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Netherlands, March 2009

In this group of travel monotony, Amsterdam was definitely the cheapest and most Tartan Army friendly of the trio of repeat destinations. As such, anticipation seemed to be building to fever pitch, an emotion that seemed to escape the majority of NATA.

Helen and I opted to stay in neighbouring Haarlem for our first two nights in the Netherlands, and flew in late on Thursday night, catching crowded service bus around the outskirts of Amsterdam direct to downtown Haarlem. The main reason for staying out there was to take in the local second division game scheduled for the Friday night, although that didn’t quite work out as both myself and Helen were feeling a bit peaky. A few beers with the Sporran Legion and an abortive and ill-advised attempt to get into a nightclub led to a quieter-than-planned Friday afternoon and a quiet pizzeria meal whilst several hundred other Tartan Army descended upon the game to soak up the media frenzy and have a sing-song in the cold.

Come Saturday morning and we were up bright and early (and sans hangover!) to traipse across the city to the Holiday Inn out in the conference zone. Essen Chris, a fellow Fortuna Düsseldorf fan, was coming across to soak up the atmosphere and watch the game with fellow ticket-less Scotland fans, and we met up with him in the Irish pub on the corner of Dam Square. Chris was proudly sporting his maroon Scotland shirt (the fated “Georgia” kit), and we headed out into the square itself to meet up with Chris’ fellow Hearts fan Callum and his brother, who generously shared a couple of their beers with us.

A few beers in the old brown café Hoppe, at the top of Spui street followed, before the rest of NATA got in touch to direct us across to the Prins café a few canals over, where Bruce, Sharon, Rich, Ally and Susan were drinking and eating with Andy and Mindy from Glasgow. We headed over and joined them in what was a pretty laid back, friendly café, far removed from the chaos of the centre of town.

We headed off in good time for a train, then squeezed onto a stopping service (that wisely gave up that plan and proceeded unhindered to the far end of the Arena at Biljmer) where Kenny showed off his new hat (complete with drum top and accompanying sticks). After foolishly permitting Bruce to stick his unfeasibly fat head into it and having it banged down over his eyes, it was difficult to ascertain who was more distressed: Bruce with his cartoonish buffoonery and growing realisation that he may not actually be able to “see” the game after all, or Kenny who was fretting about his nice new hat getting bent out of shape!

The inevitable crush at the turnstiles awaited, enlivened by bumping into Helmut and Torsten from Hannover, and being branded “Captain Chaos” by Machar on account of my luxuriant ginger moustache that I’d been cultivating, and then we were in and in the right seats for a change. The game itself failed to present any chance of an upset, and Caldwell’s otherwise fair goal notwithstanding, the Netherlands clearly deserved their victory.

After seeing the final whistle for the first time at the ArenA (we left after 6 goals and 70 minutes in 2003), we joined the throngs heading for the Strandvliet tube station. We’d opted to head back to the hotel, necessitating a different tube from the majority of the Tartan Army, and were joined by Ali Nish heading back to her airport hotel – she’d literally just flown in for the game and was back home early the next morning. With neither Helen nor I in the mood for prolonging the evening, we headed back to watch telly in the room and I was rewarded by seeing footage of a kilted dwarf hoovering his own happy sacks.

The next day saw us take a wander around the city, taking in a visit to the Bols cocktail museum and meeting up with Ally and Susan in a Belgian beer bar near Leidseplein before heading for some food at the Bekerde Suster brewpub in the RLD. A low key ending to a relatively low key trip, ahead of the home leg of the double header against Iceland on the Wednesday.

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Norway, September 2009

Coming soon


Japan, October 2009

I’ve been very lucky to have been to a lot of Scotland away games without having to miss any. In fact, as the Japan trip was announced, the last away game I missed was away to the Faroe Islands in June 1999 (having been there twice since, I don’t think I missed out on too much!). However, a pointless long-haul trip in the middle the European season really did not capture my imagination (or most of the players, as it transpired!).

Coupled with this, we’d been living with uncertainty over Helen’s job for several months, and our concerns were realised when she was notified of her impending redundancy in July. However, as soon as Helen realised that the Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix was the preceding weekend to the Scotland game, she hatched a master-plan to take in both, courtesy of her redundancy settlement.

With my own annual leave having been whittled away, and with our pal Achim sitting on loads of Lufthansa miles and harbouring a desire to go to both Japan and a Grand Prix, the plan took shape. Achim flew out to Nagoya via Frankfurt, Helen flew out a day later via Stockholm and Helsinki, and they met up and based themselves in Osaka. After three hard days of getting soaked then nearly getting sunstroke whilst watching cars hurtle round the track, they took in the sights of Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nara, before heading up to Yokohama on the Wednesday before the Scotland game.

Helen had very generously paid for me to fly out a week later than her to join her in Yokohama, so after a night in Heathrow’s own Japanese-style capsule hotel, I flew out with Finnair via Helsinki (no Swedish stopover for me). A typhoon hit Japan the day/night I was in the air, and we spent the final two hours of the flight in “lock down” as the pilot fought turbulence and brought us in for a very bumpy landing. It could have been worse – Bruce, flying with BA on a bigger 747 (Finnair fly Airbus 330s and 340s, plane buffs!), reported one aborted landing attempted followed by a stomach-churning successful one; on leaving the plane, one of the crew confirmed that if the second one had also aborted, they were off to Sapporo in the far north, a mere 14 hour train journey to Tokyo!

