Archive for May, 2012

Eurotour 2012 – Part 2, Scandic.

Friday, May 25th, 2012

After the Austrian Cup final, it was a straight forward but lengthy change to get to Denmark, the overnight train from Vienna to Hamburg takes more than 12 hours, and then with a further change at Fredericia, one arrives at Randers with over 20 hours on the rails. As with my arrival in Austria, this meant I was in town about three and a half hours before kick-off. I had found a hotel in the town centre, at slightly less than seriously overpriced. I took the chance to wander slightly around the town centre. It is compact, and has few old style buildings, but it is never going to become a tourism hot spot.

The Randers Stadion, (now officially the AutoC Park) is conveniently only about ten minutes walk from the railway station. The hotel was 15 minutes walk from the station. Naturally we are talking opposite directions! The stadium has a modern feel to it, thanks to new stands and a very modern metal lattice work cladding these. However, once you enter, you find that the north end is steps of very unreconstructed terracing, without even the benefit of a few safety barriers. Most of this was not in use though, with one corner housing a few home fans, and another taken by the small number of travelling fans. A few low steps carry on around most of the rest of the stadium, probably the remnants of the old terraces, but renovated, and mainly converted into seats. There is still a terrace for about three quarters of the length behind the south goal, and this is where the popular support stands. A small group however take a block of the stand above for singing and the waving of flags. The new stands have been built above and behind the old ones, raised up by steel girders, so as at its closest point, it is some three meters above access to the seats. The main stand maintains a common height and roof line with the East and South sections. This stand as a single tier and is backed by a massive glass wall behind which are two levels. As far as I could see, the lower one of these was a VIP lounge, while above there were even more exclusive executive boxes, broken only in the very centre for the TV camera gantry.

Live television has created a series of Monday night games in the Danish 1st Division, (which like the Austrian 1. Liga is actually the second division). The division has 12 teams playing a 26 game season, and two places in the Superliga up for grabs. As the Monday night game, the two teams I was watching had a game extra to play, while most of the league had four games to go. Esbjerg, for some reason had played an extra game, and this gave them a lead confirming their place as champions. Randers started the night in second (and had to finish it the same way as this was the only game), with a three point lead over Vejle-Kolding and Viborg, five over Bronshoj. The visitors, Vestsjaelland are mid table, five points ahead of the highest relegation place, so relatively safe.

Both sides played five man midfields with just one up front. The home team using the 4-2-3-1 which now seems to be in vogue while Vestsjaelland settled for just one man shielding the back four in 4-1-4-1. The game made a quiet start, with nothing more than half chances, but Randers should have gone ahead half way through when Tidiane Sane headed over from a position almost underneath the bar. As it was, it was Vestsjaelland that opened the scoring, Rasmus Festersen playing a neat one two with Nicholas Sandberg before stroking the ball under the keeper. It really should have been two within mimutes, Sandberg pulling back a cross to Kristian Uth, who did not use the space he was given and shot wide. The set back did at least create a little urgency in the home side’s play bringing on Frank Kristensen from the bench and switching to 4-4-2 before the break. The change however looked more like panic then plan, Randers launched a series of long balls and early crosses that were easily defended. This feeling that all was not well in this part of the state of Denmark was accentuated by a quick team talk, with the home side coming back onto the field for a fresh warm up some five minutes before the second ad break of half time had even commenced. As it happened though, the rest was notas good as a change, and Randers continued to look hurried in their play. Salvation came from an unlikely source, Vestsjaelland centre half Lasse Nielsen pushed at Christian Keller, who was making a rare foray upfield. This gave Randers a free kick from a little over 20 yards, which Ronnie Schwarz curled inside the near post.

The goal calmed down the home side a little, but did not improve their competence, with crosses, (mainly from the left) proving easy for the visiting defence, who almost took the lead again – a corner being delicately headed onto the top of the crossbar. With the left flank proving so troublesome, (as Randers did nothing on the right), they kept chancing different combinations, and almost made a break through when Keller cut in from the position and then back heeled to the right full back Thomsen, his cross found Sane in space, but the Ugandan did not improve his record, shooting narrowly over.

With seven minutes to go, and while waiting for a right wing cross, Randers brought on Dutchman Remco van der Schaaf, replacing the original left winger, (he had a spell on the right, and an earlier substitution replaced that left winger). Ven der Schaaf first action was to get into the centre of the box and powerfully direct a header from the corner into the goal. Defending towards the end was slightly desperate as Vestsjaelland pushed for a point they must have though they deserved, but Randers held out to take the points, establishing a six point cushion, which must put them close to securing a return to the top flight after a single season away.

From Randers, I took the train back down to Germany, changing at the charmingly named.

The town marks the central point of the Danish Rail Network, if not the whole country. Natuarally, I wanted to know what tourists might do here. Answer “Change Trains”, if one wants more detail, they get off trains, and then get on other trains, and hope there is not long to wait, as you are a long way from anywhere, and all the station offers is three platforms and a 7-11 shop. And what are the primary occupations of the locals? Farming, serving in the 7-11 shop and trying to ignore foreigners making cheap jokes about the place name. Now there is an idea, it had never occurred to me that I could make a cheap joke out of the name of this town.

