Paul Johnson recounts one of the greatest results in Tottenham's history. We went to Barcelona with a dream, but but no realistic hope of making it through the Champions League group stages. Pochettino and the players that took the field that night had other ideas...
“You really having a pint with a full English…at this time of day? FFS”
And so it began. Another gathering of our small group of intrepid explorers of football’s highs and highers. We were riding once again.
It was Monday. Early at Gatwick to catch the unpronounceable airline’s flight to Barcelona. We’d already shaken hands when passing acquaintances, given knowing looks and that subtle short head lift jerky thing people who don’t know each other do when catching the eyes of fellow fans. “Alright?” in an unspoken common language of unity. Spurs fans were mobilising for the mission.
There was a brooding air of anticipation, nervousness and a barely there hint of expectation. We’ve seen this team, this manager and this club scale some dizzy heights in recent years. We can punch. Why not this time?
Mission Possible? Yeah, we travelled not to see us limp out at the first hurdle, not to get smashed by the elite Catalans, but as we had a little over a year ago – see how we measured up against the very best. The task was clear, the prize enormous and we were ready.
Blue skies, sunshine, welcoming locals and the most famous pick pockets in the world greeted us in the city. Bags down, bearings gathered and wallets full (and in the front of your jeans) we set off to recce the squares and Ramblas and drink in the atmosphere and beer.
Everywhere we walked Spurs fans were evident. Tempo low, seats occupied, territorial limits marked and beer supped it was a day to savour, allow yourself to settle in and gear up for tomorrow. The advance party was in town, staking our claim on the city for 3 days. A Lillywhite invasion.
It was hard not to reflect on how far we’ve come in just a few years..it felt entirely natural to be discussing our chances of winning. Pundits, broadsheets and redtop journos had written pages of analysis of just how Spurs could do it. Win at Barcelona. A thought that I’m not sure I’d ever had before. You’d have been sectioned for even thinking it – “get back in your place Tottenham…stay in your lane…this is football for grown-ups”
Yes it is. Football for teams like us.
The day merged into a soft-focus blend of tapas, beer, bullshit & bravado. Chat shit, get the beers in. As the evening wore on, the sense of what was coming continued to build. The Kane Room bar in the gothic quarter, just off Las Ramblas, became a focal point. Not yet fully unleashed, the few hundred Spurs that had gathered went through a dress rehearsal for tomorrow. Warming up the lungs, vocal chords and alcohol capacity and tolerance levels.
“Doorman’s just said the local cops are expecting 15,000 Spurs….”
Up early with a need for caffeine and solitude. Three coffees in my phone starts pinging – The Marquis & Law have landed and will be at the hotel for 11. The Financial Advisor is about and asking when to meet. The Nephew disturbs my peace with bug eyes and relentless optimism and appetite. He recharges faster than a Duracell this lad – ready to go at a moments notice whatever the previous night’s excess. Greater powers of recovery than the RAC.
Ollie, Ally & The Muso gather the growing band together and we amble to the square to assess the crowd and tempo picking up a couple more en route – is it time yet or should we keep diverting our attention and angst with something else? Onto the famous tapas market for beer and bravas. We bump into fellow Spurs at every turn.
It dawns on me that at no time since we began this trip has anyone considered that we might get hammered, humbled or butchered by Barca. We’re only Tottenham aren’t we…they’re Barcelona…Messi…Suarez…haven’t lost since Moses was a child.
“They’ll play their reserves…nothing to worry about…we know what we need to do and we’ll be up for this…I fancy us. I really do. I’m not joking.”
Are we taking the piss out of ourselves? Do we really think we could get a result?
YES. Remember Madrid lads…….
The square calls and we arrive to be swallowed whole by a seething mass of boisterous, raucous Spurs. What was a wide-open space yesterday is now a pulsating, throbbing oneness of increasingly experienced Champions League Spurs.
A sea of carrier bags crammed full of take outs – between legs, on bar tables, beside the fountain…flags on every tree, bar or wall. Familiar faces limbering up. It’s all smiles, handshakes, massive rounds and football rocket launches (as always) It feels good and the day has begun proper. And now we’re in the game.
