Defeats like These

September 1st, 2013

If you are going to support a lower league football team, you need to be able to accept the losses, the abject failure of your team to even perform on the stage. There is no team in the lower divisions that this does not apply to, although most fans do not see beyond the failings of their own favourites. Frankly, I consider the imperfections of the team to be one of the features of support at this level. By being so very poor one week, we make the successes (when they come) all the more satisfying. For the many Manchester City fans in the city centre as we passed through, today’s win was merely run of the mill. The result was the one they expected and was satisfactory, but not a highlight of the season.

I stay in a flat just under an hour by tram from Bury FC, I left the flat at 11 in the morning, and returned at 11 in the evening. All in all, I had a good day out, even if the football was not so great.

This is, however a football blog – so I need to talk about Football, about Cheltenham Town and what the team is getting wrong at the moment. That we had a good start was down in part to good luck. McGlashan made a good run down the right, and played the ball in to Gornell. Gornell’s shot was from an angle and from the replay I have now seen was going wide before Proctor got his foot in the wrong place to turn it in.

After that it all went wrong very quickly indeed. The problems started with Craig Braham-Barrett getting injured. He tried to carry on, but could not, while our defence did not react to his plight. As it happened the ball did not reach the back four, Mayor had enough space to get his shot away from a midfield position. My immediate reaction from behind the goal was disappointment that Brown had not managed to get to the ball, as I have become used to him diving to turn this type of shot wide. In this, I am probably expecting too much of the keeper. With the scores level, it can only be said we defended like schoolboys for a few minutes, the second was a simple undefended header from a corner. It was one of those corners where all the players grouped in one spot before the ball came in, and then the attackers broke in different directions as the ball was kicked. The referee had to warn the players before the corner as the defenders were trying to block the run to the near post, but it was the player who fell back to the far post that lost his man. The third was even worse as we had a man out on the wing, but allowed space to pick out the cross. Elliott’s reaction after the ball went in showed that he thought that even then he should have been first to the ball

After that, things settled down. The fourth goal did not come until nearly an hour later, and here we can be considered as victims of circumstance. Inniss took a knock and was struggling to get back into position when the cross came in. At the time, Bury still had two men up front and this left Taylor trying to mark two men and gave Reindorf an open invitation. We had offered enough threat in the second half that immediately after the goal Bury went to a 4-5-1 formation to try and shore themselves up defensively.

So my thoughts on individual players and the various units. In goal, Brown continues to be a great shop stopper, and he is rarely out of position. From behind the goal in the first half though, I was concerned that he seemed passive between times. A good goalkeeper is always also a general, and is the captain of the defence regardless of who the team captain is. A good goalkeeper must be continually telling his defenders where the threats are and where he wants them to be. It is the same criticism often made of Shane Higgs and perhaps the reason why his career stalled after he left the club.

On to the defence, and I do have a problem trying to work out what the problems are. I do not think any of our defenders are poor players, but there is something amiss with the unit. The co-ordination between the players does not seem to be right. Elliott and Lowe, the most experienced of our defenders, both came up short when they might have prevented the second and third goals, but generally the problem seems to be they do not know when to commit, and when to track back. When tracking back, they give too much space to the attacking player. The objective in tracking back is supposed to be the denial of space and options and we do neither. The disruption to our defence after Elliott went off left us in disarray up until the break, and it is a surprise we did not concede one or two more in the last part of the first half. As our tallest player, Inniss is in the habit of careering up the field at the slightest provocation, in the hope that he can help the attack, but this left Taylor looking very much out of place as the stand in player. To give the players credit, this was put right at half time – Inniss did not go AWOL, and Taylor adapted to his role.

If it is hard to be definitively critical of the defence, it is easy to lay into the midfield, (ask Plymouth). They are just too damn pretty. When I was a teenager supporting Hillingdon, we had a season with Barry Fry as manager. Fry was a great character and had time for the fans. He would have referred to our midfield as playing “tippy tappy” football. Too many short passes that lead nowhere. It is not of course the short passes themselves that are the problem, it is the short passes that go astray that are the problem. Far too frequently we are playing passes that are all too predictable, all too easy to read. Our opponents rarely need to put a tackle in – if they track back and harry our midfielders then sooner or later we will give them the ball. When our midfield gets it right, we can be a joy to watch, fluid football carrying the ball from one end of the field to the other in a matter of seconds, but all too often we get it wrong.

Worse than this, we have been found out. Word has gone out on the division’s scouting networks that Cheltenham have a soft centre, and teams like Plymouth exploit this by “bullying” us. Bury did not even have to bully – we were so out of sorts in midfield that they just had to wait for the gifts to come their way.

As for the attack, for 18 minutes this season – I thought Yates’ had found the right pairing for our attack, and then we scored! Gornell as the hold-up man, and Cureton as the “nippy” one who gets the goals. What could go wrong? The answer is that one could get injured in scoring the first goal, and the other in the following game. Gornell is back now, and we have the irrepressible Gillespie on loan, but despite bringing him in, Yates seems to be determined to ignore Gillespie. Instead when we switched to 4-4-2 against Bury, we brought on the enigma that is Byron Harrison. Harrison was determined to show both what he can do right, and what he cannot do right. He reads the game to perfection. Time after time in the second half he was in the perfect position to receive the pass. Now despite my comments above, we actually made a fair number of these passes successfully – especially in the first half hour of the second period. What happened next sums up Harrison, at times it appears that he is about to trip over his own legs, and more often than not he is shaping up to play the ball with one foot when the ball just so happens to canon off his other leg. Players like Harrison have short periods in the season when things go right and for a brief period they look like the real deal. Harrison had a good game against us at Kingsmeadow last season, and based on that alone he looked like a good signing – but at the time we had Duffy, Harrad and Benson in the squad, all more likely to actually score goals. I now think Harrison is desperate to repay the faith that Yates has shown in him, but the harder he tries, the more things go wrong for him.

So the managerial team, Yates and Howarth. Are they still the men for the job? There seems to be a game being played on the robins nest forum at the moment, (and for a good period of last season as well), where someone criticises Yates and basically says that his time has come – but then refuses to back the judgement by actually saying it is time for Yates to leave. Others have realised how important the second in charge is, and would keep Yates but drop Howarth. I do not believe any of the supporters making such pronouncements know what the Yates-Howarth dynamic is? Still, I think they need to do something to freshen up their approach. I wonder if bringing in a sports psychiatrist or motivational expect for a short period could help? Of course, what has happened in the past couple of weeks is not really different to mid-table periods in last two seasons, so I have no reason not to think things will get fixed and we may still make the play offs. After all, the players appear to be good enough even if the team is not.

The thing with our current management is that they believe in the team, and are not looking to get out for the next better offer. I believe the vast majority of League-2 managers are charlatans who will do little to move the team forward. The chances of Kevin Blackwell still being at Bury this time next season are poor. Either he will continue to get results at Bury, in which case his agent will be rushing his c.v. to every League-1 or Championship vacancy, or he will struggle and get the sack in quick order. Middle way managers who stay at a single club for even as much as three seasons are a rarity. Over the last season, Yates has managed to provide us with steady football that has overachieved in comparison to the budget (which is still no better than half way down this division, no matter what others may say). In each of his seasons, we have had matches such as Plymouth and Bury, (think March 2012, or Accrington, Rotherham and Chesterfield last term). We have lost to teams we should not been losing to, or lost badly without competing. As yet, I have not seen anything to suggest that this season will be any different. We will have good days when things go right, and we will have poor days when we get stuffed out of sight. I do not know if this season’s team will reach the play offs again, but I am not panicking about the risk of finishing at the wrong end.

Those who are satisfied with a team that despite lapses, ends the season at the right end of the table should be satisfied with the status quo (at least for now). Those who expect their team to win every game should defect immediately to support one of the Manchester clubs (and I do not mean Bury).

The surprise move to India.

August 4th, 2013

The most surprising story of the summer is signing of our former striker by Indian club Salgaocar. India is not known for its footballing prowess. In fact it is best known for the false story that they qualified for the 1950 World Cup, and then withdrew over a dispute as to whether or not they could play barefoot. That story originates in the 1948 Olympic games in London, when a predominantly barefooted Indian team lost 2-1 to France, but claimed plaudits for the sporting style. Various regional disputes meant that India were unopposed in qualifying for 1950. They would have not been allowed to play barefoot in the finals, but the main reasons for not going were cost, internal disputes over team make up, and the local feeling that the Olympics were still the Premier competition. They still had some barefoot players at the 1952 Olympics, where they reached the semi-finals, but after that the AIFF (All India Football Federation) imposed a rule insisting that boots were worn. The current India National team is always an earlier casualty in World Cup qualification, and prefers to play in the Asian second ranked cup competition, rather than the Asian Cup itself. As the winners of this competition then play in the Asian Cup itself, India made it to the last finals in Qatar, where they lost all three games, (I saw the first of these, a 4-0 defeat by Australia – the tournament that India won was played in India). They have missed out in qualification for the second ranked AFC Challenge Cup in 2014, so they already know they will not be at the Asian Cup itself in 2015. Hence their international hopes will lie again in the more localised SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) tournaments, where most of the games are played against other nations where Cricket is a more prominent sport than Football.

The history of club football in India is mainly of localised competitions, with a number of state leagues of differing prominence. Traditionally the biggest competitions were those played around Calcutta, where the derby match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal has historically filled the Salt Lake Stadium to its 130,000 capacity. (A good report of a visit to the derby can be found at ).

Picture stolen from facebook

The next biggest footballing area was around the former Portuguese colony in Goa. In 1977, a national competition, the Federation Cup became the first true national cup, but this was still played as a series of mini-tournaments at single venues. Typically four teams would be drawn together and would play each other once each at a single, often neutral city. A national professional league was not started until 2007. This is not without a degree of chaos, the 2013-14 league should start during September, but it is not clear whether it is going to have 14 or 16 teams (Wikipedia compromises on 15, which is unlikely to be correct). If it has 16 teams, then four will be from Goa, playing games either at the 27,000 capacity Fatorda stadium, or the 6,000 capacity Duler. Five of the clubs will be from Calcutta, two from Mumbai, one from Pune, (although the Mumbai clubs may actually play in Pune), two from the far eastern city of Shilong, and one each from Sikkim (in the far north, near to the Nepalese and Bhutan borders), and Bangalore. The Bangalore team have been franchised in, rather than winning promotion in an attempt to spread the regional spread of the league, while United Sikkim finished bottom last season and should be relegated. All five of the Calcutta teams will use the Salt Lake Stadium, except when other events mean it is unavailable. The I-League is close to unique in that the capital city is not included in the national league!

This seasons draw for the Federation Cup, as shown on Soccerway adds to the confusion, showing a knock out draw over two legs for 16 teams, but only naming 14 of the 16. Salgaocar is one of those that does not know their opponents in October. United Sikkim and Palian Arrows (a Bombay club who finished just above the relegation zone last season are the missing clubs, if a 16 team league format is accurate). The All Indian Football Federation is known for its lack of organisation, changes of decisions and general lack of direction. In 2009, the move of their only iconic footballer, Baichung Bhutia (well, he has played for Bury), was mired in controversy, as the two big Calcutta clubs both claimed his registration. The AIFF looked helpless, as they first banned the player, then quickly rescinded this. Last season, Mohun Bagan was suspended from all football for a two year period, only to return to the I-League within a month.

Now a lack of clarity is plaguing the start up of a new and rather radical enterprise. A group known as IMG-R, (which is clearly a marketing organisation) is proposing a new competition “on the lines of the IPL”. The clubs are up in arms, as their shoestring professional league is clearly compromised by another competition in the same arena. The AIFF say everything is OK, but refuse to say what the actual plans are. To quote one Indian sports web ( site on recent statements from the AIFF, “The proposal contained everything — from the tournament’s objectives, structure and implementation to franchise auction guidelines, obligations and building process. An update on the players signed, venue booking and stadium refurbishment were also given. However, none of this was made available to the media in detail. We’re just aware that the AIFF are completely satisfied with the progress.”

The IPL is a platform for most of the world’s best cricket players to go over to India, play a competition over a short period of time, in front of packed stadium, and with massive TV coverage, pocket the money and then go back to play for their clubs and countries for the rest of the season. There is no way that an equivalent can be had for football. Major international players are not going to be offered enough money to join in. The TV companies are not falling over themselves to pay large amounts of money to cover the I-League, so why should they support this new venture. It is not as if the best footballers in the world cannot be seen on Indian TV on a weekly basis. The English Premier League, Spanish, Italian and German Leagues are all shown there. So the international players will just be a few trying to pick up a little cash for their retirement funds. If the I-League is to play 30 matches over an 8 or 9 month season, there is little space in the calendar for alternative tournaments.

That the AIFF holds the trump cards was proved last Friday. All clubs playing in the I-League must be licensed by the AIFF or be granted exceptional permission to play without a license. On Friday, the AIFF refused a license to 14 clubs. The report appears to say these 14 clubs are the entire make up of the I-League for 2013-14, but it misses out the two clubs parachuted into the league by the AIFF, and is in fact the only source I have seen which suggests that United Sikkim are still members. Still, while the AIFF is refusing licenses, the I-League cannot start. One can only surmise that this is a ruse, and part of the political process to ensure that the AIFF gets its way over the new competition.

Indian clubs are allowed to sign four foreigners each, although one out of four must be from an Asian country (which includes Australia since they joined the Asian confederation). The majority of the imports are African, with Nigerians being the biggest single contingent. Duffy is the only Scotsman I know to be signed up, but there are two Englishmen and one Irishman on the lists. The English are John Johnson, the right back for Northampton on both their visits to Whaddon Road last season, who has joined Bangalore, and Calum Angus (born Greenwich!), who was a youth player at Portsmouth who then went off to the USA, playing in St Louis and Wilimington, before playing in the second division in Sweden for a few years. Angus is reported to have signed for Pune. David Mehmet was born in Peckham, but has been capped for the Irish at under-21 level. In Britain, he played mainly in Scotland, after being on the books of West Ham as a youngster. He played for Dunfermline and St Mirren, before having a season in Turkey, and then one with Australian club Perth Glory. Earlier this season he played a few games for Bangkok Glass before heading to India. Mehmet is with another Goan club, Dempo. Bangalore have an English coach. Ashley Westwood’s only previous managerial experience is a short term as player manager at Kettering, so most of his experience has been following Michael Appleton and coaching at Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn. Westwood has played for Crewe, Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday, Northampton Town, Chester City, Swindon Town, Port Vale, Stevenage Borough, Wrexham, Kettering, Crewe (again), Northampton (again), Kettering (player manager), and Portsmouth (one appearance).

