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SAFE EUROPEAN HOME
 
By Clancy Eccles
 
 
Back when I was still just a promising youngster I used to work with Terry Venables. It was during the European championships of 1996 held in England, when we both worked for the FA. I didn't make the squad obviously, though with Neil Ruddock and Steve Howey being in there you've gotta wonder why. Nor was I sat alongside El Tel on the bench as England produced another glorious failure but we were both vital members of 'Team England', him as head-coach and me as media centre liaison and communication officer (which makes me sound much more vital than I was). The importance of both roles can easily be overestimated.


The media centre I was employed to assist/doss about in was at Old Trafford, where five matches were to be played, including a semi-final. For three glorious weeks, going to work meant walking across that forecourt and down that tunnel everyday. It didn't so much put a spring in me step as turn me into Tigger every morning.
I wandered around Old Trafford every day for three weeks with magic little UEFA access-all-areas passes, got free tickets for all the games played there and at Anfield, watched loads of quality football and enjoyed the multitude of sponsors generosity at every available opportunity (and a few unavailable ones). It was a tough gig.
I got to meet loads of footballers. A lot of em were anonymous Russian, Czech and Croatian squad players but there were plenty of superstars and former greats around.


Before one of the early games about 200 million quids worth of Italian footballers walked in, all decked-out in dark blue track-suits, plenty of gold on show and more hair product than a Salford hen-do. Already in there was Frank Worthington, resplendent in a Stetson with a feather in it, who rounded on the Serie A superstars, said “Fuck me, its Take That” and sauntered off, spurs jangling, leaving them looking dazed and confused and the rest of the room howling. Casiraghi asked the interpreter who the mad old cowboy was and why was he there. I don't think even Frank knew why he was there.


Before Croatia played Germany in the Quarter-Final. I gave Boban and Suker a light. Me and two millionaire, superstar footballers skulking behind an advertising hoarding round the back of the Stretford end. They had twos on one cig. You'd think a fella from AC Milan and one from Real Madrid could afford one each. I'd say they were nice lads but Suker only said “Light?” and then the pair of em blanked me so I wouldn't know, the ignorant Croatian twats.


It was at the following game, the semi-final, France v Czech Republic that I worked with Eric. When I say 'worked with' what I really mean is I gave him his media pack but they way we worked together, me reaching out with the pack, him reaching out to receive it, was teamwork of the highest order. One could say art. At the very least I can always say I passed to Eric Cantona.


(Eric was the only person I saw get past the security without his UEFA pass. I watched em stop Platini, Hansen, Lineker, Beckenbauer, Big Fat Ron and many less famous but instantly recognisable faces but no one raised a hand or an objection to Eric. He breezed in like he owned the place. Which of course he did).
I was working there the day the IRA detonated one of its largest ever bombs, right in the middle of Manchester, miraculously managing to avoid killing anyone, demolishing half of one of Europe's ugliest buildings and unwittingly sparking Manchester's 'cultural and architectural renaissance' (no really, that's what it is. The council's guide-books say so).


It was the largest bomb the IRA had ever detonated on the mainland and it still seems a miracle there was no loss of life. It's impact on the day was to completely close the city centre over a huge radius. There were reports of further bombs planted and suspect packages and in the end town stayed shut and empty until into the evening.


There was a game at  Old Trafford the following day but most of the preparation for that went on the back-burner as the impact of the bomb was managed. There was talk that it would be postponed but in the event it went ahead untroubled.  It left me with little to do that afternoon but  I decided to stay at O.T for a while as the police said all of town was cordoned off and we wouldn't get through yet.
I didn't have to do much except spend half-an-hour persuading a Bulgarian journalist that I couldn't phone Buckingham Palace so he could find out what the princess Di thought about the explosion. Most of the Journo's left after an hour leaving me with the rest of the day off. Along with another lad , I decided to hang about and find a spot to watch the England v Scotland match.


One of my jobs was to process everyones accreditation and give out the passes to people. There were 6 levels of access and I just printed meself off a pass for every occasion. Thanks to these passes we were now free to explore and enjoy Old Trafford and UEFA's hospitality. Well, the passes and the dirty great bomb obviously.
I would only have been able to have half-an-eye on the game before but now, due to the actions of the IRA, I was feet-up in front of a big screen in the Executive lounge at O.T with a complimentary bar and buffet and an assortment of football legends for company. Tiocfaidh Ar La indeed . (Mind you, some of the legends were a pain in the arse. Lou Macari kept bouncing in front of the screen like a Jock jack-in-the-box and Bob Latchford hoovered-up all the pies from the buffet the porky get).


