Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

Andy Mitten's 2018-19: The highs and lows of covering 83 games - Messi, Mourinho, Maradona and riding in a riot van

The football writer recalls the highs and lows of a demanding year on the road that started in July 2018 and ended in June 2019

Football writer Andy Mitten has travelled the world over the past 11 months covering football for The National.
He has seen 83 matches this season, ranging from friendlies in the United States, to the best leagues in Europe, and then heading Mexico to meet Diego Maradona.
Andy looks back here at the highs and lows in the world of football that he has experienced.

Best game - Real Madrid 1 Ajax 4

I had been going to Madrid every year to those Uefa Champions League knockout games. The same thing happened year after year. The games were usually the best I would watch all season – Bayern Munich had a real go in 2018 – but Madrid always prevailed.

They soaked up the pressure, they had a few fortuitous decisions go their way, they had Cristiano Ronaldo and they won four out of five European Cups. Nobody has dominated the competition ever like Madrid.

And no Ajax fans expected victory when they faced them in the second leg of their last-16 tie.

They had played well in the first leg, but Madrid had won 2-1. I spent the day of the game with the 4,500 Ajax fans enjoying themselves in Madrid. They thought it would be their last European game: their young team did not.

If I’m going to be objective here, I should also mention Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1 and Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0. City were 4-0 up after 25 minutes. Tottenham were excellent in Camp Nou against Barcelona in December as well.

Worst game - Manchester United 0 Crystal Palace 0

I have never seen so many bad Manchester United games in one season.

The goalless draw at home to Crystal Palace in November was atrocious, but the gutless showings at the very end of the season were up there too.

Best individual performance - Kylian Mbappe

Kylian M’Bappe scored four goals in 13 minutes against a very good Lyon team for Paris Saint-Germain.

His pace would hurt Man Utd five months later … at least for one game.

Best pre-match anticipation - Manchester United at Cardiff City

Man United fans in Cardiff before Ole Gunnar’s first game as they sang non-stop, especially the ‘Ole’s at the wheel song’ which really took off.

The relief was incredible and the honeymoon lasted a few months. Expectations were so high going into an FA Cup game at Wolverhampton in the quarter-finals in March, but United did not turn up.

Favourite new ground visited - Estadio BBVA Bancomer

The BBVA stadium in Monterrey was what attracted me to going there and to write the story in the first place. A fan picture of it went viral, with a lush mountain backdrop in Mexico’s third biggest city. I imagined that in print format with a brilliant photographer.

I also got to see an alternative view of the build-up to a football match by riding in a Mexican riot van, definitely a new experience for myself on a match day.

I liked the old wooden blue seats in Goodison Park’s main stand; I did not like sitting alone in one of them after Everton had destroyed Manchester United 4-0 in April.

Favourite story - Diego Maradona

Chasing Diego Maradona around Mexico was fun, but I enjoy all the long read pieces that I do. Spending time with hardcore lifelong fans of all manner of teams reminds you of what football really means.

Best one-liner - Paul Scholes

“Don’t tell me you’ve come from Barcelona to this,” asked the about to be unveiled Oldham Athletic manager Paul Scholes, who knew I’d been at Barca the previous night. The planned day with Scholes in April never materialised since he lasted 31 days in the job.

When journalism goes wrong

I went to Paris to do a Neymar story. I’d arranged to meet former United player Rafael, now at Lyon, after the game. He got injured and had to go to hospital.

I went to Wolverhampton Wanderers to write a piece on how well they were doing. They were beaten at home by a Huddersfield Town team who did not win games that season.

I was to interview Alexis Sanchez and speak to him in Spanish, but he’s one of several United players adverse to doing media. It’s a joke really. They are paid millions and cannot be bothered it seems, for whatever reasons, to communicate, through the media, to the fans who pay their wages.

The nice guys - Juan Mata, Fred and Ivan Rakitic

Juan Mata is the best footballer I’ve come across. Fred. He’s new to England, he’s trying hard but it didn’t really happen for him. I was delighted when he played well in Paris and he came straight to speak to me after the match. I ask him questions in Spanish, he replies in Portuguese and my wife translates the bit I’m not sure of!

Ivan Rakitic was very pleasant, too.

Best Interview - John Coleman, Accrington Stanley

I had met Accrington Stanley’s manager John Coleman in April 2018 through a mutual friend. Cole was at a reading by the author Irvine Welsh and I thought ‘there’s not many football managers who’d read Irvine Welsh’.

I had it in mind to go to Accrington since they shouldn’t be in League 2, let alone League 1. They’re tiny and, sandwiched between Burnley and Blackburn with the Manchester clubs to the south, struggle for new fans. Yet not only did they go up as champions in 2018, they played great football too.

Coleman invited me to Accrington and into his container before the game where he relaxes for the hour before kick-off. To get behind the scenes access was fascinating and then he invited me on the team bus and into the dressing room for what would be a vital away match at Doncaster Rovers.

Stanley were underdogs, but they won and the win all but guaranteed them staying up. I talked to the manager all the way home, a man who loves football at every level.

