Archive for October, 2007

How Low Can You Get?

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

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About 9 Metres Below Sea-Level

Flevoland is the newest province of the Netherlands, indeed it is literally one of the newest lands anywhere. The decision to seal off the Zuiderzee was only taken after floods in the Netherlands in 1916. The dike that created the enclosure was finished in the 1930s, but it was not until the late 50s that the water levels were lowered enough to allow new lands to be settled. Situated well below sea level, the terrain of Flevoland is flat and unexciting. The dominating feature being the wind turbines that delineate the dikes between the land and the lake, and also appear to be growing randomly across what is the world’s biggest man-made island. The biggest city on the island is Almere, which has grown from having a population of 47 in 1975 to now house over 165,000 people, the eighth biggest city in the country.

The town planners for Almere started with a blank sheet of paper, and devised a system of keeping roads, bus ways and cycle lanes separate. Sadly, this was their only achievement, and the buildings placed between these through routes fail to show any use of imagination. The city fathers however did show some imagination when they decided the city should have a sports club that would compete in ‘all’ sports. Hence the rather ambitious name of Omniworld. Over the years, though most of the sports have been dropped. The football team, after several years of trying, and reaching the top level of the amateur game was accepted into the professional league last season. This meant a very quick build to bring the stadium up to standard, the stadium has been morphed from a very basic facility named after the Netherlands most famous athlete (Fanny Blankers-Koen) to become the far more eloquent Mitsibushi Fork Lift Stadium. The name is clearly appropriate as most of the parts could easily of been put into position using Fork Lift trucks. Three sides have basic tin covered stands, two (along the length of one side and behind a goal) given over to seats, while the third is given over the standing. Behind the goal where we entered the ground, there were to buildings, – one was a club room where anyone could get a beer or a coffee, while the other newer building was given over to the corporate guests, with dressing rooms on the lower floor.

The playing surface was one of the new third generation artificial surfaces. These play a lot better than the original plastic pitches, but the bounce is ensured by a layer of black dust which is embedded with the plastic. This brings up a slightly disturbing view, somewhat akin to a splash of water whenever ball or player makes a heavy contact with the ground. Contrary to popular opinion, artificial surfaces do not always guarantee the match being played. What was scheduled to be the first ever professional game on the ground, just over a year ago was postponed because the referee had deemed that too much water lay on the surface. That match would have been against BV Veendam, who by chance were also the opposition for my visit. Omniworld, in their second season are still to set the world of professional football alight. Veendam on the other hand have a tendency to be among the leaders in the lower division of Netherlands football, frequently making it into the play-offs, but almost by design not going further. (They have only ever spent three seasons in the top division, and each of these ended in relegation). As for the game itself, it was quite an entertaining affair with plenty of chances at both ends – but no one was capable of converting the chances into actual goals. Officially, the crowd was given as 2236 – I felt this was the first piece of imagination I had seen on the Flevoland, but it would be more charitable to put the figures down to the number of ticket holders who did not fancy the ground on a damp Friday.

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In the grey dawn of a dull Saturday morning, Flevoland continued to look bleak, but then so did the rest of the low country as we drove on to Groningen, where we booked into a hotel, and the 100 extra kilometres across the German border to Emden. Arriving only 45 minutes before kick off, I had to forgo seeing the delights of this port, and head straight to the ground. I was already too late to buy a seat ticket. With high fencing on all sides, my eight Euro standing ticket left me out in the rain, as the terrace along one side of the ground was the only one that has reasonable views. I did repair to the covered standing behind the goal for a period of the first half as a further shower threatened to more than dampen my hair. The views from this low standing area behind a fence were poor, and inevitably, while I was sheltering at one end of the pitch, the only goal of the game was scored at the other. Played on an almost waterlogged surface, the game almost certainly would not have started in England.

Back to Groningen, and pleased to find that the long queues through the road works had now evaporated, we arrived at the ground in good time. Groningen moved away from a traditional ground in a built up area about 18 months ago. The new ground is part of a renovation scheme for a derelict docks and industrial area just south of the centre, and conveniently close to the motorways. There are a number of new office blocks in the area, resplendent in shiny glass and steel. By contrast, the ground appears to be an amorphous blob of grey concrete, speckled with porthole windows. As the building also housing a number of other businesses, a health club, a Chinese restaurant and a supermarket among others, there is no shape to remind one that this is a football ground. The only real sign an outsider gets is floodlight gantries which appear to be somewhere in the middle of the block. I thought it appropriate the name of the stadium, the Euroborg reflected that of Star Trek’s Borg – an enemy without shape or personality (and clearly also without 7 of 9 – the Euroborg certainly is not sexy).

