I thought the title could be something from Ronnie Barker, but maybe it’s just my warped sense of humour. The one thing that is certain, when you have suffered the second half of the season as we have at Cheltenham, you need a holiday, and more than that you need a drink.
Many of my trips have simple plans. Get to the destination, get to see as much football as possible, take in a little of the scenery and sights if time permits. Eat and drink when necessary. If I do not travel alone, then my companions are liable to take similar views on these things.
This is a bit different. An end of season tour. Still football orientated, but I am out with a group of fans from Cheltenham Town. In the past we have visited places such as Milan and Lisbon, and the trips have always been drinking first, football second, (but not a distant second). Latvia may be a bit more challenging, but the rules are the same. It was my second visit, and quite a bit has changed in the last decade. Back in 1999, Latvia was still freshly separated from the Soviet Union, (it achieved independence in 1991), and it did not join the European Union until about five years after my visit. In the meantime there has also been economic boom and bust, the country being hit hard by the recent crisis.
In 1999, I had to fly British Airways, and paid around £250 for my return ticket, now the cheap airlines have arrived in force, and it was easy to arrange a return for under £100. I chose Wizz Air, because I wanted to add Lithuania at the end of the trip. My friends flew with Ryanair from Bristol, a straight forward flight, and were surprised to discover it was more a commuter flight taking Latvians home for the weekend then a holiday makers’ flight. My flight appeared to have at least two stag parties on board, including the regulation butch, hairy and very drunk youngish Englishman wearing a pink dress.
In the city, the number of bars has increased massively, especially the British and Irish bars, and drink prices have risen to almost British figures. There are bars open late into the evening, but generally the atmosphere was peaceful, without the raucous and uncomfortable atmosphere that the British are liable to inflict on foreign cities.
Riga’s Orthodox Cathedral. I did not find out what was unorthodox about the other one.
I arrived in the afternoon, and had spent some time wandering around the old town, and found a bar with over 20 different beers (including a variety of local ones), as well as some 50+ malt whiskeys. I would have stuck to beer, but some visiting Finns decided that as an Englishman, I must be an expert on Scotch, and hence demanded I gave my opinion on 35 year old malt that they paid for. It would be rude not to, so I complied. I thought it was a beautifully smooth creation, (the Whiskey, not the Finns).
I want to buy a beer!
When the others, to be referred to as the “Three Holders and Twinners” arrived, we discovered that the hotel had messed up the room booking, and two members of the party were shipped off to the altogether superior Albert Hotel. As the Ramada (where we were staying) has no bar, the rest of us followed suit after a short time to get into the room. Even with a flight due in after 9 in the evening, it is amazing how much some people can manage before the hotel bar finally throws you out.
In the morning, we had to again sort the hotel rooms, and then head to the railway station for the first match. We came across a standard problem where do you queue for tickets. Naturally, I waited for ten minutes before being told, (about two minutes before our train), that it was the wrong ticket window. The sign that said so had fallen out of sight.
By the time our tickets had been purchased, we had missed a train and we repaired to the coffee shop. Well I had a coffee, Twinners and at least one Holder had soft drinks, while the others purchased beer. Showing the friendliness that one might be surprised, we were interrupted by the girl on the next table, who wanted to advise us on the best choices of local beer.
On arriving at the town of Ogre, (it is pronounced Og-Re, and does not feature Shrek on its coat of arms), it was only 20 minutes to kick off. Twinners and I decided to take a Taxi, while the Holders walked we had spotted the ground from the train, and in fact the walk was only 10 minutes, but my earlier arrival allowed me to quickly speak to the match commissioner who found me a copy of the team lists. SC Ogre/FK 33 had been promoted from regional football to the 1. Liga (which is of course, the second level of football in Latvia) last season, and had started this season with 6-0 and 11-1 defeats. This was their first home game. Still in the 11-1 defeat a week earlier, they had been 1-0 up for some 15 minutes, and the equaliser was an own goal. The visitors, FK Tukums-2000/TSS had won only one of three games to date. I did not get the meaning of the names after the strokes, but I think it refers to merged clubs.
