Away Days: 479 days later, a trip to the match at last; now I want the real thing

It’s been a while since I last went to a football match. 479 days to be precise.

The last one was as about as good as it gets really. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United in their promotion-chasing pomp, a sold-out Elland Road starting to believe it was actually going to happen after Luke Ayling’s best Tony Yeboah impression, and a 2-0 win in a Yorkshire derby.

That turned out to be the last weekend of regular, sold-out football across the UK. When promotion eventually arrived after a 16-year wait, agonisingly made three months longer, it was celebrated in living rooms and streets across Leeds. But the stands were empty.

I cling to the memory of that last match against Huddersfield like a comfort blanket. There’s a melancholic edge to it now when I think about leaving, looking out onto the empty pitch with an ominous feeling it might be the last time for a while, or how little I thought of Leeds great Norman Hunter walking past the press box with a brush of my shoulder, as happened most matches. Just over a month later, he died after contracting the virus.

Going out and staying out afterwards still remains the last Saturday night that felt normal. Like Arab Strap’s First Big Weekend in reverse. I’ve been back to the same bars again since, albeit with masks, QR codes and two-metre distances. It’s not the same.

It’s been a long 479 days. I’ve become depressingly accustomed to football as a purely televised spectacle. Leeds’ first season back in the top flight was pure joy, but despite watching every minute of every game live, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d kind of missed it.

Every weekend increasingly felt like Groundhog Day with the snippets of Celeste’s Stop This Flame on Super Sunday’s indents gradually bludgeoning my psyche. I’m still pretty sure every Sunday teatime across the various lockdowns was spent watching Manchester United play out a much-hyped but ultimately dire 0-0 draw – naff all else to do though, might as well watch it.

Old colleagues could still get into the press box, while reduced capacity games came in fits and starts, but there were no real pangs of jealousy. It never looked as though I was missing out on the real thing. When I envisaged finally going back, I imagined a sell-out, the steel of the stadium vibrating, a deafening roar to meet the first kick-off after belting out Marching On Together. I imagined a Saturday. An actual one.

A fifth-full Hampden Park, with no-doubt disappointed and disinterested local neutrals robbed of a glamour tie, was not that.

But it was an opportunity not to miss. I’ve seen Ukraine at every major tournament they’ve ever competed in, having been raised as a second-generation member of the diaspora. Most of my family holidays as a kid were spent following Zbirnya or Dynamo Kyiv with my dad and brother.

There were haphazardly arranged weekends away – I was 15 when we didn’t book a hotel and ended up sleeping in a doorway in Rome – and letters to school explaining the “cultural importance” of going to Ukraine’s first and only World Cup appearance in 2006. When Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo were in the UK, we were there. Be it Wembley, Old Trafford or Barry Town.

Even before the pandemic, the budget airline vibe of the continent-wide Euro 2020 didn’t really appeal.

Seeing Ukraine, Poland and France get transformed for three weeks, whole cities commandeered by thousands of fans is what makes international tournaments special. Jetting in and out to Amsterdam and Bucharest didn’t have the same appeal – not least with potential periods of quarantining and all the additional logistics headaches. I’d made peace with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen.

But thanks to a stroke of luck, Ukraine were heading to Glasgow for their first knockout match since 2006. Suddenly there was nothing stopping me.

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READ: Andriy Shevchenko: From national hero to Europe’s next top boss?

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Andriy Shevchenko’s men were exceptional in qualifying but disappointed come the tournament. A spirited two-goal comeback against the Netherlands kicked things off with a bang, but ultimately counted for nothing in a 3-2 defeat, while they were second-best in a 1-0 defeat to an irritatingly good Austria.

Only a narrow 2-1 victory over the lowest-ranked side in the competition, North Macedonia, was enough to see them sneak through as one of the better third-placed teams.

Had they performed better, they would have had to face Italy or the Czech Republic, while it was only Sweden’s injury-time winner against Poland that set up a clash between the blue & yellow brethren. Had Poland completed their comeback against Sweden, Ukraine would’ve been eliminated, while if it remained a draw it would have meant facing Spain.

Somehow, not only were Ukraine through, but they faced opposition they had a chance against. Sweden was a good omen, too; the last clash between the two nations was among the most joyous occasions in Ukrainian football history as a 36-year-old Shevchenko scored twice in a comeback 2-1 victory at the sold-out Olympiyskiy in Kyiv in the Euro 2012 opener.