The casual visitor to the Eredivisie (it translates as Premier Division) in the Netherlands has a problem. A few years ago, the problems of hooliganism in the country got to the stage where the government decided to introduce a membership scheme, “club cards”, and to refuse entry to anyone without a card. It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut approach, as everyone knows that the problem is limited to five clubs, (Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV, den Haag and Utrecht), with the need perhaps for some extra security for matches of special local interest, such as the Fresian ‘derby’ when Groningen play Heerenveen. Despite the relatively small size of the country, away fans for most clubs are short of numbers. Still, hooliganism has been reduced.

In the meantime, so many new grounds have been built, that the league is unrecognisable (around half the Eredivisie play on grounds less than a decade old). Surprisingly, there has been a boost in the numbers of people watching games, even though it appears to me that the Dutch ideals of total football have died, and with the best of the countries players now abroad, the domestic league exists on crumbs and foreign imports. Buoyed by the new ground, and the rise in support, almost all tickets at Groningen, (and many other Netherlands clubs) are now given to season ticket holders. A small area is for away fans, and this area is divided into two pens. An tickets made available to the casual visitor are in this area, and are not confirmed until three days before the game. At Groningen, these are available on the day at the stadium, or in advance (for two days only) at a nationwide ticket service (run in conjunction with the national lottery). At the ground, one would need some ID, but a foreign passport would do in lieu of the club card. The club will not give out any useful information about ticket availability in advance, nor will they reserve tickets for visitors. Still, you should be confident of getting a ticket if the opposition is not one of the critical teams above. The locals do not queue for them.

I actually cheated though – and applied in advance for press accreditation. Inside the stadium has two tiers of seats around the pitch, with the lower tier going down to around pitch level, on the side were we entered, the upper tier was entirely replaced by executive boxes. We ourselves had the use of a plush lounge which was shared with a number of categories of fan, and we were provided with free coffee and cake before the game. Our view was from near the top of the lower tier, with the executive boxes up above us. Above us, the roofs of the stand did not come out anywhere near the full width of the stand. On a blustery wet day (and we had chosen such a day), almost all the lower tier seats and their occupants were to get wet. This type of detail in a new ground always surprises me. I only had to look up when I entered to realise that the risk of the lower seats getting rained on was high – one does not need a fully roofed stadium to prevent this – a further 5 yards of extended roof would have protected most of the crowd. Many clubs have added this in semi-transparent plastic to reduce the effect the shadows so caused will have on the pitch. Despite having as much rain in Groningen, as there had been in Emden, the pitch was in excellent condition. The game however was not. Sparta Rotterdam played Sander Westervald in goal, and then arranged the defence to try and stop the ball getting anywhere near him – three centre backs, two wing backs (neither of whom pushed forward much), and a defensive midfielder to shield the backs. Only one forward, but that seemed a luxury as they never got the ball that far upfield. Groningen struggled to break down the resistance, but managed a single goal early in the second half. The goal did not change things on the pitch much though, as Sparta continued their resolute defence of a 1-0 defeat.

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The tour finished on Sunday with an Oberliga game in the Westfalen region. The match was chosen mainly on the strength of its distance from both Groningen and from Weeze airport. The Oberliga are level four of the German pyramid system and are supposedly nine equal leagues – each currently promoting one team per season to each the Regionalliga. With the creation of the 3rd Bundesliga and three Regionalliga for next season, most of the Oberliga will be promoting four teams at the end of this season. Below this level, things get more complex, for while most Oberliga will remain as they are, those from Westfalen and Nordrhein are to combine, to form a single Oberliga. Meanwhile, the biggest geographical Oberliga (Nord) will disband, meaning that the five leagues that feed to it at present will be the new fifth level. Already there is some disparity between the strength of the Oberliga, and these changes are going to make the differences at fifth level much more pronounced.

