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Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Italian Job - Part 1

It is a pleasure to welcome fellow Blade Giacomo Squintani to the pages of A United View. You can follow him on twitter - @gos75. Giacomo recently contacted me asking if he could share one or two stories from his time working at Bramall Lane. In his introduction below he describes this as an indulgence, but I think most Blades will remember fondly the people and the matches involved.


Greetings Browsing Blades and thank you for wasting some of your precious time reading about “my time at The Lane” back in the mid to late Nineties  and special thanks to @unitedite for allowing me the self-indulgence! So, my time at United, not as a player you understand, but as an interpreter and then general matchday dogsbody. As you will find out, it was more ‘voluntary work’ than a job, and a very ‘odd’ one at that. But it left me with memories I will cherish forever.


Firstly, a little about me. I am a lifelong, Sheffield-born Blade. However, I am a tad unusual in that my Dad’s Italian and, in my formative years, we lived by the sea in Italy. This meant that I only really managed those early season games when holidaying in Sheffield. My first memories of Bramall Lane are of Budgie making cracking saves, Stan ensuring we held out, Colin Morris laying another header on a plate for Keith Edwards and Tony Philliskirk being our solitary sub. OK, so only one of those happened with unfailing regularity… All my blood relatives in Sheffield were red and white, so I never had a choice to make – not that I’d have got it wrong, of course!


I moved back to Sheffield after my A-Level equivalents in Italy. I went to Sheffield Hallam and lived with my Grandparents  just off Ecclesall Road. Upon graduating, I over-hastily moved to London to look for work, and currently live Darn Sarth, just outside Bristol. But not a match-day goes by without me wishing I was still walking out with the players……


ANGLO-ITALIAN CUP: SHEFFIELD UNITED vs UDINESE (1-2), 24/08/1994

This is how it all began… after years of suffering from the outside, I was given my golden ticket, complete with “access all areas” pass at Beautiful Downtown Bramall Lane…


This was almost immediately after returning to Sheffield in the summer of 1994. My grandmother had got me the job of interpreter for our opening fixture of the Anglo-Italian Cup, not on the basis of any formal qualification but based on all those times when my Grandfather and her had been in Italy on holiday and I’d been their personal interpreter from the age of four onwards.


(For those of you who don’t know, the Anglo-Italian Cup… well, basically it was a cup between not particularly good English and Italian clubs. When we were in it, it was for second tier teams. Over the years it’s had several incarnations, all of them quite cumbersome, and often generated the wrong kind of on pitch action. Just look at the Wikipedia entry)



I gingerly walked into the Club Secretary’s office for a brief conversation about what I’d be doing and how much I’d be paid. I was told that I would be meeting the Italian match officials (Italians officiated in England and vice versa), and then I would accompany the Udinese contingent. For that I’d be getting £200! £200, in 1994? From the Blades? I almost fell off my chair. It was a decent amount of money for a teenager, even more decent when the aforementioned teenager got to hang out with footballers as well. And it was coming from an ‘employer’ that even I had never considered magnanimous! Still, upon being told the Football League was paying, and not United, it all made sense – I was presented with my club tie and my mother and I went off to buy a suit.


The Udinese players were all easy-going. We met at the Moat House Hotel, where I informed them of the training arrangements that United had made for them. I don't think they were particularly happy with the offering and with the hotel next door to Rowlinson School, I was promptly dispatched to see if the Head minded us/them (still not sure how I should refer!) to train there instead. A deal was struck; one signed shirt for one training session. It was a strange experience for the Udinese players, unaccustomed as Italians are to schools having grassy fields, that it made a nice, convenient change for them. It’s all well and good having hot weather and no rain, but that’s when you get shale or even asphalt pitches to play on. (Mind, that’s where players have to develop ball control skills rather than hoof and hope – think about Brazil’s street footballers and futebol de salao…oh this discussion’s for another day!),


Matchday….on the coach to the Lane, I sat next to Jonathan Bachini, a promising midfielder who went on to play for Juventus and Italy, before two failed drugs tests for cocaine led to a lifetime ban by the Italian Football Federation. Looking out, he was amazed at how the houses looked the same, row after row. Again, if you’ve ever been to Italy, with its ‘relaxed’ attitude to planning, you’ll realise why this represented a cultural shock… At the ground I met the officials again, and at kick-off time made my way over to the John Street ruins. It might have been an international fixture, I may have been sat pitch side, yet behind me lay nothing more than a building site. Whenever I turned, I thought I’d been transported to a rec! (Ian - The John Street stand was demolished in 1994 and lay empty until work on the replacement started in Spring 1996, finally completing in October 1996. The empty space was 'affectionately' dubbed "Fred West's Garden" by many Blades)


