One step from the Europa League Final in 2016 and we draw Villarreal in the semi’s. I knew it was in Spain and I also knew it was somewhere down the coast towards Valencia but that was about it. Plans were soon hatched to fly to Barcelona and make the beautiful train journey down that coast to Castellon de la Plana, just a few miles outside Villarreal itself.
Sunshine on a rainy day
At Barcelona train station, which was a very wet Barcelona, we grabbed the usual lunch and Spanish beers to take with us on the journey south from a shop I had used on previous visits to Catalonia.
We checked into our hotel (which was a short walk from the train station) on arrival, ditched the bags and a few beers were consumed in the spring Spanish sunshine before a taxi ride the few miles to Villarreal. A few lads had gone the beach for the morning, which was only a short walk from the town and we met up with them later in Villarreal itself.
A few years earlier the small town of Villarreal had a really good football team. In fact, I’d even travelled to the Camp Nou to watch Barcelona vs Villarreal play in an exciting 1st vs 2nd La Liga clash. These days, even though they had reached the semi-final, the team was rebuilding after relegation to try and match those heady times of a few years earlier.
We all live in a yellow submarine
Villarreal itself is a small town, with virtually nothing to do besides have a pre-game drink with family and friends in the two main squares. One of the squares was a few hundred meters from the ground, whilst the second housed the then wonderfully named El Madrigal. Each square was awash with travelling Liverpool supporters but plenty of ‘spares’ seemed to be floating about.
The ground is a steep, old looking ground, surrounded by mainly residential area. It seems almost shoehorned in to the Villarreal old town, which little room to spare. We (Liverpool) were assigned the upper tier behind the goal, which afforded great views of the surrounding area but wouldn’t be any good for anybody with a fear of heights. It reminded me of Standard Liege but that’s a story for another day.
The yellow colouring of the ground plus the bright yellow kit lends itself perfectly to their nickname of The Yellow Submarine. A bit of Liverpool and The Beatles in a remote town in Spain, how perfect and apt for the visit of the reds.
I can’t see there being any room to expand the ground or even modernise it due to it’s location. I think that is what gives it its appeal and character. Any new ground I would guess in the future would probably be located outside the centre but with such a small population I’m not even sure a bigger capacity or stadium would be necessary.
I predict a riot (not)
The police, dressed in full riot gear, were out in force on the night, probably worried about an ‘English’ team being in town but despite their presence everything was good natured and passed peacefully. We also had to endure what seemed about 5 security check points outside the ground but I suppose you can expect that these days in a European game.
The atmosphere inside the ground was far from a semi-final one and the home fans were disappointing until a late goal sealed them a slender 1-0 home victory to take into the second leg. Only when they scored did the fans really explode into life and get behind their teams with minutes remaining.
Our end was the usual mixture of singing, drunken humour and the odd flare or two.
We weren’t overly concerned losing the game because both teams had been disappointing and with the return leg being at Anfield, we were confident of progressing. We were proven to be correct with a comfortable 3-0 victory in the reverse fixture, that took us into the final in Basel.
After the game we parked ourselves back in the square adjacent to the ground for, yes you guessed it, a few more beers. It was a relaxing atmosphere, with the beers coming in huge plastic 1 litre glasses and despite the defeat our spirits were high.
A ghost town
Now it was late on a Thursday night and besides the bar we were in, absolutely nothing else was open. It was literally a ghost town and we started to wonder how we would get back to our hotel with no taxies about. We hatched a (great – sarcasm) plan to walk up the main road out of Villarreal and somehow thumb a taxi down.
15 minutes’ walk later and still no joy until a car screeched in front of us and we hopped in. Now I’m no expert and I’d had about 10 pints at this stage but I was sure this wasn’t a taxi. We ‘negotiated’ with the driver to take us back to our hotel area, which he did in the most dramatic fashion possible. Think Lewis Hamilton on speed (the drug I mean) and you’d be about halfway there. An absolute crazy driver but we weren’t bothered, we’d soon be tucking into some post-match food.
We got back to near the hotel and in broken Spanish we gave him the €20 we had promised but boy, he wasn’t happy. He must have miss heard us when we said 20 but he wasn’t getting a cent more. Food (and more beers) were consumed and off to bed for a decent night kip.
The return journey was again via Barcelona. So, heavy-eyed and weary we boarded the morning train back up the coast, a quick look around Barcelona and then off the airport for the evening plane back to the UK.