Kranolky Boys go ballistic
Philosophy Football have taken valuable lessons from our two previous European clashes: in the alpine heights of Zürich we learned that tactical manoeuvres must be displayed on the field as well as talked about in the café, and in Rome what a joy it is to play on a decent pitch for a change. What would we learn from our third trip, to Prague? Probably that if you’re going to compete on the European stage, you need to take more than half a team with you.
Freshly sprayed with disinfectant at Prague airport, we are met by our host, Miroslav, who confirms suspicions of local Mafia connections by sporting a camel-hair coat draped over his shoulders, blue-tinted glasses and a droopy moustache.
He even makes us an offer we can’t refuse: VIP tickets to that night’s World Cup qualifier between the Czech Republic and Denmark. We pack off to our team accommodation while Geoff and Hugh scoot off to the luxurious Hotel des Gaffers.
The match has few moments but many mysterious cards produced by the ref – mysterious, that is, until Ian recognises him as Graham Poll. Half time sees sausages and beer for 8 bought for a total of £3, a slew of abortive phone calls back home for the England v Albania score and our first efforts at speaking the lingo. According to a phrase book, each letter always sounds the same, although what it doesn’t mention is that no letter in the language sounds remotely the way you’d expect it to.
Later, Hugh shows us the Old Town in this city that never sleeps. We look for a traditional bite to eat but sadly the restaurants do sleep after 10:30 and we eventually walk home hungry through the city centre, failing to find anywhere even to get a drink. Until, that is, we get home and find that the Sports Bar directly underneath our accommodation never actually closes. At least, never when there is more than one Philosophy Footballer in there.
Frankly, this amounts to about the same thing, especially after Owen introduces us to the concept of the ‘waffer thin ale’ which helps us pass a good few extra hours there. Here we start to perfect the phrases for “more beer” and also “thank you”.
Next afternoon the Gaffer and Goober meet Cornish Al and belle du jour Sarah at the airport, brandishing one of those taxi-driver type boards produced by Hugh with the words ‘Cornish Al’.
In the evening Miroslav quizzes us each separately about the standard of our team – very suspicious, we think.
Then Ivor arrives and steps into the role traditionally played on Philosophy Football tours by Denis Skinner, disagreeing vehemently and embarrassingly with our host on what does and does not constitute a restaurant in Prague. Eventually we settle into a swanky French restaurant for a superb meal, the high point of which has to be when the waiter announces Ian’s meal with ”Duck breast, sir” to which Ian retorts “Same to you, slap-head”.
Then to the big moment – the matches against the Communist Party and the miners’ team. Except suddenly Miroslav tells us that these matches have been cancelled and we are to play a village team, Zlatníky, which we have never heard of. Very suspicious, we think. Again.
We hop on a bus with various locals doing their Saturday afternoon shopping. After 15 minutes or so Miroslav sidles up to the driver and has a word in his shell-like. The driver pulls up to the next stop, urgently ushers all the unwitting locals off the bus and drives on for 45 minutes to the village. What was said? We are probably better off not knowing.
We arrive at Zlatníky to be paraded onto the pitch with the home team, European Cup style. We then suffer ritually at the hands of a far stronger team. Let’s forget about the match itself. Suffice it to say that the ‘Men in Black’ strip will never be used again. One plus point is the start of a Philosophy kop – Hugh with his huge vintage rattle, Sarah and Goob in support (rather smaller rattles) and Ruth running the line with Jez’s old 8mm cine camera. Hero of the match is Ian ‘Davros’ Coyne, who plays a blinder with a serious neck injury, drugged to the eyeballs.
That night Miroslav takes us to a traditional Czech restaurant. Everything here comes with either dumplings or potatoes, and it is with some inevitability that Goob finally spots ‘potato dumplings’ on the menu. Most of us plump for a dish called something like the Czech Belly-Buster, which certainly lives up to its name. Still, the stodge goes some way to soaking up the pain of defeat.
After this, Cornish Al presents the first of his cultural nights out, at a jazz club, where Richard launches into some of the loopiest dancing you are ever likely to see.
April Fool’s day sees a group head for an early match at Viktoria Zizkov, playing Brno. There are some fuzzy heads; not least Owen, who utterly fails to get out of bed. By now the weather has turned from bitter winter into high summer. Hugh reminisces: “The game was played in warm sunshine and was everything Premiership football no longer is: cheap and cheerful, with terraces, stand seats at £1.20, lots of local colour, and if I was a Prague resident, I would get a season ticket there immediately.” (Incidentally a season ticket there costs half a replica strip.)
Later we assemble for Miroslav’s fêted brewery tour, but Miroslav has by this stage made himself a clear candidate for the Gaffer’s Kafka award, having gone AWOL since the match.
In the afternoon a few of us head up to the hill park in Malá Strana, across the river in the west of the city: a beautiful place to chill out for an afternoon. Ian proves his worth as skipper by trotting off to buy beer for the lot of us.
That night Al and Sarah lead a return visit to the opera. Sadly Denis Skinner was unable to make this performance, but it did see a lovestruck Richard shouting ‘bravo’ at the prima donna (Il Gaffer assures me it should be ‘brava’).
After this our esteemed Gaffer, showing the tactical precision so central to our play, catches the wrong tram and ends up somewhere outside the city in the middle of the night.
Next morning we assemble, groggy, in a bar devoted to Sveijk, a cartoon character who has become something of a minor obsession with Hugh, to the point that he has arranged to deliver a cultural lecture to us all on the subject. Here he makes a late bid for the Kafka award by failing even to turn up, something to do with having consumed vast quantities of Becherovka liqueur.
After that it is just a case of grabbing a few late souvenirs and heading to the airport. Some people may have memories extending beyond the Sports Bar, but not me. Roll on France!
The author would like to acknowledge the patronage of the Gaffer in the preparation of this article, which extended to presenting me with a notepad and pencil on the plane to Prague.