by Kevin Henning
It was supposed to be a friendly. We were playing schoolboy football for heaven’s sake. But as the team coach sped away, the view out of the back window looked like the kind of scene you’d expect as a travelling player in Istanbul or Buenos Aires. I probably should shoulder some responsibility but I honestly hadn’t thought of the consequences of my actions on the morning of the game. I was only a fourteen year old boy after all.
St. Patrick’s RC High school had announced that the school football team were to partake in a Spanish tour to the delight of my peer group. I knew money was tight in our house and had pondered whether putting pressure on my parents to stump up the readies for a lads’ jolly up was fair. I went to the first meeting to hear what the itinerary entailed and immediately my mind was made up.
The base for our stay was to be Salou. The group would be split into three age defined teams and I’d be in the middle group. We’d all played two games each during the 6 day tour and it would give us valuable experience of playing in a different environment. Then Mr Carr hit us with the bombshell. On day four of the holiday, we’d be making the short journey to Catalonia to visit both the Olympic Stadium and of course FC Barcelona’s Nou Camp Stadium. My mind was made up, I wanted in and to hell with how my Mam and Dad would find the money.
We departed for Spain on the day of the all-Sheffield FA Cup semi final of 1993. I met Graham Kelly at Watford gap services and we arrived in Salou on the following day. My age group played our first match two days later on a gravel pitch against a local school. We were convincingly beaten 4-0 but assured ourselves that this was due to our sunburn caused by a day at the beach 24 hours earlier.
We’d be ready for our second game.
On the day of our second match, all three age groups were scheduled to play. The older lads in the morning, the youngsters early afternoon and my team at 5 o’clock pm. Alarm bells rang when our teacher contacted the opposition manager who politely asked whether kick-off could be put back an hour to enable his players to finish work and get to the venue. The older lads played in the morning and this was where I might have set the mood for the evening’s shenanigans.
For reasons that I can’t quite recall now, I’d decided to pack a Union Flag. I took it to the Nou Camp for a photo of myself in the famous stadium and now, had thought it a good idea to bring it along for the morning match. The pitch was a semi-pro team’s home ground and had a length of terracing along one side. It was on this terrace that I danced along, red, white and blue fluttering behind me whilst I belted out “God Save The Queen”, “Land Of Hope and Glory”, “Rule Britannia” and a few other nationalistic numbers. My school mates seemed to be enjoying my Little Engerlander sideshow and soon, there was a conga line of teenagers playing at representing our country the way we’d seen Three Lions fans on the 10 o’clock news. All we were missing was copious amounts of lager and a few garden chairs to throw. The game finished, we went to watch the youngsters play and prepared for our own game to be played at the same place as I’d just held my own “Brits Abroad Show”.
Upon our return some hours later, the mood had changed. The scene that met us resembled a schoolboy football equivalent of the classic movie Zulu. The terrace was filled with Spanish youths and all around the perimeter of the pitch, moody looking locals, some holding sticks which I guessed weren’t being carried to assist walking. The atmosphere was more menacing than any 14 year old should have to experience.
As a forward, I waited prior to kick-off in the centre circle to start the match, a group of Spanish opponents complete with 5 o’clock shadows circled me and began pointing and laughing at me. By the gestures they were making, I assumed they found my sizable ears amusing. The game got underway and I must admit, it was men against boys in more ways than just the obvious age difference. We were so much under the cosh that I was deployed as an emergency central defender due to my height. My defensive partner and I spent almost the entire game heading the ball out for corner after corner and actually apologising to the Spaniards for having the audacity to prevent them scoring goals. Every time we happened to run over the edge of the pitch, the feral locals attempted to kick or trip us. As the game entered its final minutes, the two of us (who were surely locked in a 2 way battle for man of the match) were substituted. I demanded an explanation from Mr Carr whose response was simply “Get on the coach for your own safety. You two are the biggest so will be the first ones they’ll go after.”
We boarded the coach and found our bags had been loaded on. The engine was running and the driver was looking edgy. As the final whistle went, the rest of the team sprinted for the safety of the team coach. Still kitted out, we made our way to the back of the vehicle to see the scene we were leaving. The “supporters” that had circled the pitch were now running after our coach throwing stones and sticks and shouting some very angry Spanish words at us.
It was the first and last time that I played on the continent. I had represented my school and country and escaped unscathed. We’d lost the games 4-0 and 6-0, been threatened with our lives and incurred the wrath of a Spanish village. Thinking back to it now I can almost hear the faint strains of “Jerusalem” and can feel my eyes welling up with pride. For a group of teenage lads, it was a footballing coming of age and we did Engerland proud.