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  • 10 Years Ago, Sport Was Also Plunged Into Chaos… From An Icelandic Ash Cloud
  • Though the current COVID-19 shutdown is unprecedented, football has had to contend with peculiar circumstances before, including 10 years ago when European air travel shut down in the aftermath of an Icelandic volcano.

    Ten years ago, on April 14, Eyjafjallajokull erupted and propelled ash several miles into the atmosphere, making it dangerous to fly in case the debris got into aircraft engines.

    Being a globalised game with plenty of international travel at the top level, football was forced to amend quickly, and its repercussions were significant.

    By the time the dust had settled, metaphorically as well as literally, West Ham had completed an ownership change, Jose Mourinho had taken advantage of Barcelona’s two-day coach journey to Milan and Sam Allardyce was cursing his luck for missing out on Robert Lewandowski.

    Match of the Day host Gary Lineker travelled more than a thousand miles over land and sea to present the programme having been in Madrid the night before.

    ‘It reminded me of my football days – once you’ve got a target and put your mind to it, nothing stands in your way,’ he said on his bleary-eyed arrival to the BBC studios.

    Of course, the volcano had serious repercussions. Though some restrictions on flights were lifted within a fortnight, air travel wasn’t completely back to normal in England until the middle of May. Until then, the old-fashioned team coach returned to fashion to replace the charter plane.

    The most prestigious fixtures to be affected were the first legs of the Champions League semi-finals. The holders Barcelona, at their peak under Pep Guardiola, had to travel 625 miles by coach to Milan to face Jose Mourinho’s Inter, the journey broke up by an overnight stay in Cannes.

    Inter won 3-1 with Lionel Messi and Xavi subdued and understandably leggy after 14 hours on a bus. ‘Something should have been done not to give this advantage to the home team,’ complained Barca’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain, who now occupies the same position at Manchester City.

    Inter went on to reach the final 3-2 on aggregate and in the other semi, Lyon also went out having had to travel 450 miles by road for their first leg against Bayern Munich.

    In the Europa League, Liverpool had a 24-hour trip to Madrid for their semi-final against Atletico, travelling by rail to Bordeaux before being allowed to fly the rest of the way. They lost the tie on away goals though Fulham were able to reach the final despite a 570-mile road trip to Hamburg.

    The most eye-catching sacrifice was made in another sport. Eventing rider Oliver Townend took a £1,600 taxi ride to Madrid in order to fly to America and compete in an event in Kentucky.

    Though life returned to normal for most sports people relatively quickly – certainly compared to today’s crisis – there were some longer-term repercussions.

    For West Ham’s Icelandic owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson – and his bald-headed consortium partner Eggert Magnusson – already reeling from the banking crisis in his country the previous year, the volcano was the final straw.

    He surrendered majority control of the club to David Sullivan and David Gold in May, having seen them buy 50 per cent of the club in January. After the ash cloud, Magnusson and Co disappeared like dust.
    Up at Blackburn, Allardyce was foiled by flight cancellations. It scuppered his chance to meet Lewandowski, and up-and-coming striker with Lech Poznan.

    ‘I had watched him play, but didn’t get the chance to meet him. His agent said he couldn’t come over because of the ash cloud,’ said Allardyce. The centre-forward later moved to Borussia Dortmund and the rest is history.

    More than 100,000 flights were cancelled in total by the eruption. Across the world, events were either cancelled – like the Japanese Moto GP – or disrupted, with several star runners unable to compete in the London Marathon.

    Although European flights were affected worst, it had global knock-on effects with large swathes of European air space dangerous to use.

    It was Newcastle United’s misfortune that, at the height of the problems on April 19, they were slated for the longest trip in domestic football, an away match at Plymouth.

    Instead of flying as normal, Newcastle had to make the 916-mile round trip by road but won 2-0 to clinch the Championship title with goals from Andy Carroll and Wayne Routledge.

    In this current climate, it’s a tiny reminder that better times can be around the corner.

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