I go on about it enough — your groans are audible from here — but it was a sweet gig. The task was to see every team at the 2006 World Cup on a budget of no more than €150 a day.
So I set off — to the wrong airport, on the wrong day initially — with a tent from Dunnes Stores, a map and some hostel addresses.
I procured tickets from touts up and down Germany. I was kicked awake on train platforms. I woke up in a flooded tent in Munich. I typed and filed a column on a public telephone in the tunnel from Nuremburg’s main train station to its main street minutes after a game. I walked the wrong way along a motorway for miles in a Leprechaun suit that wasn’t mine. I collected empty beer containers so I could cash in the one euro deposit at the FIFA shops — in order to buy a sausage and possibly a beer.
Yes, that was journalism.
When my time at centre-stage came to an end and the credits rolled on my once-in-a-lifetime adventure, they reluctantly pushed open the Irish Examiner office door, sat me at a temporarily-empty desk under harsh fluorescent lights in that old, now-gone building and told me to sub the mid-Cork hurling results.
My new colleague Michael Moynihan — typically — chuckled to himself, turned to the sports editor and quoted Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond: “I’m still big; it’s the pictures that got small”.
Welcome home, soldier.
Like a Billy Wilder flashback scene, I was almost in Gelsenkirchen this week as I watched the Champions League action. The last time Wayne Rooney was in the Arena AufSchalke, before United’s 2-0 defeat of the Germans, he was offered the proverbial early bath with a red card against Portugal.
A few hundred yards away, my day ended early too. I landed into the main station having spent the previous night — my second last at the tournament — singing in a Korean karaoke bar having watched Italy beat Ukraine to reach the semi-finals in Hamburg.
I got on a train, fell asleep in the bike carriage and got off in a town somewhere in the Ruhr valley. I eventually landed into Gelsenkirchen with thousands upon thousands of English fans.
It was like a Friends Reunited party or the season finale of a trite American drama in which all the recurring characters gather for a dramatic denouement.
I knew every tout within a 10-mile radius of the stadium. I had all the phone numbers on crumpled business cards in my pocket and in my phone (which I had lost somewhere between Hamburg and this point).
The touts had told me that Gelsenkirchen was their big pay day.
When banks sell their own property, it’s the right time to trade up your semi-detached house. When hedge fund managers let their companies go public, it’s the top of the stock exchange market. When touts cash in on England tickets which they’ve procured early; it’s the top of the Three Lions market.
Sure enough, Portugal dumped them out and Ronaldo winked his way into infamy.
Realising quickly that there was no way I could afford a ticket, I sat under a tree in a green area outside a beer garden that was filled with English fans. I fell asleep and didn’t wake until the drama was over.
The night before I had worn myself out, as I found myself amongst the rafters in Hamburg’s World Cup stadium with legions of Italy’s fanatical ultras. Joining in enthusiastically with the Azzuri supporters’ songs and chants, I was quickly adopted as a type of mascot. I thought of Tony Soprano answering the sneering question ‘whatever happened to the Romans?’ “You’re looking at ‘em,” he said.
Twenty four hours later, after my nap in the park, I spent two hours in a police station holding cell. I had explained to the desk officer — in my best German — that I needed them to fill out a form so I could claim the insurance on my phone which was somewhere in a Reeperbahn karaoke bar. They took my passport and made me answer questions about the previous three weeks. I don’t think they believed much.
A friend of mine often watches the football with his father. And since his dad visited the Nou Camp during a city break he’ll ask during each Barcelona game: ‘I wonder who’s sitting in my seat?’ Watching United outclass Schalke in the lovely town of Gelsenkirchen this week, I wondered who was sat in mine — under the tree outside the stadium.
Adrian@thescore.ie Twitter: @adrianrussell