I have never been to India, so this entire article of based on internet research. Colleagues of mine that have visited Mubai and Bangalore on business come back with tales of the poverty that can be seen within yards of their plush hotels, although it cannot be all bad. Another colleague who is actually from Bangalore and is on a short term contract here intends to return when his contract expires. When I suggested he should be searching out further contracts in the UK, he said his wife found it difficult to settle and he would return next year as planned. India remains high on my list of countries I want to visit, and I would want to see football there. Still I recall the stories of other footballers who have been badly advised to travel out to Asia for a bigger bundle of cash than can possibly be on offer to Duffy, (Gascoigne in China, anyone?), and of players who have been promised payments that were never made. With even the playing season being thrown into turmoil by the licensing issue, I fear our former striker may well have been ill advised over the move. At least Goa, with its tourist industry base should be more comfortable than some areas of the country.

The Oslo File (1).

June 21st, 2013

My train from Fredericia dumped me at Copenhagen Airport at 3 in the morning, giving me an uncomfortable four hours before a flight took me onwards to Oslo. This was the simpler way of travelling. I could have made the journey over a longer period by train and still seen the evening game. I arrived in Oslo to find it grey, dank and damp, but fortunately my hotel was unphased by my early arrival time and found a room for me straight away. As the weather was not in the mood for improving, I did not take in much of the locality, just a little chance to appreciate that I was close to what appeared to be a small town centre, that most of the shops were closed (it being a public holiday) and that while there were plenty of restaurants around, the prices even for the simplest meal were considerable. I was also surprised to see a number of beggars. Norway is famed as a rich country with a wide reaching welfare state, but clearly there are people who the system does not support. Not surprisingly the beggars did not appear to be of Norwegian stock, Norway has some of the shortest working weeks in Europe, and also requires a large number of expatriates to fill both the most skilled and the least skilled of positions.

The Oslo portion of my trip is not part of the standard football trip. The day after my arrival, I was joined by six Cheltenham fans from Cheltenham, five Cheltenham fans from Oslo, and one from Denmark! I think naming names is in order, so from Cheltenham we had Jim Haggin, Greg Parry, Twinners, Keatsie, Blondie and the Queen, Norwegians were Andre, Andreas (Machinen), Trygve, Even (a place on Earth), and Ole,while the Danish Yes Man also goes by the name of Klaus. Like me, Klaus had to fly in from Denmark – he works in Oslo, but had made the excursion to Copenhagen to see his home town team, Esjberg winning the Danish Cup.

I had one piece of business to conclude before becoming one of the gang – Lillestrøm SK in the top division of the Norwegian League. The Top division tends to be known under its sponsors name as Tippeligaen, but would otherwise be referred to as the Premier or Elite Series, Division One (also a National and Professional Division) and Division Two (a semi-professional league of four groups, which I shall get to later). The highest division known simply by division number is Division 3, which has 12 regional sections. I did suggest to the group we could go to a game at this level on the Friday evening, but they wisely decided an evening of beer and pizza was more enticing, and sensibly persuaded me to join in.

Anyway, to Lillestrøm, which means a 10-15 ride from the centre of Oslo, the station is generally a stop on the way to and from the airport, and the train actually passes the stadium, although it is difficult to spot, clad in houses and offices and with the floodlight pylons retracted between games. Although Lillestrøm exists and a municipality outside the capital, it is effectively a dormitory town for the city, and there is very little to see other than apartment buildings. The football club is one way in which the town can demonstrate its own identity, and as I approached the ground, I was greeted by an avenue of yellow and black flags – on both town flagpoles, and also attached to the apartment buildings. Many of these commemorate a Norwegian Cup win in 2007, the last trophy won by Lillestrøm – they have been national champions on 5 occasions, but the most recent is back in 1989. The 2007 win was also their fifth cup win. The club’s high point came in the seventies and eighties when they won each trophy four times, including the double in 1977. In common generally with Norwegian teams, Lillestrøm’s record in European competition is uninspiring, of their 16 attempts, 10 have ended at the first hurdle, most embarrassingly in the 2007-8 UEFA Cup when they were beaten by FC Kaerjeng on Luxembourg. In 2000, Lillestrøm beat both Glentoran and Dynamo Moscow before losing the Spanish sides Alaves – their best run.

The stadium itself is hidden inside a square of office and apartment buildings – arriving by foot from town, once takes an underpass to cross the road, and then enters through a gap in the buildings with office entrances each side. The far end appears to be apartments, and a few people were watching the game from second floor balconies. If you live on the first floor, your balcony will give a wonderful view of the top rows of seating. All four sides are seated stands, with roofing and pillars that impede the views from the higher rows of seats. I was on the east side, close to the railway, while the west side had a second tier of business seats. Admission to the sides of the ground is 300 Kr, (around £33), and no programme was available

The southern end of the East Stand is the “singers section”. I noticed at the end that one person collected the flags to return to a storage cupboard on site.

The visitors were Sogndal, and both sides lined up in classic 4-4-2 formation. Lillestrøm started the brightest, bringing their Ivorian winger, Moryke Fofana into the play whenever they could. Fofana turned out to one of those players that flatters but cannot deceive, and seeing as he was effectively marked out, he was replaced at half time. Sogndal had plenty of pace, and basically tried to get the ball up as quickly as possible, and hopefully win corners or free kicks so as they could add the height of their centre halfs. This was how they went ahead in the 23rd minute, winning a corner which was crossed in from the right and met by the head of Gustav Valsvik. This sent the ball across the face of the goal, and with Lillestrøm struggling to find a way to clear it, Hannu Patronen, (the other centre half) got his foot in for 1-0. Once they were ahead, Sogndal seemed to assert an authority. A second goal was added and again it was a Valsvik header, this time all that a free kick needed to reach the target. The frustration of home fans was obvious, and another failure by Fofana just before the break caused someone not far away from me in the seats to scream (in English), “Just F***ing cross the Ball!”.

First goal – Valsvik on the right hand post has headed the ball on. How Lillestrøm allowed the ball to get from here to be in front of Patronen (4) is beyond me, but I’m guessing Østil (2) will not enjoy watching the replay.

Lillestrøm needed a change, so Fofana was taken off at half time, and it was his replacement, Ohi Omoijuanfo that scored their first goal. The real change however had been to start playing the ball down the other wing, with full back Scheel overlapping or playing ahead of his winger and playing several dangerous crosses. Lillestrøm levelled with 16 minutes to play, when Gulbrandsen managed to produce an unimpressive dive, which somehow convinced the referee. Petter Moen scoring from the spot – but Lillestrøm were never convincing winners of the point, and could not push their advantage when Patronen received his second booking and meant Sogndal played the final ten minutes with just ten men.

The seating behind the goal, showing the office buildings that hide the stadium.

On Friday morning, most of the roaming Cheltenham support were arriving in town, so I quietly awaited the arrival. All storms after all need a lull beforehand. When they were leaving the airport, I received a text to give time of arrival at the station, and that two of our Norwegian brethren were to be there as well. I naturally made my way to join at the meeting point. We quickly found a pub around the corner from the station, and while most were ordering standard lagers, and the queen was discovering her white wine and soda would have to be without soda, I noticed the row of bottles from a local brewery, which seemed to be a complete compendium of beer styles. I pointed out the Brunn, but one of my hosts decided instead to go to the top of the range – so I got a strong dark almost treacle like beer, with significant quantities of sediment swirling around the glass. The general price of a beer in Oslo is now around 60kr, which with an exchange rate of about 8.7, works out around £6.90 – my beer was twice that. This was the only beer I took at this strength – it was not exactly a session beer after all, and all the rest of my beers cost less than £10 each. One of the Norwegians paid for this first round with a simple swipe of his credit card, we all came to do the same with our own rounds.

All of the Norwegians we met were working, but as far as I know none had particularly high paying jobs – but still they can buy rounds of beer costing over £50 without comment. It is a country of high beer prices (indeed high prices for everything), and high taxation, but of high wages that cover this. In other words, if you use indices like the time the average man has to work to pay for a “Big Mac”, the average Norwegian is actually well placed compared to most of Europe – but the actual price of the burger is higher in Oslo.

For the moment, the continuing oil glut (even if peak production has passed) and the size of the country’s sovereign wealth fund means the exchange rates are not going to change. The question of how Norway is to transition back to the mainstream when oil revenues reduce appears to be left on the back burner.

Anyway, I had the chance to go to a match at Norwegian fourth level on Friday night, but no one else around was interested and it did not take much to persuade me I would be better heading to a Norwegian flat to drink beer and eat Pizza. The flat we went to belonged to one of the Norwegian Robins, but not one that was joining us, as he was out of town. The flat contained a most monumental sound system controlled from a PC, but not one of us could manage to turn it on, and the music ended up being supplied from a mobile phone connected to speakers found in another room. Next, we drank beer, and some scotch and ate some pizza. Meanwhile, the final member of the party, Twinners was sending text messages in the report on his progress through Heathrow. Eventually, we headed back to town to meet Twinners as he arrived, and (what a surprise), continuing drinking there. I can no longer recall where I was drinking, but my main choice now was a dark local beer supplied on draft that appears to be available in most bars in Oslo.

By the end of the evening, the Danish Yes Man was the last of the local contingent and he suggested moving on to a strip bar. Most of us declined this, and on the basis of what happens in Oslo, stay in Oslo, I will not say who actually went along (it wasn’t me), anyway, most of their friends have already heard of the 3200 Kr (over £350) for a “lesbian lap dance duo”. I was impressed that one of our men at the club had the presence of mind to insist that one of the strippers was blond. The one place in Oslo where blonds appear to be in short supply would be lap dancing clubs, as none of the dancers are likely to be locally born and bred.

Not wanting to get back to alcohol in a hurry, the second morning was spent on the open top bus tour. The bus is not truly open, as it has a canvas cover – which in turn creates a wind tunnel of the whole upper deck. The tour guide insists that Oslo is one of the world’s biggest cities, but this is done just by appropriating the surrounding mountains and trees and call them Oslo. It is a small and generally compact place, with a shortage of things for a bus tour to comment on. So we would head down a road and be told that on the right, you can see the folk museum, and then minutes later, on the left you can see the folk museum.

Cheltenham fans (and an interloper with a bobble hat) “enjoying” the action at Kjelsas

Then a quick drink was taken, along with a snack lunch before we all embarked on the bus to Kjelsas. I did not take lunch with the hope of finding food at the football. Norwegian football has two national, fully professional divisions, followed by semi-professional leagues with four groups in Division Two, (as the third level is called), and 12 groups in Division Three. The match I could have gone to on Friday night was in Division Three, but Kjelsas was in division two. The trip involved a 25 minute bus ride out into the suburbs, (it’s a tram route, but this was a Tram replacement bus). The stadium is a little ramshackle, with a club house selling coffee, waffles and the local non speciality of hot dog sausages in some type of pancake. Admission was 100 Kr, and attracted 156 to watch. A small programme, consisting of one piece of A4 folded over as an A5 programme was free. The far side to the entrance consisted of plentiful wooden bench seating – some with plastic seats attached, but the only cover was provided by a few awnings over a veranda to the side of the clubhouse, and frankly a little more would have been nice in the cold drizzle of the afternoon. To the sides of the pitch were piles of snow some covered by sweepings from the artificial pitch, which was showing signs of wear and poor maintenance, (as is common at this level, the pitch is a 3G artificial surface). The game itself was not up to match with two goals near the half way mark to liven things up just a little. We were impressed with the small group of visiting fans, who kept up a chant sounding like “Combien Baerum” throughout. It is a pity they only know one song. We are not certain of the word used, but we suspect it was Norwegian for “Come on”, and not French for “How Much”.

“Combien Baerum” – some fans who were impressed by the action

With the English Cup final now hidden away late into the Saturday afternoon, we missed little of the game in heading back to the town and finding our way back into the sports bar near the hotel. It was now packed out, showing an embarrassing lack of taste on behalf of many Norwegians, sporting the light blue shirts of Manchester City. Wigan shirts were not very much in vogue. The bar also held magazines including those for the association of English supporters clubs in Norway. While it was not surprising to find the biggest supported clubs were the successful Premier League clubs, Cheltenham actually have more Norwegian support than some of the Premier clubs, and indeed Reading and Southampton could not muster any support at all.

Kjelsas’ Akinbola Akinyemi (right) equalises from the penalty spot

For our evening meal, we were given a choice of Reindeer or Whale, the two meats Norway is well known for. I went for the more environmentally favoured Reindeer, (Heidi said she could not eat Rudolf, but there was no sign of my meat having ever had a red nose). I did get a taste of the whale steak, and I must say it was quite delicious. Between the English and those Norwegians that had joined us again, there were 11 for dinner, and some amusement all around when we discovered a meal for 11 came to exactly 3200 Kr. Yes, in Oslo, 11 people can be fed, even on Whale steak for the cost of a couple of lap dancers!

More beer was taken after the meal, but by this point I could not say where I was, we stopped at a Karaoke bar, where Keatsie did a passable version of “My Way”, especially as this was not the song he had selected

Reaction to Keatsie’s song.

World Cup Preview. Summer 2013.

June 2nd, 2013

There are a further 89 World Cup qualifying games this month, and we will make positive progress in finding out who will join the hosts in Brazil in a years time. The only certainties are in Asia, where three rounds of fixtures complete the current group stage – that means four names will be confirmed as through to the finals, with Japan expecting to be the first to qualify. The Japanese would have made it in November, but had a minor set back by losing 2-1 in Jordan. They now need one point against Australia in the match at the Saitama Stadium on Tuesday. With two home games to come afterwards, I think the Australians will be more than happy to take a draw if they can. Currently, Australia, South Korea and Uzbekistan may be on their way to Brazil, but just about anyone except Lebanon still have live hopes.

No teams can qualify from Africa, despite 40 matches scheduled on the continent. Each group of four will move up to five games played. As the group winners have to face a knockout round to go through, they cannot qualify this month, or from the final series of group games in September. However, between 20 and 30 of the 40 teams currently in the competition will be knocked out. As the only pointless team so far, Cape Verde Islands are liable to be one of the first to be knocked out, as they need to win all three remaining games to be in with a chance. They do however have home games for the next two Saturdays.

North and Central America are playing a group of six – currently the teams are not spread out after three rounds with five of the nine games so far ending in draws. Another nine games should give some shape to the group even if no one either qualifies or goes out.

