Archive for June, 2014

French Finales.

Friday, June 20th, 2014

What I assume is the final trip of the season starts with an early ferry from Dover to Calais, I do not use this service very often, but with no bookings available for the return trip via the tunnel, this was the only option. Unlike the tunnel ferry tickets can be discounted and services like aferry.co.uk and travelsupermarket offer fares not shown on the company websites. Even then, we had to make a booking that did not allow for extra time in our Sunday game to get the better far, and trust that the company would be lenient if we arrived a little late. The discounted tickets are important – they are less than half the cheapest alternative fare.

From Calais, I have to drive to a different channel port, Le Havre. Despite the three hour drive, this is the best way both in time and money terms. As we have plenty of time, we avoid the toll roads as far as Abbeville, where we stop for a short while and take lunch. My passengers, Paul and Kevin both try a local “artisan” beer, which does not impress them much. I have to have coffee as the only man on the trip with a driving licence. We take the motorway from Abbeville to Le Havre, incurring a toll fee of €8.

The hotel, Le Parisien is opposite Le Havre station and is of the “does the job” class. We take a breather before heading to Gonfreville l’Orcher – a dormitory town around a 15 minute drive away. The stadium is not far from the centre, and is the home of Etente Sportive Municipale Gonfreville l’Orcher, which not surprisingly is generally abbreviated to ESMGO.

The sixth level of French Football is run by the regional associations, while the levels above are within the remit of the FFF. Each of the associations runs a single top division, generally known as Division d’Honneur. The number of other divisions below this differs from region to region. Most devolve the power at lower levels to district federations. As champions of the Division d’Honneur Normandie, ESMGO will be promoted to CFA2 for next season.

All of the regional associations run cup competitions for affiliated teams, and the majority of them operate a Senior Cup. In Normandie, this is the Coupe de Normandie Seniors. ESMGO were given home advantage for the final, (some regions do this, some play at neutral grounds), with the visitors being the second team of Le Havre AC, (a member of CFA2; again the highest and lowest levels that enters the cup varies from Region to region although I have not looked into them).

The stadium is a typical French municipal facility. A modern track and a single stand. In this case there is no spectator access around to other parts of the ground. As is common, other sports facilities are incorporated into the structure, or the area. The stand itself is quite large, and must hold more than 1000 seats. It is well elevated, and needs to be to allow viewing over the surprisingly high fence to the front. The roof sits high above the seating supported by a series of double curved wooden beams, which gives it an attractive appearance. The dressing rooms must be somewhere within the structure, with the players and officials emerging from underground to an area inside the track. A refreshments area has been set up to one side of the stand, and is doing a roaring trade, mainly selling sausages and chips. I indulge in the standard sausage, while Paul has the spicy version, (merguez). I have to wait a while for fresh chips to be prepared which gives me an advantage, Paul complains his are not as hot as they should be.

Confusion in the area leads to ESMGO’s first goal

Entrance to the ground is €5, a single sausage and chips is €2.50. There is no programme, but I obtain a copy of the team list quite easily.

As for the game, it was a slightly strange affair, there was no shortage of competent football on show, but there seemed to be a lack of passion. The Le Havre side were very young, with an average age under 20. One or two looked a lot younger; Kevin was quick to point out Hery Randriantsara, only a little over 5 feet tall, and not much over 7.5 stone (from Le Havre web site), completely dwarfed in the midfield by an opponent around 6 foot and probable twice the weight. Still looking through the lists on the web page, he was nearly six months past his 19th birthday and by no means the youngest in the side. Le Havre have already updated the web pages with the squad lists for next season, and some of the players have graduated from the U-19 squad to the second team in the summer, while other players noted from earlier match reports seem to have left the club before this game. One of the Gonfreville substitutes is listed as a member of the Le Havre second team for next season!

With a goal midway through the first half, and a second about 15 minutes from time, ESMGO seem to be cruising to a victory, and a very late goal from the visiting substitute Jordan Cuvier does not change this.

It is common to precede games like this with another, lesser final and when we arrived at the ground, the Final Enterprise was in progress. This is works league with rules demanding the majority of players are with the company concerned. Although these matches are all on the fff web site, and hence quite easy to find out about, the level of football was extremely poor

After returning briefly to the hotel, we headed into town. Our first stop was the Brasserie Paillette, which appears to advertise itself as selling a local beer brewed since sometime in the 16th century. The beer bearing the name was in fact a very poor (and surely mass produced) lager. The place is also a very successful restaurant, which means they were far too busy to discuss the finer points of their less than fine beer with foreigners who do not speak the lingo. So after a very quick quarter litre, we repaired to Le Trappist, about a ten minute walk away. This is a popular spot, with a young clientele who appear to enjoy good beer. Not surprisingly most of this beer is imported from Belgium, (I did try a French Trappist beer which I also enjoyed). The best beers were bottled and at at least €5 for a third of a litre, were often double or triple the Belgian prices. Still, it was very busy and boasted two televisions from which we saw the end of the Uruguay-Costa Rica game and the entirety of England v Italy (except when too many others blocked our view).

In the morning, we had plenty of time, even though I slept late. We ended up taking breakfast as a café overlooking Le Havre plage before heading back almost past the hotel and heading back to Abbeville. With time on our hands, the drive to Bully-les-Mines was made without resort to toll motorways. We stopped briefly for coffee (or beer for non drivers) and a sandwich about an hour before reaching our destination.

Bully-les-Mines is a former mining town, (the clue is in the name) just outside Lens. It seems better built up than Gonfreville, but also very closed on a Sunday afternoon. Refuelling the car was done by use of a petrol station with automated payment. We closed in on the ground just under an hour before kick off. Parking was impossible on the road outside, but we found a place nearby.

Etoile Sportive Bully-Les-Mines (ESB) play at the Stade Rene Corbelle, a municipal facility, but without a track. It once had a cinder track, but most of this is grassed over, while one straight has been lost to the new stand. There is a bar and refreshments at the top of the stand, and a balcony with the seats below it. Because the bar has a curved front, there are actually fewer rows of seats in the centre than the wings. It is also possible to watch from any point around the edge of the ground, where an old concrete barrier runs outside the old track. There are a few steps of terracing on the far side to the main stand, and this is a very popular viewing point. There are three more full size pitches between this and the railway lines.

I have long thought that passion in French Football is a product of the North, with the best supporters being the followers of Sang et Or, the blood and gold of Racing Club Lens. It appears that this spills over to the neighbouring towns.

ESB sit two divisions below Le Portel Stade, the visitors who play in Division d’Honneur. If the standard policy when entering a cup match as underdogs is to sit tight and hit the opponent on the counter, this news has not reached the North of France. The policy of Bully was to hit them quick, and hit them hard. By the ninth minute Portel were already reeling from the onslaught and it was no surprise when Bully went ahead, and two minutes later, it was 2-0.

Le Portel appeared capable of playing better football, but could not match the home sides desire to win. We thought the corner might have been turned when the visitors pulled one back with still only 23 minutes on the clock, but we were wrong. Bully were not finished by a long way, and powered forward again and again, soon returning to a two goal advantage and increasing this with a fourth goal just before the break.

In the second half, Le Portel struggled to come to terms with the disaster of the first period. They had more of the ball, more chances but Bully now defended resolutely, having something worth defending. There was only one goal in the second half, as the score was brought back to 4-2, and in fact there were almost as many close calls when Bully counter-attacked as created by Portel trying to get back into the game.

One feature of these cup finals, and other low level games in France is rolling substitutions. It did not have too much of an effect in these games, with a total of seven substitutions on the Saturday, (although both sides left one player on the bench throughout the game, so they only used 13 each). On Sunday, both sides used their allocation of 3 replacements, and then returned one of the original line up. In Le Portel’s case this was for injury, while Bully appeared to do it for tactical reasons. When I went to the same cup final in Nord Pas de Calais two years ago, there were no less than 13 changes, four of which came in the last two minutes of injury time as supposedly better penalty takers were returned, (one had his penalty saved, and one was not in his team’s five penalty takers). #

I appreciate the idea that allowing more changes, and hence more players to take the field could mean better player retention, but it seems that the rules are used to break up the play with masses of changes after the break, and players off the field for just a minute or two. Sale Town of the Cheshire League, for example made 7 changes in 90 minutes when I saw them lose to Grappenhall with one player returning after missing ten minutes of play, and one of the players on the pitch for just three minutes. If a player regularly only plays in the final five minutes, is he really going to want to stay with the team. In my mind, a better solution would be to continue to limit the number of substitutions during play, but to allow extra substitutes to take the pitch at half time. Hence the replacements would generally get 45 minutes of play, while the option is still there to make changes in case of injury or to change the tactics.