If I find the time to write it, Tuesday will be described in Part 3 of this blog, along with other German grounds visited. Suffice to say, I returned to Denmark over land and sea the following day, making the crossing between Puttgarten and Roby on the boat train and heading into Copenhagen. Back on my first ever trip to Copenhagen, some 23 years ago, the local derby between Brondby and Lyngby was the highlighted game out of three visited, all in the top division that season. The ground was crammed with about 7,500 watching, whereas the other two games, both also in the top division barely topped 1000. For Brondby, the young Peter Schmeichal was in goal, while Brian Laudrup led the attack, but all four goals in a 2-2 draw came from Christensen. Indeed three were scored by Bent Christensen, without the requirement for own goals, both teams had a player of this name. Brondby were 2-0 up with only a few minutes to play before Lyngby’s Bent Christensen, and then Fleming Christensen scored to give Lyngby a draw. When the game finished, my travelling companions and I would have made a quick dash to Kobenhavns Idraetspark, (now simply call Parken, which was only a nickname then) to see Boldklub 1903 lose to AGF. Three years later, B1903 merged with another club sharing the national stadium, KB to form FC Kobenhavn, and the Bronby/Lyngby rivalry moved somewhat down the order of importance in Danish football.

Much of Denmark is quiet, unassuming, flat, expensive and not very interesting. It just has to be conservative, with a small c. Copenhagen is not like most of Denmark, it is chaotically busy, noisy, expensive and interesting. It is one of those cities that you need a map to explore, but you are best off keeping the map in your pocket, heading down side streets and only getting the map out when you need to find your way back to the hotel. In the summer, at least, it is an ideal cycling city and one can be stunned by the mass of bicycles on some roads – or simply stunned by one as traffic regulations and cyclists never mix. It is possible that Copenhagen has more bicycles than any other European city, but it is also possible that it has less cycle helmets. I reckoned that the proportion using head protection was hardly more than 1%, which may even be less than the portion with rigged up (surely in some cases, home-made), bicycle prams attached to the front to ferry one or two youngsters around.

Just to make my point about the oddities behind the scenes, I cut down Vestergade, parallel to the main shopping street. At one end, this is part of the mainstream with eateries and a (rather expensive) brewpub. At the other end, there was a Goth’s fashion shop, an S&M outlet and club and a Cornish Pasty Shop. I bought (at a very reasonable price) a cup of team from one of these establishments, no prizes for discovering the proprietor had a Cornish accent.

The S-Tog (equivalent to Germany’s S-Bahn) takes you to Lyngby Station which is a mile or so from the ground, but there is a bus as well. The Stadium is well kept, but just does not look like the stadium of a club in a major European League. It is a stadium with a track, and low, single tiered stands running the full length of both sides. On the west side, where I was, the stand is mainly made out to seats, with just a small area of standing under cover at the very end. Opposite, only the central section was for seating, and this had some boxes at the back, the other two thirds were kept as standing areas. Admission at 150 DKK would, I think get you into the standing, and at least some of the seating areas. I noticed that advance booking brought the price down by 5DKK, but I did not test out the system to see if this is countered by booking charges later in the process. A free A4 programme (four pages only) is handed to you just inside the gates.

The footpath behind the main stand!!

As the viewing area curves behind the goals first of all there is a series of stepped uncovered terrace, but then this gives way to a grass bank. The steps are delineated with concrete, but the infill, normally concrete, gravel or dirt is in this case grassed and the grass has been recently mowed. And then there are the hedges. All the areas separated not by unsightly fences but by thick, green hedges. If you take the path behind the main stand, then you can hardly see the stand for the greenery. All the hedges have been kept in immaculate condition. This club does not need a groundsman, so much as a gardener.

The most popular are for home fans was the clubhouse corner where beer and sausages could be obtained while waiting for the game to get exciting. The home fans were in the opposite corner, and had been segregated. The fact that temporary catering facilities had been put into this area suggests they do not always bother with segregation. Serving the beer over the fence between the pitch and terrace helps in one regard though – you are not going to invade the pitch if it means knocking over the beer supplies!

There was not a lot of excitement anyway, Lyngby should have had a chance on 19 minutes when confusion between Brondby’s goalkeeper and defender almost let in Fetai, but he could not control th e ball and ended up in a heap with the goalkeeper and defender, which the referee accurately interpreted as no foul by anyone. Lyngby did take the lead on 31 minutes, with probably the best move of the game, Thomas Rasmussen taking the ball down the left wing and slipping it inside to Anders Christiansen, who in turn threaded the ball forward to Emil Larsen to power the ball in. Larsen missed a golden chance to increase the score three minutes later, and the home team maintained their ascendency up until half-time.

Brondby did come out for the second half trying to look a little more determined, and created a couple of half chances, but their heart did not appear to be in it. The best chance of the second half came from a free kick taken by Lynbby’s Kim Aabeck mid way through. The Brondby keeper stopped this but let it spin out of control before dropping onto just before any home forward could get onto the loose ball.