Anyway, back to my tour – and to Erkenschwick, a former mining town on the edge of the Ruhr industrial area. The town itself is clean and neat, nothing to get excited about, while not have the depressed feel of some of Britain’s former mining towns. A mining museum reminds the visitor of the towns former status, while a mixture of light industry and accommodation as a dormitory town for bigger centres not far away gives the town its current existence. The football club has seen better days, and has a stadium to prove it – a large bowl with steps of terracing all around a running track with a stand providing cover and seating all along one side. In the days before the National League was formed, Erkenschwick were frequently in the top level of regional football, and in more recent times they have spent three seasons in the second division of the Bundesliga. But the last time they were at this elevated level was in 1981, and since then there has been a gradual decline in the club. A crowd of 600 – good for this level is dwarfed by the size of the ground. Oddly, there is very little in the way of access to the main bowl – the dressing rooms are outside the area, and we approach from a public car park and then across two training pitches, (one plastic, with a junior game in progress, one red gra). The bars are also outside the ground, but the locals are very hospitable, and curious as to why three English football fans should descend on the game. Admission is €8 and the programme is an extra 50 cents. We drink with the locals at the outside bar until they have set up things inside, so we watch them carrying crates of beer, rolls and sausages to provide refreshment to those inside. Later, I will, of course, be partaking of a Bratwurst. It would not be German football without one.

I think the game goes down as unmemorable – typing this piece several weeks later, I remember little of the actual match, and more of the people we talked to (a local journalist, and an Englishman who married and settled in the area), than of the games itself. It remained scoreless in the first half, so the crucial point was the home side bringing on substitute Martin Setzke in the 55th minute. Setzke’s first action was to put his side ahead, but two minutes later, the game was level again. It Was Setzke again who was supersub when Erkenschwick scored the winner with 15 minutes to go. As the home side tried to increase their advantage (and they looked worthy of it), the visitors, Weidenbruck started to lose their shape and composure, and this led to them losing a player, sent off for foul language – as the game was already into injury time, it did not effect our result.

The Perils of Platini (part 1)

Monday, October 15th, 2007

Michel Platini was elected as UEFA President back in January, and it has taken him until the summer to make clear how he plans to revamp Europe’s club competitions. However, as the base premise of the plan had been part of his election campaign, his opponents have had time to prepare their opposition. While the plans look at first glance to be designed to please football supporters – the opposition comes from the big clubs, and it has not taken long for them to get their big guns out and shoot at Platini’s ideas.

Platini has started with one consideration, there is a lot of money in UEFA’s competitions at the moment and it is getting distributed very unevenly, with a small number of clubs from a small number of leagues getting the lions share. Even within the two UEFA competitions, the numbers are uneven – the 32 clubs in the UEFA Champions league last season shared €580 million rather unevenly between them. In UEFA’s second competition, the UEFA Cup, 40 teams made the group stage, but under €35 million was paid out. Even the big money was in no way evenly divided – over 20% was delivered to the four English clubs. Chelsea claimed €34.6 million despite being knocked out at the semi-final stage, a little more than Liverpool, and more than anyone except the Champions, Milan. By comparison, Levski Sofia, playing in the group with Chelsea got a mere €5.5 million.

The first phase of the Platini plan is to open up the Champions League to more actual champions – only 14 countries are represented in the Champions League group stage this season, and only 12 champions (the runners up have got through from Romania and the Czech Republic), 12 more are runners-up, 5 third placed teams, and four 4th placed sides. Under the Platini plan, most countries have one less place – although as a bribe to some, these are guaranteed. So Platini wants to guarantee 22 places without qualification, giving the top three countries 3 places (but no qualification match) instead of four places, with two facing qualification. Countries 4-6 have two direct places (as now) but lose the third chance via qualification. A further 7 champions get direct entry (although one of these can be the Champions League winners). Currently only three of these get direct qualification, but runners-up enter the qualifying competition down to the 15th ranked country. For a country like Scotland (current rank, 11th), this may be good for the Champions, who are excused the potentially awkward qualification match – but not for the runners-up, whose route to the group stage is removed. Under the Platini plan, all the remaining countries would play their champions in qualifying matches, with six of them (out of about 40) getting a place in the group stage. The more controversial move was a secondary qualifying competition for the cup winners of the top 16 countries – four cup winners would eventually reach the group stage. It is this part of the plan that has generated most criticism, and it makes on wonder what on earth possessed Platini to include it. Only one member association has even brought up the possibility of entering a Cup winner in the Champions league – England. Even then the FA had a milder suggestion – that the FA Cup winners could play the fourth of the Champions League qualifiers, with the winner entering the Champions League (at the 3Q stage) and the loser dropping to the UEFA Cup. There is no reason for UEFA to object to this, if formally requested by the FA – after all they already allow the Netherlands to play a series of play-offs at the end of the season which means any team finishing 2nd to 5th can get the second Champions League place (the country only has two).
The final plank of Platini’s re-arrangement of the competitions was to extend the group stage of the UEFA Cup from 40 teams to 48; this means re-arranging the groups from the current 8 groups of five teams, to a 12 groups of four – with only the top two going through from each. Currently with three going through from five teams groups, it is easy to feel that a club does not have to do well to get through. Platini has not stated how the qualification for the groups would look, but the most likely format is one where the total number of European teams for each country would be unchanged, no team is expected to reach the UEFA Cup group without at least one qualifying tie, but teams knocked out of the final round of Champions League qualifications (6 League champions and four cup winners) would not face any more matches.