Until this year, Sheva’s brace were the only goals Ukraine had scored in a European Championship. The only game that didn’t end in defeat. Now Ukraine’s greatest player was hoping to have the same influence from the dugout.

I was there, donning an old blue & yellow Leeds away shirt, and thanks to a ton of messages, tweets and posts in Leeds Facebook groups, was made aware I’d been spotted on telly, peering over Sheva in the nervous final minutes. The shirt fits quite a bit tighter nine years on, but I had to wear it again as a lucky charm.

After four hours of trains over the Ribblehead viaduct and incredible views of the North Yorkshire countryside, I was in sun-soaked Glasgow. As I schlepped through town to give my Ukrainian contact cash for the ticket he sorted me, the streets and outside seating of all the bars and restaurants were full of blue & yellow shirts. Scottish authorities denied fans from Ukraine and Sweden the ability to fly in, but thousands of UK-based fans like myself were able to make it.

I’d hoped to meet fans from the sizeable Ukrainian community from Bradford at a beer hall they’d booked out, but by the time I’d sorted my ticket and dropped my stuff off at my cheap hotel, England-Germany was about to start. I wasn’t sure how seriously to take the note on my ticket telling me to arrive at Hampden Park two hours before kick-off, but I headed there anyway to watch the early evening kick-off in a sports bar not far away.

From the 15-minute train out, or the short walk around the Mount Florida suburbs, you’d barely be aware there was a game on that night. I’m agnostic when it comes to England, but I didn’t want to miss Leeds’ Kalvin Phillips on the big occasion.

There was a novelty in watching England’s biggest win in 25 years in a little pool hall in Glasgow but, save for a couple of old blokes straight out of Still Game sat in front of me supporting Germany, it wasn’t exactly hostile. Pockets of England fans weren’t made to feel unwelcome.

It was disappointing to arrive at the ground having missed out on any real sense of build-up, but I’d have a chance for that after the match, right? Wrong – I hadn’t bargained for the stricter restrictions north of the border and 11pm curfew on pubs. Not to mention the classic mistake of forgetting off-licenses up there can’t sell booze after 10pm.

Sitting alone in the ground – no food, no drinks – for an hour, looking across to the opposite stand with a few stray bodies didn’t exactly scream huge knockout game. Such a sparse attendance brought back memories of Leeds’ lowest moments of the Ken Bates era. Southend in the Carling Cup, anyone?

But eventually I found a couple of fans I knew, and the Ukrainian fans clustered together in one end, ignoring the social distancing guidelines, to make the most of the occasion and create as good an atmosphere as could be expected in their end of the ground.

The experience wasn’t what I remembered it, but I’d forgotten what it was like to get a panoramic view of the whole pitch and a better view of each side’s shape and the tactical thinking behind them. The match wasn’t a classic; it had a cagey play-off feel, with neither side taking risks and focusing on minimising mistakes. But it was hard-fought and competitive, and there were genuine moments of quality in the set-up for both of Ukraine’s goals.

For the myriad ways in which the whole experience was made immeasurably worse by the restrictions, the thrill of seeing a move develop and end with the ball in the back of the net remains just as pure, the celebrations just as good. Not least a 121st-minute match-winner, the second-latest goal in Euros history, nodded in by Dnipro striker Artem Dovbyk after a perfect cross whipped in by Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Extra-time had been an attritional bloodbath, and you fear for Ukraine’s legs when it comes to facing England, but Dovbyk’s header instantly became an iconic moment in Ukrainian football, destined to be replayed in years to come.

But upon seeing the videos of people celebrating in the streets of Kyiv, I couldn’t help but recall the famous line from Irish columnist Con Houlihan: “Italia 90? I missed it… I was in Italy at the time.”

After the adrenaline rush of the late winner, it was quite a comedown to return to central Glasgow – one of the most fun, alive cities I’ve been to on previous visits – resembling a ghost town, offering no alternative but to go straight back to the little room of my hotel. I couldn’t even get a battered Mars bar, let alone a pint.

The post-match experience was a reminder of how dismal the times we’re living through are. A window into a world in which property developers turn every last city centre corner into flats and subsequently extinguish any signs of nightlife.

It was a genuine privilege to be there to witness Ukraine’s victory. It was much better than nothing. But getting a taste only made me more desperate for the real thing. Roll on next season, packed-out grounds, and matchdays that last from the morning until the early hours again.

By Nestor Watach

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