Part 2 – And back……
I hope you enjoyed part 1, the journey to Baku
The day after the game, our moods were sombre and it was difficult to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves down to go again because neither of us were motivated and we both knew how the other felt. There was almost no point in talking to each other or trying to snap the other out of it but when it reached early afternoon, the realisation suddenly dawned upon us that we had to make the most of what was left of our trip, even if it was going to be a big challenge.
We could not let Arsenal completely ruin a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity and some fresh air and a walk along Baku harbour seemed exactly what the doctor ordered. Although the overcast skies did appear to mirror our early morning blues. Our lives do predominantly revolve around Arsenal and at times, in the aftermath of victory or defeat, it can be very easy to forget that there is more to life than football.
Having finally managed to clear our heads and do a bit of sightseeing, we were ready to head towards Baku train station and catch the Baku to Tbilisi night train, which we had booked tickets for in advance. Following the enjoyment of our hitchhiking experience on the way to Baku, in some ways, we wished that we had chosen to stay an extra day so that we could have travelled back in the same fashion. However, I had never travelled on a night train, so that in itself was to be another new experience that I could tick off the list.
Being unsure of what way the station was, we asked a young woman whether she could point us in the right direction. Instead of pointing us, she purposely topped up the balance on her travel card and paid for us to go on the bus and then the metro with her, advising us which stop we needed to get off at. The generosity of both the Georgian and Azerbaijan people, continued to amaze us.
Prior to boarding the train, another one of our Arsenal supporting mates joined us and we all expressed our concerns about the fourth person in our four-bed compartment, being a Chelsea supporter. Whilst wondering whether we had purchased enough alcohol for the journey but several local beers and a bottle of Azerbaijani wine, given to us by our Airbnb host, served as the perfect nightcap. Unfortunately, a Chelsea supporter who resembled Diego Costa joined us.
We were all thankful that instead of gloating, he spent ninety five percent of the fifteen hours that we ended up being on board for, after being delayed by customs officials at both borders, asleep. Even if he did snore like some kind of wild animal. We did meet one particularly irritating Chelsea supporter the next morning on the train, not only had he been everywhere we all had, he had been twice and had a better time too. He also kept addressing his son by calling his name every thirty seconds during conversations. If I were you, I would avoid saying the name Harry around me for a while as I may throttle you.
The train journey itself, was unnecessarily long winded due to the slow speed at which the train moved and the relaxed attitude of the staff on board did not help either. It was surreal to see the train stopping at frequent intervals to allow the staff to have a cigarette and buy some beers in some cases, at what were evidently prearranged stop locations. Still, with the compartment being relatively small and the hot temperature on the train, I was happy to get the regular opportunities to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. How the other three in my compartment were able to sleep cocooned in their bed covers, I will never know, as I was sweating despite being shirtless and wearing shorts.
It was midday on Friday, our final day, when we left the night train, which was several hours later than we had originally hoped to arrive in Tbilisi but at least the weather was doing its best to try to raise our spirits as the sun beamed down intensely. We were in need of something to eat and settled upon a restaurant selling traditional Georgian food. After discussing the various different dishes that were on the menu, we asked the waiter for his recommendations. Settling on three different types of Khinkali dumplings, meat, cheese and mushroom and an intriguingly named Megrilian stuffed sausage.
A further walk around the botanical gardens followed and then we started to head back towards Tbilisi train station, where we would need to catch a taxi to Tbilisi airport. Before that though, we realised that we hadn’t tried any traditional Georgian wine. After around an hour of searching for a suitable local bar, we found one selling glasses of homemade wine for the equivalent of thirty pence in sterling. I didn’t need a second invitation. The couple of hours that we spent in this bar, turned out to be one of the most memorable moments of the trip for me. I was content talking about life with my sidekick, who had been a huge inspiration to me from the moment that we booked our flights, by encouraging me to get out of my comfort zone and live a little.
With everything in Tbilisi seemingly closing at midnight, we ended up at the airport four hours before our flight to Istanbul. We were shattered and it was as struggled not to fall asleep, which we were both worried about doing and missing our flight. We managed to stay awake but I think we both fell asleep as soon as we sat down on the plane, waking only as we landed in Istanbul, where a six-hour wait for our final flight to Stanstead, was waiting for us. Thankfully, we found somewhere to rest our heads and spent a large percentage of the time sleeping and it felt like we were soon boarding the final leg of our incredible journey. The flight was far smoother than our flight to Istanbul and after yet more sleep, we were at last back home in England.
All the travelling was extremely tiring and the disappointment of the game was emotionally draining but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat to follow Arsenal Football Club, who win, lose or draw, will always be my club, and to make more incredible memories with the people who shared this unique and amazing journey with me. The feelings I felt in the aftermath of losing the Europa League final will never leave me and they still have not from when we lost the Cup Winners Cup final in 1995.
These disappointments enhance the enjoyment when we do win something and I truly believe that as a football supporter, you have to have suffered the disappointments in order to fully appreciate the good times. At least that is what I have to keep telling myself but I know we will be back and our time will come again.
Here’s to Gdansk next year, how we get there we don’t know, how we get there we don’t care, all we know is we are on our way…