The mobile bleeped into action: “Welcome to France” flashed the message on the screen, before detailing the cost of roaming calls. There was just one problem. The plane had landed in Bristol, England, my first stop on a six day journey across a freezing Europe, living out of a hand luggage-sized bag. Bristol is often the biggest city in England without a Premier League team, something they’re unlikely to have any time soon with City in the third level and Rovers in the fourth. I took a cab to Ashton Gate. The driver, a former nightclub bouncer supervisor who explained how to take a man out using only your thumb, said he’d never been asked to take anyone to Ashton Gate before, yet he’d had the same destination twice in as many hours. “The previous customer stopped for five minutes, took a photo and did the same at Rovers’ ground,” explained the driver. “He was on his way to Cardiff to watch Man United.” A man after my own heart, then. But first, Bristol City. They were playing Sheffield United. These are two of the biggest clubs in the third division and yet both are fighting relegation. I want to visit all 92 league grounds in England and Wales and Ashton Gate, which is located by a row of former miners’ cottages in South Bristol, was my 86th.
I didn’t watch from the press area, instead seeing a game of football with no deadline or desk to keep in mind. It gave me the chance to listen to the thoughts of the twelve thousand-strong, long-suffering home faithful -- “hit ‘em where it hurts twinkle toes” -- and to hear what’s probably the finest song in English football.
Sheffield United’s “Greasy Chip Butty” is adapted from an old John Denver classic and talks of a night out in Sheffield with "a gallon of Magnet" beer and "a good pinch of snuff" tobacco. The away fans sang it loud and proud when their side got a late winner in a woeful game. Times are not good for either team. I stayed in Bristol overnight on Saturday, watched the epic Carl Froch vs. George Groves fight and took a train under the River Severn to Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, the following morning. The city centre, with the Millennium Stadium at its heart, is impressive. Cardiff City’s new stadium is a little further out. “How far is it to walk?” a policeman was asked outside the rail station. “25 minutes.”
“Is it a pleasant walk?”
“No.” And, past grim-looking blocks of terraced houses and rail tracks, it wasn’t. Nor was the end of the game if you were a Manchester United fan.
The vast vast majority of those inside the stadium were not and they celebrated their deserved draw like they’d won the game, while I cursed their late equaliser, not only as a United fan, but because it necessitated a complete change of copy. Late, result-changing goals can be a journalist’s bane, especially if the deadline is on the final whistle.
- Brewin: Three Things: Cardiff vs. Man United Afterwards, the train from Cardiff to London was heaving with inebriated United fans, who offered opinions masquerading as hard facts and appeared perplexed that it is David Moyes, and not they, who manage United.
I spent most of the journey tracking down footballers who I played alongside -- at full-back -- against Ryan Giggs when we were 13. It’s for a feature for the United midfielder’s 40th birthday. Two of the players are happy to talk. The hotel near London Paddington was not the best but I was arriving late and leaving early. Proximity to the station was a priority and many of central London’s cheapest hotels are close to the western rail terminus.
Trying to sleep in a room shared by at least one unidentified creature scratching about was not the highlight of the weekend, nor was spelling the name of Cardiff’s manager, Malky Mackay, incorrectly in a match report.
He had been kind enough to give me his phone number after a previous interview and his name has been stored correctly in my phone for three years. I caught the Eurostar train from London to Brussels on Monday morning. A man began moaning to his female travelling companion as the train passed the site of the London Olympics. He was still moaning as it entered the Channel Tunnel, blaming everyone but himself for life’s ills.
I really felt like saying “please shut up you boring, monotonous man”, but instead I moved and sat on a table a couple were enjoying by themselves, spreading out their copy of the Daily Telegraph. They didn’t look thrilled to see their legroom compromised. A tweet of my whereabouts was met by a message from a kindly bar owner in Cologne, who wanted to know if I was going to visit the city. I was and he came to meet me and provided coffee, warmth, Wi-Fi access and some interesting tales of his life following Fortuna Cologne. I was meeting a player from the city’s biggest club. Roman Golobart had arranged a rendezvous by Cologne’s mighty cathedral, near where the Christmas markets were already open.
The Catalan who signed for Bundesliga 2 club, FC Cologne from Wigan Athletic in July is exceptionally bright. His father was a footballer for Espanyol and he still philosophises in a column he writes for a respected Spanish newspaper. Roman likes his club and life in Germany. He’s learning a fourth language but isn’t getting into Cologne's first team and spoke out last week. His observations caused a stir, as he suspected they would. He’s got plenty more lined up for the future and provides much better copy than a boring player talking about being fair to the lads. Roman spoke about the incredible atmosphere inside German football stadiums, which was something I experienced on Tuesday when I saw Dortmund beat Napoli in a thrilling Champions league game.
- Uersfeld: Three Things: Dortmund vs. Napoli
The twenty-five thousand capacity Sud Tribune is the biggest terrace in football and, while it is converted from standing room to seats for UEFA games, Dortmund remains an epic place to watch football, with an atmosphere far superior to anywhere in England or Spain (although a rousing rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” caused consternation in this Mancunian mind!) From Dusseldorf, my base in the middle of the densely populated Rhine-Ruhr region, I called my family. “United, daddy?” asked a female voice. The almost three-year-old, not the wife. She thinks that all sport is called “United”, be it football, basketball or tennis. She’ll learn but how I missed that little voice after four days away from it. Skype calls make life on the road easier, but also reminds you forcibly what you are missing. United -- that’s Manchester United -- were playing in Leverkusen on Wednesday and their fans spent the day enjoying Cologne and Dusseldorf. I was invited to Leverkusen’s ground -- the Bay Arena -- five hours before the game to see how safe standing areas operate in German stadia. Rail seats provide areas where fans can stand during league matches, with each row separated by a barrier.
Tickets in these sections are between ten and 15 euros per game. It’s impressive and I hope a similar model will be introduced in England, whose clubs could learn much from the relationship German clubs have with their supporters.
- Lomas: Man United fans in dreamland United won 5-0 with their most convincing performance of the season. The players were, naturally, in a good mood afterwards and I managed to speak to Adnan Januzaj, Jonny Evans, Rafael and Tom Cleverley, as well as coaches, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt.
The latter was bemused to be portrayed as being tougher than Mike Tyson in a new fim called the Class of ’92, which details the rise of a young groups of players at United, which also included David Beckham and Paul Scholes. I’m writing this from Dusseldorf airport, ahead of another flight back to the family. A professional basketball team are moving through security after a game in Bonn, the old capital of West Germany. “Which team are you?” I ask a giant holding an American passport.
“Dunkirk,” comes the reply. Now that’s definitely in France.