All posts by MTJ86

About MTJ86

Swans fan, Wales fan, football referee. Looking forward to the European tour

A football trip to Spain

Yes, it’s a blog written by me. A rarity I know, sometimes I always feel like writing one, but I have a busy life sometimes and the moment has gone by the time I remember again! So here goes, my first (hopefully of many) football blog in 2017.

Recently I went to three football games in four days in Spain, this time I went with my good friend Emily. A recent suffering supporter of the 1939 & 2008 FA Cup winners Portsmouth FC. She was employed by me, for a yet to be determined fee, as an official photographer and observer/navigator. It helps she likes watching random football games too I guess.

The first game of the three was the Europa League Last 32 game between Villarreal and Italian team Roma. Now anyone who knows me, knows I am pretty organised when I travel. I like things to go without a hitch, so rewind a few weeks ago and I thought I’d purchase tickets for this game online, you’d think it would be easy but it was definitely not. UK Bank cards are not accepted on their website, only Spanish ones (for ‘security reasons’ apparently). I even rang them up, but was told I would have to buy on the day of the game.

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                                                     A view of Valencia from the Cathedral

Luckily, with the help of Twitter, a Swans fans I know, Tim, contacted his Spanish friend Claudio who bought two tickets for the game, so save me stressing on the day. Phew! Thanks again Claudio, bravo!

I also went against my normal principles and booked my flights with Ryanair, it sounds slightly snobbish I know, but for £40 return from Stansted it was very difficult to refuse. In fairness there were no issues at all with Ryanair. We flew into Valencia, which is about a one hour train journey from Vila-real.

Valencia has some great memories for me and lots of other Swans fans I’m sure, back in September 2013 (when the Swans were actually good), we beat Valencia at the Mestalla 3-0 in our first Europa League Group game. It was one of those rare games when everything was perfect. The weather was glorious, the performance was excellent and we topped it off with a win. Okay they had 10 men for most of the game, but I try to forget that bit!

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                            The Mestalla, home of Valencia and scene of the 3-0 away win

After dropping our bags off at the hotel, Emily and I went for a bit of sightseeing and I reminisced when I saw the Mestalla again (it looks different from before though).  A long day of walking around the lovely town of Valencia, before settling down in an Irish bar to watch the Champions League football on that evening. Arsenal lost 5-1 to Bayern (again) and in the other Spain v Italy European clash, Real Madrid beat Napoli 3-1.

The next day saw us catch a train to Castellon, which is an extremely quiet town just outside Vila-real. There were hardly any people out and about, even after siesta time. After a few pre-match coca colas we caught the train to Vila-real. Again, hardly any sign of any other people or any noisy Roma fans on the 20 minute walk from the train station to the ground.

Villarreal’s ground changed the name of their ground just a month ago. Formally Estadio El Madrigal, it is now called Estadio de la Cerámica (Ceramic Stadium). The capacity is almost 25,000 and has been the home of Villarreal since 1923.

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I quite liked the ground, the pitch is pretty close to the stands and there is one massive stand behind the goal where the Roma fans were situated. We seemed to be in the minority of ‘tourist’ football fans at the game. With a fair few Villarreal fans bringing their own picnic and blankets for the game ahead (it wasn’t that cold really). We were definitely keeping the average age of the stand down, the eldery Spanish ladies didn’t look impressed with the Roma fan’s pyro either. It was quite a slow start to the game, with neither side having real good chances until around the 30 minute mark when Emerson of Roma curled in a wonderful goal to put Roma ahead.

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                                 The obligatory ‘Me at a football stadium really early’ photo

In the second half Roma looked much the better team, with El Shaarawy pulling the strings in midfield. Bosnia and Ex Man City striker Edin Dzeko scored a hatrick and Roma won the game 4-0 in an enjoyable, but one sided game for a neutral. And the kid behind finally stopped kicking my seat and ended up playing a handheld computer game.

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An elderly Spanish lady tried to converse with us, but she couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak any Spanish. A guy in front translated ‘Do you support Villarreal or Roma?’ ‘Tourists or Students?’ But it doesn’t seem the concept of groundhopping has caught on in this part of Spain yet. The guy had heard of Swansea City but not Portsmouth! but they were nice enough. After a short train journey back to Castellon it was onto Barcelona the following morning.

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                                              Villarreal 0-4 AS Roma (Emerson, Dzeko 3)

The train journey to Barcelona takes about 3 hours, but what is good about the trains in Spain (and France when I went to the Euros) is that every person who has bought a ticket is allocated a seat, so no scrambling to get onto an already cramped train (take note Arriva Trains Wales). At least the long journey gave me time to keep up to date with my football podcasts. (The Guardian and the Football Ramble are good podcasts if you’re interested!).

I have been to Barcelona before, when Wales played Andorra away in 2014, I stayed a few days in Barcelona as Andorra has no Airport. It is easy to navigate the Metro system there and with the help of an app and Google Maps we found our Hostel. A lot of people seem to not want to stay in hostels, but personally I don’t see a problem. I have stayed in some nicer hostels for half the price than a bang average hotel in the past.

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                                                 A view from Park Guell, Barcelona

The staff at the ‘Yeah’ Hostel in Barcelona were very friendly and welcoming, the room was a 4 bed dorm which was very clean and spacious, along with secure places to put your personal belongings. For around 15 Euros a night, no-one can complain!

Staying in hostels is a good chance to meet other fellow travellers, I have made some good friends over the years through staying in the same hostel as them. When you’re travelling alone it can help to talk to others for tips and to cure the boredom you sometimes get.

The weather so far had been sunny and around 15-20 degrees, I was happy walking around in shorts and a t-shirt whilst splashing on the sunscreen, yet the locals were wrapped up in their coats and scarves! I get strange looks normally, so nothing unusual there!

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With the rest of the day to spare it was a good chance to do a bit of sightseeing, The Sagrada Familia was a pretty close walk. A Roman Catholic Church designed by the famous Antoni Gaudi, which started being built in 1882 and is due to be finished in 2026 (Which maybe the date the Liberty Stadium will be expanded. Maybe).

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                                                          The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

The reason I picked to go to Barcelona was I had never seen a game at the Nou Camp before and I had never personally seen Lionel Messi score a goal. I had seen Lionel Messi play on two previous occasions – The 2014 World Cup Final and the 2015 Champions League Final. I was hoping it would be third time lucky. Barcelona’s game against newly promoted Leganés wasn’t to be played until the Sunday though, so me not being a person to settle for no Saturday game I saw that Gimnástic were playing Numancia in the Segunda Division – both teams have been in La Liga recently.

The other people sharing our hostel room were a husband and wife who lived in Austria, Heidi and Jose, they were also going to the Barcelona game on the Sunday. Heidi seemed to be a big Messi and Barcelona fan and seemed fascinated with the fact I had seen so many games, the Barcelona game would be her first ever live game. It was nice to see someone so excited about going to a football game (I remember those days!).

Saturday arrived and it was off to Tarragona, unfortunately with the train times it wasn’t really possible to have a look around Tarragona, as I’ve heard it’s a lovely place. I think it may have been easier to hire a car and drive, but I have never driven outside of Wales before, so this always seems a daunting task for me, even though I have travelled around Brazil on my own!

There are two train stations in Tarragona, one journey that takes 30 minutes but is a bit out of the way, the other is closer to the town centre but takes one hour and a half. I went for the former, but it was definitely more complicated, as a bus was needed to be caught from the station to the centre then a local bus was then need to be caught to get to the ground.

Emily and I were looking confused at a bus stop and a Spanish guy asked us in broken English where we wanted to go. I said ‘football’ and ‘Gimnastic Tarragona’ and he understood, pointing us to a timetable. By total luck, at this moment a car turned up and the helpful Spanish guy got in, he then asked us if we wanted a lift to the ground. The car had a Gimnastic football scarf on the dashboard, so I took a gamble they weren’t murderers and we both got into the car. Gracias to the two Spanish guys, I did not know their names, but it was a very nice gesture.

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Gimanástic Tarragona’s ground is called the Nou Estadi and parts of the ground are currently being developed for the 2018 Mediterranean Games. Tickets were €30 for a view from the side of the pitch or €15 for behind the goal. We chose to go behind the goal, it’s a quaint little ground and it’s possible to get a view of the game for free from the above motorway (but that does not count as a proper groundhop!)

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                                   The Nou Estadi. Home of Gimnástic Tarragona

Gimnástic are struggling this season in the Segunda Division, after being relegated from La Liga last season. So it was poised to be a good game ahead. Numancia were the better team but for some lacklustre finishing it remained goal-less until a few minutes after the break and Gimnástic scored a great headed goal after great move. The final score was 2-0 and the fans were great in fairness, they even taunted the players after mis-placed passes, which – maybe I’m wrong – but that doesn’t seem to happen outside of Britain too much. Or at least not known in Spanish football culture.

After the game we had to navigate our way back to the centre without hitch-hiking and then onto the train station in the middle of nowhere. We managed to do this, but more by luck really than any actual know-how. If you’re going to go to Tarragona, then hire a car. It’s much easier and definitely less stressful.

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Gimastix 2-0 Numancia – Segunda Division

Sunday arrived and it was the day I may finally get to see Lionel Messi score a goal. The game wasn’t until 20:45, so another day of sightseeing was on the cards. Again it was a lovely, sunny day in Barcelona and I do sometimes think I’d like to live somewhere like this, but I can’t speak Spanish so I’ll have to think of another location. We went to Parc de Montjuic, which I would highly recommend going to. You get wonderful views of Barcelona and some nice walks in the park, if you like that type of thing. Emily was doing well with her photography work, as I do sometimes hate asking random people to take my photo and I don’t really do ‘selfies’.

So onto the final game of our trip to Spain. The Nou Camp would be ground 207 for me, I had been on the tour of it before, but had never watched a game there. I bought tickets very easily through their website, our seats weren’t too high or too low, the cost was – what I thought – was a reasonable €60. The free wifi at the ground was also very good and I really think more stadia should make this available to fans.

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                                             The Nou Camp, home of FC Barcelona

The thing that was very prominent at the Nou Camp was the amount of football tourists there, I get that I am probably in this bracket too. But it is very similar to what you see at Anfield, Old Trafford, The Emirates and Stamford Bridge. I always feel it has a big impact on the atmosphere in the ground, the Barca fans behind the ground that were waving the flags were very good. Singing throughout and I wanted to be standing where they were! I wouldn’t personally be happy if Swansea started becoming a club where most of the ground were not really interested in the game.

Lionel Messi scored after 3 minutes, so I can now finally add him to my list of top players I have seen score a goal live. Bale, Ronaldo, Neymar, Ibrahimovic and Itay Shechter are included. Now if only I could see a goalkeeper score a goal, my football ambitions are nearly complete!

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                                                   Happy with the photography here

At this point I was wanting Barcelona to put a hatful on Leganés, especially after their terrible performance in the 4-0 defeat to PSG the previous Tuesday. It didn’t materialise and Leganés were much the better team, creating the better chances. Messi was the only player looking sharp.

