“Is this the way to Legia Warsaw? Every night I’ve been eating my coleslaw” – Northern Ireland fans (2005).
First of all today is my birthday! Sto lat, happy birthday to me! Ask me fifteen years ago today as my train rolled into the Polish capital city of Warszawa if I expected to live here eleven years later (2016 when I relocated), having travelled the world, visited over 150 countries and stepped foot on every continent. I’d not have believed you back then. No way. As a shy, yet boisterous and culture struck 24 year old, I was here in Warszawa for a football match on this exact day. 30th March 2005 – Poland v. Northern Ireland (World Cup Qualifier). I cannot believe it is 15 years ago today.
“Time grabs you by the wrists, directs you where to go” – Green Day.
As the 15 year mark hits today (30th March 2005 – 30th March 2020), it’s a good time to reflect and also show some photos of my first ever trip to Poland. I guess I have shared some of them before on here, on the Northern Irishman in Poland Facebook page, on Instagram, Twitter or on Don’t Stop Living, but not all of them. An unpredictable love affair which began right here, near the Palace of Culture and Science. Yes – that’s a present from Stalin’s reign…what was my first trip to Poland like? Can I remember much of it?
Warp me back to 2005 and I took a party train from Berlin to Warszawa. The plan was hatched a few months before due to football fixtures. On Saturday the 26th March 2005, Northern Ireland would play England at Old Trafford in Manchester. On Wednesday the 30th March 2005, Northern Ireland would play Poland at the Army Stadium (Legia) in Warszawa. Myself and a lot of Northern Ireland fans decided to attend both matches. When checking options, it appeared that a handy Manchester to Berlin flight on the Sunday would give us two nights and two days in Berlin, before getting a “party train” across the border to Warszawa on the 29th March, a day before the match. We got things booked back in those days by calling each other – no smart phones, no Facebook, no booking sites. It was phone calls, text messages and some emails. There were also no digital cameras or instant photos. All the photos on here were taken by disposable cameras, developed after and then scanned, or I took a photo of the photo!
The “party train” from Berlin to Warszawa
The journey to Poland began from Berlin East Bahnhof. It was such a crazy day, and one that I have documented in my forthcoming travel book, Backpacking Centurion. So I won’t go into all the details. But I was first up and out of our hotel, Aldea in the former East Berlin part, the hotel was like a textbook communist grey block. I had breakfast at 7 a.m. after being out with Dean Nutt until 4 a.m. the night before (yes, 3 hours sleep). Our group of about 10 of us all hopped on the U-Bahn. In that group, I remember it was Skin, Mike, Gav, Dave, Dean, Andrew, Colin, Tim, Charley, Roan and Wendy. We met up with other Northern Ireland fans who had boarded the party train at Berlin central. They flew green and white scarves and Northern Ireland flags out the train window to signal where the party was at., That group was the North of England based Northern Ireland Supporters Club. Just before that, I grabbed a 4 pack of Becks, Dean munched an ice cream after #barfgate (it will be in the book) and Mike and I hurriedly tried to get our train tickets changed as we had booked the wrong day! However, we all left Berlin on time and in one piece! I cracked open a beer as we waved goodbye to Germany…
The “party train” lived up to its name. I joined the North of England lads – Toddy, Nolers, Rob, John Hart, Owen and a few others. They had a booth further from ours so I just stayed in the corridor/aisle and drunk my carryout there. Neither the German guards (legal to drink on trains) nor the Polish guards told me to put my carryout away. We got stamped out of Frankfurt Oder and into Szczecin. Garreth Todd (Toddy) from North of England NISC had his trademark GAWS (green and white snake) which caused some amusement amongst shy Polish girls dandering past us to the bogs on the end of the corridor.
I had my ghetto blaster (no iPods, Smart phones back then) and I had physical CDs of Oasis, Ash and Snow Patrol pumping. The train journey was madness. I chatted to a Polish lady called Anastasia, who revealed she was a student violinist. She then whipped it out and played us a tune.
Apart from Szczecin, the first Polish city I saw out the window was Pozzie – Poznań. I got my passport stamped out of Germany, but not into Poland, now that I checked my old passport. We continued with the music, beer and banter and were joined by a Polish “chav” who we lent a beer to. We arrived into Warszawa Centralna station late afternoon but it was still bright.
Arrival into Warszawa and our Hotel
I wasn’t much of a budget backpacker in those days. We splashed out by staying in the same hotel as the Northern Ireland team – the Intercontinental Hotel, on Emilia Plater street. Superb views of the city, which has now changed a lot!
I roomed with Gavin and we were in the next room to striker Warren Feeney, who knew of me from also following AFC Bournemouth the season before. “You’re everywhere boy” he says to me! I met the entire Northern Ireland squad,and got them to sign a CD sleeve of the Tony Christie song “Is This The Way To Amarillo?”.
