I have been supporting Birmingham City Football Club for 48 years and in all that time there have been moments which have been memorable in night games. However, there is nothing to surpass what took place in Bruges on Thursday night. There are simply no superlatives in the English language to describe my feelings and I am certain those of the 5,500 Blues supporters that were fortunate enough to be present. This was an occasion that I will never forget as long as I have breath in my body and not suffering from dementia. I thought that the day at Wembley earlier this year was the most memorable event in all my years of supporting Blues. However, Thursday night’s game in Europe has to rate right up there for drama, atmosphere and passion.
Funnily enough, I had just returned from Madeira, another venue where Blues had achieved more than expected in the play-off game against Nacional. Having arrived back at Gatwick on Wednesday afternoon it was to be a quick turnaround to be off abroad again. I was concerned that my ticket that held the same value as the golden one in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl had not arrived before I disappeared off for my week in the sun. Thankfully, the ticket had been sent by the club recorded delivery and it was waiting for me at the main post office nearby. I had enough time to go and collect it before they closed at 6 PM.
Mrs Bazza was not at all pleased that I was going off to the match and proposing to do this as a day trip. I did point out to her that had I booked to stay overnight she would have had even more to say than was already being said! Suggestions that I was going there and back in a day because I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible did not somehow wash despite my obvious sincerity! In fairness, I think she was genuinely worried about the long drive for me having just got back from a long trip. I did reassure her that I would be fine but she persisted in insisting that my actions were totally foolhardy for what after all was just a football match! I attempted to answer this but I think I probably looked more like a startled goldfish as my nearest and dearest argued that I could see the match on the television. As many of you who follow my musings on Joys and Sorrows will know, Mrs Bazza suffers from a congenital absence of the football gene and I’m afraid she doesn’t understand and cannot help herself.
So moving swiftly on, I set off towards Dover from my home in Surrey. I decided to make a comfort stop at Clacket Lane Service Station on the M25 in Kent. There were bluenoses everywhere and I talked to several who were clearly as excited as I was before moving on down to Dover. I arrived at 11.20, naïvely thinking that I was in plenty of time to catch the 12 o’clock ferry to Dunkirk. I was told by the jobsworth behind the desk that because I had not arrived by 11.15 that I would have to go on the 2:30 instead. Informing the lady that despite her computer saying no, this option was simply not good enough and I was taking my business elsewhere. I crossed the ticket office and promptly booked a return trip to Calais instead. Mind you, that didn’t prove entirely problem free either; I was told that I couldn’t book the half past midnight return as this would increase the cost by over £50 as it spilled over into another day but I could but the 9:45 PM as that had spaces. When I enquired about a one-way ticket I was told this was £25 more expensive than the return! I’d had enough of P & O ferries taking the piss and booked the early return ferry which I knew I did not have a snowball in hell’s chance of catching but I resolved to sort the problem out later.
The rest of the journey was uneventful and I arrived in Bruges at about 15:30 local time having parked up in the large multi-storey in the centre of town. On my way out into the little square next to the main square, I passed a young man wearing a Bruges football shirt. He very politely said to me, “welcome and enjoy the game” to which I replied, “you too.” This was just one of many examples of the warmth of the local people that was in evidence throughout the trip and something that other Blues fans also noticed and commented on. There was a pavement restaurant immediately across from the exit from the car park where I met a nose called Wayne sitting on his own clutching a beer. I joined him and clutched one of my own along with a plate of lasagne.
It was soon time to make our way towards the rendezvous for the shuttle buses. The day that had started out sunny was starting to cloud over and with the onset of the evening was becoming chilly. Fans were taking souvenir photographs against the various monuments and features in what has to be one of the prettiest towns in Europe. We were directed by the police to the pickup point for the buses to the stadium. The police were friendly, courteous, calm and above all tolerant of their noisy visitors and from what I saw there was no trouble or need for heavy handedness. On the way I noticed that there were public conveniences where gentlemen at least could take a leak (see picture). To call these ‘al fresco’ is an understatement, Clochemerle or what? One lady exclaimed “is that a urinal? That’s disgustin that is!” I said, “no need to get lairy just cos yow can’t partake of the facilities too!” She replied, “Yow dunno ‘ow good oi yam!” thrusting her hips forward with a grin 😀
About 10 minutes walk from the town we came upon a bridge with a lengthy queue going across it. Despite concern expressed by a number of noses that we were actually going to get to the stadium in time, a police officer reassured us that we would arrive in plenty of time for the kick-off.
