It’s a slow three weeks until our next game and I suspect that like many these days I spend a lot of my time looking at clips of happier times for Everton. I apologise for the length of this piece; in all honesty it could have been twice as long. Blame Andy Crooks who encouraged me to share when we last had a pint at the Bramley Moore.

Looking at events that happened in Everton’s history in March, I realised that 16 years ago this week, we were all at Goodison hoping that we could overturn a 2-0 deficit against Fiorentina.  That we managed to do that, courtesy of a scrappy Andrew Johnson goal and perhaps one of the best goals ever seen at Goodison from Mikel Arteta, is testament to the self-belief that we had back in those days.

Had it not been for a series of great saves from La Viola keeper Sebastien Frey and some dreadful finishing from Yakubu, extra time and the penalties that ultimately sent us out, thanks to misses from the Yak and Jagielka, would not have been required.  That we played as well as we had for some considerable time was of little consolation. 

However, it is the events of the previous week’s first leg in Florence that prompted me to write this report.

Most travelling Evertonians, when asked, will tell you that the night spent in the Cradle of the Renaissance is pretty high on their list of Everton’s worst away days, if only because the rain that fell that night was positively biblical and three sides of Stadio Artemio Franchi were uncovered.  The locals including the police, were not particularly friendly and we lost 2-0.  I, however, had the best away day ever!

My own trip to Florence started even before the group stages of that season’s Uefa Cup had been concluded with Everton’s glorious unbeaten run against Alkmaar and the trip halfway up Norway to Bergen to witness us comfortably see off SK Brann.  Being the romantic soul that I am, the previous October, I had booked a week in Florence at the very beautiful (and expensive) Hotel Brunelleschi for a wedding anniversary celebration.  The coincidence that Everton were playing in the same city that week was not lost on my wife.  But given the circumstances, she struggled to make the obvious accusations stick.

Article continues below video content

I did manage to annoy her by gazing longingly at the stadium from our roof top terrace and a Huyton Blues flag draped around Dante’s statue didn’t help. We then witnessed the Fiorentina manager Prandelli and the Sevilla manager Simeone (Sevilla had won the trophy the previous year) doing a photo shoot on the Ponte Vecchio with said trophy.  I was by now beside myself with anticipation. 

We had a pretty quiet lunch near the Duomo and at the end, my wife said, "Oh for god’s sake, why don’t you go.  You’ll be miserable all night anyway!" 

"I won’t get a ticket," I explained, but she had all the answers, and I was persuaded to ask the concierge at the hotel if he could sort one out.  As it turned out, he couldn’t, explaining that, even if I was Italian, he would struggle, but as I was English, I had no hope.  But he leaned towards me and said in hushed tones: "But this gentleman might be able to assist you."

I looked to my left at a slim tanned chap with short greying hair and had no clue who he was, I looked at the concierge and shrugged my shoulders. "It is Batigol," he hissed, pronouncing it 'Batiyol'. I was still no wiser.  He raised his eyes and shoulders as only Italians can and said, "Batistuta!"  The penny dropped and the guy, on hearing his name, turned towards me and asked if he could help. The concierge gave a brief explanation and left me to it. 

Fortunately, Batigol (his nickname apparently) spoke good English and I told him my story. He laughed, told me I had a wonderful wife, made a phone call and said that I could be his guest for the evening.  He was guest of honour at the game, but I could accompany him if I wished.  He asked if I had a suit and tie, which I did, and he said I should wear it.  He asked my name, we shook hands and arranged to meet in the foyer about 4 hours before kick-off. He had lots of official duties!

I returned to the foyer at the appointed time, my wife accompanied me anxious to meet a football legend and was introduced to his wife Irina.  I asked if she was coming to the game, and she replied that she avoided football as much as possible.  My new best friend ("Call me Bati") indicated that our car was outside, and we should leave.  

