Adam Bird

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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

From Princes Park to the Nou Camp

Nou Camp

During my self-imposed blogging sabbatical I started writing several posts, all half-heartedly and never got around to finishing them. I had a look through to see if any were worth saving - then I came across this one. Oliver’s ninth birthday and a trip to the Nou Camp. Now a little out of date contextually, but all finally finished for the record.

I’ve long held aspirations to mix two of my favourite things; travel and football. A wannabe tourist if you like of the beautiful game. But life as a Gills fan comes with restrictions, there are no European nights against the continent's finest. The closest we are ever likely to get to any form of foreign opposition is the odd pre-season game in northern France against a local side, which is treated as nothing more than a glorified training session. But last weekend I ticked a big box off of my footballing bucket list, namely a visit to the Nou Camp stadium, home of FC Barcelona. An experience far, far removed from the previous ground that Oliver and I attended just two weeks earlier.

Oliver has been growing ever more competent in his goalkeeping, mainly in part to the work that he has been doing with Deren Ibrahim and the coaching staff at Dartford Football Club who have shown a lot of faith and encouragement in him. We felt that it would only be right and proper to show some support back, so with the Gills away in Shropshire playing against Shrewsbury we had a free footballing weekend. A perfect opportunity for me to revisit Princes Park and for Oliver to watch his coach in action against Whitehawk in the FA Trophy, a competition I'd never seen live before.

Princes Park opened in 2006, shortly before Oliver was born, reuniting the football club with the town finally after a nomadic existence on the back of the financial fallout caused by a failed groundshare with Maidstone United in the early 1990’s. With a capacity of 4,100, there was plenty of room for the 601 hardy souls who stood on the freezing cold terraces being serenaded by the non-stop chanting of the Whitehawk Ultras.

In fact, Oliver and I nearly became honorary Ultras for the day, albeit unsuspectedly. Standing behind Derens goal before the match, watching him go through his pre-match training routine Oliver and I found ourselves on an empty terrace. The opposite side of the ground was filling up quiet nicely and the Dartford colours and scarves were making themselves known. Feeling rather isolated and sticking out like two sore thumbs I felt slightly conspicuous and wondered how we were going to move into a more populated part of the ground without upsetting Oliver who was quite happy watching Deren being put through his paces.

Whilst I was slowly formulating a plan of action, we were finally joined by other members of the human race, which was a blessing as it made me feel quite normal and part of something again. But these guys were a throwback to another age. With skin-heads, tattoos and Dr Martin boots, skinny jeans and tight leather jackets I was immediately transported to The Football Factory, ID or another one of the hooligan based movies whose stereotypes were visually now alive and representing “The Hawks” right in front of me. From feeling lonely, to normal, to slightly afraid in the space of thirty seconds I had found my escape route “Oliver, we are in the away end - we are going!”

Far from the stereotypes as portrayed on screen, the Whitehawk fans were a credit to their club and the lower league game. Chanting, singing and banging their drum for the whole ninety minutes, the look of the football casual might still be alive in certain parts, but the menacing behaviour and attitude was long gone - and a firm reminder to me that one should never judge a book by its cover!

The game didn’t go according to plan, with the Darts losing 2-1 and exiting the trophy at the first hurdle. The Darts looked fairly solid in the most part without much threat in the final third, but a defensive lack of judgement from the full-back conceding a soft and rather needless penalty for handball meant that the Darts had too big a mountain to climb. However, the highlight for us and certainly for Oliver, was a spectacular second half save from Deren which had everyone in the ground clapping, including the Ultras, drumming ever louder in support behind his goal.

On the bus on the way home after the match, I asked Oliver if he had enjoyed himself. He looked up at me agreed that he had. “Barcelona up next mate”. I said, he smiled, the irony completely lost on him.

Dartford: Ibrahim, Gardiner, Onyemah, Vint, McNaughton, Noble, Hayes, E Bradbrook, T Bradbrook (Simmons 65mins), Cogan (Pugh 79mins), Harris. Subs not used: Adams, Wynter, Burns.

