World Cup Preview. Summer 2013.

June 2nd, 2013

There are a further 89 World Cup qualifying games this month, and we will make positive progress in finding out who will join the hosts in Brazil in a years time. The only certainties are in Asia, where three rounds of fixtures complete the current group stage – that means four names will be confirmed as through to the finals, with Japan expecting to be the first to qualify. The Japanese would have made it in November, but had a minor set back by losing 2-1 in Jordan. They now need one point against Australia in the match at the Saitama Stadium on Tuesday. With two home games to come afterwards, I think the Australians will be more than happy to take a draw if they can. Currently, Australia, South Korea and Uzbekistan may be on their way to Brazil, but just about anyone except Lebanon still have live hopes.

No teams can qualify from Africa, despite 40 matches scheduled on the continent. Each group of four will move up to five games played. As the group winners have to face a knockout round to go through, they cannot qualify this month, or from the final series of group games in September. However, between 20 and 30 of the 40 teams currently in the competition will be knocked out. As the only pointless team so far, Cape Verde Islands are liable to be one of the first to be knocked out, as they need to win all three remaining games to be in with a chance. They do however have home games for the next two Saturdays.

North and Central America are playing a group of six – currently the teams are not spread out after three rounds with five of the nine games so far ending in draws. Another nine games should give some shape to the group even if no one either qualifies or goes out.

To the South, two rounds of fixtures will mean teams have played either 12 or 13 of their 16 game programme. Nearest to being knocked out will be Bolivia as they play twice, while Paraguay may be last in the group but take their match out on the second series. Argentina play Colombia at home, Ecuador away. If they win both their qualification is confirmed, and there will be other combinations that allow them to progress.

Finally, Europe. Some groups, such as Scotland’s Group A are not involved in June. Scotland are the only European team confirmed as non qualifiers, but they could gain some company. Not Malta from Group B – they cannot lose in Armenia and win the group, but they will still be able to make the play off for second. The Faroe Islands have two away games, in Ireland and Sweden. Should they lose both, and Sweden win both their games (they also travel to Austria), then not only are the Faroes out, but so are Kazakhstan who are not playing this month! No games in Group D, so Andorra survive into the Autumn. Everyone in group E plays once, but as everyone already has at least one win, no one can be knocked out this month. While Switzerland should improve their chances by beating Cyprus, the interesting game sees Albania (currently second) at home to Norway. A home win brings up the chances of Albania at least reaching the play offs, but three of their last four games are away. Azerbaijan play Luxembourg on Friday, two teams without a win between them so far – the important game will be Russia’s visit to Portugal. The Russians have four wins out of four, while Portugal have a point less from two more games. Group G is led by Bosnia, who travel to Latvia in their only game this month, Liechtenstein play Slovakia at home, with only one point on the board, (they drew with Latvia in their last game). Still even if they lose and Greece in second place win, Liechtenstein will be only 12 points behind the Greeks, with four games to play. Group I just sees the pair of games between Belarus and Finland. If the Finns win both games, then Belarus cannot qualify. Nothing can be settled in Group H, where San Marino and England do not play. Still the games being played, Moldova v Poland, Montenegro v Ukraine will be analysed with interest here. For both Poland and Ukraine, they are playing a game in hand which would leave them a point behind England if they win. For Montenegro, who like England have already played six, the five point lead a win would give them really puts the pressure on the rest of the group.

Meanwhile, I have been persauded to look closer at the conditions required for San Marino to get through.  The best this small and most serene (one of its official titles) republic can achieve is to be level on points with England, and make up the goal difference (currently 47 in England’s favour). They also require that the other teams, except Montenegro who are already beyond their reach not to exceed 12 points. For Poland and Ukraine, this requires that both beat England (otherwise England would have 13 or more), and that they draw with each other – to give each 12 points themselves. So if either Poland or the Ukraine pick up a point on Friday night, this means the Sammarinese are knocked out.

The European Hop, (part 1).

May 9th, 2013

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

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

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

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

FC Kray 3-2 SV Bergisch Gladback 09.

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

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

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

View from veranda, showing covered standing

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

The “cover” with the clubhouse in the background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Home Front – Cheltenham Town 2012-3

May 4th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Cup Spring Review.

April 1st, 2013

The one certainty in the Spring list was that the Oceania group would come to completion, with one more team being knocked out. New Zealand confirmed their place in the intercontinental play offs in their first game, but they left it late. For the match against New Caledonia in Dunedin, Chris Killeen, a former bit part player at Norwich and Celtic who now plays in China gave them an early lead, but New Caledonia equalised early in the second half and it was deep into injury time when Tommy Smith (of Ipswich) became the “delighted scorer” with the winning goal. The reward for the squad was that they did not have to travel to the Solomon Islands for the midweek game, and those players who had crossed continents to get there were allowed a couple of days break before taking the long flights home. Playing with a squad of locally based players, New Zealand wrapped up the six match group in 100% style, and now play the fourth team in the North and Central American group.

Tahiti won their last home match, against the Solomon Islands and by 2-0 but go to the Confederations Cup as the biggest underdog in the competition’s short history.

Asia did not play until the midweek dates – and there was a potentially serious blow to Australia’s chances, when an early strike, followed by an own goal at the start of the second half left them 2-0 at home to Oman. Tim Cahill scored with a header within minutes of the second goal against to give the “Socceroos” some chance, while Brett Holman’s late strike from distance levelled the scores at 2-2. The result at the King Abdullah International Stadium in Amman did not help the Aussie hopes either. Japan went into the game, knowing a win, (which would have been their fifth in six games) would mean they were the first team to reach the finals in Brazil. However on the stroke of half time, Japan went down to a headed goal by Khalil Baniateyah, and pushing forward in the second half, they went further behind to a classic counter attack, Ahmad Hayel Ibrahim scoring on the break. It took Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa to start a comeback, but this ended with Endo, Just a minute after Kagawa had scored, Uchida was brought down in the penalty area, but Endo’s penalty was saved by Ammer Saddar.

Japan still lead the group with 13 points. One win from their final two games is enough to secure top spot, while a draw is all that is needed to qualify. Japan are at home to Australia next. Jordan’s win catapults them up the table to second place, with seven points, compared to Australia and Oman on six, Iraq on five. The advantage may lay with Australia and Iraq as they each have to play three times in June, while the others play twice. After visiting Japan, Australia finish with two home games,

In the other group, Uzbekistan and South Korea both had home wins, and this increases the chances that they are the pair to go through. The Koreans are in second place with ten points, but still have three games to go, as do third placed Iran (7 points and exempt from this month’s games). Uzbekistan hold onto the lead they took with November’s win in Iran. Qatar (in South Korea) and Lebanon were the beaten teams, both have two games left to play. It is no longer possible for Lebanon to win the group, and they can only finish level on points with South Korea, but they still have a chance of qualifying through the play offs.

In South America, It is notable that no team either lost twice or one twice over the pair of fixture dates. Ecuador, like Peru played one game only – and won. Columbia, Chile and Venezuela each won one, and lost one, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia drew one, and lost the other, while Argentina with four points continue to lead the table, they had a straight forward 3-0 win over Venezuela. Lionel Messi scored his customary goal, a penalty on half time, while the other pair were down to Higuain of Real Madrid. Argentina were then held to an unexpected draw in Bolivia, but this neither harms Argentina’s chances, nor enhances Bolivia’s slim chance of continuing beyond the group games. Bolivia took the lead through Marcelo Moreno, the former Shaktar Donetsk and Wigan player, now with Gremio in Brazil. Valencia’s Ever Banega got the equaliser. Bolivia had earlier lost 5-0 in Columbia, who had five different scorers. Bolivia stay eighth in the nine team table, above Paraguay who picked up a point in Uruguay. Uruguay went ahead with just eight minutes to play with when Luis Saurez scored, but levelled through Benitez (Edgar, who plays for Toluca in Mexico). Paraguay actually took the lead in Ecuador in the second game, this time the scored was Russian based Luis Caballero. Another Benitez (this time Christian, (30 appearances for Birmingham City) who also plays in Mexico, for Ameria) scored against them, along with two from Jefferson Montero, and an opener from Felipe Caicedo Corozo (once of Manchester City, now at Lokomotiv Moscow). Of the bottom trio, it was Peru that gave themselves some hope, playing only one world cup match, they beat Chile with a late goal Farfan goal, and now find themselves only two points behind Uruguay. Uruguay, after only gaining one point against Paraguay, lost 2-0 in Chile. Chile are therefore in the fourth qualification place despite defeat in the first of the pair of games.

So to North and Central America, the final group hexagon played its second and third game, still seven rounds to go. Three teams go through with fourth place getting the play off against New Zealand. After Honduras’ opening win over USA, they now played at home to Mexico. Poor finishing on the home side’s part lead to the Mexicans taking command, and Hernandez scoring twice. Rarely used in the Premier League, one suspects Hernandez is just waiting for the chance to move to a team that will display his talents. His goals did not quite do the trick for Mexico though. Carlos Costly pulled a goal back with under fifteen minutes to play, and then a minute later, Costly was brought down by Francisco Rodriguez. Jerry Bengston stepped up to take the penalty, and although this was saved, the ball fell to Bengston to score the rebound. Honduras then went down in their third game to a Panama team who had drawn twice in their opening games. Jamaica’s home draw with Panama also meant they had two points from two games, but they then fell 2-0 at Costa Rica.

Costa Rica had drawn their first game, and played the USA in Denver in the second. This was a farcical game played in a heavy snowstorm

(Not my photo, hope I do not break any copyright)

It should either not have been started or abandoned at some stage, but apparently even the Costa Rica players wanted to continue once the game started. Costa Rica did decide to put in a protest, but this was summarily dismissed by FIFA. The USA won 1-0, thanks to a rather fortuitous goal. They then fought out a scoreless draw in Mexico. So after three round of fixtures, five of the nine games have been drawn, including all three involving Mexico, (both games in Mexico were scoreless). Panama as the other unbeaten side in the group lead, one win and two draws, Costa Rica, USA and Honduras each have one win and one defeat, while Jamaica two draws and a defeat are currently last. Everyone plays three times more in June.

