The gap between play off semi-finals and final in England has let me with the chance for a short trip to Europe, but with the catch that I had to book the flights before being certain who was playing on which day in the semi-finals, let alone if my boys would reach the final. Once we had confirmed that we would at least be in the semi-finals, we knew that our first leg would be at home, and the second leg would be away, most likely on a Thursday at either Crawley or Southend. The final day of the season changed this around, and we while the away leg was still a Thursday night, it was in fact at Torquay. And I had a nice early flight ticket (from Heathrow).
So my Thursday night timetable (times are approximate) was something like this.
21.30 – Marlon Pack scores a direct free kick, three minutes to play. Its 4-1 on aggregate to Cheltenham
21.40 – final whistle after five minutes of injury time, and a couple of Torquay fans on the pitch
22.00 – the on-pitch celebrations end. Head into the social club attached to the ground, “Boots and Laces”, for a quick (but non alcoholic drink).
23.00 – with some of my friends staying in Torquay and heading into town for more alcohol, I head back to the car
23.45 – pull off the motorway at Exeter, buy diesel and coffee
01.00 – Spend about an hour sleeping (in the car) outside a deserted service station not far from Yeovil
03.00 – Spend about an hour on the internet at the motorway services on the M3
05.00 – Arrive in the area of West Drayton, park car at the quiet end of a housing estate and walk across to bus stop.
05.06 – bus is on time!
05.30 – Arrive Heathrow
05.45 – Clear security (no queue)
08.00 – Leave Heathrow, bound for Vienna. The flight is fine, but why do they have to insist on making the passengers uncomfortable by cramming them on an overcrowded bus before allowing them to board the plane? Sleep through flight.
11.30 (Austrian Time). Arrive Vienna
12.18 First train – S Bahn towards town
12.39 Switch to another S-Bahn line
13.02 – On the “Railjet”, which is in fact an ordinary enough train from Vienna to Graz. You can get the internet (for free) on this train. Try to reply to a call from Cheltenham, which is probably about play off final tickets, but cannot get through. Leave text and e-mail messages.
14.33 – Arrive Graz. The next stage of the journey is by bus, but the “Railbus” does not connect with the “Railjet”. A bus went 15 minutes before I arrived, and I have two hours to wait for the next one.
15.00 – Having confirmed bus departure point, and bought a reservation for an overnight train on Sunday, I have the answer to what to do with the rest of the free time. It involves beer.
16.30 – Leave Graz
17.30 – Arrive Wolfsberg, the whole journey done according to schedule, so its three hours to kick off. Meeting me at the Station was Kevin, one of three other English hoppers already into longer Eurotours of our own. We were to take in three games together, while another of the English contingent was to join us at the second game only
Main Stand at Lavantthal Arena. The “junk” on the track will be used to make up the presentation stage
The game I am heading for is WAC/St. Andra v LASK in Austria’s 1. Liga. The “W” in WAC stands for Wolfsberg, (not to be confused with the German Wolfsburg). St. Andra is a nearby and smaller town. LASK is often referred to as LASK Linz, but this is not strictly correct as again, the “L” stands for Linz. (Pedants may like to tell me that it is actually Wolsberger and/or Linzer). Following in the now common practise, the 1. Liga is of course, the Austrian Second Division. WAC/St. Andra have actually confirmed themselves as champions (and there is only one promotion place) the previous week, rendering the result of this match against second placed LASK as academical, although with a promotion celebration, it will still be the first time the ground has been sold out.
It must be a good place to watch from – it’s near the bar!
