Hello and welcome to the last few weeks of both 2019 and the 2010’s as a whole.
My footballing decade started on 16th January 2010 in the wonderful surroundings of Wilgar Park in East Belfast as Coleraine played an Irish Cup tie against Dundela. Little did I know back then where following football would take me over the next ten years.
I’ve had a lot of standout experiences in that time, far too many to fit in one post, so to help me narrow things down, I’m going for a one highlight per year rule. This obviously means some big things will get missed out and may even lead to a couple of lesser events slipping through in years that are less packed. I will do a few honourable mentions for each year though, it’s only fair.
Remember, these are personal highlights, compiled only from games I’ve actually attended. Including something I only watched on TV would be cheating!
Some of these are things I’ve wanted to feature on Mis Viajes en Fútbol for ages but just never been able to write a full post about. That may come in the future. But for now, just enjoy these summaries!
2010 – A Double Dose of Pirlo
The first came when I visited Milan in April and saw AC Milan play Catania at the iconic San Siro. While not a vintage Milan team, it was a thrilling game as Milan came from 2-0 down to earn a draw with Pirlo pinging the ball around in midfield.
Fast forward to October 2010 and Northern Ireland faced Italy in a Euro 2012 qualifier at Windsor Park and Pirlo lead the visitors out. Like most games in the latter part of the Nigel Worthington era, it was fairly unmemorable but NI did well to get a draw with the eventual European Championship runners-up. There weren’t many more highlights involving the international team over the next couple of years…
Meanwhile Milan moved Pirlo on after Massimiliano Allegri decided that Milan played better with a midfield incorporating Kevin Prince Boateng and Mark van Bommel. Pirlo joined Juventus and had the last laugh, lifting four consecutive Serie A titles, finally won over English football fans and media after schooling England at the Euros, grew a beard and became a hipster favourite.
Honourable Mentions: 2010 was one of those years where I didn’t really travel much beyond the aforementioned Milan trip.
Coleraine were quite fun to watch – scoring loads of goals but unfortunately conceding too many as well which led to cup final and semi final defeats and somehow only finishing seventh despite having the league’s two top goal scorers. That obviously doesn’t qualify as a highlight.
2011 – A Weekend in Barcelona
In March 2011, I visited Spain for the first time. Barcelona was the destination, with a game at the Camp Nou between Pep Guardiola’s “Greatest Team of all time” and Real Zaragoza the centrepiece.
But as I described in a previous post, the whole experience was quite underwhelming. Barça rotated their squad, a midweek Champions League tie being deemed more important, won a fairly boring game 1-0 with a goal from a defensive midfielder and the atmosphere was really flat inside the ground.
The Camp Nou itself was amazing and I do want to go back there and perhaps have a better experience of a match there.
More enjoyable that weekend was my first taste of Fútbol Modesto! In search of something to do on Sunday, we had looked at which lower league teams were likely to be at home and eventually settled on a late afternoon kick off at CE L’Hospitalet. Although the stadium was sparsely populated, the small band of home fans made plenty of noise throughout and you were even able to visit the bar at half time and take drinks back out into the stands! The home side won 3-1 too, which capped off a good afternoon.
Honourable Mentions: Not much on the travel front again. I did make my first trip to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin as part of the Carling Nations Cup, but the less said about that competition (and the teams Northern Ireland put out in it) the better.
Coleraine had a good second part of the year, culminating in a thrilling League Cup semi-final away to Cliftonville, won with a goal in the last minute of extra time.
2012 – Olympic goals
The 2012 London Olympics will go down as one of the iconic sporting moments of the decade. So of course my highlight of the year is two football matches played in Manchester.
Both matches we saw at Old Trafford were memorable for different reasons. Egypt v New Zealand, which we expected to be a bit dull, turned out to be an end-to-end thriller with both teams desperately seeking the win which would help them progress. Then Brazil turned up, overcame the shock of conceding an early goal to overcome Belarus 3-1.
