The mission was simple. Try and give my 12-year-old son a taste of European football while on our month-long adventure.
I had been lucky enough to see Arsenal play Sunderland at Highbury when I went on a similar journey with my father in 1984, also managing to squeeze in a visit to Stamford Bridge for Chelsea against Newcastle and take in a couple of London derbies in Charlton vs Tottenham and Crystal Palace’s visit to QPR during whistle-stop visits back in 2002 and 2005.
But I knew that, now, obtaining tickets would be tricky, pricey (even most travel agents now balk at helping you organise such things in this post-Covid world) and that we were going to be based in Lincolnshire during our 10-day stay in the UK.
That essentially ruled out virtually all evening games, or matches that weren’t easily accessed via a train from either Stamford or Peterborough. Likewise, I wanted to avoid having to pay hundreds of pounds for a “match-day experience” (as I’d heard others had been forced to in order to get their fix), but also was keen to think outside of the Premier League, so we both could truly get a sense of watching football live in a part of the world where those attending are passionate/obsessive about it.
Carefully planning our overall itinerary so that we had two full weekends of games to choose from, we eagerly awaited the season’s fixture lists, having earlier spotted a wild card – a European Championship qualifier between the country of my mother’s birth – the Netherlands – and France at Amsterdam’s Johan Cruyff Arena on the Friday night we were due to be just down the road in The Hague.
But while the prospect of potentially seeing one of the world’s greatest players – Kylian Mbappé – take on the Oranje was pretty irresistible, surely that was an impossible dream?
Game 1: Aston Villa vs Brighton (Villa Park, Birmingham, September 30)
As a former Villa Cub, I had, as a child, always dreamed of seeing the claret-and-blues live, before my fickle favouritism of particular players and other clubs took over.
This was not a view shared by my young companion on this trip, especially since Villa were his sister’s favourite team. But with his beloved Chelsea not playing at home on either weekend we were “in town”, he reluctantly went along with this plan (knowing I’d at least organised a Stamford Bridge stadium tour for the following Monday).
Tickets: Weighing up cost versus ensuring we secured tickets, I decided to take the plunge and purchase season-long memberships for both myself (£40) and the boy (£20). As well as priority access, it also meant we had some easy birthday presents for his sibling.
A test run of the process when the prior game went on sale was vital, as I learned that I needed two different browsers open to make sure I got our individual tickets seated together. However, making the purchase was relatively simple. Within minutes of the window opening, I had seats in the Trinity Road Upper Stand for £45.50 and £16.50 respectively. I could store them in my Apple Wallet, but I also printed them out – just in case.
Game Day: A Saturday lunchtime (12.30pm) kick-off meant setting off from Stamford railway station around 9am to ensure we got there in plenty of time. That is, until a one-day railway strike announced just a few days earlier completely scuppered our plans.
Fortunately, our flight from Ireland into Stansted Airport the night before gave us the option of staying on the same train all the way to Birmingham that night. One hastily booked, centrally-located Birmingham hotel later – and we were back on track.
Pressure now off on the day, we took a leisurely walk to catch a bus that would take us right to the ground. Our luck was clearly in, because this particular vehicle’s ticketing system wasn’t working so we – and everyone else – got a free ride.
An early arrival meant we were able to buy a programme (£3.50), soak up the pre-match entertainment on the concourse, visit the club shop to assess the options for those back home and, once in the ground, buy the all-important pie (beef and onion £4.50), which was quickly devoured.
The match: Simply stunning. On a grey, autumnal early afternoon, the home side were roared on by 40,636 fans. Villa continued their brilliant run of home form by demolishing the usually robust opposition 6-1. Action and incident abounded, the crowd cheered every challenge and shot and jubilantly celebrated each goal.
By the end, we were swept up in the atmosphere and singing along to the club’s doctored version of Jeff Beck’s upbeat 1967 hit Hi Ho Silver Lining.