On 71 minutes Leganés scored a deserved equaliser and their fans about 2 miles up in the away end started to make some noise. Barcelona invariably scored again after a definite foul on Neymar in the box. Messi duly dispatched the penalty and Barcelona luckily won 2-1 in the end. It was a very uninspiring performance from the home side against a relegation threatened team, Neymar and Suarez were very quiet.

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                             Barcelona 2-1 Leganés – La Liga. Attendance: 63,378

It was easy to get away after the game via the metro, I almost had my phone stolen by a not so discreet pickpocket. Luckily I tend to have my wits about me and automatically, subconsciously had my hand in my pocket when he invaded my personal space and then eventually ran away.

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                        A view from Parc de Montjuic on a glorious day in Barcelona

All in all a great trip, great weather, three new grounds ticked off, no nil-nils and no hitches. Thanks to Emily for being my official photographer on a voluntary basis and putting up with my inane conversations all week. I will be at more random grounds this coming weekend when I travel to Scotland – not for the rugby – to watch the Scottish Messi play for Queen of the South. No cap or sunscreen needed there! Maybe I’ll even write another blog about it.

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                   Me and and a photograph of my photographer Emily Smith (@emilysmithpfc)

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The ’92’ completed and future footballing goals

Last night, on a cold Tuesday night at Barnet, I completed the 92. For those of you who don’t have a clue, it means, I have now watched a game of football at all current 92 Football League grounds. (Until West Ham move to the Olympic Stadium next season, but I want to savour this moment until then!). You can call me sad, crazy, weird, up to you. But it was a personal feeling for me to have accomplished this feat.

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The Hive – The 92 in sight

Obviously it would be better to visit all 92 grounds with the Swans (I have been to 77 with the Swans*), but it’s almost impossible to do this with just 1 club. Some Portsmouth fans at Barnet yesterday were on 91, all with Portsmouth. The majority of clubs don’t go on massive rises and falls so quickly and teams like Arsenal and Everton never get relegated, so if you were a fan of these teams you would never complete it with 1 club.

*I also went to the ‘old’ grounds of Brighton, Chesterfield, Colchester & Rotherham with the Swans

Anyway. My first ever visit to one of the current 92 was on the 6th Spetember 2003 at Yeovil Town’s Huish Park, the Super Swans being their opponents that day. The home team won 2-0 on that occasion, but I remember it was sunny…… I was only 17 then (yes really) and I got the travelling ‘bug’ from then on.  At that stage I never even knew there was such a thing as ‘The 92’ and I had no other interest at the time to watch other random football games.

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Ah those were the days…..!

I’ve been lucky enough to witness the Swans rise from League 2 to the Premier League and was also lucky (or unlucky) to be able to go to the likes of Hartlepool, Carlisle and Blackpool. Places that are extremely difficult and very pricey to get to by train. It was only when the Swans got promoted to the Premier League back in 2011 that I started looking at how many grounds I had left and it was then I made the conscience decision to complete all the grounds. As back then I never used to miss any Swans matches, so playing on Sundays and Mondays would give me more opportunity to complete it.

During the time the Swans got promoted, the likes of Colchester, Brighton and Chesterfield had all had ‘new’ grounds, so I had to visit them. I had already been to Layer Road, the Withdean and Saltergate respectively.

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Fast forward 12 and a half years later and I was so close to achieving one of my (recent) life goals. This season I have been to Brighton, Oxford, Rotherham, Wimbledon and Fleetwood Town, so Barnet’s ‘The Hive’ was my elusive final ground to complete the set. Annoyingly (for me) Portsmouth, Barnet’s opponents, had the audacity to beat Ipswich in the FA Cup 3rd Round, meaning the game would be re-arranged for a midweek rather than be played on a Saturday.

On the weekend I spent a few days in Germany, where I watched 3 Bundesliga games, (so much better than the Premier League, but that’s a blog for another day) and as I like to do things weirdly, I travelled all the way from Heathrow to Swansea on the coach on the Monday, before heading back up to London again the day after. Long story, but never mind.

I had visited Barnet’s old ground Underhill back in March 2012, but a year later they decided to announce a change of stadiums and last season they got promoted back to the Football League.

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Me at Underhill, back in 2012, against Torquay (I haven’t changed a bit)

I arrived my usual early self at The Hive (Barnet’s nickname is the Bees – get it?) but waited for my Twitter friend Emily and her Dad (who both support Portsmouth) to arrive, I was glad to share the experience with people I know on this momentous – okay maybe too strong a word – occasion. They may not have been glad of my company though!

The Hive has a capacity of just over 5600 and is quite bland in all honesty, at least Underhill had a bit more of a (cliché alert) character about the place.

The game was in no way a classic, I really could not watch Barnet every week, they just tried to stop Portsmouth by fouling them at every opportunity. A typical Martin Allen team I suppose. Their goal came in a strange way too, Portsmouth’s throw-in got reversed to a Barnet throw by the referee as the Pompey player was not taking it from the correct place. The ball was thrown in long, a Barnet player was fouled in the box. Penalty. Ex Portsmouth player John Akinde – who was hopeless all night – scored.Barnet6

John Akinde scores the penalty

Portsmouth had all of the ball and all of the play, but failed to make the Barnet keeper work (sound familiar?), as well as simple passes going out of play. They are definitely one of the more frustrating teams to watch (This was my 5th Portsmouth game of the season). It finished 1-0 to Barnet in the end and boos echoed from the away end, but my personal feat had been achieved. Finally. Until August at least.

I can’t prove that I’ve been to all 92 and I probably don’t fit all of the criteria needed on the ‘official’ 92 club – yes there is really an official club – but I don’t care. (Apparently it still counts if you’ve not visited a team’s new ground!) I’ve seen a football game at all of the current 92 Football League grounds, some memorable ones and some I wish I didn’t remember at all (York 0-0 Carlisle for one!). Unfortunately I don’t have all of my tickets stubs either, back in the old days I just used to pay on the gate for a Swans away game. None of this online booking malarkey.

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Proof I went to Barnet at least

I will probably make myself sound old here, but I sort of wish I had a photo of me at all of the 92 grounds, but ‘back in my day’ there were no cameras on mobile phones, not many people really had digital cameras, just those wind along ones and Twitter was something only birds did. (I could always go back again to the grounds and do this I guess….)

I can now tick this off my bucket list, bur I need to find a new challenge. Getting a girlfriend could be up there (but do miracles happen?). Best to stick to a footballing one, if anyone has any ideas, let me know. I will achieve my other aim of seeing Wales play in a major tournament in June (WE QUALIFIED!). Watching a game in every UEFA Nation was suggested to me on Instagram. The UEFA 54? I’ve done 28 already, but it’s difficult to just pop over onto a plane to Kazakhstan! As well as watching a game on every Continent. I don’t think the Penguins have a team in Antarctica, so it would just be Africa left for me on that one.

At least it has given me more time to do other stuff. I quite fancy going to some intense Derbies. Celtic v Rangers, Partizan v Red Star Belgrade, Fenerbache v Galatasaray – though I do value my life somewhat.

Thanks for all of the well wishes on Twitter/Facebook, for some reason some of you have been just as excited as me. I’ll still have to go to any new grounds that get built and any newly promoted team from the Conference (please not Gateshead or Grimsby).

 

It’s fun to stay at the DPRK

A brief introduction

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea as it is better known, has always fascinated me as a place. Just the way it is run, the fact no-one really knows what goes on there, as well as the control the State seem to have on the population and the media. Probably what the Soviet Union was like before the break up.  I had spoken to two Wales Supporters (Rhys and his Dad Tim) last year in Brazil and they had recently retruned from North Korea. So they sort of convinced me to visit there myself.

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Many people seem surprised to find out that there is a tourist industry in North Korea, for months I have had numerous reactions to when I told people I was going to North Korea. Ranging from ‘Don’t you mean South Korea?’ to ‘Why do you want to go there?’ The latter I cannot answer as it is difficult to explain, just like trying to explain to non football fans why I like watching 22 men kick a ball around some grass.

A company ‘Koryo Tours’ have been running trips to the Socialist State for almost 20 years now. The DPRK love to have a celebration, they celebrate anniversaries of almost anything related to North Korea (I mean their massive army has to have something to keep themselves occupied!).  The tour I was booked on was the ‘Victory Day Tour’, Victory Day in North Korea is on the 27th July and it is the day North Korea ‘won’ the Korean War (1950-1953) even though the War has never officially ended as only an armistice was signed in 1953 – but more on that later on.

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The only way to get to Pyongyang (The capital of DPRK) is to fly from Beijing, China, so I thought I would have a week of sightseeing there and a week before that I spent some time in Seoul, South Korea. I had never really fancied visiting China before and personally I was not a fan of Beijing, I found the locals rude, almost got killed crossing the road every day (green lights for pedestrians mean nothing) there were just too many tourists around the place and hardly anyone could speak English. Apart from that it was great……

There was a pre-meeting at the Koryo Tours Office a day before I was due to fly to North Korea to go through all the dos and donts and to meet the other eager travellers. It was all common sense stuff really, but having to be without the Internet for 5 days would be my biggest challenge! The only thing on the original itinerary that wasn’t going to happen was a visit to the Mausoleum of the eternal President Kim Il Sung and his son the Supreme Leader – Kim Jong Il. so I had packed my shirt, tie and shoes for nothing!

Flying into the unknown

I left my hostel in Beijing for the airport on Saturday (25th July) where Rich from Koryo Tours gave everyone their Visas for the DPRK, unfortunately we were not allowed to keep them after we left the country. Koryo Air is the only Airline that flies to North Korea, according to Google it is the only ‘One Star’ Airline in the World (whatever that means). A step onto the plane allowed me to meet my first ever North Korean person, the Stewardess. The easiest way to tell is because every North Korean from the age of about 14 wears a badge of the Leader/Leaders on the left of their clothing (close to the heart).

111An example of the badges (Taken from Google)

The plane was a Russian type plane, but it looked fairly new, so I was quite confident it would get there – even though I don’t usually have a fear of flying. Throughout the flight the TV screens were showing a famous North Korean Women Orchestra band – the Moranbong Band. Though I’ll put it like this, I am glad the flight was only just over a hour! The propaganda music and brainwashing seemed to have started already and we hadn’t even landed.

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My plane ticket

About halfway through the flight though I experienced the worse turbulence in my history of flying, the plane was rocking from side to side and up and down and the wings were looking like they were going to break as we flew through a thunderstorm. Thankfully it all calmed down after 5 minutes, but speaking to people afterwards they also thought it was going to crash. I was just glad I was leaving North Korea by train! Phew.

