All good things come to an end - all amazing, incredible, brilliant things come to an end as well.
That's the World Cup 2018 in a nutshell for me. I did wonder whether our commentary team's final game together would match what we'd witnessed on our previous visits to Sochi - why did I think I'd possibly see anything else? After all it was the hosts in town against one of the best-organised teams at the tournament. But even with that in mind, Russia Croatia had all of us once again gently shaking our heads as we exited the Fisht Stadium wondering what on earth we'd been a part of. Russia led through yet another 'goal of the tournament' contender from Cheryshev, but looked lost when Croatia hit back twice to lead in extra time. Enter sub Alan Dzagoev and a ball of total quality to see Fernandes head Russia level in the 2nd half of extra time.
The noise level was extraordinary enough when we took our headphones off to hear the national anthem sung before kick off, but the cacophony that followed once the full-back's header hit the back of the net surpassed even that to my mind. A quite unbelievable racket - contrast that with the near silence in the 44,000 crowd after their two penalty misses in the shootout. Smolov's attempted 'Panenka' penalty was especially daft when you consider how relatively immobile Subasic looked in the Croatian goal following a thigh/hamstring injury clearly picked up late in the 2nd half. He could barely move, so a dolly kick sent down the middle of the goal was far easier than it should have been. Fernandes smashed his pen wide not long after and that was that.
Of course, I was commentating on the action knowing full well that England lay in wait as the winners' next opponents in the semi-final. And so with Subasic's injury, Vrsaljko's hamstring strain and a 2nd Croatian game in a row lasting 120 minutes + extra time, the obvious conclusion to draw is that they'll be knackered against us on Wednesday. A dangerous theory to run with, as Modric and Rakitic (amongst others) still looked full of running to me. They'll be ready for us, make no mistake.
We flew back to Moscow the following morning to spend one last night with those talkSPORT types still in the capital city (our other comms team were hot-footing it to St Petersburg in readiness for France v Belgium in the 1st semi-final tie) and we spent it eating a lovely meal at a Georgian restaurant where I was pushed into grabbing an acoustic guitar in the corner of our particular section to play 'Three Lions' and get a singalong going. That was a good laugh, although the owner of the guitar (a waiter) didn't appear too chuffed that my impromtu rendition of Baddiel & Skinner went down better with the punters than the beautiful Georgian music he'd serenaded us with earlier in the evening. Ah well - that's showbiz folks.
We went on from there to meet up with Iain Dowie (Northern Ireland striker and dad to our 'fixer' Will) for a beer or two at a nearby bar. Iain was Matt Holland's manager briefly at Charlton and had dropped him from the team during his short spell in charge. This was not lost on the rest of us who proceeded to tease Matt mercilessly about 'not being good enough' which actually led Iain to be a little apologetic for his decision to leave Matt out of games in favour of some other midfield general or other. But again, the mickey-taking was gentle and fun and laughter dominated the rest of our evening together.
Laughter has actually been central to how wonderful these past 4 weeks have been, mostly in the company of Adrian Durham, Matt Holland, Declan McCarthy and Will Dowie. There's been a whole host of extraordinary games, one stinker of a match (step forward France/Denmark), luxury hotels, somewhat-less-than-luxury hotels, good food, good beer, odd-looking wine, trains from a different century altogether...and cities filled with friendly, helpful Russian people totally at odds with what so many reports tried to have us believe this country was about prior to our arrival. I actually feel a little guilty for my apprehension based on what I've been presented with during this last month. Doubters will still say things like 'Oh they're just putting on a front whilst you're there - you're not seeing the real Russia blah blah blah...' Well, you can only speak as you find rather than idly speculate on what things might otherwise be like. And I found Russia to be charming and welcoming throughout. Much as South Africa & Brazil exceeded the negative expectations shoved my way before I travelled to those World Cups, if not more so.
Ade, Matt, Dec and Will have been central to how enjoyable my time has been as talkSPORT commentator at this World Cup - here's a glossary of the most-used phrases bandied about between ourselves at mealtimes, in departure lounges, in hotel bars and - yes - on 11-hour train journeys. You'll have to guess who said what, but many of these phrases were used by ALL of us at some point! :)
We can still make it...
What's the f*****g point?
I'd rather have Shaqiri/Fellaini...
Not the shorts again?!
We have had it off here...
Where's he gone? Again?
One more for the road...and then for the pavement...and then the cracks in the pavement?
I'm not f*****g staying here!
Any chance of a day off?
Poor from you...
The old Nizh-knees have gone...
They wouldn't have this...
Are Germany out?
To be fair fella...
He's gone for a snart
Who's getting this?
Is it Kol-ARR-ov or KOL-a-roff?
I'm not having breakfast...
He's done you again!
How many potatoes is that?
B*******g b*****d b******s...
12 o'clock? We leave? We go? Hmm?
Every f*****g page?? Even the blank ones?
Do you ACTUALLY speak Russian?
Has he ever told you he scored at a World Cup?
*sung* Purple Bricks, Purple Bricks...
Is there a Starbucks round here?
We're sharing again
Who is he???
I don't like the look of those sausages...
Does this train have air-con? *cue laughter*
We're nearly there
Yeah no absolutely
It is what it is
Thanks for tuning in to us if you did at any point, and I hope we brought home some of the atmosphere we've experienced to you listening on the wireless. It's been emosh... :)