A tour, beginning with England’s visit to San Marino, taking in two Serie B games in Italy, Montenegro v England and finishing with some Hungarian top level matches.
22nd March San Marino 0 England 8 World Cup qualifier 4,900 (3,000 away)
There were plenty of alternatives to get to San Marino for this Friday night World Cup qualifier.
I took the Stansted to Ancona route from where I drove the one hour or so along the coast, past the numerous roadworks, to the small Republic near Rimini.
In the game it didn’t take long before you were reminded of how bad San Marino are when they got the scoring going with an own goal.
After that it became a training exercise for England.
Attack versus defence.
The highlights being some training ground moves and an excellent strike by Ashley Young.
But it was in no way a contest and certainly hardly useful preparation for more difficult encounters to come, not least in Montenegro on Tuesday evening.
The only slight excitement was if England could get to double figures after scoring five in the first period - maybe they’ll do it next time they play San Marino ?
As you might expect England fans were present in most of the two-sided ground, and indeed watching from outside of it as well.
23rd March Grosseto 1 Cesena 2 Serie B 1,450 (120 away)
Having dropped off the rental car at Ancona airport I took the morning train from Falconara across the spine of the country to Grosseto, via Rome.
There was more excitement in the first minute of this game, when Federico Barba of Grosseto was sent off, than in most of the San Marino match.
It looked a harsh decision and compounded the home side’s problems.
Problems that continued as a defensive error allowed Uruguayan Pablo Granoche to squeeze home the Cesena opener and they doubled their advantage after 40 minutes when sub. D’Alessandro poked in a cross at the far post.
D’Alessandro then went from hero to villain in two minutes as he got booked for his shirt-off celebration then followed that with a foul that resulted in a red card.
Which gave Grosseto some hope and in the second half they eventually pulled a goal back when another Uruguayan, Gimenez, scored from close range.
But despite further home pressure the visitors held on, helped by another home dismissal (Piovaccari) towards the end.
So Grosseto look doomed as the home fans vented their anger at the referee.
It had been a fairly mild, dry night and there was time enough afterwards for a pizza and some beer.
24th March Novara 1 Ascoli 0 Serie B 4,061 (8 away)
From Grosseto, via Firenza and Milan, to Novara in northern Italy.
Where the weather starts to worsen, considerably, with heavy rain throughout.
Not that it affected the game much since Novara have an artificial pitch. But if you were watching from the mostly open seating then an umbrella was a useful accessory.
As at Grosseto we had some moments of reflection (and applause) following the recent demise of the renowned Italian sprinter Pietro Mennea.
This game was decided by Frenchman Matthias Lepiller with a right foot shot into the corner of the net after 24 minutes.
He was part of what looked like a decent Novara team who were deserved winners.
Although they tended to do just enough to limit any Ascoli chances as the game wore on.
The win took the home side closer to the play-off positions.
I eventually found a bus back to the train station and was in Milano Centrale by 7pm.
Where the logical option for dinner was to dry out at the convenient Roadhouse Grill, which overlooks the platforms.
So steak and weissbier it was.
Prior to getting the overnight sleeper to Austria.
I had a few hours sleep in a crowded carriage as we passed the snowy terrain, arriving in Villach about an hour late at around 5.30am.
This was not an issue since I had plenty of time for my connection to Ljubljana.
Nice place Ljubljana but not so conducive on a snowy March morning after an overnight train ride.
But the logistics worked for my flight from there to Podgorica, despite the inclement weather.
Many of the other England supporters took the opportunity to take pictures of the snow-covered airport as we marvelled at how efficient it seemed compared to what would probably be chaos at home.
26th March Montenegro 1 England 1 World Cup qualifier 12,000 (2,000 away)
A relatively quick return to Podgorica for England and a similar result.
And the local fans might well be able to look forward to another major tournament qualification after this draw.
They certainly created a raucous atmosphere that helped their team overcome a poor first 45 minutes, especially when attacking the main ‘ultras’ end in the second half.
Rooney (should he change his name to Roooney ?) headed England ahead after he had earlier seen his chip clip the post.
England should have capitalised more on their dominance.
But the match changed after the break and Montenegro applied the pressure and eventually equalised after some penalty box pinball.
Even after that England could have won.