After the match, it was onto the motorway and back to the channel as fast as we could go. I had not been able to book the later ferry so we wanted to make sure we go the one booked. We made this with a few minutes to spare, and in fact found the boat to be half empty.

Overall, this was a good weekend away. Thanks as always for Paul and Kevin for the company.

Eurotour of 2014. Part 5

Friday, June 13th, 2014

My last few days were to be spent in more familiar territory, the Netherlands and Germany. I did not know about the exact fixtures when I started the trip, but knew various play offs and cup finals had to be arranged. Indeed before I started, the only options for the Tuesday were a couple of low level games in Germany and Austria, or a return into Poland. I did know about the play offs to win promotion from the German Regionalliga to the 3. Liga would start on the Wednesday, but also that the options, which were likely to be Neustrelitz and Sonnenhof Grosaspach were both going to cause difficulties with the travel.

Then up comes the Netherlands play offs. With the addition of the National Topklasse (one each, for Saturday and Sunday) as the top level of Netherlands Amateur football, (which is of course, semi-professional), there has to be promotion and relegation. There are three regional leagues (Hoofdklasse) below the Topklasse, and all three champions go up at the expense of the bottom three. But then there are the period champions. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the playing season is divided into roughly even groups of matches and the winner of each period goes into the end of season play offs. As the automatically promoted team may well have won (at least one) period, and teams can win more than one, additional teams may be included from second place down in the league.

In the Netherlands Hoofdklasse, there are three regional groups, and three periods per group. They then play a round robin within each group, with each team (normally) getting one home game. The three winners, and the fourth from bottom team in the Topklasse then play semi-finals (two legs) and final (single match, neutral ground) to decide the final club in the Topklasse. So the fixtures were not known at all when I started out, and even when I spotted them (about a week’s notice), I did not know who would be at home. The Saturday semi-finals were to be played Tuesday and Saturday. When the fixtures were eventually settled, it was Ajax Amateurs and SteDeCo at home in the first leg of the semi finals. As SteDeCo’s home in … involves two buses from the nearest rail station, I chose Ajax. On a very wet day, an artificial pitch may help.

This meant Amsterdam joined Prague and Budapest as a major cities on this tour where I saw football without venturing into the city centre.

This game was at the Ajax Amateurs pitch at Toekmost. The main pitch there is used for the Eerste Divisie Jong Ajax team, the Ladies and the most senior (A1) of the many youth teams. The main pitch is grass, but the Amateurs use an artificial surface, no doubt shared by other teams. Ajax Amateurs themselves run three adult teams and a veteran’s team. They are a curious combination, being simultaneously part of Ajax, and apart from the Professional team. In the past, I am told the team has been used to blood youngsters who are likely to go on into the professional game, but with Jong Ajax now in the league, they are now a purely “amateur” outfit, which of course, in a Netherlands context means semi-professional.

Most of the budgeting for Ajax Amateurs appears to come from the professional club, and they also have the benefit of the facilities and stewarding. They do not even feel the need to charge an admission fee. I am not sure if the coaches are shared. Players may come from those who have not made it to the professional ranks, but are just as likely to transfer in from outside. The top scorer, Dennis Kaars came from another amateur team in the Amsterdam and I have seen reports that he will transfer to Sunday football, with Hoofdklasse team de Dijk for next season. I might like to go there, if only to see if the Wikipedia drawing of red, blue and with chequered shirts is accurate.

Kaars opened the scoring quite early in the game. He is a pacy forward that caught the eye, (and made me ask whether he had come through the Ajax academy). Noordwijk gave good account of themselves, but were always looking suspect to the pace of the Ajax attack. They levelled from the penalty spot, but went behind again when a Kaars shot, saved by Amerzni was then hit in by Kenneth Misa Danso.

Noordwijk’s problems really started in the 33rd minute, when Kai van Hese pulled back Kaars as he tried to run through. I thought there were other defenders that might have been able to get back, but Kaars had the pace to go clear and the referee red-carded the defender.

Noordwijk still defender well until the hour mark, when Sergio Cameron hit the third in from a difficult angle. A couple of minutes later, there was a foul from an Ajax player that incensed temperments. I did not get a clear view of the initial foul, but I did see Bryan Braun push over an Ajax player. The original foulee was booked, but Braun had to go and Noordwijk were down to nine men.

This was too little for them, and Kaars got his second soon after, followed by Cameron (penalty for hand ball), and substitute Ronday in the final minute added to the score

As this was the second pitch at Toekmost, a small stand (around 240 seats) and four steps of concrete terracing opposite, resulting in a lot of wet spectators, I will go back for Toekmost 1 most likely for a league match involving Jong Ajax.

Meanwhile, I was given more information from a referee’s assessor, who was at the game as a spectator. Unlike the clubs, he seemed perfectly happy with the KNVB plan to force promotion on the champions of the Topklasse starting in 2015-16, despite the fact that hardly any of the teams in the Amateur leagues desire promotion. The team Achilles 29 came up at the start of the season, under a three season trial arrangement. During this season, they have played as an amateur team with only a couple of professional players. They have struggled to make the grade and eventually finished bottom of the table. They had been promised that they would not be relegated at the end of the season, but also that promotion was not an option. The results prove that although amateur teams frequently beat the professionals in cup matches, this does not mean that they are good enough to compete on a week in, week out basis. When I saw Achilles earlier in the season, they were comfortably beaten vy the Venlo outfit VVV, 3-0 and it was clear the main difference between the two teams is the fitness levels. Next season, Achilles are committed to a 50-50 professional/amateur team, which may do better, but would surprise me if it really worked. At the end of the season 2014-5, Achilles have the option to pull out, but the league will not relegate them even if they finish bottom again. Should they stay in the League for 2015-6, then they will have to employ at least 11 full time players paid at least the minimum wage, and a number of full time youth players who can be paid a less wage. At the end of 2015-16, there will be automatic relegation, and if the Netherlands FA gets their way, the winners of the Amateur title will be promoted.

I remain uncertain about the logic of adding the three reserve teams to the lower division, (or as they are titled, “Jong”). The trio, along with Achilles brings the number of teams up to 20, while the Netherlands FA actually proclaims 18 as the ideal full strength. My assessing friend said the 18 would be achieved again by not replacing clubs that fold. Still it seems like a brazen dereliction of dut by the league to have a policy that expects clubs to fold, and if the financial standing of the Eerste Divisie is so poor, surely having two extra (home) fixtures dates is a good thing? At professional football clubs, an extra fixture should increase income to a greater extent than it increases expenditure. There is a full reserve division as well as the reserves in the main league, but there is no direct relegation and promotion route for these clubs. Feyenoord were particularly incensed that the clubs chosen to send their second teams in league were PSV, Ajax and Twente, but not the Rotterdam outfit who feel that their status as a member of the “big three” should have given them primacy. I wonder if they have considered a play off after the Amateur championship, between the winners and the reserve competition winners, for the promotion place? When TOP Oss where relegated a few seasons ago (as part of a earlier reduction of numbers), they were pleased to be able to regain their place later, replacing one of the many teams to fold from professional football in recent years. (RBC, Veendam, AGOVV and Haarlem have all dropped by the wayside, many others are threatened). Even the big three have all had to restructure themselves from debt mountains, (which had the positive effect of opening the competition and allowing teams such as AZ and Twente a chance to win the title).

There are many in the Netherlands who believe that their FA are pursuing a utopian league, while not recognising the problems they have at the moment. They now have a promotion/relegation system about to be placed upon teams that do not want it. They have introduced reserve football to the professional leagues, while not having a structure to promote and relegate these

Anyway, from Amsterdam I headed to Braunschweig – a straight forward enough journey with just one change on the route. It had not escaped my notice that it had been an extremely wet day and when I reached my hotel room, trying to sign onto the internet was my first priority of the day. Before I could get connected, there was a call – Dirk was at the reception. Dirk is a German groundhopper who I have known for many years, he lives in Braunschweig and supports the main team Eintracht. He was going to join me for the evening game at the town’s second club FT Braunschweig, who were to play the Neidersachsen Cup final. This is one of 21 “Lander Pokale”, which are important as they serve as qualification competitions for the following season’s German cup. Only teams in the two divisions of the Bundesliga and the top four from the 3.Liga qualify directly. In recent years this has been recognised with increasing crowds and several thousand would be expected for the evening, although with 24 places from 21 competitions, the most populous (Niedersachsen, Westfalen and Bayern) get two places each, so only local pride was at stake.

Anyway, Dirk’s news was bad news – the game was off due to a waterlogged pitch. I said I did not know, as I had not yet got onto the internet, (which was not coming up on my computer). I wondered if there was any other football to keep my run going. Dirk thought that any game was likely to be off as well, the weather having been so poor. Dirk then went out to sort out where his car was parked, but was to come back within 30 minutes to show me around the town.