The Main stand curves slightly at the ends. The table on the left of the picture is for the sale of sausages

The Brondby fans made a great deal of noise throughout, while the home fans were generally quiet. Still, Brondby’s biggest cheer was for the news of goals at Nordsjaelland, which ensured that FC Kobenhavn were not champions. Only time will tell whether they were cheering for defeat for the team that has become their rivals, or for the eclipse of their own relevance by the new kids on the block, in the same way that FCK’s dominance has cast shadows over clubs such as Lyngby.

Lyngby, after all were the champions in 1992 when the merger created FCK. Winning the title in their first season, and playing at the refurbished Parken, FCK may have always had advantages, but they have taken time to build up support. FCK now have the biggest supporter base in Denmark (which is a reason why they are hated by other supporters), and they actually now own Parken, while Lyngby’s ground is still in municipal hands. FCK have really come to dominate since the turn of the century, winning 8 of the last 12 titles, Brondby have won two of these, but not since 2005. At least they have developed their facilities, and it now holds more than twice the crowd it could accommodate back in 1989. I visited Nordsjaelland in 1999 when they were known as Farum, and had just turned professional on joining the league’s Division 2, (third level). This was a marker in itself, as most of their opponents were not full time. It just paid off as they scraped fifth place which earned them promotion due to a reorganisation of the structures. Nordsjaelland were promoted to the top flight in 2002, and took on their current name after one season at the top level

Nordsjaelland are also using a different model to other clubs, I have been told emphatically that they did not buy the title, and in fact had only the 8th largest budget out of the 12 Superliga clubs. When they buy players, they buy cheap, but they develop most of them themselves, and through a series of more than 60 affiliated clubs in the area. Through the affiliates, known as Fodbold Samarbejde Nordsjælland (Nordsjaelland Football Co-operative), Nordsjaelland have a well run scouting network, developing players for the professional club. FCN participate in developing the training programmes, whereas the affiliates remain independent.

Overall, Danish Football is in a much better state than it was when I first watched a few games. The crowd of 1988 that watches the Lyngby game was a low figure, highlighting the lack of importance of the games. Three of the games on the last night had crowds over 10,000 with almost 20,000 at FC Kobenhavn. Denmark have been moving up the UEFA co-efficient table (club performance in European competitions), and are now ranked significantly higher than Scotland (hence two Champions League places, and less qualification to reach the group stages). While Denmark’s 1992 Euro success was based on players playing abroad, they now have a much greater number of their best players back in their homeland. TV money has proved the catalyst for this, but the knowledge that Denmark is not a footballing backwater, (if not yet in the European Premier League), has led to increased crowds, and their has been a rash of ground improvements to accommodate them.

Lyngby, who fell into bankruptcy in 2002, despite climbing back from non league football with promotions in 2003, 5, and 7 (and 2010 following relegation in 2008) have not been a beneficiary of the boom, and Brondby’s fans will find their cheering of Nordsjaelland success to be ironic if they too are consigned to the shadows.

And so to Sweden, making use of their fixtures being spread over Wednesday and Thursday. 4 on each in the Allsvenkan – which translates as All Sweden and is the National League. The second division in Sweden is called the Superetten. The first division, which is regionalised North and South has never been a National League, and since the National League started, it was the second level, until the Superetten started in 2006, (basically as Allsvenkan II). There is a direct train from Copenhagen to Halmstad which using the new bridge takes around two and a half hours. I then had two hours to book into a hotel and freshen up before travelling on. The trouble was that the “hotel” I was staying in also refers to itself as a “Hostell”, and uses that as an excuse not to have 24 hour service. In fact the only check in times were 4-7 in the afternoon, during which I was to be either travelling or at the ground. Fortunately, after a quick phone call, I found out I could leave bags there and get my key later from a key safe. Two trains were required to get me up to Borås, home city of IF Elsfborg, a short ride on the main line, followed by over an hour on a branch (ran by a different company). Even the main line has single track sections, and the 30 minute ride took over twice that. Fortunately, I had allowed a margin of error, getting the next train to Borås and staying on it for one extra station to Knalleland. Maps show a complicated road lay out between the station and the ground, but actually, it is all part of a retail park, and you can simply walk straight across the car parks, completing the journey in about five minutes.

When it was completed in 2005, the Borås Arena was the first modern ground in Sweden. IF Elfsborg celebrated moving in by winning the Swedish title for the fifth time a year later. It had been 45 years since they last won the title. Since then they have maintained a challenge, but the sixth title has so far eluded them. After 11 rounds of this seasons, Elfsborg are top, six points ahead of Malmo, but it is a 16 team, 30 game season. The only other time I have seen Elfsborg play, it was away at Halmstad in2003, with Halmstad then league leaders, but Halmstad did not go on the win the title, (they last won in 2000). The Swedish League is now considered one of the most open in Europe, with the last seven titles going to seven different teams, Djugårdens, Elfsborg, Göteborg, Kalmar, AIK, Malmo and Helsinborgs. The visitors to the Borås Arena, BK Häcken started out in third place, and are the highest place team who have never won the title.

