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"CAN'T TAKE MY EYES OFF BAKU..."


1927 club chairman and Cardiff City & Wales fan Mark Ainsbury shares his experiences of his recent trip to Baku to watch Wales. This article was commissioned by the excellent Thin Blue Line fanzine.

Mark would like to thank Gary and Bryn Pritchard, Dylan Llewelyn, Maralyn Olsen, Neil Dymock and all the others for their hard work and help on the fundraising the Wales fans did for the Azeri orphans.

"Can't take my eyes off Baku..." Life love and Azerbaijan away

“Hey, Mr Wales, you like my country?” I didn’t realise she was touting for business, I just thought she was a naturally friendly market researcher (funny hours mind, it was 3a.m, and in a club called The Loveboat, and she could have caught a chill dressed like that). “Yes, I really, really love it, thanks, love, nice of you to ask”, I said, and wandered off to talk to a bloke from Bala about Simon Davies’ ball control, to this lass’s inexplicable annoyance. Azerbaijan, what a place. I didn’t have a clue where it was, but I’ll do anything for Wales (especially bloody stupid things), so I got on that plane and let Natasha the stone-faced airhostess with the mostess take my life in her ruthlessly efficient hands. She may have been strict and we might all never be seen again, but what the hell, we had 6 points from 6, when I for one had expected none, and she was oh so persuasive with the vodka. Funnily enough, all the Azeri women turned out to be like that. For a nominally Muslim country, in the middle of Ramadan, boy do they drink a lot. Chwarae teg, like. The stay-at-home harbingers of doom had warned us to buy mosquito spray, guns and tanks before venturing to the badlands of Baku, but I just wish I’d bought shares in Smirnoff and Stolichnaya.

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Apart from the intrepid few who ventured to Tashkent in 1968 to see City play Torpedo Moscow, this was surely the longest European trip ever undertaken by Welsh fans. You know when you tell people in work you’re going to Baku (or Hartlepool) for a football match, and they look at you with that patronising face that says “you sad, dysfunctional fool” Ha, well little do they know, we have the secret of eternal youth and happiness. Well, happiness, at least. Azerbaijan sounded so far, we just had to go. Bordered by Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan and Iran, Magalluf it ain’t, and these always end up being the best trips with Wales, because they’re so gloriously bizarre. See the world with Robert Page, sold to the man with the big blue horn. 200 of us set off for Baku with little idea of what lay ahead, apart from drinking, and all fearing a repetition of our all too familiar habit of capitulating meekly to well-organised pub teams from countries our players had never heard of. Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia, each one enough still to chill the hearts of those us who endured all those 1990s long dark nights of the soul. Even the Italy win, the joyous culmination of decades of lust and longing, a glorious explosion of speed, skill and Italian subs being subbed, would count for little if we caved in in Baku. The glut of withdrawals even as we waited to board our planes did little to calm our nerves. We all knew Azerbaijan away was the key game in the campaign for Wales, and the 8-hour flight via Istanbul gave us plenty of time to ponder the enormity of the task, while we checked the alarmist list of Baku Do’s and Don’ts given to us on the plane. Don’t go out alone at night, don’t talk to anyone, that kind of stuff. Yeah, right, I’ve had scarier times in Mothercare. Little did we know we would end up having the time of our lives and the friendliest welcome (and by far the very worst drivers anywhere, ever) that this reporter has had in 30+ Wales away trips.

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Touching down in Baku in the middle of the night was like walking into the middle of a surreal moonscape – thick, acrid fog swirling round, and the cloying smell of oil in the air, legacy of Baku’s status as one of the world’s leading oil cities. Cold, knackered and wheezing for clean air, the thought runs through your mind for the millionth time that Ryan Giggs cares far, far less than we do. 3 o’ clock in the morning, and on to decrepit transfer buses to the hotel, you reflect upon the hollow vacuity of your life, that you are reduced to this shell of a person traipsing the world watching Wales play football, wondering where it all went so gloriously right. This existentialist angst is making your head actually throb. It gets worse as you clear the dirt off the bus window to wonder at the only souls to be seen outside, the hapless sods manning the many petrol stations, their neon glare providing the only light in the dank Caucasian night. Not a customer in sight between them, but all fully staffed, an eerie and strangely moving monument to old socialistic principles of everything in its place, for no reason at all.

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Tuesday morning let us snatch back a couple of the 4 hours stolen from us by the time difference, before an early date with the assembled masses of BBC TV, Radio Wales and Radio 5 Live waiting for us on the steps of our hotel. After years of travelling around the less prosperous fringes of Europe just to watch our country play football, a few Wales fans had the idea that we would do fundraising work for local orphanages in Baku, to at least make a small difference to some kids while we were out there. The media had picked up on this and came with us on the Tuesday morning to the first 2 orphanages, hauntingly named Number 1 and Number 16, a legacy of the 8000 kids orphaned in Baku alone by the recent war with neighbouring Armenia. The kids at the orphanages were delighted as we turned up, and couldn’t get enough of the Wales shirts, footballs, complete kits, toys, and signed pictures of Giggsy, Matthew Jones and, er, Robert Page we took for them. The Heads of the orphanages were fulsome in their praise of the Welsh fans’ efforts, as no away fans had ever gone to Baku before, and certainly no-one had ever been to visit them to bring things for the kids. As the TV and radio interviewed us about the initiative, the kids played up for the cameras by roundly thrashing us at an impromptu kickaround in their playground. So much for bloody charity.

