I hadn’t been on an overseas football trip since the Barcelona debacle and the idea of going to Sofia didn’t sound immediately enticing. But I thought I’d give it a go, partly because of Graham Helling’s (Big Issue to those who know him better) tremendous efforts at travel agency, but mainly because of my recently acquired freedom (she left me you know). So I decided to go the whole hog. Down to Chelsea on the Saturday, a night at Dennis’s, then a week on the Black Sea, taking in the Sofia match on the Thursday, returning on the Sunday morning, just in time to catch the mini-bus up to the Toon for the 8-0 thrashing of  Sheffield Wednesday. What a week!

Surprisingly there were only three of us who took on this feat: me, Big Issue and JT. Big Issue craftily organised himself a single room in the hotel before we left, leaving me twinned up with JT. I trembled at the memories of Bilbao, Metz and Barcelona. With those in mind I was determined to get myself a single room on arrival in Bulgaria, and this I did, although I had to endure a room-share with JT for the first night. (Actually, because we didn’t get to bed until six am after the first night out, I slept right through JT’s snoring. My bottom was a bit sore when I woke up though.)

The fun actually started while we were still in dear old, dear old Blighty. After we had boarded the plane, there was a bit of a delay before we took off. The pilot informed us that Service Air were to blame because they hadn’t brought our luggage to the plane. After a further delay, he told us that our luggage had been put onto the wrong plane but that it was being removed as he spoke. This turned out to be a large fib, as soon after, a rep from Service Air came onto the plane to tell us that our luggage was indeed on the wrong flight and that the decision had been made to let the plane take off - with our luggage - and that our luggage would be returned to us the next day. Speculation was rife as to where the luggage was headed. Miami seemed favourite, although Tenerife and Majorca were outside bets. Would we get a postcard? All guesses were inaccurate though as the true destination turned out to be Barbados. Cue the first witty (says who - ed) song of the week: ‘Hey, our luggage is in Barbados’ and the speculation that our luggage was probably in for a better time than us. (Second witty song of the week soon followed in the guise of ‘Travellin' Light' which was apparently recorded by Cliff Richard some years ago.)

To cut a very long story short, our luggage arrived in Bulgaria two days later sporting loud shirts, sunglasses and whistling Bob Marley tunes. Big Issue took the opportunity to spend vast amounts of money on clothes etc (not easy in Bulgaria) which he would subsequently claim on his insurance.

That adventure over, we were extremely pleased to learn that all of the rumours regarding the cheapness of the beer were true - 30p a pint. But what did it taste like you ask? Well after the first half dozen (£1.80 spent) it didn’t really matter. The cheap beer helped us to overcome our collective shyness and we were soon befriending the German tourists at the hotel bar by giving them endearing nicknames like Adolf, Fritz and Wolfgang. I christened one of them Jimmy, much to his surprise, because of his handle-bar moustache (a la Jimmy Edwards of course). We even befriended(?) a Mackem. Actually 'befriended' is probably a bit over the top. We got to know him so we could take the piss basically. His name was Clive and the nastiest bit of skit he got was when he confided in me that he had ‘lost his wife’ eight years ago. ‘That was a bit f*****g careless was The Issue’s compassionate retort. From then on, every time we saw him we asked him if he had found his wife yet. And of course we gave him many a rendition of ‘My old man said be a Sunderland fan'.

Top lad we met was a chef from Alnwick, who was also out there for the match. Dale was his name and Dale was into fishing. So he had the idea of hiring a boat and skipper for an afternoon so we could go fishing on the Black Sea. The cost of the boat, skipper and a cool bag with twenty beers (and apparently some water) was fifty quid between us. Still feeling extremely rough from the night before (another six a.m. bedtime), we set sail. We were into the beer before the skipper told us his name. JT had the whaling seat on the front, pointy bit. Me, Big Issue and Dale kept low on deck and the skipper baited our hooks (whatever that means). Only the skipper actually caught anything - a six-inch long catfish - which he tortured for an hour or so before slinging it back into the sea to suffer a slow, painful death by drowning. Apart from the obvious male bonding and camaraderie, I enjoyed the singing best. ‘Fish when we‘re drinking’ was an obvious choice and Dale was very impressed by our mini-bus repertoire, including the aforementioned 'My old man.....'.

