Rotterdam Or Bust
By Geoff Thomas
I think we always believed that Villa had more than a puncher’s chance of doing something in the European Cup. After all, we were champions of England, and English clubs were ruling the roost in that period. Dynamo Kiev had been dealt with, and a 1 – 0 advantage over Anderlecht meant that a clean sheet would get us to the final.
Only the final was televised live, so if you were not there, the radio was the only way to keep up. On the night of the second leg, I was meeting up with my girlfriend and I set off to meet her clutching my radio. Surprisingly, a lot of blokes were wandering around, radios glued to ears. By the time we met, the game was over and I was losing my mind. Still, she eventually married me.
We have been married for nearly 34 years and I have barely mentioned Rotterdam in that time.
Anyway, back to the victorious semi-final night, and the enormity of it all began to wash over me…
Organising the Trip
First thing to do was to get in touch with my pal Nick to see if he was up for going. We had been going to the Villa together since the age of eleven, so I knew what the answer would be. We waited for information about tickets and travel.
Sadly, at that time, fan behaviour was a big issue. The reputation of English fans wasn’t great to say the least. This was not helped when some bonehead ran on the pitch in Anderlecht. Stories of trouble in Germany and Holland were circulating too.
The arrangements were announced. If you wanted a ticket, you had to be a member of the Travellers Club and go on one of the official trips run by the club. We had not been Travellers Club members for several years. Nick had passed his driving test in 1976 and we had been driving to away games in his old Hillman Imp,
Off to Villa Park then to join up.
There were several travel options available. Flights coach or trains. All options were designed to get us all straight there and back and strictly no alcohol (good luck with that).
As I am 6’4” coach travel for many hours does not appeal, so we booked the train option. Train to Harwich and a ferry to the Hook of Holland, job done. That’s not what happened though.
At the time, the Falklands war was developing. The Government were sending a fleet to the South Atlantic. Some of the better ships were commandeered by the task force as supply and hospital ships. Our arrangements changed. It was now a train to Folkestone, a cross channel ferry and yes, a six-hour coach journey. We signed up and got the golden tickets.
A bit more admin was required.
A couple of months short of my 24th birthday and I had never been abroad, so I did not have a passport. In those days you could get a one-year passport for £1 at your local post office. Dead easy really.
Also, there was the matter of getting the time off work. I asked my boss, who was not interested in football and couldn’t understand why anyone would travel half way across Europe to see a game. He was OK with it although I didn’t tell him that I was going to go anyway.
Everything sorted and now all we had to do was wait.
The Journey There
Tuesday 25th eventually came around. I packed my adidas sports bag (we all had one). A jumper, a waterproof, some snacks and pop.
I was armed with my lucky hat, knitted by my Mum for my first game in 1968, and my lucky socks which were from my first kit which I had for my 10th birthday. I can’t say how lucky they are, but for all I know, they could be responsible for the breakdown of goal line technology.
I also bought a ludicrous souvenir bowler hat which Nick ended up wearing because it was a bit too small for my big old head.
Dad was as good as gold and dropped us off in town, my pockets stuffed with tickets, paperwork and various currencies – Sterling, French Francs, Belgian Francs and Dutch Guilders (aren’t Euros great).
We got to the front concourse of New St. Station, where the eye shaped screen is now found. There were hundreds of fans already there and as you might expect, the place was bouncing. It was 11 o’clock in the evening and obviously no drink had been taken.
Soon, the gate was opened and we filed down to the platform singing and cheering. We jumped on the train and settled down. British Rail saved the oldest, scruffiest carriages for football fans, with some justification at that time in fairness. About midnight we set off with deafening cheers. The route to be taken was around all the back lines and the journey to Folkestone would take all night.
After a while, things settled down except for one Herbert who insisted on messing about with people’s stuff up and down the carriage. He soon packed it in and most of us tried to get some sleep, though not with any great success in my case.
Daylight came as we entered Kent. It was a beautiful sunny, warm and still morning. The weather would be that good for the rest of the trip. The train pulled up at Ashford station. The opposite platform was full of London commuters waiting in silence, including quite a few civil servant types with bowler hats and pin striped trousers. I always thought that was a 1950s stereotype, but no. The train had windows you could open and they all were. Someone shouted “ Wakey, Wakey Ashford ! “ this set off the whole train singing and cheering. The look of horror on the faces across the way was priceless.
We were soon in Folkestone and were quickly led on foot to the nearby Ferry terminal where we boarded a scheduled cross channel ferry. Because it was a normal service, there were non-football passengers on board, the behaviour was not bad but more than a bit raucous and I can well imagine other passengers feeling intimidated. On the plus side, as soon as we left port, the bar opened. Drinks all round, and the alcohol ban is not going well.
The Channel was like a pond and in no time, Boulogne was visible in the distance. Everyone made their way outside onto the top deck and as the ferry slowly entered port, we sang a few choruses of Rule Britannia. The look of horror on the faces of the people on the quayside was priceless.
Once docked, we were led to a fleet of coaches, no messing about, and we were soon on the road. I enjoyed taking in the sights as we went along, being something new to me. It was not too long before we had crossed into Belgium. After a couple of hours, we stopped at some services which had some nice food (an eye opener after Watford Gap).