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Plane food – it was edible at least

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The plane TVs showing the Moranbong Band

Now for what seemed the longest customs experience yet, I had to fill in 4 different forms to enter the country. On one you had to state any electrical items you had in your possession, so this included any mobile phones, iPods, cameras and tablets. North Korean customs are always very interested in any books you may have, not because they want to improve their English, but in case any books you may have are detrimental towards their country. We were told in the pre meeting to delete any copies of ‘Team America’ & ‘The Intrerview’ from our hard drives. The Customs guard was looking at my YouTube app, but as there is no such thing as WiFi or the Internet in North Korea so it is very unlikely that anything would’ve worked!IMAG1483

The plush new airport in Pyongyang – bustling with people………

After everyone got through customs with no problems there was a chance to look around the newly opened airport (which only seemed to have Western tourists there and no locals). A lady called Vicky from Scotland, who works for Koryo Tours, would be our non North Korean guide for the next 5 days and had been to North Korea 14 times previously. Vicky would be in charge of 18 tourists from all different parts of the World, the Group known as ‘Group B’. My new DPRK Family.

We were also introduced to our North Korean guides – Mrs Che, Miss Yu and Mr Paek, the coach was very comfortable, had good air conditioning and a driver who hadn’t had an accident in 30 years – which was reassuring. It was just a shame about the awful rain, which I was hoping wouldn’t ruin my trip. Another person who would be joining us for the next 5 days would be a cameraman (unable to remember his name) where it was possible to buy a DVD after the tour had finished. I have never had anyone film me on my holiday before.

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The Yanggakdo Hotel

It was still an interesting drive to our hotel, straight away there were the propaganda murals and the portraits of the ‘Great Leaders’, which would start to become a common theme throughout the trip, as well as a lot of cars, which surprised me, but so many more people were walking and cycling. The hotel is only one of a few in Pyongyang, it was called the Yanggakdo Hotel which is on an Island in Pyongyang (sometimes referred to as Alcatraz). We arrived at the hotel late evening and my new roommate for the next few nights would buy a guy called Janos, a German living in San Francisco. There were two groups of people on the Victory Day trip and meeting for dinner in the downstairs restaurant gave everyone a chance to meet each other properly for the first time. One guy, David, in our group was celebrating his 70th birthday – What a place to celebrate it!

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The view from my hotel room

Without being able to access the Internet for the next few days, I would also not be able to wander around the city alone, which is something I like to do when I visit a new place, so this would be fairly new territory for me. The only place you were allowed to be unattended was in the hotel itself, where there were facilities such as Bowling, a Swimming Pool, a Casino and a few shops and bars. I just wanted to sleep after a tiring day of travelling and a busy day to come the next day.

The first full day in the DPRK

I had only been in North Korea one night and already the constant propaganda music and sights of the Leaders had led me to dream about meeting Kim Jong Un, it had worked already!

Sunday (26th July) would be my first proper day in North Korea and I was intrigued to see what the day would have in store. Firstly I rang home to find out who Wales’s opponents were in the World Cup Qualifiers (and obviously to let my parents know I had arrived safely).

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Me at Kim Il Sung Square

The first stop in Pyongyang was  – with pictures of the Leaders on top of the building, named after their country’s founding leader (of course), it is usually the scene for the Military parades and dances using seen on the news in the West. There were people practising here for Victory Day the following day. There was also a hustle and bustle around Pyongyang, althought it did have a ‘Truman Show’ type feel about it and I was Jim Carrey, but I’m sure this wasn’t the case. Just after everything you read and see in the news to be among North Korean locals at first was a bit surreal. In all honesty it looked like any other city in the World, just without the animals.

We went into a Foreign Language Bookshop which sells propaganda stamps and posters (another common theme on the trip). One of the guides, Mr Paek, pointed to the ‘Barclays Premier League’ badge on one of the number of Swansea shirts I had taken with me and he had heard of Manchester United, but didn’t seem to believe me when I said we beat them twice last season!

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Propganda postcasrds – They really don’t like the U.S.

As I’ve mentioned before the ‘Great Leaders’ are on nearly every street corner and there is no avoiding them even if you wanted to. There is an Eternal President who is Kim Il Sung, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Un – all very confusing sometimes. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and on Mansu Hill there is a monument called the Mansudae Grand Monument with two bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. North Koreans from far and wide purposely visit it to pay their respects.

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The Great Leaders (in full view)

They walk in lines of four and bowing simultaneously, there were incredibly choreographed. All of us in ‘Group B’ had to do the same but obviously less choreographed, I can’t personally say I agreed but like when I go into any sort of church, I am always respectful. The North Koreans take offence if a photograph is taken with any part of the Leaders ‘cut off’ so we had to make sure they were both in a full frame.

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The Great Leaders and Great from Swansea

We had a walk in a local park and visited the apparent birthplace and childhood home of Kim Il Sung. called Mangyongdae Native House. After a trip to the local supermarket, where you could actually buy food items with local Korean Won (Euros, Chinese RMB & US Dollars are the only currencies tourists are allowed to use) there was an option to go bowling at the local Bowling Alley.

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A walk across the bridge

We were all given an option to walk, which I jumped at the chance to do, our guides seemed to trust us enough already which was great. There were about 6 of us who walked with our North Korean guide Miss Yu under an underpass and across the Okryu Bridge. It was very busy as most North Koreans don’t have cars, so most walk everywhere. They must be one of the fittest people in the World, we didn’t get too many funny looks and some kids waved at us from the opposite side, they were probably just as intrigued as us.

What Pyongyang also has are female traffic wardens and they fascinated me, they were so choreographed with their arm and head movements. There is a video on YouTube from a year ago which is worth a watch: here

The colour of their uniform changes with the seasons and currently the wear white (and a not so flashy rain jacket in the wet weather). Sometimes they would salute as a car drove past, which I guess meant that there was an important person inside. But I really could’ve watched their routine for hours.

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The Pyongyang traffic warden in her white coloured attire on a busy day

A few of us went bowling in an Alley with no air conditioning, I also forgot to check what size ‘9’ in Korean translates to. I wasn’t very good, but I was amused at the old style computer system they had there – like something from the late 1980s.

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After the bowling we all took a visit to the Juche Tower – ‘Juche’  is the ideology created by Kim Il Sung (who else!?) and if I am honest I don’t understand it really. But it basically the religious, political, social and economic ideology of North Korea – sometimes called ‘Kimilsungism’

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The Juche Tower

The Juche year in the DPRK is currently ‘104’ (started from Kim Il Sung’s birth in 1912 – there is no ‘0’ in the Juche year).

The views from the top of the Juche Tower were quite impressive, we were lucky with the weather, so there were some great views of Pyongyang to see. Vicky then decided it would be a great idea for anyone who was last to return to the coach, as a punishment, would have to sing or tell a joke on the mic. From this moment on I was determined not to be the last person on the coach!

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Views from the top of the Juche Tower on a glorious day

To finish off the long day, we went to a Kaeson Theme Park, built in 1984, as we had paid more than the locals to get enter the Park we were able to bypass the queues – not something I was particularly keen on. I didn’t go on any of the rides as I will admit to not being that confident of the safety checks – if thay do any. It was great to see the reactions of the North Korean children who were intrigued by a group of foreigners. Some had probably never seen foreigners before, especially if they come from cities outside of the capital. Some of the children waved back to us, some looked scared and ran away (I have that affect on people) and some seemed shy. Steven and Josh from our Group were showing the kids how to ‘High Five’ each other.

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The DPRK Military practising for their October 10th parade

After a 12 hour day of activites it was back to the Yanggakdo Hotel for some much needed rest before ‘Victory Day’ was upon us.

‘Victory’ Day

Victory Day (Monday 27th July) was here and originally we were all going to head to Kaesong (a city near the South Korea border) for the night. But as what invariably happens on these North Korea trips, there was a change to the itinerary, the North Korean guides had seen that there would be a firework display at 11pm and we were going to watch that instead and head to Keasong the following morning. I didn’t mind either way, but some on the tour were disappointed we couldn’t stay in the hotel in Kaesong.

First up in the morning was a visit to the Three Revolutions Exhibitions, a museum that showcases the three revolutions on Kim Il Sung (that man again!). The ideology, the technical and cultural at the three revolutions. Throughout the part of the Museum that we went to showed, in detail, the advances the DPRK has made in industry, technolgy and agriculture – The musuem also had a full size statue of the Eternal President on display.

Up next was a ride on a local tram, we would only be sharing this tram with other tourists – unlike the Underground Metro, which I’ll mention later on. All the trams have white stars on the side, the reason is that for every 50 kilometres the tram travels without a crash. One star can be added onto the side. It is supposed to make people have confidence in the driver and the safety of the tram. Though if a tram does crash, the stars get painted over and the process starts again!

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A North Korean tram emblazoned with the stars

The tram ride was like any other in any other city, the locals looked disappointed as a tram approached without stopping though.

As it was Victory Day, it seemed an appropriate time to visit the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’ (yes really). Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos inside the grounds. Why, I am not so sure, but it was a very impressive museum and it took just 10 months to build.

The English speaking female guide we had was very authoritative at first and came across as quite intimidating, but as with most of the guides that showed us around these things, it was as if a switch was flipped somewhere as she was laughing and joking later on.  We got shown tanks, planes and weapons that the North Koreans had captured from the U.S, British and Germans. She also seemed to take great pleasure in showing off that they captured the U.S. ship – USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo was captured in 1968 with 83 crew members and eleven months later they were all released after receiving an apology letter from the U.S. Army Lieutenant, also saying they wouldn’t spy on the DPRK in the future.

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Outside the gates to the Museum, with what felt like the whole of the DPRK Army!

When I went to Seoul two weeks previously, I went to their Korean War Museum, it was very good (and I don’t like Museums usually). In that Museum it was said that Kim Il Sung liased with Josef Stalin and invaded South Korea on 25th June 1950 and without the Chinese help and the Russians providing them with the weaponry, North Korea would probably not be like it is today. So I was interested to see how the North Korean side would tell the story.

I was not surprised, after bowing (again), in front of the massive Kim Il Sung gold statue (noticing a theme here?) we all watched a video called ‘Who provoked the Korean War?’. To cut it short, it was said that it was the U.S. Imperialists who provoked the War for various reasons. The Wall Street Crash was one reason given, yet I’m sure this happened in 1928 – 20 years previously.

The U.S.A were constantly referred to as the ‘U.S. Imperialists’ and blamed mainly them for the War, as they killed so many innocent North Koreans. No mention was given to how many innocent people North Korea killed and only when Saken, from our group, asked our guide when did the Chinese help, our guide then provided us with the information. I am not sure which side is totally true, but with these things usually it is somewhere in the middle. But I found it interesting to see the stories from both museums from both sides.

After this we took a visit to the ‘Arch of Triumph’. It was built in 1982 and the monument was built to glorify and honour Kim Il Sung’s role in the military resistance against Japan for Korean Independence. Near to this was the Kim Il-Sung Stadium, where a lot of events are held, including football. Unfortunately there were no football games on when I was there, I will have to plan better next time!