This was my first live experience of Neymar, the player Brazil were pinning all their hopes for the 2014 World Cup and beyond on. He scored a brilliant free kick and set up the other two goals to leave me suitably impressed. I wonder what happened to him?
Honourable Mentions: 2012 was quite a busy year. In February I went to Paris and saw a brilliant match between newly-minted PSG and Montpellier, the plucky underdog who would eventually beat them to the Ligue Un title.
On a slightly more surreal point, Man Utd came to Windsor Park for a testimonial match for Harry Gregg against an Irish League XI and despite growing up a United fan, I ended up being one of very few people there cheering for the local lads (featuring two Coleraine players).
On the Coleraine front, 2012 saw one of my all-time favourite games – 3-0 down at Portadown after 70 minutes, the Bannsiders came back to win 4-3 with an injury time winner!
2013 – Picking my Spanish Team
Colours are always important to me and I was always going to pick the team in blue and white stripes over one in sky blue.
I first made it up to A Coruña in November for a game against Real Mallorca. If you’ve never been, the Riazor is a fantastic stadium, you’re close to the action, you’re well-sheltered from the Galician rain, there’s a good atmosphere and you can go for a walk on the beach before or after the game.
I’ll always remember my first time there. Getting there way too early to buy my ticket (I think I overestimated the demand for Depor tickets in the Segunda), enjoying being by the sea again after being landlocked in Santiago for the previous month, getting photos in the museum part of the club shop and buying my scarf and all that before the match even started.
A great attacking display brought a comfortable 3-1 win for Depor – those would be fairly rare in my years frequenting the Riazor. Super Depor this was not.
The current state of the club as I write this in December 2019 is such a shame. One goal away from promotion in June, they currently sit bottom of the Segunda and are staring relegation to Segunda B in the face, 20 years after becoming La Liga Champions in 2000. Even worse is the talk that the club’s debt is so great that relegation could spell the end of Depor as we know it.
A Coruña is a proper football city and those fans deserve a team to be proud of. I hope the 2020’s will be kinder to Deportivo than this last decade has been
Honourable Mentions: In the early part of 2013 I spent six weeks living in the Hungarian city of Gyor and of course I managed to fit in a game there as the local side made their way to the NB1 title. I do regret not getting to a game in Budapest though.
A 1-0 win over Russia was a rare highlight for Northern Ireland in the early part of the decade, but it did look like Michael O’Neill’s men would score an unlikely triumph over Portugal, until two red cards and a hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo put paid to that.
2014 – My First Visit to Madrid
Little did I know in March 2014 when I first landed at Barajas Airport that I would eventually end up calling this city my home. On that occasion I was little more than a tourist, coming to sample the bright lights of the big city, a million miles away from the quiet provincial backwater of Galicia.
I really wanted to go to the Madrid Derby that weekend, but at €90 per ticket that was out of my budget. Rather than buying a ticket, I had to settle for a trip round the museum at the Calderón. I loved the museum there and it’s a real shame that it doesn’t appear to have moved to become a permanent part of the new stadium.
I did get to a match that weekend though, visiting Vallecas for the very first time as Rayo defeated Valencia 1-0. It wasn’t a classic by any means, in fact the thing I remember most about it was laughing at the fact a nearby Valencia fan had been significantly excited enough by their recent signing of Philippe Senderos to go and get his name on the back of his shirt.
The Rayo fans did leave an impression though and at least I got to hear The Final Countdown getting played!
Monday saw me take the stadium tour at the Bernabéu for the first time, exploring the huge trophy room and the stadium itself.
Something was obviously planted in my mind back then and it continued to grow over the years that followed, ultimately leading to me moving there in September 2018.
Honourable Mentions: I continued to expand my footballing horizons in the Iberian peninsula, visiting Vigo for the first time in March and a few weeks later, making my first trip into Portugal, which included the bizarre experience of watching former Champions Boavista playing in a 3/4 empty stadium in the third tier.
