Archive for the ‘The European Game’ Category

Eurotour of 2014 Part 4

Sunday, 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

Thursday, 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.

Tuesday, 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!

Eurotour of 2014. Part 1

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Needing to keep my plans flexible, I started with a Airmiles ticket from London to Frankfurt. Neither Airport is exactly easy to navigate, as shown by the fact I spent longer on the ground at each, than I did in the air between them. I wanted to book an overnight train for Wednesday, and finding the Reisezentrum meant going to one part of the airport station, but then walking back to the other section for a train into the city centre. I stayed at the Excelsior, almost adjacent to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. It is a convenient and not pricy hotel which includes the stock in the minibar (beer, water, orange juice) and breakfast in its price. With an early start on a train stopping in Achaffenburg, it may have been better to stop there, but I had already booked an unchangeable room before picking on the route for the morning. On a tour exceeding two weeks, one is bound to miss a train or two, but I had not expected this to happen on the first day – and it was all my fault. Sitting in the hotel room and surfing the net over later parts of the tour, I forgot the time difference between the computer clock and Germany. Hence my plan to arrive in Achaffenburg well before kick off and have a leisurely walk to the stadium were replaced by rushing straight in from the station, (still arriving 15 minutes before kick off). Achaffenburg sits close to the Hessen/Bavarian border, and in recent years its club, Viktoria had deserted Bavarian football for the lesser journeys in the more Westerly league. When the leagues were re-aligned two years ago, the club were faced with the choice of either staying where they were, in the fifth level Hessenliga, or taking a promotion which their league position did not justify to the new, fourth level, Regionalliga Bayern. There was a vote on it, and it was overwhelmingly in favour of the Bavarian option. Two seasons later, the lure of a higher league dominated by the reserve teams of the two Munich clubs does not look so bright. The option to switch back is not open, and so Aschaffenburg will be relegated to the Bayernliga Nord. Eight miles up the road, and still in Bavaria, Bayern Alzenau (also Bavarian, as the name suggests) play in the Hessenliga.

In the Regionalliga, the closest geographical rivals are Würzburger Kickers, and this is the match I am seeing. There are plenty of police in force, but the rivalry is not backed up by years of playing each other, as the teams have been in different regions until the last two seasons. Anyway, it is hard to create animosity when crowds go below 500. The Stadion am Schönbusch is just across the river Main from centre of the city. It has concrete stepped terracing (no cover) along one side and behind the town end goal, (where the away fans are penned in). This probably once curved around to the South side, but has been replaced by the main stand. A large construction held up by a mesh of steelwork. It does not look as if it has been sitting there for all the 25 years since Viktoria’s short stay in the 2.Bundesliga – but it has stood for many years, and is clearly meant as a permanent structure. Two more, older stands sit behind the goal at the Western end of the ground with the players entering and leaving the pitch from between these. From the terracing, one has to stand at the top to see over the fences that still blight most of Germany’s grounds, so I elected to pay the extra €4 for the tribune. The seats behind the goal are at the same cost €8 as the terracing. The A4 sized programme is free and handed over with the tickets. For the team sheets, a simple request suffices. The 6.30 kick-off is proscribed by the lack of floodlighting at the ground.

Technically, Viktoria Aschaffenburg were not relegated before the days starts, should they win three games, while Bayern Hof get no more than one point, and … loses all three, then they would get into the play offs. There is a lack of belief in this possibility, both on and off the pitch. Kickers have the best of the early attacks, and in particular they are strong on the right side. In the sixteenth minute, a low dive from around the edge of the area finds the target and Würzburg have the lead. Job done, the game immediately becomes comatose, and nothing of note happens up to the half time interval. At half time, Viktoria shuffle the side, switching from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 and moving their small Japanese player (whose hair has an unnerving appearance of moving independently from his head and getting worrying close to reaching a resonant frequency in it oscillations) to the centre of the field. Nagakawa had been the only player in the first period who showed any flair, and by moving position he did not see the ball for nearly 30 minutes. Midway through the second half, and almost out of the blue, Guilio Fiordelisi finds space on the left wing and sweeps in an equaliser. Suddenly the game comes to life as both sides decide to enter a competition for missing the target from the best position. Naturally even here Würzburg lead the way, missing twice as many easy chances as the home side, but then as the clocks tick over to injury time Ricardo Borba messes up and actually scores the winning goal from just inside the left corner of the penalty box.

