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By Mark Neale (@neale_mark)

This article is about how my love affair with Football began, in spite of my Father’s hatred for the game.

As for many young boys growing up, Football was everything to me: dreams of playing as a professional, a room full of posters from the weekly magazines and European club pennants, and of course collecting the Panini sticker albums.

Most of my Football memories are with my grandfather, seeing as my father hated the game with a passion. Consequently, it was my granddad that took me to my youth games and who watched me play, giving me advice and supporting me throughout. In his younger days, my grandfather, who grew up in the Midlands, was a diehard Aston Villa fan. He’d met my Nan during World War II and the two had settled in Norfolk after peace broke out in 1945. Fuelling my passion for the game, he told me stories of great players and of how he watched Aston Villa beat my local team Norwich City in the 1975 League Cup Final at Wembley.

Aston Villa had become English champions during the 1980-81 season, and my grandfather and I watched them as they beat Norwich City 3-1 at Carrow Road, muffling celebrations as we sat in incognito amongst the home crowd. We went up to Villa Park towards the end of the season to watch them beat Nottingham Forest 2-0, a day on which I also got to meet my grandfather’s two brothers, who still lived in the area – happy days indeed!

Crowned as English champions, ‘Villa’ played the following season (1981-82) in the European Cup. My granddad attended their first game against Iceland-champions Valur. Sulking at home, I was not allowed to go; the usual reasons from my dad being “waste of money” or “not on a school night.” Regardless, Villa made it all the way to the Final, a game I managed to watch on TV – an exceptional occurrence, given that it was a Wednesday night, and late nights of that kind were indeed a rare thing.

Chance would have it that my father was out on that particular evening and my mum, who was more tolerant of my passion, allowed me to stay up and watch the Final. The Villains were playing German champions Bayern München and this game had me entranced. My first memory was of the unfortunate Villa goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer, and his numerous pairs of gloves, lumbering off the field after only nine minutes due to a serious neck injury. But my favourite player was the English midfielder Gordon Cowans – a graceful baller with a real eye for a pass, be it short or long. I wanted to be like him and when I played for my youth team I modelled myself on him: shirt untucked, always on the lookout for that killer pass.

Villa went on to win the game 1-0, lifting the huge trophy, thanks to a Peter Withe goal. Quickly shuffling off to bed before Dad came home, I lay there unable to sleep, still excited and impatient to see granddad at the weekend.

In the summer of 1982, still euphoric, I spent most of my time around my Nan and granddad. The World cup, played in Spain, was available on TV, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Italian striker Paolo Rossi was the talk of the tournament, back from a long ban but still ending up as top goalscorer. The final arrived and on Sunday 11th of July 1982 we sat down in front of the TV, as Italy took on West Germany. My two unshakable memories of that game being, needless to say, Marco Tardelli’s emotional celebration and also goalkeeper-captain Dino Zoff hoisting the golden trophy high above his head – I’d never seen a goalkeeper as captain before!

The following year, Villa lost in the 1982-83 European Cup Quarter Finals to Italian champions Juventus, and Rossi, who had been in the centre of attention the previous summer, scored at Villa Park, as the bianconeri soundly beat us. Twice I’d seen an Italian team and twice they’d won, I was highly impressed!

The summer of 1985, very differently from that of 1982, was a footballing disaster! Aston Villa sold my favourite player, Gordon Cowans, who was off to Italian club Bari (who for years, in my blissful ignorance, I called Barry). Now, this was the mid 1980’s, so there was no Internet and it was virtually impossible to keep up to date with Cowan’s progress. But, in 1988, he made a sensational return to the Midlands – Villa had put a first refusal clause in the deal and took up the option – newspaper interviews giving me the background to what had happened.

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Above: Gordon Cowans at Bari, during the 1985-86 campaign.

Cowans’ return coincided with another arrival, that of midfielder David Platt. Together with Cowan in the centre of midfield, the pairing was a joy to watch.

My Dad, although not a Football fan, was a fan of technology. In April of 1990 he bought a new television system called BSB, meaning we had a Squarial Antenna fitted to the house. This included a Sports Channel and, to my amazement, one Sunday afternoon I was able to sit down, armed with a coffee and a cigarette, in front the TV. On that fatidic Sunday, I stumbled across a live Italian Football match. Now, I honestly cannot remember what game it was, and would be lying if I said I did, but I do remember the end of that season, with Sampdoria winning their first ever title.

In 1990, my Nan had passed away and my granddad had moved back up to the Midlands to spend time with his brothers. Consequently, during Italia ’90, I watched most of the games confined in my bedroom. I was (hard to admit) an angry young man, and my relationship with my father had hit rock bottom. The odd phone call to my granddad was the only interaction I had concerning Football, aside from actually playing it. David Platt made the England squad and was part of the team that travelled to Italy, enabling me to see the Stadio San Nicola di Bari live on the telly. Immediately, my attentions were drawn to this futuristic stadium  – this was the place where my hero Cowans had played for three years.

Platt remained at Aston Villa for one more season, until the 21st of July 1991, a date on which the club announced he would be leaving to join…you guessed it: Bari! That club had snatched my favourite player from me once more. This time, however, things were different: thanks to that afore-mentioned Squarial I could watch and follow him. It turned out to be a disastrous season for Bari, but we can cover that another time!

In 1991, there was no official transfer window, so players could move freely at anytime during the season. Thus, in November 1991, Gordon Cowans was sold to Blackburn Rovers. That was it for me: both my favourite players had gone in the space of four months and my relationship with Aston Villa had come to an end. I now had another club in my heart and I was proud to tell my granddad.

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Above: David Platt, playing for Bari in 1991-92. All rights reserved to Steve Poole. 

So, in 1991, “Barry”, or better known as Bari, had become my club. Fate, not just in a footballing sense, seemed to have continuously drawn me to the tenth biggest city in Italy. Holidays and the odd live game, when I could keep a job long enough (still an angry young man unfortunately), kept the passion burning. My then girlfriend (now wife)’s best friend even met an Italian man, while on holiday in Spain in 2003, and yes, of course, he was from Bari! They became husband and wife and my wife and I were witnesses at their wedding – a truly memorable day.

The journey was a complex one: a mixture of fate, luck and looking for a place to feel happy. In the end, I stumbled upon the city of Bari, in Puglia, Italy. So, from some minor flirtations back in 1982, to a full on love affair in 1991: this is the story of my Italian love story…and of course Forza Bari!

Mark is brilliant ‘teller of stories’ for The Gentleman Ultra, and a real Calcio devotee. In line with his above-mentioned passion for Bari, he created the website Sempre Bari, about all things Bari, in English. 

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