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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

'The Oddysey' by Homer.

Those who know me will be aware that I fluctuate between a relatively articulate and classically well-read individual, and more often a loud, beer swilling, bald, overweight, opinionated clod.

You can therefore take what follows as;

a) a reference to the epic poem written in the 8th century BC by one of the finest poets Ancient Greece produced, sequel to the iliad, describing a journey of truly unbelievable proportion, or

b) the rambling and chaotic journey of someone who looks, and sometimes acts like Homer Simpson.

Receiving only short notice of the the relocation of my son and some of his squad mates to Germany, I had little time to prepare. There had been rumours, of course, but nothing substantial enough to book a flight on?

No British player had ever played in the Bundesliga

It was on Monday the 1st of February that I booked the flights for Friday the 6th. I'm often impulsive, but also trust my instincts. "Yep, this will be a straightforward trip" I thought, "back in time for supper on Sunday, having seen a little history made along the way."

I relocated my work life to the north of Scotland 6 months ago. Tired of the instability of the construction industry, I had struggled through college courses in the past couple of years to reinvent myself, and go from self-employment to a career in senior management in areas where my ridiculously varied prior work history for once counted for, rather than against me. Upside, steady money. Downside, can't come and go as I please any more, taking ridiculous amounts of time off to take handball squads here and there. Everything has a price.

Nevertheless, I found cheap flights from Glasgow Prestwick (Glasgow? Hah! You lied Ryanair!!)
to get as near to Essen as I could, as number one son had confidently told me that first game was at 'home', in Essen. I had tried to check on the websites, but my grasp of German is limited. I had to trust to Chris' information. It was therefore a mild surprise to find out midweek that the game was in fact in Elsenfeld, hundreds of miles away. Chris did say that Chris Mohr and his father Thies, whom I met in Denmark and Luxembourg in 2007, could give me a lift from Frankfurt if I could get there. "No problem" I thought, "how hard can that be?"

Friday lunchtime, and I have been offerred a lift to Prestwick by one of the contractors working for us in Aberdeenshire. As it is over 3 hours to Glasgow from where I work and stay, I accept. Save a little diesel, not pay for parking, cheap weekend, it just gets better and better. I go online and book a hotel, which the website assures me is only 6k from Dusseldorf Weeze (Dusseldorf??Hah! You did it again Ryanair!!70k from Dusseldorf), so only a short taxi ride to my nice looking hotel (Booked hastily online, Friday lunchtime.). For the first time in many years, I can actually have a drink at the airport, as I won't be driving at the other end?

It turns out that I share that drink with Aggy, the Scottish half of 'Kim and Aggy TV cleaners' fame(?). At least it looked like her, and she said it was. After 3 or 4 pints on an empty stomach I'd have believed her if she had said she was John Wayne. The worst part of this story is that I then texted people to let them know I was with her. This would usually be classed as the kind of thing you'd keep to yourself? (Tony Coumbe, I will keep to myself what you suggested she might do)

By the time I get on the plane I'm distinctly cheerful, even prepared to buy an in-flight drink due to my new found wealth (Hah!). Previously Ryanair drink prices might have forced me to remortgage my house. By the time we land, a warm glow of expectation and barely palatable booze have made the world look very rosy. I decide that I will plan my journey after consulting hotel staff. I collar a taxi outside, unpeturbed by the prospect of the cost of taxi going 6km. " 4 miles?? That couldn't be much more than a tenner" I say (probably out loud) to myself.

It was therefore something of a surprise to find out that my hotel was in fact not 6km away, but 26 km, and not in Germany at all, but in Holland. (Strrrrrrike ONE!!!! The baseball players out there will be thinking.)

"OK, it's midnight Friday night, not many choices, and it'll be the only taxi ride I'll need while I'm here, I'm sure." I say to myself, (probably out loud). The guy tells me it will be 40 euro. I think "ummmm, about £28" and climb in. It's only on the journey that I realise I'm working way outside of my mathematical comfort zone, and it is in fact almost 40 quid due to the falling value of sterling. "Too late now", I ponder, (probably out loud).

After being dropped outside the very pleasant looking building which thankfully DOES turn out to be my hotel, (after several wrong turns down people's driveways) I am 'clerked in' by a very pleasant young man. I had asked if he spoke English as I walked in, as the limit of my Dutch was ordering a beer (All I ever needed previously), and typically of Europeans he said "A little", then spoke flawless English at great speed. Being now well after midnight, I asked the first and most important question on journey. "Is the bar still open?".

