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  • Blog Entries

    • By tm4tj in Football adventures with James Rendall
         0
      The six venues chosen for this summer’s U21 European Championships in Italy is a curious mix, strandling two countries too! The North East pairing of the Friulian cities of Udine and Trieste are quite a distance from the other four. Reggio Emilia and Bologna form the “central” pairing, but it is the appointment of fourth tier stadiums at Cesena and San Marino, acting as the “southern” venues that might have been the surprise picks! Part of this article was penned for Football Weekends embellished with anecdotes of my travels to the latter duo for football.
      CESENA
      Had Cesena (pronounced ch-zane-A) been hosting last summer, the town might have been a little gloomy in outlook as AC Cesena went bust having been party to an inflated transfer fee scandal in an attempt to balance the books. A two league demotion, and the subtle alteration to Cesena FC later, the club are on the way back, promoted as Champions from the fourth tier. They were once held in highest regard, perceived to be well run with a conveyor belt of talent youth system, but it will take time to remove the tarnished reputation outwith the local area.
      The town has a population of just under 100,000, but given it is host to a sizeable part of the University of Bologna’s curriculum, it can have a distinctly youthful and busy feel. The quaint Piazza Popolo is the centrepiece of the town. Here you will find restaurants, a bar and an ice cream parlour. One side of piazza has a high wall which is the periphery of the Rocco Malatestiana, accessed through the arched tunnel on the piazza near the fountain, then up and up to the hilltop fortress.
      The Stadio Dino Manuzzi is named after a famous son of Cesena calcio from yesteryear. Having hosted Serie A football less than a decade ago, the Manucci was always going to be too big for Serie D with its 23,900 capacity, but the fans stayed loyal throughout a troubled year. It is a fabulous stadium, one worthy of International occasions, albeit with an artificial pitch. It is about a twenty to thirty minute walk from the railway or bus station, as they are opposite each other. From the road outside the railway station, turn left and follow it a few hundred yards to a small roundabout where the road  goes slightly left, but you want to turn right, and head up in this direction for half a kilometre or so. You will eventually come to a busy thoroughfare crossing your path, here you want to turn left and follow it until the stadium appears, complete with a sizeable seahorse, the clubs emblem in the middle of a grassy roundabout just outside. In the vicinity you will find two or three small bars and a cafe or two as well. When Cesena are at home catering vans appear to add alternatives to the grub available, but as to whether they will be on hand for these games I am unsure.
      The Seahorse is a curious emblem for a landlocked town and club, but Cesenatico, some 10 kilometres away is considered the beach extension of Cesena. There is no railway link between the two, and if using such transportation Cesenatico is easier reached by train from Rimini, about 25 minutes away. It is a fine resort, with wonderful restaurants on the river side that runs through the town and doubles up as the harbour for its fishing fleet too, so guess what is very fresh and in abundance! At the Cesenatico railway station you will find a wonderful museum to the great Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, a local lad. Cesenatico have their own team, but in mid-June only the conclusion of the third tier play offs might still be rumbling on from the domestic game!
      Cesena traditionally make periodic appearances in the top flight and were last promoted to Serie A in 2010 which was a fourth promotion to the top table for a club only founded in 1940! The high point was in 75/76 with a 6th place finish in Serie A being good enough to qualify for Europe, where they suffered a round one exit in the UEFA Cup against then East German side Magdeburg, losing 4-3 on aggregate but they gave it a real go having lost the first leg away 3-0! They became only the second Emilia side to play in Europe, and 40 years on, only Parma and Sassuolo have been added to that roster!! But the aforementioned sides have perhaps rumbled Cesena’s status as once being the second team of the region behind Bologna!
      I first stepped off a train in Cesena in June 1987 to see the “Seahorses” play, it was my first game in Italy, and one of the first clubs in the country for whom I had a passion! If Como were the first, by virtue of being in the city the night Italy won the World Cup, Cesena were second, an intriguing name at the bottom of the clubs in the Subbuteo catalogue for white top and black shorts, listed under West Germany, Derby, Hereford and Ayr, but of course I was going to be drawn to Cesena!! Thinking back, it was incredible we got tickets but having arrived 6 hours before kick off we went straight to the stadium to get our briefs as promotion to Serie A was on that day! The stadium was absolutely full, the last game in the ground with the enormously high and bouncing temporary stands, before it was very quickly reconstructed to its magnificent present day look! A 2-1 win versus Catania didn’t get them up automatically that day as other results hadn’t all gone their way, but they did make it up via a convoluted three way play off, with a “final” play off win 2-1 against Lecce in San Benedetto del Tronto!
      I have had the pleasure of four subsequent matches in Cesena over the intervening years which capture the see-saw fortunes of the club. I earned my stripes with third tier action v Pro Sesto (2008), Serie B versus Bari (2006) and Serie A v Inter (2011) which saw another full house and a very memorable match! Cesena were leading right until the end, when two late strikes from the visitors broke the bianconeri hearts! In April 2017 Brescia were in town for a mid week league fixture, and while both clubs have Serie A pedigree,  they were both struggling to make it clear of the relegation zone. I know Brescia is a fair distance from Cesena for a midweek game, but it was surprising to see no away fans, after all, these two clubs have “fan” friendship! Indeed, the local Ultras were operating a first half protest of their own, with their “zone” empty and no singing. Cesena played relaxed and well to the polite applause of a sizeable crowd, and deserved the lead at the break. Protest over, the tape was removed and the Ultras banners were swaying and the atmosphere returned to normality, but oddly their first ditty was “Brescia, Brescia”, an acknowledgement of their absence friends! Brescia had upped their game and were much more menacing and got the equaliser. Cesena pressed for a winner and despite some terrific near things that came and went, we all trotted out after a 1-1 draw!
      The sad footnote to all of this was the clubs involvement in an accountancy scam with Chievo Verona, where an inflated transfer fee, subsequently rumbled it created a cataclysmic sized debt. They have waded their way past Forli and tidily Santarcangelo in derby matches en route to the third tier next term, where Imolese, Ravenna and Rimini will be lying in wait for derby games too, a far cry from the once great regional top derby, Cesena v Bologna, which is still a few seasons off yet, sadly!
      SAN MARINO
      The inclusion of San Marino on the roster of venues is a wonderful touch, and a boost for the Most Serene Republic of San Marino as the hilltop state can be known! The country is named after a stonemason from the island of Rab in modern day Croatia! Saint Marinus moved to Rimini with his chums, but his sermons were continually being persecuted so he fled to nearby Mount Titano, where the Republic founded as early as 301!! Gradually surrounding areas joined and the land area grew, albeit it is still a miniscule country with a very small population of just 33,300, and flat land is very much at a real premium.
      Right up at the top of hill is the “city” of San Marino, and what a wonderful place it is too. This is the real tourist hub of the country, as well as its economic and governmental powerhouse. It’s tight streets are full of souvenir shops, as well as San Marino labelled goods similar those you’d get elsewhere but at a fraction of the cost, and probably a lesser quality too. Bars and restaurants abound as you wind up to the very top, the fortress, Guaita at the summit of Mount Titano. The views from here on a clear day will allow sight of Rimini and the Adriatic Sea as well as the surrounding, distinctly flat lands of Emilia-Romagna.      
      The San Marino national side have hit rock bottom, now allegedly the worst International team in the world, but are they really worse than Guam, or American Samoa? Pleasingly they have abandoned their dark blue kit, and reverted to the classic light blue original, having given up on the notion that the darker shade would mean they’d be taken more seriously!
      One of the last areas to join the Republic just over 500 years ago was Serravalle. This area at the base of the hill, almost the first place you come through after the border, and before the winding route to the top. If you are coming to San Marino by public transport, you need to catch the Bonelli Bus Company bus from Rimini. There stop is just across the road from the railway station, 50 yards to the right, but the first of a variety of bus stops lined up on that side of the street. The majority of the tourist on the bus will be going to the final stop right up at San Marino town, but if you are merely going for the game and don’t fancy a lengthy walk down the hill, make sure they let you off at Serravalle. The stadium is just off the road to the right, hidden behind trees down in a hollow. I stayed in a hotel just above the stadium when I was at a game here in 2007, so local options to stay are available.
      The ground is now known as the San Marino stadium, essentially it is just two stands running the length of the pitch with a running track around it. With a capacity of just 6,664 it is by some distance the smallest stadium hosting U21 action. Aside from the national side, San Marino calcio, the Italian fourth tier league side also play here, as well as some big matches from the local league. It is debatable as to whether the locals will embrace this tournament, but I hope they do, as it is a rare opportunity for San Marino to host such an event, and for them to perhaps see goals scored by both participating International teams for a change!   
      My sole endeavour to watch a game in San Marino was in May 1991 but it turned out to be a bit of a disaster! I thought I was doing the right thing, checking into a Serravalle hotel for two nights either side of an International with Bulgaria, positively glowing having seen Ancona beat Ascoli in the big Marche derby 2-0 at a jam packed Stadio Dorico before heading north. The night before the game I strolled down to stadium, pretty much a one stand arena in those days, but it was all locked up, and no posters were visible suggesting the kick off time. These were the days long before “apps” that would resolve such a query immediately, and on game day I became more and more perplexed, no one in the hotel or any given establishment in the town had a clue when the kick off was scheduled. I suspect a lot didn’t even know there was an International! The only plausible explanation came from a chap who had a perfectly valid theory! Inter Milan were playing Roma in the UEFA Cup Final that night at 8,45pm, so a 6pm kicked off down in Serravalle would allow everyone to get home in time for that final. I bought it, and ambled down the winding way from San Marino town to the ground. I arrived about 5,45pm and surprisingly it was a case of just walking in, no one was looking for cash! A few hundred people were already in the ground, and shortly after taking a seat, the teams trotted out. Maybe ten minutes later something struck me, they hadn’t stood for the National Anthems, and an enquiry of a chap behind me brought the news, this was the second half, with Bulgaria already leading 2-0!! It wasn’t much more than a training exercise, you’ve seen the film, San Marino sitting deep and hoping for the final whistle without being humiliated. They merely lost a third from the penalty spot, but against Stoichkov, Kostadinov and Letchkov a 3-0 loss was a bit of a result!
      I am staying in Rimini for two weeks over the next International weekend in June and I had hoped that I could have added a full 90 minutes to my San Marino CV, but it transpires they are away for both fixtures in order to prepare the stadium for hosting the U21 Championships. Thankfully this takes place after we have departed as otherwise Rimini might have been busier in June than one would wish for a quiet, relaxing holiday!  
       
