England fan blog: First impressions of Ukraine (and what the locals think of us)

England fans in Donetsk, Ukraine, two days before England's first group game kicks off. Credit: Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

England fans in Ukraine will send blogs and images to ITV News throughout the team's participation in the Euro 2012 Championships.

Here, Mark Perryman, a member of the LondonEnglandFans supporters group, talks about fans' first impressions of Ukraine - and the locals' first impressions of them.

With England's first match not kicking off until Monday there's a few days to settle into what life at this tournament will be like out here in the Ukraine.

This is the last European Championships consisting of just 16 teams. For the football purist the format is near perfect. There are no weak teams and to qualify from the group stages every game is a must-win. Best of all, every evening there's two decent matches to watch, back-to-back.

This is my fourth Euros. The first, 1996, at home, was what gave me the travel bug. Not so much seeing the England games at Wembley, but travelling to Old Trafford for Germany v Italy.

The huge numbers of German and Italian fans in Manchester that day made me think what it would be like following England abroad.

Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium was the last major outbreak of trouble involving England fans. It was bad but also overstated; the most frightening night I had was caught up in central Brussels in the middle of Italian and Turkish fans wildly celebrating.

But the scale of the arrests of England supporters and the TV pictures of the fighting forced changes which resulted in the Football Banning Order Legislation.

Nevertheless four years later Euro 2004 was expected by the media to be a repeat awful performance. In the event there was virtually no trouble - something had changed.

In Japan for World Cup 2002 for the first time the host population had warmed to our boisterous presence. They realised that loud and colourful didn't necessarily mean rude and threatening. And we learned it was more fun to be loved than loathed.

Those who returned from Japan were part of the critical mass who have helped change our reputation for the better.

This is all to the good, and peaked at World Cup 2006 when hundreds of thousands travelled to Germany for the World Cup and joined in the party, or at least until the exit on penalties.

Euro 2012 is different. The build-up has been low, rock-bottom, in terms of expectation. And public interest was on the Jubilee, with hardly a St George Cross to be seen unlike previous tournament summers, and any excitement saved for the London 2012 Olympics.

The numbers travelling are down too, mostly thanks to the awful performances out in South Africa denting the faith, but also a location that remains fairly inaccessible and unknown.

But for some this adds to the attraction. Away qualifiers in Moldova, Albania, Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan are the trips to savour. Ukraine attrats very few British tourists: in all honesty few of us would be here if it wasn't for the football.

But a trip into the unknown combined with England games, thats the mix we savour.

We're staying in Mariupol, around 100km south of Donetsk on the coast. It's the pick of quite a few England fans, seasoned travellers avoiding the high accommodation prices of Donetsk itself, with a beach and sunshine thrown in for good measure.

Most of the tales of an expensive tournament don't add up. Flights have been booked early, and with changes in Istanbul, Moscow and elsewhere the trip is longer but considerably cheaper.

But it is the internet more than anything else that has transformed the possibilities. With the click of a mouse and a search via Google, hotels can be found and booked in advance wherever we choose to stay, no longer restricted to the chain city centre locations. But of course until we get here we're not exactly sure what the place will be like.

Euro 2012 is entirely different to Euro 2004. Eight years ago we were heading to Portugal, a country where a sizeable proportion of their economy revolved around tourism, much of it from the UK.

Ukraine has no such set up, the hotels are small, and there's not many of them. We've ended up staying in Mariupol's sanatorium, a sort of health spa, except it was built during the Soviet era a good thirty or forty years ago, and hasn't been renovated since. It's basic yet clean and the staff are friendly.

The sun is shining, there's a beach within 100m and a bar showing all the games less than 200m away (the beer is 80p a pint).

There's nothing like the size of England's travelling support at Euro 2004 but as we wander round this small town, which is completely unused to visitors from abroad, we are entirely unthreatened.

The locals happy that we've come to stay, but Euro 2012 doesn't seem to be that big a deal either. Apart from the games being shown in a bar most are just enjoying the summer oblivious to the tournament.

This was more or less true of Donetsk airport when we arrived - apart from an empty information stall and some posters we wouldn't have known the tournament was happening at all.

Ukraine won't change very much as a result of hosting Euro 2012 I suspect. Not many will return here on their hols, however good the weather and enjoyable their stay.

There's not an awful lot of evidence of a huge investment in the tournament, much of which will never be recouped.

Ukraine has some well-supported sides which attract decent crowds and do fairly well in the European club competitions. What they're hoping for is a sense of national pride in the international platform hosting the tournament will provide.

There's not much evidence of that yet, the numbers who have travelled out here are small compared to previous tournaments and the coverage has been overwhelmingly bad, particularly of racism and hooliganism, plus human rights.

Of course on Monday evening when Gerrard leads the team out against France everything will change.

But right now, despite all the negative build-up and the low expectations of our team, it is rather nice finding out that Ukraine isn't remotely as bad as we'd been told it would be and that the locals appreciate the fact that we've made the effort to travel.

  • Mark Perryman is a member of the LondonEnglandFans supporters' group and the author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation. His views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.