He was spotted and identified a good fifty metres away by that certain something. The NI footballing equivalent of the oddball on the bus you just pray won’t sit down beside you. Sitting, with seats free either side of him, pint in hand with an airport-processed thousand yard stare he looked exactly the sort of case that would no doubt be sat beside me on the plane to Oslo.
The aisle was to be no-man’s land as it turned out. This guy was a graduate and leader of the world – detached and anxious. My nervousness turned into casual interest as the poor souls on the other side applied themselves to dealing with “Alter GAWA “. He wasn’t loud or anti-social but let’s get this clear now – the world was working against him in every way and if there was agitation to be had, he wasn’t going to miss out.
Everything was wrong. The time for the service trolley to arrive was the first issue. Then they didn’t take cash. “Bloody tannoy, never gives my head peace.” “No hot chocolate ….F**k’s sake.” Then there weren’t any newspapers given out. He clearly was not sure what came with what airline. If he had imbibed more drink it may have salved his pain, but he wasn’t drunk and was caught between having to keep his wits about him in the airborne steel bird and trying to get by without his blood pressure collapsing. Enough of our friend. The people on the other side of the row were pretending to sleep. We did something similar whilst trying not to laugh as he mistook the charity envelope for the rubbish bag.
As the plane approached the southern islands of Norway it was very clear it was Scandinavia. Undulating hills of fields, forests and lakes bathed in a soft, tawny autumn gold struck hard against the more acute green we are familiar with back home. It was a welcome distraction from our agitated friend. Our first victory was mastering the ticket machine for the state train down to Nationaltheatret station in central Oslo. It was almost a ten-minute walk down to the hotel in the waterfront Aker Brygge area. A Norwegian Acker Bilk perhaps? Teatime on a Friday in central Oslo was a bit of a dead zone bereft of people and traffic. Hustle and bustle….hmmmm….optional.
After a quick shower etc…we met up with our advance party of one who had been installed since Wednesday and perhaps due to aforesaid space on the roads had hired a bike and was now calling himself Lars. I would also suggest that not only was the space on the roads an encouragement but the Norwegians are simply a very decent and pleasant people. It is hard to visualise road rage in this country as doing the wrong thing does not seem to be a part of everyday mentality.
One of the things that make the ‘business’ of a football trip a success bearing in mind the quick in and out nature of such a trip is having what you need at hand. Probably most important of these was the local off-licence – the Vinmonopolet. In Norway this shuts at 3pm on a Saturday and with prices that would make you cry in the bars and restaurants, the alcoholic sting was diminished with a visit literally across the road. More about this later. A pleasant evening was had anyway on Friday night one and Saturday was to be culture day.
We broke off into various parties to do our own thing with the cyclist amongst us promising to cycle up to the Ullevaal stadium where the match was to see if walking/marching was feasible. It wasn’t. As many will know in any city taking the standard hop on/hop off bus is useful to see what is and off we went. Of course, it helped that Oslo was in the grip of a four or five-day spell of glorious weather which made up for damp and dank Hannover the previous year, but it has to be said it is one beautiful city. There is no hint of any sort of crushed business area, and the constant even space between buildings with green grass intervention breaking up wide boulevards all adds to the relaxed aura of the place. This on top of the orderliness of the infrastructure and the people makes it very welcoming.
High up on the hill the Holmenkollen ski lift looked impressive in its unique shape and we trusted that no fans had decided to launch themselves from it armed by Norwegian strong beer. We disembarked at the Kon-Tiki exhibition in tribute to their famous explorer Thor Heyerdahl. He had famously made the journey from South America to Polynesia in a boat simply made of wood and rope in 1947, and then in 1970 had crossed the Atlantic in the papyrus ship Ra 2. We wondered if this dubious name would put any of the Northern Ireland fans on edge in case they thought Heyerdahl had instigated yet another republican paramilitary grouping.
This put in an interesting hour and after the tour was completed we had a drink on a rooftop bar where yet again the prices were as high as the roof. Unfortunately not only did the wallet take a hit here but also one’s dignity as your correspondent got locked in the disabled lavatory. My son enjoyed sending a photograph of the bar staff endeavouring to get me out around the world. There was talk of a locksmith mentioned but it was soon decided that they would break the lock instead, perhaps on the basis that there was a psychopathic disabled Ulsterman inside and heaven knows what headlines might ensue. I didn’t wait to find out if they were surprised that I walked out perfectly normally but I tried to look shattered by the experience. One was conscious of the GAWA being in disgrace over an able-bodied soldier being in a disabled toilet. It would be a terrible way to have us lose our fans’ medal from France. There was no offer of a free pint anyway.
Freed from my Scandinavian self-imposed sentence another evening was enjoyed as the final two members of our party arrived and we thought about match day. Sunday morning involved more cultural thought as three of us headed out into the sun. A visit to the Norwegian resistance museum which was suitably difficult to find provided an insight into a more sobering time. We then continued the walk to, and on, the sloping roof of the spectacular Oslo opera house. A couple of lads were getting their Shankill Road flag pictured and there would not be many better man-made edifices to have as a backdrop.
Having decided that we could pass any Viking mythology test that might be thrown at us we then descended deep and dark into our own murky brown bag culture. The waterfront was too pleasant a place this sunny Sunday afternoon (as the Kinks would say) to not enjoy, so we surreptitiously had our discreet ‘tea and buns’ whilst trying not to disturb the locals. This achieved alongside a few football quizzes of yesteryear, we donned our green battle dress and went up to the meeting zone for the usual pre-match crack. This can involve many things. The local police ‘seemed’ to be nowhere and the no street drinking law was quietly given a pass by a silent Norwegian government for a few hours. The standard football appeared from somewhere and grown men fell into civic hedges not to appear for several minutes as they tried to not spill their pint in ball pursuit.
There is a certain uniqueness to the tight Ulster face abroad. It can be picked out anywhere and one can hear David Attenborough ‘s quiet soothing tones describing the species abroad on football duty.
“The Ulster face can be spotted in open urbia. The males resplendent in green and white plumage are unique in their disinterest in the female at this point. The face and eyes permanently scan the horizon for nothing in particular. The grin is permanently fixed, occasionally cutting loose for a communal roar.”
At the ground the Ullevaal is a nice tidy stadium. Fans would like it due to the proximity to the grass and how on top of the pitch they were. The ground was little more than a third full due to Norway being put out of Qualifying a few matches ago. The match had little to report really bar a freakish own goal to give Norway victory. Qualification for the away team was ensured before kick off which doused the fire of the game. The most excitement to be had was trying to get a swig of smuggled whiskey without getting your image highlighted by the scoreboard as the crowd cameraman was in lively form.
More Ulster rituals were observed at the airport the next morning. In the way that politicians gather around the party leader at microphones in NI, the same herd behaviour is noticeable at check-in machines as the support group give silent and occasional unhelpful support to the poor bloke trying to make head or tail of checking in. Once through this ordeal, the various gangs move off, weary from Fort Bleary the night before to be processed in a foreign land. The uncertainty as they are far from their comfort zone is palpable as they are isolated from the pack to be sent through security. Once through, they team up as the rolling Ulster gait carries them on their way again.
Oslo really was the ‘man/transgender role of the match’ for the trip as they are fairly go-ahead on equality. Pity it didn’t extend to the match where we might have got a draw. A peaceful order pervades everything via people or place. It was fairly well summed up by one of our group who, not realising he was in a ‘quiet’ train carriage, rang his dentist to reschedule a dental appointment he should have been at. Not that he was loud but he was gently reminded “Not here”.