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    • By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's Toepoker
         0
      Four years ago Falkirk were preparing for a Scottish Cup Final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
        Three years ago they came mightily close to promotion to the Premiership, losing the playoff final to Kilmarnock despite a first leg lead.   Two years ago they came second in the Championship and got another pop at the playoffs.   Today, they are preparing for life in League One.   There have been no financial problems, no administrations, no unusual or unforeseen mitigating circumstances. Falkirk's relegation to the third tier is a culmination of two years of mistake after mistake at every level.

      Rangers' struggle up from League Two, laced with either farce or fiasco at almost every turn, became colloquially known as 'The Banter Years'. Falkirk have just had one of their own. And as a result a club with bigger home crowds than St. Johnstone and a higher turnover than Hamilton Accies are now facing away days at Peterhead and Stranraer next season.

      For fans of smaller clubs, it's been a great source of tedium and frustration to hear journalists bemoan the absence of 'big' teams from the Premiership - as if average attendance should somehow be taken into account when deciding promotion and relegation. With Hearts, Rangers and Hibernian having extricated themselves from the Championship, Dundee United are the biggest fish left in this pond. Falkirk, who last played in the top flight in 2010, are not in the same financial league as these clubs. However, given that the likes of Hamilton Accies and Livingston are currently amongst the elite and that in the last nine seasons Inverness, Ross County, Partick Thistle and other 'diddy clubs' have had long spells in the Premiership, there isn't a bigger side that has been stuck in the lower divisions for as long.

      Falkirk's relegation to the then-First Division in 2010 led to a big emphasis on bringing through youth. First Steven Pressley and then Gary Holt were unable to get them promoted - they finished third in the table four consecutive times - but they did develop an impressive group of academy graduates: Blair Alston, Botti Biabi, Ryan Blair, Jay Fulton, Tony Gallacher, Stephen Kingsley, Conor McGrandles, Stewart Murdoch, Craig Sibbald and Murray Wallace all went on to leave for bigger and better things and often for a decent transfer fee (Blair, Fulton, Gallacher, Kingsley and Wallace for six figure sums, McGrandles for a reported £1m). Luke Leahy, Peter Grant and Will Vaulks were youngsters plucked out of nowhere and developed into very decent players.

      Holt left in the summer of 2014 to join Norwich City's coaching team. The appointment of the much older Houston seemed on the face of it to be a change of direction but he continued the work of his predecessors. Getting to another cup final was a considerable achievement. So too was beating Hibs in the playoffs the next season (before the defeat to Killie) and finishing ahead of Dundee United in the league the year after.    It all started going downhill after that, though pinpointing why is not easy. It's not as if there was huge upheaval in the playing squad in the 2017 summer transfer window. Perhaps, as sometimes happens, things just got a bit stale. Houston and his players seemed to have picked up where they left off with four wins out of four in their League Cup group, including an away win over newly relegated Inverness Caley Thistle.   Yet they managed just three points from their opening seven league games and on 26 September Houston was dismissed. The board, afraid of being cut adrift from the promotion race so early in the campaign acted swiftly. It turned out that was the least of their worries.  
      Houston was replaced by Paul Hartley, who had won the Championship with Dundee back in 2014. In the meantime the Bairns had picked up their first league win of the season under caretaker management. They would not win again until 30 December. Bottom spot was never a realistic possibility - Brechin City's record-setting incompetence made sure of that - but a relegation playoff spot was a real worry. Thankfully things clicked in the new year. Falkirk picked up a very respectable 33 points in the second half of the season, compared to 14 points from their first 18 games. That was still only good enough for eighth (it would have been enough for fifth this season!) but it offered encouragement to the board that Hartley was on the right track.
        That'll be why they let him sign sixteen players last summer.


