A fledgling sportswriter’s first attempt at covering a big match.

I arrived at Gillette Stadium yesterday unsure what to expect. I mean, I knew AC Milan were about to face Inter Milan some four thousand miles from their usual sparring ground.  I knew attendance for the event would be staggering compared to the NE Revolution’s regular season draw. I knew the crowd would be noisy and thrilled to find the Milan Derby in their own back yard. But as this was my first attempt at live football reportage: I wasn’t sure how I’d fit into the mix.

Or how I’d cover it.

Part 1: Pre-Game…

The route to my eventual perch went something like this: patient parking attendants redirected me (twice) to the Media Parking. Once I’d parked, patient security guards helped me weave the maze of barriers to the Media Table. Patient caterers gently led me to the Media Elevator which had choices like Red Level and Blue Level. The giant blue strip on my media pass led me to believe I belonged on the Blue Level. (Hey: I’m a journalist. These deductive skills come with the job.)

The Blue Level was more barren of life than the lunar surface… Hello? (hello… hello… hello…) Echo! (echo… echo… echo…)

I should mention I’d arrived three hours early. My original plan was to get situated in the press area and then find a bar and watch the USA/Mexico final. I would ultimately scrap this plan, deciding pre-match beers  could snowball things into a Hunter S. Thompson-type odyssey: Fear and Loathing in Foxborough. No need for that.

Long tables stretched the lenth of the Blue Level press box with intermittent telephones and electrical outlets for laptops. Everything was pale and white. The ventilation system hummed. The air was crisp. This was the kind of sterility and stillness usually reserved for hospital waiting rooms. Were they also pumping in pure oxygen to keep us docile?

The Gaffer had asked me to write about the experience of being at the match. If I was just writing about the match narrative I could have covered the match from my couch. But I was out to capture the feel of watching two legendary European clubs play their derby in New England. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d do that in the detached environment of the press box. I’d have to figure it out.

There was one more obstacle. Literally. A four foot story monster of covered structure towered over the near side of the pitch. It looked like a plastic and metal earless version of Monty Python’s Trojan Rabbit from Holy Grail. It turns out AC/DC were playing a concert at Gillette later in the week and the stage was already up. The problem was it completely blocked off view of the near goal and penalty area for everyone watching from the press box. Sorry. That’s a slight exaggeration. In truth, if I’d secured the last seat at the far end of the room and pressed my body against the wall like a flat-tailed gecko, I might have been able to catch a nearside goal.

What was this? Had multiple writers recently pissed off the Gillette media staff with harsh articles? (Was I dooming myself to worse conditions at future matches for comparing the press box to a hospital?) Was this punishment? Or just a means of keeping us out of trouble? I know we’re known as vultures, but c’mon…

Soon supporters in Milan and Inter jerseys slowly filtered into the seats. I’d wanted to take in their energy, but I felt a million miles away. Then some Italian journalists joined me on the Blue Level. I could tell their grumbling echoed my concerns. I don’t speak Italian, but the hand gestures and raised eyebrows in the direction of AC/DC’s stage-osaurus made it clear we were all nursing the same ulcer.

I soon found out the people in charge of taking care of us had no idea the temporary house of Aussie hard rock would be there. They were very apologetic and ready to improvise. They quickly and graciously opened up the six spectator suites adjacent to the press area.

These rooms were designed for VIPs to watch Patriots games during the NFL season. Huge framed pictures of our local American Football champs hung from the walls including Tom Brady grinning after completing a pass in the snow. There were small kitchens and soft chairs and private washrooms. Large flat screen TVs hung from the ceiling. This was more like somebody’s posh apartment that happened to overlook a sporting ground. This was fantastic. What a scene. Most importantly though: the plate glass windows in these rooms could slide open. The distance was about the same as the press box, but I felt ten times closer just from the feel of the warm July air in my face.

I snagged a seat in the very front in the very middle. I hung my head out the window like a eager dog on a car trip and took in the crowd which was now growing by the minute. I soaked up the noises and the feel of the day. This was much better. I was hovering on the edge. One foot in each world: that of the fans and that of the media.

My colleagues began to amass in my suite. They plopped down their shoulder bags, unfolded their laptops and searched for the fabled wireless signal. I took out my small pocket-sized notebook and laid it flat. I arranged my ball-point pen and my backup ball-point pen. High-tech. What can I say? I’d hoped to be more mobile. I’d had a naive vision of myself nestled in the stands or scurrying along the pitch, scribbling notes as I studied the crowd and the game alike. Now, with the measly equipment laid before me, I felt like a pre-schooler who’d wandered into roomful of doctoral candidates.

This was just my nerves talking. Once I relaxed I was able to banter with those around me and start to enjoy my spot: I was in a luxury box, about to look down upon sweet Milan on Milan action and Angus Young and Co had inadvertently put me here. Thanks, gents.

I chatted with a those around me. Nice to me you. Nice to meet you. Who do you write for? And you? An American who runs his own soccer site. Another who writes for a New England-based online journal. A guy from the Associated Press. A friendly Albanian writer who parked himself directly next to me. His eventual match commentary would be priceless.

Our best exchange:

Him: I cannot stand Mourinho!

Me (in dire need of a q-tip): You can’t stand New England?

Him: What? No! I love New England. I can’t stand Mourinho!

Me: Oh! Riiiiight.

That made so much more sense. Who could hate New England in the summer? (Mid-February is another story.)

The crowd below was packed thick and I could feel their electricity. Soon the players would jog out onto the pitch (which I’m told was fresh-laid grass rather than the cheap astro-turf the Revolution usually play on) and the crowd would roar.

The pounding RZA groove from Lucy Liu’s entrance in Kill Bill vol 1 blared on the PA as the players warmed up. They were tiny from my vantage. But I still felt chills. Ronaldinho was right there. Sure… by right there, I mean he was six stories down and 150 yards away, but that’s at least 7,039,850 yards closer than I’m used to. (By the way: I think any player who plays in a large stadium should be required to cultivate a crazy hairdo. Most of the Serie A players left me waiting for them to turn their backs so I could make out their number. But I could spot Ronnie anywhere, anyhow. Gattuso too. Mandatory crazy hair or a mandatory crazy Serpico beard… Sepp Blatter: get on this pronto.)

The players got into position and the music cut out. Here we go… Derby della Madonnina in Foxborough, Massachusetts…

(Tomorrow: Ronnie’s “red card”… How do you solve a problem like Milito… Pato could turn an army… And would somebody from Milan please score if only so I can watch Jose pace and fume… Part 2: The Match Proper…)

Ethan Armstrong writes regularly for EPLTalk.com but loves good football from any league.