Something Different: Our Groundhopper Malcolm Stephenson at Marseilles

England away (Marseilles).




I decided to take the train to the south of France for England’s first game in the Finals and set off at 6am two days before the match.  Even at that time in the morning you could hear one or two ring pulls on cans of beer being opened at this unearthly hour. Three hours later I arrived in London Kings Cross. Then across London on the  underground tube to Waterloo station.. The Police monitoring the Eurostar to Paris were taking beer from fans getting on the train but this seemed bizarre as they were selling alcohol on board anyway. I personally had my four pack confiscated but my mood changed to joy when I found the bar open and serving.

On arriving in Paris after a couple of hours it was across the city by metro to the mainline station that would take us on the 5 hour journey to the South of France. On the train to Marseilles I got talking to a Doncaster Rovers fan who was great crack and introduced himself as ‘Donny’s number one piddle head‘! He was like a train spotter but ticked off every pub he visited. So when he went somewhere new he would go around as many 20 pubs before the match, having a half in each one. How he managed to recollect any game I do not know.

The train had to stop at Lyon and restock with beer as the English fans on board had drunk the train dry.

I was originally supposed to meet an acquaintance at Newcastle station who stated he had accommodation sorted out in Marseille. However he had failed to turn up and I had no where to stay. Little would I know that this would be my first anxiety of many on this trip. I made a promise to myself after this day, never to rely on anyone again but myself. I know I can count on me!

I arrived in Marseilles at about 7pm. The train station was at the top of a hill and you had a great view of the tree lined streets across the City. Unbelievably I found accommodation within 10 minutes of arriving. It was cheap and clean and I was sorted for the next two nights. The room was ok but the toilet on the landing was pretty gross and I immediately decided any ablutions would be performed elsewhere. Going back to Newcastle, I would leave on the overnight train straight after the match.

I threw my things in my room and did not bother to unpack but headed straight out into Marseilles. I soon met about 5-6 Aston Villa fans who had just been mugged in a bar by a mob of 30 Algerians. Marseille is one of those Cities with many Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians as well as those from other African countries. These Villa fans literally had their shirts ripped of their backs.

I soon made my way to the Harbour area where England fans were meeting up and congregating. It was not pre planned but its just strange as you seemed to just know where to go. I got talking to a Carlisle fan who was on his own and he too had just been mugged for his wallet. It occurred right in front of the Police who did not want to know or do anything to help him. Already the signs were not good and this place was giving me a degree of nervousness to say the least especially as I was on my own. Three Asian lads came in to the bar at the harbour area. All with their England shirts on and also wearing Sikh turbans. They were as much England fans as the rest of us. I met  a few England fans that night but there were not a great number in the City just yet.

I frequented a few bars that night and it must have been about 1am when I eventually got to bed. It was a good night and no problems for me at least as an individual.

Next morning I made my way to the harbour area again to have some breakfast. As I turned the corner into this area I could not believe the overnight transformation in the place. The area was heaving with fans and there were thousands of English about. Even at 10 am many were singing and drinking heavily. Opposition fans were also around in large numbers. They were excitable but not drinking like the English were. I had a feeling that it would just take one bottle to go flying and it would kick off big style. As the morning went on the harbour area became more and more boisterous and it only seemed a matter of time before it went off. At 12 midday precisely I literally saw that bottle I was talking about earlier go flying through the air. From that point it all went pretty crazy and was pretty hair raising. Fighting between fans started, bottles and bricks were being thrown, cars were attacked, people were injured and arrested and flags were burnt. Any media took a flurry of bottles from English fans.

The riot Police entered the scene and fired teargas into the England fans. You get a whiff of that stuff and its not nice. Makes you splutter and cough your guts up with your eyes streaming. The other thing I noticed was the size of the teargas canister. They are quite large and heavy and if they hit you direct on the head would cause a nasty injury. Many people were just wanting out of the way and I saw a crowd go down a side street to avoid the mayhem. The riot Police fired another tear gas canister straight into these innocents,  just missing a middle aged woman. They could not have cared less.

Many England fans were pushed back by the Police down one of the sides of the harbour which was lined with bars and cafes. People were still eating and drinking amidst the sound of battle. I entered an Irish pub and bought a drink. The barman asked if I had a good night in there the previous evening. I stated I could not remember but he did. He told me I was standing on top of the bar at one stage singing  ‘Vindaloo’!! I loved that record by fat Les. “We will score one more than you. England!”  The scenario must have been like that sketch from Mike Bassett England manager film when he was dancing on the bar.

Some fans would come in for a drink from the fighting and some would go from their drinking to the fighting outside. It seemed like some sort of unofficial rota system. Down the street the Police were lined up across the road. Behind them were French Locals, Tunisians, Moroccans, and Algerians. A mob itching to get Polive and go at England fans. Any England’s fans would do. Another tear gas went off by the Irish bar and all of the above mentioned group charged down the street with the Police at the English fans. Everyone ran further down the street from the Irish bar to escape this charging mob.

