This is a long overdue post – My trip to Valencia is one of my favourite football memories, but it happened at the time when I had lost interest in this blogging project and as such remained uncovered, only mentioned in passing every so often.
But the time has finally come – with no current football to report on due to the COVID-19 crisis, I might as well.
So let’s fire up the DeLorean and head back to Spring 2017!
Like quite a lot of my trips, this started with me sitting in my flat (in Huelva at the time) and looking for somewhere to visit over a long weekend.
I wanted somewhere with guaranteed football – I had been stung on two previous trips already that year, first when I went to Granada and the game there was moved to a Monday night at short notice and then when I was in Gibraltar I somehow managed to pick the one weekend of the year where there was no football at all. So Valencia, with two major teams, seemed a solid bet – one of them was bound to be home.
And so it proved, Levante were home to Real Oviedo, a team I have a bit of an attachment to, and the kick off times for that weekend had already been released. With cheap flights from Sevilla secured, I was all set!
On the Wednesday before I was due to leave I received further good news. The Valencia Mestalla game in Segunda B that Sunday afternoon was to be played at the famous old stadium instead of the training ground, meaning I could double up!
A Rather Damp Start
Andalucía is noted as Spain’s sunniest region, but something rather strange happened at the end of April 2017. As I headed home for the night following the traditional post-finishing work dinner with my colleagues, it started raining. This happened occasionally, nowhere’s perfect after all, so I thought nothing more of it as I went to bed, aware I had an early start the following morning.
Needless to say, I got a huge surprise after I woke up. As I looked out the window, I discovered that the normally quiet street I lived on was partially flooded and congested with frustrated drivers. And I had to make my way across the city on foot to reach the bus station…
So I dug out my raincoat (which I’d previously not even considered packing for Valencia) and realising that wading through the waters would write off my trainers, I dug deep into my wardrobe and found an old pair of running trainers that I’d retired a few months earlier but neglected to throw out – I knew there was a reason I hadn’t! – and braced myself for the walk.
And yeah, it wasn’t pleasant. The water had already leaked into the ground floor of my building and it was signficantly deep on the pavements. I was extra careful once I moved into the city centre, with its ornately-tiled streets which, as a keen runner, I knew started to resemble an ice rink with even the slightest sprinkling of moisture.
The closer I got to the station, the higher the water level got until I was forced to wade through dirty water which at one point reached about halfway up my shins. The worst part was the road crossing before the station, which now resembled a flowing river. I got across safely, but not before I witnessed someone slip up and land flat on their face.
Once inside the station, I changed footwear, dried off and bought my ticket before getting the obligatory café con leche (served in a glass por supuesto) and catching the bus to Sevilla. At Plaza de Armas it was just a short wait for the airport bus before a trip through an almost unrecognisable city (it was even wetter than my infamous trip to Sevilla v Atlético earlier that season) and a thankfully brief stay in the airport. The flight left on time and after little over an hour in the air, I was ready to explore a new city!
The Mestalla Tour
I was actually staying a short walk away from the Mestalla, so it made sense to make it my first port of call after breakfast on Saturday morning.
The stadium is one of Spanish football’s most iconic venues, famous around the world for its atmosphere and the incredibly steep North Stand – a result of the club requiring additional capacity but being unable to expand around the ground because it’s in an extremely built-up area.
But in my part of the world, the Mestalla is most famous for one thing… “Arconada… Armstrong!’
Northern Ireland’s most famous ever result came at the ground in the 1982 World Cup, when they beat hosts Spain 1-0 to advance to the second round of the tournament. Although back then, it wasn’t the Mestalla, it was the Estadio Luis Casanova (as it was from 1969 to 1994) in honour of the club president, who to his credit was never completely comfortable with the honour and eventually asked for his name to be removed, with it reverting back to the original, which comes from the district of the city it is located in.
Of course, if all had gone according to plan, the stadium wouldn’t even still be around. Valencia’s period of success in the early 2000’s led to ambitious plans to move to a new, much larger stadium in the north west of the city. The Nou Mestalla was under construction when a combination of a couple of poor seasons on the pitch, the club’s mounting debts and the worldwide financial crisis saw work grind to a halt.
Nou Mestalla… It ain't gonna happen, is it? ⛔️ pic.twitter.com/5V23zba60j
— Estadios de España (@estadios_Spain) July 12, 2018
Today the club still insist the new stadium will be finished, but it’s not even clear whether the skeleton which was built over a decade ago would even be suitable and the projected capacity has consistently been reduced so now it’s not much more than the old ground. Meanwhile, the Mestalla was given a lick of paint and now looks fantastic, displaying the distinctive orange and black colours associated with the club.
The tour is well worth taking, allowing you access to pitchside, the presidential suite, press room, home changing room and the museum, with its brilliant collection of trophies, old shirts and newspaper front pages showing past trophy triumphs. They also take you up to the high balcony in the stadium’s exterior where the players traditionally come to present a trophy to the fans gathered in the street below.
The tour is pretty reasonably priced – €10,90 for adults and €8,50 for concessions or if you’re in a large group. It takes about an hour in total and if you show your ticket at the club shop (located across the street) afterwards you can get a small souvenir ‘passport’ of your visit. I still have mine buried away in a suitcase somewhere.
A Party At Levante
I spent the afternoon doing a couple of the city’s more touristy attractions, including visiting the Cathedral to see the *real* Holy Grail and the climbing its most famous tower El Micalet to see the panoramic views of the city. Then after a spot of late lunch, it was back to business.
