Interesting Times.

January 1st, 2015

Let’s start with what we know. We are half way through the season, with a points tally of 25 points from 23 games. We are placed 19th out of 24 teams, only three points better off than Dagenham & Redbridge, who are in the drop zone. Hartlepool may be somewhat further adrift, but they are not in an unrecoverable position. If we can double our points tally to 50 by then end of the season, we will probably (but not certainly) finish above the drop zone. Only a point or two more than that takes us well into the comfort zone. If we do not reach the 50 point mark for the season, then we are going to be in trouble to the last day – drop down to 46 and we can expect to play Conference next season.

Going beyond the points total, to the trends, and things look worse – we had a tremendous start to the season, unbeaten in the first six league games, with 14 of our points to date coming in those games. Any attempt to extrapolate to the end of the season based on stats that ignore those games leads only to one conclusion, and the five league (and one cup game) since Paul Buckle has taken over has not helped this – three draws and three defeats.

So results have not improved under new management, but the winds of change are clear for anyone to see. I do not know of anyone among the regular support who does not believe we are now playing better than we were in the last couple of months under Yates, (discounting the Swindon result as being an aberration during this period). Experienced players have found their position in the team under threat. Jason Taylor was dropped completely from the squad, and sent away to Northampton as soon as there was a chance to offload him. Byron Harrison has been dropped to the bench, and despite being our leading scoring this season and last, he has not taken to the field in the last two games even though we have lost both. Instead it is the youngsters who have come in – Omari Sterling-James, Zack Kotwica, Joe Hanks and Harry Williams have all been given a chance to shine and new or extended contracts meaning, they are all now committed to being with us next season. The other young professionals in the squad may feel that they have more of a chance now as well.

Players have also seen they need to show commitment to get on here. If I am to believe rumours I have heard, Raffaele de Vita was offered a fresh contract as well, but having not grasped in with both hands, found that it was not still there. I have also heard that Buckle demands much more than Yates during training, and not just from each player on their own account, he also expects the senior players to help the younger ones in improving their game. Whether this has counted against players such as Harrison and Jason Taylor is however no more than speculation by those passing on the rumours. So far, our manager has guarded against revealing such insights. He is too professional for that.

On the first day of the year, we have a surprising amount of transfer activity – with the departure of Jason Taylor, and three young Liverpool players coming in. Kevin Stewart appears to be the most experienced of the trio. He has been on the bench for Tottenham in three Europa League games, and has started four times on loan for Crewe Alexandra. Lloyd Jones has apparently been on the bench for Liverpool in one Premier League game, at Fulham in May 2013 – but has yet to make his first team debut. He has played for both England and Wales at under-19 level (if Soccerway is accurate on this) and for Wales U-17, (born in Plymouth). Jack Dunn has also played for England’s younger age teams, I have even seen him briefly in action when he came on as a substitute for an England U-19 side at Preston in May 2012. (As it happens, Luke Garbutt was originally selected in the same squad, but withdrew to play for us in the play off final at Wembley. All three of our new players already had squad numbers at Liverpool (41-Dunn, 51-Jones, 55-Stewart).

The result of these signings is that our already young squad is getting even younger. I would not be at all surprised if someone calculated this as the youngest ever team we have fielded – especially as the two oldest players at the club, Elliott (36) and Matt Taylor (32) are both missing through injury. The fact that all the changes today have been loans is generally forced as full transfers cannot be registered until Saturday morning. I thought they could play on Saturday (with the exception of teams who are playing in the FA Cup, who can only use players registered by lunchtime Friday). As such, it is less than clear whether Jason Taylor has left for good, or if this is a short or long term loan. The first tweet from the club said he was “leaving on a permanent basis”, but the news report later referred to it as a loan. The Liverpool trio have all signed on loan forms with an initial one month period. With the exception of Kevin Stewart, these can be youth loans, which would allow the players to spend all of the half season with us, while still having the flexibility to return to Liverpool on demand. They can even play some non-first team games, or attend training at Liverpool and then return to us afterwards. Stewart is too old to be on a youth loan, so is either limited to 93 days, or needs to sign a longer deal before the transfer window closes.

I would expect all three of our new faces to be in the 18 on Saturday, but I cannot even speculate over who will start and who will be on the bench. I doubt if Paul Buckle himself knew the answer to this before the first training session today. It will also be interesting to see where this leaves those youngsters promoted into the squad in the last few games, and of course where all this leaves the other players whose future has been questioned. As Williams was preferred to Harrison last week, will Harrison be dropped from the 18 this time?

While the sudden throughput in players, which may well not be terminating this week – the window runs to the first Monday in February after all, this is certainly an interesting time to be a Cheltenham fan – and I do not mean this in the way of the (fictional) Chinese curse. We have no choice but to wait and see what the team looks like on Saturday, and by the end of the month, it could well change significantly again.

I admit to having some worry over loan signings. Our support has shown itself to be a little uncertain about loans, especially when they play a few games and then return to their clubs. It is true that some of the loan players have not been up to the task, or did not appear to put their heart into playing for Cheltenham. However, some of the more successful loans, (such as Garbutt and Butland) have made such an impression that they have been followed by our fans as their careers develop. My worry also harks back to those six good games at the start of the season. Our early season form owed something at least to loan players Koby Arthur and Jordan Wynter and I felt that we never found adequate replacements when they were recalled by their clubs. This was at least a contribution to Yates’ departure in November. Let us hope that Buckle has made agreements that suit us as much as they suit Liverpool in bringing these players on board.

If Buckle has got this right, then there is no reason why we should not climb back up to at least mid-table obscurity. If it is wrong, then there is not even much point in calling for another change in manager. We have chosen our steed for the second half of the season, and changing again before running the course is not likely to bring relief. One way or another, January 1st 2015 may turn out to be one of the most significant dates without even a game for Cheltenham

Has India Created the Super League?

December 18th, 2014

The first Indian Super League final will take place this weekend, when Atletico de Kolkata take on Kerala Blasters in Mumbai.

One cannot doubt that the three month season is going to be declared as a success, but it will take a somewhat more measured timescale before the actual realities come to light. Only time will show if this is the first blast of a new style of football competition, or a damp squib, that disappears from view after a few seasons.

Operating its teams as franchises, and having drafts to select the playing squads means that the ISL has been likened to American sports, and in particular Major League Soccer, but its dependency on marquee players, many past their use-by dates, and the bidding for the franchises mean it is more a hybrid of that other Indian Cricket phenomenon, the Indian Premier League and the short lived North American Soccer League.

There has always been football in India, with concentrations in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, and the city of Kolkata (Calcutta as was). The Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata is the venue for some of the biggest derby matches in the world, and matches between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have reportedly filled the stadium even when its capacity was 130,000. However, it is also true that the reality of the game in India is that most games take place in front of crowds of a couple of thousand, plus in some case a handful of snakes (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/mar/26/snakes-pitch-india-football-mohun-bagan). The official figures for the national I-League in 2013-14 season – an average crowd of 5618 was greeted by derision from fans of the game in India on social media, and a quick word with a friend who travelled to some games during the season backed up this.

Until, the mid-nineties, there was no Indian national championship, but a series of state and city competitions, and competitions where the top clubs from these came together in centralised locations for short tournaments. A national league was started in 1996, and then re-launched as the I-League in 2007. The first winner was Jagatjit Cotton Textile Mills (generally abbreviated to JCT Mills) from Phagwara – not far (in Indian terms at least) from Dehli. Since then, clubs from either Kolkata or Goa have won every title until last season when FC Bengaluru won on their first attempt. Bengaluru are evidence of an unevenness in the All Indian Football Federation’s attitudes to the I-League. While promotion and relegation is in place between this league and a second division (which is run as a tournament, rather than a league), they also parachute in new franchises. Hence for the 2013-14 season, they gave places to both Bengaluru (who became champions) and Mumbai Tigers (who did not start the season). When the now misnamed 2014-15 season starts in January, the league will include Royal Wahingdoh, promoted in place of bottom placed Mohammedan, and also a new club Kalyani Bharat (Kalyani is a company name), sharing the ground at Pune. Meanwhile three clubs, including Churchill (twice champions) have failed the obtain a licence, so the league will operate with just 11 clubs.

India’s National team did qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup, thanks to the confederations curious use of giving places to the winners of a second ranking competition, (the AFC Challenge Cup). There are 16 places in the Asian Cup, but only teams ranked less than 24 entered the lower competition, and India were just low enough to qualify for this in 2008, and won a competition they hosted. In the following competitions (2010 and 2012), India lost all three group games, while they could not even qualify for the 2014 tournament, which means they will not be in Australia next month for the next Asian Cup. The Challenge Cup is now being discontinued.

One could claim that the high point for the Indian National Team was the 1950 World Cup, as it is the only one they qualified for. Indeed in both qualification and the finals in 1950, India went unbeaten. They also did not win any games, and for that matter did not draw any. All of their opponents in the qualification phase, (Australia, New Zealand, Burma and Indonesia) withdrew and hence India reached the finals as “last man standing”, but simply not withdrawing earlier. India did withdraw before the final tournament started, and hence kept their perfect record. The myth is that this was because FIFA had banned barefoot football, but in reality it was more to do with the expense of the trip, and the feeling that the FIFA World Cup was secondary to the Olympics. India were reported as playing barefoot (which often means the feet are bandaged, but not booted), when losing 2-1 to France at Ilford in the London Olympics of 1948. The laws insisted on footwear afterwards, meaning they were booted when losing 10-1 to Yugoslavia in Helsinki two years later. Thanks to other withdrawals, India reached the semi-finals of the Melbourne Olympics (they had to win one match, against the hosts, Australia)in 1956, and also played in Rome in 1960 (when the matches were in groups of four). India finished bottom of their group with one draw (France) and two defeats. They have not troubled the World stage since.

The idea of an Indian Super League goes back to the start of the contract between the AIFF, and commercial partners Reliance and IMG signed in 2010. Reliance is India’s second biggest company, operating across a number of fields. IMG (International Management Group) is a US based sports marketing group; their production ground, (TWI) is already involved in the broadcast of football across Asia, including packaging Premier League shows for the international market. At the time the contract was signed, the Indian Premier League was a relatively new concept.

There are many reasons why the IPL concept is not truly suitable for football. The sixty matches of the IPL season in 2014 were compressed into around 7 weeks. The popularity of cricket in India is such that the IPL can offer the players far more than they earn with other domestic, or even from international competition – but anyway they can return to playing in other countries, or to the international circuit as soon as the IPL season is finished. Football requires a greater recovery time between games, so while the Super League season is 61 games, it is played over a period twice as long as the IPL season. With a requirement to train together and play some warm up games, Super League players need to be with their Indian clubs for around four months. The Indian Super League is not competitive with the major European Leagues in salary terms, so the big stars of the game are not going to leave their day jobs to play in India. This meant that the foreigners who made up a large part of the Super League were either stars whose light is already waning, or journeymen willing to travel for a short term contract.

Soon after the Reliance-IMG contract had commenced, they announced their first attempt at a new league. This would have been called the West Bengal Premier League. Despite one of the leading teams in the city being name East Bengal, the city of Kolkata is within the state of West Bengal, (generally, what was East Bengal is now known as Bangladesh). The intention was to create a franchised league with six franchises within the city and state. The existing teams would have been called on to be involved. The venture got as far as naming four marquee players – Fabio Cannavaro, Robbie Fowler, Hernan Crespo and Robert Pires. All four of the players, in their late thirties and just retired from major leagues were offered in excess of £500,000 to play in India. In the end, this league never took place, but the organisers had not given up on the idea. Instead they came up with what looks like a more ambitious plan – eight franchises spread across the country. There is good reason why this could succeed where a more localised league did not. A league involving teams from eight cities would be more capable of pulling in a national TV audience.

Still the plans did not run smooth. When the I-League released their fixtures for 2013-14, it included a very long break from January to March into which this new league would be plugged, but disagreements between some of the I-League teams and the new league meant that again the start was postponed. Other problems included the non-availability of a ground in Mumbai, and difficulties at other venues as well. The fact that the official launch of the league was on October 21st 2013, but the postponement of the dates was given just eight days later shows some chaos in the organisation. As a result, the I-League was rescheduled to complete a normal schedule.

Things really started to move in April, when the eight cities that had won franchises were announced. Test cricketers Sourav Ganguly and SachinTendulkar headed up the consortia that won the Kolkata and Kochi franchises, while Bollywood stars were named in three of the other winning bids. All the bids were backed by a number of Indian companies, and two of the I-League teams, Shillong Lajong and Dempo were directly involved. The Kolkata team named Atletico de Kolkata was also partially owned by Atletico Madrid.

With the franchises in place, each one could start recruiting, by signing its marquee player and coach. Most of the squads would come from two player draft sessions, from which seven foreign players and 14 Indians were chosen. In the Indian players draft, North East United selected exclusively from players of Shillong Lajong, and FC Goa from Dempo. Judging by the names I have seen for the draft, four i-League clubs, Bengaluru, Pune, Salgaocar and Sporting Goa declined to allow their contracted players enter the draft. Some state leagues, including Goa carried on at the same time as the super league, and so clubs may have preferred to keep their players for this. All of the I-League teams also run teams in their own state leagues. The Super League teams, as franchises created for this purpose only do not, although some promotion of the game in their areas is supposedly included in each franchises remit.

The Big Names.

Club Name Stadium (capacity) Head Coach Marquee Player
Atletico de Kolkata Salt Lake (68,000) Antonio Lopez Habas (Spain) Luis Garcia (Spain)
Chennaiyin Jawaharial Nehru (Chennai) (40,000) Marco Materazzi (Italy) Elano (Brazil)
Delhi Dynamos Jawaharial Nehru (Dehli) (60,000) Harm van Vedhoven (Netherlands) Alessandro del Piero (Italy)
Goa Fatorda (19,800) Zico (Brazil) Robert Pires (France)
Kerala Blasters Jawaharial Nehru (Kochi) (70,000) David James (England) David James (England)
Mumbai City DY Patil (55,000) Peter Reid (England) Fredrik Ljungberg (Sweden)
North East United Indira Ghandi (35,000) Ricki Herbert (New Zealand) Joan Capdevila (Spain)
Pune City Shree Shiv Chhatrapati (11,500) Franco Colomba (Italy) David Trezeguet (France)

 

Luis Garcia (36) said he had retired after a long career, mainly in Spain, but with three years at Liverpool, he finished his career in Mexico, and was out of the game for nine months before heading to India

Elano (33) played mainly in Brazil, but also for Manchester City and Galatasaray, his contract with Gremio was terminated in the summer. 50 caps for Brazil, including winning the Confederations cup

Alessandro del Piero (40) – over 500 games for Juventus, and 91 caps for Italy. Del Pierro has spent the last two seasons in Sydney. One world cup and eight Serie A medals.

Pires (41) – played for Arsenal when they could win the league, France when they could win the World Cup, but not played for three years before this

David James (44) – Had played up to the summer of 2013, when we was playing for IBV in Iceland. 53 England caps.

Fredrik Ljungberg (37) – 75 Swedish caps, and over 200 appearances for Arsenal. I last saw him when he was with Seattle in 2010, but he has had short spells with Celtic and Shimizu S-Pulse since. He announced his retirement two years before going to India

Joan Capdevila (36) – 60 Spanish Caps, and another World Cup winner, played almost all his football in Spain, mainly for Deportivo la Coruna and Villareal. After an unproductive season in Portugal with Benfica, he spent two years at Espanyol who released him in the summer.

David Trezegeut (37) – 71 French Caps, World Cup winner, French champion with Monaco, and then Italian champion with Juventus, but a bit of a traveller over the last few years, going to Hercules in Spain, who were relegated despite his goals, then after a very short spell with Baniyas in Abu Dhabi, onto River Plate recently relegated to the second division in Argentina. Despite helping the club return to the top division, they loaned him out last season to Newell’s Old Boys.

Some of the other better known players are just as old, Chennaiyin included Alessandro Nesta (38), Mikael Silvestre (37) and the positively youthful Bernard Mendy (33) in defence, alng with Erik Djemba-Dejemba (33). At Kerala Blasters, David James picked Michael Chopra (30), who had been at Blackpool last season, and the Canadian Iain Hume (31) who went to India from Fleetwood, as well as Scotsmen Stephen Pearson (32, signed from Bristol City) and Jamie McAllister (32, from Yeovil). Dehli signed 38 year old Czech goalkeeper Marek Cech, who has played as far afield as Vladivostock, but never selected him, preferring to give the jersey to the 27 year old Belgian Kristof van Hout, formerly of Genk and Kortrijk. They also had Morten Skoubo (34) and Mads Junker (33), both from Denmark in their attack. For goals, though, they relied on the 20 year old Gustavo Marmentini from Brazil who had played for Atletico Paranaense, but only in their regional squads, not the top division. Pune City included 37 year old Italians in Bruno Cirillo who had a season off after playing for Metz in the third division in France, and the Romanian Adrian Mutu (35) – who ended up without an appearance in India. They also had Jermaine Pennant, a free agent since being released by Stoke in January. AT Mumbai, Peter Ried included Nicolas Anelka (35) who could not play for three games due to a ban from his time at West Bromwich. He went on to play seven times and scored twice. North East United signed New Zealander Leo Bertos (formerly of Barnsley, Rochdale, etc.) on loan from East Bengal. The 32 year old had been released from New Zealand’s A-League side at the end of last season, and had signed as the marquee player for the I-League club, but then went north on loan after playing a small number of CFL games (the regional league in Kolkata is still known by its British title, the Calcutta Football League, not under the current city name of Kolkata). They also included James Keene who has played 2 Premier League, and nine League-1 games for Portsmouth, while spending most of his career with Elfsborg in Sweden.