With 90 minutes before my train out, I take my leisurely stroll through the town. There is a pleasant old town, well preserved and kept apart from the modern shopping zone. Meanwhile from any direction, including the football ground, the view is dominated by the large red block of the Schloss Johannisburg, sitting in a prime position above the River Main.

The plan for this trip is to sleep in hotels whenever possible, and then travel early in the day, and Saturday involves a typical journey, leaving the hotel in time for the 07.30 off Frankfurt, heading for Salzburg with a change at Munich. The ICE provides a comfortable platform for sitting and writing up my notes so far. The train is busy but not full and I get a pair of seats without having to search. There are a few police and some Eintracht fans around, but they are not heading into Bavaria. Football support in Germany tends to be more regionalised than in England, but Bayern Munich does take support from all over Bavaria, and there are plenty of red scarves and shirts in the train, even though it arrives in the city at 11.00, four and a half hours before kick off. Then I know some Cheltenham fans who would consider this to be a shortened day as far as drinking time is concerned.

Getting on the S-bahn at Salzburg, things are so quiet I almost think I am in the wrong place – then I spot about half a dozen fans bedecked in Violet colours, and carrying a crate of beer. Well, it is 12 minutes, and they would not want to get thirsty, would they? Directions from the station to the ground. One of the visiting fans asked a local at the station – he pointed upwards. This is accurate! I took a slightly longer route, to check on the village. It is small, not very interesting and very closed. The name, Seekirchen suggests a lake side church, but it appears the lake is some distance away. The ground is the Sportplatz, and has three football pitches, with a double sided stand positioned between two of them. There are a number of clay tennis courts, and two beach volleyball courts, as well as a sprinting track. No cricket square though. Taking advantage of being at the top of the hill, the clubhouse has been built well above the pitch level, a two storey building with the dressing rooms upstairs. There is a balcony upstairs, a terrace below (lots of seating and table for your beer), and a terrace half way down (the level with the track). A lot of people were watching from these vantage positions, which is just as well as the rest of the ground is one sided, with the stand and the top of the grass banking each side of the stand. Surprisingly there is no barriers marking off the pitch, some temporary fencing was added in front of the stand while the rest of the pitch is marked off with tape. Looking back at the records, the crowd was 350 for their last game. In England, a club like this would really need to do a lot of work before being in a league with 350 people present. For the visit of league leaders Austria Salzburg, the official crowd figure was 1200. I would have guessed more. Admission was €10, no programme was available, but beer was. Austria Salzburg was formed by fans after the original club of the same name (founded 1933) was renamed Red Bull and changed colours. Not surprisingly, they have a close affinity with AFC Wimbledon and FC United. They started in 2006/7 in the seventh level of Austrian football – they won league titles and promotion in each of their first four seasons, but the Regionalliga has been more difficult and this is their third season at level 3. Just to rub salt into the wound, Red Bull’s nursery club, Liefering won promotion last season and now share the Red Bull Salzburg stadium. This season, Austria Salzburg have gone through unbeaten with 22 wins and four draws before I arrived in Seekirchen. Still with second placed Wattens winning the night before, they cannot take the title in this game, as a win would leave them nine points ahead, three to play.

After a quick check to make sure no English Ground Grader is watching, the teams leave the dressing rooms (Seekirchen in White)

The first half of the game was played at a slow pace, which just occasional touches from either side to convince us a game was in progress. Not surprisingly, Austria Salzburg had most of the good chances, with two poor misses and two good saves from the lengthily named Matthew O’Connell-Harold, (not very Germanic, I thought). The best chance comes in the last minute, when Seekirchen send the ball across the face of the goal just inviting a touch that never comes. It would be more than 30 minutes of game time later before Seekirchen get the ball into their opponents penalty area again. In the second period, Salzburg just camp out in the opposition half. It looks like it is just a matter of time before the home defence is breached. Sometimes appearances are deceptive. This was not one of those times. On 63 minutes, Marko Vujic is given too much space on the edge of the area – his shot goes in to the top corner. The second comes from a free kick on 73 minutes, Rajic the scorer, while Onisiwo delicately flicks the ball over O’Connell-Harold with three minutes left on the clock.