I found that while I could not get on-line from the computer, I could by using the slab I call a telephone. Searching the match calendar of the kicker website, I found two minor games – one at Bezirksliga level in the Braunschweig area, (Level 7 in the German pyramid) and one a level higher, some 40 km away in Bevenstedt, just outside Hildesheim. The calendar had been updated with the call off at FT, but still had these lower games on. Dirk said that although he had a car from work, it was for business purposes and even driving an 80 km round trip could get him into trouble, but he did check the times for me. If I could get to the local station in about 30 minutes, there was a train for the 20 minute run to Hildesheim and although a bus should get me into Bevenstedt ten minutes before kick off, a taxi might be a better idea. I meanwhile had checked the lower, more local game and discovered it also was off, but neither home or away website for the Bevenstedt game had a comment on the matter.

And so, I set up. Dirk decided who could not make it, still organising his forthcoming three week trip to Asia. We agreed to meet when I got back for a meal and a drink. I quickly headed back to the station, caught the train to Hildesheim and with the help of a taxi found the ground with time to spare. More importantly it was open and they were taking admission money. It was game on, even if the grass was a little long and unkempt and it appeared that the club had neglected to mark out the lines clearly (probably due to the weather). Even better, the ground boasted a quite modern stand with more than 200 seats, situated by the halfway line. The usual food and drink options, including the club bar were situated near the entrance, but having agreed a meal for later I settled on coffee. There was also a match programme, given away free. Admission was €6.

The match had been brought forward from the following weekend. I did not find out why. Bevenstedt were in the comfortable position that no result from this match, or any other match in the league could mean they would finish other than in third place. Only the champions get promoted (as it happens, the champions are Arminia Hannover, the only other member team of this league I have ticked, even if when I went in 1998, they were three levels higher when I went). The visitors HSC Blau-Weiss Schwalbe Tündern were in 9th place and could go up or down two places depending on this and other results, which meant the match would certainly occur on next season’s fixture list. Bevenstedt were on top from the start and it was no surprise when they took the lead after 21 minutes. Playing some very neat passing football despite the uneven and damp surface, they added a second before half time. Immediately after the break they pulled the lead up to 5-0 within ten minutes, Tündern substituted their goalkeeper between the third and fourth goals. It did not appear to be apportioning blame or injury (the sub was waiting to come on when goal three was scored), but merely to give a player a run out. The substitute may have regretted being brought on as he conceded two within his first six minutes on the field. The game turned though, Bevenstedt did not deliberate take the foot off the pedal, but their goals dried up. On 72 minutes, a visiting sub pulled a goal back. Two more followed in the next seven minutes to make the score 5-3. Meanwhile, Bevenstedt revealed their final substitute as a rather overweight bloke with glasses, and quite clearly not of the fitness levels the rest of the team were showing. He spent several minutes joking with those in the stand who clearly knew him before coming onto the field with about five minutes (including injury time) to play. There were lots of calls to “give the ball to Markus” (or the equivalent in German) from the crowd, and he tried to keep in a forward position. I am convinced he did not play the ball once during his five minutes of fame. The final score was 5-3 despite the home keeper being made to make one good save to keep it so.

Third goal for Bevenstedt

I had been asking at half time about getting back to the station, no one appeared to be driving straight after the game, but I was given directions to the bus stop by a young lady who had some English. I asked her again about Markus at the end of the game and the first comment was “he is not a normal player”. I had gathered that already, but why was he on the field. It was in fact a reward for many years of service to the club. One cannot argue with this type of sentiment in a game that does not matter. When I left the ground with just a vague direction to a bus stop, my Sat Nav said if I walked all the way to the station, I would miss my train by about five minutes. As I had arrived by taxi, I did not know the bus times out so I felt lucky to arrive at the stop and find there was an hourly service to the station – especially as I had less than five minutes to wait.

So it was back to Braunschweig, seeing Dirk again and heading to his favourite local Greek restaurant, where I have to admit the food was good, and very good value for money. We talked about Dirk’s forthcoming trip to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei in which he planned 24 flights in a three week trip, including travelling between Borneo and Java four days in a row. I said I had looked at the fixtures and even considered making the trip, but uncertainty about work prevented me from doing this as an alternative to my Eurotrip. I would have forgone a fixture though to spend longer on Borneo, especially if there was an overland option between the games there.

Office building in Braunschweig, used by the company Dirk works for!


Dirk also persuaded me to change my plans for the final day of this tour. I was going to Nöttingen, who had a promotion play off, trying to rise into the Regionalliga (fourth level). Instead, Dirk recommended 1. CFR Pforzeim at a level lower. The club is a recent merger and as such is in possession of two stadia, both good and old. Originally the team had favoured a ground at Holzhof, but difficulties in getting permission to update it, meant Brötzinger Tal had become the ground of choice. This game was slated as the last ever game at Holzhof, and would be a German Groundhopper’s day out (not that this necessarily is a recommendation). As a groundhopper, I do tend to head for grounds that may be having their last hurrah, rather than the more important game on a ground I can visit another day. Added to this, Pforzheim is the more easily accessible of the two, Nöttingen being some 45 minutes from the rail station, with no buses back. There was also the precaution that if I arrived in Pforzheim in good time, and it was off, then it would still be possible to get to the slightly later kick off at Nöttingen – and both could be done without changing my pre-booked hotel.

Pforzheim – time for a beer!

There were a number of German groundhoppers in Pforzheim, having arrived at the ground from various parts of the country. However, the news was that the building works at the alternative ground, Brötzinger Tal was unlikely to be complete for the start of the new season, so Holzhof would continue to be used. 1. CFR were a merger about four seasons ago, and they felt at the time that by combining forces, they could move up from the Verbandsliga Baden, which is level six in these parts. At regional levels, the different areas use different combinations of league names, so where as it is always true that Oberliga is above Verbandsliga, which in turn is higher than Landesliga, with Bezirksliga, Kreisliga and finally Kriesklasse lower down, one cannot say that a specific league name refers to a specific level. In Neidersachsen, where I went on the Wednesday, there is no Verbandsliga, so Landesliga is level 6, the same as Verbandsliga Baden.

Anyway, merging the two teams in Pforzheim has not achieved the desired objective, and the club has sat at the same level for the four seasons since merger. To add insult to injury, another team in the town, Pforzheimer Kickers has come through and is now on the verge of rising to the Oberliga. I would be very surprised to find the average crowd now is much greater than that given to either of the two clubs before merger. There may be some advantages through the merger, such as if they have managed to keep all the sponsors from both clubs on board, and the combined committee should be stronger, but I bet there are people on both sides now that do not view the merger as a success.

With only a few hundred present, the Holzhof is easily fit for purpose without renovation. As I understand Brötzinger Tal is also in this category, I cannot see what the club is building for. It has a large stand, with more than 1000 seats, albeit bench seating. There are a number of steps of terracing all around the rest of the group, and although the section behind the far goal has been closed off and is overgrown, the rest is in very good order. On the levels above the terracing at the town end is the normal catering, I bought myself a Bratwurst, and could have had coffee or beer as well. The club house is immediately outside the ground, but this no longer appears as if connected to the club. They would not let me even use their loo.

The game itself was no great shakes; for most of the time, the visitors Hiedelberg-Kircheim appeared to be the better side with Pforzheim doing little other than lobbing balls into the area for easy clearance. The style changed somewhat when Kircheim had the audacity to take the lead. After this Pforzheim finally got their game together, the passing was more on the ground and crisper with far many more passes reaching completion. This created the chance for substitute Jannick Schram to level the scores after Pforzheim had been behind for fifteen minutes, and may have brought them a win in the last 20 minutes. In the end though, my tour was completed with a 1-1 draw.

The switch from Nöttingen to Pforzheim brought me one final piece of good fortune. On arriving in the town, I noticed there were a lot of people and noise in the centre. Not that common on a holiday (as this was). Needless to say I investigated, and was delighted to discover that the event was an open air beer festival. I took a quick beer there before the game, but then somewhat delayed my journey out of the town, so I can take more than one more after the game, and also enjoy the rather good rock covers band that is playing.

The Original Badebier, which is not a Bad Beer

 

Afterword – looking back on the trip.

The tour consisted of 23 games in 21 days, no days off and two double headers (both in the Czech republic, both starting in Prague). Two games were goalless, but the rest contributed 76 goals to my total. All matches were my first visit to the ground. There were two matches called off due to waterlogged pitches, and twice I had been intending to go to Nöttingen, but changed my mind. There were nine home wins, ten draws and only four away wins. The only game on a neutral ground was a draw, but went on the extra time and penalties.