      The overhaul was carried out with the assistance of Richard Mitchell, formerly head of recruitment at Ross County, who was brought in to scout players primarily from England's lower leagues and find some cheap rough diamonds to polish. Ideally the youth academy would have produced some too...but in December 2017 the club closed it with virtually no prior warning. Despite the impressive output of previous years, it was claimed that it cost too much and that, unless players were sold for significant money each season, it was too much of a risk. The club also stated that the money could be used to concentrate on the first team.

      Hence Hartley's summer shopping spree. Of those sixteen players signed, only four remained after January 2019 and just two - Paul Paton and Deimantas Petravicius - were first team regulars. If there was a strategy to the signings it remains unclear. On the face of it, it seems no more clever than throwing mud at a wall and hoping some of it stuck.

      Hartley's tenure was over by the end of August. By that point Falkirk had lost at home to Montrose in the League Cup, toiled to a narrow win against Rangers Colts in the Challenge Cup and lost their first three games of the league season in increasingly hapless fashion. The last of those was a 3-0 drubbing at home to Queen of the South. Stephen Dobbie scored a hat-trick for the visitors, and might have had double that. The shot count after 90 minutes was an extraordinary 27-3 in favour of the Doonhamers. It was the sort of performance and result that gets managers sacked on its own...and so it was for Hartley.

      To their credit, the powers that be identified their candidate to replace him soon enough. The trouble was that Ray McKinnon had taken the Morton job a few months earlier. That didn't put the club, or McKinnon himself, off though - to the fury of his current employers he walked out to take over at the Falkirk Stadium. Falkirk would be fined £40,000 by the SPFL as a result, as well as having to pay compensation to Morton. The history books will not show that it was worth it.


      In mid-September a rather bullish Q&A with the chairman was published on the club website. "We have been in the Championships too long. Playoffs and finishing second are not good enough", it was stated. As for the current campaign, "the playoffs remain our aspiration".

      At the time, Falkirk were bottom and were still to score a point. A few days earlier, in McKinnon's second game in charge, they had blown a 2-0 half time lead at Ayr United and lost 3-2, the winning goal coming when in a goalmouth scramble a clearance hit prostrate keeper Leo Fasan on the back and ricocheted into the net. Unfortunately, there was plenty of farce still to come.

      By the end of September they did get off the mark with a win at Alloa, but whilst there were occasional signs of life - a combative draw with Ross County and a smash-and-grab win at Dunfermline - by the end of November they were still bottom. The Scottish Cup offered a distraction, but not a welcome one, as they were humiliated by local neighbours Stenhousemuir 4-2 in a stark example of how the players were neither good enough nor motivated enough. Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, striker Dennon Lewis reported that he was racially abused during the match by his own fans.

      It won't have helped matters that McKinnon was never shy about the need to bring in new faces; the knowledge that most of the squad were unwanted would not have done morale much good. And so in January, with the club still bottom of the league, in came another twelve players. Most of the summer duds were punted, with some having been paid to go away even before then. One shudders to think how much it has cost the club to 'mutually consent' so many.

      But the influx of new talent seemed to have done the trick. An eight match unbeaten run between January and March yielded sixteen precious points. Not only were they out of the bottom two, but they were only eight points off fourth with nine games left. Maybe September's predictions weren't so ridiculous after all?

      Nah. They would win only twice more.


      The unbeaten run came to an end at Ross County, but was followed up with three draws. The second of those, up in Inverness, was a 0-0 bore-draw where McKinnon, who had hardly been adventurous tactically since his arrival, sent his team out to frustrate rather than attack. Their only shot on target came in injury time. The plan was clearly to grind out results.

      Next was a Tuesday night trip to Dumfries. With the match goalless after 90 minutes, Falkirk won a stoppage time penalty. Davis Keillor-Dunn converted it and raced towards the away support, sparking a pitch invasion which took a few minutes to clear. Keillor-Dunn was shown a second yellow card and dismissed. There was sufficient time added on that Queen of the South got a soft penalty of their own and nicked a draw, robbing the Bairns of two precious points. Queen of the South would finish the season ninth, above Falkirk on goal difference.

      Then they went and lost at home to Alloa, despite dominating the second half with the score at 1-1. Alloa were winning games. So were Partick Thistle. By the time Falkirk starting doing so it was too late. Victory over Championship winners Ross County on final day wasn't enough. And so they'll drop into the third tier for the first time in 39 years.


      It is easy to see how this happened. The board made poor managerial appointments in times of crisis. Those managers in turn recruited appallingly, looking for quick fixes to their crises. It seems like the panic button was pressed in the autumn of 2017 and the finger was never lifted.

      And yet it would not be hard to see the Dunfermlines, the Partick Thistles, the Invernesses of Scottish football suffering similar fates. Being in a ten team league where ambitions are high and patience is low and money is tight means there is rarely if ever time for a blueprint for the future to be drawn up, let alone seen through. It's quite possible Falkirk will not be the last full-time club to meet this fate.

      As for their fans, there is some solace to be found a little further along the M9. Livingston were relegated to League One in 2016. Two years later they completed back-to-back promotions, and this year they are a comfortable ninth in the Premiership. Maybe the only way is up?

        Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.  
      View the full article
       
