Kings of Lyon

So now that we have established this site is officially wearing two hats, I’m still not going to completely separate my passion for two sporting teams, and I’m sure the pendulum of enjoyment will continue to swing, and one day Chesham United will take centre stage again. However, as the respective seasons draw to a close, it remains the red and black of Saracens that wins my attention.

In fairness, the football season is over now, certainly for Chesham United. After an incredible FA Cup run and the honour of being voted FA Cup Giantkillers of the season (for the amazing win at Bristol Rovers) – A reward that will deservedly be picked up at half-time of this weekend’s Cup Final at Wembley – the second-half of the season was always in danger of becoming an anti-climax. Mid-table obscurity, and a Berks & Bucks Senior Cup Final…I went to the B&B Final, and I hate to say it, but I just didn’t feel it. It was a dreadful game, and we lost; but I was actually bored by it. That scared me.

Then I realised. Perhaps the reason it was not grabbing my attention was because I had another end of season final to look forwards to – Saracens v Racing Metro, in Lyon.

As mentioned last time out, this proved to be a truly memorable trip – Logistically challenging, financially painful, but so totally and utterly worth it.

As soon as the season started, back in the sorry days of rugby when the World Cup flames of enthusiasm had been dampened by England’s failure to get out of the group stage, I had my eye on the European Final. Ben and I talked about it, and I kept mentioning it at home; working on the theory that if I went on about it enough throughout the year, dropping subtle hints to Mrs Calder about the fact that if we reached the final “we will have to try and go”…Then we might just get to go!

The season started well for Saracens. Very well. And soon the jokey comments about “having to go” started to become more of a realistic prospect. Finishing the top side in the qualifying rankings it soon became apparent that we were only two wins away from going to Lyon, and such was the draw that both games would be against English sides (that we have already beaten in the Premiership), both games were in England, and Saracens were favourites to go all the way to the final.

Here’s another similarity to non-league football that I love. However much Saracens were stand out favourites to reach the final, as supporters, everyone seems to have that natural cynicism: “I bet we go and lose at home to Northampton”, “Wasps are coming strong now, they will probably beat us like they did at Allianz Park”. It’s great – I’m not sure if it is managing your own expectations, or definitely not wanting to come across as arrogant, but either way, it makes it all the more special when success does come along (even if deep down, somewhere beneath the surface, it was expected).

All that said, with the hints at home having had the desired effect, by the time we set off for the semi-final against Wasps there was a travel plan in place for Lyon, and Mrs C was fully supportive. In fact, she had everything lined up to get on and book the flights as soon as the final whistle went; with Harlequins having won through to a final in the same stadium in Lyon on the night before, flights from London to France were creeping up every hour.

And sure enough, by the time we had tediously manoeuvred out of the car park at the Madejski Stadium it was all booked, Ben and I were going on an adventure – A proper weekend away, overseas (we don’t do that often with Chesham United – hence the away trip to Merthyr Tydfil, in Wales, being deemed a big occasion – Chesham United abroad!).

Three weeks later and I’m sat nervously at the bottom of the hill waiting for Ben to get out of school for a dash up the M1 to Luton Airport and the start of our journey. We were flying out on the Friday night to Geneva, staying the night near the airport in Switzerland and then getting a train into Lyon on the Saturday morning. We could have flown out on Saturday morning, but I didn’t want to risk it as I don’t tend to have a lot of luck when flying.

Those that know me may have been bored several times over with tales that include being stuck in Tenerife when the ash cloud was over, or there was the time we took the kids to Lapland when they were young, to see Father Christmas. Fog and frozen wings meant that we were sat on the plane for four hours before it eventually took off. That was ok for us as we were going there for three days, there were others on the flight that were doing the day trip – They had to get off the plane as their trip was cancelled, ran out of time. It was a sorry sight seeing all the crying kids leaving the plane as they were not going to be seeing Santa after all!

Other trips have seen the flight cancelled as we are about to board for Prague to go and watch speedway, we literally had to collect our bags from the departure gate and spend the night in a Luton hotel, and we have spent many an hour at the end of the runway waiting for a mechanic to fix something (Barcelona) or for a thunderstorm to pass-by (the return flight from Prague).

