Archive for May, 2013

The European Hop, (part 1).

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

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

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

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

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

FC Kray 3-2 SV Bergisch Gladback 09.

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

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

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

View from veranda, showing covered standing

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

The “cover” with the clubhouse in the background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Home Front – Cheltenham Town 2012-3

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

It is actually more difficult to judge the team you are attached to, than those at a distance. By the end of the season, I will have seen something like 170 games, of which 37 (or if I’m lucky 38) will involve Cheltenham Town. At home, I have missed only a couple of midweek matches, while away I see about half the games.

So, looking at the season not quite in retrospect. What sort of season has it been? I have deliberately decided to write this before the final games, with the play off situation still in the balance. In many people’s minds these games are going to be the whole of the season, basically we are a success if we win promotion, and a failure if we do not. These are false arguments, our achievement this season is coming fifth in the league, aligned with a run to the third round of the FA Cup. The preliminary suggestions (as the final figures are not out until next spring) is that the books will again balance, and some surplus to remove historical debt from the club. This looks good for the future of the club, but many of the supporters do not care. Many would have us spending money that is not there in a bid to bring greater success to the club, pointing perhaps to Bradford City who publicly proclaimed they would have made a £600K loss for the season if it had not been for reaching the League Cup final. The downside of this is shown at Aldershot Town, who went into Administration within days of leaving the league. This is just 21 years since their predecessor failed to complete a Football League season, causing a new club to be formed with the “added” Town on the name. Its also worth noting that another former opponent of ours, Farnborough FC are also in trouble, and in their case after a change just six years ago which resulted in Farnborough coming out of the ashes of Farnborough Town. It is all too easy to joke that they will just restart with the Town suffix heading north to Farnborough from Aldershot again.

Anyway, let’s get back to the season where most people care about it. On the field. In simple terms, Cheltenham finished 5th out of 24 teams and entered the play offs. In straight economic terms, budgets follow average crowd figures. Cheltenham are 15th in the average attendances for the division, with 3253 seeing an average game at Cheltenham. If analysed closer, this figure is rather on the high side – the average gets boosted by a small number of good crowds, while rather too often the attendances sit below the 3000 mark. Still, however we show the figures, Cheltenham are in some way over achieving, as we have done for the majority of the seasons in our league career.

But yes, I digress again. Like a good politician I am shying away from the answer to the question, how did this team perform? I would have to say that on the whole, the season has been one of frustration. We get to see glimpses of what these players can achieve, and then they fail to achieve it. I do not think Cheltenham has ever had a more capable squad of players, but we seem incapable of proving this to be true. In the past, Cheltenham’s league squads have been based on a few players with genuine pedigree, bolstered by a number who are not even journeymen pro, but instead have a short professional career, dropping out of the football league as soon as they are released. If I was asked to show an example of this, I would mention Andy Gallinagh – who made something like 130 appearance in our colours, more than half of them in League-1. No insult meant, but Gallinagh is not a great defender, and when he looks back on his league career, he will probably see he did well to play that number of games, but the scouts were never queuing up to watch him, with lucrative promises of a career at a higher level.

The current squad does not have much in the way of Andy Gallinagh about it, our current players can all play the game, and do not have to rely on pure commitment and energy to hide the gaps in the capabilities, and they know it. Quite a few of our players are being watched by others in this division and in League-1. The majority would pick up another League club if released this summer. Now this is League-2. A footballer gets stuck in league-2 because he cannot perform to the highest level for more than 50 games a season, but suffers from a lack of consistency, and does not have as much ability as a higher level player. We now have, including loan players, about 18 of these typical league-2 players. You can often look at the team, and at the bench and see little or no difference in the quality. I mean how does Yates choose between Jason Taylor or Darren Carter? Both can do the job, and on a good day will do it – but both are capable of anonymous games where they hardly see the ball.

