Around the (football) world in seven days

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour” - Robert Louis Stevenson, 1881.

Taking that on board, I took a slow boat to Italy last week, but the travel has been unrelenting ever since and I’ve not had the suggested luxury of labouring.

On Friday I flew from Rome to Manchester and went straight to my first ever rugby league game, the St Helens vs Wigan derby.

The decrepit but characterful Knowsley Road stadium was full to its 17,500 capacity, four fifths of them standing. It was cold: the crowd were warm, white and working class. I enjoyed it because it wasn’t football. It was interesting to see video evidence in action and 18-stone players calling the referee, who wore a pink outfit, “sir”.

A previous Knowsley Road Saints-Wigan clash 

On Saturday I ventured to Colne in East Lancashire, where it was so cold it snowed. Colne was famous for its Dynamos football team in the late-1980s. They stormed through the non-league pyramid by paying top dollar to professionals like former European Cup winner Alan Kennedy and won promotion to the Conference.

Then the wealthy owner/manager pulled out, frustrated at not being able to conclude a ground share with nearby Burnley and the Dynamos folded, later to reform as Colne FC.

I was there to watch an excellent Trafford side continue their winning run towards the North West Counties League Division One title on the sloping pitch against a backdrop of grey terraced housing and harsh Pennine hills.

Trafford’s team spirit was superb, the 40 travelling fans noisy and the club officials who volunteer to paint stands, edit programmes, organise dinners and sell pies watched proudly from the sidelines.

The atmosphere in the clubhouse afterwards, as the football results came in from around the country was quintessentially English. “Bad result for Altrincham,” one man would say, and 10 people would nod over a pie and pint. “Good win for Keano at Villa.”

On Sunday, Old Trafford enjoyed its best atmosphere of the season against a team who last won the title when Margaret Thatcher was in power. Before that, I spoke to Brian Kidd. I’ve known him for 15 years and he was in good form, despite being out of football since leaving Sheffield United last month. They wanted him to stay.

Brian Kidd: On hand to advise our man Mitten

Kidd gave some advice about Manchester La Fianna saying: “Remember that a good team spirit will win more games than anything else.” The man who was closer to Manchester United’s class of ’92 than anyone should know.

I was up at 5am Monday to return to Barcelona for an interview with a player some would argue is not conducive to a good team spirit, Samuel Eto’o. He included no less than six Premiership players in a Best XI of those he’s played against, with a further three English-based players on the bench. His ‘people’ also let me take a Puma football he’d been doing a photo shoot with – we’ll use it as Manchester la Fianna’s match ball on Saturday.

MLF had our best training session for months last night in shadow of the Arts hotel, where Roy Keane was staying with his wife and 56 kids on a short break. Maybe he watched us from his room or maybe he went to the hotel ballroom to remember the players’ party after the 1999 Champions League final.

I was there that night… sleeping rough with mates in the underground hotel car park because we couldn’t find a room in a city I’d move to two years later.

And now it’s back on the road. A flight to Scotland awaits on Friday to cover the Old Firm derby on Saturday, that’s if it goes ahead. I’ve already seen two Old Firm games cancelled this year, losing out on flights and hotels.

Later, I hope to watch Falkirk, with my friend the mighty Arnau Riera in midfield, take on Kilmarnock, before heading south to Manchester on Sunday for the United game against Villa. Except that's been moved back to Saturday, partly because of television, but mainly because United want more time to prepare for Tuesday's game in Rome. Which I’m also going to.

So that means a flight back to Spain on Monday, another to Rome for the moodiness surrounding the game on Tuesday and Wednesday a flight back to Spain to inspire Manchester La Fianna in a push towards silverware… by not playing myself.

I’ll just kip on the bench instead and dream of not travelling anywhere. I hope Stevenson would approve.

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