So that’s why we were going out Friday night. Flights (and trains) to Lyon proved expensive, hence going via Geneva which more than halved the cost, and added to the adventure a little bit (plus I’ve never been to Switzerland before, so it was another country to tick off the list).

Arriving at Luton Airport, we immediately noticed the flight was delayed 30 minutes. Nah, that’s nothing. Heading up the escalators to security we followed a couple of other Saracens supporters that were on the same flight. A small world. Well, not really, as there were a fair few Sarries fans scattered around the departure lounge, but the amazing coincidence was that the two going up the stairs in front of us had been on the minibus I travelled on to the Worcester game less than a week earlier!! That is a small world.

Anyway, we eventually started boarding the flight scheduled for 5.50pm at 6.15pm. The pilot apologised about being late, something to do with air traffic control, and then he says “Oh, and you may have noticed we have an engineer onboard, a slight problem with one of the computers. The lights may go off shortly, but don’t panic, we are just seeing if we can fix it by turning the engine off and then on again” Unbelievalbe!

Even more amazing, it seemed to work and we were soon taxi’ing towards the end of the runway…though with no intentions of taking off yet. Air Traffic Control meant that we could not take off for another half-hour or so, but we were going to head towards the end of the runway “incase we could sneak in earlier”. I love flying!

We didn’t sneak in earlier, in fact we were more than another half hour. By the time we finally set off down the runway we had been on the plane longer than the flight was scheduled to be. Hey, that’s fine with us, that is why we left early.

We arrive safely at Geneva Airport, nearly 10.00pm by now, and manage to locate the courtesy bus that takes us to the hotel we were staying at for the night…needless to say there were a couple more Sarries fans on the same bus, making the same trip. By the time we checked-in and got to our room we managed to catch the last 10 minutes of Harlequins losing to Montpellier before crashing out in what were very comfortable beds, in a fairly decent room (certainly in comparison to where we would spend the following night!).

Fortunately Ben has picked up my habit of being an early person, unlike his mother. To us being somewhere at 11.30am means being there closer to 11, to Ben’s mother that would mean getting there at 11.35ish…So soon after 8.00am we were down in the hotel reception waiting for the courtesy bus back to the airport where we just needed to find the train for a short journey to Geneva Main Station and then onto the train that will go direct to Lyon. Needless to say, waiting for the bus, there were another four Saracens fans from the hotel waiting to make the same journey.

Being the organised people that we are, unlike the other fans making the journey, we had pre-booked our train tickets to Geneva. Everything was in hand. We had booked the 11.30am train out of Geneva, that gave us…errr, well, just over three hours to make the 7-minute train journey from the airport to the main station!

The other fans from the hotel had time to buy their tickets, and were ready to go on the 9,30am to Lyon, after a little test of my pigeon Swiss (pointing at my train ticket) we too were allowed to board this train and were soon on our way to France. I was chuffed with how the travels were going; Ben was too, but starting to get a bit grumpy having not eaten since Luton Airport at 5.00pm the day before…anyone who knows my Ben will know what a challenge that is.

We arrived at Lyon Part Dieu station at about 11.30am. By 11.32 I had fed Ben a croissant, and by 11.43am we both had foot long Subways in our hands…sorry, we are in Europe now, we had 60cm Subways in our hands.

There seemed to be trams everywhere, but chose to walk to find our hotel. We had a couple of disagreements about which was the right way…both times my 12-year old son was right. Bloody kids of today, think they know everything.

We eventually reached our hotel. A good location. There was a McDonalds just up the road (breakfast? Post-match snack?) and a tram station also that was just two stops from Part Dieu. All good.

We checked in to the hotel. To be honest, it wasn’t that great. Really honest, it was a complete dump…but hey, what do you expect for £42 in Lyon on the night of a major sporting event? It was a place to lay our heads at night, and it did the trick, but we wasted no time in leaving the hotel. Not trusting the hotel security, we packed a small rucksacks with all our valuables, and set off in the direction of the ground.

It was early again. Still five hours ’til kick-off. Need to allow for anything going wrong. And there was the small matter of having to pick up our tickets for the game having been unfortunate to have booked our tickets in the infamous Block 405 – The block where the tickets purchased in North London were, mistakingly sent back to France. Having been so meticulous in booking all our flight and train tickets, I did find this really annoying and had exchanged relative stroppy email exchanges with the ticket office. However, I was comfortable that it would all work out ok having come across a couple of others in a similar situation via the fantastic Sarries Tickets Facebook page (there you go Fraz – A plug for you!).