We sat outside with a nice pastry and a bottle of Belgian beer. The alcohol ban was continuing to go well. There were some bikes nearby and two lads decided to borrow them for a race around the car park. The owners came out and were incandescent. That was the day I learnt the word “merde”.
Back on the road again, the journey seemed dull for a while. Once we crossed into Holland, things started to get a bit livelier. I noticed that time was getting on and as a result, we wouldn’t have as much time in Rotterdam as I would have liked. As we got closer, the view was increasingly urban and industrial, just like the M6 but with clogs on.
As we approached the coach park, the singing cranked up as we waved to fans of both teams. Made it!
There were shops and bars near the stadium, all overflowing with fans. Some Villa bars and some Bayern. Fans mixed on the street and if there were any problems, we didn’t see them. Another beer was taken, the alcohol ban continued to go badly.
It was nice to have a pint but we were not interested in spoiling the occasion by getting plastered. Wandering up to the ground, we came across the now famous kick about between Villa and Bayern fans. There was an embankment on the side of the pitch. I think there were almost as many playing as watching. More like the Shrove Tuesday game. The game petered out and it was time to go to work and everyone made their way into the ground in good spirits.
The European Cup Final
26th May 1982
The stadium was spectacular and far more modern than any ground I had ever visited including the Baseball Ground, Derby. We took our place on the terrace behind the goal, about three quarters of the way back dead in line with THAT post.
I think my voice was starting to go even before kick-off. The ground was not full. I assume this was for segregation reasons, as there was a big gap between rival fans. Things got a bit frosty for a few minutes when the Bayern fans started chanting “Argentina”. That didn’t go down too well and was greeted with Nazi salutes and Sieg Heils. The game got underway and this unpleasantness was soon forgotten.
As with most big matches, the game itself seems to pass you by. I have seen it so many times since I know it off by heart now.
When Jimmy Rimmer went off so early, we feared the worst. He was a great keeper, but twists of fate like this are what give birth to legends.
The game started as a war of attrition, but as the first half wore on we were increasingly under the kosh. Spinky was busy and Rummenigge, who was a fabulous player was giving us the run around. He put one just wide before half-time.
Half-time came not a moment too soon.
We caught our breath and went again. The second half started a bit better. I thought we got on the ball a bit more, stopping them from dominating so much. Bayern may have been a great team and probably better than us, but we had game changers in our team and they delivered. I can’t really tell you what happened when the goal went in as things got a little fuzzy for a minute or two.
I am somewhere in the top right of the picture below.
After this, things became progressively more difficult, for a start, the electronic clock at the other end of the stadium seemed to be stuck, so the last twenty minutes seemed like an hour. Still, no matter what they threw at us we held firm.
Sometimes you just know when it’s your day and I think we all sensed it. “The Bells are Ringing “ was booming out long before the final whistle.
The final whistle blew – cue mayhem. I remember the Bayern players all sitting down in disbelief. The Villa players were running around in disbelief. We were jumping around in disbelief. The memory of seeing Gary Williams running towards us has always stuck with me. The expression on his face summed the moment up perfectly.
After a few minutes, the ceremonies took place. Dennis Mortimer lifted the cup. All around, people were hugging, old men were in tears. If pure joy could be bottled, it would contain this moment.
Laps of honour completed, we started to make our way out of the ground. There was a group of Dutch rozzers at the back of the terrace dancing with the fans covered in scarves and hats given to them. They were even less fond of Germans than us !
On the way back to the coach. It was very quiet. I think everyone was physically and mentally drained. On the coach, not much was said, but we all appeared to sit there with the same dopey smile.
The Triumphant Return
The coach made its way back to Boulogne overnight. I may have nodded off for a while. There were a couple of hours to kill, so we made our way through the Harbour down to the beach where we had a paddle in the sea.
The harbour area had some bars and we ended up in one of them. After a beer with some cut-throat type French fishermen, it was time to board the ferry which was bound for Dover,
The ferry trip can only be described as a lovely joyous party. Only one incident of note. There was a blood curdling scream. When we looked up, there was a bloke standing in front of two women, his beer in hand and for some reason, his trousers and pants around his ankles. Yes, it was the Herbert from the train journey down. It is the one image I wish I could forget.
We docked at Dover, back on the top deck, singing and cheering. The train home was waiting. I passed out for two hours or so once we had set off. The train joined the route that is now the Chiltern Line. To get to New Street Station, you have to branch off at Small Heath taking you past St Andrews. Whether by accident or design the train stopped by the Railway End. Windows opened and we let them know who the champions of Europe were.
Minutes later we were back at New Street. Job done.
I went to work the next day for what it was worth. It was the civic reception that evening. So that was me in the middle of Victoria Square in my suit amongst the sea of claret and blue, straight from work.
We had the time of our lives. From the despair of dropping into the third tier, to European glory. That is as good as it gets.
I’m Geoff Thomas. I conquered Europe in 1982 and you can still hear me singing from the stands at Villa Park.