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Mass Dacning at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium

If you’ve never seen anything on North Korea before, they do love to put on a show. The Mass Games – which now mysteriously doesn’t happen anymore – was a sight to behold. Instead we went outside the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium where we all watched some ‘Mass Dancing’. Personally, I have to say it was spectacular, all the men were smartly dressed in white shirts and a red tie (as well as the badge depicting the Leaders) and the Women were in traditional colourful dresses. Apart from the propaganda music it was a very good spectacle, with what must have been close to a thousand people taking part. There were no North Koreans watching where we were, just tourists, but apparently there were other similar Mass Dances going on all over the city.

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Tourists were also given the chance to dance with the North Korean dancers, I was born with two left feet so decided just to watch. Our three North Korean guides, plus Vicky from Koryo Tours, took up the opportunity and joined in the dancing circles. If I wanted to, it was possible to wander off and no-one would’ve known where I had gone, again it just showed that the guides trusted everyone and I was glad this trip it wasn’t as restrictive as I had originally thought it would be. I did feel sorry for the North Korean Mass Dancers, who had probably been practising all year for this day, only to dance with a tourist who didn’t have a clue on the routine! (Spot the odd ones out in the photos)

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Some of us in Group B went back to the Hotel for a few hours before setting off to watch the fireworks, this was another chance to mingle with the locals. About 10 of us were in the capable hands of Mr Paek who took us to a bridge overlooking the river, the ideal spot to watch the ‘Victory Day’ fireworks. As the fireworks started, more vehicles on the bridge stopped to look, this was the first time I actually saw the North Korean Police Force. I wasn’t sure if such a thing existed. The fireworks were impressive in parts, but no different to anywhere else in the World, I guess.

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A view over Pyongyang and the Victory Day fireworks

Back to the hotel we all went after guiding our guide back to our coach, as he was taking us the wrong way! It is common in North Korea for power outages to occur at random time, this time it happened when a few of us were in the lift. This is the first time it has ever happened to me, usually I prefer to walk but I didn’t fancy walking up 34 flights of stairs!

So an early start beckoned for ‘Group B’ as we headed to Kaesong, it is a military road most of the way, so it was quite eerie not to see many cars for the 2 hour journey. Looking out of the window (The guides had no issues with us taking photos either) this is what I expected North Korea to look like, not the showcase capital of Pyongyang. I didn’t see anything that looked like real poverty, just typical farming communities. The roads were very bumpy and there were people employed to maintain the roads, but by hand. On either side there seemed to be a lot of crop growing and I saw my first sight of animals in the DPRK, a few dogs and some sheep and cows.

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Outside of Pyongyang life looks a little different

Kaesong is mostly famous for having the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone. The DMZ is a strip of land across part of country set up after the Korean War, separating South Korea and North Korea. It is the most heavily militarized border in the World.

We first visited another Stamp shop (got to love lots of propaganda stamps) before and then we picked up a guard who was on our bus, again he looked a very serious figure but the switched was flicked somewhere and he smiled! We tried to get him to sing, as he was the last on the bus, but he refused as he was on duty! We were shown the buildings where the armistice was signed by the U.S. and Koreans, they say it is the first and only time that the Americans have ‘lost’ a War.

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The DMZ – South Korea is behind the blue buildings and where mobile phone signals exists

Considering then DMZ is supposed to be one of the most dangerous borders in the World, it didn’t seem very intense at all. Most people were laughing, chatting etc. Some even taunted Americans who were on the Southern side of the border. It is apparently more tense if you do the DMZ tour from the South Korea side. Most of the guards seemed happy with the gifts of cigarettes given to them by tourists. I was happy I managed to have a phone signal for the first time (I didn’t have any messages, so no-one had missed me that much it seemed).

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Classic ‘eyes shut pose due to the sun’ photograph

Up next was a visit to the Concrete Wall and another North Korean guard accompanied us on the coach. This one though was happy to sing for us, some Korean song but in fairness he could’ve been singing anything. Then he nominated Vicky to sing and so on, so I was wondering how I was going to get out of singing at this point.

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Our singing guard

Now I had never heard of the ‘Concrete Wall’ before, the DPRK say it is the equivalent of the Berlin Wall built by the South Koreans, but the South Koreans deny its existence. In fairness, we were all given binoculars and no-one could really see this wall through them. I suppose we’ll just have to take their word for it.

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A picture on the wall showing the location of the ‘Concrete wall’

So our brief trip to Kaesong was over, we did stop off for some quick photos at the ‘Arch of Reunification’. It was opened in 2001 to commemorate Korea Unification signed proposals. Interestingly, Mrs Che, our North Korean guide told us that as these proposals went well they see Korea as one. As you maybe able to see on the picture below, Korea on the map encompasses both North and South Korea (North Korea always wirte South Korea with a small ‘s’).

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Another possibly unknown fact is that at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, North and South Korea came out in the opening ceramony as ‘One’ Nation, holding the Unification Flag. Since then though, there have been changes in Presidents in the South and talks have never really got going again.

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(From Google). Korea unite as one at the Sydney 2000 Olympics

It was back to Pyongyang for food at restaurant ‘Number 1’ (we had eaten at restaurant Number 2 the previous day – this was not good for my OCD). The food up until now had been a mixture, but it seemed common for the waitresses to bring out the food on plates and dishes and then 10 minutes later more food would turn up when you’re already full! Plus I still couldn’t get used to using chopsticks.

After food it was a drive to a new Industrial city of Pyongsong and I had to give a rendition of ‘Take me to the Vetch Field’ on the microphone (thankfully there is no video footage of this, though I may have a chance of me winning North Korean X Factor). Vicky then wanted us all to sing a song together and we ended up changing the words of the well known song ‘YMCA’ to ‘DPRK’. (The making of an ‘R’ is quite difficult, I can tell you).

From Pyongyang to Pyongsong and back

The hotel in Pyongsong was called the Jangsusan Hotel and unsurprisingly had a full length painting of the Leaders in reception (though the hotel in Pyongyang surprisingly didn’t), but they did sell Coca Cola at the bar (this particular can was imported from Denmark). Throughout my trip so far, we had kept being told that the DPRK was a self sufficient country, yet 99% of the food and drink was imported from other countries – usually China or Japan.

Wednesday 29th July would be my last full day in North Korea and a visit to Pyongsong was on the itinerary. It is an Industrial city, so not really many good photo opportunities but if I hadn’t had enough photos of the Great Leaders I was presented with another opportunity. With the Kim Jong Il statue newly built especially for ‘Victory Day’ two days previously. (A quick Google check confirms that there was one statue there before).

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Look more statues!

We went to a factory that made ‘Ripcurl’ skiing jackets, yet on the label it said ‘Made in China’ apparently putting ‘Made in DPRK’ is not allowed as they have a Trade embargo on them. After that we headed to a local school called Kim Jong Suk Higher Middle School – Named after Kim Il Sung’s first wife.

The children had coincidentally broken up for the holidays just a day earlier, but there were students in the school who were there for ‘extra studies’. The children seemed to be of a higher class and spoke very good English, a few asked questions to some eager volunteers from ‘Group B’. Paul from Liverpool was up first and as he is about 6 ft 3, questions about him playing Basketball were asked along with ‘Who is your best friend?’.

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‘Tall’ Paul talking to North Korean schoolchildren

When the subject of sport came up, one North Korean girl said something along the lines of ‘Our Great Leader says that playing sport is very important in this country’. I wasn’t sure whether she said this for our benefit or whether she really did believe it, I suppose we’ll never know. But after seeing so many images and references of the ‘Great Leader’. I could see how people can think this way.

Paul presented one schoolkid with a Liverpool shirt. Jonas from London was up next and he supported Crystal Palace, but no child in the room had heard of them. He was asked to sing a song, I would have liked to have told these children about how Swansea City are the Greatest team the World has ever seen, but I don’t like speaking in front of a crowd.

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Just your usual propganda poster at the school

After the visit to the school it was off to lunch at our hotel in Pyongsong and the short drive back to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was go on the Underground Metro system as I had heard good things about it. This time we were allowed to be on the Metro carriages with the locals, but apparently initially this part of the tour was originally only for tourists until the rules get more and more relaxed over time.

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Not your usual looking Metro station

The Metro system in Pyongyang is the deepest in the World, mainly as this is the safest place to be if there ever were to be a Nuclear attack.

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Who needs a phone metro app when you can have a light up one instead?

I have not been to Moscow before, but apparently chandeliers and the paintings are what appears at their Subway stations. Believe it or not there was a Statue of Kim Jong Il (Pyongyang is running Skopje in Macedonia close to the number of statues it has). Impressive paintings were on the walls of most of the Metro stations. What I thought was nice was that when we all got onto the Metro, some North Korean children (after being asked by their Mother) all got up for us to sit down. How sweet.

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There was a visit to an art gallery and where they make all the Leader statues before heading off to the library where there were some good views of the city from the balcony. Lastly was a stop at a micro brewery where we watched a preview of our DVD on the big screen. It is basically just a film of everyone from Group B taking photos, but with added propaganda music (of course!). If anyone wants to come to the Premiere let me know, it’s more of a comedy than a Tour Holiday video! But a good memory in years to come I’m sure. Then it was off to another pre arranged restaurant for more food and I managed to avoid the dancing again.

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There he is again!

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The journey out  of the DPRK

Thursday 30th July, this was to be the end of my North Korea trip and the part where all of us in the group would head off in different directions. Some were flying back to Beijing, some were on the 22 hour train ride back to Beijing (yes really!) and myself and a few others were stopping off in Dandong – a town on the DPRK border.

This was the only time our North Korean guides seemed flustered as they got everyone on the train, I didn’t take a photo but I, along with Paul, Bente, Linda, Jonas and a random Chinese man would all be in a 6 bed room on the train. I definitely wasn’t travelling first class. It is the first time I have ever been on a train with beds in.

The journey took about 4 hours from Pyongyang to Dandong, but the customs check took 3 hours alone. As there are no X-Ray machines and a lack of guards, all the checks had to be done by hand. Our passports were handed in and taken away and we all just had to wait. Only my suitcase was checked, sometime they check what photos you have taken on your camera.

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Arriving into Dandong on the train

When we arrived in Dandong, our passports were taken away again and then swiftly given back and my North Korean adventure was over. I will mention Dandong briefly as my fingers are now getting tired. This must be the longest blog I have ever written. It was fascinating to see how close the two places were to each other, but the differences were very noticeable. In DPRK all the women were immaculately dressed all the time, the Koreans are very image conscience. In China not so much.

On the Chinese side of the river there are high rise buildings and on the North Korea side there a run down houses and not much to see at all. You’d think it would be easy to swim across and in reality it is, but it’s not really worthwhile for North Koreans to do this. Without any papers connecting them to China, they would immediately be sent back to the DPRK. So it’s not worth the risk. I just wander what they think when they look over and see Dandong from the other side of the river.

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China on the right, DPRK on the left

There is a fair bit of trade that goes on between China and the DPRK with a new bridge for lorries built, but not in use yet. I would’ve liked to have gone to the Dandong War Museum, but it was closed for renovation, there were two bridges that the U.S. bombed during the Korean War that tourists can visit now, it was in 1953 that the Chinese helped DPRK during the War.

