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My Rucksack

My Rucksack has oft
Been my Pillow

It’s the opening scene of The Apprentice and as Prokofiev’s score from Romeo and Juliet fades, the camera switches to Alan Sugar about to deliver the week’s task.

Stoney faced, he announces to the contestants,

“This task will require you to design and publish a magazine to commemorate a major sporting event.

“You will oversee the sale of this item at said event, which incidentally will be in Europe somewhere and confirmation of exact location, time and date will come approximately four weeks before if you’re lucky, one week if you’re not.”


Even to the most cynical viewer, this would seem a tall order, however it would make a bloody good episode.

In the mid 00’s, this task was taken on but with no TV cameras.


Back then, European clubs didn’t produce a match program for Champions League games, as they were not part of the culture for the continental match goer. 

AC Milan, Real Madrid, Porto, Benfica and Roma all didn’t subscribe to this tradition, add to that list one of the biggest attractions for any UK based football fan, FC Barcelona.


A pal, who never missed a Utd game, pointed out this omission and also highlighted the window of opportunity available to anyone resourceful enough to fill the void.


Despite zero publishing experience, it made perfect sense to set about putting together and supplying a match program for big European games. 

We were adamant that it had to be of a decent quality, and it was always the intention to offer something that was worthy of someone's Euros, and on a par with what was on offer at home.


And so began the steepest of learning curves.

Extensive research was required on players, match statistics and any historical relevance to the particular match. 

Content was needed to be sourced and in many cases written up first hand.

‘Publishing software’ went from being a meaningless phrase to essential tools to be mastered, as was the printing process itself.

“Transferring a PDF from RGB to CMYK at 300 dpi” was now a common phrase and even more importantly, made perfect sense.

Printers had to be found and after much research, there were a couple who were more than helpful with our necessity for extremely tight deadlines, and to ask few questions.

Most were glad of the work in the face of an ever diminishing demand for printed products.


As treacherous an undertaking as this sounds, at the time it all seemed very simple; 

What could possibly go wrong?


After initial success covering Utd’s Euro aways, a logical progression was to branch out and cover other UK teams when they played on the continent.

There would usually be a stand out tie that would catch the imagination of fans meaning they’d travel in higher numbers than usual, such as Arsenal’s quarter final in 2006 against Juventus, and therefore be in higher demand.


This was also the case when Rangers played at the Nou Camp in the group stage of the Champions League in November 2007, and we decided to produce a mag for this game.

They’d won their only European trophy - The Fairs Cup, in 1972 in Barcelona so this was seen as a pilgrimage for many of their fans.

Rangers have the nickname ‘The Teddy Bears’ which was adapted to the ‘Barca Bears’ for this game and t-shirts and flags were common emblazoned with teddy bears wearing sombreros, and we  featured the ‘72 match in the mag.

We’d gone over the day before and landed at the same time as the Rangers team.

They looked defeated as soon as they got off the plane and we grabbed a reluctant David Weir for a photo as the team walked through customs. 

We weren't sure who he was until we’d checked in our own mag, and it looked like he was about to burst into tears in the photo.


The city was rammed on every street and every square of Barca was packed with drunken Rangers fans, ticking every box for knobhead behaviour by the Brits abroad stereotype, but after a count up after the game - all the effort was worth it.


With Celtic now drawn against Barca in the first Knockout stage the following March, there was no reason why we couldn’t repeat the success we’d had in November, so planned for it accordingly.


The intention was to plan the operation with a business like approach, and  any outgoings were totted up versus the potential income in a spreadsheet.

After every possible expense was considered with printing, flights, accommodation and even refreshments for the lads doing the graft accounted for, it was still looking lucrative.


As street sellers we were vulnerable to anyone wanting to shift snide notes and at the time there was a glut of €50s knocking about.

There was no way we could check the validity and all the transactions were quick and usually in crowded places.

We’d been stuck with dodgy €50s before as I’d found out to my cost at the M&S currency exchange back in town.

Unbelievably they let me keep one, which must have been against every protocol going. 

However, it allowed us to be familiar with at least one security feature on the €50 note: if the number 50 didn’t change from brown to purple in the light then leave well alone.


In full on Apprentice mode, we came up with various ideas to try to sell as many as we could and one was to try and up the profile of the sellers so that it looked more official.


We opted to use that universal symbol of perceived authority; the hi-vis vest and duly acquired 4 from Arco in shiny yellow.

We thought this would be a masterstroke, as was the idea to knock together some ID passes which stated we were from the Barcelona branch of the Celtic supporters club.