Pesentation of teams before kick off. Even though it is an artificial surface, it needs maintenance, and was being watered before kick off. As the kids (in centre circle) were entering the playing area, with their “Give Racism the Red Card” banner, one of the automatic sprinklers started up, giving many of them an impromptu soaking.

The Boras Arena is a square ended stadium with an up to date artificial surface. There are two tiers of seats along the long sides, and single tier stands behind the goals. I think these are supposedly all seats, but there is an fact a mix between proper seating and benches, with most preferring to stand in the benched areas. It is of goalpost type construction with a lattice at the front of the roofs supported by steel post, but no blockage of the viewing lines. The lattice is below the roofs to the side, but above the ones behind the goal, allowing it to also support giant monitor screens. The Ryavallen, which the Arena replaced is next door to the north and is now used mainly for Athletics. It’s main stand almost backs onto the north stand of the Arena, with a section between the two roofed off, allowing covered access at the main entrance to the Arena.

The Arena itself is shared with Norrby IF, a club two levels below Elfsborg who also used to play at Ryavallen. It is owned and operated by an investment company, with IF Elfsborg as a major shareholder. IF Elsborg were founded in1904 as Borås Fotbollslag, but changed their name two years later, “because too many teams included Borås in their name”. One hundred years later, no major team appears to have Borås in the name.

Most of the seats in the main stands sell at 250 SKR, with tickets behind the goal available at 140 SKR. The programme, which costs 20 SKR is pocket sized, and unfolds to the equivalent of ten pages. It also serves as a 50/50 lottery ticket, that is to say half the proceeds are a lottery prize.

Elfsborg, playing a 4-4-2 formation and a team that is 100% Scandinavian, (one Dane, one Norwegian, nine Swedes), got off to the perfect start with a goal after just six minutes, Stefan Ishiaki took a free kick out on the left wing, and it went through a crowd of players, probably just getting a slight flick of deflection on its way into goal. This should have suited them through the half, as they allowed Häcken the majority of the possession, and then when they picked up the ball from defence they fired a long ball to one or another wing, or through to the forward. Certainly they appeared to be the more likely to score again before the break, at least until BK Häcken really should have levelled things on 39 minutes. Häcken were playing 4-3-3 with all three of the forwards being African imports – Majeed (Ghana), Chatto (Nigeria) and Makondele (DR Congo). The team maintained a tactic that was simply, “get the ball to the Africans”, after which the 8 Swedes tended to stand and watch. For this, the closest they came to the goal, Majeed actually started things by robbing a defender near the edge of the area, chasing for possession and then passing to Makondele. Makondele exchanged passes with Chatto, which left him with only the goalkeeper to beat, or as it happened, time for a soft punt into the goalkeepers surprised arms.

AT each end of the stadium were giant screens which showed the match as it was going on, with action replays of non-contentious decisions (generally near misses by the home team were replayed, fouls were not). They also relayed every goal from other matches being played in the Allsvenkan that evening, which did not appear to add up to many interruptions, and gave us updates on the odds for our game – 15 minutes in, betting on the game staying 1-0 would have earned one a return at 10-1, by 15 minutes into the second half, it had dropped to 2.5.

The trouble was that although there was plenty of attacking play, it was very one-dimensional, with no alternative plans on offer. Elfsborg prefer to defend in depth and then launch long balls forward as soon as they get possession. Their opponents were also strangers to the art of patient build up. Elfsborg’s approach should have paid off in the 72nd minute, when a rare defensive error meant the long ball game had left Elfsborg’s Lasse Nilsson with a run at goal, he was quick, but inaccurate with his shot, so instead dived over the keeper. This one at least did not fool the referee, and Nilsson received a yellow card for his efforts.

Still, diving is a tactic worth trying if you only get a yellow card 50% of the time, when Niklas Hult found himself as the only home player in the opponents half on receiving a long ball 8 minutes later, he evaded the first challenge, but as soon as he entered the area (with no one close to being a potential target for a pass anytime within the ten minutes still to play), he made contact with the challenge and then went to ground in much the same way as a brick does, if you drop it from six feet. For reasons I never fathomed, the referee did not book Hult as well, but instead awarded a penalty. Nilsson converted, which at last confirmed the wisdom of not taking offers at 10-1 for 1-0.

It should have been more, Chatto received his second yellow card just as the injury time board was displayed, and in the four minutes of injury time, both Ishizaki and Hult contrived to miss chances for Elfsborg.

From the outside, the Norh stand, and you can see the back of the adjacent Ryavallen’s stand

From there, it was just the matter of getting back to Germany, with a very brief overnight stay in Halmstad, and then onto Copenhagen and Hamburg. This last train was problematic. I think the Germans do not like sending their best trains or staff to Denmark. The train out of Copenhagen was overcrowded due to Danes heading to a game in Hamburg, and noisy as not surprisingly, an international in Hamburg is an excuse for much beer to pass through Danish supporters. The train lacked indication of seat reservations, as the electronics for this was not working, leaving a lot of passengers taking seats only to be moved on as others got on with reservations, and of course not knowing whether the seat gained, (the one I am typing from) would be lost to a passenger getting on down the line.