To the South, two rounds of fixtures will mean teams have played either 12 or 13 of their 16 game programme. Nearest to being knocked out will be Bolivia as they play twice, while Paraguay may be last in the group but take their match out on the second series. Argentina play Colombia at home, Ecuador away. If they win both their qualification is confirmed, and there will be other combinations that allow them to progress.

Finally, Europe. Some groups, such as Scotland’s Group A are not involved in June. Scotland are the only European team confirmed as non qualifiers, but they could gain some company. Not Malta from Group B – they cannot lose in Armenia and win the group, but they will still be able to make the play off for second. The Faroe Islands have two away games, in Ireland and Sweden. Should they lose both, and Sweden win both their games (they also travel to Austria), then not only are the Faroes out, but so are Kazakhstan who are not playing this month! No games in Group D, so Andorra survive into the Autumn. Everyone in group E plays once, but as everyone already has at least one win, no one can be knocked out this month. While Switzerland should improve their chances by beating Cyprus, the interesting game sees Albania (currently second) at home to Norway. A home win brings up the chances of Albania at least reaching the play offs, but three of their last four games are away. Azerbaijan play Luxembourg on Friday, two teams without a win between them so far – the important game will be Russia’s visit to Portugal. The Russians have four wins out of four, while Portugal have a point less from two more games. Group G is led by Bosnia, who travel to Latvia in their only game this month, Liechtenstein play Slovakia at home, with only one point on the board, (they drew with Latvia in their last game). Still even if they lose and Greece in second place win, Liechtenstein will be only 12 points behind the Greeks, with four games to play. Group I just sees the pair of games between Belarus and Finland. If the Finns win both games, then Belarus cannot qualify. Nothing can be settled in Group H, where San Marino and England do not play. Still the games being played, Moldova v Poland, Montenegro v Ukraine will be analysed with interest here. For both Poland and Ukraine, they are playing a game in hand which would leave them a point behind England if they win. For Montenegro, who like England have already played six, the five point lead a win would give them really puts the pressure on the rest of the group.

Meanwhile, I have been persauded to look closer at the conditions required for San Marino to get through.  The best this small and most serene (one of its official titles) republic can achieve is to be level on points with England, and make up the goal difference (currently 47 in England’s favour). They also require that the other teams, except Montenegro who are already beyond their reach not to exceed 12 points. For Poland and Ukraine, this requires that both beat England (otherwise England would have 13 or more), and that they draw with each other – to give each 12 points themselves. So if either Poland or the Ukraine pick up a point on Friday night, this means the Sammarinese are knocked out.

The European Hop, (part 1).

May 9th, 2013

There are a number of ways into extending ground hopping into the European arena. Some start off quite sanely. For example, if you plan a holiday or business trip into Europe, then why not go to a match near the town you are visiting. The next step in the sequence is to arrange the holiday (or if you can, the business trip), so as you are close to one or more football matches you may want to see. Some of my early trips involved starting a business trip a day early, or finishing a day late and getting a match in as well. In my early days, I had to be in France two weeks in a row for work. While my colleagues all headed off to family in the UK between these weeks, I stayed in France (aided and abetted by the company who let me keep the car hire at their cost, in lieu of the flight home) and picked up games on both days.

Then there are the football tourists. The lure of the big sides in Europe, especially in Italy and Spain is such that tour companies are making a mint by packaging flights, hotels and match tickets together, while it does not take many more than two brain cells to work these through as separate items and book each one on-line. Most of the very big clubs have on-line booking facilities that are multi-lingual, although they too are not beyond adding a charge or two to sting the unsuspecting visitor. I have friends that do not call themselves groundhoppers, but make trips to Europe once or twice a season, picking on different clubs each time. I have even influenced them enough to pick on some of the lower division games to go with the “big stuff”, so a trip not only heads for Borussia Dortmund, but also takes in Wuppertal’s Zoostadion.

But a holiday that is for football, and only football. That takes serious commitment. Generally, the key to the European tour is the Interrail ticket. This allows one to travel across the continent as much as you like. In the period towards the end of the season there are games somewhere everyday of the week, but in order to get to them, you need to spend vast amounts of time on the move, and these distances just cannot be achieved by road. As an added bonus, rail trips allow you to spend time sleeping, reading, or typing up internet blogs. While it is possible for things to go wrong when travelling by train. If the plans are too tightly timed, then a delay at some stage will mean missing a connection, but one may as well relax and simply work through the alternatives.

Ideally, these trips take you to new places, and you can take time to explore as well as to watch the games. If you allow the football to take over too much though, you end up coming into a town, heading from the station to the football ground and back (which misses the most interesting parts of town), and then catching another train. Certainly that is how my story this year commences, with two games, but no sightseeing. Well, there is little to see in Essen or Kray, but I believe Fredericia would have been worth a little more of my time

FC Kray 3-2 SV Bergisch Gladback 09.

Admission €8, no Programme. Hefeweizen €3, Bratwurst €2.

First match on tour, flew to Charleroi with Ryanair, and then cut across to Essen by train. One of those odd journeys where time is saved due to delays to the trains, (I made a connection of minus three minutes at Liege). There are two S-Bahn Stations at Kray, which is just one stop from Essen, both Essen Kray Nord, and Essen Kray Sud are between 5 and 10 minute walk from the ground, but neither is blessed with a frequent service. One alternatives is Steel Station, also a single stop from the Hauptbahnhof, from where I walked to the Stadium in just over 20 minutes, another is a bus service which runs along a reserved busway that makes up the central reservation on the motorway – I used this for the return.

Until last season, Kray, (which appears to be pronounced Kry) was just another team in the suburbs outside Essen, and certainly not a distraction to the two established Essen sides, Rot-Weiss and Schwarz-Weiss (Red/White and Black/White for those who need to colourise their German). Both clubs have known better times, and now sit at the fourth and fifth levels of German football. Kray however, managed to take advantage of the re-organisation at the end of last season, and winning a play-off against KFC Uerdingen (once Bayer Uerdingen in the top division), they leapfrogged over Schwarz-Weiss into the Regionalliga. To rub salt into the wounds, the vital match was played at Schwarz-Weiss’ ground, as the Kray Arena is really not suited to crowds.

View from veranda, showing covered standing

The Kray Arena is now an artificial surface, very flat and in good condition, with three sides of paved terracing. This is all at pitch level, with no elevation at all. A new, still unopened “stand” sits opposite the clubhouse side, consisting of three or four high concrete steps, no signs yet as to whether or not this ends up as seating or standing, and if it will be covered. If it is seating, then as it is set well back, the views from the lowest row will be poor. This brings me to the covered standing – a large shed positioned near the entrance. It is at least ten yards back from the barrier, and still on flat paving. As no effort if made to stop people congregating under umbrellas, pitch side of this shed, it may provide shelter, but is useless as a viewing position for the match. Still, it rained heavily during the first half, and around 100 people were gathered within. Having left my umbrella in the hotel, I might have joined them, if I had not noticed the club house veranda. This is on the first floor of the clubhouse, but as the entrance is down some steps from the pitch, it is not raised much above pitch level. Again it is more than ten yards back from the barriers, but vitally it has awnings that keep the rain away. Each table here has a reserved notice on it, but one was free, so I placed myself close by. I needed to stand to get a reasonable view – but most of my neighbours were seated. The real advantage of this position was made clear after around ten minutes, when the barmaid made her rounds. It would have been rude to refuse, so I ordered a Hefeweizen, (with Alcohol) and this was delivered. The price was written on the edge of a beer mat, which I took to the bar at half time to pay, before watching the second half from outside.

The “cover” with the clubhouse in the background

Within seconds of the start, it was 1-0 to the home side. The biggest surprise of the first half was this was the only goal, with the game being played at a fast pace, and both sides were creating chances. I was wondering if the game was too close to the game plans – as the ball tended to end up where it should end up, and most moves were ended by blocks, rather than tackles, loose passes or wide shots. Kray played an unusual formation, which I labelled as 3-3-3-1, three central backs, two wing backs (who rarely got forward, despite one of them scoring that early goal), and one shielding the backs as a defensive libero. The forward quartet were quite fluid, changing their positions frequently to confuse the markers. BG were in a more conventional 4-1-4-1 format. The goals finally came around the hour mark, Kray taking a two goal lead, only to have one pulled almost immediately. Five minutes later, a really good goal, placed over the advancing keeper re-asserted the two goal lead. BG pulled it back to 3-2 with a minute of standard time to play, but could not manage to level the game despite late chances, including their keeper heading upfield and heading narrowly wide from a corner.

Simple two train journey (totalling seven hours) from Essen to Fredericia. The ground is just a 15 minute walk from the Station and you can see the four tall floodlight pylons from the station. The ground was built less than ten years ago, but it would not surprise me if its predecessor was at the same location. It now goes by the name of Monjasa Park, and the adverts for the company before the game, and at half time are in English, (I guess that way, all 554 spectators can understand it, if it was in Danish, then only 553 would have been able to). A map outside refers to the ground as Fredericia Stadion, and part of the Fredericia Sports Centre, comprising of a number of other facilities. Also adjacent are both the youth hostel and a Best Western Hotel, providing two different standards of accommodation. Not something I took up as instead I left by train soon after the game. Interesting ticket arrangements. One goes to the hut (on the right of the gates in the picture below), where you get a credit card style ticket. At the entrance gate, this ticket is then scanned, and then taken off you, so they are all re-usable.

Also outside, this impressive lion plays “keep ball” – well I would not ask for my ball back

Almost all of the crowd are located in a single stand that runs the entire length of the pitch. Approximately 1400 covered seats in 8 rows, with the walkway at the back. The hospitality zone is behind this, but those enjoying this need to get outside to get a view of the pitch. For the rest of us, it is Bratwurst, quite pricy at 40 Kr (around £4.50), and coffee at 15 Kr. Beer is available as well. 80Kr to enter with a A4 size programme free. The areas to the end of the stand are stepped and could be used as terracing, but this is steep and without any barriers, so numbers must be limited. The rest of the ground is surrounded by a steep grass bank – too much to stand on, with a pathway at pitch level from which half a dozen souls decided to watch, at least once it stopped raining. There are two steps of concrete terracing opposite the main stand for a length of about 40 yards.

It had been wet earlier in the day and there was also a heavy shower around kick off. The pitch looked good though, even though it was a slippery surface, and a couple of the home defenders delighted in the freedom to make long sliding attempts to get the ball generally when their success of failure had little effect on the game.

It seemed to me that the visitors, Hobro had the better of early exchanges, but then Fredericia took advantage of a goalkeeping error and Christiansen slid in a goal on 17 minutes. They doubled this on 34 when Jakobsen was allowed to run unchallenged. Just before the break, Fredericia lost Mads Greve to a second yellow card. This allowed Hobro to reassert control as the second half started, with Justesen scoring on 57 and 63 minutes, the first when the home side struggled to clear efforts from the visiting number 99, Kebe, and the second a simple far post tap in following a cross from Fisker. Kebe then benefitted from a keeper’s error, an apparently simple save following a long shot by Thomsen, but it slipped out of the keepers hands into a perfect position for the Senegalese forward to score.

Fredericia were still trying (and succeeding) in creating chances at the other end, it was just that Hobro were creating more. But just as I thought the game was swinging one way, it went the other – a break down the left and a cut back cross allowed Hagelskjaer to level at 3-3, and then Jakobsen having provided the cross for the equaliser breaks down the other side and scores to put Fredericia ahead. There were chances in both directions in the last ten minutes, but the tide had turned back in the home side’s favour and just before the whistle, Jakobsen finished the scoring, and completed his hat-trick with a fine solo goal.

The result lifts Fredericia to 5th in the table, but they cannot go any higher, even if they win all their remaining matches, Hobro drop to 10th, four points above AB who are in the relegation place.

The Home Front – Cheltenham Town 2012-3

May 4th, 2013

It is actually more difficult to judge the team you are attached to, than those at a distance. By the end of the season, I will have seen something like 170 games, of which 37 (or if I’m lucky 38) will involve Cheltenham Town. At home, I have missed only a couple of midweek matches, while away I see about half the games.

So, looking at the season not quite in retrospect. What sort of season has it been? I have deliberately decided to write this before the final games, with the play off situation still in the balance. In many people’s minds these games are going to be the whole of the season, basically we are a success if we win promotion, and a failure if we do not. These are false arguments, our achievement this season is coming fifth in the league, aligned with a run to the third round of the FA Cup. The preliminary suggestions (as the final figures are not out until next spring) is that the books will again balance, and some surplus to remove historical debt from the club. This looks good for the future of the club, but many of the supporters do not care. Many would have us spending money that is not there in a bid to bring greater success to the club, pointing perhaps to Bradford City who publicly proclaimed they would have made a £600K loss for the season if it had not been for reaching the League Cup final. The downside of this is shown at Aldershot Town, who went into Administration within days of leaving the league. This is just 21 years since their predecessor failed to complete a Football League season, causing a new club to be formed with the “added” Town on the name. Its also worth noting that another former opponent of ours, Farnborough FC are also in trouble, and in their case after a change just six years ago which resulted in Farnborough coming out of the ashes of Farnborough Town. It is all too easy to joke that they will just restart with the Town suffix heading north to Farnborough from Aldershot again.

Anyway, let’s get back to the season where most people care about it. On the field. In simple terms, Cheltenham finished 5th out of 24 teams and entered the play offs. In straight economic terms, budgets follow average crowd figures. Cheltenham are 15th in the average attendances for the division, with 3253 seeing an average game at Cheltenham. If analysed closer, this figure is rather on the high side – the average gets boosted by a small number of good crowds, while rather too often the attendances sit below the 3000 mark. Still, however we show the figures, Cheltenham are in some way over achieving, as we have done for the majority of the seasons in our league career.

But yes, I digress again. Like a good politician I am shying away from the answer to the question, how did this team perform? I would have to say that on the whole, the season has been one of frustration. We get to see glimpses of what these players can achieve, and then they fail to achieve it. I do not think Cheltenham has ever had a more capable squad of players, but we seem incapable of proving this to be true. In the past, Cheltenham’s league squads have been based on a few players with genuine pedigree, bolstered by a number who are not even journeymen pro, but instead have a short professional career, dropping out of the football league as soon as they are released. If I was asked to show an example of this, I would mention Andy Gallinagh – who made something like 130 appearance in our colours, more than half of them in League-1. No insult meant, but Gallinagh is not a great defender, and when he looks back on his league career, he will probably see he did well to play that number of games, but the scouts were never queuing up to watch him, with lucrative promises of a career at a higher level.