One gets quite close to the ground before its location becomes clear. There is not a lot to the place, and there appeared to be deceptively few people walking towards the ground, and trying to find space in the nearby parking areas. Suddenly, one walks past the swimming pool, and the ground is in front of you, and chaos is ensuing. The ticket sales window is marked “Ausverkauf”, and people are still pushing in to try and get their pre-ordered tickets. I had spoken to the club and exchanged e-mails earlier in the week, and been promised one press pass and one match ticket. There was no ticket waiting despite this, and the girl hurriedly wrote our names on two press passes. Not surprisingly when we made our way up the area was somewhat overcrowded. The stewards did not know where the press enclosure was, or that there was a press room we could visit first. The pitch is within a running track, and the only covered accommodation is a stand that runs about the length of one side. Common with many others in this part of the world, there is a pathway along the top of the seats, but this has been broken up by a very plush VIP area in the centre, which has been added over the original path.
The opposite side has a few rows of uncovered terrace with a grass bank extending beyond this, the away enclosure is just a small area of grass banking with a couple of safety barriers, and as the grass bank runs around the corner, there is more space for home supporters to sit on the grass banking. This area even has its own bar, whereas in the main stand, one has to visit the bars and Wurst stalls behind the stand, or simply wait for the beer to be brought to you. Oddly, the size of this space id defined just be a temporary barrier and two stewards – they could have added room for a couple of hundred more by extending this further, even if views would have been distant, from beyond the curve of the track. The town end of the ground is closed to spectators.
Away fans enclosure of protest. No prizes for getting the name of the person they want out. Not only is Her Reichel being pictured as Pinocchio, but something is leaking from the end of his nose!
As a game of football, it was a poor advert, and we had given it up as goalless long before WAC/St. Andra scored in the 89th minute. What little football played in the game was actually played by the visitors, playing with a more direct approach, WAC always seemed to try to play the ball around, perhaps looking for a perfect goal but instead conceding possession. The crowd was announced at 5000, although I suspect it was less than this. It was however too many in most areas. Locals tell us that some or all of next season’s Bundesliga games will be switched to Klagenfurt, which is best part of an hour’s travel away. This could lead to a curious situation where the games moved, because WAC’s Lavantthal Arena cannot cope with the prospective crowd, are in fact played in front of a less crowd than those kept in Wolfsberg. Meanwhile, LASK, despite being in contention for promotion until the week before our visit, have not been awarded a licence for either National Division next season. This will probably be resolved, but at the moment there is a risk of them being demoted. The LASK fans that made the journey were in the mood for protest, and clearly laid the blame for the problems (which are financial) on the club president. With Austrian football dependent on the largesse of sponsors, as it cannot possibly pay its own way on gate income alone, (and the TV income is not great here), the job of the club president is to secure the sponsorship required to provide a budget and keep the club in the manner the fans would like to expect. At many clubs, the club president is the main sponsor (RZ Pellets at Wolfsberg), while other sponsors are often companies that would like to do business with the main sponsor. LASK is one of the old style, where the president is not providing from his own pocket. Having managed to argue with, and hence lose two major sponsors in the last year, the fans demand he should leave is perhaps, not misplaced.
For the records, I did not pay, and could not see any admission prices, while a 4 page A4 programme was given away free.
Celebrating in the now familiar style.
Reversing the last parts of the previous day’s journey, I returned to Vienna on Saturday morning. I had time to book into my hotel before using the local U-Bahn services to get myself to Simmering, within the city’s southern suburbs. Austrian Football has two National Divisions of just ten clubs each. The teams play 36 matches a season in a double round-robin system. Generally these are full time professional clubs, although attendances alone can certainly not support this. The third level is the semi-professional Regionalliga, which comprises of three Divisions, Ost (East), West and Mitte (Middle). Promotion opportunities for the Regionalliga teams are limited, with just 1½ available per season. Before any reader complains that it is not actually possible to promote 1½ teams, I would say this is the closest approximation to the truth. Each of the three divisions having just ½ of a promotion place available. The bottom team in the 1.Liga is relegated and replaced by the winner of a play off between two of the three Regionalliga champions. The third champion gets to play against the team finishing second to last in the 1. Liga. All of this is subject to limitations, such as a requirement to gain a licence for promotion, or to keep hold of one to avoid relegation, and the fact that reserve teams are no longer allowed in the 1. Liga.