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An hour-long drive back into Baku had us humbled by the plight of the kids we had seen, and developing a sense of deep trepidation in the pit of our stomachs, not only at the death-defying white knuckle workout our driver was giving his Lada, but at the ominous realisation that the only way to stay out of bars for the next few hours would be to go and see the football team with the worst record in the whole wide world, Wales under-21s. Hating ourselves for doing it, but unable to kick the habit, 80 Wales fans, addicted like the bloke on Special Brew down the park at 9a.m., turned up at the tidy 7500 capacity ground, all neat single tier all-seater stands, with a Stockton-on-Tees industrial backdrop behind one goal. Nice floodlights, and even tickets, unusual for an u-21 fixture, this really was a dream for the geeky misfit football addict. Much nicer than a lot of grounds in the Nationwide, and a lovely line in black seeds on sale outside, as well as more appetising pretzels, sweet buns and local beers. Wales actually managed to win 1-0 with a well taken goal by Bristol Rovers’ Kevin Gall with 15 minutes to go, though fittingly it was the worst game of football any of us could ever remember having seen. If this game had a soundtrack it would have been Suicide is Painless. The players’ evident and commendable happiness at the final whistle was matched only by the transcendental joy of the away fans, released at last from the purgatory of the previous 90 minutes. We had won, we were part of history, and Jamie Tolley and Adam Burchill had continued their good recent form, but that was it. Back into the life-threatening lurch of the Baku one way-system with obligatory gold-toothed, cheroot-tooting, horn-beeping leering Loony Tunes driver, and I for one was beyond caring, so numbing had been the football. As City fan Ant Evans so eloquently put it on the final whistle “We may have won but Shoulder’s still garbage, mind”. True enough. Rubbish par excellence, if that’s not oxymoronic.

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Tuesday night saw the first of the Wales fans’ 3-night residency at the Lancaster Gate bar, run by expat footy fan Dave, who had waited 3 years for British fans to come to Baku, and he and his local staff were totally won over by the Wales fans. The fans, in turn, fell in love with his entire staff and broke the bar’s vodka consumption record 3 nights on the bounce, even on the “quiet” Thursday night. It was one of the greatest things I have ever seen, as we turned this bar into a heaving mass of hedonistic hwyl that had grown men (and women) shaking their heads at the sheer beauty of it all. Welsh boys and girls bigging it up together, supporting City, Wrexham, Newport, Swansea, Man City, Villa, Oxford, Everton, Norwich, everyone, all on one. It was like Spike Island with the Roses but a better sound system, all loved up, the call to arms of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You booming out on the dance floor as we danced and sang and drank ourselves into a frenzy. The barstaff joined in, modelling Wales kits, posing for videos and forcing vodka down us, it was like wandering on to the set of Caligula (but without the horses, natch).

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After a long night of sampling the many and varied delights of underground bars, it was the day of the game, and the familiar nerves that this correspondent feels every time Wales play. The morning saw Wales fans continue their visit to local childrens’ homes, where they were treated to a display of traditional Azeri singing and dancing by the children, while others took the chance to explore the narrow alleyways of Baku’s old town, very nice it was too, and a cracking line in rugs. I had the surreal experience of ducking into a restaurant for my traditional prematch meal of kebabs and beer, to be served by a waiter whose only words of English were “Bellamy, Bellamy”. Fair play, at least it wasn’t Ryan bloody Giggs. When I mimed to him that Craig was injured he was distraught, just saying “trauma, trauma” over and over. Poor bloke I thought he was going to cry.

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The trip to the Tofig Bahramov stadium for the main game (named after the Azeri linesman who invented a goal in ’66 so England could win the World Cup) was on organised coaches, which took us through some of the less salubrious areas of the city. This gave us the first real feeling that a lot of Baku residents are really struggling, as the transition to a free market economy leaves behind those less able to make money from private enterprise (Christ, that all sounds a bit Newsnight, sorry). The main part of the city was surprisingly affluent and laid back, certainly compared with its Armenian and Moldovan equivalents, but out of the centre and there were whole families living in shells of buildings, huddled round small fires for warmth, and us just there for a football match.

