FIRST PUBLISHED: Match, November 1998
By Chris Hunt


Set for the Italian Job? The young guns of the Nationwide League were off to Italy for an Under-21 clash with their counterparts in Serie B. The annual clash dates way back to 1960, when the Italians ran out 4-2 winners in the San Siro, but this year’s crop of league flash lads are determined to get a result. And with a squad boasting Sunderland striker Michael Bridges, Everton’s Michael Branch (cunningly included while on loan to Manchester City) and Ipswich’s Richard Wright, they travelled abroad with a strong contingent. Players fromall three Nationwide divisions were considered for the squad, and with England Under-21coach Peter Taylor in charge for the first time, the lads of this year’s squad had everything to play for.




It’s Sunday night and the Football League Under-21 squad assemble at the Sheraton Skyline Hotel at Heathrow for their first meeting. It all goes well, but not many of the lads seem toknow each other.

MICHAEL BRANCH: “It was like being school kids again, not knowinganyone’s name! But you’ve got to work out who’s who quite quickly because it’ll be hard whenwe get on the pitch if you’re shouting for the ball when you can’t remember a player’s name!”

PAUL ROBINSON: “This is my first trip so I don’t know anyone except my Watford team-mate Gifton Noel-Williams. You’ve got to get to know people quickly if you’re going to play well together. At least Gifton knows a few of the lads. He’s the loudest person at Watford and I’m rooming with him.”



12.15pm TIME TO FLY

After breakfast, the squad have a team meeting and the kit is dished out. When everyone’s gottheir flash Nationwide League Coca-Cola tracksuit and loads of other gear for the trip, it’s offto the airport. For some, it’s been a bit of a rush though.

EDDIE HOWE: “I was a late call-up – in fact I didn’t know I was coming until after our game on Saturday, but I was delighted to be included because it’s a very good idea to have a Nationwide League team. The First Division players get a chance to impress Peter Taylor and hopefully get included in a future England set-up, while players from the lower divisions can learn loads. I’ve worked with Peter before at the Toulon Tournament, so it was tremendous to have the chance to work with him again. Hopefully I’ll have something to show from this experience when I go back to Bournemouth.”



The plane lands at Rome Flumicino Airport before 4pm, but there’s a slight hitch. When thebags come off the plane, some of them look open. It appears that a light-fingered airport-type has made off with a couple of those top smart Nationwide League kits. After a word withthe Old Bill, it’s on the coach for the two-hour drive to Terni, a night-time training sessionon arrival – and then it’s back to the hotel.

RICHARD WRIGHT: “The atmosphere is a bit quiet, but it’s noisier than when we met up on Sunday. I think the spirit is coming on. You get toknow people bit by bit – you start off having a quick chat and then you begin to gossip aboutpeople you both know. A lot of people move from club to club so it’s always a laugh to findout who knows who! It’s quite strange getting to know lads who you’re playing against everyweek. We’re playing Crewe away on Saturday and I’ve been having a chat with Seth Johnsonabout that. I’ve also been having a laugh with Gifton about past games we’ve had withWatford!”




On the first full day in Italy it’s an early start for training, but not everyone is having a goodtrip. Gifton pulled up injured the previous night and sits out with a icepack strapped to hisankle.

GIFTON NOEL-WILLIAMS: “I hate watching when I’m injured – I just want to be out thereplaying. It’s really hard coming all this way and not being involved. I just hope I’ll getthe chance to play.”



It’s back to the hotel for lunch, but before Michael Branch can get tucked in to his chickensalad there’s some mixed news for the team’s only Premier loanee. Duncan Ferguson has been sold to Newcastle and ‘Branchy’ could be moving up the Everton pecking order.

MICHAEL BRANCH: “I wasn’t as surprised as everyone else when I heard because I had spoken to him and he told me that he might be going. It’s a shame because he’s a good mate, but I suppose it will give me more of a chance at Everton. I’ve got one game left at City and then we’ll see what happens.”



After lunch Richard Wright finishes offering Gifton advice on car insurance and begins to perform his captain’s duties: filming for the telly, a couple of interviews and some pictures for Match magazine. It’s top being a captain for the first time!

