Views on BG | August 29, 2001, Wednesday // 00:00

The Scotsman - United Kingdom

Current affairs have a vicious tendency to exhume recollections of past experiences you would rather remained buried.
There can be, however, the odd beneficial side-effect, such as coming to the rescue of a jaded columnist going through the bi-weekly ordeal of conjuring from out of the ether a topic that will sustain enough words to fill his allotted space.

Two significant occurrences last Friday prompted the latest visit to the library of the mind, metaphorically to thumb through an episode which seemed at the time to be as black as sin, but which is, typically, lent a certain colour by hindsight.
The first event was that Rangers came out of the draw for the UEFA Cup with Anzhi Makhachkala of Russia, the second that my brother and his family returned from a holiday in Bulgaria.
The connection will probably not be immediately clear, but enlightenment follows.
The Ibrox side are to journey to a place which promises to be rather less appealing than Paris or Rome (those media representatives who are to accompany them have already begun to crack the kind of nervous jokes which invariably precede any potentially scary experience).
Such trips will forever in my mind be linked to Bulgaria. Not the sanitised Black Sea resorts which have visitors like my brother salivating over its beauty, its climate, its facilities, its cheapness. No, we're talking here of the interior, the real Bulgaria, pre-Soviet Union collapse. We're talking Stanke.

It was in 1978, Aberdeen's first European tie under Alex Ferguson, paired them with Marek Dimitrov in the Cup-Winners' Cup.
obody really knew where they were from, but we were told it was close to Sofia and assumed, therefore, that it couldn't be too horrific, even if we had to get there by flying to London, then to Zurich and, finally, to Sofia.
In retrospect, it was probably as well that we had not been properly forewarned. We could have been, because Pat Stanton, then Ferguson's assistant manager, had been out on a reconnaissance mission the week before.
Pat has always been, how-ever, as imperturbable and as tolerant off the field as he was on and he assured us that Stanke was "a nice wee place, close to the mountains."

Our first hint of awkwardness came with our attempt to book a phone at the "stadium." No mobiles, no sophisticated telecommunications 23 years ago. Yes, said the nice lady from BT in London, we can certainly order one, but we do have to warn you that there are only two telephone lines into the entire country.
Driving from the airport, Sofia looked splendid in the September sun, all old European grandeur, if a little faded after decades of neglect. The problem was, we went through the centre and on for another 50 miles south.
There, we disembarked at a "hotel" which would have been known in this country as a model lodging house.
I REMEMBER wondering at the time, as I had done since childhood, what exactly these establishments were modelled on. A medieval latrine, perhaps. The mildewed carpets and walls in rooms which would have had the average prisoner sending for his human rights lawyer meant that nobody unpacked.

There were no restaurants and everybody - team and media - was served the same virtually meatless chicken and flaky potatoes for dinner at the hotel.
The attempts to make a call from the ground to file match reports were futile until I went for a walk, pushing open every door I found in the vicinity of the pressbox. Behind one, I encountered a man sitting at what looked like a switchboard. Instinct told me what was required here, a crisp Pounds 10 note and just one word. "London," I said.
By the time I completed the 60-second walk back to my seat, my phone was ringing and a Cockney voice asked, "Yes? Can I help you?" We kept that line open for around an hour and a half, pressmen relaying details of Aberdeen's 3-2 defeat (they would coast the second leg 3-0) to each newspaper in turn, orchestrated by our marvellous London operator.
Helped by the afternoon kick-off time and Willie Garner sustaining a broken leg that delayed the departure of the team bus, we hightailed it back to Sofia after the match, where part of the meal that was laid on included soup that seemed not to have been made with water, but vinegar.

"Time flies when you're enjoying yourself, eh?" said the unflappable Paddy Stanton.

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