All in the name of Hajduk Split.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that my grandfather wrote about Hajduk for Slobodna Dalmacija in the 1950s, or my father following Hajduk games by tuning into Croatian radio stations from California when I was young, but my love for Hajduk is strong. Living in Split hasn’t helped, and apparently, when it comes to Hajduk, anything goes.
I’m not typically an impulsive person. Sure, I have been known to do spontaneous things here and there (and this was typical during my online shopping addiction a few years ago), but as I’ve gotten older, my comfort has taken the front seat. And at nearly 27-years-old, that is something I am okay with.
It usually takes something pretty special to bring out my impulsiveness, and those things usually fall into the categories of music or football (okay, and online shopping). In the story I am sharing today, an impulsive decision stemmed from my passion for football, and most importantly, Hajduk Split.
In the first round of the Europa League playoffs, Hajduk Split drew Everton Football Club out of Liverpool, a Premier League side that finished seventh last season. While their starting lineup boasts the name “Wayne Rooney”, they have also been the center of attention this week for their £45m signing of Iceland’s Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson. Fair enough.
I had an inkling that Hajduk would draw Everton. In fact, after Hajduk defeated Brondby at Poljud Stadium to advance to the Europa League playoffs, I called my brother in San Francisco, ecstatic about the news and the potential of this draw.
“We are going through, and we could draw either Atletico Bilbao, AC Milan, Everton…” My brother and I both stopped at Everton. “Can you imagine if we drew Everton?”
And then the seed groups were announced just before the draw, convincing us further that an Everton and Hajduk matchup would be a reality. Even though Everton was announced in Hajduk’s seed group with four other teams, we knew that it would be Everton.
Squealing like a child while jumping from room to room in my apartment after Hajduk and Everton were paired together, I called my brother with the news. Speechless, he was, while he was waiting for my call with his best friend from Liverpool. We both knew that going to this match would be one of those abrupt decisions I would have to make.
Oddly enough, I teetered with the idea of making the trip to see Hajduk play in Liverpool for a few days. While I knew that I had to go, and I really knew that I would never, ever forgive myself for missing this opportunity, a return flight from Split to England during peak season was not so much in favor of someone trying to travel on a budget.
I waited, day in and out, refreshing the Skyscanner screen in hopes of waking up to a better deal, but day by day, prices soared – this is something I should know by now, my father is a travel agent, after all. I was still hopeful, however, and determined to find a way.
And there it finally was, glittering like gold as I woke up to my alarm on August 9th – a return trip from Split to London for £150. Okay, the flight did have layovers in Zagreb, and I know, London is not Liverpool, but at that price for a quick four-day trip? I wouldn’t find anything better. So I booked it.
Luckily I have friends in both London and Liverpool that were able to help with accommodation, and Megabus tickets from London to Liverpool cost £6 each way. I knew that I could live off of sausages rolls, salt and vinegar crisps and £3 meal deals if I needed to, but who was I kidding? I was going to Liverpool to watch Hajduk play, and I was having Indian and Thai.
I left on August 15th from Split to Zagreb, and onto London before I traveled 7 hours by bus to the home of The Beatles. This was not my first time in Liverpool, a city I consider one of my favorites, but as soon as I stepped off the bus and into the crisp English air, the energy in the city washed away any doubts about a dwindling bank account and endless hours of travel. I was in Liverpool to watch Hajduk play, and I was out of 30+ degrees in Split. This was my resurrection.
The day before the match:
Day one in Liverpool was exhausting. After planes, layovers, underground trains, and delayed buses, I was finally in the comfort of my hotel room. But not for long, however, as I had to make my way to Goodison Park in the evening for the Hajduk pre-game press conference and training.
After a quick recharge, shower, and email check, I was ready to go. I was told that a taxi ride to the stadium from the center of town would cost no more than £7, so that is how I would get there. As my black cab pulled up in front of the hotel, I told him my destination.
“What the f*ck are you going there for?” A Liverpool fan, of course. In the 15-minute ride to the stadium, I was told every reason why the “Reds” are better than the “Blues”, ending the conversation at my drop-off point with a “You’se will win it, Everton is shite.” Comforting, however, for a Hajduk supporter.
Seven Croatian journalists and three photojournalists made the journey to Northern England, waiting patiently for Hajduk to arrive at the premises for the conference. We were escorted through Everton’s hospitality area to the press room, greeted by rows of smiling men in suits. A bit different than how we do it in Croatia, eh? The press room was equipped with hot coffee, tea, biscuits, and desks that we used in elementary school. This was quite nice.
Press conference by Robert Matić
Hajduk’s coach Joan Carrillo entered the room with Hajduk footballer Hamza Barry and Head of the Hajduk PR Department, Ante Bilić. We were told that the press conference would be held in English to ensure that all journalists would be able to understand – we were in England, after all. But the one minor detail that caught everyone’s eye – where was all the English media? Funnily enough, they decided not to show up.
Carrillo was hopeful during the conference, although the injuries that plagued the team for this match were not anything to be taken lightly. While Carrillo and Hamza agreed that a draw would be comforting, they also both believed that they would finish the job at Poljud.
From the press room to the pitch, the media was allowed to watch the first 15 minutes of Hajduk’s training at Goodison Park. We entered the pitch from the away tunnel and got a good look at the grounds. The nerves were beginning to set in.
