It was late July and the kids were off to Majorca with their Mum. I had a week of leave booked just in case I was required to fulfil my parental responsibilities. So now surplus to requirements, what was I to do with my week off ? Yes you guessed it, follow QPR into Europe and confirm to my family and friends that I wasn’t going round the twist, but had qualified for the loony bin !
I left Exeter coach station at one in the morning on the Wednesday and travelled to Heathrow for the flight to Milano (getting continental already !). I tried in vain to catch the early flight, but as usual I had to wait for the 10 o’clock flight. To my horror the flight (the only one out of seventy six leaving Heathrow that morning) was delayed by an hour. This meant that I would miss the only direct train to Rimini and the bus to San Marino for the evening game against AC Cesena at Serravalle.
Still I was upbeat when the nice lady at Milano railway station assured me that it was possible to get across in time. The next four hours resembled the ‘Italian Job’ with buses, trams, trains and taxis taking the place of the minis. But still I somehow made it to the Stadio Olimpico with half an hour to spare. I negotiated the complicated ticket purchasing regime (passport, birth sign and inside leg measurement required) and was greeted by two smartly dressed gents who took me into the bar, bought me a beer, asked a few questions about QPR and then invited me to a half time punch up at the back of the Stand ! It appeared that I was in the heart of the Cesena ‚ÄúUltra‚Äù bar !!! I politely declined their offer of a bout of Queensbury Rules and supped my lager before joining the 15 or so Rangers fans who had amassed on the away bank.
The game was a fairly even contest with QPR fielding a strong line-up that included Taarabt, Bothroyd and Faurlin. Bothroyd had a great chance, but the keeper saved well and Taarabt had an audacious chip from some distance. The home side were always dangerous with their strongest line-up that included former Chelsea misfit Adrian Mutu. Rangers were denied two clear penalties, but let’s face it, what would you expect from an Italian ‘home’ referee ? As the game wore on, Rangers failed to close down the left-wing and a fine shot flew into the top right corner. 1-0 but the R’s pressed again and had the ball cleared off the line (it actually rippled the net) before the ref blew bang on time ! By now the drizzle had turned into a torrent and I jogged up the hill to my hotel for a good night’s sleep (the bar had closed).
The next morning I arose to another grey day in San Marino and managed to catch the bus down to Rimini and then onto Modena for one of my stopovers. Modena was a must for me as it was the birth place of the late, great Luciano Pavarotti where he was a regular tenor at the cathedral. It was just my luck that the cathedral was closed for restoration and covered from head to toe in bubble wrap ! So I engaged in the Italian sport of sitting around, drinking wine and watching the world go by (and a few pretty ladies).It’s a beautiful city and very compact, ideal for a day or two to take in the sights. I had a cracking pizza down by the railway station which topped off a rather more relaxing day.
The following day I travelled back to Milano by train. I then took a taxi to the strangely named Hotel Johnny on the outskirts of the city. The taxi driver was a fanatical AC Milan supporter and when I asked about the rivalry with Inter he demonstrated a fine vocabulary of English (and Italian) profanities ! I had a great day exploring Milan, visiting the impressive Duomo Cathedral and the Castillo. I took a tram out to the Memorial Cemetery and visited the grave of Eva Peron (buried there in secret under a false name). This has to be the most remarkable cemetery in the world. It is littered with the most spectacular statues and monuments that the rich and famous of Milano had paid millions for. It was a quiet evening with more pizza and a few beers (5-10 euros) before a comfy sleep at the Johnny !
At last it was Saturday and match day. I caught the train up to Bergamo for the ‚Äúprestigious‚Äù Trofeo Bortolotti against the home side Atalanta and the Portuguese Europa finalists SC Braga. Atalanta are going through the mill and were awaiting an IFA tribunal for ‚Äúirregularities‚Äù, similar to ourselves last season. I found my hotel with relative ease and then went off for an exploration around the New Town and the ‚ÄúAlta‚Äù (Old Town) on top of the hill which luckily was reached by cable car. I didn’t fancy the one thousand steps !!!
I bumped into a few old faces in the town and then sat down for a few pre-match beers when I had the privilege of meeting Neil Warnock and Mick Jones (not of the Clash sadly) ! Neil and Mick joined us for a couple of wines and gave a cracking insight into the running of the club ! He also mentioned that he was having a meeting with Tony Fernandes and was interested to hear what he was bringing to the table.
Several beers later, I wandered back down to the New Town and caught a taxi to the ground. The stadium looked quite dated, but the locals seemed quite a passionate bunch and I got the feeling that they were up for a good performance in the tournament. After the now standard ticket purchasing questions, I managed to get a 10 euro ticket. To my delight, me and a few fellow QPR fans managed to blag our way into the 100 euro seats and ended up sitting not too far from Messrs Paladini and Briatore (who was particularly relishing the attention).
I had a quick chat with Tony Fernandes who seemed like a really genuine guy and told the amassed Rangers contingent that he grew up in the chippy on Uxbridge Road !!! But much more to my pallet was that the 100 euro ticket came with a free bar and buffet (when in Rome) and I filled my boots and then some. I met a few more R’s fans including two Italian supporters, Ricky and Ricardo and a cracking couple from Essex, Richard (yes the 3 Ricks) and Victoria.
At last the tournament got under way. We were first up with a clash against a fine SC Braga team. Have to say that they were well in control and enjoyed long periods of possession, but failed to break us down with Danny Gabbidon the stand out man at the back. Rangers gradually got into the game and were rewarded with a fine goal. Taarabt made space on the left and fired a pinpoint cross to the opposite wing with the outside of his boot where the ball was met by the overlapping Bradley Orr. Orr then squared into the centre for the imposing Bothroyd to slot home his first Rangers goal. Cue wild celebrations from the travelling Rangers army. The game ended 1-0.
Next up was Atalanta versus Braga. I have to confess that I didn’t see much of it as I was busy socialising in the free bar. I think it ended 0-0 ?
In the final game we came out strong against a good Atalanta side. They were well supported by a noisy and partisan home crowd. Rangers took the lead after Agyemang was brought down on the 30 yard mark. Taarabt curled in a delightful free kick which was met by the unmarked Faurlin who coolly finished. Atalanta levelled after Rangers failed to clear and the game finished level. Somehow we ended up in a penalty shoot-out with the home side despite being unbeaten. Trialist Brian Murphy was between the sticks and after making some fine saves we came out on top 3-2 with Bothroyd, Taarabt and Orr all scoring from the spot.
Rangers were presented with the spectacular trophy and I then made my way down town with a gaggle of R’s fans to some of the local bars and to say that we celebrated in style is an understatement. I have few memories of the night, but I have images of Zambucca, boiled eggs and a bride !!!
The next morning I awoke with the mother of all hangovers and made my way by train back to Milano and then on to Heathrow. This was followed by a five hour coach ride back to Exeter just in time to get straight to work on the Monday !!!
A great trip.