So what is this league supposed to achieve, and what will it achieve? The Indian authorities see it as revitalising the domestic game, and even improving the results of the National team. It may well have done the first of these, but it will take a long time to see if it can achieve the second. Both the NASL and the J-League started with a high number of European players who really ought to be retired, but in both countries, there are now vibrant football competitions. On the opposite side of the coins, the regular appearances by similar players in Arabian countries (for example) has done little to promote the game, or improve their national teams. I cannot see it having a beneficial effect on the other national league. Surely if the crowds come to the Super League, they will see the I-League as a secondary competition. Crowd wise, the league is claiming an average attendance in excess of 26,000 – meaning only the Bundesliga, English Premier and Spanish League get higher averages. However, the costs of putting the league on mean that even if every match is played to a capacity stadium, every team would lose money. The financial implications of the league are in the TV audience. The league has managed to negotiate a deal with Star TV (part of the same group as Sky in the UK), which puts games out on multiple channels, so as they are available in five different languages. The success of the league will depend on having a viewing audience. The scheduling of the matches is generally one at a time, with games on almost every day, to give a continual presence. The season ends with semi-finals and a final, so four of the eight teams reach the finals. The teams are closely enough matched that almost every game, right to the end had something on it.

If it is a success, then one has to ask what this means for the game worldwide. Even if Indian football itself improves massively, this will not change the world. World football can take in any number of improved national teams, and the game can only benefit if populous nations such as India join the club. The format however presents a challenge, and if successful it may well be imitated elsewhere. It is not difficult to imagine a football circus travelling the world and playing for a few months in one country before decamping to the next venue. I fear that such a scenario may well damage local football in the host countries, as I find it hard to really imagine these leagues building the continued effort to work with the local kids.

I do not believe it will affect the dominance of foreign televised football in countries such as India. The marquee players of the Super League are all aging players who have made their name in the European Leagues and International football. Still, I wonder if it is co-incident that right at the end of this tournament, we also saw a marketing push for the English Premier League, based on a weekend event which brought over 20,000 to watch games at a fan-park in Mumbai. Does the Premier League now feel it needs to work to keep its dominance in the market?

It will be years before we know the answers, but before this league started, one had to say that Football in India needed fixing. This is the most innovative attempt at changing the structure of the game anywhere in the world, and I for one am not sure if that is to be embraced or feared.

In the meantime, Kerala Blasters will play Atletico de Kolkata at 12.30 (UK time) this Saturday (20 December 2014)

I also suggest reading this. Written just before the league started

The Changing of the Guard

November 26th, 2014

When the change came, it was quick. It is easy to guess how the process went, even if at least one press statement (given b Paul Baker on Monday) confused the issues.

Those members of the board that were at last Saturday’s game will almost certainly have decided there and then that things were not right, and at least considered at that point that it was time to change. I believe most of the board attend most of the home games, so discussion will have been occurring straight away.

If you decide to change manager in mid-season, there are two basic ways to go about it – either you sack the incumbent, appoint a caretaker and then open up the position for applications, or you quietly approach someone and have an basic agreement in place before the sacking. There is a slightly confused variant of this, when the chosen replacement is working for another club – as you cannot formerly approach a club while your old manager is still in place, as any leak would make his position untenable.

In the past, Cheltenham have taken all available approaches. After bringing us into the league, and winning promotion to the third tier, Steve Cotterill left at the end of the season, giving the club plenty of time. They went for the option referred to be many as “cheap”, appointing Graham Allner who was already on the coaching staff. Allner was given the very difficult job of keeping the team at their highest ever level, but did not have the playing staff to achieve this. I was never one of the anti-Allner brigade, and would happily have kept him through the season, even if it ended in relegation. Considering criticism of later managers, he did at least try to have us playing in expansive, entertaining style that mirrored his successes in non-League football without mirroring the results.

When Allner was sacked, we took several weeks contemplating his successor, ending with a short list that was heavily leaked, (not that I can now remember all the names). I do remember saying that while some candidates would be an interesting risk (was Luther Blissett interviewed?), one was guaranteed to result in our relegation. Clearly my words were not heeded. We employed the one man I thought certain to lead us back to the fourth tier, Bobby Gould. I believe rumours that he was also a cheap option, having agreed to work to the end of his first season for free to be true. Even so, for his second season he had a contract.

The Gould tenure was less than a year, and in the end he did not wait to be pushed. For this we should always be grateful, and I know that Gould is always welcomed back to visit the club. Having led us to relegation (that was expected anyway), the lack of improvement in the lower division was always going to account for him. With a resignation, you cannot have the new man in place directly. As I recall it, Gould left the club immediately after the home defeat by Rochdale on 18 October 2003. John Ward arrived just under three weeks later.

Ward always had his critics. Even in his promotion winning season, some supporters were critical of dour defensive displays, and this did not improve after promotion. We reached our highest ever league position under Ward’s management while many complained about the football being dour. I personally always felt Ward was doing a good job, and I was hopeful that he could build the club and finally start brining youth players through the system and into the team. At the start of the 2007-8 season, results were worse and we looked as if we had gone backwards. Ward finally resigned in October, and many felt it was time, although I was disappointed as I thought things would pick up. As with the appointment of Allner, we took the option of promoting from within. Before Keith Downing took the reins, he had a month as caretaker. If a caretaker manager has a period of time to make his case irresistible to the directors, then Downing was a surprise choice. His five matches as caretaker involved two defeats and two draws, with the solitary win coming in the much maligned JPT Trophy game at Swindon. He was still appointed at the start of November and finally delivered a league win at the end of the month, (prior to which we had fell to Brighton at the Withdean in both the JPT Trophy and the FA Cup). However, the fact his first win was at home to Leeds United did remove some of the doubts about his ability. Without doubt, our best match under Downing was the tremendous 2-1 win at Leeds on a Tuesday night some months later. We eventually secured safety by beating Doncaster on the last day of the season. This result also consigned Doncaster to the play offs (they finished two points behind Nottingham Forest), although that displeasure would have been alleviated by beating Leeds United in the play off final.

The first six matches of 2008-9 produced just one win and no draws, and on no less than four occasions we had four goals put past us. Downing’s sacking was practically inevitable, and came after a soggy Friday night in Hartlepool. Martin Allen was considered a favourite candidate by many supporters before Downing was appointed. This time there was no delay, and Allen was installed before the weekend was complete. The rest of the season was something of a roller coaster, before a final drop to relegation, while our squad always appeared to be on a carousel, with more comings and goings than ever seen before at the club. By the end of the season, the squad numbers of new players had to be defined by those numbers we could add to the shirts (I believe we run out of 2s and 4s). We had more loan players than it was permissible to play, and each newcomer was treated like a child’s fresh toy – great for the first days and then discarded for something else new and shiny. Allen assured us that some of the loan players were given free of charge. Others have assured me that this was either untrue, or did not include massively inflated expense payments. Eventually the board came to their senses, saw the bills and decided that we just could not afford the squad we had. So as the transfer window approached, we had to offload whoever we could to offset the expenses. It is worth noting that Lloyd Owusu was one of those who left and he scored seven goals for Brighton after departing. Had he scored those seven for us (in the right games), it is just conceivable that we could have avoided relegation.

Although we won the opening game of 2009-10, we soon started to falter, and after thirteen league games, we had just three wins, compared to five defeats. Poor, but not disastrous, the results were combined with several disciplinary offences to put Allen on “gardening leave”. This led to a long and protracted exit, with John Schofield as caretaker manager for eight league, and one FA Cup match, with just one highlight, (5-1 at home to Barnet). Eventually, a compromise was reached where Allen left, and this left the way open for another popular choice.

Mark Yates came in during December 2009, and did not make an immediate mark. We lost our first three home games under his management, while somehow being unbeaten in five away games over the period, (even if we only won once). The highlight was also away from home, the stunning 6-5 win at Burton, but home fans had at least one treat when Bury were disposed of by 5-2. The last trip of the season was a 5-0 defeat at Notts County, leaving us still vulnerable on the final day. We needed a point to be safe, but Grimsby needed three points and to make up a six goal deficit to condemn us to the Conference. In the end, we picked up our point, Grimsby lost 3-0 to go down while Barnet did overtake us on the last day to leave us 22nd in the table. The following season did not start badly, but ended up little better. We finished the season with thirteen wins and thirteen draws in the league, but only four of the wins game in the second half of the season. We finished five points clear of relegation, having basically secured our status with a win at Lincoln on Easter Monday. Lincoln went down with Stockport, we drew at Stockport on the final day. The poor second half of the season, and securing more points away from home were features of Yates’ time in charge. 2011-12 was, I felt, Yates’ best season. We got into the rhythm quickly, and were playing some really good football in the fall of 2011. We beat Tranmere and Luton, both away to set up a third round cup tie at Tottenham. However, Yates’ mid-season transfers do not seem the best in retrospect. If the playing strength was supposedly strengthened, the spirit of the team was not, and March in particular was unpleasant, without a win in seven games, and five on the trot without a goal. Still, we recovered and reached the play off final. The following season was a similar story – much better in the first half of the season than the second and play-off defeat, this time without the final itself.

Having reached the play-offs twice, there was an expectation last season that we could do it again. This was never realised, and we ended the season with 55 points, five ahead of the relegation zone, although as this included losing the last two, we generally always had enough in reserve to be safe. Still, it was the away games that kept us in the league. We picked up 24 home points, and we had only picked up 24 away, this would not have seen us safe. It is also notable that only 21 of the 55 points came in the second half of the season. While I did not feel Yates’ should have been sacked during this run, I did not think he should get his contract renewed. The board decided just to change to second in charge from Howarth to North, and to give Yates another year. For a brief moment, it looked like a good decision. We picked up 13 points from 5 league games in August. It soon became clear we were flattering to deceive. Most of the flair on the field came from loan players Koby Arthur and Jordan Wynter, both recalled to their parent clubs, while the defence lost its solid appearance with the injury of Matt Taylor, (with him, our defeats tended to be by single goals, without him, 3-0, 5-1 and 4-1). Only nine points from the last 13 games, and precious little for the home fans – just nine goals in nine home league games. At times we have played really well, but these times are few and far between. I will see the Cambridge and Swindon games as highlights of the season, however we finish. If we are to repeat our habit of not doing as well in the second half of the season as the first, we would need to go the next five league games unbeaten to have the safety margin we need, (with three wins minimum).

So come the end of the game, the board feel change is needed. I would imagine somewhere along the line, a quiet word with Shaun North comes up with the idea that Buckle is available, and of course that he would work with the existing staff. For those who do not know, Buckle worked with North at both Torquay and Bristol Rovers. It was not the most obvious of appointments, Buckle had moved to the United States with his wife, the sports presenter Rebecca Lowe. Reports say that he had a reasonable position as technical director of the Metropolitan Oval, a historic playing field which now acts as a USSF academy. International relationships are not easy (as I know from experience), so it comes as a surprise that he wants to return to UK management so soon.

There was no popular choice on the supporters’ forums this time. The change came quickly and Buckle’s name appeared to be leaked quite soon into the process. The oddest part of the process was Paul Baker’s press statement on Monday, which did not show confidence in Yates, but appeared to say that he was in the last chance saloon, rather than about to be kicked out from it. It was a strange statement to make when Baker must have already started talking to Buckle. Would he not have been better keeping quiet for the day? Buckle’s record in the past suggest that he will not be a bad appointment. He has been successful at Torquay, and had a good spell at Luton. Still, the appointment has immediately caused some criticism. This seems mainly based on his short (and unsuccessful) period at Bristol Rovers. Choosing Cheltenham is not the easiest of choices to make. We are not the highest of profile of clubs, but a failure here will be close to a death knell for his hopes of a long football league career. By the same argument, it will be interesting to see if Yates’ career in management progresses. The 18 league games this season will not be an overall plus on his CV, and he may well have been better leaving during, or at least at the end of last season.

I am more than hopeful that this appointment is at least a safe pair of hands, and that we can lose our fear of relegation. For this week only we get some idea as to whether Yates and his second in command saw eye to eye. I believe Yates would have kept to the 3-5-2 formation if possible, so if we start 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 then surely this is a difference due to North. It is almost a relief that the closing of the “emergency” loan window comes quickly, and there will be no new signings now. This gives the new manager a serious chance to review the squad he has inherited before making changes. We know that if can get the best out of the group we currently have, as Yates has managed on too few occasions this season (Bury, Tranmere, Cambridge, Swindon), then the players can deliver. This is Buckle’s first priority. Clubs change managers at this stage of the season, because anything is still possible, and that is the case at Cheltenham. Automatic promotion is not impossible, the play offs certainly within reach, but we are also nowhere near safe from the drop, and many games like last week’s would make this seem the greater possibility.

Buckle is not starting with a blank canvass, but he still needs to make his mark, and to build confidence from the supporters, he needs to do it quickly.

Tesco 0, Cheltenham Town 0.

October 30th, 2014

I have heard that Tesco’s recent figures have been poor. Sales and profits are down. So what will Tesco do next? Well, first there is the blood-letting stage. Those senior executives believed to have taken the wrong decisions will lose their jobs. Please do not worry about them though. They will receive a big payout as they leave the job, and in most cases they will soon find another highly paid position*. After that there will be some analysis of where they are going wrong. Following that there will be some action to try to regain their market share. I am not certain what that action will be, but I am sure they will not be increasing prices while keeping for the same, or even an inferior product.

While the overall figures for League-2 Football are not suffering after a quarter of the season has been played (the average for the division is exactly the same as last season*, while all the higher divisions have seen a drop), some clubs within League-2 have seen a significant drop. Mansfield are 19% down on last season, Newport County and Oxford United both find their custom down by over 14%, while Cheltenham Town are 15.7% down so far. However, none of Mansfield, Newport or Oxford also saw a significant drop in attendance last season. Indeed, both Mansfield and Newport had a big increase on the back of promotion into the division. Cheltenham’s attendances for 2013-14 were 8% down on the season before, and even though 2012-13 was considered a successful season, it also saw a 5% fall in crowds. So it appears that over 25% of Cheltenham’s support has ebbed away in a three year period.

So where is the blood-letting? In football, responsibility tends to lie with the managers. So much so that more than half the managers of professional football clubs are changed every season. Not all of these are sacked for failure. There is much poaching of successful managers by ambitious clubs with bigger budgets. It is therefore quite surprising that after Arsenal’s Arsene Wegner, the two longest serving managers are Exeter’s Paul Tisdale and Cheltenham’s Mark Yates. If they are good managers, why has no one poached them? If they are not good managers, why have they not been sacked?

But then, unlike Tesco, most League-2 football clubs (certainly true in Cheltenham’s case) are not profit making enterprises. I can understand why they may not wish to have to make a payout to sack their manager. It is less clear why a contract was renewed at the end of an unsuccessful season, which saw the club falling well short of the previous season’s level of achievement, and as already mentioned losing 8% of the customers en-route. This season’s even larger fall in attendance is partially a knock on from the season before. Despite results being vastly better, a high portion of the customer base pays for the full season in advance. Hence disillusioned support from 2013-4 (many of whom did not bother to go to matches at the end of the season) do not show up in the figures until the new season. I know that a large number of season ticket holders did not renew, even if the full scale of the problem has not been made public.

So, surely the club will not be increasing prices? The base claim is they are not doing so, with the general price remaining unchanged over the last few years. However, four years ago they came across the idea of Premium price matches, designating about six games a season where prices across the board were £1 more than the standard cost. At some stage since then, the Premium has been increased to £2. Generally the games chosen are those where the away team are expected to bring more support. The logic being that the away fans will turn up regardless of the £2 extra charge (and generally this is correct). The catch is that the home support also has to pay the Premium prices. The first game this season to be declared a Premium game was the match against Northampton. The extra charge did not deter visiting supporters, but the home crowd was around 400 down on the previous game. The total crowd has been given as 2447. Let’s assume that after we take off season tickets, junior robins and other complimentary tickets, 1500 paid the extra £2, so an increase in revenue of £3000, which once we deduct the VAT comes down to £2500. Now according to the club chairman, the average take per ticket is £11*, (this is after deducting VAT, which is why I deducted it above). In other words, those lost 400 fans cost the club £4400 and the overall for the day is down by £1900. Of course, there were other factors in play for the Northampton game, in particular, there was racing in Cheltenham which has a triple disincentive to the club, (increased traffic congestion, the closure of the racecourse park and ride, and the fact some people may wish to have “A Day at the Races”*). It was already planned that the game against Oxford United at the end of November was also to be a Premium game. Now, with a home draw against Swindon in the FA Cup we have added another at the higher price into the budget.

While Swindon is an attractive visitor, a close neighbour and a division higher than ourselves, the FA Cup has been attracting reduced attendances compared to League games for some years. This is considered to be down to two reasons – the fact the competition has been devalued by the top clubs not putting out their full first team, and the fact season ticket holders have to pay for admission in cup matches, so if a season ticket holder is going to miss one game, why not miss the one not already paid for?

Raising prices seems like a move borne out of desperation. It appears we have already conceded we will lose the match, so we must maximise the take from a single game. Revenues for the game are shared, and the extra £2 includes VAT, so for each paying customer we will only gain 83p. For each customer lost, we lose £5.50. I agree we are not likely to lose as many as one in six of those who would have come to the game, so we will take more at the higher price. I cannot estimate how much more we lose as those who do not turn up will not go into the bar, buy a programme, a raffle ticket or use the catering in the ground.

One can only guess too whether or not some of those coming to the FA Cup game will feel they do not need to come to five games over a seven Saturday period, and so decide to miss one or other of the later games in the month instead. If any do, then that is a loss of £11 per person at the Wycombe game, £12.67 for the Premium Oxford game.

I can almost guarantee that in order to improve their figures, Tesco will first of all wish to increase the footfall, the number of people entering the stores, even if this means lower prices and more advertising; in short a cutting of margins and less profit in the short term. By contrast, our football club is responding to lower attendances by trying to squeeze more money out of each individual still paying. They are doing this without presenting any improvement in what we will be on view. This is not a recipe I would expect to create success.

 

* Notes.

1) At some stage, Tesco may decide to cut costs by reducing shop and warehouse employment. Where I will not waste my sympathy on high paid executives with large pay outs, the lower paid employees will suffer more if they lose their jobs, and in no way can be held to blame.

