Underneath the volcano
A Sicilian diary
Arrive without fuss or too many paparazzi to Stansted with plenty of time to enjoy pre-trip food and drink.
The gaffer has made it clear that he wanted a move away from the traditional English fayre much enjoyed by many players in PFFC, and Sicily would surely provide some suitable cuisine. Stansted isn't Sicily however and a number of players enjoyed their first bite to eat in the chain restaurant 'Garfunkels'. This was much to the distaste of the Gaffer - the gastronomic cleansing of the squad was not off to a good start, although the skipper did enjoy a nice salad.
We arrive in Palermo and after searching desperately for a Garfunkels, we hit upon a lovely local restaurant recommended to the Gaffer previously. Lovely food was eaten - seafood based - with Raj and Damien hoping that the seafood theme would not continue throughout the trip. Unfortunately with Sicily being renowned for its delightful fruits de la mer, they would surely be disappointed.
Across from the restaurant after the meal, the Carlos V was spotted for a nightcap. One nightcap turned into two, and in the end I think the squad had more caps than Kenny Dalglish had for Scotland. The drink of choice was Pasito (sic) a lovely sweet spirit, and along with “si”, “buon giorno” and “grazie”, the phrase “14 Pasitos” also became part of the birthday boy Damien's Italian vocabulary that night. As the team headed back to the hotel, hoping for a reprieve at the 11th hour from the drink (11th hour being the time Cornish had been drinking that day), the chairman blurts out 'Damien, you want to go in here'. Clearly the chairman was trying to pin his willingness to continue drinking onto another but it worked a charm even though the lads paid a million euros for a round of drinks. According to the treasurer Al. At the death, Cornish mumbles he will see everyone at 9, although at 9 he, like many of the troops could barely see at all.
Friday morning consisted of a stroll through Palermo's famous fish markets consisting of some of the biggest fish heads known to man. How they get those tuna's into those wee cans was the main observation by the thinkers that day. Raj and Damien's suspicions that Sicily had nothing to offer but fish produce were increasing rapidly until a little trip further into town suggested cheap, fine suits were also being sold. Knowing we would be back in Palermo on Monday, a club suit fitting was postponed and we began to make our way across Sicily to Acireale, the destination where we were to meet our main contacts for the trip.
We traversed along the coast then through glorious countryside by train (x2) and managed to reach our destination with no tickets (Gaffer leaving them on the previous train) but the conductor grudgingly accepted this half-baked story and we arrived in Acireale in one piece.
At night, we dined in a restaurant owned by the husband of the star of Visconti's La Terra Trema in Aci Trezza - a humbling experience for those who had watched the film previously. The lady in question and her sister, also in the film, sat down with the squad but after an allegedly 'complicated' question by the skipper, quickly departed and left us to our seafood. Raj and Damien overjoyed that, once again, the local fayre on offer came from the depths of the Med.
After spending our first night at the vineyard at the bottom of Mount Etna, the troops gathered and ventured into Taormina - once home to D.H Lawrence and Goethe. A beautiful town raised a few hundred feet above sea level with views of the coastline and the sea to behold. The squad visited a Greek amphitheatre, remodelled by the Romans and in preparation for an impending fashion show (three cultures unashamedly merged together I may add). The squad was now almost complete with Jez, Carlos, Jake, Kieran, Gibbo and Nadia meeting up with the squad the previous day - the only missing member was Al's colleague Clarkey.
A call to Clarkey to check on his progress wasn't heartening because his luggage had been stolen at the airport so he had to spend a weekend in Sicily with no change of clothes but he still had his wallet and passport. Another phone call highlighted a further development:
Al: Claaarke! How’s things?
Clarkey: Worse. I've just had my wallet nicked.
The impossible was now upon Mr Clarke. Unable to speak a word of Italian and without a euro to his name, he had to travel via two trains and a taxi to a meeting point in the town of Acireale with only a note, written by a fellow passenger that for all Clarkey knew said “Kick me, I'm English”. Damien offered him the phrase “!4 Pasitos” but this was, matchday - if he was going to make it at all, he would be in a state to play, not sing karaoke. To everyone's disbelief, he made it and his phenomenal impact in the game has already been documented in Bruce's match report.
I will not dwell on the fantastic game, but at the stadium, the attitude of the players was beautifully symbolised by two young children battling ferociously to see who would win the honour of carrying the 'pace' (peace) flag.
We were here to win.
[Click here for Bruce's match report]
After a wonderful victory the night before, the squad went back to Aci Trezza and in the radiant sunlight, the village became alive and to those who saw La Terra Trema, its characteristics on the silver screen were now very tangible indeed. Unfortunately the baking sun was a little too tangible on the bodies of Ally and Damien who, laughing fearlessly at the others for not stripping and enjoying the sun, exposed on volcanic rocks in the middle of the sea, were left with the battle scars of Ra all over themselves. At this point the skipper wishes to thank Jake for his aftersun lotion very, very much indeed. A lovely lunch was had nonetheless, but it seemed Damien's sun stroke had kicked in as he began to speak in tongues about 'fish everywhere...food is fish...pizza...I WANT PIZZA...' although Raj was saying similar things and hadn't been out in the sun so...