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The buses to the ground ended up in farce as we got snarled up in the Mother of all traffic jams, so 100 Wales fans piled off and headed off into the dark in search of the kind of thrills only Simon Davies going past his man can supply. The ground was visible from the glow of the lights piercing the thick peasouper which had suddenly descended, and even though there was well over an hour to kick off, the streets and stalls leading up to the stadium were packed, with the locals staring at the Wales fans marching to the ground as if they couldn’t quite believe we were there. Along a busy main road, and then suddenly we were there, adrenaline coursing through me, the same as it did when I saw Wales play for the first time as a kid, magic. The approach to the ground was brilliant, a big wide tree-lined avenue, a couple of lines of police and army making sure the Wales fans knew where to go, and we were through the cordon. No programmes or souvenirs were on sale but you could live for ever on the shish kebab stalls and the beers, puts the burger van by The Ninian to shame, I tell you. The outside of the main stand all classical pillars and big steps, Tofig Bahramov’s name etched out of the stone, befitting his status as a national hero (in England, presumably). Inside the ground, and it became clear that the rumour of a 30,000 sell out were way off the mark, as the crowd barely touched 8,000, with half of that made up by the army ringing the entire pitch for no apparent reason. The Wales fans were in the middle of the main stand (under the TV cameras), with the whole ground an open bowl. The fog was swirling in around the floodlights, but that was the only menacing thing about the atmosphere. The local kids were coming up to the low barrier after badges and Wales fanzines, and just staring at these people who came all the way to their country just to sing Men of Harlech non-stop for an hour. Lovely.

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You’ve seen the game. Speed was immense second half. We won 2-0 and didn’t play well but I would have killed someone for a 2-0 win with all the withdrawals. Wales, in Eastern Europe, doing a thoroughly professional job. Barnard, Page, Robinson and of course Earnie all did exactly what was asked of them, out of position on the right in Earnie's case, at just an hour’s notice in Page’s case following Danny’s late call-off, and in the case of Barnard and Robinson at a level they have not been playing at. We weathered the early storm and then Speedy settled everyone’s nerves with the opener, just after Hartson and Giggs linked up down the left so beautifully that I sang songs all night. We believe, they believe, Sparky knows. We have a system, and the 4-5-1 worked a treat again. With Bellamy and Danny due back, as well as Savage and Pembridge, who were so good against Italy they made me cry, well, all I know is this is the best Wales team I have ever seen in the 27 years since my first game.

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The relative lack of excitement on the pitch (God, Wales fans not killing themselves with nerves) meant we could relax. The 60’s-style rattle I had taken with me got confiscated by the police, but was given back once they had examined it to see how it worked, like as if I had brought a fully-functioning alien to the match. They police could not have been nicer, and Wales fans wandering around the stadium at half time were met only with friendliness, the ubiquitous greeting of “Ryan Giggs” (yeah yeah you can have him) and general wonder (or ridicule) at the fact that we were wearing Wales flags as skirts. Fair play one of the local kids even went out of the ground and smuggled illicit beers back in for us. If the return game sees boys from Riverside running to Oddbins at half time to get Azeri fans a few Bacardi Breezers then I’ll know all is well with the world. The end of the game saw the greatest display of military might since Stoke away as the army, conscripts one and all, did some synchronised yomping for us, and marched off just in time for us to wreck Sparky’s pitch-side press conference with some well deserved abuse of Steve what a tosser Bruce.

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Next morning, after the 12 hours of partying, a few of us managed to track down the Azerbaijan FA offices, no thanks at all to the worst taxi driver I have ever seen. He was the sort of punter who would not know the way to the Millennium from Cardiff Central, dull as hell. Despite his repeated pleas of “I come here every day” he took us down a million dead ends, and I wanted to kill him, or myself. At the FA building the bloke sorted us some badges and one of the only 200 programmes printed for the game, which never even went on sale, top man. When I asked him what he had thought of the game the night before, it was as if he had suffered a bereavement. “That”, he said solemnly, “was the worst performance in the history of my country”. Nice one (sorry mate).

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So there we have it, we won, our trainspotter fetish for posters and badges was satisfied, and we had one final night at the Lancaster Gate. I’m not doing any permutations of who we will beat in the remaining games (apart from Azerbaijan in March). Suffice to say we have the best team many of us have ever seen, and Belgrade in April is one of our most important games ever.

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The charity work done by the Wales fans goes on, we are setting up a registered charity and doing a similar thing when we go to Belgrade for children there, as well as trying to fund the Azeri children from the orphanage who did the dancing to visit the Eisteddfod in Llangollen. Anyone interested in helping or contributing to Wales fans’ ongoing fundraising please email Mark on placidcasual27@hotmail.com.

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Final word on Azerbaijan, though, goes to Dave, the boss of the Lancaster Gate. Deep into our third (and final night), he took the mike to address the happy Welsh throng. He’s English. “Three years I’ve run this bar”, he said “and three years I’ve longed for a British team to be drawn to play here. It hurts me to say it but I didn’t want it to be England cos I knew what the fans might do here. I didn’t know what the Wales fans would be like. You’ve been a credit to your team, your country and yourselves. We have loved you. I hope you go on and win the whole thing”. Cue pandemonium, and a glorious end to a brilliant trip. With our little picks and shovels, we were there.

Copyright Mark Ainsbury, December 2002. Placidcasual27@hotmail.com

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