By Gary Walker
It began in the cramped confines of the back seat of a Skoda Fabia, hammering through a grey curtain of relentless rain in the fast lane of the autobahn, somewhere between Leverkusen and Dusseldorf.
This was my first european adventure with Tottenham Hotspur, the start of the love affair. But as Dimitar Berbatov, Ledley King and their team-mates warmed up ahead of the 2006 UEFA Cup group match with Bayer Leverkusen, here I was wedged between fellow Spurs fan Steve and an as-yet unnamed German girl. Up-front, her friend powered the Skoda away from the city where the game was about to kick off, at 100mph, with one hand on the thigh of the third member of our party, Phil.
With the Bay Arena’s capacity then only around 23,000, Spurs had been given a token ticket allocation of 1,200, but hundreds more had made the journey from England. Desperate to see our boys in Europe, we’d flown in to Dusseldorf that afternoon, ticketless, with Phil – a seasoned football traveller – reassuring us that we’d get one from a tout, or simply slip into the home end, where demand would be lower.
It was calamitous from the off. We checked in at the Dusseldorf Ibis – everything to bold, inventive architecture that Sam Allardyce is to tiki-taka – and headed straight for the station to take the train to Leverkusen. The home of Bayer is an unremarkable industrial town on the banks of the Rhine, established as the heart of Germany’s chemical industry – a low-key venue to set off on our grand European tour. Spurs were beginning a period of prolonged involvement in European competition under Martin Jol, and later Juande Ramos, Harry Redknapp and Andre Villas-Boas.
With five minutes to spare until the train left, and Spurs fans beginning to fill the platform, Phil told us to stay where we were, and set off to find beer for the journey. Five minutes passed. The train came. The train left. My phone rang. It was Phil, and he was on the train with our beer. Shambles.
We gave chase on the next train to arrive, and then emerged into the pissing rain of a bland residential neighbourhood. We rang Phil, and he tried to direct us to a bar he’d found, where he was with one of the locals – a “top bloke” he’d met, named Kristof. We wandered the streets surrounding the Bay Arena for half an hour, trying to find the place and getting soaked to the skin. As kick-off neared, it was obvious we weren’t going to get a ticket.
By the time we pushed our way into the packed bar, we were drenched, and quickly realised we were the only English people there. Phil was absolutely steaming, and trading rounds of Jagermeister with a mohican-sporting brick shithouse – Kristof.
Over the next 30 minutes, it became clear that Kristof was at best a fairly unpleasant and intimidating character, and at worst a neo-Nazi who’d quite like to stove our heads in given a reasonable excuse. After a few more Jagers, he advised us not to come in the bar after the game for our own safety, told us what he’d like to do to his former Leverkusen hero Berbatov, then parted with the generous assurance that “England is all yours”.
We found another bar, this time full of Tottenham fans, and for the first time we witnessed the stirring swell of “ooohhhh when the Spurs…” rolling around the walls of a foreign watering hole. We asked everyone who’d listen if they had spare tickets, but no-one did, and there didn’t seem to be a TV, either. Had we travelled this far and got this wet, only to miss the game being played out 200 yards away?
Meanwhile, Phil busied himself with befriending two formidable-looking German girls. We gave up on a ticket, and out of the blue they offered us a lift back to Dusseldorf, where we could watch the game in an Irish pub. It seemed by far the best available option.
It took what seemed like an hour to make the 16-mile journey, and wedged against the door of the Skoda, barely able to see through the windscreen as the wipers worked furiously to clear the waves of rain, I wondered where they were really taking us, and why. I certainly didn’t want to miss the game in order to witness Phil engaging in some sort of sordid international sex marathon.
The Jager and altbier began to slosh around my stomach as the little hatchback was powered along through the deluge. Steve sensed my state of physical unrest and sympathetically began making mock vomiting noises, while my new friend enthusiastically flipped through the pages of a CD wallet, showing me her collection of Stereophonics, Snow Patrol, Kaiser Chiefs and other such treats that would only accelerate my descent into the malaise.
The Jager and altbier began to slosh around my stomach as the little hatchback was powered along through the deluge.
Mercifully, the Skoda finally skidded to a halt outside Fatty’s Irish bar, bang on kick-off, as water filled the back of my throat. I had the door open and was preparing a kerbside evacuation before our driver had even turned the engine off; but the cold November air saved me, and five minutes later I was tucking in to a pint of Schlüssel, among a couple of hundred of my Tottenham brothers.
Phil and his conquest sat on stools at the bar, enthusiastically trying to eat each other’s faces – it was a grim scene – as Berbatov, it had to be him, turned in the only goal of the game from Aaron Lennon’s cross. Amid the celebrations, I wondered what Kristof was doing now.
In the boozy mayhem at the final whistle, we couldn’t find Phil, and assumed he’d eloped with his new companion. We set off in search of food, unsure of where the hotel was, and ambled around Dusseldorf’s beautiful Christmas market, like a pair of empty cans being blown haphazardly between its wooden gingerbread houses.
Maybe an hour later, having wandered from street map to street map, trying to navigate our way, we stumbled into the Ibis reception and tried to make a break for the lift before the guy manning the desk could engage us and find out Steve hadn’t paid for a room.
The plan was executed beautifully, until we got in the lift. The doors began to close as the receptionist looked up from his book. The tension was extreme. I tried to focus on the panel, ready to press the ‘3’ button to take us up to the room. There was no ‘3’ button.
The doors slid open again to reveal me glaring incredulously at the console, while Steve slumped against the mirror and stared back at the receptionist. The jig was up.
He listened patiently, as I insisted we needed to be let up to the third floor immediately. “There is no third floor, sir, there are only two floors in this hotel.”
By now I was becoming angry, hours of high-paced boozing having ebbed away at any level of common sense or rational thought, and suspecting some sort of conspiracy was at play.
“All our bags and passports are in our room, we have to go up to the third floor,” I shouted.
With the conversation having hit a stalemate between reasoned fact and crazed, drunken repetition, he picked up the phone and began speaking in German. I had no doubt he was on the blower to the police and we’d end our first European trip in a cell for the night, before being ushered back into Stanstead in front of the waiting TV cameras with our coats over our heads.
My thoughts were interrupted. His conversation over, he replaced the receiver and in the gentle, level tone you’d use to address a maniac claiming his penis is on fire and has wings, stated simply: “Sir, you are in the wrong Ibis”.
He calmly directed us across town to the chain’s sister hotel and we left shame-faced. As we arrived at the room, Phil was thankfully not wrapped in an act of Anglo-German coitus, but he lay comatose on the bed, totally naked.
Being a pair of silly young twats on our first European away trip, we searched the room for alcohol or some way to make mischief. We found a towel and a bible. We threw the bible out of the window. Take that jesus. In your soulless corporate hotel chain face Ibis. Eat your heart out Keith Richards.
Then we repaired to the bathroom, where I sat on the German Armitage Shanks ejecting my pizza and Jagermeister, while Steve was sick in the sink. In the mirror, I could see Phil star-shaped and snoring, his flacid member in full disturbing view – like a Bratwurst that had fallen down the back of the fridge and perished.
Something beautiful had begun.