I ended my first night in Liverpool with Indian and a pint at the Cavern Club, only to find some fellow Hajduk supporters doing the same.
Day of the match:
I woke up after a much needed full night of sleep to leftover Indian food for breakfast and a lot of catching up to do on my laptop. Temperatures in Liverpool were meant to reach 21 degrees today, and since it was game day and I had interviews lined up before the match, I wanted to make sure I was mingling amongst the people as much as I could.
Out in my short-sleeved “Hajduk Split” shirt, I would parade the town solo in the afternoon, on the lookout for familiar faces. The presence of Hajduk fans in the city was strong, and they were bunched into groups specifically around the city center. Some were at the pub, some enjoyed Liverpool’s finest food carts, and others were shopping. Everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their time in the city.
After my legs grew tired from all of the walking, I decided to sit for what I believed to be a well-deserved pint. Looking for a prime location, I chose the pub conveniently located across the street from where I was standing. There were also a few Hajduk supporters sitting outside.
“One cider, please” I would order, which is funny because I swore off the drink a few years ago. The weather tempted me to enjoy them again, however, and I would sit on the terrace, and people watch. But not for long.
About two sips into my pint I am noticed by Hajduk supporters who immediately call me over to their table and ask me to join them. So I did. A bit older than the majority of Hajduk fans in town this week, I find out that half of the group is from Split, and the other half is from Rijeka.
“How did you end up supporting Hajduk, then?” I asked. “My father wasn’t around much when I was a kid,” the Rijeka native replied.
I would sit with the group for a few hours and find out that they follow Hajduk to all of their away games in Europe. Some of them are captains of ships, one of them works for an insurance company, and a few of them live just steps away from Poljud Stadium. They were a treat.
What happens, of course, when you sit in a pub for hours is that the day flies by, the pints keep pouring, and many more people notice you aren’t from the home of The Beatles. While there would be many Liverpool FC fans approaching us with “good luck” nudges throughout the day, we were pleasantly surprised when a die-hard Hajduk fan greeted us from…Ireland.
And then we met an Everton supporter who will be traveling to Split next week for the first time to watch Everton at Poljud. Pardon the language (this is what happens when you mention Dinamo Zagreb in front of a Hajduk supporter).
After an entertaining afternoon with a good mix of Hajduk and Everton love, I was off to the Beehive pub to meet some more locals and Everton supporters.
This is where I met Steve. Steve reached out to Total Split after we published Everton Fans: 10 Things to Know About Hajduk and Split the day the draw was announced. Steve, an Everton supporter for eternity, would not be missing the match in Split and was curious about accommodation, public transport, and what to expect when he and his wife make the journey over. After helping Steve sort out his Split plans, we had decided that meeting for pints in Liverpool before the match would be necessary.
To say that Steve is an Everton supporter for eternity sounds a bit dull. He is much more than that. Not only has he buried his mother’s ashes at Goodison Park, but Steve also plays a big part in the club’s charity. For instance, Steve has helped organize Everton gear for local football clubs in Split – a gesture they do for most of their European away matches.
Apart from being an Everton supporter, Steve has a heart of gold. While we had been chatting each day leading up the match, Steve’s genuine hospitality when I finally arrived in Liverpool struck a chord. From making sure that I was finding the city okay to ensuring that I was safe and sound, Steve was a true gem. Meeting him and his wife Debi before the match for a drink sealed the deal, and I am determined to show them both the authentic Split experience when they arrive this week. Stay tuned.
An hour before kickoff, I picked myself up from the pub and jumped in a black cab with my friend James, an Everton supporter I met through my brother and the music scene, and his friend Peter, or more commonly known as “Booey”. James will be visiting Split next week for the match as well.
We arrived at the stadium which was drowning in blue thirty-minutes before kickoff. I would head off to the media centre, and my friends would head to their seats.
But not before we purchased this.
Nearly 2,000 Hajduk supporters were at Goodison park, their cheers heard miles away. Everton fans remained relatively quiet during the match, apart from a bit of whistling in the second half when Hajduk proved to be the better team.
Sure, there was “crowd trouble” which has been blasted on the headlines of English media over the last few days, but since the incident is in the hands of UEFA now, I believe that it deserves no more attention.
Here’s a look at Torcida during the game.
After the match, I joined my friend at a pub near the stadium where Everton fans were pleased with the win, but not entirely happy with the performance of their team.
Hajduk might have lost 2:0 at Goodison this time, but the spectacle that awaits us at Poljud next week can make miracles, I am sure of it.
Back to Split:
I would travel for hours and hours on Friday, making my way from Liverpool to London, central London to Heathrow, Heathrow to Zagreb, and Zagreb to Split – a 24-hour travel day I swear I would do for no one else but Hajduk.
Fortunately, however, I would be on a flight with Hajduk supporters who proved to be surprisingly entertaining through all of the delays and headaches we suffered at Heathrow. They’re predicting a 3:0 win for Hajduk this week. I am going to trust them.
You might be wondering if all of this was worth it? And I can say, honestly, that I wouldn’t trade the bags under my eyes for anything else.
The Everton and Hajduk story does not end here as the two teams will face each other again to a sold out Poljud on Thursday, August 24th. Total Split plans on meeting with even more Everton supporters in Split this week to get their take on the other side of the experience.
To be continued.