He was asking for quiz questions and getting most right.

Then I bumped into him on the Madrid metro before the European Cup final, which he’d travelled to as a fan to support Liverpool.

Best songs - River Plate and Boca Juniors

River and Boca fans in Madrid for the re-arranged Libertadores final. Most of the best football songs you hear around the world emanate from Argentina.

Going viral - Ajax sing Monty Python

I heard Ajax fans singing ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ in the Bernabeu and filmed it for 12 seconds. It was viewed a million times or something and with Eric Idle, the man who originally sang it, responding.

It’s irritating to then be asked by outlets to use the footage for profit making companies. How about investing in journalism yourselves rather than pilfering the content of others?

Best journey - Berne

Berne, Switzerland, was beautiful. The old town sits above a curve in the river. The sun was out in late September and the train wound through the Alps.

I spent a few days in Interlaken after the game to write a travel piece. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. It’s not cheap, mind.

Coldest game - Man Utd U19s v Berne

Man United’s under 19s v Berne at Leigh, 12 miles west of Manchester, was wet, cold and very windy, even sitting on row 15.

Hottest game - Man United v Club America

You couldn’t walk outside for more than 10 minutes in Phoenix, Arizona, ahead of Man United’s opening pre-season game against Club America.

That was my first game of the season. My last, the Champions League final in Madrid, was also very hot in the Spanish capital.

Did he really say that moment - Jose Mourinho

“If was them (the fans) I wouldn’t come. I wouldn’t spend my money to see these teams.” Jose Mourinho after over 100,000 fans had just done that in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Saddest moment - Liam Miller's memorial game

A memorial game for Liam Miller in Cork, Ireland, which was attended by 45,000 and sold out in a day. He was 36 when he died of pancreatic cancer.

Biggest disappointment - Manchester United

They failed. Simple as. The 10 weeks when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over were a joy, especially the FA Cup run and that last minute win in Paris, but that was just about it.

Best player - Lionel Messi

I would have written that for nine of the past ten years. I’ve been fortunate to watch him live over 200 times.

Messi hogs the top spot, but Virgil van Dijk deserves a mention. As one Liverpool fan explained to me, “he’s transformative”. I was one of the people who doubted his £75 million (Dh351.1m) fee. I was wrong.

Best team - Liverpool

Liverpool. 97 points, nearly enough for a Premier League title – and one Champions League. They’re the best team in the world right now.

Best young players - Vinicius Junior

I like Ousame Dembele, but he has to be more consistent and responsible. Vinicius Junior at Real Madrid is hugely exciting. I first saw him pre-season in Miami against Man United and people were getting off their seats. I think he could become one of the best players in the world.

Rodrigo Bentancur, the young Uruguayan midfielder, was superb for Juventus at Old Trafford. I’d watched play for Boca three years ago and emailed a manager about him…

1990s throwback - Elland Road

Elland Road, Leeds. I’m a huge admirer of Marcelo Biesla and he did a good job at Leeds United, whose ground hasn't changed in 20 years.

For better or worse, it struck me how different grounds are when clubs have been away from the top league for a few years.

Dazed and confused

Inter Milan v Barcelona. As my plane came to land in Milan, it came back into network coverage.

“He’s just gone,” messaged my brother. I knew my dad was dying and I’d said goodbye to him and everything I wanted to say to him.

Now I had to cover a game of football and to make matters worse I had no hotel and Milan was booked up like no other city I’ve seen this year.

I know people in Milan who could have helped me but I wasn’t thinking straight. I ended up in a dormitory in a hostel for the first time since being a teen.

I walked there in the rain from San Siro at midnight after attending a game I wasn’t fit to cover. So I didn’t.

The next day I received a text from Nemanja Vidic who lives in Milan. He asked me if I wanted a lift to Turin to see Juventus v Man United. I needed a lift in more ways than one and went to meet him. I didn’t tell him about my dad, I didn’t want to put a downer on the conversation.

I’ve not told him to this day. But he lifted my spirits and Juan Mata’s late free-kick did the same.

Surprise derby - Los Angeles

Los Angeles. LAFC had one been in existence a year or two and I went to their home to see their derby with a very sceptical eye. I was pleasantly surprised at the atmosphere, pricing, stadium and fan culture.

The club had cleverly tapped into different working class demographics and it was working. Decent game, too.

Hearts v Hibs, the Edinburgh derby, had a vicious element to the atmosphere that was like an 80s throwback.

Best club to deal with - Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wolves were excellent. They, like Liverpool, are of the opinion that a club gets the media it deserves.

Liverpool are the best about, but it’s easier to be when you’re winning. There are some excellent people at Man United and Barca, the two clubs I attend the most games at, but it was not easy for either as the season came to a close.

Surprise of the year - Wu Lei

Wu Lei, China’s best player, who helped revolutionise Espanyol’s season. They looked like they were going down in January; they ended the last day of the season in a European spot.

Lei runs at opponents, he’s direct and fast. Fans love him. It is good to see a Chinese player excelling in a top five league.

Updated: June 13, 2019 03:52 PM

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