Despite the freezing cold weather and their team's minuscule chances of getting a result against England, the Lithuanian fans were in good voice throughout the recent European Championship Qualifier in Vilnius. The tiny LFF Stadium, a short walk from the centre of town, was packed with only a handful of seats unoccupied.
I was there accompanying Thomson Sport's England supporters group. After an early start we'd flown in that morning from Luton to be met at the airport by local guide Mindas who escorted us to our hotel for the night. With a rock and roll theme (there are suites named after Madonna and the Beatles, and huge pop art murals all around the place of Aerosmith, Elton John and Bob Marley among others) the Comfort Hotel was an unusual and funky place but comfortable and ideally situated about ten minutes' walk from the old town.
Once we'd checked in, I headed out for something to eat and on the guide’s recommendation tried out a cosy traditional Lithuanian place just around the corner from the hotel. After an interesting starter of crispy pig’s ear and peas, the main course was a hearty venison stew with potato dumplings, all washed down with a home-brewed dark ale – just the job on a cold day. Heading back to the hotel I donned my running gear to go and explore. Vilnius is a charming city with a beautiful old town area full of pretty squares, cobbled streets and churches. I covered about six miles including climbing up to the ruined castle on the hill overlooking the city from where I was able to get a great view of all the landmarks. Jogging back down through town to the hotel I passed a number of pubs where good natured groups of England supporters were sampling some local refreshments…
Back to the hotel to get ready for the match I decided it was best to wear all of the clothes I’d brought with me – so I braved the cold with a fleece and 4 t-shirts under my coat. Meeting the group down in reception, it was clear that everyone else had the same idea – one person even had a big furry, Russian-style hat.
And so to the “stadium” – reminiscent of an English non-league ground, facilities were Spartan at best. The seats had moss growing through them, and catering and retail opportunities were non-existent - my search for an England v Lithuania bobble hat to keep my poor frozen noggin warm was in vain. The pitch however was immaculate – it would be, as it was made of plastic. It was still a better playing surface than San Marino a few weeks before.
The outcome was a formality – the Lithuanian side had very little to offer and with a first half goal thumped in by Ross Barkley followed a few minutes later by an own goal, the result was never in doubt. Hearty singing from both sets of fans kept the atmosphere alive as the temperature dropped, with it dipping down to around freezing. Never have I craved a cup of Bovril more. A third goal from a powerful strike by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the second half put the result beyond any doubt and England were on their way to a perfect 10 wins from 10 and Lithuania’s manager, who resigned straight after the match, was on his way to the dole queue. As the match ended and we made our way back to the coach it was approaching midnight and we were all glad to get into the warm and get back to the hotel – a far cry from the warm bar terraces of Rimini in September!
Let’s hope that England carry this winning streak through into the tournament proper where they’ll certainly be facing much tougher opposition. In the run-up to the Euros, Thomson Sport will be making the trip to Berlin for what promises to be an intriguing friendly against the world cup holders Germany. As for Lithuania’s prospects - football is some way behind basketball in the popularity stakes there (they are ranked 3rd in the world in basketball behind the USA and Spain) and on this showing they’ve got some way to go before football gets close.
Vilnius was a lovely city which I’d love to visit again – lots of history, good food and cheap beer make it a great destination for a weekend break – I’ll definitely be back.