We (United that is) went on to lose the match 2-1, with Glyn Hodges, Nathan Blake, Charlie Hartfield and Dave Bassett sent off. Whilst the Pole, Marek Kozminski, was sent off for Udinese. I think we were still acclimatising to the European scene… not that we needed be in any hurry, of course. But Harry Bassett and Hodges stand out for me…


The Italian referee had given an Italian interpretation of a challenge and awarded Udinese a free-kick, maybe even dishing out a yellow card in the process. Having grown up in Italy this did not surprise me, but a shocked Harry took exception. Nor was it the first such incident of course; Harry’s Army’s on-pitch chivalry pushed English refs to the limit, what chance an Italian one?



Harry expressed his dissatisfaction by connecting his index finger and his thumb and frantically bending his arm up and down. Unlike the rules of the game, this did not lend itself to multiple interpretations, so the referee invited Bassett to take the long walk to the dressing room. In spite of Dave’s best bewildered look, the referee called upon me to tell him he’d been sent off. Thankfully he didn’t give me any grief and was off, obviously aware of the reason. (Ian - I think Harry tried denying that he was making an offensive gesture, until video evidence suggested otherwise) 




A few months later, Harry would sign a photo of the two of us at the Lane: “For Giacomo – the man who sent me off!”. Years later, he’d write the introduction to my university dissertation. But more about that later… for now, you can see what the Hallamshire Hospital made of it here!


Moving on to Glyn Hodges. Let’s forget the match, its three goals and five red cards, I have very little recollection of it. It all passed by in a bit of a blur. What I do recall is taking the Udinese boys to the Players' Bar for post-match drinks………..


This is a very British institution. I don’t know if, these days, Drogba and Aguero talk - pint in hand - about the battle just fought: but, back in t’good old days, it was indeed thus. I was merely obeying orders by taking the visitors to meet the hosts, who did not lay on the warmest reception. Red-carded Hodges was most magnanimous in the bar, promptly lifting a crate of cans of beer, handing it to the Udinese lads and ‘suggesting’ they get on their merry way. I’m sure the fact that this spared the Blades having to engage in diplomatic relations with a bunch of divers and cheats and would allow them to carry on drinking and complaining amongst themselves had nothing to do with it!


I actually rang the late Tony Pritchett, United’s longstanding correspondent at The Star / Green’Un, with that story. Yes, this was back when you had to track down journalists by telephone, starting off with just a general number. None of that tweeting malarkey! He gave it a little paragraph in the next Green’Un, starting with “I understand that”. I rang him again after that; “What do you mean, you ‘understand’? Don’t you trust me?” There followed a brief but clear explanation of journalistic expressions!


Back at the hotel, I thought my shift was over and headed for bed. It’s not as if I could hang out with professional footballers and let my hair down, was it?


With hindsight, I could have. I was just scared to intrude on their privacy, which was just daft. With business successfully over, these were just lads having a bit of fun abroad. So I found out around 1:30am, when the hotel receptionist rang me up following complaints about noise. I threw on my shirt, suit and club tie (ever the consummate pro and upholder of Sheffield United Football Club’s reputation!) and paid them a visit.


There were a dozen of them sat in the corridor, cards and cans of Hodges’ beer at hand. They weren’t being overly raucous, but corridors aren’t the most sound-proof area. They asked me to join them, but the over-fretting part of me won and I headed back to bed. “Interpreter in late-night moderate drinking session after Anglo-Italian Cup”… imagine what a non-headline story like those would have done for the impeccable reputation of the English game!


How different the last seventeen years… er, hang on. Seven-teen? Blimey… I’m twice as old now as I was then! It’s enough to send one into a middle-aged crisis, but before I do...How different these years have been for United and Udinese. You don’t need reminding what United have experienced since 1994, let alone where the club finds itself now. As for Udinese; the club is established in the higher echelons of Serie A. They have featured in the last two Champions’ League competitions, visiting the Camp Nou last season and being knocked out by Arsenal in the final preliminary round this season.  