2) Actually, crowds in League-2 are marginally down. The divisional average is the same (so far) as last season but the incoming clubs have slightly more support than the outgoing clubs, meaning there is an overall decrease of about 125 fans per game, just under 3%

3) I am taking our chairman at his word on this. I would love to see the breakdown

4) Copyright, the Marx Brothers, and later Queen.

The Coppa Italia Job

October 3rd, 2014

So, the boss lady wants me to drive her around Italy and Southern France, covering both the first two weekends of the English League season. A disruption to the start of my season, but of course, not bad enough to rob me of all football.

Hence on Sunday afternoon, we arrived at a second rate hotel, halfway between Florence and Pisa, and after a decent interval made my way to the nearby town of Pontedera.

For many years, the divisions of the Italian League were called Serie A, Serie B, Serie C and Serie D, although for some reason Serie C was split into C1 and C2, and hence was both the third and fourth levels. Serie D is very regionalised, with nine regions. A few years ago, Serie C1 and C2 were re-launched as Lega Pro, but still with two levels, and regionalised divisions in both. The support for this level of football has been shrinking. About a decade ago, I remember recording that the Italian system like the English had over 100 clubs showing average attendances in four figures. The English numbers have actually increased in the last decade, but European Football Statistics only recorded 74 in Italy last season. The Lega Pro in 2013-4 consisted of two levels of two divisions, and a total of 69 clubs. For 2014-15, it was decided to change this to a single level consisting of three regional divisions. Hence Serie D, for the first time since I have taken an interest in these things is actually the fourth level.

While none of the league divisions in Italy start this early in the month, the Coppa Italia is underway. My experience in other countries shows cup competitions that either have an open draw, or actually give the smaller teams home an advantage with chances to play bigger teams and even home advantage by right. Not so, Italy where everything is biased in favour of the selections from the top.

In the first round, there are 15 ties, all on the grounds of Lega Pro clubs, the away sides being either Lega Pro or lower. I admit to being uncertain of how qualification is achieved, although there is a Coppa Italia Lega Pro (which would be the equivalent of the FA Trophy in England), and maybe a Coppa Italia Serie D as well. There are also regional cups. The 15 winners go into the second round, where all 20 home teams are from Serie B. At the time of the draw, Serie B had 21 teams, due to the bankruptcy of Sienna. However, Novara (one of the relegated teams) appealed against this state of affairs and gained what can only be seen as a pyrrhic victory. The league decided to return to 22 clubs, by promoting an extra club, rather than by reprieving a relegated one. The position went to…., after rivals, Pisa could not file all documentation by the deadline.

So, at the time of the draw, one of the 21 Serie B teams suffered and away draw, along with the 15 winners from the previous round and four more Lega Pro clubs which had byes. There will be 16 games in Round 3, and 12 of the Serie A teams enter at this stage – all 12 will play at home. After 8 games in Round 4, the 8 qualifying teams will all be away to the privileged few, the final 8 teams from Serie A, (AC Milan, Torino, Inter, Napoli, Roma, Fiorentina, Juventus and Parma) enter with home matches in the middle of January.

Pontedera play at the Stadio Ettore Mannucci, which they will share this season with Tuttocuoio, now in the same division. It sits on the Northern side of a town which I did not actually visit. It has a running track and a high fence, which means elevation is required to view the game well. The main stand, probably a fifties or sixties construction made mainly of pre-cast concrete, (including the roof) had around 360 seats in a good position, and a further 480 in front where the views are questionable. Alongside this is what I normally think of as a “meccano” stand – uncovered and held up by scaffolding, which seemed to be the abode of the local “ultras”. On the far side is a substantial and long uncovered stand, with two more small “meccano” constructs as an adjunct for when the away team has a lot of followers. The substantial stand which is raised (on clearly visible concrete supports), so as the views will not be bad has a large fence down the middle to separate home and away fans. There is no spectator accommodation, or access behind the goals.

Last season, Pontedera finished 8th in the top division of the Lega Pro, which qualified them for a play off, (8 teams in a knock out for one Serie B place). The visitors Messina, (from Sicily) were the champions of their ground of the second Lega Pro division. Messina are on the rise again in their complex history. A Messina club was in Serie A for two seasons in the sixties – with two intervening bankruptcies, (both within a couple of years at the end of the 90s), a new Messina club managed three seasons in Serie A from 2004, but this too went bankrupt when back in Serie B. The assets were sold by the courts in a blind auction, but the club, now named AC Rinascita Messina were in Serie D. They won promotion out of this in 2013. Amazingly, considering the distance from their home town, which means that if travelling home by road straight after the game, they would still miss breakfast, Messina had about 60 fans in their section, with a good number of flags on show.

Pontedera have never been higher than their current status, but do have one claim to fame with Marcello Lippi starting his management career here. The club are nicknamed Granata, a reference to the colours they normally play in, although for this game, Messina played in Red (with a yellow chevron), so Pontedera were in all white. I think these were not the official shirts for the season – both teams lined up as 1-11, and there were no sponsors names on either club’s shirts.

Messina will not play Pontedera in the league, but with only two regions last season, they did have to travel this distance to play Tuttocuoio, (who used a different stadium then).

Pontedera has the better of the early exchanges, but there shooting was woeful, and by the middle of the half, Messina were well on top. As such, it was no surprise when they took the lead. A well taken free kick by Vincenzo Pepe providing the opening score. Messina did not push on from this though, and instead fell back to the own defensive areas, giving Pontedera a better chance. Still the equaliser came as something of a surprise – Luigi Grassi’s free kick from the right being easily covered by the Messina keeper, but he mishandled it and saw it sneak just inside the far post.

Pontedera were again prominent at the start of the second half, the very first attack resulted in a shot against the cross bar. Messina again worked their way back into the game with Pepe beating the keeper only to see his shot cleared off the line. The decisive moves came just after the hour mark. A Caponi corner headed in powerfully at the near post by wing back Gregorio Luperini to put Pontedera ahead, and then three minutes later the home side won a penalty. The decision was unusual in itself, as the referee deemed contact was made inside the area, but the fouled player fell to ground outside the zone. There was hardly any dispute, so Messina appeared to accept it. Grassi gratefully took the chance to increase the lead. Messina did try to get back into the game, but the home goalkeeper, Matteo Ricci, who had looked shaky early in the game was now well in command, in particular making saves from Bonanno and substitute Izzillo. To add insult to injury, Messina’s veteran 40 year old striker Giorgio Corona managed to get himself sent off in injury time

I was talking during the game to a local referee, who assured me that Pontedera were a full time professional team, and that the majority of Lega Pro clubs are full time. When one realises that Pontedera, like half the Lega Pro clubs cannot average 1000 spectators per game, it is surely no surprise that so many are falling into a financial abyss.

My route through France does not take me close to any matches, so I make a point of adding Varese into the itinerary. Here I choose a hotel good hotel to compensate for the previous two nights staying in bog-standard chain hotels at rather ridiculous prices. The Kyriad in Nice is adjacent to some of the car parks for the new stadium, and I make a note that if the prices return to “sensible” after the high season, it may simplify a trip to the ground. Meanwhile the Palace hotel in Varese is one of aging grandeur, but well decorated . My wife is so impressed we quickly decide to make this the base for both of the last two nights. This is despite the SatNav system failing to pinpoint where the roads to the hotel run. It correctly identified the location of the hotel, but had it as accessed via a steep grass path, rather than the tarmac roadway from the other direction.

The hotel is only about a mile from the Stadio Franco Ossola – named after a local hero who appeared only a few times in Varese colours before being sold to Torino, where he was one of the “Grande Torino” team who dominated Serie A until the Supergra disaster.

To describe the ground as splendid hardly does it justice. It is an oval, as often found in Italy, with curved ends. Old concrete stands, (no specifically marked seats) runs around both ends and the east side, the southern curve – being the away end – is lower than the rest. Most of this is in two tiers, but the front tiers is almost entirely useless, as, as well as having a tarmac track, there is also a cycle track which has been added sometime after the stands were built. From the curves, the lower tier therefore only views the track, and not even the cycles on it. As the backing is reduced on the straights, there is a view of the fencing from here. On the east side, a small gap has been made halfway along, with glass, rather than fences and a bit of cover above. The viewing from here is helped by a gap in the advertising boards (standard modern video type). I reckon half a dozen wheelchairs (with owners) could use this, but there was only one on the day.

The main stand is on the west side, a simple construction, with a paddock in front, (although this is also rendered almost useless by the cycle track). AS Varese are Serie B, having dabbled with Serie A only for a couple of short periods in their history, (and with financial ruin slightly more often). Juve Stadia hail from close to Napoli, and have never played higher than Serie B. They were relegated at the end of last season.

I am not certain if the home team’s colours, white with a red St. George’s cross means I should give them all my support. I would have thought that the cross was more a symbol of Milan than Varese, but looking at the official website of the Province shows a coat of arms which is based on the cross, (Wikipedia failed me here, showing the wrong coat of arms). The club has an up and down history, with a Golden decade (1964-75) in Serie A. However the club dropped out of Serie B a decade after falling from Serie A, and did not re-appear at this level until 2012. Financial collapse and reformation took place in 2004, at which time the club became AS Varese 1910. AS Varese start this season on -1 points

The visitors were from Castellamare de Stabia, and are the fourth of a string of clubs from the town, (with the current club claiming history from its predecessors), AC Stabia played one season (1951-2) in Serie B, and folded in 1953, the name Juve Stabia came from another club in the town which came to prominence after its rival had folded. This club, actually SS Juventus Stabia had been formed in 1945 and folded in 2001. In 2002, a nearby Serie D club, Comprensorio Nola moved into the gap, changing the name to Comprensorio Stabia immediately, and SS Juve Stabia 12 months later. They rose to Serie B in 2011, but were relegated at the end of last season.

Juve Stabia had the better of the early chances without really threatening, and the opening goal went to Varese. Pereira Neto claimed a push in the back. I cannot say this was not a foul, but he went down with theatrical relish. It was enough to convince the referee anyway and Arturo Lupoli took the penalty well enough. In the following period, we had chances at both ends, but with both sides employing a single forward formation (4-2-3-1 for Varese, 4-1-4-1 for Juve), one found the midfield was not backing up close enough to have a chance. Both Neto for Varese and Ripa for Stabia had shots parried to a safety.

The crowd does not appear to mind this though, and they reserve their venom for the assistant referee who is consistently, correctly (and rather too frequently) raising the offside flag. Varese do make a couple of chances late in the half, which are spoilt by their own lack of competence.

Juve Stabia again make a good start to the second half, as they try to get back into the game, but these are fleeting chances which the home defence blocks with ease. In the 53rd minute, Neto surprises most of those in the ground with a speculative lobbed shot from distance. It catches Pisseri in the JS goal well off his line, and the Varese lead is 2-0. It leads to a flurry of activity was William Jidayi, the most impressive of the Juve Stabia midfield lets fly from around 25 yards, with the shot just glancing the lower side of the crossbar to make it 2-1. Even the home supporters applaud this effort, but they are happier a minute later when their team attacks down the right, producing a low cross which Lupoli meets within the six yard box for 3-1. The game has now livened up considerable, with chances at both ends even if the Varese ones look the most likely to be completed. A fine save from Pisseri keeps the score at 3-1 in the 70th minute when Andrea Cristiano has a shot after a good combination move with substitute Luca Tremolada. Just after we see the added time board go up, Juve have a free kick on the left, which is crossed in for Marco Migliorini to get a glancing header and give the 18 travelling supporters a little late hope. Varese seem incapable of holding the ball for the final three minutes to give a comfortable finish, but they are good at tackling back, so Juve Stabia do not get a further chance.

I sat in the main stand, having parked in the car park behind the south goal, (nothing was busy for this low key match). The police however, took this as a full scale operation and did not allow anyone back into the car park until all 18 JS fans had left the ground, got into their five cars (in the same car park) and then had a few minutes to get away. The fact that they drove directly into areas where home fans were allowed to be while the same fans were not permitted to go back to where the JS fans had been seemed to be lost. I recommend the ground to anyone, except those requiring a quick departure, (including any attempt to reach the town centre or railway station from the main stand).

 

French Finales.

June 20th, 2014

What I assume is the final trip of the season starts with an early ferry from Dover to Calais, I do not use this service very often, but with no bookings available for the return trip via the tunnel, this was the only option. Unlike the tunnel ferry tickets can be discounted and services like aferry.co.uk and travelsupermarket offer fares not shown on the company websites. Even then, we had to make a booking that did not allow for extra time in our Sunday game to get the better far, and trust that the company would be lenient if we arrived a little late. The discounted tickets are important – they are less than half the cheapest alternative fare.

From Calais, I have to drive to a different channel port, Le Havre. Despite the three hour drive, this is the best way both in time and money terms. As we have plenty of time, we avoid the toll roads as far as Abbeville, where we stop for a short while and take lunch. My passengers, Paul and Kevin both try a local “artisan” beer, which does not impress them much. I have to have coffee as the only man on the trip with a driving licence. We take the motorway from Abbeville to Le Havre, incurring a toll fee of €8.

The hotel, Le Parisien is opposite Le Havre station and is of the “does the job” class. We take a breather before heading to Gonfreville l’Orcher – a dormitory town around a 15 minute drive away. The stadium is not far from the centre, and is the home of Etente Sportive Municipale Gonfreville l’Orcher, which not surprisingly is generally abbreviated to ESMGO.

The sixth level of French Football is run by the regional associations, while the levels above are within the remit of the FFF. Each of the associations runs a single top division, generally known as Division d’Honneur. The number of other divisions below this differs from region to region. Most devolve the power at lower levels to district federations. As champions of the Division d’Honneur Normandie, ESMGO will be promoted to CFA2 for next season.

All of the regional associations run cup competitions for affiliated teams, and the majority of them operate a Senior Cup. In Normandie, this is the Coupe de Normandie Seniors. ESMGO were given home advantage for the final, (some regions do this, some play at neutral grounds), with the visitors being the second team of Le Havre AC, (a member of CFA2; again the highest and lowest levels that enters the cup varies from Region to region although I have not looked into them).

The stadium is a typical French municipal facility. A modern track and a single stand. In this case there is no spectator access around to other parts of the ground. As is common, other sports facilities are incorporated into the structure, or the area. The stand itself is quite large, and must hold more than 1000 seats. It is well elevated, and needs to be to allow viewing over the surprisingly high fence to the front. The roof sits high above the seating supported by a series of double curved wooden beams, which gives it an attractive appearance. The dressing rooms must be somewhere within the structure, with the players and officials emerging from underground to an area inside the track. A refreshments area has been set up to one side of the stand, and is doing a roaring trade, mainly selling sausages and chips. I indulge in the standard sausage, while Paul has the spicy version, (merguez). I have to wait a while for fresh chips to be prepared which gives me an advantage, Paul complains his are not as hot as they should be.

Confusion in the area leads to ESMGO’s first goal

Entrance to the ground is €5, a single sausage and chips is €2.50. There is no programme, but I obtain a copy of the team list quite easily.

As for the game, it was a slightly strange affair, there was no shortage of competent football on show, but there seemed to be a lack of passion. The Le Havre side were very young, with an average age under 20. One or two looked a lot younger; Kevin was quick to point out Hery Randriantsara, only a little over 5 feet tall, and not much over 7.5 stone (from Le Havre web site), completely dwarfed in the midfield by an opponent around 6 foot and probable twice the weight. Still looking through the lists on the web page, he was nearly six months past his 19th birthday and by no means the youngest in the side. Le Havre have already updated the web pages with the squad lists for next season, and some of the players have graduated from the U-19 squad to the second team in the summer, while other players noted from earlier match reports seem to have left the club before this game. One of the Gonfreville substitutes is listed as a member of the Le Havre second team for next season!

With a goal midway through the first half, and a second about 15 minutes from time, ESMGO seem to be cruising to a victory, and a very late goal from the visiting substitute Jordan Cuvier does not change this.

It is common to precede games like this with another, lesser final and when we arrived at the ground, the Final Enterprise was in progress. This is works league with rules demanding the majority of players are with the company concerned. Although these matches are all on the fff web site, and hence quite easy to find out about, the level of football was extremely poor

After returning briefly to the hotel, we headed into town. Our first stop was the Brasserie Paillette, which appears to advertise itself as selling a local beer brewed since sometime in the 16th century. The beer bearing the name was in fact a very poor (and surely mass produced) lager. The place is also a very successful restaurant, which means they were far too busy to discuss the finer points of their less than fine beer with foreigners who do not speak the lingo. So after a very quick quarter litre, we repaired to Le Trappist, about a ten minute walk away. This is a popular spot, with a young clientele who appear to enjoy good beer. Not surprisingly most of this beer is imported from Belgium, (I did try a French Trappist beer which I also enjoyed). The best beers were bottled and at at least €5 for a third of a litre, were often double or triple the Belgian prices. Still, it was very busy and boasted two televisions from which we saw the end of the Uruguay-Costa Rica game and the entirety of England v Italy (except when too many others blocked our view).

In the morning, we had plenty of time, even though I slept late. We ended up taking breakfast as a café overlooking Le Havre plage before heading back almost past the hotel and heading back to Abbeville. With time on our hands, the drive to Bully-les-Mines was made without resort to toll motorways. We stopped briefly for coffee (or beer for non drivers) and a sandwich about an hour before reaching our destination.

Bully-les-Mines is a former mining town, (the clue is in the name) just outside Lens. It seems better built up than Gonfreville, but also very closed on a Sunday afternoon. Refuelling the car was done by use of a petrol station with automated payment. We closed in on the ground just under an hour before kick off. Parking was impossible on the road outside, but we found a place nearby.

Etoile Sportive Bully-Les-Mines (ESB) play at the Stade Rene Corbelle, a municipal facility, but without a track. It once had a cinder track, but most of this is grassed over, while one straight has been lost to the new stand. There is a bar and refreshments at the top of the stand, and a balcony with the seats below it. Because the bar has a curved front, there are actually fewer rows of seats in the centre than the wings. It is also possible to watch from any point around the edge of the ground, where an old concrete barrier runs outside the old track. There are a few steps of terracing on the far side to the main stand, and this is a very popular viewing point. There are three more full size pitches between this and the railway lines.