    • By tm4tj in Football adventures with James Rendall
         0
      Click to view slideshow.
      It is often said that a game under the lights adds a certain extra special element to the experience. This is a cliche trotted out at a variety of venues, along with the notion European nights are even better. Whether any such thoughts are even vaguely true would require experience of both at any given stadium to know for sure. I consider myself very lucky to have watched as much football in so many corners of the globe as I have, but the volume of different grounds would have been double the 250+ if it wasn’t for my support attaching to certain clubs away from my principal passion, Inverness Caledonian Thistle. That said, having a morsel of involvement for one of the participants is much better from an entertainment perspective than merely just turning up to tick a box of another ground for mw at any rate. if I wasn’t drawn back to certain places, I wouldn’t have experienced three games in the Bentegodi, Verona! The spectacular third demise of Ancona has allowed me a greater exploration of other favoured teams, but as they continue to recover under Anconitana, recently promoted to the 5th tier, the Marche Eccellenza awaits next season, where I would hope to get back on the Conero’s Curva Nord terraces as I did the last time they went bust!
      Verona lures visitors to the city everyday by the thousands. The fabled balcony of Juillet is a major attraction for the young backpacking crowd, but the city holds so much more intrigue and beauty than this overcrowd balustrade. With a population of just short of 260,000 it is a reasonable size, and the centre has UNESCO World Heritage status. It is a wonderful place, with it’s complete Roman Arena, still used to host outdoor concerts and opera productions. The narrow pedestrian shopping thoroughfare through towards the balcony is always crowded unless you arrive early. Many of the visitors will turn right at the bottom of this street en route to paying homage to love, but turning left brings you to my favourite part of Verona, Piazza Erbe. It is a spectacularly well preserved ancient square, bustling with market life and cafe’s. A walk to Castel San Pietro will be rewarded with wonderful panoramic views of the city and the Adige river.  
      A certain fascination with Hellas started for me in the ‘80’s when they won Serie A just after I started really following the Italian scene. It was a rare shot in the arm for the “smaller” team and Veneto football in general. It remains the regions only ever Scudetto! Then Tim Parks’ fabulous book “A Season with Verona” followed the infamous Brigate Gialloblu up and down the world of Serie B. It was a fascinating read of a somewhat rogue fan base in a seemingly sophisticated city! The title of the book really should have been,  “A Season in Hellas” rather than Verona, but in 2002 when it was published he might just have got away with it as The Flying Donkey’s of Chievo hadn’t taken off at that time! The situation has muddied even more now with the recent introduction of a third Verona team to the league, Virtus Vecomp Verona, who debuted in Serie C this season.
      Chievo have steered a more consistent path in Serie A almost since Tim’s book was written, and despite being an upstart wee suburb of the city, they are cohabiting the Bentegodi. While Hellas were fluffing their lines and ploughing a furrow as low as the third tier, Chievo were banging out continuous Serie A campaigns, if stultifyingly dull ones. I guess many years before, Sampdoria’s rise started to eat into Genoa’s monopoly in the Ligurian capital, and Sassuolo’s continued lofty vantage point these days has caused Reggiana to struggle and ultimately implode, despite Sassuolo being a small town well outside Reggio Emilia, who merely moved into town originally to get a big enough stadium for the top two divisions. They have become part of the Serie A furniture, and they even own the stadium in Reggio now. Older fans will always stay loyal, but younger fans might be drawn to the higher league team just by virtue of the greater exposure and bigger named visiting sides. However, despite only fleeting returns to Serie A, Hellas will always be the biggest Veronese club. Chievo have never won the majority of the city over, and they are struggling to recover from a significant points deduction start to this season, caught with their fingers in an accounting scam transfer that tipped the other guilty party, Cesena into bankruptcy, while the Flying Donkey’s are going back to Serie B! Hellas will still be hoping of crossing over with Chievo and step up, if not automatically now, then through the play offs, claiming the rightful crown as the kings of Verona once more in terms of league status, as well as on fan base!
      Hellas meaning Greece is undoubtedly an unusual name, but it is a nod to the founding fathers of civilisation rather than the clubs founding fathers. Disappointingly they weren’t started by a bunch of Greek philosophers, walking around in white toga and scrolls tucked under their arms! No Hellas hail merely from a group of students in 1903, and the name  merely came along at the insistence of their “Classics” teacher! A sophisticated city like Verona took a little time to warm to the beautiful game, and it needed an exhibition game between two local sides in that marvellous Roman Arena three years later before a whiff of enthusiasm lit the touch paper to the notion of acceptance. The intrigue surrounding the club goes beyond the club name though, as you’d expect the stadium to be named after an ex-player, but no! Bentegodi were the team to beat at local level in the early days, and as the idea of an Italian league structure came along in the ‘20’s, it was thought Verona would have a better chance of success if the three bigger teams of the city merged to form AC Verona, Hellas, Bentegodi and Scaligera all came together at in 1929. Despite the greater synergy (oddly Hellas’ shirt sponsor this season!) it took 28 Serie B seasons before AC Verona  finally were promoted to Serie A in 1957/58, and even then it was merely for a taster one season. Somewhere in those three decades another Hellas had been started and following AC’s relegation back to B the newer version of Hellas merged with the more established club in 1959. With two of the four constituent parts of the merged clubs now being Hellas based, a desire to bring back the essence of that part of the merger to the club won the day and Hellas Verona AC became the name which largely stands today, aside from the Hellas name disappearing fleetingly in the early ‘90’s for four years through that familiar old tale, bankruptcy, when AC also morphed into FC!
      It is wonderful that the Bentegodi name survives if merely in the title of the Municipal owned Verona stadium, now shared by Hellas and Chievo, but the name Scaligera has disappeared almost completely, other than being one of the clubs nicknames, Gli Scaligeri! But the local basketball team keep Scaligera alive!  Once they’d dipped a toe outwith the city into the regional set up, a fierce rivalry was quickly established with Vicenza, a friction that continues to this day. You are more likely to see the Brigate Gialloblu getting het up by an encounter with the team 57 kilometres along the road, than playing Chievo. History leaves it mark, and it takes decades for mindsets to change, if ever, when it comes rivalries.   
      Having merely sampled top flight football for one season, it took ten years for the club to be back there under the guidance of Swedish legend Niels Lindholm. This time they were to establish themselves at the top table in a spell of Serie A football that would last until 1990, save one season, 1973/74 when they were sent down despite being safe due to a scandal involving the then club President! When Osvaldo Bagnoli arrived as coach in the early ‘80’s they were getting in amongst the big boy with a couple of Coppa Italia final appearances, one was a narrow 3-2 aggregate loss to Juventus, having led 2-0 from the home first leg. Despite losing Hellas got it’s first European experience going down to Sturm Graz the following season, as well as an even closer, more heartbreaking late Coppa Italia Final defeat, 1-0 to Roma.
