We began our World Cup commentary games in sunny Sochi - on our 2nd visit it had become a somewhat soggy Sochi, but on this 3rd visit for the Uruguay Portugal game, it was most definitely sweltering Sochi.
Temperatures were well into the 30's when we landed and took a taxi route that was already very familiar to all of us in our team, only this time with a slight detour away from the nice hotel we'd used on trips 1 & 2 in order to find our hotel for this jaunt...and my word it was an upgrade. Adrian's drive producer, Emma, had joined us for this trip as Adrian and Matt were to present a Drivetime show later that afternoon from an Irish pub located on the Sochi seafront, and she must have immediately got the wrong impression about the sort of accommodation we were used to on our travels! Only issue was that Will, Dec, Matt and Emma could all access their rooms immediately, but the rooms booked for Adrian and I were yet to be cleaned and we therefore both had an hour's wait until they were ready.
As we sat down together in the lobby, Ade turned and said, "Shall we go and have a dip in the pool outside?" It sounded like a plan, and so we both ventured down to one of two pools that the hotel had with all our bags in tow. Ade was first in with me following on swiftly behind and I have to say it was the most gorgeous pool temperature I have ever swum in. It may sound frivolous to say so, but after a very early start and a long flight, it's hard to overstate just how welcoming that pool was to us. Visibly relaxed by this, Ade and I bobbed along by the poolside chatting away about everything and nothing for a good half hour, not much about football - about life in general. It was a tonic for both of us I think to just chat about things other than work and was something of an antidote to the wonderful savagery of our WhatsApp group chat. Anyway, soon enough we were able to decamp to our rooms so that Ade could prepare for his Drive show later.
Outside broadcasts from pubs have become a bit of a staple of talkSPORT on tour, especially those with an English/Irish slant where the owners are more likely to be accommodating of an English radio station wishing to present live programmes from their premises. Will and I wandered down the seafront to meet up with the others once their show had commenced, and Emma, Ade & Matt had been forced to decamp to the terrace outside the pub due to the increasingly rowdy nature of the patrons inside. Shots were being downed at an alarming rate by some of the locals and it would have been more than a little uncomfortable for Adrian & Matt to have made themselves heard above the din. As is was, once outside they were afforded a perfect view of what turned out to be Uruguay's team hotel opposite the pub. Adrian was able to provide live commentary of the team bus both taking them to and bringing them back from their training session at the Fisht Stadium during the 3-hour show! I'm kidding of course - it wasn't live commentary but the happy noise from the Uruguayan fans outside the hotel gates was a much better backdrop for the show than the boozed up patrons in the bar behind us!
Once the show was done we elected to stay on the terrace for dinner and Kelly Somers, one of talkSPORT's match reporters out here working for Aussie TV, joined us for the evening. You can sense her wide-eyed excitement at being at her 1st World Cup as a broadcaster (much as it is for Will & Dec on our team) but she was happy to spend time with some familiar faces in us lot and the mojitos did flow...as did the mosquitoes in from the sea front to take lumps out of most of us.
We had no idea that Portugal were staying in our hotel until the following morning when Matt and I went for a run along the sea front - well, Matt ran...I power-walked, mostly. As we started off from the hotel, there was a huge phalanx of cameras trained up at the hotel's top floors. Whilst it did occur to me briefly that these might be tabloid chaps seeking out exclusive shots of Adrian Durham in the altogether on his balcony, we quickly noticed the red-shirted Portuguese squad setting off on a morning walk of their own. You wouldn't have known they were staying in our hotel had we not seen them that morning, though as Matt pointed out, they would probably have a whole floor or 2 to themselves plus special rooms on the ground floor set aside from them to have private meals and meetings away from other guests. No chance of Ronaldo leaning over and nicking the last croissant off me, then.
After lunch, we all decamped to the imposing Fisht Stadium once again to not only prepare for our game, but also watch the early kick off, France v Argentina. Another brilliant World Cup match packed with incident and superb individual goals and contributions. The whole media centre rose as one to loudly applaud Benjamin Pavard's extraordinary hit to draw them level at 2-2, and media centres don't normally provide so much as a few gasps generally speaking when goals are scored on the plethora of big screens provided. Saw Andy Brassell as I walked back to our desk from a preview I'd done for talkSPORT - Andy is an incredible font of all knowledge on European football and terrific company to boot. He's out here with the Portuguese media, as I guess the Portuguese league is one that he particularly specialises in. Was lovely to chat to him, and also to our old pal Ray Houghton, who arrived with his Irish TV colleagues shortly after. Ray is a bundle of energy and opinion but is so friendly and engaging with it. One of the best pundits in the game, especially when a game isn't up to standard - Ray pulls no punches and nor should he. He scored at a World Cup too for Republic Of Ireland...not sure whether Matt Holland has mentioned his goal yet whilst we've been here. Adrian has definitely mentioned that Germany are out.