The reception, 30 minutes later, at the stadium was extraordinary, given that it was over 3 hours to kick off and the rain was getting heavier by the minute. Bati signed every autograph, posed for every picture and eventually joined me in the stadium reception area, through the incredible monumental pillars that would not have been out of place in the city centre. He introduced me as his friend Stephen and that I was his expert on Everton for the evening.  In fact, everywhere we went he introduced me and made sure that I was included in the conversation, as far as possible; my Italian is non-existent, and my Spanish confined to ordering food and drink! 

Bati was doing a photo call and introduced me to Signore Andrea Della Valle: "He will take care of you," he said as he disappeared.  I chatted easily with Andrea, who told me that he was in the fashion industry, he was intrigued when I told him I worked for Manchester City.  "What is your connection to Fiorentina?" I asked. "Oh I am the club president, shall we go and watch Bati on the pitch?"

Andrea and I stood in the director’s box with a glass of Montepulciano watching Bati doing the round of TV and Radio interviews, presenting charity cheques, having photographs taken under an umbrella next to his bronze statue in front of the Curva Fiesole.  I asked Andrea about Fiorentina and he explained that his family had bought the club out of administration in 2002 and that the club had restarted in La Ligue C2 only getting back into the top league in 2004.  "It is much harder than I ever thought, the supporters hate me no matter what I do, but the fans who stand on the Curva Fiesole, the Viola Ultras are the beating heart of this club."

I told him all about Everton’s long history, our firsts, our 9 ‘Scudetta,’ our 5 ‘Coppa Inglese’.  We talked about Andrei Kanchelskis who Everton sold to La Viola for £6m.  We had very different opinions of the player!  The Pet Shop Boys and Go West started over the tannoy and Andrea told me that the hairs on his arm stand up whenever he hears it.  "It is about being together!"  I waited until it finished and played him Z-Cars

I watched the game from the Directors Box, was congratulated on the incredible support Everton had, tried to explain why Mikel Arteta was only on the bench and assured my hosts that we were better than this, usually.  I enjoyed a chat with Rui Costa at half-time and returned to my seat for the second half.  

Tim Howard excelled, and I had few opportunities to shout the Blues on. Eventually the pressure told, and La Viola scored two late goals, both rather fortunate, I thought.  At the final whistle, Bati dragged me to my feet and hugged me – I was delighted.

I had hoped to meet some of the Everton travelling party, but none had materialised and after half an hour, my host suggested that he would like to go for some food.  I could hardly say no. I found Andrea, thanked him for his hospitality, gave him my phone number, and said if he had time I would meet him in Liverpool the following week. I recognised the guy he was talking to as Robert Elstone, but it was too late.

As we left, I noticed that Bati was limping, football he said, he had had one knee replacement and the other was planned.  "I hated the game; it was just a job, the fans in Florence kept me going," And although he had completed his coaching badges, he had set up his own building business in Argentina.  

We returned to the hotel and he assured me that we would have no problem getting food.  Our wives were still together in the bar.  At well after midnight, we had a full meal, even though the restaurant had been closed for 2 hours.

"Did you know Gabriel nearly signed for Fulham?" my wife asked.  Irina really wanted to live in London, but Gab said there was no way he could play regularly at that ‘nasty little ground’.  No amount of Al-Fayad’s money would have persuaded him, so he spent the last two years of his career in Saudi Arabia.

What a guy.  

I met Signore Della Valle for breakfast at the Atlantic Towers the following week, but he was more interested in my Manchester City connections and, having sold Valeri Bojinov to City the previous year, he was anxious to do more business.  "Bojinov is crap," he confided in me.  I told him honestly that I had nothing to do with transfers and we parted on good terms.

Reader Comments (26)

Note: the following content is not moderated or vetted by the site owners at the time of submission. Comments are the responsibility of the poster. Disclaimer ()

Ray Said
1 Posted 16/03/2024 at 17:23:02
What a story — very jealous!
Steve Brown
2 Posted 16/03/2024 at 17:27:13
Bloody hell, what an amazing experience, Stephen!
Dave Williams
3 Posted 16/03/2024 at 17:30:20
Now he was a striker who knew how to score goals! What a story and what a nice guy!

Lucky boy, Steve!

Rob Halligan
4 Posted 16/03/2024 at 17:42:07
Sounds a good all-round trip for you, Stephen.

