This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
They weren't easy to lug about: full-size replica European Cups wrapped in bin liners, placed inside fibreglass IKEA bags and bundled down train aisles at rush hour. Past the knees and elbows of humanity at its most bleary-eyed and selfish, one big unit hauling another, working up an honest sweat. Or possibly a dishonest one.
Darren (I never did find out his surname; I couldn't even tell you for sure that this was his real first name) only crossed my path for a couple of hours, on a train from St. Pancras to Nottingham in 2008, but he's not the sort of person you easily forget. He plonked himself down facing me, sliding his as-yet-unidentified luggage into the window seat and squeezing his considerable heft under the table. I was reading and scribbling notes so, to avoid too much accidental and unwanted contact with his massive hammy shins, slid over to the window seat.
I flashed him a brief smile of acknowledgement, hoping to convey sympathy for a predicament in which I've found myself on many occasions while not encouraging conversation from a face that looked as though, once it started, it would never stop.
I guess you need to be reasonably chatty to hawk 1:1 scale replicas of an iconic trophy.
I returned to my book, Duncan Hamilton's Provided You Don't Kiss Me, the hilarious and moving account of the author's 18-year stint chronicling Brian Clough's benevolent footballing dictatorship for the Nottingham Evening Post.
"Cloughie, eh? Absolute genius. I mean, winning two European Cups, two more than the whole of London put together. Pretty amazing for such a small club. No offence, by the way."
"No problem. I'm not a Forest fan."
"Oh, okay. Who do you support? I'm Darren, by the way."
"Hi Darren. I'm Scott. And Liverpool, for my sins."
"How do you mean?"
"Err, you know... even better record in the European Cup."
And off we went, talking about Tommy Smith's header in Rome, Alan Kennedy's surge in Paris, Grobbelaar's jelly legs and Dudek's homage 21 years later. I stopped what I was working on. Was he working on me? Darren told me – in a broad Mancunian accent, as it goes – that he'd been to both Istanbul and Athens for the 2005 and 2007 finals, lowering his voice to confess that he wasn't there as a supporter. "It was business," he said with something of an alligator's smile.
He started to remove the bin liners from one of those encumbrances, careful to check over his shoulder before he did so, and the penny suddenly dropped as to why we'd been talking about the European Cup all the way to Stevenage. At this point, for all I still knew, when Darren revealed that gleaming, stainless steel totem of European football's plutocratic elite, it could have been the real thing. In fact, this was a sales line he'd occasionally trotted out for the more gullible folk encountered in a nomadic life criss-crossing the continent trying to fill empty lives by flogging these uber-trinkets at anywhere from £200 to £800 a pop, depending how giddy (and metallurgically ignorant) the punter was. And what a line of work: 'When I grow up I want to be...'
He told me how he'd first got involved in 1999 when he saw Solskjaer's reflex toe-poke in Barcelona earn his old compadre £4,700 in orders from a bunch of Generation-Sky United fans for whom Wembley 1968 was not just another era but might as well have happened to another club. So, alongside his regular job as a chef, he started to knock a few out, first in Britain, then occasionally in Amsterdam, before deciding that his trip to Istanbul would be the moment at which, after six years dabbling, he "took the plunge, big-time," meeting the Turkish manufacturers and cutting out his middle man. He paid about £40 each for orders of over 50 units, then had them shipped to one of four strategically chosen hub cities where, to reduce distribution costs, he rented lock-ups: Madrid, Milan, Amsterdam, Warrington. "Fuck knows how the three I sold to them Mickey Mousers in the 'Bul made it back home 'cos they were defo too big for hand luggage! 18-hundred nicker in 20 minutes I earned," he chuckled.
Glasgow was one of his favourite hunting grounds – somewhere he could exploit sectarian loathing for profit, invoking the Lions of Lisbon for people pushed by the cogs of capitalism into a hamster wheel of boozy escapism punctuated by the affirmation of their tribal identity. "You wouldn't fuckin' believe it pal," he giggled. "There are Celtic supporters in the Gorbals with a shitty two-piece suite, three-bar fire, fridge full of Tennent's and a fuck-off European Cup plonked on the telly! Nowt else in the gaff. And the thing is I can actually knock 'em out for more up there than I can in fuckin' Milan. These poor twats have got fuck all except the feeling that a European Cup makes 'em better than the other lot. I wouldn't be surprised if they did tours of the city, standing through the sunroof holdin' the fuckin' trophy!"
Perhaps in an attempt to get me on the payroll, Darren then explained the mechanics of it all, his tactics for a big match day: typically, he would sidle into a well-known supporters' haunt a couple of hours before kick-off, trophy in tow. He'd pass it around, let people feel it, have their photos taken with it, get the juices flowing, allow the fantasy to fasten around the axons, to bedeck the synapses. Then he'd hand out the business cards, collecting the numbers of interested parties as he did so. "That reminds me," he said, patter as polished as his trophies, "if ever you change your mind and want to get involved, you can get me on any of those numbers. The letters in brackets are the countries for each of me numbers..."
"It isn't all glamour," he assured me, somewhat redundantly. He staged a photograph with the Feyenoord ultras and the trophy in order to drive up sales in Amsterdam, only to get heavily stoned, lose his keys, and turn up at the lock-up the following afternoon to discover he'd been cleaned out of 22 units. Another time, a UEFA official clocked him in Bucharest and he had to get a taxi all the way to the border and over to Bulgaria, for fear of having to break the bank to bribe a Romanian policeman.
The stories (all told as though entirely run-of-the-mill) and English countryside rumbled past and we finally rolled into Nottingham. Darren scooted off to some 'Audience With...' night featuring Cloughie's not-so-pretty boy enforcers, Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns. He had been before. Of necessity, he revisited the same cities time and again, yet harboured an ever-diminishing hope for "the emergence of new markets" – his own Far East. But the establishment of the European oligarchy means it is increasingly unlikely to happen. We have traded a concentration of talent and glamour for the thrill of the unknown.
The last new winners of the European Cup were plucky little Chelsea of West London, a heart-warming rags-to-riches tale of guttersnipes that became princes. The next new winner – and all due respect to Arsenal fans here, but, well, you know – will most likely be either of those petrodollar urchins, Manchester City or PSG. Darren will be drooling at the prospect of Qatari-funded success in one-club Paris.
You suspect it's unlikely to cause either the continent's nouveaux riches or old aristos too many sleepless nights, but the chances of a Porto (winners in 2004 and 1987) or Marseille (1992), much less a Red Star Belgrade (1991) or Steaua Bucharest (1986), are now zilch. It's the same for Celtic (1967) and, genuine royalty Ajax (1970, 71, 72, 95). But if there's a relative famine anywhere among the old grandees – and seven-time finalists Juve have gone 19 years without winning – then, so Darren's logic went, the desire to get their hands on a symbol of their old potency, on this fetish, should be throbbingly insistent. And that is why, somewhere in Turin on Saturday – perhaps in an old trattoria, talking to a proud tifoso – he will be drizzling olive oil on his patter and trying to peddle his titanic tat.