An Eventful European Away Day

Everton's first competitive match in France was notable for many of the wrong reasons but the travelling Blue army made it a trip to remember regardless of heavy-handed treatment by police and a forgettable match at Stade Pierre Mauroy.

After such an inconsistent start to the new season, there was always a chance that Everton's performance away at Lille would leave the hoards of travelling supporters a little disappointed. As it turned out, the Toffees' 0-0 draw was the most forgettable part of an eventful trip across the Channel.

My own journey to northern France began late on Wednesday afternoon when I chucked a retro club shirt and a few other essentials in a bag, grabbed my passport and a wallet full of euros and jumped on a train to London. Unfortunately I was heading for the office and not a night on the town in Lille, although in hindsight that might have been a good thing.

After helping to cover a busy night of Champions League action for MailOnline, I went out to get something to eat at around 11pm. Sat in McDonald's with a Big Mac in one hand and my phone in the other, I had a flick through Twitter in the hope of seeing some pictures of boozed-up Blues enjoying themselves abroad.

Instead I found tweets about hooded hooligans attacking innocent fans outside an Australian bar, reports of people with head wounds and bloody clothes and talk that French police had been heavy-handed on arrival at the scene - a theme which would continue the following day.


After heading back to the office I wrote a quick story using the information and quotes shared by the Liverpool Echo's Greg O'Keeffe, the paper's Everton reporter who had quickly made his way to the bar when news of the unprovoked attack first broke.

Fast forward a few hours and I'd changed out of my shirt and tie and into my 1984 FA Cup final shirt, logged off of my computer and jumped in a cab to Victoria coach station. While continuing to check social media for updates on the violence, it'd be fair to say that although I was still immensely looking forward to my first European away day, some apprehension had crept in during the early hours of Thursday morning.

Nevertheless I met my dad at Victoria, chatted with some fellow fans who had driven straight down from Liverpool and hopped on the 6.30am coach to Lille. About an hour-and-a-half later we were at the entrance to the Eurotunnel in Folkestone, where blue shirts, scarves and jackets were everywhere you looked.

Having managed to catch a couple of hours of sleep during the five-hour journey, I arrived in Lille feeling mildly refreshed and optimistic that the trouble from the previous evening would not be repeated despite large numbers of armed police directly outside Gare Lille Europe station.

After a five-minute walk and another 10 minutes spent decoding some instructions in broken English, I entered the small apartment I'd rented from a French couple above the city's giant shopping centre. It was hardly the Ritz but it had a bed and a shower, which was about all I'd need from the early hours of Friday onwards.

Having dropped off my bag I set off for Lille's main square, which turned out to be just a five-minute wander from my temporary front door. Although I saw plenty of fans on the short journey, it was nothing compared to the scenes which would greet me at Grand Place.

I can't claim to be the greatest estimator in the world but I reckon there were probably at least a couple of thousand Blues packed into area which once housed a medieval wheat market. On this occasion wheat had been replaced by beer - pints in plastic glasses and bottles bought from local supermarkets filling the hands of almost everyone in sight.

After nailing a Peter Kay style hoof with a ball being booted around the square, I met up with a couple of mates and began queueing inside the first bar we could find. Having waited for what seemed an eternity and paid 7 (yes, seven!) for a beer, we headed back outside to soak up the atmosphere.

But after experiencing just a short period of merriment, it suddenly turned nasty. First I heard the thumping of footsteps as hundreds of people began to move, seemingly to get out of the way of something. Then I could see bottles being launched into the air and alcohol flying all over the place.

Riot police move in to clear the Grand Place of Everton fans

We moved over towards the shops on one side and a group of riot police immediately mobilised in one corner. They formed a barrier and burst their way through fans who had their backs to them, sending a number tumbling to the ground as they made their way to the disturbance in the most densely populated area of Evertonians.

The next thing I can remember was a huge bang, something I've never heard before. Smoke filled the air and fans continued to stream away from the very centre of the square, many of whom appeared to have been affected by what was actually tear gas. We moved right to the corner of the square and eventually around the corner as two more tear gas canisters were used and bottles were thrown at the police, who by this point had retreated back near the spot where they had originally stood peacefully.

A short while later and the situation had calmed down considerably. We moved back into the centre of the square and had a bit of a sing-song before walking to a shop to buy a crate of lager, which actually cost less than a single pint at the previous bar. The next couple of hours went by without a major incident, with only a few idiotic Lille fans stupid enough to front-up a section of Blues before being ushered away.

Having responded to a tweet from a BBC producer, I ended up speaking with Dan Walker on BBC Radio 5 Live about the goings on in Grand Palace. Luckily my pre-match drinking had removed any nerves I had about going live on air and I was able to give a fairly decent summary of what I'd seen since stepping off the coach a couple of hours earlier.

We then made our way to the Stade Pierre-Mauroy via a lengthy queue for Metro tickets at Lille Flandres station. The train was understandably packed but my carriage was well-natured, with visiting fans making every effort to respect the locals who were going about their everyday lives.

After grabbing a bite to eat and a beer outside the 50,000-seater ground, we eventually made it inside following a yet another queue and TWO body searches. I found my seat just in time for kick-off and took a moment to appreciate the frankly ridiculous level of support for Roberto Martinez's men. There must have been upwards of 8,000 fans of a blue persuasion inside the stadium, many of those sat in the 'home' end.

As for the game itself, the less said the better. Phil Jagielka was excellent, Aiden McGeady had our best chance and Samuel Eto'o almost sent Bobby's blue army into raptures with a curling effort late in the game. Lille were probably a bit worse than we were and Divock Origi did little to suggest he'll be a better buy for Liverpool than any of their other 46 summer signings.

The rest of the night was infinitely more enjoyable than those 90 minutes, with plenty of fun had in pubs and clubs around Lille's centre. We found a cosy bar packed with fans and went through an entire back catalogue of Everton songs while filling the owner's till with our spending money. Then it was onto a road full of university drinking establishments, one of which was quickly decorated with banners and flags. A few hours and several beers later and it was time for bed.

Friday was spent eating, drinking and singing more songs with Blues I've never met before and may well never see again. But it was brilliant fun and more than helped make up for the previous night's lack of entertainment. Our return coach arrived too soon and before we knew it we were going through border control and back on English soil.

Despite the trouble and Everton's lacklustre performance, I imagine you wouldn't find too many fans who didn't enjoy the trip immensely. Bring on Wolfsburg.

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