After saying goodbye to Kieran, Nadia, Gibbo, the Chairman, Raj and Jake the night before, the rest of the squad wandered through Palermo, musing that they preferred the other parts of Sicily, and realised how little money there seemed to be in certain parts of the city. Trying to find a more aesthetically pleasing area, the holy grail suddenly appeared. A pizzeria. A lovely lunch was had to round off a perfect trip - even the canoli was superb - and after a couple of suits were purchased, we headed home.
The trip would simply not gone ahead had it not been for the immense organisational efforts of the Gaffer and his Sicilian contacts Natalie, Luca and Antonio so I know I speak on behalf of all the players in thanking them very very much. We need to keep these events going because they help define the team but I think ourselves as well.
Under the volcano
Stipsy King FC 2 Philosophy Football 4
As with any epic contest, this clash between Stipsy King and Philosophy Football began with a healthy round of mind games. Firstly the Gaffer’s Sicilian spy Natalie started rumours that the Philosophy goalkeeper was a towering brute of a man weighing in at 170kg. This was building on the apparent assumption within the Italian camp that a team of philosophers must be made up of rotund old men with no hair and even less talent. This in turn was countered by the wonderful misinformation that Philosophy were the three times champions of the Greater London League. Stipsy King duly hit back with an apparent murder attempt (albeit of a bookcase) with a rather large knife and the banishment of the Thinker’s Player Of The Year and his girlfriend to sleeping quarters at least a mile and a half further up Mount Etna than the rest of the squad. Rumours that the vineyard was full of massive poisonous spiders and a psychotic man-sized killer sex bunny were, at time of going to print, still unfounded.
On the day of the match Sicily had one last attempt on the team spirit of the Philosophy camp: our soon-to-be-star striker arrived in Palermo and was duly relieved of his luggage and his wallet within the hour. Clarkey managed to find his way across Sicily without a euro or a word of Italian to his name and armed only with a “Help me, I’m English” note penned by a helpful fellow passenger. This turmoil and frustration was to be put to great use during the following 90 minutes.
Despite these troubles and the Wenger/Fergie-esque mind games, the squads found themselves lining up in the Stadio G. Matteotti, situated in the back streets of Gravina, at full strength. Philosophy lined up with Bruce in goal (not as Brian but not quite 170 kg either), Carlos (Jez’s Portuguese signing) at left back, Gibbo (not as Rosso as Ally and Damo) at right back and Raj and Damian at centre half. The midfield comprised of Cornish (pull up the rope ladder) Al on the left, Jez on the right and Kieran and club captain Ally in the engine room. Up front was debutant striker Jake alongside Clarkey, who was sporting his one and only change of clothes for the weekend. The warm-up was hurried but designed to intimidate the opposition and convince them of our professionalism. This seemed to work as the Gaffer was approached by the opposition prior to kick off to make sure that his side were not taking the game too seriously as it was a friendly match after all. However the Gaffer wisely chose not to pass on this information lest his charges gave less than the required 100%...
Clutching the rainbow PACE flag and following the most eccentric refereeing trio that has ever graced a football pitch, Ally led Philosophy out onto the black ash and into battle with Stipsy King. The opening exchanges were tight with both sides sizing each other up and, for Philosophy in particular, coming to terms with the unusual playing surface. Clarkey and Jake were doing all the running up front, but were not getting much joy as the Sicilians held firm at the back. Jake shot just wide when one-on-one, and Gibbo saw a long-range effort whistle past the angle of post and bar before Stipsy started to gain the upper hand. Forcing Philosophy back and regaining possession with alarming regularity, Stipsy seemed to be playing with an extra man. At this point Philosophy’s own twelfth man, chairman Hugh, engaged his Rain Man like powers and discovered that the opposition were in fact playing with twelve. The assistant referee was duly informed and ran onto the pitch to stop play and remonstrate with the priestly ref, and numerical parity was restored.
Before Philosophy took a well deserved lead just before half time, Stipsy threatened with a couple of very decent half chances. First, a cross was missed by the Philosophy keeper only for the Stipsy striker to head straight into the face of the grateful goalie. Then, from a short corner, Gibbo deflected a cross-cum-shot into the keeper’s ample midriff, and the resulting scramble was smothered by a last ditch dive by the Philosophy no. 1. This mini crisis averted, Philosophy took the lead: Jake’s tireless running was rewarded when chasing a through-ball that the keeper was firm favourite for; he managed to charge down the clearance. He was left with an open goal and got his name on the score sheet, giving Philosophy a 1-0 lead going into the break.
