Earlier this season, I felt like i’d struggled to put into words the events of that penalty shootout defeat at the City Ground against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup.
In all fairness, that was a walk in the park compared to writing about Notts County taking on Juventus!
Three weeks of anticipation hadn’t prepared us for this. Not by a long shot! In the days leading up to the game it had more of a presence in the press. Radio Five Live were interviewing Martin Allen, Sky Sports News were interviewing our kitman, the BBC were even sending a camera crew to follow Notts on their journey.
This was becoming a very big deal very quickly!
The County faithful began making their way to Turin from the beginning of the week. Word spread quickly that the numbers of those over there were rising all the time. Better yet, no whispers of any trouble from any of the Turin residents.
Our group set up camp at a Travelodge in Stanstead the night before we flew out the next morning.
The flight was a breeze. Plenty of fans had assembled at the airport for the same flight for Notts’ first major European excursion for nearly two decades.
Upon our arrival in Turin (via Genoa) we didn’t waste any time in making our way to the stadium.
25 minutes into the journey and the magnificent Juventus Arena leans into view from behind obstructing buildings. It takes your breath away, the stadium is nothing like you’ve ever visited before. It’s merely another indication to you that this club might not be worthy of this kind of occasion.
Our first port of call though were the merchandise stands littered around the ground. When all we were looking to do is pick up some mementos for our evening and for loved ones back home, we’re greeted with Juventus fans. They all want to thank us for Notts County donating the famous black and white many years ago, many even want their photos taken with us.
Following Notts, you’re rarely humbled like this.
The closer we get to the ground, the more daunting it becomes, the more photos we take. The weather is beautiful and the sun is beating down on you. Everything just feels so perfect.
When we got into the stadium it took our breath away. In recent years, trips to Wigan, Sunderland and Manchester City have seen us share some fantastic grounds – the Juventus Arena takes it to a whole new level though.
The Notts players and officials make their way onto the pitch to soak in some pre-match atmosphere. Some of them acknowledge our chants from the rafters – others likely to be distracted by the scale of what they’re about to become a part of.
Before long, everyone has taken their seats for the opening ceremony – curated by the same company responsible for the launch of the 2006 Winter Olympics. It’s magnificent, your jaw is literally resting on the floor the entire time. Thoughts of how cheesey such processions are when you’re watching back home fill your mind. When it’s happening in front of you though, it’s quite the experience.
The stadium is lit up by the mini LED torches left on everyone’s seat. It creates a spectacle of nearly 40,000 twinkles around all four sides of the playing surface. This was beautiful in itself but it still wasn’t enough to detract from what was happening on the field. Fire jugglers, stumbling giraffes, a presentation of Juventus’ silverware throughout the years – and perhaps the most staggering array of former pros you can ever imagine a club assembling!
But one name though is absent, you accept though that he is part of the evening’s “main event”. But the lights go down…when they come back up, Allessandro Del Piero is perched on a bench being interviewed in front of the arena. There are no subtitles for the English minority in attendance, but you don’t care. The roar from the Juventus fans immediately to our right somehow makes up for it. You’re in the presence of greatness and you’re not allowed to forget it.
By the time the evening’s pre-match entertainment (as far removed from Mr & Mrs Magpie and the Hooters Girls as it gets!) is finished, you lose sight of the fact that the 9.30pm kick off time has passed and the Notts County players are on the pitch just to warm up!
Such was the magnitude of the event that you felt delighted for the people associated with Juventus. They had welcomed us into their homes, treated us like celebrities. The main course was to follow and you were comfortable living with the idea that Notts County were about to be handed a sound thrashing. So be it. What we had seen previously more than made up for the guaranteed drubbing that was to follow!
Right from the go though, it’s evident that Notts weren’t there to be rolled over and were making a contest of things. Fantastic! Our hosts would open County up at will at times, but ultimately they were found wanting once it came to the finishing touches.
The Juventus style of play suited Martin Allen’s side to the ground. They’re not all in your face before you have a chance to breathe – they’ll let you play, but close you down and snuff out any chances you think you might be able to forge.
Goalless at half time was a victory in itself. The Notts contingent around us in block 231 all nod in ackowledgement to eachother that “Yeah go on, we’ll take that if we have to!” We were playing some really nice football actually. As petty as it sounds, I hoped that those who had belittled Notts County as no more than a hoofball side were watching – on a world stage we were dealing with one of the world’s biggest sides somewhat comfortably.