In July 2011, they sold their star striker, Alexis S├ínchez (bought for under £2m) to a little-known club called FC Barcelona for a basic fee of over £25m. It’s the sort of fee for which even Ched could be worth selling…… that said, Udinese remain a selling club. They have a knack of picking up promising South American players cheaply, proving their worth in Europe and selling them on to major clubs. Best move on before I mention one Diego Armando Maradona!


I said my goodbyes to the Udinese crew the following morning, having had one heck of a time. Just before the coach pulled away, I did allow myself to compromise my professionalism and ask for a signed shirt. Unlike the Barcelona shirt I bought on eBay during my single days, the Bianconeri shirt still has pride of place in our hallway, rather than being hidden in a cupboard. Every time I pass it I reminisce a little about Bachini, Ripa, Calori, Ametrano, Helveg, Pizzi, Scarchilli et al… I can’t wait for the day my young boys ask me to tell them all about it!


“WE KNOW WHERE WE ARE…”

On September 6th, United played Piacenza in their first away tie of the tournament. On the evening of September 4th, a coachload of Blades departed S2 for a trip down motorways, autoroutes and autostrade. None of that EasyJet stuff back then… sure, some Blades did fly out, but the hardcore ones chose the road, right?


And yes, I was one of them boarding that coach. This was courtesy of Mick Rooker, Pools Office Manager (“it’s called ‘Promotions’ now – we needed a new sign and they thought it sounded better”, as he told me a couple of years ago), who’d hired me as interpreter following my earlier exploits. I say ‘hired’, I can’t recall how much he paid me, if owt at all. But money’s inconsequential when you’re dealing with Rooks. Top bloke, one for whom I’d still run through a brick wall today.


Anyway, after an overnight kip on the coach, we reached Milan on the eve of the tie. Yes, because if the match is in Piacenza, you want to stay in Milan; little distance, big difference. Upon reaching Milan, I was sent to help the driver find our hotel. This may be where something had got lost in transl… well, in English (even that’s easy enough with Mick. I was an ‘interpreter’, sure, but not a ‘tour guide’. That map was no easier for me to make sense of than anyone else on that coach, something which became patently evident when we got stuck in the same one-way system for the third time. Look, it just wasn’t clear that the road we wanted was a flyover!


Anyway, Mick made his way to the front and duly turned on the mic, into which I uttered those immortal words; “We know where we are, we know where we’re going, we just don’t know how to get there”. I should have claimed copyright, as the royalties Mick alone would have owed me for repeating them every time he saw me thereafter would have made for a neat little nest egg! But I hardly had the time. He took the mike off me, put it down and proceeded to offer some constructive criticism, albeit not with words I could possibly repeat (hence a colleague running in to turn off the mike!).


But make it to our hotel we did, soon after ending up in a pizzeria where I was faced with the far easier task of placing sixty or so orders. After a few bevvies, on the morning of the game I convinced the staff at the San Siro to let us in and have a look around. Then it was off to Piacenza for a forgettable (well, I have) 2-2 draw (Ian - after the Udinese farce, Dave Bassett took to fielding reserve sides in the competition, which was a shame for those Blades fans who had already committed to travelling to Italy. Not that it stopped them having a good time), my highlight being catching a shot of John Gannon’s equaliser. Then for the small matter of another thousand miles (and then some) to get back to Sheffield….



In Part 2 tomorrow, Giacomo remebers other famous nights at Bramall Lane as he adopts aa new matchday role.

3 comments:

  1. bloody brilliant!!! can't believe that's 17 years ago! I was only 11! Remember going in the bottom of the away end cos it was the first time it'd be open with the seats in (except for home matches - I had a season ticket on the Kop. And Harry's 'gesture' toward the officals! Superb!

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  2. Thanks to all those who've enjoyed this post, both for taking the time to read it and for taking the time to reach out to me. I was always worried I'd venture into the territory of self-indulgence and I seemed to steer clear of it. Mind you, I might fail with Part 2...
    Also, a friend of mine whom I subjected to this story years back pointed out an omission. When the Udinese players saw our club badge (international research in pre-Wikipedia days left a bit to be desired!), they were scared by the blades, thinking we'd be trying to chop them up. Maybe there is a gang in South Central L.A. with a similar badge, who knows... anyway, a (very) concise history of Sheffield's heritage calmed them down. However, given the nature of the match, some of them must have suspected I lied to them!

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  3. (I can't even spell my own name... Squintani. Ah well!)

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