Immediately Platini had started to propose his plans, the protests started. With so much money behind the current format of the Champions League; UEFA have found that the have created a beast which is not easily killed, or even tamed. The biggest opponents of the new plan are those who see themselves as missing out as their places in the Champions league get given to ‘smaller’ clubs.

The secret in the plan, certainly as far as the public is concerned, and maybe to the clubs themselves is how Platini intends to redistribute the money. UEFA has done terrifically well in selling the Champions League, and in doing so they have created a money pot from which over €600 million is delivered each season. The success of the Champions League, however had accentuated the position of the UEFA Cup as a secondary competition – only €35 million being distributed from this pot. Platini’s plan is almost certainly to take some of the money from the rich and pass it to the relatively poor – and if he has any sense, he will start to tie the two competitions together, so as the sponsors are supporting European Club football, rather than just the Champions League.

In England, four teams picked up €20 million or more from the Champions League last season, Spurs collected €4 million from their UEFA cup run, Blackburn €380,000 and Newcastle €450,000. This gives the big four a tremendous advantage over the rest of the league in financial terms – lesser payments to the big four, and higher ones to the rest (including the ‘solidarity’ payments to Premiership clubs not in European competition) would help to return the competitive edge that the league has lost in recent years. Across Europe, the share of the market pool given to English and Italian clubs was about 20% each, German, Spanish and French clubs also take large shares, leaving a pittance for countries like Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania and Russia. A more even distribution across Europe would help the leagues in these countries to compete. The argument could then be that stronger local leagues would keep more local star players through higher wages. The flood of cheap foreign players to the big leagues would at least be partly stemmed, and local players would have to step up to the fore in their place. And so by taking money away from the big clubs in England and distributing it instead to small clubs in England, and clubs in the smaller European Leagues, Platini could actually help the English National team!

Ingolstadt and Into Luxembourg

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Note – this is the long version of my first European trip of the season. If any programme editors, etc wish to use it they can apply their own editing, or contact me at leo@leohoenig.com for a 1600 word version. I also have a few more photos that can be used.

My first trip into Europe for the season, and it is familiar territory as I fly Ryanair in and out of Germany, do battle with the Autobahn and rush across the borders to get my double fixtures in. So, not for the first time, I am rushing around Stansted Airport around six on a Friday morning. The comfort zone is only reached when you have passed through the queues for check-in, security and a cup of coffee, and are on board the plane. Finally a chance to pick up on some of the night’s lost sleep.

My flight takes me to Baden Airpark. The nearest airport to my destination with a cheap fare, but still some 350 km to go. The German motorway system is renowned for being the open road, and without speed limit. The reality is somewhat different. The age of many of the Autobahns means that repairs are constantly needed, while even the major roads were built with just two lanes in each direction. As a result, there is currently an enormous amount of resource being poured into updating the network, and it is almost impossible to go any distance without having to go through either a resurfacing project, or a major road-widening scheme. Still, unlike in England, actual queues when approaching the works are quite rare (and on this trip almost all heading in the opposite direction to me). It still remains a fact, though – that queues apart, I can drive at a faster average speed on the English motorway – even keeping to the speed limits, then the German one.

My first port of call was Ingolstadt, historically an important crossing point on the Danube, between Munich and Nurnberg. The town bristles with imposing buildings, and an improbable amount of church spires fighting for attention. With parkland next to the river as well, the town is a pleasant place to spend one’s afternoon, and after hours on the Autobahn, I was glad to have a couple of hours to look around. Near the cathedral is a gatehouse of some antiquity, and if you wander through, then the football stadium is about 100 yards further up on your right.

