I suppose the idea of going to watch England at a major tournament first came about on the eve of Euro 2016 in France. Obviously most of the matches were sold out by this point and the ones that weren’t were logistically difficult trips to organize at such short notice. I did however learn that the first ticket ballot usually opens around nine months before the tournament starts so in October 2017 we applied for the package of England’s group games. This was obviously before the draw was made so we had no idea who England were going to play or where it would be. Initially we were unsuccessful with our first attempt.
I can’t honestly remember the exact prices for each match but I can remember that the prices skyrocketed for matches in the knockout rounds so that’s why we decided to stick with the group matches. I do however distinctly remember looking at the England seven matches option which is how many the winners play and thinking well England definitely won’t end up playing that many (they did).
The second ticket ballot opened after the draw had been made and the option of applying for individual matches became available. Then on Thursday the 22nd of February it was confirmed on Fifa’s ticketing website that we were the proud owners of tickets to England’s first two matches against Tunisia and Panama.
This is probably a good point to introduce James who I’ve been friends with for very nearly 20 years. To be honest I wasn’t sure what his response would be when I asked him if he wanted to come with me to the World Cup because of the elephant in the room that is travelling to watch football in Russia. The response however was of course a positive one of “obviously we should go to the World Cup”.
Back to the 22nd February and the feeling of ecstasy of seeing green all over the application page on the Fifa website and then the horror of realising what you’ve done and that fact you can’t pull out now. I let James know by copying and sending the lyrics to the famous Three Lions anthem which merited the response “I’ve never been more excited”.
The following week James braved the beast from the East and came to stay overnight in my flat in Leeds as we set about the task of planning to cover the best part of 5500 miles by plane and train. Our first job was to apply for Fan ID’s which the authorities wanted every ticket holder to wear on them at all times. This acted as a visa to enter the country and enabled us to free transport to and from our matches.
Secondly it became apparent very quickly that airline companies were charging extortionate rates to fly into Russia from anywhere across Europe. So we devised a plan to essentially sneak up on Russia by flying with a budget airline company to neighbouring Latvia for £50 and then a couple of days latter a much shorter flight over the border to Moscow for £150. We looked at every available way of getting from the UK to Moscow including a seven day train journey from Paris to Moscow.
We decide to be based in Moscow for the 10 days we were there and to travel out on the free trains provided to the two matches. England’s opener against Tunisia was down in Southern Russia in the city which use to be called Stalingrad but is now Volgograd. Worryingly a quick Google search of the city came up with a picture of a tank and showed the close proximity the city has with the infamous Ukrainian border. The time the train was due to take to get there was an eye watering solid 24 hours from Moscow (and no that isn’t a typo).
Although the length of time on the trains was somewhat concerning we had in one day managed to book flights, accommodation, match tickets and travel for around the £400 mark. This obviously called for a trudge through the snow to the pub for a well deserved pint or few, completely unaware of the diplomatic incident that was about to occur in the coming days between the UK and Russia.
Just over a week later on the 4th March the poisoning of the Skripal’s happened with Russia being directly blamed by the UK leading the expulsion of diplomats from both sides. It seemed like every night there would be a new development in the story that shadowed the build up to the tournament.
Looking back now we felt incredibly unfazed by it all, it’s not often a major diplomatic incident is having a direct affect on you and your plans. Everyone told us we were mad or had a death wish, I wouldn’t describe myself as a stubborn person but the more I heard people telling me this, the more determined it made me to go and prove them wrong.
Only two people told me it was a brilliant thing to do, one was a local in the pub I use to work at and the other was a man on the phone from the bank who probably started on the closing of account forms after I told him. Interestingly when we got back the same people who told us we would be killed were the first ones to say it was all just media guff and they didn’t believe it for a second. Ye right.
Away from the all the media attention Russia was getting me and James were still making our final preparations to go. This included buying our retro England shirts, I had bought Bobby Moore’s 1966 World Cup Final shirt and James had gone for Gazza’s Italia 90 one. Whilst driving to May’s Champions League final in Kiev from Merseyside a group of Liverpool fans had set up a Twitter account to keep people informed about their progress which gave me the idea of doing something similar. James suggested Instagram so the 2 lions, @52yearsofhurt account was born.
Finally on the eve of departure we were ready to go. Bag packed, paperwork sorted and alarms set, let the greatest sporting event on the planet begin and we had front row seats, well top tier seats.