A meeting with Ruud and train ticket torment

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“Bullshit.” That was the last word Ruud van Nistelrooy said to me as a Manchester United player.

It was in New Jersey three years ago following a pre-season friendly between United and AC Milan. I’d asked Ruud to respond to accusations that United’s US trip was more about commercial gain than football and he replied with a well constructed argument about the players liking America because they enjoyed the relative anonymity, the excellent training facilities and a high quality of opposition. “Whatever anyone else says is bullshit,” he concluded.
Tomorrow, I’ve got a one-on-one interview with the Real Madrid striker in the Spanish capital, something I’ve been chasing for three months. Ruud was superb for United yet, if anything, he’s been even better for the Spanish champions.

He’s maintained the phenomenal goal ratio, but he’s a more complete player who provides assists and has been central to the rejuvenation of Raul. He looks fitter, happier and more productive than he ever did in his final years at Old Trafford.

I’m looking forward to the trip and not only because interviews with bright, articulate footballers are rare. I started spending time in Spain in 2001, driving from Manchester via the Portsmouth - Bilbao ferry to Barcelona with some belongings.

The journey across the north of Spain contrasted between the lush mountains of the Basque country with the arid solemnity of the meseta – the high plateau on which sits much of inland Spain. Breaking the often desolate landscape was the construction of the high speed AVE rail link between Barcelona and Madrid. That link finally opened last week, three years late.

Previously, a train between Spain’s two biggest cities took six hours, meaning the air route between Castile and Catalonia was the planet’s busiest, with planes every twenty minutes. Now, the 342 mile journey takes just 2 hours 38 minutes on one of the fastest rail routes in the world and you get a full refund if the train is more than 10 minutes late.

Booking the ticket was a frustration, however. AVE’s website twice crashed when I tried to make payment and the lady at their call centre was thicker than the mud in Morecambe Bay.

She was confused by a simple ticket enquiry between those unknown villages of Barcelona and Madrid. As she also seemed to be doing the booking on a ZX Spectrum, I gave up, cursed Spanish inefficiency, walked to the station and paid a hefty £150. For that price I expect Penelope Cruz to be driving the train and her sister Monica to be hooting the hooter.

I intend to use the journey time well, finalising questions for the Dutchman and working out which team to play for Manchester La Fianna’s big game against Iveria, the reigning league champions and cup winners, this Saturday.

Iveria are comprised of Georgian immigrants, several of them former professionals from Tbilisi and have around 100 fans at each game. We’re on a run of seven consecutive wins, our last defeat a 2-1 slip against Iveria in November.

I was absent and received several painful score texts as I watched Bolton beat Manchester United. It was a bad day, but Manchester have improved since, a true test of which will come this Saturday. We’re without three key players, but don’t tell the Georgians that…