1. Viktoria Achaffenburg confirmed relegation when I saw them, finishing 18th of 19. Wurzburger Kickers ended up in 11th place

2. Austria Salzburg won the regional title, with Seekirchen finishing 10th of 16. Austria Salzburg lost 3-0 at home in their promotion play off to FAC Team fur Wien, after drawing 2-2 in the away leg.

3. Donaufeld won the Wiener Liga, and promotion to Regionalliga Ost, but there is only one promotion place, so Stadlau, despite finishing second, stay put.

4. This was the final game of the season for Wiener Neustadt and Admira Modling, Neustadt finish 8th, Modling 9th in a ten team league with only one relegation spot.

5/6. We saw Maribor take the title in another ten team league. Celje were practically safe after drawing at Krka, and confirmed this in the next match be winning at Triglav. Krka also lost on that occasion meaning the order of the bottom two was only decided when Krka beat Triglav on the last day. This should have meant Krka entering a play off against Radomlje, the runners-up from the second division, but the second division champions (Dob) declined promotion, meaning Radomije went up without a play off, and Krka kept their place.

7. St Gallen finished 7th, Sion 8th in the Swiss League (again ten teams, one relegated)

8. There are still two games in the Tirol Landesliga to play as I write this, and Kundl are still in the “Possible relegation” zone as the numbers vary depending on how many teams are relegated into the division. I think that the relegation from Regionalliga West will be one to Voralberg and two to Salzburg, meaning Kundl are safe. Reutte are in a safe mid-table position.

9. 1. HFK Olomouc finished in a safe mid-table position. Breclav surprisingly one twice in their final four games, and finished second to bottom. With both relegated teams from the second division being Prague based (and hence going to CFL), Breclav may yet avoid relegation

10. Admira have completed their programme, and have just enough points to be sure of safety. Stechovice still have a game to play and are in mid-table

11. Trinec won their last two home games, while losing in Ceske Budejovice, ending in mid-table. I’ll discuss Taborsko at match 18

12. Thanks to a surprising away win at (already crowned) champions Legia Warsaw, Ruch Chorzow finished third and made it to Europe. Wisla Krakow finished 5th.

13. With Dunajska Streda losing their last game at Ruzomberok, while Nitra won on the last day, DAC escaped the drop by two goals. Spartak Trnava had already confirmed their third place, and home defeat to Slovan Bratislava on the last day did not change the positions.

14. Having brought themselves back into contention with the win over Belchatow, Zabki’s remaining away games were a defeat to Stroze, and a draw at Chojnice, although they did win their last home game. Chojnice’s draw was just enough to save them from relegation. Belchatow won their game at Stroze, and took the title with a 4-0 win over Sandejca Nowy Sacz on the final day, overtaking Leczna who lost at Stomil Olsztyn but still took the second promotion spot. Zabki therefore ended up in third place.

15/16. These relegation group matches in Poland confirmed Lodz and Lubin as relegated, Bielsko-Biala finished 2nd in the relegation group, Cracovia 6th with Kielce 5th.

17. Bohemians Praha had a big win, 7-1 against Frydek-Mistek, which means although relegated, they were spared bottom place by two points. Sokolov finished 6th

18. With both Taborsko and and Hradrec Kralove drawing in this round, Ceske Budejovice’s 1-0 win put them just ahead of their rivals. All three won the following week. On the final day, Hradrec Kralove won 1-0 at Pardubice, knowing that a win had to be enough for promotion as Taborsko and Ceska Budejovice, (both starting one point ahead) were playing each other in Sezimova Usti. The crowd for this game is quoted as a somewhat incredible 7465, nearly ten times the figure I saw there. Perhaps Taborsko froze under this scrutiny, certainly they were 3-0 down in 16 minutes, and eventually lost 6-0, meaning they finished third, behind Ceske Budejovice and Hradrec Kralove.

19. Despite winning the cup, Ujpest have been refused a license for European Competition, so Diosgyori take the place in the Europa League.

20. Malmo won 1-0 at second placed Elfsborg in the next round, and take a six point lead into the World Cup break. The next game are in the first weekend of July

21. Ajax Amateurs needed to defend their 6-1 lead in the second leg, which they did not do well, conceded six goals. However, they scored two to just win through 8-7 on aggregate, and then beat SteDeCo 5-2 to win promotion to the Topklasse.

22. The Niedersachsen cup final has been held over to the start of next season, Bavenstedt finished 3rd, and Tündern 9th in their league. They will meet again next season

23. The match I did not go to in Nöttingen finished 0-0, but Nöttingen won promotion to the Regionalliga with a 1-0 win in Salmohr in the second leg. 1. CFR Pforzheim finished 7th and Kircheim 10th in their 15 team division

 

Eurotour of 2014 Part 4

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

With the kick off time at Cracovia being 18.00, and the overnight train leaving for Prague just before ten, it was an easy walk back to the station for the train. For my third overnight of the tour, I could not get a sleeping compartment and had to settle for a couchette. I was somewhat fortunate in only having one room mate, a retired Canadian. With no socket to plug in my anti-snoring machine, I was also lucky that my companion did not found my night noise very disturbing. I wanted to get another double header onto the trip, and I needed to return to Prague due to a minor disaster on the Monday. When I was dragging my case to the station it fell and the handle broke. I thought the best solution was to go for an instant replacement from the shop at the station. I then had the mad repacking on the shop floor to re-arrange my goods and allow the shop to dispose of the broken case. I thought I had taken everything with me, but then realised there was another pocket I had not emptied. This contained my oyster card, headphones to allow me to listen to music from the computer and most crucially my Sat.Nav system. I realised the mistake within an hour of leaving the city, and with the help of the train conductors, managed to phone back to the shop who found my stuff and promised it to keep it safe and sound until I returned. I am pleased to say this was a success and hence the temporary loss of stuff was only a temporary inconvenience.

Having collected my possessions, and placed them safely in a left luggage locker, I took the metro to Strizkov, six stops from the main station. From here it is a short walk to the ground of Bohemians Praha. When the original Bohemians Praha folded, the people running Strizkov saw the opportunity pick up some of their supporter base and quickly registered the change of name for their own club. I suspect they intended to try and gain the lease of Dolicek, and re-create an image of the original club. This hardly new in the Czech republic or even in Prague. The current Dukla team is another club that took over the original name some time after club had merged with, and decamped to Pribram. However the fans at Bohemians had a different idea, taking inspiration from the goings on n England and especially at AFC Wimbledon, they decided not to follow some other club owner but to own their own club. With Bohemians Praha name taken, this club is now Bohemians 1905. Crucially, the supporters’ club got to use Dolicek. I am not certain their venture would have been a success otherwise. After this, relations between the two Bohemians clubs were not helped by a dispute over the use of the kangaroo on the club badges. Both in fact now use almost identical badges including the kangaroo.

The ground is Strizkov is listed by the Czech FA as SK Prosek, which I think is the name of the hospital near to adjacent. It is a straightforward affair, with a single stand filling almost the entire length of one side and containing some 700 seats in a mixed variety of colours which looks quite pleasing from the distance. All the buildings are behind one goal, while there is room to stand opposite the main stand between the grass pitch and the adjacent poorly maintained 3G surface. It least if it does belong to the hospital, anyone who injures themselves on the creased surface where the carpet has been allowed to ride up in ridges will not have far to go for treatment. Despite the return of poor weather after my week in the hot sunshine of Poland, Bohemians had decided that the small number of visitors from Sokolov should be segregated on the far side. Until it started raining, I am sure they were happy there, but maybe some accommodation should have been made. I estimate the total attendance at the game around 140, with the away fans numbered in single figures, so I do not think this was really a high security situation. The Sokolov fans had a drummer and made a lot of noise from the start for such a small group. The home fans had no less than four trumpeters, although they were more sparing in their contribution to the musical battle. We had to wait around 15 minutes before they started their concert with a rendition of “Yellow Submarine”. Bohemians know they must finish in a relegation position, while Sokolov start her day in fourth, but too many points behind to catch any of those above them. A classic was not in prospect, and a classic was not delivered. Sokolov were always the better team, but somehow it was Bohemians took the lead ten minutes into the second half. The equaliser came some twenty minutes later, but neither team had enough to chase after a winner.

Now picture a single track railway line winding its way across rolling green hillsides. It could almost be England, except of course for the existence of a single track railway line winding its way across the rolling green hillsides. With the train for the forty minute journey from Besenov to Vlasim being a single unit railcar, I was slightly worried that the unit could be filled with away football fans. In fact none came by train, and my only worry was noticing that the speaker on the train kept on announcing stations, and then the train running straight through without stopping. Vlasim is the crossover point where trains in each direction can pass, and all trains have to stop there. My first impression was of a very small quiet town, (but democratic, there was a queue to vote in the Euro elections). Then you reach the castle. This is actually a stately home, mainly converted as a museum, and with extremely extensive landscaped garden leading down to the river and containing a number of buildings including a faux Chinese pavilion, clearly designed by someone who had seen pictures, but never the real thing.

