After another early morning start and an EasyJet flight to Vienna (cue Ultravox tunes in the car), driving the hire car to Graz, having a bit of a walk around this unfamiliar city, food and then a big sleep, Saturday saw a double World Cup friendly header in Klagenfurt, Austria.
Normal Saturdays involve a trip to Aston Villa or Bolton Wanderers but a 10.30am meet up with other photographers was greeted with disaster – the Tom Tom was not charging!
After a big drugs session in taking lots of hay fever medicine, I was hoping for rain rather than bright sunshine today in Austria. Finding the motorway was easy and we were quickly putting on kilometers onto the hire car which when we got from the airport yesterday had the grand total of 12. Nothing like a nice rental to break in!
I held a quick quiz on who was the new manager of AFC Telford United, Mark – a huge Arsenal fan – eventually getting the correct answer after some clues including Tottenham Hotspur, Fleetwood and England.
The answer : Andy Sinton.
Mark told us stories of going to the World Cup in America with over 90% of the population completely unaware the biggest sporting tournament was taking place in their country and then we had a mini fantasy World Cup in Scotland with Stenhousemuir staging Italy v Brazil and Cowdenbeath being the host of Mexico v Argentina. Before we could fix up Scotland with Peru, signs for Klagenfurt appeared.
It was easy to navigate to the stadium as no one had taken down the signs from Euro 2008.
We parked for free right out side the stadium. In London this prime spot would have been £25, up north at least £10.
After a little French to some also lost members of the media from Cameroon, we found the accreditation centre and as well as a ticket we got the world’s biggest car parking pass. We made the executive decision not to change car parks but an annoying steward made us walk all the way around the stadium to a door 150 yard that we could see from our starting position. Obviously like in other stadiums, the media are not allowed to cross paths with the VIPs in case we breath their air or invade their space with our heavy photographic equipment in tow.
Some well known faces greeted us and we soon quenched our thirst with some fine orange juice. We did not have much time to faff and soon we were on the pitch shooting the national anthems after the teams entered onto the pitch.
I ‘hosed’ down Cameroon manager Paul Le Guen and went to take head shots of the Cameroon players singing their national anthem but the stupid tradition of having young boys accompany the players onto the pitch resulted in every player being blocked by floppy Austrian haircuts. I gave up.
Ex-Luton boy Raddy Antic was reunited with my lens and was captured for pre-world cup sales.
More annoying stewards tried to stop photographers taking pictures of the team groups – unaware team groups were taking place unlike a normal Austrian football match.
In short it was 1-1. Boring. Totally boring. I would have preferred to shoot tennis as Slovakia were so boring – and I hate tennis. Getting stock library pictures was hard, getting action and players tackling near impossible.
What was easy, was that the Cameroon players sweating in their tight green tops, so spotting substitutes was a simple task of looking for the lighter green non sweaty shirts. A mind numbingly draining 90 minutes finally came to a end and we were faced with a 90 minute wait before the second game of the day.
After loading up my pictures I chatted to one of my Japanese photographer friends who showed me a different way to set my camera when using a 500mm lens. Eventually the stadium wifi kicked in and I was able to send out some Marek Cech pictures.
The 90 minute wait flew past unlike the first game as dark black rain clouds greeted us for the second contest of New Zealand v Serbia. Entering the pitch, I was greeted with not a cacophony of noise, but a stench of beer. The Serbian fans were steaming.
My number one main aim was to give head coach Ricki Herbert some stick for not picking Shrewsbury Town’s Kris Bright in his World Cup squad but Mr Hitler Steward would not let me near! Not very professional but personal pride sometimes over comes professional protocol and I wanted to know why Brighty was not going to South Africa next week.
The 500mm lens got close enough to get him should any image be needed for dart board purposes. Attentions were then set on Serbian substitutes. Not having a clue who half of them were, each head shot was followed by a quick picture of their shorts making sure that the players number was visible for after match captioning.
This game was far more enjoyable. New Zealand going 1-0 up and with Birmingham City’s new signing Nikola Zigic doing OK – however fellow photographer Mark thought he was useless, I go the picture I was looking for – a Black Country Derby image of Nenad Milijas of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chris Wood of West Bromwich Albion tackling each other. It was not photo of the year but it ticked one of the boxes in the wants column and kept clients happy.
Half time came and went as Serbia tried in vain to equalise. As the stadium clock showed 75 minutes the fans got more loud and restless as more alcohol kicked in – not the 4 New Zealand backpackers but the thousands of drunk fans who had travelled the short distance from Serbia. Flares were lit as Austrian Fire Fighters ran on to the pitch to retrieve the smoking devices.
Jeremy Brockie of New Zealand nearly got a second but he was probably more thankful that a bottle of whisky thrown by the Serbian fans missed his head rather than scoring to make it 2-0. The ref promptly took it off the pitch.
Slowly the numbers of fans entering on to the pitch came too much and Austrian referee Oliver Drachta attempted to abandon the game.
Manchester United defender and Serbia captain Nemanja Vidic had other ideas. Stealing the microphone in the eager style of a Karaoke singer, he gave a rousing speech in Serb-Croat telling his countrymen to I assume not spoil the game.
More stewards fought with fans invading the pitch as a line of riot police protected the pitch perimeter as Vidic did a better job than the stadium stewards.
The referee blatantly forgot the 4 minutes of added time and the second game of the day was over.
A hurried exit off the park to the media room resulted in lots of Coke Zero and Orange Juice being drunk as photographers sent out their pictures to their clients.
We eventually left 2 hours after the final whistle with myself very relieved to find my iPhone in the car after worrying throughout the second game as to its whereabouts.
A mazy drive back to Graz in a monsoon resulted in the first drop off of photographer Mark at his Hotel aptly named The Paradise. Obviously when you leave Paradise the surroundings go down hill and with Marc doing a great job navigating with a giant map 40 minutes later we found the underground entrance to our hotel car park.
The clock struck midnight as I turned off the car engine.
It was now Sunday. A week today we depart for South Africa!
Sleep was on hold as not one, but two games had to be edited watching nonsense on Austrian TV. Anything is better than BBC World though.