Patience on cards as United come up trumps

Travel is sometimes said to broaden the mind, but for footballers it can merely measure their capacity to resist boredom. Manchester United travelled to Russia this week for the first leg of their Uefa Cup first- round tie against Rotor Volgograd. Guy Hodgson went with them
Click to follow
The Independent Online

5.15pm The last thing a team going into Europe needs is an injury to a key player. Alex Ferguson had just presided over a 3-2 win at Everton but his mood was almost maudlin thanks to the loss of Andy Cole to a hamstring injury.

"His movement and ability, he's a threat all the time," the United manager said, quantifying the loss of Plan A in the battle of tactics to be fought against Rotor Volgograd. "A four and a half hour flight would be the worst thing for him. He'd stiffen."

Not that time cooped up in a steel tube is anyone's idea of an ideal Saturday night but for players with aches and strains from a bruising Premiership match it is purgatory. The first deck of cards is broken on the coach to Manchester Airport. A four-day marathon of brag, poker and, above all, patience begins.

7pm Check-in. Living in a bowl has an odd effect on the watcher as well as the watched. As the United players try to slide unobtrusively from lounge to plane they run a gauntlet of curiosity from pointed fingers to ostentatious turns of blind eyes.

"I've just touched Ryan Giggs," one girl says in wonder after bumping accidentally into the object of teenage desire. Except she is too excited to speak out loud but mouths it goldfish-like - as if it will not be true if the sound hits the air.

As the plane is boarded Gary Neville is asked whether he has heard that his erstwhile team-mate, Andrei Kanchelskis, will be out for 10 weeks with a shoulder injury inflicted during the game with United. "Yes," he said. "It's a shame." Given what the Russian winger has put the club through you look for a hint of sarcasm but he is being totally sincere.


5am (BST 2am) At Volgograd Airport one of the players asks what I'd thought of the Everton game.

"Entertaining," I replied, "but some of United's defending was, er, dreadful."

"Don't worry, we were told," he says, wincing at the memory.

6am European trips can become psychological battle-fields with anything from deliberate delays to nocturnal chanting outside hotels to disturb a team's equilibrium, but the Russians have not mastered it. The players and management disappear within minutes and it is the press who suffer the weight of bureaucracy.

It takes two hours to get through passport control etc. and it is a weary set of journalists that checks into their hotel at 7am. "Breakfast will be served between 8 and 10," the owner says cheerfully to people who have no intention whatsoever of being awake to eat it.

11am The players get an unwanted awakening thanks to a band outside their hotel. It is Volgograd Day, they are told, the city's birthday. The rest of the day is played out to the accompaniment of music.

2pm Ferguson's first press conference and United's defending against Everton is still causing pain. "Steve Bruce was caught in possession, which is totally out of character," he said shaking his head before a smile comes to his face. "I think he's got too old to kick the ball."

4pm United's first sight of Volgograd stadium. Peter Schmeichel approaches training with the same gusto that his tongue greets his defence after conceding a goal. He thunders after the ball, going into tackles with such recklessness that no one, not even Roy Keane, goes for 50-50 balls against him.

An additional reason for this extraordinary enthusiasm becomes clear when Ferguson finishes the session. "Don't send me back to that prison cell," Schmeichel wails, "I want to stay here all night."

Bruce fills in the details of the players' hotel where there are few facilities. Are you watching the Manchester City game on Sky?" he is asked. "It's a toss-up whether we've got colour on the tele," he said, "never mind satellite. We're going back to a football quiz. Can't wait." This time there is a trace of sarcasm.


2pm Ferguson, Giggs and Schmeichel meet the Russian press where Giggs is asked "Why did you choose to play for Wales?" "Because I'm Welsh," he replies.

Kanchelskis's name crops up. "Did Andrei give you any information about Rotor?" Ferguson is asked. "We don't have a dialogue," he says, a masterpiece of understatement.

You suspect there is plenty of dialogue on the subject of Kanchelskis later, however, when the Russians reveal that he has supplied Volgograd with a video of United's win at Blackburn and background on the players.

7pm A training session under lights and Paul Parker - four goals in 377 League appearances - hits two thunderous shots past Schmeichel to the huge amusement of his team-mates. "And he's not even in the team," the giant goalkeeper mutters.

United unwittingly make an impression. Someone had just concreted a floor and it is only when two pairs of studded boots have left their mark on the surface that anyone notices. The builders, it is understood, will not be shouting for the visitors during the match.


11am The Red Army arrives, around 200 of them, although whether Volgograd greets them as warmly as the military prototypes is debatable. Most locals look bemused by the chanting hordes with Union Jacks and United paraphernalia. Is this really what capitalism brings?

Among the arrivals is a man who has missed just 15 matches (including friendlies and tours abroad) since 1979. "I work seven days a week in the summer and every spare hour in the winter to afford it," he says. "It's OK here. Much better than Moscow."

2pm The players, who have made just one sight-seeing trip into what is an attractive city, attempt to sleep. Training, cards and quizzes apart they have only videos to combat boredom. Ken Ramsden, United's assistant secretary, is asked which? "Anything but the Everton game," he says. It is understood that Bruce, who had to endure it on the flight over, has used his captain's casting vote to ban it.

6pm United's supporters have been rowdy but reasonably well behaved. There is just one fraught incident when the police have to stop a minor fight, but thanks to their good sense and the calming influence of more sober fans, the incident ends quietly if not in smiles. "Friends. Friends," numerous Volgograd supporters say warmly. A night of hooligan shame is not on the agenda.

8pm The match kicks off and United gain a 0-0 draw that is marred only by an injury to Roy Keane.

10.15pm Players relax... with cards. Barely off the field and Lee Sharpe, Gary Pallister, Denis Irwin and a pale-looking Keane are searching for aces around a table in the executive bar.

Bruce, who had an outstanding game, happily chats with the press wheareas the others are wary. "Ryan [Giggs] was a joy to watch," he says, before spreading the praise to the whole, inexperienced team. "Don't get me wrong," he continues, "there's nothing wrong with this place but I can't wait to get out of here. I've been bitten to death by mosquitoes."

Midnight The team are on the same flight as many of their supporters and for 45 minutes they share the same departure lounge. Tired players dislike attention, but they politely comply with requests for a photograph or autograph.

It is a moot point whether Giggs, alone, will succumb to blindness induced by over-exposure to flashbulbs before his hand seizes up with writer's cramp, yet he accommodates every one. The thought crosses one's mind that if anyone deserves outrageous talent, he does.


3am Touchdown in Manchester. The last deal has been done and the exhausted cards are laid to rest.

Just 84 hours to go before the next match against Bolton.