Final thoughts

So all in all I am really glad I went to North Korea and it didn’t rain, thankfully, I’d like to thank Koryo Tours and Vicky especially for making the trip so fun and interesting. Even though the original itinerary didn’t always go to plan but these things happen and you just have to accept it. It was definitely less restrictive than I thought it was going to be which was great and I loved the interaction with the locals, on the whole all the North Koreans I met were very friendly.

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Loved these murals at every turn

A few of the activities and shops we visited just seemed to be done to ‘kill time’, but again that’s just the way it goes sometimes and these things are out of people’s control. It was good to mix with like-minded people.

Regarding the food, the choices for food in the DPRK are, as you’d expect, quite limited. Our guides would purposely pick restaurants for us to eat in, and unless you were a vegetarian, you had to eat what you were given. The food was never the best, but I didn’t go on the ‘Food tour of Pyongyang’ trip, so just had to make do (it’s a good way to lose weight though, I lost a stone in total). A free beer was given to everyone every time we ate. No matter what time of the day it was!

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Don’t ask me what all this was!

I would like to thank all of Group B who were like a new family for 5 days, I love meeting different people from all different parts of the World. It would be interesting to see what North Korea is like in 10 years time, whether they will open up more to the rest of the World, but there didn’t seem much discontent there among  the residents. I will probably go back one and would encourage anyone who has a slight interest in the place to visit. Apart from the lack of contact with the outside World it really is a fascinating and unique experience.

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Group B at the Mansudae Grand Monument

From top left to right:

David, Janos, Steven, (me), Jonas, Josh, Stefano, Brecht, Herman

Miss Yu, Sacha, Andre, Paul, Vicky, Jenny, Mrs Che, Saken, Phillipe, Bente, Megan, Mr Paek, and Linda

World Cup draw thoughts

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As some of you may or may not know the World Cup 2018 Qualifying draw is on the 25th July, I will be in North Korea when it is on so I will find out who we get when I get back into China a week later. As I doubt it will be streamed anywhere on North Korean television. Though the way these draws work, the ceremony may not be finished until I am back in the UK.

Unbelievable Wales, for the first time ever, are in Pot 1. Yes that’s right. POT ONE! For the last World Cup draw we were in Pot 6, below the Faroe Islands. Great credit has to go to the late Gary Speed and currently Chris Coleman and the current Wales team for our meteoric rise. Personally though, I still think the rankings system is a load of rubbish (I said this when we were 114th in the World Rankings). Teams are punished by playing friendlies but I won’t complain too much, as it will hopefully help us in future tournaments. But Wales are not the 10th best team in the World.

Anyway, the Pots for the draw next month are as follows:

Pot 1: Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Romania, England, WALES, Portugal, Spain, Croatia

Pot 2: Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Denmark, Bosnia-Herzegovnia

Pot 3: Poland, Ukraine, Scotland, Hungary, Sweden, Albania, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Greece

Pot 4: Turkey, Slovenia, Israel, Republic of Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria, Faroe Islands, Montenegro, Estonia

Pot 5: Cyprus, Latvia, Armenia, Finland, Belarus, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Moldova

Pot 6: * Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Georgia, San Marino, Andorra

*Gibraltar are not FIFA affiliated, so are not allowed to enter the World Cup Qualifiers

Now usually, as you all know, Wales never qualify for anything and I only look forward to visiting the different countries across Europe. Macedonia has to be my favourite place so far, closely followed by Andorra. I’ve said before, when else would I get to travel to these type of places if it wasn’t for football?

But as Wales now look like qualifying for the Euros in France I am obviously hoping we continue this trend and make it to Russia too, so I will look at two preferred draws. One of places I’d like to visit and the other of what teams would be ‘easier’ to beat. Here goes:

The ‘Places I’d like to visit’ Group

  1. WALES
  2. Iceland
  3. Albania
  4. Faroe Islands
  5. Latvia
  6. Kazakhstan

For years and years I have gone on about the Faroe Islands, I’d love to visit there as I like going to obscure places. I think I may just have to go there on one of my random trips, as it never looks like it’s going to happen and the Euro 2020 qualifying system looks quite confusing.

Wales’s ‘Easiest’ Group *

*I realise that no game is easy

  1. WALES
  2. Denmark/Austria
  3. Greece
  4. Faroe Islands
  5. Moldvoa
  6. San Marino

I’ve seen other media outlets suggest Iceland in with Wales’s preferred group, but they are a very good team and look like qualifying themselves for the Euros next year. Denmark aren’t as good as they used to be and San Marino have never won a competitive game.

Hopefully Wales can avoid Italy and France (and England get one of them instead) from Pot 2. But you just know with Wales’s luck in this type of thing, that will probably happen (plus getting both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan). I know some would argue that Wales shouldn’t fear anyone and I agree to an extent, but I’d still rather avoid playing them.

I look forward to hearing about who we get in the draw a week after everybody else and see you all in France!

Gibraltar v Germany (In Portugal)

I haven’t written one of these in a while, but now I am a bit quieter (and bored) with no football on, I have a bit more time (oh no I hear you shout). I was going to write a blog about the Champions League Final in Berlin, but I feel the moment has sort of gone now. Whilst being up late one night last month I randomly looked at the Euro 2016 fixtures on the Saturday & Sunday after Wales were to play Belgium, to see if I could catch a game. The only fixture that looked feasible was Gibraltar versus Germany.

I went on the Gibraltar website and was surprised to see that it was pretty easy to get tickets for the game and and at a reasonable price too, it was going to happen!

Gibraltar only became a UEFA Nation in 2013 and I wrote a blog about them back then (Gibraltar become a UEFA Nation) and in this Qualification campaign before the Germany game had lost all of their games (7-0, 7-0, 3-0, 4-0 & 6-1) scoring one solitary goal – against Scotland in March. A tough test you feel against the World Champions! Though Germany had ‘only’ won 4-0 at home in November 2014. They have been an association since

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Where Gibraltar play their non competitive matches

Without too much convincing, I managed to persuade my Twitter friend Emily (who supports Portsmouth) to come along, probably the excitement of seeing ex Portsmouth player Liam Walker play again.

I obviously wasn’t going to miss the Wales game, so I booked the flight from Bristol Airport at 7am the following day. I was hoping I would be smiling all weekend and I wasn’t disappointed as Wales put in a fantastic performance to beat Belgium – ranked 2nd in the FIFA Rankings – 1-0. What a defensive performance and what an atmosphere at the Cardiff City Stadium. I haven’t been able to get ‘Zombie Nation’ (the new adopted song among Welsh fans) out of my head all weekend. I am still trying not to get carried away with all this France talk. YET!

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No it wasn’t a dream!

A long night awaited us and a little reminiscent of St Gallen away with the Swans, when I slept at the Airport. The things I do for football eh!? And I don’t even support either team.

As Gibraltar’s ground isn’t up to UEFA standards yet, the National team currently play at the Estadio Algarve – close to Faro. I’m guessing Spain didn’t want to accommodate them…….. Bristol to Faro via EasyJet was around two and a half hours, so bleary eyed we arrived in Faro. The town was like a ghost town, I am guessing most people who visit the Algarve go to the beach at one of the resorts and lie in the sun all day. But this type of thing isn’t for me (as you can see from my non-tanned photos).

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A non tanned self on a deserted island in Faro

A German invasion had descended on Faro, unsurprisingly, nobody recognised me from watching 3 German matches at last year’s World Cup though (Haven’t I mentioned I went?). I was wearing the new Swansea kit – the one that looks the same as last season, but painted gold. I did get a few funny looks and a quite few comments of ‘Swansea City’, Emily got one ‘Portsmouth’ and maybe a laugh…..

The Estadio Algarve is in the middle of nowhere and hosted 3 Euro 2014 Matches, Portugal have played 8 matches there and Cardiff City won the Algarve Challenge Cup there a few years back, as their fans like to remind me (beats mentioning 1927 I guess).

Those of you who know me well know I like to be organised with all my trips I go on and I realised that there wasn’t any public transport to and from the ground, so I checked with people who had been there previously and was told a taxi would be the best way there and back. The taxi driver that took us to the ground but didn’t want to pick us up after for some reason. He said there would be ‘loads here after the game’. I remained unconvinced, but more on that later.

The capacity of the Estadio Algarve is 30,000 – the capacity of the whole of Gibraltar. It is an interesting design, with two stands behind each goal uncovered and the other two stands with an interesting shaped roof, probably one of my favourite designed stadia I have been to, after Arena Amazonia in Manuas.

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Estadio Algarve, Portugal

It was a lovely evening in Faro and after going through rigorous security, we were in to soak up the pre-match atmosphere. It was a slightly ‘weakened’ German team, if there is such a thing. Manuel Neuer didn’t travel, which gave Dortmund’s Roman Weidenfeller, winning his 5th cap, a chance to play.

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The obligatory ‘In the ground a hour early’ photo

Bastian Schweinsteiger, André Schürrle, Mesut Özil and World Cup Final goalscorer Mario Götze all started, with Lucas Podolski and Sami Khedira on the bench. There was no place for Bala Town’s David Artell in the Gibraltar team, but ex Portsmouth player Liam Walker did start (described as a midfield maestro in the programme, but this is not true apparently), with a team consisting of a policeman, a lawyer and a fireman in goal. It had a FA Cup tie feel about it, but in International Football you rarely ever get a big upset. Despite the tired cliché that is always used about there being ‘No easy games in International Football’.

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A Faro way from Gibraltar (sorry)

The game started as you would expect, with Germany having all the ball but a lot of stray passes going out of play. Liam Walker did almost score a screamer, which would be made the place go wild. Though on 9 minutes Jonas Hector was brought down for a penalty, but Jordan Perez in goal for Gibraltar made a fantastic save down to his left from captain Bastian Schweinsteiger – this was to become a common theme.

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Germans missing penalties – another tired cliché

Gibraltar managed to hold out for 28 minutes until André Schürrle scored after a mistake in the Gibraltar defence, in fairness you would expect the Gibraltan’s heads to go down, but two minutes later Weidenfeller made a great point blank save to deny Bristol Rovers’ Jake Gosling – What a story that would have been! More fantastic saves followed from Perez and it was just 1-0 at half time to the Germans. The Gibraltar fans (or GFA as they liked to sing) were in very good voice and seemed more hopeful than anything.

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Gibraltar v Germany – I love the massive shirt in the background

There was a slight delay to the start of the second half as there was a hole in the net, it was the goal Gibraltar would be attacking, so I couldn’t really see it being much of a problem. Delay over it was as you would expect in the 2nd half with Max Kruse of Monchengladbach scoring a few minutes after the kick off, they were 4-0 up after 57 minutes after Gündogan and Bellarabi scored. Gibraltar did force a few more saves from Weidenfeller but as their defence tired, Kruse added another and Schürrle completed his hatrick (as a side note I have seen Schurrle score 6 times in the 5 times I have seen him play live and I’m not really a fan of him). It is the easiest hatrick he will ever score mind.