Whitehawk: Ross, Sessegnon, Braham-Barrett, Deering, Leacock, Lorraine (Gotta 71mins), Neilson (Stevens 79mins), Torres, Robinson, Mills, Martin (Mendy 53mins). Subs not used: Ijaha, Rose.

Childrens birthdays don’t come cheap. If you want to arrange a party there is the expense of a venue, plus food, plus entertainment, party bags, cakes and decorations. There are ways to minimise costs, but even when you add everything up alongside presents it can easily equate to hundreds of pounds. As a way to highlight comparable value, I did some research.

Looking up ticket prices to watch Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Juventus and Bayern Munich, plus adding up flight prices for two to each of those cities, I was staggered at how affordable it all was. When looking at hosting a party earlier in the year for Phoebe we had a quote for £300 for a women to arrive at the party and pretend to be a princess for two hours. Whereas Oliver and I could fly to Barcelona, watch a match and stay overnight for nearly a hundred pound less than that.

So that’s what we did.

We knew that it was only going to be a whistle-stop tour, in and out. Just as we do on Saturdays when we watch the Gills play away from home. I’ve been to all of the major cities in the UK, but I’ve not seen any of them. You arrive, watch a game and come home again.

When Dad heard what I was planning, he wanted in too. Had it just been Dad and I we could have done it the same trip for less, with an early arrival on Saturday morning and even earlier departure on Sunday we’d have not bothered with the hotel room, but gone out, got drunk and slept off any alcohol at the airport. But with Oliver in tow we needed a base to drop our heads for a couple of hours. Which gave me a logistical challenge of finding somewhere that was central, near to the underground station so that we could get to and from the airport and also to the ground as efficiently as possible. With time being a premium the perfect place looked to be an Ibis neighbouring the Sagrada Familia. If we were going to see very little whilst we were in town, we may as well see the most iconic building of them all.

In the end, it worked out perfectly. We didn’t bother with the underground from the airport, a taxi was an inexpensive option direct to the hotel where was able to see the city in the early morning light. From dropping our bags off at the Ibis, we took a short stroll around the corner via a Christmas market for a walk around Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. It really is quite something. Work started on its construction in 1882 and it isn’t due for completion for another ten years - mind blowing when you think about everything that has happened in the intervening years. Oliver seemed fairly impressed, or at least the selfies say so.

We brought our match tickets online from the clubs official website two weeks before (after much searching and anxiety that three seats were going to remain available!), but walking around tickets for the match vs Deportivo de La Coruña were readily available from street vendors and ticket offices around the city. If we ever go again, which I am sure that we will - I don’t think that I’ll bother with advance tickets and will get them whilst we are there, it’s what everyone else seemed to be doing, in fact I was quite taken by the frequent availability of last minute match-day tickets.

A short stone's throw away from the hotel was an FC Barcelona exhibition which we came across completely by chance. We lucked out in our discovery as it was well worth a walk around, whetting our appetite for what was about to come. Pictures of teams past, players immortalised as legends and their role in the fabric of the club. Oliver had his photograph taken with Messi in action in the background as well as Koeman, Lineker, Xavi, Iniesta, Cruyff and Ronaldinho. If Oliver was unaware of just how big Barcelona is in world footballing terms, he certainly had his eyes opened to a few new things.

Before making our way to the ground we stopped off for some lunch. It may well have been December, but the air was quite mild and we were able to sit outside in the streets dining al-fresco. We still needed our jackets on but we were more than comfortable, far removed from the temperatures of a freezing Princes Park and the smell of fried onions in the air. I knew that Oliver wouldn’t particularly fancy a series of tapas dishes so I played the safety first game and ordered him a chicken burger as you cannot possibly go wrong with a chicken burger. Or so I thought. When it arrived with a sesame seeded bun and fiery hot sauce and mustard Oliver’s first Spanish dining experience turned into a feast from his version of food hell. It didn’t get much better as the day progressed, with various levels of fussiness and turned up nostrils at perfectly edible fare that turned Dad into a grump and Oliver ever deeper into a hungry depression. Until we came across a churros stall where Oliver’s attitude changed and he devoured hungrily several donutty sticks oozing in chocolate. Spanish cuisine may well have left an indelible mark of negativity on his first real tourist experience but in time all will be forgiven, and forgotten -  as the real treat of football at the Nou Camp was something to treasure.