The current squad does not have much in the way of Andy Gallinagh about it, our current players can all play the game, and do not have to rely on pure commitment and energy to hide the gaps in the capabilities, and they know it. Quite a few of our players are being watched by others in this division and in League-1. The majority would pick up another League club if released this summer. Now this is League-2. A footballer gets stuck in league-2 because he cannot perform to the highest level for more than 50 games a season, but suffers from a lack of consistency, and does not have as much ability as a higher level player. We now have, including loan players, about 18 of these typical league-2 players. You can often look at the team, and at the bench and see little or no difference in the quality. I mean how does Yates choose between Jason Taylor or Darren Carter? Both can do the job, and on a good day will do it – but both are capable of anonymous games where they hardly see the ball.

Alright then, the season in segments. We started well with seven points from 3 games, but then stumbled with the Accrington and Southend home games. What we did not know at the time was these would be our only home league defeats of the season. We then had our best run – the next 11 League game saw us lose only once (at Bradford), but we came back done suddenly with the heavy defeats at Rotherham and Chesterfield. This set us up for the two nervy FA Cup encounters with Hereford, which naturally we made a meal of. We then had some poor results in the run up to the Everton game, with only the Boxing day encounter with Wycombe brightening December. Unfortunately we lost the Bristol Rovers game to the weather, and it was only re-arranged after John Ward had come in to refloat the Gashead’s ship. The winter passed with a lot of draws and an embarrassingly poor defeat at Dagenham. There is no doubt that if the games in January and February were to be typical of the season, they we would not be thinking of promotion, direct or by the play offs. To me, this felt like a reality check – turning around the year in a promotion position just did not feel right, we did not appear to look like a promotion team, and we dropped down to the level this team should expect.

I think it turned back in our favour at Fleetwood, where we won a good point away to a team still in contention. Our next five home games were all won, although our form on the road was far from inspiring. I would say we were up to our average in this period. This certainly frustrates many of those fans writing on the message board, as this average kept on falling just short of that needed to get us into an automatic promotion place. In the end, that is where we finished, just short of an automatic promotion place.

I will not be disappointed if we miss out on promotion again. I do not feel we are really good enough to go up. Yates’ should feel it though as to a great extent it is his responsibility. He has been responsible for the signings, the contracts, for the balance of the team. He has been responsible for the constant chopping and changing between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, for the swapping in and out of equally culpable midfielders. I honestly think he needs to know exactly what plan A is. We should not make four or five changes to the team, and change the formation every time we lose a game. Instead we should have a plan A in formation and game plan and stick to it. To some extent this has been forced on us in the past, when we have not had too many options on the bench, whereas we now have the scope to change the midfield, and allow the forwards to come in and out of favour, and this has been overused.

Will others agree with me? Certainly the messages on the forum suggest a season that was somewhat worse than I have described. A place in the play offs should only be a disappointment if one felt the team was head and shoulders better than the rest, and should have easily won automatic promotion. Gillingham were clearly the best side in the division this season, but even they were not head and shoulders above the rest. I would be happy to congratulate them if it was not for their manager, who not only was an embarrassment to himself and the club during his time here, but still appears in the media to be on a trip of self-aggrandisement, and not capable of giving credit to his players, or to the budget his chairman has kindly provided. For just about any side short of Gillingham, the league was a close run affair, with even the eventually relegated sides capable of stealing points from those at the top. I always find it strange that people automatically claim the closeness of the division means it is lacking in quality, but such closeness can be achieved by the lower sides improving, as much as by the better sides failing. I do not think our team has dropped its playing quality from last season, and I believe the game played now is technically much better than it was during our first league seasons, (there is much less hoofball all around and far more reliance on passing). I think the efforts of the Football League to try and bring some order into the financial mess of the football league is beginning the bear fruit, and this is reducing the ability for teams to buy success on borrowed money, (it has not yet ended the excesses and we still need a stronger license based system).

I am not going through the squad, saying this played did well, and that one did not. We have no bad players in our squad, we have plenty of League-2 standard, and some capable of playing one step higher. All of our players are capable of bad days out, and the team dynamic is such that the whole team tends to have good or bad days, rather than individual players doing so. On occasions our manager has turned around a potential defeat with a substitution or two, but just as often we have lost concentration at the end and let in stupid goals. This is what you should expect outside the Premier League

A conclusion? I would say we have done as well as should have been expected, but we are a frustrating side to watch because just occasionally we reach heights, and then struggle to even glimpse where they have come from. Almost every player in our squad has been guilty of flattering to deceive in this way. A second run to the play offs has not exactly bought the fans out of the woodwork, and even if we reach Wembley, I doubt if it will be in front of record crowds. Still, overall and without waiting to find out how it finishes, I think this has been a good season.

World Cup Spring Review.

April 1st, 2013

The one certainty in the Spring list was that the Oceania group would come to completion, with one more team being knocked out. New Zealand confirmed their place in the intercontinental play offs in their first game, but they left it late. For the match against New Caledonia in Dunedin, Chris Killeen, a former bit part player at Norwich and Celtic who now plays in China gave them an early lead, but New Caledonia equalised early in the second half and it was deep into injury time when Tommy Smith (of Ipswich) became the “delighted scorer” with the winning goal. The reward for the squad was that they did not have to travel to the Solomon Islands for the midweek game, and those players who had crossed continents to get there were allowed a couple of days break before taking the long flights home. Playing with a squad of locally based players, New Zealand wrapped up the six match group in 100% style, and now play the fourth team in the North and Central American group.

Tahiti won their last home match, against the Solomon Islands and by 2-0 but go to the Confederations Cup as the biggest underdog in the competition’s short history.

Asia did not play until the midweek dates – and there was a potentially serious blow to Australia’s chances, when an early strike, followed by an own goal at the start of the second half left them 2-0 at home to Oman. Tim Cahill scored with a header within minutes of the second goal against to give the “Socceroos” some chance, while Brett Holman’s late strike from distance levelled the scores at 2-2. The result at the King Abdullah International Stadium in Amman did not help the Aussie hopes either. Japan went into the game, knowing a win, (which would have been their fifth in six games) would mean they were the first team to reach the finals in Brazil. However on the stroke of half time, Japan went down to a headed goal by Khalil Baniateyah, and pushing forward in the second half, they went further behind to a classic counter attack, Ahmad Hayel Ibrahim scoring on the break. It took Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa to start a comeback, but this ended with Endo, Just a minute after Kagawa had scored, Uchida was brought down in the penalty area, but Endo’s penalty was saved by Ammer Saddar.

Japan still lead the group with 13 points. One win from their final two games is enough to secure top spot, while a draw is all that is needed to qualify. Japan are at home to Australia next. Jordan’s win catapults them up the table to second place, with seven points, compared to Australia and Oman on six, Iraq on five. The advantage may lay with Australia and Iraq as they each have to play three times in June, while the others play twice. After visiting Japan, Australia finish with two home games,

In the other group, Uzbekistan and South Korea both had home wins, and this increases the chances that they are the pair to go through. The Koreans are in second place with ten points, but still have three games to go, as do third placed Iran (7 points and exempt from this month’s games). Uzbekistan hold onto the lead they took with November’s win in Iran. Qatar (in South Korea) and Lebanon were the beaten teams, both have two games left to play. It is no longer possible for Lebanon to win the group, and they can only finish level on points with South Korea, but they still have a chance of qualifying through the play offs.

In South America, It is notable that no team either lost twice or one twice over the pair of fixture dates. Ecuador, like Peru played one game only – and won. Columbia, Chile and Venezuela each won one, and lost one, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia drew one, and lost the other, while Argentina with four points continue to lead the table, they had a straight forward 3-0 win over Venezuela. Lionel Messi scored his customary goal, a penalty on half time, while the other pair were down to Higuain of Real Madrid. Argentina were then held to an unexpected draw in Bolivia, but this neither harms Argentina’s chances, nor enhances Bolivia’s slim chance of continuing beyond the group games. Bolivia took the lead through Marcelo Moreno, the former Shaktar Donetsk and Wigan player, now with Gremio in Brazil. Valencia’s Ever Banega got the equaliser. Bolivia had earlier lost 5-0 in Columbia, who had five different scorers. Bolivia stay eighth in the nine team table, above Paraguay who picked up a point in Uruguay. Uruguay went ahead with just eight minutes to play with when Luis Saurez scored, but levelled through Benitez (Edgar, who plays for Toluca in Mexico). Paraguay actually took the lead in Ecuador in the second game, this time the scored was Russian based Luis Caballero. Another Benitez (this time Christian, (30 appearances for Birmingham City) who also plays in Mexico, for Ameria) scored against them, along with two from Jefferson Montero, and an opener from Felipe Caicedo Corozo (once of Manchester City, now at Lokomotiv Moscow). Of the bottom trio, it was Peru that gave themselves some hope, playing only one world cup match, they beat Chile with a late goal Farfan goal, and now find themselves only two points behind Uruguay. Uruguay, after only gaining one point against Paraguay, lost 2-0 in Chile. Chile are therefore in the fourth qualification place despite defeat in the first of the pair of games.

So to North and Central America, the final group hexagon played its second and third game, still seven rounds to go. Three teams go through with fourth place getting the play off against New Zealand. After Honduras’ opening win over USA, they now played at home to Mexico. Poor finishing on the home side’s part lead to the Mexicans taking command, and Hernandez scoring twice. Rarely used in the Premier League, one suspects Hernandez is just waiting for the chance to move to a team that will display his talents. His goals did not quite do the trick for Mexico though. Carlos Costly pulled a goal back with under fifteen minutes to play, and then a minute later, Costly was brought down by Francisco Rodriguez. Jerry Bengston stepped up to take the penalty, and although this was saved, the ball fell to Bengston to score the rebound. Honduras then went down in their third game to a Panama team who had drawn twice in their opening games. Jamaica’s home draw with Panama also meant they had two points from two games, but they then fell 2-0 at Costa Rica.

Costa Rica had drawn their first game, and played the USA in Denver in the second. This was a farcical game played in a heavy snowstorm

(Not my photo, hope I do not break any copyright)

It should either not have been started or abandoned at some stage, but apparently even the Costa Rica players wanted to continue once the game started. Costa Rica did decide to put in a protest, but this was summarily dismissed by FIFA. The USA won 1-0, thanks to a rather fortuitous goal. They then fought out a scoreless draw in Mexico. So after three round of fixtures, five of the nine games have been drawn, including all three involving Mexico, (both games in Mexico were scoreless). Panama as the other unbeaten side in the group lead, one win and two draws, Costa Rica, USA and Honduras each have one win and one defeat, while Jamaica two draws and a defeat are currently last. Everyone plays three times more in June.

So onto Africa. Ten groups of four teams, only one team through from each (to a knockout round which decides Africa’s five qualifyers). Only one game played to take the groups to the half way stage, there will be two in June and one in September to complete. Only two games were away wins on this occasion, the first being Malawi’s win in Namibia. This make Group F very interesting, especially as it took a late equaliser for Nigeria to draw at home to Kenya. Nigeria and Malawi each have five points, Namibia have three and Kenya two. Nigeria have two away games in June, Malawi two home games before the leading pair meet in Nigeria in September.

Mali won 2-1 in Rwanda, their goals being scored early second half, and turning the game around after being one down at the break. Algeria won their match 3-1 at home to Benin, which means both Mali and Algeria have six points and leapfrog Benin and share top spot on six points each. Benin has four, while Rwanda have one only. Mali play both their June games at home, while Algeria are away before they meet in Algeria in the final game. There are three teams with a 100% record at the half way stage, Tunisia, Congo (Brazzaville) and Egypt. The French born Christopher Samba of QPR scored Congo’s goal, in a 1-0 win over Gabon. Only one team has lost all three games, this being Cape Verde Islands. As they are in Tunisia’s group, they need to win all, and hope Tunisia lose all to have a chance. June should see around 20 of the African teams knocked out, but only one or two will make it to the next round before the final game.

And so to Europe. The feature of England’s games in Group H this tournament has been an easy win on the Friday night (against no hope opposition) followed by a disappointing draw on the Tuesday. The easy match was won with aplomb in San Marino, eight goals without reply, but then in Montenegro, they could not apply the finishing touch to a dominant first half, and lost control after the break. England are looking more like a second placed team than a group winner, and with one of the nine second placed teams missing the cut for play offs, they may be watching the second place table in October. Neither England, not San Marino play in June, while the other four get a game. San Marino are not yet knocked out, but need to win all four, hope England lose four and catch up a goal difference of 47 just to finish second, (they cannot win the group). If either Poland or Ukraine win in June, then San Marino will be knocked out.

The five team group is between Spain and France, and Spain became favourites by winning at the Stade de France thanks to Pedro’s goal just afore the hour mark. This was the only game in midweek, while on the Friday night, Spain had slipped up, when Teemu Pukki scored a late equaliser for Finland. France comfortable beat Georgia. The only summer games here are between Belarus and Finland, and hence not likely to be of great consequence in the final table. In Finland win both, Belarus are out, but the reverse is not true as Finland have more games to play.

Running up the groups, Group G saw one set of fixtures only, and reached the half way mark. The key match was Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 3-1 win over Greece, which places them three points ahead at the top. Slovakia missed the chance to move into second, held at home by Lithuania, while Liechtenstein picked up their first point 1-1 at home to Latvia. Everyone in the group plays in June, with the three leaders all away. In group F, Russia’s lead was not ended by the snow covered pitch in Belfast. In the comparable warmth of Tel Aviv, Portugal went ahead early, but then needed an injury time goal to level the scores at 3-3, after Israel had gone 3-1 up. Both Portugal (in Azerbaijan), and Israel (in the snow cleared Belfast) won 2-0 in midweek, to be one point behind Russia, but having played two games each more. Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg have not won a match between them, the Luxembourg-Azerbaijan game finishing scoreless.

Group E also played one game only to reach the half way stage, and has three games in June. Switzerland lead the group, despite a dismal scoreless draw in Cyprus. Albania (1-0 in Norway) and Iceland (2-1 in Slovenia) picked up good away wins and are two points behind the Swiss in the table. Norway would have been in second place with a win, so Hamdi Salihi’s goal, midway through the second half will be felt there. Salihi is a player who uses his passport, most of his career has been in Austria, but he spent the 2012 season with DC United, and then transferred to Jiangsu Sainty (China). In Group D, teams played twice this month, but have no summer game, everyone has played six, Netherlands are 100%, and Andorra 0%. The Netherlands were at home twice, beating Estonia 3-0, Romania 4-0. Andorra lost at home to Turkey, and away to Estonia, both times by 2-0. They can still reach second place, but only if Hungary and Romania draw their return meet in September, and then lose their remaining games, (and Andorra would need four wins). In their first meeting, Hungary and Romania shared points, Hungary twice taking the lead, but Romania clawing it back each time. The second equaliser was in the final minute. Hungary came back from behind to grab a point and second place, after their game in Turkey. Romania are a point behind Hungary, and the Turks another three points adrift.