Relegation from the Regionalliga is more straight forward, there being 9 state leagues at the next level down, and these are divided among the Regionalliga on a strict 3 to 1 basis, so the Champions of Burgenland, Vienna and NeiderOsterreich will all gain promotion to the Regionalliga. Licence requirements still exist, but are easier to comply with, and reserve teams can reach this level (10 of the 48 clubs are reserves). My match was at 1. Simmering SC, champions of the Wiener StadtLiga in 2011, but now at risk of returning to the lower league. An interesting and well thought out development borders one side of the ground. From the road, this looks quite typical with businesses on the ground floor, and housing above, but one end of the ground floor of the development is the football club’s clubhouse, and with the pitch level significantly lower than road level, the basements of the building include the dressing rooms. Just outside the clubhouse there is a balcony providing an elevated view of the pitch, something not available to those selecting to sit. Two rows of seats, the front one being at pitch level are provided on below the balcony level, and on the far side. On two sides of the ground, there are grass banks with a level area at the top, and this is where the majority of the crowd are watching from. There is a sizable encampment of visiting fans from Wiener Sportkub enjoying the sunshine on this bank, regularly regaling us with songs about how good they are and that they were going to score in a minute. Their efforts no doubt fuelled by an additional bar open on that size. The quoted attendance of 750, paying €10 for adult admission will be the best or close to best of the season. No programme was available. Sportklub were incidentally, the second Austrian club I visited, back in 1989. St. Polten, whom I visited the day before Wiener Sportklub were at home again the day before I was to see SK again. This was the last game at St. Polten’s Voith-Platz, which is to be demolished.
Simmering take the lead with an early penalty
If the fans of Wiener Sportklub thought they were going to have an easy day, they were mistaken. Simmering took an early lead with a 6th minute penalty, and then increased this on 33 minutes. The task for WSK was made more difficult with one of their forwards getting marching orders for a second booking early in the second half. The player concerned then had his “Joey Barton” moment as he appeared more violent after receiving the card then before it. A third Simmering goal was added midway through the half, giving a final score of 3-0. Not only does this lift Simmering out of the relegation zone with two games to play, but it also helps their goal difference, a vital matter if two relegation places are to be chosen from one team now on 33 points, and four on 34.
Within a few minutes of the game finishing, we were in a taxi – four of course is the ideal number here, as the journey we had planned, not much over 3 miles cost €16, a lot on your own, but quite manageable when shared. As I have mentioned, Wiener has one of the nine Stadtliga that make up level 4 f the Austrian pyramid. Below this there is no symmetry, as each of the areas defines the best system for lower football. In Vienna, this means two parallel divisions, (called A/B, but I think it is basically a North/South distinction, with those in group A being more Southerly). In most other areas, covering mush greater geographical footprints, the number of divisions increases as you drop down. The structure in Vienna, below the Stadtliga, is Oberliga, 1. Klasse, 2. Klasse. In Vienna at least, there are only a few reserve teams in the league structure, and these are the reserves of teams playing at a higher level. For those in the Wiener Liga structure, your reserves play parallel leagues to the first team, and are promoted and relegated on the first team’s merits, not their own, (Belgium runs a similar structure). The reserve fixture invariably kicks off either two hours before or after the first team game, at the same venue, but not necessarily the same pitch.
We went to the Franz Hölbl Anlage, home to KSV Monte Laa of the 1. Klasse A, (and also of SV Wienerberger who play one division higher). From the entrance, one climbs to a bar and dressing room, and then have to move higher again to the pitch. What one then found was two railed of pitches, one grass, one artificial. The grass pitch had advertising hoardings as infill, and a couple of rows of bench seats on one side. Peter insists that the pitch itself is named the Anker Arena, (after the club sponsors), and the unsold advertising hoardings certainly had this printed on them, and the name was used (with that of Franz Hölbl) on the official team sheet. Then again, Peter would be happy to count the artificial surface as another ground if her were to visit it on another day, whereas I tend to consider it to be another pitch of the same ground. Such subjects can cause endless debates in groundhopping circles, and I believe that I am now in a minority over some of the grounds I have visited twice, but counted as just one ground. Of course, to non groundhoppers, it is debates like us that prove that we are obsessive anoraks who cannot get a girlfriend, (but then both Peter and I are married). Admission to the ground for this game was free, although the signs said that SV Wienerberger charge €5. Not surprisingly there was no programme.