I dived into another bar further up the street as the owner was pulling his shutters down and dragging, chairs and tables inside his café. While I was locked inside this place. I could see the battle continue outside form an upstairs window. I was safe enough in the bar even though I was the only English man there. Literally after hours stuck here things had not quietened down just moved to other parts of the City. The bar staff were concerned with me wearing an England shirt and going to walk through the streets alone to my hotel. They gave me a black t shirt to wear instead. That walk to my hotel was probably one of the most scariest episodes in my life. I just kept walking and looked at no one while trying to appear confident in my stride at least. The dark side streets were just too dangerous to walk down as you knew you would be probably mugged. It was a long route I took to get back to my digs but I wanted to return in one piece.

I made it back to the hotel intact and had one last drink with a few other England fans. There were stories of an England fan getting his throat cut and people on mopeds going past English fans with the passenger slicing people up with knives as they went by. Sometimes you do not what is true and what is not. You do not read everything in the papers. All of a sudden one of the lads shouts at me to get in the bar quick. I wanted to have a look at the commotion down the street but my new friend literally dragged me by the collar into the bar just as the shutters came down. A Tsunami of retreating English were being backed up the street as the French locals and others were trying to get at them. Within seconds bottles and bricks were smashing against the shutters making a real noise.

As it dies down somewhat I managed to dash across to my hotel. I heard more noise behind me and sneaked a look through a window from behind a curtain. A English man had just got out of a taxi and was immediately jumped on by a mob. He was unconsciousness and beaten up within seconds. You wanted to do something but did not know what or how. It was only a few minutes before an ambulance came and picked him to take to hospital. To this day I do not know what became of him or how bad his injuries were.

I woke at 6am the next day and the road sweepers were already out cleaning up last nights debris. I thought they were that well organised. They have been here before and are used to riots in the City.

I attended the match next day but kept my black t shirt on. I was not going to take the risk and wear my England colours. I was on my own in this strange and violent City.

I had to take a metro ride to the ground. I did not see it but reports were that it kicked off again before the match with the Tunisians.

The Stade Velodrome was built in 1937 and currently has a capacity of 67,300. It was only renovated recently to take it to that capacity. Newcastle United played there in a UEFA cup match in 2004 in front of 58,597 fans to hold the previous record attendance. It used to be a big open ground with no roof cover anywhere, That has since changed. But it is still a large stadium and a pleasure to visit if nothing else.

England won the game against Tunisia 2-0 with goals from Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes. Hang on a minute. Your probably wondering what happened to Russia who we played in the Euro 2016 Finals? The fact is the game I am writing about is from the World cup finals in 1998. A different time and competition I know but I wanted to share my experiences of going away with England. Sad to say the off field situation in this French coast City is no different today as it was back then.

M2The ground as it was in 1998.

There were no problems in the ground and I made my way back to the hotel without incident. There were twice as many England fans in the ground as there were ticket allocations. How they all got in I do not know.

As soon as I saw this fixture in 2016 I knew there would be trouble. It might have been 18 years ago since the World cup but there is a new generation of football hooligans out there we have now. We do have a lot of genuine fans who are not out to cause trouble but we do have a hard core of ‘nutters’ who are, with many others willing to quickly join in. They should have had England play elsewhere and the Authorities do not seem to have learned from previous experience. The game was also on at 8pm so fans were drinking all day. To be quite honest with you I think the situation out there this time was worse than in 1998. Like last time ‘kangaroo’ courts (minus interpreters or legal defence) were quickly in action within days sending numerous English fans to prison. Not many Russians gone to jail so far from what I can see.

After the match I made my own way back to the hotel and was pretty nervous of who I might come up against on this journey. Thankfully there were no issues on my travels back to the hotel. It also transpired that it had all kicked off on the beach during the match in front of the big screen set up there.

I had one last couple of drinks in the bar by the hotel before making my way across the road up to the train station. Local gangs were constantly walking past you and eyeing you up. They all seemed to have young apprentice thugs with them who must have been about 11-12 years of age. These kids smiled and smirked at you.  You understood fine well  that they would love to turn you over or stick a knife in you given the chance.

The journey from the bar to the train station was literally only 500 yards. I was going to walk this short distance by myself but the bar owner was concerned for my safety. I looked around again and there were small pockets of local gangs hanging around just waiting to pick any stragglers off. The bar owner would not let me venture out on my own and walked me safely to the railway station where there were plenty of Police around to maintain calm. A few England fans were in the station battered, bleeding and bruised. A group of local girls were walking around and sarcastically asking them if they liked France now. Irritating to say the least but you could do nothing about it.

I made my journey back to the North East although it was not without any problems. As I changed trains in Paris I fell down the stairs and hurt my knee and limped the rest of the journey home. Unbelievable. Caught up in a riot and survived just to fall down some stairs on the way home!

I had thought about a return to Marseilles for Euro 2016 and decided from what I had witnessed previously not to travel. I am pleased I did not go and watched the game form the relative safety (wife apart) from my own sitting room.

On a final note. There were some England fans seriously injured in Marseilles recently. Lets hope they make successful recoveries and get back to the sport they love where the most important action occurs over 90 minutes on the pitch not off it with rival fans fighting each other.

One comment

  1. In 1998 there were 6 England fans arrested and put in prison. In 2016 it happened again to the same number. Just a coincidence or a calculated arrest factor? Wonder if has anything to do with a quota to set an example or just too many are not in jail at the same time creating extra expense of keeping or ability in housing them.. The 6 lads in 1998 had to be segregated from the local inmate population as they were out to kill them or worse. In 2016 not one Russian fan arrested either. Why? Just seems strikingly familiar and odd.

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