Crumbling tenements, potholes
in all the roads, a delapidated stadium and some of the most lacerating
poverty I've ever seen. It could only mean one thing. We were
in the back of beyond watching the Welsh under-21s again.
The Greatest Fans in the World hired a fleet of taxis for the 20-minute trip to Abovian - that's Abovian, not Aberfan - to see if our boys could record their first win in howevermany matches it is (someone reckons it's 16, but, like the u-21 players, none of us particularly care).
Despite the ramshackle city surroundings, the towering mountains overlooking the stadium made for an awesome setting - beauty overshadowing the ugly concrete block city. To top that for strangeness, the PA was playing some incredible Arabic music - it sounded like a muezzin calling the faithful to pray.
And we were greeted by the loveliest, friendliest horde of locals we've ever encountered. Curious, idle (cos there's very little work out here) and reluctant to shell out 500 drams (75p) for a ticket because they've got more important things to do with their money.
In a way watching Wales play football in such places is an obscenity - and you can tell the locals inside are thinking: "You've spent money to come all this way, just for a football game."
So we felt humbled off the pitch, and were about to be humbled on the pitch.
Most of the locals watched the game for free through the railings, from hillocks outside the stadium, or from their bedroom windows. And half the kids climbed over the fence.
As for the match, well all I can say is that they've definitely improved from the last time I saw them. In Winterthur two years ago they were so appalling (Leon Jeanne and Tony Williams apart) that they should all have been left behind at the airport to fend for themselves. I'll never forget the sight of John Oster kicking two corners into the side netting and ambling around the pitch hoping not to get the ball. Presumably he has some talent else he wouldn't be in the Premiership, but I've yet to witness.
But this lot were at least half-interested. They were hampered by the fact that just one yard away from the touchline on both sides of the pitch were tarmac pavements. Any challenge close to the touchline could have come unstuck and resulted in a nasty injury if any player had fallen over the tarmac. So you can't blame them if they appear to give 90%.
After Armenia scored their goal - the only moment of class as their scorer skipped round our No 3 and exquisitely chipped keeper Walsh, the side seemed to up their input to 95% and it was a genuinely engaging last 20 minutes.
Weston missed by a titchy bit with a 25-yard piledriver and our best player Leyton Maxwell jinked past three defenders and put in a cross which was deflected onto the post. He deserved better. In fact, the team deserved a draw.
It was good to see heads drop after Armenia scored - that showed they were hurt and the side picked themselves up well and could not be faulted from that point on. Good to see also players like Ryan Green feel the pain of defeat. Previous sides have not been hurt by losing, so that at least is progress. If Earnshaw had played I think we would have won. And get Leon Jeanne back in the team (if anyone knows where he is).
He's top entertainment value and as the originator of the shirt swirling scenes now standard at Wales away games, he should be guaranteed a place in the team even if he's got two broken legs.
Given that nearly all the u-21 games I've watched have been rubbish, this was the best I've seen and easily the most enjoyable on the terrace.
Fan of the day:
All the Armenians win hands down for their great welcome.
Of the 40-strong Welsh contingent, Holyhead birthday boy Tim Gwyer roused the local youngsters with his pantomime villain performance. At one point he was surrounded by 50 kids chanting some high-pitched Armenian anthem in response to his 'Wales' chants. He looked like he was about to be submerged under a mountain of cheeky urchins. Best entertainment of the day. Happy birthday butty.
Man of the match;
A steady five minutes as the heavens opened, a handful bravely bared their torsos for a free shower. But we were saving our aching arms for Saturday.