Much better than getting drenched, having about three body searches on our approach to the stadium, unable to see half the pitch due to the segregation boards we had to one side, meaning we couldn't see the goal down the far end, and then being met outside after the game by an army of Italian police, ready with their water cannons should there be any trouble.

I still reckon Moyes cost us that tie by throwing Andy Johnson on when we went 1-0 down. He should have just shut up shop, maybe thrown a defender on, and taken the 1-0 loss.

Brent Stephens
5 Posted 16/03/2024 at 17:43:30
Great stuff! Cracking read.
Andy Crooks
6 Posted 16/03/2024 at 18:25:27
At long last, you have shared that story, Stephen. Absolutely brilliant!!

I remember when you told me and the unassuming and superb way you told it. Totally 'by the way' style. Top stuff.

I recall you relating another incident when you got badly beaten up following the Blues. It was equally understated and amazing.

Jeff Armstrong
7 Posted 16/03/2024 at 18:27:23
Fantastic story Stephen, enjoyable read, did Bati keep in touch?
Peter Mills
8 Posted 16/03/2024 at 20:43:03
That's a great story, Stephen.

My experience of the trip was the same as Rob's @4 – we couldn't even find a bar that was open in Florence on the day of the match.

Dave Abrahams
9 Posted 16/03/2024 at 21:00:32
Great story, Stephen, I doubt if it could be topped!!
Tony Abrahams
10 Posted 16/03/2024 at 22:39:03
What a brilliant story Stephen.

I enjoyed that trip to Italy, especially the cathedral, next door to the leaning tower of Pisa, but then the heavens opened and I can still remember hitting the kerb, whilst driving to the stadium and blowing the tyre out, and having to replace it in the teaming rain.

I go along with Rob & Peter and think we were a much better team than Fiorentina but it was very rare for Moyes to get the best out of his team when the pressure was on. I will never forget the noise inside Goodison when Arteta scored in the return leg. I will also never forget Yakubu's absolutely ridiculous penalty kick.

Once again, thanks for sharing that very enjoyable story, Stephen!

Danny O’Neill
11 Posted 17/03/2024 at 06:35:28
Intriguing story, Stephen.

Florence, or should I say Firenze in Italiano, is a beautiful city. There are so many hidden gems in Italy, that visitors rarely visit.

A bit like your Spanish, having lived in Italy for two years, I can only confess to being able to speak Ristorante. We lived in the Lazio region, not too far from Rome. My German is a lot stronger.

We go back to Rome as often as we can. If anyone is ever there, go to Anzio. Beautiful harbour, the best seafood, and often some of the Roma and Lazio players go to eat on a Sunday.

An interesting tale of administration. Let's hope we don't go there!

I feel cheated that I missed the opportunity to enjoy those European tours. But the career took over. I was either in Northern Ireland, working in an organisation that required me to be on constant 24 hour call, sometime 3 hours. And then between 2006 through to 2010, I was either preparing for or in Afghanistan.

I always managed to follow the results.

Worst away experiences. I could go on, but I'll come closer to home and more recent. Tottenham a few seasons was miserable. And as Fulham was mentioned, that annoying period where we seemed to go there and take a customary 1 - 0 defeat.

Anyway, always look on the bright side. If we turn the Titanic around and avoid the iceberg, we might be in Europe again some time soon.

Stephen Vincent
12 Posted 17/03/2024 at 11:58:03
Andy, Thanks for remembering. By coincidence on 20th March it is the 39th anniversary of the other incident you mention. I may well write it up this week and remember Sittard, or I could save it for the 40th anniversary next year.

Jeff, we kept in touch for a while but I am ashamed to say that it was me who drifted away. My now ex wife and Irina still communicate and have I believe met up on a couple of occasions.

Mark Murphy
13 Posted 17/03/2024 at 12:38:45
Lovely story Stephen and a wonderful experience for you. I look forward to hearing it again over a pint in the vines!
Peter Gorman
14 Posted 17/03/2024 at 14:04:30
You describe Batigol exactly as I'd imagine him. Despite being one of the best strikers in Italy, he stuck with Fiorentina when they got relegated to see them back up. He truly did do it for the fans.