Salzburg fans greet their team before the start of the second half#


Ball watching – none of the players in the picture can get to touch the ball as it moves through the cameras line of sight for the second goal.

I expected the visiting fans to invade the pitch at the whistle, but they all stayed their ground. None rushed back to the train though and I think I was the only spectator to the station for the first train, 20 minutes after the whistle.

Two years ago, I had chosen Stadlau over Donaufeld as my Sunday morning game before seeing the Austrian Cup Final. The main reason for this was that it was starting a little later, and was easier to get to from where I was staying, so I could have an extra half hour in bed. Donaufeld did not feel put out by the news and have stuck to Sunday morning kick offs at 10.15. The opposition was Stadlau, so I did not have the choice this time. First against second in the Wiener Stadtliga, one of the nine divisions at level four in Austria. The league runs on to Mid June and there are six games including mine to play, but with a 12 point gap between Donaufeld and the visitors, there was little chance of this being a crucial fixture.

The ground is relatively easy to get to, a 15 minute walk from Florisdorf station, or two tram stops and a two minute stroll. Even though my U-Bahn ticket was valid on the tram, I elected to walk there. The ground features a large and relatively modern stand along almost the entire length of one side. Eight rows of bench seats and a small announcers’ box where they were happy to let me view the team sheets. (€7 to enter, no programme). There were a couple of stalls selling food, drink and tombola tickets by the entrance and a small bar/clubhouse with a lot of photos of the team. It is notable that the have clearly one the Stadtliga several times in the past, but there is no mention of any honour at higher or lower levels! There is a second pitch behind the main stand, but this has now been fenced into two mini pitches. As a sports club, it also offers a couple of clay tennis courts.

It started to rain just as I arrived, and rained (often heavily) throughout, so I only ventured away from the stand to buy half time refreshment. A few people stood under unmbrellas in this area, but no one watched from the other sides. There was no access in front of the monolithic dressing rooms at one end, and I did not investigate whether one could access the far end through the stand (and then walk on to the far side). The game was not a classic, but was also not dull. Neckam made several fine sides to keep Donaufeld at bay, but the best chance fell and was missed by his teammate, Philip Wendl. A long distance shot was parried by the home keeper and the loose ball fell to Wendl with an open goal in front of him. Somehow he mis-kicked and it went high and wide. Stadlau’s chances were not helped when Wendl’s strike partner, Arben Selami received a second yellow card in the 56th minute, and the team were reduced to playing 4-4-1. Still they did enough to keep out the home side for home the eventual 0-0 draw will not be seen as a hindrance to their title ambitions.

With the rain now quite heavy, and despite the fact my local transport ticket had timed out (and the nearest place to buy a new one was at the station), I took the tram back to Florisdorf. From there on to Wiener Neustadt, unconcerned by the increasing rain until I had to contend with the half hour walk with nothing except a damaged umbrella for company. When one reaches the main road, the cars do not slow down or avoid the surface water hence splashing any suspecting pedestrian, (well me actually, no one else was walking this way). It was very early, so I was unconcerned that there was no one around, and at least I had the matchday parking restriction signs to confirm I was heading to the right place. SO it was only on arriving that it actually dawned on me why there was no activity. The gates were open and the ticket sellers booths were closed, with just a sign to say, Abgesaft. While I did not need a translator, I did enter, hoping to find a chance to dry a little before heading back. The clubhouse was closed, but I found my way to the offices which were staffed. They confirmed (in English of course), that the game was off, and that it had been re-arranged for the next day. They even called a taxi to stop me having to walk back to station

SO I was left with a quandary –should I return to Wiener Neustadt the next day and hope the weather did not intervene again, or should I stick to the original plan- a fifth level game in Germany. With the travel options out of the German game being poor, a late night train with seats only, while Neustadt offered a hotel and a connection starting at 10.30 in the morning, a phone call to the club early in the morning made up my mind. The pitch had recovered and unless there was (unforecasted) heavy rain, the game would be on.

