Big European buzz keeps you going
Champions League week is enjoyable. For managers, players and fans alike and for journos, too. It is a welcome distraction from the norm, from the Premier League treadmill. But, for the hack pack, it does not come without its cost – hundreds of miles of air travel, seriously late nights and pressure-laden deadlines.
If you’re assigned a home match – or two – no problem. Old Trafford on a Tuesday night? Piece of cake. The Etihad Stadium on the Wednesday? Even better. OK, maybe an alternative trip to Stamford Bridge or the Emirates Stadium on the Wednesday, but still plenty of time for a leisurely trip Down South.
It’s when you get posted abroad that it can take its toll. Tuesday games usually mean an early Monday departure by plane, for whatever destination in Europe. Drive to airport, fly, press conference on arrival, write preview, few beers, eat, sleep; next day, chill out for an hour or so, go to game, file frenzied copy post-match, fly back to England, arrive at perhaps at 3-4am. Home by 5-6am.
And once, I kid you not, I had to do it all again six hours later. I got home from Eastern Europe at 4am-ish on the Tuesday night, stayed in a nearby hotel, flew out at 10am on the Wednesday and took in another Champions League encounter that evening. I got home, eventually, at 5pm on the Thursday due to lack of early flights from my outpost. Just as well; at least I had a decent lie-in. But I was still utterly knackered. Totally frazzled. “Where am I?” did cross my mind more than once.
That’s the way it is, though, especially since all the cutbacks and the concentration of what little funds the newspapers have left has been directed towards their websites. The pools of staff football writers have been decimated – and those who are left are expected to at least double their workload for no extra money – freelances are used only sparingly due to more financial pruning and few of the desk bosses give a toss about quality any more. Simply, they can’t afford to.
It is a sad indictment of the industry that I joined wide-eyed many years ago. But I digress. Champions League evenings still generate that buzz and, however frantic it can become after the matches – when all the club Press officers are worried about is getting you on to the media coach and off to the airport, never mind you sending your story – it is exhilarating nonetheless.
Filing copy on the media coach on the way to the airport is common. Filing copy at the departure gate is common, too. At times, it’s that tight. And I’ll never forget when myself and my colleagues were halted from getting on to a plane home because a club official had questioned whether we should not board using the rear door.
To use the door at the front, you see, meant that we would have had to pass the players, cossetted in their first-class seats or “pods”, on the way down the aisle to the back of the plane. We would see the players, breathe the same air as them, perhaps even speak to them briefly, which the said official clearly couldn’t stomach. God forbid that we inadvertantly interact with the superstars.
Sense returned only when it was pointed out that to open the rear door would take an extra 20 minutes and that we would miss our take-off slot, before the airport closed for the night, and would thus be stranded. That focused the mind of the club jobsworth and we trooped in the front door, desperately avoiding the eyes of the superstars who had played so poorly that night. Yes, you couldn’t make it up. What a farce.
But that’s it. Them and Us … and rarely the twain shall meet, let alone share the same cabin space. Always, the media are in cattle class at the back although, to be fair, cattle class on the some of the clubs’ expensively chartered planes is pretty damn good. I once had a full row of seven seats to myself, a five-course meal, excellent wine and, wow, real knives and forks. Beats economy on most regular airlines.
As I finish writing this column, Arsenal’s players will be in mid-flight home from Germany, probably to Luton airport, after their exertions in the 2-2 draw with Schalke 04. They will travel with the directors and top bods at the front, the VIP fans in the middle and the scumbag scribes at the rear.
Most players – and perhaps some of the VIPs, too – will sleep in for much of Wednesday but, for the journos, many will be assigned to Chelsea’s match with Shakhtar Donetsk at Stamford Bridge tonight. And after getting home late and having to get up early to put in a full shift writing their “follow-up” stories from the events in Gelsenkirchen.
At times, the Champions League can feel relentless. For everyone, especially when on the road. But it’s that buzz that keeps you going. Without it, you’d never survive.