Visit any country in the Baltics and you won’t have to look far to have a good weekend, throw in an International Futsal tournament and two history making England performances and you have a weekend that will live long in the memory.
Visiting Lithuania in January is not for the feint hearted, pack all your warm clothes you’ll be needing them, got down to -20 in the evening two nights running and the locals were telling me I should come back when it gets really cold!
So what of the Futsal, well, without wanting to send you off in the directions of other websites UEFA.com and TheFA.com have got the match details covered.
England found themselves in a preliminary qualifying group for Belgium 2014 and would need to negotiate safe passage past hosts Lithuania and Cyprus to qualify for the main round, a fete they’ve never achieved before.
First up was Lithuania on Friday night, nobody I’d met in Kaunas the host city was aware the match was on, the hotel staff were none the wiser. Asking at reception for directions to the Kaunas Sports Hall did cause something of a scene that felt disproportional to me declining there offer to get me a taxi, was only a 25 minute walk away at most looking at the map.......................with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight I think the concern that couldn’t quite be translated was more to do with the 1 in 2 winding hill I’d have to negotiate along with the plummeting temperatures. The young lady could barely hide her genuine look of surprise when I returned after the game, I didn’t need asking twice when offered a brandy - now that's customer service!
Arriving at the sports hall an hour before kick off it there was already a sense of anticipation and a decent sized crowd building, it was clear these guys expected a performance from there national side.
As it was the three lions roared and the one goal winning margin doesn’t do justice to how well they played. They also did it tough, very tough, England, 4-3 up with just over three minutes left on the clock were reduced to 4 men as Sam Murphy was sent off for a 2nd bookable offense. Lithuania piled on the pressure, the fly keeper was deployed, they retained possession well and made England work hard to keep them at bay. Every time they lost the ball they were organised enough to prevent England counter attacking and the noise of the fans was immense, whistles jeering, screams and more until England lost the ball the noise turned back to roars of encouragement.
With 20 or seconds remaining on the clock, England had held out Lithuania for the two minutes of numerical advantage the sending off had afforded them, the England bench keen to get back to full strength threw on Stuart Cook of Manchester, it seems it happened a second or so to early, a 2nd yellow was shown to Cook, who’d been booked already for head butting a stray Lithuanian elbow (I kid you not!).
End result two players banned ahead of Saturdays clash with Cyprus. Both lads had, in my unreservedly biased English opinion had been harshly treated in circumstances where common sense could and should have been deployed. Once the jubilation at the final whistle had passed and the warm down commenced both were visibly gutted, it was tough to see nobody wants to see lads missing out on playing on the biggest stage - especially not in circumstances like this.
After a quick edit, uploading of pics and complimentary life saving hotel Brandy there are unconfirmed reports of a one man English celebration party in Kaunas. Observations are the Full Monty sound track is cutting edge out here, two bars visited, two crowds of locals lapping it up, perhaps this is were 90’s DJs come to die! Another random observation is its harder work than you’d imagine to convince the bar man deploying that very English pointing type technique having only grasped Yes No, Please and Thank You in the native tongue that you want a Lithuanian pint! Stiff resistance is met, every available Dutch, German alternative is offered, instead decline them and as a last resort they throw in cans of Guinness as an option. Have faith in your beer Lithuania! Go back and order a 2nd pint and you get a look that suggests your trying to be funny and off you go through the negotiations once more!
So Saturday, the day of reckoning, Cyprus awaits, beat them and its all on for the main round in Turkey at the end of March.
I’d already booked in time to see the exceptionally talented photographer Richard Schofield, an English man based in Kaunas on Saturday morning. A meeting worthy of its own piece that will shortly follow, but thankfully along with being a wonderfully interesting morning it also stopped the clock watching nervous wait for kick-off that would have otherwise have been the case!
Further concern from hotel reception as the young lady on reception jokingly asked if I’d learn’t my lesson about walking to the sports hall, the look of disbelieve turned to a smile - mad dogs and Englishmen are the only people who walk in this cold apparently she said in perfect English in suitably sarcastic tone.
Whilst Saturdays crowd was in the hundreds not the thousands of Friday night, it was an impressive turnout for a game with little local interest now that Lithuania had only the faintest of hopes of now qualifying.
England coped well with the enforced changes, and looked in control of the first half, they raced to a 2-0 half time lead and seemingly in control. Then the old adage of 2-0 up at half time being a dangerous score in football probably rings true in Futsal as well. Cyprus threw the kitchen sink at England, quite literally but England held firm. Cyprus keeper having tried to go fly himself gave way to an outfield fly keeper, but not until he’d engaged in some wonderful play acting! Seemed the preferred choice of fly keeper couldn’t find his keepers shirt, first choice keeper Skampylis with nobody around him falls down in a heap making more noise than I’ve seen from lads on the Rugby pitch with genuine broken limbs!
To top it of, he’d break from the noise to have a cheeky look at the bench to see if the flykeeper was ready. Cherry on the cake was, he was carried, yes carried off, gingerly lowered onto a seat and in the next attack the new flykeeper narrowly missed with a shot on goal, its a miracle, the original keeper is not only up and out of his seat, he’s leaping several feet in the air and then forgetting to limp as he charges down the touch line to gee-up the troops - tremendous stuff!
So England hold out, the lion roared! It was apparent to anyone in that sports hall these lads believed, a nicer group of lads you couldn’t wish to meet, from the outside looking in it looks like a tight nit group.
Congratulations lads, you did us proud. Good luck in Turkey!
This photographer carried on the celebrations in town, once pics had been edited and uploaded and now customary hotel complimentary brandy consumed, same story as the night before, more tunes from the Full Monty and a reluctance to serve anything brewed locally!
Highly recommend Lithuania, theres a stack of cheap flights to get you there from the UK, Vilnius and Kaunas are charming cities, if I’m honest I warmed far more to Kaunas but thats not to say Vilnius isn’t worth a look, it certainly is. Pints range from £1 to £3 depending on your ability to be persistent and go local and on the whole restaurant food is good, you can eat well for around £10 ahead, go to £20 ahead and your on fillet steaks and nice wines, but lower your expectations for breakfast - and you’ll still be disappointed! Still its not a long wait till lunch.................!!!