“and to the draw for the Europa League knockout stages, where Stoke’s reward for beating Hajduk Split is a two-legged tie against FC Thun. First leg in Switzerland”

Heard the news on my favourite ever beach – Porth Dinllaen, sat outside the Ty Coch Inn watching the kids playing on the beautiful North Walian sands, cradling a pint of Brains SA, and all was well with the world apart from having to cancel my intended trip to Split after a series of money-losing calamities like car crashes, broken boilers etc…

We were skint, but I wasn’t missing this. I immediately contacted my mate Jamo, as I knew him and Chas would be going. They were. On a Thomsons organised trip. On a plane. I couldn’t afford it. I searched and searched for cheap flights and someone to go with but by the time I had a tentative “if I can get the dosh together, Bunny lad”, than the flights from Gatwick to Basel and Luton to Geneva had either rocketed in price or sold out.

And so it was that at 6pm on 17th August 2011 that I set foot on a coach outside the Britannia Stadium. Yup, I went alone on an official coach. I looked up and ever sigle seat was taken apart from one – thank the good Lord, next to a bloke I knew. Graham. Many will know him, and to say I was delighted to park my ample backside next to his was an understatement.

And so off we went….I soon saw two other lads I knew and it made service station shops and the ferry so much better to have lads I knew. The midnight ferry from Dover was our first chance to have a beer. The sprint for the bar was akin to the gates being opened at a One Direction concert (so SDH tells me!).

But it wasn’t long before we had crossed the channel and were driving on the right hand side of the road. Towards Switzeland. Or so I thought. It was daft am, and it was bloody freezing on the bus. I had shorts on (indeed, no jeans in my rucksack) and as I looked around I was the only one awake. We soon passed a sign that said Paris 20km, and I tried to get some shut eye.

I awoke a couple of hours later and looked at out the window at nothing in particular until a motorway sign caught my eye – Paris 30km. I looked at the map on my phone and as I thought, we were going the wrong way as we should have been well clear of Paris by now.

And so it was that landed in Thun around 2pm – a couple of hours of drinking time wasted. I’d arranged to meet Jamo “by the bridge over the river”. Shame that Thun seemed to be Switzerland’s version of Venice, with any number of bridges spanning the waterways. But the noise told me where they were….

Hundreds of Stoke fans were congregated by the main bridge in the centre of town. The river, spotlessly clean and yet flowing at some rate, was being dived into by any number of inebriated Potteries folk. How someone didn’t die that day…..

“Three beers please mate”. I handed over the twenty euro note into the bartender’s awaiting palm. His hand didn’t move. “I’ve given you twenty mate, I only want three beers”. He pointed at a sign. 7 euros a beer. Time for another plan…..

…So off to the mini-market we went, and there like the finest mirage of an oasis in the middle of the Sahara, was the sign we all wanted to see BEER, TWO EUROS. Me, Chas and Jamo swiftly got a four pack each and went down to the beautiful lake to have a quiet sup in the most surreal and beautiful settings for a game of football. Some more of our aquatic-barmy following were swimming in the lake. As much as I love open water swimming I was knackered after a twenty hour journey, and sat there with cans and sarnie thinking it was more akin to a pre-season game feeling I got at the Lyme Valley Stadium than a Europa League game.

We walked into town. Someone had chucked a local bloke’s bike into the river. We all gave our heads a wobble and got the free bus to the ground.

Around 1,000 had made the trip. In front of us was an Astroturf pitch, a better version of the Bescott Stadium, and the haunting vision of The Eiger rising majestically in the distance behind the home end.
Danny Pugh scores the winner for Stoke in a European away game. Read that again, and think about how magical the last six years have been.

It started in the concourse, fuelled by huge quantities of expensive lager and it spread to the terraces as the second half went on. A huge Potteries conga line singing “Do a deer…” from the Sound of Music. Some Thun fans over the segregation barrier laughed, some pulled their loved ones a little closer to them. We just sang and sang as the game was always going to be a 1-0 win, a result both teams looked happy with during the match.

……and then the final whistle and the thought of “that’s it….that’s my Euro over”. All I had left to look forward to was the journey home. Me and Graham had spent many an hour talking excitedly on the way out, but everyone was knackered now – we just wanted to get home. We did so at around 10.30pm. Noone wanted ale; just our beds.

Such a shame then that we missed the bloody ferry by five minutes!
And so lo and behold we eventually rocked into Staffordshire around 7pm – a journey of twenty one hours or so. And then the unthinkable happened: we pulled into Stafford services. Our coachload was gutted. WHY? “Health and safety lads, need my half hour break now”. Fair enough, but one wag in the seats then got up, took his baseball cap off and shouted that the driver “was now going to have a whip round for the passengers” to much guffawing.

So that was it. On the road for the best part of two days, an easy 1-0 win, some great memories of a simply beautiful place, and I got to see Stoke play competitively in Europe after seeing us twice in Asurtia, pre-season.

Oh, and finally, the TV programme ‘My family’. It’s utter crap when you’re sat at home with a beer in your hand in the warmth and comfort of your living room, but imagine it played on loop during an eighteen hour journey through Europe!!!!!!!!