Seating at Franz Hölbl. Peter is the one shading the sun from his eyes, and effectively hiding two other hoppers from the view
The football at this level was poor to say the least, it lacked any sort of pace at all, and was clearly an end of season match of little importance. The home side, who like to take the name KSV Anerbrot Monte Laa to honour their main sponsor, took the lead early in the game, and increased to 2-0 before half time. The visitors, Margaretner AC had to make a hurried change to the teams before the start as their team captain, Ulrich Stabel was late arriving. He came on as substitute after just 21 minutes, but really made an impact 11 minutes from the end, pulling one goal back. Margeretner then scored again in the final minute to secure a draw from the game. Up to that point, the most interesting thing about the away team was their kit. All black, but in order to publicise a Turkish café as sponsor, a hashish pipe and the sponsor’s name shown on the front
The Viennese Leagues always have a few Sunday morning fixtures. At Stadtliga level, I had noticed three, two with kick offs at 10.15, and one at 11.00. My original plan would have sent me to Donaufeld, for a 10.15 kick off, but by the time I had taken breakfast, checked out of my hotel and taken my first U-bahn of the day to Westbahnhof where I could lock up my baggage, I calculated another U-Bahn would get me to Florisdorf only around half an hour before kick-off, leaving me with a long walk and a short time. So instead I took the U-Bahn to Stadlau and rather lazily took the bus four stops, (this is what happens when you have a day ticket). There is an adjoining S-Bahn Station, and if you approach from this side, you see a big gate announcing FC Stadlau, and leaving a gap where some sponsors name has been added in the past. The gate is not used, and is only notable for a couple of containers next to the gate, one of which is marked USA Exhibits. The actual entrance is from around the corner, past a car park, two other pitches (at least one artificial surface) and a small swimming pool. Although the football stadium has a running track and a large stand and is enclosed, the dressing rooms are actually shared with the swimming, and all the players enter the pitch via the pay gate. They did not, however, pay €7 to get in.
This is Stadlau!
Surprisingly, I failed to get a team sheet. Austria has one of the most sophisticated systems for player registration, and even at the lowest level, the referee will have a computer in his dressing room. He enters the team list into the system before kick-off, this gives an immediate check on suspensions or other irregularities. This can then be printed from any computer with access to the internet, but at Stadlau, the printers were in the referee’s room, and he did not know how to manipulate the software to print me a copy. I settled for writing it down by looking at the announcer’s computer screen, and then checking against the internet later.
Still the pulled out the stops in other ways, with dancing girls to greet the players as the entered the pitch, and a more than acceptable match. League positions suggested a home win was on the cards, but this reckoned without Rainhard Siegl, who scored early for the visitors, ISS Admira Technopool early in the first half, and then again midway through the second, after Wendl had levelled for the home team just before the break.
An Admira Technopool free kick blocked by the wall
The pitch also shows American Football markings, and appears to be shared with the Donau Dragons. During the second half, I discovered there were three other groundhoppers present, from Germany and Poland, (there are a lot of Germans on the circuit, but this was the first Pole I had met). They were going onto DAC, Dunajska Streda in Slovakia for a 5.30 game, making use of the fact the station outside has direct services to Bratislava. Oddly, they had planned to leave this match 15 minutes early to catch a train, which in an anathema to most British hoppers. They said this was not their preference, and then checked their train times, realising there was another train to Bratislava after the match finished, and it would still get them to their destination 45 minutes before kick-off, they changed their plans.
Possibly the best feature of Austrian Football – the answer to the question, “Where’s the bar?”, is “Over there, next to the pitch”, although of course, there will always be an indoor bar as well, in case of poor weather!
