With the pre-season tour of Cornwall last summer proving to be by far the highlight of the last 12 months, that we’d head to Slovenia was never in doubt. Baking sunshine, new stadiums, misplaced optimism and all day drinking, a recipe for the most memorable (where alcohol permitted) of holidays. When the football’s more of a sideshow, a mere galvanising device to justify a gathering of Leeds fans in hopelessly ill-prepared small towns, how could we possibly fail? Here in brief, is a record of what I can remember. If you weren’t there, then you really ought to be in 2014…
Tuesday 9th July
The day has finally arrived so eight of us head down to Luton Airport. Flying with an operator named Wizz Airlines does little to ease the nerves of the less relaxed flyers, nor does the pink and purple colour scheme of the planes. Despite this and a shambolic call to the boarding gates that arrived before our plane did, it was a mercifully smooth flight.
Once in Ljubljana and checked in it was straight in the capital; initial intel suggested that the bar of choice for Leeds fans would be the Cutty Sark, and so it was to prove. Being that Brits abroad aren’t the most imaginative species, it was inevitable that the Cutty Sark would be pub of choice, being one of those drinking holes that trades on the term ‘English pub’ as its USP.
What apart from the jukebox and pub sign was recognisibly English, I’m not sure; certainly none of the available beers. Add to the equation the most miserable bar staff imaginable and we’re hardly talking ‘Good Beer Guide’ material here. However, the Leeds fans had taken up root here and with each passing day, much to the annoyance of the bar staff, did so in increasing numbers; getting a scowl from the bar man for not having the correct change in the end became almost as essential part of the experience as the beer and singing.
Wednesday 10th July
A punishing early start to make the train from Ljubljana to Murska Sobota for the first game; the first two discoveries of the day are most welcome – a McDonald’s at the station and the revelation that Slovenian trains are actually comparable and in some ways, superior to those back in England…albeit, incredibly slow.
Once checked in at a hotel that appeared stuck a 70s timewarp in Martjanci, it’s straight into Murska for pre-match boozing. We settle for a bar in the market place area where a very amiable DJ is playing Leeds United songs on heavy rotation by request; want a song? He’d just search online, download and play it.
To the game and nothing approaching the 1000-1500 Leeds fans initially mooted are there, it’s more like 300, though most are already worse for wear. Many of them are packed in the tiny bar chanting “Get the Chelsea off the wall!” at bemused bar staff who are forced to remove a Chelsea pennant and ball from the display behind them.
The game itself is a pretty forgettable affair, the Slovenian XI being every bit as awful as could be visualised; a team that played like complete strangers and possessed a goalkeeper who looked so young, you suspected he had to gain parental consent to play – he even needed senior team mates to take his goal kicks. It was all too comfortable, if not all that convincing; conceding a goal to this collective was another black mark on the record of Jason Pearce, culpable as he was for the late consolation.
The main talking point of the day (and unrelentingly so for the next week) came at full-time; as the players left the pitch and the Leeds fans began to filter away, around 50 or so remained behind to hail Brian McDermott. As he and Paul Dews approached an impromptu chorus of “It’s you round Brian, it’s your round!” rang out from behind the fences, penning Leeds fans in. A quick conversation between him and Paul Dews involving the loaning of 50 Euros followed and so one of the big stories of the tour was spawned and in the recipient of the note, Dan Lambert, a fame hungry diva was born!
Even then our work wasn’t done at the stadium; I’m sure those at Yorkshire Radio charged with editing down the post-match interviews will have loved the unprintable libelous Bates chants that rang out…nor would the guy interviewing Matt Smith thank us for the chorus of “He’s got more hair than you!”
Back then to the bar of choice where McDermott’s handout translated to beers for 25 and set the precedent for much more singing, boozing and dancing on sofas. The night came to an abrupt end amidst stories of the DJ receiving a smack in the face…in retrospect, looking at the state of others in the morning, it may have been a blessing.
Thursday 11th July
The post-Murska hangover extended from a journey back to the capital that embraced three trains and a coach to power napping for the weaker party members, maybe aware of what was in store at the Cutty Sark later.
