The day Trevor had us in stitches

Wish you were here: Ian Ridley, Football Correspondent, sends a postcard from Georgia
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Wednesday Luton Airport, 9.30am

Have you noticed how under-21 players look younger these days? All part of one's ageing process. Some very nervous fliers among the England party, the more so as the plane writhesaround the sky on take-off in gale-force winds.

Leg room is tight, a narrow-bodied jet having been chartered by the FA, not the best policy with several players nursing leg and back strains, notably David Seaman. It was a relief to reach Tbilisi after five hours, though the Georgian capital is almost in darkness with electricity in such short supply.

The players head straight for a local stadium to stretch the tightness from their legs; the rest of the party go to the Metechi Palace Hotel, a beacon of luxury on a hill overlooking the blackness below.

At reception a man dressed in the uniform of the Coldstream Guards - not Lawrie McMenemy - and complete with bear-skin, informs us that this is British Week. It is remarkable how many Georgians look like Alexei Sayle.

Accommodatingly, the hotel keeps the kitchens open for us. In the line of duty, we take in the nightclub in the basement until 3am local time (only 10pm back home!) to check no England player has sneaked in.


If the players were unaware it was British Week, they are no longer. A bagpiper proved that it's an ill wind that nobody blows good by striking up at midday (7am GMT to the jet-lagged) in the lobby. All it needs now is Gazza on the flute.

To the Lokomotiv Stadium at the foot of Mount David to see England train, through the streets of this 1,500-year-old city of a million people, past crumbling buildings scarred by civil war and faded grandeur. The hotel where Liverpool stayed in 1979 before playing Dinamo Tbilisi in the European Cup is now a hostel for refugees of the war and drying washing hangs from every window.

The stadium, too, crumbles. Bench seating is broken and fencing gapes. Lord Justice Taylor would be aghast. The watching few hundred Georgians are curious and appreciative, scrambling for pictures of the England team handed out by the FA's director of public affairs, David Davies.

Their charming eyes tell of depression and repression, but also of smiling relief and optimism at being their own governors now divorced from Moscow. I meet David, a journalist on a new four-page daily sports paper, Eleven on Eleven. He wonders if I will be his paper's Georgi Kinkladze correspondent in England. David earns 100 lari a week, about pounds 80. He is luckier than most, he said. A waitress will get about half that, though a government official will receive twice what he does.

The England players initially have trouble concentrating on their work with an astonishing ball juggler going through his routine in a corner, wearing a Walkman and keeping the ball up on his head for what seems an age. He is, apparently, the world record-holder at more than eight hours. Back at the hotel, a delegation from Christian Aid brings in a delighted group of youngsters, orphaned by the war, to meet Glenn Hoddle. "We have not been good enough in the past at this sort of thing," says David Davies.

As you gaze on the city, separated from the England players by security guards on the ninth and 10th floors where they are watching videos on their wide screen, you feel guilty that you have grumbled about a five- minute power cut and frustrating, expensive telephone links at pounds 7.50 a minute.


Davies greets the Georgian press in their native language to applause and Hoddle tells them that, no, he cannot say what injury worries England have (they are Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce). Tony Adams plays his blinder with an impressed English press. The England players go to the Boris Paichaidze Stadium to train on the actual game surface, or perhaps to tread down the lumps. Afterwards, it is videos of the Georgian team in action.

Downstairs in the restaurant, complete with its British chef and where toad in the hole is on the menu, three British members of the United Nations peacekeeping force are in town for tomorrow's match and tell of their role in the run-up to elections on 23 November. Unarmed, they are frequently robbed on the road, they say. They carry $20 bills to appease their muggers.

One of the soldiers, a Scot, declines an invitation to have his picture taken with England players as he will never live it down back home, he says. Another adds that their usual link with English football is a crackly World Service and Alan Green's second-half commentary on a Saturday afternoon. I tell them I will get Greeny to yell "Good morning, Georgia" from Old Trafford next Saturday.

Back to the phone lines to curse and swear. I vow never to malign BT again.


Reports of the Under-21s' horrendous trip to Batumi on Friday reach us - rickety airplane, no seat belts. Worse follows this morning with news of the England press team's game against the Georgians. Trevor Brooking scores in the 1-1 draw but having been fouled repeatedly during the game turns on his marker to protest and is promptly punched on the brow by another opponent. The wound needs four stitches from the England team doctor. The referee Neil Harman of the Daily Mail sends off two of the Georgians. Where is that UN peacekeeping force when you need it? Brave Brooking is applauded when he comes down to lunch. "I had Billy Bonds looking after me for my whole career," he said. "Today I had Ray Wilkins."

At the stadium those of us in need of relief were kindly shown to toilets next to the England dressing-room. We wished we had not been and the odour still lingers. Unfortunately, the light did not as journalists were forced to work in the dark at the end of the game. Yes I know; no change there then.