And so it arrives. Match day. Azerbaijan v Wales. The reason we have come all this way.
It feels a bit strange. There was a time when the pre match piss up was the main event, but today I find myself heading for the game stone cold sober. I think I’m finally accepting that bladder control and availability of toilets need to be factored into plans. This might sound obvious, but it is a new sensible approach for me. Today, pre match drinking is replaced by a healthy local salad washed down with a tea served in the cutest tea cup in the world. Ahhh bless.
A fleet of busses sits outside the Baku Hilton, waiting to take the massed ranks of the Red Wall to the stadium.
It is a constant source of annoyance that, even when we go away to ‘cheap countries’, match tickets for away fans can often be exorbitant. Not a problem here. The eight quid ticket price includes free transport from the city centre out to the stadium. (Well, not free, cos we paid for it, but very cheap).
Once the busses are full we pull off in convoy with police escort. What the point of the escort is, I’m not really sure. Baku traffic is a law unto itself and does not get out of the way for anyone. The Formula One drivers that compete in the annual Baku Grand Prix probably have to compete with taxi drivers in beat up Mercedes and play boys in blinged up Ferraris.
The stadium is on the outskirts of town in an area dominated by hotels and casinos. We are among the first to arrive and head through security. And more security. And more security just in case the first two lots missed any of our guns.
We are a good hour and a half early but the stadium is already filling up with police, the army and FAW stewards. Dotted around the terraces are plain clothed coppers. My record of spotting undercover cops is woefully inadequate, but, at the risk of sounding racist, they stick out like saw thumbs.
Eventually the squads come out to warm up on the pitch. The match officials run up and down the touch line in front of us, provoking sarcastic applause. Each time they do it the applause gets louder. Little things please bored football fans.
As the ground fills up several dudes in camouflage with high visibility vests on (do they want to be seen or not?) try to control where everyone sits/stands and some of them are quite determined. Nobody pays any attention though.
Football is not really a thing in Azerbaijan. Hence our theoretical ten percent of the ticket allocation translates into probably twenty five percent of the actual crowd.
Anthems are sung, songs are chanted, balls are kicked. (If you are after in depth football analysis, you have come to the wrong blog). Two new chants are rolled out, to the tune of Bread of Heaven, ‘Six foot seven, six foot seven, feed me till I’m Keifer Moore’ (new big striker) and Wales, Golf, Madrid (reference to Gareth Bale’s priorities)
We go one up quite early with the goal being scored right in front of us after just ten minutes.
On twenty four minutes there is a minutes applause in memory of a young wales away fan that passed away recently. His birthday was the 24th. Football fans can be big softies on times.
Old acquaintances are shouted at and waved at from a distance, or insulted up close and personal.
Another goal is scored, Aaron Ramsey gets his first match time of the tournament, a fight breaks out on the pitch following a hard tackle, and the game is won. Azerbaijan 0 Wales 2.
As we decant out into the Baku night the busses are waiting for us. Not for long though. Keen to get home to their families the drivers are pulling out without worrying if they have any passengers. We hop on one just as it is pulling out.
As we splash down outside the Hilton we bump into the Caerphilly massive and decide to go for a swift half of shandy with them.
We hit a burger bar that sells beer and has football on the telly. We try to get Croatia v Slovakia on but the language barrier pushes us towards wifi and keeping an occasional eye on the score. Croatia win, thus helping Wales chance of qualifying. (Look it up, I told you it’s not a football blog).
Around 2am we decide to have one last night cap for the road. As we open the door of The Shakespeare, Zombie Nation is belting out of the PA at full volume and there are red shirts up dancing on tables.
I’m not sure if I should be flattered that he cared about us, or just thought that we were old and needed to sit down, but a waiter spots us old gits straight away and takes us over to an alcove in the corner where we can sit, then proceeds to bring us beer until just after 5am.
Again the internet is the source of the soundtrack but this time they have their own DJ. Some requests are made but the DJ seems to know the sing-a-long staples to keep the crowd happy. Bizarrely he sneaks a few Irish tunes in and has the crowd singing ‘up the RA’. I can’t tell if they just dont know what they are singing or if we are in for a Corbyn landslide next month.
Finally, after writing about every detail of being on tour, I think we are finally in a place where I have to say…. ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour.’