Juventus vs Notts County
It’s like your best mate going on a date with Cameron Diaz. Or your dad phoning you up and asking if you’ve heard of this Johnny Depp guy who he’s having a beer with.
So, as two cab drivers and several other randoms have asked me yesterday: exactly why were Notts County playing Juventus? Well… Juventus FC, basically the Manchester United of Italian football, asked Notts County to be the first team to play them at their brand new stadium because the clubs share a link that goes back 108 years.
In 1903 Juventus football players were rocking a pink shirt with black legwear combo - at least 80 years before it became fashionable in the new romatics era. Bored by their style they asked one of their players, an Englishman called John Savage, for ideas to smarten them up (and also for a kit that didn't fade so much in the wash). Mr Savage had a friend who lived in Nottingham and shipped out a spare set of Notts’ black and white stripes to Turin. Juve liked and adopted them. Subsequently they became the biggest football club in Italy and their black and white stripes became more famous worldwide than the club they inherited them from would ever be.
So when the task came round for Juventus deciding upon opponents for the opening fixture of their new 41,000-seater stadium they made an unusual decision to invite this club that they had never played, but who they shared a unique bond with, to the party. As the Guardian described it in today's newspaper it was an "elegant gesture."
As for the match itself: for me it seemed utterly surreal. It started off with fireworks, giraffes (!?!) and a sea of glowing Tron-like dancers, in the kind of complex ceremony that you’re normally only used to seeing kick off the Olympics or the World Cup. Then, as it all came to a crescendo Notts County captain Neal Bishop (a 30-year-old who was playing Sunday League five years ago) hands a shirt to Alessandro Del Piero (a 36-year old World Cup winner) in a symbolic gesture. Following this the game kicks off…
And remarkably the Magpies manage to hold their own for the first 45 minutes. Admittedly Juventus haven’t put out a full-stength team; but neither have Notts. Reserve goalkeeper Rob Burch makes his first start of the season and our best striker Lee Hughes remains on the bench. After ten minutes I comment gratefully to my friends that we haven’t conceded. Then it’s 20 minutes without concession. Then it’s half an hour. Before you know it, it’s half-time and I go outside for a cigarette not quite believing what is happening.
Eight minutes into the second-half we concede a fairly soft penalty. Our reserve goalkeeper (a free transfer from Lincoln City) saves the initial shot, but Luca Toni (capped 47 times for Italy) knocks it in on the rebound. At this point you start to assume that we are about to capitulate. Warily, we make half a dozen substitutions…
But the Magpies stay resolute and fight for every ball. Then, towards the end Notts talisman Lee Hughes gets the better of a scrappy exchange near the Juve goaline and taps it in to even the scores. It’s 1-1. We can’t believe it!
There’s a tongue-in-cheek chant that fans sing at Meadow Lane which goes “Juve, It’s just like watching Juve.” The innate irony of this song is that we know our club is a million miles away from these giants of European football. It's a small family club, where the fans know each other and where the players are paid decent, but not obscene, wages. Last season, as a season-ticket holder in the Pavis stand, I saw the club chairman smoking a fag before pretty much every game. I even went up and high-fived him! That's the kind of club we are - it's all a bit close and personal. But tonight we’re on the same pitch as the most famous club in Italy – and matching them man for man. It's not 'like watching Juve' - WE ARE WATCHING JUVE!
It’s nights like this that make me feel privileged to be a Notts County fan. I’m 32-years old and I’ve been watching the club for twenty-odd years. Most lower-league fans get their kicks from stories of cold dark nights away at the likes of Rochdale or Aldershot – and I have accumulated plenty of stories like that too.
But I’ve also seen my team play at Wembley five times: in three play-off finals (two of which we won) and two Anglo-Italian Cup finals (yes, despite the fact we’re unlikely to ever get into European competition properly, this wasn’t our first adventure on Italian soil). In recent seasons I’ve seen former England managers and players arrive at the club and watched us get promoted half a dozen times. And now I’ve seen us draw against the cream of Italian football in the inaugural game of Italy’s first club-owned stadium. Random things just seem to happen when you support this club!
People might think it’s a hard life being a lower division football fan; but really I’m just in it for the glory. My regards to the entire Notts County squad for a truly awesone performance in Italy. Now please come back safely and prepare youselves for Walsall on Saturday. Ho avuto una carriola, la rotella ho cad da!