      All of these near scrapes were merely leading up to the historic 1984/85 campaign, when Hellas had one helluva team! A team full of names to conjure with for tifosi of a certain vintage; Antonio Di Gennaro the midfield magician, who was complimented upfront by Giuseppe Galderisi’s eye for goal and his imposing strike partner, the Great Dane, Preben Elkjaer. The supply of ammunition for the goals came via the wing wizardry of Pietro Fanna, and the defence was aided by the arrival of the immense German, Hans-Peter Briegel. These were days when you could only have two “stranieri” (foreigners) and Hellas had chosen well. An early season 2-0 win at Juventus signalled intent, and beating Roma added belief, but the crucial point was delivered not too far away from Verona in Bergamo in a 1-1 draw with Atalanta. A European Cup campaign followed and having got by PAOK Thessaloniki in the first round, they lucked out drawing Juventus next, and they were out. These were the glorious days when only the Champions of each nation and defending winners could participate, long before money and corporate greed took over!
      Interestingly, the top four in ‘84/85 were Hellas, Torino, Inter and Sampdoria! This was not a typical top of the table, and it coincided with a season where the officials were randomly drawn rather than appointed! Sadly, it was obviously all too much for some to stomach with regular selection methods being re-instigated the following season, and normal service was resumed at the top end of the table, sadly!
      This one Scudetto was the pinnacle for Hellas, as the players aged or left, but not before a European high of a Quarter Final in the UEFA Cup in 1988 versus Werder Bremen. It would be a last hoorah before relegation in 1990. The subsequent three decades have been volatile, with occasional visits back to Serie A, but more depressingly, bankruptcy in 1991 a legacy of overstretching to try to keep the side jousting at the top of Serie A in a new era where sadly moderate sized clubs were starting to struggle as money took control. As mentioned the name Hellas disappeared until 1995, but having got the name back the woes weren’t over as the club started to really struggle to keep Serie B status. Five thousand travelled to Como to see them survive one season, but by now it was becoming routine and the unthinkable happened when they lost a Play Out to Spezia, and after 64 years the club was in the third tier for 2007/08. Just when you thought the club had hit rock bottom they had a shocking first half of the Serie C campaign that saw some chap called Maurizio Sarri sacked as the club were bottom! The recovery was slow and ultimately only a 2-1 aggregate win versus Pro Patria Aurora saved the fourth tier! No one could say the fans had deserted the ship, as crowds remained strong with a 15,000 average.
      It was amid these fraught moments in the clubs history that I first stepped into the Bentegodi, watching a 0-0 draw with Rimini on a miserable day in a Serie C promotion play off at the end of 2009/10. It was enough to get Hellas into the final versus Pescara, and I could have been there too, but in these early days of individualised ticketing it was impossible to get off a train an hour before kick off and get a ticket, as the Arena ticket office in the city centre was the only ticket outlet at the time! A hassle I had accepted for the Rimini game, but I was still struggling to get my head around this ridiculous new ticketing regime. It was a situation that had been imposed on clubs, most were lacking the facilities to expedite it properly, hence the outsourcing. Hellas could have gone up automatically that season, but in front of 25,000 a last day party went sour as Portoguaro won 2,0. They were clearly punch drunk versus Rimini, but they just got the job done. However a week later Pescara condemned them to a fourth successive C season winning the promotion final 3-2 on aggregate after an entertaining 2-2 draw in the home first leg.
      The Bentegodi experience had entered my psyche though, and despite a relatively mundane goalless draw, Hellas had been leading 1-0 from the away leg, and the Brigate Gialloblu were in vociferous mood. Subsequent visits have demonstrated that they are largely always in such fine fettle no matter the result, but I know that can’t be the case as like any group of fans, if they are disgruntled they will let the team know! I base my hypothesis on having seen a draw, and a loss without scoring in either before finally seeing them win. My three visits also covered the full array of leagues, C, A and B in that order.  It did take me 7 years to go back though, and it took the enthusiasm of a Lazio supporting Georgian lass to get me back there! Hellas were on the upper end of the yo-yo cycle merry go round that they find themselves on these days, back in Serie A but with a distinctly blunt attack. This was an achilles heel that would sweep them back to B by the seasons end, but for this sun soaked encounter against the capital side they were always second best. Despite losing 3,0 and with pressure mounting on a manager who would be gone shortly after, the fans stayed supportive throughout a very one sided affair.
      With a second game under my belt at the Bentegodi, I found myself catching as many Hellas games online as I could, despite the relegation. When I saw a derby was versus Venezia was scheduled for a Sunday night slot when I was back in Italy, I had to be there. The art of ticket purchase is now easier, not only do they have sales available outside the stadium, you can purchase online, or in my case, surprise a lady in a record shop in Novara who was acting as a ticket agent for the agency Hellas use. I suspect no one has rumbled into her premises before and asked for tickets to a Verona v Venezia match, but with only half an hour to get from station to stadium due to a medical issue on the train from ssssssh whisper it quietly, Vicenza, I was glad I had my brief!
      There is nothing special about the stadium in Verona, it has a running track around it making the action seem distant, which is never good, but ticks boxes for municipal involvement. The three layer seating is a little unusual, but it is the hardcore fans of the Brigate that create the incredible atmosphere, and under the lights on a quiet, warm early March night the songs rang out louder than ever. Despite a 9pm kick off and the match being played during Carnival in Venezia, the visiting fans were here in big numbers too. This would be Walter Zengas last match as the Venetian coach as the clubs fortune had nose dived. I finally saw Hellas score, and experience the explosion of joy at the Bentegodi, but in winning 1,0 the scoreline suggested a closer game than it’s reality. Giampaolo Pazzini had played well, as did the buzz bomb South Korean lad Lee Seung-Woo, despite demonstrating some woeful finishing for the second time in my presence, but no one can question his enthusiasm! If Hellas had been toothless in Serie A the season before, that baton had passed to Venezia in B. They huffed and puffed but they rarely looked like grabbing an equaliser. It was an odd second half for me when Venezia introduced a substitute Hugo St Clair, a Scot, doubling the number involved with Liam Henderson showing some tidy touches in the Hellas midfield. Two Scots involved in any game abroad must be a rare sighting!! The win kept Hellas close to the automatic promotion slots in the table, but spluttering results has closed that door, and they will need to work hard to avoid collapsing out of the play off picture altogether, a scenario that would be considered a disastrous outcome. Failure to be promoted will see the two Bentegodi tenants going toe to toe in B next season, not that Hellas lose much sleep over the Flying Donkeys, in il derby della Scala!!  
       
