Friday, 20 August 2010


I suppose this story started in Albania. After all the first time I felt it – that now familiar helpless, sinking feeling – I was watching Linfield vs 17 Nentori in a European Cup first round game at Windsor Park, Belfast. It was the 29th September, 1982. Linfield had lost the first leg 1-0 the previous week in Tirana, but would surely win the second leg comfortably. After all – Albania? Where the hell was Albania? Somewhere east of France, I knew that much.

My father, who was a policeman, took me. We didn´t pay – my father punched the other peeler on the gate chummily on the arm, grinning and saying let us in there handsome. He was well known, my father. The policeman didn´t look very happy to see him. But he let us in anyway.

I´d never been to a football match. I was ten and it was very cold and everybody smelt of cigarettes and booze. I think I probably started wanting to go home around the ten minute mark. I would have been well advised – 17 Nentori scored after 28 minutes, pretty much killing the tie – the Blues would need three*.

When the goal went in my father – who didn´t much like Linfield – jumped up from his seat and cheered. Shower of shite, he shouted, or words to that effect, come on the wee Albanians! This was of course in the middle of the Northern Ireland Troubles and also around the peak of the British football hooligan years. A few people near us made threatening noises and a big man with a red face stood up and came towards us. My father told him to sit down or he´d break his legs. The man sat down. I felt the now familiar helpless, sinking feeling. Linfield were losing and my father was going to kill somebody. Things looked bad.

Twenty eight years later, I know now that it was only the start of things.

* They got two, right near the end. I don´t remember if we stayed to see it or not. Ten years or so later, of course, UEFA would change the rules and create the European Champions League, allowing four and five teams from the bigger leagues to qualify and making the champions of smaller countries play half a dozen preliminary games before making it to the first round. Teams like Linfield or 17 Nentori would never play in the Champions League proper.

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