FIRST PUBLISHED: Umbro website, February 2009
By Chris Hunt



The plane to Faro is packed, much to the vocal bemusement of one traveller, who expected that in credit crunch Britain the plane would have a few more empty seats. But he doesn’t realise that England are playing away and that all planes flying to within a three hour drive of Seville will be crowded with expectant football fans. Faro is just close enough to Spain’s fourth largest city to make southern Portugal an economical option for those intent on following the three lions of England.



On arriving in Seville, I have just enough time to check into my hotel before deciding on a whim to make the two-hour drive south to Malaga for tonight’s Under 21 game against a fairly full-strength Ecuador first-team. Killing time before the game in Malaga’s old town I chat football with a couple of Manchester United fans in a café. They’ve been passionately debating tonight’s game, but it turns out they are in the country just to watch the Under 21s and aren’t travelling on to Seville for the big match tomorrow. “I’ve got a special interest in the game tonight,” says one. His special interest turns out to be his son, Tom Heaton, the Manchester United youngster on loan at Cardiff and the starting keeper tonight. We talk about the game and the long road ahead for a quality player like Tom if he’s going to stake a claim one day for a full England cap. And then the supportive dad heads off to the ground. “We want to get in to see the warm-up,” he says, keen to get to the stadium.



At the 35,000-capacity Estadio la Rosaleda, the attendance is pretty poor given both the number of ex-pats living in the area and the smattering of young stars on display, but as I watch Tom Heaton make a couple of fine first-half saves on the pitch, I find myself sitting next to another proud dad and his seven-year-old lad, Spurs fan Josh. The pair live in Malaga and apparently Josh, who is sporting his red England shirt for the occasion, is a pretty good footballer himself, playing for a local club coached by former Bristol City pro Brian Tinnion.


Despite his age and location, Josh knows the stars of the Premiership inside out and has quite an impressive knowledge of the Under 21s on show tonight. I wonder if we’ll be seeing him wearing an England shirt for real in a few years’ time, but before I can ask him if he wants to play for his country, he’s on his feet celebrating as Frazier Campbell knocks in England’s second goal. “Come on you Spurs,” he shouts. Even an impressive second-half turnaround by Ecuador doesn’t dampen his spirits and he leaves the ground happy. I wonder if the same can be said for Tom Heaton and his father. Even for the most impartial of football parents, it can’t be easy to see your son concede three well-taken goals in quick succession.



Arriving in the centre of Seville at 11am, it’s apparent that the slow trickle of England fans has already started. Over the years if you travel regularly to away game the faces start to look familiar and odds are that you’ll chance upon someone you’ve met before. Soon I bump into Tom from Sunderland, who I first met in a bar before the game in Chicago in 2005. Like many fans here today, Tom is turning the trip into a short holiday, staying for a few days to escape the snow at home. He points me in the direction of where the fans are gathering and I find myself passing through the Plaza Nueva, where a gigantic flag of St George already dominates the square.


Following the sound of distant football songs, a quick stroll along the Avenida de la Constitución takes me to Flaherty’s, an Irish pub situated in Calle Alemanes. A small side street facing the back of Seville’s famous gothic cathedral, it seems to have become the main point of interest for the day’s travelling fans. Flags are draped outside the bar and the buoyant crowd spill out onto the road, singing and chanting for the watching television crew.


With the camera trained on them the fans prove their versatility, adapting the tired ‘Ten German Bombers’ terrace chant of recent years to incorporate the Spanish Armada and its “ten Spanish galleons”. While many fans lift their voice in celebration of English naval dominance – “And Sir Francis Drake of England shot them down” – others head off for a bit of real history with a stroll around the cathedral and a guided tour of the bullring. But that’s the great thing about following your country abroad: there really is something in it for everyone!



England fans have been steadily streaming into the city all afternoon and even in a place the size of Seville it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by their dominant presence. Quite simply, there are England shirts everywhere. A group of Canadian tourists enquire what all the noise is about and although they know very little about ‘soccer’, they are suitably impressed that David Beckham is in town.


The fans too are discussing ‘Becks’ and his scheduled record-equalling appearance tonight. Although the majority of the travelling fans love Beckham for the passion he has brought to playing for the team over the years, by equalling Bobby Moore’s outfield record of 108 caps he has kicked-off a cafe debate about the relative merits of the two former England captains, one a World Cup winner and one not.



The ground is a 15-minute walk from the city centre, easily manageable by most fans, except for the pair who decide to flag down a passing horse-and-carriage and haggle a good price for a ride to the ground. Most, however, arrive at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan by foot and by the time I’ve found a seat, the place is full of noise and colour and the match is about to kick-off.


Having come with such high expectations, the game proves a disappointing anti-climax as Villa’s 36th minute goal silences the travelling England fans. Even the introduction of David Beckham after the break fails to lift spirits, and when Llorente scores Spain’s second with just eight minutes remaining, it signals the end of the game for many, who pour out of the ground heading either for their flights home or for the start of the rest of their winter holiday in the sun. By the time England line-up against Slovakia at Wembley next month, wearing a brand new England shirt and looking forward to the World Cup qualifying matches ahead, this game will be a distant memory.



© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007