I have long thought that passion in French Football is a product of the North, with the best supporters being the followers of Sang et Or, the blood and gold of Racing Club Lens. It appears that this spills over to the neighbouring towns.

ESB sit two divisions below Le Portel Stade, the visitors who play in Division d’Honneur. If the standard policy when entering a cup match as underdogs is to sit tight and hit the opponent on the counter, this news has not reached the North of France. The policy of Bully was to hit them quick, and hit them hard. By the ninth minute Portel were already reeling from the onslaught and it was no surprise when Bully went ahead, and two minutes later, it was 2-0.

Le Portel appeared capable of playing better football, but could not match the home sides desire to win. We thought the corner might have been turned when the visitors pulled one back with still only 23 minutes on the clock, but we were wrong. Bully were not finished by a long way, and powered forward again and again, soon returning to a two goal advantage and increasing this with a fourth goal just before the break.

In the second half, Le Portel struggled to come to terms with the disaster of the first period. They had more of the ball, more chances but Bully now defended resolutely, having something worth defending. There was only one goal in the second half, as the score was brought back to 4-2, and in fact there were almost as many close calls when Bully counter-attacked as created by Portel trying to get back into the game.

One feature of these cup finals, and other low level games in France is rolling substitutions. It did not have too much of an effect in these games, with a total of seven substitutions on the Saturday, (although both sides left one player on the bench throughout the game, so they only used 13 each). On Sunday, both sides used their allocation of 3 replacements, and then returned one of the original line up. In Le Portel’s case this was for injury, while Bully appeared to do it for tactical reasons. When I went to the same cup final in Nord Pas de Calais two years ago, there were no less than 13 changes, four of which came in the last two minutes of injury time as supposedly better penalty takers were returned, (one had his penalty saved, and one was not in his team’s five penalty takers). #

I appreciate the idea that allowing more changes, and hence more players to take the field could mean better player retention, but it seems that the rules are used to break up the play with masses of changes after the break, and players off the field for just a minute or two. Sale Town of the Cheshire League, for example made 7 changes in 90 minutes when I saw them lose to Grappenhall with one player returning after missing ten minutes of play, and one of the players on the pitch for just three minutes. If a player regularly only plays in the final five minutes, is he really going to want to stay with the team. In my mind, a better solution would be to continue to limit the number of substitutions during play, but to allow extra substitutes to take the pitch at half time. Hence the replacements would generally get 45 minutes of play, while the option is still there to make changes in case of injury or to change the tactics.

After the match, it was onto the motorway and back to the channel as fast as we could go. I had not been able to book the later ferry so we wanted to make sure we go the one booked. We made this with a few minutes to spare, and in fact found the boat to be half empty.

Overall, this was a good weekend away. Thanks as always for Paul and Kevin for the company.

Eurotour of 2014. Part 5

June 13th, 2014

My last few days were to be spent in more familiar territory, the Netherlands and Germany. I did not know about the exact fixtures when I started the trip, but knew various play offs and cup finals had to be arranged. Indeed before I started, the only options for the Tuesday were a couple of low level games in Germany and Austria, or a return into Poland. I did know about the play offs to win promotion from the German Regionalliga to the 3. Liga would start on the Wednesday, but also that the options, which were likely to be Neustrelitz and Sonnenhof Grosaspach were both going to cause difficulties with the travel.

Then up comes the Netherlands play offs. With the addition of the National Topklasse (one each, for Saturday and Sunday) as the top level of Netherlands Amateur football, (which is of course, semi-professional), there has to be promotion and relegation. There are three regional leagues (Hoofdklasse) below the Topklasse, and all three champions go up at the expense of the bottom three. But then there are the period champions. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the playing season is divided into roughly even groups of matches and the winner of each period goes into the end of season play offs. As the automatically promoted team may well have won (at least one) period, and teams can win more than one, additional teams may be included from second place down in the league.

In the Netherlands Hoofdklasse, there are three regional groups, and three periods per group. They then play a round robin within each group, with each team (normally) getting one home game. The three winners, and the fourth from bottom team in the Topklasse then play semi-finals (two legs) and final (single match, neutral ground) to decide the final club in the Topklasse. So the fixtures were not known at all when I started out, and even when I spotted them (about a week’s notice), I did not know who would be at home. The Saturday semi-finals were to be played Tuesday and Saturday. When the fixtures were eventually settled, it was Ajax Amateurs and SteDeCo at home in the first leg of the semi finals. As SteDeCo’s home in … involves two buses from the nearest rail station, I chose Ajax. On a very wet day, an artificial pitch may help.

This meant Amsterdam joined Prague and Budapest as a major cities on this tour where I saw football without venturing into the city centre.

This game was at the Ajax Amateurs pitch at Toekmost. The main pitch there is used for the Eerste Divisie Jong Ajax team, the Ladies and the most senior (A1) of the many youth teams. The main pitch is grass, but the Amateurs use an artificial surface, no doubt shared by other teams. Ajax Amateurs themselves run three adult teams and a veteran’s team. They are a curious combination, being simultaneously part of Ajax, and apart from the Professional team. In the past, I am told the team has been used to blood youngsters who are likely to go on into the professional game, but with Jong Ajax now in the league, they are now a purely “amateur” outfit, which of course, in a Netherlands context means semi-professional.

Most of the budgeting for Ajax Amateurs appears to come from the professional club, and they also have the benefit of the facilities and stewarding. They do not even feel the need to charge an admission fee. I am not sure if the coaches are shared. Players may come from those who have not made it to the professional ranks, but are just as likely to transfer in from outside. The top scorer, Dennis Kaars came from another amateur team in the Amsterdam and I have seen reports that he will transfer to Sunday football, with Hoofdklasse team de Dijk for next season. I might like to go there, if only to see if the Wikipedia drawing of red, blue and with chequered shirts is accurate.

Kaars opened the scoring quite early in the game. He is a pacy forward that caught the eye, (and made me ask whether he had come through the Ajax academy). Noordwijk gave good account of themselves, but were always looking suspect to the pace of the Ajax attack. They levelled from the penalty spot, but went behind again when a Kaars shot, saved by Amerzni was then hit in by Kenneth Misa Danso.

Noordwijk’s problems really started in the 33rd minute, when Kai van Hese pulled back Kaars as he tried to run through. I thought there were other defenders that might have been able to get back, but Kaars had the pace to go clear and the referee red-carded the defender.

Noordwijk still defender well until the hour mark, when Sergio Cameron hit the third in from a difficult angle. A couple of minutes later, there was a foul from an Ajax player that incensed temperments. I did not get a clear view of the initial foul, but I did see Bryan Braun push over an Ajax player. The original foulee was booked, but Braun had to go and Noordwijk were down to nine men.

This was too little for them, and Kaars got his second soon after, followed by Cameron (penalty for hand ball), and substitute Ronday in the final minute added to the score

As this was the second pitch at Toekmost, a small stand (around 240 seats) and four steps of concrete terracing opposite, resulting in a lot of wet spectators, I will go back for Toekmost 1 most likely for a league match involving Jong Ajax.

Meanwhile, I was given more information from a referee’s assessor, who was at the game as a spectator. Unlike the clubs, he seemed perfectly happy with the KNVB plan to force promotion on the champions of the Topklasse starting in 2015-16, despite the fact that hardly any of the teams in the Amateur leagues desire promotion. The team Achilles 29 came up at the start of the season, under a three season trial arrangement. During this season, they have played as an amateur team with only a couple of professional players. They have struggled to make the grade and eventually finished bottom of the table. They had been promised that they would not be relegated at the end of the season, but also that promotion was not an option. The results prove that although amateur teams frequently beat the professionals in cup matches, this does not mean that they are good enough to compete on a week in, week out basis. When I saw Achilles earlier in the season, they were comfortably beaten vy the Venlo outfit VVV, 3-0 and it was clear the main difference between the two teams is the fitness levels. Next season, Achilles are committed to a 50-50 professional/amateur team, which may do better, but would surprise me if it really worked. At the end of the season 2014-5, Achilles have the option to pull out, but the league will not relegate them even if they finish bottom again. Should they stay in the League for 2015-6, then they will have to employ at least 11 full time players paid at least the minimum wage, and a number of full time youth players who can be paid a less wage. At the end of 2015-16, there will be automatic relegation, and if the Netherlands FA gets their way, the winners of the Amateur title will be promoted.

I remain uncertain about the logic of adding the three reserve teams to the lower division, (or as they are titled, “Jong”). The trio, along with Achilles brings the number of teams up to 20, while the Netherlands FA actually proclaims 18 as the ideal full strength. My assessing friend said the 18 would be achieved again by not replacing clubs that fold. Still it seems like a brazen dereliction of dut by the league to have a policy that expects clubs to fold, and if the financial standing of the Eerste Divisie is so poor, surely having two extra (home) fixtures dates is a good thing? At professional football clubs, an extra fixture should increase income to a greater extent than it increases expenditure. There is a full reserve division as well as the reserves in the main league, but there is no direct relegation and promotion route for these clubs. Feyenoord were particularly incensed that the clubs chosen to send their second teams in league were PSV, Ajax and Twente, but not the Rotterdam outfit who feel that their status as a member of the “big three” should have given them primacy. I wonder if they have considered a play off after the Amateur championship, between the winners and the reserve competition winners, for the promotion place? When TOP Oss where relegated a few seasons ago (as part of a earlier reduction of numbers), they were pleased to be able to regain their place later, replacing one of the many teams to fold from professional football in recent years. (RBC, Veendam, AGOVV and Haarlem have all dropped by the wayside, many others are threatened). Even the big three have all had to restructure themselves from debt mountains, (which had the positive effect of opening the competition and allowing teams such as AZ and Twente a chance to win the title).

There are many in the Netherlands who believe that their FA are pursuing a utopian league, while not recognising the problems they have at the moment. They now have a promotion/relegation system about to be placed upon teams that do not want it. They have introduced reserve football to the professional leagues, while not having a structure to promote and relegate these

Anyway, from Amsterdam I headed to Braunschweig – a straight forward enough journey with just one change on the route. It had not escaped my notice that it had been an extremely wet day and when I reached my hotel room, trying to sign onto the internet was my first priority of the day. Before I could get connected, there was a call – Dirk was at the reception. Dirk is a German groundhopper who I have known for many years, he lives in Braunschweig and supports the main team Eintracht. He was going to join me for the evening game at the town’s second club FT Braunschweig, who were to play the Neidersachsen Cup final. This is one of 21 “Lander Pokale”, which are important as they serve as qualification competitions for the following season’s German cup. Only teams in the two divisions of the Bundesliga and the top four from the 3.Liga qualify directly. In recent years this has been recognised with increasing crowds and several thousand would be expected for the evening, although with 24 places from 21 competitions, the most populous (Niedersachsen, Westfalen and Bayern) get two places each, so only local pride was at stake.

Anyway, Dirk’s news was bad news – the game was off due to a waterlogged pitch. I said I did not know, as I had not yet got onto the internet, (which was not coming up on my computer). I wondered if there was any other football to keep my run going. Dirk thought that any game was likely to be off as well, the weather having been so poor. Dirk then went out to sort out where his car was parked, but was to come back within 30 minutes to show me around the town.

I found that while I could not get on-line from the computer, I could by using the slab I call a telephone. Searching the match calendar of the kicker website, I found two minor games – one at Bezirksliga level in the Braunschweig area, (Level 7 in the German pyramid) and one a level higher, some 40 km away in Bevenstedt, just outside Hildesheim. The calendar had been updated with the call off at FT, but still had these lower games on. Dirk said that although he had a car from work, it was for business purposes and even driving an 80 km round trip could get him into trouble, but he did check the times for me. If I could get to the local station in about 30 minutes, there was a train for the 20 minute run to Hildesheim and although a bus should get me into Bevenstedt ten minutes before kick off, a taxi might be a better idea. I meanwhile had checked the lower, more local game and discovered it also was off, but neither home or away website for the Bevenstedt game had a comment on the matter.

And so, I set up. Dirk decided who could not make it, still organising his forthcoming three week trip to Asia. We agreed to meet when I got back for a meal and a drink. I quickly headed back to the station, caught the train to Hildesheim and with the help of a taxi found the ground with time to spare. More importantly it was open and they were taking admission money. It was game on, even if the grass was a little long and unkempt and it appeared that the club had neglected to mark out the lines clearly (probably due to the weather). Even better, the ground boasted a quite modern stand with more than 200 seats, situated by the halfway line. The usual food and drink options, including the club bar were situated near the entrance, but having agreed a meal for later I settled on coffee. There was also a match programme, given away free. Admission was €6.

The match had been brought forward from the following weekend. I did not find out why. Bevenstedt were in the comfortable position that no result from this match, or any other match in the league could mean they would finish other than in third place. Only the champions get promoted (as it happens, the champions are Arminia Hannover, the only other member team of this league I have ticked, even if when I went in 1998, they were three levels higher when I went). The visitors HSC Blau-Weiss Schwalbe Tündern were in 9th place and could go up or down two places depending on this and other results, which meant the match would certainly occur on next season’s fixture list. Bevenstedt were on top from the start and it was no surprise when they took the lead after 21 minutes. Playing some very neat passing football despite the uneven and damp surface, they added a second before half time. Immediately after the break they pulled the lead up to 5-0 within ten minutes, Tündern substituted their goalkeeper between the third and fourth goals. It did not appear to be apportioning blame or injury (the sub was waiting to come on when goal three was scored), but merely to give a player a run out. The substitute may have regretted being brought on as he conceded two within his first six minutes on the field. The game turned though, Bevenstedt did not deliberate take the foot off the pedal, but their goals dried up. On 72 minutes, a visiting sub pulled a goal back. Two more followed in the next seven minutes to make the score 5-3. Meanwhile, Bevenstedt revealed their final substitute as a rather overweight bloke with glasses, and quite clearly not of the fitness levels the rest of the team were showing. He spent several minutes joking with those in the stand who clearly knew him before coming onto the field with about five minutes (including injury time) to play. There were lots of calls to “give the ball to Markus” (or the equivalent in German) from the crowd, and he tried to keep in a forward position. I am convinced he did not play the ball once during his five minutes of fame. The final score was 5-3 despite the home keeper being made to make one good save to keep it so.

Third goal for Bevenstedt

I had been asking at half time about getting back to the station, no one appeared to be driving straight after the game, but I was given directions to the bus stop by a young lady who had some English. I asked her again about Markus at the end of the game and the first comment was “he is not a normal player”. I had gathered that already, but why was he on the field. It was in fact a reward for many years of service to the club. One cannot argue with this type of sentiment in a game that does not matter. When I left the ground with just a vague direction to a bus stop, my Sat Nav said if I walked all the way to the station, I would miss my train by about five minutes. As I had arrived by taxi, I did not know the bus times out so I felt lucky to arrive at the stop and find there was an hourly service to the station – especially as I had less than five minutes to wait.

So it was back to Braunschweig, seeing Dirk again and heading to his favourite local Greek restaurant, where I have to admit the food was good, and very good value for money. We talked about Dirk’s forthcoming trip to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei in which he planned 24 flights in a three week trip, including travelling between Borneo and Java four days in a row. I said I had looked at the fixtures and even considered making the trip, but uncertainty about work prevented me from doing this as an alternative to my Eurotrip. I would have forgone a fixture though to spend longer on Borneo, especially if there was an overland option between the games there.

Office building in Braunschweig, used by the company Dirk works for!


Dirk also persuaded me to change my plans for the final day of this tour. I was going to Nöttingen, who had a promotion play off, trying to rise into the Regionalliga (fourth level). Instead, Dirk recommended 1. CFR Pforzeim at a level lower. The club is a recent merger and as such is in possession of two stadia, both good and old. Originally the team had favoured a ground at Holzhof, but difficulties in getting permission to update it, meant Brötzinger Tal had become the ground of choice. This game was slated as the last ever game at Holzhof, and would be a German Groundhopper’s day out (not that this necessarily is a recommendation). As a groundhopper, I do tend to head for grounds that may be having their last hurrah, rather than the more important game on a ground I can visit another day. Added to this, Pforzheim is the more easily accessible of the two, Nöttingen being some 45 minutes from the rail station, with no buses back. There was also the precaution that if I arrived in Pforzheim in good time, and it was off, then it would still be possible to get to the slightly later kick off at Nöttingen – and both could be done without changing my pre-booked hotel.

Pforzheim – time for a beer!

There were a number of German groundhoppers in Pforzheim, having arrived at the ground from various parts of the country. However, the news was that the building works at the alternative ground, Brötzinger Tal was unlikely to be complete for the start of the new season, so Holzhof would continue to be used. 1. CFR were a merger about four seasons ago, and they felt at the time that by combining forces, they could move up from the Verbandsliga Baden, which is level six in these parts. At regional levels, the different areas use different combinations of league names, so where as it is always true that Oberliga is above Verbandsliga, which in turn is higher than Landesliga, with Bezirksliga, Kreisliga and finally Kriesklasse lower down, one cannot say that a specific league name refers to a specific level. In Neidersachsen, where I went on the Wednesday, there is no Verbandsliga, so Landesliga is level 6, the same as Verbandsliga Baden.

Anyway, merging the two teams in Pforzheim has not achieved the desired objective, and the club has sat at the same level for the four seasons since merger. To add insult to injury, another team in the town, Pforzheimer Kickers has come through and is now on the verge of rising to the Oberliga. I would be very surprised to find the average crowd now is much greater than that given to either of the two clubs before merger. There may be some advantages through the merger, such as if they have managed to keep all the sponsors from both clubs on board, and the combined committee should be stronger, but I bet there are people on both sides now that do not view the merger as a success.

With only a few hundred present, the Holzhof is easily fit for purpose without renovation. As I understand Brötzinger Tal is also in this category, I cannot see what the club is building for. It has a large stand, with more than 1000 seats, albeit bench seating. There are a number of steps of terracing all around the rest of the group, and although the section behind the far goal has been closed off and is overgrown, the rest is in very good order. On the levels above the terracing at the town end is the normal catering, I bought myself a Bratwurst, and could have had coffee or beer as well. The club house is immediately outside the ground, but this no longer appears as if connected to the club. They would not let me even use their loo.