All would add to the air that the item was as close to an official publication they were going to get for the day. 

Barca didn’t do one so we would.


There was a team of four who worked on the Rangers match and we’d keep the same line up for Celtic, comprising of the two Sean’s, Dave W and me.

Sean T was a pal I'd known for years and he’d done similar sorts of grafting at gigs and occasionally tickets at football.

Sean B lived near me, a family friend who’d grafted at gigs and sports events before, whether it be t-shirts, posters or tickets. He could also speak Spanish and knew Barcelona well.


As the actual selling on the street and at football grounds wasn’t something that came naturally to me,  having lads who’d done it plenty of times before was a big help.


Sean T was an expert at this sort of thing and could walk into the middle of 20 pissed up lads and command their attention to the point where they’d buy something they weren’t really that arsed about. 

He had no problem fronting it out with anyone who wanted to try and take the piss and would use put downs Bernard Manning would’ve been proud of.


I’d known Dave W from my early teens growing up around North Manchester.

At 19 he went on holiday and never came back.

He got a job at a bar, learned Spanish and stayed over there, eventually ending up in Barcelona with his own place. 

I got in contact with him when I found out where he was now based, and thought he would be able to help us get around.

It also allowed us to have an address where we could send the mags, prior to the game to get more in circulation.

He loved it when lads from home came over and would go out of his way to show them a good time, taking us to all the best places where the tourists didn’t go, like the small bars around the Diagonal area.

I was frequently told that Barcelona was a drinker’s city, and this was something that Dave W embraced, and was still in holiday mode 15 years later. 

He wasn’t the most natural seller though, and once swapped some mags for cans of San Miguel outside the Nou Camp with a group of  Rangers fans.


Come 4th March and all seemed to be in place for a tight, successful operation.

The books were back from the printers and 2 parcels had been despatched via UPS and subsequently received by Dave W.

We’d got our overflowing rucksacks, through customs with no mither and all 3 of us had arrived in Spain safely. 

Dave W met up with us the night before and took us for a night out around  the exclusive Port Olimpic area overlooking the city marina.


We’d stayed in the same Hotel as we did back in November, which was close to the airport.

It had a shuttle bus to the terminal every 10 minutes, which was perfect for us when working the fans coming off the planes.

We got the bus at 8 in the morning all kitted out in new Hi-vis vests with passes clipped on and made for the arrivals terminal all looking  100% official - like we were really meant to be there.

There were scores of coaches lined up ready to take the new arrivals off to the city centre, so the two Seans positioned themselves in between the arrivals exit door and the short walk to the waiting coaches, whilst I made for the taxi rank at the other end of the terminal so all angles were covered.


Within a few minutes of the first fans stepping from the exit doors, Sean T was leapt upon by plainclothes police and taken to a waiting car for questioning.

This wasn’t in the business plan.


I removed the Hi-Vis vest and jumped in the taxi queue, moving to the back when my turn came round.

After about half an hour, Sean T turned up ashen faced, and soberly told us we had to leave.

They’d taken his name, address, passport details and all the mags he had in the rucksack.

He’d been released but was told he’d be arrested if caught again but luckily didn’t have too many Euros on him otherwise they’d have been confiscated too.

For some reason the Police had taken great offence to his ID pass, and made a big deal  by waving it in his face whilst ranting at him in Spanish.

We were really proud of them so couldn’t understand the hostile reaction, but there was no doubt they had to go.

We got the shuttle bus back to the hotel and checked out with all remaining mags then made our way to the city centre in the hope that this restriction was isolated to the airport.

The Ramblas was a place we knew well and had worked here several times before.

As with most people on arrival in Barcelona, we’d start off in the Cafe Zurich at the junction with Placa de Catalunya, and it was full of fans doing the same thing.

Dave W met up with us here, together with the recent delivery to his address, having already topped himself up from the previous night.

We did some selling around the gathering fans at the Cafe and left Dave W in charge of all the bags whilst carrying on with his one man party whilst me and the two Seans ventured out to work both sides of the Ramblas.


Within a few minutes, Sean B was gripped outside a bar by Police and Enforcement Officers as he was trying to sell to Celtic fans inside.

They took his details and as he could speak Spanish, got more of a grilling.

He kept to the line that he was giving them away and therefore wasn’t actually selling anything, yet the mags and any Euros he had on him were confiscated.


They were insistent on asking who he was with, why he was there and also made it clear to him what the city laws now involved with regard to street trading.


When Rangers had been in here back in November, they’d completely trashed the city. 

