Big Cup Bullshit
Somewhere in a pub off the King’s Road on Saturday, there will be a thick-set man with a shaved head who’s every bit as desperate for a Chelsea win as any of the club’s most ardent fans and with just as much riding on it, relatively speaking, as Roman Abramovich himself. Nothing particularly earth-shattering in that, you may be thinking – it could be any Headhunter with a sizeable wager – but our chunky, football-loving Everyman sports no Chelsea tattoo as a sign of his affiliation, is not even a Chelsea supporter, and, despite his pilgrimage to the Chelsea heartlands to watch the game, does not even hail from the capital. Yet there he will be, kicking every ball, making every tackle, applauding every Cech punch or save, and all this within a throng of blue shirts and with a pocketful of business cards.
Dan (I never did find out his surname; I couldn’t even tell you for sure that was his real first name) only crossed my path for a couple of hours, on a train from St Pancras to Nottingham, but he is not the sort of person you forget easily. As someone with ever diminishing opportunities to read, rare is the time that I’m happy to chat to strangers on the train, but I could happily have talked to Dan all the way to Inverness. He was a sort of compensation for all the pre-pubescent screechers and adolescent squawkers, the stern faced hags, broadsheet-wielding misanthropes, casual xenophobes, the dipso knuckledraggers and the BO exuders. He rekindled a long suppressed spirit of adventure, a reminder that, with a little courage, a little vision, a leap into the unknown, there were many ways to earn a crust. And if it didn’t work out, at least you’d have fun in failing.
Not that I thought any of that as he squeezed his great porcine heft into the seat opposite me, sweating and wheezing like a prison officer gone bad, plonking on the seat beside him and on the table two large blue fibreglass IKEA bags bearing, beneath bin liners, identical-seeming objects of improbable dimensions. Once he’d lugged himself into position, I gave him a brief smile of acknowledgement – hoping to convey sympathy for a predicament in which I’ve found myself on many occasions while not encouraging conversation from a face that screamed Wide Boy Patter – then returned to my book, Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, the hilarious and moving account of the author’s 18-year stint chronicling Brian Clough’s benevolent dictatorship for the Nottingham Evening Post.
“Cloughie, eh? Absolute genius. I mean, winning two European Cups, two more than the whole of London put together. Pretty amazing for such a small club. No offence, by the way.”
“No problem. I’m not a Forest fan.”
“Oh, okay. Who do you support? I’m Dan, by the way.”
“Hi Dan. I’m Scott. And Liverpool, for my sins.”
“How do you mean?”
“Er, you know…even better record in the European Cup.”
And off we went, talking about Tommy Smith’s header in Rome, Dalglish’s dink, Alan Kennedy’s late surge in Paris; reminiscing about Grobbelaar’s jelly legs and Jerzy Dudek’s homage twenty-one years later. Dan told me – in a broad Mancunian accent, as it goes – that he’d been to both Istanbul and Athens for the 2005 and 2007 finals. Green as Cloughie’s sweat-top with envy, I replied that “unfortunately, I couldn’t afford either at the time,” then embarked on a short, neurotic explanation-cum-semi-romanticization of my ongoing penury, at which point he sat back in his seat and seemed to relax, lowering his voice to confess that he wasn’t there as a supporter. “It was business,” he said with a lascivious, alligator smile.
He started to remove the bin liners from one of those encumbrances, careful to check over his shoulder before he did so, at which point the penny suddenly dropped as to why we’d been talking about the European Cup all the way to Stevenage. What Dan revealed was a full-size stainless steel replica of that gleaming totem of Europe’s plutocratic elite’s aspirations: Big Cup. For all I knew, it could have been the real thing – which, incidentally, was, verbatim, one of Dan’s killer sales lines, oft trotted out during his peripatetic life criss-crossing the continent trying to fill empty lives by hawking these uber-trinkets at anywhere from £200 to £800 a pop, depending how giddy (and metallurgically ignorant, presumably) the punter.