Not long after Uri Geller made McAllister's penalty miss and Gazza re-defined himself for a few weeks 'til he fucked it again, the room emptied and we decided to get off, jumping on a tram and seeing how far we got. We got as far as G-Mex when the coppers stopped the tram at the edge of the cordon. We decided to jib down the canal and head for Piccadilly to get home. I expected a copper to stop us but we got as far as the canal bar, which was open. The barman lived upstairs and after the bomb he'd opened and hadn't realised he was in the middle of a cordoned-off town. He said he thought it had been quiet.


We had a couple there then decided we'd be able to get through Piccadilly and then get to a point where transport was still running so we could get back to Moston. A bit further on up the canal path we came up on Oxford rd near the back of the Ritz. The first thing to strike me was the silence. From outside the canal bar we'd heard a lone alarm but even that had stopped now. The sheer weight of the silence was so oppressive we spoke in whispers.


From the corner of Whitworth street we could see right along Oxford rd. Nothing. No people, no cars, no buses, no anything. I'd expected to see police but there was nothing except the two of us and the wildlife.
There were pigeons walking right up the middle of the road seemingly just as confused by the whole situation. My eyes locked with one of the rats-with-wings and and I swear we communicated our shared feeling of 'what-the-fuck-is-goin-on-ness'. The silence was so total that it took us a few minutes to realise that the clicking we could hear was the traffic lights changing colour. Out of habit I pushed the button on a pedestrian crossing as we crossed Whitworth street. The sound of the beeping when the lights went red nearly made me shit meself. The sheer shock to the silence was as aggressive as having a whistle blown down your earhole.


We walked all along Whitworth street, down Chorlton street and into Piccadilly and still we saw nobody, not a living soul (I found out later that there were some people in town, mostly residents who hadn't or wouldn't be evacuated, though there were far fewer people living in town then than there are now).
We sat in Piccadilly gardens for a few minutes. The silence seemed to over-emphasise the scale of everything and the buildings loomed around us. I'd given a bit of thought to the fact there might be more bombs waiting to go off but my overall feeling was one of peace. I just sat there wanting to take it all in and wondered aloud if we were the only people ever to have had this experience.


The silence and tranquillity were shattered by voices shouting “who are you?” ,“What the fuck are you doing?” and “Get fucking out of there now!”. A group of coppers stood at the end of Oldham street had spotted us delivered these messages with some force. They interviewed us for about 5 minutes and were very soon convinced were weren't some splinter cell and sent us on our way.


We went in the Land O'Cakes and got chatting with a couple of Czech lads. They had clocked our FA T-Shirts and bowled straight over with a couple of pints. Lovely lads. They were journalists from Prague covering the tournament who couldn't get back to their hotel so they'd made a day of it. Not being able to booze in town or knowing where to go they'd ended up there. They'd been taken under the wing of a proper Frank and Monica, as familiarly rum a pair of Mancunian malingerers as you ever saw. Frank never once looked me in the eye even when he was trying to sell me a watch and some 'Calvin Klein's' (Calvin Klein's what, he never said). Monica looked like she could've been happy if she'd never met Frank. And about 15 years older than she probably was. They were both really friendly though, in an unfriendly, 'don't trust em' kind of way.


Seeing this funny little gang of Europeans thrown together in an Ancoats boozer by circumstance summed up a weird day. Monica told me she'd never met a “Czech bloke before”, saying 'Czech' with such confusion and awe she might as well have been saying Martian.
One of the Czech lad's said they were going out for the night with Frank and Monica. He said they were all going to “Get Annes coats, then go to a town called Newton Heath and then to somewhere called Gorton for a party”. Regardless of whatever might have been lost in translation I think Monica had the lads in mind for a party of her own. We had a couple more pints with em, talked Poborsky, Prague and Madchester and whiled away the early evening of a memorable day. A bit later Frank and Monica's mate came in, said he “had the van” and they all went.


Whenever talk turns to Euro 96 or the Manchester bomb it brings back so many memories of what I remember as a balmy, glorious summer when I had the best job of my life but I always think of them Czech lads and wonder if they ever made it back to Prague.

 

 

 


 

 

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