Friday 1 August 2008 Lokeren article


‘One Moment In Time’ is a nostalgic look back at events and occasions in City’s past that will no doubt resurrect many impassioned memories for most City fans. Written from my personal point of view, I am hoping that reliving these moments, whether they were good or bad will prove to be an enjoyable read for all. This month…City’s UEFA Cup trip to Lokeren in Belgium.
Planning for an away football match is tricky at the best of times. Planning for an away match in Europe is even trickier. Flights, hotels, trains and car journeys all have to be worked out around the kick-off time- if any journey time takes too long then connections could be missed and we could miss the whole game.

City had been drawn in the UEFA Cup first round against Lokeren, a Belgian team that played at the Daknam stadium, which was between Brussels and Gent. Simon (my brother), Spenny and I had vowed to go to whoever City had been drawn against, so we started planning our European adventure. Obviously Brock would be accompanying us, and his friend Pennell decided to join us. He was a thirty-something who played football with Simon and the boys at the soccer dome.

It was a two-legged tie, with the first leg to be played at Eastlands and the away leg in Belgium. I get excited for an away match, but for me to actually get the chance to follow my team on the continent and be lucky enough that my team is actually in Europe…well, I was made up. Suddenly all those miserable Saturdays seemed worthwhile; being stood in the icy rain at Wigan or making a ten hour round journey to witness a hapless, hopeless 2-0 defeat at Southampton.

With the home leg ending in an unconvincing 3-2 victory for City, I was aware it was definitely game on at Belgium. With a fair chance of European glory at stake, City needed a win at Lokeren. I had full respect for the Belgians; they had come to Eastlands and proved a difficult side to play against, and their fans had been incredible. They were completely crazy and boisterous, swinging their scarves around throughout the ninety minutes. Now it was our turn to be the away support.

On 14th October 2003 I left work early to pack. Pennell had family in Dunstable, so we drove down south and planned to fly from Heathrow the next day. It was just our fortune that his family owned a pub, so we spent the night drinking and playing pool, eagerly discussing the match and our journey ahead.

After a few too many drinks we all decided to retire to the Travelodge we were staying in at Toddington services. However the lads decided to run amok in the service station. I think the alcohol had manager to turn the services from a drab and quite grotty eyesore into a magical adventure playground and the horseplay continued with Simon and Spenny wrestling each other in the foyer. That was enough. We stood on the footbridge over the M1 gazing at the cars below and wondering what was in store for us.

The next morning I was woken up with the sunlight beaming in through the gap in the curtains. This was it. 15th October 2003. City travelling to Lokeren in search of European success. My first European match on foreign soil. I threw my City shirt on and met up with the boys for a much-needed cooked breakfast.

Our car journey to Heathrow was filled with City songs and mass chanting despite the sore heads. We checked in and headed straight to the bar for a bit of hair of the dog. I was loving every minute; walking around one of the biggest international airports in the world with everybody knowing that you were on your way to support your team in Europe. We were all decked in replica shirts, draped in flags with Spenny raising the roof singing: “We all follow the City! Over land and sea!”

Everything was running smoothly; our flight took off on time and it only took an hour until we landed on Belgian soil. Inevitably though, something had to happen to knock us off our stride. Everybody’s overnight bags arrived at the baggage reclaim apart from Spenny’s, who then had to spend an hour waiting to file a lost baggage claim. Following this, we had to find a tram and a train connection to the centre of Brussels, which is difficult at the best of times if you only speak German to GCSE standard. Cue a frantic rush to then find our hotel, which ended in all five of us throwing our bags in our room and flagging down a minibus to take us to the ground.

The Daknam stadium was at least a good one hour drive from Brussels, so as it was already 5:30pm we were all aware of just how tight we would be cutting it. It was a tedious and anxious journey; our driver hardly spoke a word of English and he didn’t seem to know where he was going.