Group C is a bit mixed up in games played, but not in points gained. Germany have played six, won five and drawn one. Kazakhstan fell to them twice in the Spring fixtures. The Kazaks have just one point from six games, and so can only reach second place, the Faroe Islands (no points) and Sweden have only played four times, meaning they each play twice in the summer. The Republic or Ireland drew 0-0 in Sweden, and then 2-2 at home to Austria – two goals from Jonathon Walker gave them hope after Martin Harnik had put Austria ahead, David Alaba got the late equaliser. This leaves the Irish on Eight points, level with both Austria and Sweden, but having played one game more than the Swedes. Group B is at a slightly confused half way stage, Bulgaria have played one extra game, Armenia have a game in hand. Both Bulgaria and Italy are unbeaten, but the similarity ends there, Italy have won four out of five, Bulgaria have drawn four out of six. Two goals from Balotelli in the first half gave Italy no sweat in Malta, the Maltese had already lost 6-0 in Bulgaria (Malta no points from five games). Bulgaria added a draw in Denmark to stay second, thanks to the Czech Republic’s curious inconsistency, losing 3-0 at home to Denmark, but then winning by the same score in Armenia.

Finally, Group A. Now generally, this round of games is too early for teams to be knocked out, and if one is to make an early exit, it is the usual suspects, San Marino, Andorra, Malta, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg one looks to. So take a bow, Scotland – the Scots were in trouble after their first two games, home draws with Serbia and Macedonia. Then they lost in Wales and Belgium. The last chance for face saving was at home to Wales, and Scotland did take the lead through Grant Hanley, then a penalty by Ramsey, quickly followed by a goal from Robson-Kanu turned the match. Scotland then went to Serbia, and not unexpectedly, lost 2-0. Wales fell at home to Croatia, despite a Gareth Bale penalty putting them ahead. Belgium quietly went about beating Macedonia twice, Eden Hazard scoring in each game, Kevin de Bruyn also on target away. And so both Belgium and Croatia find themselves on 16 points from 6 games, they meet in Zagreb in October, having already drawn 1-1 in Brussels. Scotland are on two points, and can only reach 14 – the first European team to be knocked out.

World Cup Spring Preview.

March 21st, 2013

So on to the Spring World Cup Fixtures week. In the Autumn, there is a pattern to the system with the international pairs of fixtures coming three times in successive months. Matches can also be grouped together in the summer, after most domestic leagues have finished, but the Spring fixture list seems designed mainly to annoy those running club football.

With the European seasons heading for their climax, the last thing any club wants is to lose its key players for a week and a half, or even to have a break from the search for honours. It is no wonder that players suddenly find their fitness and availability called into question. In England we have the advantage that our players play almost exclusively in the Premier League, which means that clubs withdrawing players face the opprobrium directly. Still, we get the fiasco when a manager says his player is going to be available for England on the Saturday, only to withdraw him on the Monday. If the player’s country is half a continent away, or further, then there is no one to say whether the “injury” is anything more than convenience.

To my mind, it would be better to miss out these fixtures, finish the league season a week earlier and then group more international matches in June.

Anyway, nothing will be settled this month in Europe, but some of the groups are going to come much clearer as they pass through the half way mark.

Scotland and Wales play each other in Group A, but both are already showing little help of qualification. The Republic of Ireland are better off in Group C – and if they can get a result in Stockholm, they have a good chance of at least finishing second to Germany. In Group D, Hungary play Romania. Both have won three of their four games, but lost the other, 1-4 at home to the Netherlands. Not surprisingly, the Netherlands top the group with four wins so far, and two home games this month – so they could be sitting very pretty next week.

Russia are also going for the fifth successive win, playing Northern Ireland in Belfast, the Russians are the only side to beat the Irish so far, but all their other matches have been drawn. Israel will become the second visitor to Belfast in this window. Both Israel and Portugal are on 7 points from 4 games, and they meet Friday in Tel Aviv. Group G sees Bosnia play Greece, two sides unbeaten with 10 points from four games – they have already played out a scoreless draw in Greece. For England, both the September and October fixture dates involved a 5-0 win on the Friday, but a 1-1 draw on the Tuesday. With away matches first in San Marino, then in Montenegro – a repeat might not be out of order. Montenegro are group leaders, while the earlier draws have been with Poland and Ukraine, who play each other on Friday. This could easily be one of the closer groups, and with one of the nine second placed teams missing out on the play-offs, it could well be a closer group that misses out on the final action. Finally, in Group I, where there is one less team, Spain and France should both get their third win on Friday, they have already drawn 1-1 in Madrid, and meet again at the Stade de France Tuesday.

One continent where the results will be decisive is Oceania. New Zealand, despite missing out on the Oceania title, and a place in the Confederations Cup in the summer have won all four group games. They only team that can overhaul them is New Caledonia, who visit them in Dunedin on Friday, in the first game that will be played. Only a win on Friday puts New Zealand through at first try, any other result and confirmation comes on Tuesday after New Zealand play in the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia play Tahiti.

African teams play one match only, in most cases over the weekend. This will be the half way point for ten groups of four, where only the winners get through to a play off. Home advantage is more notable in Africa than elsewhere, so only three countries have two wins out of two, and only two have lost twice. Group B is headed up by Tunisia who will try to win in Sierra Leone to reach nine points, Equatorial Guinea scored first on their visit to Tunisia, but went down 3-1. Cape Verde Islands went down 2-1 at home to Tunisia, having already lost in Sierra Leone. The remaining game, Equatorial Guinea v Sierra Leone was drawn. IN Group E, Brazzaville version of Congo have beaten Burkina Faso (away) by 3-0 and Niger by 1-0. They now play at home to Gabon, who have also beaten Burkina Faso (home) 1-0, but went down 3-0 in Niger. Egypt will also attempt to reach nine points when Zimbabwe visit the giant Borg Al Arab Stadium, (at 86,000 – the third largest in Africa). Mozambique have also lost 2-0 there, while Egypt have won 3-2 away in Guinea. Guinea won away in Zimbabwe, while Zimbabwe’s visit to Mozambique was scoreless. I have now mentioned all four of the 40 matches played so far to be won by the away teams!

IN South America, there is only one group – the division of nine teams in the end is four to the finals, four out, and one to a play off. The current working is three looking like clear qualifiers, Argentina, Ecuador and Columbia, and three looking very unlikely, Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia. The other three are all on 12 points so far, from 9 games. Venezuela will play Argentina (away) and Columbia, while Uruguay play Paraguay (home), and Chile visit Peru before meeting each other in Chile.

The Concacaf region sees the second and third matches in a group of six teams, so still seven games to play after this month. The only winner in the first series was Honduras, who beat USA by 2-1. Honduras are at home again to Mexico, before travelling to Panama. The USA will play Costa Rica in Denver before their big match, the visit to the Aztec stadium in Mexico.

I have left Asia to last, as the groups there have only one set of fixtures, and these are not until Tuesday. After this there are three fixture dates in June which will see two teams from each group qualified, two out and one from each to play off (against each other, first). In Group A, Uzbekistan lead with 8 points, while South Korea, Iran and Qatar have 7. South Korea have a game in hand on the others, and play Qatar at home, Uzbekistan are at home to Lebanon giving the Iranians the month off. Group B is all to play for amongst Australia, Iraq and Oman (all 5 points) and Jordan 4. Australia have a game in hand are at home to Oman. Iraq take the month off. Japan are the other team and are rather clear group leaders. They have 13 points before travelling to Jordan – so a win on Tuesday will make them the first team to qualify to join Brazil in the finals.

The Inevitable Don.

November 29th, 2012

It was always inevitable, that sooner or later AFC Wimbledon would come up in competition against MK Dons.

As a teenager, growing up on Southern League football in London, the Wimbledon of the seventies had a bit of a reputation, but as with most non-League teams of the time, they were in reality a haven away from the troubles with hooliganism that all the top teams were suffering from. The most memorable feature of a visit to Plough Lane was the huge bank of terracing behind one goal

There was not always a lot between teams, and what was needed for success (as we would later find out), was am inspired manager and a chairman prepared to back him. For Wimbledon, the manager was Allen Batsford, who had already led Walton & Hersham through their most successful years, (Athenian League title, FA Amateur Cup and humbling Brighton & Hove Albion during Brian Clough’s tenure there). Batsford was to take Wimbledon to a hat-trick of Southern League titles, and in his first season to their famous meeting with Leeds United in the FA Cup. The chairman, at least for the third year was Ron Noades, who apparently paid £2782 for the club.

Timing is everything, though and Wimbledon had this. After their first Southern League title, in 1975 they gained just 4 points in their election bid, behind Kettering (20) and Yeovil (8), who between them equalled Workington’s 28 points for re-election. No less than 12 non-League teams, eight from the Southern League had put their names forward. Again in 1976, there were 9 applicants, six of which were Southern League, and the combined scores of Kettering (14) and Yeovil (18) would have easily beaten Workington (21). For 1977, the leagues agreed that only one team from each of the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues would be put forward, and as Southern League champions, Wimbledon were up for election, along with Altrincham (despite finishing only 10th in the Northern Premier), Halifax, Hartlepool, Southport and Workington. It was Workington who had been bottom two places four years in a row that lost their place. It was a brief window, Wigan were elected 12 months later, but even with the creation of the Alliance (now Conference) and a reduction of non-League teams in the election to one from 1980, no other team joined the league until automatic promotion was introduced in 1987.

Wimbledon were not an immediate success in the Football League. Indeed they started more amateurishly than in winning three titles, no scouting, no youth coaching until Dario Gradi was recruited to assist Batsford, (they did not get on). Batsford resigned after the team had to travel by car to an away match at Rochdale. Wimbledon were promoted from the basement division of the League in 1979, 1981 and 1983 – each time they spent only one season in the third tier, but in 1984, they moved upwards.

Dave Bassett, who became manager in 1981 led them through this spell, leading the club to the top division (still division one in those days) and keeping them up in his first season, before giving way to Bobby Gould who managed the Cup winning team of 1988. Overall, Wimbledon were to spend 14 seasons at the top level.

It was Noades, back in 1979 who first considered relocating the club to Milton Keynes. The City’s development plan included a stadium close to the central railway station, and Noades purchased the local Southern League club, Milton Keynes City for £1, thinking he could merge his two clubs and play at this new stadium. After a short period of study, Noades concluded that Wimbledon could not get any more to view them at Milton Keynes than at Plough Lane, and in 1981 he divested his interests in both clubs, before buying Crystal Palace.

Sam Hamman took over the ownership of the club. They still owned and played at Plough Lane. As with many football grounds, there were covenants in place on what could be done with the land. The Plough Lane football ground could only be used for Sport or Recreation, and in the event of Wimbledon FC folding, it had to be sold to the council for the less than princely sum of £8000. The amount Hamman paid to the council to change these conditions is not known, but was about half a million pounds. By 1991, Wimbledon had risen to the top division, with crowds around 7,500 per match. This was a remarkably small number for the top division, which had an average of 22,000+ that season. It was the Taylor report that was the excuse to re-locate to Selhurst Park. The club said they could not afford to upgrade the old ground. There was an immediate loss of 10% of the spectator base, but this quickly recovered. Around 1993, the averages exceeded 10,000 and they set their attendance record, over 30,000 for a match against Manchester United. In 1999-2000, the season Wimbledon were finally relegated from the top flight, the average crowd was 17,000.

Surely this figure could have been sustained, but at this time, Wimbledon had a fickle support, more concerned about visiting stars than the local club. Palace were an irregular member of the Premier League, and so while the big Premier stars came a visiting, Wimbledon were the best show in town. In one season out of the top division, the average crowd had been halved.

Hamman had by now sold Wimbledon to Norwegian owners, and in 1998 he had finally sold off Plough Lane for £8 million. Hamman stayed on at the club as an advisor to the Norwegians, (which of course meant a fee was paid, and I bet it was not a pittance). After proposals for two sites within Merton came to nothing, Hamman was behind a wild slew of relocation schemes, as far afield as Scotland and Dublin, (the Premier League quite fancied the idea of having a Dublin club, but the Football Association of Ireland vetoed it). All this added to the clubs problems – creating a wedge between the club and its supporters. Most clubs still try to maintain the illusion that their owners hold the club in trust for the supporters, and for future generations. With Wimbledon openly stating they wanted to move to somewhere where a profit could be made, the supporters were clearly thought of as dispensable.

Meanwhile, the Milton Keynes Stadium Corporation was formed in 2000. Fronted by former op impresario Peter Winkleman, and supported by big commercial names Wal-Mart (Asda) and Ikea, who were looking for sites in Milton Keynes. Later, AFC Wimbledon supporters have suggested that the Stadium plan was a Trojan horse required to get the commercial plans approved, but this does not truly recognise the situation in Milton Keynes. The City planners surely wanted it all, the Stadium and the Commercial developments.

But what could is a stadium without a team? The Milton Keynes City team Noades had once bought had folded some time back, and a new team of the same name were just a renaming of Mercedes Benz, playing four levels below the Football League in front of a few dozen spectators. The MK area boasted a number of other teams at similar level, but no one much more senior. Of course, with enough investment, it is possible to move a club from non-League football to the Football League, Max Griggs was just about to achieve this with Rushden & Diamonds – but as we have seen, the club was not sustainable without a continual injection of cash.

Winkleman wanted an established League club to move into his stadium (and at the time, that is all he wanted – he could see that clubs lose money, but stadiums with a well supported club make a profit). The Football League and FA always claimed to be opposed to a club moving into Milton Keynes, and the combination of this, and the clear connections between clubs and their fan bases meant that Luton, Barnet, Crystal Palace and QPR all rejected moves to Milton Keynes, but in the summer of 2001, Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel announced the intention to move to Milton Keynes.