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The stadium is as basic was one can get. The pitch sits inside a running track, (slightly unusual at this level). The main stand runs less than half the length of one side, and has only five rows of seats, a total of 400 places. Not surprisingly, all the tickets were sold out before I arrived at the ground. There is no cover for any of the standing areas. These consist of banks of terraces each side of the stand – also about five steps, and a slightly higher bank on the far side which goes most of the length of the pitch. Away fans, (and there were few of these on a Friday night), have to content themselves with the curve behind one goal – a few though had chanced their luck for a better view and were standing near me to one side of the stand. The opposite goal is entirely undeveloped, and is closed to spectators. The crowd was 2320, and most of the good view points in the home areas were taken. One could squeeze more in where I was standing – and on the far sides, where the front rows (view blocked by fencing) were unused. But even knowing the away end was nearly empty, I would not like to be there if the crowd ever approaches the quoted capacity of 10,000. At the end of this season, the Regionalliga will stop being the third level of football in Germany, and a new Third Bundesliga will be created. The objective for clubs such as Ingolstadt, and the visitors, Sportfreund Siegen – is to finish in the top ten and qualify for the new league. With nine points each from five games, both sides had made a good start to the campaign. We were treated to an entertaining game with plenty of attacking football from both sides. Siegen were using a 4-5-1 formation with the apparent intention of defending for a draw, but conceding early in each half, they had to attack for the draw, which they did. Ingolstadt always played as if they knew that one goal leads were not enough – and so it was proved with equalisers conceded in both halves.

On the Saturday morning, I retraced my steps most of the way, then headed west of Karlsruhe into the wine growing region of Pfalz. The small town of Hauenstein lies nestled below the hills and vineyards. Its football ground is typical for a fourth level team, with no cover at all, but some steep steps on one side to provide good viewing positions. All the rest of the ground is just level with a path. Behind one goal is a clubhouse, on two levels, while the most important and popular feature is a canteen supplying wurst and bier to the hungry masses. (Well, the 200 or Actually, the attendance was only around 200). The problem for German football, which next summer’s re-organisation will do something to face – is that a little club such as Hauenstein, whose league games do not take them more than 100 km from home – are only one good season away from having to travel half the country in the Regionalliga. Next season’s new Regionalliga will be at level four, and will only cover a third of the country. It is unlikely that either Hauenstein, or Engers, who were the visitors for the day will make the grade, (the top four are promoted to the new leagues). Instead they will stay with their Oberliga, which will drop from being level 4 to level 5 of the German pyramid. I feel this is football that would not look out of place in the Southern League, at a venue that still needs to add covered accommodation and floodlights to join the Hellenic. Very little needs to be said about the game itself, which ended up as a 1-0 home win.

After that, I headed further west. The advantage I now had was I was now away from all major population centres in the country, so although I was on a motorway of much the same standards as before, it was now clear and I was able to put my foot down. Appropriately, I thought – the border crossing into Luxembourg at Schengen is marked only by a signpost. After 40 km, which took me clear across the southern end of Luxembourg, I arrived in Petange. The ground sits on the edge of town – and has only one feature of note – a grandstand for about 300 people. The difference between the top division in Luxembourg and the third division in Germany was clearly shown by the fact that here the stand was nowhere near full. It was also a stand meant more to be admired from the outside than actually used. Its height above the ground, and the pyramid shapes of the roof make it look good – but with the few rows of seating arranged so as there is a path through the middle (used as the only covered standing), the number of railings needed to keep things safe, plus the pillars holding up the roof meant that less than half the seats have good views. The rest of the ground is just flat standing, although an area is set out to sell beer and bratwurst with a few tables and benches.

Petange has never been a big team, but have managed one European campaign, in which they drew the home match, but lost 4-1 overall to Allianssi of Finland. The visitors, FC Differdange 03 are a merger of two clubs from the town. Red Boys were a force way back in the thirties, but also won the championship in 1979, but they had dropped to the second division before merging with a third division side and climbin back a level. Red Boys have played in Europe on ten occasions, but never won a tie. They did win the first league of their only Champions Cup tie, against Omonia Nicosia by 2-1, but lost 6-1 in Cyprus. Their most notable result was a 0-0 draw with Ajax – but the return defeat at 14-0 remains a European record. (In 1971, Chelsea scored 13 at home to another Luxembourg team, Jeunnesse Hautcharage and won 21-0 on aggregate).