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    • By tm4tj in Football adventures with James Rendall
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      As Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarn “Tomkinson School Days” begins, “training for the hop was a nightmare”, and sitting having a look at the roster of games, as well as plotting routes between the venues, the idea of six games in 41 hours including four games in a day was simply terrifying! I love my football, and while I had done three games in a day twice, four seemed daunting. Following last year’s hop which was weather hampered and reduced to four jousts, with just three on the Saturday, good sense prevailed in delaying this seasons diet by two weeks. It certainly worked out well as had they plumped for the same weekend again, it would have seen a highly likely total wipe out of the entire card as that mid March weekend saw torrential downpours, and only one East of Scotland league fixture survived at St Andrews.
      Since last season the sixth tier of Scottish football has seen a remarkable change of scene. As Tracy Chapman once sang, “we are talking about revolution”, with 26 East Junior sides following Kelty Hearts and jumping across to the senior game. Obviously it wasn’t possible to have one league with thirty nine clubs (although Argentina would give it a real go!!), so they were spread across three leagues (conferences) with the winners playing off for overall Champions and one promotion spot in the Lowland League, the southern half of Scotland’s fifth tier. The losing two winners as well as the remainder of the top five in each conference are guaranteed to form a new sixth tier, a sixteen team “super league” along with some 6th placed teams depending on who gets relegated from the Lowland league.
      The hop brought together a veritable potpourri of the new members and the long established East of Scotland gang for our entertainment. It was a journey that took me to some places in my own country that I have never been, so it was considered a useful exercise. It is maybe just a personal preference, but having only ever watched three “Junior” games in my life, the switching of these 26 clubs was akin to adding extra colour to my “Senior” world! Little by little I have been ticking them off for a first peek, but the hop was bringing a torrent of new grounds for me with five of the six getting an inaugural visit.
      It all kicked off in Denny, a small town just west of Falkirk and home to Dunipace. Westfield Park is a new facility for the club and community, a basic place, and one of those 3G pitches to allow multi use, but frowned on by many a seasoned hopper! Dunipace were never a top Junior side, and that form has transferred across to the new league, but the essence of the clubs ambition will see them improve in time. For this 8pm Friday night fixture under the lights, Dunipace were hosting the Manchester City of the East Juniors of old, and continuing in similar fashion this term in the shape of Bonnyrigg Rose, who just needed a point to sew up their conference. Dunipace set about the task of frustrating Rose by applying that old Bob Crampsey adage, “it’s never easy beating strategically placed dustbins”, which is maybe a slightly harsh analysis of the home sides blanket defending as they did put a lot of effort into stifling the opposition. That said, Bonnyrigg almost knew the breakthrough would come and they rarely broke sweat, or got out of second gear. However, at 1-0, any team will have a chance and Dunipace perhaps should have levelled from a rare corner, but the big defender headed over. Towards the end, with legs tiring, Bonnyrigg found the net a further three times, one an audacious “Panenka-esque” chip into the centre of the goal from a spot kick. In winning 4-0 and indeed clinching the Conference, Bonnyrigg players showed little joy or emotion, the job is only half done, and two crucial matches in a few weeks against the likely opponents of Penicuik Athletic and Broxburn Athletic for the title and promotion will be the real barometer of success. Bonnyrigg are rightly an ambitious club.
      Saturday mornings 11am kick off at Camelon saw me exit the motorway at the same junction as the night before, merely turning left instead of right, heading towards Falkirk, of which Camelon is a suburb.  Carmuirs Park is a proper old fashioned football stadium, with the pavilion/changing rooms immediately reminding me of Kilbowie, once the home of Clydebank. The ground has seen better days with the terracing crumbling and off limits behind one goal, but it has charm and I am sure most of us like a stadium with a bit of character. In a garden behind one goal was a cleverly built little viewing box, complete with roof, on legs just high enough to see all the action, and sure enough, right on kick off a capacity crowd of two fitted into the box for watching the game for free!! Edinburgh United were in town, the fourth Junior “jumper” of the hop thus far, and like Dunipace, not from the top echelon. I had seen Edinburgh United twice already this season, shipping eight and four goals respectively, and in fielding a young team in this encounter, defeat was always likely, but to be fair to them, in losing 5-1 they did contribute to the spectacle with some attacking prowess, unlike Dunipace! Camelon were too good on the day and are comfortably in the top five in their conference to bring “Super” league East football, and the big boys of the old Junior days back good Carsmuirs. Camelon have a Junior Cup win on their roll of honour, and I am sure they will be aiming higher. It was a good crowd for such an early start too, but some of the “hoppers” rebelled and went off to watch other afternoon games, believing that the next venue constituted a lowering of standards!
      Inverkeithing was the 2,15 pm start, a whizz back along the M9 and across the new Queensferry Crossing over the Firth of Forth. Inverkeithing is very close to the Fife side of the bridge, and indeed, down by the playing field you are right beside an inlet of the Firth, and from the far side of the pitch you can see the top of all three bridges that cross the Firth, affording a spectacular backdrop. Granted that the Ballast Bank ground is extremely basic with nothing more than a perimeter fence to lean against and portable dugouts, but these are fledgling days for the Swifts who have togged up from merely being a club for kids, to adding an adult wing. They had a terrible start to the season, but gradually they’ve won a few points. This game saw the first sighting of an old guard East of Scotland team in the shape of Heriot Watt University. They were the only alternative last year for the 5,15 pm game last year, and while I am sure some must have hated not only the artificial surface, but the fact it was an indoor game, the 2-2 draw with Leith Athletic was the pick of the games from the 2018 edition, with the last goal from Leith being my goal of the season! Heriot Watt must feel a little peeved as they are the lowest of the three Uni sides involved in the senior set up, but they needn’t fret unduly as I suspect the other duo will soon drift downwards as the Lowland gets choke full of highly ambitious ex-Junior sides! This game was to ebb and flow, but Inverkeithing gifted HWU the first two goals before knuckling down and making a real old fist of it, with ten men too, and even with nine, however at 2-4 and down to eight, the game was up!! I suspect that the referee would have been hunted out of town pretty quickly afterwards, but he got the decisions pretty spot on in my opinion! Inverkeithing Hillfield Swifts can though claim the longest name in Scottish senior football now, nicking that title off my mob, ICT!
