It was my fun midlife crisis. I wanted to travel extensively, but have a goal behind my travels. (As it turned out, there were 227 goals in the 79 top-division matches I watched over 11 months). The idea came to me one dull December day, and I immediately thought it was the perfect combination of football and travel with a challenge to focus my interest. I was also keen to promote the live match experience, something far superior to watching a match on television, and was desperate to eat khachapuri – cheese-filled bread – in Georgia, something I managed repeatedly early on in my travels.
The European football family extends to the likes of the Faroe Islands, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Gibraltar and this gave my travels appealing variety. I loved the contrast between, say, northern Wales and southern Israel in the depths of winter. I spent an average of four days in each of the 55 nations, which normally gave me the chance to explore as well as watch at least one top-flight match.
The logistical challenge was considerable. There are two types of football season in Europe: the traditional autumn to spring season, and a dozen or so summer leagues played mostly in colder Northern European countries. I started my travels in June 2017 and it was crucial that I visited all of the summer leagues before they ended that autumn. Georgia, one of my favourite countries, made a late decision to shift to a summer season so I kicked off my challenge there. My second country was Iceland, hardly the most logical start to my adventures.
Games were regularly moved at short-notice and I even had to bluff my way into an Albanian match being played behind closed doors. There were also several problems with officialdom and the Russian embassy were particularly suspicious about anyone wanting to visit the remote city of Ufa. The Guardian helped me out by featuring an early interview about my travels. I carried around a print out of the article and my mild fame eased open a few doors, including gaining entry to that Albanian match and convincing some sceptical Azerbaijani officials in Baku.
My last match was in Podgorica, the bland Montenegrin capital. I celebrated with friends afterwards on the beautiful coastline and took a speedboat ride captained by a Serbian who claimed he was an ex-footballing prodigy.