Having been to the Bruges derby the previous night, the next destination on our wild adventure of Belgium was the coastal city of Oostende. Hilke – our eccentric hotelier – had described Oostende as a “shithole” but we weren’t going to allow this to put us off. Of course, if you live in a beautiful place such as Bruges you’re going to be critical of every other city in Europe.
I had left all of the planning of this match down to Matt. He was adamant from day one that he wanted to go to Oostende so I left my Welsh companion to it. After all I had never heard of the place let alone envisaged visiting to watch some football.
Rather spookily, just a day after we had talked about the possibility of watching Oostende they announced that they would be playing a pre-season friendly at Leigh Sports Village; just three miles from my house. Unfortunately the match at Leigh was eventually moved to Macclesfield after Elton John had ruined the pitch during a concert, so I didn’t get to see Oostende before our trip there. The idea was that we’d team up with some Oostende fans at Leigh, who would then hopefully help us sort out tickets for their match against Mechelen.
Fortunately, Matt also had this side of things covered as he posted in the European Football Weekends Facebook page where a friendly local named Anthony offered to help us. More on that later on.
Our night in Brugge had been a fantastic one, but we had to shake off the numerous pints of Jupiler to make our way to Oostende pretty early. Kick off for our match was 20:00 local time, but we wanted to see the town and more importantly find a bar that was showing the early kick off between Manchester United v Swansea for Matt.
After I had flirted with the girl who was working at the ticket office at Brugge station we were soon on our way to Oostende. It cost only €6 return and the journey took less than 15 minutes. The train station in Oostende is situated in the harbour, meaning the station approach is full of boats and swing bridges which are in action every five minutes or so. It certainly wasn’t like Wigan North Western, but I wasn’t complaining.
Oostende used to be nothing but a small village, but it is far more than that in modern times. It is now Belgium’s answer to Blackpool. Okay, I’m being really unfair there. It is a lovely city which I enjoyed far more than I thought I would. Usually seaside resorts with a harbour are a bit of a mess, but the sun was shining and the locals were lovely which more than won us over.
We weren’t dressed for the beach but that wasn’t going to stop us from having a wander around before we found the Swansea match on TV. The tide was out and the people of the city were flocking to the beach; I could have stopped there all day. Unfortunately, Matt was keen to get off into the town centre which was down a slight hill from the promenade. It looked like there was a festival or market going on in the town centre when looking at it from afar, but it was purely people out doing their clothes shopping and generally socialising.
If you wanted some food or clothes then Oostende is an ideal place, if you want to find a football match in a bar then I’m afraid you’re struggling. We did a full loop of the town and eventually stumbled across the Taverne St Pieters which sits on a corner in the shadow of the impressive Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk which was built in 1908. I don’t think it was a tourist hot spot as the regulars looked at us in an inquisitive fashion, but they gave us some free crisps which went down a treat as we were still combating hangovers.
With more Jupiler dusted off, we set off to try and find the Swansea match once again. Going back up the slope towards the beach Matt saw a Guinness sign sticking out into the street. First thoughts were that it was an Irish bar and that they would be showing football. Entering through the door it soon transpired that it wasn’t an Irish bar and they weren’t showing football, but that didn’t bother us when we saw the wide selection of beers behind the bar.We were overwhelmed by the 300+ bottles of Belgian beer and various draft beers. It took nearly ten minutes for us to make our choices and I think we underestimated how strong our choices would be.
Matt opted for a bottle of beer based on it’s quirky label design whereas I went for the more traditional kwak, which I was told to try by a family member when we booked the trip. A kwak beer comes in a wooden holder and looks a bit like a test tube. It took forever to finish it but I think I performed quite well as it was 10%. In fact, it took me that long to finish it that by the time I reached the bottom I had befriended a bloke who lives on the estate which backs on to Ashton Town’s ground back home in Wigan. I tried explaining to him that Atherton Collieries were playing in Ashton in the FA Cup in three hours time… but he didn’t see that interested in all honesty.
Five minutes was left until kick off in the Swansea match when we found the Madison Sports Arena close to the promenade. From the outside it looked horrific, but inside it was great. Matt burst in shouting “ARE YOU SHOWING THE SWANS?” to which a calm and composed bar man replied “Of course we are!” The regulars soon informed us that the bar was one of the bases for the Liverpool fans in Belgium, meaning of course that they were all supporting Swansea for the afternoon.
