Brian Stock may not have ventured to Eastern Europe with Wales at the weekend, but Viva Rovers did. Here’s how our two and a half days in Montenegro panned out.
As a supersticious man, I probably should have sensed all was not going to go according to plan as we walked through Podgorica’s main square on the afternoon of the match and passed a man carrying a scythe. Up until we crossed paths with the casually dressed reaper I was feeling quite confident – the trip was going well. On the stunningly scenic train from Belgrade we’d enjoyed a six-hour Serbian language lesson from Montenegrin student Marijana and earlier that morning we had found the stadium unlocked, enabling us to casually stroll in. All this good will and good fortune had gone to my head, and as we left the hotel for the game in the afternoon I said words I have never before said as a Wales fan; “I reckon we can win today”. That all changed after the scythe.
If you cannot be upbeat before the first game of a Welsh qualifying campaign when can you be? Yet even though things were only just beginning this game was probably ‘must-win’, and definitely ‘must-not-lose’. This campaign was overcast before it had begun, and the owner of the significant frame casting the shadow was finally beginning to dawn on the many rather than the few.
As we had tickets we had no need to lay-low beneath the seats after our impromptu private stadium tour, but on our way out, as the only Welsh shirt clad folk in the vicinity of the stadium, we were soon ushered in front of the ITV Wales cameras. Even their reporter’s questioning had an element of doom-mongering about it. “Is it now or never for this side?” This before a ball had even been kicked, and with only one of the squad over thirty.
The man from ITV only really perked up when asking his final question; “and lastly off the record, what do you think about the totty out here?” Yes, he actually said the word totty. But he had a point. The Montenegrin women are stunningly beautiful. Maybe that was why Podgorica was glossed over in the guide books I had read and visitors were urged to head to the coast, so that Lonely Planet‘s Montenegro writer could sit here and quietly go about the business of either establishing his own harem, or masturbating into an early grave. (NB. when reading that back I read it as ‘empty grave’ which is a very different and much more disturbing image).
Post ITV interview, post scythe carrier, post pre-match beers and post chance encounters with Welsh football’s twitterati we make our way to the stadium. I’ve been searched often on the way into football grounds, from Bristol to Scarborough, but never before had I been made to put my hands on the wall and spread my legs. True to the thus far experienced Montenegrin trait of friendliness, he did at least say please. It was by now early evening and over the course of the warm-up the sun set to silhouette the hills behind the opposite end of the Gradski stadium, scenery that was more compelling than the game would prove to be.
From the start of the game it was clear that Montenegro though confident and keen were ultimately not all that good. They were making mistakes, and they were there for the taking if Wales could just impose a pressing ten or fifteen minute spell on their hosts. Sadly Wales couldn’t do that, instead like clueless guests at a regal dinner party they simply mimicked their hosts, and managed to look even more disjointed than the Montenegrins. At the end of their warm-up, before going back into the dressing rooms the Wales players had gathered in a huddle. Just the players. At the time we took it as a sign of solidarity, of commitment. With hindsight for all the team cohesiveness shown in Wales first half performance that huddle could just as well have been the squad going round the circle introducing themselves to one another.
There were a couple of chances, firstly as Gareth Bale got to the byline and pulled the ball across goal only to see it hacked away, and secondly as the ball was pushed into the path of Craig Bellamy at the far post only for him to cut inside and spoon his left foot strike high and wide. That was as good as it got. Chris Gunter couldn’t stand up, Sam Ricketts was terribly exposed by Bale marauding forward. Steve Morrison was isolated and chasing his own flick-ons like those cartoons when Buggs Bunny plays each position on the baseball field, only without the end product. The midfielders didn’t seem to want the ball at all and when they did get it they appeared even less keen to retain it.
Though I didn’t want to admit it in a game I felt we could and should win Montenegro’s goal had been coming for a while. Half an hour in James Collins tried to stand up his man, only to see him skip fatefully past. Free of his main obstacle Mirko Vucinic then skipped into the area, before slotting his shot through the narrowest of angles at Wayne Hennessey’s near-post. There was still an hour to play, but you knew that was pretty much it there and then. The only light relief comes from the Montenegrin fans who have now begun a chant of “Fuck you! Bellamy Bellamy, Fuck you!”
At half-time the Welsh team needed a change or a spark. They got neither and resumed the second half as ineffectively as they had ended the first. Montenegro remained in control, Wales were still devoid of ideas, save for hitting a long diagonal ball into the channels in the vague direction of Bale or Bellamy. It worked once as the latter was picked out by Ashley Williams to race in the area and have a low shot turned round the near post, but by then there were only ten minutes left and Bellamy should probably have squared to the unmarked Simon Church racing into the six yard box too.
Five minutes prior to that had come John Toshack’s lowest point. I’ve watched decisions of his in the past bewildered – insisting on one up front against Azerbaijan in the Millennium, not putting a man on Jari Litmanen against Finland at home – but this was a deal-breaker. James Collins was flattened by a Montenegrin elbow witnessed by all in the stadium bar two people, the referee and Collins himself who subsequently was now struggling to see anything at all. The centre half was down for a good five minutes and though it was clear he would have to come off Toshack offered no instruction to those on the field as to how they should cover for their centre half’s absence. So as Montenegro broke, the remaining three defenders were left looking at each other confused and overwhelmed as to how they were supposed to handle the extra forward the Montenegrins had seized the chance to use whilst Toshack bumbled about on the side line making his technical area more ironically named with every passing second.
