‘To Hellas and Back’, by Charles Ducksbury

In hindsight, it was far and away the worst impulsive decision I ever made. Yet it was almost the perfect trip. Almost. Let’s deal with the facts: A short, one night trip to see Hellas Verona, meet up with old friends, have a drink and some food, before getting back to the UK 25 hours after I left. All that and only having to spend £19.99 for return flights. Sadly for me, it didn’t end well. Not at all. But like any good (or in this case harrowing) story, let’s go back to the start.

My love for Verona and Hellas has taken over a big part of my life. I watch as many games as possible, keep up to date with the news, make a few trips over a season, home and away. I even have the ladder, the symbol of Verona, tattooed onto my wrist. I’ve been going over since 2009, my first game a 1-1 draw with SPAL. With Verona top of Serie C and leading thanks to a Julien Rantier header, all looked good. Then, Alberto Comazzi gave away a penalty and got sent-off. The spot-kick was scored, which prompted our keeper Rafael to run out of his goal and push over a SPAL player. Red card. So in one minute we had been pegged back and were down to nine men. It finished 1-1, but I was shaking from the Curva Sud. I’d found a home. Anything before then was simply flirtations and curiosity; that foggy afternoon in November I fell in love.

After that, my trips were regular. Travelling with the Butei, I’ve been to Rimini, Livorno, the derby with Vicenza, Inter and Cesena. Some hairy experiences were had on almost all of them; Livorno for example, the Verona boys jumped off the bus about a mile from the stadium, meaning we had to walk the rest of the way in a hail on stones and bottles, missing the first 15 minutes. In Vicenza, our buses ambushed by a couple of (I presume) drunk Vicentini who hurled cans of beer at us, smashing a couple of windows, but compared to other derby games this was pretty tame. At Inter, flares rained down on us. I’d been to some pretty big games at home too, which is why Catania appealed so much. No pressure, no chance of violence, a good day out and not a long (and thus expensive) trip.

With it being an early kick-off (the hated 12:30 slot on Sunday) I was picked up from Bergamo airport by a couple of friends at about 10am. After necking some Croatian lager, it was onto the autostrada. See you in 24 hours Bergamo. Arriving at the stadium, I had to go and get my ticket for the Curva, not too much of a problem for a low-key game like this. Inside, it was time for another beer and meet up with the other lads who didn’t come to the airport. It’s as much of a pleasure to see old friends as to see Hellas, and a bizarre feeling when people greet me in the streets of Verona, exchanging hugs and pats on the arm.

One minute into the game one of my friends decides he’s had enough and heads off to get another round of drinks. No sooner had I had my first gulp Luca Toni smashed home and drink was everywhere. On the Curva, some people like to do the old South American ‘Avalanche’ after goals, that is to run down to the front of the stand. Not helpful if you have a beer in your hand, but still funny all the same. With only 20 or 30 Catania supporters in the stadium (all I assume living in the north because there were no ultras amongst them), there was little of the tension at most games. Luca Toni headed a second and Marquinho drilled in a third before half-time. “Non ce ne frega un cazzo, di questo, partita….” we sang (a song sung at almost every single game, translating “We don’t give a fuck about this match”). But it was quite true. The game was over, few eyes were on the pitch and most thoughts were on the half-time drinks.

Half-time lasted thirty minutes. That’s right, we went under the Curva and didn’t return until almost 20 minutes into the 2nd half. We had a drink known as Verdi’, or “Green’, which to this day I don’t know what’s in it. Of course, a couple of Borghetti’s too, the small shot of liquored coffee in a small plastic tube. Drink it was a shot and then throw it off the edge of the stand. You will see it raining down most Curva’s across Italy during the entire game. Rather than deal with wading back into the Curva, we went underneath and sat in a small ring of seats, known as Poltronissime sud. Most of the pitch was obscured by the flags hanging down from the Curva, but no matter. Game over. It finished 4-0, though I didn’t see the fourth goal as we were chatting again in the small bar underneath us.