The fault also meant there was nothing either hot or cold in the buffet car. The steward made a point of showing me a melted twix bar, but could not offer sandwiches, coffee or chilled drinks. Its over two hours from Copenhagen to Roedby, where the train enters the ferry. One has to hope that the Danes’ supplies of canned Carlsberg last out until they can get more supplies.

Eurotour 2012, Part 1 – Austria.

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

The gap between play off semi-finals and final in England has let me with the chance for a short trip to Europe, but with the catch that I had to book the flights before being certain who was playing on which day in the semi-finals, let alone if my boys would reach the final. Once we had confirmed that we would at least be in the semi-finals, we knew that our first leg would be at home, and the second leg would be away, most likely on a Thursday at either Crawley or Southend. The final day of the season changed this around, and we while the away leg was still a Thursday night, it was in fact at Torquay. And I had a nice early flight ticket (from Heathrow).

So my Thursday night timetable (times are approximate) was something like this.

21.30 – Marlon Pack scores a direct free kick, three minutes to play. Its 4-1 on aggregate to Cheltenham

21.40 – final whistle after five minutes of injury time, and a couple of Torquay fans on the pitch

22.00 – the on-pitch celebrations end. Head into the social club attached to the ground, “Boots and Laces”, for a quick (but non alcoholic drink).

23.00 – with some of my friends staying in Torquay and heading into town for more alcohol, I head back to the car

23.45 – pull off the motorway at Exeter, buy diesel and coffee

01.00 – Spend about an hour sleeping (in the car) outside a deserted service station not far from Yeovil

03.00 – Spend about an hour on the internet at the motorway services on the M3

05.00 – Arrive in the area of West Drayton, park car at the quiet end of a housing estate and walk across to bus stop.

05.06 – bus is on time!

05.30 – Arrive Heathrow

05.45 – Clear security (no queue)

08.00 – Leave Heathrow, bound for Vienna. The flight is fine, but why do they have to insist on making the passengers uncomfortable by cramming them on an overcrowded bus before allowing them to board the plane? Sleep through flight.

11.30 (Austrian Time). Arrive Vienna

12.18 First train – S Bahn towards town

12.39 Switch to another S-Bahn line

13.02 – On the “Railjet”, which is in fact an ordinary enough train from Vienna to Graz. You can get the internet (for free) on this train. Try to reply to a call from Cheltenham, which is probably about play off final tickets, but cannot get through. Leave text and e-mail messages.

14.33 – Arrive Graz. The next stage of the journey is by bus, but the “Railbus” does not connect with the “Railjet”. A bus went 15 minutes before I arrived, and I have two hours to wait for the next one.

15.00 – Having confirmed bus departure point, and bought a reservation for an overnight train on Sunday, I have the answer to what to do with the rest of the free time. It involves beer.

16.30 – Leave Graz

17.30 – Arrive Wolfsberg, the whole journey done according to schedule, so its three hours to kick off. Meeting me at the Station was Kevin, one of three other English hoppers already into longer Eurotours of our own. We were to take in three games together, while another of the English contingent was to join us at the second game only

Main Stand at Lavantthal Arena. The “junk” on the track will be used to make up the presentation stage

The game I am heading for is WAC/St. Andra v LASK in Austria’s 1. Liga. The “W” in WAC stands for Wolfsberg, (not to be confused with the German Wolfsburg). St. Andra is a nearby and smaller town. LASK is often referred to as LASK Linz, but this is not strictly correct as again, the “L” stands for Linz. (Pedants may like to tell me that it is actually Wolsberger and/or Linzer). Following in the now common practise, the 1. Liga is of course, the Austrian Second Division. WAC/St. Andra have actually confirmed themselves as champions (and there is only one promotion place) the previous week, rendering the result of this match against second placed LASK as academical, although with a promotion celebration, it will still be the first time the ground has been sold out.

It must be a good place to watch from – it’s near the bar!

One gets quite close to the ground before its location becomes clear. There is not a lot to the place, and there appeared to be deceptively few people walking towards the ground, and trying to find space in the nearby parking areas. Suddenly, one walks past the swimming pool, and the ground is in front of you, and chaos is ensuing. The ticket sales window is marked “Ausverkauf”, and people are still pushing in to try and get their pre-ordered tickets. I had spoken to the club and exchanged e-mails earlier in the week, and been promised one press pass and one match ticket. There was no ticket waiting despite this, and the girl hurriedly wrote our names on two press passes. Not surprisingly when we made our way up the area was somewhat overcrowded. The stewards did not know where the press enclosure was, or that there was a press room we could visit first. The pitch is within a running track, and the only covered accommodation is a stand that runs about the length of one side. Common with many others in this part of the world, there is a pathway along the top of the seats, but this has been broken up by a very plush VIP area in the centre, which has been added over the original path.

