Friday, 1 July 2011

Sutton United v Coventry City

The final week of April turned out to be one of the most amazing week's I've ever had as a football fan.

Not only did my team, Sutton United, put the icing on the Championship cake by cruising past Carshalton with a 2-0 derby day victory at Gander Green Lane before lifting the Ryman League trophy, but just a few days later I found myself watching Carvalho, Casillas, Kaka and co turn out for Real Madrid in a crucial La Liga clash against Real Zaragoza at the Santiago Bernabeu.

As tempting it was, a trip to New Lodge to see Sutton end their season at Billericay just didn't match up to a weekend in the Spanish capital. 

I've mentioned in a previous post about the thrills and spills of watching football abroad, and until recently, the only feathers in my foreign footballing cap have been FC Copenhagen and Union Berlin. But now I have weighed in with one of the heavyweights, the Galacticos of La Liga. It's a far cry from the Danish Superliga and the German Third Division.

Just days beforehand I sat in my living room watching Lionel Messi weave his magic to score a memorable goal in the Champions League Semi-Final first-leg as Barcelona won 2-0 at Madrid. At that stage, I had no idea I'd be at that very venue watching another day of footballing drama unfold.

When I took my seat at the majestic Bernabeu I was tempted to shout 'I AM A SUTTON UNITED FAN, GET ME OUT OF HERE!' because I felt utterly out of place. The crowd of 65,824 is a mere 65,324 more than I'd expect at the average Sutton game, and the surroundings were a bit of an improvement on our jigsaw puzzle of a ground.

Spot the players: They're somewhere on that big patch of green.

When I've seen the great stadiums of the world on TV I have often wondered what it's like to sit up in the Gods, right at the very back. A chap I used to work with recently told me that he had such an experience at Barcelona where he was sat in the last possible row for a match against Malaga a few years back.

Well, wouldn't you just know it, my seat was right at the very back too. So, not only had I ticked the box of watching a big club abroad, but I lived out a dream of sitting at the very back. You can see by the picture that I was watching the match at an altitude of 38,000 feet. I felt like a giddy schoolboy... wait a minute, perhaps it was an attack of vertigo.

I couldn't tell you much about the opening exchanges because I was still in complete awe of my surroundings. Then, all of a sudden, I was awoken from my starry-eyed stupor when World Cup-winning skipper Iker Casillas turned into captain calamity and kicked thin air instead of the ball. Angel Lafita couldn't believe his luck, and tucked the ball into the net.

You wouldn't catch Ryman Premier League-winning goalkeeper Kevin Scriven doing anything like that. Oh no. It won't be the last clanger I mention in this post either.

At half-time, I turned my nose up at the prospect of a non-alcoholic beer in a plastic beaker before returning to my top tier seat on cloud nine.

As most red-blooded male football fans - and perhaps a few female ones too - will know, every now and then you have to ask yourself important questions like, who's your favourite Gabi - Logan, Roslin or Sabatini?

Well, I think I can speak for most of us when I say that I tend to ignore the last one. So that leaves the other two to mud-wrestle their way into our affections.

However, after 54 minutes of this lively La Liga tussle, there was only one Gabi Fernandez Arenas as far as the tiny band of Zaragoza fans were concerned, because he tucked away a penalty to put the visitors into a commanding 2-0 advantage. Crikey, a shock was definitely on the cards.

But, before the home fans had a chance to get too restless Sergio Ramos - he of Copa del Rey-dropping clanger fame - pulled a goal back for Jose Mourinho's men. Thank crikey Ramos isn't known for clanger-dropping, now that would have been a tragedy.

Lucky escape: Thankfully Sergio Ramos dropped the Copa del Rey and not a real Clanger. I know what you're thinking, because I thought it too, it's a nice waistcoat but Small Clanger could have popped some trousers on before our club snapper Paul Loughlin took his picture.

A few minutes of cat-and-mouse football followed before Zaragoza delivered a knock-out blow to the high-flying heavyweights. A quick counter attack saw Lafita faced with just Casillas to beat. The visiting striker kept his cool to put his side 3-1 ahead and his supporters, who were tucked away in a far-flung corner of the stadium, into orbit. As if they weren't high enough already.

In an explosive final few minutes, French international Karim Benzema scored Madrid's second to set-up yet more cat-and-mouse football (well, just cat football perhaps). A minute later Chelsea reject Ricardo Carvalho was sent-off for a second bookable offence to hinder the home side's hopes of a comeback. The final whistle blew amid boos echoing around the already-emptying shrine to football.

The surprise three points proved vital to Zaragoza who survived relegation at the expense of Deportivo La Coruna, while Madrid finished four points adrift of champions Barcelona in second spot.

To watch the goals from the game click here.

There was still another twist in my tale to come. But before that, those of you hooked by cat's playing football might like to have a gander at this.

Like any Englishman abroad, my next destination was an Irish pub for a few post-match pints with pals.

Three pints had passed before we got talking to a small group of other English guys who'd had the same idea as us. Once the conversation progressed from post-match analysis we got talking about domestic football and, fortunately for me, they turned out to be Peterborough United fans.

I haven't felt so smug since bumping into some Coventry City supporters in a Blackpool boozer back in the summer of 1990. However, I didn't have a chat with those chaps because, unsurprisingly, they weren't in the mood to exchange footballing pleasantries. I made a swift exit.

Our new Posh pals were in their late 40s and the conversation was going well until I uttered two words which sent a shudder down their spines - Sutton United. I expect to have a similar feeling when I bump into the Alton Town fan in the next few years.

The chaps let out a collective groan as their minds were instantly taken back to December 1987 when the super Us dumped Peterborough out of the FA Cup at the Second Round stage 3-1 at London Road.

Their hearts sank further when I said that Sutton's third goal, scored by Lennie Dennis, was one of the greatest moments of my life.

I know what you're thinking, 'what a sad life'.

Any rate, I couldn't help this opportunity pass without telling them that I remembered the pre-match footage from Saint and Greavsie in which the pair wished their old pal and then Peterborough manager Noel Cantwell good luck for the big match. But Sutton's well-read boss Barrie Williams didn't read that particular script as his boys disposed of the Posh before causing Middlesbrough plenty of problems in the Third Round.

In terms of great away days, Peterborough '87 is right up there.

Of course, watching football abroad is going a reality for the lucky supporter of another successful local side, Combined Counties League Division One table-toppers Worcester Park. Despite being denied promotion due to ground grading the Blues from Green Lane will have the chance to defend their crown against Guernsey FC who have had their application to that division accepted for next season.

Spot the ground: Worcester Park's main stand is somewhere beyond that big patch of green.
Have you watched footy abroad? If so, where? Come on, spill the beans...and I don't mean Canvey Island. Did any of you go to that tournament in France in the late 1980s which billed Sutton as a Third Division English side? I'd love to hear from you.