From Latvia to a Liga decider: a season on the road
The first game I covered this season was a Europa League qualifying-round clash in Latvia between Metalurgs Liepajas and the part-time semi-professionals of Prestatyn Town on July 4, 2013.
I was sent there for a magazine to cover what would turn out to be an incredible story about Prestatyn's first-ever European game. They qualified for the competition after winning the Welsh Cup, and I immediately saw the potential romance in their story.
Playing in the Welsh Premier League, their average crowds were 230, their tiny home ground wasn't allowed to stage their home leg, and seven of the squad had played all their lives together since going to school with each other in the small town with a population of 18,000 on the North Wales coast.
"We played at one ground during a foot-and-mouth outbreak, and when the ball went over the hedge into the cow field, we had to wash it in disinfectant before taking a throw," said captain David Hayes, one of the four players whose career had taken him from cow fields to Europe.
I also knew the assistant manager and was confident that I'd get great access, including being able to sit in the dressing room. Contacts are vital in journalism. If someone trusts you, they'll usually help. Oh, and there wasn't another traveling journalist, so it would be exclusive.
Prestatyn lost the first leg in Wales 2-1, so the prospect of any giant-killing was remote, but it was still a good story with lots of colour. One of the players had no idea of the name of the country he was travelling to, while another had researched everything about Latvia.
They traveled by budget airlines and their own cars with the enthusiasm of a party on their first school trip. The players walked around the old Soviet military port in new holiday shorts and flip-flops five hours before kickoff. Then they scurried under doorways as the heavens opened.
In a prematch meeting that player-manager Neil Gibson let me sit in on, he talked of overcoming opponents, but his optimism seemed fanciful. He told his men not to get disheartened if they went a goal down, for they'd still need to score two goals to have a chance to go through, so Prestatyn didn't get flagged when they duly went behind.
Down 3-1 on aggregate in front of a crowd of 2,200, Gibson's side needed to score twice in the remaining 25 minutes. The Latvians boasted former Latvian international Andrejs Prohorenkovs, who played against Holland and Germany at Euro 2004. Furthermore, Metalurgs were ranked No. 285 in Europe, while Prestatyn didn't have a coefficient to get them into the top 450.
The Latvians looked comfortable, yet somehow Prestatyn managed to equalise on the night, 14 minutes from time. What an achievement.
That goal wasn't enough for Prestatyn, though, and they pushed for another to take the tie fixture into extra time. And how they pushed. Those men gave everything they had and, incredibly, scored in the 91st minute ... through their player-manager, Gibson. The players ran to the corner and piled on top of each other, joined by the 50 traveling fans. Those Welsh boys of summer were still alive.
Both sides had chances in extra time, but the last touch, a one-handed save from Prestatyn's goalkeeper, pushed the game to penalties. Prestatyn's players were utterly composed in the shootout -- just as Sevilla's were in the final of the competition on Wednesday against Benfica -- and a most famous victory was claimed.
The celebrations that followed marked the greatest night in Prestatyn's history. There were tears, there was joy. One player vaulted the security barrier and ran up the steps of the stand to hug me in the greatest moment of his career. The win, that is, not the hug! For going through, Prestatyn's 100,000 pound prize from UEFA was enough to safeguard the finances of the club, while another 100,000 for winning in Latvia saw the club chairman, a normal working man, beam.
"The prize will set us up for two or three years," said Leigh Williams. "We won't have to look over our shoulders to see how to pay our next bill."
Little wonder he sanctioned a round of 60 whisky and cokes, as well as 20 shots, in celebration. Then, the next day, reality dawned. The players had used up all their holidays from work and had told their partners the trip to Europe would be a one-off. Now, they had to go to Croatia a week later.
They lost against Rijeka, a team who reached the group stage, but it was a beautiful, brief foray and a great start to a season which is about to come to an end. Unless I'm told otherwise, my last game, No. 80 of 2013-14, will be on Saturday at Camp Nou between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. It will be the biggest match of them all: the victor wins La Liga.
A draw will be enough for Atletico to take their first title since 1996, and interest in the game is huge. The crowd will be a 98,000 sellout, which is 40 times that of the game in Latvia 11 months ago.
It could even be as dramatic. As a journalist with deadlines on the final whistle, I'm praying that the game isn't decided by a late incident. It will change not just the game, but the whole season. For both clubs. After Saturday, I will have a break of a couple of weeks before a flight to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 11 for the World Cup. Oh, and the small matter of the Champions League final between both Madrid teams on May 24.
Atletico manager Diego Simeone wasn't wrong when he said his team has two cup finals coming up. Prestatyn boss Neil Gibson wasn't wrong when he said that dreams can come true. Atleti fans hope so...