By Gary Walker
It’s unsettling to switch on your mobile phone, still clearing the beery cobwebs from the night before, and receive a flurry of concerned text messages enquiring as to whether you’re still alive.
We were in the Rock ‘N Eat, a peculiar little bar in Lyon‘s beautiful old town, looking forward to that night’s Europa League match between Olympique Lyonnais and Tottenham Hotspur when our phones began to buzz.
The Smoking Dog pub, just round the corner, had been attacked by a gang of Nazi-saluting thugs wielding iron stools and, according to one eye witness, axes and machetes the night before. Two Spurs fans were in hospital following what looked every inch a copycat incident of that shameful night in Rome in November that had left one Tottenham supporter in intensive care with a near-fatal stab wound.
At the end of a crisply cold but sunny Wednesday in Lyon for the last-32 second-leg match, we’d considered a pint or two in the Smoking Dog, but plumped instead for watching the AC Milan v Barcelona Champions League game in the nearby Kelly’s Irish pub. On another night, we’d have been sat inside, looking up at the TVs, when the windows came crashing in and the onslaught began.
The gang of masked attackers were said to be a right-wing extremist group seizing an opportunity to launch a cowardly headline-grabbing attack on the ‘yid army’ – a moniker we Spurs supporters adopted years ago in response to idiotic anti-semitic bigotry from other fans.
The attack seemed out of character with the two days we spent in Lyon. Eating in its spectacularly good restaurants, walking through the narrow, winding alleyways of its old town and climbing the slopes of Fourvière Hill and the rebellious Croix-Rousse area, it was easy to see why large parts of France’s second city are a UNESCO world heritage site.
Thanks to the quirks of Easyjet’s timetable and pricing structure, we arrived in Lyon on Wednesday morning, 36 hours before kick-off and left by train to Paris and ultimately back to Bristol before the sun had risen above the alps on Friday.
This gave us time to marvel at just what an enthralling, culturally-rich and diverse city Lyon is. The Presqu’île – the city’s central, busy hub, sandwiched between the mighty Rhône and Saône rivers is bustling and modern, but as we wandered around from bar to bar, draining glasses of Leffe and Grimbergen, it kept throwing up surprises – pretty, hidden squares where the shouts of kids’ football matches echoed around, gorgeous churches and concert halls, and seemingly endless gourmet restaurants.
Cross the Saône and it gets even better. Vieux Lyon is the city’s medieval area, and it’s as beautiful as anywhere I’ve been on European trips with Spurs, equalling Seville for its rustic wonder. It’s one of the largest Renaissance areas in Europe – and strolling past the cathedral, churches, museums and elegant houses, the roll call of stunning buildings almost started to become boring. I’ve also never been anywhere where the sound of musical instruments being played rang from quite as many windows and doors in the gathering dusk or the early morning.
Wandering past the cathedral, churches, museums and elegant houses, the roll call of stunning buildings almost started to become boring.
Having done a few laps of the old town, we climbed what seemed like a thousand steps, but was almost certainly more, of Fourvière Hill, fought off the temptation to surrender to cardiac arrest and gazed out at the spectacular view of a fine city going about its business. While we were up there, it seemed rude not to admire the Basilica, the remains of the Roman settlement of Lugdunum with its extensive baths and theatre, and Lyon’s own version of the Eiffel Tower – La Tour Métallique.
Across the Saône, the quiet, steep, cobbled streets of La Croix-Rousse store dozens of cool bars and cafes in their immaculate pockets, and we spent the morning of the game happily getting lost and trying in vain to stumble upon their famed traboules. The text messages bearing the news of the previous night’s bloodthirsty attack might as well have been referring to another city as to the twisting, refined streets below us.
Back in the Rock ‘N Eat the messages reporting what had happened the night before seemed surreal. The scene in this bohemian bolthole was about as threatening as a Steffen Freund 30-yarder to an opposition goalkeeper. Iron Maiden and Motorhead posters adorned the walls as whimsical French jazz music played and a middle aged eccentric wheeled around with a rolled up piece of paper in his hand, blasting out solos on his imaginary trumpet and trying to ask us in French what Gareth Bale’s first name was.
The barman poured pints of strong Belgian beer, while a group of Lyon fans mixed with their Spurs counterparts at the back of the bar, swapping stories and songs and admiring the girls at the bar.
But building up to the game in the bars around Vieux Lyon – where the majority of Spurs’ 3,000 or more travelling supporters were drinking – the air of tension was palpable. Everyone knew there had been trouble, regardless of the fact that it hadn’t involved Lyon fans, and there seemed an expectancy that there could be more to come.
Thankfully there wasn’t, and we were able to make our way safely to Stade de Gerland, an aging and unremarkable stadium that looks like a Roman amphitheatre forged entirely from concrete from the outside, and a less impressive Villa Park from the inside.
Having failed to get one of the 3,000 tickets allocated to Spurs, we were sat in the next block of the Virage Sud with the home supporters. Despite our numerical disadvantage, we didn’t get any unwanted attention, and were happily belting out the Spurs songs until Lyon captain Maxime Gonalons headed the home side ahead after 17 minutes as Gareth Bale kindly declined to challenge him.
The rest of the match seemed to ebb away in a blur of frustration, misplaced passes and a pubescent irritant stationed on a platform at the front of the tier below us bellowing encouragement into a microphone. His chants boomed out of speakers along the front of the stand and echoed off the roof, polarising the pain of defeat, the cold and the rapidly-wearing-off beer. Most people go on holiday – as a confirmed masochist, this is what I do.
We’d long since resigned ourselves to the end of the European adventure for another year and a silent three-mile, sub-zero trudge back to the hostel when, in the 90th minute, Moussa Dembele did the unthinkable. Skipping away from his man, the Spurs midfielder pulled the hammer back and smashed in the equaliser, sending us through to the last 16 and a return to Milan.
We’d enjoyed two days of high culture, fine food and strong beer, but for the next minute and a half we reverted to primal instinct and went fucking mental. And there lies the beauty of these European trips; the reason I’d rather save all year to go on one than spend £150 on a day out at a non-descript bowl in a retail park in the arse-end of Bolton, or Stoke or Sunderland for a Premier League game.
As we waited in the cold outside the stadium, the snow flakes began to fall on the riot shields of the police line formed in front of us. We started chatting to a group of German Spurs fans who’d made the journey from Berlin, and an immediate and hopefully lasting friendship was formed.
After a police escort back to the metro station, which seemed designed to bring the two sets of supporters nose to nose and spark any potential lingering tensions outside the Ninkasi bar, we were back on the Metro and off back to Vieux Lyon to celebrate a memorable victory with our new friends.
Several pints later, as we were ushered out of the last pub we could find still serving beer, we said our goodbyes to Anthony and the other Germans and promised to meet up in Amsterdam for the final in May, if Tottenham get there. Let’s hope Spurs don’t let us down, and the fascist cowards give it a rest – it’s really getting boring now.