It turned out to be a good decision to stay in Austria for the held over final game of the season

Wiener Neustadt translates as Vienna Newtown, and could fill the unwary traveller with fear based on the dull new towns in England, but of course, once the name Neustadt is given, it remains even though the town grows old. The town actually dates back to 1191, possibly the oldest “New Town” in Europe. It was built up with funds procured by capturing (as they called kidnapping in the 13th century) the King of England (aka Richard I), and ransoming him. Little, if any of the town is that old, but its 18th/19th century heritage makes it a more than pleasant (if rather quiet) place to visit.

The unimaginatively named Stadion Wiener Neustadt (wot, can’t find a sponsor?) once had a track, but this had been covered by artificial grass. The main field is grass, (which was waterlogged 26 hours earlier), and slopes gently down at one end, the slope is not consistent and I think the worse puddles were actually near the top end. There is a long stand on one side, 8 rows of seats with a wide path at the top. They charge €15 to stand on the pathway, and €20 for a seat. They do not put in stewards to sort out who has the seating tickets. At the back of the pathway are food and drinks outlets and they have thoughtfully bolted a flat surface to the barrier between the standing and seats (with a slight wall as well), so you have a surface for your beer glass, (well beer plastic), and if you do knock it, it does not have to go all over someone sitting in the back row.

The track was once surrounded in part with a grass bank, but much of this opposite the main stand has been concreted with seats put down, and a further seatng stand (the scaffolding type) had been placed square behind the bottom goal, mainly inside what remains of the track. All these seats are uncovered. One section of the side opposite the stand has been left as concrete steps, and fenced off for away fans. Only a small portionof the home fans chose the uncovered areas.

And so, the battle for 8th place in a league of ten teams in which only one (Wacker Innsbruck) gets relegated. The match was billed as a local derby, although the two Vienna teams (Rapid and Austria) are far closer to Admira Wacker Modling’s Sudstadt Stadion. They do play in Niederostereich (Lower Austria), and not Wien itself, so there is some excuse for inventing rivalry. The game was a contrast of styles, the visitors were determined to pass their way through the home defence, while the home team were more in favour of fast moves, and route one.
I made Markus Glanzer, the Neustadt goalkeeper man of the match. He made two critical saves at 0-0 and then got the assist for the opening goal. His long kick bounced twice, bamboozling a rather slow defender and allowing Thomas Froschl to lob the ball over the Wacker keeper. Wacker almost got back on terms, with a header against the bar from a corner, but Neustadt’s next corner was better, headed on to Froschl to score again.

In the 42nd minute, Wacker should have pulled one back. Glanzer pulled back Rene Schicker as the midfielder tried to run around him. It looked foolish as the player was moving too fast and was unlikely to have been able to control the ball. Even if he had it would have been a difficult angle. Fortunately, the referee agreed with my thoughts and only gave a yellow card. Glanzer did not get anywhere near Stefan Schwab’s chipped penalty. Not many players try a chipped penalty – although it is guaranteed to go over a diving keeper, one that stands his ground has a good chance. The other thing, as we saw is what goes up comes down at its own pace – in this case bouncing off the bar for a goal kick!

The wrong way to take a penalty

I still fancied the game had life. I just though Wacker were too good to be 2-0 down. Two corners early in the second half proved my point – 2-2!
Between these, Frschl missed a chance to complete his hat-trick, and if a dangerous free kick from the right had found a head, then Wacker may have been 3-2 up. Instead, their defence parted again, the ball again fround Froschl and this time he did complete his hat-trick. Another excellent save from Glanzer kept the lead for Neustadt and Froschl now turned provider, crossing for subsitute Pichlmann to make it 4-2 in the 80th minute. Pichlmann then added the final goal with three minutes to play, and the season which had gone on 26 hours longer than intended was brought to a close.

Defeats like These

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The surprise move to India.

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

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

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

Picture stolen from facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Oslo File (1).

Friday, June 21st, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reaction to Keatsie’s song.

The European Hop, (part 1).

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

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

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

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

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

FC Kray 3-2 SV Bergisch Gladback 09.

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

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

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

View from veranda, showing covered standing

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

The “cover” with the clubhouse in the background

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

World Cup Spring Review.

Monday, April 1st, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Cup Spring Preview.

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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