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Gibraltar’s defence not as solid as a rock (sorry again)

In the end it was a routine and expected win for the World Champions Germany, Gibraltar did play very well in the first half and deserved at least a goal but it wasn’t to be. Their keeper was Man of the Match for me, even though he conceded 7 goals. I liked their fans, they travelled in good numbers considering the distance they had to travel for their ‘home’ game. It would be good to see what sort of attendance they would get in Gibraltar when their ground is up to standard. They aren’t allowed to compete in the World Cup as they are not FIFA affiliated, so the Euro 2020 tournament will be their next chance at qualifying for something.

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The Liam Walker fanclub (I don’t think he noticed though)

As I said I wasn’t convinced by the taxi driver’s optimism that there would be taxis available after the game and I was right. We go outside and there is chaos, no taxis, confusion showing on most people’s faces. The stereotype is that Germans are efficient, but not the ones in Faro! I was more annoyed as I sort of knew this would happen, but I was out of ideas on what to do.

A quick Google Map search showed that it was a ‘mere’ 2 and a half hour walk back to the hotel from the ground, I rung a few taxi companies but they didn’t seem interested and in fairness I didn’t really know where I was. There were no other hotels or restaurants nearby to go to, so we were stranded with hundreds of other Germans. How fans have coped in the other matches played there I do not know. As chance would have it, around a hour and a half after the game, a taxi turned up and whoever it was due to pick up wasn’t there and we asked if he would take us to Faro and he did. Phew! Panic over.

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Faro Marina

Hopefully this situation will be sorted before the Irish and the Scots go over there in September and October this year. You’re probably best off renting a car.

At least we did get back to the hotel in the end and safely, sadly a coach carrying Gibraltar fans crashed on the way back, killing 1 and injuring others. That is never nice to hear.

Sunday was really a day of rest and exploring some of the islands around Faro, after the taxi escapade the previous night I didn’t want to risk going too far outside Faro! So went on an island tour. The driver of the speedboat we went on knew that Wales had beaten Belgium, but seemed a bit confused as to why we chose to go to the Gibraltar game and even more surprised that we actually went to the Wales game on the Friday as well. But like when I tell people I am 28, I get confused, strange looks a lot.

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Ria Formosa, Faro

So after 70 football matches attended this season, I can now relax for 3 weeks until my next game, which will be the mighty Incheon versus Seongnam in the South Korean League on July 12th. You’re all insanely jealous, I can tell.

Ukraine, Chernobyl and some football

Ukraine, Chernobyl and some football

When I said I was going to Ukraine, most people questioned my sanity. When I then said I was going to visit Chernobyl too, some were contemplating calling the men/women in white coats to lock me up (Some would want this to happen anyway!). As I’ve said in previous blogs, a lot of people have preconceived ideas about certain places, mostly due to the media and more often than not, it is not the case.

People were put off going to Naples for the Napoli away game, people said I’d be stabbed. They couldn’t have been more wrong, people were put off going to Brazil because of more scaremongering. No doubt the same people will tell me the same things when I visit Israel next month and North Korea in July.

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View over Kiev

Kiev was like any other major city, there was a high police presence, but that’s only expected with all the trouble that is going on on the Eastern side of Ukraine. This time last year there were violent riots in Kiev, so obviously the authorities do not want a repeat of this.

I arrived around 7pm on the Monday into Kiev after being slightly delayed, so there wasn’t much time to do anything, by the time I checked into my hotel. At least I remembered to get money out of the bank machine, as it is impossible to get Ukrainian currency (The Hryvnia) in the U.K. I just had a wander into the main square and had a McDonald’s that cost about 75p.

As I arrived late at night, Tuesday was my first chance to see what Kiev had to offer. First of all though I went to Dynamo Kiev’s stadium to buy a ticket for their Europa League match against Guingamp from France. The walk was about 40 minutes from my hotel and more or less in a straight line. As it is a little difficult to cross the road, there are a lot of underground walkways to get to the other/opposite side and in fact there are better food places under there than on the main streets.

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Me on Independence Square

I managed to find the ticket booth and chose the price range I wanted, maths has never been my strong point and I can never work out how much things cost in pounds. I paid 200 Hryvnia (Which I checked afterwards, worked out to just under £5). I was discover that things being cheap was going to become a common theme here.

I saw on the Internet that there was a free walking tour of the city, I have been on a few of these in the various cities I have visited in the past and find them a good way of getting your bearings. My guides name was Konstantin, who spoke very good English, only one other person joined us on the tour. Tourism has definitely taken a hit since the fighting started I’m guessing, probably why my hotel was so cheap.

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One of the many churches in Kiev

The tour took about 3 hours and we went to the old part of town, where all the very neatly designed churches and cathedrals are. It was interesting to see all the old style buildings (though some parts were renovated more recently). I’d love to give you a history lesson, but I do have a short attention span in most things in life (unless a football or useless fact is inovled), so I tend to forget what is being said (sorry!).

I was going to find somewhere to watch Man City play Barcelona and see Wilfried Bony make his Champions League debut, but as I had to be up quite early the following day and the fact Ukraine is 2 hours ahead of the U.K. I didn’t! But I was looking forward, in a strange sort of way, to visiting Chernobyl the following day.

Chernobyl

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Don’t ask me why, but I have wanted to visit Chernobyl for a while. I do like to go off the beaten track and if you have any other ideas of obscure trips, let me know (Not Syria). For those of you who don’t know about Chernobyl, on 26th April 1986 there was a nuclear disaster, in the then Soviet Union, many radioactive particles spread over Europe.

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No-one really knows how many people died due to the Chernobyl disaster, a Google search suggests that it is around 4000 – including people who have died from cancer in later years.

As I was born in August 1986, I obviously have no memory of this tragedy happening, so it was interesting to watch a video on the bus to Chernobyl of news reports from the time. For the Soviet Union to admit they were at fault, at the time, never happened. So it must have been a bit of a shock to all concerned. What I didn’t realise was that there was almost a second explosion, which would’ve been more devastating than the first.

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The dormitory in one of the nurseries in Chernobyl

The journey took around a hour and a half from Kiev to the main town on Chernobyl and the roads leading there were just long roads with lots and lots of trees, I was expecting Zombies to appear at any time as it reminded me of the locations used in ‘The Walking Dead.’ Looked literally in the middle of nowhere, getting the Ukrainian equivalent of the AA to come and rescue you must be very difficult.

We were met by the exclusion zone to Chernboyl, by our guide for the day, Misha, who works in Chernobyl all year round. When I told people I was visiting Chernobyl, I would get told that I’m going to grow extra features (could be an improvement I agree) or be killed by radiation, I know most were just joking but it’s another misconception thought by people. You receive more radiation on a Transatlantic flight to New York than you do visiting Chernobyl.

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A view of Pripyat from the top of another derelict building

There were people on our tour with Geiger counters and the readings were similar to what they were in Kiev. Even our guide Misha said his Ukrainian friends think the same, the only way you would get a harmful dose of radiation is if you were to jump into the reactor that still has Uranium in it. People live in Chernobyl currently and there were people working on the reactor, by most of it is a ghost town.

Anyway, we went through two checkpoints and having a Russian stamp in my passport didn’t hamper things and I arrived in the main town of Chernobyl. There wasn’t much there in all honesty, but I thought the Russians were coming when this Air Raid style siren started wailing, no-one knew what it meant, which amused me, but not to worry, we just got back on the bus.

You may have seen images of a Ferris Wheel and Dodgems when Chernobyl is mentioned and that was one of our first stops. The fairground in Pripyat was never officially opened, when the disaster struck, but the rides had been used. It was all quite eerie really to see it just left there.

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We went to visit an old school in the town on Pripyat, which obviously hadn’t been maintained for the whole of my lifetime. Misha joked that it hasn’t fallen down in 28 years, so it must be safe….. Reassuring! Again it was quite sad just to see this derelict building and a lot of the gasmasks you see on the floor were put there on purpose years ago, to try and cause dramatic effect. So a lot of the things inside buildings are staged.

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The abandoned roads that just seemed to go on and on

The last place we went was called ‘The Woodpecker’ it was a mass of antennae on a big metal structure used by the Soviet Union to detect attacks from the outside. It was kept a secret until the fall of the Soviet Union, but this couldn’t be destroyed as it is so close to the 10KM exclusion zone.

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The Woodpecker

I have recently become quite interested in the Soviet Union years and all the propaganda used, so it gave me a little insight into what things would have been like back in that era. I noticed a few typical Soviet Union/Communist posters on show in the school too. After a late lunch and a long day, it was back to Kiev. I’d recommend visiting Chernobyl to anyone, as I said earlier it is perfectly safe and is definitely something different. Definitely very eerie and cannot see anyone ever living there again, sadly.

More sightseeing

I had been recommended visiting Lavra, so I organised a trip there with my Walking Tour guide Konstantin, from Tuesday. Lavra is full of Orthodox Churches and lots of caves with corpses of hermits (yes really). With it possible to get good views of the city too.

To get there we went by the Metro and it must be one of the deepest subways in the World – though apparently the one in Pyongyang is deeper. So if another nuclear attack does occur, this must be one of the safest places to go.

I did laugh when Konstantin told me there are Ukrainians moaning at the cost of public transport in Kiev, when my ticket cost about 8p! I shouldn’t laugh, I guess it shows how little they get paid there.

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The NSC Olimpiyskiy – the venue for the Euro 2012 Final

As I said earlier I have a short attention span and don’t have much time for religion but there was a very fascinating museum I saw, called ‘Nikolai Syadristy’s Museum of Microminiature. It really is worth a look, it has the World’s smallest book in there, it measures 0.6mm and there are things engraved on a single human hair.  It is very unqiue and I was impressed. My question would be why would you want to make things so small in the first place? But I do think of things too logically sometimes.

The football

When I booked my trip I purposely planned to go to a football game as well, I saw that Dynamo Kiev would be playing in a Europa League game 2nd Leg. Dynamo Kiev have two football stadia, one called ‘Valeriy Lobanovskyi Dynamo Stadium’ with a capacity of 16,000 And the other NSC Olimpiyskiy, with a capacity of 70,000.

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It was a wet and snowy night

The venue for their game against Guingamp would be NSC Olimpiyskiy Which hosted 5 Games at the Euro 2012 Championships, including the final.  It is not the official home of Dynamo Kiev, but depending on the type of game they use this stadium. It is quite an impressive ground and very colourful with the mis-match of blue and yellow seats.

I was on the dugout side close to the corner flag, but this was the place where all the business people tended to be as through the glass, I saw a lot of people eating meals (no prawn sandwiches though). What was annoying in the first half was having streams of people getting to their seats, blocking other’s view and being a distraction right up until the 35th minute.

Aside from that though, the atmosphere was good inside the ground, mainly due to the Dynamo Kiev Ultras. I do like a good European atmosphere – it would take a lot to beat Petrolul Ploiesti fans in the build up to our (Swansea) Europa League game last season, best I’ve ever heard.