First night out – first impressions
The first night was spent on the beers in Champions Bar and in the Old Town. I remember Dave Watson from our group saying he was very hungry and ordered the dearest burger on the menu to be told “it’s huge” and then struggling with it while the rest of us had the lighter options. It got dark quite early and I knew I liked the city already but didn’t see much of it. It seems like a blur now. I don’t even remember how we got to the Old Town that night – by walking, tram, bus or taxi – no idea.
But we ended up in Irlandzki Pub as they welcomed us and stayed open late. Skin from our group enjoyed seeing a Glenavon FC shirt hanging up in there as they had played Legia Warszawa in Europe. I have been back to the Irlandzki Pub loads of times since, it hasn’t changed much, in fact…at all…
Warszawa Old Town, BBC Conga and DickMonalds
Next morning, it was a breakfast in the hotel and we headed to the Old Town, on the way walking past Plac Defilad and meeting other GAWA in DickMonalds. I hate DickMonalds with a passion though so skipped it. I have a photo from outside that DickMonalds though, which no longer exists thankfully. It was once the first DickMonalds in Warszawa, at Świętokrzyska.
Aside from that we also did a video feature of the Conga for the BBC which went on Northern Irish Television that night. We were joined by some legendary pink and green GAWA girls, whom I have never ever met again! My old school classmate Gareth Walker was also there as was Marc Vannucci, who I also knew from growing up in Bangor. We walked to the Old Town and lunch and beers took place in the famous Old Town Square.
Michael McClelland and I were photographed for a Legia Warszawa fans site (below).
Singing, banter and some rivalry with Polish fans continued before back to the hotel for a late afternoon swim in the swanky pool and get ready for the big match.
Pre-match march to the stadium and Champions Bar
We met up with the 300 – 400 odd Northern ireland fans in and around Champions Bar by the Marriott Hotel. From there we marched to the stadium and got in before kick off. The Polish Police were very friendly as we all were carrying beers (cans and plastic glasses) and either they didn’t care or they knew we were there for the fun and weren’t doing any harm.
The Match – Poland 1-0 Northern Ireland
We had lost 4-0 to England the previous Saturday and Poland had just smashed Azerbaijan 8-0 so we expected a trouncing to be honest. On the night, we were excellent. I especially remember Colin “Howlin’ Mad” Murdoch having a good game and goalkeeper Maik Taylor being exceptional. It was also quite a cold night. However, we were drawing 0-0 until the 86th minute. There came the heartbreak as we lost to Maciej Zurawski’s 86th minute goal. We had 5 players booked.
Poland: Dudek, Klos, Rzasa (Kielbowicz 45), Baszcyznski, Kaluzny (Mila 67), Bak, Karwan (Rasiak 74), Krzynowek, Zurawski, Szymkowiak, Frankowski.
Subs Not Used: Boruc, Hajto, Smolarek, Sobolewski.
Goals: Zurawski 86.
Northern Ireland: Taylor, Baird, Murdock, Williams (Elliott 88), Hughes, Capaldi, Gillespie, Davis, Whitley, Healy (Smith 81), Quinn (Feeney 35).
Subs Not Used: Carroll, Craigan, Mulryne, Doherty.
Booked: Quinn, Healy, Whitley, Murdock, Baird.
Ref: Peter Frojdfeldt (Sweden).
So there was no birthday goal or win for me to cheer but we had a great time on matchday. Polish hospitality was also excellent on the day and we were basically in amongst them, in a corner in the old stand where the teams come out.
Post match beers and hometime
After the match was time for more beers. We chatted and drank with some of the players including Keith Gillespie who joined me at the table for a chat and Andrew “Smicker” Smith who was some character. As I say – old era of photos and these are shockers…
The next morning, I don’t remember too much other than meeting Colin Bowles at Chopin Airport and boarding my flight to London Luton, where I then crazily headed to the National Student Television Awards to represent Bournemouth at the NASTAs in Loughborough! The madness contined as I hopped onstage to collect two awards on behalf of Bournemouth University.
It was one hell of a trip and 15 years later on, I now live in Warszawa and love it!
Finally a big shout out to my best mate in life, Rafał Kowalczyk who was in the Poland end that night, worked with me in Bournemouth and we travelled a lot together and to over 100 live matches! Cheers mate. Slainte! Na Zdrowie!
It has been a truly crazy journey the last 15 years.
Do I feel 15 years older today as I sit in my flat in Warszawa? Not a chance. I am still a perky 17 year old Northern Irishman living some kind of dream abroad.
Stay at home, stay safe, see you around.