Alright then, the season in segments. We started well with seven points from 3 games, but then stumbled with the Accrington and Southend home games. What we did not know at the time was these would be our only home league defeats of the season. We then had our best run – the next 11 League game saw us lose only once (at Bradford), but we came back done suddenly with the heavy defeats at Rotherham and Chesterfield. This set us up for the two nervy FA Cup encounters with Hereford, which naturally we made a meal of. We then had some poor results in the run up to the Everton game, with only the Boxing day encounter with Wycombe brightening December. Unfortunately we lost the Bristol Rovers game to the weather, and it was only re-arranged after John Ward had come in to refloat the Gashead’s ship. The winter passed with a lot of draws and an embarrassingly poor defeat at Dagenham. There is no doubt that if the games in January and February were to be typical of the season, they we would not be thinking of promotion, direct or by the play offs. To me, this felt like a reality check – turning around the year in a promotion position just did not feel right, we did not appear to look like a promotion team, and we dropped down to the level this team should expect.

I think it turned back in our favour at Fleetwood, where we won a good point away to a team still in contention. Our next five home games were all won, although our form on the road was far from inspiring. I would say we were up to our average in this period. This certainly frustrates many of those fans writing on the message board, as this average kept on falling just short of that needed to get us into an automatic promotion place. In the end, that is where we finished, just short of an automatic promotion place.

I will not be disappointed if we miss out on promotion again. I do not feel we are really good enough to go up. Yates’ should feel it though as to a great extent it is his responsibility. He has been responsible for the signings, the contracts, for the balance of the team. He has been responsible for the constant chopping and changing between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, for the swapping in and out of equally culpable midfielders. I honestly think he needs to know exactly what plan A is. We should not make four or five changes to the team, and change the formation every time we lose a game. Instead we should have a plan A in formation and game plan and stick to it. To some extent this has been forced on us in the past, when we have not had too many options on the bench, whereas we now have the scope to change the midfield, and allow the forwards to come in and out of favour, and this has been overused.

Will others agree with me? Certainly the messages on the forum suggest a season that was somewhat worse than I have described. A place in the play offs should only be a disappointment if one felt the team was head and shoulders better than the rest, and should have easily won automatic promotion. Gillingham were clearly the best side in the division this season, but even they were not head and shoulders above the rest. I would be happy to congratulate them if it was not for their manager, who not only was an embarrassment to himself and the club during his time here, but still appears in the media to be on a trip of self-aggrandisement, and not capable of giving credit to his players, or to the budget his chairman has kindly provided. For just about any side short of Gillingham, the league was a close run affair, with even the eventually relegated sides capable of stealing points from those at the top. I always find it strange that people automatically claim the closeness of the division means it is lacking in quality, but such closeness can be achieved by the lower sides improving, as much as by the better sides failing. I do not think our team has dropped its playing quality from last season, and I believe the game played now is technically much better than it was during our first league seasons, (there is much less hoofball all around and far more reliance on passing). I think the efforts of the Football League to try and bring some order into the financial mess of the football league is beginning the bear fruit, and this is reducing the ability for teams to buy success on borrowed money, (it has not yet ended the excesses and we still need a stronger license based system).

I am not going through the squad, saying this played did well, and that one did not. We have no bad players in our squad, we have plenty of League-2 standard, and some capable of playing one step higher. All of our players are capable of bad days out, and the team dynamic is such that the whole team tends to have good or bad days, rather than individual players doing so. On occasions our manager has turned around a potential defeat with a substitution or two, but just as often we have lost concentration at the end and let in stupid goals. This is what you should expect outside the Premier League

A conclusion? I would say we have done as well as should have been expected, but we are a frustrating side to watch because just occasionally we reach heights, and then struggle to even glimpse where they have come from. Almost every player in our squad has been guilty of flattering to deceive in this way. A second run to the play offs has not exactly bought the fans out of the woodwork, and even if we reach Wembley, I doubt if it will be in front of record crowds. Still, overall and without waiting to find out how it finishes, I think this has been a good season.