My game was important, the visiting club, Dynamo Ceske Budejovice started the day third in the league (three games) to play, just one point behind Hradrec Kralove, and two behind Taborsko, so I was envisaging a considerable crowd for a ground where the quoted capacity of 6000 owes a lot to the imagination. SO I made sure I was at the ground in good time, and knew my way back to the station – there may be as little as 10 minutes to get back for my train, (which would mean more than five waiting at the station).

Going for the ever popular, “header wide of target” option

In reality, it was all quiet as I paid my 60 Kcs to enter and another 10 Kcs for a programme. I was hot from the walk and immediately bought a bottle of water and sat on the benches outside to admire the views. I decided against having a Klobasa (the Czech red fatty sausage),while noting that this was also the name of a home sub. With everything quiet and no massive invasion of away fans, it was easy to pick up my team sheet, and even have a beer before kick off as well. The ground consists of a small stand, (not more than 400 seats) with bench seating over grass each side of this. On the far side are a few rows of open seats, while the ends are flat. You can walk all the way around, except a small area near the entrance (which while fenced off, does include more bench seating). The pitch was in perfect condition, and despite average attendances under 500 (this game had 360), they have installed one of the pop-up sprinkler systems seen in the Football League. In the end, there were only a handful of visiting fans, and these did not even group together during the game

Ceske Budejovice (in Germany, they say Budweis) were the better side throughout the game, but they found it very difficult to get a goal. The only goal coming midway through the second half, when a free kick from Bruncik from the right evaded everyone and run straight into the goal. Although there was a lot of time wasting at the end, it felt unnecessary, the home side rarely looked capable of scoring. Still time wasting works well when the result is an occasional booking, which itself wastes time not added on. In the end, we had one minute of injury time (as we actually had the trainer on the field), but nothing extra for time wasting or substitutions. When the other results came through, neither Hradrec Kralove or Taborsko won on the weekend. This meant that Ceske Budejovice went to the top, thanks to their superior goal difference.

The Nepstadion still sets there in Budapest, close to the Keleti Stadium. They do not build them like this anymore. At its peak, it held 104,000 – its capacity today is quoted at 56,000. For the Hungarian Cup Final, 22,000 turn up

I will not use the name Ferenc Puskas Stadium. To be called Ferenc Pukas you need to be the best, and this stadium, a relic of the soviet age does not deserve that name. It is a large bowl with a tier of seating all around. A second larger tier sits above the first on the side opposite the main stand. The main stand itself is the only thing that has been refurbished, and the only area with cover. It is given over entirely to VIP and Media.

I had a 1000 Forint (about £3) ticket using the Hungarian FA’s less than easy booking system. This was required as the signs clearly said no tickets on the day. I chanced my luck with the media accreditation and was told no, and then they changed their mind and said yes, so I got my upgrade, the teamlists and a free cup of coffee!

The ground currently holds 56,000. Around 22,000 turned up. That means the upper tier was uninhabited, the fans from the two clubs filled (but nowhere near 100%) the two ends, and a curiously quiet four blocks immediately opposite the main stand had small groups of people in them. These tickets were not on sale on the net (if they were, I would have had one), so I am not certain who they were. They were not wearing colours, while most of the rest of the crowd were in colours, including most in the hospitality area and some of the media. I have two guesses – one that they were mainly foreigners who found out about the game late and got tickets through contacts from the hotels, or that they were stragglers left over from the Amateur Cup final held as a curtain warmer, (my train times did not allow me to double up). There were quite a few leaving the ground after this as I arrived.

On the field, it was a very open game, Ujpest took an early lead and never stopped trying for a second. Diosgyori often looked the better side but did not seem to have the routes through the defence, meaning Ujpest had more chances. Most teams would have tried to shut up shop, play out the last few minutes, and the Ujpest bench appeared to be in that mood, waiting to make an injury time subsitution as the board went up for three minutes injury time. Diosgyori found the gap at this moment, and Basca levelled the scores from close range

Diosgyori had Tamas Kadar sent off six minutes into extra time, and the game died down a little, going to the almost inevitable penalty shootout. Diosgyori missed two, none were saved, Ujpest won the cup 4-3 on penalties

From the moment I had arrived at the station, it was clear that there was a major security operation on, with massed police at the station, and plenty of police moving around the area. There were blockades quite a distance from the stadium in all directions. Everyone heading to the stadium had their ticket checked, supposedly against ID, but as I entered through the press zones, I never found out for certain. My name, date and place of birth were printed on the ticket, and one had to carry ID card or passport. The question then remains, are flares, smoke bombs and crackers permitted or are the searches just not that thorough? During the game, we had plenty of competitive singing from both ends of the stadium. It appeared that despite the greater distance, Diosgyiori had slightly more and noisier fans than the local Ujpest team, but Ujpest made up for this with more flares and fireworks. There were a couple of moments though when a level of peace was restored. During the second half, I noticed that identical banners, exhorting all Hungarians to get to Bucharest for the European qualifier in October was displayed at both ends, while on the 30 minute mark the fans gave each other space to mention their pet hates (naturally also hated by the other team). Ujpest chanted about their hate of Ferencvaros, while Diosgyori’s complaint was against the Hungarian FA, and in particular the president thereof. It appears these two parties are held jointly responsible for the current situation where every top division match is considered a major security concern.

From Budapest, I took the quick route to Malmo, on board a rather packed out Wizzair A320. Wizzair are the airline that pulls out all the stops to make Ryanair look good, the flight was packed out and at Budapest, you are made to queue in a room that is nothing more than a large warehouse. Still, it meant I could have breakfast in Budapest and an early afternoon coffee in Malmo.

Marching band. Malmo style

It was a strange afternoon, the police were around in force, but acting much quieter than their counterparts in Budapest. One was not certain if they believed there was a risk of trouble or not. It is of course a very pleasant city in good weather, and coffee is one thing that is not particularly higher priced than in England.

As one walks south from the centre, you can easily pass all three of the Malmo stadiums, all of which have been used by Malmo FF at some time in their history. First up is Malmo Idrottslats, which now has an artificial pitch and is used by Sweden’s leading ladies team, (now called FC Rosengard). The pitch was in use for training and the gates were open, so I asked permission and took a couple of photos.

You then cross a park, keeping the lake on your left to take the best route, before arriving at the main complex

The old stadium, which you pass in order to reach the new one was also in use (for Athletics training). I believe Malmo IF, a lower division team currently play there while Malmo FF did until the new stadium was built. When I asked at the gates, I was directed down to the track

As with most new built stadiums, the New Stadium, Malmo has fine viewing lines. It has been built square to the pitch, with very little space between the pitch and the stands in order to give a much better atmosphere then the Malmo Stadium next door. For most of the circumference it has two uniform tiers. The exception is the north (or city) end, given over to home support. This single tier is deeper than those on the other sides, and above it is a sheer face in which the glass windows of offices or sponsors lounges overlook the pitch. Above the scoreboard there is a small balcony providing a great viewing position. As well as this balcony being a standing area, the large area below is also terrace, capable of holding 6000 standing spectators for a game like this, but then being converted to 3000 seats for European or International games. In the front of the area is a raised platform where one supporter stands, back to the game to orchestrate the chants from behind. They may as well convert the away supporters section to standing as well, as practically no one was sitting there. AIK seemed to have bought more banners and flags than the home team, and almost the full front row wore near identical shirts. The font few rows were left empty, with banners in front of the support and their own conductor (with megaphone) on the otherwise empty seats. There is no doubt that the supporters were very aware of goings on, on the pitch (unlike some German games I have been to recently, where I thought the crowd was almost blind to the game. When AIK got a free kick or corner, the chant at the home end would break off as the fans whistled their displeasure.

A lot of the displays at the ground hark back to the fact the club has won 20 Swedish titles, the most of any club. One corner has the word ROY, a picture of the current England manager looking somewhat younger than he does today and the five years (1985-1989) that marked his management of the club. In five years of Hodgson, Malmo won five Swedish titles. He also won two for Halmstads. Only one other England manager has first won the Swedish title, and Sven only did it once.

Malmo had the better of the early exchanges coming close twice in the first five minutes. In the 17th minute, Robin Quaison of AIK went down in the penalty area and got a booking for his dive. They actually showed the whole move again as a replay on the screen, bring forth laughter and derision from the home support, seeing clearly that had made the correct decision. With both sides playing a 442 the game was quite open, but Malmo’s left flank was clearly the most creative area of the game, from where Forsberg hit a shot against the post in the 27th minute. It looked as if it would go scoreless to the break, but the Malmo defence took their eye off the ball, it was knocked forward to Eero Markkanen to score for AIK. The second goal also went the way of AIK, this time scored by Quaison, who must have been as surprised as anyone when his shot went through Olsen’s grasping hands, while the keeper is sure to be blamed, the defenders will also have to question the space given to the scorer.