The rain had hammered down and walking out I received plenty of stick for wearing a coat despite being English, the joke being that we wear shorts or t-shirts even in the coldest weather. We grabbed some food, headed to Bar Bentegodi for even more drinks. Around us, boisterous Butei shouted and larked around, one lit a flare and some others sang Catania and Avellino songs at each other, before having a big playfight in the road.

After this it started to get a bit blurry. I jumped on a moped and headed to another bar on the outskirts of Verona where we stayed for the duration, rolling it at 4am after plenty more beers and Verde’s. I had to be up at 6am to get my train to Bergamo, and in my haste to get to sleep, forgot to put my phone on charge, which turned out to be a terrible mistake.

Arriving in Bergamo, the rain was torrential but I had little idea of what was to come. I was down to my last 15 euro’s in cash, so grabbed a bottle of water and thought nothing of it. The airport seemed busy but surely this was normal on a Monday morning. I made my way to the gate with a very sore head and waited. And waited. After an hour or so, it started. Ritardo. Cancellato. Delayed. Cancelled. Almost every flight. Then every single flight. Disaster. I’ve never had a cancelled flight before, so didn’t know what to do. I left the gate and joined a queue for the Ryanair desk to change my flight.

The queue. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Seven hours I stood in it. Pressed up against everybody. I say queue, I’d call it a European queue, which is not a queue at all. It was a mass of people converging on two windows. Seven hours. Head pounding. Awful. My phone battery was down to 15% so a call home to explain to my partner brought panic. When I eventually got the window, I explained I’d take any flight to England. I was due to go to Manchester but I could get a train home north if needed. I was booked onto a flight to Stansted at 22:30 that night. It was around 19:30 by this stage. Again, when the time was right, I headed to the gate. And waiting. Ritardo. Cancellato. My flight was delayed every 20 minutes until 03:30 that morning. Then it was cancelled.

So I returned to the queue, or rather the European queue. This one only lasted four hours. I moved flights to the same one the following evening,22:30 to Stansted. As I left the throng of people, and having been awake 26 hours with just two hours sleep before that, I was exhausted. I went to find somewhere to sleep, and just before nodding off, checked on the flight I was due to take. Even at that early stage, it was down as delayed and due to fly at 03:30 the following morning. I couldn’t believe it. My phone was on the brink of running out of charge, so decisive action was needed.

I logged onto the Ryanair website and change my flight to Treviso, around 250km east. A phone call to my friend in Verona, “Meet me at Porto Nuova in about two hours!” Battery dead. I travelled by bus and train and got to Verona without paying, and thankfully my friend got the message. I explained everything, and perhaps mercifully he got me a coffee.

We got in his car and he drove me the rest of the way. We laughed and joked, I was relaxed knowing I was on my way home. He gave me some cash to get some food at the airport, yet I should have known what was coming. I arrived at Treviso to see my flight, to East Midlands had been cancelled. Why? Or rather perchè? Because a cargo plane had crashed at East Midlands airport. My friend had gone. What were the chances? I queued again, but no flights to the UK until 22:30 the following night. So I begged. Please, was there any other solution? Of course there was. Fly to Brussels tonight, then from Belgium onto Manchester the following morning.

So that’s what I did. I was sat in Manchester Airport at mid-day on the Wednesday, 48 hours after I should have been home, after three cancelled flights, a dash across Italy, a headache and an unscheduled trip to Belgium. I was hungry, thirsty, probably smelly and all for a meaningless game with Catania. Looking back, I can smile. Perhaps this was my way of proving my love for Hellas, to go through these trials as a rite of passage. It was my eleventh trip to see Verona, so maybe I’ve proved myself before. And I suppose it makes a funny story in hindsight. I got home and did what anyone else would do. Opened the fridge and had a beer.

Thank you Charles Ducksbury: @cducksbury

Written by a very good friend of the site, a man who like many of us, spends so much effort travelling to Italy for games like this. This his his story, it kick starts a new series we are very excited about.