Thursday, March 31, 2005

AUSTRIA 1 WALES 0 A view from Vienna

Well another European journey to follow Wales is over but what an excellent time despite the result. I think just about everyone who went enjoyed themselves.

I'm saving the lads only trip for Blackpool when City visit Preston in 3 weeks so it was a toned-down experience for myself going with the missus, parents, brother and nephews but we all went our different ways when relevant. Got to Stanstead at a ridiculously early hour but Wetherspoon's was open, sausage sarnies were excellent and although it was a stupid time to drink beer, the Welshies were well and truly at it.

Flew over with Nicki Lauda's airline (the facially disfigured ex-F1 driver). Didn't expect anything from an internet cheapie flight but we had air hostesses wearing what was supposed to resemble F1 racing overalls but their shiny, silver garbs with red sashes made them look like Thunderbirds extras. The plane had leather seats, we were all fed and watered too, there were tv's showing Mr Bean, a pranks show and cartoons and the few Austrian/Germans on the flight were stocked up with the hostesses coming down the aisles handing out literally hundreds of newspapers and magazines. Plane was late an hour late, Nicki Lauda only crashed twice on the way and the mid-air pit stop was hairy but we were there by lunchtime.

Travel in Vienna was easy. 28 Euros (about £20) bought you a return high speed train from airport to city centre, the ability to check in for the return flight and dump your bags in the city centre allowing you to spend your last hours with no luggage and unlimited travel for 3 days on the excellent trams, underground and buses. In fact, you could have done that for 16 Euros only for the return airport train only as - just like Helsinki and Milan - not once did anyone check for tickets on the city travel network.

Vienna has some great buildings and some pretty awful ones too but was, on the whole, clean. It was more like visiting an Eastern European city rather than Western Europe, only its shops gave it a modern edge.

Our hotel was the Hilton on the Danube and we hung out the Welsh flags only to have management knocking our rooms asking to remove them. Only later did we realise that (i) it overlooked the ground and (ii) the Austrian team were staying there!

As often seems to happen on Wales trips, we were blessed with good weather. Dry throughout, usually sunny. It did cool at night but never went to freezing and unless you were in direct sun, it was still chilly and fresh walking the shady streets by day but, given the time of year, was excellent.

Food and drink was excellent too but I'm glad to be back just to avoid meat for a day or two. Although advance fears were how costly it could be, the reality was anything but. At worse, it was equivalent to Cardiff. Beers about £2 - £2.50, meals £3 - £5. Those kebabs (I didn't have any!) about £2, huge Bratwurst hot dogs (mostly with cheese in the middle) about £1.50, a triple scoop Italian ice cream only just over £1. First night, we visited a luxurious Italian and had starters, meals and drink for under £9 a head.

Not sure I'm a fan of their beers. It's nearly all Pilsner. The most popular by far, Gossmer, shore be re-named Gas-More. I later discovered the wheat beer, Edelwiess. Not that was a top drink, had me singing after just two! I even brought some back.

We drunk 1st night at the so-called Bermuda Triangle where main drinking dens were and it did resemble Little Wales. Matchday started in the centre but in the afternoon, we went to the beer garden at the huge fairground. Cold beers on tap, the excellent go-karts and mayhem right behind.

The "Vienna Eye" big wheel must be old, it looked like its capsules were old Trecco Bay caravans or portakabins. We tried to remember in which film they had been featured. The night we got back, James Bond's The Living Daylights was on ITV and there's Timothy Dalton at the fairground, on the big wheel and even in the beer garden but minus all the Welsh flags!

Ernst Happel Stadium had its good and not so good aspects. Good - it was impressive, offered good views, the away section was decent and the bowl shaped stadium with high hanging roofs kept the (our) atmosphere in. We were all given free baseball caps and sweets going in too. Bad - it's an athletic stadium with a football pitch plonked in the middle leaving us a long way from where the action was. The climb to the top of the stadium was three tortuous flights of stairs, testing the fittest amongst us.

The best bit was also the worst bit. How chuffed we were to see beer being sold in the ground even if it was 4 Euro (almost £3 a time). The Welsh fans loved sitting in our seats with beer watching the football. The fact it tasted like the proverbial gnat's pee was minor detail. However, the more we drank, the more sober we became. Not until half-time did it dawn on me that I, and hundreds of Welsh fans, had been joyfully swigging alcohol free beer!

It's all been said about the game but I thoroughly enjoyed watching Wales' best away performance for a very long time. Taking the game to the Austrians, our only failure was our finishing. It's all been said about how we created 7 clear cut chances (5 of them one on ones with the keeper) but failed to take any. That's suicidal in international football.

Austria were, in my opinion, very poor indeed but they were clinical. Three shots they had, all in the second half - one hit the post, one hit the bar and the third went in. Danny Coyne's howler of howlers on the same ground where David James did the same for England. It was undeserved and very rough justice but Wales will reflect on a much greater performance that gives hope but, like last Saturday, they still lost out by failing to take one on one chances and then gift the Austrians late goals.

It looks like England will win the group, Poland will be second and Austrians will come next although they still yearn for a play-off spot. They're not good enough. Wales meanwhile should be angry about a group where we should be finishing third at worst (I think we're better than Austria) but instead are joint bottom with Azerbaijan.

The support at the ground has been mentioned too. It was enormous. The home fans were anonymous by comparison, their only noise coming from their tannoy man. They also did an impressive pre-match routine with a huge flag behind goals and let off a couple of flares. How come that's a jail-type offence at home but happens everytime we go abroad? Highlight has to be that 25 minute non-stop Men of Harlech chant in the second half with a fully dressed Spiderman and 3 topless drunks leading the way at the front.

Low point of the support were knobheads who think rivalries between Cardiff City and Swansea City means more than following their country away at an international match who decided to bate and clash with each other at half-time. When will we ever learn?

Vienna had some notable sights not in tourist guides;
- The airport smoking zones
- The endless number of kebab, hot dog, schnitzel and ice cream shops and kiosks. Every street seemed to have a mini Caroline Street within.
- Despite that, what a skinny nation. How can they eat all those kebabs and be so skinny?
- Whilst they may be skinny and largely friendly too, Viannese don't smile much do they?
- The Blue Danube is brown
- Vienna must be 99.9999% white. Coming from a cosmopolitian city like Cardiff and a multi-couloured, multi-ethnic nation like UK, it felt almost eerie.
- Construction everywhere. Every 4th street appeared to have a crane, huge chunks of the city being rebuilt or revamped, most projects finishing just before 2008 when they jointly host the Euro Championships with Germany.

The game didn't spoil what was a brilliant stay. If I had my time again, I wouldn't have spent three days in Vienna. Others who went to places like Prague, Bratislava, Munich and The Alps first or during their time away probably got it right. Vienna was really good though and very enjoyable. The football was almost irrelevant to the mini-break when we're out of contention but I'm still gutted we lost that one but at least I can see some hope and way forward once more.