The half-time interval passed without as little as an under-9’s game. Shoddy work!
The tempo of the second period was much the same as the previous, but when Ricky Ravenelli handled in the penalty area fairly early in the half, we weren’t disappointed – we still felt that Juventus deserved this moment.
That Roberto Burchio in goal seemed intent on crashing the party was fantastic for those few seconds before Luca Toni prodded home the rebound for Juve.
Notts kept their heads up though, it only spurned them on to push for that equaliser even more than they had already. Ben Burgess was proving a threat once more whilst Lee Hughes was covering every inch of the final third in search of that goal.
Of course, it was Hughes who was to eventually level the scores. It was a moment that was just about as surreal as you can imagine. Even all these days on, I struggle to find the words to put across how great a moment it was. So just watch the avoiding, ignoring my exciteable laugh as the ball crosses the line!
Lee Hughes celebrated with his dance, as you’d obviously expect. Right in front of the the arena’s south stand, the newly renovated home of the high profile Ultras group of Juventus fans. Whilst Hughes was mobbed by his team mates, all with priceless expressions that all said the same thing we were all thinking: “Is this really happening?”
Meanwhile, the Juventus fans all around rose to their feet in appreciation, applauding what they had seen. The surreal nature of the moment became even more so.
You can’t avoid that Hughes is one of the most hated players in league football in England. A man who every time he throws on a Notts shirt knows he’s in for 90 minutes of abuse from opposition support. That sight of thousands of Juventus fans showing their appreciation for him is a sight those in attendance will never forget. What it meant to Lee himself is probably indescribable.
At the final whistle, our area in the arena became over-ran with Juventus fans. The atmosphere was brilliant, more handshakes exchanged, more thank yous from both sets to each other.
Both a young Notts fan and a Juventus fan were playing football on the walkway behind us, perhaps too young to understand the night they had been witness to – but these are the generation who will never be allowed to forget the night when Juventus and Notts County strengthened a bond over a hundred years old.
We spoke with an older gentleman on our way out of the arena gates. He said he how much he hoped our clubs did play at Meadow Lane next Summer. We as a club of course share his hopes, those three or four hundred that made the fantastic trip will now hope they can return the warm greetings extended to them by the Turin locals.
Come morning time, after the adrenalin had finally let us get some sleep, we were still coming to terms with the nights events. None of it had sunk in yet. The opening ceremony and the game dominated the pages of the next morning’s papers – it was impossible not to feel like James Richardson on Football Italia as you flicked through a copy of La Gazzetta Dello Sport!
We made our way to our hire car to get back to the airport, passing through a market. One person there treated our party to his own rendition of “It’s Just Like Watching Juve”, it was like Turin just wasn’t willing to let go of the moment just as much as we weren’t!
We left already planning a return trip to the Juventus Arena by the end of the season, committed to keeping the spirit between both sets of supporters alive for many years to come.
Landing back at Stanstead and that was it though. The dream was over and you were back to reality, thoughts turned to Walsall at home. I couldn’t help but wonder that if we couldn’t follow up our displays against Nottingham Forest and Tranmere earlier this season, how would we follow this?
Hughesy picked up where he left off on Thursday though, hammering home quite comfortably the best goal out of his 50+ for Notts County. A ball so obviously intended for a knockdown was chested into the air and volleyed home into the top corner with incredible velocity past former-Notts goalkeeper David Grof.
A goal go as sublime as it gets, it was just like watching Juve in fact.
For the second week in a row though, Notts were pegged back at Meadow Lane as Walsall equalised, only for County to strike back through (again, two weeks in succession) Christian Montano just five minutes later.
Despite the edgy closing to the match, Martin Allen’s XI held on. A harder fought victory than it needed to be, but job done. You can hardly blame the players who must’ve been running on empty following their European exploits.
The scoreline might even have been better had it not been for Jeff Hughes’ own rendition of Louis Armstrongs “We Have All The Time In The World” as he waited for a ball to reach him where all he had left to do was head home into an empty net – but since when did we start doing things the easy way?
A 2-1 win was a fantastic achievement though.
Six points and an away goals win in Turin? Let’s be honest – there’s been worse weeks!