RICHARD WRIGHT: “I think I might have captained the school team, but other than that this is my first time! It’s been a pretty amazing month. I got a call-up to the full England squad, my first child was born and I was voted Nationwide League Player Of The Month. And now I have the chance to play for the Nationwide League. This side represents all 72 teams in the league, so to be captain is a great honour.”



There’s a second stint of training scheduled for late afternoon, but the lads have done well and the session is cancelled. Instead they have a team talk and run through set-plays. An hour later they are invited to join all the top Football League bods for a civic reception thrown by the Mayor of Terni. The Italian squad turn up to receive their commemorative plaques and are shown the famous Terni waterfalls! It’s like Niagra Falls – by night! – and everyone seems impressed. No culture for the English lads, however. They stay in and watch footy on telly.

EDDIE HOWE: “We had the chance to go to the reception, but we stayed in the hotel to watch the Rangers UEFA Cup game and had an early night. What do you mean, ‘Were we cheering for Rangers?’ I like to see all British clubs do well.”

MICHAEL BRIDGES: “To be honest, whenever we come away to different countries all you ever see is your hotel room, a training pitch and the stadium. We could have gone to see the waterfalls but we stayed in to watch the football – it just shows that the lads are dedicated and they wanted to get an early night. Anyway, I’ve got a nice picture of the waterfall on this plaque, so I know what it looks like now!”




On the morning of the match the squad go for a walk and a stretch to get used to the weather conditions, then they have a pre-match meeting. After that? It’s straight on the coach and off to the Stadio Liberati.

RICHARD WRIGHT: “There aren’t points at stake in this game so there isn’t a huge pressure on us to win, but we’re still taking the game seriously – no-one likes to lose and we’re going into the game with the attitude that we want to win! I already know it’s going to be a difficult game, just from what we’ve heard. There are players in their team who are on the fringes of Serie A. Who knows what sort of players we’re going to come across or what kind of game it will be.”



The match kicks off in front of just a couple of hundred fans. The English lads look a bit shaky but then get the game under control and take the lead with a Sean Evers goal. A dubious penalty leads to an equaliser and the teams play out a draw. Gifton Noel-Williams sat it out injured, but it was a good day for the Man Of The Match, Andy O’Brien.

ANDY O’BRIEN: “I was a bit shaky to start with, but when I settled down I got better. We should have won the game though – it definitely wasn’t a penalty. Hopefully next year we’ll beat them.”

MICHAEL BRANCH: “The longer the game went on the better we got. When we got together I didn’t even know half of the lads’ names, so I think we coped quite well in the end.”



Straight after the match the chairman of the Football League congratulates the lads and dishes out their medals, then they dash for the coach. The plane to Heathrow doesn’t wait for anyone and it’s going to be touch and go! Still, they’ve got a couple of hours on the coach to chat about the game.

MICHAEL BRIDGES: “What have I learnt? Not to get annoyed when referees give decisions against you. No, it’s a learning experience – in international football a lot of foreign players exaggerate when they’re tackled and it’s a learning process to keep calm. It was different from playing league teams. The Italians try to pull you a lot more, they try to get involved with you a lot more – and it’s about being able to handle it.”



The coach just makes it to the airport in time, only to find that fog back in London has delayed takeoff. The lads have a couple of hours to kill so they keep an eye out for any Italian baggage-handlers wearing flash Nationwide League tracksuits. After four days away they’re all looking forward to home – and Gifton is still making everyone laugh.

PAUL ROBINSON: “I’m gutted for Gifton because he’s come all this way and hasn’t had the chance to play. But credit to him, he got on with the lads and he had us joking and laughing all week, so it was good to have him here. We want to see if we can get home in time to go out. It’s one of the Watford lads’ birthdays. I’m sure we’ll pop out for a couple of drinks with them.”

RICHARD WRIGHT: “It’s been tiring and you’re always glad to get home, but when we report back to our clubs tomorrow it’s business as usual. On Friday I’ll be travelling up to Crewe for Saturday’s game. Then it starts over again and I’m looking forward to it!”



Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007