Well, this was a day out that didn't go quite as planned.
They say you should never meet your heroes. I can't say that I ever have. Nor have I had many interactions with any players, past or present. I can lay claim to having a chat with two lower league players at a barn dance: it was about as underwhelming an experience as it sounds. But earlier this year I was offered an opportunity to see some professional players up close. Maybe even get to speak to them. I'm no Danielle Lloyd, I don't get chances like this very often. How could I say no?
Long story short: I was living in Spain as part of a University year abroad.; my best pals over there were two Frenchman. Despite coming from the rugby hotbed of La Rochelle, one of them was an AS Monaco fan. My other French friend told me: “Monaco don't have any fans. He's from La Rochelle! Why would you support Monaco if you're from the south-west?! He should support Girondins, like me.” So when I got the 'do you want to come and watch Monaco train?' phonecall on a cold, bleak Thursday afternoon in January I couldn't say no.
We convened in the most suitably depressing place: the local supermarket car park. Frenchman #1 seemed excited, but nervous: he was pulling on a Camel Light, pacing nervously, constantly checking his watch; Frenchman #2 (the Girondins fan) had the flu and kept repeatedly muttering “no tengo ningunas ganas hoy” [I really can't be arsed today]. I was somewhat inbetween: it might be fun, despite the bad weather; I was trying to remain optimistic. They might see me juggling the ball on the sideline (I can do at least 12 consecutively) and think 'we're bottom of the league; this boy could be our greatest British signing since Glenn Hoddle'. They might ask me if I can recommend a player from the English leagues, they'll sign him and I'll get an agents fee. There's no telling what could happen. This could be brilliant.
We hop in the car, make the ten minute drive to the village where they're supposed to be training, find the local football club and park up. We walk towards the clubhouse, looks alright, not bad for a little village club. The pitch looked even better. Lovely and flat; grass evenly trimmed. It looked very professional. Only thing wrong with the picture was that Monaco weren't anywhere to be seen. A quick dip into the nearest café informed us that they were up at the 5 star hotel where they were staying and training. Back to the car and up to the hotel. From the hotel car park we could see, about 400 metres away, a football pitch. With players. The tension was starting to rise: Frenchman #1 was muttering to himself in French (I can't speak more than 30 words of French and #2 was unable to translate as he was in a 'flu-induced coma). The problem was that we could see where they were, but couldn't see a road or path that led to the training pitch. So what would you do? Yeah, that's right, you'd go as the crow flies over the edge of the pristine golf course. In your car. “It's okay, I won't drive on the greens,” was probably the most reassuring thing I've ever been told.
We watched the last 45 minutes of a training match from behind a three metre tall fence – I'd have no chance to show my skills pitchside. Frenchman #1 had also made a new friend. Another Monaco fan, living just over the border in Perpignan, had made the 40 minute trip to watch his heroes play. There were a grand total of three groupies watching them play. Well, two, I didn't really count. Frenchman #2 was also absent as he was sat in the front of the car, feet on the dashboard, hoodie pulled over his face, sleeping. The only time he did come out of the car, he stood next to me, complained about being cold and said “they're all shit compared to Gourcuff” before skulking back to the car.
We were also joined by a local celebrity, and the only footballer in the vicinity that I was familiar with: Gerard López. You might remember him as a young midfielder that was part of the Valencia side which made the 2000 Champions League final. He was even in the Spain squad for that summer's Euro 2000 tournament. He then moved back to his boyhood club Barcelona for five seasons. His career took him to Monaco before he returned to his Catalan roots as the captain and playmaker for Segunda Liga's Girona FC. There to see some of his old mates. He nodded at me and asked if I'd seen Jacques. I said I hadn't.
With training wrapped up and the players hurrying away from the cold mountain wind, the two fans decided they wanted their replica shirt and Panini sticker album, respectively, signed. We followed the players back to the hotel (yes, via the golf course again) where we politely asked the concierge if we could hang around the lobby until the players emerged, collect some autographs and then leave. Despite our shabby attire and shady appearance, he said yes. And we waited. And waited. And then some more. Then retired to the hotel bar. And waited. The barman told us not to expect them to be polite. Why wouldn't they be? They had two super-fans waiting for a couple of measly autographs. It's not like they had many fans, anyway. We kept waiting.
I was drinking very slowly but still on my third beer by the time the first of the playing staff arrived. A polite request to sign a shirt and sticker album was met with an excuse so poor that even non-French speaking I could see through it. We waited. The next arrived, same excuse. And the next three. The sixth happily agreed, until he saw the shirt. It was last season's strip embossed with the name of Nenê, last season's top scorer who'd since left the club under a cloud and signed for PSG. Again, I can't speak French but I got the gist of what he said to us. Request after request was turned down until, finally, one man stepped up to the plate. He was gracious, charming, he made a joke, a little small talk, even asked me where I was from. He wished us well, thanked us for coming, said it was always a pleasure to meet fans and bid us good evening. What a nice fella, who was he? A shrug of the shoulders from Frenchman #1, his new friend was rapidly scanning his sticker album... “oh, he's the third-choice 'keeper.”
Driving back home in the car, the dark, grey clouds which had shadowed us all day had by now turned into rain that skitted off the windscreen like me trying to trap a ball. Frenchman #2 had by now woken up: “El tercer portero?! El tercer portero! Joder, estoy feliz que estaba durmiendo [Third-choice 'keeper?! Third-choice! Fuck, I'm glad I was sleeping”].
If you ever have a chance to meet your heroes make sure they are your heroes.
Post script: AS Monaco's winter-break training camp didn't bring them much in the way of good fortune. Four days after I witnessed them training they sacked their manager, Guy Lacombe, after a penalty shootout defeat against Chambéry (from the fifth tier of the French pyramid) in the Coupe de France. On the 29th of May, the occasion of their 2000th league match at the highest level of French football, they lost 2-0 to Olympique Lyon, thus confirming that they would spend the 2011/12 season in Ligue 2, their first season at that level after 34 consecutive years in the top flight.