Hellbent on a glory trip

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The Independent Online
Gary Pallister, the experienced Manchester United and England defender, recalls his visits to Istanbul as the most intimidating of his football life. As his club prepare to make their third Champions' Cup visit to the Turkish city in three years, it is an analysis with which veterans of supporters' club trips to the first two matches would concur.

Pallister recalls how, upon United's arrival at their hotel, an old porter pointed at him and ran his finger across his neck in a throat-slitting gesture. He remembers the death threats that were phoned to the team's Istanbul base and the youths baying outside the hotel.

Grant Cass, a United fan, has similar memories, of spending his 21st birthday in November 1993 in a Turkish cell, enduring 20 hours behind bars without food and missing his team's 0-0 draw at Galatasaray's Ali Sami Yen stadium.

An estimated 1,000 United fans could make the trip across - actually, outside - Europe to the Asian section of Turkey's largest city this week. Galatasaray provided the opposition in 1993, when tabloid headlines about journeys into Hell seemed, for once, wholly appropriate, and 1994. This time, the city's other big club Fenerbahce are the "hosts".

Cass, for reasons known only to himself, will join Pallister in making a third visit to the city. "The first time, we were eating and drinking in a bar when about 500 youths gathered outside and started throwing missiles into the bar," he recalled. "Eventually the police came to escort us to our hotel which was a few hundred yard away, up a hill.

"The only problem was the road had flats on either side and as we walked up we were pelted with glass, bottles, fruit, anything they could get their hands on. A lot of lads were also hit by police batons. One Turk even ran at us waving a Samurai sword! We weren't even safe in the hotel. It was next to a building site and every few seconds the Turks would put a window out with a brick or rock. We had just got to sleep around 1am when police burst in, tapping us with their batons, and told us they were taking us to a safer hotel.

"Of course, that turned out to be a police station where we were all herded together in one over-crowded cell until the match was over when we were taken to the airport and flown home."

At least Cass's and United's return 10 months later, for another 0-0 draw, passed off in an altogether more peaceful fashion. "I had to go, I suppose it's like falling off a bike," said Cass, who works on the fanzine Red Issue and has not missed a match for seven years. "Quite frankly I think the Turks were embarrassed by what had happened a year earlier and made sure everything went smoothly. After the events of '93 I went on the official club trip and there wasn't a single problem. Mind you, it probably helped that we had security people with us."

Security will be high on the agenda for the players' party that sets out tomorrow for Istanbul and the match against Fenerbahce on Wednesday. Although the 1994 "Return to Hell" was without serious incident for supporters, the city still ranks as arguably Europe's most hostile football venue. "For sheer noise, not to mention sheer hatred coming down from the terraces, Galatasaray would be hard to beat," Pallister said. "I'm sure we will be taking our usual quota of security to Fenerbahce."

The United manager, Alex Ferguson, has no doubt what the game means in football terms. "Wednesday is our most important in this group," he said. "Us and Fenerbahce look like battling for that second place if Juventus maintain their run. If Juve beat Rapid Vienna on Wednesday they will have nine points out of nine, then they play the Austrians again. By the time they come to Old Trafford they could have 12 points out of 12."

That makes it vital that United at least avoid defeat at the Fenerbahce Stadium, no matter how intimidating the atmosphere. Grant Cass has one hope that a visit to the other side of Istanbul will not provide the same ordeal as the previous trips. "It's funny looking back but I remember in '93 and '94, we got chatting to Fenerbahce fans who were wearing United shirts, such is their hatred of Galatasaray. You never know, they might still feel some kinship."