From the underground station at the edge of the city, with townhouse style buildings obscuring any views of the stadium the first glimpse of the mighty colosseum came as we walked around a bend and it stood before us imposingly like a giant concrete carpark. From the outside, the height, whilst visibly evident lacked the architectural wow factor that much smaller stadiums can sometimes convey. The grey, industrial blandness of the underside of the tiered rows stood like inverted stairways up to the Gods, promising little but a sense of anti-climax. If you hadn’t see inside of the stadium, or photographs of the birds-eye view you’d be wondering what the fuss was about and feel sympathy with the clubs plans to spend millions of euros on bringing the ground up to date with a new, modern synthetic skin.

The stadium might well be showing its age from the outside, but entry was super-modern with tickets stored on my phone in my Wallet App, a few swipes and a flash of infra-red gained us entry into the stadium complex and the long walk up to our seats ahead. The concourses, on the outside of the building with a maze of staircases and levels dotted with retail outlets that were functional without offering anything meaningful. But once at our required level we walked through a cold concrete doorway and the vast expanse and sheer beauty of the Nou Camp await. Like the Whitehawk Ultras, the outside appearance told a contrasting story to what lay beneath and the Nou Camp stadium is undoubtedly a thing of mesmerising beauty.

Vast, wide, tall and steep, over 90,000 people sat in an oval bowl watching a collection of the finest footballing talent in the world. Dad, Oliver and I all stood silently trying to take the magnitude of the views in and soaking up the alien atmosphere as cheers, claps and Spanish chants rang out under the roofless twilight skies. With the altitude, the open air stadium in a cooling December evening left us feeling ever more chilly but the sights of Messi, Suarez and Iniesta below gave us a warm glow. Neymar was injured, so we missed an opportunity to witness the famous trinity of goalscoring talent.

But I could live with Neymars absence, it was Messi who I really wanted to see, another name added to the collection of players that I’d seen play live. I could now add Messi to Ronaldo, the two finest players of their generation. Messi scored one of his long-range trademark free kicks after 39 minutes and my weekend was complete. It was an otherwise uninteresting first half and Messi’s goal would have graced any match in any game in the world. But if Messi was the making the headlines it was Iniesta who drew my praise.

Watching Iniesta was a thing of majesty, like Paul Scholes in his pomp, Iniesta made the game look easy. He had more time than anyone else on the pitch and his movement was unhurried, strolling around the park, receiving the ball and passing with pinpoint accuracy in one movement. It was a joy to watch and the backdrop of the Nou Camp was the perfect canvas to watch a real artist at work.

Rakitic scored early in the second half and it seemed as if it was game over. But a down and dead Deportivo showed impressive fight and determination. They pulled a goal back through Perez after 77 minutes and the game came to life. A scattering of Deportivo fans at the opposite end of the stadium to us, high, high up in the Gods awoke at the same time as their team who rewarded them with a deserved equaliser after 86 minutes. The game was far from over as they attacked the Barcelona rear-guard and threatened a shock third. But it wasn’t to be. Darkness had descended over the Nou Camp and our footballing Odyssey had come to an end.

It was a unique trip and for Oliver a special experience, if only to prove a point. The Spanish food might not have agreed with him, but the football certainly did. “Daddy, after I’ve played for Gillingham and then Liverpool, I want to play for Barcelona now” he said. True to form it was my Dad who had the last word “You won’t be able to Oliver, you’ll go hungry”

Barcelona: Bravo, Dani Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba (Mathieuat 77mins), Rakitic (Sergi 72mins), Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, L Suárez, Ramírez (El Haddadi 68mins). Subs not used: ter Stegen, Bartra, Adriano, Vermaelen,

Deportivo de La Coruña: Lux, Sanabria Ruiz, Arribas, da Silva Junior, Navarro Corbacho, Juanfran (Nunes Cardoso 70 mins), Bergantiños García, Fajr, Correia Pinto (Domínguez Lamasat 45mins), Rodríguez Portillo (Luis Alberto 58mins). Pérez Subs not used: Gracia Calmache, Medunjanin, Lopo, Fernández Muñiz




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