There was plenty of banter and singing in the queue and I liked the face painting of Jack and Kelle (sic) from Hollywood and Erdington respectively who were clearly entering into the spirit of the occasion. The lettering across Jack’s forehead was highly appropriate and I felt should be properly recorded with a photograph here.
The horse was there as well prompting a few rounds of ‘Feed the Horse and he will score!’ Everybody that waited for the buses managed to get on one although some did choose to walk 45 minutes to the stadium. Some things never change and there were hotdogs and burgers to be had outside the ground but I thought the sign suggesting that a former keeper from our wicked neighbours was the worst was a little harsh as I’ve always rated him especially as he has now moved on to a proper football club in London.
Trying to find seats that were actually printed on the tickets was almost impossible as the method used for rows and seat numbers was baffling and in the end most people ended up approximately where they were meant to be rather than where they actually should have been. This led to congestion around the entrances to the stands but eventually things sorted themselves out. The away end was a seething mass of humanity and with the home crowd pretty full it made for an electric atmosphere that crackled with expectation and excitement. The Bluenose nation was in good voice and the noise we were making clearly astounded the Bruges supporters. Naturally a raucous rendering of ‘Keep Right On’ was heard very early on but it died in our throats when after only two and a half minutes Bruges took the lead. Bruges came out of the traps at a very high tempo and caught Blues by surprise with their speed of passing and movement. A cross from the Moroccan, Nabil Darir from the right was guided into the far corner by the impressive Nigerian centre forward, Joseph Akpala. This was clearly a blow to Blues who have been caught cold by their Belgian hosts. For the next 15 minutes Bruges caused all sorts of problems and the danger continued down the same right flank. Darir planted two further excellent crosses towards Akpala but this time Ibanez stepped across to head clear or provide the necessary block to prevent further damage. Jannes Vansteenkiste caused danger with a near-post header which Myhill saved smartly
It was looking as if it was going to be a very long night for the Blues defence but I suppose it was inevitable that the home side would be unable to sustain the tempo that they had started with; and as the game settled down Blues, playing in yellow started to exert a modicum of control. Birmingham, if anything, were keeping possession much better; aided and abetted by one or two sloppy passes by the Bruges midfield. Some excellent work down our right flank between Elliot, Burke and Spector resulted in the latter sending a pinpoint cross to the far post for a tap in by none other than David Murphy who had made a 45 yard run into the box from the halfway line. Their midfield had failed to track the run and their right back was unaware of his presence. This was a cue for wild celebrations from the assembled Blues supporters. The Jan Breydelstadion is of old design with very steep terracing, on to which have been added seats. Some of the exuberance following the goal did make one fear for one’s safety as the stands were like standing on a cliff. Entreaties for us to sit down were greeted with “we’ll do what we want, we’ll do what we want; we’re Birmingham City we’ll do what we want!” Besides, the seats were wet and dirty as our part of the ground was uncovered and most people thought standing was a better alternative.
It could have been so much better for Blues had Rooney, playing up front with Zigic, not wasted two very good chances to put Blues ahead before half time. The second period was nip and tuck with both sides having their periods of ascendancy but on balance Blues had the edge and looked the better side. A wonderful delivery by Burke onto the head of Zigic who won everything in the air all evening was sent wide by the Serbian striker. This was a gilt edged chance and in my book a sitter. He really should have buried this one as it was a free header from about eight yards out. It was clear that Bruges were rattled; they had never lost to an English team and had only ever conceded a draw to Liverpool in the 1980s so to have a team from England’s second tier taking it to them was disturbing their rhythm and was definitely not in the script.