The Ogre Stadions.
The stadium was a basic athletics track with a stand on one side, raised well enough to give good views. The stand holds around 650 seats, of which over 600 were left empty. No charges were made, no programmes were issued, no souvenirs were on sale, and the only refreshments were from a vending machine in the corridor that led to the sports hall behind the stadium. To say the pitch was uneven would be an insult to many a ploughed field. Let’s just say you could not be certain where the bounce would take the ball.
None of this mattered though, as there were few players on show that could control the ball even when it did not strike a divot. It is questionable whether more players lost the ball through tripping over it, than through tackles, but it is fair to say that the tackles when seen were not for the squeamish. Still when the referee told a player who had been pole axed by a particularly nasty blow, he would do so without even a word of complaint. Goalless in the first period, Tukums managed to score three after the break to comfortably win the game.
Not likely to win prizes in a Ploughing competition.
On returning to Riga, the Three Holders and Twinners wanted to see the FA Cup final on TV. This is not shown on local TV, so there was a requirement to enter the first Irish bar showing it on satellite TV. I do not go to foreign countries to sit in faux Irish bars, drinking Danish beer and watching English football on TV, (or at least not all the time). So I carried on after seeing the others enter the bar, and about thirty minutes later, I found Arkadija the ground of FS Metta/LU. That means for the second time in a day, I was at the ground around 20 minutes before kick off! The ground was buzzing, mainly with hundreds of kids connected to the Football School which gives its name to FS Metta. The ground is a plastic pitch with a cage on three sides, and four rows of seats along half the length of one side. It was nowhere near adequate for the numbers there. Admission was again free, but an A6 sized programme was sold for 0.5 Lat (about 60p). Plenty of refreshments and souvenirs were on sale, and a team sheet was produced on request, (it did take a while to find the person to request it from and he then disappeared into the sports hall, which also included dressing rooms to find it). Curiously the sports hall is labelled Riga Futbola Skola. Riga FS is another team, like FS Metta/LU in 1. Liga but they play their home games at the LU Stadium. The LU in both Metta/LU and the stadium stands for the Latvia University.
FS Metta/LU at Arkadija. From the seats, one is looking into the Sun, and toward a Soviet style war memorial in the park behind
Sitting on the third row of seats back, I found so much movement and noise in front of me, that it was difficult to concentrate on the game, so I walked around the other side for the second period and stood holding my camera. A few of the officials gave me odd looks, uncertain as to whether or not I was supposed to be there, but I was not challenged. The visitors, Valmieras FK were not in the same class as FS Metta, whose record beforehand had been two wins and a draw, including a 6-0 victory over Tukums. There was only one first half goal, as the overhit ball still came to the fore more often than not, but when the home side got into their stride, and the visitors tired of the battle, a further six goals were added, including a hat trick for a substitute who came on with less than 30 minutes to play.
Putkis scores Metta’s second goal, from the penalty spot.
One note from the lower division of the Latvian League, clubs are allowed to name up to seven substitutes, and then play all of them. Not everyone can name a full complement though. Ogre named four, and played them all including the second choice keeper, while Tukems left their second keeper on the bench, but played six others. FS Metta played a full seven, including a keeper, while Valmieras named five, and played four (again it was the keeper that was not changed). All this makes the second half of games somewhat piecemeal, and does detract from the game. For the Sunday games, in the Virsliga (top Division) and Cup, it was three subs only, from seven names.
After the game, I gave in and returned to the Irish bar, although I drank only Latvian beer while watching the second half of a League-2 play-off game, and the whole of the French Cup Final. Still we did not overdo things and left with the bar still open, and the result of the Eurovision song contest (on the other TV in the bar) still uncertain. We missed out on culture despite the opportunities presented. Our Saturday evening in Riga had been designated as “Night of the Museums”, with every museum open past midnight, and more importantly free to enter. Our excuse was that we did not want to join the rather lengthy queues, (especially while the bars were still open).