The game itself was no great shakes; for most of the time, the visitors Hiedelberg-Kircheim appeared to be the better side with Pforzheim doing little other than lobbing balls into the area for easy clearance. The style changed somewhat when Kircheim had the audacity to take the lead. After this Pforzheim finally got their game together, the passing was more on the ground and crisper with far many more passes reaching completion. This created the chance for substitute Jannick Schram to level the scores after Pforzheim had been behind for fifteen minutes, and may have brought them a win in the last 20 minutes. In the end though, my tour was completed with a 1-1 draw.

The switch from Nöttingen to Pforzheim brought me one final piece of good fortune. On arriving in the town, I noticed there were a lot of people and noise in the centre. Not that common on a holiday (as this was). Needless to say I investigated, and was delighted to discover that the event was an open air beer festival. I took a quick beer there before the game, but then somewhat delayed my journey out of the town, so I can take more than one more after the game, and also enjoy the rather good rock covers band that is playing.

The Original Badebier, which is not a Bad Beer

 

Afterword – looking back on the trip.

The tour consisted of 23 games in 21 days, no days off and two double headers (both in the Czech republic, both starting in Prague). Two games were goalless, but the rest contributed 76 goals to my total. All matches were my first visit to the ground. There were two matches called off due to waterlogged pitches, and twice I had been intending to go to Nöttingen, but changed my mind. There were nine home wins, ten draws and only four away wins. The only game on a neutral ground was a draw, but went on the extra time and penalties.

1. Viktoria Achaffenburg confirmed relegation when I saw them, finishing 18th of 19. Wurzburger Kickers ended up in 11th place

2. Austria Salzburg won the regional title, with Seekirchen finishing 10th of 16. Austria Salzburg lost 3-0 at home in their promotion play off to FAC Team fur Wien, after drawing 2-2 in the away leg.

3. Donaufeld won the Wiener Liga, and promotion to Regionalliga Ost, but there is only one promotion place, so Stadlau, despite finishing second, stay put.

4. This was the final game of the season for Wiener Neustadt and Admira Modling, Neustadt finish 8th, Modling 9th in a ten team league with only one relegation spot.

5/6. We saw Maribor take the title in another ten team league. Celje were practically safe after drawing at Krka, and confirmed this in the next match be winning at Triglav. Krka also lost on that occasion meaning the order of the bottom two was only decided when Krka beat Triglav on the last day. This should have meant Krka entering a play off against Radomlje, the runners-up from the second division, but the second division champions (Dob) declined promotion, meaning Radomije went up without a play off, and Krka kept their place.

7. St Gallen finished 7th, Sion 8th in the Swiss League (again ten teams, one relegated)

8. There are still two games in the Tirol Landesliga to play as I write this, and Kundl are still in the “Possible relegation” zone as the numbers vary depending on how many teams are relegated into the division. I think that the relegation from Regionalliga West will be one to Voralberg and two to Salzburg, meaning Kundl are safe. Reutte are in a safe mid-table position.

9. 1. HFK Olomouc finished in a safe mid-table position. Breclav surprisingly one twice in their final four games, and finished second to bottom. With both relegated teams from the second division being Prague based (and hence going to CFL), Breclav may yet avoid relegation

10. Admira have completed their programme, and have just enough points to be sure of safety. Stechovice still have a game to play and are in mid-table

11. Trinec won their last two home games, while losing in Ceske Budejovice, ending in mid-table. I’ll discuss Taborsko at match 18

12. Thanks to a surprising away win at (already crowned) champions Legia Warsaw, Ruch Chorzow finished third and made it to Europe. Wisla Krakow finished 5th.

13. With Dunajska Streda losing their last game at Ruzomberok, while Nitra won on the last day, DAC escaped the drop by two goals. Spartak Trnava had already confirmed their third place, and home defeat to Slovan Bratislava on the last day did not change the positions.

14. Having brought themselves back into contention with the win over Belchatow, Zabki’s remaining away games were a defeat to Stroze, and a draw at Chojnice, although they did win their last home game. Chojnice’s draw was just enough to save them from relegation. Belchatow won their game at Stroze, and took the title with a 4-0 win over Sandejca Nowy Sacz on the final day, overtaking Leczna who lost at Stomil Olsztyn but still took the second promotion spot. Zabki therefore ended up in third place.

15/16. These relegation group matches in Poland confirmed Lodz and Lubin as relegated, Bielsko-Biala finished 2nd in the relegation group, Cracovia 6th with Kielce 5th.

17. Bohemians Praha had a big win, 7-1 against Frydek-Mistek, which means although relegated, they were spared bottom place by two points. Sokolov finished 6th

18. With both Taborsko and and Hradrec Kralove drawing in this round, Ceske Budejovice’s 1-0 win put them just ahead of their rivals. All three won the following week. On the final day, Hradrec Kralove won 1-0 at Pardubice, knowing that a win had to be enough for promotion as Taborsko and Ceska Budejovice, (both starting one point ahead) were playing each other in Sezimova Usti. The crowd for this game is quoted as a somewhat incredible 7465, nearly ten times the figure I saw there. Perhaps Taborsko froze under this scrutiny, certainly they were 3-0 down in 16 minutes, and eventually lost 6-0, meaning they finished third, behind Ceske Budejovice and Hradrec Kralove.

19. Despite winning the cup, Ujpest have been refused a license for European Competition, so Diosgyori take the place in the Europa League.

20. Malmo won 1-0 at second placed Elfsborg in the next round, and take a six point lead into the World Cup break. The next game are in the first weekend of July

21. Ajax Amateurs needed to defend their 6-1 lead in the second leg, which they did not do well, conceded six goals. However, they scored two to just win through 8-7 on aggregate, and then beat SteDeCo 5-2 to win promotion to the Topklasse.

22. The Niedersachsen cup final has been held over to the start of next season, Bavenstedt finished 3rd, and Tündern 9th in their league. They will meet again next season

23. The match I did not go to in Nöttingen finished 0-0, but Nöttingen won promotion to the Regionalliga with a 1-0 win in Salmohr in the second leg. 1. CFR Pforzheim finished 7th and Kircheim 10th in their 15 team division

 

Eurotour of 2014 Part 4

June 8th, 2014

With the kick off time at Cracovia being 18.00, and the overnight train leaving for Prague just before ten, it was an easy walk back to the station for the train. For my third overnight of the tour, I could not get a sleeping compartment and had to settle for a couchette. I was somewhat fortunate in only having one room mate, a retired Canadian. With no socket to plug in my anti-snoring machine, I was also lucky that my companion did not found my night noise very disturbing. I wanted to get another double header onto the trip, and I needed to return to Prague due to a minor disaster on the Monday. When I was dragging my case to the station it fell and the handle broke. I thought the best solution was to go for an instant replacement from the shop at the station. I then had the mad repacking on the shop floor to re-arrange my goods and allow the shop to dispose of the broken case. I thought I had taken everything with me, but then realised there was another pocket I had not emptied. This contained my oyster card, headphones to allow me to listen to music from the computer and most crucially my Sat.Nav system. I realised the mistake within an hour of leaving the city, and with the help of the train conductors, managed to phone back to the shop who found my stuff and promised it to keep it safe and sound until I returned. I am pleased to say this was a success and hence the temporary loss of stuff was only a temporary inconvenience.

Having collected my possessions, and placed them safely in a left luggage locker, I took the metro to Strizkov, six stops from the main station. From here it is a short walk to the ground of Bohemians Praha. When the original Bohemians Praha folded, the people running Strizkov saw the opportunity pick up some of their supporter base and quickly registered the change of name for their own club. I suspect they intended to try and gain the lease of Dolicek, and re-create an image of the original club. This hardly new in the Czech republic or even in Prague. The current Dukla team is another club that took over the original name some time after club had merged with, and decamped to Pribram. However the fans at Bohemians had a different idea, taking inspiration from the goings on n England and especially at AFC Wimbledon, they decided not to follow some other club owner but to own their own club. With Bohemians Praha name taken, this club is now Bohemians 1905. Crucially, the supporters’ club got to use Dolicek. I am not certain their venture would have been a success otherwise. After this, relations between the two Bohemians clubs were not helped by a dispute over the use of the kangaroo on the club badges. Both in fact now use almost identical badges including the kangaroo.

The ground is Strizkov is listed by the Czech FA as SK Prosek, which I think is the name of the hospital near to adjacent. It is a straightforward affair, with a single stand filling almost the entire length of one side and containing some 700 seats in a mixed variety of colours which looks quite pleasing from the distance. All the buildings are behind one goal, while there is room to stand opposite the main stand between the grass pitch and the adjacent poorly maintained 3G surface. It least if it does belong to the hospital, anyone who injures themselves on the creased surface where the carpet has been allowed to ride up in ridges will not have far to go for treatment. Despite the return of poor weather after my week in the hot sunshine of Poland, Bohemians had decided that the small number of visitors from Sokolov should be segregated on the far side. Until it started raining, I am sure they were happy there, but maybe some accommodation should have been made. I estimate the total attendance at the game around 140, with the away fans numbered in single figures, so I do not think this was really a high security situation. The Sokolov fans had a drummer and made a lot of noise from the start for such a small group. The home fans had no less than four trumpeters, although they were more sparing in their contribution to the musical battle. We had to wait around 15 minutes before they started their concert with a rendition of “Yellow Submarine”. Bohemians know they must finish in a relegation position, while Sokolov start her day in fourth, but too many points behind to catch any of those above them. A classic was not in prospect, and a classic was not delivered. Sokolov were always the better team, but somehow it was Bohemians took the lead ten minutes into the second half. The equaliser came some twenty minutes later, but neither team had enough to chase after a winner.

Now picture a single track railway line winding its way across rolling green hillsides. It could almost be England, except of course for the existence of a single track railway line winding its way across the rolling green hillsides. With the train for the forty minute journey from Besenov to Vlasim being a single unit railcar, I was slightly worried that the unit could be filled with away football fans. In fact none came by train, and my only worry was noticing that the speaker on the train kept on announcing stations, and then the train running straight through without stopping. Vlasim is the crossover point where trains in each direction can pass, and all trains have to stop there. My first impression was of a very small quiet town, (but democratic, there was a queue to vote in the Euro elections). Then you reach the castle. This is actually a stately home, mainly converted as a museum, and with extremely extensive landscaped garden leading down to the river and containing a number of buildings including a faux Chinese pavilion, clearly designed by someone who had seen pictures, but never the real thing.

My game was important, the visiting club, Dynamo Ceske Budejovice started the day third in the league (three games) to play, just one point behind Hradrec Kralove, and two behind Taborsko, so I was envisaging a considerable crowd for a ground where the quoted capacity of 6000 owes a lot to the imagination. SO I made sure I was at the ground in good time, and knew my way back to the station – there may be as little as 10 minutes to get back for my train, (which would mean more than five waiting at the station).

Going for the ever popular, “header wide of target” option

In reality, it was all quiet as I paid my 60 Kcs to enter and another 10 Kcs for a programme. I was hot from the walk and immediately bought a bottle of water and sat on the benches outside to admire the views. I decided against having a Klobasa (the Czech red fatty sausage),while noting that this was also the name of a home sub. With everything quiet and no massive invasion of away fans, it was easy to pick up my team sheet, and even have a beer before kick off as well. The ground consists of a small stand, (not more than 400 seats) with bench seating over grass each side of this. On the far side are a few rows of open seats, while the ends are flat. You can walk all the way around, except a small area near the entrance (which while fenced off, does include more bench seating). The pitch was in perfect condition, and despite average attendances under 500 (this game had 360), they have installed one of the pop-up sprinkler systems seen in the Football League. In the end, there were only a handful of visiting fans, and these did not even group together during the game

Ceske Budejovice (in Germany, they say Budweis) were the better side throughout the game, but they found it very difficult to get a goal. The only goal coming midway through the second half, when a free kick from Bruncik from the right evaded everyone and run straight into the goal. Although there was a lot of time wasting at the end, it felt unnecessary, the home side rarely looked capable of scoring. Still time wasting works well when the result is an occasional booking, which itself wastes time not added on. In the end, we had one minute of injury time (as we actually had the trainer on the field), but nothing extra for time wasting or substitutions. When the other results came through, neither Hradrec Kralove or Taborsko won on the weekend. This meant that Ceske Budejovice went to the top, thanks to their superior goal difference.

The Nepstadion still sets there in Budapest, close to the Keleti Stadium. They do not build them like this anymore. At its peak, it held 104,000 – its capacity today is quoted at 56,000. For the Hungarian Cup Final, 22,000 turn up

I will not use the name Ferenc Puskas Stadium. To be called Ferenc Pukas you need to be the best, and this stadium, a relic of the soviet age does not deserve that name. It is a large bowl with a tier of seating all around. A second larger tier sits above the first on the side opposite the main stand. The main stand itself is the only thing that has been refurbished, and the only area with cover. It is given over entirely to VIP and Media.

I had a 1000 Forint (about £3) ticket using the Hungarian FA’s less than easy booking system. This was required as the signs clearly said no tickets on the day. I chanced my luck with the media accreditation and was told no, and then they changed their mind and said yes, so I got my upgrade, the teamlists and a free cup of coffee!

The ground currently holds 56,000. Around 22,000 turned up. That means the upper tier was uninhabited, the fans from the two clubs filled (but nowhere near 100%) the two ends, and a curiously quiet four blocks immediately opposite the main stand had small groups of people in them. These tickets were not on sale on the net (if they were, I would have had one), so I am not certain who they were. They were not wearing colours, while most of the rest of the crowd were in colours, including most in the hospitality area and some of the media. I have two guesses – one that they were mainly foreigners who found out about the game late and got tickets through contacts from the hotels, or that they were stragglers left over from the Amateur Cup final held as a curtain warmer, (my train times did not allow me to double up). There were quite a few leaving the ground after this as I arrived.

On the field, it was a very open game, Ujpest took an early lead and never stopped trying for a second. Diosgyori often looked the better side but did not seem to have the routes through the defence, meaning Ujpest had more chances. Most teams would have tried to shut up shop, play out the last few minutes, and the Ujpest bench appeared to be in that mood, waiting to make an injury time subsitution as the board went up for three minutes injury time. Diosgyori found the gap at this moment, and Basca levelled the scores from close range

Diosgyori had Tamas Kadar sent off six minutes into extra time, and the game died down a little, going to the almost inevitable penalty shootout. Diosgyori missed two, none were saved, Ujpest won the cup 4-3 on penalties

From the moment I had arrived at the station, it was clear that there was a major security operation on, with massed police at the station, and plenty of police moving around the area. There were blockades quite a distance from the stadium in all directions. Everyone heading to the stadium had their ticket checked, supposedly against ID, but as I entered through the press zones, I never found out for certain. My name, date and place of birth were printed on the ticket, and one had to carry ID card or passport. The question then remains, are flares, smoke bombs and crackers permitted or are the searches just not that thorough? During the game, we had plenty of competitive singing from both ends of the stadium. It appeared that despite the greater distance, Diosgyiori had slightly more and noisier fans than the local Ujpest team, but Ujpest made up for this with more flares and fireworks. There were a couple of moments though when a level of peace was restored. During the second half, I noticed that identical banners, exhorting all Hungarians to get to Bucharest for the European qualifier in October was displayed at both ends, while on the 30 minute mark the fans gave each other space to mention their pet hates (naturally also hated by the other team). Ujpest chanted about their hate of Ferencvaros, while Diosgyori’s complaint was against the Hungarian FA, and in particular the president thereof. It appears these two parties are held jointly responsible for the current situation where every top division match is considered a major security concern.

From Budapest, I took the quick route to Malmo, on board a rather packed out Wizzair A320. Wizzair are the airline that pulls out all the stops to make Ryanair look good, the flight was packed out and at Budapest, you are made to queue in a room that is nothing more than a large warehouse. Still, it meant I could have breakfast in Budapest and an early afternoon coffee in Malmo.

Marching band. Malmo style

It was a strange afternoon, the police were around in force, but acting much quieter than their counterparts in Budapest. One was not certain if they believed there was a risk of trouble or not. It is of course a very pleasant city in good weather, and coffee is one thing that is not particularly higher priced than in England.

As one walks south from the centre, you can easily pass all three of the Malmo stadiums, all of which have been used by Malmo FF at some time in their history. First up is Malmo Idrottslats, which now has an artificial pitch and is used by Sweden’s leading ladies team, (now called FC Rosengard). The pitch was in use for training and the gates were open, so I asked permission and took a couple of photos.

You then cross a park, keeping the lake on your left to take the best route, before arriving at the main complex

The old stadium, which you pass in order to reach the new one was also in use (for Athletics training). I believe Malmo IF, a lower division team currently play there while Malmo FF did until the new stadium was built. When I asked at the gates, I was directed down to the track

As with most new built stadiums, the New Stadium, Malmo has fine viewing lines. It has been built square to the pitch, with very little space between the pitch and the stands in order to give a much better atmosphere then the Malmo Stadium next door. For most of the circumference it has two uniform tiers. The exception is the north (or city) end, given over to home support. This single tier is deeper than those on the other sides, and above it is a sheer face in which the glass windows of offices or sponsors lounges overlook the pitch. Above the scoreboard there is a small balcony providing a great viewing position. As well as this balcony being a standing area, the large area below is also terrace, capable of holding 6000 standing spectators for a game like this, but then being converted to 3000 seats for European or International games. In the front of the area is a raised platform where one supporter stands, back to the game to orchestrate the chants from behind. They may as well convert the away supporters section to standing as well, as practically no one was sitting there. AIK seemed to have bought more banners and flags than the home team, and almost the full front row wore near identical shirts. The font few rows were left empty, with banners in front of the support and their own conductor (with megaphone) on the otherwise empty seats. There is no doubt that the supporters were very aware of goings on, on the pitch (unlike some German games I have been to recently, where I thought the crowd was almost blind to the game. When AIK got a free kick or corner, the chant at the home end would break off as the fans whistled their displeasure.

