Truly it is a marathon, not a sprint. When you try to go to the continent on the cheap, you’re teaching yourself an extremely valuable lesson: get your flights to any away game booked five minutes – four if possible – after the draw is made. Because if you don’t, the contortions you’ll have to go through to make the whole enterprise economically viable would make a Spartan cringe.
But it has to be done. There is nothing quite like it, travelling to European away games. Great weather, all night singing sessions, pubs open until dawn, different culture, magnificent cathedrals of sport, complete absence of part-timers…if we overcome Roma on Tuesday night, you can be certain I’ll be hovering over EasyJet/Ryanair’s website with the intention of blagging the cheapest tickets to wherever it is we happen to be playing in the quarter-finals. Although it’s unlikely that there are many flights between Liverpool and La Coruna.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The need to minimise on costs saw the Irish Wavertree Reds travel to London for a Monday flight from Gatwick. To make matters worse, all the cheap train tickets were gone before we tried to order them, leaving us with the traumatic coach option. The thought of contributing to the wallet of a homophobic (allegedly) Scot didn’t excite me, but there were always the delights of Milton Keynes to look forward to. Having studied new towns in college, nothing could be more exhilarating than observing one in action. Next weekend I will be sampling the best that Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City have to offer, but not before a midweek visit to Port Sunlight here in Merseyside. Hurrah!
Much as that might yank the chains of crusty old Prof Aalen, the real world saw me sleeping through Milton Keynes and most of the journey, an option that seemed particularly appealing after the woman beside me asked me where we were – the bus was in Runcorn at the time.
We got to London eventually and engaged in one of those whistle-stop tours of Yoo-rope so beloved of Americans. “There’s the House of Commons, gee whiz, I thought it’d be bigger, back on the subway, there’s Buckingham Palace, wow, it looks bigger in the bro-sures, back on the subway, there’s London Bridge, hey, it’s not as big as the Wichita Kentucky Fried Chicken Bridge.” Then it was about time to head to Barcelona.
Arriving in Barcelona city centre – and it really was as simple as that – the first problem arose. We couldn’t find our hostel. A couple of trips up and down La Rambla later forced us to swallow our pride. We looked up the map and found the street. As we walked down this street, I spotted a sign for ‘Pension Bahia’ out of the corner of my eye but fearfully kept walking, because that couldn’t be it. Could it? If the seemingly locked wrought iron gates and mountain of rubble in the doorway were not scary enough, the sight of a man sitting on the steps staring at us, a globule of spittle trailing down his chin, certainly trimmed a couple of stars off this place in the Good Hostel Guide.
Incidentally, he wasn’t drooling, but it’s difficult to exaggerate how creepy he was. Difficult, but not impossible.
Happily first impressions were deceptive. The hostel was fairly grotty, but the room itself was fine and the showers were hot and vigorous. Things were beginning to look up. Now all we had to do was find a pub, which was easier said than done. Perhaps it’s Barcelona’s post-Olympic chic, but there are plenty of restaurants and cafes and wine bars but precious few places we would recognise as a public house. Eventually we found a small bar which charged very reasonable prices. The problem now was the barman. He stared at us all the way to the bottom of our glasses, clearly fearful that we were going to trash the place. Resolving to find an Irish bar, we enquired from him as we left where we could find one. Suddenly he was transformed. Irlandais! Not English soccer hooligans! Had we asked him for our bus fare to the Nou Camp he probably would have offered to pay for a taxi.
We moved on to the next hostelry, the first Irish themed pub I’ve ever been in that wasn’t cheesier than a Superbowl half-time show. The prices were a bit steeper though and there were only a couple of people there, so we had a couple then moved on to the next place. This was much more like it, wedged with Reds singing ferociously. The bouncer was also susceptible to the little burgundy book with the embossed harp. When Brian Keenan went to the Middle East, he travelled under an Irish passport on the basis that people were friendlier to the Irish, and you could see the logic…….not that it did Brian Keenan much good.