The opposite side has a few rows of uncovered terrace with a grass bank extending beyond this, the away enclosure is just a small area of grass banking with a couple of safety barriers, and as the grass bank runs around the corner, there is more space for home supporters to sit on the grass banking. This area even has its own bar, whereas in the main stand, one has to visit the bars and Wurst stalls behind the stand, or simply wait for the beer to be brought to you. Oddly, the size of this space id defined just be a temporary barrier and two stewards – they could have added room for a couple of hundred more by extending this further, even if views would have been distant, from beyond the curve of the track. The town end of the ground is closed to spectators.

Away fans enclosure of protest. No prizes for getting the name of the person they want out. Not only is Her Reichel being pictured as Pinocchio, but something is leaking from the end of his nose!

As a game of football, it was a poor advert, and we had given it up as goalless long before WAC/St. Andra scored in the 89th minute. What little football played in the game was actually played by the visitors, playing with a more direct approach, WAC always seemed to try to play the ball around, perhaps looking for a perfect goal but instead conceding possession. The crowd was announced at 5000, although I suspect it was less than this. It was however too many in most areas. Locals tell us that some or all of next season’s Bundesliga games will be switched to Klagenfurt, which is best part of an hour’s travel away. This could lead to a curious situation where the games moved, because WAC’s Lavantthal Arena cannot cope with the prospective crowd, are in fact played in front of a less crowd than those kept in Wolfsberg. Meanwhile, LASK, despite being in contention for promotion until the week before our visit, have not been awarded a licence for either National Division next season. This will probably be resolved, but at the moment there is a risk of them being demoted. The LASK fans that made the journey were in the mood for protest, and clearly laid the blame for the problems (which are financial) on the club president. With Austrian football dependent on the largesse of sponsors, as it cannot possibly pay its own way on gate income alone, (and the TV income is not great here), the job of the club president is to secure the sponsorship required to provide a budget and keep the club in the manner the fans would like to expect. At many clubs, the club president is the main sponsor (RZ Pellets at Wolfsberg), while other sponsors are often companies that would like to do business with the main sponsor. LASK is one of the old style, where the president is not providing from his own pocket. Having managed to argue with, and hence lose two major sponsors in the last year, the fans demand he should leave is perhaps, not misplaced.

For the records, I did not pay, and could not see any admission prices, while a 4 page A4 programme was given away free.

Celebrating in the now familiar style.

Reversing the last parts of the previous day’s journey, I returned to Vienna on Saturday morning. I had time to book into my hotel before using the local U-Bahn services to get myself to Simmering, within the city’s southern suburbs. Austrian Football has two National Divisions of just ten clubs each. The teams play 36 matches a season in a double round-robin system. Generally these are full time professional clubs, although attendances alone can certainly not support this. The third level is the semi-professional Regionalliga, which comprises of three Divisions, Ost (East), West and Mitte (Middle). Promotion opportunities for the Regionalliga teams are limited, with just 1½ available per season. Before any reader complains that it is not actually possible to promote 1½ teams, I would say this is the closest approximation to the truth. Each of the three divisions having just ½ of a promotion place available. The bottom team in the 1.Liga is relegated and replaced by the winner of a play off between two of the three Regionalliga champions. The third champion gets to play against the team finishing second to last in the 1. Liga. All of this is subject to limitations, such as a requirement to gain a licence for promotion, or to keep hold of one to avoid relegation, and the fact that reserve teams are no longer allowed in the 1. Liga.

Relegation from the Regionalliga is more straight forward, there being 9 state leagues at the next level down, and these are divided among the Regionalliga on a strict 3 to 1 basis, so the Champions of Burgenland, Vienna and NeiderOsterreich will all gain promotion to the Regionalliga. Licence requirements still exist, but are easier to comply with, and reserve teams can reach this level (10 of the 48 clubs are reserves). My match was at 1. Simmering SC, champions of the Wiener StadtLiga in 2011, but now at risk of returning to the lower league. An interesting and well thought out development borders one side of the ground. From the road, this looks quite typical with businesses on the ground floor, and housing above, but one end of the ground floor of the development is the football club’s clubhouse, and with the pitch level significantly lower than road level, the basements of the building include the dressing rooms. Just outside the clubhouse there is a balcony providing an elevated view of the pitch, something not available to those selecting to sit. Two rows of seats, the front one being at pitch level are provided on below the balcony level, and on the far side. On two sides of the ground, there are grass banks with a level area at the top, and this is where the majority of the crowd are watching from. There is a sizable encampment of visiting fans from Wiener Sportkub enjoying the sunshine on this bank, regularly regaling us with songs about how good they are and that they were going to score in a minute. Their efforts no doubt fuelled by an additional bar open on that size. The quoted attendance of 750, paying €10 for adult admission will be the best or close to best of the season. No programme was available. Sportklub were incidentally, the second Austrian club I visited, back in 1989. St. Polten, whom I visited the day before Wiener Sportklub were at home again the day before I was to see SK again. This was the last game at St. Polten’s Voith-Platz, which is to be demolished.