      It was back in the car, across the bridge and along the M8 in a westerly direction this time headed to Blackburn! I have to confess that I didn’t realise such a place existed before this season, and even when you are off the M8, thank goodness for Sat-Nav as the name Blackburn only seems to appear on a sign at the roundabout just outside the town limits! New Murrayfield is the name of the home to Blackburn United, and a tidy community set up they have here too. Being the tea-time kick off, the food was flying off the shelf, and the inventive option of a curry was all gone before kick off! Some of the “rogue” hoppers had returned as alternative early evening kick offs were non-existent, but another plastic pitch would have seen them muttering in their bovril! That said, give me a true artificial surface like this over the dry and bumpy pitch at Camelon, or the excessively long grass of the Sunday game, which we will get too eventually!! A morsel of pithy wit had given our English guests a Lancashire derby in name at any rate, with Blackburn v Preston! Albeit it is Preston Athletic from Prestonpans on the coast in East Lothian. Preston have been serially involved in the last four hops!! The first attempt was cancelled due to a waterlogged pitch, which resulted in a call being made to Edinburgh and Civil Service Strollers to tip them off about the unplanned arrival of the hoppers. They just had enough time to get along to the local supermarket to hoover up as many pies as they could get! In recompense for the cancellation, the next year the hop started in Prestonpans, and last year they were the visitors to Burntisland, and here they were again popping up in Blackburn. Preston did start life in the inaugural Lowland League, and they have the unenviable claim to have been the first club relegated from the new league. Given the explosion of new clubs at this level, they will struggle to find a way back to the Lowland, but they are the closest of the original East teams to clinching a top 5 finish, but defeat here at Blackburn might have put pay to such an outcome. Blackburn had been thrashed 7-0 at home by Linlithgow the following week, but they knuckled down here and put in a good shift winning 4-1, a scoreline that slightly flattered as Preston had good spells in the game too.
      Each game had served up a hat full of goals, the trio of Saturday games had brought 17 thus far, 21 if you include Dunipace the night before, but I was now in unchartered territory, a fourth game in the day. This was the tightest turnaround from a 19,10 finish to an 20,00 ko, but with only 11 miles to travel to Linlithgow, it was easily achieved. Linlithgow Rose are one of the big Junior clubs from the East to have jumped across and the 3,500 capacity Prestonfield stadium is a fabulously well kept venue. I had been here a few times, seeing them beat Fraserburgh and Wick in the Scottish Cup, as well as one of those three Junior games, the fabled derby with Bo’ness, which resulted in an easy 0,3 away win that day in front of a big crowd. Rose have not been without issues this term, and it seems that they won’t make the Conference promotion play offs as Broxburn Athletic might just have kept their nerve enough to win this particular section. However, Bo’ness have failed to make the play offs too, so they can look forward to re-establishing that classic derby fixture next season as they have been in different conferences this term.
      This evening kick off was not only the highest attended of the six game at 580 (some counted 620), complete with a good number of fans down from Perth to see their beloved Jeanfield Swifts (a club record away following apparently!), but it would become the game of the hop. All four Saturday game had been played at a good tempo, and chances fell for all teams, but my goodness, this was the fastest paced game, and while Linlithgow were to edge it 3-2, no one could have denied the Swifts a draw, or even a win, as they were very impressive and dangerous on the break.
      Saturday’s football was over, I had not only survived, but enjoyed each and every game. The goals tally for the day closed at 22, not a bad return for £23 entry to all four games! Where else could any given Saturday serve up two Swifts, and including Friday night provide two Roses as well! It was back along the M9 to Edinburgh for the nights kip, foreshortened by the clocks going forward, ahead of the final piece of the hop action in the Scottish Borders.
      Peebles Rovers were similar to Preston Athletic in having suffered a postponement for the Sunday game last season due to overnight snow! I know they had produced a lavish programme for the visit of Ormiston on that occasion, and doubtlessly forked out a lot for catering, so in the rescheduling on the roster for this season I hope it brought them some financial compensation. That said, judging by a souvenir programme (complete with biggest ticket I have ever seen!) on the spartan stall of Peebles goodies, Celtic had sent an XI at the start of the season and I would hope a good crowd came out for that one! If Brendan Rodgers had been at the game, given his constant whining about the length of the grass at Tynecastle every time he went there, he wouldn’t have liked the length of the blades on the lumpy surface at Whitestone Park. It is a lovely setting for a ground with the rolling Borders hills providing a stunning backdrop, and unlike everywhere we visited except Linlithgow it does have a stand, but judging by pitchside mutterings, a stand in a park doesn’t constitute a ground, and whoever that was decided to stay in the pub to watch some match between two Glasgow clubs?! Nope, can’t think who!!
      I had never seen Peebles play until five days earlier when I was at the new Leadburn derby, (way better than anything Glasgow can offer!) Penicuik Athletic v Peebles Rovers! Penicuik are one of the Conference winners and they are a slick, fast paced team, who will cause Bonnyrigg problems in the promotion play offs. Peebles by contrast are one of the “middle table” old East of Scotland sides, muddling through a tough campaign against more ambitious teams relatively well. Once everyone finds their level next season it will all settle down. At Penicuik they heroically only lost 3-0, playing the last thirty minutes with just nine men and not conceding again, but exactly how remains a mystery! Newtongrange Star, another “bigger” club were in town for the last game of the hop, and maybe I was beginning to feel punch drunk, or the pitch wasn’t helping either team play cohesive football, or we’d found ourselves a piece of fence beside “hoppers” who hardly had a good thing to say about anything , but it dragged! Nittin as Newtongrange are called were always likely to win, and they did 3-1 bagging a penalty amongst the goals to make sure every game had a converted spot kick and nicely bringing the entire hop half dozen games tally to a neat 30 goals. Rumours suggest that the six games were just 20 people short of the hop record for Scotland, but the many visitors by car and bus had undoubtedly swollen the gates at five of the six venues to potentially season highs, and while it was a few short of the biggest crowd of the season at Linlithgow, it would have been one of their bigger gates too.
      Last season I mulled the motivation of a far travelled hopper. Many a camera was about, little notebooks to keep the teams and substitutions etc, could be spotted, I get that. A prerequisite of a chosen venue for the hop is for a programme to be produced, which I am sure adds an extra few pounds to the coffers if they sell enough, and I must confess I do like a programme from games I attend, but don’t go all sniffy just because it isn’t a thing of beauty!
      These are small, and wonderful clubs that add real colour and tapestry to the Scottish game. Poor old Peebles Rovers have a collapsible perimeter fence on one side because the cricket club use part of their ground for the outfield in summer! And when they asked to put down an artificial surface the locals in their mansion houses up the hill on the road objected!! They have enough “local” issues without visitors losing all sense of perspective and looking down their noses at them. The good people of Peebles don’t care about the pontifications of who referees in the Glasgow Universities league, or what the ramifications of a car crash of big English clubs in League One next season might mean in preventing Ipswich getting an easy rise back up!! As money is ruining the top end of the game in every country, be thankful for these fabulous teams, whose every effort to make to ends meet and continue playing each and every season is a marvel in itself. Turn off the TV and go and support your local team, it’s the only way!!                     
       
