There are a number of factors that make May an ideal time of year for groundhoppers to set out on European tours. First and foremost among these is the fact that most football in England has come to a halt within a week of the start of the month, while European Leagues continue late into the month. These leagues, often regimented to weekend football through most of the season, take advantage of the late spring sunshine to add midweek fixture lists.
I was first introduced to the idea some twenty years ago, and have managed at least ten tours in that time. Some of the others, despite already having done a few trips before I started have barely missed a year since, (although in the case of home and away club fans, they make far fewer long weekend trips during the season). The law of diminishing returns applies, as we are not looking to return to football grounds we have visited before so most of the major clubs in most major European capitals have already been done. It used to be that trips would always start and finish in Germany, and this would be the spine of Europe, thanks to its fast connections. I now look at the trip in a different light, and have decided to concentrate my efforts on the South-East of Europe, with much of the tour being to countries bordering Austria.
The idea of a tour is not the same as a weekend trip. On the weekend, a relatively small number of people go to the same places, and generally the same matches. On tour, you choose your own matches, but in the knowledge that others are making similar tours, and that you will meet up with them on different days. Sometimes I have met over a dozen English hoppers (and maybe a couple of Germans as well) in a two week period. This time, I have co-ordinated with five others in advance, although this does not mean they will be the only ones I meet. The cast for the trip is as follows, Paul and Kevin, are full timers, and like myself are spending three weeks abroad. Hutch, who is only here for the first week, plus Pete and Stan, two Wolves supporters who arranged to do two separate trips, in the hope that their club would be in the play-offs in between. Pressures at work keep the trips unchanged, even though there are no Wolves games back in England.
We all started on the 6.30 flight from Stansted to Salzburg, care of Ryanair, but immediately, different philosophies and needs came to the fore. I alone took the 11.00 train to Vienna to see Parndorf, whereas the others had a later connection and were going to Bad Aussee. Why do I shun this match, (its not somewhere Ive been). Because I am still trying to get to the stage where I have been to all teams in the top two divisions of the Austrian League, and it is almost a waste to go to a team already consigned to relegation back to the Regional leagues. The others see this as their last chance to see Bad Aussee as a league side, plus they are hoping the need of Kapfenberg to pick up a single point (in this, or two remaining games) to be certain of the championship and promotion should make for a better game.
At Parndorf, I am watching a team that still has a chance of avoiding relegation, although the current Austrian set up makes for a lot of change in the professional line ups. The Bundesliga has ten teams, and exchanges one a season with the Eerste Division of 12 clubs (two of which are reserves of Bundesliga clubs). The bottom three of the Eerste division get relegated, with the Champions of three Regional leagues promoted in their place. Parndorf are 10th of 12, and need points if they are to avoid the drop.
The town is not far south of Vienna, and is closer still to the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. There are two stations, and I choose the one that appeared to be closest to the ground maybe not a good decision as the area was deserted when I arrived, the other station is nearer to any activity the town has to offer. It was not a difficult walk to find the stadium, although just too far for me to make the early train back, leaving me waiting almost an hour on the deserted station. The only other people there were a van full of police sitting just outside, looking for the hordes of trouble makers from the visiting team. The fact that these hordes did not appear before the game, and were absent throughout the match, does not mean they should not be policed afterwards! It is clearly this strong policing that keeps the lower division free from trouble, (well, it couldnt be down to the fact crowds rarely raise much above 1000, and only a handful of fans travel away).
The Heidebodenstadion is a low lying structure. Its main side consists of covered seats the whole length of the pitch, but only six rows of seats. There is a walkway at the back, giving access to various refreshment points, I had a cooked meat in a bap, a change from the standard burger. The opposite side, the buildings are lower, with the spectator accommodation uncovered. To one end was four rows of seats, at the other end, a few steps of concrete terracing in the middle, an open area with tables at the height for standing around. There are no restriction on alcohol sales, except the only beer on offer being a quite tasteless frothy lager. The areas behind both goals were generally flat and unused by spectators. At one end was a large marquee for VIP and business guests to eat and drink, whereas the other end had a small area built up as a terrace and then fenced off. With the away hordes staying away, this remained empty.
The true advantage of this low level ground, is it that an attendance as small as 900 takes up over half the seats on the main side, and makes the ground seem fairly busy.
The game started slowly, and rather scrappily, with the referee rather too willing to give a free kick and bring on the trainers. I think the turning point may have been when the ref got fed up with this. A visiting player had gone down, his appeals for a free kick were ignored. He stayed down, and even refused the referees hand to pull him up after the play had stopped. The ref continued to refuse to allow a trainer on, the player eventually limped to his feet, pointed to his ankle, and was finally shown the yellow card. Not surprisingly, this did have a curative effect. The visitors were Schwanenstadt, but sadly the need for sponsorship mean they now go under the name of SCS Bet-at-Home.com. No wonder the fans stay away, one cannot chant Bet at home, bet at home, so perhaps it is better to stay home, check the score by internet, and actually, Bet-at-Home on the final result. Starting in a defensive 5-4-1 formation, the home team were clearly concerned not to concede early, and this did restrict the chances on offer. It did mean it required a free kick or corner to get sufficient numbers upfield to create a real threat. It was indeed a free kick that allowed them to take the lead on 29 minutes, the ball being half cleared and then kicked back into the area, where centre half Matthias Novak stabbed it home. Schwanenstadt levelled just before half time when the home defence relaxed its grip for a moment. Early in the second half, Parndorf were confident enough to make a change and move to a more attacking 4-4-2, although it was more the opposition that then gifted to points. On 63 minutes, a silly foul allowed Marcelo to regain their lead from the spot, and five minutes later, Schwanenstadt had centre half Ratajczyk sent off for his second booking.
A substitution meant they changed to 4-4-1 formation, but failed to threaten the goal again. Parndorf created a few chances, but had to wait until injury time when a parried save left the opportunity for substitute Hörtnagel to increase the score.
Meanwhile at Bad Aussee, the score was 1-1. Kapfenberg are therefore champions, (other results meant they would have been even if they had lost).