Simmering take the lead with an early penalty

If the fans of Wiener Sportklub thought they were going to have an easy day, they were mistaken. Simmering took an early lead with a 6th minute penalty, and then increased this on 33 minutes. The task for WSK was made more difficult with one of their forwards getting marching orders for a second booking early in the second half. The player concerned then had his “Joey Barton” moment as he appeared more violent after receiving the card then before it. A third Simmering goal was added midway through the half, giving a final score of 3-0. Not only does this lift Simmering out of the relegation zone with two games to play, but it also helps their goal difference, a vital matter if two relegation places are to be chosen from one team now on 33 points, and four on 34.

Within a few minutes of the game finishing, we were in a taxi – four of course is the ideal number here, as the journey we had planned, not much over 3 miles cost €16, a lot on your own, but quite manageable when shared. As I have mentioned, Wiener has one of the nine Stadtliga that make up level 4 f the Austrian pyramid. Below this there is no symmetry, as each of the areas defines the best system for lower football. In Vienna, this means two parallel divisions, (called A/B, but I think it is basically a North/South distinction, with those in group A being more Southerly). In most other areas, covering mush greater geographical footprints, the number of divisions increases as you drop down. The structure in Vienna, below the Stadtliga, is Oberliga, 1. Klasse, 2. Klasse. In Vienna at least, there are only a few reserve teams in the league structure, and these are the reserves of teams playing at a higher level. For those in the Wiener Liga structure, your reserves play parallel leagues to the first team, and are promoted and relegated on the first team’s merits, not their own, (Belgium runs a similar structure). The reserve fixture invariably kicks off either two hours before or after the first team game, at the same venue, but not necessarily the same pitch.

We went to the Franz Hölbl Anlage, home to KSV Monte Laa of the 1. Klasse A, (and also of SV Wienerberger who play one division higher). From the entrance, one climbs to a bar and dressing room, and then have to move higher again to the pitch. What one then found was two railed of pitches, one grass, one artificial. The grass pitch had advertising hoardings as infill, and a couple of rows of bench seats on one side. Peter insists that the pitch itself is named the Anker Arena, (after the club sponsors), and the unsold advertising hoardings certainly had this printed on them, and the name was used (with that of Franz Hölbl) on the official team sheet. Then again, Peter would be happy to count the artificial surface as another ground if her were to visit it on another day, whereas I tend to consider it to be another pitch of the same ground. Such subjects can cause endless debates in groundhopping circles, and I believe that I am now in a minority over some of the grounds I have visited twice, but counted as just one ground. Of course, to non groundhoppers, it is debates like us that prove that we are obsessive anoraks who cannot get a girlfriend, (but then both Peter and I are married). Admission to the ground for this game was free, although the signs said that SV Wienerberger charge €5. Not surprisingly there was no programme.

Seating at Franz Hölbl. Peter is the one shading the sun from his eyes, and effectively hiding two other hoppers from the view

The football at this level was poor to say the least, it lacked any sort of pace at all, and was clearly an end of season match of little importance. The home side, who like to take the name KSV Anerbrot Monte Laa to honour their main sponsor, took the lead early in the game, and increased to 2-0 before half time. The visitors, Margaretner AC had to make a hurried change to the teams before the start as their team captain, Ulrich Stabel was late arriving. He came on as substitute after just 21 minutes, but really made an impact 11 minutes from the end, pulling one goal back. Margeretner then scored again in the final minute to secure a draw from the game. Up to that point, the most interesting thing about the away team was their kit. All black, but in order to publicise a Turkish café as sponsor, a hashish pipe and the sponsor’s name shown on the front

The Viennese Leagues always have a few Sunday morning fixtures. At Stadtliga level, I had noticed three, two with kick offs at 10.15, and one at 11.00. My original plan would have sent me to Donaufeld, for a 10.15 kick off, but by the time I had taken breakfast, checked out of my hotel and taken my first U-bahn of the day to Westbahnhof where I could lock up my baggage, I calculated another U-Bahn would get me to Florisdorf only around half an hour before kick-off, leaving me with a long walk and a short time. So instead I took the U-Bahn to Stadlau and rather lazily took the bus four stops, (this is what happens when you have a day ticket). There is an adjoining S-Bahn Station, and if you approach from this side, you see a big gate announcing FC Stadlau, and leaving a gap where some sponsors name has been added in the past. The gate is not used, and is only notable for a couple of containers next to the gate, one of which is marked USA Exhibits. The actual entrance is from around the corner, past a car park, two other pitches (at least one artificial surface) and a small swimming pool. Although the football stadium has a running track and a large stand and is enclosed, the dressing rooms are actually shared with the swimming, and all the players enter the pitch via the pay gate. They did not, however, pay €7 to get in.

This is Stadlau!

Surprisingly, I failed to get a team sheet. Austria has one of the most sophisticated systems for player registration, and even at the lowest level, the referee will have a computer in his dressing room. He enters the team list into the system before kick-off, this gives an immediate check on suspensions or other irregularities. This can then be printed from any computer with access to the internet, but at Stadlau, the printers were in the referee’s room, and he did not know how to manipulate the software to print me a copy. I settled for writing it down by looking at the announcer’s computer screen, and then checking against the internet later.