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The Dynamo Kiev Ultras

Dynamo Kiev, managed by former Tottenham striker Sergei Rebrov, were 2-1 down from the first half, but had the all important away goal (they had 9 men for a lot of that game too). They did go in front through a header from a corner from Teodorczyk (yes I Googled), but the first half was a quiet affair with a lot of stray passing from both games and neither really got going. Thankfully the swirling snow and rain had now stopped, so I think the temperature went up! (Was now 2 degrees).

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The 2nd half came to life and a very good volleyed goal from Buyalsky just after half time put the tie well in Kiev’s favour. Guingamp’s 20+ fans had something to cheer when Mandanne cored on 66 Minutes (though he looked offside to me) meaning the game would be heading to Extra Time. Ten minutes later and Kiev won a penalty and it was duly despatched by Gusev. Kiev were going through unless Guingamp could muster something they never really deserved.

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On 82 minutes Dynamo Kiev won a goal kick and for some reason it all started kicking off behind the goal (opposite to where the Ultras were), seemingly among Dynamo Kiev fans themselves. Chairs were being thrown, people were being kicked and chased. The referee halted the game while the Dynamo players claimed for calm. My Ukrainian isn’t the best so I do not know what the announcements were saying, someone told me afterwards that someone had unfurled an anti-Ukraine flag. Not sure if this is true or not, seems feasible as Dynamo Kiev were 3-1 up and going though to the next round.

(*UEFA are now investigating this incident and may be forced to play their home game with Everton at a different venue, or behind closed doors).

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When it all ‘kicked off’

In truth there was only about a 7 minute stoppage, so probably mild in comparison to other similar disturbances. Dynamo Kiev hung on in the end but went through as deserved winners.

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The crucial penalty

This concludes my blog to Kiev and Chernobyl and another country and ground to tick off my list. I always get a sense of accomplishment when I travel anywhere, especially on my own. It’s one of the only things I have am quite confident of doing in life. Anyway, too deep, moving on!

I wrote this on the plane back to Gatwick so my question for you to ponder is why does it take so long for people to get on a plane and sit down? No wonder they are always delayed! Everyone should be given a maximum of 15 seconds to take their coat off and put their bag in the overhead compartments, if not they should pay a fine or get chucked off. Anyway, rant over. But it’s one of my biggest bug bears, I’ll leave this for another day.

A trip to Guernsey

Most people spend their Valentine’s weekend in fancy restaurants, I am not most people so as the Swans were out of the FA Cup I went to Guernsey in the Channel Islands for a very random trip – with football included of course. There is a back story to why I chose Guernsey, during my trip to the World Cup in Brazil last year (Have I not mentioned it before?) I met a guy called Phill in the hostel in Brasilia. He is a Southampton fan who lives in Guernsey and it was a perfect opportunity to meet up, as I said I would visit one day – and I am a Man of my word.

These days I like to combine my travelling with a football game if I can. Guernsey FC have a team who play in the Ryman South, despite not actually being located in England. I’m sure you can think of a few other teams who are similar……

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St Peter Port, Guernsey

I caught a flight from Birmingham Airport on the Thursday after being in the city for the West Brom away game the day previous (I have told you before that my middle name is ‘organised’). After a short delay and a very bumpy landing on one of those propeller planes I had arrived. Phill was there to pick me up and I stayed with him and his parents in their lovely house right on the coast.

Exploring Guernsey

Friday was my day to explore the wonders of Guernsey, Guernsey is located inbetween France and the U.K. along with some other Islands in the Channel – Jersey, Alderney and Sark to name a few. They are a British Crown Dependency with their own Government, currency etc. A long history and wars with France and Spain in the past and they are the only British Territory to be occupied by Germany during the War. Many people think Guernsey part of Britian, but it isn’t. They are their own seperate Nation with a population of around 65,000 but part of the British Commonwealth.

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Castle Cornet

I caught a bus into the town centre, the journey only cost £1 – take note First Cymru! After the rain had subsided slightly I just went for a wander around the marina, took some photos and just went for a long walk for some more photos of breathtaking views as well as almost being blown over several times.

Guernsey on the whole I thought was an interesting place, I did notice some subtle differences to back home though. Most of the street signs are in French, but everyone speaks English. The pavements are almost non-existent and the roads are narrow, the Post Office boxes are blue and they have £1 notes instead of £1 coins. Which you are unable to spend over in the U.K. but it is possible to spend our money over in Guernsey.

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A blue Post Office Box

So Saturday approached and I thankfully noticed that the kick off time for the Guernsey game was 1pm (I’m sure I checked this before I left). Before the game Phill drove me to this very nice and Chapel, which is said to be the smallest functioning chapel in the World (according to Wikipedia) and is called ‘The Little Chapel’.  Just 16 foot by 9 foot (but has two floors). It is decorated by seashells, pebbles and broken China.

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The Little Chapel

Guernsey FC and football in the Channel Islands

Guernsey FC were only formed back in 2011 and became the first team from the Channel Islands to play Mainland Britain. (Jersey and Guernsey Rugby teams play in Britain too). They have won 2 promotions since starting out in the Combined Counties League Division One. They currently play in the Isthmian League Division One and to get there they had to play 16 games in 30 days (someone tell Sam Allardyce!). Last season they reached the Play Offs but lost to Leatherhead.

The Guernsey FA was established way back in 1893 and a few players from Guernsey have played in the top flight in England. Obviously Matt Le Tissier being the most famous (who is Guernsey’s club President). Guernsey do play football at the Island games every other year and have won it twice – beating Isle of Man and Ynys Môn (also known as Anglesey).

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More Guernsey coastline

Regarding Channel Island footballers, my favourite and maybe unknown fact is that any person born in the Channel Islands is eligible to play for any of the Home Nations that they choose (this is true, unlike when people say Januzaj could play for England when he couldn’t). The only two that have played Internationally are Graeme le Saux (from Jersey) and Matt Le Tissier.  There are three footballers born in the Channel Islands who play in the Football League at present (that I know of). Brett Pitman (AFC Bournemouth), Peter Vincenti (Rochdale) and James Hamon (Exeter). Whether they want to play for Wales is another matter though!

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Footes Lane

Guernsey play at Footes Lane, capacity of 5000, which they rent off the local Government. (The Guernsey Rugby team also play here) It has an Athletics track around the pitch and the ground has just one stand, they average crowds of around 800. Another reason why I wanted to watch Guernsey FC play, apart from trying to get up the ‘Football Hipster’ ladder is that Guernsey FC pay for all the opposition players and directors to travel over, as well as putting them up in a hotel. I am not sure how long they will be able to sustain that for. Not forgetting that they have to pay for their own players to go to the away games in England.

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Another ground to tick off (my 160th)

Guernsey don’t pay their players and are one of only two amateur teams in the Ryman South. Burgess Hill Town are currently top of the league, also in the league are South Park, Corinthian Casuals and my favourite named team – Three Bridges. Before the game I met up with Nick Legg,  Guernsey FC’s Communication Manager, who wanted to take Phill and I’s photo. Apparently it will be in the next programme (fame at last!).

Guernsey’s opponents were Horsham FC, which ironically I had seen play twice before. In the 2007/08 season Swansea were drawn away to them in the FA Cup 2nd round. We drew 1-1 away on a wet and muddy Friday night and then beat them 6-2 in the replay. (Horsham have the accolade of being our first ever FA Cup opponents at the Liberty Stadium). I spoke to one Horsham fan in the club house before the game who had been to both of those games, he only had nice things to say about the Liberty. I ‘Havant’ got a clue who knocked us out of the next round that season though (sorry!).

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Phill (@Phill_Loveridge) and I

Horsham brought around 50 away fans to Guernsey, including one from Malaga. (I was disappointed I hadn’t travelled the furthest). Personally if Guernsey were in our league, I would think it would be the most appealing to travelling fans. And from what I was told, Horsham brought the biggest following of away fans to Footes Lane so far this season.

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The matchday programme

Horsham were bottom of the league, but after appointing two people to become a joint management team (yes that’s right TWO people!). They have been on a recent resurgence.

The Game

I’m not very good at writing match reports and I find it even more difficult when I don’t really know who is who. Guernsey did score through Mark McGrath- after just 15 seconds – his 20th goal of the season with a shot from outside the area. Roary the Lion was entertaining the crowd and did accidentally slipped whilst jumping the hoardings – much to the amusement of the Green Lions faithful. There weren’t that many chances in the first half and Guernsey were 1-0 up at half time and looked comfortable.

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McGrath scores for Guernsey

The 2nd half started in almost the same fashion as the first, with Guernsey going 2-0 up through Dave Rihoy on the 50 minute mark. I was getting more amused with the home fans getting annoyed with the officials. No matter what level you are at, it’s always the same. Though ‘You must’ve come on the same plane’ rarely gets said at Non League matches I would guess.

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Horsham’s away following

Personally I didn’t think the officials did much wrong, sad as I am in this regard I did notice that the assistants switched sides in the 2nd half. But I don’t think any others noticed as the 2nd half assistant on the stand side was getting grief for things his colleague had done in the 1st!

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Roary the Lion

A few half chances for both teams before Horsham had a glimmer of hope when they were awarded a penalty a few minutes from the end. A silly challenge from the keeper (Chris Tardif, ex Portsmouth) as the player was going away from goal, they duly scored. About 2 minutes after this though, Horsham were denied what looked like a clear penalty. Everyone around me were saying they were lucky to get away with that one.

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Tony Nwachukwu scores for Horsham from the penalty spot

The final score was 2-1 to Guernsey and that win moved them up to 10th in the table,  10 points off the Play Offs positions with 11 games to go, so a tough ask but I hope they can do it. Guernsey FC are now my adopted non league club and I do like the colour green!

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Channeling my thoughts

I’d like to thank Phill and his parents for putting me up, I do really appreciate the hospitality. I would urge any groundhoppers to go and watch Guernsey if they can, the boat takes 7 hours from Portsmouth if that’s your kind of thing! Everyone was really friendly and it’s a little bit different in the sense that it is not in the U.K. I’d love to see them get as high as they can, but it will be very difficult. Seeing them in the Conference one day would be a great achievement.

Visting Guernsey has made me want to visit the other islands in the Channel, so hopefully one day I will be able to go back. Now anyone want some £1 notes……?

2014 – The Year That Was

So 2014 is all but over and for me personally it has been one of the best in the 28 years of me being on this Earth (Yes I am 28). The obvious highlight was being in Brazil for the whole 6 weeks of the World Cup (Yes I know you all got fed up of me posting about it back in June and July). But I can’t see myself ever topping that type of trip in my whole life, so it’s always nice to reminisce. Some people hated my constant pictures and blogs but others told me personally the loved it, so can’t please everyone.

On the football front, the Swans said thank you and goodbye to Michael Laudrup and less than a week later we beat Cardiff 3-0 in Garry Monk’s first game in charge. As well as giving a very good account of ourselves against Napoli over two legs. I do miss our European tours though.

