Some time in 2014 the idea of an Under The Cosh football mini-tour of Europe was conceived. 18 months of planning and one Canadian passport for Mohaned later (you try several countries in ten days with Egyptian documents), we were on our way to London, Manchester, Barcelona, Rome and Berlin. The following is Rishay’s account of our travels, with additions from the other Cosh boys here and there.
London & Manchester:
We arrived at London Heathrow and got the tube across town to Crouch End, where we were staying with Dan – a high-school friend of Alex’s – and Dan’s girlfriend, Sophie. Typical English drizzle greeted us, and supremely jet lagged from our red eye flight from Toronto we established ourselves in the flat and took a nap on the couch. It was a tight squeeze to accommodate all of us and it must have looked ridiculous, but we made it happen. The plan that evening was for Mohaned, Bernie and I to meet some friends at Dinerama in Shoreditch, while Alex went for drinks to catch up with Dan, Soph and Nathan, another friend from his school days.
That evening at Dinerama, we bumped into Gary Lineker. Of all the things, this was not something that any of us had expected on our first night in London at a random location while on a footballing pilgrimage. Mohaned and Bernie took the least amount of interest in the fact that the one and only Gary Lineker was present. I shook hands with him, and although he did not want any pictures to be taken of him, managed a brief chat.
We planned to move on to another location, but just before we could do so, Lineker – also also about to leave – seemed to send one of his envoys to ask some of our ladies to join him in an after-party at his place. They turned him down and continued the night with us, of course, but it was a bizarre episode on our first night in London. We went out and enjoyed ourselves despite Bernie and I having an extremely early train to Manchester the next morning, to see our beloved United face Aston Villa.
Somehow, running on about four hours of sleep since leaving Toronto, Bernie and I boarded the train to Manchester at the crack of dawn. We attempted and failed to get some sleep on the journey. Personally, it was my first time in England and so any view out of the window was one I wanted to remember. London soon passed and gave way to a series of fields, farms, and hills that went whizzing by. It reminded me very much of books by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl that I read as a child.
Eventually we arrived at Manchester Piccadilly. Bernie and I both emerged from the train in a trance from a lack of sleep and also from knowing that we were moments away from fulfilling a life-long dream and reaching Old Trafford. The feeling still had not sunk in properly. We grabbed a cab from the station to the stadium. Of course, our cabbie was a United fan and we had a brief chat along the way as he pointed out a couple of bars and attractions around the stadium.
We got out of our cab and still could not believe that we were facing the East Stand on Sir Matt Busby Way. It all seemed surreal. We were also completely frozen, in a state of jet lag and a trance from the late night and early morning, but we had arrived at the stadium of our childhood dreams. From lands far away that we had grown up in, watching our beloved team play around the clock, finally, we had arrived at the footsteps of Old Trafford.
It was an unbelievable feeling and we embraced it on pure adrenaline. We also managed a peak into Hotel Football (owned by the Class of ’92), and a stroll around the United Megastore along with a lap around the stadium from the outside. With some time to kill before the game, we meandered through the local bars around the corner of Sir Matt Busby Way. First to a local fan pub and then to get fish and chips before posting up at a Costa Coffee for a few hours to rest. Then, after our refuel, we got to our seats and took many pictures. Soon, the stadium filled up. We were located opposite the Stretford End and very close to the away supporters.
The home fans were absolutely silent throughout the 90 minutes
After the warm-ups, the game finally started. The Villa fans put on a good show (a better one than their team) despite knowing that losing the game would see their side relegated, but the home fans were absolutely silent throughout the 90 minutes. It was puzzling and disappointing to us since we had imagined a loud and raucous stadium, and come ready to sing.
In hindsight we should have seen this coming. The fans have long given up on the manager and the stale brand of football he displays at Old Trafford. There would be no Eric Cantona chant, no singing of Glory Glory Man United, these fans were not having it and neither were we. There was one particular plump United fan seated next to Bernie and I who amused us. After every anti-United chant from the Villa fans he would stand up and slowly wag his finger downwards indicating to the away fans that their team were to be relegated. His expression was blank (we think he was high) but no matter, he entertained us more than Louis Van Gaal’s red army.
Thankfully Marcus Rashford scored the only goal of the game. We found this moment to be the silver lining in what truly was a dull match. It’s not every day that one gets to say they witnessed the early days of what could be a good career for a local Manchester lad at Old Trafford. Despite some late sloppiness from United (including Villa hitting the post late on), our team saw out the match, 1-0.
We hailed a cab to take us back to Manchester Piccadilly and for 15 pounds he took us for a ride through hell. There were some dodgy back alleys and he went in the wrong direction on a handful of one-way streets to beat the traffic. We got an earlier train back to London than we had planned due to being completely spent, and needing to be on an early flight to Barcelona the next morning. There were quite a few United fans on that train back and none had a nice word for Louis Van Gaal. The Villa fans chanted at us to go back to London and that’s exactly what we – and hundreds of others – were doing. I guess that whole thing about United fans being from London may have a kernel of truth to it.
We finally got back to Dan’s flat,showered, tried to nap and failed again, and had dinner with our friends from the previous night out in London. After a pleasant evening with them and another round of fish and chips, an exhausted Bernie and I returned to Dan and Soph’s place. We finally managed to sleep after some late night bants with Mohaned and Alex until well past midnight. At around 3.30am, in yet another a sleep-deprived trance, Bernie and I left the apartment and got a taxi to Gatwick.