Zigic and Rooney departed with about 17 minutes left, to be replaced by King and Wood. This was clearly a positive move and the Blues fans sensed it; the noise levels rose even higher as Birmingham chased everything and attacked the home side with width and movement. Then a sickening moment occurred when a free kick to Bruges was delivered into the box and headed clear by Pablo Ibanez. Unfortunately for him Akpala – challenging for the same ball – headed the centre back in the face. Pablo was out cold before he hit the floor and things were not helped as his head crashed against the deck. Frantic motioning to the medics and the team doctor lead to a delay of at least eight minutes (six officially) as the stricken player was carried off the pitch to applause from all round the ground. Ridgewell had had plenty of time to warm up and replaced him with the ninety minutes already up. A further ten were to be played because of the delay and other stoppages.
I had thought that a draw at a place like the Jan Breydelstadion was a fine result but I had a strange feeling that if we could get one decent delivery into the box that we might, just might, snatch the win. What I was concerned about was that we would get done ourselves because of the distractions caused by Pablo’s injury. Guirane N’Daw was clearly very upset by what had taken place and was in tears. Chris Hughton had had a word with him to refocus and do it for Pablo; excellent man management in my view. He did, as did the rest of them, for in the 100th minute King found himself out on the right wing with Wood making the run in the middle. The pundits often say that the best crossers of a ball sometimes are strikers themselves since they know where they like the ball to be delivered. This was one such example; a cross to match that of Dirar earlier in the game was delivered with pace and accuracy. Wood got in front of his marker and applied the telling touch, propelling the ball into the roof of the net. Bedlam reigned as the travelling support went ballistic and the roar could have been heard in the town centre. I was hugged and kissed by people I’d never met but didn’t care; clinging on for dear life was all we could do to prevent an avalanche of people down the terracing.
The timing was perfect and left Bruges with no time to rectify the situation, their first ever defeat at home to an English team was secured. As the ground emptied the Blues Fans stayed singing and cheering for ages afterwards to salute the players, drink in the atmosphere and allow to sink in just what had been achieved! The home crowd applauded us and this is recorded on YouTube here:
Eventually, we left the ground well after 21.15 and the ferry I was supposed to be on was in another half an hour; yeah right! We were taken back to the Centrum Bridge where we caught the bus earlier and I walked back with Nadine and Cornell whom I think were staying overnight and looking forward to celebrating in the town. I sadly had to find my car and leave for the ferry. In the end I caught the 00.30 from Calais, the one I wasn’t supposed to, at no extra charge as it worked out and got home at 03.30 knackered but happy. I didn’t take much rocking once my head hit the pillow. Mrs Bazza still thinks I’m demented but as I explained to her that in the history of European football, noses will be able to say that they were there! 😀
BRUGES (4-3-3): Coosemans 7; Hogli 6, Almeback 7, Donk 7, Vansteenkiste 7 (De Jonghe 60, 7); Odjija 8, Zimling 7, Blondel 7 (Deschilder 82, 6); Dirar 8, Akpala 8, Rafaelov 7 (Meunier 63, 7).
Booked: Blondel, Zimling.
Goal: Akpala 3.
BIRMINGHAM (4-4-2): Myhill 7; Spector 7, Pablo 8 (Ridgewell 90, 7), Caldwell 7, Murphy 8; Burke 7, Fahey 6, N’Daw 7, Elliott 8; Rooney 6 (King 73, 7), Zigic 8 (Wood 73, 7).
Booked: Zigic, Spector, Elliott.
Goals: Murphy 26, Wood 90.
The Good: Everything! Bravo Brum! Well done to the players, Chris Hughton whose courage to keep to the game plan with attacking intent was rewarded and most of all to the fans who were simply magnificent. A Bruges fan told me they had never seen anything like it from away supporters in Europe.
The Bad: The jobsworths at Dover and a steward outside the ground who wanted to confiscate a paperback book that I had in my pocket! Commonsense prevailed in the end when a senior person intervened, and read the young man concerned his fortune.
The Ugly: The sight of Pablo hitting the floor unconscious. Glad you’re feeling better big fella!
Referee: D Orsato (Italy) 8: The referee and his officials had a good game I felt. He kept the match moving, stood no nonsense with people trying to buy free kicks and allowed a bit of contact. He also seemed to recognise a properly timed tackle when he saw one rather than lamely giving a free kick just because a player may have taken a knock in the challenge.