Memories from Tbilisi ’94

By Tommie Collins

Over 1,500 Wales supporters will be heading towards Tbilisi to watch the crucial Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying match on October 6. The numbers will be vastly different to the mere total of 11 supporters that ventured across Europe to Georgia back in 1994, for what turned out to be a forgetful performance.

The red wall didn’t exist back then and dark days were aplenty after the disappointment of not qualifying for USA ’94.

“I flew there on the Welsh FA’s chartered flight with the squad, coaches and association officials. Flying from London Stansted airport, it was a troubling journey as we had to stop along the way following fuel shortage,” Russell Williams, a regular Wales match-goer, told Football Foyer.

Russell continued: “I’m certain there was some concern about the level of insurance we had in place due to the country’s current state. We arrived Tbilisi pretty late at night and later than planned. The total cost of the trip was around £450 and that included our flight and hotel.”

Tanks on the streets

Back in 1994, Tbilisi wasn’t the cosmopolitan city it finds itself as these days. The city and the whole country was stepping out of a dark period in their turbulent history.

“Georgia at that moment in time was a war zone. It had United Nations tanks along the streets and outside our hotel. The city itself, however, was pretty quiet, with not much night life to be had,” Russell went on to explain.

“The scars of war tainted the city and I’m certain Wales fans that visit this week will find a much-changed Tbilisi welcoming them. The only place that offered late drinks at that time was the local casino. One unlucky person lost more than his money one night – as he was shot whilst we were in attendance.”

Russell’s memories of the Tbilisi that he stepped into are stark. The country had recently fought a civil war between 1988-92 before it restarted later on in the year and stretched into 1993.

“Not many people ventured in their travels to Georgia at that time. Therefore, the locals took a real interest in the 11-man band who completed the just-under 3,000mile journey. Yet, the Wales performance upon arrival was a real disappointment and one that neither of us expected,” Russell went on to describe.

“We had (Ian) Rush, (Mark) Hughes, and (Dean) Saunders in the side and coach Mike Smith’s team should have performed to a much-higher standard. After the game, we somehow managed to end up in the Georgian FA’s committee room where a meeting was taking place. Their reaction was to offer us a seat, take out a bottle of vodka from the cabinet and to thank us for visiting their country. I remember the stadium being full of soldiers, the atmosphere being electrifying and every seat in the house being full.”

One of the scorers during the Georgia rout was Georgi Kinkladze. He later went onto excite Manchester City fans before continuing his Premier League journey with Derby County.

Russell continued: “In the same campaign, I travelled to Bulgaria, Germany and to Albania. The most notable performance came in Germany, as we drew 1-1. Otherwise, this campaign was one to be quickly forgotten as Wales managed to finish bottom of the group.”

Tension between supporters

Despite the relatively small number of fans which travelled to watch Wales back in the day, there was constant tension between fans of Cardiff City and Swansea City. Russell followed Swansea City, which meant that issues often came to the fore when he attended games where just small numbers made the journey.

Russell added: “There was an element of dismay when following Wales back then. It’s improved nowadays, as we experienced last year in France. I fell out of the routine of going for many reasons, although I did make it over to the Euros last year and I was delighted to see supporters that had been there when we were a poor team, enjoying the team’s remarkable journey throughout the tournament.”

“Before, fans who followed Wales were viewed with a level of amazement as to why anyone would follow a team of such ilk. These days however, the situation has turned on its head with the team getting huge attention. Back in the days of failure, the fans had no expectation. The reason for travelling was for the laughs and adventure!”

The red wall, turning up in their droves over the coming days, will experience a peaceful city compared to the Tbilisi experienced by Russell in ’94 – and, hopefully, a better result to go with it.