Date: 12 October 2019 / League: Polish 3rd tier
Final Score: 2-0 / Attendance: 3,600
In A Nutshell
Geographically distant to each other (4-hrs by car), that such a strong hatred exists between GKS Katowice and Elana Torun does much to demonstrate the intricate and incomprehensible nature of the inter-club alliances and rivalries that are so prevalent in Poland.
For a game that attracted less than 4,000 spectators, consider for a moment that eleven firms representing different club turned up – including one from abroad (possibly even two). In plain terms, this was a hooligan convention, and everyone knew.
Played out in a wonderfully outdated stadium, what I saw was a throwback game in a throwback ground – and I loved every moment.
It’s a pearl of bygone Poland. Ugly and overbearing? Yes! But in the most positive sense. From the outside, it looks more like a cross between a brutalist British council estate and something that the Nazis would have built to fortify the Atlantic Wall – heavy, gloomy and totally immovable.
From the perspective of being within, meanwhile, you’d label it as being ‘So Ugly You Just Have To Love It’. Aiding this, a colour palette straight from a 70s ABBA cupboard: pea green, sunshine yellow, battleship grey and the kind of brown you’d see on Bungle from Rainbow. Retro paradise.
And that was the posh bit. Opposite, running the length of the other side of the pitch, was where the home side’s ‘element’ were gathering: a dark, knackered stand cloaked in shadow but slashed in occasional streaks of sunlight seeping in from the gaps at the back. In some ways, it reminded me of Norwich’s Carrow Road back in the day.
Then the goal ends: one, an empty six-step terrace reserved for police observers, and the other, a tight, low bank of temporary seating serving away fans. Taken as a whole, a unique and engaging ground.
Crowd trouble had been anticipated, but that only really sank in when I got inside and took my place among the other photographers behind the goal. From the 20 or so covering the match, it quickly dawned on me that only a couple were there for the actual football – the rest I’d either met or seen before around Poland representing various ‘fan’ oriented websites and publications.
Game kicks off, no away fans. When I use my broken Polish skills to ask a steward if the away end is open today I’m given a one word reply: ‘Nie’. The heart sinks. Wasted trip. Again. Turns out though, he isn’t quite correct. Round about half-time, Elana arrive. Gates open. In all, probably around 500 away fans.
GKS, they’ve got around 2,500. If I’m correct, it’s their biggest crowd of the year. Though the decibel count is solid, the pace in the stands seems far less frenetic than you would have imagined. With 15-20 minutes to go, that feeling becomes even sharper when the fans of GKS unfurl a display of paper streamers in the colours of their club. It looks impressive, at first glance, but rather than acting as a precursor for a pyro show or some other eruption of emotion it’s followed by… nothing. Zilch.
The Final Curtain
Pretty much the game ends like that – on a flat note. A few photographers have drifted away, and so too the ‘normal’ fans in the Atlantic Wall stand. It’s been pretty dismal. Yet for all that, a sixth sense stops me from following. Ten or fifteen minutes after the final whistle, I’m still on the pitch and ambling around taking photos of the ground. I’m not alone. So too are a few of the other hooli-watch photographers.
The home ‘lot’ in the Norwich stand haven’t moved an inch, and this isn’t lost on us. And weirdly, they’re louder now than they were during the game. Moreover, you can see they’re massing towards one particular corner – the one closest to the away end.
First, it all begins with just a bit of goading. Lads climbing the fences to gesture at the away end. Nothing dramatic, but enough to place you on alert. Shortly after, there’s the realization that some boys are putting on their balaclavas as if ready to get naughty. There’s a rising tension now that wasn’t present during the game.
And in the distance, a rattle. A persistent rattle that turns into a clatter. It’s Elana. Still in their away end, they’ve decided to do the fences. It’s actually going to happen. I join the other photographers that have remained in running towards Elana – towards thirty or so lads, masked up, concentrated around one gate that they’re trying to kick through.
Initially, it looks nothing more than bravado. Football fan bullshit and bouncing. A minute more, and I realize it ain’t. The gate is bending further with each kick. Seats have started flying overhead. A photographer next to me gets clunked on the head with a bottle. The atmosphere has gone from zero to turbo.
Snapping away, I realize it’s going to be seconds till Elana are through the gate. Three, four or maybe five more kicks. Which is when the police arrive. Gas everywhere. But when Elana retreat, it’s only for a moment – to rip a couple of flags and nets with which to shield themselves whilst they surge back for another attempt at the fence.
GKS are now involved as well. In the Norwich stand, they’re trying to get through a back exit that would take them into close contact with the away end. To do so, they’re ripping up metal barriers and charging the police. Everywhere I turn, something is happening. On the pitch, as well. A water cannon wagon is on the field; horses as well. This cavalry canters across the pitch presenting the most beautiful of sights – I think of schooldays spent reading about Agincourt.
I bought some pants. I’d forgotten to pack any for my stay, so the walk back meant a stop at an immense shopping mall weaving in a blur between families eating ice cream whilst finding a store that sold underwear. Coming an hour after being in the thick of a pitch football battle, I won’t kid you by saying it wasn’t surreal. Dreamlike, to be honest.
I love this city. In my new fresh pants, I spent the night cruising the craft beers of town. A curry in Masala. Then more beers in the courtyard of the Biala Malpa – my favourite craft beer bar quite possibly in Poland. I sat there happily for hours, editing the day’s photos while sinking mango beers from Poland’s rebel breweries. When I was done, I slept well. I slept well indeed.