San Siro awaits hero Tractor Boys

PUBLISHED: 18:00 24 November 2001 | UPDATED: 10:54 03 March 2010

With the Tractor Boys preparing to fly off to Milan for the second leg of their UEFA Cup tie with Inter, The Evening Star has been to see what awaits the team and supporters in the Northern Italian city.

STANDING at the heart of the city turn your back on the 14th century cathedral with its rich sprouting of Gothic spires. Stroll through the pigeons that flock greedily for the welcome pickings from tourists in the Piazza del Duomo. On the Via Mazzini take a No 24 tram in the direction of Axum and you have begun a pilgrimage to city's other place of worship where the routine roar, the flares, the animalistic beating of drums could not be more different to the reverential hush in the darkened recesses of the cathedral.

Milan hosts many spiritual homes. Opera has the Teatro della Scala; fashion struts its stuff among the boutiques of Via Monte Napoleone. But for football there is the one and only San Siro.

Named after a nearby church, the stadium is also known by locals as the Meazza, standing as it does on its huge, strangely hydraulic-looking haunches in the Piazza Meazza, which received its name from one of Inter's most famous players, the late Giuseppe Meazza.

Here crowds of up to 86,000 come to pay homage to a pantheon of modern day saints at the stadium this year celebrating its 75th anniversary. To fete and curse with a fan's typical rollercoaster of emotions those who dress on alternate Sundays in the blue and black robes of Internazionale - 'the neroazurri' - and the vestments of red and black, donned by their deadly rivals AC Milan.

Inter, as any AC Milan fan would be quick to remind you, are the junior Milan side. The 1908 date worn on the Inter shirt bars them from any claim to be known as Milan. Founded nine years before AC Milan proudly retain that honour as the original Milan side, the 'home' side. Inter were created amid an acrimonious boardroom dispute over the desire to employ foreign players. Disgruntled directors established a new side and Internazionale, the name reflecting the new foreign imports, were born, moving across the city from the Arena Civica to play their first games at the San Siro from 1945.

So when Town lace up their boots they will be steeling themselves for their biggest continental contest for twenty years in the home dressing room. They will sit on the benches where Milan's Zevchenko, Maldini and Inzaghi every fortnight park their multi-million pound frames under pegs no doubt draped with more Armani than David Beckham's walk-in wardrobe.

I just hope they are not expecting multi-million pound showers: the facilities seemed surprisingly basic, considering all the club's costly two-legged assets.

"We had to cover the bath," said our guide, the pleasingly helpful Maria Sole. "All the players had their own swimming pools at home so there didn't seem much point."

What's left are the lime-scaled showers hanging over mouldering wooden duckboards. More municipal park than Milanese chic, really. But I'm sure the Tractor Boys will be able to slum it.

The pitch too shows a little wear and tear but spare a thought for the head groundsman, whose thankless task it is to coax the hallowed turf through a punishing autumn schedule of Serie A, Scudetto and European matches. With two teams to cater for, it's a double headache - and he's from Burnley.

"We're top of the division now," said Steve Taylor, with a grin, when we spoke to him this week. San Siro's head groundsman for eight years refers not either Milanese team, of course. He means his very own Burnley and the obvious joy he shows at them besting Norwich marks him out as someone with a soft spot for the Blues.

"It's great to see all the English club's doing so well in Europe," he said diplomatically, recalling his second match in charge of the pitch was Norwich's 1993 tie against Inter. "I'm glad to see Ipswich here," said Steve. "But I'm afraid Inter are my team."

Nevertheless, he gamely slipped on a Tractor Boys in Europe T-shirt and he was as pleased as a Suffolk punch to keep it.

"I'll wear on the day," he promised. "And I wish Ipswich good luck." So if you see Steve, give him a wave - you may also spy a Tractor Boy's car sticker on the groundsman's hut.

Asked how he came to be in charge of the San Siro's tractor, the man who used to tend golfcourses replied that he came "because of love", to marry an Italian woman who had captured his heart.

"I came for the right reasons," he chuckled. "Not to be head groundsman at the San Siro."

But a wholly different kind of amore fuels the fickle adulation of the crowds who pack into the cavernous stadium's three tiers.

A total of 15,000 sit among the gods at the top, 35,000 cram into the middle and bottom circles while there's room for 500 VIPs in the central round.

The stadium was built by 120 workmen within just over a year. It cost 3.5bn lira at today's rates – and that's an awful lot of naughts.

But the raw power of the place is found not purely in its immensity, which was shown in eerie relief as industrial cleaners on high Hoovered down the unwanted programmes from Milan's disappointing 0-0 draw on Sunday with lowly Piacenza.

As the litter swirled around like damned souls in a godforsaken circle of Dante's Hell, you would have to imagine the addition of the fire-work hurling, spitting hordes revelling in the bloodsport that is Italian football to paint its fullest picture.

Estimates vary as to how many of Inter's fans will turn up. Perhaps 20,000, maybe 30,000. But thanks to Thursday's sensational result there will certainly be some more worried faces.

And after asking a taxi driver what he thought about the coming match, I received a blank look.

Thanks to Alun Armstrong though, at least the apathetic Milanese now know where Ipswich is. Not, as the cabbie asked hopefully, "Switzerland?"

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