Game 2: Crawley Town vs Wrexham (Broadfield Stadium, Crawley, October 7)
Because who doesn’t want to go and see the stars of the Disney+ TV show Welcome to Wrexham and the club owned by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney play?
While the Welsh club’s home ground was too far away and the hottest tickets outside of the Premier League likely to be too challenging to obtain, we thought targeting a match at one of their “closer” League 2 rivals was the way to go.
Obviously sensing that this match would be special, Crawley Town suspended their very reasonably priced individual match-day hospitality packages.
Tickets: Having been in regular email contact with the small marketing and promotion team at the club, I was able to ascertain exactly when the match would go on sale. Just after 9pm on Monday, September 18, I was ready to strike, delighted when, just a few minutes later, I had tickets in the front row of the East Stand for the princely sums of £17 and nothing! Yes, an under-14 child was free (provided they were accompanied by an adult).
Game Day: After working through various permutations, we decided a direct, two-and-a-half hour train from Peterborough to Crawley was the best option. Once there, we simply had to cross the street to the local mall and take a 10-minute bus ride to the compact ground.
Arriving a few minutes before they let both locals and the bus loads of fans of the Welsh club into the ground (the numbers having swelled from the usual attendance of around 3000 to 5572), we took a tour of the food trucks and visited the club shop to buy a Crawley shirt to reduce any suspicion we were interlopers in the home section.
The match: A pitched battle that never reached any great heights after Wrexham scored an early goal and doggedly hung onto that lead. We were aided greatly in our enjoyment of the game by having a local expert seated beside us who was able to point out Manchester United player and England international Harry Maguire’s brother playing at left back for the locals, heckle those who he thought weren’t putting in enough of a shift and offer my young charge some advice on how to watch a game. The Wrexham supporters were a lively, but well-behaved bunch, the steak and onion pie was worth the £3 price tag and even the security guard near us was keen for a lengthy chat.
Game 3: Netherlands vs France (Johan Cruyff Stadium, Amsterdam, October 13)
Despite the Dutch being ripped apart 0-4 by Les Bleus in the reverse fixture, we were keen to see if there was a way to get in to see one of the premier European clashes live.
Relatives and friends suggested various options, while the stadium site suggested UEFA would eventually administer sales at some point.
Tickets: Whether by good luck or good management, I just happened to check on July 8, only to discover that not only were the tickets on sale, but I could choose from a variety of pricing options. Two were quickly purchased in the upper-tier, not far from being in line with one of the corner flags for the very reasonable combined amount of €87.50.
Game Day: An 8.45pm kick-off meant we were in for a long day, especially with an hour’s train ride back to Den Haag after the final whistle. So, after a sleep-in, we headed into Amsterdam, only to be greeted by persistent rain.
After an entertaining afternoon at the Eye Museum, we made the short journey from the main station to the stadium’s one about three hours before kick-off.
Surrounded by a cinema complex, a music venue and a variety of shops, the arena is an impressive sight, even when the weather threatens to be dire. Kiosks and trucks full of unofficial merchandise were complemented by an official fan zone, which featured plenty of free, interactive entertainment for all ages – and the opportunity to purchase a range of Oranje gear.
After eventually working out where to queue to get in, the biggest surprise – and relief – came once we reached the stadium’s interior – the roof was closed. Then it was just the small matter of climbing the stairs to find our seats, while laden with our late dinner, having been unable to choose between the croquettes and the bitterballen (€15 combined for two of each).
The match: Despite the 51,310-strong crowd being pretty much a sea of orange, the home team were bossed for much of the game by the superior French, with one man in particular having an outstanding game.
Mbappé was most definitely worth the price of admission alone, scoring an early goal to silence the crowd, unleashing a spectacular second right in front of us and then pouting and complaining his way through the last half-an-hour, as the Dutch attempted to mount an unlikely comeback.
A 2-1 French victory was, I hate to say it, the right result, but it was most definitely a night neither of us will ever forget.