The fishing day (Tuesday) turned out to be quite a day. Only Big Issue had had the foresight to eat something - a dodgy chicken kebab bought from the side of the road just as we headed for the harbour. The rest of us forgot to eat, which turned out to be not a good idea. When we got back to the hotel bar after the fishing, our German freunds insisted on buying us a bottle of the Bulgarian equivalent of Ouzo, which we graciously accepted as their apology for the war and drank. Very quickly. No immediate effect and we continued to drink into the evening, showing all the foreigners what the English are really good at. Some time in the evening, I was sat on a stool at the bar with The Issue doing likewise just around the corner of the bar. Suddenly The Issue was no longer there. I did a horizontal puzzled look around before dropping my gaze to see him sprawled on the floor with blood gushing from
his chin. Someone had ‘chinned him' I thought, but no, he had merely fallen asleep, and as some of you will know, he tends to adopt the foetal position when sleeping. But this turned out to be not so easy on a bar stool and the inevitable occurred. He and the bar stool had toppled as one.

As match day approached we discussed the various possible methods of getting to Sofia (approx. 240 mile away) for the match. The adventurer in Big Issue was determined to get the sleeper across the night before. Me and JT pointed out that we would have about fourteen hours to kill in Sofia before kick off and besides, by the time the match was finished we would have missed the sleeper back. Thoughts turned to our holiday bus driver, who was also a taxi driver. At the start of the week he had offered to take us to Sofia in his taxi, wait for us while we had a few pints and watched the match and then take us back to Sunny Beach. The journey, he said, would take about five hours each way, and for this he would charge us the princely sum of fifty quid! No, not fifty quid each but between us. After long discussions over a period of days we decided that this offer was too good to pass up...... until, on the morning of the match, he turned up in his taxi a few minutes late. A stylish yellow Golf Polo hybrid it turned out to be and the reason for the short delay, he explained was he had been trying to tie up his drooping exhaust and we would have to stop en route to have it tied up professionally. Brilliant! But there was no turning back. We had no choice but to go along with it

So off we set. I got into the front seat, mug that I am, looked over my shoulder and saw JT sat next to an already sleeping Big Issue, in his favoured aforementioned foetal position. It was going to be a long journey. And so it was. Bulgaria is a shit hole and of course we were just passing through it. The scenery was bland and the poverty obvious. We did stop to have the exhaust tied up professionally. Having it properly repaired or replaced just didn’t seem to be an option.

After about five hours we hit Sofia got to the stadium, picked up our tickets (eventually), met the London lads and went for a few beers. We went to the match, via some very dodgy looking woods that surrounded the stadium, in the dark. There were no problems with the locals. I even swapped an old Toon top for a CSKA scarf with a delighted local lad. There were no proper toilets in the ground. Simply some steps at the back of the seats which the coppers told us to wee down. I got some funny looks when I lowered my troosers and crouched down for a crap, but there you go. I won’t mention the match because that’s not what this is about.

The journey back was interesting Our driver managed to find us without any problem and soon we began our return journey. JT and me were looking forward to a kip on the way back, both of us knowing that Big Issue would be asleep before all the car doors were shut. However, before we’d even got out of Sofia city centre, Mr Driver seemed to have decided that he’d like a kip aswell. He sat very tightly up to the wheel (I didn't mention he was a big bugger) with his arms sort of wrapped around the upper part of the wheel and what seemed to be his strategy was to simply allow himself to nod off, knowing that as he fell asleep his head would drop onto the steering wheel. This would jolt him back into the land of the living and enable him to drive whilst awake for a few more minutes. I didn’t like this strategy. Neither did JT, who was soon tapping me on the shoulder to warn me of Mr Driver’s apparent fatigue. But my eyes were already as wide as the ‘Eye of London’ and I was staring in disbelief at the side of Mr Driver’s head. Me and JT telepathically agreed that we needed to keep the driver talking With one or two well-placed questions the driver recounted in detail the entire history of Bulgaria under communist rule and how it was coping now. This took him about five hours and I don’t think me and JT could ever have listened so intently to a history lesson in our lives. When we arrived back at Sunny Beach at about 6.30am, my wide-open eyes were still staring at the side of the driver’s head. I’d had a shock! Big Issue, on sensing our arrival, simply woke up, stretched, and asked what time the bar was open.

We spent the last couple of days relaxing about on the beach disbelieving that this was actually all part of an ‘away match’. Bizarre. Maybe there’ll be other trips like this one in the future, but I can certainly say that I’d recommend one of its type to anyone.