Suddenly, rather than a place dotted with Leeds fans as on Tuesday, the alleyway where the Cutty Sark lay was now awash with Whites. As the singing got louder, the bar staff got more resentful and the locals more wary, you could not help but think what the implications might be. As it was, the noises drew the attention of a group of Belgian fans…at first there was a stand-off, a moment of concern, then what followed could only be described ‘Green Street meets West Side Story’ as Belgians and Yorkshiremen exchanged chants in a rowdy sing-off, the unveiling of the “All of you are gays!” retort (as famously chanted at Stamford Bridge by Olympiakos fans), while juvenile in the extreme and not particularly clever, was wholly effective in deciding the contest.
Honourable losers, the Belgians then joined in with a mass WACCOEing, contributing the “We are the champions…” element of each line.
If the drama of that wasn’t enough, the increasingly irate bin man who repeatedly found the path of his golf buggy type vehicle obstructed made the fatal mistake of making his displeasure unknown. Several short sharp beeps were enough to have Leeds fans hitching a ride and playfully rocking his vehicle. Eventually he gave up the ghost and disappeared, only to have a couple of police show in his place – the result? Two Leeds fans were singled out and fined 50 Euros apiece for being the “loudest singers’. Where was Brian McDermott when they needed him?
Friday 12th July
A day at Lake Bled; an expanse of water much like many of the great British lakes, minus the shopping trollies, johnnies and beer cans, but offering clear water and an island with church instead. Swimming a few lengths of the far end of it proved an idyllic experience, though may have been less so had I known about the size of some of the hideously ugly fish that swam around it.
Friday night was back at the Cutty Sark, more miserable faces behind the bar, but sadly no bin man; you had the feeling the weekend couldn’t pass quick enough for those working in this small corner of Ljubljana.
Saturday 13th July
Domzale was always going to be the big day of the trip, hundreds of Leeds fans flying in to swell numbers, unrelenting heat, a short trip out from the station and a 7.45 kick-off to accommodate the drinking aspirations of all. Having found a pub that remarkably stocked Staropramen and sold it at a lower price than the (frankly rubbish) local brews, it was down to the main bar by the stadium…the beer garden was much like that at The Peacock, if you ignore the grass and the 25m swimming pool.
The temptation for a dip was too much for some Leeds fans, including one who’d infamously stripped in the capital the day before; down the slide he went in his undies, beer bottle in hand – his first act when returning to the water’s surface was to take a swig of his Lasko. An irate member of the bar staff confronted him as he re-entered the beer garden – his punishment? To have his bottle confiscated and the contents put into a plastic cup. Easy going stuff!
We moved on to the smaller bar next door and were soon treated to the LUFC team coach backing into the car park in order to get access to the changing rooms (they were outside the perimeter of the stadium). Brian McDermott and many of the players looked on bemused as hundreds of Leeds fans followed the coach, breaking futile attempts at a cordon.
The naked guy saw his chance and confronted the coach, tackle ahoy as the Leeds fans sang – only on tour! The Domzale players, spectators to events were then suddenly targeted, the recipients of forceful enquiries as to “Who the f***ing hell” they were made a hasty path to the sanctity of indoors.
Inside the stadium the madness continued, one man (of many over the days) who bore a striking resemblance to Brian McDermott had somehow got himself pitchside and sat on the bench in a Leeds shirts and shorts, alongside a mate in training kit posing as his assistant.
Throughout the warm up he paraded around and about and even across the pitch, standing with his hands behind his back, as if supervising the subs as they exercised. Not once was he challenged, even when the Leeds officials emerged, choosing to merely continue his walkabout before electing to go into the stands of his own accord, about 15 minutes in.
As for the game? Leeds looked very decent for half an hour and deservedly led through Poleon but after that, there was little else to report until the locals equalised. Although the goal was initially met with the customary slump of the shoulders amongst the Leeds fans, the music that followed transformed the mood at a stroke.
One thousand supporters who’d clearly lost interest in the game as a spectacle were suddenly bouncy around like loons to the tune blaring out of the Tannoy. Several Leeds players turned from the bench and tried to contain their laughter, Noel Hunt simply couldn’t and creased up at the madness of it all.