But it was not to be and, in a way, it adds to the feeling evident for some time that we are a top-ten team - only.
Able to qualify for tournaments, maybe after the play-offs, but not compete when it really matters against the leading countries.
As before the England fans were kept in for half an hour and I was back at my hotel, near the station, just before midnight.
From Podgorica I took the long, and slow, train ride to Belgrade.
Fairly featureless though it is Podgorica soon gives way to some spectacular scenery when travelling north, with outstanding views of mountainous terrain.
An early morning train to Budapest followed my short overnight stop in Belgrade.
29th March Videoton 6 Siofok 0 NB1 2,050 (no away fans)
Back after the international break it still felt very much like winter in Szekesfehervar, some one hour on the train from Budapest.
Videoton feels like a reasonably progressive club although like many their stadium is hardly cosy with its predominantly open seating.
The home team took their time taking care of the visitors and the first half ended goalless.
But after the break the goals came, helped by a red card for a Siofok defender.
The resulting penalty made it 2-0 and after that the floodgates opened.
Videoton scored a flurry of late goals including a drive from sub. Gyurcso that surprised the visiting goalie, much to the crowds amusement.
Siofok were poor, justifying their lowly league position.
Rain on the way back but a weissbier helped me warm up and there were some interesting old pictures to view on the walls of the station bar.
One beer for me but much more than that for many of the younger locals on the train back to the Hungarian capital.
30th March MTK Budapest 1 Honved 0 NB1 1,000 (300 away)
So to a Budapest double-header.
MTK, a club with an historic past, play in an industrial area of the capital in an old ground redolent of past glories.
The Nandor Hidegkuti stadium features swathes of unused terrace and a open seating section opposite the main stand for the away fans.
Of which there were a reasonable number.
The home side, second in the league, won it when sub. Poloskei shot home early in the second period. Maybe the visiting goalie should have done better.
For most of the game Honved had more possession without making many chances.
And towards the end MTK were content to contain and play on the break.
In the final minutes there were some serious-looking injuries resulting in the home goalie fending off crosses with one arm.
It was enough.
In an echo of Argentina the home fans were kept in for about ten minutes at the end of the match to allow the Honved fans to disperse.
I walked back to my central hotel and warmed up before going to :
30th March Ferencvaros 4 Eger 0 NB1 3,500 (10 away)
Fradi are playing at the vast Ferenc Puskas (Nep) Stadium while their own ground is redeveloped.
Large parts of stadium were unused.
The home ultras watched from the side as their team started brightly scoring after three minutes and adding another by the useful Julian Jenner on ten minutes.
Eger did hit the bar but their cause was made much harder when Mecinovic was given a second yellow for handball.
But unlike Siofok then didn’t totally crumble just conceding two more including a great run and shot by the Brazilian Somalia later in the second half.
Another watchable Brazilian, Leonardo, was often prominent in the home attacks.
Ferencvaros, like Videoton, did produce impressive passages of play albeit against ten-men and similarly ran out comfortable winners.
31st March Debrecen 0 Ujpest 1 NB1 4,000 (150 away)
And so finally to Debrecen after a train ride east from Budapest.
Where it is fairly quiet on this Sunday afternoon, but thankfully quite a lot milder at least during daytime.
Central Debrecen features some impressive architecture, some affluent areas and a good selection of themed restaurants.
My pre-game refreshment was Hussar soup (including knuckle) and an Irish coffee.
Their current ground, a fifteen minute walk from the centre, is basic with various additions tacked on to increase the capacity.
But it does generate some atmosphere led by the noisy home ultras.
They do plan to move in due course.
Before the start Edgar Davids lookalike Luis Ramos received an award and he was active in the home midfield.
But Debrecen struggled to create and perhaps their best opportunity came in the closing minutes when the tall Senegalese Sidibe hit the post and sub. Coulibaly failed with the follow-up.
The visitors scored as early as the ninth minute when a cross from Kabat was diverted into his own net by Simac.
And in the end Ujpest did enough but no more as their fans celebrated by letting off their flares.
Post-game, with the rain falling again, I walked back to the centre and enjoyed some typical Hungarian fare with pork, potatoes and cabbage washed down with Czech Staropramen beer.
I was back home via the small Debrecen airport courtesy of Wizzair.
more pictures at http://www.photobox.co.uk/album/1828968727