For those riding into Slovakia for the afternoon, it may have been clock watching, I had only a few stops on the buses and U-Bahn to Prater for the Austrian Cup final, with plenty of time to pick up my ticket (€32.50 for a good seat, although this was with two additional charges added to the face value of €28). I even had time for lunch before the match, knowing that of we had extra time and penalties, I cold be in a rush later.
Despite renovations when staging the European Championships, the Ernst-Happel or Prater Stadion in Vienna is showing its age. One enters the ground, goes straight up concrete stairwell and through another gate to your seat. There is no plush modern concourse to provide a massive choice of overpriced comestibles, just small rooms with a limited choice. With the match taking place at four o’clock on a very hot afternoon, the organisers did not help, opening the side of the ground where fans could swelter in the sun, but using only a few of the shaded seats opposite (the main VIP area). This also meant no fans, (only VIPS) anywhere near the actual cup presentation. Still, my €32.50 bought me a very good seat, which I then changed twice, firstly to move away from a smoker (you can still smoke in Austrian stadiums, even in the stand at WAC, which had a wooden roof), and then to get out of the burning sunshine. There were no programmes on view outside the stadium, or at the entrances, so I went in thinking one had not been published, but on reaching the seats, I found that one had been left on each seat. I am not sure if this extended around to the seats behind the goals.
Unlike many stadiums, the roof of the Prater is lower opposite the centre line compared to the end. The line of the top of the third tier of seats, however is even all the way around.
SV Ried brought the most fans, who made the most noise, and dropped the most litter
The Salzburg fans bask in the Sunshine.
Red Bull Salzburg dived and cheated their way to winning the Austrian Cup final, completing a double with an emphatic 3-0 win over SV Ried. They were ably assisted in this by Thomas Einwaller, who clearly has no idea that it is possible for a football to fall over without being fouled. Now do not get me wrong, Salzburg’s opponents were not afraid to make the odd dive themselves, it is just that Salzburg took more tumbles, more often, and were clearly better at this aspect of the game. The first major decision of the game was a penalty that gave Salzburg the lead after just ten minutes, and this was for a dive. Sadly for the visitors, when one of their players took the chance to fall over in the area early in the second half, the referee ruled that this was a clean challenge. I find all this cheating somewhat disconcerting, and especially the fact that the officials seem oblivious to it going on. I assume they do not suffer the same level of scrutiny as given by, say, “Match of the Day” in England, as surely the criticism would be so severe, they would either learn or resign. On one incident, the referee awarded a questionable free kick to Ried. As the players were running back, a Salzburg player “bumped” into Ried player and collapsed to the ground. All three of the officials seemed blind to this happening, taking action only when the repercussions of the incident almost led to a fight, (well fists were raised but not used – this is Austria). After seeing me get irate over the diving and officialdom, two very attractive young ladies took time to ask me what I was doing in Austria. The said that part of the fun of Austrian football is all the crazy refereeing decisions, and seeing who can make the most theatrical fall to the ground. Not only that, the actually seemed disappointed that I was leaving the country that evening (overnight train), and therefore could not have a drink with them.
Salzburg are actually capable of some quite good football, and having gained an early lead, (which became 2-0 in the 14th minute), most of the possession was with Ried. As their moves inevitably broke down, Salzburg could then counter attack with pace on both wings (Svento and Zarate) as well as through the middle (Leonardo). Zarate and Leonardo are two of the worst divers in the team, but Svento impressed me. For those of you of the right age, you may remember Dick Dastardly of “Wacky Races”, whose plots to win the races always backfired and led to him losing. My thought was that he clearly had the best car, as he could get ahead to try and bring these plots against the other drivers. Hence, I concluded, if he just drove fairly, he would have won all the races anyway. Salzburg also have the ability to win without recourse to cheating, but choose not to do so. The difference, of course between the real world and TV cartoons is that in the real world cheating does work.
In the end, the record books show, Salzburg holding the cup