Everyone that knows me, also knows that my two passions in life are football and travelling. European away games are something that I very much look forward to.
The recent plight of the people in Ukraine, has brought back some memories of an unusual trip we made to the country a few seasons ago.
When the draw for the Europa League group stages was made, for the 2018/19 season. We were drawn to meet Vorskla Poltava.
I immediately got onto my travel partner for most European aways, and asked him where is Poltava?
It’s somewhere in the east of Ukraine is the reply. My mate Terry told me he would look at the possible routes to get there, and then get back to me.
He called me back a little later, and told me that most Arsenal fans were flying to Kyiv on the Wednesday or Thursday, and then getting the train to Poltava.
But he had spoken to some other regular Arsenal away supporters, and there were flights from Luton to Kharkiv, which is very near the Russian border, and from there we could get a train to Poltava. Only trouble was that the flights only went on a Tuesday, and returned on a Saturday.
With the game being on a Thursday, this could have been a problem. But we decided we would go for it, and it would give us a chance to see a bit more of the country. The fact that the flights were dirt cheap, was also a deciding factor!
The day of the trip arrived, and we had an easy flight to Kharkiv. Excitement levels were high, amongst the few of us on the flight (seven of us from memory). It was a new ground and we were going to see a country that was new to some of us.
We landed in Kharkiv, cleared customs, and got into the arrivals hall of the small airport. Everything was grey. The buildings, the landscape and even the sky. There was a few inches of snow on the floor and thick ice everywhere.
We were all just thinking, right where’s the station? Where do we go next? When we were approached by a very burly looking chap, in a leather jacket. Where you going? He asked.
We were all a bit wary, when one of the lads chirped up, Poltava!
Without a change of tone or expression, the big fella said “come with me, I take you”. Not, “would you like me to take you?’ Just simply “I will take you”.
We all got a bit doubtful, and the big lad was told no thanks. But he replied and told us he is the airport taxi, and have no worries.
When he said this, we all started to worry quite a bit! Especially when one of us went to the information desk, and the staff absolutely refused to confirm that the man was indeed a taxi driver.
He continued talking to us, and told us he would take us to Poltava in two cars, for a cost of 50 euros per car. It was a long journey to Poltava, and this price quoted, got us a little more interested in his offer.
All seven of us got our heads together, and decided that although we’re all knocking on a bit, and our spring chicken days are definitely long gone. We could all take care of ourselves in our day, and should be able to give these two drivers a run for their money if there was any trouble (we think and hope).
So the price was agreed, and we all jumped into these two old bangers.
It was over a two hour journey, on sheer ice roads all the way. So our concerns were heightened, when five minutes after leaving the airport, the drivers pulled over to the side of the road and got out. They stood by the cars just looking at us. We were all a bit concerned now, and started to draw up battle plans! I’m sat there thinking, I’ve not used my right hook for a while, hope I can still throw it.
But it turned out to be a false alarm, the drivers had a cigarette, got back in the cars and we were on our way again.
Most of the roads were like motorways, but very steep in places, and very icy. As our cars were struggling up the hills, lorries that were trying to go in the same direction, were sliding back down the hill past us.
A 4x4 overtook us at one point, and a few miles up the road we pass it about 30 foot down a canyon. It was all a bit dodgy, and we certainly couldn’t enjoy the ride. But eventually we got to Poltava, found our hotels, and the drivers were on their way.
They turned out to be true to their word in the end and were decent people. Our first experience of just how nice most of the Ukrainian people were.
We checked into the hotel, it was grey, very grey, just like most of the other things were. We got the bags into our rooms, which in fairness were very nice, and got ourselves down to the hotel bar for some cheap beers.
It was strange stuff, but it tasted ok. It was a draught beer, but they had attached a large plastic bottle with the bottom cut off to the beer tap. The beer had to pass through the bottle before it went into the glass. To this day I have never seen anything like it, and don’t have a clue why they did it.
We were sitting there chatting away, giving each other a bit of stick, and generally having a laugh. Just like football fans do. When one of the lads went a bit white in the face.
He was looking at Sky News on his phone, and it had just been announced that the Russians were getting a bit threatening just across the border. Martial law had been declared in the exact area we were staying.
We started to think, what does this mean? Will there be soldiers and tanks all over the streets.
Sky news also said that the game on Thursday would likely be moved to Kyiv, which was a couple of hundred miles away.
Out of the blue my phone rang and it was my missus back in England calling.
Do you know it’s all over the news that the Russians might invade she said?
They are saying that there’s some Arsenal fans trapped in Poltava.
I put her mind at rest and told her that we weren’t trapped. Although I didn’t know if we were or weren’t to be honest.
‘What are you going to do she asked?’
‘I’m going to keep drinking this cheap beer and we’re going to think about that in the morning’, I told her.
Her indoors was not amused as we said our goodbyes, and I wasn’t completely sure I had put her mind at rest.
The next morning was Wednesday, the day before the game. We woke up not having the slightest idea what situation we would find ourselves in.
We had a walk around Poltava to clear the hangovers, and it was a really nice little place (I dread to think what it looks like now).
There were lots of coffee shops and a few bars. Everyone seemed calm, and just going about their daily business, seemingly without a care in the world. We had some breakfast and then a couple of drinks. Everyone was really friendly and made us very welcome.
In the afternoon my phone rang. When I answered, it was The Arsenal calling.
A young lady said they are calling all fans that bought tickets and telling them not to travel to Poltava.
