Friday 1st -Sunday 3rd September
We met bleary eyed like new lambs stumbling in the pre-dawn mist at the top of Snakes Lane, an electic mix of coaches, players and 5 travelling supporters all in various states of half wakefulness. The hour was 3:59am. To be on time is of course to be late. Which didn’t stop certain members from forgetting this iron clad rule.
And so Tomas our Polish coach manager took us through the rules and regulations of our new home for the weekend which included severe reprimands for incorrect usage of the onboard facilities and with that we took off en route to the White Cliffs of Dover to begin this fabled return to the heights of Europe with three games against three of the best club sides in the world.
The journey passed largely in silence and without incident and by mid-afternoon we ambled our way into Den Bosch which sits 40 minutes from Eindhoven, a quiet Dutch town with a loud hockey heritage and a facility that took our breath away. 11 pitches that went on as far the eye could see as well as a central pitch with a huge stand that soared up into the clouds overlooking the pitch. The weather which had to this point been best described as gloomy suddenly cleared and broad strokes of sunlight bisected the pitch to produce a vivid green and black two tone.
As the supporters tucked into cool Dutch pints of lager in the building heat, the players began shaking off the 10 hour journey and getting game ready for a real test against a team packed toe to head with blinding talent pooled from all over the world.
The season in Holland is still not up and running so the stand remained largely quiet except for the infrequent but heart stopping roar of supporter Biffi with Laurence in tow as play resumed and immediately the Southgate boys playing in their new white kit were under the cosh of the Den Bosch team. Savas made a strong save from their first PC as the team held out valiantly against an onslaught off attacking play. Yet two goals shipped in before the end of the half.
Special mention must be made to full back Robbie Gill who hit the pitch with such venom that he was soon vomiting on the P spot and gambled off to continue his discharge pitch side before heading back on to to the pitch shaken and white as Caspar the friendly ghost. The game also saw the debut for new GB signing Will Calnan who was easing his way back into hockey after picking up the silver medal in the Euros just weeks before.
It took a half time Kwan-talk to muster the attacking spirit of last season as the team slowly woke up to realise that they could match this Bosch side man for man and suddenly chances and corners began to appear one of which was clinically polished into the top netting by new signing Archie Foster giving him the distinction of our first European goal in some time.
Special mention also to Anton another new signing from South Africa who pulled off a remarkable succession of saves in the 4th quarter to ensure Southgate came out of the second half honours tied at 1-1.
Beers and ‘the finest match tea we have ever had’ followed before the weary party headed 20 minutes down the road to the Van den Valk team hotel which resembled something between a premier Inn, an American motel and an interior designer turned neo-impressionist’s fantasy made concrete. Most slept. Some went to the Casino. The nameless hit the streets. All lost.
Up with the sparrows and larks for a whole team video session which included the supporters who all gamely took part in the Q&A part of proceedings,
“Any idea what he just said?” said one gallant supporter to the other as Kwan requested group feedback on a particular press they were analysing. Just like in school, we supporters crept to the back of the room and hoped that we wouldn’t picked on.
Pokey (a supporter, not a M1 player for clarity) had sniffed out an actual hockey shop in a nearby town and so 4 of us (less the president who needed some sleep after his breakfast) crammed into an Dutch Uber and hurtled off in it’s general direction. Twenty minutes later its gleaning towers curved into view and so out we fell onto the pavements and into the shop like kids in a proverbial candy shop to be met with two floors of pure hockey stash. Sticks, and shoes and grips and other accessories all crucial to the standard Southgate player. Yet that was nothing as up the spiral staircase came row upon row of carefully pressed Hockey shirts from local clubs various, beautiful Den Bosch kit- (the entire range) caught our eye, but then so did the retro Netherlands national team shirt and much more besides. Biffi couldn’t talk and Whatley was soon taking calls from players various back at the team hotel taking orders for shirts. It was a slice of hockey heaven and we all left poorer of pocket but richer of wardrobe.
And so back not the team bus and an hours journey down the tracks to HC Berendorf which is not the famous Oranje Root club in Rotterdam but instead Dutch legend and national celebrity Piirman Black’s home club and like the gallant chaps they are these alpha players head out on stately procession to lower clubs to show ‘em how it’s done. Yet to us mere English mortals this third tier club resembled as good as any UK hockey facility with 5 pitches and a neat club house which looked out over the very good pitch.
The sun continued to beat down on this fine place for a hockey game and the boys were well recovered (or partly recovered) from the epic journey and game of the previous day. They did some good talking in the changing rooms using tactics which Calnan assured the supporters were really very simple yet remained stubbornly Oppenheimer like for the likes of the club Secretary.
The crowds had come in for this one and as the teams stepped forward in a dramatic walk out cheers resounded across the flat landscape probably all the way to France (certainly to the coach car park as Tomas said he heard some noise). The boys did a good shout before the match started and the supporters now feeling part of the team gathered by the dug out to lend tactical advice to coaches Huw and Dillet.
