Duncan Mackay

Well here we go. Taking into account our friendly matches versus Denmark last weekend, this will be the second of potentially 11 consecutive weekends of matches. Add that directly onto the back of a 8-9 month club season with not even a Christmas break, multiply times three years in a row and those "tired" Premiership footballers can’t hold a candle next to us. 

I’m writing from the hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, and therefore we have made it here in one piece albeit with plenty of hiccups and false starts. We awoke at 6am GMT and, as I sit here, the clock shows 2am Baku time. 

I make that an epic voyage no matter how you look at it. The squad boarded our bus in Sheffield not knowing for sure if Manchester airport would be open due to some volcanic ash wanting to visit Britain again. So with a couple hours to kill in Manchester Airport, we made our way through an impressive number of newspapers, crossword puzzles and coffee/teas. 

One of the best parts of being a part of this team is the banter. We are an eclectic mix of people to be sure. We have five or six dual passport holders who were born in other parts of the world but who proudly fly the flag for Britain. As a group we speak many languages to a varying degrees, including Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, Flemish, German, Polish, Portuguese, Greek, and Arabic. We even have some guys who are fluent in Glaswegian, Northern Englishese, and North Americanese!  It usually takes a couple weeks together before we can all understand each other’s English, if only everyone spoke the Queen’s! 

But it took about all of 10 minutes in a bus together before the first England v Scotland and North v South banter broke out, someone (I won’t name names just yet) said something bad about Her Majesty.  I was having none of that. Cue a free coffee at the airport and an apology! Happy Days!  

As we made our way to the gate we came across a few kids who were also flying the flag for Britain in a school competition in Germany. They wanted to take photos with us which we were more than happy to do. I think we scared the kids a bit, but when they are eight-years-old and we have guys that are pushing 6 foot 9, we tend to tower over people. A little reminder of our status followed shortly after, as the mother of one of the kids quietly said to me: "I didn’t even know we had a volleyball team, do you have a website?"  Lovely. For the record it is www.britishvolleyball.org  

We get our first taste of Baku whilst on a minibus taking us to our morning training. As the coach driver weaves in and out of oncoming traffic what strikes is just how much building is taking place here. Some traffic lights look as if they were erected literally yesterday. There are hundreds of very large buildings raising majestically all across Baku, this reflects how this cash rich nation is sprinting towards a previously denied capitalist marketplace.   

Everyone is talking about the General Election, I think quite a few of the group managed to arrange a postal vote in their home constituencies knowing we’d be out of the country on election day. However, sorry Number 10, all focus for us is on a convincing win tomorrow to take back with us to Sheffield for next week’s return leg and with it hopefully passage to the second round of qualification for the European Championships 2011! 

As we drove to the match I was already formulating my blog for the day, I was going to write how surprised I was with the city of Baku, how much it impressed us with the hospitality of the people, the optimism they have for the future evident in the explosion of their ambitious building projects. However, after what I’ve just witnessed on the volleyball court, I must admit I’m a bit lost for words. 

We have come to Azerbaijan seeking a convincing win to justify all of our hard work in the previous three years of this Olympic cycle that we’ve been together, and we blew it. I won”t pretend that there are positives to take away from this match because anyone who knows volleyball would be very hard pressed to find any. We have been soundly beaten in every phase of the match. We have better players, better results in the past, and were full of confidence; when push came to shove we just didn’t turn up. We played scared and credit to Azerbaijan, they took advantage. 

We now have to turn around a 3-0 defeat with a 3-0 victory of our own next weekend in Sheffield, and hope that we can go through via most points scored over the two legs. We carry a 14 point deficit with us, so we’ll need to win 25-20 three times in a row to over turn that points deficit. It is not an impossible task, but there was no need to put ourselves in this position. Perhaps some of our team took Azerbaijan lightly, I can’t say for sure, but we have played much tougher teams in the past and won. 

This defeat is very hard to take and the entire programme will need to work hard in the next few days to turn it around. I’m certain no one will sleep well tonight.

But we made it onto the plane and began the very long journey back to the UK; sadly we are not bringing back with us the result we wanted, but we are confident of putting right our wrongs on Saturday in Sheffield and moving onto the second round of qualification for the European Championships 2011.

Andy Pink, who plays for Bassano in Italy, is Britain's vice-captain. Tickets for Britain's match against Azerbaijan at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield on Saturday (May 15). For tickets call 0114-2235730.