Wilf's Blog - 2019/20 Europa League Travels (part 1: Gibraltar)

The first European trip of the season has been “epic” before it even begun.

Major confusion over the date of the first leg due to St Joseph’s and fellow Gibraltese outfit Europa both winning their preliminary round ties…..and both being drawn at home at the same time. The Victoria Stadium is the only UEFA venue in the British Overseas Territory so the games need to be played on different nights.

Actual ratification of the date wasn’t received until the Friday morning before the match..but as expected Rangers drew the short straw and its Tuesday July 9, giving Bears about THREE days to make all their arrangements.

Personally I took the punt on a Tuesday game when it became clear FC Europa were going to qualify and booked my flights out of Gatwick, back to Manchester but didn’t sort the travel to and from the airports until the match date was set in stone.

Heading over on my own I concluded a Sunday overnight bus to London, from Glasgow, then train to Gatwick was the most cost effective option …especially given I was in Glasgow for my first visit of the season to Ibrox in the afternoon.

Car parked in Kinning Park until my return on Wednesday it was the short(ish) walk into the city for the midnight bus to the Smoke.

I’m not the biggest fan of coach travel so eleven hours wasn’t great but I did manage to drop off a few times so it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected- and needs must given it was cheap as which was welcome after the price of the flights.

Arriving in London bang on time, giving me plenty time to get to Gatwick, a stroll along Buckingham Palace Road was in order to stretch the legs. Given the time of day it was extremely busy as thousands of tourists had gathered to watch the changing of the guard in the glorious sunshine.

My “I’m in London it’d be rude not to go see Lizzie” pilgrimage done it was back along BPR to Victoria Station for the train to Gatwick……still with over four ours to play with.

As always Gatwick was manic,I even had to queue for 5 minutes to get into The Red Lion for food! Food which I’d just finished when I received a social media message from my friend Goggs who was also in the north terminal…..and on my flight so we met up and chatted over a beer( in his case) and even more unlimited refill coffee in mine.

Departure gate listed in good time it was all looking to be going like clockwork , though somewhat surprisingly there was only a handful of fellow Bears there waiting for the plane. (Unless a few were not sporting colours and keeping their head down!). One Bear that was there was Gaz, who coincidentally was staying in the same hotel as me in Los Barrios, Andaluci, Spain (some 10 miles from the Gibraltar border….but more about that late).

True to form our Stellios Orange airline flight boarded at the scheduled departure time, then sat on the runway for 30 minutes….eventually taking off almost a hour late!

Finally we landed in the British Overseas Territory and it was time to have a quick reccie before finding a taxi to the hotel.

Exiting the airport you have to walk across the end of the runway to get into Gibraltar. All very bizarre.

You can actually see the match venue – the Victoria Stadium- from the runway, it really is directly next to the airport.

A quick look around the outside of the ground, no obvious way in sadly, follow followed then I set off to find a certain petrol station , synonymous with an event from British military history, an event remembered in a song I’m fairly sure they’ll be more than a few renditions of in the next couple of days! At this point I bumped into Gaz again….who was looking for a Sash bash which was reputed to be happening nearby. A quick word with a lovely couple from Ulster, now residents of The Rock, to verify the filling station in question and the requisite photos on The forecourt were taken, before I headed back towards the border for a taxi to the hotel, complete with Gaz’s case as he set off to rehydrate.

Back towards the runway crossing I went to find the way across towards Spain temporarily closed as there was a plane taking off. A stroke of luck for me actually. Also waiting to cross were a few well Kent Bears, one of whom (along with his wife and son) were staying in the same hotel as me so it was a shared taxi the ten miles or so around the bay.

Obviously staying closer to or in Gib would have been much better but due to something called the International Island Games being hosted this week on the Rock…which to the best of my knowledge isn’t an island, accommodation is at a premium but fortunately my good friends of many recent European adventures the Smith’s had booked a hotel, which Mrs S was adamant was in Gibraltar, before their travel plans took them to and from the Portuguese town of Faro, so I greatfully took the booking from them.

Just as an aside if a hotel is called – for example – “Campo de Gibraltar” always check its actual location, a bit like Prestwick airport being listed as Glasgow if you will!

All checked in it was a quick change and out for a run. A very warm six miles followed, I even managed to stumble upon the ground of a local football club – Juventus Palmones – there’s that “they’re like a magnet” I’ve mention in previous blogs

Tuesday morning……more importantly known as matchday.

Breakfast in the hotel before my good friend Scott L. picked me up on his way to Gibraltar as he took a break from his family holiday in Benolmadina to let his son Cameron and Cam’s mate Jamie experience their first Rangers European away game, and it off to the border and into Gib early doors to firstly pick up tickets for Scott and the boys before heading to the cable car and up to The Top of the Rock!

Whilst waiting for the Rangers representatives to arrive we had a wee walk round the stadium and found ourselves pitchside, a nice added bonus to the trip.

Tickets secured and Costa visited it was off to be tourists for a few hours.

En route to the cable car I again bumped into Goggs and our mutual friend Ian who were heading to the same place as us – no way were we visiting this particular British Overseas Territory and not going to visit the monkeys! One of the better decisions I’ve ever made on a European jaunt. Six minutes in the cable car to the Top of the Rock and the most stunning views you can imagine. North Africa really isn’t that far away it seems.

The gift shop was the first stop. The obligatory key ring for my good lady and fridge magnet for her mother purchased the pressure was off and I could enjoy my day!

Having heard countless stories of the Barbary Apes that populate the Rock I knew this was going to be interesting……Scott had been there before, Cameron was desperate to see them and Jamie just wasn’t saying much – it seems young Jamie generally doesn’t say much!