A pattern emerged in this third bar. A round which had cost us €7.50 in the first place, and €10 in the second, now cost a heart-stopping €14.50. The excise on nasty products like tobacco and alcohol is clearly minimal in Spain, with a box of twenty fags coming in as cheap as €1.70 – that’s about a quid to you. This is good for the consumer on the face of it, but it also means that the good pubs feel free to charge extortionate prices. I spent 10% of my time in college learning about the beauty of capitalism (10% being spent studying new towns and 80% doing as little as possible) but seeing it in action in all its naked glory was a sobering experience.
Not that there was much in the way of sobriety. A couple of hours of singing and chanting later and Barcelona was quickly working its way under my skin. The city of Hannibal, the Moorish rhythms, the spirit of the conquistador, the brave struggle of the Republicans in the face of the Nationalist machine, the unquenchable thirst for freedom for Catalonia…all these things were calling to me! The part of me that thought that eating Burger King and staying all night in an Irish pub singing Liverpool songs was hardly a sign of experiencing the culture of another nation was ruthlessly crushed.
Having secured alternative digs the following morning (afternoon), not because the previous ones were crap but because we had only booked for one night – just how incompetent an operation were we? – it was off to the Nou Camp to try and get some tickets. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this as a quasi-ambassador for Shankly Gates.co.uk (what a frightening sentiment – Chris Mc) but despite all the apocalyptic warnings from the club, the police and the Freemasons, I went out to Barcelona without a ticket, with the intention of buying one off a tout. Shock horror! And it certainly was a horror to be asked to stump up €150 for a ticket. The temptation was to take the first thing offered, and at the time €150 seemed as low as it was going to go. But the general level of well-being engendered by the previous night’s session left me comfortable(ish) with the idea of not getting to the game. I wasn’t going to be ripped off, that much was certain. A tour of the stadium was in order, and very impressive it is. You had to laugh at the manner in which they pad out a history significantly less victorious and glorious than that of Liverpool. The tour guide was quite amusing too, regularly trying to get us to trash the evil Madrid or admit that we had been excruciatingly boring in the Uefa Cup last season. Yes we were, but none of us were going to admit it to her. The mood of hilarity was only slightly dampened by one muppet who insisted on taking every opportunity to express his contempt for Barca’s ticketing policy which was forcing honest Reds into the arms of touts. What did he expect, that she’d whip out two pairs of tickets for him and his mates? I’m all in favour of freedom of movement, it’s the people who get on my nerves.
Day Three dawned several hours before we did as another session went on way longer than it should. Another early afternoon trip on the superb Metro back to the Nou Camp and our friendly shoulder-shrugging tout was looking for €300 for a ticket. Now we were screwed. At this stage I wasn’t even willing to go up to €150, feeling the money could be better spent back on La Rambla on paella and sangria. Actually French fries and Coke, but you get the picture. It was a forlorn trip back up to the Nou Camp for the third time that evening, although not half as forlorn as we were standing outside the ground muttering ‘tickets?’ to passers-by in such a manner as not to draw the attention of the fearsome-looking militia patrolling the perimeter.
Then it happened. A man with virtually no English brightened up at the mention of tickets. A few hurried hand signals revealed a request for €120 per ticket. Lacking a poker face, my initial dismay at this figure swept across my features and the price immediately fell to €100. Done and done. Well, not quite. Now that the tickets were virtually secured, my colleague took it upon himself to stick out his granite-like jaw and demand the ticket at face value. Before I could stop this madness, the man laughed at the cheek of it all, said “face value!” to his friend and generally expressed mirth at the whole idea. Clearly he had been here before. But it was okay. A few minutes later we walked through the perimeter fence. The money changed hands and I was given a book with two swipe cards inside. As Joaquim Ferreira I was led through the second turnstile and shown to my seat. We had done it. We were in the Nou Camp.
