting to De Kuip for the game itself that evening-a challenge we both were silently concerned about, given the reputation of the Dutch fans and their reported general lack of handing warm welcomes out. Their next game in the group at Nancy saw the Feyenoord Ultras try to demolish the French town and go bananas inside the stadium-live on Channel 5!
We took it easy for an hour or three until we ended up at Oude Haven-The Old Harbour where the UK police had said to gather around at 5pm so they could lay on free bus trips straight to the ground. I think it was this trip were my liking for strong continental beer began.-Chimay, Leffe, Maredsous-All between 6% and 8.5%. They served it in small glasses, very wise. At around half three we were getting hungry, so decided to go and find somewhere to eat. Not far away we discovered an Asian restaurant which was open and happy to have our Euros. We were the only ones in, and I remember feeling a little paranoid, but when we ordered the 26 course banquet for two the atmosphere lightened considerably. The two owners, who really would have not looked out of place in an episode of Eurotrash, were all over us, and even brought out their mother and introduced us to her. Handshakes, hugs all round. The meal, as I recall was interesting, tasty and naturally left us both feeling well fed-like a Turkey might do around December 23rd ish.
We then headed back to the Old Harbour for our free trip to ground, only to find when we got back there that minutes after we left in search of grub, the police had locked it down and allowed nobody in or out. Anxious to not have to make our own way through the now dark streets of Rotterdam I managed to negotiate our way into the Rovers enclave with the (stereo) typically chilled Dutch police guys present there.
After more 10% beer, we eventually board the buses to the ground. The bus was packed with just Rovers fans, many of whom had clearly not been able to ration their intake of mega strong beer, and there were sparks of conflict between various members of the bus group. How ironic that the first sign of trouble on the trip was coming from Rovers fans. However, that situation resolved itself soon enough as the buses arrived at the stadium.
As we disembarked from the bus, for the first time I noticed a very heavy police presence. They told us to head straight from the bus to the gate at the turnstiles around 30 yards away along the side of a large metal fence. After two steps I saw a bottle fly past my head, from the other side of the fence, followed by several more, including other unidentified flying objects. The swift walk immediately turned into a full on sprint, hands over my head in what would have been a vain attempt to shield myself from the missiles raining down on the Rovers fans. I got to the turnstile, handed my ticket to the lad working the gate and mentioned the `Warm Welcome` I had just received. He said `You should be glad youre not German. They f u c k i n g HATE the Germans!` I was indeed thankful I was not a German.
Inside the stadium, alive and in one piece I was suddenly amazed at how many Rovers fans there were. And how many of them I knew too. The vast majority had decamped in Amsterdam, and traveled in on the train for the game. As I surveyed the scene, I noticed that they appeared to be selling beer! Quickly I queued up and got a drink or two, then suddenly realised it was some sort of low alcohol beer or shandy-to be honest though anything less than 6% by this stage would have tasted like water really. UEFA rules apply even in Holland it seemed, so no booze inside ground on a match night.
We went upto our seats fairly early, to savour the atmosphere. We were middle tier, slightly to the left of centre looking out at the pitch. As kick off time approached there was clearly an issue with getting everyone in and sat down-the lowest section closest to the pitch, was temporary seating on scaffolding, it looked very wobbly and unsafe, and a late influx of fans sitting anywhere and everywhere meant chaos. I really feared for the people who were down the front as crushes were developing and tempers fraying, again. But somehow, as it always seems to do in the end, it resolved it self without any notable disaster and issue and teams came out. A superb explosion of sound, fireworks, tickertapes and singing greeting the players made it a tremendous atmosphere. Certainly a million miles better than any European night I had been to at Ewood. And in fairness the away followers were tremendous throughout the ninety minutes, giving the Rovers superb support. Then there was that song. Der der der der der der der der der der der der Feyenoord, Feyenoord! A cheesy Euro Pop song that was apparently the clubs official tune, which was quickly and predictably stolen by us and changed to end with Rovers, Rovers. Everyone seemed to think it was great at the time, but then everyone there was either very p i s s e d , very stoned or both.
The game itself was tight, limited in goalmouth action and generally a little bit of a let down in the end. I think Shabani Nonda missed a couple, and they could have had a penalty when Emerton took someone out in the box. I do recall Royston Drenthe standing out for them, and was not surprised when he later went to Real Madrid. At the end, the players all came over and were clearly appreciative of our efforts, and the numbers there-I believe there were 2,800 of us. We were kept in for an absolute age after the game, which was probably for the best really, and it meant we got to sing that song again, and again, and again. We even got to see the players warm down on the pitch, and again they clapped our efforts. The 0-0 draw meant we had won the group, and were through to the last 32 in the UEFA Cup knockout stages in the New Year. Rovers in Europe after Christmas, heady days!
So after the game we got a taxi back into the city, a few quiet drinks and absolutely no trouble to be seen anywhere. We decided to go back to the hotel around 1am, thinking as it was a small , family run hotel it would be un-thoughtful of us to be coming in at all hours (how very British). But when we got back, the hotel bar was packed with drunk Dutch locals and they were going at it harder than us! Never the less, I was done, and went to the room to watch some free Euro porn on the cable TV till drifting off to sleep, dreaming of success in the Cricket and the possibility of a BIG team in the next round.