So onto Africa. Ten groups of four teams, only one team through from each (to a knockout round which decides Africa’s five qualifyers). Only one game played to take the groups to the half way stage, there will be two in June and one in September to complete. Only two games were away wins on this occasion, the first being Malawi’s win in Namibia. This make Group F very interesting, especially as it took a late equaliser for Nigeria to draw at home to Kenya. Nigeria and Malawi each have five points, Namibia have three and Kenya two. Nigeria have two away games in June, Malawi two home games before the leading pair meet in Nigeria in September.

Mali won 2-1 in Rwanda, their goals being scored early second half, and turning the game around after being one down at the break. Algeria won their match 3-1 at home to Benin, which means both Mali and Algeria have six points and leapfrog Benin and share top spot on six points each. Benin has four, while Rwanda have one only. Mali play both their June games at home, while Algeria are away before they meet in Algeria in the final game. There are three teams with a 100% record at the half way stage, Tunisia, Congo (Brazzaville) and Egypt. The French born Christopher Samba of QPR scored Congo’s goal, in a 1-0 win over Gabon. Only one team has lost all three games, this being Cape Verde Islands. As they are in Tunisia’s group, they need to win all, and hope Tunisia lose all to have a chance. June should see around 20 of the African teams knocked out, but only one or two will make it to the next round before the final game.

And so to Europe. The feature of England’s games in Group H this tournament has been an easy win on the Friday night (against no hope opposition) followed by a disappointing draw on the Tuesday. The easy match was won with aplomb in San Marino, eight goals without reply, but then in Montenegro, they could not apply the finishing touch to a dominant first half, and lost control after the break. England are looking more like a second placed team than a group winner, and with one of the nine second placed teams missing the cut for play offs, they may be watching the second place table in October. Neither England, not San Marino play in June, while the other four get a game. San Marino are not yet knocked out, but need to win all four, hope England lose four and catch up a goal difference of 47 just to finish second, (they cannot win the group). If either Poland or Ukraine win in June, then San Marino will be knocked out.

The five team group is between Spain and France, and Spain became favourites by winning at the Stade de France thanks to Pedro’s goal just afore the hour mark. This was the only game in midweek, while on the Friday night, Spain had slipped up, when Teemu Pukki scored a late equaliser for Finland. France comfortable beat Georgia. The only summer games here are between Belarus and Finland, and hence not likely to be of great consequence in the final table. In Finland win both, Belarus are out, but the reverse is not true as Finland have more games to play.

Running up the groups, Group G saw one set of fixtures only, and reached the half way mark. The key match was Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 3-1 win over Greece, which places them three points ahead at the top. Slovakia missed the chance to move into second, held at home by Lithuania, while Liechtenstein picked up their first point 1-1 at home to Latvia. Everyone in the group plays in June, with the three leaders all away. In group F, Russia’s lead was not ended by the snow covered pitch in Belfast. In the comparable warmth of Tel Aviv, Portugal went ahead early, but then needed an injury time goal to level the scores at 3-3, after Israel had gone 3-1 up. Both Portugal (in Azerbaijan), and Israel (in the snow cleared Belfast) won 2-0 in midweek, to be one point behind Russia, but having played two games each more. Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg have not won a match between them, the Luxembourg-Azerbaijan game finishing scoreless.

Group E also played one game only to reach the half way stage, and has three games in June. Switzerland lead the group, despite a dismal scoreless draw in Cyprus. Albania (1-0 in Norway) and Iceland (2-1 in Slovenia) picked up good away wins and are two points behind the Swiss in the table. Norway would have been in second place with a win, so Hamdi Salihi’s goal, midway through the second half will be felt there. Salihi is a player who uses his passport, most of his career has been in Austria, but he spent the 2012 season with DC United, and then transferred to Jiangsu Sainty (China). In Group D, teams played twice this month, but have no summer game, everyone has played six, Netherlands are 100%, and Andorra 0%. The Netherlands were at home twice, beating Estonia 3-0, Romania 4-0. Andorra lost at home to Turkey, and away to Estonia, both times by 2-0. They can still reach second place, but only if Hungary and Romania draw their return meet in September, and then lose their remaining games, (and Andorra would need four wins). In their first meeting, Hungary and Romania shared points, Hungary twice taking the lead, but Romania clawing it back each time. The second equaliser was in the final minute. Hungary came back from behind to grab a point and second place, after their game in Turkey. Romania are a point behind Hungary, and the Turks another three points adrift.

Group C is a bit mixed up in games played, but not in points gained. Germany have played six, won five and drawn one. Kazakhstan fell to them twice in the Spring fixtures. The Kazaks have just one point from six games, and so can only reach second place, the Faroe Islands (no points) and Sweden have only played four times, meaning they each play twice in the summer. The Republic or Ireland drew 0-0 in Sweden, and then 2-2 at home to Austria – two goals from Jonathon Walker gave them hope after Martin Harnik had put Austria ahead, David Alaba got the late equaliser. This leaves the Irish on Eight points, level with both Austria and Sweden, but having played one game more than the Swedes. Group B is at a slightly confused half way stage, Bulgaria have played one extra game, Armenia have a game in hand. Both Bulgaria and Italy are unbeaten, but the similarity ends there, Italy have won four out of five, Bulgaria have drawn four out of six. Two goals from Balotelli in the first half gave Italy no sweat in Malta, the Maltese had already lost 6-0 in Bulgaria (Malta no points from five games). Bulgaria added a draw in Denmark to stay second, thanks to the Czech Republic’s curious inconsistency, losing 3-0 at home to Denmark, but then winning by the same score in Armenia.

Finally, Group A. Now generally, this round of games is too early for teams to be knocked out, and if one is to make an early exit, it is the usual suspects, San Marino, Andorra, Malta, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg one looks to. So take a bow, Scotland – the Scots were in trouble after their first two games, home draws with Serbia and Macedonia. Then they lost in Wales and Belgium. The last chance for face saving was at home to Wales, and Scotland did take the lead through Grant Hanley, then a penalty by Ramsey, quickly followed by a goal from Robson-Kanu turned the match. Scotland then went to Serbia, and not unexpectedly, lost 2-0. Wales fell at home to Croatia, despite a Gareth Bale penalty putting them ahead. Belgium quietly went about beating Macedonia twice, Eden Hazard scoring in each game, Kevin de Bruyn also on target away. And so both Belgium and Croatia find themselves on 16 points from 6 games, they meet in Zagreb in October, having already drawn 1-1 in Brussels. Scotland are on two points, and can only reach 14 – the first European team to be knocked out.

World Cup Spring Preview.

March 21st, 2013

So on to the Spring World Cup Fixtures week. In the Autumn, there is a pattern to the system with the international pairs of fixtures coming three times in successive months. Matches can also be grouped together in the summer, after most domestic leagues have finished, but the Spring fixture list seems designed mainly to annoy those running club football.

With the European seasons heading for their climax, the last thing any club wants is to lose its key players for a week and a half, or even to have a break from the search for honours. It is no wonder that players suddenly find their fitness and availability called into question. In England we have the advantage that our players play almost exclusively in the Premier League, which means that clubs withdrawing players face the opprobrium directly. Still, we get the fiasco when a manager says his player is going to be available for England on the Saturday, only to withdraw him on the Monday. If the player’s country is half a continent away, or further, then there is no one to say whether the “injury” is anything more than convenience.

To my mind, it would be better to miss out these fixtures, finish the league season a week earlier and then group more international matches in June.

Anyway, nothing will be settled this month in Europe, but some of the groups are going to come much clearer as they pass through the half way mark.

Scotland and Wales play each other in Group A, but both are already showing little help of qualification. The Republic of Ireland are better off in Group C – and if they can get a result in Stockholm, they have a good chance of at least finishing second to Germany. In Group D, Hungary play Romania. Both have won three of their four games, but lost the other, 1-4 at home to the Netherlands. Not surprisingly, the Netherlands top the group with four wins so far, and two home games this month – so they could be sitting very pretty next week.

Russia are also going for the fifth successive win, playing Northern Ireland in Belfast, the Russians are the only side to beat the Irish so far, but all their other matches have been drawn. Israel will become the second visitor to Belfast in this window. Both Israel and Portugal are on 7 points from 4 games, and they meet Friday in Tel Aviv. Group G sees Bosnia play Greece, two sides unbeaten with 10 points from four games – they have already played out a scoreless draw in Greece. For England, both the September and October fixture dates involved a 5-0 win on the Friday, but a 1-1 draw on the Tuesday. With away matches first in San Marino, then in Montenegro – a repeat might not be out of order. Montenegro are group leaders, while the earlier draws have been with Poland and Ukraine, who play each other on Friday. This could easily be one of the closer groups, and with one of the nine second placed teams missing out on the play-offs, it could well be a closer group that misses out on the final action. Finally, in Group I, where there is one less team, Spain and France should both get their third win on Friday, they have already drawn 1-1 in Madrid, and meet again at the Stade de France Tuesday.

One continent where the results will be decisive is Oceania. New Zealand, despite missing out on the Oceania title, and a place in the Confederations Cup in the summer have won all four group games. They only team that can overhaul them is New Caledonia, who visit them in Dunedin on Friday, in the first game that will be played. Only a win on Friday puts New Zealand through at first try, any other result and confirmation comes on Tuesday after New Zealand play in the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia play Tahiti.