Now re-energised our contingent were back in the mood: “Let them score again!” boomed out of the stands and animated exchanges between those on the left and right ensued – “You mean f*** all to us!” and “Where were you at Cutty Sark?” were particular highlights. Then back to the game and as the home side pressed for a winner, so shouts of “DOMZALE! DOMZALE!” followed. Within seconds of that they obliged with a deflected winner that was greeted by Leeds fans like one our own team had scored in the dying moments of a league game. Delirious, many chose to dance a conga along the front of the stand that was roundly applauded by the amused local police in attendance.
After the final whistle blew the Domzale players walked over to applaud the Leeds fans; it was the sort of night that was worth the cost of the holiday alone.
Sunday 14th July
A hungover trip down to Slovenia’s only coastal resort, Portoroz. Several hours sunbathing on one of the many wooden beachside piers, a few cocktails and a fillet steak meal was about as ambitious as things got.
Actually, I tell a small lie, we also discovered the ‘Ice Cream Emporium‘ producers of many an exotic flavour, including (cough) Red Bull and bubble gum – the latter has to be tasted to be believed!
Monday 15th July
Having been up to the small hours trying to reassure a dear friend about serious scan she faced in the morning and slept very little afterwards, then consequently having walked around in a daze while I nervously awaited word back on the results, I have little recollection of the first 14 hours of Monday.
Being that the rest of the day entailed a 5 hour rail journey followed by an evening in Maribor, a place where most restaurants close before 10 and all bars by midnight, the remainder of the day felt like something of a waste.
Mercifully, so too proved to be the worrying that preceded it.
Tuesday 16th July
Back up to the time warp hotel and Murska for the Ferencvaros game; and a rather unique pre-match atmosphere. Stories of up to 800 Hungarians, many intent on causing trouble were widely circulating on twitter before we even arrived and the mood wasn’t improved by the first sight that greeted us at the station; a man dressed up in Ferencvaros gear but notably sporting a limp and lacking an eye!
As we went to the bar by the war memorial statue, more fans started to appear, each one seemingly at least 6ft tall and 16 stone in weight. As numbers started to load heavily in Hungarian favour we made a bee-line for the sanctity of the bar in the market where scare stories started to circulate, chiefly from two fans who’d fled a potential ruckus, getting injured in the process.
After much debate a safe route through the park to the stadium was identified where police lie in wait, all too eager to usher us inside. As it was, the Hungarians didn’t disappoint as plenty of fighting took place pre-game, it was just that they were more interested in attacking the police and Slovenians. It’s an odd experience being at an away ground as a Leeds fan and not being the centre of the opposing supporters’ hatred.
The game again was not one to stick long in the memory, though the performance was a marked improvement. Only two ridiculous refereeing decisions to deny Austin and Warnock’s penalty shouts denied Leeds a possible victory. McDermott was quick to slate the official afterwards, though like many others, you suspected his actions were more motivated by an unwillingness to upset the seat throwing Ferencvaros fans rather than a need to make the right call; regardless, come the final whistle, the Hungarians chose the confront riot police on the pitch.
Mercifully, those supporters were scarcely evident after the game and peace and good vibes broke out. Indeed, we were instead befriended by another group of hooligans at the pub; self-proclaimed Slovenian Ultras. Supporting the opposition immediately brought Leeds fans acceptance in their eyes against the “Hungarian b***ards”…as they liked to refer to them as. The rest of the evening was spent trading Leeds and Murska Sobota songs, albeit they were incredibly keen teaching the repetitive “We kill Hungarians!” chant.
“We are Fred Perry Boys. We are hooligans!” the biggest fella told me…had I possessed any Slovenian blood I dare say he could’ve sniffed it. As it was, we were collectively awarded ‘Freemen of the town’ status and the Slovenian Whites Supporters’ Club recruited it’s first three members.
Wednesday 16th July
Midday train to Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest town – appropriately, being the cultural types we are, about an hour was spent exploring the place, the remainder of the time either, eating, sleeping or in the Casino Hotel we had as a base.
The physiological damage of the night before, plainly evident in many.
Thursday 17th July
Back to Ljubljana for the taxi to the airport and one last pint for old time’s sake at the Cutty Sark. Naturally, we all elected to pay with notes rather than change.
Getting out of our final taxi at the airport was a liberating experience; 20+ taxi journeys, 30+ trains and the odd coach in the space of 10 days is enough for anyone, let alone the perennially tired and hungover. I still feel a broken man now, almost 64 hours after getting home.
Same time next year?