Flares, flights and fans who 'get it'

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I’ve finally finished the big Barca piece for next month’s FourFourTwo and the Barca players have asked for copies. Most of them want to learn English so they can start with FourFourTwo. Don’t laugh – that’s how Claudio Ranieri learned English. So maybe next time I see Xavi he’ll be asking about Fleetwood’s new main stand or a book review he disagrees with.

And I’ve just booked flights to Istanbul for United’s game in Bursa at the start of November. Turkey’s fourth biggest city of 1.5 million is the home of Bursaspor – the first Turkish team outside Istanbul’s big three to win the league since 1984.

You can’t do the trip in less than three days if you arrange your own travel. Bursa is a three hour ferry and bus ride south of Istanbul, but promises to be a lively trip, especially inside the ground.

Turkish stadiums always are, and a Manchester United game at Galatasaray in 1994 remains the best atmosphere I’ve experienced. Better than an Old Firm game, El Clasico or the Rome derby – despite there only being 24,000 people in the Ali Sami Yen. Most of them mad heads who had been in the ground four or five hours before the game and players like Tugay only whipped them up even more.

It was even louder when United played there a year earlier. I tried to get to the ground for that one, but 164 of us were rounded up in our hotel, held in prison cells for 24 hours and then deported. We were innocent. I’ve never been involved in trouble in my life, but being English was enough for us to be classed as hooligans in the eyes of the Turkish authorities. The British government realised our innocence and issued us with new passports as our old ones were branded with ‘DEPORTED’. Which aids international travel like an Israeli stamp in a Saudi embassy.

Mates I travelled with in ’93 vowed never to go back to Turkey, and Paul Parker still maintains that stance after the way the players were treated that night. Like Eric Cantona, he was attacked by a Turkish police officer. I’ve been back several times since and have enjoyed it – usually because of the atmosphere in the stadiums there.

Standing with Fenerbahce’s ultras for a meaningless league game last year was superb, with the ground rocking despite it only being half full. Flares, drums and flags prevalent, fruitcakes on loudspeakers too.

I interviewed David May for United We Stand’s podcast earlier and, as usual, he didn’t hold back. Aside from bravely speaking out against the Glazers and suggesting that Roy Keane would easily win a fight with David Batty, he recalled playing in United’s 4-0 European Cup quarter-final victory over Porto in 1997.

His most vivid memory was of celebrating a goal, seeing a flare and then the resulting smoke on the pitch. He loved it and said the other players did. May reckons that standing areas should be introduced into English grounds where all the demented vocal fans can stand together, sing and let flares off. A bit like Turkey then.

We try and interview an away fan in United We Stand each month, someone who ‘gets it.’ Maybe a writer or musician who understands fan culture because they’ve been a proper fan themselves. Not someone who claims to support a team but has only been to see them play twice. On free tickets. In an executive box.

But a fan who understands the nuances of what being a fan means, of away games, queuing for tickets, arsey coppers, overpriced tickets and crap views. Someone who cringes when they hear ‘Who Are Ya?’ chants and can live without watching a televised tool in a bad suit waiting outside football grounds to ask a bored 20-year-old if he’s going to sign a new contract as he drives off in an £80,000 car.

One who doesn’t get it is a journalist who suggested to me recently that United fans should protest against the Glazers by buying the latest home shirts and cutting out the name of the sponsor AON to reveal a giant hole. Apart from knowing very few people who buy football shirts, I’m sure the Glazers would be trembling at the prospect of people handing money over to them before defacing what they had just bought.

I search hard to find the right person to interview each month – a fan of a team United are about to play. But I knew I had the right one when I met West Brom fan Mark Bolton recently. He presents Revista de La Liga and was in Barcelona with journalist colleagues Graham Hunter and Guillem Balague for a match.

Mark spoke about the Baggies with astonishing detail, about the geography of the West Midlands and Albion’s rivalry with Villa, Wolves and Blues. The kind of conversation to get any sane eavesdroppers worried. But he knew his stuff and he knew his team.

So I’ll reassess my opinion of TV presenters and their fan credentials. Maybe Susanna Reid used to get chants rocking at Crystal Palace, or Andrew Marr was responsible for the stands bouncing at Old Firm matches. Not that it would be anything like as good as in Turkey, mind.