A change from T4 to T3 tram line at Part Dieu and we were on our way towards the stadium.

The tram system worked a treat.

We were soon walking the short trip to the ground. For the first time I felt the buzz. The reality hit me. This wasn’t just a road trip abroad, this was a major cup final. A chance for Saracens to create a little bit of history. Not so much nervous, more excited. Unlike a semi-final, I was mentally prepared for defeat. We still get to enjoy the occasion, and there is always next year, (I know that sounds kinda crazy, but actually, there is a part of me that thinks that if we do the Double this year, how does it get any better? What’s the dream? Bizarrely, it was that feeling that kept the nerves at bay).

This blog site has converted into a site that is praising the virtues of rugby, and its supporters, whilst questioning what, or more how, a football fan contributes towards the sport. There is no doubt that it is commonly accepted that rugby fans are different (more civilised?) than football fans. But even, if you segment it even more, there was a difference between the French and the English as we walked towards the Stade De Lyon…

…We passed many Sarries fans en route. All well-behaved, good-humoured, with the odd pint in hand. Indeed, we stopped off for a quick pint and a Pepsi by a big double decker red London Bus, squatting on the curb, sipping our drinks. Not classy, but hey, we were just a couple of hundred yards from the stadium.

Of course there was no segregation, there was no threatening atmosphere and the English were happily mingling with our French counterparts. There were noticeable differences though, I could not help but spot that whilst we were slugging lager from our cans and plastic cups, the Fench had taken over public benches with picnic blankets draped over them, baguettes and a selection of cheeses spread out amongst the boxes of wine and plastic wine glasses – It just looked so much more civilised!

The weather in Lyon was best described as changeable. Pint and Pepsi at the bus was enjoyed in glorious sunshine. Ten minutes later, picking up our tickets (which we did OK) and going through security – This was done in pouring rain, and nearly put a dampener on the occasion, in every sense of the word.

Hindsight, I should have known better. If I was bitter, I would say that if I had received my ticket more than two minutes before entering the ground then I would have been more aware. Understandably (hindsight again) the French were pretty tight on people with bags, or more specifically rucksacks.

As I showed my ticket someone tried to explain that I needed to do something else. “That’s fine” I said “they can search my bag up there” I said, hoping, pretending, that I had understood what he said.

They didn’t want to search my bag. They wanted to take it off me. No bulky bags in the ground. It was raining.

It wasn’t just raining. It was lashing it down. There was no cover for my bag that I had to leave outside, and there was no ticket/receipt to say that I had left my bag outside the ground. I didn’t rate my chances of ever seeing the bag again.

We emptied the iPads, the Chargers, the passports and all the paperwork that was important and put them in my jacket pocket. I looked (even more) like the Michelin man as I headed to the gate to be searched before going into the stadium – This was going to be interesting…

…It was interesting, in the sense that the bloke searching me tapped both thighs, padded the iPad and then waved me in… Seriously? I could have any sort of bomb strapped to me at this moment in time, and I had just walked straight into a major sporting event, in France, with over 58,000 over people present. That felt strange. Uncomfortable.

I must admit, with rain, close to sleet, falling on my head, I was raging a little at this point, but was also fully aware that I should be just enjoying the moment. A beer seller with a pack on his back walked by – A pint of that, some fries for Ben, another beer…we were ready to go.

Walking around the concourse waiting for the gates to open (we’re early birds!) we bumped into another member of the Worcester fun bus the previous week (small world again)…We had a really good chat, I met his wife, they met Ben – It was great, loving this whole Sarries Family idea!

So we make our way into the stadium. A fantastic stadium it is too. More a Wembley than a Twickenham; you probably get what I mean by that. I love a lot about Twickenham, but Wembley is something more special – as a stadium, forget history, and football v rugby, I’m thinking as a piece of architecture – though atmosphere is a different thing all together. Lyon seemed to be like Wembley, with a Twickenham atmosphere.

Perched up high behind the posts down one end, we were pleased to be surrounded by many more Sarries fans, with some neutral (Clermont) and partisan French fans around us. Did I ever feel uncomfortable, intimadated, unable to support my team? Never. The atmosphere was superb. Everything a cup final should be.

