During the Autumn of 2004, something odd happened to my legs. I developed a rash resembling pin-pricks which got bigger and redder.
It was after the CL game against PSG, when I went into Soho with a group of friends and danced until we were thrown out of O’Neills at 3am, the rash turned black.
So it was that I found myself admitted to hospital for some tests, the upshot of which was the medics suspected a particularly unpleasant condition called vasculitis, inflammation of the blood vessel, which attacks the nervous system and at worst leads to heart failure.
Only one option. A biopsy for diagnosis, but prior to that complete bedrest to reduce the rash. For six weeks from 1st December. No Chelsea. Nothing. I cried that frosty morning in the cab on the way home from the hospital.
And then the Champions League draw was made. Barcelona. In February. I’d be back on my feet by then. So The Former Mr Baby (TFMB) booked flights for us and his Heathen Child (the reason for that name will become apparent later) and I arranged a hotel.
The end of Feb ‘04 was going to be a big time for CFC. In the space of a few days we’d be playing one of the giants of world football followed by a trip to Cardiff a few days later to plays the Mickeys in the League Cup final.
The single biggest difference was that as season ticket holders, the League Cup final tickets were easy to come by. The Barcelona match was massively oversubscribed and we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d be spending our time looking for tickets whilst in Spain.
However, the weather nearly threw a spanner in the works at the outset. There was heavy snow the night before our departure, and caused us to fret that the flight would be delayed. But with only a small delay at my end, we met at Victoria and took the train to Gatwick.
Whilst in the departure lounge we saw a familiar looking face and realised it was Sky’s resident Chelsea fan, Rob Wotton, who was travelling economy like a proper supporter. However, on getting on the plane, walking through the business section, the HC said “why can’t we sit here”, to which I replied “because we haven’t got the money”.
The solitary passenger in business class started laughing his head off. And it was only when we’d passed him I realised that it was none other than the infamous Alan Green of Radio 5.
We arrived in Barcelona about 8pm and took a taxi to the hotel we were staying in on Las Ramblas. After dumping our luggage we went out and ate pizza (rather sadly it always seems to be Italian food) and met a few faces, including the members of John Terry’s Blue & White Army, prior to meeting up with our other friends who were out there and ended up visiting The Black Horse pub in the Born area. It wasn’t a late night though, as the growing HC required sleep and TFMB is a responsible parent.
There had been a rumour in the Black Horse that tickets were going to be available from the Barca ticket office the next day, and after a hearty breakfast, we decided to have a walk on the Ramblas prior to setting off for the ground. We didn’t visit Sagrada Familia (which we could see from the balcony of our rooms) but went into the old Cathedral. This elicited the remark from the Heathen Child “Is this where Jesus is buried?”…
The Nou Camp is an easy journey by Metro, and we arrived at the ticket office about 11am only to find a huge queue ahead of us. After a wait of 3 freezing cold hours (it wasn’t very warm out there), we got to the front and I applied for the tickets in my pidgin Spanish, to which we received the response “English. Sorry. No tickets”.
We tried everything, pleading the Heathen Child (the sympathy card) to the fact we had come in peace and really wouldn’t be any trouble. We were politely but firmly ushered away by a policeman, and we were devastated.
We repaired to a bar on the corner to plan our next move. We decided there was nothing for it but to try our luck from a tout at the ground that night, and headed back towards the Nou Camp to visit the Barca shop. TFMB and HC have a lovely photo of them standing next to the Barca coach which was in the car park outside the shop. Then we headed back towards the Black Horse for a pre-match drink, stopping off at Macdonalds to feed the HC.
By the time we returned to the Nou Camp, darkness had fallen and the area, so nondescript by day, had come alive with crowds and noise. It was 6pm by this time, and we hung about hopefully on a corner just before the turn for the ground. I decided I was going to let TFMB handle this and say and do nothing, apart from hopefully get my hands on a ticket.
We had been hanging around for about 10 minutes, and whilst I was talking to the HC, I had failed to notice TFMB engaging a young man in conversation. Something had obviously come up. TFMB made a motion to us to move further round the corner, and he was followed by the young man. This guy wasn’t strictly a tout. He was a genuine Barca fan whose three mates had decided that they weren’t going to go to the game but were willing to sell their tickets for a mark up.