With the clock ticking down, we were all starting to look a little pensive. Chatter had turned from possible formations to whether we would actually get to see the game. The hapless driver knew he was in Lokeren but had no idea where the ground was. It was down to us to cast our eyes on the pitch black skyline for any glimpse of floodlights. We spotted an ‘away coaches; sign and tried desperately to translate to our driver. Then, from nowhere, floodlights. We couldn’t believe our luck. In no time we had followed the lights and had even managed to find a pub full of City fans.

Suddenly, City fans were everywhere. We had only seen half a dozen on our journey, even when at the airport. But the pub was covered, and I couldn’t help but notice the floor was covered in shards of glass and a sea of beer. Sensing we had missed some kind of fighting, we quickly finished our drinks and headed to the ground.

The narrow streets were overcrowded with blues all chanting and clapping. It was a bitterly cold night, and even with two pairs of socks on my toes was going numb. We reached a checkpoint where we all had to produce our tickets and I guess that’s where I noticed it first. Belgian police were everywhere. The sour reputation of English fans abroad had obviously preceded us as mounted police followed our every move. I could hear the sound of glass smashing as we were motioned towards our destination.

The Daknam stadium was tiny and the away stand was bolstered for our visit by some very unstable scaffolding. I don’t think the Belgians had accounted for some five thousand manic Mancunians pounding up and down for ninety minutes. As we found a prominent position to squeeze into, the rickety stand shaked and rattled- as both teams took to the pitch met with a deafening roar from the crown.

The ground and pitch were in terrible condition as both teams battled for possession and chances. But it became apparent quite quickly that the battles were set to continue off the pitch too. I could feel the tension mounting as the home fans in their main stand continued to taunt the blues, and we realised that City fans were positioned in every stand in the ground.

It wasn’t long before the inevitable happened. We all looked on aghast as fighting broke out in the stand to the right of us. All I could see was a mass of bodies and an air of punches as the thousands of blues in our end chanted and began to rip down the metal security fence to get to the home
fans. For a good five minutes the situation was well out of control.

The match was very dull and was won quite early by an Anelka penalty. City had seen the ninety minutes out by mainly protecting their lead and attempting to capitalise on it. But the one goal was enough to see us through into the second round of the UEFA Cup.

After the game, the thousands of jubilant Mancs took to the foreign streets, and we all found ourselves in a huge police escort. Not only riot police on foot and mounted police, but police tanks complete with water cannons, reminiscent of Euro 2000. As we sang, cheered and reeled off many a City song, some City fans attempted to break through the segregation, which resulted in batons being raised. It was only after about 15 minutes of walking that we realised we had been taken to Lokeren’s train station. The train platform was overflowing with blues and the noise was ear-piercing. The police had locked us all on the platform, which was no good to us as we needed to get back on Brussels, not to a ferry port in Antwerp.

A mass of bodies surged forward as a train pulled in. We heard the breaking of glass and realised that somebody had broken through an exit leading out of the train station. A bit of quick-thinking led us out onto the street- minus one member of our group. Brock. We had no idea what had happened to him but we knew we had to do something fast as the Belgian police were in a very unsavoury mood. We dived in a taxi and headed for the safety of our hotel.

It had been a very long day. I was so tired as we reached our hotel, at about 1:30am. With no sign of Brock and our flight home and 6:30am, we had to grab some sleep and hope that he was alright. It had been a very eventful day- City had progressed to the second round of the UEFA Cup.

The next morning, Simon and I packed our stuff up and headed to the hotel lobby. There was Brock, full of tales of how he got on a train to Antwerp, then to Gent and a taxi from Gent to the hotel. It had definitely been an away day to remember, one of the best even if not memorable for the actual football. I had spent ninety minutes watching a scrappy and often tedious game of European football at some makeshift ground in the middle of Belgium and you know what? It had been completely worth it. City were still in the hunt for European glory, and we were all ready for round two.

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