He looked at me with a mixture of pity and disgust. " Maybe for another 15 minutes" he said.

Dropping my hand luggage (cheapskate) in my room, I look around in disbelief at how tiny the room is. Rather like a wardrobe turned on it's side. I read the hotel blurb to see what it was before it was a hotel, and it turns out it used to be a convent, and I admire the nuns' fortitude having lived in such tiny rooms all their lives. "Still" I thought to myself as I sped downstairs, "At least they had a late bar".

The same guy is behind the bar. "Do you have a dark beer?" I ask, making a 'sign language' measurement about 8 inches high which I obviously believe will give him a clue as to what a dark beer might look like. "Sure" he says, and hands me a lager. "Any port in a storm" I ponder (probably out loud) or indeed, "any lager".

There are about 10 dutch 'chavs' in the bar, who glance at me with torpid disinterest. I am the oldest person in the room by 30 years. "Ahhhh", felt right at home.

I am anticipating the 15 minute deadline, and 'squeezing a last one in', when the door bursts open and 50 people in fancy dress run in. Knowing everyone else and seeing a stranger here, they make a bee-line for me. After several congas around the bar, which it turns out was formerly the church, (best service I've ever attended) I manage to stop and catch my breath, to try to find out what the hell is going on.

I discover the guy with the feathers is the "Prince of Tienray" He holds me so tight that I ponder whether he might be the "Queen of Tienray", luckily, not out loud on this occasion.

Fatigue and alcohol start to make me wonder if I have developed double vision, but I then realise with some relief he has a twin brother there.

As the picture shows, I also discovered they did in fact have a dark beer, but normally they just put an inch of it in the bottom of a glass of lager to make their own local mix. I asked for a 'grosse', and with a raising of eyebrows they gave me one. I understood why when I realised in it's 'raw' state it was entirely undrinkable. However, I'll not be put off something by it's impossibility, and I chewed my way through that beer to the bitter (very bitter) end. I did then revert to lager. I had by this point built significant Anglo-Dutch bonds, but my refusal to dance any further congas due to the fact that I was exhausted and am disabled reduced this immediately to the status of 'persona non grata', and I was left with four 'ordinary' Dutch lads at the bar to try to plan my journey to the home of Grosswallstadt.

They informed me immediately that 'only a crazy man' would try to use public transport to get to Elsenfeld, by pointing out that I would need to take a bus to Venlo, then a bus or train to Monchengladbach, then a train to Cologne, then a train to Frankfurt, where I could be collected for the hour long drive south. I tried to convinve them that obviously I wasn't so stupid a man by saying I would hire a car with sat nav instead and drive. I could tell they pondered (To themselves) that my IQ was at least 50 points higher as a result. The bar empties, and I hit the hay.

I awake with a big head, literally and metaphorically.

A sturdy 'Ontibeet' (breakfast) helped, and lots of coffee focussed my mind on my coming trip.

I decide that only a crazy man would try to use public transport, so grab the laptop, and book a hire car from Dusseldrof(Hah!)Weeze airport on my credit card for 65 euro, anticipating another 50 to 60 to cover fuel. I then book a taxi (40 euro) back to the airport to collect.

I walk to the desk to collect my car.

Name? "McDermott"
"Ahhh, yes, Mr McDermott, we have your booking.........but sadly" he looks at me sadly, "we have no satnav? You give us only one hour??" Ah, well, c'est la vie.
"Passport?", the young man asks then checks,
"Licence", he does the same.
"Credit card?". My pocket is empty. We ring the hotel, they cannot find it (even though it was used to make that booking). We ask the hotel to see if it is in my room. It isn't. They ring the taxi firm to see if it's there. It isn't. I ask the hire co if they will take cash, they say, 'NO'.

I decide I'll get cash from the machine and revert to plan A, only to discover that my other remaining card doesn't work to get cash out in Europe. I am stranded with little money.

I am frantically thinking for a plan C. I ring Thies and tell him of my predicament. With typical humanity, Thies bales me out, and although I have the cash to get me to Frankfurt, he drives me to the game and lends me the cash to get home again. You can know people all your lives, but often it is the 'new' friends who help you in times of crisis that you will remember.

