My first pre-season friendly is still 19 days away. I’m trying to be brave.
The hotel in Paddington where I’ve lived for 12 years is run by Greeks. The owner is Greek, the manager is Greek and most of the receptionists are Greek. Apparently it’s the HQ of the London branch of the Panathinaikos Supporters’ Club.
When Panathinaikos have a match, it is shown on a huge screen in the breakfast room in the basement. I’m told they charge six pounds to watch from inside the room and three pounds to watch through the windows from the street outside. Dozens of fans descend on the hotel and they march up and down the square singing happily when they win.
The manager, who supports Olympiakos between you and me, said they were dancing in the fountains at Trafalgar Square after Greece won the Euro 2004 tournament. I think they’ve been watching the current matches in some kind of ‘Greek Bar’ in town because there’s been no-one about. Greek hopes are still alive, of course, despite picking up just one point from their first two fixtures in ‘Group A’.
I’ve loved the Olympics, especially the athletics, since the Rome Games of 1960. The last Olympic football match played on home soil was the first leg of GB’s qualifier with Bulgaria in 1971. I had to meet the Bulgarians at the airport and they seemed to be under the impression they would be playing in front of a Wembley full house against the likes of Moore, Charlton and Banks.
The GB team actually had players from clubs like Hendon, Slough Town and Skelmersdale United. The bizarre thing is we beat them 1-0. I think of it as the greatest giant-killing I’ve ever witnessed, because it was basically Bulgaria’s full international side. Unfortunately, we were outclassed in the second leg in Sofia.
It was the end of an era, because the distinction between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ footballers in this country was abolished soon afterwards and at that time it meant we couldn’t enter the Olympics.
I still went to West Germany to watch some of the Olympic football in ’72, though GB hadn’t managed to qualify, and stayed at a hotel in Nuremberg. The matches I saw were Iran v Hungary, Mexico v Sudan, Burma v Mexico, Malaysia v USA, Morocco v Malaysia and Poland v East Germany. The first of those was played in front of 500 fans in a stadium that held 70,000 and I was the only one behind one goal.
Burma’s manager was none other than Bert Trautmann, the German goalie who was Manchester City’s hero in the 1956 FA Cup Final.
About a year ago I was getting ready to travel down to the Isle of Wight for the Island Games. It was ‘football heaven’ with 12 matches in six days at seven different grounds. This year’s unusual (for me) pre-season trip is up to Newcastle for two of the Olympic matches at St James’ Park. I hope to take in a friendly at Gateshead too.