The Union Canal, which runs from Edinburgh to Falkirk, would seem an odd place to start a piece which is focused on the most glamorous game in football – the Champions League Final – but if you run with me on this then I can assure it’s relevant to the story.
The canal was first conceived in 1793 as a direct route for people in Edinburgh to access cheap coal from the west. Its construction was approved in parliament in 1817 and it officially opened five years later in 1822.
The canal was an essential lifeblood for nearly 100 years, transporting goods from east-to-west and back again.
The rise of the railways saw the canal’s importance fade and by 1921 the first part of the canal – the eastern terminus – was closed. By 1965 the entire canal was consigned to history as I was formally closed to navigation. By the mid-80s – and by the time I had moved to Falkirk – the canal was a dumping ground for supermarket trollies and cars and was not a pretty sight at all.
However the canal was reopened in 2001 thanks to the Millennium Link project, £83.5m of funding and the greatest canal restoration anywhere in Britain. Then the opening of the Falkirk Wheel in 2002 reconnected the canal to the Forth and Clyde canal for the first time in 70 years and its rebirth as a community asset was confirmed.
It was in 2002, during the substantial activity to regenerate it, that the canal became a symbolic part of my route to the Champions League Final, because it was whilst out running along the canal with my best mate Allan that I realised I had a ticket to the glamour game which was being played in Glasgow at Hampden Stadium.
Allan had secured tickets through Alex Smith, who is his step-dad and was Dundee Utd manager at the time. He informed me as we ran along the canal that we were on our way to see the mighty Real Madrid take on Bayer Leverkusen.
I have to say it was a huge surprise – and a very pleasant one. I had already decided to head into Glasgow for the final and find a decent pub somewhere to take in the game and the atmosphere of the big occasion. But now I had secured a ringside seat to see the Galactico’s of Madrid make their much anticipated return to Hampden – a stadium that already had a serious significance in their history.
That was the thing about the Real coming to Glasgow in 2002 – there was already a serious amount of history between Madrid and Glasgow. So much so, in fact, that it almost felt like a homecoming.
Real famously won the trophy at Hampden in 1960 in what is widely regarded as the greatest final of all time. The might of Madrid was too much for Eintracht Frankfurt – who had demolished Rangers 12-4 on aggregate in the semi-final – and they romped home to a 7-3 victory with four goals from Ferenc Puskas and three from Alfredo Di Stefano in front of 120,000 enthralled supporters – mostly locals.
Real also travelled to Glasgow in 1963 to take on Rangers in the European Cup, winning 1-0 at Ibrox. The visit of Madrid on this occasion was probably most famously remembered for Jim Baxter taking Puskas to a party in Drumchapel where, it is alleged, that Puskas continued his penchant for scoring – this time with a local lass in the scullery of a tenement flat!
It was undeniable that Glasgow and Madrid went together like Glasgow and deep fried Mars bars. This would be an occasion to remember.
On the day of the game, I finished my work in Cumbernauld early and headed to Glasgow for about 3pm. There was already a real feel of anticipation – the place was buzzing.
I sank a couple of beers at Bonapartes in Queen St Station, sitting at one of the chairs outside savouring the atmosphere awaiting Allan’s arrival. Loads of Madrid fans were filtering off trains as they arrived in the city and their chants of “Madreed! Madreed!” echoed around the age old station giving their shouts of support an air of intimidation.
Once Allan arrived we headed around a few pubs and then to the bookies where I stuck a fiver on Raul to score first and Real to win 3-1 at 33/1. Then it was off to Hampden for the big game.
Our seats were in the East Stand – or the traditional “Celtic end” – and as we arrived you could have been mistaken for thinking we has turned up on the day of a cup final that Celtic were actually playing in, given the amount of hooped jerseys doing the rounds. This led to a tense exchange of words between Allan and one of the hooped brethren. Allan suggested that – just for one day – would it not have been a good idea to leave traditional rivalries aside and enjoy the big occasion without the usual Glasgow window dressing. The response he got was not what I would describe as pleasant, and tempers had to be calmed as we headed in through the turnstile to avoid things escalating to a more physical plane.
Once in, my anticipation levels rose. The main reason for this is that I knew I was about to witness in the flesh the man who I considered then – and now – to be the best player of all time: Zinedine Zidane.
Zidane had been pivotal in France winning the World Cup in 1998, but it was his performances in Euro 2000 that had left me in awe at what the man was capable of with a football. I had never seen a player create or find space the way Zidane had in that tournament. He was a joy to watch. And now I was going to see him in the flesh.
The game kicked off and very quickly Real took the lead through Raul. My bet was officially on. The goal was Raul’s 34th in the competition – and it made him the top goal-scorer in the history of the Champions League at the time. Of course he now lies third in that particular race behind Ronaldo and Messi.
Leverkusen struck back, however, through Lucio after he met a Bernd Schneider free-kick. My bet was now even more officially on and the game was shaping up nicely.
And then it happened. That moment. That goal.
It is probably the most iconic goal in Champions League history – and I nearly missed it.
The beer had weakened my bladder and I made my way to the toilet just before half-time. On the way up I heard a guy refer to Zidane as a “donkey”. I protested at the outrageousness of this statement – but he insisted “he’s a donkey mate” in a rather obnoxious tone. Stunned, I continued on my mission to relieve my bladder.
It was on the way back it happened. If I’d timed my visit to the toilet just thirty seconds later then I would have missed one of the greatest goals ever scored. And not only did the footballing gods decree that I wouldn’t miss the goal, the decreed that I would be walking past the man who referred to Zidane as a “donkey” when it went in.
Santiago Solari sent a pass down the left-hand channel, Roberto Carlos put in a high looping cross, Zidane set himself, awaited the ball’s arrival from the sky and then unleashed a thunderous left-footed shot into the top corner of the net.
It was thing of beauty, an act of outrageousness even for a man as skilled as Zizou. The stadium, the nation, the continent united in sheer awe at the mastery of it. Well, all except for Mr Donkey. As Zidane turned to celebrate his wonder strike, I turned to Zidane’s constructive critique and bellowed “there’s yer donkey mate”. He didn’t reply.
Half–time arrived with Madrid 2-1 up and my 33/1 bet still on. Allan and I were sat next to Maurice Malpas and Paul Heggarty – a consequence of our tickets coming through the Dundee Utd manager. I showed Heggarty my bookie slip and he raised an eyebrow and commented that I was in with a chance.
The second-half was a bit of a non-event. Leverkusen tried to break down Madrid, Madrid tried to hit them on the counter. As the minutes ticked away I started to shout on Madrid as if they were my own team. After all, I was on for £165 – but it was not to be. Despite seven minutes of injury time Madrid couldn’t find a third. In fact, were it not for Iker Casillas, who had come on for the injured Cesar, then Leverkusen would have equalised in injury time. The final whistle went, Madrid had conquered Glasgow and Europe again and it was all about watching “Los Blancos” celebrate in the very substantial Glasgow rain.
The following day it was all about rubbing my workmates’ noses in it as they had watched the game on TV. To aid in this I walked in with my match ticket stuck to the lapel of my jacket. It had been a historic occasion with a very historic moment and I had been there. I had witnessed it.
Just like those 120,000 punters in 1960 who had spent the rest of their lives telling anyone who had been prepared to listen that they “were there” the day Puskas, Di Stefano and Genko had rolled into Glasgow – I could now say the same for the time Raul, Figo and, most importantly, Zidane had retraced the steps of their peers from 42 years previously.