The football was poor, and unfortunately poor in all the wrong ways. With a quite enthusiastic crowd of just over seven hundred in the ground (including a small number for the visitors, Differdange, who had made the 5 km journey for this local derby), the footballers demonstrated a series of different ways to lose the ball. Both sides had gone for defensive formations, so while their forward players attacked eagerly, and the ball swung from end to end – none of the attacks looked vaguely like threatening the goalmouth. Differdenge, who had marginally the better of the game, had a habit of delivering a long ball to a free man on the far side, who would then hit the ball as hard as he could, in any direction except towards the target! Petange preferred not to risk losing the ball to a bad pass, so they made no passes at all and instead found their players continually crowded off the ball, as they tried to find the way through the mass of defenders. And so we had a game bereft of more than a few moments of either skill or entertainment, settled by a single scrambled goal helped in by the goalkeeper. This allowed the visiting fans to return home happy.

So that was Saturday, a fourth level German game in the afternoon, followed by the Luxembourg League in the evening. What to do on the Sunday? Well, much the same, although with no suitable fourth level club playing in the right part of Germany, I had to select fifth level instead. Generally, though Morbach was quite similar to Hauenstein. The Alfons-Jakob Stadion sits on the edge of a small town in a wine growing region. One side of the ground has a number of steep steps, and with the rest of the grounds surrounds being just a path. Again we have a two story club house, with a bar above and dressing rooms below, although this one is better positioned along the touch line, so a terrace outside the bar would provide some viewing under cover should the circumstances demand it. Morbach were promoted to this level at the end of last season, and are looking more than comfortable in their new surrounds. They dominated the early parts of the game, but lacked the touch that was needed to beat the visitors, SG Langenhahn/Rothenbach who were playing a very cautious 5-4-1 formation. Fortunately, on the bench they had Eloy Campos – a flair player who brightened up the attack as soon as he came on, providing the opportunity for leading goalscorer Timo Rosner to score three minutes later, and then adding the second goal, five minutes from time. The crowd was a little better than the previous day, with 300 present, and I felt it was thoroughly worth the €4 admission fee. The club could well get itself into position for another promotion, in which case its proximity to Ryanair’s Hahn Airport hub could see it becoming popular with travelling groundhoppers.

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My Luxembourg league match was at Grevenmacher, only just across the border from Germany. An athletics event in the afternoon had led to the fixture being changed from the standard afternoon kick off to early evening. The ground was similar to that of Petange, in so far as it consisted of a single main stand, while the rest of the pitch surrounds (around an athletics track) were level standing. The main difference was that it is somewhat larger, and the stand while being blander in appearance, was far more suited to a crowd. The setting is quite attractive, with the ground quite a distance up the side of the hill above the Mosel river. This means the heavy industry along the river cannot be seen, but instead on gets a clear view to the vineyards on the hills the other side of the river (and hence incidentally in Germany) The crowd was a fraction under 800 and they were given a treat of a game, with both sides adopting attacking formations and going at their opponents from the start. Within 10 minutes both had opened their own accounts, and were fighting hard for the lead.

Grevenmacher established themselves as regular challengers for the title in the 1990s, when the leading club in Luxembourg were Jeunnesse Esch (the visitors for my match). They have now played in Europe 9 times, but have beaten KR Reykjavik, HJK Helsinki and Anorthosis Famagusta all at home, but always lost out on aggregate. In 2003, they won the title for the first (and so far only time), and added the Luxembourg cup as well. The visitors, Jeunnesse Each were the country’s leading team in the country for a long while, but of their 27 championships, they have managed only one (2004) since the millennium. They have featured in Europe on 30 occasions, 19 times in the top competition, and have won two ties.

Even though the league cannot be better than semi-professional, none of the teams involved are made up entirely of Luxembourgers. A variety of other players either cross the borders to play in this league, or maybe are already in the Grand Duchy for other reasons. While the neighbours (French, German and Belgium) make up the biggest part of the mix, there are a number of East Europeans, a smattering of South Americans, and Differdange appear to have more than a fair share of Portuguese.