A lot of the displays at the ground hark back to the fact the club has won 20 Swedish titles, the most of any club. One corner has the word ROY, a picture of the current England manager looking somewhat younger than he does today and the five years (1985-1989) that marked his management of the club. In five years of Hodgson, Malmo won five Swedish titles. He also won two for Halmstads. Only one other England manager has first won the Swedish title, and Sven only did it once.

Malmo had the better of the early exchanges coming close twice in the first five minutes. In the 17th minute, Robin Quaison of AIK went down in the penalty area and got a booking for his dive. They actually showed the whole move again as a replay on the screen, bring forth laughter and derision from the home support, seeing clearly that had made the correct decision. With both sides playing a 442 the game was quite open, but Malmo’s left flank was clearly the most creative area of the game, from where Forsberg hit a shot against the post in the 27th minute. It looked as if it would go scoreless to the break, but the Malmo defence took their eye off the ball, it was knocked forward to Eero Markkanen to score for AIK. The second goal also went the way of AIK, this time scored by Quaison, who must have been as surprised as anyone when his shot went through Olsen’s grasping hands, while the keeper is sure to be blamed, the defenders will also have to question the space given to the scorer.

Five minutes later, Malmo pulled a goal back in rather strange circumstances. There was an incident near the benches and two AIK players as well as the one just substituted stopped to argue with the home bench, but the referee had not stopped play, and the ball was moved forward for Molins to score. The referee was clearly bemused by the situation, and the linesman and fourth official, both on the side seemed none the wiser. In the end, the sanctions were yellow cards for Goitom (AIK, who had just been substituted) and Jansson (Malmo, a sub who never came on). It is quite unusual to get your yellow card five minutes after leaving the pitch! There was also a marked contrast against other games in that the lighting of flares immediately after the goal brought whistles of protest from some fans, two Malmo players went to their fans to tell them to stop, and the game did not restart until the flares were out. With no security presence at the home end of the pitch, I doubt if any other action occurred, even though the culprits must have been videoed.

Meanwhile pulling one back meant that each home attack was greeted with a wave of expectation, followed by a groan as the players managed to mess it up. With 15 minutes to play, Mallmo tookthe adventurous decision to take off a full back for an attacking player. Then Molins was bought down, just inside th box by Orofi. Molins himself took the penalty and placed it at perfect saveable height, for the grateful Carlgren to push away. There were more complaints from the home fans when AIK’s Lorentzson was slow to leave the pitch injured, and did not get a booking, but the referee added no less than six minutes on. In the fourth of these minutes, Forsberg, who had been the player most responsible in the second half for not getting his shots and crosses delivered had a cross blocked for a corner, then took the corner which was only half cleared. Cibicki picked up the ball with his back to goal, took a couple of paces away from the goal and then shot the equaliser on the turn. Malmo were already two points ahead of second placed Elfsborg before the game started, but face their strongest rivals on Sunday in the last game before the world cup break.

After the game, I again kept the lake to my left, admiring the late evening colours, and the fountain which was lit up, I made my way to the local brew house, where I decided I was sampling at least something of what was on offer despite the charge of £6 for a half litre. That is six times the cost of some drinks I had taken in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It was good beer though and I had a chat with another of the clientele, a AIK supporter down for the day who was not certain whether to celebrate his club getting a good away draw to the league leaders of mourn the points lost from 2-0 up. He did know that either way, beer was the answer. He asked me (in perfect English, of course) if I was a groundhopper, he tried to charge his phone from my charger (which is not very good), and he bought me a beer.

Spending slightly longer than I should, in the pub, a further combination of factors meant I missed the first choice train out. Not a major loss, but it meant spending 90 minutes waiting for a connection at 4 in the morning, when the original choice was to travel for two extra hours (going to Aarhus and back) to use up the time. The factors were enjoying the pub, a slight delay on a connecting train from the local station to Malmo central and the actions of one of AIK’s less helpful supporters, who had stuck a club sticker on the left luggage locker controls. If you put a sticker on a touch screen panel it just does not work (do not try this at home), and by the time I had removed the sticker and recovered my bag, I was left waiting for the next train.

Eurotour of 2014. Part 3

June 5th, 2014

Next stop, Poland. The country has gained a reputation as being a difficult place for groundhoppers to go. Serious crowd problems have led to membership card systems, and although one can generally get in, using the passport for ID, there are exceptions to the rule and some high security matches where it is just not possible to gain entry at all. Having not been for nine seasons, I dipped my toe back into the water last season, by trying for a press pass for a couple of matches. One of these, which may have been the worst match for hooliganism in the country was Lech Poznan v Legia Warsaw, while the other was Piast Gliwice v Korona Kielce. Lech turned me down, and there was no way I was going to try to get anywhere close to the stadium without a ticket, but Gliwice was happy to let me in for a match in which they failed to live up to their league position, only managing a draw which contributed to them dropping out of the Europa League placings.

Not far from Gliwice is Chorzow; both are former mining and industrial towns in the area of Silesia close to Katowice. I stayed in Katowice last year and was disappointed by the place, feeling I might have been better off heading into Gliwice which has a bit of history to it. Ruch Chorzow responded positively to my request for a ticket, so I decided to stay in the town itself. The approach by rail is grim, the line passes no end of dead industrial sites, where even the demolition seems to have drawn to halt, leaving concrete skeletons sticking out of the ground as a reminder of the times when the area had full employment. However, the town centre is very different – a bright and cheerful pedestrian street (with a bus/tram route running in one direction down the centre), there are plenty of cafes and people enjoying the arrival of warm sunny weather after the dreary rains of the week before. It is not an exciting place, the only building that really catches the eye is the post office at one end of the street, and when I went back after the game, there were few options for beer and food. The Blues Hotel is on the main street, and is a well modernised hotel, even if the entrance (off a courtyard from the main road) is somewhat dreary. I arrived by train, a suburban line out of Katowice which as I discovered was run by a private company and not included on my interrail ticket. I left by tram, more frequent, but slower to make the journey and running along a more modernised road, past the Slaski Stadion which has been well used in the past for international games. The gleaming office buildings on the Katowice to Chorzow road paint a start contrast with the dead industrial landscape of the rail route. It appears that rather than regenerate the areas used in the past, they are being ignored, and neighbouring areas are now used for development instead.

From the hotel, it is a 20 minute walk down to the stadium. Plenty of life around the stadium, and there is a ticket kiosk, so I could probably have managed to buy a ticket. When I ask to find the press accreditation point, I am just waved through and end up in the press room inside the stadium, without first collecting a pass. However, inside the stadium I am introduced to Donata, who I had communicated with by e-mail, and she actually gets a card sent up to me in the stand. Not really required, as I would only now need it to go to post match press conference. There is a newspaper style programme, which was available both at the ground, and also at the club shop in the town centre.

The stadium is clearly recently modernised with the exception of the stand, which provides the only cover. All around the rest is clean fresh concrete steps, most of which (but not all) has seats bolted down. The steps curve around both ends of the stadium, and there is still room if they want to use the ground as a (grassed) track. One end was practically empty, and I asked about the lack of away fans. A journalist told me this end was closed due to incomplete building works, while Donata said Wisla Krakow fans were refusing to travel due to a disagreement with the club’s owner. With Legia having taken the title, and Lech the runners-up spot, there is one Europa League place still to be awareded. Ruch Chorzow start in prime position, three points ahead of Wisla, although only two up on Gdansk, who had already played their game in this round, and beaten Lech. The Polish Ekstrkalasa, or top division now has 16 teams, and after they have completed home and away fixtures the league splits into two sections for single round robin groups, meaning each team plays a 37 match season.

The game started well, plenty of football was being played, creating chances at both ends. I though Krakow appeared to be the better side, and I was not surprised when took the lead midway through the half. If anything, this stung the home side into action, and they levelled through a penalty five minutes later and then took the lead and were now clearly on top. A second penalty, awarded just before half time allowed the teams to go in level at 2-2. Sadly, the second period did not live up to the excitement of the first. Ruch’s best player (and second goal scorer), striker Grzegorz Kuswik went off injured at the break, while Wilde Guerrier, a winger who was making things happen for Wisla dropped back to a more defensive position. As the half drew on, Wisla seemed happy to settle for a draw, conceding a couple of yellow cards for time wasting. As in the game the year before at Gliwice, I failed to understand this approach – a win was within either team’s grasp, and the winner would have been favourites for the Europa league slot. With Ruch facing both Legia and Lech (and both away) in the next games, I feel they have certainly missed the boat here.

Wisla score their penalty




You can’t beat a good Eastern European Floodlight Pylon.

There is a nice little café next to Bratislava station, where they sell the decent Slovak dark beer, and have enough English to understand when I ask for it. I was not intending to stop here, but the train from Katowice into Bratislava stopped just outside the station for 15 minutes, meaning I just missed a connection. With just 30 minutes to wait to the next train, what else is one to do but sample the local beer? The trains to Dunajska Streda are not listed on the Interrail App I have on my telephone. I also cannot find them on the German rail site, normally one of the best train sites on the net, but from the Slovak rail site, I do manage to download the times in a pdf file. The reason I could not find the trains on the App is simple, the interrail ticket is not valid on this route, as it is run by an independent company. It is then hit or miss whether your ticket is accepted on the train, depending on whether the train staff know the rule, and whether they can tell you there is a problem across the language gap. The result is that Peter, on different trains to me, and actually staying in Dunajska Streda gets away with it, while I pay €2.55 on the outward leg, and €1.50 for the return. The trains run by Regiojet and nice modern stock with internet connections, although it did not work on the train I went out on.

I am met by Peter at the station, and we wander into town. It is a reasonable town, but with nothing particular to commend it. We go into a bar just off the town square, where we find the dark beer is not the Slovak beer, but imported wheat beer from Munich, at twice the price. We drink it anyway before completing the short walk to the stadium. The area around the stadium is surprisingly busy, my experience of Slovian football has always involved small crowds, except for an important game at Slovan some 15 years ago. The league table shows the home team to be six points above the last place (only one relegation) with two games to play, that border line between safe and mathematically safe. Spartak Trnava have their Europa League spot booked regardless of the result.

The answer is in a footnote at the bottom of the table. DAC (the general abbreviation of Dunajskastreda Athletic Club) were to have six points deducted from the final table, but they were not shown yet, so the lead over Nitra was actually goal difference only. Why the Slovakians should deduct points and not show them immediately is a local issue. Why the points were deducted is not. One of the early games in the season for DAC was fixed. As it happens, DAC lost the game by 4-0; now betting syndicates fixing matches do not make their money on the heavy favourites for the game winning the match, and no one in their right mind bets on the actual score. The bets are placed early in the second half (when the score was 2-0) for at least two more goals to be scored by the winning team. Naturally this happened. Looking at the video of the game, one can see the defending is atrocious, but cannot safely say the score is fixed. Still four DAC players, (one of which was not in the pitch, having been substituted at half time were charged). Only one of the quartet admitted the charge, but three DAC players and one from another amateur club suffered lengthy bans (for a professional footballer, a 14 year ban is the same as Sine Die). As the points deduction was applied as well, I guess there was some complicity from the club in the affair, although it was not enough to actually throw them out of the league.

Peter had said he had arranged two press passes. I tend not to bother in Slovakia, it was easily possible to pay €5 for entry, despite the big crowd, and one can normally wander around to the press area to pick up the team list. As it happened, we were not added to the list, but were let in as press anyway. The stand areas were full and we ended standing at the back of the press area. We even managed to get something to eat and some very strong alcohol (a local schnapps), as guests of a very drunk Hungarian in the VIP zone, whose English was good enough to invite us in, and tell us he supported Ferencvaros, (although his shirt said Celtic). It was not good enough to tell us why he was at the game (with VIP ticket), or to sort out a ticket for Sunday’s Hungarian Cup Final.

The ground consists of a quite old main stand, with a larger, newer stand opposite. The main stand has been extended with uncovered seating in front of an an office building, and provides a sheltered area acting as technical areas and I think some wheelchair accommodation. The opposite stand has a paddock in front, I think this had bench seats, although no one sat on them.

Both ends are curved behind the grass track, and consist of segmented open concrete stands. The ground is technically all seated, but I would say that over half the crowd did not sit down at any time during the game. Some of the seating is bench, rather than individual seats, especially on the curves. Both covered stands appeared close to full, and the open seating at the town end was close to full, (this is where we would have probably ended up if paying our €5). The main singing section for home fans was in the newer stand, The far end held around 200 Spartak fans, with a line of police in full riot gear (very hot with no shade, and temperatures around 25C) between them and the pitch. Peter has seen a game abandoned due to the antics of these fans, so it may be the police presence is required, but it does not appear they are going to cause trouble today. The game was not bad, DAC needed to points and Spartak were not there to be rolled over. There was only one goal, scored after just 11 minutes when a direct free kick from Szabo curled inside the near post. The game stayed entertaining throughout, despite a little time wasting from DAC near the end, (two yellow cards for time wasting, but the time concerned was not added on at the end – so probably a good deal for the players getting booked). I think this was the best atmosphere for any game I have been to in Slovakia, with both sets of fans singing throughout. At the end of the game, home fans were allowed to celebrate on the pitch, but they were polite enough to wait for the Sparta players to leave first. Nitra lost in Bratislava and hence DAC were celebrating safety, but with only three points margin and a game to go, and a not insurmountable goal difference advantage, there is a risk that the celebration is premature. The crowd of 7009 was the biggest in the country this season, and about three times the average crowd at DAC, (or in the league generally).

I have a couple of beers with Peter, leaving him to complete his meal when I head back to Bratislava. From there it is the night train to Warsaw. I have a sleeper booked, with a lower berth, but it is old Polish rolling stock. The only electric socket is a shaving point, and this does not actually have electricity. I explain to the steward that without power for my anti-snoring machine, I am going to disturb the other passenger, and he moves me to a compartment on my own! Still, I sleep better with the machine, so I arrive tired in Warsaw. Fortunately, my excellent choice of hotel allows me to check in straight away. It’s the Hotel Maria, and receives my recommendation as a hotel labelled as two stars, but would be a good three star hotel if they added a lift! Entering the city at one station and leaving from another, the hotel has the advantage of direct tram links to both.

Rested a little, spending some internet time and using the hotel printer to sort out a ticket for the Hungarian Cup Final, I venture out into the midday sun, (well, I am an Englishman). The city seems larger than most I visit, and has a lot of contrasts, big modern steel and glass blocks near the centre, where we can see it is not completely Americanised – there is only a Starbucks in every second block, contrasting with the meticulously rebuilt “old town”, (it was near to completely destroyed in response to an anti-Nazi uprising in 1944). Even before the war, the old town is not as old as the new towns I had visited in Austria and Slovenia the previous week! There is plenty of open space, but also a massive amount of apartment blocks, and thousands of small shops and roadside stalls, selling just about everything, (although when I asked for shoelaces in a shoe shop, the answer was nyet).

The remodelled National Stadium, as seen from the Old Town

The station for the suburban train to Zabki was typical of the contrasts. One approaches from a dreary street, but to the other side is an ultra modern shopping mall. The train is a rickety computer special, and seats are at a premium. Fortunately, the journey time is only seven minutes. Knowing that I want to leave the station heading away from Warsaw, and seeing what appears to be steps under the line at that end of the platform, I follow other passengers that way. As it turns out, the steps are under construction and the passengers clamber down the three foot drop to the rail level and then just walk across the track. I follow suit gingerly, but resolve to find a better way back to the station. The other end of the station has a path from where a road crosses at level crossing gates. The path runs between the tracks.

The ground is easy to find, and again it follows the Polish rule of contrasts. One side is a really modern concrete stand, while the other is a few rows of rather decrepit open seating. Behind both goals is just wire fencing, with enough advertising banners to prevent any free viewing through the cracks. There are hardly any people outside, half an hour before the start, but most are queuing, either to buy tickets, or to get through the security check to the gates. I am more fortunate, two nice ladies by the central entrance to the stand have a list of VIPs and a small pile of press cards. One of the press cards has my name on it, and I am ushered inside. While those going through security may have drinks bottles confiscated, my option to get water is by taking a similar bottle from a vending machine.

It takes me a few minutes to get water, get a team sheet and then notice some people have programmes and so I go in search of these. They are hidden behind the desk at reception. The programme is a rudimentary affair, four pages of A5 containing the team squads, league table and a team photo. It appears to be only on offer in a VIP area, and to those in the press area that ask for it. I did think that the far side was not actually going to used, but just on kick off, around 20 or 30 Belchatow fans were admitted to this area, most of them missing the actual start of the game.

1

First Penalty, the scorer has turned out of the frame to the right

Belchatow started the day in joint top position with Gornik Leczna, while Dolcan Zabki were six points behind in fourth place having dropped points at home to relegation threatened Rybnik at the weekend. When the game started, it was easy to see Zabki dropping points again, with Belchatow enjoying all the early possession and creating several chances. However, careless tackles in the box seems to be a feature of the Polish game at the moment. After two first half penalties at Ruch on Monday, we had two more here. Both went to Zabki and both were scored. Belchatow came back strongly after the break, making twin substitutions, at half time. I cannot recall any other team not just playing with twins, but bringing both on as substitute at the same time. Why they did not start is not clear, as one of the pair is the club’s leading scorer this season. Anyway, their game was livened up, but Zabki held out until the 70th minute before conceding a goal. Belchatow were not a team for giving up easily and they camped in their opponents half after scoring, but this was to no avail, and the score finished at 2-1. With a total crowd of 650, and only around 20-30 away fans, it was quite amazing to see how much of a security operation was employed to make sure the two groups never met. Clearly, if Zabki defy the odds and win promotion, few is any top division games will take place in this ground. The word is that Polonia in Warsaw could stage their games. Polonia were top division until last season, but their continual financial crisis’s finally caused the club to fold, with a new body starting at level six of the Polish leagues. Even then there were reports that the first game for the new club had to be abandoned when it was interrupted by Legia fans.