The typhoon had knocked the train lines out from Narita, so it was onto the euphemistically titled “YCAT Express” bus to Yokohama City Airport Terminal. The urban sprawl surrounding Tokyo is reputedly home to more than 30 million people, and it seemed most of them were in their cars on the road ahead of me on the painfully slow coach journey that would reunite me with Helen. An hour later than scheduled, the bus arrived and I made my way by tube to the Intercontinental (which, compared to Tokyo hotels, was exceptionally reasonably priced).

After a wee siesta – I’d dealt with both the jet lag and the turbulence by pretty much drinking the whole way from Helsinki – we headed out and up Japan’s tallest building, the Landmark Tower, where we were able to grab a drink in the café and watch the sunset over Mount Fuji. On our descent, Achim was waiting for us at the bottom of the tower and we headed off in search of some decent beer.

First stop was the Yokohama Brewery, a cracking restaurant and microbrewery that knocked out a number of interesting beers, including a Düsseldorf-style Alt that Achim declared met his exacting standards! Our next port of call was to be the Craft Beer Bar, but that took some serious hunting down (it’s actually in a back alley and not really visible from any of the main roads in that part of town!) and required the assistance of a friendly waitress who actually called ahead for us to get the right directions! This place actually boasted hand-pulled real ales from the Minoh Brewery in Osaka, although Helen and Achim weren’t as impressed as me as they’d already worked their way through the entire range earlier in the week! The night ended with a failed attempt to find Thrash Zone, and Helen and I settled for a beer in The Hub British pub, which was already playing host to Akie, Gill and Robert, as well as a couple of ex-pats.

Achim headed into Tokyo on the Friday, whilst Helen and I wandered around the centre of Yokohama, with Helen taking in a rollercoaster ride before we headed for the “Cosmo Clock 21” ferris wheel (which, like many things in Japan, may or may not hold some kind of record!). On the 20 minute journey, Helen spied a rooftop crazy golf course on an adjacent shopping centre, which necessitated a change in course for us to play a round – for once, I actually won (even getting the ball in a net via a ramp, something she failed on all five attempts!). A boat trip around to the Yokohama Marine Tower and a walk through China Town at dusk followed. Despite the smells and sights looking very appetising, the sheer culture-shock and lack of English menus led us to head elsewhere for food, stopping in a cracking wee tram-themed bar en route to the Red Brick Warehouse’s beer restaurant. We’d already heard that Yokohama’s Oktoberfest, planned for the area next to the warehouses, had been postponed a couple of days due to typhoon-related delays, but at least we were able to get a decent beer and some good food in the warehouse itself.

Nicely fed, we headed back to the Yokohama Station area for another attempt at finding Thrash Zone, although first looking for the Cheers pub, which we managed to locate first time! A couple of northern Japanese beers later and it was back on the hunt – unbelievably, an A-board sign was sitting on a pavement we’d walked up and down three times the previous night. The mystery was soon solved, however, when the landlord explained in perfect English that he’d been in California for the past week and Friday was the first night the bar was open!

Saturday morning saw us meet Achim for the ticket collection, before eventually heading up to the station area and finding a Hawaiian-themed bar with four fellow Scots. The beer really wasn’t going down easily at this point, but a stroll back to Cheers whet my appetite. A brief stop for a couple of cans for the tube journey, and we were on our way to the game.

The journey was straight out of a stereotype – first, all the locals neatly lined up on the platform, then everyone crammed onto the tube to a ridiculous extent. Then, at the next station, even more people crammed on. And so it continued, all the way from Yokohama Station to Shin-Yokohama, with the usually short Scots standing mostly head and shoulders above the locals in each carriage. More beer was procured at Shin-Yokohama and we headed up through the streets to the stadium, where plastic cups were helpfully provided to allow supporters to decant carry outs (including, in one instance, an entire litre of Smirnoff Blue!) and take them into the match.

The Scottish section inside the ground proved to be a little too small, so some of the seats blocked off for segregation (quite unnecessarily, it must be said) were made available to avoid overcrowding in the aisles, and despite an eyebrow-raising of the national anthem, the game kicked off and 90 minutes of tedium followed.

No disrespect to the players out there representing Scotland, but after travelling 6,000 miles to watch your national team, it’s a wee bit disheartening to effectively be watching a “C” squad struggle against a Japanese B team (fielded, incidentally, in response to Scotland’s disrespect to the hosts). The game finished 2-0 to the hosts, and after the obligatory photos with friendly locals (and a nasty racist incident directed at Helen from a drunk nedette) it was back out and into a corner bar with Reeky, Fiona and their Sporran Legion accomplices.

After a couple of beers, it was time for Helen and I to get an early night, as our jetsetting had to continue with a 4am awakening the next day. After getting packed (yes, I know…), we managed to get some sleep around 1am, but I was at least rewarded with the sight of a beautiful sunrise over Yokohama Harbour the next day!

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Wales, November 2009

This game represented a bit of a watershed for me. Despite this being the second-closest possible away match, and having not missed an away match of any description in 10 years (including two trips to Japan, South Korea for a 1-4 mauling, Bosnia and even the game against the Hong Kong Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers XI), I decided enough was enough.

If the players couldn’t be bothered to turn up for Japan, and if the SFA can’t be bothered to give good notice of games, then why the f*ck should I bothered to waste my time and money on a team (and football association) that have such disregard for their fans?

As it happened, I accompanied my wife on a “mileage run”, a flight she needed to take in order to retain her frequent flyer status. I didn’t have to – when she booked the flight, she knew there was a danger of an international clash – however I wanted to, and despite letting a 10 year record slide, I don’t regret it in the slightest.

For anyone who’s interested, the last away game I missed was against the Faroe Islands in June 1999, and the run included a total of 46 consecutive away matches.

Whether this is a one-off, and my feelings will change under the new manager, or whether this is a sign of deeper changing priorities remains to be seen…

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