With Matt glued to the television, I was glued to my phone seeing how Atherton Collieries were getting on against St Helens in the FA Cup. Gorik and Vincent – two Mechelen fans who had joined us – knew little about my small non-league club, but were more than aware of how we were getting on with my wide range of emotions and facial expressions throughout the afternoon. We were 2-0 down after just 20 minutes so the Mechelen fans took it upon themselves to try and make me happier… with Gorik opting to smash Matt’s glass when he wasn’t watching.
As Gylfi Sigurðsson put Swansea 2-1 up at Old Trafford we decided to order a plate of cheese and salami to celebrate. It really was the definition of a heart attack on a plate, but it was delicious and it was the biggest thing I had had to eat since we touched down on the continent. There was even more to celebrate though, as I checked Twitter I saw that the mighty Colls had won 5-2 at St Helens to set up a tie against Radcliffe Borough in the next round of The FA Cup.
We had been in the bar for four or five hours before we decided it was time to say our goodbyes and head to the promenade again. The Mechelen fans had long disappeared as they were off to a barbeque close to the ground; something that I don’t think happens much at home. I couldn’t imagine a group of Accrington fans organising a meal with Southend fans on their trip down to Roots Hall for example.
As mentioned earlier in the blog, we had been put in touch with Oostende resident Anthony who agreed to sort us out with tickets for the match. Albertparkstadion only holds around 8,000 fans so it proved to be the most awkward fixture to get tickets for over the weekend. By the time we had finished yet another few pints, Anthony was still at work but had agreed to meet us after he had finished for the day. Again, it was a bit of a problem finding somewhere to have a casual drink as the majority of places were all restaurants; we eventually settled with the Cafe Leopold. It offered nice views over the beach, but we were getting a bit bored now and just wanted to head up to the football ground.
Eventually Anthony arrived on his bike and introduced us to his family who he passed on the promenade before we pressed on towards the ground. The most iconic sight of Oostende is the Royal Galleries which is a long stretch of arches which were built in the early 1900’s allowing King Leopold to walk from the royal villa on the beach to the neighbouring race track. Speaking of the race track, Anthony had bought us tourist tickets for the match which also allowed us free admission into the horse racing the following day if we were sticking around!
The sports areas of Oostende are all found a bit of a walk away from the centre, so after the race track came the Basketball Arena and then the football ground. The basketball team is arguably the most successful sports team in the town having won 15 top flight titles; a record in Belgian basketball. I think it’s fair to say that the football ground stands in the shadow of 5,000 seater basketball arena… which looks a bit like stadium:mk from outside.
We reached the ticket office at the same time as the Mechelen side pulled in their coach. To retrieve our tickets from the office we needed to show our passports to prove that we came from over 20km away from Oostende. This was obviously not an issue and we were now proud owners of fairly elusive tickets. We grabbed a quick photograph with the visiting captain Seth de Witte before Anthony took us around the corner to a small bar. Our tour guide informed us that it was an “old school” bar and he wasn’t wrong. It was decorated in the red, yellow and green on Oostende and even had a chalk board on the wall displaying the latest results and table from the Jupiler League.
More Jupiler was downed before we said our goodbyes to Anthony and walked around the corner to the ground. He wasn’t going to the match as he’s an Anderlecht fan and apparently had been involved in an incident of some kind when his side played at Oostende a few weeks earlier. This meant that the two tourists were now left to fend for themselves. There was now a sizeable queue at the turnstile with the game close to selling it out was quite busy, making for a great atmosphere during the match.
The club was founded in 1904 as VG Oostende, but AS Oostende was founded seven years later and soon went on to be the more successful side in the city. In 1981, the two sides merged to form KV Oostende which is where the odd red, yellow and green coloured strip comes from. Apparently both sets of fans were against the merger at first due to the fierce rivalry, but financial strains soon made the move necessary. I’d imagine it would be like an Atherton Collieries and Atherton Laburnum Rovers merger which would surely produce a black, white, yellow and blue striped home kit!
Oostende won promotion into the Jupiler League when they claimed the Second Division title in 2013. Being in the top tier of Belgian football meant the Albertparkstadion needed to increase capacity and we found ourselves sat in the newest part of the ground in a temporary structure. Even with this temporary structure in place, the ground was still the smallest top flight ground that I had ever visited, with a capacity of 8,000. In English league terms, this puts Oostende alongside Bath City.
The part of the ground which we sat in was in fact so temporary that just a few months after our visit plans were published for a brand new stand to replace the three which sit on that side of the ground. A unified design which will hold 3,700 spectators will be sunk into the ground to cause as little disruption to neighbouring residents as possible. Work will begin in March 2016 and is expected to be finished in time for the 2016/17 season. Despite the new structure – which will be paid for through corporate tickets – the capacity will remain at it’s current level.