African teams play one match only, in most cases over the weekend. This will be the half way point for ten groups of four, where only the winners get through to a play off. Home advantage is more notable in Africa than elsewhere, so only three countries have two wins out of two, and only two have lost twice. Group B is headed up by Tunisia who will try to win in Sierra Leone to reach nine points, Equatorial Guinea scored first on their visit to Tunisia, but went down 3-1. Cape Verde Islands went down 2-1 at home to Tunisia, having already lost in Sierra Leone. The remaining game, Equatorial Guinea v Sierra Leone was drawn. IN Group E, Brazzaville version of Congo have beaten Burkina Faso (away) by 3-0 and Niger by 1-0. They now play at home to Gabon, who have also beaten Burkina Faso (home) 1-0, but went down 3-0 in Niger. Egypt will also attempt to reach nine points when Zimbabwe visit the giant Borg Al Arab Stadium, (at 86,000 – the third largest in Africa). Mozambique have also lost 2-0 there, while Egypt have won 3-2 away in Guinea. Guinea won away in Zimbabwe, while Zimbabwe’s visit to Mozambique was scoreless. I have now mentioned all four of the 40 matches played so far to be won by the away teams!

IN South America, there is only one group – the division of nine teams in the end is four to the finals, four out, and one to a play off. The current working is three looking like clear qualifiers, Argentina, Ecuador and Columbia, and three looking very unlikely, Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia. The other three are all on 12 points so far, from 9 games. Venezuela will play Argentina (away) and Columbia, while Uruguay play Paraguay (home), and Chile visit Peru before meeting each other in Chile.

The Concacaf region sees the second and third matches in a group of six teams, so still seven games to play after this month. The only winner in the first series was Honduras, who beat USA by 2-1. Honduras are at home again to Mexico, before travelling to Panama. The USA will play Costa Rica in Denver before their big match, the visit to the Aztec stadium in Mexico.

I have left Asia to last, as the groups there have only one set of fixtures, and these are not until Tuesday. After this there are three fixture dates in June which will see two teams from each group qualified, two out and one from each to play off (against each other, first). In Group A, Uzbekistan lead with 8 points, while South Korea, Iran and Qatar have 7. South Korea have a game in hand on the others, and play Qatar at home, Uzbekistan are at home to Lebanon giving the Iranians the month off. Group B is all to play for amongst Australia, Iraq and Oman (all 5 points) and Jordan 4. Australia have a game in hand are at home to Oman. Iraq take the month off. Japan are the other team and are rather clear group leaders. They have 13 points before travelling to Jordan – so a win on Tuesday will make them the first team to qualify to join Brazil in the finals.

The Inevitable Don.

November 29th, 2012

It was always inevitable, that sooner or later AFC Wimbledon would come up in competition against MK Dons.

As a teenager, growing up on Southern League football in London, the Wimbledon of the seventies had a bit of a reputation, but as with most non-League teams of the time, they were in reality a haven away from the troubles with hooliganism that all the top teams were suffering from. The most memorable feature of a visit to Plough Lane was the huge bank of terracing behind one goal

There was not always a lot between teams, and what was needed for success (as we would later find out), was am inspired manager and a chairman prepared to back him. For Wimbledon, the manager was Allen Batsford, who had already led Walton & Hersham through their most successful years, (Athenian League title, FA Amateur Cup and humbling Brighton & Hove Albion during Brian Clough’s tenure there). Batsford was to take Wimbledon to a hat-trick of Southern League titles, and in his first season to their famous meeting with Leeds United in the FA Cup. The chairman, at least for the third year was Ron Noades, who apparently paid £2782 for the club.

Timing is everything, though and Wimbledon had this. After their first Southern League title, in 1975 they gained just 4 points in their election bid, behind Kettering (20) and Yeovil (8), who between them equalled Workington’s 28 points for re-election. No less than 12 non-League teams, eight from the Southern League had put their names forward. Again in 1976, there were 9 applicants, six of which were Southern League, and the combined scores of Kettering (14) and Yeovil (18) would have easily beaten Workington (21). For 1977, the leagues agreed that only one team from each of the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues would be put forward, and as Southern League champions, Wimbledon were up for election, along with Altrincham (despite finishing only 10th in the Northern Premier), Halifax, Hartlepool, Southport and Workington. It was Workington who had been bottom two places four years in a row that lost their place. It was a brief window, Wigan were elected 12 months later, but even with the creation of the Alliance (now Conference) and a reduction of non-League teams in the election to one from 1980, no other team joined the league until automatic promotion was introduced in 1987.

Wimbledon were not an immediate success in the Football League. Indeed they started more amateurishly than in winning three titles, no scouting, no youth coaching until Dario Gradi was recruited to assist Batsford, (they did not get on). Batsford resigned after the team had to travel by car to an away match at Rochdale. Wimbledon were promoted from the basement division of the League in 1979, 1981 and 1983 – each time they spent only one season in the third tier, but in 1984, they moved upwards.

Dave Bassett, who became manager in 1981 led them through this spell, leading the club to the top division (still division one in those days) and keeping them up in his first season, before giving way to Bobby Gould who managed the Cup winning team of 1988. Overall, Wimbledon were to spend 14 seasons at the top level.

It was Noades, back in 1979 who first considered relocating the club to Milton Keynes. The City’s development plan included a stadium close to the central railway station, and Noades purchased the local Southern League club, Milton Keynes City for £1, thinking he could merge his two clubs and play at this new stadium. After a short period of study, Noades concluded that Wimbledon could not get any more to view them at Milton Keynes than at Plough Lane, and in 1981 he divested his interests in both clubs, before buying Crystal Palace.

Sam Hamman took over the ownership of the club. They still owned and played at Plough Lane. As with many football grounds, there were covenants in place on what could be done with the land. The Plough Lane football ground could only be used for Sport or Recreation, and in the event of Wimbledon FC folding, it had to be sold to the council for the less than princely sum of £8000. The amount Hamman paid to the council to change these conditions is not known, but was about half a million pounds. By 1991, Wimbledon had risen to the top division, with crowds around 7,500 per match. This was a remarkably small number for the top division, which had an average of 22,000+ that season. It was the Taylor report that was the excuse to re-locate to Selhurst Park. The club said they could not afford to upgrade the old ground. There was an immediate loss of 10% of the spectator base, but this quickly recovered. Around 1993, the averages exceeded 10,000 and they set their attendance record, over 30,000 for a match against Manchester United. In 1999-2000, the season Wimbledon were finally relegated from the top flight, the average crowd was 17,000.

Surely this figure could have been sustained, but at this time, Wimbledon had a fickle support, more concerned about visiting stars than the local club. Palace were an irregular member of the Premier League, and so while the big Premier stars came a visiting, Wimbledon were the best show in town. In one season out of the top division, the average crowd had been halved.

Hamman had by now sold Wimbledon to Norwegian owners, and in 1998 he had finally sold off Plough Lane for £8 million. Hamman stayed on at the club as an advisor to the Norwegians, (which of course meant a fee was paid, and I bet it was not a pittance). After proposals for two sites within Merton came to nothing, Hamman was behind a wild slew of relocation schemes, as far afield as Scotland and Dublin, (the Premier League quite fancied the idea of having a Dublin club, but the Football Association of Ireland vetoed it). All this added to the clubs problems – creating a wedge between the club and its supporters. Most clubs still try to maintain the illusion that their owners hold the club in trust for the supporters, and for future generations. With Wimbledon openly stating they wanted to move to somewhere where a profit could be made, the supporters were clearly thought of as dispensable.

Meanwhile, the Milton Keynes Stadium Corporation was formed in 2000. Fronted by former op impresario Peter Winkleman, and supported by big commercial names Wal-Mart (Asda) and Ikea, who were looking for sites in Milton Keynes. Later, AFC Wimbledon supporters have suggested that the Stadium plan was a Trojan horse required to get the commercial plans approved, but this does not truly recognise the situation in Milton Keynes. The City planners surely wanted it all, the Stadium and the Commercial developments.

But what could is a stadium without a team? The Milton Keynes City team Noades had once bought had folded some time back, and a new team of the same name were just a renaming of Mercedes Benz, playing four levels below the Football League in front of a few dozen spectators. The MK area boasted a number of other teams at similar level, but no one much more senior. Of course, with enough investment, it is possible to move a club from non-League football to the Football League, Max Griggs was just about to achieve this with Rushden & Diamonds – but as we have seen, the club was not sustainable without a continual injection of cash.

Winkleman wanted an established League club to move into his stadium (and at the time, that is all he wanted – he could see that clubs lose money, but stadiums with a well supported club make a profit). The Football League and FA always claimed to be opposed to a club moving into Milton Keynes, and the combination of this, and the clear connections between clubs and their fan bases meant that Luton, Barnet, Crystal Palace and QPR all rejected moves to Milton Keynes, but in the summer of 2001, Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel announced the intention to move to Milton Keynes.

The Football League immediately turned this down, but Wimbledon appealed to an FA panel, made up of David Dein (Arsenal), Douglas Craig (York City) and Charles Hollander QC (these panels always appear to have one legal ‘brain’). Craig was an odd choice, he had transferred the ownership of Bootham Crescent from one of his companies (i.e. York City FC) to another for a sum of £165,000 eighteen months earlier, and at this time he had just announced plans to evict the football club as he thought he could sell the ground for £4.5 million (this of course, never happened, although York’s long term future is unlikely to be at the ground). This panel found the Football League decision had not been fair and legal, and batted the issue back to the League for reconsideration. The League quickly returned the issue to the FA who had to set up a new Arbitration committee, this time of Steve Stride (Aston Villa), Alan Turvey (Isthmian League) and solicitor Raj Parker. This committee decided 2-1 in favour of the move, with Turvey being the one against. As a demonstration that it wanted to have its cake, eat it and wash its hands of the evidence, the FA quickly announced that the decision was binding, but that it was opposed to the move. Chief Executive Adam Crozier called it an “Appalling decision”. The average crowd for Wimbledon at Selhurst Park 2001-2 was just under 7000. The following season, it was 2787.

