Summer spree of the global ground-hopper

Nicholas Harling's passion for football led to a colourful odyssey that took him to various odd points on the atlas
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The Independent Online
Clutching their new season tickets and barely containing emotions of tingling excitement, the vast majority of football fans will set out this week to watch their favourite clubs.

Clutching their new season tickets and barely containing emotions of tingling excitement, the vast majority of football fans will set out this week to watch their favourite clubs.

There is nothing quite like the advent of a campaign to stir the senses, to whet the appetites. But some of us have never really been away. Sad is the word I think the kids use nowadays to describe people like myself for whom the game is like an addiction.

In times long gone by, the end of a season would invoke feelings of unbelievable despair. Three long months away from our beloved game. Then it had to be tolerated. Not now. For there are ways and expensive means of bridging the gap, of ensuring that when one season ends, the next, elsewhere, begins. Football, more than ever now is the global game. Check the flight schedules, the Internet, dig deep into the pockets and at some place, some hour, every weekend there is a game, better still a game in an unfamiliar stadium. There's absolutely no need to rely on Wimbledon, the Tests, Ascot or the World Athletics Championships for inferior kicks.

Summers occupying the World Cup finals or European Championships present no real challenge. One season invariably runs into another. The Copa America tournament fills the gap nicely in alternative years, but even the most hardened addicts drew the line this time at Colombia, long before the South American football federation set out to confuse us as to whether the event would actually take place there. For the first time we seriously questioned Bill Shankly's oft repeated doctrine that football is more important than life and death. Would Shankly himself, we wondered, ever have risked the kidnap threats and car bomb explosions planted by Bogota's terrorists? For once the ground- hoppers, or travellers which is the new sophisticated in-vogue term they prefer to use, were forced to search elsewhere for their fix, or fixtures.

Desperados usually find immediate salvation in the late finish to the domestic campaigns in Italy and Spain. I had spiced my visit to Milan for the European Cup final by arriving four days earlier for Atalanta's game with Reggina. It was an enthralling contest between hosts seeking a Uefa Cup place and relegation threatened visitors who held on for a 1-1 draw when Massimo Taibi saved a last-kick penalty that all but kept them in Serie A. As Taibi raced upfield to be smothered by colleagues I wondered what his bête noire, Sir Alex Ferguson, would have made of the joyous scene.

The next two weekends were no problem when Cardiff, first for the play-off finals and then for Wales v Poland, was the obvious destiny but then the going got tough. Spain provided the solution. Their season was still going strong but after a horrendously early-morning flight to Barcelona, I forgot to put my watch forward an hour and realised that I was never going to make the kick-off for Sabadell's Third Division play-off with Burgos. Worse was to follow when no one on the train there seemed to know or comprehend my frantic attempts to glean which of Sabadell's three stations were nearest the ground. I embarked at the first along with 100 girls in micro-skirts who were obviously not going to the game.

There was not a taxi or a bus in sight but somehow I managed to convey from the various Spanish hand-waving gestures that the blessed stadium was several kilometres away. There was nothing else but to run for it. Panting and sweating profusely from the late evening sun, I arrived at the interval in plenty of time to see Burgos snatch the only goal. Still, it was a frustrating experience.

No matter, I thought, compensation would surely follow the next day when I would rise at an unearthly hour once more in order to catch the only train that would get me to Pamplona, seven hours away, in time for the crucial match between Osasuna and Zaragoza.

The train arrived eight hours before kick-off. It was drizzling and months before the bull-running season so there was nothing for it but to while away the long afternoon in the city's many bars. I was struck by how few Spaniards wanted to watch Alex Corretja contest the French Open tennis final. Twice I had to change saloons when regulars switched channels to cycling or some other lesser pastime. I could hardly argue but the satisfaction of seeing most of that final turned to alarm at the sight of football fans congregating in the town centre clad in jackets and sweaters. I was wearing little more than a T-shirt and shorts I had donned the previous baking evening in Barcelona and had not heeded the fact that Pamplona is in the shadow of the Pyrenees.

Fortunately the game won 1-0 by Osasuna was a riveting affair which made me forget the intense cold and the embarrassment of half-time when I mistakenly found myself not in the press room but in a sponsor's lounge. As I took a huge chunk out of a ham and cheese-filled croissant, I was suddenly aware that everyone was talking about or pointing at me. As I hurriedly made my exit the chief sponsor adroitly removed the half-consumed croissant from my grasp. I was too stunned to protest.

Next on the Spanish agenda was Real Mallorca's game with Oviedo. Mallorca's impressive 4-2 win, securing their Champions' League spot, relegated their visitors, who went down cursing, no doubt, the wisdom of their short-lived association with Stan Collymore.

Collymore frequently inspires similar ridicule to the InterToto Cup, a nuisance to most people, but to the minority an absolute godsend. How else could we have avoided the desert of the next two weekends? My oasis was Austria, hugely relieved that I had ascertained beforehand that S V Ried were playing their second leg against Georgia Tbilisi, not in Ried where the goalmouths were being restored, but in Grieskirchen. The game was probably the biggest this Third Division club had ever staged and on a baking afternoon the whole town came out to watch their adopted team win 2-1 but lose the tie on away goals.