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Derby Delight

We stayed up in the end, but it was looking pretty bit close at one point, despite what others may say. Personally the win away at Newcastle (4 games from the end of the season) was the game that confirmed our safety for me. This season we have all but secured Premier League football for the 2015/16 season, and have had great wins against Man Utd and Arsenal already.

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Made it to Napoli in the end! (19 minutes late)

It has been nice to see Wales playing well again and seeing the togetherness of the players, hopefully this will continue into 2015. Wales played 4 times in 2014 and didn’t lose, the 0-0 draw in Belgium being the standout performance and result. The win away in Andorra was welcome and came in dramatic fashion. Viva Gareth Bale.

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Andorra and the impressive floodlights of the much talked about stadium

I went to 72 matches (yes I counted) at 30 different stadia (yes I counted) in 8 different countries (you get the idea). So to pick my favourite one is difficult, from a Swans perspective, seeing two wins at Old Trafford was great, as was the home win against Arsenal this season. Obviously the home win over Cardiff back in February has to be mentioned. My favourite Swans goal of the year has to be Jonjo Shelvey’s half volley from 40 yards against Aston Villa – but now everyone hates him, so don’t hate me please.

Regarding the ‘neutral’ games I went to and without wanting to sound like a broken record, the World Cup was great. I was very lucky and thankful that I managed to go to nine games in total, including the opening game, the 7-1 semi final match between Germany and Brazil and the Final itself – if you have forgotten you can read about my exploits here: https://awelshmanattheworldcup.wordpress.com/

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The impressive Iguazu Falls

Aside from the football, the travelling around the country and meeting so many people from so many different countries was also another great part, Rio de Janeiro was probably my favourite city out of all that I visited as there was so much to see and do. I felt safe all the time I was there, considering all the scaremongering that was going on before hand – similar to what was said before Swansea’s trip to Naples, which seemed to put people off. A shame really.

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A Welshman at a World Cup Final (Germany 1-0 Argentina, Maracana)

I also managed to tick off 3 ‘new’ grounds in the 92 this year (Morecambe, Chesterfield and Stevenage), so I now have just 83 remaining, I plan to tick off a few more this season, though how I’m going to get to Colchester cheaply I have no idea yet…….

I also went to my first ever Champions League match – PSG v Ajax – and what a great experience it was, I didn’t have time to write about it in full and the moment has sort of gone now, but I have always wanted to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic play as well as visit Paris. So it was a great chance to combine the two. Luckily for me, Ibrahimovic did score in the game that PSG won 3-1.

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Just like Blackpool Tower

I was in with all the nutters, but it was a great atmosphere and would recommend visiting the Parc des Princes, it was very noticeable to see the difference in the standard of football from the Premier League, everything is done at such a quicker pace with every single player comfortable on the ball. Paris was a very nice city too, even if there were too many beggars around for my liking.

So what’s in store for me in 2015 I hear you ask? (Ok I pretended to hear you ask). Well there are away trips with Wales to Israel, Cyprus and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which I plan to go to all of them (I want to say I was there when Wales qualifield/failed to qualify again). Many will be put off by Israel, but it’s supposed to be a great place and I may not get to see another chance to see Itay Shechter play.

Wales still also have a great chance of qualifying for a major tournament, so fans are in an unusual situation of actually being worried about the game (The trip alone is usually the main highlight).

Also in 2015 I am going to Kiev as I’d like to visit Chernobyl and in the summer I am off to South Korea, China and North Korea – yes you read that correctly. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, North Korea (or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as they prefer to be called) has always fascinated me, I can’t really explain why, but it does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pyongyang, North Korea

So I thought why not go and experience it for myself? Some people are ignorant to the fact that tourists can visit there relatively easily through an organised tour, which no hairstyle restrictions. It should be an interesting experience at least.

I hope you’ve all had a great Christmas hope 2015 is a good one for all of you.

 

Wales at Euro 2016?

At this present moment in time, Wales still have a mathematical chance of making it to Euro 2016 (it’s not often I get to say that). In truth we haven’t played a game yet and our first game is Tuesday 9th September 2014 in Andorra (or will it?). These qualifying campaigns are usually either over before it gets going or full of heartache and bad luck. With 24 teams now being able to qualify for the Euros in France, surely Wales won’t slip up this time!?

With two automatic places up for grabs, I am hoping that Wales will have a chance of getting into that 2nd automatic place, or at least take it to the last game! Our group includes two teams that played at the World Cup in Brazil. Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Israel and Andorra

We start our campaign in Andorra, (a team Wales have never faced before). Without trying to sound disrespectful, despite all the problems with Andorra’s new artificial pitch, we should be beating them on any surface. But no doubt something will come out with ‘But there are no easy games in International football.’

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Andorra la Vella

In the last two campaigns we have lost our opening game, a 1-0 defeat to Montenegro in the Euro 2012 campaign and a 2-0 defeat to Belgium in the World Cup 2014 campaign (No thanks to James Collins!). I am hoping that we can get a win against Andorra, anything less than that, for me, will be a disappointment, as Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina will not slip up against them. If we do fail to win then we don’t deserve to qualify and Coleman could be out of a job, like Toshack was when we lost to Montenegro.

Part of the reason that our Euro 2004 campaign under Mark Hughes started so well was the crowd got behind Wales in their numbers, obviously the Millennium Stadium being new also helped. Never since that night against Italy have I experienced such a great atmosphere, it’s a shame it ended so badly. But it was great to see so many people supporting Wales at that time. Gary Speed was starting to bring the crowds back until his, still very sad death.

Bale

The main man, Gareth Bale

People can support who they want and I would never tell people who can and can’t support, even though people suggest who I should and shouldn’t support to me, but that’s another story! So I’m not going to urge you all to get behind the Welsh team, as it’s your choice. But don’t ask me for tickets should we need a win against Andorra at home to qualify.

What I would say though are personally, some people’s reasons for not supporting Wales are a little baffling, from both the Swansea fans and the Cardiff fans side. Ranging from ‘I’d go if they didn’t play in Cardiff’ to ‘I don’t go as Ashley Williams is captain’. I’d rather people say they don’t watch Wales because they aren’t interested!

ShechterI get to see Itay Shechter play again!

Maybe if we get 6 points from our first two games, there will be a big walk-up crowd for the match against Cyprus, but let’s take one step at a time. Winning the home games in qualifiers are vital, because if we need to go to war torn Israel and a boiling hot Cyprus needing wins it’s going to be very very tough. (I’ve written off Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovnia away).

As far as the squad goes, obviously Chris Coleman is very limited to who he can choose from, unfortunately Wales don’t have an out and out goal scorer, but the midfield is great and the defence is pretty good. My only other worry is the goalkeeper situation, Wayne Hennessey doesn’t play for Crystal Palace regularly and with Boaz Myhill’s retirement (who wasn’t that great anyway), we have Kyle Letheren (who?) and Owain Fon Williams – who must be tired of never getting a game.

We have some decent midfield youngsters to choose from George Williams of Fulham and Emyr Hughes, who is on loan to Wigan. Tom Lawrence (Man Utd) is in the squad, along with uncapped Paul Dummett (Newcastle) who are also uncapped, will hopefully strengthen us. As all Welsh fans say before every campaign, if we play our strongest team then we have a chance.

In the last campaign I was pleasantly surprised we managed to take 4 points from our last 2 games (Macedonia and Belgium) with about 65 players injured. Okay an exaggeration but there was no Bale and a make-shift defence and a player I had never heard of. Hopefully a sign of things to come. Thankfully James Collins has pulled out with an injury (again) and Jermaine Easter didn’t get have a free holiday this time, for the trip to Andorra.

It is one of my life dreams to see Wales qualify for a major tournament, I believe it will happen one day. Hopefully luck can be on our side, going to World Cup in Brazil and seeing all the fans all excitement at their team actually being there made me wonder what our fans would be like.

Stade-de-France-Photo

Where Wales will be playing on 10th July 2016

On a side note, another reason why I love watching Wales are the places I get to visit. Without having Wales and football as a reason I’d never have gone to half the places I have done. Going to Skopje in Macedonia is probably my favourite city, I’d never really have thought about visiting there otherwise. Okay Wales lost the game, but the trip was brilliant. Apart from the 90 minutes against Serbia I had a fantastic trip, so hoping it’ll be the same this time around – though I haven’t booked my trip to Israel yet.

I will be at the Euros in France in 2016, but hoping Wales will get there too. For those of you going to Barcelona/Andorra, see you there!

 

 

Football is back

That time is open us when the Premier League season starts once again, I’d never have thought that the Swans would be going into a fourth successive season in this division, I would’ve personally been happy with just the one. I’m not sure when the cut off point of becoming an established Premier League team is, maybe we’ve reached that already?

As is the case with most of the Premier teams, bar the top 5 or 6, no team is ever really safe from relegation from one season to the next. Look at Newcastle and Bolton in recent years, both were rarely ever in relegation trouble for years and years until one really bad season (Appointing Shearer and Owen Coyle were factors too of course.

Personally being in the Premier League isn’t the be all and end all for me, like it might be to other people. Yes the are pros and cons like with anything, but for me long as the games are enjoyable, as in trying to score goals/win games and we aren’t in any financial trouble, then I’m happy.

Last season I had some stick, maybe rightly, about the way we were playing under Laudrup from about October onwards. Thankfully in the end we sacked him and stayed up under the guidance of Monk. Objective achieved. All that’s in the past, hopefully we can get back to playing attacking football this season.

If I had to make a very early prediction I do think the Swans will stay up again this season – in mid-table as usual probably. I think the additions of Gomis, Sigurdsson and Montero will worry defences and that’s always important in any team. They are upgrades on Vazquez and Lamah anyway. We also have Ki Sung-Yeung back (who I never thought should’ve gone anyway) after a successful loan spell at Sunderland last season.

Perhaps our defence is our weak link currently as Ben Davies and Chico have departed, but there are still 3 weeks until the transfer window shuts, so I don’t think it’s time to panic just yet. I haven’t seen any of the pre-season games, mainly because they are pointless and have no bearing on the forthcoming season at all. (Despite what a few people on Twitter said after the Villarreal game on Saturday). And people call me negative!? I thought we became the first club to be relegated before the season had started.

Garry Monk has done well to get rid of the ‘deadwood’ , as they say, but I would say our squad does lack a little bit of strength in depth. The youngsters like Fulton and Kingsley are unknowns, Tiendalli and Tremmel are dodgy. I still feel perhaps we need another striker, a defensive midfielder and a full back. Happy with our first XI though, hopefully we won’t get as many long term injuries like last season.

I don’t have many wishes for this coming season. My main one would be to beat a top team at home. Our better results in recent seasons have mainly been away (Valencia, Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool & Arsenal). Our last win over a ‘big’ team was probably against Man City under Brendan Rodgers, hopefully that’ll change this season.

The other would be to beat Everton – the only team out of the 92 we have played, that we have never beaten. They seem to have a hoodoo on us.

I look forward to going up and down the country once again this season. Who are we!?