The Estadi Ciutat de València is located a little bit further outside the city centre, but handily enough has a tram stop (Estadi de Llevant) located just outside. It has plenty of facilities for pre-match entertainment nearby, being situated beside a shopping centre and a park, which as I walked through was full of stalls selling merchandise. Once inside, it’s a a very open ground, but the lower tier I was in was still nice and close to the pitch. It was very much uncovered though, and with grey clouds still filling the sky I took more than once nervous glance upwards during the game.
Levante are, by some distance, the smaller of the city’s two clubs, regularly yo-yoing between La Liga and the Segunda, with the occasional drop into the third tier thrown in for good measure.
On this occasion they were in the Segunda, but thanks to a season of dominant performances, they had the opportunity to clinch promotion with a win that weekend. With a big crowd expected, Levante had very kindly set out flags on everyone’s seats to add a bit more colour to the occasion. Behind the goals the flags were in the club colours, while my section had the yellow, red and blue Valencian Community flag, which was also the colour of Levante’s away kit that season.
I enjoyed the pre-match atmosphere building inside the ground, plus a pleasing selection of 90’s tunes over the stadium PA and when the teams finally made their appearance, the colours on display were quite something as everyone waved their flags.
Levante were well on top for most of the game, but lacked the goal they deserved until the 55th minute when defender Sergio Postigo absolutely hammered home a header from a corner. The stadium erupted but I also sensed plenty of sighs of relief too.
The rest of the game wasn’t exactly high quality, but the sense of occasion more than made up for it. The home fans were raucous throughout, and the party atmosphere flowed around the stadium, except for the small band of Oviedo fans nestled away in the far corner from me. Even the introduction of cult hero Michu couldn’t turn the tide in their favour.
Throughout the last few minutes of the match the noise from the Levante fans got louder and louder and when the referee blew the final whistle, fans spilled onto the pitch and mobbed their heroes in an outpouring of joy. 362 days after they had been relegated from La Liga, they were going back up. I didn’t join in the pitch invasion, it would have felt a bit false if I had, so I just stayed in the stand, enjoying the scenes and hoping some day I could be involved in them again with a team I supported.
Close To The Action
While Friday and Saturday had both been grey and overcast, I was delighted to wake up to a much sunnier Valencia on Sunday morning. So I needed no further invitation to head to the beach where I spent an extremely pleasant morning, followed by lunch of paella Valenciana – thus ticking another item off the Spain bucket list.
After a quick stop back at my hostel, I made the short trip back to the Mestalla and before joining the line to buy a ticket, I paid a visit to the bar run by one of the most famous football fans in the country – Manolo el del bombo. He has followed the Spanish national team all over the world and with his famous drum, was a constant feature on the TV coverage of their three trophy wins between 2008 and 2012. The bar is an Aladdin’s cave of football memorabilia from all over the world and a must-see for any fan who comes to Valencia. Sadly the man himself wasn’t in on this particular day.
The way things were being done meant that only the lower tier of the stadium was open, so fans were being instructed to fill up one section before another was opened. By the time I was let in, they were filling up the section behind the goal. So I found a free seat and settled in for the wait for kick off. This was quite a big game in the contest of both clubs’ seasons, Valencia Mestalla and Badalona were both play-off contenders and a win would go a long way to wards securing their place in the end of season shootout.
Watching a game in a half-empty stadium is a strange experience, especially one as large as the Mestalla. I really got a sense of how steep the stands were, something that hadn’t been as obvious on the tour the previous day. But more than anything else, it was warm. Very warm. I wasn’t used to these kinds of temperatures at matches and so my attention did tend to wander. I was paying attention as the home team piled on the pressure and eventually took the lead before the break, Nacho Gil scoring after they had forced a string of set pieces.
After half time, with Valencia now attacking the far end of the stadium, there was a mass exodus from my part of the stadium and I also headed round to the side to get a different view of the action. The problem here was the sun, which was now shining brightly on the lower tier of seats and I had to try a few different ones before I eventually found one where I could comfortably watch the game. While I was doing this, Badalona equalised through Oliva and the scores stayed level through till the end.
I loved the view from a few rows back, which allowed me some shelter from the sun and a view of the upper deck of the opposite stand with MESTALLA spelled out in huge letters in case you ever forget where you are. The game itself was a bit of a non-event, but the fact it was in one of the most iconic stadiums in the world definitely made up for that.
Reflections from 2020
This trip seems like a lifetime ago, especially given the much-changed circumstances of the world we now live in. The very idea of booking a cheap flight on a whim and travelling somewhere now seems pretty much impossible. Valencia of course was one of the first cities in Spain to be badly hit by the Corona Virus, with many supporters coming back from the Champions League tie against Atalanta in Milan bringing back an extremely unwanted souvenir.
Valencia, despite almost constant conflict between the board and management under Marcelino (2017-19) were remarkably successful, qualifying for the Champions League twice and last season, defeating Barcelona to win the Copa del Rey in Sevilla, ending an eleven year trophy drought and marking their centenary in the best possible fashion. But Marcelino was sacked only a few games into the current season and his successor, Albert Celades, has overseen an inconsistent season.
And Valencia Mestalla? Well, they’re still in Segunda B. The only player I recognised from the line-up was Rafa Mir, who left Valencia the following January to join Wolves and has mostly spent the time since out on loan.
Levante have remained in La Liga ever since their 2017 promotion and achieved plenty of notable results. In the 2017/18 season, their breathtaking 5-4 victory over Barcelona stopped the blaugrana from completing an invincible season and last season, I was there when they pulled off a memorable win at the Santiago Bernabéu. I have to say that I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for them as a result of being there on that night in April 2017 and their good form in La Liga since then, with many of the same players who won promotion, most notably José Luis Morales, Roger Martí and José Campaña.
Plus I love their kits, I still regret not buying one of them while I was there.
Hopefully it’s not too long before I can head back here and see a bit more of the city.