Five minutes later, Malmo pulled a goal back in rather strange circumstances. There was an incident near the benches and two AIK players as well as the one just substituted stopped to argue with the home bench, but the referee had not stopped play, and the ball was moved forward for Molins to score. The referee was clearly bemused by the situation, and the linesman and fourth official, both on the side seemed none the wiser. In the end, the sanctions were yellow cards for Goitom (AIK, who had just been substituted) and Jansson (Malmo, a sub who never came on). It is quite unusual to get your yellow card five minutes after leaving the pitch! There was also a marked contrast against other games in that the lighting of flares immediately after the goal brought whistles of protest from some fans, two Malmo players went to their fans to tell them to stop, and the game did not restart until the flares were out. With no security presence at the home end of the pitch, I doubt if any other action occurred, even though the culprits must have been videoed.

Meanwhile pulling one back meant that each home attack was greeted with a wave of expectation, followed by a groan as the players managed to mess it up. With 15 minutes to play, Mallmo tookthe adventurous decision to take off a full back for an attacking player. Then Molins was bought down, just inside th box by Orofi. Molins himself took the penalty and placed it at perfect saveable height, for the grateful Carlgren to push away. There were more complaints from the home fans when AIK’s Lorentzson was slow to leave the pitch injured, and did not get a booking, but the referee added no less than six minutes on. In the fourth of these minutes, Forsberg, who had been the player most responsible in the second half for not getting his shots and crosses delivered had a cross blocked for a corner, then took the corner which was only half cleared. Cibicki picked up the ball with his back to goal, took a couple of paces away from the goal and then shot the equaliser on the turn. Malmo were already two points ahead of second placed Elfsborg before the game started, but face their strongest rivals on Sunday in the last game before the world cup break.

After the game, I again kept the lake to my left, admiring the late evening colours, and the fountain which was lit up, I made my way to the local brew house, where I decided I was sampling at least something of what was on offer despite the charge of £6 for a half litre. That is six times the cost of some drinks I had taken in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It was good beer though and I had a chat with another of the clientele, a AIK supporter down for the day who was not certain whether to celebrate his club getting a good away draw to the league leaders of mourn the points lost from 2-0 up. He did know that either way, beer was the answer. He asked me (in perfect English, of course) if I was a groundhopper, he tried to charge his phone from my charger (which is not very good), and he bought me a beer.

Spending slightly longer than I should, in the pub, a further combination of factors meant I missed the first choice train out. Not a major loss, but it meant spending 90 minutes waiting for a connection at 4 in the morning, when the original choice was to travel for two extra hours (going to Aarhus and back) to use up the time. The factors were enjoying the pub, a slight delay on a connecting train from the local station to Malmo central and the actions of one of AIK’s less helpful supporters, who had stuck a club sticker on the left luggage locker controls. If you put a sticker on a touch screen panel it just does not work (do not try this at home), and by the time I had removed the sticker and recovered my bag, I was left waiting for the next train.

Eurotour of 2014. Part 3

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Next stop, Poland. The country has gained a reputation as being a difficult place for groundhoppers to go. Serious crowd problems have led to membership card systems, and although one can generally get in, using the passport for ID, there are exceptions to the rule and some high security matches where it is just not possible to gain entry at all. Having not been for nine seasons, I dipped my toe back into the water last season, by trying for a press pass for a couple of matches. One of these, which may have been the worst match for hooliganism in the country was Lech Poznan v Legia Warsaw, while the other was Piast Gliwice v Korona Kielce. Lech turned me down, and there was no way I was going to try to get anywhere close to the stadium without a ticket, but Gliwice was happy to let me in for a match in which they failed to live up to their league position, only managing a draw which contributed to them dropping out of the Europa League placings.

Not far from Gliwice is Chorzow; both are former mining and industrial towns in the area of Silesia close to Katowice. I stayed in Katowice last year and was disappointed by the place, feeling I might have been better off heading into Gliwice which has a bit of history to it. Ruch Chorzow responded positively to my request for a ticket, so I decided to stay in the town itself. The approach by rail is grim, the line passes no end of dead industrial sites, where even the demolition seems to have drawn to halt, leaving concrete skeletons sticking out of the ground as a reminder of the times when the area had full employment. However, the town centre is very different – a bright and cheerful pedestrian street (with a bus/tram route running in one direction down the centre), there are plenty of cafes and people enjoying the arrival of warm sunny weather after the dreary rains of the week before. It is not an exciting place, the only building that really catches the eye is the post office at one end of the street, and when I went back after the game, there were few options for beer and food. The Blues Hotel is on the main street, and is a well modernised hotel, even if the entrance (off a courtyard from the main road) is somewhat dreary. I arrived by train, a suburban line out of Katowice which as I discovered was run by a private company and not included on my interrail ticket. I left by tram, more frequent, but slower to make the journey and running along a more modernised road, past the Slaski Stadion which has been well used in the past for international games. The gleaming office buildings on the Katowice to Chorzow road paint a start contrast with the dead industrial landscape of the rail route. It appears that rather than regenerate the areas used in the past, they are being ignored, and neighbouring areas are now used for development instead.

From the hotel, it is a 20 minute walk down to the stadium. Plenty of life around the stadium, and there is a ticket kiosk, so I could probably have managed to buy a ticket. When I ask to find the press accreditation point, I am just waved through and end up in the press room inside the stadium, without first collecting a pass. However, inside the stadium I am introduced to Donata, who I had communicated with by e-mail, and she actually gets a card sent up to me in the stand. Not really required, as I would only now need it to go to post match press conference. There is a newspaper style programme, which was available both at the ground, and also at the club shop in the town centre.

The stadium is clearly recently modernised with the exception of the stand, which provides the only cover. All around the rest is clean fresh concrete steps, most of which (but not all) has seats bolted down. The steps curve around both ends of the stadium, and there is still room if they want to use the ground as a (grassed) track. One end was practically empty, and I asked about the lack of away fans. A journalist told me this end was closed due to incomplete building works, while Donata said Wisla Krakow fans were refusing to travel due to a disagreement with the club’s owner. With Legia having taken the title, and Lech the runners-up spot, there is one Europa League place still to be awareded. Ruch Chorzow start in prime position, three points ahead of Wisla, although only two up on Gdansk, who had already played their game in this round, and beaten Lech. The Polish Ekstrkalasa, or top division now has 16 teams, and after they have completed home and away fixtures the league splits into two sections for single round robin groups, meaning each team plays a 37 match season.

The game started well, plenty of football was being played, creating chances at both ends. I though Krakow appeared to be the better side, and I was not surprised when took the lead midway through the half. If anything, this stung the home side into action, and they levelled through a penalty five minutes later and then took the lead and were now clearly on top. A second penalty, awarded just before half time allowed the teams to go in level at 2-2. Sadly, the second period did not live up to the excitement of the first. Ruch’s best player (and second goal scorer), striker Grzegorz Kuswik went off injured at the break, while Wilde Guerrier, a winger who was making things happen for Wisla dropped back to a more defensive position. As the half drew on, Wisla seemed happy to settle for a draw, conceding a couple of yellow cards for time wasting. As in the game the year before at Gliwice, I failed to understand this approach – a win was within either team’s grasp, and the winner would have been favourites for the Europa league slot. With Ruch facing both Legia and Lech (and both away) in the next games, I feel they have certainly missed the boat here.

Wisla score their penalty




You can’t beat a good Eastern European Floodlight Pylon.

There is a nice little café next to Bratislava station, where they sell the decent Slovak dark beer, and have enough English to understand when I ask for it. I was not intending to stop here, but the train from Katowice into Bratislava stopped just outside the station for 15 minutes, meaning I just missed a connection. With just 30 minutes to wait to the next train, what else is one to do but sample the local beer? The trains to Dunajska Streda are not listed on the Interrail App I have on my telephone. I also cannot find them on the German rail site, normally one of the best train sites on the net, but from the Slovak rail site, I do manage to download the times in a pdf file. The reason I could not find the trains on the App is simple, the interrail ticket is not valid on this route, as it is run by an independent company. It is then hit or miss whether your ticket is accepted on the train, depending on whether the train staff know the rule, and whether they can tell you there is a problem across the language gap. The result is that Peter, on different trains to me, and actually staying in Dunajska Streda gets away with it, while I pay €2.55 on the outward leg, and €1.50 for the return. The trains run by Regiojet and nice modern stock with internet connections, although it did not work on the train I went out on.