It was at this point the decision to form AFC Wimbledon was taken. Before this time, there was just talk about it, but the speed that they moved from talk to action was amazing. The initial meeting was held on 30 May 2002, with the manager, stadium, kit and crest announced to supporters just a month later. Clearly some of the groundwork must have been carried out in advance.

Only months previously, Kingstonian FC had been taken over Rajesh Kholsa and his son, Anup. Kingstonian had struggled through the season after relegation from the Conference, and gone into administration. They badly needed good administration. This is not what they got. Non-League football is not a good vehicle for profit making – the best opportunities for a profit – as we have seen in more than one case – involve separating the ownership of club and ground and selling the stadium when the clubs debts are too high for them to be able to resist. Many football clubs have means to avoid this, at the original Wimbledon FC, it was the arrangements whereas the club would have had to sell the ground for £8000 to Merton Council, (an agreement that Hamman splashed a little cash to get out of, before later feathering his next). At Hillingdon Borough, the club I supported in my early days, the directors had to see the football club fold in order to negate a covenant on the ground and take their profits. At Kingstonian, the ground was on a long lease from the council, with the ground only usable for sports use. Hence, the only way Kholsa could sell at a profit was if another sports club came in. Did Kholsa spy an opportunity in the headlines about Wimbledon? Is it possible that some agreement was suggested in advance? No one has ever said anything to suggest any wrong doing, but there is some feeling that Kholsa did see Wimbledon coming. He was quick to split football club and ground, leaving the head lease in the hands of Anup, and with the income once AFC Wimbledon agreed to share the stadium, this part of the business was running a nice profit, while the Football Club that were leaseholders a year before were starved of the cash.

Meanwhile, the AFC Wimbledon bandwagon was the biggest story in non-League football. In a marvellously orchestrated media circus (something the early AFC W seemed to lead the way in), they held open trials on Wimbledon Common, where some 230 turned up for a trial. If I am not careful, I could even blame Wimbledon for the X-Factor here, but I’ll shy away from such an accusation. Safe to say that some of the 230 would have been an embarrassment, but fortunately not in front of TV cameras. Another sign of how it was to be was the quick signing of a kit sponsorship deal, which meant that AFC Wimbledon would already have more money behind them then the average club in their league, notwithstanding the £75,000 raised at the initial meetings, and the benefits of crowds that were to exceed 3000 on average.

Of course, it has to recorded that AFC Wimbeldon were a different type of football club. The ownership structure, where all fans had an equal say at general meetings, and to elect the board does present a novel contrast to the idea that your votes reflect the size of stake you take in the club (or business). However, the model was not that new, hundreds of clubs (as opposed to companies) had been operating as members clubs in the less rarefied atmosphere of non-League football – indeed many of their opponents in that first season were also “Fans Clubs”, the different being that only a handful of fans would ever turn up at a meeting. There were members clubs in the Football League up until 1982, when Nottingham Forest became the last to change to a limited company, and then Wycombe Wanderers were still a members club when joining the Football League in 1993. The supporters retained “golden shares” in the club when it became a limited company in 2004. Steve Hayes became MD of the club in 2005, built up debt and then paid it off in return for becoming 100% owner. To be fair to Hayes, he has since given up control of both Wycombe (to their supporters Trust) and while I cannot say the exact status of the ground, I feel certain Hayes lost a lot of money through his involvements at both Wycombe and Wasps.

It was not long before some bright spark at AFC Wimbledon decided that the best course of action was to purchase Kingsmeadow from Kholsa. To this day, AFC Wimbledon fans tell me this was the only course of action, as otherwise it would have been sold for housing. As I have already mentioned in this piece, that was not an available option – but a sale (around £3 million) sounded good to Kholsa, especially as he could loan some of the money at high interest rates. AFC Wimbledon did manage to change this over time to bank loans at conventional interest rates, and later sold off a portion of the moral high ground shares in the club to pay off this debt.

Before AFC Wimbledon came on the scene, I had already visited all but one (Horley Town had just moved grounds) of the Combined Counties League grounds, but as I was working mainly in Slough, I saw AFC three times in the first two seasons of their existence. Without doubt, it was this that removed any romanticism I might have had about them being the best thing in non-League football. For the most part, with average crowds well under the 100 mark, the Combined Counties League is a civilised place. When it is quite clear who is shouting what from a sparsely populated terrace, one tends to watch your language. AFC Wimbledon fans, grouping in numbers more common in the Football League, but with no security other than their own stewards, had the run of the league. Generally the vilest comments were reserved for those of their own players not performing to the standards expected (they were behind for just 7 minutes at Horley, but the worst was their home crowd when they took time to break down stubborn resistance in a scoreless first half). The club lost seven games in their first season, finishing third in the league behind AFC Wallingford and Withdean 2000. There was crowd trouble at the Wallingford game, which AFC Wimbledon always deny is to do with their own fans, but was then used as an excuse not to play at Wallingford in 2004, but to switch the match, (AFC Wimbledon’s last game in the Combined Counties League) to Kingsmeadow. This game did not even matter in the scheme of things, AFC Wimbledon already having secured the league title by a country mile, but it appeared they were unforgiving for Wallingford’s title the previous season, and were determined to hang onto their unbeaten record.

The other thing that was noticeable from those early visits were how many AFC Wimbledon fans were glued to radios, (we did not all have internet phones then). Their rivals in the Combined Counties League never featured on the radio – it was only ever the fortunes of the other Dons that interested them. There were two things they wanted to hear – Wimbledon losing, and Wimbledon getting a lower crowd than AFC Wimbledon. For 2002-3, this is exactly what they got, Wimbledon (still at Selhurst Park) drew an average of 2787, while AFC Wimbledon claimed just over 3000. This disparity led to Wimbledon FC going into administration before they actually left South London. They even started 2003-4 season at Selhurst Park, before moving to the Hockey Stadium in MK in September, and all this under administration. AFC Wimbledon’s rash move in buying Kingsmeadow meant that they were not in a position to even contemplate buying their old club out of administration, and instead spent their time hoping no buyer could be found and that the club with move into liquidation. With crowds in Milton Keynes much better than the last Selhurst season, (Wimbledon averaged 4751 compared to AFC Wimbledon dropping to 2606). Still, Wimbledon did get relegated, and eventually they were bought out of administration by Pete WInkleman, who after all was keen to see the club stay alive to play in his stadium. When Winkleman took over the club, he rebranded them as MK Dons. This basically meant it was a new club in a new location, and after a dispute in which various football supporters bodies supported the AFC Wimbledon case, MK Dons gave up any pretence that they were Wimbledon FC. Trophies and other mementoes of the earlier club’s history were given over to the London Borough of Merton, but pointedly not to AFC Wimbledon. There is not any justification for claiming that AFC Wimbledon has won the FA Cup, but the AFC Wimbledon web site still lays claims to all the honours not just of Wimbledon FC, but also of Wimbledon Old Centrals back to 1899. From my point of view, I cannot be 100% sure that the club that joined the Athenian League in 1919 was the same as the one that spent a single season, 1909-10 in the Spartan League.

MK Dons dropped down to League-2 for two seasons, but have since moved back up one division, and have been close to the promotion bracket in recent years. They finally moved into their new stadium, with its curious name of Stadium: MK in 2007. The crowds rose significantly on moving to the new stadium, helped by the club winning the League-2 title and Football League Trophy. I made my trip to MK in 2008 when Cheltenham played their (the only time so far). MK won that game 3-1, and the return at our place 5-3. I have to say I liked the ground, and we were well beaten. In a nearby pub before the gae in MK, I met with at least one fan who had transferred loyalties from the original Wimbledon FC and had watched at Selhurst, such people do exist, (admittedly in small numbers). I would wager that by now only a minority of AFC Wimbledon’s support have been with the club since long enough to have been regulars at Plough Lane. We have since lost to them twice in the League Cup. Wimbledon continued to rise up the leagues, winning promotion in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011 – the last being the one to take them into the Football League. The clubs Conference South season(2008-9) saw them exceed their first season average crowd for the first time, this was bettered again two seasons later in winning promotion, and again in their first Football League season. 2011-12 was also the first time AFC Wimbledon were to lose more matches than they won. The notable thing about the visits to Kingsmeadow with Cheltenham is that the place had actually become more friendly than it appeared to be in those early Combined Counties seasons. AFC Wimbledon fans are no longer a different breed, but are part of the general football fraternity.

Both clubs now have their own support and following, and the meeting this weekend ought to be the last time the connections are aired before the clubs fully part. However, there is now a new campaign in Wimbledon, (started I think by the local paper and not the football club), to try and get MK Dons to drop Dons from their name. Dons was the original nickname of Wimbledon FC, and was certainly what their supporters would have called them back in the seventies. However, the popularity of the Wombles on TV, and the adoption of a Womble as mascot (originally by Wimbledon FC, but now by AFC Wimbledon, and never of course by MK Dons) means that Wombles is more commonly used now. As a Don is also an academic term, there is no reason why MK should drop it – it all seems part of the sour grapes fight by those that still believe MK Dons should not exist. While like most people, I was aghast at their creation, I recognise that you cannot turn back the clock and you cannot now remove MK Dons from the map any more than, say the state of Israel, no matter how many people think differently.

