A Relaxing Weekend In Belgium

Matt Keeling swapped Sunderland for The Continent as he embarked on a groundhopping tour of Belgium - here's his account of the weekend

When a message pops up asking if you fancy a “daft weekend away”, you usually resign yourself to the fact that these ideas never really get off the ground – well I am delighted to tell you that this one did, and here’s what happened.

Very quickly a hostel, and flights from varying cities were booked, and we’d planned a football weekend in Belgium in what surely promised to be a balmy early November. With the remnants of the storm the day prior definitely not still in my thoughts as I boarded one of two flights to Brussels, I looked forward to a very serene and calming weekend.

Due to no direct flights to Belgium being available from Newcastle (which is very good and actually makes big levels of sense), I did have a layover in Heathrow which was just about long enough to have a few beers and “breakfast”, and spend a reasonable £35 in the process.

Anyway, I took off and landed in a windy Brussels, had a lovely rendevouz with the Preview Show’s Tom Walsh and Friend of the Show Dan Howdon, chucked the bags into the genuinely quite nice hostel, and headed to the first game of the weekend, S.V. Zulte Waregem v Oostende – it was top against bottom, a formality, some goals for sure. Not quite. Past the confused, but friendly questions of “What the hell are you doing in Waregem?” queries, we entered the Elindus Arena.

Rarely do you see a more one-sided game of football, particularly in the first half. 28 attempts on goal, 9 corners and 65% for Waregem and of course they proceeded to lose 1-0 to a wonderful volley from the edge of the box. Oh well, two more games anyway and this was the Belgian Second Division after all – we headed for the train back to Brussels, some Stella Artois and, what became the staple diet of the weekend, chips and mayonnaise.

Awoken by the sound of some church bells on the Saturday morning, we had time to relax and pull ourselves round before heading to Leuven at lunchtime. Another city I’ve had the pleasure of visiting before, Leuven is beautiful, the buildings and squares breathtaking and the drinking culture simply magnificent.

A mere six hours before kick off we arrived in Cafe Belge (I have no idea what this means), and stuck to sensible 330ml beers. At this point we’ll gloss over the “small” beers being upwards of 7%, and skip to the football. Leuven are owned by the same people as Leicester City, so it was a tad depressing to see KING POWER emblazoned everywhere but hey, they did pretty much redevelop the ground so it’s not all bad.

The home of Stella, Leuven of course sell this in the ground, which we took advantage of as we watched the team take on lowly Westerlo. Neither side were performing well but with Westerlo bottom with a meager one win, a home win looked on the cards.

Not so – Leuven were, and there’s no way to really express this other than to say, absolutely garbage. They were appalling and Westerlo cruised to a 2-0 win in front of their adoring travelling fans. At this point we were thinking, “maybe this is our fault” as we watched the Leuven Ultras turn their backs on the side at full time. Oh well, it’s fine because there was one more game to go and it was Cercle Brugge, having their most memorable season for years.

Before that though there were the post game drinks in Leuven (and yes, Brussels), and me dropping some kind of bandit by simply blindly pressing the buttons. As days go, this one was a good’un and it’s fair to say that we were, to quote “absolutely steaming” by the time we arrived at the Sleep Well Hostel – and sleep well I did with definitely no mental dreams at all.

Sunday arrives – relaxing Sunday. Maybe a nice walk, some breakfast in a little cafe and a lovely coffee as we take in Belgium? Not really, the Cercle Brugge game kicked off at 1:30 and was an hour away, so it was back to Brussels Centraal and off to the stunning city of Bruges. Straight to the ground for this one, after a conversation with a lovely man telling us “this season is remarkable for Cercle, they are playing so well.” More on that in a bit.

Stood behind the goal, the aging Jan Breydel Stadium does look, shall we say, outdated? You imagine this would pass no regulations in the UK, but we got some beers and watched as the Ultras generated an admirable atmosphere in the relatively sparsely populated ground. I went to get some more beers just before half time, and in my delirious state, ordered the frankly useless number of five, rather than the three we needed. Surely even six would have made sen… you know what forget it.

So anyway you know that guy that was waxing lyrical about this team? The incredible season they were having saw them above city rivals Club Brugge in the table, and the fans were buoyant. Well they were dispatched 3-0 by an Anderlecht side featuring Kasper Schmeichel, Jan Vertonghen and Thorgan Hazard. The fans though stuck with them and deservedly applauded them off – there was no lack of effort or even quality from Cercle, they just fell short.

So yep, that’s three games, three defeats, zero home goals scored and an aggregate of 0-6. I really should stop watching football. I even tried going to the concourse but that didn’t work.

The night out in Bruges afterwards was a real trip highlight though. The most wonderful bar, with a proper (free) jukebox, amazing beer and cheese and a dog that had some of the said cheese and became my best friend. A rousing rendition of Candle in the Wind 1997 rounded off the evening, to much amusement and yes, confusion from the uber-friendly locals and staff.

Back to Brussels and to the Delirium Village for a pint, yes a pint of 9% beer and off to bed. Dan’s 9am flight not was not bothering him at all as we hit the hay at a soothing 2:30am.

Belgium then – amazing as ever. The best pints of John Smiths in the world. Wait, that’s an in-joke, we didn’t drink John Smi… ah it doesn’t matter. Hope you enjoyed my trip.