So, we make it there. I'm at the ground, having been driven there on the wings of a storm by Chris Mohr, who following injury, will show the Bundesliga what he too has to offer.

I enter the ground, and there, warming up they are. Two young men, whom I had taken to Scotland, then Malta in the first faltering days of their 'International' handball lives. After a few greetings, Ciaran looks around this Budesliga handball arena and says to me, "It's a long way from Malta".

He refers to the start of the journey. Malta was our first trip 'away'. Having beaten the USA twice, and convinced ourselves we could win the last game, we were beaten soundly in the final in 2005 by a talented young Malta squad. Most players were pleased with a silver medal. Two players only wept as they queued for their silver medal. It is no coincidence that is it those two players who are the only players to remain from that original squad and walked out to make history in that Bundesliga stadium. As I said at the time to those around who may have mocked the tears, "It has to mean that much to you, it has to mean 'everything". It is no accident that Ciaran and Chris have come this far. They always gave absolutely all that they had to give.

The intervening years brought GB, the Olympics, overseas players, and talent ID. But I cling to the memory of the lads I had taken away on so many trips to try to create the squad we longed for. It was great to then gain the new players, the overseas lads, and the talent ID who came in.

But for for years, and a million miles on the clock, the players who mattered for most were the British players, the boys who had been it it from the start. The Scots were unlucky to lose three in the last cut. I had recently boasted to our contractors (from Cumbernauld) that they had three boys in the mix, but it was then reduced to one girl, as England also lost Scotty Harrington, who had been in there from the start, prior to him, Pop had fallen, another guy I had hoped would make it all the way through. Nevertheless, Lynn now has a following of hairy a*sed construction workers following her every move as she pursues her career in Norway, with good media coverage back home (They were already aware of her, althought they didn't know what handball was).

Now included is Seb, and Merlin, who have toured with me in the England squad. Having managed them I think of them as 'my lads', like the others who came and went. Latterly Dan McMillan is there, who provides a fine example of what commitment and talent might gain you. Born north of the border, but welcome in my squad should I ever be lucky enough to be asked to manage another England squad.

So, finally, to the game?

What did the British boys give when they were asked to show their worth in the toughest league in the world? The place most people maybe expected them to fail in?

No more and no less than I expected.

Courage, fitness, nerveless commitment, 100% dedication, and no little amount talent.

No names, the match report is elsewhere. I don't have the words to describe the pride I felt as I watched them play. Our boys, living with the best of them. I'll say no more on that, the best is yet to come.

As I travelled back, a constant stream of texts and calls monitored how the lads had done.

I sat at Frankfurt Airport Station, (booked on the train to Monchengladbach, via Cologne) which was as close as I could get back that night, deep in conversation as to how the lads had got on. It distracted me enough to get on the wrong train, that person shall remain nameless, although, you know who you are Tony Coumbe. This meant I arrived in Monchengladbach too late for a bus. An 80 euro taxi fare got me back to my hotel.

I sleep soundly.

After breakfast, I count that I have 51 Euro left of the money Thies lent me. "No problem" I think "it will get me to the airport." My taxi looks set to clear this by a long way, but the owner takes pity, and lets me ride for 40 euro.It leaves me 11 euro.

I go to check in, and the young lady asks me to put my bag on the scale. It is 13.5 kilo,and I am only allowed 10 kilo. I tell the girl I'll check it in, and ask if it costs. "30 euro" is the answer. A hasty rearrangement gets me through, after throwing lots of stuff in the bin, and carrying the rest so I look like a suicide bomber.

I have enough left for 2 beers, which I quaff. Dues, paid, etc etc.

So finally, I land back in Scotland, a land I am growing to love through living there. My 'lift' asks me if the trip was worth all the trouble?

"What trouble?" I asked. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Is this the beginning or the end of the dream?

This is just the start. Right at this moment, nobody understands how good these lads are. Not even them. Nobody knows how far they can go.

Carpe Diem-"Sieze the day". Live out your dream lads. I'll watch every moment that I can.

It's been a pleasure and a privelidge to see you so far as I have done.

Paul McDermott

England Squad Manager. (Former)
Great Britain Squad Manager. (Very briefly)
Supporter. (Forever)

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