Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The NextGen Series Finals

The NextGen trophy

One beauty of journalism is that you never know when the call is gonna come. 

You exist in a state of perpetual readiness, poised for the next assignment whatever it entails, wherever it takes you. This was my life during those months in Scotland and increasingly, thrillingly, it is becoming my life again now.

Of course, the “call” used to mean a death knock on a drug den in Cambuslang or Dennistoun, or the noising up of some gypsies in Montrose. Things that weren’t at all pretty. 

But on the sports desk, assignments tend to be much more enticing. The chance to meet a hero, to chat to a legend, to visit a new town or stadium, or, from time to time, a quite beautiful trip abroad like this. 

On Wednesday morning, having broken the back of the working week, I was feeling good looking forward to the weekend’s football as usual and following Boston United to Hinckley for the first time in three years. 

Venue: The Stadio G. Sinigaglia
Then the call came through and everything changes. The best laid plans are ceremoniously ripped up and tossed in the air, frantic arrangements are made, the weekend bag comes down from wardrobe and is flung on the bed. Currency is exchanged and provisions bought, excuses made and information sought. 

The sun would set and before it could rise again, I’d be bound for the shore of Lake Como to report on the finals of the NextGen Series. For those who haven’t heard of the competition, it is best described as a Champions League for Europe’s best youth teams, a proving ground for the next generation of talent. 

I was allowed out there because English interest was strong - Arsenal, Chelsea and Aston Villa had made it to the semi-finals, where they would be joined by Sporting Lisbon, the conquerors of Tottenham. Before the Easter weekend was up, we would know who would own the sleek silver NextGen trophy.

Planes, trains and automobiles delivered me to the Grand Hotel Di Como in time for evening refreshment on Thursday. Outside the rain teemed down and the usually shimmering lake on the other side of the hotel gardens was shrouded and forbidding. 

Friday dawned brighter and with the two semi-finals scheduled for the afternoon, I decided to venture forth into the well-preserved medieval city for a little explore. It turned out a couple of hours is plenty to see the splendid, green-domed Duomo, the grand 16th century villas that overlook the bay and become lost in the maze of narrow bobbled streets, filled with designer boutiques, and bustling markets.  

The majesty of Lake Como
Como is, of course, just the start of the region’s attractions. Even on such a murky day, the eyes can trace the outlines of the Alpine foothills to the North and the communities that cling to the verdant valleys along the edge of the lake. The place is a gateway to the delights of the Swiss Alps and the last stop before the mountain roads wind their way into northern Europe. 

For centuries, it has been a haven for people of wealth and taste, a base camp for jet-setters. We were just out of season, so the full attractions of Como weren’t yet open to us. 

The matches took place at the Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia, the home of third division Como Calcio. Signor Sinigaglia was a champion rower and a First World War hero. A giant stone obelisk marked the perished of the Great War on the waterfront near the stadium and a misplaced goal kick may have had a chance of striking it. 

Daubed in graffiti and crumbling in corners, the stadium would no longer exist if it wasn’t protected by law. Como, in Serie A as recently as 2003 but then crippled by four successive relegations and bankruptcy, are desperate to relocate and breath out. 

Nonetheless, it was a spectacular venue. The view from the press box, of water, hills and mountains beyond, occasionally enlivened by sea planes circling to land on the lake at the adjacent Aero Club, must be one of the most beautiful in the entire world. Who cares if you don’t have decent wi-fi when you have that?

Sadly the pitch didn’t live up to anyone’s expectations. It was dry and threadbare despite the ceaseless rain and passing football was made an impossibility. In the first semi between Arsenal and Chelsea, four players went down injured within 10 minutes at one point as a result of the bobbly turf. 

The Aero Club right next to the stadium
This London derby was the highlight of the weekend’s football. With 10 minutes to play, I was sitting pretty having teed up 800 words about how Chelsea had deservedly won 3-1. I might have predicted it really. Arsenal, having done bugger all in the second half, found the stamina to score twice and force extra time. I sliced off my top few paragraphs and tensed my fingertips again. 

In the end, Lewis Baker scored the winner to deliver Chelsea to the final. Baker, an England Under 19 international and Chelsea’s captain, was rightly player of the tournament and will be some player in a few years. He’s a nice enough lad to talk to as well and his dejection after losing the final was tear-wrenching. Jeremie Boga will also make it on this evidence, though he wasn’t as effective in the final. 

Villa beat Sporting Lisbon in front of a sparse crowd on the Friday evening to book their place. The Portuguese weren’t too chuffed about it, having been convinced they would win the competition, but they were soundly beaten in the end. 

Villa have a core of prodigiously talented Irish players and won the competition even without the prolific striker Michael Drennan. Among the Eire axis was the skipper Samir Carruthers, who was a joy to chat with when I caught up with him on Monday morning. 

Sporting beat Arsenal 3-1 in the third-placed play-off on Sunday, before Villa defeated Chelsea 2-0 the following night thanks to two penalties from Graham Burke, who ended up as the tournament’s top scorer. Their inspiration in that match, Callum Robinson, brought home just how much it meant to the players and the club in his post-match interview, when he was pretty much bouncing off the walls. 

The silverware was a crumb of comfort for Villa in what has been a gloomy season. 

Away from the Sinigaglia, there was good food and drink, laughter and hospitable company. My previous tours of Italy had been fleeting and it was impossible to appreciate what a warm and welcoming people they are. The language, always with a side order of emphasis and gesticulation, is delightful on the ears.

Four matches, 17 goals, a handful of future stars, ten thousand words, too many mispronunciations and a few glasses of the local wine. One outstanding weekend. 

Next match: A weekend triple-header awaits - Everton v Norwich City in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final for work on Friday evening, Chester FC against Boston United on Saturday and then Southend United vs Crewe in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley on Sunday.