Coming into the match, both sides found themselves in the bottom six having only played three matches of the season. Oostende moved up to eighth with a win, leaving Mechelen in 12th place. Fast forward a few months to the end of the season and the two sides finished the campaign in eighth and ninth respectively, with Mechelen racking up three more points than their hosts.
The visitors, wearing their black away kit, kicked off shooting towards the vociferous home supporters who were congregated behind the near goal. Mechelen had seeminly sold out their allocation at the other end of the ground, so some fans were left to watching the match from on top of neighbouring buildings.
Mechelen immediately threatened with a long distance striker from Sofiane Hanni. The home side then had an opportunity when a great through ball made its way through to Elimane Coulibaly, but his attempt was saved from the line.
The visitors were caused many problems by Oostende’s tricky striker John Jairo Ruiz who time after time managed to weave his way past defenders evading any tackle thrown at him. Another player who impressed was Oostende’s left back Jordan Lukaku, younger brother of Everton’s striker Romelu.
Baptiste Schmisser fired a free kick into the Mechelen area where Franck Berrier headed the ball towards goal. It looked to be going in but a great save from Wouter Biebauw denied him.
The second half started off the same as the first with Mechelen threatening to open the scoring once more.
The visitors were celebrating when Sofiane Hanni finished from close range right in front of the Mechelen fans, after Oostende keeper Dider Ovano saved Glenn Claes’ original shot. As the Mechelen fans celebrated wildly, the linesman placed his flag in the air to rule out the goal.
However, the match was won by Oostende 25 minutes into the half, with two goals in quick succession.
The first goal arrived on 70 minutes when Niels de Schutter got his head to a Jonathan Wilmet free kick. The second came when John Jairo Ruiz played a ball through to Bjorn Ruytinx who took one touch with his right foot before firing the ball into the bottom corner with his left.
The roof was lifted off Albertparkstadion and Ruytinx celebrated by running behind the net and swallow diving in Shefki Kuqi style. Yellow, red and green scarves were being twirled everywhere you looked and a carnival atmosphere was erupting next to the beach.
Fortunately for the home fans, their side saw the game out and it was time to walk the mammoth distance back to the train station for the last train back to Brugge. We had just over 45 minutes to get back to where we had started and we picked up some large cans of Jupiler for the journey.
A beach party was in full flow on the beach, with a ten minute long version of ‘Pink Floyd – We Don’t Need No Education’ accompanying us as we walked along the promenade. In the town centre a large festival was also taking place, which made Brugge look rather dull when we eventually arrived back just before midnight.
While we didn’t expect Brugge to be bouncing on a Saturday night, we thought there’d be something exciting down a ginnel somewhere. Walking through the main square, we heard some music and followed the loud thudding which sounded like a club. It was here that we came across a small, cramped English style pub that had the most dangerous set of stairs I have ever seen in my life. Fortunately, Arsenal fan Steve was on hand to chat to us all evening, and he seemed amazed that we had travelled to Belgium just to watch football. He described the two of us as “objective football fans” which we felt hit the nail on the head.
The evening ended with Steve taking Matt’s brand new Swansea away shirt off, before making a lit cigarette disappear into it. We will never know where it went or how he did it, but it will be a magical memory from the magical town of Brugge. Next stop was Gent, where we’d be staying for the night…
Overall, I loved Oostende. It helped that the weather was nice as I bet we’d have hated it if we’d have walked to the ground in the wind and rain. I will forever remember the place for introducing me to the kwak. I shall be purchasing my own glass and stand in the coming months to celebrate a year since our visit.
Oostende: Dider Ovono, Frederic Brillant, Jordan Lukaku, Niels de Schutter, Baptiste Schmisser, Fernando Canesin, Franck Berrier, Andile Jali, John Jairo Ruiz, Sebastien Siani, Elimane Coulibaly – Substitutes: Jeremy Dumesnil, Jimmy Hempte, Carl Hoefkens, Niels Coussement, Michiel Jonckheere, Jonathan Wilmet, Bjorn Ruytinx
Mechelen: Wouter Biebauw, Sheldon Bateau, Ivan Obradovic, Seth de Witte, Glenn Claes, Milos Kosanovic, Ibrahima Cisse, Laurens Paulussen, Sofiane Hanni, Jason Adesanya, Tim Matthys – Substitutes: Tome Pacovski, Joachim Van Damme, Mats Rits, Alessandro Cordaro, Wannes van Tricht, Jordi Vanlerberghe, Dalibor Veselinovic
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 379 miles
- ADMISSION: €10 as a tourist
- PROGRAMME PRICE: Free