2015 – Club and Country in Oviedo
In September I set off on a long bus journey from Santiago to Oviedo for a proper football weekend, watching Spain v Slovakia in the Euro 2016 qualifiers on Saturday night and then Oviedo v Albacete in the Segunda on Sunday afternoon.
Almost three years after I had bought a share in Real Oviedo as part of the campaign to save the club, I finally got to see them play in their own stadium (having previously watched them twice in Santiago) and visit the city to sample all the sidra and cachopo it had to offer. Both games were memorable for their own reasons, the Spain game was a confident controlled performance which more or less qualified the holders for the Euros, plus I got to enjoy Andres Iniesta in action properly after being denied more than a fleeting glimpse of him in Barcelona. The Oviedo game was an altogether more joyous occasion as it marked their first win in the Segunda after 12 years battling in the lower leagues during which time the club almost disappeared.
Also before the Oviedo game I stumbled upon the Spain team hotel and met the nicest man in football, Juan Mata!
Honourable Mentions: If I’m honest, I don’t look back on the year 2015 with much fondness. It was a difficult time for me both professionally and personally and there were parts of the year when I considered knocking the whole Spain thing on the head.
That said, by the end of the year I had decided that if I was going to leave I should go out with a bang and so packed in a Big Basque trip, visiting both San Sebastián and Bilbao, a flying visit to Porto where I managed to see a game in the Estadio do Dragao at the second attempt and then my first visit to the Calderón all before heading home in December.
What I didn’t realise at the time was how important a chance meeting in November 2015 would be for my life. That’s because it was on a typically cold and rainy Galician night, I met Sarah and less than four years later, we would get married. So in retrospect, maybe 2015 wasn’t all that bad…
2016 – Northern Ireland are crowned “Kings of Lyon”
My Euro 2016 experience is still all a bit of a blur. The after-effects of 2015 meant I wasn’t in the best shape financially and when time came to apply for tickets I only felt able to go for one. It was by sheer luck that we were drawn to play a game in Lyon, a huge stadium where getting tickets wouldn’t be a problem and also that a friend of mine was living in the city at the time so I could avoid the inflated hotel and Air BnB prices that accompany these big fixtures. An added bonus was that not many people were flying from Sevilla to Lyon at that time so flights were pretty cheap compared to what some of my friends were paying to fly from Belfast or Dublin.
The first day there was slightly surreal. The city centre was full of green-shirted people but I failed to find anyone that I actually knew, then when I did make plans to meet people at he fan zone in the evening they were thwarted by huge queues and torrential rain.
Match Day was better. After starting off the day with a visit to the magnificent Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière with its superb views over the city, I finally met up with some people I knew and headed to the ground. High up in the corner of the stadium, I would eventually have a perfect view of the two goals which secured Northern Ireland’s first win at a major tournament since before I was born.
Honourable Mentions: 2016 was such a loaded year for highlights that I’ve had to leave out getting to experience the Estadio Benito Villamarín and Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuan for the first time. Similarly, the Estadio José Alvalade in Lisbon will always stick out in my memory as one of the loudest grounds I’ve ever been to.
The real wrench for 2016 is leaving out something to do with Recreativo de Huelva. Moving to Huelva in January of 2016 was a major turning point in my life after the travails of 2015. Feeling settled, enjoying my work again and getting to regularly watch football in a stadium I could see from my bedroom window. It wasn’t all good, the club was going through a terrible time on and off the pitch, facing bankruptcy and only just escaping relegation to the Tercera. In spite of all that, I liked it enough to get a season ticket – the first team other than Coleraine that I’d ever bought one for.
2017 – A Promotion Party at Levante
2017 was a fun year with lots of stand-out memories but one of the most notable has to be being at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia on the day Levante sealed their promotion back to La Liga.
A long weekend for 1st May plus some cheap flights, gave me the opportunity to visit a part of Spain I’d never been to before and it just happened that results in the weeks leading up to my trip fell in such a way that Levante just needed to win to clinch their return to La Liga.
The game itself was no classic by any means. Levante got their goal and ground out the result against a fairly feeble Oviedo team but it’s the scenes at the final whistle that will always stay with me.