AFC Wimbledon fans still seem to need to be on the defensive against some suggestions against them. I read it a lot on the internet boards. I think the three great defences that are over their entry into the Combined Counties League, the buying of the stadium and the fate of Kingstonian. So to try and see through the smokescreens, the Combined Counties League was not by any means the lowest level the club could have started, there are many levels of lower football. However, they were voted in by member clubs of the Combined Counties League, which was the legitimate method of clubs entering at that time. They did not take the place of any other club, indeed the league extended its numbers to take them in. Of course, AFC Wimbledon would have liked to enter the Isthmian League but were turned down. I have always thought that the purchase of Kingsmeadow was a bad move, and I feel that developing this ground hinders their attempts to relocate to their home borough. It is possible that Kholsa might have allowed Kingstonian to fold had AFC not appeared on the scene, but if that had happened, the lease would have reverted to the council paving the way for any reformed club to move in. Kingstonian still exist, but their crowd base has been eroded by the coming of Wimbledon to their town. It is an illusion that football supporters follow clubs through thick and thin. Fans come and go, and some may turn up occasionally to see what is going on at the local ground. It is from these that the long term supporter is somehow made. When two clubs share a stadium, it is natural for those new fans, at least if not subject to other influences, to watch the bigger of the clubs at the stadium. With AFC Wimbledon’s media juggernaut, (even being the team of choice for a TV detective), it was always inevitable that they would take some support that might have watched Kingstonian, even with a Wimbledon team in the next borough. When Wimbledon first bought the ground, Kingstonian’s rent was to be paid from the proceeds of a pre-season friendly between the teams. A great advert for altruism that did not actually last long.

Of course, the greatest knock on from the Wimbledon story is the increase in fan owned clubs – this is now becoming both a common way of restarting a club after the original has floundered, but also there have been more cases of supporters clubs breaking away from the original. In England, we have Enfield Town who actually thought of the idea before Wimbledon (perhaps the reason why they did not take up the name AFC Enfield). Enfield Town were founded after the chairman of Enfield refused to walk away with the lion’s share of the proceeds of the sale of Enfield’s old ground, leaving the fans with a clean start, a debt free club and a little money in the bank, (a deal had been brokered, but the owner of Enfield reneged on it). Enfield Town started life sharing at Brimsdown Rovers and playing in the Essex League, (three levels lower than Enfield that season). At this point, Enfield Town refused to merge the two clubs. The clubs met in the Southern League in 2005-6. Enfield FC finally went into liquidation in 2007, but a new club, Enfield 1893 was immediately started (in the Essex League, only one level down on the last season as Enfield). In 2010, Enfield 1893 moved into Brimsdown Rovers ground, after years sharing grounds outside the borough, meaning that both clubs shared a ground for the season – Brimsdown had folded or merged with 1893, depending on the version you listen to. By this time, Enfield Town had secured the new ground they always wanted, now called the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, and took with them a stand they had added to the old Brimsdown ground. This meant the ground did not meet Isthmian League standards, and although 1893 were Esssex League champions in 2011, they could not be promoted.

Other fan clubs include AFC Telford United, formed quickly after Telford United folded, and Wrexham who had to fight long and hard for control, but always kept fighting. An attempt at a protest club called AFC Barnsley lasted only a short time, playing its last season on Barnsley’s training pitches before being absorbed by the club it was protesting about. FC United of Manchester were also formed as a protest against the way Manchester United’s American owners took control. They claim far higher crowds than others in their leagues but are hampered by high rents at Bury. Unlike AFC Wimbledon, they do appear to have identified a site for their own ground, and may well progress further after they move. Their fans sing a curious mixture of Manchester United songs, and anti-Glazer (the United owners) songs. Despite their claims, they have not actually had any effect on the Old Trafford club, although their fan base may well effect other clubs in the area, including Bury who are benefitting greatly from the income United provide. By contrast, it appears that AFC Liverpool only exist as an echo of United. They have not developed a fan base above that of the better clubs in their league, when you look at the programme and ground, it appears to bristle with indignation at either the main Liverpool club, or the injustice to the 96, but the fans do not reflect this. Last time I saw them play, their only indignation was a complaint over what appeared to be a perfectly justifiable penalty.

The supporters’ umbrella group, Supporters Direct seems almost to favour the formation of new clubs over the alternative of trying to identify and remove bad club owners. The latest example being at Northwich Victoria. Now there is no doubt the old club has been incredibly badly administered, leading to the loss of their ground, (and the new owners can develop the site there), and the club playing 40 miles from home in front of negligible crowds. Even so, there should have been hope for some compromise, but the existence of a rival club appears to be strengthening the owners resolve not to let the old club go.

It does appear that a lot of AFC fans are not for a boycott of the match, as shown by the fact that a large number are travelling to Milton Keynes to see it. The directors are making their protest by standing with the fans and not accepting hospitality, but this is only noticed because they have managed to get the press to mention it. I noticed the Cheltenham Town chairman sitting among the fans, rather than accepting hospitality at an away game two weeks ago. This was not a protest, he was there because he likes to be there! No doubt there will be protests or posters from within the crowd over the existence of MK Dons, and if the TV cameras care to show it, there will be a large audience watching the match back in Wimbledon, but this match may be the last stand for the protests.

The real villains of this piece are not the current owners of either Football Club, whose only problem seems to be that they cannot find a way to live in peace with each other, but the football authorities. The game needs a system of licensing that is more stringent in stopping clubs from building up unsustainable debt, it needs more care applied to the idea of “fit and proper” persons as directors, and a way of taking sanctions against club directors who are found not to meet the required standard after taking up the post. Above all, the practise of separating the ownership of club and ground must be stopped, as it is a license for asset strippers. The legacy of the MK Dons/AFC Wimbledon saga should not be the extinction of either club, but the assurance that history cannot be repeated. While Northwich Victoria play home matches in front of a handful of spectators in Stafford, that legacy still looks far from achievable.

Eurotrip 2012 – Part 3 : Germany

July 15th, 2012

Every European tour needs Germany. You cannot ignore it, it’s big, sits in the middle of the continent and has a plentiful supply of fast trains. I travelled almost the whole length of Germany to get from Vienna to Randers (and slept through most of it), then took a somewhat shorter journey to get me to Kiel the next day. Now Kiel is a city built to be taken seriously. I remember thinking on a previous trips how the apartment buildings that line the walk out of turn just appeared big and sturdy. The Rathaus is not the most impressive you will see, but it commands the square nearby. On the side of the square is an opera house. No exactly an architectural delight, but a place to go and listen to the singing. Every thing about the city says solid – not so much as an act of defiance against the cold east winds of every winter, but a proclamation of victory against the elements. Even on a hot and sunny day such as this one, when I was walking pack to the Aldmarkt later in the evening (the location of a home brew pub with a pleasant dark beer), I could not help but notice the cold evening wind.

In the sunshine, the city appeared vibrant and lively, with market stalls jostling (not literally) for attention in the main shopping street, and the sun glinting of the waters of the Kleine Kiel – an inlet from the port surrounded by parkland.

Kleine Kiel. The building is the background is the law courts.

Like England, Germany is a large country, with concentrations of the population in small pockets, with the resultant concentration of numbers of football clubs. It has, like England gone through a series of re-organisations of the lower divisions, the last one creating a National 3.Liga, with three Regionalliga between this and the fifth level, still generally referred to as the Oberliga, as they approximate to the Lander, or states that make up Germany. There are two factions in German football at the moment. The big professional clubs want to run reserve teams as high up the structure as is possible, while the smaller clubs and their supporters have a dislike of reserve teams. They are poorly supported, and damage the competition. There is now a youth bundesliga, so why not a reserve one? The big clubs appearing to be holding sway, with a limited number of reserve teams in the 3. Liga, and large compliment in the Regionalliga. One way or another, while the 3. Liga appears to be a success, the 3 Regionalliga pattern is not holding up so well, with many clubs struggling financially. Therefore from next season, there will be five regionalliga. This clearly will cause complications as there will still be only three promotion places available, but promotion/relegation play offs have long been part of the German game, so this is not considered a big problem.

The effects of this on the lower leagues vary from place to place, and in the North, where the Nord Regionalliga will still cover four Oberliga areas, there is hardly any change at all. The Regionalliga is fed by four Oberliga, from the two cities of Bremen and Hamburg, the massive Neidersachsen, and Schwelsig-Holstein, which covers the northern most area of Germany, up to the border with Denmark.

Below the Schelsig-Holstein Oberliga, there are 4 Verbandsliga, each promoting only their champions. Kiel sits within the North East area, and with only two league games to play SC Comet Kiel 1912 are in a safe mid-table position. The league finishes at the weekend, as the re-arranged fixture was the only one on the night. The visitors, TSV Altenholz had already claimed the title before the match began.

But first, I had a problem, and I was not even aware of the detail. While I was walking around the city, I had noticed the bus departure boards were displaying a standard text rather than departure times, but I thought little of it, as I could see some buses and plenty of people waiting at bus stops. It was only while waiting for the bus to the ground that I tried to read the board. “Strike!”. I was of the opinion that no public service, (or for that matter anyone at all) ever went on strike in Germany. Surely it must be true, didn’t I read it in the newspapers? Without speaking English, those waiting with me at the bus stop confirmed there was a strike, but then a number 200 bus turns up. I wanted a number 11, but I got on anyway. This took me to a point about a 15 minute walk from the ground, (the 11 would have left me a little closer). It was only at the refreshment hut in the ground, when I explained that I was worried about getting back to town (a process normally referred to as “fishing for a lift”), that was explained that it was only one company that was on strike, and the buses on route 200 were running normally. And so, the only problem the strike created me was the 15 minute delay (between the two departure times) in returning to my hotel.

SC Comet Kiel is exactly the sort of club that I think the UK pyramid has lost touch with. It sits on the edge of town, near a small urban community, tucked between a residential street and a bye-pass. One enters up a few steps, finding yourself by the clubhouse, and with about four steps of terracing down to pitch level. All along the opposite side are two shallow steps, with a grass bank above. Behind either goal, there is nothing except a grassed path. As well as the clubhouse, a further hut was providing hot food and beers, as is traditional in German football grounds. An A4 programme was provided free with the €4 admission price.

The match took a while to warm up – not entirely surprising for one that had no importance for either team, but eventually it opened out in a pleasantly entertaining the match. This is amateur football, after all, careers are not dependent on the result, and the players might as well get on and enjoy it, which is what they did. Twice in the last fifteen minutes of the first half, the away team took the lead, but on each occasion, the Comets levelled the scores.