The selling price was going to be €150 each. Or roughly £125.00. This was less than I had really bargained for, following the Monaco experience (see Travels with the Chels – Monaco). However TFMB wanted assurances that the tickets were kosher, so he looked at one and phoned Gianronaldo, who had had a ticket off the club, to compare various markings. And the tickets were genuine.
So, then, off to the bar next door for a celebratory drink. However, whilst on the veranda there was an almighty roar and the sound of glass being hurled from the central reservation. The Barca Ultras had arrived and were using us for target practice. “Out, out!” barked TFMB, bodily ejecting us from the bar and sweeping us around the corner to where we had bought the tickets.
At this point we decided there was no point in hanging around anymore, and made our way into the ground. And did we get a surprise. Because, instead of some rubbish seats that we were being charged an arm and a leg for, we found ourselves in the middle tier of the Nou Camp, just over the corner flag. We knew people who’d bought from ticket agencies at £300 a pop.
I’ll never ever forget the feeling of being in one of the great cathedrals of world football and that my team were soon going to be running out in front of a crowd of 90,000. Sadly, all our tickets weren’t together, and quite rightly TFMB and the HC had the two seats together, leaving me a few rows in front, surrounded by Barca fans and determined to keep my head down.
From my seat, I could see the official Chelsea support in the top tier. It looked a very long way up. The teams were roared on to the pitch and the Barca anthem played before the Zadok the Priest rip-off.
We started off well, and sitting amongst the home fans I was careful not to show too much enthusiasm, although I could hear some shouts from English voices dotted around the stand. I think when Damien Duff’s cross deflected into the Barca net off the future Chels cult hero Juliano Beletti, it was one of the hardest moments I’ve ever had as a fan.
Common sense told me not to make a move, or a sound, and when the whistle went for half-time it was a relief to meet up with TFMB and HC to express our joy. One up against Barca at half-time in the Nou Camp! Who would have believed it possible. And we were there to see it.
But the major drama of the night was to come. When Didier Drogba was sent off after 55 minutes by sunbed fan Anders Frisk, the decibel level rocketed. Believe me, I now know the meaning of the phrase “baying crowd”. I was right in the middle of one. And sadly, the rest of that night is history. Maxi Lopez equalised soon after and Eto’o put Barca ahead on 73 minutes, leaving us with little to show for a valiant performance other than a precious away goal.
We didn’t hang around as the Barca anthem rang out again and the jubilant Catalans stayed on to celebrate their team’s victory. One good thing about sitting in the home seats is the fact you get to avoid the obligatory UEFA lock-in for the away fans, and we were back in the Black Horse in time to see the end of the Sky coverage which was reporting on a comments that had been made by the Special One that cast less than a favourable light on Mr Frisky.
It was a long night in the pub, a number of friends, acquaintance and even Chelsea faces (Clive Batty, Kerry Dixon, Neil Barnett) made their way there after the game and by 2am the HC was moaning that he wanted to go to bed, so we took him off to Las Ramblas in a cab.
The next morning was dull and grey and after breakfast we popped over to a nearby hotel to see how the evening had panned out for a couple of friends, and at midday returned to the airport, where it was even greyer. Heavy fog was reported over Europe and this resulted in Iberia’s flights being delayed (I’m reliably informed that delays on Iberia are not uncommon).
Ours was only 90 minutes late, but friends on subsequent flights experienced delays of up to 3 hours. It’s really the last thing you want at the end of a European trip. Added to which the airline had failed to stock up with food adequately for the flight due to the delay, and by this time the HC was starting to get hungry as we hadn’t dared move from the departure lounge.
TFMB is the world’s sweetest, kindest man, when he’s not at the football or breaking my heart, but he tore a strip off the unfortunate stewardess. Luckily I’d bought a bag of crisps at the game the previous night as they came in a bag that was basically the Barca badge. I’d meant to keep them as a souvenir, but surrendered them to the nipper to alleviate his hunger.
That was my last European away that season. The next would also be in Spain, at Real Betis later in the year, but was such a disastrous trip (a mugging; two deaths in the differing families of those travelling; one of the worst rows it has ever been my misfortune to be involved in; a truly bizarre encounter with some very VIPs; and, finally, my tearing a cartilage on the way home) that even at this distance I can’t write about it. To protect everyone involved.
And if you’re wondering about that mysterious rash, in the end it turned out to be eczema. All gone now.
Next week I’ll be back on my Travels with The Chels, so if you are in Copenhagen, and you can guess what I look like, say hello!