As we passed through Huntington toward Peterborough, he explained how he’d first got involved in 1999 when he saw Solskjaer’s reflex toe-poke in Barcelona earn his old compadre £5700 in orders from a raft of Sky Generation fans for whom 1968 was not just another era but might as well have been another club. So, alongside his regular job as a chef, he started to knock a few out, first in Britain, then occasionally in Amsterdam, before deciding that his trip to Istanbul would be the moment at which, after six years dabbling, he “took the plunge, big-time,” meeting the Turkish manufacturers and cutting out his middle man. He paid about £40 each for orders of over fifty units, then had them shipped to one of four strategically chosen cities where he rented lock-ups to reduce distribution costs: Madrid, Milan, Amsterdam, Warrington. “Fuck knows how the three I sold to them Mousers in the ‘Bul made it back to Blighty ‘cos they were defo too big for hand luggage, man. Eighteen hundred nicker in twenty minutes I earned,” he cackled.
Like all peddlers, Dan loved the adrenaline rush of the sale, the wheeling and dealing, the punter his unwitting quarry. Glasgow was one of his favourite hunting grounds, somewhere he could exploit sectarian loathing for profit, invoking the Lions of Lisbon for people pushed by the gigantic cogs and levers of industrial history into a hamster wheel of boozy escapism punctuated by the semi-lucid affirmation of their tribal identity. “You wouldn’t fookin’ believe it pal,” giggled Dan maniacally. “There are Celtic supporters in the Gorbals with a shitty two-piece suite, three-bar fire, fridge full of Tennent’s and a fuck-off European Cup plonked on the telly! Nowt else in the gaff. And the thing is I can actually knock ‘em out for more up there than I can in fookin’ Milan. These poor twats have got fuck all except the feeling that a European Cup makes ‘em better than the other lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did tours of the city, standing through the sunroof holding the fookin’ trophy!”
As we headed on north-west toward Grantham, provenance of the lay queen of entrepreneurialism, Dan explained the mechanics of it all (in an attempt to get me on the payroll), his strategy for a big match day: typically, he would sidle into a well-known supporters’ haunt a couple of hours before kick-off, Big Cup in tow. He’d pass it around, let people feel it, have their photos taken with it, get the juices flowing, and allow the fantasy to fasten around the axons and bedeck the synapses. Then he’d hand out the business cards, collecting the numbers of interested parties as he did so. “That reminds me,” he said, patter as polished as his trophies, “if ever you change your mind and want to get involved, you can get me on any of those numbers. The letters in brackets are the countries for each of me numbers.”
We rumbled on westward to Nottingham. There was just time for a few more anecdotes, all related as though entirely mundane and run-of-the-mill, before Dan would wander out of my narrative and off to some ‘Audience With…’ night featuring Cloughie’s not-so-pretty boy enforcers, Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns, regaled a room full of misty-eyed folk long marinated in nostalgia, ready to hear the same old tales and thus primed to invest money they couldn’t really afford in a largely worthless symbol of the two most intensely joyous days of their lives. There was the time he staged a photograph with the Feyenoord ultras and the Big Cup in order to drive up sales in the ‘Dam, only to get heavily stoned, lose his keys, and turn up at the lock-up the following to discover he’d been cleaned out of twenty-two in Amsterdam. The time a UEFA official clocked him in Bucharest and he had to get a taxi all the way to the border and over to Bulgaria, for fear of having to break the bank to bribe a Romanian policeman. The skinhead Serb nationalists who, after a couple of hours’ vodka-fuelled hard sell in which he told them he’d opened a Red Star supporter’s club in London, revealed they supported Partizan and took him for every last dinar.
While Dan himself started life as an avid Stretford Ender, he now just backs big city teams still to land a Big Cup. (The curiosity has been noted that, Ajax aside, no clubs from democratic capitals have landed the trophy, this excluding Real Madrid and Benfica on the grounds that their rise to pre-eminence came under the aegis of totalitarian regimes.) No doubt, then, Dan is drooling at the prospect of Qatari-funded success in one-club Paris; enticed by Roma’s new American owners; hoping for a freak winner from the East – from Donetsk, Kyiv or Moscow, perhaps. After all, there’s only so many times you can keep going back to Marseille, Munich, Manchester, Madrid and Milan.
So, if this Saturday you see some geezer in a boozer in SW3 sitting next to a big European Cup, perhaps even with a specially commissioned Chelsea tattoo (if MacIntyre can do it…) then be sympathetic and understand just what JT’s slip in Moscow meant. “Nottingham 2 London 0” might work as a line at one end of the M1, but is a significant source of grief in the Big Smoke.
Scott’s on Twitter.