Pissing in shop doorways, sleeping in the streets and verbally abusing locals was stuff we’d all seen first hand and was pretty much what they did in Manchester six months later.

This had pissed off the residents to the point that they’d changed local by-laws in fear of the other half of Glasgow inflicting the same treatment.

This meant no drinking on the street and crucially, a ban on unauthorised street selling.

This was us totally fucked. 


Street Enforcement Officers (EO’s) were now allocated to areas where fans would usually congregate.

They were assigned to assist the Police and were fully kitted out with 2-way radios, earpieces, white shirt, black tie/pants and, as is the case with most reputable organisations, hi-vis vests.


We made our way back to the Cafe Zurich, packed up and planned what to do next. 

The pessimist I am wanted to get the next plane home but to the credit of the others, they were having none of it and just saw it as another obstacle to get over.


If we could get into a fanzone, then there would be a large concentration of fans and we could go about our business under the cover of the crowds and there was one at Placa d’Espanya two stops away on the Metro.


We located ourselves in a bar in close proximity, and Dave W was by now completely smashed from his early morning session.

The Fanzone was five minutes walk from the centre of the square itself so we were in a good place just out of harm’s way.

There were now a few hundred fans milling around looking for it by the taxi rank and Metro station and Sean T ventured out in the crowds.

I made my way to the Fanzone and found that it was practically empty.

Football fans don’t like forced fun and the fanzone was exactly that, with its fairground games, flat beer and “We Are the Champions” (Mercury not Pickering)  played on a deafening loop.

They were charging to get in which scared a few off, and the ones that did go in spent their time asking themselves why they were there.


I made my way back to the bar to see Dave W out cold with his head flat on the table.

Sean T came legging it in without his rucksack, to tell us he’d just been chased by EO’s down the street.

They’d grabbed him but he wriggled away and left them holding only a rucksack with the owner slipping through their fingers.

There was no way he was going to get caught a second time, so had to do some running for the first time since his Hough End football career ended in the mid 90s.    

I had a look down the street and walked towards the square to see if he’d been followed. The EO’s were about and although not coming in our direction, they were clearly mobilised with their  radios in full use.

Chances were they’d be looking for the rucksack owner plus any accomplices so it was  time to vacate the bar.


The bar man was now fed up with us coming in and out whilst not buying much and Dave W was not a good advert for business.

A Celtic fan wearing a foam cowboy hat let off an air-horn directly over his head to wake him  but he never so much as flinched.


We dragged him to his feet and decided to make a break for the taxi rank, under the cover of the crowds.

It was too risky to try and flog anything here and by now we were all pretty spooked so getting away to somewhere quiet was the priority.

If we were caught it would’ve been the end of the trip especially with the development of the Police now confiscating Euros, so we decided to split up and meet up later. 

If we lost all contact then we were on the same flight early the next morning so we would meet up back at the airport.


I thought it best to abandon the city centre altogether and made my way to the stadium to see if I could shift any mags there.

As the distant sound of Tina Turner drifted from the fanzone speakers, my three business partners could be seen weaving, conspicuously through the crowds.

Dave W was prostrate, not even semi-conscious, resembling a life size rag doll being carried by his two comrades in what looked like a scene from the Battle of Little BigHorn.


Sean B carried his arms whilst walking backwards as Sean T gave directions, cox style through the melee whilst gripping an ankle in each hand.

The intention for a discreet getaway was not going to plan, but somehow they’d managed to make it to a taxi  unaccosted.


On arrival at the Nou Camp it was pretty much like OT in the daytime of a European game with stalls setting up, and a couple of hundred fans milling around so I plotted up at a fence lining the road on the approach to the stadium. 

As soon as I took out the mags a stallholder selling scarves, bellowed at me in Spanish, then started waving what looked like a permit at me. 

I abandoned the idea of getting a pitch and moved further away from the ground towards the bars around Collblanc.


I was in contact with the others by mobile phone and the 3 remaining lads had plotted up at a bar we knew just off the Ramblas that was hidden away, down a side street.

We’d learned the hard way that pre-paid SIM cards were the best way to communicate via phone. Astronomical bills accrued from previous European trips would take a big chunk from any hard earned profit.


They told me that Sean B had been arrested and instead of name taken and mags/euros confiscated, this time they’d taken him away in a van presumably to the Police Station.

Out of frustration he’d taken a gamble on the Ramblas being less on top than earlier in the day due to the large crowds gathering there and left the cover of the bar to try and shift some of the ever depleting stash.