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    • By tm4tj in Football adventures with James Rendall
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      This article has been penned with a view to appearing in the Football Weekends magazine in August or September, hence the reference to last season when the dust has yet to settle on the present one!
      History was made at the end of the last Scottish season with a Highland League club stepping into the league for the very first time through league effort, and as the 19/20 campaign gets underway Aberdeen will join the rest of Scotland’s big cities with two clubs. Cove Bay is a small coastal satellite town (population, 7,000) but the clubs new Balmoral stadium is actually on the outskirts of Aberdeen itself, a mile or so away from Cove.
      This was the second time since the inception of the Scottish pyramid system a non-league side has replaced one of the stalwarts of the previously closed shop structure. It was a case of third time lucky for Cove Rangers in the Play Offs. Getting into the Scottish League is an ambition they have openly embraced for more than a decade, having been pipped by Annan Athletic to replace the demised Gretna well before the relatively new pyramid play off route was opened merely five years ago now. Cove failed in the semi-finals in 2016 losing 4-1 on aggregate to Edinburgh City, who went on to be the pioneers of this promotion seeing off East Stirlingshire. Cove finally made the final in April 2018 but were left feeling rightly aggrieved by some “odd” officiating in a 3-2 loss to Cowdenbeath that culminated in their manager John Sheran having an astonishingly withering attack on the standard of refereeing! Back they went to the Highland League, licked their wounds, dusted themselves down and got ready for another crack at promotion at their new new stadium, albeit initially with the boss taking a touchline ban for his outburst! John sadly had a heart attack in the lead up to the last few weeks of last season, but pleasingly he recovered sufficiently to be on the touchline for the celebrations down in Berwick Upon Tweed.
      Brora pushed them hard last season but Cove always looked to have something in reserve, aided by 49 goals from Mitch Megginson. Having cliched a third title in four seasons they came through two semi-final jousts with an equally ambitious club in East Kilbride, even if allowing a club with a 500 capacity ground into the league wouldn’t be a healthy option. That particular argument is for another day and never arose as relevant with Cove imperiously sweeping the Lowland League winners aside 5-1 on aggregate, winning both legs. They progressed to the final where it seemed for 90% of the season they would be playing Albion Rovers, but the Coatbridge side were gifted three points for Clyde fielding an ineligible player and that seemed to act as the catalyst to claw back the gap on second bottom Berwick Rangers, culminating in guaranteeing themselves safety and condemning Berwick to the play off matches with a win on the penultimate round of games south of the border.
      It was a real fall from grace for Berwick Rangers,  they have rarely struggled as badly as this term, and I am unsure when they last finished bottom of the Scottish leagues. In the inaugural play off season, Montrose found themselves on the brink, they were 45 minutes from going down at home to Brora. A collection was being made at half-time by the Brora fans to buy a road map of the Highlands for Montrose! A controversial red card, and a howling gale aided the Gable Endies recovery, and a few seasons on, they went down to Dumfries at the end of last term 90 minutes away from the final to gain access to the second tier, leading 2-1 from the first leg. They were duly humbled 5-0 by half time by a Queen of the South side who had endured a Berwick-esque slump in form late in the season, but I am sure as the Montrose fans drove home they’d reflect on how wonderfully the club has turned around since that awful play off day. Cowdenbeath are the only league club to have played in two of these end of season plank walks, and they survived them both, just on both occasions. East Kilbride had got by Buckie Thistle and then took Cowdenbeath to penalty kicks amid monsoon rain at Central Park. One missed EK penalty was enough for Cowden to retain their status, 5-4 in the spot kicks. They didn’t improve and scraped by Cove 3-2 last season in a real nasty spat of a second half, that kicked off as soon as the Cove keeper was tripped up as he tried to get back in his goal allowing a goal to be scored into an unguarded net! It messed with the Cove heads, and they never recovered the necessary composure.
      Berwick were England’s Scottish League side, but in last season’s play off final they were never at the races. With a winning mentality against a crestfallen losing one, it’s not easy to change the mindset, despite Berwick’s desperate attempt to fortunes by changing manager days before, but it didn’t work. Somewhat predictably Cove powered their way into the league, winning 4-0 at home, making the second leg a mere formality. However, they maintained a professional attitude, adding another three goals to the aggregate score at a muted Shielfield, save the partying visiting fan base, whose “Highland dynamite” song rang out regularly as well as hero worship of oddly not 49 goal Mitch, but substitute Eric Watson, “Balon D’Or elect” goes the song!! At 7-0 up on aggregate, the management who had been giggling at the songs, finally relented and on trotted Eric to the loudest cheer of the day! The idea the crowd was 1314 was just someone trying to reinvent a famous battle with a morsel of humour!
      The win is a signalling of intent for the forthcoming inaugural league campaign. I think I can quite easily predict that Cove will not struggle, and they won’t be hanging around the bottom league for any longer than merely bedding in! It is all far removed from the club that merely dotted around the Aberdeen Amateur circuit from foundation in 1922 until 1984, when they briefly flirted with the North Junior scene, before joining the SFA affiliated Highland League the very next year! It soon became apparent that Cove were not merely making up the numbers, and even having to become nomadic for three seasons until last July, it makes their continual high performance standard even more admirable, including an unbeaten Highland League title in 2017. Those left behind in the Highland League will wish Cove well, but delight in a more level playing field until the next “ambitious” club, more than likely another from the Aberdeenshire clubs who will endeavour to get the better of Brora, with Formartine, Inverurie or Fraserburgh lining up to be the likely challengers.  
      Cove’s grandly named Balmoral Stadium with a capacity of 2,602 was nearly stretched to that number when Berwick came to town, with a new record high of 1,955, higher than the ground opening friendly with Aberdeen that sadly had to be abandoned due to a terrible injury to a Cove player, and bigger than when Hearts were the first competitive opponent in the League Cup last July! It is a very well appointed stadium, if in a hidden away location. It ticks all the boxes for lower league football with a small stand, three relatively small, terraced sheds (a very Highland League thing!) and plenty of perimeter fence to lean on thus providing a good view. Alas, as at the Berwick game, if you are standing behind the fence hoggers, make sure they are suitably smaller than you as the lack of any terracing aside from these wee sheds means everywhere is flat.
      As I discovered the Balmoral isn’t the easiest place to find, and you can’t for now necessarily rely on Sat-Nav as the new Aberdeen bypass seems to have sent that particular tool into meltdown! Upon switching to Google maps on my phone, it will guide you to where you can see the stadium, but on the wrong side of the Retail/Business development where the stadium is squirrelled away, and their is no access from where Google takes you! If you are heading up the A90 take the Aberdeen Harbour turn off as you would for Pittodrie, then turn right at the lights at the top of the new exit slip road. You are now headed towards Aberdeen, and indeed, ignore the sign pointing off to Cove to the right a little further along. At the first major roundabout you want to take the first turning left, taking you between a petrol station and a burger selling pavilion with Retail outlets in front of you. Follow the road round to the right and keep going as far as the road allows, and after about half a mile the stadium presents itself tucked in behind an enormous Royal Mail depot. Now that Cove might be attracting larger crowds on a regular basis, the Retail car parks might try and stop you parking nearby, but for now you are ok! Aside from Burger King, or the shop at the filling station, nearby amenities are at a premium. There is a bar/restaurant about half a mile further down the dual carriageway if you are looking for proper bib and tucker pre or post match!
      So Aberdeen, joins Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow on the two teams or more roster, and being bigger than Dundee it has capacity to take a new league team under its wing. Just how far, or how high Cove’s seemingly limitless ambition goes, well who knows! Cove Bay is after all bigger than Dingwall, and look where Ross County are now! As for Berwick, they will slip into the Lowland League and doubtlessly need time to steady the ship before trying to get their league place back. Treks north of Edinburgh will be limited to Kelty in Fife, with new “local” Borders rivalries available with Vale of Leithen and Gala Fairydean Rovers as well as bringing the first ever “old” league fixture to be played in the non league environment with East Stirlingshire. They may or may not be spared the Lowland league inclusion of another ambitious club in Bonnyrigg Rose, who won the East of Scotland title in sensational fashion at Broxburn only for the rug to be pulled from under their title success days later by being denied promotion due to the requirement for floodlights being added to the list of requirements after they were invited to put in their affiliation application, and despite the club guaranteeing they would be in place before a ball of 19/20 season was kicked! This particular issue rumbles on, and legal teams might be called upon! The members of the Lowland and East of Leagues play joint cup competitions, and Berwick could play Tweedmouth, who use the ground behind Shielfield’s shed, in what would be an historic all English tie in a Scottish competition! Oddly both are called Rangers!
      Let’s hope Berwick Rangers can get themselves sorted, and that they’ll enjoy the Lowland League, it’s becoming a hotbed of well run, ambitious clubs. Good luck to Cove another Rangers as they step into a new brave world of league football, but as the fans were singing “we’re on our way, on our way”.
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