Either Odense or Basle were favourites for the next weekend but there were no cheap flights to either Denmark or Switzerland. Withdrawal symptoms were fast setting in when, glory be, I discovered that Lot, the Polish airline, were experimenting with a competitive fare to Warsaw from where I could easily reach Zaglebe Lubin, who were receiving Lokeren of Belgium. On arrival in Poland I had to confirm from a waiter that the game was happening in Lubin, seven hours' train ride away, and not Lublin, 50 miles distant where a Belgian television contact, normally 100 per cent reliable, had insisted it would be. For once he was wrong. That could have been a disaster.

The bonus of the train ride were the meals, sumptuous and cheap, which emphasised how inedible is our railway nourishment. Only about 1500 fans watched the 2-2 draw in a stadium, capable of holding 25,000. Police in riot gear had a quiet afternoon.

Colombia was out of the equation so the Isle of Man, hosts for the NatWest Island Games, was next on the itinerary. It was on the SeaCat from Liverpool that the various ground-hoppers met to discuss their plans for the week ahead and the possibility of visiting all eight venues. Every hired car on the island had long since been booked but we struck lucky when, with her leg in plaster, the lady running our hotel had no need of her Vauxhall Corsa. She had no knowledge, luckily, of the various blemishes on my licence so, after arranging the insurance, we were off, taking in two and a half games on the first day.

Four of the grounds were little more than public parks but the other arenas were quaint, especially those in Douglas and Ramsey. The Bowl in Douglas, a truly delightful setting, was the scene of the final between Ynys Mon, (which is the Welsh for Anglesey) and Guernsey, who prevailed on penalties after 120 minutes had failed to produce a goal. Never were there two more exhausted sides. They had both been taken to extra time in the previous evening's semi-finals.

As the closing date was a Friday, those intent on rushing back to the mainland could still fit in a pre-season friendly. My mate Neil who works for the Home Office in Liverpool when he is not avidly supporting Walsall or ground-hopping, met the midnight ferry, put me up and drove me the next afternoon to Burscough, who were too good for Kevin Ratcliffe's Shrewsbury, winning 1-0. Normally at this stage of the year the early-season starts in France, Switzerland and Austria suffice. This time I was going much further afield. Burscough's Victoria Park ground was indeed a far cry from my next port of call, Miami which, alas for all my well-made plans, is not the Major League Soccer home of Miami Fusion. Panic had set in when, after my flight was delayed over two hours, not a single taxi driver had a clue as to which stadium accommodated the city's soccer team. Forget American football and baseball I thought, before discovering from the local paper that I would require a $70 (£49) cab ride up the coast to Fort Lauderdale, armed with all my luggage as I had no time to book a hotel. Arriving at the ground, barely two minutes before kick-off, I watched Ian Bishop, late of Manchester City and West Ham, inspire Miami to a 2-1 victory over Chicago Fire. Accommodation was the next problem. The women looking after the press food tent had kindly found a supporter willing to run me and my bags into town. "Where to?'' he asked. "To the cheapest hotel,'' I replied. "You can stay with me,'' he said. "I've got a condo.''

The worst case scenario did not materialise. I was not next to the Florida axe murderer. Suspicions of the next worse case scenario surfaced when I attempted to discuss the game with my driver. He had nothing whatsoever of interest to say and didn't appear familiar with the players' names. The guy was gay, I later confirmed when he revealed his reason for going to the game: he got off on looking at footballers' legs.

Propping up the chair against the door in his spare room, I survived the night, enjoyed a dip in the complex's swimming pool the next morning and then declined his invitation to sit through an entire gay video. I thought my host might then renege on his offer to run me into Miami for my next flight but, good as gold, he got the car out. His excuse for the 80-mile round trip was obviously worthwhile. "The Latino boys in the Miami gym I use are far more cute than the ones we have here in Lauderdale," he dutifully explained.

I was en route to Sydney, the home of my 10-year-old son, who I see only every three or four years. His mother, who had never come to terms with my obsession, was somewhat alarmed to be informed an hour after my arrival early on the Saturday that I had to be at football that afternoon. Easier said than done.

There are hundreds of soccer games every weekend in Australia, but finding them is a nightmare. The papers are so loath to admit to the popularity of the sport that may one day usurp their various codes that they omit the list of fixtures. Fortunately the Australia and British soccer weekly was not sold out. There was a whole choice of games in the NSW Winter Super League. We settled on Hajduk v Fairfield and witnessed five dismissals in the senior and reserve game that proceeded it. News of a truce in Balkan hostilities had obviously not reached these parts.

Dad's respite from the endless theme park visits in Queensland over the next few days was a weekend double header, albeit some 300 miles apart. Bundaberg's 3-1 loss to the league leaders, Wynnum, on the Saturday night was followed by Toowoomba against Ipswich the following afternoon which ended in a tepid 1-1 draw.

Making for Melbourne, the following weekend, it was just as well that I had the foresight to contact the Victoria State League but there is more chance of their fixtures being listed in English papers, including the Australians pools coupons, than in Saturday's edition of Melbourne's top paper, The Age. The obvious choice was the western suburb of St Albans for the First Division promotion game between West Vale and Oakleigh. The hosts won 1-0 bringing my Australian venture to an end.

And so to Ireland, the last stop with a bonus after watching Glenavon fall to Kilmarnock in the last minute of a Uefa Cup tie was an Irish First Division derby between Carrick Rangers and Ballymena. I was out of pocket but otherwise happy. Some people inject themselves. My drug has left me with my health intact, but, is my sanity?

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