The Football League immediately turned this down, but Wimbledon appealed to an FA panel, made up of David Dein (Arsenal), Douglas Craig (York City) and Charles Hollander QC (these panels always appear to have one legal ‘brain’). Craig was an odd choice, he had transferred the ownership of Bootham Crescent from one of his companies (i.e. York City FC) to another for a sum of £165,000 eighteen months earlier, and at this time he had just announced plans to evict the football club as he thought he could sell the ground for £4.5 million (this of course, never happened, although York’s long term future is unlikely to be at the ground). This panel found the Football League decision had not been fair and legal, and batted the issue back to the League for reconsideration. The League quickly returned the issue to the FA who had to set up a new Arbitration committee, this time of Steve Stride (Aston Villa), Alan Turvey (Isthmian League) and solicitor Raj Parker. This committee decided 2-1 in favour of the move, with Turvey being the one against. As a demonstration that it wanted to have its cake, eat it and wash its hands of the evidence, the FA quickly announced that the decision was binding, but that it was opposed to the move. Chief Executive Adam Crozier called it an “Appalling decision”. The average crowd for Wimbledon at Selhurst Park 2001-2 was just under 7000. The following season, it was 2787.

It was at this point the decision to form AFC Wimbledon was taken. Before this time, there was just talk about it, but the speed that they moved from talk to action was amazing. The initial meeting was held on 30 May 2002, with the manager, stadium, kit and crest announced to supporters just a month later. Clearly some of the groundwork must have been carried out in advance.

Only months previously, Kingstonian FC had been taken over Rajesh Kholsa and his son, Anup. Kingstonian had struggled through the season after relegation from the Conference, and gone into administration. They badly needed good administration. This is not what they got. Non-League football is not a good vehicle for profit making – the best opportunities for a profit – as we have seen in more than one case – involve separating the ownership of club and ground and selling the stadium when the clubs debts are too high for them to be able to resist. Many football clubs have means to avoid this, at the original Wimbledon FC, it was the arrangements whereas the club would have had to sell the ground for £8000 to Merton Council, (an agreement that Hamman splashed a little cash to get out of, before later feathering his next). At Hillingdon Borough, the club I supported in my early days, the directors had to see the football club fold in order to negate a covenant on the ground and take their profits. At Kingstonian, the ground was on a long lease from the council, with the ground only usable for sports use. Hence, the only way Kholsa could sell at a profit was if another sports club came in. Did Kholsa spy an opportunity in the headlines about Wimbledon? Is it possible that some agreement was suggested in advance? No one has ever said anything to suggest any wrong doing, but there is some feeling that Kholsa did see Wimbledon coming. He was quick to split football club and ground, leaving the head lease in the hands of Anup, and with the income once AFC Wimbledon agreed to share the stadium, this part of the business was running a nice profit, while the Football Club that were leaseholders a year before were starved of the cash.

Meanwhile, the AFC Wimbledon bandwagon was the biggest story in non-League football. In a marvellously orchestrated media circus (something the early AFC W seemed to lead the way in), they held open trials on Wimbledon Common, where some 230 turned up for a trial. If I am not careful, I could even blame Wimbledon for the X-Factor here, but I’ll shy away from such an accusation. Safe to say that some of the 230 would have been an embarrassment, but fortunately not in front of TV cameras. Another sign of how it was to be was the quick signing of a kit sponsorship deal, which meant that AFC Wimbledon would already have more money behind them then the average club in their league, notwithstanding the £75,000 raised at the initial meetings, and the benefits of crowds that were to exceed 3000 on average.

Of course, it has to recorded that AFC Wimbeldon were a different type of football club. The ownership structure, where all fans had an equal say at general meetings, and to elect the board does present a novel contrast to the idea that your votes reflect the size of stake you take in the club (or business). However, the model was not that new, hundreds of clubs (as opposed to companies) had been operating as members clubs in the less rarefied atmosphere of non-League football – indeed many of their opponents in that first season were also “Fans Clubs”, the different being that only a handful of fans would ever turn up at a meeting. There were members clubs in the Football League up until 1982, when Nottingham Forest became the last to change to a limited company, and then Wycombe Wanderers were still a members club when joining the Football League in 1993. The supporters retained “golden shares” in the club when it became a limited company in 2004. Steve Hayes became MD of the club in 2005, built up debt and then paid it off in return for becoming 100% owner. To be fair to Hayes, he has since given up control of both Wycombe (to their supporters Trust) and while I cannot say the exact status of the ground, I feel certain Hayes lost a lot of money through his involvements at both Wycombe and Wasps.

It was not long before some bright spark at AFC Wimbledon decided that the best course of action was to purchase Kingsmeadow from Kholsa. To this day, AFC Wimbledon fans tell me this was the only course of action, as otherwise it would have been sold for housing. As I have already mentioned in this piece, that was not an available option – but a sale (around £3 million) sounded good to Kholsa, especially as he could loan some of the money at high interest rates. AFC Wimbledon did manage to change this over time to bank loans at conventional interest rates, and later sold off a portion of the moral high ground shares in the club to pay off this debt.

Before AFC Wimbledon came on the scene, I had already visited all but one (Horley Town had just moved grounds) of the Combined Counties League grounds, but as I was working mainly in Slough, I saw AFC three times in the first two seasons of their existence. Without doubt, it was this that removed any romanticism I might have had about them being the best thing in non-League football. For the most part, with average crowds well under the 100 mark, the Combined Counties League is a civilised place. When it is quite clear who is shouting what from a sparsely populated terrace, one tends to watch your language. AFC Wimbledon fans, grouping in numbers more common in the Football League, but with no security other than their own stewards, had the run of the league. Generally the vilest comments were reserved for those of their own players not performing to the standards expected (they were behind for just 7 minutes at Horley, but the worst was their home crowd when they took time to break down stubborn resistance in a scoreless first half). The club lost seven games in their first season, finishing third in the league behind AFC Wallingford and Withdean 2000. There was crowd trouble at the Wallingford game, which AFC Wimbledon always deny is to do with their own fans, but was then used as an excuse not to play at Wallingford in 2004, but to switch the match, (AFC Wimbledon’s last game in the Combined Counties League) to Kingsmeadow. This game did not even matter in the scheme of things, AFC Wimbledon already having secured the league title by a country mile, but it appeared they were unforgiving for Wallingford’s title the previous season, and were determined to hang onto their unbeaten record.

The other thing that was noticeable from those early visits were how many AFC Wimbledon fans were glued to radios, (we did not all have internet phones then). Their rivals in the Combined Counties League never featured on the radio – it was only ever the fortunes of the other Dons that interested them. There were two things they wanted to hear – Wimbledon losing, and Wimbledon getting a lower crowd than AFC Wimbledon. For 2002-3, this is exactly what they got, Wimbledon (still at Selhurst Park) drew an average of 2787, while AFC Wimbledon claimed just over 3000. This disparity led to Wimbledon FC going into administration before they actually left South London. They even started 2003-4 season at Selhurst Park, before moving to the Hockey Stadium in MK in September, and all this under administration. AFC Wimbledon’s rash move in buying Kingsmeadow meant that they were not in a position to even contemplate buying their old club out of administration, and instead spent their time hoping no buyer could be found and that the club with move into liquidation. With crowds in Milton Keynes much better than the last Selhurst season, (Wimbledon averaged 4751 compared to AFC Wimbledon dropping to 2606). Still, Wimbledon did get relegated, and eventually they were bought out of administration by Pete WInkleman, who after all was keen to see the club stay alive to play in his stadium. When Winkleman took over the club, he rebranded them as MK Dons. This basically meant it was a new club in a new location, and after a dispute in which various football supporters bodies supported the AFC Wimbledon case, MK Dons gave up any pretence that they were Wimbledon FC. Trophies and other mementoes of the earlier club’s history were given over to the London Borough of Merton, but pointedly not to AFC Wimbledon. There is not any justification for claiming that AFC Wimbledon has won the FA Cup, but the AFC Wimbledon web site still lays claims to all the honours not just of Wimbledon FC, but also of Wimbledon Old Centrals back to 1899. From my point of view, I cannot be 100% sure that the club that joined the Athenian League in 1919 was the same as the one that spent a single season, 1909-10 in the Spartan League.

MK Dons dropped down to League-2 for two seasons, but have since moved back up one division, and have been close to the promotion bracket in recent years. They finally moved into their new stadium, with its curious name of Stadium: MK in 2007. The crowds rose significantly on moving to the new stadium, helped by the club winning the League-2 title and Football League Trophy. I made my trip to MK in 2008 when Cheltenham played their (the only time so far). MK won that game 3-1, and the return at our place 5-3. I have to say I liked the ground, and we were well beaten. In a nearby pub before the gae in MK, I met with at least one fan who had transferred loyalties from the original Wimbledon FC and had watched at Selhurst, such people do exist, (admittedly in small numbers). I would wager that by now only a minority of AFC Wimbledon’s support have been with the club since long enough to have been regulars at Plough Lane. We have since lost to them twice in the League Cup. Wimbledon continued to rise up the leagues, winning promotion in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011 – the last being the one to take them into the Football League. The clubs Conference South season(2008-9) saw them exceed their first season average crowd for the first time, this was bettered again two seasons later in winning promotion, and again in their first Football League season. 2011-12 was also the first time AFC Wimbledon were to lose more matches than they won. The notable thing about the visits to Kingsmeadow with Cheltenham is that the place had actually become more friendly than it appeared to be in those early Combined Counties seasons. AFC Wimbledon fans are no longer a different breed, but are part of the general football fraternity.

Both clubs now have their own support and following, and the meeting this weekend ought to be the last time the connections are aired before the clubs fully part. However, there is now a new campaign in Wimbledon, (started I think by the local paper and not the football club), to try and get MK Dons to drop Dons from their name. Dons was the original nickname of Wimbledon FC, and was certainly what their supporters would have called them back in the seventies. However, the popularity of the Wombles on TV, and the adoption of a Womble as mascot (originally by Wimbledon FC, but now by AFC Wimbledon, and never of course by MK Dons) means that Wombles is more commonly used now. As a Don is also an academic term, there is no reason why MK should drop it – it all seems part of the sour grapes fight by those that still believe MK Dons should not exist. While like most people, I was aghast at their creation, I recognise that you cannot turn back the clock and you cannot now remove MK Dons from the map any more than, say the state of Israel, no matter how many people think differently.

AFC Wimbledon fans still seem to need to be on the defensive against some suggestions against them. I read it a lot on the internet boards. I think the three great defences that are over their entry into the Combined Counties League, the buying of the stadium and the fate of Kingstonian. So to try and see through the smokescreens, the Combined Counties League was not by any means the lowest level the club could have started, there are many levels of lower football. However, they were voted in by member clubs of the Combined Counties League, which was the legitimate method of clubs entering at that time. They did not take the place of any other club, indeed the league extended its numbers to take them in. Of course, AFC Wimbledon would have liked to enter the Isthmian League but were turned down. I have always thought that the purchase of Kingsmeadow was a bad move, and I feel that developing this ground hinders their attempts to relocate to their home borough. It is possible that Kholsa might have allowed Kingstonian to fold had AFC not appeared on the scene, but if that had happened, the lease would have reverted to the council paving the way for any reformed club to move in. Kingstonian still exist, but their crowd base has been eroded by the coming of Wimbledon to their town. It is an illusion that football supporters follow clubs through thick and thin. Fans come and go, and some may turn up occasionally to see what is going on at the local ground. It is from these that the long term supporter is somehow made. When two clubs share a stadium, it is natural for those new fans, at least if not subject to other influences, to watch the bigger of the clubs at the stadium. With AFC Wimbledon’s media juggernaut, (even being the team of choice for a TV detective), it was always inevitable that they would take some support that might have watched Kingstonian, even with a Wimbledon team in the next borough. When Wimbledon first bought the ground, Kingstonian’s rent was to be paid from the proceeds of a pre-season friendly between the teams. A great advert for altruism that did not actually last long.

Of course, the greatest knock on from the Wimbledon story is the increase in fan owned clubs – this is now becoming both a common way of restarting a club after the original has floundered, but also there have been more cases of supporters clubs breaking away from the original. In England, we have Enfield Town who actually thought of the idea before Wimbledon (perhaps the reason why they did not take up the name AFC Enfield). Enfield Town were founded after the chairman of Enfield refused to walk away with the lion’s share of the proceeds of the sale of Enfield’s old ground, leaving the fans with a clean start, a debt free club and a little money in the bank, (a deal had been brokered, but the owner of Enfield reneged on it). Enfield Town started life sharing at Brimsdown Rovers and playing in the Essex League, (three levels lower than Enfield that season). At this point, Enfield Town refused to merge the two clubs. The clubs met in the Southern League in 2005-6. Enfield FC finally went into liquidation in 2007, but a new club, Enfield 1893 was immediately started (in the Essex League, only one level down on the last season as Enfield). In 2010, Enfield 1893 moved into Brimsdown Rovers ground, after years sharing grounds outside the borough, meaning that both clubs shared a ground for the season – Brimsdown had folded or merged with 1893, depending on the version you listen to. By this time, Enfield Town had secured the new ground they always wanted, now called the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, and took with them a stand they had added to the old Brimsdown ground. This meant the ground did not meet Isthmian League standards, and although 1893 were Esssex League champions in 2011, they could not be promoted.

Other fan clubs include AFC Telford United, formed quickly after Telford United folded, and Wrexham who had to fight long and hard for control, but always kept fighting. An attempt at a protest club called AFC Barnsley lasted only a short time, playing its last season on Barnsley’s training pitches before being absorbed by the club it was protesting about. FC United of Manchester were also formed as a protest against the way Manchester United’s American owners took control. They claim far higher crowds than others in their leagues but are hampered by high rents at Bury. Unlike AFC Wimbledon, they do appear to have identified a site for their own ground, and may well progress further after they move. Their fans sing a curious mixture of Manchester United songs, and anti-Glazer (the United owners) songs. Despite their claims, they have not actually had any effect on the Old Trafford club, although their fan base may well effect other clubs in the area, including Bury who are benefitting greatly from the income United provide. By contrast, it appears that AFC Liverpool only exist as an echo of United. They have not developed a fan base above that of the better clubs in their league, when you look at the programme and ground, it appears to bristle with indignation at either the main Liverpool club, or the injustice to the 96, but the fans do not reflect this. Last time I saw them play, their only indignation was a complaint over what appeared to be a perfectly justifiable penalty.

The supporters’ umbrella group, Supporters Direct seems almost to favour the formation of new clubs over the alternative of trying to identify and remove bad club owners. The latest example being at Northwich Victoria. Now there is no doubt the old club has been incredibly badly administered, leading to the loss of their ground, (and the new owners can develop the site there), and the club playing 40 miles from home in front of negligible crowds. Even so, there should have been hope for some compromise, but the existence of a rival club appears to be strengthening the owners resolve not to let the old club go.

