Football: Tiers and cheers for souvenirs

3,000 travelling Old Trafford fans rode the emotional rollercoaster in an awesome arena.
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The Independent Online
THE TURBULENCE on the flight home should have surprised no one. Only at the weekend Fergie had talked of the rollercoaster ride with United, and the weary troop who touched down at Manchester Airport at 2.30 yesterday morning had experienced every emotional peak and trough in the long day before.

These intrepid travellers were among 3,000 United fans perched on the upper tier of the awesome Nou Camp to witness what just might have been the match of a lifetime.

They set out on Wednesday morning on one of the three official United excursions - the club offer options of a two-day air package and a three- day coach trip - to Barcelona, and a crusade that has generated ever more intense spiritual fervour with recent failures.

The European Cup has become an obsession for the manager, players and supporters much as it was before the deliverance of Matt Busby's third great team 30 years ago.

Subsequent decades of hooliganism and tragedy have shaped the order of following clubs abroad and United have a meticulously honed game plan. Security staff accompany these tours in numbers. Match tickets are handed out as fans board the plane. No alcohol is served on the flight out.

The Spanish courier on the bus transferring passengers from Barcelona Airport to the port was more of a loose cannon, although his unwitting impersonation of Manuel from Fawlty Towers provided entertainment en route. He apologised for being a first-year student of English.

The restriction on booze went awry on arrival. Let lose in the city for five hours, many were hell bent on making up for lost time in the bars of La Rambla. One particularly disorientated fan, using his pal as a crutch, had a TV camera monitoring his every faltering step.

"That's typical," said another supporter. "Those pictures will go round the world and then it will be `three thousand United hooligans'."

At the stadium fans were searched and ushered through a phalanx of police, helmets at the hip, some with dogs. Seasoned campaigners found the climb up to their seats rather more intimidating. We are talking high and, no matter how often you visit Nou Camp, it is breath-taking in every sense.

United, of course, are proud of their place, and one supporter sneered: "This has not even got a roof". His mate reasoned: "The Scousers nicked it."

That went down well. So did Peter Schmeichel's reaction when Barca fans behind the goal threw a chair at him during his warm-up. He sat on it and defiantly faced them.

Humour and anthems gave way to stunned disbelief when United conceded a goal inside a minute, but were back on the agenda after Dwight Yorke equalised. The pattern for the evening had been established: pain, relief, anguish, ecstasy.

Schmeichel's a hero, now he's past it, now he is a hero again. Beckham's asleep, Scholes is a gem, Keano's brainless, Yorke and Cole are brilliant, why don't they get hold of Rivaldo? Lens' goal against Arsenal is celebrated almost as lavishly as United's three.

At the end the fans are philosophical. Should have won, could have lost, cracking match. Bring on Bayern...