An immediate change in the Southgate lines was apparent from the off as they went toe to toe with Orange Root. Balls fizzed around, slap passes crisply accompanied the dull percussive beats of the early phases. Rohan Bhui mesmerised like the mirror of Erised and dazzled his way through the screen with Archie Foster moving up into attacking midfield for a cameo in the northern climes. Yet slowly the Dutch men pressed their way into the game and capitalised on some sloppy Southgate play putting away two goals right at the end of Q1 which went like hammer blows into the hearts of the red and black support.
Undeterred the team went back out to Anton’s encouraging calls from the goal mouth and like ferrets the team double and triple teamed the Orange Root attacking lines charging down the looming figure of Blaak in the goal mouth. Gate corners were won and Ramshaw threw his weight and power behind consecutive corners destined for top bins only to rudely swatted out by the Dutch master to the cheer of the crowd.
Tiredness continued to seep into the red bones and unforced errors undid the good work putting gate 3-0 at half time whereupon Kwan decided he needed some alone time away from the beady supporters eyes who were possibly beginning to feel like grit in the oyster shell and with a steely eye produced some stern words in a corner.
Drama ensued in the 3rd quarter when Foster broke his shoe and in no consequence whereof Orange Root collared a 4th. Yet Ramshaw had his bullish goggles in and all but headbutted a ball into the goal thanks to some good work from Ali Douglas and Rohan Bhui in the build up with Charles Hamilton offering the driving run to set up the Ram for a Southgate goal that was cheered loudly by all.
The game ended with people running around looking for a spare hockey shoe, ice being ferried over by the president and Coach Huw looking a bit forlorn as the game ebbed it’s way from Southgate’s clutches. John Sterlini put in some great work in the screen with the dominant Jack Middleton who joined late the previous night and Iain Gordon and Robbie Gill put in a real shift at full back. The mood felt a little flat in the immediate aftermath of the game, a second loss. Yet as the presidential beer began to flow, the positives from the game soaked through the disappointment.
Yet you wouldn’t see any of that from the supporters who had just enjoyed one of the best games of hockey they had seen, awesome players competing with panache, creativity and wit and Southgate for much of the game were more than equal to the task. A big step forward even from the previous day.
And so the dawn broke and tiredness reined supreme as a 9am departure time meant an early breakfast and a long trip to Belgium to face recent Belgian champions Gantoise. The journey passed in supreme quiet as everyone slept. Apart from Kwan who was busy analysing the Orange Root game. There were rumours he hadn’t slept for 48 hours such was his commitment to the Southgate cause.
The sun was beating down again hard on the river that runs alongside the Gantoise set up. We pulled up at a lovely looking club only to be told this was not the ‘elite’ part of the club and were directed down the road to a facility that simply took the breath away. Brand new, gleaming and more like a luxury spa than a hockey club- the long bar opened out onto a terrace which looked out onto a pristine blue pitch surrounded by seating and dugouts that were more like private booths – shaded and complete with all mod cons.
The supporters breathed it in, had a beer and smiled from ear to ear. The players headed for another long video session with Kwan. With two hours to kill there was only one thing for it…we left the president behind for siesta on the balcony and jumped into another Uber as rumour hit of another hockey shop down the road. Scenes of jubilation unsurpassed since the coronation bell the quiet Belgian streets when a Gantoise playing shirt was traced down followed by 7 more including a small woman’s sized one for Karan,
Bedecked to the nines we returned and showed off our spoils as the team prepared for a big test in 32 degree heat. Will Shep was looking a little peaky as the warm up on the dedicated warm up pitch began and even peakier as it finished and headed off in search of the facilities. The Gantoise players arrived with the sort of swagger the cool kids at school affect on a night out at the u15’s disco . They were also strangely proportioned and loomed like athletic giant hockey ants over our boys- they just seemed different somehow.
However we did not get downhearted, not for a moment, and Biffi found a cowbell which as the whistle blew to push back he tonged with alacrity that annoyed everyone- players included. But it made a super noise. It also didn’t help as within 2 minutes Gantoise has scored the most brilliant goal with a backhand of such ferocity that it produced gasps from the supporters.
The rest of the game passed in a blur. Gantoise were very good. Southgate worked very hard. Will Shep was very ill. The supporters watched open mouthed and Kwan played an entire game without coming off. It was really rather valiant as the heat was unbearable and three games in three days with little sleep at this intensity is harder than it is perhaps to easily articulate. The game ended promptly and the players came off largely unable to talk such was their total exhaustion.
They climbed the stairs to the bar for a presidential beer and chat was limited. The bus back to Calais was quiet enough until the long wait on the strange hinterland of the Ferry holding pens led to an emotional game of cricket watched by the assembled throng of cars and holiday makers. The boat journey saw some beers enjoyed and the journey home to the club was rather jolly and strangely included the sight of Archie Fosters nether regions which was as inexplicable as it was unexpected.
And on that note the European tour ended at 12:30am on Monday morning, many of the players were at work early the next day and slouched off into the Enfield night. It wasn’t perhaps obvious to the naked eye, but to a keen observer a shift had occurred somewhere and somehow. A levelling maybe, a bar raised – definitely, but more than that a team cohered in the heat of foreign climes- a chance to compete with the best of the best and a realisation that this group has the ability to do just that and go much further.
It was a truly awesome weekend and our thanks to Kwan, Huw, Simon and the whole squad for sharing it with a group of die hard Southgate fans whose Christmases all came at once.