It does appear that a lot of AFC fans are not for a boycott of the match, as shown by the fact that a large number are travelling to Milton Keynes to see it. The directors are making their protest by standing with the fans and not accepting hospitality, but this is only noticed because they have managed to get the press to mention it. I noticed the Cheltenham Town chairman sitting among the fans, rather than accepting hospitality at an away game two weeks ago. This was not a protest, he was there because he likes to be there! No doubt there will be protests or posters from within the crowd over the existence of MK Dons, and if the TV cameras care to show it, there will be a large audience watching the match back in Wimbledon, but this match may be the last stand for the protests.

The real villains of this piece are not the current owners of either Football Club, whose only problem seems to be that they cannot find a way to live in peace with each other, but the football authorities. The game needs a system of licensing that is more stringent in stopping clubs from building up unsustainable debt, it needs more care applied to the idea of “fit and proper” persons as directors, and a way of taking sanctions against club directors who are found not to meet the required standard after taking up the post. Above all, the practise of separating the ownership of club and ground must be stopped, as it is a license for asset strippers. The legacy of the MK Dons/AFC Wimbledon saga should not be the extinction of either club, but the assurance that history cannot be repeated. While Northwich Victoria play home matches in front of a handful of spectators in Stafford, that legacy still looks far from achievable.

Eurotrip 2012 – Part 3 : Germany

July 15th, 2012

Every European tour needs Germany. You cannot ignore it, it’s big, sits in the middle of the continent and has a plentiful supply of fast trains. I travelled almost the whole length of Germany to get from Vienna to Randers (and slept through most of it), then took a somewhat shorter journey to get me to Kiel the next day. Now Kiel is a city built to be taken seriously. I remember thinking on a previous trips how the apartment buildings that line the walk out of turn just appeared big and sturdy. The Rathaus is not the most impressive you will see, but it commands the square nearby. On the side of the square is an opera house. No exactly an architectural delight, but a place to go and listen to the singing. Every thing about the city says solid – not so much as an act of defiance against the cold east winds of every winter, but a proclamation of victory against the elements. Even on a hot and sunny day such as this one, when I was walking pack to the Aldmarkt later in the evening (the location of a home brew pub with a pleasant dark beer), I could not help but notice the cold evening wind.

In the sunshine, the city appeared vibrant and lively, with market stalls jostling (not literally) for attention in the main shopping street, and the sun glinting of the waters of the Kleine Kiel – an inlet from the port surrounded by parkland.

Kleine Kiel. The building is the background is the law courts.

Like England, Germany is a large country, with concentrations of the population in small pockets, with the resultant concentration of numbers of football clubs. It has, like England gone through a series of re-organisations of the lower divisions, the last one creating a National 3.Liga, with three Regionalliga between this and the fifth level, still generally referred to as the Oberliga, as they approximate to the Lander, or states that make up Germany. There are two factions in German football at the moment. The big professional clubs want to run reserve teams as high up the structure as is possible, while the smaller clubs and their supporters have a dislike of reserve teams. They are poorly supported, and damage the competition. There is now a youth bundesliga, so why not a reserve one? The big clubs appearing to be holding sway, with a limited number of reserve teams in the 3. Liga, and large compliment in the Regionalliga. One way or another, while the 3. Liga appears to be a success, the 3 Regionalliga pattern is not holding up so well, with many clubs struggling financially. Therefore from next season, there will be five regionalliga. This clearly will cause complications as there will still be only three promotion places available, but promotion/relegation play offs have long been part of the German game, so this is not considered a big problem.

The effects of this on the lower leagues vary from place to place, and in the North, where the Nord Regionalliga will still cover four Oberliga areas, there is hardly any change at all. The Regionalliga is fed by four Oberliga, from the two cities of Bremen and Hamburg, the massive Neidersachsen, and Schwelsig-Holstein, which covers the northern most area of Germany, up to the border with Denmark.

Below the Schelsig-Holstein Oberliga, there are 4 Verbandsliga, each promoting only their champions. Kiel sits within the North East area, and with only two league games to play SC Comet Kiel 1912 are in a safe mid-table position. The league finishes at the weekend, as the re-arranged fixture was the only one on the night. The visitors, TSV Altenholz had already claimed the title before the match began.

But first, I had a problem, and I was not even aware of the detail. While I was walking around the city, I had noticed the bus departure boards were displaying a standard text rather than departure times, but I thought little of it, as I could see some buses and plenty of people waiting at bus stops. It was only while waiting for the bus to the ground that I tried to read the board. “Strike!”. I was of the opinion that no public service, (or for that matter anyone at all) ever went on strike in Germany. Surely it must be true, didn’t I read it in the newspapers? Without speaking English, those waiting with me at the bus stop confirmed there was a strike, but then a number 200 bus turns up. I wanted a number 11, but I got on anyway. This took me to a point about a 15 minute walk from the ground, (the 11 would have left me a little closer). It was only at the refreshment hut in the ground, when I explained that I was worried about getting back to town (a process normally referred to as “fishing for a lift”), that was explained that it was only one company that was on strike, and the buses on route 200 were running normally. And so, the only problem the strike created me was the 15 minute delay (between the two departure times) in returning to my hotel.

SC Comet Kiel is exactly the sort of club that I think the UK pyramid has lost touch with. It sits on the edge of town, near a small urban community, tucked between a residential street and a bye-pass. One enters up a few steps, finding yourself by the clubhouse, and with about four steps of terracing down to pitch level. All along the opposite side are two shallow steps, with a grass bank above. Behind either goal, there is nothing except a grassed path. As well as the clubhouse, a further hut was providing hot food and beers, as is traditional in German football grounds. An A4 programme was provided free with the €4 admission price.

The match took a while to warm up – not entirely surprising for one that had no importance for either team, but eventually it opened out in a pleasantly entertaining the match. This is amateur football, after all, careers are not dependent on the result, and the players might as well get on and enjoy it, which is what they did. Twice in the last fifteen minutes of the first half, the away team took the lead, but on each occasion, the Comets levelled the scores.

In the second half, it was the other way around, with the home team twice taking the lead, the first thanks to a mistake by the visiting goalkeeper who let the ball run through his hands. Comets were not ahead for long on the first occasion, but on going ahead again with ten minutes to play, the longest period of time either side held the lead by proved decisive as Comet ended up winning 4-3. After the season finishes at the weekend, Comet will be celebrating their centenary, and Altenholz will celebrate promotion. I celebrated getting the bus back into town by visiting Kieler Brauerei an der Alt Markt, and sampling the ale and bock brewed on the premises. The next day saw me head back to Scandic lands, using the boat train to Copenhagen

Breakpoint. The last view one gets of Germany when leaving via Puttgarten – or the first point when returning two days later.

The last of course, can be later the first, and so two days later, it is the same view but in the reverse direction as I re-enter Germany. The train is packed and many of its facilities were not working. No hot water in the buffet, no flush in the lavatory, and no signs on display to show which seats are reserved and which are not. The train staff are unresponsive – when asked which seats were reserved, we are told “all of them”. All those without reservations can do is take a seat and hope no one turns up to claim it. For once, I was lucky and managed to keep my seat all the way from Copenhagen to Hamburg (about five hours). I saw plenty of others who were not so lucky, spending a good part of the journey sitting in the corridors. German railways have practically given up this route. Not only do we get the faulty rolling stock, but there was no ticket check on the train during the whole journey (and there was none in the opposite direction two days earlier). Entertainment on the train was provided by the already drunken supporters of the Danish national team, who for some reason were playing Brazil the following day, in Hamburg.

The journey from the centre of Hamburg to a middle class northern suburb is straight forward, using the U-Bahn. From the U-Bahn station, it is about a 15 minute walk straight up the road to the Hoheluft Stadion. A €6 ticket gets on in, including a free A4 programme, but this is a ground where the extra €2 for a seat is worthwhile. There are good terraced areas, sections of concrete steps behind one goal, opposite and next to the stand, but there are also massive fences all around the ground, meaning the only good views are to be had from the seats. The stand itself is a well elevated with plenty of rows of seats, but it is not at all modern, and this shows itself in the four support pillars partially blocking every view above the lowest rows. Clubhouse and dressing rooms are underneath the stands, while there is an outside sausage stall, with a somewhat temperamental mustard dispenser. This was of the pump action type, but no mustard appeared when I tried it. Pumping harder, there was a sudden splurge of mustard, most of which landed on my T-shirt, although it also managed to travel a distance in many other directions, splattering passers-by on their shoes. The only part of Hamburg not to receive mustard was my sausage. At this point, as a favour to life in the region, I took the lid off the dispenser, and dipped my sausage instead. [I know this is all in Hamburg, but no euphemisms or double-entendres are intended, this is just a story about a half time snack].

Victoria Hamburg Supporters in full voice.

As for the game, well once again I was watching the league champions after the title had been decided. The away side was in second place, but likely to drop to third with defeat. This would not matter much as there are no play offs. I was more worried that Victoria would field a weak side, due to a local cup final at the same stadium on Monday. The local cup competitions, (Lander Pokal) tend to pass by without much notice around Germany. Fixtures and results columns often show the league matches only, and ignore cup games. These cup games therefore have to take place midweek at the start and end of season, or on bank holidays. There are still a lot of teams, even in the higher levels of the amateur and semi-professional game in Germany that do not possess floodlights, so all the weekend dates are given over to the league, and the cups take what is left. Despite this, there is a big prize on offer. The DFB Pokal, the German cup is very limited numerically. It is also seeded. This means that merely being in the first round practically guarantees a home tie against a major team. Of course, less fuss is made over these in Germany, and should Victoria win through and get a good tie, they would switch the venue quickly and quietly. Still, there is only one way for the minor teams to gain this qualification, and that is by winning the local cup.

High Fences make viewing from behind the goal difficult

I was indeed right about the game, Victoria were clearly favouring the Monday game. Many of players that normally start were missing, including both the two top goalscorers. At 248, the crowdfor the game I saw was probably around its normal level. The cup final would draw in over 4000. Still, I need not have worried about the quality of play in my league match. There was no doubt from the word go that Victoria wanted to finish their league campaign with a win, there was more doubt that Vfl Curslack/Neuengamme had the power to stop them. Victoria took an early lead, and added a second just before half time. When they made it 3-0, on the hour mark, it was beginning to look too comfortable, but any complacency was knocked away with the visitors pulling one with 15 minutes to play, and then scoring again less than five minutes from the end. The comeback was short lived, as while the visitors pushed forward for an unlikely equaliser, they left enough space at the other end for one of the Victoria substitutes to complete the scoring in a 4-2 win.

Having decided to head down to the Hessen league for the Saturday, I needed an early start to get me to my destination, so I spent the evening in bars around the Reeperbahn, avoiding the more expensive joints, and slowly nursing my beers. Since my first visit, over 20 years ago, the Reeperbahn has changed somewhat, and although there are still a number of brothels and girly bars, it is now a noisier entertainment hub, centring on the clubs with rather loud music. Even when I was younger, these places made me feel old, and I have never gone in for them. Still, at the start of my evening, I found a bar with a live band producing a sound more to my taste, sadly I entered rather too close to the end of the set, but they were rather good. I returned to the Hauptbanhhof with time for a coffee and a roll before boarding a train for the four hour run south to Giessen. For this, I had an alarm set to make sure I did not overdo the sleep

A Woolly Mammoth outside the bell tower does not appear to worry the locals in Giessen

Giessen is a pleasant if small town. It does not have a great deal to show to the tourists, except for the fact that it appears to be overrun with prehistoric beasts; well models of dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and other such creatures were scattered liberally through the town centre. I did notice the local brewpub, but I wanted to get out to Fernwald in good time, as the buses only run once every two hours. This was a decision I came to regret. I am not certain that Fernwald actually exists as a town, rather than a series of villages under common title. Certainly, there were several signs to places such as Fernwald – Steinbach, but none to Fernwald – Centre. The bus dropped me at Steinbach Hauptstrasse, which for those who know even less German than me, translates as Main Street. It is indeed the main street of the village, it has a chemists (shut), a bakery (shut) and a pub (I checked the sign outside this, open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only). Being as there was a bench by the bus stop, I sat and read for a while, and may even have dozed off for a bit. Still, when I wandered down the road to the ground, it was still 90 minutes before kick-off. I did pass the church (which I guess is open on Sundays), another shop (closed) before I got there. The gates were open, but without anyone there. I expected at least one of the club bars to be open at this time, but I was too early even for this, and there were just a couple of people setting things up. I had to wait until about one hour before kick off before anything was properly open, and for someone on the gate to be equipped with tickets and programmes. Admission was €7, the programme was an A4 monthly magazine with a one page A4 insert (in full colour) for the days match. It was, as most in German are, free of charge. The beer was cold and wet, (Weizen, if you must know).

The Steinback Sportsplatz is a basic railed off pitch, with a couple of steps of terracing on one side, and then a second pitch behind this at the higher level. The nearest thing to cover or shade was underneath the announcer’s tour. FSV Fernwald were confirmed as finishing in third place, regardless of the result of the final game. The Hessenliga is the highest level the club has even played at, (they arrived at this level in 2005). Visitors, Buchonia Flieden finished just below mid-table, and while a win could have taken them above the half way mark, there was no danger of relegation.

Played at a 3 p.m. kick off, on a hot afternoon, it should be no surprise that the game did not come to a lot. Indeed I had written it off as a dullish 0-0 draw before a home substitute scored 8 minutes from time. Three minutes later, a penalty was converted to make it 2-0. There were 180 in attendance, most of which must have arrived by car from surrounding villages. Now my original choice of Fernwald was because the next level down, Verbandsliga Hessen Mitte had chosen to kick off its matches at 5.30 p.m. For some reason, the other two Verbandsliga that make up step 6 in Hessen (Nord and Sud)had chosen 5 p.m. kick offs. This meant that there was another club, VfB 1900 Giessen within reach for an extra game. A combination of two buses, a total of over 30 minutes on the bus when one runs only at two hourly intervals was never going to achieve the transfer, so my plan was to struggle across the language barrier and ask for a taxi at Fernwald.