Seeing the stands around me empty as the fans rushed on to the pitch in celebration, the songs that rang out and the general party atmosphere made it a really special occasion and I’ve definitely had a wee bit of a soft spot for Levante ever since.
Honourable Mentions: In the same weekend that I saw Levante go up, I also visited the iconic Mestalla, scene of Northern Ireland’s win over Spain in the 1982 World Cup. I also managed to see Valencia’s reserve team playing there.
Attending Spain v Italy at the Bernabéu in September was a memorable experience, a night when Julen Lopetegui’s Spain were so impressive that they convinced me they would win the World Cup. That obviously worked out well…
I also enjoyed visiting Berlin in August, even though the actual match I saw was far from the best. Unfortunately a lot of my trips in 2017 ended up football-less. My Granada trip in February was spoiled by one of La Liga’s specialities, the last minute modificación while I passed through both Cádiz and Gibraltar without seeing a single game.
2018 – Coleraine win the Irish Cup
If you know me at all, you’ll know that this is the most obvious pick on the list. In fact, if I had to order these, this would be number one. No contest.
Things weren’t always good for Coleraine in the 2010’s. We lost three cup finals, struggled in the bottom half during the middle part of the decade and then there was the short-lived reign of Rodney McAree, our equivalent of Community’s “gas leak year”.
Although I love living in Spain, it does still pain me that I missed most of Coleraine’s greatest season in my lifetime.
In 2017 Coleraine had reached the the Irish Cup Final but lost tamely to Linfield. Driven on by that experience, Oran Kearney’s team came desperately close to winning the league title for only the second time in the club’s history, in a dramatic title race which went right down to the final few minutes of the season. When they also made it back to the cup final, they were determined not be disappointed again.
After a goalless first half the game sprung into life with a jolt thanks to Darren McCauley’s wonderful opener for the Bannsiders. Cliftonville equaliser through Rory Donnelly but Coleraine still looked the better team and took the lead again when a long ball forward from goalkeeper Chris Johns scythed the Cliftonville team open and sub Aaron Burns ran through to score.
Cliftonville piled on the pressure and pushed almost everything forward meaning when a defensive slip in the last minute presented Eoin Bradley with the ball, he had a clear run on goal, completing the victory with a near lob and then getting buried at the bottom of a pile of delirious Coleraine players and coaches.
That feeling is one that will stick with me forever. In fact, the whole day is etched in my memory like it was yesterday.
Honourable Mentions: I went to Granada early in 2018 and saw possibly the two best goals I’ve ever seen live. I was completely enchanted by Edinburgh during a summer trip there which included a trip to Tynecastle Park to watch The Magnificent Gorgie Boys. And of course my move to Madrid, which broadened my footballing horizons significantly. Plus I met the legend that is Super Pepino!
2019 – The Biggest Game in Club Football
You know my thoughts on the teams involved and the standard of the game they served up at the Wanda Metropolitano in June.
While the game itself was disappointing, actually getting to experience the Champions League Final in my home city is something which won’t come around very often and I’m glad I got to be there. I never expected to get tickets when I entered the lottery back in March so the feeling when I opened the e-mail confirming it was one of surprise, followed by absolute delight. Much the opposite feeling to what I had around 11pm on both the 7th and 8th of May.
I think I made the most out of the experience though – there can’t have been too many people who have ever worn a Coleraine shirt at a Champions League Final before!
Honourable Mentions: In the early part of the year I visited Valladolid and Lisbon, both great cities for a football trip and in the latter I got to experience the Estadio da Luz for myself after only being able to do the tour back in 2016. Never got round to writing the full post about that. I went to the Madrid Derby in February and although the result was disappointing, I finally accomplished something I’d first wanted to do in 2014.
I also accomplished a long-held goal of watching matches on both sides of the Rock of Gibraltar in August and September.
Back in Madrid, being part of the growth of the Día del Fútbol Modesto movement has been a great thrill and something that I’m looking forward to being part of in 2020 and beyond!