It would have been easier for all of them to just plot up, get pissed and put it down to one of those days when things didn't quite go to plan, but amazingly none of them did.

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Sean B’s arrest was a massive worry as I couldn't see the Police releasing the same person a second time for doing the same thing they got lifted for in the first place.

My first thought was that I knew his Mum. If he didn't get out in time for his flight, what the fuck was I going to tell her?

Then like the hero I am, focussed all my concern for myself.

On realising that he had my phone number in his phone, and how useless I would be under questioning, an overriding sensation of what could be described as bricking it washed over me.

I would be classed as the mastermind of an international forgery ring preying on innocent football fans.

They probably had a special wing in Basque jail for English criminals - I would be cast down with the sodomites Shawshank style.

After giving my paranoid head a wobble, I decided to do what my business partners usually ended up doing on these trips - headed for the nearest bar and hit the Estrella.


As the day went on, the fact that you were abroad and the holiday gene triggered - the Spreadsheets went out of the window.

The days when I would be pulling lads for drinking at ten in the morning were long gone, due to being told to fuck off numerous times previously, so it was a case of when in Barca do as the Barcelonés, and the only one I knew was Dave W.


Due to the heavy Police presence, it made sense to follow a plan of going into bars which were full of Celtic fans and try to sell some as it wouldn't be obvious what was going on.


The first bar I went in was packed with Green and White shirts with the majority in full voice.

“He plays on the left...he plays on the right….Aiden McGeady makes Scotland look shite” belted out which I took to be a compliment to Utds own version, but one song stood out. 

It was to the tune of Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, where great Celtic players from over the years were reeled off: 

“And they gave us… someone, Dalgleish, McCari and Paul Mcstay” then end up with “And all those football greats ...went through those Parkhead gates…”

It sounded mint, although I didn’t catch Lee Martin’s name in there.


My Protestant heritage must’ve been just visible enough to provoke mild curiosity, as a couple of lads approached me asking what was in the rucksack.

After they looked through the programme, it proved to be an opening and as they flashed it around the bar, interest spread to many of the other drinkers. 

As in the majority of cases, when they actually had a look through it, they realised it was of pretty high quality.

I must’ve sold thirty within a few minutes.


For the first time, my rucksack began to feel lighter, which was always a good measure as to how well we were doing.

Marching all day with 200+ A4 magazines on your back in Mediterranean heat would take its toll, and the weight issue was a problem we never quite managed to solve.

We’d toyed with using thinner paper, but the quality of the mags was compromised and it ended up feeling cheap.


Throughout the day, I kept getting a faint smell of what I thought was cat piss. 

At first I thought it was a bloke I was next to on the Metro, but then kept getting a waft of it in bars or even when I was walking on the street, and it was definitely getting stronger.

I know certain places have their own smell, like Middlesborough or Rhyl for instance, but I wasn't aware of Barcelona having one.

Whilst plotted up in the bar I realised it wasn’t the Barca streets nor was it any of its residents.


Two days ago when leaving home for the flight, I’d left all my stuff: passport, bag, flight tickets and the mags  together downstairs in the living room pre packed ready for a speedy early morning getaway to the airport.

I’d bought a new Nike rucksack for the trip and this was something to which our cat must have taken exception, and subsequently decided to mark this strange, new smelling item with her own signature.

Cats don’t have access to permanent marker pens so claimed it the only way she knew how, and did so on the padded part which is meant to be in contact with the wearer’s back.

As the day had gone on, the heat and sweat gradually coaxed out the smell from the rucksack to the point where it radiated like radioactive waste.

Scrubbing it in the toilets would fend it off for a while but I’d have to bluff it out if it got raised with denial being the best form of defence.


I tagged along with a group of fans to get nearer the ground.

As expected, the majority of them were ticketless so a programme was a good way to tell their mates they’d got in, or to at least prove they’d been very close.

I ended up in a bar where the match was on and reasonably filled with Celtic fans.

Being pretty much half cut by now meant that my usual inhibitions about bowling into a group of football fans on my own to try and sell them something, were put to bed for now.


I was now using the few Spanish words I knew and ordering beers by asking, 

“Una botella de cerveza, por favor”,

and even stretching to,

“Por favor, una botella de cerveza”,

just to freshen things up.

This also helped when people asked where the programs had come from; I lived in Barcelona and was selling them for someone there. 

If I’d said I was from Manchester they would have instantly lost interest no matter how authentic an item it was, suspecting some kind of scam.

Whilst going along with this drunken facade to a couple of fans I’d latched on to, they asked me to find out where the cigarette machine was.