It was one of the Portuguese, Bruno Ribeiro who had scored for Differdange, while at Grevenmacher, a German (with a Turkish name) opened the scoring for the team on the German border, while the team from the French border equalised by way of a Frenchman. Still it was a local that put Grevenmacher ahead again for the break. The same player concluded the scoring seven minutes from time, but only after another German had increased the home side’s lead, and an Italian had pulled a goal back!
A couple of years ago, there was speculation that a Luxembourg side would be allowed to join the Belgium league – staring in the second division. As with the speculation over Scottish sides joining the football league, the details (especially what happens in the case of relegation) have never been properly worked through. Unlike the Scottish example, there is no proof that a Luxembourg team could pull the crowds in. Where any sort of changes would leave the European competitions remains to be seen, although Luxembourg may point to Wales and say that teams from the league that is left should remain in competition through the league, and also point to Liechtenstein in the hope of keeping the side playing in Belgium in sight of a place, should they win the cup. (The Liechtenstein team remains unique as it is the only team in Europe that represents a country other than the one it plays league football in, Welsh teams in England, along with AC San Marino appear not to play in their home domestic cups). Until something changes Luxembourg appears destined to remain a backwater among footballing countries.

The Betrayal.

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

Tuesday. I left my office an hour earlier than normal, and drove for three and a half hours. I arrived at Port Vale only a few minutes before kick off. I watched the game, which Cheltenham started OK, were unlucky with the referee’s decision for the first goal, then declined sharply in the second half. After the match, I had a two hour plus drive home. As it happened, a blockage on the motorway added an extra 30 minutes to the time. And yet I am not complaining about this. My friends do not think they are mad – in fact many of them envy me because I can leave the office an hour early and drive for over three hours to see the game, while they cannot.

At the end of the game, I was of course unhappy with the performance. I wondered if the manager had picked the best XI from the available players, and I was frustrated that I could not follow his logic on substitutions, (I could see that it failed to work). Looking forward, I expected the manager to motivate the team and move us forward by Saturday, (he has done so often in the past), and I hoped that the much hyped fresh player could be brought in on loan (although I was cynical about that – knowing our record of signing players has been poor).

But critical as I may have been, I did not boo or call for the manager’s head. The other supporters at the game were the same – unhappy about the game just played, yes – but still supportive of the manager and expecting him to try and change things around by Saturday.

And then the news comes in – the manager has left our club, to be announced as manager of Carlisle United in the morning.

A year ago, our manager signed a five-year contract to manage the club. Yes, five years, not 14 months. The contract was signed when the manager’s star was rising – we had just been promoted and other clubs (including, incidentally, Carlisle) were interested in taking him on. His assistant, Keith Downing followed on his coat tails and signed for three years. The new contracts meant big increases in salary, along with securing some of our players on longer term deals, there was little in the way of new arrivals.

Despite losing two of our best players during the transfer window, Ward pulled off what appeared to be a minor miracle and kept the team in League-1. In the summer, we sold our top striker, lost two players to rivals on Bosman transfers, and released two of our more experienced, well paid players on the basis that age and injury was now against them. The replacement players were somewhat less inspiring.

Throughout his tenancy of the manager’s seat, Ward has shown an ability to bring on young players. The three that left for fees all went for considerably more than the initial transfer fees on arrival. The two that went on Bosman transfers both left because they could now earn more with other clubs in the division.

Several of the new players to arrive were young and untried – but as these are exactly the sort of players who have come good under Ward in the past, we accepted them into our ranks. Indeed it looks as if our defence has been strengthened more by players coming through from our youth and reserve set up, then by signing more experienced players.

This was the project the manager had signed up for, a five-year project to sign and bring through youngsters. To bring out the best from these players and use them to establish our position in this division. Relegation was a possibility, but the project would carry on, and this young team would see us challenging to return to League-1.It was a project that I, and other regular fans of an admittedly small club could believe in.

By giving the manager a five-year contract, the club had shown a belief in the manager that has never before been shown to a manager of Cheltenham Town. That is reflected in the fact that the sums required to pay off the manager would be so great, the club would not be able to afford to sack him. That meant that there could be no knee-jerk panic reaction should relegation threaten. It was the manager’s job to lead the team, and if this took us into a wilderness, then it would be his job to lead us out again.

But this works both ways, if the club is committed to the manager, then the manager must be committed to the club. To just up and leave at the first sign of difficulties is a betrayal of the worst sort. By leaving on the back of two poor results, our manager has left us again close to the relegation door. He has left us with a pool of young players still learning, but now without their tutor. He has left us his assistant manager, they may have arrived as a package, and renewed contracts as a package, but they are a package no more. Everything is the way Ward wanted this club to run – but Ward is now to run Carlisle instead