Weary eyes, Green Crocodiles and the Turkish Strictly Come Dancing

Who says that the Champions League is predictable? Manchester United’s trip to Bursa last week was anything but.

A flight to and a night in Istanbul were followed by an early morning ferry across the Sea of Mamara to Turkey’s fourth-biggest city of 1.8 million. The hospitality was superb, the atmosphere in the ground too – as it always is in Turkey.

The former editor of the Turkish FourFourTwo took me out in Istanbul with her friend. Both are TV presenters on one of the main sports channels. And, as I realised when I walked into a restaurant, both are famous. One had just come from rehearsals from the Turkish equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing.

They were great company and fixed me up to meet some Bursaspor fans the next day. They also explained why United fans got into so much trouble when we played Galatasaray in 1993: the tour organisers had booked us into one of the roughest parts of Istanbul.

Come match day, there were some weary eyes on the early-morning ferry to Bursa, most of them from the 60 United fans on board who probably hadn’t had their right hours.

A Bursa fan was waiting for me at the ferry port with a sign saying ‘Andy Journalist.’ I’ve never had anyone meet me before with a sign, though a mate once came through arrivals at Vienna airport and went to hug a complete stranger for a dare.

“Great to see you again,” he said, hugging the confused middle-aged Austrian tightly. “Thanks for picking me up.” The befuddled Austrian finally pushed him away gasping, “but I don’t even know you.”

The Bursa fan took me to meet his mates, all proper die-hard Bursaspor fans who had been to their away games in Glasgow and Manchester. They were in the process of sorting their Valencia trip. As Turkey is not in the European Union, they have to pay for all their travel and then apply for a visa. If they get knocked back – tough.

They’re happy to be in the Champions League, to be enjoying trips to Ibrox, Old Trafford and the Mestalla. They’re leading the Turkish league and hope that they’ll be back next year when they plan to do a bit better. Bursaspor could start by scoring a goal and getting a point.

They took me to Bursaspor’s modern training ground, to their team bus, president’s helicopter, museum and to meet a director who had dreamed up their ‘Green Crocodile’ moniker. They were proud of their city and their team and couldn’t do enough to help.

They explained how they take 2,000 to most away games in Istanbul, but took 30,000 to a key game last year when they were on their way to becoming the first Turkish side outside Istanbul to win the league since 1984.

They told me how Preston’s Gordon Milne was their manager for a time and how their team was built on emerging Turkish talents. With a new stadium, they hope to match the Big Three of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas.

And they told me that the journalist I’d been with in Istanbul was very well respected. “I was with another girl,” I added, explaining who the other journalist was.

“You had dinner with Burcu?” they asked, aghast. “That is the dream of every Turkish man.”

The atmosphere in the ground was loud and proud. You could hear the calls to prayer from the nearby mosques and smell the meats and fish being grilled in the streets. Little wonder that the 600 travelling Reds enjoyed the trip.

Then I returned to Barcelona, where a friend told me an amusing story. He used to be a footballer himself and played for his country Belgium at Under-16 and Under-18 level. He was a professional at Anderlecht, though he never played in the first team and slipped down into the Belgian second and third divisions. At the age of 23, he decided to start afresh in Barcelona, initially working in a call centre.

It was at that point that he sent his football CV to me, hoping to play for a team I was running. He’s been that league’s player of the year several times since and his professional life has taken an upturn too.

Once it was clear that he knew football, had great social skills and could speak five different languages, he was snapped up by a company which looks after several top footballers. And several lesser names. He spends much of his time knocking on coaches’ doors in Brussels or Birmingham, Bari or Bochum. He’s a good egg in an industry not adverse to attracting crooks and consumed by greed.

Last week, he took one player contracted to a Premier League club to Atletico Madrid for a trial. He then watched and waited as the player was put through his paces. On an adjacent pitch, Diego Forlan and Simao were practising. They wouldn't have thought that my friend was an agent, because most agents aren't lads in their twenties in good condition.

Forlan was pinging the balls with both feet and unnerving accuracy. He’s done this since he’s been a child and recommends any budding footballer to follow. Simao was equally impressive, until one ball flew in the direction of my mate – who trapped it mid-air, flicked it up and volleyed it back.

Forlan and Simao both applauded then suggested that he should sign for Atleti...

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