Wednesday, 9 June 1999

A v Bulgaria 9.6.1999

Bulgaria (Saturday 5th June to Saturday 12th June)

Match Wednesday 9th June – Army Stadium Sofia

The next trip started early on Saturday morning. Our flight had been arranged to Athens, yes Athens for our trip to Sofia. We were scheduled to fly out at 22.55 on Saturday night to allow us to watch the England v Sweden match in the afternoon. JJMoons was heaving as usual and a few renditions of Sussex by the Sea were bellowed out by a very large Sussex contingent. The less said about the game the better, and we headed for a few post match pubs (celebrated the late late Faroe Island equaliser against Scotland) and then caught the train up to Luton Airport for the flight. We arrived in a warm Athens at 4.30am, changed into shorts and headed off to book our overnight train to Thessalonika, a 9 hour journey which cost just £10 and included a couchette. That booked, we caught a taxi to the Acropolis.

It was only 2000 drachma (£4) to get in and look about. Well worth suffering the heat and millions of other tourists. The police presence appeared large and unnecessary until we stumbled upon the World Rally Championships just down the road, with Colin McRae et al racing around the streets of Athens. After a couple of hours looking around we headed down the hill and away from the crowds. A few beers later we set off for the local National Park to get out of the heat and have a rest from the alcohol. Back at the station Nick ‘Bartman’ Batholomew was horrified to discover the loss of his wallet and a few hundred pounds. Doh!! There we joined up with mates from Gaisborough and Northampton, who were doing the same mad route to Sofia and who appeared to be almost sober.

We arrived in Thessalonika (Salonika) at 6am expecting a connecting train to Sofia. It didn’t exist of course, but unexpectedly we discovered an overnight train, so once again we booked up couchettes and return train tickets for about £25. A pleasant day was spent at the beach resort of Perea, about an hour away by cab and well worth the effort.

On the way we passed Thessalonika airport which was full with Nato jets and missiles. A pleasant day was spent with only the roar of NATO jets overhead disturbing the peace. We now embarked on the tricky part of the holiday, the crossing of the border between Greece and Bulgaria (the original train journey was via Nis in Macedonia but for obvious reasons we couldn’t go that way). The train journey was 12 hours or so but this included nearly 3 hours at the border. At one stage the ticket inspectors had our reservations and train tickets, and the border police had our passports, not very clever that! We had to make up the beds ourselves – I don’t think they are used very often and it was probably the busiest the train had ever been. The border police must have taken at least an hour to return our passports, going through them one by one asking if it was yours followed by an ‘ohhhh’ if it wasn’t. At least they sold beer on the train, even if it was cans of ‘Gosser’ an Austrian beer which we had been sampling a few weeks before.

We arrived in Sofia early on Tuesday morning, so once we had sorted out a hotel (I won’t go into the gory details of doing that!), we were able to relax, change, shower at last and go out on the town. There were a few England fans about, but most were down on the Black Sea resort of Varna and would arrive the next day. The Bulgarian beer was worse than I remembered but at 30p a bottle had to be drunk.
We eventually found the Sheraton Hotel bar and settled down in the sun drinking decent beer for about £1. More and more England fans turned up, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the talk for the first time turned to football. Who would play, who was suspended? Most people appeared to have travelled out on either Saturday or Sunday so info was short. Several more Albion fans arrived, but by now the travelling had caught up with us, so around 2 or was it 3am we turned in and had our first decent night’s kip since Friday night.

Wednesday, match day. We met up at the Sheraton again and the place was packed. Loads of familiar faces from other England matches appeared and we eventually left at around 5pm and made our way towards the ground. The match had been moved from the National Stadium to the Army Stadium, only about ½ mile apart but the main problem was that the capacity had been reduced from 60,000 to 25,000. UEFA had declared the ground unsafe and ordered the switch. As it was Stoichkov’s last match the interest was high. Tickets were easy to pick up for £5 but they looked fake. We arrived at the ground at 7pm and everyone got in, even those without tickets. No chance of seats and we were shoe horned into the track at the back of the seats. England had sold 2,500 tickets but there were probably closer to 3,500 in the segregated away section.
Nuff said about the game, and afterwards weaved our way back to town after the lovely walk through a park (no lighting – how do FIFA/UEFA pass these places fit for Internationals?) and drowned our sorrows. The atmosphere soon picked up, and we watched highlights of the Scotland game on TV. Many of us lost interst as the Scots went 2-0 up. By the time the Czechs had made it 3-2 the bar was in celebration. We sang away the rest of the night and ventured back onto the local beer in more local bars. The Huddersfield lads we had met in Sweden a few months earlier had privoded the cabaret and we walked (sort of) back to the hotel in the early hours.

Thursday we passed in Sofia – all much the worse for wear and very quiet. We once again got an overnight train back to Thessalonika, spent the Friday on the beach and then caught the express evening train to Athens arriving 11pm in Athens for a 6.50am flight! We kipped at the airport and then caught our early morning Easyjest flight back to Luton. We arrived at 9am back in Luton, caught the Thameslink home to Brighton, and I was back at my house by 12.30, completely knackered. It was a very long trip, about 40 hours on trains but when you can get a return flight to Athens for just £77 on Easyjet it was worth it (well that’s what we kept telling ourselves). Mark Raven

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