I am met by Peter at the station, and we wander into town. It is a reasonable town, but with nothing particular to commend it. We go into a bar just off the town square, where we find the dark beer is not the Slovak beer, but imported wheat beer from Munich, at twice the price. We drink it anyway before completing the short walk to the stadium. The area around the stadium is surprisingly busy, my experience of Slovian football has always involved small crowds, except for an important game at Slovan some 15 years ago. The league table shows the home team to be six points above the last place (only one relegation) with two games to play, that border line between safe and mathematically safe. Spartak Trnava have their Europa League spot booked regardless of the result.

The answer is in a footnote at the bottom of the table. DAC (the general abbreviation of Dunajskastreda Athletic Club) were to have six points deducted from the final table, but they were not shown yet, so the lead over Nitra was actually goal difference only. Why the Slovakians should deduct points and not show them immediately is a local issue. Why the points were deducted is not. One of the early games in the season for DAC was fixed. As it happens, DAC lost the game by 4-0; now betting syndicates fixing matches do not make their money on the heavy favourites for the game winning the match, and no one in their right mind bets on the actual score. The bets are placed early in the second half (when the score was 2-0) for at least two more goals to be scored by the winning team. Naturally this happened. Looking at the video of the game, one can see the defending is atrocious, but cannot safely say the score is fixed. Still four DAC players, (one of which was not in the pitch, having been substituted at half time were charged). Only one of the quartet admitted the charge, but three DAC players and one from another amateur club suffered lengthy bans (for a professional footballer, a 14 year ban is the same as Sine Die). As the points deduction was applied as well, I guess there was some complicity from the club in the affair, although it was not enough to actually throw them out of the league.

Peter had said he had arranged two press passes. I tend not to bother in Slovakia, it was easily possible to pay €5 for entry, despite the big crowd, and one can normally wander around to the press area to pick up the team list. As it happened, we were not added to the list, but were let in as press anyway. The stand areas were full and we ended standing at the back of the press area. We even managed to get something to eat and some very strong alcohol (a local schnapps), as guests of a very drunk Hungarian in the VIP zone, whose English was good enough to invite us in, and tell us he supported Ferencvaros, (although his shirt said Celtic). It was not good enough to tell us why he was at the game (with VIP ticket), or to sort out a ticket for Sunday’s Hungarian Cup Final.

The ground consists of a quite old main stand, with a larger, newer stand opposite. The main stand has been extended with uncovered seating in front of an an office building, and provides a sheltered area acting as technical areas and I think some wheelchair accommodation. The opposite stand has a paddock in front, I think this had bench seats, although no one sat on them.

Both ends are curved behind the grass track, and consist of segmented open concrete stands. The ground is technically all seated, but I would say that over half the crowd did not sit down at any time during the game. Some of the seating is bench, rather than individual seats, especially on the curves. Both covered stands appeared close to full, and the open seating at the town end was close to full, (this is where we would have probably ended up if paying our €5). The main singing section for home fans was in the newer stand, The far end held around 200 Spartak fans, with a line of police in full riot gear (very hot with no shade, and temperatures around 25C) between them and the pitch. Peter has seen a game abandoned due to the antics of these fans, so it may be the police presence is required, but it does not appear they are going to cause trouble today. The game was not bad, DAC needed to points and Spartak were not there to be rolled over. There was only one goal, scored after just 11 minutes when a direct free kick from Szabo curled inside the near post. The game stayed entertaining throughout, despite a little time wasting from DAC near the end, (two yellow cards for time wasting, but the time concerned was not added on at the end – so probably a good deal for the players getting booked). I think this was the best atmosphere for any game I have been to in Slovakia, with both sets of fans singing throughout. At the end of the game, home fans were allowed to celebrate on the pitch, but they were polite enough to wait for the Sparta players to leave first. Nitra lost in Bratislava and hence DAC were celebrating safety, but with only three points margin and a game to go, and a not insurmountable goal difference advantage, there is a risk that the celebration is premature. The crowd of 7009 was the biggest in the country this season, and about three times the average crowd at DAC, (or in the league generally).

I have a couple of beers with Peter, leaving him to complete his meal when I head back to Bratislava. From there it is the night train to Warsaw. I have a sleeper booked, with a lower berth, but it is old Polish rolling stock. The only electric socket is a shaving point, and this does not actually have electricity. I explain to the steward that without power for my anti-snoring machine, I am going to disturb the other passenger, and he moves me to a compartment on my own! Still, I sleep better with the machine, so I arrive tired in Warsaw. Fortunately, my excellent choice of hotel allows me to check in straight away. It’s the Hotel Maria, and receives my recommendation as a hotel labelled as two stars, but would be a good three star hotel if they added a lift! Entering the city at one station and leaving from another, the hotel has the advantage of direct tram links to both.

Rested a little, spending some internet time and using the hotel printer to sort out a ticket for the Hungarian Cup Final, I venture out into the midday sun, (well, I am an Englishman). The city seems larger than most I visit, and has a lot of contrasts, big modern steel and glass blocks near the centre, where we can see it is not completely Americanised – there is only a Starbucks in every second block, contrasting with the meticulously rebuilt “old town”, (it was near to completely destroyed in response to an anti-Nazi uprising in 1944). Even before the war, the old town is not as old as the new towns I had visited in Austria and Slovenia the previous week! There is plenty of open space, but also a massive amount of apartment blocks, and thousands of small shops and roadside stalls, selling just about everything, (although when I asked for shoelaces in a shoe shop, the answer was nyet).

The remodelled National Stadium, as seen from the Old Town

The station for the suburban train to Zabki was typical of the contrasts. One approaches from a dreary street, but to the other side is an ultra modern shopping mall. The train is a rickety computer special, and seats are at a premium. Fortunately, the journey time is only seven minutes. Knowing that I want to leave the station heading away from Warsaw, and seeing what appears to be steps under the line at that end of the platform, I follow other passengers that way. As it turns out, the steps are under construction and the passengers clamber down the three foot drop to the rail level and then just walk across the track. I follow suit gingerly, but resolve to find a better way back to the station. The other end of the station has a path from where a road crosses at level crossing gates. The path runs between the tracks.

The ground is easy to find, and again it follows the Polish rule of contrasts. One side is a really modern concrete stand, while the other is a few rows of rather decrepit open seating. Behind both goals is just wire fencing, with enough advertising banners to prevent any free viewing through the cracks. There are hardly any people outside, half an hour before the start, but most are queuing, either to buy tickets, or to get through the security check to the gates. I am more fortunate, two nice ladies by the central entrance to the stand have a list of VIPs and a small pile of press cards. One of the press cards has my name on it, and I am ushered inside. While those going through security may have drinks bottles confiscated, my option to get water is by taking a similar bottle from a vending machine.

It takes me a few minutes to get water, get a team sheet and then notice some people have programmes and so I go in search of these. They are hidden behind the desk at reception. The programme is a rudimentary affair, four pages of A5 containing the team squads, league table and a team photo. It appears to be only on offer in a VIP area, and to those in the press area that ask for it. I did think that the far side was not actually going to used, but just on kick off, around 20 or 30 Belchatow fans were admitted to this area, most of them missing the actual start of the game.

1

First Penalty, the scorer has turned out of the frame to the right

Belchatow started the day in joint top position with Gornik Leczna, while Dolcan Zabki were six points behind in fourth place having dropped points at home to relegation threatened Rybnik at the weekend. When the game started, it was easy to see Zabki dropping points again, with Belchatow enjoying all the early possession and creating several chances. However, careless tackles in the box seems to be a feature of the Polish game at the moment. After two first half penalties at Ruch on Monday, we had two more here. Both went to Zabki and both were scored. Belchatow came back strongly after the break, making twin substitutions, at half time. I cannot recall any other team not just playing with twins, but bringing both on as substitute at the same time. Why they did not start is not clear, as one of the pair is the club’s leading scorer this season. Anyway, their game was livened up, but Zabki held out until the 70th minute before conceding a goal. Belchatow were not a team for giving up easily and they camped in their opponents half after scoring, but this was to no avail, and the score finished at 2-1. With a total crowd of 650, and only around 20-30 away fans, it was quite amazing to see how much of a security operation was employed to make sure the two groups never met. Clearly, if Zabki defy the odds and win promotion, few is any top division games will take place in this ground. The word is that Polonia in Warsaw could stage their games. Polonia were top division until last season, but their continual financial crisis’s finally caused the club to fold, with a new body starting at level six of the Polish leagues. Even then there were reports that the first game for the new club had to be abandoned when it was interrupted by Legia fans.

