Dense fog hung in the air, carrying a strong scent of ammonia on its waves as I stepped over the threshold. The room was busy, an isosceles triangle with its greatest length little more than three metres. I padded along the floor trying to find an opening, seizing the opportunity when one arose. Squeezed in between two older men I quickly and quietly went about my business. As the urine hit the shallow excuse for a gutter at the edge of the maroon floor the expected splash back was not forthcoming. December. Cold. I was only 12-years-old but it was quickly apparent to me what was causing the fog now. “Lucky I washed my cock this morning.” Laughter. So there wasn’t even a sink in the “gents.” Maybe I would have laughed too if I hadn’t been caught face first in the great Swansea pee souper of 2003. I’ve been to the toilet in some interesting places in my time, but this took the piss.
It would have been more fitting had the football match I’d just attended been played on a Thursday as everything about the experience was a throwback. Time has played tricks with my mind and I’m not sure whether there was a cage between the stand and the pitch at Swansea’s Vetch Field ground or if I’m fabricating that memory. I do vividly remember having to reach through a postage stamp sized gap in some wire mesh to grab my bottle of Coke and hot dog though. If I’d known what was to come on leaving the ground I’d probably have passed on the refreshments. This trip was my first real long haul excursion in the name of being a football fan. It was the second away trip I had made following Stevenage FC. Like the first, the FA Trophy Final of 2002, it was to end in heartbreak. Swansea City 2-1 Stevenage, with a free urine sauna thrown in. In fact, Stevenage have probably caused me more heartbreak than women in my near 30 trips around the sun.
Football has always been an adventure for me. That is why I have no shame writing about it on what is predominantly a travel blog. It introduced me to the proper coach trip, blokes singing, drinking, talking absolute rubbish and making almost illegal smells. It can be a really bumpy ride too. Especially when like muggins here you have split loyalties. When it comes to football, I’m polyamorous. Get round here and film a documentary Louis Theroux. On one hand I have Stevenage, on the other, Tottenham Hotspur. Could I have made an easier life for myself and the health of my heart by picking one of my two teams? No. There have been highs and lows with both.
It was in the name of both clubs that I returned to Wales for footballing reasons in December 2014. 11 years had passed and thankfully in that time I had been back to Wales and discovered that they did in fact possess proper toilet facilities as a nation. The fixture list had thrown up a unique weekend opportunity. Newport County hosted Stevenage on the Saturday, with Spurs visiting Swansea on the Sunday. Luckily Swansea had moved into their new Liberty Stadium home by this point. With a little persuasion I convinced my friends Ed, Ed and
Eddie Lew that we could go to both games and sandwich in a night out in Cardiff. Stevenage naturally lost, but Spurs ensured the footballing side of the weekend ended on a high as Christian Eriksen scored an 89th minute free-kick to seal a 2-1 victory for Spurs. I made a point of using the excellent toilet facilities on my way out of the ground.
The away end had gone wild when Eriksen’s winner went in, the traffic trying to leave the ground was no calmer so we decided to grab a bite to eat before returning to the car which was parked in a “match day car park,” aka an industrial unit charging £5 for the privilege of letting fans park near the ground. After a gourmet meal at the Hut of Pizza and still buoyed by the result we took a stroll back to the car to find the owner of the industrial unit pulling the gates closed. “You’re lucky boys I was just locking up.” It turned out that we were a hair’s breadth away from spending a cold December night on the streets of Swansea. And I hadn’t made the most of my trips to the salad bar either.
While planning to write this post I surprised myself in the realisation that I have only watched one match outside of the English football system (Swansea City and Newport County both play in the English leagues). That came in Scotland where I watched Celtic beat Hibernian 1-0. While the action on the pitch was unremarkable, the atmosphere of Celtic Park was incredible. The roars of the Green Brigade, Celtic’s most vociferous section of fans filled the stadium and in the 67th minute phone torches were lit all around the ground in a nod to the Celtic side who won the European Cup in 1967. My footballing bucket list is a large one, but having experienced a match at Celtic Park, my desire to go back and watch an Old Firm Derby between Celtic and Rangers shot right up the list.
Closer to home, football has given me the opportunity to travel to lots of different locations, many of which I wouldn’t have ever considered visiting without football as a catalyst for doing so. Grays, Finchley, Salford, Luton anyone? Being unable to attend games during the Covid-19 period has certainly re-whetted my appetite to go and watch live football once again. My passion was somewhat on the wane following pretty abject seasons for Stevenage and Spurs (pre-lockdown break). I also now have a strong desire to go and watch matches abroad. While interrailing I had the opportunity to go and watch Dinamo Zagreb and Legia Warsaw playing home games but passed up the opportunity as my days were already jam packed. In hindsight I regret that decision immensely.
Next month, I may be able to tick off my first football match on foreign soil. Myself and a group of friends have booked a weekend in Budapest coinciding with a match between Hungary and Russia. As the days go by it looks increasingly unlikely that the trip will go ahead or that a crowd will be allowed to enter the stadium. But where there is light there is hope and I have hope. Hope that I will be able to watch some live football abroad and hope above all else that the toilets come complete with hand washing facilities. Now more than ever before.