Crossing the Daugavas river back into the old town
Another day, another train ride, and while this time we went straight to the correct ticket window, we were sold single tickets under the impression we were buying returns. We took the train to Majori, in the Jurmala area. This is a resort some 20 km from Riga, with a fine sandy beach on one side of a narrow spit of land, and a river on the other side. We wandered down a well paved and very gentile walkway close to cafes, shops and some very fine housing. But if one looked behind, down the lanes connecting to out thoroughfare, you could see that there was also a lot of housing in serious need of repair, while a few burnt out hulks were left were they stood, a tribute to the affects of fire on wooden buildings with inadequate insurance. We walked along this promenade, and then back along the back before taking a lunch, where a rather large piece of cow was served at very generous prices. Although an English menu was provided, Jurmala is not reached by many foreign tourists. Returning to the station, and a square with a statue of St. George and the Dragon, there was a lack of taxis, so we had to resort to the bus. The bus driver told us he did not go to Sloka, but the person behind us in the queue said to get on anyway, and he would show us the route for the ten minute walk from bus terminus to stadium.
Three Holders and Twinners on Jurmala Beach I am safely the other side of the camera.
Our guide was a former professional boxer who had spent around five years in the East End of London, and was as good as his word, walking with us for about half the distance to the ground, and then disappearing into a warren of stereotypical soviet style apartment blocks that made up this town away from the tourist beach pointing us down the road and (correctly) saying we would reach the stadium in around 5 minutes.
The Power of advertising. Somehow I cannot imagine “Villa Lido” will ever live up to the dream of the poster.
Jurmala has not one, but two professional football teams, and they share the Sloka stadium. With the newer of the pair being promoted last season, this was to be the first ‘derby’ in the top level. Probably the first ever. If there was a charge to enter, we did not find it, and we also got a free programme. FC Jurmala, who were formed only in 2008 were the ‘home’ team, while FK Jurmala VV were the ‘visitors’. Like the ground at Ogre, this had an athletics track and a single stand, this time around 1000 seats. There was no access to other parts of the ground, although some chose to watch through the fencing. The Latvian FA web site gave the crowd as 350, which I feel is close enough to the mark. FK Jurmala had the most vocal fans, with several flags and a poster saying “One Town, One Team”, which suggests they are a little put out by the rise of local rivals. Despite their flags showing the name FC Jurmala, rather than FK, they insisted that the new club was not a breakaway of the old one, but had risen on its own. Former Arsenal player Igors Stepanovs is on the FK coaching staff and also listed as a player, but not one of the 18 selected for this game.
Sloka Stadions, Jurmala. During the half time break, less than 30% of the “crowd” keep their seats.
FK have not had a good season, just one point from six games, while FC were on eight points from seven games. Still it was always FK that were the better side, and they were deserving winners with an early goal, (a header from a right side free kick), and a late goal, following a long passing move searching for the gap. In between time, over hit crosses and shots that would have been deemed high in Rugby Union were the orders of the day. No refreshments were available except in an enclosed VIP section at the top of the stand, which was well guarded by people who were never going to let me in, even in search of the team list. The area marked “Press Center” was locked and empty, but I eventually found the stadium announcer, and another official who managed to let me have a copy.
FK Jurmala fans wave the flag to say “We outnumber that other lot”.
Not only are no refreshments on sale at the stadium, but Latvia is one of the countries with a no smoking rule. The stadium is next to some woodland, and at least half the crowd seemed to disappear into the woods during the break. Clearly many of them had gone for a smoke, but it was also spotted that some had left bottles of beer that would not pass through security into the ground itself,
And so back to Riga. Skonto stadium is about a 30 minute walk from the station, but I decided I should get a taxi, having obtained press accreditation and been told to collect it around or after 16.00, (it was about 18.00 when I arrived). I needed have worried, the place was near deserted, with just a few people finishing off a pre match buffer, and kids playing a table football contest. I appeared to be the first person collecting a ticket, and when the others (who did walk) arrived, they may well have been the first to buy tickets. I saved 3 Lat (about £3.75) by getting accreditation, and paid exactly the same to the Taxi! Programmes, a 36 page A4 publication were 2 Lat. Naturally this was considered too much by the locals, and few appeared to buy them.
