Flashback - Barca 2008...
Sunburn, Stella & Side Street Skirmishes...
15 years on, your author recounts a memorable trip to the Catalan Capital…
2008 was an iconic year. King’s Of Leon hit the bigtime, Rhianna was endlessly inviting everyone to stand under her umbrella and the Great Financial Crisis rocked the world. There was no crisis in the red three quarters of Manchester however, as United went from strength to strength following the previous season’s ascension back to the top of the domestic perch.
The 2007/08 season had a real sense of momentum about it, as Cristiano Ronaldo reached the pinnacle of his Manchester United performances, complemented by a stellar line up that was arguably one of United’s greatest ever sides. By early April it was clear that the season was going to culminate in climatic fashion, and once Roma had been vanquished in the quarter finals, Barcelona stood between United and another European Cup Final.
Talk turned quickly to the typical logistics of a Euro away. With tickets relatively easy to come by, the ballot was favourable to our little group who all landed one. Some of the group would be pulling out all the stops to stretch every penny, as young scamps and students do, by driving nine hours to Newquay to get a three pound Ryanair flight to the Catalan Capital.
The author had moved to the big smoke not a year before, and would be destined for Barcelona via the exotic backdrop of London Luton airport. No flush capital salary was going to exempt them from the glitz and glamour of Ryanair!
An early evening flight carried its cargo out to Barcelona from an unusually sweltering Luton. Most of the plane were United fans, clearly well oiled from an afternoon in the airport and subsequent Ryanair delay. The flight was fairly uneventful until descent. In the minutes before a bumpy landing, an altercation commenced. Somebody has allegedly said something racist, and somebody else had taken exception to it. An argument ensued, swiftly followed by one red turning around and lamping another red in the row behind; a brawl commenced.
Spare a though for the poor cabin crew. Just settled and nestled into their seats, satisfied with another smooth shift, strapping in for landing, when suddenly there are 4-5 pissed up reds rolling around in the aisle lamping the shit out of each other in the midst of a turbulent landing…
Anyhow the mêlé is resolved before tyres touch the ground, and the plane taxi to the gate is tense. “Ladies and gentlemen, Can passengers from rows 30 to 55 please REMAIN IN YOUR SEATS”. The author double checks their ticket to be greeted with “Row 31”. So behind we stay with the alleged racist, the brawling mob and everyone else who wants nothing more than to be off the plane. Ten minutes go by with a half empty plane. Fifteen minutes go by. Frustration starts to boil over as the booze starts to wear off…
Then the armed police board the plane and head towards the remaining throng. “Oh fuck, they’re gona turn us ‘round and send us home” retorts a nearby passenger. The Spanish Robocops want to know who started the brawl and don’t look in the mood for a negotiation. There is much argument between the brawling mob and further threats. The Spanish Robocops run out of patience and haul one away in cuffs. Finally the rest of the plane is allowed to depart, and off for a much needed beer.
Reaching the hotel later than anticipated, the bags are swiftly dropped and Las Ramblas is hit immediately to make up for lost time. While the evening before the match was generally uneventful as the group weaved its way through the bars and tavernas of the side streets, a couple of small incidents occur that would serve as a forewarning for the following night.
At one point our group splintered, with three of us remaining together. Walking through the side streets of Las Ramblas at night when the tourists disappear isn’t quite the same idyllic experience as the daytime images. Street urchins in their teens and early twenties roam looking for easy pickings. Some smiling, try to extend their hands and shake ours as we saunter by. The offer is not reciprocated.
On the way back to the hotel in the small hours, walking up the stretch, the three of us are followed by several flower sellers who are calling us from behind, and gaining on us. Each time we turn to check they are getting closer. What they’re saying, we can’t figure out. Why they’re following us, we don’t know. What we do know, is that they are big units, and we are onto a pasting if they want to. We had two choices; run, or have a go. Given we are worse for wear and not on home turf, the suggestion is made to; “Group tight together. On three, we turn around and face them up no matter what”. The author counts the “One, two, three…” and turn around…. and they’re gone. No sign of them. Whether they were just messing with us or not, it wasn’t a particularly heartwarming experience, but we got back to the hotel in one piece.
