“Get a workman’s helmet.”
“Blue, if they’ve got one.”
It didn’t make a lot of sense … at least not until we got off the train a few days later. Turned out Jaime was right. When a small group of us said we were going to the Asturian derby between Sporting Gijón and Real Oviedo, his response was to buy a hard hat. We hadn’t and we were exposed.
Not that we were the only ones. Not all of the thousand or so fans travelling there wore helmets but there might have been a couple of hundred when they arrived at the station in Oviedo that afternoon. In the mind’s eye it is more, and a lot of them are covered with football stickers. Looking back, that derby might not even be a good thing, something to hang on to, still less to celebrate, but it doesn’t go away.
First, an apology: the headline in La Nueva España that morning called it the “greatest show on earth, more than a match”, but in fact it wasn’t much of a match at all, still less a great game, confirmation of what one report called a “tendency to nil-nilism”.
Well, they did say favourite and this did come to mind, a memory crystallising in that piece of sartorial advice and the essential silliness of it all.
This was huge, friends in Oviedo had said. Rooting out the reports now says so too. The match preview opened with the line “at last the day arrives”.
That day was a Sunday in January 1997 and they loaded us – too many of us – on to a train to Gijón, 35km away. A football special, no one else on board and no other way to go. Packed in and unable to move, glasses of piss passed along precariously and chucked out of the window. Songs hammered out on the ceiling and the sides, even if we didn’t know all of the words.
As we got closer to Gijón, some Sporting fans waited on the platforms of stations the train sped through – Veriña and La Calzada at a guess, looking at the map 23 years later – and threw things, thudding against the side.
It pulled into Gijón and the police boxed us in on all sides and ran us to the stadium all along the beachfront, three kilometres covered quickly. A few rocks flew, a bottle or two, hence the helmets, yet mostly it was insults and not much else – most tongue in cheek, accepted and reciprocated. They welcomed us and we proposed a swap deal for the UK: Gibraltar for Gijón. They never did take us up on that.
We kept running, all the way to the Molinón, where the mayor of Oviedo said the city’s team played “beautifully”. He insisted: “This isn’t football, this is poetry.” He was only half right, another politician telling porkies, and six years on Oviedo fans had more reason to hate him than anyone in Gijón when he proposed to put the club out of business and they rose up to rescue it. Yet if anyone deserved anything that day it probably was Oviedo.
Managed by Juanma Lillo, they had two goals disallowed and a penalty turned down in the 0-0 draw. Peter Dubovsky, rest his soul, hit the bar. Lillo wasn’t happy about the ref but he doesn’t linger in my mental version, which is more in line with the match ratings for the two keepers: “Ablanedo: not a game with much work.” And “Mora: more relaxed than he could have imagined.” In fact, the game almost doesn’t exist – beating double-winning Atlético 4-1 that year, now that was a game – but nor does it matter. It was the experience, the discovery, the something.
The president of the principality admitted that there “hadn’t been much football”. It had, though, “been a great party”, and now there was a train to catch home.