In the second half, it was the other way around, with the home team twice taking the lead, the first thanks to a mistake by the visiting goalkeeper who let the ball run through his hands. Comets were not ahead for long on the first occasion, but on going ahead again with ten minutes to play, the longest period of time either side held the lead by proved decisive as Comet ended up winning 4-3. After the season finishes at the weekend, Comet will be celebrating their centenary, and Altenholz will celebrate promotion. I celebrated getting the bus back into town by visiting Kieler Brauerei an der Alt Markt, and sampling the ale and bock brewed on the premises. The next day saw me head back to Scandic lands, using the boat train to Copenhagen

Breakpoint. The last view one gets of Germany when leaving via Puttgarten – or the first point when returning two days later.

The last of course, can be later the first, and so two days later, it is the same view but in the reverse direction as I re-enter Germany. The train is packed and many of its facilities were not working. No hot water in the buffet, no flush in the lavatory, and no signs on display to show which seats are reserved and which are not. The train staff are unresponsive – when asked which seats were reserved, we are told “all of them”. All those without reservations can do is take a seat and hope no one turns up to claim it. For once, I was lucky and managed to keep my seat all the way from Copenhagen to Hamburg (about five hours). I saw plenty of others who were not so lucky, spending a good part of the journey sitting in the corridors. German railways have practically given up this route. Not only do we get the faulty rolling stock, but there was no ticket check on the train during the whole journey (and there was none in the opposite direction two days earlier). Entertainment on the train was provided by the already drunken supporters of the Danish national team, who for some reason were playing Brazil the following day, in Hamburg.

The journey from the centre of Hamburg to a middle class northern suburb is straight forward, using the U-Bahn. From the U-Bahn station, it is about a 15 minute walk straight up the road to the Hoheluft Stadion. A €6 ticket gets on in, including a free A4 programme, but this is a ground where the extra €2 for a seat is worthwhile. There are good terraced areas, sections of concrete steps behind one goal, opposite and next to the stand, but there are also massive fences all around the ground, meaning the only good views are to be had from the seats. The stand itself is a well elevated with plenty of rows of seats, but it is not at all modern, and this shows itself in the four support pillars partially blocking every view above the lowest rows. Clubhouse and dressing rooms are underneath the stands, while there is an outside sausage stall, with a somewhat temperamental mustard dispenser. This was of the pump action type, but no mustard appeared when I tried it. Pumping harder, there was a sudden splurge of mustard, most of which landed on my T-shirt, although it also managed to travel a distance in many other directions, splattering passers-by on their shoes. The only part of Hamburg not to receive mustard was my sausage. At this point, as a favour to life in the region, I took the lid off the dispenser, and dipped my sausage instead. [I know this is all in Hamburg, but no euphemisms or double-entendres are intended, this is just a story about a half time snack].

Victoria Hamburg Supporters in full voice.

As for the game, well once again I was watching the league champions after the title had been decided. The away side was in second place, but likely to drop to third with defeat. This would not matter much as there are no play offs. I was more worried that Victoria would field a weak side, due to a local cup final at the same stadium on Monday. The local cup competitions, (Lander Pokal) tend to pass by without much notice around Germany. Fixtures and results columns often show the league matches only, and ignore cup games. These cup games therefore have to take place midweek at the start and end of season, or on bank holidays. There are still a lot of teams, even in the higher levels of the amateur and semi-professional game in Germany that do not possess floodlights, so all the weekend dates are given over to the league, and the cups take what is left. Despite this, there is a big prize on offer. The DFB Pokal, the German cup is very limited numerically. It is also seeded. This means that merely being in the first round practically guarantees a home tie against a major team. Of course, less fuss is made over these in Germany, and should Victoria win through and get a good tie, they would switch the venue quickly and quietly. Still, there is only one way for the minor teams to gain this qualification, and that is by winning the local cup.

High Fences make viewing from behind the goal difficult

I was indeed right about the game, Victoria were clearly favouring the Monday game. Many of players that normally start were missing, including both the two top goalscorers. At 248, the crowdfor the game I saw was probably around its normal level. The cup final would draw in over 4000. Still, I need not have worried about the quality of play in my league match. There was no doubt from the word go that Victoria wanted to finish their league campaign with a win, there was more doubt that Vfl Curslack/Neuengamme had the power to stop them. Victoria took an early lead, and added a second just before half time. When they made it 3-0, on the hour mark, it was beginning to look too comfortable, but any complacency was knocked away with the visitors pulling one with 15 minutes to play, and then scoring again less than five minutes from the end. The comeback was short lived, as while the visitors pushed forward for an unlikely equaliser, they left enough space at the other end for one of the Victoria substitutes to complete the scoring in a 4-2 win.

Having decided to head down to the Hessen league for the Saturday, I needed an early start to get me to my destination, so I spent the evening in bars around the Reeperbahn, avoiding the more expensive joints, and slowly nursing my beers. Since my first visit, over 20 years ago, the Reeperbahn has changed somewhat, and although there are still a number of brothels and girly bars, it is now a noisier entertainment hub, centring on the clubs with rather loud music. Even when I was younger, these places made me feel old, and I have never gone in for them. Still, at the start of my evening, I found a bar with a live band producing a sound more to my taste, sadly I entered rather too close to the end of the set, but they were rather good. I returned to the Hauptbanhhof with time for a coffee and a roll before boarding a train for the four hour run south to Giessen. For this, I had an alarm set to make sure I did not overdo the sleep

A Woolly Mammoth outside the bell tower does not appear to worry the locals in Giessen

Giessen is a pleasant if small town. It does not have a great deal to show to the tourists, except for the fact that it appears to be overrun with prehistoric beasts; well models of dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and other such creatures were scattered liberally through the town centre. I did notice the local brewpub, but I wanted to get out to Fernwald in good time, as the buses only run once every two hours. This was a decision I came to regret. I am not certain that Fernwald actually exists as a town, rather than a series of villages under common title. Certainly, there were several signs to places such as Fernwald – Steinbach, but none to Fernwald – Centre. The bus dropped me at Steinbach Hauptstrasse, which for those who know even less German than me, translates as Main Street. It is indeed the main street of the village, it has a chemists (shut), a bakery (shut) and a pub (I checked the sign outside this, open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only). Being as there was a bench by the bus stop, I sat and read for a while, and may even have dozed off for a bit. Still, when I wandered down the road to the ground, it was still 90 minutes before kick-off. I did pass the church (which I guess is open on Sundays), another shop (closed) before I got there. The gates were open, but without anyone there. I expected at least one of the club bars to be open at this time, but I was too early even for this, and there were just a couple of people setting things up. I had to wait until about one hour before kick off before anything was properly open, and for someone on the gate to be equipped with tickets and programmes. Admission was €7, the programme was an A4 monthly magazine with a one page A4 insert (in full colour) for the days match. It was, as most in German are, free of charge. The beer was cold and wet, (Weizen, if you must know).

The Steinback Sportsplatz is a basic railed off pitch, with a couple of steps of terracing on one side, and then a second pitch behind this at the higher level. The nearest thing to cover or shade was underneath the announcer’s tour. FSV Fernwald were confirmed as finishing in third place, regardless of the result of the final game. The Hessenliga is the highest level the club has even played at, (they arrived at this level in 2005). Visitors, Buchonia Flieden finished just below mid-table, and while a win could have taken them above the half way mark, there was no danger of relegation.

Played at a 3 p.m. kick off, on a hot afternoon, it should be no surprise that the game did not come to a lot. Indeed I had written it off as a dullish 0-0 draw before a home substitute scored 8 minutes from time. Three minutes later, a penalty was converted to make it 2-0. There were 180 in attendance, most of which must have arrived by car from surrounding villages. Now my original choice of Fernwald was because the next level down, Verbandsliga Hessen Mitte had chosen to kick off its matches at 5.30 p.m. For some reason, the other two Verbandsliga that make up step 6 in Hessen (Nord and Sud)had chosen 5 p.m. kick offs. This meant that there was another club, VfB 1900 Giessen within reach for an extra game. A combination of two buses, a total of over 30 minutes on the bus when one runs only at two hourly intervals was never going to achieve the transfer, so my plan was to struggle across the language barrier and ask for a taxi at Fernwald.

However, not long before kick-off, I spied the potential of being helped. At the right arrival time to have been on the later bus, the crowd was increased by a gentleman carrying a rucksack and carrier bag. A quick approach confirmed my suspicions, it was a groundhopper and Bayern München fan, by the name of Thomas. Thomas is not the standard groundhopper, as he has other interests as well. He was sandwiching these games in, between watching Bruce Springsteen concerts on both Friday and Sunday in different German cities. Appearing less organised than me, (which takes some doing), I am not certain that Thomas had found out about the difficulties in getting between grounds until arriving. Still he was agreeable over sharing a taxi, and at half time he got a home official to phone and request one for us. Almost immediately after this had been done, we spotted two other people taking photographs, and quick enquiries showed that they too were ‘hoppers, this time out of Bochum. They were driving, and had two seats free in the car – so poor Thomas went off again to ask for the taxi to be cancelled. I spotted at least one other person at the second game who had also been at Fernwald.

By car, the journey between grounds was completed in no more than 15 minutes. The Waldstadion Giessen may host football at a lower level, but it is a bigger and better ground than its neighbour. Indeed, until 2001, they played at a higher level than Fernwald. In 2001, they finished 9th in the Oberliga Hessen, then the fourth level of German football, but they hit the financial buffers and did not play at all the following season. In 2002-3, they had to restart in Kreisliga B, level 9! They were promoted in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009 although thanks to the additional level introduced in 2008 (when 3. Liga started), the 2008 promotion took them from Bezirksliga (level 7) to Gruppenliga (level 7)! In 2011, they reached promotion play offs, but failed to go up, but 2011-12 was not to be their season and the finishing position (5th) was confirmed before our visit.

