Leicester City take on Atletico Madrid tonight in the first leg of the quarter finals of the Champions League. De Montfort University journalism lecturer and former UK Feature Writer of the Year Jeremy Clay remembers covering the build up to the game the last time the two sides met in Spain – 20 years ago.
The first time I stared down the barrel of a gun, I was 30 years old. The second time I was getting on for 40. At least, that’s how it seemed at the time. In truth, there was only a matter of moments in between – it just felt like I’d aged a decade.
It was September, 1997. There were three of us in a car, tearing round a Madrid ring road: A photographer from the Leicester Mercury, me, and a Spanish policeman at the wheel, doing a passable impression of Dick Dastardly.
We were there ahead of Leicester City’s UEFA Cup clash with Atletico Madrid. As we weaved through the traffic at breakneck speeds, I asked the officer what kind of guns the Spanish police carry. He fixed me with a stare then reached under his seat, pulled out a pistol and shoved it in my face.
For a thoroughly unnerving few seconds, we froze in those positions. Him, speeding, fag hanging out of his mouth, not looking at the road. Me, insides newly rearranged, wondering if I should be more terrified of a bang or a crash.
Then he lowered the gun and reached under the seat once more. Steering with his knees, he pulled out a clip, loaded the pistol, cocked the trigger, pointed the gun at me once more … and grinned.
‘So this is how it ends’, I thought.
Well, there are far worse ways to go, I suppose. We’d been in Madrid for a day or two, covering the build up to City’s first foray into Europe since the 1961-62 season. And the gods of parochial journalism had been smiling on us from the moment we stepped off the plane.
(The plane we actually boarded, that is. A singular mix of snarl-ups on the motorway and low-level incompetence meant we’d missed the one we’d booked, to generalised ridicule back in the Mercury newsroom.)
First stop was the Estadio Vicente Calderón, the soon-to-be-demolished home of Atletico. We got chatting to a receptionist who told us her parents had met and fallen in love while working at a hotel in Leicestershire. She told us when they’d moved back to Spain. She told us her age. We did some quick maths. ‘You could say I’m made in Leicester,’ she smiled. Tick, that was a picture story sorted.
We blagged our way in to meet the manager, Raddy Antic, who gave us an interview and posed for pictures with a truly terrible Mercury T-shirt I’d been ordered to bring along for such an eventuality. Tick, another piece.
Antic bade us a genial goodbye and as he busied himself with disposing of the T-shirt, we were left to find our way back out of the ground.
As we wandered freely through the corridors, a door opened, and suddenly there was Juninho, the tricksy Brazilian midfielder signed that summer for a fortune from Middlesbrough.
In the League Cup triumph that sent City back into Europe, Juninho had been man-marked within an inch of his life by Leicester’s Pontus Kaamark.
‘How did he feel to be facing Pontus once more?’ we asked. ‘I thought, God, not again,’ he told us. Tick, that was the back page in the bag too.
Time for a drink. We headed for a bar, and bumped into an English Atletico fan. It turned out he was from Loughborough. Tick.
The following day, we rolled up at the Madrid equivalent of Scotland Yard, with the foolishly optimistic hope of landing an interview with someone with several pips on their epaulettes.
ETA had been relatively quiet that year, but it was still a surprise to find no-one in the security office on the main gates. Ditto, on reception. So we got in a lift, pressed all the buttons, and got out where the carpets looked the plushest.
That’s how we got our interview with the man leading the police operation for the match. And that’s how we ended up in that car, with the gun-toting driver, racing to the depot where officers with machine guns would line up obligingly for a photo.
A week or two later, I was back again, for the game itself. Thousands of Leicester City fans had travelled by road, on an official trip that doubled up as the kind of endurance test even Japanese game shows would deem too cruel.
For the princely sum of £279, they were treated to a marathon coach trip to Spain with just two stops, which culminated in an hour-long stay in a compound on the outskirts of Madrid, watched over by police brandishing with that brand of pistol I’d been helpfully showed, perhaps. After the game, as the rest of us headed for the bars of the Spanish capital, they would be ushered straight back on the coaches for the gruelling trip home.
In the concourse I pulled out my notebook, and had my shorthand speed tested to the very limit by livid fans telling rapid-fire horror stories of overflowing toilets, huge queues at the service station and more.
In the second half, as Atletico recovered from a shock City lead to claim a 2-1 first-leg lead, the away fans who had flown to Madrid baited the rest of the travelling support with ‘I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane’.
Outside, after dodging the attentions of a man dripping with blood, who claimed to be a journalist from Central TV, I headed to the press room to file my copy.
When I left, the streets around the stadium were all but empty. Ambling along, with a half a mind to hail a cab, if only one would drive by, I became horribly aware that the streets weren’t entirely deserted.
Up ahead, there was a menacing-looking mob of lads. They were wearing Atletico shirts. I was wearing a City one. Uh-oh.
As they rushed over – eager to debate the merits of Atletico’s match-winning penalty, perhaps - the owner of a nearby cafe ran out and dragged me inside. He rang for a taxi, and then ushered me into the back seat while the Madrileños lurked nearby.
I’m not entirely sure what happened after that. I know it involved booze, then more, and I didn’t get back to the hotel until 4am.
I was sharing a twin room with a complete stranger on the same flight-and-match-ticket deal whose mates thought it was hilarious he had a roomie called Jeremy.
I stumbled in. The light was on. He was lying on his bed dressed in nothing more than a skimpy pair of pants.
‘And what sort of ******* time do you call this?’ he said. What happened next? Buoyed by their dogged performance in Madrid, City went into the Filbert Street tie in good spirits.On a raucous night at the grand old ground, City's hopes of a famous victory were raised by the sending off of defender Juanma López then dashed by a second red card in the game.Garry Parker had tried to catch out the Atletico goalkeeper with a quick free-kick, and was promptly booked by referee Remi Harrel. It was Parker’s second yellow, and off he went, to noisy indignation.Muzzy Izzet had three convincing shouts for a penalty turned down, but Atletico scored twice, and City were out.Tonight’s match in Madrid will be the third time City have faced Atletico in Europe.
Posted on Wednesday 12th April 2017