Last Thursday Newcastle United travelled to Belgium for their Europa League fixture against Club Bruges. An estimated 6000-7000 fans made the trip but the authorities missed a trick, and made supporters’ lives more difficult, by treating fans as a problem rather than a huge opportunity.
So argues Michael Martin, editor of Newcastle United fanzine True Faith…
“There is a bit of a football cliché that when fans of the Scottish and Irish national teams visit a foreign city the locals are almost always entertained and amused by the visitors’ songs, colour and appetite for the local brew. The second part of that cliché is English fans generate a different sense of anticipation amongst potential hosts.
“It seems when the draw for the Europa League was made the authorities in Bruges experienced the same anxiety felt by many others at the prospect of an invasion of thousands of football supporters from the North East of England. Maybe their fears were justified. After all, Bruges by accounts had a pretty dismal experience of Birmingham City supporters in the same competition twelve months ago.
“I’m in no position to comment on what did or didn’t go on last year with Birmingham but certainly when the Bruges club and citizenry look back on the visit of Newcastle United, maybe they will with the kind of amused smile the Scots and Irish generate.
“However, the response by Bruges to being placed in the Europa League with Newcastle United was hardly a study in efficiency. Perhaps taken off guard by Geordie enthusiasm for a short trip across the channel to visit continental Europe and support our team, Bruges waited three weeks before announcing only 1400 tickets would be allocated to visiting fans.
“Given thousands had already booked rail, air, coach, ferry and digs that did not go down well. Club Bruges was well within its rights to limit the away allocation to the UEFA imposed instructions.
“It is understandable the host club wanted as many of its own fans in the Jan Breydel Stadium as possible but what they and the authorities in Bruges imagined ticketless supporters with travel arrangements already made would do was never really clear.
“Fair play to Newcastle United who quietly lobbied for extra tickets and finally succeeded, with the rumoured support of the local mayor, in getting an additional 900 tickets for fans with travel arrangements already made! That met some of the additional demand but far from all.
“If I had to characterise Bruges response and planning for our visit it would be one word - unhelpful. The extra tickets made available, the arrangements in the town square all performed with a kind of 'do we have to' insouciance which convinced me they might have been happier had we stayed at home.
“The officious letters from Belgian Police to travelling fans beforehand, clumsily retracted, didn’t exactly do much to dissuade me the red carpet wasn’t exactly being rolled out for a large, travelling support, which has avoided any kind of continental disgrace. Not to worry. Off we went with that Jolly Boy air these trips never fail to generate.
“Logistically, I had to wonder if the lack of transport laid on to get us up and back from the Jan Breydel Stadium hadn’t actually been deliberate. Our little party of travellers caught an ordinary commuter bus, which we foolishly imagined would get us up to the ground in good time for the 7pm kick-off. The bus got us about a third of the way there before it unhelpfully stopped and told us it wasn’t going any further. We then spent a good 30 minutes walking through dimly lit suburban streets with little or no signage for the stadium.
“When we eventually did get to the stadium we had to go through around four ticket checks with Belgian police carrying out 95% of the tasks carried out by stewards in England. I did hear hundreds of police had been redeployed from Brussels for the game. They were certainly there in big numbers. There was an aura of jumpiness about them and little of the warmth and friendliness you often get from the Dutch constabulary but to be fair they were well-disciplined and there was none of the over-reaction I’ve seen elsewhere. We got in five minutes after kick-off.
“The stadium was far from full. There were large spaces around the ground left vacant and you couldn’t wonder at how badly Bruges had judged this game. Newcastle’s largest contingent was in a corner behind one of the goals. There was no stewarding worthy of the description to ensure walkways were kept clear or that fans were kept from the exit stairs. A Newcastle fan was stopped and prevented from taking a hot dog into the stand though.
“Really, Newcastle should have had the whole of one end and if home fans had been allocated the other three sides of the stadium I don’t think any Belgian football enthusiast would have missed this match had they wanted to attend. This is modern football though.
“If transport to the game beforehand had been extremely limited afterwards it was shamefully non-existent. The Bruges taxi driving community also picked a bad night to have off (or be instructed to stay away). This resulted in 2500 Newcastle supporters walking en-masse back to the city centre. I couldn’t tell you the distance but it was the thick end of an hour before we got back into town.
“That was all very well for our robust party of 40-somethings who can cope with blistered feet but for older fans, children or any supporters with health problems or disabilities it was less tolerable. Let’s just say the toilet facilities at the Jan Breydel, were well, primitive, nothing was open on the way back and you have a picture of the discomfort at the 'arrangements' in place.
“Who knows if this was a deliberate ploy on the part of the authorities to reduce the amount of drinking time available to fans but as we had a good contingent remaining in the city centre, drinking in its lovely bars and squares, it did seem a muddle-headed strategy.
“Overall, I’d say the local Bruges citizenry were friendly, hospitable and engaging and the local bar owners will surely look forward to a return visit of Geordies in future. The official hospitality however, left something to be desired and I just don’t think Bruges can do big football matches. This was my first visit to Bruges and it won’t be my last but that will be with my missus rather than 6000-7000 of my best mates.
“As for our support, I’m not going to kid anyone and say everyone who went to Bruges was an angel but I will agree with our manager Alan Pardew who described us as good ambassadors for Newcastle United FC. Maybe one day, the Bruges authorities will view football fans as a huge opportunity rather than a threat.”
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