Still the pulled out the stops in other ways, with dancing girls to greet the players as the entered the pitch, and a more than acceptable match. League positions suggested a home win was on the cards, but this reckoned without Rainhard Siegl, who scored early for the visitors, ISS Admira Technopool early in the first half, and then again midway through the second, after Wendl had levelled for the home team just before the break.

An Admira Technopool free kick blocked by the wall

The pitch also shows American Football markings, and appears to be shared with the Donau Dragons. During the second half, I discovered there were three other groundhoppers present, from Germany and Poland, (there are a lot of Germans on the circuit, but this was the first Pole I had met). They were going onto DAC, Dunajska Streda in Slovakia for a 5.30 game, making use of the fact the station outside has direct services to Bratislava. Oddly, they had planned to leave this match 15 minutes early to catch a train, which in an anathema to most British hoppers. They said this was not their preference, and then checked their train times, realising there was another train to Bratislava after the match finished, and it would still get them to their destination 45 minutes before kick-off, they changed their plans.

Possibly the best feature of Austrian Football – the answer to the question, “Where’s the bar?”, is “Over there, next to the pitch”, although of course, there will always be an indoor bar as well, in case of poor weather!

For those riding into Slovakia for the afternoon, it may have been clock watching, I had only a few stops on the buses and U-Bahn to Prater for the Austrian Cup final, with plenty of time to pick up my ticket (€32.50 for a good seat, although this was with two additional charges added to the face value of €28). I even had time for lunch before the match, knowing that of we had extra time and penalties, I cold be in a rush later.

Despite renovations when staging the European Championships, the Ernst-Happel or Prater Stadion in Vienna is showing its age. One enters the ground, goes straight up concrete stairwell and through another gate to your seat. There is no plush modern concourse to provide a massive choice of overpriced comestibles, just small rooms with a limited choice. With the match taking place at four o’clock on a very hot afternoon, the organisers did not help, opening the side of the ground where fans could swelter in the sun, but using only a few of the shaded seats opposite (the main VIP area). This also meant no fans, (only VIPS) anywhere near the actual cup presentation. Still, my €32.50 bought me a very good seat, which I then changed twice, firstly to move away from a smoker (you can still smoke in Austrian stadiums, even in the stand at WAC, which had a wooden roof), and then to get out of the burning sunshine. There were no programmes on view outside the stadium, or at the entrances, so I went in thinking one had not been published, but on reaching the seats, I found that one had been left on each seat. I am not sure if this extended around to the seats behind the goals.

Unlike many stadiums, the roof of the Prater is lower opposite the centre line compared to the end. The line of the top of the third tier of seats, however is even all the way around.

SV Ried brought the most fans, who made the most noise, and dropped the most litter

The Salzburg fans bask in the Sunshine.

Red Bull Salzburg dived and cheated their way to winning the Austrian Cup final, completing a double with an emphatic 3-0 win over SV Ried. They were ably assisted in this by Thomas Einwaller, who clearly has no idea that it is possible for a football to fall over without being fouled. Now do not get me wrong, Salzburg’s opponents were not afraid to make the odd dive themselves, it is just that Salzburg took more tumbles, more often, and were clearly better at this aspect of the game. The first major decision of the game was a penalty that gave Salzburg the lead after just ten minutes, and this was for a dive. Sadly for the visitors, when one of their players took the chance to fall over in the area early in the second half, the referee ruled that this was a clean challenge. I find all this cheating somewhat disconcerting, and especially the fact that the officials seem oblivious to it going on. I assume they do not suffer the same level of scrutiny as given by, say, “Match of the Day” in England, as surely the criticism would be so severe, they would either learn or resign. On one incident, the referee awarded a questionable free kick to Ried. As the players were running back, a Salzburg player “bumped” into Ried player and collapsed to the ground. All three of the officials seemed blind to this happening, taking action only when the repercussions of the incident almost led to a fight, (well fists were raised but not used – this is Austria). After seeing me get irate over the diving and officialdom, two very attractive young ladies took time to ask me what I was doing in Austria. The said that part of the fun of Austrian football is all the crazy refereeing decisions, and seeing who can make the most theatrical fall to the ground. Not only that, the actually seemed disappointed that I was leaving the country that evening (overnight train), and therefore could not have a drink with them.

Salzburg are actually capable of some quite good football, and having gained an early lead, (which became 2-0 in the 14th minute), most of the possession was with Ried. As their moves inevitably broke down, Salzburg could then counter attack with pace on both wings (Svento and Zarate) as well as through the middle (Leonardo). Zarate and Leonardo are two of the worst divers in the team, but Svento impressed me. For those of you of the right age, you may remember Dick Dastardly of “Wacky Races”, whose plots to win the races always backfired and led to him losing. My thought was that he clearly had the best car, as he could get ahead to try and bring these plots against the other drivers. Hence, I concluded, if he just drove fairly, he would have won all the races anyway. Salzburg also have the ability to win without recourse to cheating, but choose not to do so. The difference, of course between the real world and TV cartoons is that in the real world cheating does work.

In the end, the record books show, Salzburg holding the cup