Written by Roger Allen
“Six weeks at the World Cup finals, follow England as far as they go.”
That was the brief given to me in March 1990.
Great. But the bit the picture desk didn’t tell me straight off was that it’d be a “hooli watch”, trailing around after the illustrious England football fans. There would be no sitting by the pool for me at the team’s hotel waiting for the next training session, photocall or actual match. No, it was to be shadowing the thugs who attached themselves to the traveling soccer circus.
Builders, plumbers, east end City boys all going for a punch up with rival fans – oh, and to beat the crap out of the Press. there is one thing football thugs hate more than the other fans it’s the Press.
All the other papers had sent photographers solely for the anticipated trouble. This meant it was safer, when the fighting started, for us to stick together and pool our pictures at the end of the long days and nights.
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England had been drawn in a group which would be playing on the island of Sardinia. Once infamous for mafia kidnappings, Sardinia was an Italian backwater thought of as the poor relation of mainland Italy.
It was to the capital Cagliari that I arrived on a flight from Rome. Hotels had been booked out for the whole of the time our boys were in town. The Mirror and Sun had hired a large villa on the beach just outside Cagliari, five bedrooms, large garden etc. The Mirror had two photographers on the island – myself and Arnie Slater. Arnie was a bit of a hyperactive type, always wanting something to do.
Four weeks later, after hiring private jets to fly to a shooting involving England fans on Corsica, bus crashes killing England fans, running battles in the streets of Cagliari with the police it all came down to a penalty shoot-out with Germany. I watched England crash out of the World Cup semi-final in the back of a hotdog van in the car park of Turin stadium.
During the footballing festival Paul Gascogne cried, turning him into a national hero. A quarter of a million fans mobbed Luton airport to welcome home the team. Gazza stood at the front of the open top team bus wearing a pair of plastic tits.
On the day of England’s first match against Egypt a coach carrying England fans crashed killing two on a remote stretch of road near Monastir 12, miles north of Cagliari.
Myself and a Sun snapper went up there to photograph the aftermath. After dashing back to process the film and send the pictures to London time was ticking by. Thirst and hunger led me to walk about a mile down the beach near the villa to a shack of a restaurant just above the shoreline.
No menus were on the tables. A blackboard advertised what was on offer. The only thing I understood was fish couscous. It was meaty with large chunky fish and a hint of spice. Afterwards the owner, through hand gestures and with the aid of his teenaged nephew, gave me the recipe.
Our brave lads made it through the group stage of the World Cup, sending them off to mainland Italy. They had topped the group with four points. The next match was against the tricky Belgians in the food capital of northern Italy – Bologna.
As the sports hacks flew with the team to Bologna we, the news hounds, (or The Rotters as the groin strains branded us) boarded an overnight ferry from Calagri to Livorno. The reason for our sea voyage was to follow the hooligans who’d had a punch up against the Dutch in the centre of the Sardinian capital. London assumes that they’d get pissed on the ferry and fighting would break out.
The crossing was so rough that, almost as soon as the ship hit open water, the hard men of the football underworld started throwing up. They were as quite as mice. That left us, the Press pack at the back of the boat playing cards.
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Arriving in Bologna I went in search of the famous spaghetti Bolognese. I found it in almost every tourist eatery, but the spagbog we know is not what is served in restaurants of Bologna, it is meat ragu with either taglitelle or tortellini. Not spaghetti, ever.
I found a small restaurant away from the main square. Inside it was cool and calm, hard wooden chairs sat beside large tables seating four. Waiters in black and white pottered around making sure all was in order.
I chose a half bottle of Barolo and sat people watching as the punchy red wine slipped down smoothly.
A small plate of bruschetta arrived, the bright red tomatoes flecked with torn basil made a sight for sore eyes.
In Italy they tend to have the first starter, soup, bruschetta, cold meats of the region or a seafood misto. Antipasto.
The first course, primo is hot food heavier than antipasto, a small plate of pasta, gnocchi, a casserole or a lasagne.
The second course is a hearty affair including meat dishes such as pork, steak, chicken, rabbit etc. Then there are side dishes of vegetables, followed by local cheese. Then Dolce. Pudding. At this point most people are on their knees.
This is all washed down with caffe followed by a digestive – grappa, limoncello or amaretto.
I had a meat ragu with taglitelle followed by loin of pork cooked in milk and herbs.
Barely able to move, I bravely worked my way through the house Tiramisu. If they had fed our players like this, maybe we would have gone further.
Or maybe not.