As are Argentina from the extraordinary goings on against an Mbappe-inspired France side - we all quietly wondered whether Sochi could serve up another classic for us to follow on from that. And it did, thankfully - thanks in no small part to the best strike duo at this World Cup in Uruguay's Suarez and Cavani. Their link up play for Cavani's opener was jaw-droppingly good - as Matt said himself to me in commentary, it shows that great strikers don't need to be just 20 yards apart all the time. A raking 60-yard diagonal followed by a fierce whipped-in cross and a prodigious leap for the header into the net. Utterly magnificent - and although Uruguay couldn't quite make it 600 minutes without conceding when Pepe equalised from a corner, but then Pepe inexplicably misjudged a simple boot downfield from Muslera straight into Bentacur's path, who in turn rolled it left for Cavani to caress the ball with the inside of his right boot, arrowing it beyond Patricio for yet another goal of the tournament contender. And there's about 20 of those. Uruguay v France promises to be a gripping encounter. We all walked back to our hotel shaking our heads collectively at the brilliant 90 minutes we'd witnessed again, feeling spoilt.
That feeling soon changed the morning after when we left Sochi for Rostov on a train. We knew ahead of time that the journey - some 300 kilometres or so - would take us 11 hours through Russian countryside and that made us somewhat apprehensive. I'd been chided by the others for being the only one wearing jeans for the trip whilst all the others went for the shorts option! Maybe I had it in my mind that our train would be something similar to the (equally slow) rattler that Stuart Pearce and I had taken from Marseille to Bordeaux 2 years ago. So when Adrian asked the conductor 'Air conditioning?' as we boarded, she just laughed in reply. This was not a good sign.
What ensued was probably the most uncomfortable 11 hours+ that any of our team have spent on a journey. The carriage we were booked into was spartan at best with hard bench chairs clearly designed to bring on the early onset of piles, the toilets at the end of the carriage resembled the one in that bookies in Trainspotting (no really) and as the temperature rose into the high 30's we were all sweating cob after cob...even the initially-smug shorts wearers. Our team's testicular fortitude - not to mention our testicles - was being examined in no small fashion. We had no option, we had to ride it out - although we laughed as we imagined broadcasting colleagues from other companies who'd have point-blank refused to even board the service. We were tougher than that - we just had to prove it.
Enter Matt Holland - he'd wisely bought a pack of cards from the Fifa gift shop next to our posh hotel that morning in Sochi, and we were quickly conscripted in the ways of the game 'Crash' as the train ambled along at a sleepy snail's pace. Adrian, sat on the bunk above the rest of us reading, quickly christened our steed 'The Rostov Trundler' and for the next 7 hours at least it barely broke out of its trundle. But Matt, a veteran of long coach trips with impatient squads, saw us through with cards, quizzes and questions that did honestly help the time pass far quicker than it would have done if we'd just sat there going 'F*** me it's hot' We did that too, don't get me wrong...
No plug sockets in our carriage and the only place to charge up our failing handsets was right next to a massive boiler at the end of our carriage that was used to dispense boiling water for coffee sales. This boiler merely raised the temperature in the immediate vicinity by another 5 degrees which merely added to the clamminess we all felt. We were also trying to keep up with events in Moscow as Russia played Spain - the locals in the next carriage were trying to watch it on an iPad they had, but as we plodded through the Krasnodar region, there was precious little phone service to be found, and eventually we had to rely on Emma (now herself back in Moscow having flown there that morning) to keep us in touch with the penalty shootout that went the hosts' way and led to a lot of hollering and whooping in our carriage. The Russian spirit at this World Cup will not be broken...nor was ours as the sun gradually set and eventually the train picked up pace as night fell, affording me the chance to stand in the corridor and let the strong breeze coming through the window cool me down a touch. And finally as 0030 on the dot (Matt checked disbelievingly on his phone) the train halted on the platform at Rostov Station. All I can say is, it was a character building experience for all of us...as well as sweat building. But no one suffered too much...apart from on our WhatsApp group, where my jeans rightfully got the most pelters
I'm currently typing this in the Media Centre at the Rostov Arena as Brazil/Mexico is getting underway on our screens before we call Belgium/Japan for talkSPORT tonight. We found out this morning that our quarter-final match (and final game of the tournament for Matt & I to commentate on before we fly home) is Russia v Croatia in....Sochi! A fourth visit to the Black Sea for us!
Getting that deja vu feeling again. But a nice deja vu feeling. Especially if the pool at our hotel is at the right temperature... ;)