It’s too dangerous and the game had been moved to Kyiv. I replied that we had a bit of a problem, as we were already in Poltava - but thanks anyway for letting us know.
She was surprised that we were already in Poltava and was genuinely concerned for us. I put her mind at rest and told her we were fine.
It was very impressive that the club called us all personally. Classy Arsenal as always.
Terry and myself got our heads together (Terry is the brains in the partnership) and decided to find the train station.
We found it and were able to book a train to Kyiv the following morning. It was only £14 for a first class ticket, and the journey would take just over three hours.
We also managed to book a hotel in Kyiv on the Thursday night, and a flight home from there on the Friday.
So we were all sorted, but we still had all Wednesday afternoon in Poltava, so we decided to head down to the stadium where the game should have been played.
Lots of locals had congregated there, they were all unhappy that the game had been cancelled and wanted their ticket money back.
They were all ok with Terry and me being there though, and actually apologised to us for the game being moved. Well I think they were apologising. Not much English was spoken.
Once again, really nice people, that just wanted to see their team play The Arsenal.
The stadium itself was typically Eastern European. Small and totally uncovered. It was also fully cordoned off.
We found a young steward, and he could speak a bit of English. He had a quick chat with his boss, and let us through the cordon.
‘Come with me’, he said, ‘I can show you around the stadium.’
He gave us the full tour, took us into the club shop to buy some souvenirs, and turned out to be one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. He also didn’t appear to be in the slightest worried about this martial law malarkey.
When we had finished the tour, we crossed his palm with a bit of the local silver, and he was a very happy young man (I currently worry about his wellbeing).
We decided to spend our last night in Poltava getting very drunk on the local cheap beer. This also helped us forget that we were potentially in a war zone!
Next morning we were up early and headed to the train station. It was grey, very grey. Just like most things were. But the train was on time, and we were off to Kyiv. The first class seats were very luxurious. It was a very comfortable and easy journey.
The hotel in Kyiv was close to the station, so we were checked in and ready to have a wander, in no time at all.
It was a big hotel and was perfect for our needs. We were hungry, so we popped into the restaurant and ordered chicken kyivs. What else would you order in Kyiv?
They look nothing like the kyivs the missus buys in the supermarket, but they were very nice indeed. The waitresses found it amusing that we were excited about eating them.
We then set off for the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv. It was a long walk, but not a problem, as we kept stopping at little bars for some liquid refreshment.
All the bars were very welcoming indeed. Another example of how friendly the Ukrainian people are.
They just wanted to talk about the football, and the mighty Arsenal.
Fortunately - no, very fortunately - I was still sober enough to refuse one bar owners offer of a Ukraine v England vodka drinking competition. Even though the bar owner said he would buy all the drinks…
At the stadium it was clearly obvious that they had little notice of hosting the game. There was very slippery ice everywhere, and a covering of fresh snow on top of that.
I ended up on my drunken backside on more than one occasion, much to Terrys amusement. I’m sure it would have really hurt, if I hadn’t been under the influence.
We got into the stadium, and it was a very different atmosphere.
A vast stadium, with a few locals and Poltava fans dotted about.
But one section crammed full of travelling Arsenal fans, all singing their heads off. As a way of keeping warm, as well as making a noise I’m sure. It was extremely cold. Even colder than an away game at Grimsby…
It was lovely to meet up with some Ukrianian Arsenal fans from the area, that I had only ever spoken to on social media.
I pray that they are all safe during this current atrocities that are being committed, and I get to meet them all again.
The game itself was very good. A very young Arsenal team played extremely well under the circumstances, and really turn it on. We ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. With Ramsey, Smith Rowe and Willock scoring.
The game was also memorable for a certain Bukayo Saka making his senior debut. He immediately looked different gravy. I’ve since heard him say that it was the coldest night he had ever experienced. I can indeed concur with that.
The walk back to the hotel after the game, was a very long one. But we found some bars still open, and took the opportunity to have a few more beers, while discussing the game with some locals.
Terry was moaning though, I mean really moaning (it’s what he does best). It was an uphill walk nearly all the way back to our hotel, and he does not like walking up hills.
We then stumbled across an all night pizza bar. So we stopped and filled our faces. For a short time Terry was happy again.
The following morning we were up early. The breakfast in the hotel was eagerly anticipated by both of us. The advert showed eggs, bacon, mushrooms and all the trimmings.
The reality was a bit of cold meat, a hard boiled egg and some even harder bread.
When I gently confronted the waitress with a picture of the advertised breakfast, I was met with a shoulder shrug and a look that said, unlucky sucker…
We had a wander around Kyiv, before heading to the airport. Once again, the people were friendly and welcoming, everywhere they went.
I just hope that they get to live their lives as they want to live them, in the future.
We should have been flying back from Kharkiv, but that wasn’t going to happen. Although three of the lads did tough it out and go back to Kharkiv for their booked flight. Credit to them. Top Arsenal fans.
Our flight from Kyiv was uneventful and we were soon back home.
When we landed, I looked at Terry and said ‘did that really happen?’
We laughed and decided it was the best adventure we had ever been on, and was likely to never be beaten.
I got home in the evening, to be met by my beautiful wife, who had been constantly monitoring the volatile situation in the Eastern Ukraine. God I love her…
Little did we know what was going to happen a few years later. I
I feel a strange affinity to the people of Ukraine, and my one wish is that the current situation gets resolved.
I would love to go back to Poltava, to actually get to see a game there, and see the people happy and free.