This would be easy: ‘machine’ = ”maquina”?

Cigarette? That had to be ‘fuego’ which is something to do with smoking I thought, plus I’m sure that someone said the word ‘fuego’ to me when I was smoking near to the airport terminal door.

“Donde esta la maquina en fuego?” I shouted across the crowded bar.

The barman carried on serving but kept looking at me with what could be described as a Latin shrug.

I went for it again, thinking the only obstacle to getting an answer was the background noise. 

“Esta la maquina en fuego” I asked loudly, but this time with added arms stretched out in case he didn’t realise it was a question.

The barman looked at me as if I’d told him I’d just found Christ.


A Spanish customer who was sat on a stool at the bar turned round to me with that same look of incredulity as the barman and to add insult to injury answered me in broken English, 

“Hey mate, what do you want?”

I told him that I wanted the location of the Cigarette machine, to which he pointed out,

“You are saying ‘the machine is on fire! the machine is on fire!’”

His English, evidently not as broken as my Spanish.


Part way through the second half, I received a text from Sean B saying he’d been released and was in the McDonald’s close to Collblanc station.

It was fantastic news and made my way over, where I found him, together with an up-right and now semi coherent Dave W.

Sean B had been through a tough time.

He was taken to a police station and was told that he’d been detained pending a court date, and they set about questioning him using the ‘bad cop, bad cop’ technique.

“So you were just given these magazines by a stranger in a bar?”

He held up a lot better than I would’ve, and stuck to the line that he’d come across them through a chance meeting.

As implausible an excuse as it was, they still just wanted shut of him, so released him on the understanding that he left Barcelona in the next 24 hours.

Hopefully we’d be out in less than 12.


We made our way back towards the ground and on approaching the sea of departing fans, scarf and flag sellers appeared on the street as if from nowhere. 

It looked as though there was a window which the street sellers had been waiting for and every few yards  a seller appeared  working from  bin bags full of  hats, scarves and flags.

We took the remaining mags we had and hit both sides of the street, feeling safe in the knowledge that everyone else was doing it. 

For the first time, that buzz of selling came back, as we rattled out the last hundred or so mags in quick succession.

Over the day, we’d probably lost over half of what we’d produced to the Police, so this late rally  pulled us out of the shit.

Up until then we were in the position of not even having enough to  pay the lads for the graft they’d done.


T texted us to say he’d been in the ground for the match.

I don’t know how, but his Irish roots had got the better of him and he’d managed to find his own way in to see the game. 

The chance to sing the Fields of Athenry with a load of pissed up Paddies was too good to turn down.

Celtic lost the game 1-0 to an early Xavi goal and lost the tie 4-2 on aggregate meaning they were out of the champions league at the first qualifying round.


We stuck to the plan and arranged to meet back at the airport and Dave W made his way back to his apartment with the prospect of work the following day.

Check in time was 05:00 which was plenty of time for us all to make the journey from the city, and once at the airport we’d be out of harm’s way. 

A count up of takings showed we’d come very close to breaking even, which left me feeling a little deflated. 

A massive amount of work had gone into producing the mags, and that’s before we’d even attempted to  sell any.


It was coming up to check in time and there was no sign of T.

Texts and calls were unanswered and the sense of doom I’d carried for most of the day still loomed large.


As the clock turned to 5 am, a dishevelled Sean T appeared wandering aimlessly across the departure hall.

He’d been there for a few hours but out of sight, asleep in the disabled toilet.

Sean T suffers from sleep apnea, whereby the sufferer loses breath during sleep, which manifests itself by way of loud noises that sound like  choking and sometimes shouting.

He’d been woken by the sight of a security guard forcing the lock on the toilet door after the alarm had been raised by a concerned cleaner who’d heard shouting from the disabled toilet cubicle.

What they didn’t realise was that he wasn’t in distress - just fast asleep.


The disappointment from what felt like an unsuccessful trip was only lifted by the relief to be on our way home and away from Barcelona. 

It had been a day to forget as it felt all the hard work was for nothing, plus the stress of all the Police involvement.

Sean B put things into perspective whilst on the plane home, 

“When you take on things like this it’s amazing if anything does go to plan”.

He was right, and a few hours ago we’d had two of our lads arrested and lost over half the mags we’d brought over, but still got out unscathed.

He paused mid sentence then offered,

“Can you smell cat piss round here?”


“Sorry mate - I can’t smell anything”.


We didn’t know it at the time but we’d be returning to Barcelona for the semi final in April.


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