It was the visitors, FC Eddersheim that needed the points. Starting the day in second place, but only one point ahead of their rivals, they needed to win to confirm second place. This would give them a play off against those in second place in the other two Verbandsliga, and FCA Darmstadt, third bottom of the Hessenliga. An added advantage was that the group of four were playing for two promotion places, thanks to the Viktoria Aschaffenburg deciding to make a geographical defection. Although within Bavaria, Aschaffenburg had been able to play in the Hessenliga on relegation to this level, which reduced their travelling, as they are not far from Frankfurt, but a long way from the major Baverian cities. Another team, FV Illertissen is making the same move from the Baden-Württemberg Oberliga. So in both these leagues, the top team, and fourth placed team gained promotion, while those in second and third were not eligible even for play offs.

The Waldstadionhas its main stand opposite where we came in, with several steps of terracing each side of the covered area. Both ends are curved to accommodate a track, and only flat pathways provide access in these areas. There are more steps of terracing on the side we entered, with a level terrace above this, and the dressing rooms and clubhouse at the back of this. Admission was €5, the programme was again a free A4 magazine, but while there was an insert to greet the visitors, it did not include match details. The team lists were provided on request, after which I pointed Thomas up to the club house, as Weizenbier was on sale upstairs, while the outside stall was offering only Lager and Sausages.

As I said, the visitors needed the points to give themselves a chance of promotion by play offs, and their star in this bid was Julien Antinac, seen here being substituted a few minutes before the game ended.

Antinac quickly made sure that the visiting supporters got their goal quota, starting after just two minutes and completing his hat-trick by the 19th minute. He added his and his team’s fourth goal early in the second half. Giessen did pull one back midway through the half to make it 4-1, but that was then end of the scoring, and there was no denying that Eddersheim were good value for their win. One win, one draw and one defeat in the three play-off games, added to a good goal difference, (the win was by 6-1), saw them promoted

From the ground, there is a regular bus service into the centre of town, where a change of vehicles took me to the station. From there, it was train to Frankfurt, and after a night’s sleep a morning flight to Heathrow. Well before kick-off, I was at Wembley for the play off final, but the following Saturday, I was back in Germany to use the remaining two days on my Rail ticket. My return into Germany, via Düsseldorf Airport was just under six days after departing from Frankfurt. This turned out to be a slow airport to get through – a queue to get the passport checked, and a long distance from the terminal to the station. I remember the airport as having a rather dingy S-Bahn station in the basement. This is still there, but with the main line just outside the airport perimeter, you now transfer to this, using the Sky Train, which like the Schwebebahn in neighboring Wuppertal is an overhead suspension monorail. As a fan of Thunderbirds, these two car units still have a long way to go!

There were several factors in decided which match I was to go to on the Saturday, many years ago while travelling on a train somewhere in Germany, I was talking to a citizen of Lüneburg, (that would be a Lüneburger, not a Lüney), and I recall being told that the town was well worth a visit. Having finally made the trip, I would not argue the point. Although an inland town, Lüneburg was a member of the Hanseatic League, and made its wealth as the main supplier of salt across the trade routes of the League.

If you are going to make the local chemist this colourful, the rest of the town had better be interesting

I am not certain what is required, apart from being a historic member of the league, for town in Germany to be referred to nowadays as Hansa, but the privilege was restored to Lüneburg in 2007. Cities such as Hamburg have long included the term in their full name. In the 1960s and 70s, the town, at the time still somewhat dilapidated in the post-war period, developed the concept of “cultural heritage conservation”, which basically meant restoring old buildings instead of just demolishing everything and building a new town, as is so familiar in much of West Germany. The idea, opposed at the time by local councillors and politicians has successfully restored the beauty of the town, and made it a centre for tourism. With the last salt mine closing in 1980, this is a useful boost to the local economy.

From the centre, it is about a 30 minute walk to the Wilschenbruch Stadion, home of what is now called Lüneburger SK Hansa. I walked through an area of normal suburban housing and then across a main road, completing the trip with a five minute walk through woodland. Indeed to one side of the road leading to the ground, there is woodland, but the other side of the ground is anything but typical suburban housing. You need to earn a few bob before you can live around here. Without the word Hansa attached to the name, the club were moderately successful in the 90s, playing in the Regionalliga, then the third level of German football. Relegated in 1997, they had an unbeaten season in the Oberliga 97-8, winning 23 of the 30 games and easily returning to the Regionalliga. Already at the time, there had been talk of the club either developing the Wilschenbruch stadium further, or moving off altogether. They finished just above mid-table the following season, but there was growing disquiet in reports both over the level of accumulated debt (close to €400,000), and the lack of progress on stadium plans. Things were to come to a head in 2001, with the club again relegated – the mounting debts forced them into administration. Most of the club’s support did not believe in a change of venue despite all this, as a photo from the time shows a banner behind the goal “We need LSK at Wilschenbruch, as much as the air to breath”, (or similar, and of course in German). From then on things move slowly. It will not be until the last shot of 2007-8 season that the name of the club is lost in a merger with Lüneburger SV. The new club is to be called FC Hansa Lüneburger. Yes, it celebrates the history of the town, but not of either football club. Fans, to say the least are not impressed.

Some of the graffiti from 2008 has been preserved.

The name will only last for three seasons and this season the club name is officially LSK Hansa, with the emphasis on the three initials rather than the word Hansa. Those that have come to the club from LSV were not impressed with this, realising that their club has lost identity and assets to the merger. The new slogan of the club is “Traditional club with Heart since 1901″ (it looks better in German), but it is still labouring the point, and gives the impression of trying to impress too much that they are LSK, not some new fangled merger. Even if they have heart, one wonders if they have lost their soul.

The Pig Supports LSK – The bad news for the pig is he adorns a Sausage stall.

The name on the club shirts, and adorned in several places around the ground is that of the builder that expects to build houses on the ground. If you ask around, though, you get the impression that no one at the club is in a hurry for this to happen. The answers are vague “two or three years” or “maybe 10 years”. One can bet that the builders are thinking somewhat sooner, whereas local residents may well be siding with the football supporters. Better to have a few hundred football fans wandering up the road every second week, than to have the green and wooded front outlook spoiled by a new development.

The ground itself remains a delight, the centre piece being the old stand, maybe too small for matches when the club was at a higher level, but now perfectly adequate for their needs.

Around most of the rest are a few steps of terracing – just close to the entrance it is flat. On the half way line opposite the stand is the announcer’s tower, with a coffee and beer bar underneath. That means that the crowd of 250 have no less than three places to buy beer, the announcer’s tower, by the sausage stall in one corner, and in the bar itself. I myself only had one beer during the game, and it had to be bought in the bar – the outside stalls only sell lager, while a bar sells a variety of beers.

The game was not a good one for the home team, they conceded a penalty on the half hour mark, and as shown here, it is scored for VfV 06 Borussia Hildesheim by Simon Blaus

The home team laboured without looking likely to get back into the game, and they conceded a second with ten minutes to play. The season did finish on a slightly more upbeat note, as they scored a late consolation, but they cannot get a point from the game.

Wilschenbruch in the Sun. From the right, one can see the old hut covered by graffiti, the main stand, the clubhouse, and by the corner, the wurst stall.

On my return to the station, I was met by a strange site. A policeman in riot gear, coming out of McDonald’s carrying a tray with four ice cream sundaes. The policeman then joined some of his colleagues. There were something like 20 police vans parked in the station, and around 80 police kitted out for a riot. I asked what was going on, and was told that with a far right march and a leftish counter march in Hamburg earlier in the day, there had been clashes, and both sides could be on the train coming in. The train I was about to board. When I voiced a bit of worry about this, I was told not to, the train might be empty. And indeed it was very quiet on board. Clearly the police knew what was going on, and knew when it was OK to just eat the ice cream and collect the overtime payment. As the train headed to Hannover, I noticed more overtime claims at every station on the route.

For Sunday, I was fortunate to be able to pick up two games in Essen, although as it turned out, there was not much football worthy of mention, and the weather was abysmal, raining quite heavily for most of the time until half time of the second game. Sunday morning games are quite common in the major cities of Germany, and Essen one of the most unexcitingly rebuilt is actually a bigger city than some of the more well known in the country.

I am now getting back to this piece, more than a month after the Sunday matches around Essen, the football is well forgotten (not being very good in the first place). The first of my two matches was SG Essen-Schönebeck 19/68 . The two numbers in the name signify that the club was formed by merger at some stage. A small amount of research shows that this was true, VfB Borbeck and SC Grün-Weiss Schönebeck merging in 2000. The clubs are more well known for their women’s football team which plays in the Women’s Bundesliga, the highest level of Football in the country. However, the men’s and women’s teams do not share a stadium, and the matchday programme I obtained for my game made no mention of a women’s team at all. Playing in the Bezirksliga, at level 8 of the German pyramid, this was one of the lowest level matches I had seen in the country.

The ground consists of an artificial surface, surrounded by a narrow two lane running track – this has a much sharper curve behind the goals than a standard track, to I am not certain of the circuit length, but it will be well under 400m. A quite wide path provides spectator provision on the entrance side, with two shelters (looking suspiciously like surplus bus shelters) sitting at the back of the area. The only way to get any sort of view from these was to stand on the benches and try and view over the umbrellas on the sidelines. The dressing room and club room buildings are joined on the upper floor, forming a bridge over the access way to a second, back pitch, (grass surface). Despite the rain and the early start, there was an outside barbeque serving the standard bratwurst, and a separate window off one of the buildings selling coffee and confectionery. I estimated the crowd at 150 (€4 entry, programmes free), although the official figure was around half this.