Interesting it most certainly was. Watching them jumping from trees, onto and over taxis and generally just confronting anyone that looked like they might have food on their person is a sight to behold, as after a fairly lengthy walk is St Michael’s Cave – a breathtaking amphitheatre in the Rock – and a further walk back in the direction of the border are the Siege Tunnels.

The views from the top and indeed on the walk back down are wonderful, including the bizarre view of the only road from Spain into Gibraltar crossing the runway of the airport and a fantastic uninterrupted view into the Victoria Stadium, scene of tonight’s match….which led to a Police Scotland representative I met on the way down (I know him having met him on previous trips as he is charged with travelling to all Our away days in Europe as a “friendly” face) who was being shown around by the local plod quipping “you could just buy a cargo and sit up here to watch the game!”

It’s a long way down but we got there.

Scott and the boys headed off to have lunch in a local branch of a well known pizza restaurant, and I set off to meet up with The Smiths and their friend Harvey, a resident of nearby Spain who works in Gibraltar, saying hello hello to several fellow Bears of my acquaintance who were keeping hydrated in the square on my way.

Hydration was very important as it was crazy hot from very early in the morning, and the reason I had a water bottle glued to my hand all day.

A quick bowl of ice cream later while the Smiths finished their drinks it was off round the corner to Ocean Village where a number of the travelling Bears had congregated and in full party mode, much to the amusement and awe of the locals. All very good natured as you’d expect.

With kick off approaching we headed to the stadium in good time (it was just a short walk away) resulting in me bumping into a Glaswegian Gibraltar cop who I’ve know since before he changed career and moved to sunnier climbs who had coincidentally just finished work in time to nip home, get changed and get back for the match and were amongst the first in, along with Scott L and the kids who had appeared while we were waiting for the gate to open…..only for me to be informed by a burly security steward that my water bottle was okay to take in.. but it’s top wasn’t! With that I handed him the bottle which he said he’d keep at the side for me to collect at full time. Seeing an opportunity I told him I’d put it at the side as he was busy, slipping it into my pocket and making my way to the seated area…complete with water bottle and lid in tact.

The away end soon began to fill up and the track was becoming more and more festooned with RSC flags, most blowing up in the continued strong breeze until a helpful Welsh steward, another expat resident, scuttled off and came back with bits of athletics starting blocks to use as weights to hold the flags down. Something I was only too happy to assist with.

As I was about to clamber back over the hoardings into the stand Nick from Rangers tv passed and thrust a microphone in front of me as he had come into the away end to get a few Vox Pops from supporters about their journey etc and for some reason known only to himself thought I’d be worth listening too!

Many many familiar faces around the stand – a few who have featured in previous ‘Wilf’s European adventure” blogs, it’s always the way on these trips, and indeed on the track with mssrs O’Rourke and Vass snapping away happily, and finally season 2019/20 was underway.

The 4G pitch, newly laid only a few weeks before I was told, looked awful and the first half was a bit of a non event as Rangers got used to it and thankfully weren’t running about aimlessly in the searing heat.

Job done comfortably enough in the second 45 minutes and a potentially tricky tie over before the home leg. A thoroughly professional job well done it was back into the city for a couple of drinks while the border traffic subsided a bit. (The Smiths were dropping me off on their way back to Portugal!)

As we entered Casemates Square I spotted my good friend Claire and her buddy Derek…. the very same Derek who had come to my aid last season and graciously gave myself, Kenny and Smudger a lift back to Sofia from Skopje after a fortuitous meeting at the border en route to Macedonia…. so we joined them for a drink before grabbing a quick bite to eat and heading to the car (which we eventually found in the multi story car park – further evidence that locations aren’t Linda Smith’s strong point!) and back into Spain.

We had actually inadvertently stumbled on the medal ceremony for the Island Games which was taking place in the square, who knew places like Guernsey and the Isle of Man had their own anthems!

Safely dropped off at the hotel I bode fairwell to L & M and headed upstairs to attempt to get some sleep, which I struggle to do at the best of times and given it was still very warm knew would be easier said than done. Fortunately all the walking and exposure to the sun had done the job and I did actually manage a couple of hours.

Awake early it was running shoes on and out for a look at the local area in daylight. It’s amazing how much more you notice when you can actually see your surroundings, before a shower, gear packed and down for breakfast, then a taxi back to the border and the short walk through to the airport and the first leg of my journey north, on the first of only five flights leaving today, mine bound for Manchester.

Gibraltar Airport is very compact as you’d expect so I ventured in to the Duty Free shop just for something to do, to find it incredibly reasonable so thought I’d boost the brownie points – which I’ll hopefully need as the European campaign progresses – and stock up the Jambo’s gin cupboard with a couple of bottles.

Heading across to get a coffee I was spotted by that well known Rangers euro traveller Kermit, and his “companion” Lesley who joined me on the viewing terrace in the shadow of The Rock until my flight (which I’d watched land moments before) was called and it was time to bid fairwell to a beautiful little part of the United Kingdom.

An uneventful flight landed in Manchester on time giving me ample opportunity to fuel up before my train to Glasgow, where I was reunited with Scott L, Cameron, Jamie and Scott’s wife Shiela who had just arrived in from Malaga.

More public transport running on time and it was the final goodbyes of the trip to the Lewis clan at Central Station before darting off to St Enoch’s subway to be reunited with my car in PRW and the drive home.

Roll on the next one – be it Luxembourg and Our old foes Progres or a trip to Cork!

Gdansk Anyone!

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