However, not long before kick-off, I spied the potential of being helped. At the right arrival time to have been on the later bus, the crowd was increased by a gentleman carrying a rucksack and carrier bag. A quick approach confirmed my suspicions, it was a groundhopper and Bayern München fan, by the name of Thomas. Thomas is not the standard groundhopper, as he has other interests as well. He was sandwiching these games in, between watching Bruce Springsteen concerts on both Friday and Sunday in different German cities. Appearing less organised than me, (which takes some doing), I am not certain that Thomas had found out about the difficulties in getting between grounds until arriving. Still he was agreeable over sharing a taxi, and at half time he got a home official to phone and request one for us. Almost immediately after this had been done, we spotted two other people taking photographs, and quick enquiries showed that they too were ‘hoppers, this time out of Bochum. They were driving, and had two seats free in the car – so poor Thomas went off again to ask for the taxi to be cancelled. I spotted at least one other person at the second game who had also been at Fernwald.

By car, the journey between grounds was completed in no more than 15 minutes. The Waldstadion Giessen may host football at a lower level, but it is a bigger and better ground than its neighbour. Indeed, until 2001, they played at a higher level than Fernwald. In 2001, they finished 9th in the Oberliga Hessen, then the fourth level of German football, but they hit the financial buffers and did not play at all the following season. In 2002-3, they had to restart in Kreisliga B, level 9! They were promoted in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009 although thanks to the additional level introduced in 2008 (when 3. Liga started), the 2008 promotion took them from Bezirksliga (level 7) to Gruppenliga (level 7)! In 2011, they reached promotion play offs, but failed to go up, but 2011-12 was not to be their season and the finishing position (5th) was confirmed before our visit.

It was the visitors, FC Eddersheim that needed the points. Starting the day in second place, but only one point ahead of their rivals, they needed to win to confirm second place. This would give them a play off against those in second place in the other two Verbandsliga, and FCA Darmstadt, third bottom of the Hessenliga. An added advantage was that the group of four were playing for two promotion places, thanks to the Viktoria Aschaffenburg deciding to make a geographical defection. Although within Bavaria, Aschaffenburg had been able to play in the Hessenliga on relegation to this level, which reduced their travelling, as they are not far from Frankfurt, but a long way from the major Baverian cities. Another team, FV Illertissen is making the same move from the Baden-Württemberg Oberliga. So in both these leagues, the top team, and fourth placed team gained promotion, while those in second and third were not eligible even for play offs.

The Waldstadionhas its main stand opposite where we came in, with several steps of terracing each side of the covered area. Both ends are curved to accommodate a track, and only flat pathways provide access in these areas. There are more steps of terracing on the side we entered, with a level terrace above this, and the dressing rooms and clubhouse at the back of this. Admission was €5, the programme was again a free A4 magazine, but while there was an insert to greet the visitors, it did not include match details. The team lists were provided on request, after which I pointed Thomas up to the club house, as Weizenbier was on sale upstairs, while the outside stall was offering only Lager and Sausages.

As I said, the visitors needed the points to give themselves a chance of promotion by play offs, and their star in this bid was Julien Antinac, seen here being substituted a few minutes before the game ended.

Antinac quickly made sure that the visiting supporters got their goal quota, starting after just two minutes and completing his hat-trick by the 19th minute. He added his and his team’s fourth goal early in the second half. Giessen did pull one back midway through the half to make it 4-1, but that was then end of the scoring, and there was no denying that Eddersheim were good value for their win. One win, one draw and one defeat in the three play-off games, added to a good goal difference, (the win was by 6-1), saw them promoted

From the ground, there is a regular bus service into the centre of town, where a change of vehicles took me to the station. From there, it was train to Frankfurt, and after a night’s sleep a morning flight to Heathrow. Well before kick-off, I was at Wembley for the play off final, but the following Saturday, I was back in Germany to use the remaining two days on my Rail ticket. My return into Germany, via Düsseldorf Airport was just under six days after departing from Frankfurt. This turned out to be a slow airport to get through – a queue to get the passport checked, and a long distance from the terminal to the station. I remember the airport as having a rather dingy S-Bahn station in the basement. This is still there, but with the main line just outside the airport perimeter, you now transfer to this, using the Sky Train, which like the Schwebebahn in neighboring Wuppertal is an overhead suspension monorail. As a fan of Thunderbirds, these two car units still have a long way to go!

There were several factors in decided which match I was to go to on the Saturday, many years ago while travelling on a train somewhere in Germany, I was talking to a citizen of Lüneburg, (that would be a Lüneburger, not a Lüney), and I recall being told that the town was well worth a visit. Having finally made the trip, I would not argue the point. Although an inland town, Lüneburg was a member of the Hanseatic League, and made its wealth as the main supplier of salt across the trade routes of the League.

If you are going to make the local chemist this colourful, the rest of the town had better be interesting

I am not certain what is required, apart from being a historic member of the league, for town in Germany to be referred to nowadays as Hansa, but the privilege was restored to Lüneburg in 2007. Cities such as Hamburg have long included the term in their full name. In the 1960s and 70s, the town, at the time still somewhat dilapidated in the post-war period, developed the concept of “cultural heritage conservation”, which basically meant restoring old buildings instead of just demolishing everything and building a new town, as is so familiar in much of West Germany. The idea, opposed at the time by local councillors and politicians has successfully restored the beauty of the town, and made it a centre for tourism. With the last salt mine closing in 1980, this is a useful boost to the local economy.

From the centre, it is about a 30 minute walk to the Wilschenbruch Stadion, home of what is now called Lüneburger SK Hansa. I walked through an area of normal suburban housing and then across a main road, completing the trip with a five minute walk through woodland. Indeed to one side of the road leading to the ground, there is woodland, but the other side of the ground is anything but typical suburban housing. You need to earn a few bob before you can live around here. Without the word Hansa attached to the name, the club were moderately successful in the 90s, playing in the Regionalliga, then the third level of German football. Relegated in 1997, they had an unbeaten season in the Oberliga 97-8, winning 23 of the 30 games and easily returning to the Regionalliga. Already at the time, there had been talk of the club either developing the Wilschenbruch stadium further, or moving off altogether. They finished just above mid-table the following season, but there was growing disquiet in reports both over the level of accumulated debt (close to €400,000), and the lack of progress on stadium plans. Things were to come to a head in 2001, with the club again relegated – the mounting debts forced them into administration. Most of the club’s support did not believe in a change of venue despite all this, as a photo from the time shows a banner behind the goal “We need LSK at Wilschenbruch, as much as the air to breath”, (or similar, and of course in German). From then on things move slowly. It will not be until the last shot of 2007-8 season that the name of the club is lost in a merger with Lüneburger SV. The new club is to be called FC Hansa Lüneburger. Yes, it celebrates the history of the town, but not of either football club. Fans, to say the least are not impressed.

Some of the graffiti from 2008 has been preserved.

The name will only last for three seasons and this season the club name is officially LSK Hansa, with the emphasis on the three initials rather than the word Hansa. Those that have come to the club from LSV were not impressed with this, realising that their club has lost identity and assets to the merger. The new slogan of the club is “Traditional club with Heart since 1901″ (it looks better in German), but it is still labouring the point, and gives the impression of trying to impress too much that they are LSK, not some new fangled merger. Even if they have heart, one wonders if they have lost their soul.

The Pig Supports LSK – The bad news for the pig is he adorns a Sausage stall.

The name on the club shirts, and adorned in several places around the ground is that of the builder that expects to build houses on the ground. If you ask around, though, you get the impression that no one at the club is in a hurry for this to happen. The answers are vague “two or three years” or “maybe 10 years”. One can bet that the builders are thinking somewhat sooner, whereas local residents may well be siding with the football supporters. Better to have a few hundred football fans wandering up the road every second week, than to have the green and wooded front outlook spoiled by a new development.

The ground itself remains a delight, the centre piece being the old stand, maybe too small for matches when the club was at a higher level, but now perfectly adequate for their needs.

Around most of the rest are a few steps of terracing – just close to the entrance it is flat. On the half way line opposite the stand is the announcer’s tower, with a coffee and beer bar underneath. That means that the crowd of 250 have no less than three places to buy beer, the announcer’s tower, by the sausage stall in one corner, and in the bar itself. I myself only had one beer during the game, and it had to be bought in the bar – the outside stalls only sell lager, while a bar sells a variety of beers.

The game was not a good one for the home team, they conceded a penalty on the half hour mark, and as shown here, it is scored for VfV 06 Borussia Hildesheim by Simon Blaus

The home team laboured without looking likely to get back into the game, and they conceded a second with ten minutes to play. The season did finish on a slightly more upbeat note, as they scored a late consolation, but they cannot get a point from the game.

Wilschenbruch in the Sun. From the right, one can see the old hut covered by graffiti, the main stand, the clubhouse, and by the corner, the wurst stall.

On my return to the station, I was met by a strange site. A policeman in riot gear, coming out of McDonald’s carrying a tray with four ice cream sundaes. The policeman then joined some of his colleagues. There were something like 20 police vans parked in the station, and around 80 police kitted out for a riot. I asked what was going on, and was told that with a far right march and a leftish counter march in Hamburg earlier in the day, there had been clashes, and both sides could be on the train coming in. The train I was about to board. When I voiced a bit of worry about this, I was told not to, the train might be empty. And indeed it was very quiet on board. Clearly the police knew what was going on, and knew when it was OK to just eat the ice cream and collect the overtime payment. As the train headed to Hannover, I noticed more overtime claims at every station on the route.

For Sunday, I was fortunate to be able to pick up two games in Essen, although as it turned out, there was not much football worthy of mention, and the weather was abysmal, raining quite heavily for most of the time until half time of the second game. Sunday morning games are quite common in the major cities of Germany, and Essen one of the most unexcitingly rebuilt is actually a bigger city than some of the more well known in the country.

I am now getting back to this piece, more than a month after the Sunday matches around Essen, the football is well forgotten (not being very good in the first place). The first of my two matches was SG Essen-Schönebeck 19/68 . The two numbers in the name signify that the club was formed by merger at some stage. A small amount of research shows that this was true, VfB Borbeck and SC Grün-Weiss Schönebeck merging in 2000. The clubs are more well known for their women’s football team which plays in the Women’s Bundesliga, the highest level of Football in the country. However, the men’s and women’s teams do not share a stadium, and the matchday programme I obtained for my game made no mention of a women’s team at all. Playing in the Bezirksliga, at level 8 of the German pyramid, this was one of the lowest level matches I had seen in the country.

The ground consists of an artificial surface, surrounded by a narrow two lane running track – this has a much sharper curve behind the goals than a standard track, to I am not certain of the circuit length, but it will be well under 400m. A quite wide path provides spectator provision on the entrance side, with two shelters (looking suspiciously like surplus bus shelters) sitting at the back of the area. The only way to get any sort of view from these was to stand on the benches and try and view over the umbrellas on the sidelines. The dressing room and club room buildings are joined on the upper floor, forming a bridge over the access way to a second, back pitch, (grass surface). Despite the rain and the early start, there was an outside barbeque serving the standard bratwurst, and a separate window off one of the buildings selling coffee and confectionery. I estimated the crowd at 150 (€4 entry, programmes free), although the official figure was around half this.

The visitors, SuS Haarzopf needed to win this match to confirm themselves as champions of the division on the day, although with two games to play, they could “do it in singles” with a point this week and next. By half time it looked as if they were getting their way. By half time, it appeared that they would win on the day, 1-0 up but comfortable, and a foolish second booking meant the home side had been reduced to 10 men. It turned out to be a frustrating second half for Haarzopf, comfortably on top, but never scoring again, and then conceding an equaliser 12 minutes from time. As it happened, other results favoured Haarzopf, who were handed the title by way of the afternoon results.

SGS Essen-Schönebeck 19/68 v SuS Haarzopf, 1-1, the home team in blue.

From there I retraced my steps back to Essen Hauptbahnhof, met up with Nick who had been to a different early kick off, and found the bus to Stadion Uhlenkrug, home of ETB Schwarz-Weiss Essen. A slightly unusual name, ETB is Essener Turnerbund, so the place name Essen gets mentioned twice in the club name. In recent history, Schwarz-Weiss have taken place in football within the city to Rot-Weiss – and with so many other football teams easily reached in the Ruhr, Rot-Weiss are not one of the best known teams in the area, spending only 7 seasons in the Bundesliga, and generally playing at second and third level, although recent financial problems have seen them drop to the level 4 Regionalliga. Schwarz-Weiss are only one level lower, but by the time we went there, they had already blown any slight chance of joining Rot-Weiss. The re-organisation of the leagues had allowed 7 teams to make the move upwards, including some play offs to give the champions of local leagues a chance. It was FC Kray from the Eastern of the city suburbs that took this chance and who now play a level above Schwarz-Weiss.

Schwarz-Weiss won the DFB Pokal (German Cup) in 1959. This was four years before the start of the Bundesliga, when the top flight of German football was still regionalised, and SW Essen were the first team from outside the top division to win the cup. This is the highpoint of the club’s history. They remained second level when the Bundesliga started, and played in the second Bundesliga after it started in 1974, but fell out of the second level soon afterwards (1978). In their heydays, the grass banks you can see above the terracing and to the left of it were all given over to terraces.

As you can see, the large bowl of a ground has a track, but it still has the feel of a proper football ground, and the stand provided a good watching point for a poor game in which SW Essen beat VfB Speldorf 1-0. It was €6 to get in, and the crowd amounted to 788. A newspaper style programme covered several games


…and Finally

Schwarz-Weiss Essen did not turn out to be my last game of the season, as two weeks later I took a car load to France to see the final of the Coupe de la Ligue Nord pas de Calais. Although I have paid little attention to this in the past, it appears that each of the French regions runs some type of local cup. Some, such as this one appear to be limited to teams playing at local levels, while others, such as Corsica also involve teams from CFA and CFA2 at least.

The match we saw was US St. Maurice Loos-en-Gohelle against AC Cambrai, and took place against the background of some quite tall slag heaps in this strong mining area. What appears to be hills on the club banner, are in fact slag heaps.

The reality is almost as impressive.

USSM play in Division Honneur Regionale Nord pas de Calais, one division below their opponents, AC Cambrai. Around 600 people, including 2 car loads from England paid €3 to enter the ground. There was no programme. The ground is quite basic, but at least is not a running track. The spectator areas are level standing except a small stand. The home side went ahead midway through the first half, but held the lead for only a minute. Sadly, this was the greatest excitement, and the game turned to drab as the second half wore on and extra time became more and more inevitable

As per the French cup, it appears competition sponsors provide the kit, and both clubs showed the same sponsor’s name on their shirts, and no club badges. The home team are in Red

There is a clubhouse, and stalls had been set up to provide the crowds, (some of which had been there all afternoon, watching the women’s equivalent competition first) with food and drink. In the penalty shoot out, Cambrai won 3-2