And then as always, an unspoken message permeated through the swollen ranks of the gathered. A slow step here became a quickening as the mass moved – it was still early and the game kicked off late but it seemed to make sense to so many.
The slick, clean and fast Barcelona metro system welcomed the enormous numbers – some of whom paid for a ticket, others fortunate to skip through a “jammed” set of glass sliding gates…. No one seemed sure of what train, which number or even what direction but someone at the front must have as 25 minutes later, about 25 stops on and totally hoarse from the continuous call and answer singing in the carriage (watched on by perplexed locals) we were disgorged at the Camp Nou station – we seemed to have travelled miles.
Now this is where is all gets a bit daft – the stewarding and police operation was a case study in how to agitate, wind up and provoke perfectly good-natured visiting fans. From the dangerous funnelling to single person access barriers, multiple times, to the bizarre kettling at two different stages of trying to enter the external stadium concourse. The point-blank refusal to engage in any explanation or accept how unnecessary it all was (I didn’t see a single incident of “antagonism” by any Spurs fans) only served to further excite the excitable.
The police presence seemed disproportionate, the sniffer dogs (very effective I’m led to believe) and patting down, having to empty every single pocket whilst in the slowest queues since Hamley’s at Christmas, might have been appropriate in the 70s or 80s. But not at this game. But far far worse was to come later…
The access into and up the Camp Nou was unusual – no steps or stairs but rather steep concrete wide slopes like a multi-story car park. We were in good voice and pleased to get through the “welcome” outside. We’ve a game to watch.
Up and up and up we went until finally arriving at a concourse where steps appeared. Climbing up and out into Block 521 I thought I’d scaled Everest – the tier was actually higher than the main lip of the stadium – it was like being stood on an added kicktail or afterthought. So steep, so exposed and so windy. I think I could see Portugal.
No one seemed to stand in a seat corresponding to their ticket – the stewards who seemed over hyped, nervous, jittery and angry just shouted to sit anywhere – this was the start of the problems…within a few minutes of the game starting one particular steward started to become embroiled in an increasingly confrontational “discussion” with a few fans. A baton was drawn very very quickly and his eyes went.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the footage but this one individual was lucky to not start a full-scale riot with his violent, cowardly, lashing out that sparked several other stewards into completely indiscriminate whacking of any hand, finger, arm or head they could connect with. Flags were pulled off barriers and one lad was basically kicked down and out the staircase beneath the boots and stamping of half a dozen cowards. For a few short seconds I thought it was going off as a block of fans further up surged towards them but the incredibly swift and brave actions of Tottenham stewards who jemmied their way between the batons and the Spurs fans prevented an escalation. A senior figure in plain clothes clutching a radio appeared from nowhere and ushered the loon steward and his mates away, down the stairs – he could see what was possible and calm returned.
I have to say that had the result gone wrong, fans leaving the walkways may have revisited their discussion with this prick.
The match you all know about. The sheer pride, elation, joy and disbelief of what we achieved was clear to all.
Three further things that may not have been so powerfully received via the tv, but form the strongest, most defining memories of the entire trip for me and are burnt into my retinas, heart & memory:
– The murmur that became a tribal, guttural, explosion of bellowing celebration as the result from Milan came through. It travelled around and through the ranks of Spurs fans above the bowl of the stadium faster than a speeding bullet. To be in it was something I’ll never ever forget. Imagine when that celebration is because of a title win. Go on, I’m not kidding.
– The players at the whistle not really sure what to do…half celebrating, half thinking yeah but…until they too heard that roar and looked up, up and away at us. They pointed and spoke to each other “They know….look…listen” That moment was incredible – it wasn’t players and fans – it was just US, merged into one. I bloody love every single one of them. Heroic, brave, courageous knights in lillywhite.
– Poch: 10 or 15 minutes after the whistle as we still sang ourselves delirious appearing at the far side of the pitch and marching forwards, towards us, looking up. I’m sure he was smiling. I think he wanted to share the pride or taste ours. His arms wide apart and applauding above his head. He stopped and stared. He knew too. He’s fucking magic. And that this was a very special, enormously significant moment for this team.
I think we grew up tonight. We’re ready now.