The name Dolcan, by the way, is a sponsor’s name belonging to a house building company. They have restyled the ground with the name Dolcan Arena, but while this is written in large letter on the side of the ground, the club do not even include it on the programme, where the venue is listed as Stadion Miejski w Zabrach, (which you can translate as Zabki Town stadium). Ironwork on one of the gates refers to MKS Zabki, (MKS basically means Town Sporting Club, and is a relatively common prefix). It appears though that Dolcan is part of the club’s official name, as SSA Dolcan Zabki. The second gate had the word Dolcan added in ironwork that does not quite match the rest of the gate.

Back down to Silesia, or more precisely, Podbeskidzie. I had to ask what exactly what this club prefix means. It appears it is a name for this ill defined region of Silesia, that would prefer not to be judged with the decayed industrial zones further north. So the best definition would be the “pretty and scenic part of Silesia, close to the Czech and Slovak borders”. In European terms, it is also termed as part of the Beskids Euroregion. This is an example of the type of Eurobabble that gets the Union a bad name. An attempt to promote together for areas in three countries at the point of intersection. The town of Bielsko-Biala is therefore twinned for this purpose with relative neighbours, Frydek-Mistek in the Czeck Repbublic and Zilina in Slovakia. I suspect the only common ground here is those groundhoppers who have been to all three. Meanwhile a European grant is being sought in order to buy a hyphen and a second name so as Zilina does not feel left out in this hyphenated company. The town of Bielskp-Biala is extremely attractive, although my choice of hotel, situated in the old town centre did not seem so attractive when I realised the final stage of the ten minute walk from the station meant dragging my bags up a steepish hill with cobbled paving. The room was also too close to the cathedral, which while being very pretty, has a clock the chimes the hour and quarters. It does appear to stop at night, but then restart at six. I wanted a slightly later alarm call. It is quite a small centre, and I was surprised when wandering around to come across a group of four English groundhoppers, including Eddie. Pete had told me that he thought Eddie was going to the same game as me in Krakow the next day, so I had sent him a text message without reply. It was in fact a mixed message, as Eddie was flying to Krakow and spending time there, before seeing football in Bielsko-Biala and Gliwice. However, they had a tale of woe to tell. They had been told on arrival at hotel that match tickets were near impossible to get, as the game was already sold out. Their hotel knew a friend of a friend and had secured their tickets, but Dave Cox was apparently also wandering around, having failed at the stadium earlier (all closed). I had an e-mail from the club telling me that I would not get a press pass, but I could buy a ticket on the day. They did not say they were already sold out. The reason there was a problem at this less than attractive game is that the stadium has been undergoing a complete rebuild, and only the area behind one goal has been completed, limiting capacity to not much over 3000. Not being one to worry, especially as the station offices were probably still closed, I was easily persuaded back up the hill to the pub attached to the local brewery, (I had already spotted this, and had decided I was going to visit the bar anyway). So a pleasant hour was spent trying the local pale and red ales.

I got to the ground just under 90 minutes before kick off, spotting Dave Cox en route, who said that despite originally being told sold out, they had found him a “poor view” ticket. The first reaction I got at the ticket office was “not possible”, but they were quite sympathetic to the fact I had been told I would be able to buy a ticket. These were not job-worth employees but people who wanted to help when there was a genuine difficulty. Eventually they found some more front row seats with limited viewing. When I said I would take these and then try to move higher up the ground to the press benches, a quick phone call was made, and instead of buying a limited view ticket, I was given the press card denied by e-mail! In the event, there were plenty of spare seats, and I moved from the press box (which was busy, and behind glass) to a seat near the top. While all the tickets had been sold, I imagine quite a few season ticket holders were missing this game. It was of importance to confirm the positions, Bielsko-Biala would be safe from relegation with a win, while only a win could delay Widzew Lodz in being relegated.

When completed, the ground will be a compact two tier stadium and I would think completely seated. For the moment, only the area behind the goal is open. There are a lot of flags flying, but I noticed the number reducing during the second half as club stewards collected most of them in. A singing section was set at one end, slightly around the corner, but the whole stand joined in on occasion. No away fans were permitted, and there were no signs of any trying to break the ban, plenty of police on show just in case. The first period was quite frustrating, with Podbeskidzie on top, but struggling to get any shots on target, the resolute visiting defence seemed to be always in place to block the shot. However, when Pawela successfully turned the Lithuanian defender Leimonas, he was pulled down and we had yet another first half penalty, with Podbeskidzie 1-0 up.

For a long time, it appeared it may stay that way, the Widzew defence were strong enough to withstand the attacks, but they could not put the home goal under pressure. The home attackers were not clever enough to get past the defence. When close to goal it was either an intercepted pass or shot, while from further out, they booted every shot high into the stands. The second breakthrough came just on the hour, when a foolish defenders’ pass gave space to the home attack – and Damian Chmiel became the grateful recipient. The game did open up a bit then, and a third goal was added on the stroke of full time. From the team list, I noted that Podbeskidzie is basically an all Polish side, (the exception being a Slovakian goalkeeper), while the visitors were a veritable league of nations, naming players from 8 different countries. My biggest disappointment here is they did not bring on Kevin La France to give me an opportunity to refer to the player as a French born Haitian defender. I do not think I have used the phrase before!

All six English groundhoppers at the match headed for a bar attached to the castle, which was selling a variety of Polish beers, which we sampled until soon after midnight before turning in.

The umbrellas on the right side of the castle mark the bar

I see Dave Cox again at the station before making my way to Krakow, he has picked on the slow bone-shaker as far as Katowice, but I need to stick to the not much faster and not much quicker service provided by Polish railways instead of the independent company. It is better to know my rail ticket is OK, then to hope they accept it. Dave was paying as he went. I last visited Krakow in 2003. It was a great city, but the then undeveloped Wisla ground was a very wet place to watch football. The city remains beautiful, but it seems to have become much more commercial in the last decade. While I made my way with difficulty when I visited Auschwitz, there are now tours offered on every corner. Of all places, I hope Auschwitz has not become a tourist rip off point as well. I headed down to the football ground of Cracovia, not far from the city centre with a little over an hour before kick-off. I had no trouble in entering as press, although all the signs suggested that I could easily have paid 25 Zloty for a good ticket.

Not so easy for away fans perhaps. Only about 30 in at the start of the game, this doubled in the first ten minutes and then increased massively around half time. The attendance was 6276, but much of the stadium was empty. Except on the South side, it is a single tier stadium with the stands behind the goal having a roof stepped up higher than that along the north side. The noisemakers in the home fans have seats, (they do not sit) behind the goal at the “City End”, while the away corner is at the other end. When all the away fans were in place, we had a fine amount of competitive singing between the two groups. The main stand was two full tiers, and a mini-tier centrally positioned for VIP boxes. This means the roof here is again stepped up from the two ends. An unusual feature at the end furthest from the city (and hence not far from the away fans) is a cut away section immediately behind the goal. I estimate around 600 seats have been sacrificed to create this flat space with a wall at the back. It was being used as a crèche, with a small playground to the back of the area, some children and most parents stood at the front of the section and watched through the mesh fence. I have never seen this type of feature in a prominent pitch side position elsewhere.

Creche and away supporters, early in the game


And again, just before the equalising goal

The relegation positions from this lower group are close to settled, while both teams (Cracovia and Korona Kielce) knew their positions in the Ekstraklasa would be secured with a win, they also had two further games to get the points and even then, these would only be required if Zaglebie Lubin could secure all nine points from their final games, (starting after our game finished at Gliwice where the other hoppers I had seen at Bielsko-Biala would be). Cracovia had the better of the first half, but as at Podbeskidzie the approach play was wasted with poor passing, poor shot selection and blocking defenders. This time we did not have a penalty to break the deadlock, so instead had to rely on a goalkeeping error. This came from a long distance shot by Damian Dabrowski on 37 minutes, which having kept low, somehow evaded the grasp of the Kielce goalkeeper. In the second half, Korona, playing towards their own fans – now all present and in good voice – looked by far the better side but they had the same problems as Cracovia did in the first half. Ball goes down the wing into a dangerous position and then gets crossed to a defender. The equalising goal came midway through the period, through persistence, two shots were blocked by defenders, a third was punched away by the keeper. The punch landed within the area and had dragged the keeper off his line and a well placed shot went over his head back into the goal. Korona lost Piotr Malarczyk to a second booking with one of the three added minutes already taken up. Despite it taking over a minute to get him off the field, the referee did not see fit to add an single extra second to the game. A 1-1 draw will probably satisfy both teams, but leaves both sets of supporters feeling their own team should have won it. Lubin lost the later game, so both will be in the top division to try again next season

So, while I had cheated and gained press passes for all four games, I saw little evidence that there is a real problem accessing the stadiums in Poland. I am sure I could have bought tickets for all the games except Bilesko-Biala an hour before kick off. I would only shy away from two clubs with clear security problems, Lech and Legia