In the remaining fifteen minutes after Collins injury Wales did manage at last to resemble an international football team. As well as the aforementioned Bellamy chance, there were two opportunities for substitute Church to make an impact. First he got in a decent header from a left-wing cross only to see the ball come back off the bar and then with five minutes to go he turned in the rebound from a Rob Earnshaw only for the offside flag to go up as the ball found the net. The unlucky Church is one of only three Welsh players who can hold any pride in their performance in Podgorica, the solid Ashley Williams and eager David Vaughan – the only midfielder seemingly wanting to get on the ball - being the others.
At the final whistle Toshack somehow manages the impressive feat of shifting his ample self unnoticed across the centre of the field so that he does not have to pass the Wales fans en route to the tunnel, not so much as looking up as he makes his way to the corner of the field. With the Wales fans remaining locked in the ground after the final whistle, the most sizable and all-encompassing “We want Toshack out” chant of all those heard in the last three or four years echoes round the mostly empty stadium. The ‘must-not-lose’ game had been lost, the campaign finished before the group’s other sides had kicked a ball.
Outside the stadium, two dozen riot police stand firm across a stadium access road to form a walled display of shields, forearms and scowls in front of a stadium access road, though as folk can easily pass round them who exactly they are shielding from what is unclear. Instead they just find themselves the target of a hail of souvenir photographs. “Squeeze in a bit boys I can’t get you all in” urges one Wales fan gesturing for the armoured line to bunch up as he takes a snap. We decide to go back to the hotel to de-Wales our attire before hitting the city’s many bars for post-match relief. At the hotel the achingly beautiful receptionist asks if it was a good game. “It was a good game for Crna Gora,” I reply. “I wish I could say that I am sorry you lost, but I am not” she says. I may be in love.
Podgorica is a vibrant city yet, as mentioned before, its presence in guidebooks is fleeting. The most insignificant of capital cities it was supposed to offer little in the way of entertainment. But as we open the door to one bar and are unable to make it more than two metres in the door due to bouncing Montenegrin bodies, you start to realise its been given a short shrift. If Podgorica is quiet, the streets of Budva must currently resemble a scene from Fame, with Welsh fans performing dance routines over abandoned taxicabs.
We edge our way from cafe to cafe before heading to Bar OGB where we have agreed to rendezvous around midnight with the Montenegrin fan we had met by chance the previous night. Vladan is not just any Montenegran fan, he’s FC Buducnost’s main man and had spent the game tonight leading the chanting from the Ultras at the opposite end of the stadium. He greets us with two points. The first thing he says is “It was definitely offside. I saw the TV. Two players. The one who scored and one other. Definitely offside,” before then excitedly asking “And, did you hear my chant? Fuck you Bellamy, Bellamy, Fuck you”. Beer after beer follows from Vladan’s friend behind the bar who we are told is “the best cocktail maker in Montenegro”, though given that this bar doesn’t seem to serve cocktails and said barman continually pauses between orders to down a shot of Slivovitz it seems a dubious claim. Less dubious is the music a fantastic selection from Primal Scream Loaded to De La Soul Ring Ring Ring via other glorious mixes in between. Before we leave Vladan tells us “Do not worry, when we play England I promise to you that we will smash them”. I don’t condone that sort of thing, but as an additional pick-me-up, right there and then it actually kind of worked.
At about 3am I reluctantly make my way back to the Hotel Crna Gora, passing on the way a Welsh fan asking a bemused group of locals in the main square “Is there a curry house round here anywhere?” By 3:15am I’m in bed and three and a half hours later I’m staring at the time with disbelief. “Bollocks. Ralph, its quarter to seven”. Our train back to Belgrade leaves at 7:05. Incredibly we manage to dress, pack, get down three flights of stairs, pay-up, check-out and get a taxi to the station in time to bumble onto the platform as the train rolls in.
Three hours on, at the Montenegrin side of the border the guard checks my passport. “Ah Doncaster, good football,” he says, hands me back my passport and moves on down the carriage leaving me aghast. Five years ago there were folk in the town itself who had not heard of Doncaster Rovers, now we’re known by border guards in the former Yugoslavia. As we wait for the train to move on the same border guard reappears at our carriage window gesturing for us to open it. Ralph is reluctant to do so, expecting a request for a bribe to get the train moving. Instead what we get is “St James Park… Newcastle?” And the guard continues to test his knowledge of English football grounds with us as we remain stationary. “Er, Villa Park, Aston Villa. Anfield Road, Liverpool? Tottenham, White, er, White Hart Lane. Elland Road, Leeds. Old Trafford is Manchester”. We move on soon after, so never quite made it to “Err, Spotland is Rochdale yes?”
That surprise interlude has brought the four Wales fans in our carriage to sit together for the rest of the journey and as we roll through Serbia talk drifts to who we would like in the next campaign. As ever its the case of hoping for the countries we’d like to visit rather than any football based ambition. But our conversation already reiterates one point, we’ve already as good as written off this campaign. After just one game. In Belgrade we will go our separate ways. Sean the Cardiff fan says that he is off to find a bar called Club Optimist. “I wouldn’t have thought they’d let Wales fans in there,” replies Ralph. “Not tonight lads, you want Club Pessimist, two blocks down on the poorly lit side of the street”.
Postscript: Sunday evening in Bratislava, in between dozes to catch-up on the sleep lost to Montenegrin beer and Hungarian border police I go online and read that Toshack is either going, going or gone. He reportedly never gave a half-time teamtalk in Podgorica as the players were arguing amongst themselves, and is now expected to resign in the coming days. Defeat in Montenegro was not in vain, and as I read through tweets on Tosh’s imminent departure a firework display begins over the city outside. Every cloud…