Army of middle class England fans descends on Nizhny Novgorod ready for second World Cup game

Robert Mendick
Fans in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia - REUTERS

Travelling England fans have never been so middle-class. Nizhny Novgorod, a city on the Volga once so sensitive it was ‘closed’ to visitors in Soviet times, was laid siege on Saturday by a small army of England fans made up of lecturers, chartered accountants, investment bankers, company CEOs and the like.

Or at least that’s how it appeared in bright and sunny Nizhny ahead of England’s second World Cup game against lowly Panama.

Back home, millions of people will party as if it was 1966. Pubs are predicting the biggest ever Sunday drinking session while the BBC audience is anticipated to hit 25 million, four million more than watched the opening win against Tunisia.

Record amounts of beer will likely be drunk - if the carbon dioxide shortage doesn’t lead to lager supplies running dry.

About 2,000 England fans, spending thousands of pounds, have made it to Nizhny, formerly Gorky and the fifth largest city in Russia. They are having a very cultured, whale of a time that includes tours of Nizhny’s own, spectacular 16th century Kremlin. England will probably even win.

Steve Wood 54, John Hemmingham 55 and Steve Homes 47 of the England Band in Lenin Square Credit:  Aaron Chown/ PA

“This is Putin’s show and he is keeping everybody quiet and it’s keeping the hooligans away on both sides,” said Debbie Stone, 64, a lecturer and mother-of-three from Harrow. She is one of the few fans daring to show her colours, wearing an England cap to keep off the beating sun.

“It is definitely an educated, middle-class-ish group. The fans are taking in the culture,” said Ms Stone on her fourth football tournament. “It’s civilised. They are doing the tourist sites. The younger group haven’t come and perhaps the cost and the security has put them off. The Euros [where there was violence] was a much younger group who were drinking.”

Cost and planning are factors. Just to get to Russia and then get around is an exercise in logistics.

Philip Brown, 50, a chartered accountant, took four flights just to reach Russia, flying from his base in the Cayman islands, first to Miami, then to London, then Dublin and then Moscow before flights to Volgograd for the first game and then to Krasnodar, Moscow before reaching Nizhny. For the third game in Kaliningrad, an enclave surrounded by Poland and Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, he’s already booked a £600 taxi across the border from Gdansk.

About 2,000 England fans, spending thousands of pounds, have made it to Nizhny Novgorod Credit:  Julian Simmonds for the Telegraph

“I wouldn’t like to say what this has cost,” said Mr brown. “Our marriages,” said Shamus O’Donnell, 52, a Dublin-based colleague he is travelling with.

Elliott Charles, 24, who works in sports marketing and his friend George Hesselgren, 25, an investment banker, are touring Russia between games, with whistle stop tours of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Mr Hesselgren, from London, said: “We wanted to see Russia anyway and we thought that a World Cup would actually be the safest time to do it.”

Mr Charles added: “What’s really interesting is we are seeing places that nobody would ever visit. This is the one chance to come to Volgograd or Nizhny.”

Tony Keefe, 56, the chief executive of a cyber security firm who has spent £3,500 and counting, believes that from what he has seen so far the fans appeared to be drawn from professional classes.

“We were in Brazil and there there was this omni-present threat of imminent violence. There was a tension. So far - and it’s early days - it’s a lot more civilised. People are being very careful about their behaviour. The problems at Marseille in 2016 [where England fans were ambushed by Russian hooligans] put a lot of the younger fans off.

Nizhny Novgorod, a city on the Volga once so sensitive it was ‘closed’ to visitors in Soviet times, was laid siege yesterday by a small army of England fans  Credit: Julian Simmonds for the Telegraph

“If there was going to be trouble, you’d already be seeing signs of it by now. Honestly the trouble normally happens from the start.”

Vladimir Putin has warned Russian hooligans to keep off the streets, in a charm offensive to showcase the country. Nizhny, a closed city in the Soviet era, remains sensitive. Putin's great rival Boris Nemtsov was governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast and this was his power base. He was assassinated in Moscow in 2015, close to the Kremlin, after being shot multiple times from behind.

Back in England, it’s likely to be an awful lot rowdier.

Brigid Simmonds, Chief Executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “It could well be the busiest day ever for British pubs.

"The good weather combined with the football being on in the early afternoon means big business. The fact that England played really well in the first game, and we’ve got a good young team, also helps.”

It’s predicted 33 million pints will be consumed although some pubs have warned that they are in danger of running out of some beers due to the shortage of carbon dioxide.

With as many as 25 million people watching on TV (about half England’s population), National Grid is bracing itself for the traditional half-time, put-the-cuppa on power surge.