PFFC started the second period much quicker than their Italian opponents who, despite their attempts to outnumber the thinkers, were suffering from the disorganisation that continuous rolling subs often bring. Kieran and Ally were dominating the middle of the park, winning possession from Stipsy King and supplying the men on the flanks, who were finding more and more space as the half wore on. The Philosophy defence was coping with the ever decreasing attacks, with Damian and Gibbo in particular rising head and shoulders above the strikers and dominating them into near submission. Clarkey was starting to come into his own and his marauding runs into the channels were causing the ‘Sicilian defence’ to appear less than stipsy. Clarkey was let loose mid-way through the half, and although he had a couple of men to beat and an acute angle to contend with he managed to find space and ripple the onion bag with a low drive past the otherwise excellent Stipsy stopper: 2-0.
Inspired by the two-goal cushion, Philosophy then went close with chances falling to Cornish, whose spectacular waist high volley flew just wide, and Jake, who hit the outside of the post from a tough angle. Further efforts from Kieran, whose curling shot was saved at full stretch, and from Ally, who saw his left-footed strike drift wide, illustrated Philosophy’s growing confidence and their attacking dominance. Stipsy, however, never lost their defiant spirit despite the mounting pressure and the ever increasing shot count, as Jez lined up to take a free kick on the edge of the box he looked up to discover a plethora of naked Sicilian arses staring back at him. Jez fought the urge to blast his shot into the Stipsy rearguard, but the Italian cheek won out and the set-piece came to nothing.
Clarkey was using the frustration of his ill-fated journey from Palermo to put in a barnstorming performance, never giving the defence a moment’s peace, and his efforts were rewarded with his second goal minutes later. Outpacing the tiring Stipsy defence, he found himself one-on-one with the keeper and, moving the ball from right to left boot, he rounded the goalie and slotted into the empty net. 3-0 to Philosophy and there looked to be no way back for Stipsy King …that is until the oldest man in Sicily took to the field and showed them the way. His first action was to attempt to latch onto a through-ball and, with Raj trailing in his wake, the ageing striker literally ran himself into the ground, his torso seemingly travelling decidedly faster than his legs. Downwards and into the dust. Despite being beaten for pace and getting nowhere near the Stipsy elder statesman, Raj was blamed with bringing down his less than pacey opponent; much to the frustration of the Philosophy team, a free kick was awarded in a dangerous position. Stipsy duly delivered the hammer blow when they fired a vicious effort past a poorly lined-up wall and a keeper who was unsure of his positioning. Take nothing away from the strike as it swerved into the net and at 3-1 Stipsy were reborn.
The Sicilians pushed forward and, for a decent spell, Philosophy found themselves on the back foot as Stipsy started to at last make a game of it. However, it was short-lived, as the Philosophers put the game out of reach and made it 4-1 through Kieran. Good running down the right from Jez and Ally saw a cross delivered to the far post, Cornish saw his effort saved and the ball fell to the feet of the PFFC Players’ Player of the Season eight yards out and with just the keeper to beat. His low shot under the keeper all but sealed the victory. However, the last word was to be left to the home side. Their second goal was rather fortunate but not wholly undeserved, some good one-touch passing down the inside right channel released the striker, whose low shot took a slight deflection and rose into the roof of the net to make it 4-2.
The game was brought to a close when a wayward shot from Stipsy found the gardens of the block of flats behind the goal. A well deserved 4-2 victory for Philosophy was in the bag and there were no shortages of contenders for Man of the Match, which was awarded to Clarkey for his outstanding come-back.
Ratings: (these are approximate and heavily biased, donations are accepted and scores can be altered up or down on the whim of the author)
Bruce 7: At fault for the first goal not getting his wall sorted out and badly positioned. Made a good couple of saves and was generally solid.
Carlos 7: Good debut from the Portuguese, good distribution and got stuck in. Linked up well with Cornish on the left.
Raj 7: Despite nearly killing a man a good performance, always there and his experience shone through when the going got tough and the tackles were needed.
Damian 8: Excellent always strong in the tackle and brought the ball out well, got forward on occasion and always gave good ball to the midfield.
Gibbo 8: Great performance settled into the position and battled hard throughout. Always an outlet for the keeper and started a lot of Philosophy’s best moves.
Cornish Al 7.5: Full of running and constantly irritated the defence with his probing and accurate through balls. Was even spotted tracking back late on. Immense.
Kieran 7.5: Living up to the player of the season tag is no mean feat but Kieran keeps putting in the performances. Unlucky not to have scored more, hard in the tackle and passed well throughout.
Ally 7.5: Got stuck in and pulled the strings alongside Kieran, another who could have got on the score sheet but shone nonetheless.
Jez 7: Always a willing runner and got back to support the defence, his passes freed Clarkey and Jake all day long. Will live with the memory of a half dozen arse cheeks for a long time to come.
Jake 7: Good solid performance in an unfamiliar position for the other debutant, scored one and made chances for himself and others. Ran tirelessly and never looked out of place.
Clarkey 9: Man of the Match, managed to put his troubles behind him and produced a stellar performance. Terrorised the defence and could have had a hatful was it not for an inspired keeping display. Hopefully more to come.