Amazing story, you lucky sod.

Don Alexander
15 Posted 17/03/2024 at 20:04:34
Batistuta - would never get a game these days;

John Raftery
16 Posted 17/03/2024 at 22:47:11
Brilliant story Stephen. The visit to that terrible stadium was by some distance my worst European experience. The weather, policing, stewarding and facilities were horrendous. So was the result.

I agree with Rob H about Moyes’s failure to shut up shop at 1-0. The manager was fixated on getting an away goal but left the back door open for a 2-0 defeat. Fiorentina were no better than us as the second leg demonstrated. It was arguably our best opportunity to win a trophy since 1995.

Paul Ferry
17 Posted 18/03/2024 at 05:10:46
Not just a great story Stephen mate, but great story-telling. Holy Sheedy, you have a gift for narrative, full of unexpected turns like I'm the owner. You seriously need to write something bigger about you and Everton.
Jeff Armstrong
18 Posted 18/03/2024 at 05:41:09
Stephen # 12, thanks for the answer, Batistuta must have been fuming when he was dropped for the only time in his career by ……Stephen Vincent, Evertonian.😆
Joe McMahon
19 Posted 18/03/2024 at 07:39:22
Steven, thanks for sharing this, what an amazing experience.

And yes, Batistuta was on another level, what a player he was! We don't have his types now, like Zola, a different era. I liked watching these guys on Channel 4 in the '90s.

Eddie Dunn
20 Posted 18/03/2024 at 07:49:18
Stephen, thanks – that was a marvellous tale. I was transported with you to that city, I could visualise everything. You paint a good picture.

Oh for a European adventure!

Dave Abrahams
21 Posted 18/03/2024 at 09:51:43
Andy (6),

You've described Stephen very well, calm and telling things in a nice quiet way, I got a taxi with Stephen from the Bramley Moor pub, just me him and the taxi driver who was from Nigeria and Stephen and the taxi driver had a good conversation about Nigeria and the corrupt police who operate there,

Stephen would tell him things and the driver was “ yeh right” then quote another thing about them and Stephen would elaborate something else about what goes on there. I can rabbit but just sat there fully absorbed in their conversation without saying a word.

The quiet man who can tell a tale or two and you become a very welcome listener.

Lee Courtliff
22 Posted 18/03/2024 at 12:53:17
Wonderful story, Stephen.
Stephen Vincent
23 Posted 18/03/2024 at 12:53:59
John #16, You are absolutely spot on about that being our best opportunity to win a trophy, given that the final was at City of Manchester Stadium and the finalists were Zenit, the winners, (who we had comfortably beaten in the group stage) and Rangers who drew 0-0 with Fiorentina in the semi final, going through on penalties.
James Marshall
24 Posted 20/03/2024 at 10:15:29
Thanks for sharing this.

I was a massive Batistuta fan back in the day, and La Viola became my Italian team as a result of watching him play, along with Rui Costa, Torricelli, Repka, Amor, and Amoroso (my ailing memory fails me on other players). They had a cracking side back then and played with great style for an Italian team of the '90s.

Loved your story, Stephen, what an amazing memory to cherish.

Ben Kelly
25 Posted 21/03/2024 at 10:14:36
Great piece.

Fiorentina were my team back in the Gazzetta Football Italia days (Brian Laudrup, Rui Costa, Stefan Effenberg etc).

My son is called Gabriel primarily because of him. My wife doesn't necessarily know that - she might have smelt a rat if I'd suggested Batigol.

Mike Hanlon
26 Posted 21/03/2024 at 23:34:55
Fantastic story, Stephen. Many thanks for sharing.

I love the ‘human touch' element to it and would like to think that players like ‘Bati' are still around today.

Add Your Comments

In order to post a comment, you need to be logged in as a registered user of the site.

» Log in now

Or Sign up as a ToffeeWeb Member — it's free, takes just a few minutes and will allow you to post your comments on articles and Talking Points submissions across the site.

How to get rid of these ads and support TW

© ToffeeWeb