The following morning, all roads lead to Porto Olipmico, the host of the sailing events at the 1992 Olympic games. On this day, it served as the base for the majority of the travelling reds who had made it this far.
Some would succumb to the day before the match; “Jockey got arrested outside McDonald’s”, we heard from one younger group of reds.
There’s something majestic about being in the Nou Camp before the match as the sun sets on the hillside, as Jonny Wharton will attest!
They certainly put you up in the Gods though, which couldn’t be symbolised more aptly than one of our group getting a nosebleed en route to the top tier, and missing the first 15 minutes. As for the match itself? It was a somewhat a drab affair. Ronaldo hit the post with a penalty in the first 6 minutes, and the rest of the match was a war of attrition. Much of the match became a case of ‘Spot the red in the home end’, given that rare combination of an easy home end ticket, a late season European knockout game and 12 hours of skinheads in the Spanish sun. The author is no exception to the sunburn and at this point is sporting a healthy lobster pink as bright as a homing beacon that one could land a 747 with.
They keep you in long on Euro aways. Not long enough for the booze to wear off however, and in the chaos of getting back to Las Ramblas from the ground, the author has managed to find himself in the unfortunate position of being split from his travelling accomplices, with almost no phone battery.
Jonny and his lot were left around midnight, and the author started snaking through the side streets from pub to pub trying to find anybody he might recognise, intermittently dropping texts/calls in the hope that someone will answer. This is the days before smart phones, social media and wifi on demand. In a drunken haze I’ve found myself in the same side streets as the night before, sans my travelling companions, realising I’m the only United supporter in the vicinity and facing the same urchins from the night before. They’re smiling, and one is trying to grab my hand quite forcefully. I’m pushing him away but he is persistent. I don’t know whether it was a combination of heat stroke, the booze and exhaustion, but I eventually relented and let one shake my hand.
Said urchin has now executed some form of martial art move that Bruce Lee would be proud of, in pulling my hand and arm around my back, wrapping one of his legs around both of mine from behind and proceeding to try and help himself to the contents of my back pocket with his free hand. I’m struggling to keep balance and wobbling around like Mr. fucking Blobby while said urchin has managed to grab my phone from my pocket. Urchin has pulled away and starts his mad dash away with his ill gotten gains. In what only can be described as an involuntary reflex, I have flung out a desperate leg in his general direction, like a last ditch tackle on an onrushing Marcus Rashford, and luckily, I connect.
Urchin drops to the floor and spills my phone. It’s in front of me but just of out arm’s reach. I’m pissed with heat stroke and can’t get my composure together quickly enough before Urchin can to get to the phone first. I go for option B; grab Urchin by the scruff of his neck and fling him against the shutters on the shop opposite. The force must have had the desired effect, because when I extended my hand and gesticulated at him to give me my phone, he handed it over and ran off down the street towards his fellow Urchins. Over the adrenalin, the realisation of my predicament has set in in that I am on my own and these scamps may come back for another go. I shoot off up the side streets looking for anybody who looks remotely friendly. Up one side street and turn left, more Urchins. I turn and run the opposite way, after about 100 metres bump into a fellow red recognised from previous travels, and provided much needed foil as we hot footed it back to the main strip, where in the most fortuitous circumstances, my travelling companions were located en route to the next pub. When regrouped in the pub later on, the author looked quite the sight with a lobster face, shirt ripped open and most buttons missing from it.
Footnote: Having burned my face something rotten in Barcelona, Mrs. Krom leant me her after sun to try and take the sting out of it, without realising it was laced with fake tan. So turning up at Stamford Bridge on the Saturday, the author had transformed from a bright red homing beacon to a tangoed extra in Love Island. I took the ensuing mockery rather well in hindsight…
Anyway, here’s Scholes lining up the winner in the return leg at Old Trafford before we went on to win the European Cup in 2008.
Obla di, Obla da, Man United, European Champions!