Ventspils fans pleased to be given the open end. Or at least happy it has stopped raining.
As the teams take to the pitch, it appears the mascot is trying to injure the Liepajas captain. Perhaps angered by the incident, Tomasauskas will receive his second caution on 63 minutes, and miss a crucial part of the game.
The bar was marked “VIP bar”, but VIP appeared to be a local word meaning public. Beer was obtained, and then I went up to the press seats where I was given copies of the team sheets, and also free coffee and biscuits. The others later came and sat in front of the press box, returning to the bar for a quick one at half time, before realising that this is not Britain and they were permitted to bring the beer back to the seats. Another beer was quickly ordered to last the second half.
Skonto. The side we are sitting on is similar to that opposite, and actually has people in it.
The Skonto Stadium holds around 8000, with three sides being almost identically clad stands, and the fourth being rather rudimentary open seats. Around 50 supporters from each side waved flags and chanted behind the goals, while the other 1000 or so (official crowd: 1112), were in the stand on my side.
FK Ventspils are top of the league, with 22 points from 8 games. The only team they had not beaten in the League were Liepajas Metalurgs, (it was 0-0), who in turn had 19 points from 8 games. However, the Latvian Cup is played on the same season as England, (Autumn one year, to Spring the next), while the League season is through the summer. Hence the pair knew that Skonto have the Champions League place from the 2010 season. Both had already qualified for the Europa League, but the cup winners would play one less qualifying round. Despite the lack of crowds in Latvian football, Ventspils have created a very international squad, including Africans, Russians and two Japanese. They even managed to leave a Uruguayan as an unplayed substitute. The starting XI included two Russians, but the stars were Ahmed Abdultaofik, (a Nigerian) and Minori Sato (Japan) who played at the point of a diamond shaped midfield four.
On 35 minutes, Olegs Laizans (14) gets enough curve to beat the wall and keeper and put Ventspils one up.
By comparison, Metalurgs fielded three Lithuanians as their foreign contingent. It was clear from start to finish that Ventspils were the better side, and their fans knew it, making more noise despite having the open end. It took 35 minutes for them to grab the advantage, a direct free kick from Oleg Laizans, and they were never going to let it go. Abdultaofik scored the two, the second being from a through pass from Sato. By this time, Metalurgs had been reduced to ten men, when Tamasauskas picked up a second yellow card, and a late penalty was no real consolation. We gathered as near as we could to the presentation and shook most of the winning players hands as they went onto the pitch. We then retired to the bar, again spotting some of the winning team, who came through to meet their girlfriends before heading to a reception upstairs. We stayed in the bar longer than planned, as it started raining, and we saw the players leave after the reception as well! Fortunately, there was to be a gap in the rain, as the bar staff wanted to throw us out, (and anyway, we had drunk all the local beer, and all the Carlsberg).
Having won the cup, Ventspils’ supporters prepare to celebrate until the bus is due to leave (about 5 minutes).
So it was back to town, and a return to the first bar I had visited, taking a stray scouser we had met in the stadium in tow. They said they closed around midnight, but we stayed about 45 minutes longer, before transferring to another bar, (last orders just been called) for another hour of so before finally returning to our beds.
Lifting the cup. This does not make the front pages of the Latvian press the next day.
Still, we all managed a hearty breakfast in the morning, and a general sightseeing walk around the old town. It is quite attractive, and very compact, before leaving in the early afternoon, the Three Holders and Twinners back to Bristol, and me onto Vilnius