We were entertained by the pre-match bands (and the bloke coming around selling beer from a backpack) and were buzzing, along with nearly 59,000 others by the time the game started.

I love sport, and I get rugby more than I ever dreamed I might, and I understand that the team I have recently adopted as my new love are not historically popular, and are regularly labelled boring. I’m in no position to comment on this, being a rugger newbie, but I get why Sarries are called boring, but I love it all the more for it – The bits others call boring, that’s what I love.

To be honest, I love a good pass and run, sleaky skills, quick moves; but what appeals to me is the power, the teamwork, the driving determination, the pressure, swarming…the Wolfpack mentality and determination. Football can entertain me with the pretty stuff, rugby gives what my wife refers to as “GRRR”. I get the GRRR. Football has no GRRR. Successful GRR is incomparable. That moment when the play is building, edging towards the line, and a bit more GRRR and you’ll score…(maybe I am over-simplifying the game!).

So the game wasn’t a classic. Plenty of GRRR, not a lot of the pretty stuff. To the uneducated – which I still am to a large degree – it became a kicking contest, and Owen Farrel won it. By a country mile. In fairness to myself I understand a lot more about the role of the other players in generating the penalties than I would ever admit at the bar before a Chesham United game. But that is still nothing compared to my Ben.

There was a moment during the game when there was an unpopular decision amongst the French. It wasn’t obvious, but Ben got it and shouted out (as he has started to do so much more since the Bath trip – thanks guys!) “C’mon, I’m only 12 years old and I know that.” The bloke sat next to Ben leaned over, put his arm around Ben, gave him a huge smile and said “I’ve been watching rugby for 43 years, and I did not know that!” Ben gets it. He really does get it…surely a referee in the making.

Websites and newspapers are full of details of the game, so I don’t need to go into all that. As has happened so many times this season it was all very close to start with and slowly, as the game goes on, Sarries wear the opposition down and slowly move from competing to dominating, crushing the opposition both mentally and physically.

For the majority of the match the French were still within a converted score of being right back in it, but a couple more Farrell penalties and you could sense around the stadium that the English fans were the ones ready to start celebrating.

With the clock turned to 80 minutes, a successful line out won and the ball is booted into the stands to mark the crowning of Saracens as European Champions. It felt good. It felt bloody good.

Every penny, every minute spent sat on a plane, every rain-drenched rucksack and over-priced beer was worth it for that one magical moment. It is what I wanted my Ben to experience. I loved the moment, but loved it all the more when I looked at his face and saw the sheer elation. Another memory that both of us will carry with us forever.

Post-match there was clearly a party atmosphere and the Sarries fans were going to be going for long into the night (“We know who we are, we know who we are…”), but unlike if I was at a Chesham match, this was still about the father/son moments so we just headed back towards the tram with huge smiles on our faces.

Remarkably we managed to pick up our sodden rucksack on the way out, and merrily chatted about the game as we headed back towards the tram stop…so busy chatting, we managed to get a bit lost. Having walked much further than we should have done we finally stumbled upon a different tram stop, and waited. The tram we were waiting for was coming from the direction of the stadium, unfortunately most of them were already packed with rugby fans and not stopping. After about four had passed by one finally stopped. It was packed, with Racing Metro fans.

Most people on the platform chose to wait for the next one, but Ben and I barged our way in and spent the 20 minute journey squashed up against some very jovial French fans that were still singing and laughing – Even chatting to us, but to be honest neither of us really had a clue what the other was saying, but as long as everyone was still smiling, it felt comfortable.

We got back to the hotel via McDonalds, caught the end of the Eurovision Song Contest and managed to pass out on the rock hard beds until morning. No point hanging around, we were checked out by 8.00am. Croissants for breakfast at the train station, a busy train back to Geneva, on to the airport, the flight was on time and by the time we landed at Heathrow at 6.30pm it had not felt like a days travelling. We had been laughing and joking all the way, chatting about the match, playing games on the iPad and enjoying each others company.

A successful away trip. I had hoped it would be something that Ben would enjoy and appreciate – But it did even more than that. It gave us some quality time together, generated memories and now we can both say that we were there the day that Saracens became Champions of Europe.


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