The drive was full of napped intervals but we stole a quick glimpse of the London Eye and Big Ben through the darkness of the morning before finally arriving at Gatwick about an hour and 15 minutes later. We checked in and grabbed a quick breakfast before boarding our flight to Barcelona. Everything was happening so fast it was hard to really let any of it sink in.
Arsenal vs Crystal Palace – Alex & Mohaned’s account:
The morning of Sunday, April 17, Rishay and Bernie left for Barcelona leaving Mohaned and I in London for one more day with nothing to do but watch Arsenal take on Crystal Palace.
We left Dan’s place around 10am and set off to an apartment near Angel, Islington, where we’d be staying that night with a highschool friend of Mohaned’s, Aysegul and her partner, Lucas. After waking them up, we dropped off our bags and, hungry as we were, headed up the Holloway Road to the Emirates. Priorities. We needed to make sure it and our tickets were real before we could relax.
Satisfied that both existed, we walked around the block and found a Turkish restaurant for a pre-game kofte. There isn’t much Turkish food in Toronto and I had forgotten about the brilliant abundance of it in London. The place was fantastic despite our waiter barely knowing what day it was, and as we ate we listened to the tables around us discussing Arsenal’s lineup. Cech, Bellerin, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Elneny, Sanchez, Ozil, Iwobi and Welbeck. Barring perhaps Gabriel, this was the most in-form team we could have put out and Mohaned and I were happy with it.
Our stomachs lined we walked back to the stadium with a couple of hours to soak it all in before the game. First we had to get through security, which was laughable. Though there was a massive team of security guards, they basically just looked us over and decided we were fine. We even witnessed a police sniffer-beagle being held back when it seemed to want to investigate someone. Bizarre.
We started on a lap around the outside of the ground, taking in the inscriptions on the walls, testimonials from former Arsenal greats, the statues of Bergkamp, Henry and Adams and of course, of course, the Megastore where the sum total of what we bought was a mouse pad for Rahim, Mohaned’s brother. I believe he literally owns everything else that can be produced with an Arsenal logo on it.
It was time to take our seats, evaluate the sprinkler system and catch the warmups (quality sprinkler system). Our view from behind the goal was immaculate. Looking around, you could tell there wasn’t a bad seat in the stadium.When the match kicked off at 4pm, very close to the capacity 60,000 were in their seats. You’d never have known it though. The home fans were beyond quiet, to the extent that one minute into the game the Palace contingent, who sang throughout, started up the old, “is this a library?”, chant. The Arsenal support didn’t respond, in effect answering the question. Yes it is.
Palace started as they meant to go on, with 11 men behind the ball and vague dreams of a set piece.
Arsenal started brightly, though. Bellerin was finding acres of space on the right, but his crossing let him down every time. Much to Mohaned’s Egyptian delight, Elneny looked the best player on the park, popping the ball around with confidence and always finding space to receive and turn.
Palace started as they meant to go on, with 11 men behind the ball and vague dreams of a set piece. Arsenal struggled to create any clear chances and it looked as though the first half would end 0-0. Then, just before half-time a beautiful dink over the defence from Welbeck found Alexis Sanchez on the move, and the bombastic Chilean’s diving header lobbed Wayne Hennessy. It was a brilliant goal and it meant the mood at the break was jovial.
The second half was, to be frank, a lot of nothing. Arsenal had nearly all the ball and passed it well without ever really penetrating or threatening the Palace goal. Pardew meanwhile brought on Bakary Sakho, who is built like a tank and gave Bellerin some issues down the left, and then Adebayor, which gave the Arsenal fans something to boo, but really the game was going nowhere and Arsenal looked comfortable.
Until that is that Arsene Wenger brought on Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud for Iwobi and Welbeck, seemingly for the sake of it. Almost inevitably, Palace equalized shortly afterwards as Bolasie cut inside Coquelin and fired a shot low into Cech’s near post. As soon as the ball hit the back of the net, the man sitting to the right of us stood up, waved goodbye to his elderly parents and left. The atmosphere, what little atmosphere there was, turned sour. Behind us a 13 year old kept shouting “for fuck’s sake, Arsenal!”, but comically, his voice was breaking and didn’t hold up, making him sound like he was very angry about fennel.
It was a cheap and typical goal to concede and while it wasn’t the fault of either Ramsey or Giroud, their needless arrivals had visibly unbalanced a side that had been in no real danger.
The game petered out, ending 1-1. As we left the ground we heard snippets of familiar conversations about the manager and the team. “Clueless”, “stubborn”, “spineless”. We were grateful not to have witnessed a defeat. It was a disappointing end to what had otherwise been a very fun day out.
Our spirits were revived that evening with a fantastic meal and conversation at a local Italian restaurant with Aysegul and Lucas before an early night. First thing the next morning we were on a train from Liverpool Street Station to Stanstead Airport, and from there on a Ryanair flight to Barcelona that was so ‘no-frills’ that there weren’t even seat-back pockets. When the cabin crew came around with duty-free magazines, Mohaned rightly asked “even if I wanted one, where would I put it?”, which kind of sums up Arsene Wenger’s thoughts on buying a new striker.