The name Dolcan, by the way, is a sponsor’s name belonging to a house building company. They have restyled the ground with the name Dolcan Arena, but while this is written in large letter on the side of the ground, the club do not even include it on the programme, where the venue is listed as Stadion Miejski w Zabrach, (which you can translate as Zabki Town stadium). Ironwork on one of the gates refers to MKS Zabki, (MKS basically means Town Sporting Club, and is a relatively common prefix). It appears though that Dolcan is part of the club’s official name, as SSA Dolcan Zabki. The second gate had the word Dolcan added in ironwork that does not quite match the rest of the gate.

Back down to Silesia, or more precisely, Podbeskidzie. I had to ask what exactly what this club prefix means. It appears it is a name for this ill defined region of Silesia, that would prefer not to be judged with the decayed industrial zones further north. So the best definition would be the “pretty and scenic part of Silesia, close to the Czech and Slovak borders”. In European terms, it is also termed as part of the Beskids Euroregion. This is an example of the type of Eurobabble that gets the Union a bad name. An attempt to promote together for areas in three countries at the point of intersection. The town of Bielsko-Biala is therefore twinned for this purpose with relative neighbours, Frydek-Mistek in the Czeck Repbublic and Zilina in Slovakia. I suspect the only common ground here is those groundhoppers who have been to all three. Meanwhile a European grant is being sought in order to buy a hyphen and a second name so as Zilina does not feel left out in this hyphenated company. The town of Bielskp-Biala is extremely attractive, although my choice of hotel, situated in the old town centre did not seem so attractive when I realised the final stage of the ten minute walk from the station meant dragging my bags up a steepish hill with cobbled paving. The room was also too close to the cathedral, which while being very pretty, has a clock the chimes the hour and quarters. It does appear to stop at night, but then restart at six. I wanted a slightly later alarm call. It is quite a small centre, and I was surprised when wandering around to come across a group of four English groundhoppers, including Eddie. Pete had told me that he thought Eddie was going to the same game as me in Krakow the next day, so I had sent him a text message without reply. It was in fact a mixed message, as Eddie was flying to Krakow and spending time there, before seeing football in Bielsko-Biala and Gliwice. However, they had a tale of woe to tell. They had been told on arrival at hotel that match tickets were near impossible to get, as the game was already sold out. Their hotel knew a friend of a friend and had secured their tickets, but Dave Cox was apparently also wandering around, having failed at the stadium earlier (all closed). I had an e-mail from the club telling me that I would not get a press pass, but I could buy a ticket on the day. They did not say they were already sold out. The reason there was a problem at this less than attractive game is that the stadium has been undergoing a complete rebuild, and only the area behind one goal has been completed, limiting capacity to not much over 3000. Not being one to worry, especially as the station offices were probably still closed, I was easily persuaded back up the hill to the pub attached to the local brewery, (I had already spotted this, and had decided I was going to visit the bar anyway). So a pleasant hour was spent trying the local pale and red ales.

I got to the ground just under 90 minutes before kick off, spotting Dave Cox en route, who said that despite originally being told sold out, they had found him a “poor view” ticket. The first reaction I got at the ticket office was “not possible”, but they were quite sympathetic to the fact I had been told I would be able to buy a ticket. These were not job-worth employees but people who wanted to help when there was a genuine difficulty. Eventually they found some more front row seats with limited viewing. When I said I would take these and then try to move higher up the ground to the press benches, a quick phone call was made, and instead of buying a limited view ticket, I was given the press card denied by e-mail! In the event, there were plenty of spare seats, and I moved from the press box (which was busy, and behind glass) to a seat near the top. While all the tickets had been sold, I imagine quite a few season ticket holders were missing this game. It was of importance to confirm the positions, Bielsko-Biala would be safe from relegation with a win, while only a win could delay Widzew Lodz in being relegated.

When completed, the ground will be a compact two tier stadium and I would think completely seated. For the moment, only the area behind the goal is open. There are a lot of flags flying, but I noticed the number reducing during the second half as club stewards collected most of them in. A singing section was set at one end, slightly around the corner, but the whole stand joined in on occasion. No away fans were permitted, and there were no signs of any trying to break the ban, plenty of police on show just in case. The first period was quite frustrating, with Podbeskidzie on top, but struggling to get any shots on target, the resolute visiting defence seemed to be always in place to block the shot. However, when Pawela successfully turned the Lithuanian defender Leimonas, he was pulled down and we had yet another first half penalty, with Podbeskidzie 1-0 up.

For a long time, it appeared it may stay that way, the Widzew defence were strong enough to withstand the attacks, but they could not put the home goal under pressure. The home attackers were not clever enough to get past the defence. When close to goal it was either an intercepted pass or shot, while from further out, they booted every shot high into the stands. The second breakthrough came just on the hour, when a foolish defenders’ pass gave space to the home attack – and Damian Chmiel became the grateful recipient. The game did open up a bit then, and a third goal was added on the stroke of full time. From the team list, I noted that Podbeskidzie is basically an all Polish side, (the exception being a Slovakian goalkeeper), while the visitors were a veritable league of nations, naming players from 8 different countries. My biggest disappointment here is they did not bring on Kevin La France to give me an opportunity to refer to the player as a French born Haitian defender. I do not think I have used the phrase before!

All six English groundhoppers at the match headed for a bar attached to the castle, which was selling a variety of Polish beers, which we sampled until soon after midnight before turning in.

The umbrellas on the right side of the castle mark the bar

I see Dave Cox again at the station before making my way to Krakow, he has picked on the slow bone-shaker as far as Katowice, but I need to stick to the not much faster and not much quicker service provided by Polish railways instead of the independent company. It is better to know my rail ticket is OK, then to hope they accept it. Dave was paying as he went. I last visited Krakow in 2003. It was a great city, but the then undeveloped Wisla ground was a very wet place to watch football. The city remains beautiful, but it seems to have become much more commercial in the last decade. While I made my way with difficulty when I visited Auschwitz, there are now tours offered on every corner. Of all places, I hope Auschwitz has not become a tourist rip off point as well. I headed down to the football ground of Cracovia, not far from the city centre with a little over an hour before kick-off. I had no trouble in entering as press, although all the signs suggested that I could easily have paid 25 Zloty for a good ticket.

Not so easy for away fans perhaps. Only about 30 in at the start of the game, this doubled in the first ten minutes and then increased massively around half time. The attendance was 6276, but much of the stadium was empty. Except on the South side, it is a single tier stadium with the stands behind the goal having a roof stepped up higher than that along the north side. The noisemakers in the home fans have seats, (they do not sit) behind the goal at the “City End”, while the away corner is at the other end. When all the away fans were in place, we had a fine amount of competitive singing between the two groups. The main stand was two full tiers, and a mini-tier centrally positioned for VIP boxes. This means the roof here is again stepped up from the two ends. An unusual feature at the end furthest from the city (and hence not far from the away fans) is a cut away section immediately behind the goal. I estimate around 600 seats have been sacrificed to create this flat space with a wall at the back. It was being used as a crèche, with a small playground to the back of the area, some children and most parents stood at the front of the section and watched through the mesh fence. I have never seen this type of feature in a prominent pitch side position elsewhere.

Creche and away supporters, early in the game


And again, just before the equalising goal

The relegation positions from this lower group are close to settled, while both teams (Cracovia and Korona Kielce) knew their positions in the Ekstraklasa would be secured with a win, they also had two further games to get the points and even then, these would only be required if Zaglebie Lubin could secure all nine points from their final games, (starting after our game finished at Gliwice where the other hoppers I had seen at Bielsko-Biala would be). Cracovia had the better of the first half, but as at Podbeskidzie the approach play was wasted with poor passing, poor shot selection and blocking defenders. This time we did not have a penalty to break the deadlock, so instead had to rely on a goalkeeping error. This came from a long distance shot by Damian Dabrowski on 37 minutes, which having kept low, somehow evaded the grasp of the Kielce goalkeeper. In the second half, Korona, playing towards their own fans – now all present and in good voice – looked by far the better side but they had the same problems as Cracovia did in the first half. Ball goes down the wing into a dangerous position and then gets crossed to a defender. The equalising goal came midway through the period, through persistence, two shots were blocked by defenders, a third was punched away by the keeper. The punch landed within the area and had dragged the keeper off his line and a well placed shot went over his head back into the goal. Korona lost Piotr Malarczyk to a second booking with one of the three added minutes already taken up. Despite it taking over a minute to get him off the field, the referee did not see fit to add an single extra second to the game. A 1-1 draw will probably satisfy both teams, but leaves both sets of supporters feeling their own team should have won it. Lubin lost the later game, so both will be in the top division to try again next season

So, while I had cheated and gained press passes for all four games, I saw little evidence that there is a real problem accessing the stadiums in Poland. I am sure I could have bought tickets for all the games except Bilesko-Biala an hour before kick off. I would only shy away from two clubs with clear security problems, Lech and Legia

Eurotour of 2014 Part 2.

May 27th, 2014

The journey from Wiener Neustadt to Maribor is straightforward, without even a problem with a short connection time between trains before crossing the Austria/Slovenia border. I was rather pleased about that, as the next onward train was three hours later. The cross border trains are timed to meet the trains that connect with long distance arrivals into Graz, so it may have been held if there was a problem, but I always tend to worry. As I boarded this last train, I met up with Stan who had been to my original choice for Monday, Nöttingen. He had managed to get a train from Graz thirty minutes ahead of mine, although the timetable connection had put him on the same train as me.

Maribor is in Slovenian Syria (Stiermark in German) which shares a close affinity with the Austria region of the same name. As you can imagine this area has swapped hands on many occasions in the past. Much of the historic centre was built when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of the First World War, Maribor should have ended up Austrian as it had a large majority of German speakers, but the Slovenians took the city by force (with little resistance according to their historians). Even though the population had changed within the next two decades to a majority of Slovenians, the mere fact the city had been ‘taken’ in the past meant it was quickly annexed by the Germans in the next war. At the end of the war, it returned to Slovenia, which of course was part of Yugoslavia until it started to break up in the early 90s.

The city is easy to navigate, the centre lies around a ten minute walk from the station, and all the main historic sights are then within a short walk. Almost everything important is on one side of the Drva river, a major tributary of the Danube. Both Stan and I had booked into hotels in the centre. The football ground is just outside the central area, only around a 5 minute walk from the hotel. I was also pleased to note that within a stone’s throw (from a good thrower) of my hotel, there was a local brauhaus, while just down from where Stan was staying, a bar was selling beer from the Human Fish Brewery, billed as “Solvenia’s only craft brewery”. Please do not ask me what a craft brewery actually is? We went to the Brauhaus before the game, and sampled their green and dark beer, while also enjoying a meal. The green beer was exceptional for its colour, but not its taste. It seemed little different from a good lager. The dark beer had much more body and flavour to it, in the style of schwarzbier, (as opposed to Altbier) in Germany. The food was very good and so we set off to the stadium feeling well sated.

The stadion Ljudski Vrt has a quoted capacity around 13,000. They claimed that they might have been able to fill it for a championship defining game, but the crowd would be affected by big student party in town. I thought this was getting excuses in first. As we discovered, Slovenian suffers from a shortage of vowels, and so they have appropriated the letter “r” as a vowel, giving it the sound “er”. I did not ask how this affects the scrabble board in Slovenia. The old and main stand of the ground has a metal roof with the main support from a single curved concrete beam Viewing lines were therefore very good, but I noticed some patches inside suggesting that water had leaked through the roof. Considering it had the potential to hold a large number of spectators, it was lacking for creature comforts – refreshments were available just outside, while the toilets were in the sports hall of an adjacent building. The rest of the ground has been recently renovated, it is all seated, and sheltered by a single wave form roof with high points in the centres behind each goal and opposite the half way line. The roofing was boxed in with semi-translucent plastic material, meaning the supporting beams were not visible. From the outside, there were minimal steel supports above the stand, but this was not to be seen from inside giving a very pleasing effect. The name of the stadium was written against the flat ends of the roofing. The floodlight pylons were tall and in each corner of the ground. These all leant in towards the pitch at a frightening angle, considering there were no forward supports or cable ties – so that all the stresses were carried by the main steel tube.

Maribor started the day with an eight point lead at the top of the table. Second placed Koper were kicking off five minutes later for TV purposes. Maribor have dominated the league since independence, with 11 of the 22 titles including a run of seven in a row and the last three. The positions mean that a Maribor win would confirm their title, while Koper needed to win (and hope Maribor failed to win) in order to retain a small hope of the title. Triglav were in last place of the 10 team league, but could still catch up with Celje (7 points ahead) and Krka (1 point ahead) as their final two games were against the other relegation candidates. One team goes down automatically, and 9th place gets a play-off against a second division team

Triglav set their stall up in a defensive formation 5-4-1 with nine players behind the ball and trying to catch the home team out on the break. It was the correct policy as they did get some chances in this way, but after 17 minutes, Maribor found enough space for their Bosnian striker, Nusmar Fajic to put them ahead. The surprise came on 31 minutes, when a break saw Adjin Redzic running clear of the home defence. To almost everyone in the stadium (including me, but not including the linesman), this appeared offside. I have since reviewed the video and have not changed my mind. The linesman does not have an option to change his mind now. Still, Fajic restored the home team lead a few minutes before the break. I thought Maribor were the better team and would have expected them to increase the lead after the break – but two events stopped this. Their Brazilian defender, Soares Bordignon Arghus received his second yellow card just six minutes into the break and then on 70 minutes Fajic came within inches of completing his hat-trick with a shot across the goal that hit the post. Unfortunately for Fajic, he pulled a muscle in doing so, and was substituted a minute later. With their main creative influence off the field, and down by a man, Maribor pulled back behind the ball. Triglav really wanted a point from this to keep their chances of staying in the division alive, and attacked in some force but with no fortune. Maribor still had occasional breaks and should have scored just before the end. Their player had one defender goal side when the ball was played through, but his effort was still ruled offside. This time the linesman was right – the Triglav goalkeeper had hared down the pitch to try and assist with the attack, so one defender equalled one person, not the normal two.

The match finishes 2-1, and Maribor can celebrate their 12th title, (in the league’s 23rd season). Triglav still have a chance to escape the drop, but this would require at least one win in their remaining games, and a play off.

Our second Slovenian game involved Novo Mesto, which translates as New Town. Now unlike Wiener Neustadt which dates back to 1191, Nova Mesto is really new, being founded by the Habsburg Duke Rudolph IV on 7 April 1365. The Duke was a little egocentric and wanted his new town called Rudolphswerth, but the locals did not agree with this and always referred to it as Novo Mesto. The town sits on a bend of the river Krka (another victim of the great Slovenian vowel shortage). To get there, we had a journey involving three trains, but the connections all worked to perfection, with time for a quick beer at the first change. Our beer of choice for the day was Lasko Dark. This is advertised as a Dark Lager, and has the caramel taste familiar to mild drinkers in the UK. Maybe because of this, it appears to be a relatively light (in strength) beer, but actually is 5.7% ABV. Novo Mesto has three railway stations, but most trains call at all in turn. We elected to get off first at Novo Mesto – this is well outside the town, but the maps suggested it was more built up as a station and we were looking for somewhere to leave our baggage. A good choice, for although there are no lockers at the station, it is manned all day and we were allowed to leave our bags in the station office. This was done fast enough to get back on the same train to Novo Mesto Center, which turned out to have just a small ticket office (which was closed). Center is the best station to see the town itself. The town is worth seeing with an Franciscan Monastery, notable for a spire that has gone rusty, and a cathedral, a pleasant main square (which is not square, but actually a widened road), and good views from the breg (a former defensive wall, now small houses). We stopped for a beer in the square and ended up taking the river side walk from Breg to the ground.

The River Krka at Novo Mesto. The Breg is the line of houses not on, but above the river.

The ground is just across the river from the main town, and can be reached by crossing the bridge by the railway, or a footbridge close by, but on a much lower level. We used the footbridge. The ground consists is part of a multi sport venue, with a track around the pitch. As the land slopes away from the river, it has been levelled out giving a good viewing areas on the far side to the town. A few hundred open seats have added on this side. New facilities have been added to mark the club’s promotion to the top league, with various gantries for TV and radio commentary, and a new VIP area, 50 extra seats with a roof. As even this area has no back or front, I am not certain how well the VIPs are kept in worse weather, but they were OK on our visit, with bright sunshine enjoyed. Kick off was 5 in the afternoon. There are no floodlights, so a later kick off here is rare. I believe the football club has always been known as Krka or Krka Nova Mesto, but it was notable that there main sponsor was the Hotel Krka, (a plush four star hotel near the central station).

The game commenced with Celje, one of the ever presents in the Slovenian League’s top division in 8th place, 6 points ahead of Krka in 9th. Triglav, who we had seen the day before were in last place and could no longer catch Celje, but they were only one point behind Krka. After the day’s action there would be two more league games, with the team finishing in 9th facing a relegation play off. The game is does not start as the most exciting, while it is a sunny day, there is a strong wind blowing across the ground and this is affecting the play. AT the end of the first half, Krka are 1-0 up, but it is a shaky lead. Celje have had more of the ball but have struggled to control it and test the home goalkeeper. It is past midway in the second half when the action starts to hot up. Celje finally achieve something, and their man is bought down in the area, Verbic takes it, but Obradovic in the Krka goal proves up to the task with a fine save. We have to wait twelve minutes longer for the scoreline to change. Carevic, for Krka swings over a corner from the right (into the wind), it goes over the keeper and hits the far post, bouncing in for 2-0. The game is not over though, as with two minutes left on the clock, Obradovic fouls Verbic. This time the penalty is taken by Gobec, and is scored for 2-1. In the final minute, a cross comes over and Verbic gets a good header to the ball, Obradovic pushes the ball out to Jovanovic. Jovanovic shoots but another save, with the ball coming back to him, his second shot is also saved and the ball bounces back to Verbic who finally forces it over the line. Cue a massive protest, first indication from the referee is goal, then he talks to his linesman and it looks as if there may have been an offside. Finally he decides the goal stands and in the meantime, three players have been booked. I have seen the video on the league website, but it is inconclusive about whether Verbic was offside when the initial cross came in. This was only national league game I have ever seen with the Europa League six officials in use, (the previous day’s game only had the standard number). The extra two officials appeared to have no input, except as someone else the players could scream abuse at when a decision does not go their way.