And what class seats they were, in the second row down by the corner flag. Actually sitting in the ground certainly punctured some of the mysticism of the Nou Camp. Watching highlights of the Barcelona-Real Madrid match at the weekend, it struck me just how normal the ground looked where before it was so exotic. Every time I see the Nou Camp on the telly from now on, the game won’t be viewed through the camera lens, it’ll be seen from low down with Rivaldo and Saviola pelting down the touchline. And being clattered by Abel Xavier for their troubles. Compared to the official LFC tickets, way up in the gods, these seats were the dog’s cojones.
Being a newbie to the away day scene, I’m not the best judge of the actual quality of the game. Everything about it seemed wonderful, even the horrendous cock-ups. Besides, other people are much better at that kind of thing. A few things stick in the memory. If it seemed that Anfield was a haven for moaning arl arses, it’s nothing on the Nou Camp. When the superb Saviola was substituted with a few minutes to go, the stadium erupted in a cacophony of jeers and catcalls. It was a bizarre decision, but how must Giovanni have felt as he came on to that crescendo of disgust? Another odd fan trait manifested itself around twenty minutes from the end. Leaping to my feet as another Liverpool chance went a-begging, a finger was firmly jabbed into my back to inform me to stay seated. No malice was intended from the woman behind me, but clearly standing forms no part of the Barcelona supporters method of getting behind the team. Strange, but when in Barcelona do as the, er, Barceloners do. Let’s be fair to the folk sitting behind me though. With Scousers occupying every seat in front of me, two Irish neutrals to the left and a Belgian Red to my right (he only paid €75 for his ticket by claiming to be neutral – the bastard; although he did buy me a drink – the rich bastard), I didn’t feel the least bit inhibited in terms of yelling “come on Redmen!” every twenty seconds or so. So thank you to those Barca fans for not beating the living crap out of me.
The game was over, and the Redmen had once again driven one of the most brilliant attacks in the world around the twist. There was no sign of a choir of angels descending to crown Hyypia, Henchoz and Dudek as the greatest rearguard since Dunkirk, so we exited stage left. But in certain ways the fun was only just beginning. Heading back into town, we briefly returned to the hostel to make sure our stuff hadn’t been tea-leaved by our heroin addict room mate, then went out to the square off La Rambla where the travelling Kop was congregating. What a night. We started singing at around 11.30 and didn’t stop till after 3 a.m. And we’re not talking about such tat as “stand up if you hate Man U” so beloved of the Park crew. These were full-blooded renditions of all the really great songs such as Scouser Tommy (sung at the proper speed) and Liverbird. Meanwhile the baton-wielding police stood nearby and watched, no doubt smiling wryly at the El Liverpudlians Loco. It put the cap on a truly splendid occasion, and served to whet the appetite for doing this in even more exotic locations like Liberec or Bucharest.
Oh yes, the heroin addict. Never forget the heroin addict. We were in a room of four, and our loving partner was an extremely scrawny Catalan. When he found out we were Irish, he asked whether what religion we were. Bemusedly telling him that we were Papists, we were cheerily informed that “I am member of ETA”. Why a Catalan would be a member of a Basque terrorist / freedom (delete as applicable) organisation remains a mystery. Having made three new friends, he offered us hashish, cocaine and heroin, all of which we politely declined. Never mind though, his mother didn’t know about the heroin so all was right with the world. Suffice to say that we locked all our worldly goods in our lockers on each night that ETA Man was present. Ironically we didn’t lose a single thing on the trip until we got back to London, when a ticket machine in Victoria tube station swallowed my debit card. Them’s the breaks.
And that was Barcelona. It’s no wonder that Mediterranean countries are materially poorer than those of Northern Europe, because why would you want to do a tap of work when the sun is always shining and the football is so good? There will be more European away days, and some of them will be unforgettable victories rather than dour draws. But there’s something about the first time that is special. And Barcelona, you will always be my first.