The visitors, SuS Haarzopf needed to win this match to confirm themselves as champions of the division on the day, although with two games to play, they could “do it in singles” with a point this week and next. By half time it looked as if they were getting their way. By half time, it appeared that they would win on the day, 1-0 up but comfortable, and a foolish second booking meant the home side had been reduced to 10 men. It turned out to be a frustrating second half for Haarzopf, comfortably on top, but never scoring again, and then conceding an equaliser 12 minutes from time. As it happened, other results favoured Haarzopf, who were handed the title by way of the afternoon results.

SGS Essen-Schönebeck 19/68 v SuS Haarzopf, 1-1, the home team in blue.

From there I retraced my steps back to Essen Hauptbahnhof, met up with Nick who had been to a different early kick off, and found the bus to Stadion Uhlenkrug, home of ETB Schwarz-Weiss Essen. A slightly unusual name, ETB is Essener Turnerbund, so the place name Essen gets mentioned twice in the club name. In recent history, Schwarz-Weiss have taken place in football within the city to Rot-Weiss – and with so many other football teams easily reached in the Ruhr, Rot-Weiss are not one of the best known teams in the area, spending only 7 seasons in the Bundesliga, and generally playing at second and third level, although recent financial problems have seen them drop to the level 4 Regionalliga. Schwarz-Weiss are only one level lower, but by the time we went there, they had already blown any slight chance of joining Rot-Weiss. The re-organisation of the leagues had allowed 7 teams to make the move upwards, including some play offs to give the champions of local leagues a chance. It was FC Kray from the Eastern of the city suburbs that took this chance and who now play a level above Schwarz-Weiss.

Schwarz-Weiss won the DFB Pokal (German Cup) in 1959. This was four years before the start of the Bundesliga, when the top flight of German football was still regionalised, and SW Essen were the first team from outside the top division to win the cup. This is the highpoint of the club’s history. They remained second level when the Bundesliga started, and played in the second Bundesliga after it started in 1974, but fell out of the second level soon afterwards (1978). In their heydays, the grass banks you can see above the terracing and to the left of it were all given over to terraces.

As you can see, the large bowl of a ground has a track, but it still has the feel of a proper football ground, and the stand provided a good watching point for a poor game in which SW Essen beat VfB Speldorf 1-0. It was €6 to get in, and the crowd amounted to 788. A newspaper style programme covered several games


…and Finally

Schwarz-Weiss Essen did not turn out to be my last game of the season, as two weeks later I took a car load to France to see the final of the Coupe de la Ligue Nord pas de Calais. Although I have paid little attention to this in the past, it appears that each of the French regions runs some type of local cup. Some, such as this one appear to be limited to teams playing at local levels, while others, such as Corsica also involve teams from CFA and CFA2 at least.

The match we saw was US St. Maurice Loos-en-Gohelle against AC Cambrai, and took place against the background of some quite tall slag heaps in this strong mining area. What appears to be hills on the club banner, are in fact slag heaps.

The reality is almost as impressive.

USSM play in Division Honneur Regionale Nord pas de Calais, one division below their opponents, AC Cambrai. Around 600 people, including 2 car loads from England paid €3 to enter the ground. There was no programme. The ground is quite basic, but at least is not a running track. The spectator areas are level standing except a small stand. The home side went ahead midway through the first half, but held the lead for only a minute. Sadly, this was the greatest excitement, and the game turned to drab as the second half wore on and extra time became more and more inevitable

As per the French cup, it appears competition sponsors provide the kit, and both clubs showed the same sponsor’s name on their shirts, and no club badges. The home team are in Red

There is a clubhouse, and stalls had been set up to provide the crowds, (some of which had been there all afternoon, watching the women’s equivalent competition first) with food and drink. In the penalty shoot out, Cambrai won 3-2

What’s the Big Idea

July 1st, 2012

While UEFA’s executive met in Kiev this week, they could congratulate themselves on another successful tournament, far from the worst fears (or wishes) of the BBC’s Panorama.

It has not been without incident, but overall the football has shone above other concerns. The legacy is eight large stadia, many of which will rarely be filled again, built at great expense to local taxpayers, during a recession.

In better economic times, UEFA had decided to expand the tournament. There will be 24 teams contesting Euro 2016 in France – France also staged the finals (which meant four games then, semi-finals, 3rd/4th play off and Final) of the initial tournament back in 1960. On that occasion, there were only 17 teams in contention. Although Ireland played (and were knocked out in the preliminary round), there was no British participation, except Arthur Ellis refereeing the final.

For 2016, France is a safe pair of hands, there is no need to build many new stadiums after a recent World Cup there. The new stadiums in Lille and Nice were long overdue anyway, but UEFA were supposed to announce the bidding process for 2020 during the Kiev meeting, and there was a problem.

The problem was, there were only three bids, and none were ideal. Turkey had come close in the voting for 2016, and is still the favourite, but they would need to work on improving stadiums, and the country’s infrastructure is not well suited to the influx of fans. Past problems between Turkish fans and visitors during club matches, and an ongoing corruption scandal that sees some Turkish teams unable to compete in Europe do not help any Turkish bid, but the biggest problem is that Istanbul is a very plausible candidate for the 2020 Olympics, and staging the Olympics and the Euros in the same summer may is surely beyond any country’s capacity.

The alternatives are the Celtic (capital C) bid of Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, or a hastily prepared by Georgia and Azerbaijan. Only the first of this pair put in a bid on time, with Azerbaijan adding their name after Baku had failed to make the Olympic short list. (International sports organisations find it difficult to work together, so UEFA had a deadline to submit bids of 15 May 2012, while the IOC announced their shortlist (Madrid, Tokyo and Istanbul) eight days later. Apart from Baku, the other city whose candidature ended in May was Doha, Qatar.

And so UEFA have ratified the idea of a pan-European tournament. Having launched the idea in his pre-finals speech, Platini is claiming it as his own, and it may well be. IN an earlier speech he floated the suggestion that the 2022 World Cup could be pan-Arabia, rather than limited to the single state of Qatar.

What Platini suggested was that 12-13 stadiums could bid to stage around 4 games each in a 24 or 32 country (yes, he did suggest 32), tournament. Going by the current favoured formats, of dividing the teams into groups of 4, and then a knock out section for the final 16 teams, (it would be 16 from either 24 or 32), then a 24 team tournament requires 51 matches, and for 32 teams, you need 63.

Platini’s assertion that the travel across Europe is made easier by the new low cost airlines suggests that he has seen them advertised, but never tried to book flights himself. For example, Wizz Air provides flights between London and Kiev, and will sell me a ticket booked a month in advance for around £200 return. I could have bought a ticket to the Euro final ten days before it was played. The match ticket was not expensive, but Wizz Air wanted over £500 for the return flight. Regular supporters of England or of clubs who use these airlines to travel abroad know that it is imperative to book quickly, and many are hovering over their computers as soon as the draws are made.

But this does not mean Platini’s ideas are without merit. To build more stadiums which are not required by the domestic game, and therefore have no use after the tournament is madness – even in good economic times, while UEFA’s baseline for a tournament (2×50,000 seat stadiums, 3×40,000 and 4×30,000) can only be met by a small number of elite countries. Glancing at the current lisitng for the Turkish Superlig, it has three stadiums over 50,000 but no more over 40,000 and only two at 30,000+. All the first three, and one of the others is in Istanbul. Azerbaijan and Georgia are in a similar position with 50,000+ national stadiums in both capitals, but then the next best in each country holds just 30,000.

I do not believe a pan European tournament randomly selected could work, no country’s supporters could follow their team if the matches were in Gdansk, Glasgow and Geneva within a week, but if we looked at it another way, and said that Group A was, for example to be shared between Hamburg and Berlin, Group B between Glasgow and Dublin, Group C Zurich and Geneva, Group D Barcelona and Madrid, Group E Baku and Tblisia, Group F St Petersburg and Helsinki, then this could work. Each of the stadiums gets at least three matches, with one of each pair staging a first round knock out game as well.

Under this plan, the first knock out round is on a weekend (maybe Friday through to Monday), with the quarter finals the following weekend (Saturday and Sunday) either on four stadiums in a single country, or at least neighbouring. The teams then stay in the same neighbourhoods for the midweek semi-final games, and the final on the next Sunday.

The biggest difficulty with this idea, and with any other realisation of the Platini suggestion is in making sure the ticket sales kept up well. A series of matches pairing Portugal, Czech Republic, Greece and Serbia might not pack them in, in downtown Baku. It may be necessary to have a series of potential hosts waiting, but none announced for this stage until the 24 teams are known, so as each pair of cities includes a local “host”.

Meanwhile, Platini has made another point, and while I agree with the point made, I would take the opposite conclusion. Platini has said he is opposed to the use of technology because it would in time be more and more invasive. I agree, it will be, but I do not believe the game can stand still. It is no good for television audiences across Europe to see decisions questioned and shown to be wrong on a weekly basis. Platini is right to say that the officials made two mistakes, not one in not awarding Ukraine a goal against England. The ball did cross the line, but a player was offside.

I am unconvinced about the goal line technology only because I am unconvinced about it working, but I am sure that this can be successfully introduced, it will be the thin edge of a wedge, with offside decisions coming next under TV scrutiny and others in time.


Eurotour 2012 – Part 2, Scandic.

May 25th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The footpath behind the main stand!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eurotour 2012, Part 1 – Austria.

May 22nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05.06 – bus is on time!

05.30 – Arrive Heathrow

05.45 – Clear security (no queue)

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

11.30 (Austrian Time). Arrive Vienna

12.18 First train – S Bahn towards town

12.39 Switch to another S-Bahn line

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

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

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

16.30 – Leave Graz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating in the now familiar style.

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

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

Simmering take the lead with an early penalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Stadlau!

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

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

An Admira Technopool free kick blocked by the wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Salzburg fans bask in the Sunshine.

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

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

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