The “Singing Section”, aka “A grass bank”


Obradovic saves a penalty from Verbic (7). Only six officials, still not enough to notice how many players are encroaching.

After the game, a good meal was had, along with more dark beers at the Loka, a restaurant just across the footbridge from the ground. We then made our way along the riverside footpath to Novo Mesto station and picked up our bags for the late train to Ljubljana. From there it was the overnight to Munich, and after an hour’s stop for a light breakfast, onto another train. I left this at St. Gallen, just over 12 hours after leaving Novo Mesto. Stan travelled on to Zurich and then changed trains to Thun. One oddity about the train from Munich to St. Gallen. After leaving its final stop (Lindau) in Germay, it reached the first stop in Switzerland (St. Margrethen) some twenty minutes later. This is self is nothing special, but in between the train stops at Bregenz (Austria). Are there any other train routes that stop in three different countries in twenty minutes?

After two sunny days in Slovenia, it was dull and grey in St. Gallen, if not actually raining most of the time. The city which dates back to the 7th century does not call itself “New”, the disadvantage with Switzerland is that it was always an expensive country when you could get over two Swiss Francs to the pound. Now at under 1.5, it is very expensive. My general budget for the trip is around €50 per night for hotels, which in most places means I can get en-suite, but for 70 CHF (about €60), the room has a sink only, a lavatory down the corridor and a shower on a different floor altogether. The city is interesting, but the famous library appeared closed to the public, although I arrived during the time period in which the sign said it should be open. Later on, I meant up with the FC United fan known from the Kempster forum (http://www.nonleaguematters.co.uk/forum/gforum.cgi) as Oftenscore6. We had a quick beer in the town, and then headed out to the stadium, taking a second beer in a bar close to the station just down from the stadium. The Stadium itself is built above a shopping centre, but there is no evidence of this from inside. Three sides are a single tier while the fourth side has this interrupted to provide the business seats and boxes, in plentiful supply. The attendance for the game was 11268, almost the same as when I went to the old ground – but this season it was for a nothing game at the end of the season, while at the old ground I was part of a capacity crowd. One end of the ground is standing, but with all the talk of “safe standing”, I was certainly not convince by this one. At German new builds and conversions, the standing areas are meant to be convertible to seats, and every row of standing has a barrier in front of it. Here, the steps of the terrace are very high, there is only a barrier on every third row. If and when someone trips, then there is a good chance that of a serious injury, maybe several injuries as one person bumps into another. I would not like to be in there when the terrace was so crowded so as there was more than one row of people on a step. In addition, there was no stewarding to stop people from staying on the steps leading up and down the terrace, (these were crowded with those who had decided they provided good viewing point). The lack of hand rails when you were climbing up or down only increased the risk.

To stand it cost CHF25 – slightly less if you pay in advance. Seats along the sides are around twice this. While the top teams in Switzerland are now capable of matching the best in Europe, (I saw FC Basel get a draw at Old Trafford, and that was wile Ferguson was still timing the games), this quality does not even stretch to the bottom of the division. With both teams safe from relegation and neither at risk of qualifying for Europe, St. Gallen just wanted to close the home season with a win to keep the fans happy. Sion were never likely to actually win this match, but they put up a good resistance for almost an hour. It looked like a catalyst was required to break the deadlock which was threatening to kill the match at 0-0. This was provided by Sion right back Vincent Rüfli, who picked up his second yellow card just before the hour. Within two minutes, Roberto Rodriguez attacked through the gap left by Rüfli and slotted in the opening goal. After a decent amount of celebration, the game went quiet again, especially as despite Rodriguez continuing to appear to be St. Gallen’s most potent attacking option, he was substituted on 76 minutes. Right at the death, though we had a second goal, through Matias Vitkieviez. The fans behind the goal, who had never stopped singing, or blocking the viewing lines with their flags all went home happy. The small number of Sion fans, fenced in to the far corner went home unsurprised, (they are second bottom for a reason).

Inside the ground, refreshment was by card, and Jim had to go back to the ticket office as we left to reclaim CHF1.50 left on his card. The organisation was good, and this was quickly dealt with and we just as quickly board the bus back to town, where a couple more beers were found before we went back to our respective hotels.

Friday was another day ruled, but not completely ruined by the rain. I boarded the train out of St. Gallen just after 10.30 changing at Buchs and Innsbruck to arrive at the small Austrian town of Kundl some four hours later. It actually was not raining as I left the station and started to walk to the hotel. It took just 15 minutes to get to the hotel, and I was soaked when I arrived. Kundl is a small town on the river Inn. There was enough respite in the rain shortly before kick off to allow me to quickly wander around. It is small and unexceptional, but has quite a bit of industry with a chemical works and a timber company. It is the latter which is the main sponsor of the football club, changing the name from SC Kundl to SC Pfizer Holz Kundl. I actually stayed just over the bridge in Breitenbach-am-Inn. The two towns would not have had much to do with each other until the late 19th century when the community of Breitenbach realised they needed a better link to benefit from the prosperity that the railway line had brought to their neighbour.

Breitenback am Inn – viewed from the hotel!

They are building a new dressing room complex, so at the moment, I think the dressing rooms are in the neighbouring swimming baths. At the entrance end, there is catering – one window for drink and one for food, but you have to buy a ticket for the food at the drinks counter! The stand is small, three rows of seats (about 120 seats), a row of standing at the back, and just a path (no barriers) between the seats and the pitch. One has to approach it over rough ground in front of the building works. The announcer was upstairs in the not completed building. Once I started asking around, they came up with a copy of the teamsheet. A simple four page A5 programme was given away on the gate, but did not include the line ups.

The far goal, and the swimmng pool side appeared to be quite tight between pitch and perimeters, but there were rails around most of this (some gaps towards the corners), and I imagine that anyone who delighted in standing in the rain could go around there.

Both sides set up their stall by missing good chances in the early minutes. Reutte then appeared to take control, and put in a few distance shots, but could not work anything of worth. Kundl did not manage a shot on target in the first half. Not at all good as one of their players was bundled over in the area just before half time. Of the four penalties I have seen on this tour so far, only one has resulted in a goal.

Kundl were a little better in the second half, Reutte a little worse – so most of the action was at the same end as in the first half. Kundl did have some shots blocked, but most shots from both sides were well off target. The result was clear well before the end.

Saturday, and I am back on the rails again, with another long hop, taking the train from Wörgl (which is the next stop beyond Kundl) to Vienna, and then changing for Breclav. It was actually not raining when I arrived and walked to the ground. I should not have considered that to be a good sign. The walk was worrying, despite having done some good homework before travelling and even checked the game at the last possible moment with on train internet, (this lasts until arrival in Vienna). While walking to the stadium, I came across another one, with my club name on the gates, which were clearly closed! Even walking down the road that I had the ground listed as, it all seemed quiet, no one around at all. But then as I rounded the corner, I spotted the away team coach and the other stadium.

Trida 1. Maja – no football here!

The one I passed on the way turned out to be Trida 1 Maja, which is used by some of MSK Breclav’s other teams, but not the first XI. It has a very old stand, and also a two sided cover between the first and second pitches. I later noted the name Slovan Breclav, so it is possible there is a lower league team using this as a first team base. The main stadium is Lesni, about five minutes further from the town and station. I walked through the town en route and saw little of interest. Just an odd statueless head by the park by the station. The tourist office was closed, but then this does not look the sort of place that attracts weekend tourists, (or indeed any type of tourist, except those who read and write blogs like this).

An odd statueless head.

Last week, MSK Breclav lost by 6-0. As a way of apology, admission charges for this game had been dropped. Looking around, I think the apology was not accepted by the people of the town. I counted 140 in the ground. The “main stand” is on the left as you enter the ground. This is a curious tall narrow affair with two tiers. The upper tier has just over 100 seats, while the lower one (still upstairs from ground level) has 64 with more space, and is labelled for VIPs. It helps that this one backs onto the stand and club office. I invaded temporarily, and they were happy to let me have a copy of the team sheet, once they could get their printer working. Opposite this is the old stand, a lower longer affair containing at least 500 tip up wooden seats. More seating has been added behind the goal where you enter atop the rather old concrete terracing. These are not covered and were not getting much use on a day where rain was threatening up until the point, half an hour in, when it arrived. The far end is a flat path, separating the ground from a second, 3G surface. There are also a couple of clay courts, which I thought were for Tennis, but the nets were raised high, so either volleyball or badminton.

There is a wide grassed path between the old stand and the pitch, suggesting there once might have been a track, although the end terracing appears to close to allow it, and is not curved. The terracing may only be a couple of steps, but does not appear to be a recent addition.

If Breclav were trying to atone for the previous week, then the first five minutes did not help. Two shots from 1. HFK Olomouc and they were 2-0 down. After that, the first half settled down somewhat. Olomouc were clearly the better team, passing better and more organised in defence, but a couple of reasonable saves, a couple of missed shots and the score stayed 2-0 at the break. Breclav did try, but their long ball game was easy to defend against, and they fell into the offside traps rather too easily. The second half started in the same way as the first – the first two Olomouc shots were scored. Again, the game settled down for most of the half, interrupted by continual substitutions. We did not have rolling subs, but the teams were allowed more than the standard three. Both in fact made five changes. With three minutes to go, Breclav’s Ondrej Lysonek was in a clear offside position, but as the ball run wide to the winger, there was no immediate flag, and the linesman somehow neglected the flag when the ball was crossed back in, and Breclav got the score back to 1-4. Despite ten substitutions, not one second of injury time was added – I think the ref had decided he was wet enough, and so I started my wander back to the station, pausing only to take a couple of photographs en route.

Prague has a lot of football teams, no less than four in the National top division, three at the second level (although two of these are liable to be relegated),and numerous clubs at lower levels. Not only do these tend to have their own grounds in generally easily accessible suburbs, but they all attract a few spectators in their own right. Many have a fair history, once you can unravel the various name changes, mergers, insolvencies and reformations that have occurred. And of course, many kick off in the mornings (generally Sunday, but a few on Saturday as well). My hotel was adjacent to one such club, Viktoria Zizkov who were indeed kicking off their Division Two game early on the day after my arrival.

I have already been to Zizkov, and even though it was nearly 20 years ago, I wandered past the stadium – where locals were already entering the ground, took the tram for one stop, and the metro for four to Kobylisy. I had not noticed at the time that the tram from my hotel would in fact take my all the way, but that would have taken a significantly longer time. From Kobylisy, a short walk up Na Pecich gets you there. If you are not heading up hill, then you have turned the wrong way. A nice clear gate with the name above it, it cost 40 Kcs to enter and an extra 5 for the programme.

The ground almost certainly once had a track, (possibly only ever grass though), the wide gaps between the spectator areas and the pitch give this impression of this, but it will have been lost in a remodelling of the stadium. A small size 4G pitch has been installed above one end of the ground, and that end now has a four meter high wall, dangerously close to the end of the pitch. I would estimate (based on the positioning of the terrace and stand), that the main pitch has moved south between 10 and 20 meters to allow for this. One side of the ground is old and very steep terracing. The other a good sized stand. Behind the goal is a flat area leading off to the football dressing rooms, food and drink and even a restaurant, which had a notice on the door apparently celebrating that Admira had won the Prague skittles championship some five years ago. Sadly the doors to this area were closed, so I could not see if it included a skittles alley. As with many sports clubs in this part of the world, the complex also includes a couple of clay tennis courts.

Judging from the weather, I elected to start to watch the game on the open side, but switch to the seats at half time, when I thought it could rain. In fact it started earlier than that. Both teams were comfortably ensconced in mid-table of the Ceske Football League. Football in the Czech republic has two national divisions, with the third level split between Ceske (as in Czech), and Morovskosleski (Moravia-Silesia). The fourth level has five divisions, which must make things more complex. I believe in normal circumstances, the number of teams relegated are variable to keep the division sizes standard without moving teams between regions. This season could be a case in point as both the teams likely to be relegated from Division two are Ceske, in fact both Prague based. Anyway, there are a couple of park benches atop the rather narrow steep steps of terracing and here I settled for a very enjoyable first half. It did not take long for the visitors, Stechovice to take the lead, but Admira restored parity with a good headed goal following a corner. On the half hour mark, Admira took the lead, but this was pegged back to level six minutes before the break. At the same time, my idyll on the open side of the ground was broken by the first few spots of rain. I braved it until the break, and bought my half time coffee before taking shelter for the second period. Again, Admira took the lead, and again Stechovice levelled the scores, before the away team decided to shut up shop and made some time wasting substitutions in the last three minutes. This time, two minutes of injury time were added (four substitutions used). Neither team used more than three substitutes, but there was an indication more were allowed, Stechovice had a fourth sub prepared to take the field, but the final whistle went before he could come on.

Walking down to the metro station, I was now needing to use my umbrella, but decided to change it when I saw replacements in a shop near the station. The lesson for the day is if you buy an umbrella for about £1.50, it may not be the world’s best design, but it worked for the day at least! So metro back to the main station, and on to the city of Tabor. When I did a travel search for the connection to Sizimovo Usti, where FK Taborsko play, the system came up with an extra hour before leaving Prague, and arriving just 40 minutes before kick-off. This would be plenty of time to walk to the ground, but I decided to spend my hour in Tabor. This is a relatively pleasant town, with a small old town that would be worth exploring a little on a dryer day. I still made my was to the centre, and not at all to my surprise, found there were frequent buses between the towns. This served me in two ways, firstly I could arrive at the ground earlier, and secondly the walk from the bus stop was only half the distance as from the rail station. I used the time honoured method of watching to see what stop other passengers wearing football scarves left the bus, and then following them – admittedly now with the Sat.Nav. to confirm that this was working plan.

FC Taborsko are top of the Czech second division, but in a close battle with Hradrec Kralove and Ceske Budejovice for the two promotion places. The club has only taken this name for two seasons, after merging with (absorbing) the Tabor club who actually played two divisions lower than Spartak Sezimovo Usti. This is unusual, as it is the owner of Sezimovo Usti, that led the transfer. Normally in these respects, the small team (at least in league position) takes the assets of a higher level (but financial struggling) team in order to gain an unearned promotion. This is common practice in the Czech Republic, and even the fans’ team at Bohemians Praha were not above using the method. The town of Sezimovo is the base for engineering company MAS Kososvit and very little else. The ground is arrived down a path between fields and woodlands beyond the edge of town. I was shocked at how poor a venue it was for this level of football. It consists mainly of an old stand, in which around 500 plastic seats have been bolted to old wooden benches. There are still three rows of benches in front of this, but these have a very poor few, and even less protection from the rain than a stand with many holes in the tin roof. Opposite the main stand is terracing, old and bedraggled, it was once bench seating, but anyone sitting on this is taking their life in the own hands, (or at least risking splinters in their posterior).

One end was access to dressing rooms, club rooms, etc, while the other end had was completely open. The ground has a grass track, not marked out, but sections showing enough wear to suggest recent use.

A small section at the far end of the open terrace was fenced off for the away fans. Four of these were wearing colours and were very drunk. I saw them catching the train from Tabor to Prague afterwards, meaning they would not get home until after 3 am. They were not, in any sense of the word sober, or likely to be so in the near future. They did have a number of tickets for the game, presumably complementary from their team, and as their support was not enough to use all the tickets, they were giving them away at the gate. They did not even want the 50 Kcs price tag, so my cost was limited to 10 Kcs for a programme. Incidentally, the away contingent included two more fans I did not meet, a total of six. Four security guards kept them in order!

There is a small section in the stand reserved as “fan club”, and hear the home supporters singing section were based, along with their drums and a couple of trumpets. We ought to bring more brass instruments into English football, I am sure it would improve the atmosphere. Of course, at Cheltenham I think a flutist may be a more appropriate addition. It is not as if we would drown out the music. It was notable that for this game, the fans sang in support of Sezimovo more often than they did for the current name of Taborsko.

It took me a few goes to ask the question uppermost in my mind to someone who spoke English. “What will the club do if they win promotion, surely there is no way this ground can stage football in the top division?” The journalist I spoke to confirmed this. His first words in reply were “That is a question”. It is quite clear that I am not the first person to pose the question. The answer is less clear, but a groundshare at Pribram seems the most likely of solutions if they are in the higher division next season. The one remaining match to be played in Sezimovo Usti in this case is the game against Ceske Budejovice on 1st June. This is about the closest thing Taborsko have to a derby, and it could be a promotion decider. One expects the visitors to bring more than six fans with them. The long term plan lies in a proposed £2 million stadium, which they would like to build in Tabor. I would imagine that the idea of moving to the larger neighbouring town (it’s a 15 minute bus ride) is the main reason for the merger of the teams two years ago. However, the plans are still very much on the drawing board. They still need to get planning permission if it is to ever happen. In England, there would be massive opposition to building a new stadium on a green field site, (I think it is the old ground in Tabor), but in the Czech Republic, it will be down to politics and personalities.

And so to the game. I had needed my umbrella while walking to the ground, and it rained during most of the match, on top of heavy rainfalls in the previous week. The only description I can apply to the pitch was waterlogged. There were no puddles or surface water, but frequent splashes when either ball of player touched the ground. I doubt if the game would have been played in England, but in this part of the world they just get on with things. By comparison, one wonders how much worse the pitch must have been at Frydek-Mistek as this one was called off on the day. Despite this, there was some pretty good football played, with Taborsko always on top. Jakub Hric put them ahead on 11 minutes, and Miroslav Strnad added two before half time, and then completed his hat-trick ten minutes into the second half. This completed the scoring, despite Trinec having Benjamin Vomacka, who was both captain and centre half sent off for a second caution with 20 minutes to play. Vomacka is a player who believes that as the referee played an advantage, he cannot then come back and book him. Sorry, Ben, wrong about that!