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    • By TheMantis in Moving The Goalposts
      Right, time to get the blog up and running after that long hibernation…
      In 2015 I finally got around to visiting Peterhead’s ‘new’ stadium, which had actually opened 18 years earlier. So having ‘Completed The 42’ as they say, away back in the day, I once more slotted in the last part of the jigsaw and ticked off the missing ground. Not much of a groundhopper then. Some people would have been there the day it opened.
      All of the photos below are mine, except for the first one, which I couldn’t resist using as it’s a lovely shot, pinched from the internet – sorry if the owner is reading this. Probably from a drone. A nice slope on the North Sea though, handy for water-skiers.

      ICT had played there before, but it was usually pre-season friendlies or midweek ties in the League Cup, so I hadn’t bothered trekking up, and let’s face it, it is a bit of a trek. Heaven help anybody visiting relatives in the recently closed HMP Peterhead, which is now a museum, or the new HMP Grampian. HMP Peterhead was the scene of a riot in 1987 which old Ice-Cream Cornet Heid, aka Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, ended by bringing in the SAS.
      Peterhead’s old ground was Recreation Park in Queen Street, the site of which is now occupied by a Morrison’s, just down the road from the new stadium. I have one snap of the old Recreation Park which I took in October 1992 when Peterhead, then in the Highland League, played Caley in the old Qualifying Cup.

      Caley had a wonderful run to the 4th round of the Scottish Cup in 1991-2, beating Stenhousemuir and Clyde before going out to Premier Division St Johnstone after a replay. They had great hopes of doing something similar in 92-93 but it was not to be. After coming through a difficult tie at Elgin, they could be forgiven for thinking that the hard work was done. Only Peterhead stood between Caley and a place in the semi-final, and hence the Scottish Cup proper, as happened in those days.
      I drove up from Edinburgh with my old mucker Dave Mackay. Back in those days we could get up to a Caley home game in Inverness for about £14 worth of diesel. It was a nice sunny autumnal day and we had a tape of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells 2 in the car. This was a recording of the previous month’s World Premier at Edinburgh Castle. Happy days.
      I insisted in stopping at Charles McHardy butchers in Stonehaven on the way up. I loved their home made pork pies, and apparently they were named Britain’s best butcher in 1997. We ate them sitting in the sunshine on the harbour wall, before battering on up to The Blue Toon.
      For the record, the teams were:
      Peterhead: Dunbar, Watson, Burke, King, Coull, Gerrard, Campbell, Emslie, McGachie, Brown, Fraser. Subs: Madden, Watson.
      Caledonian: McRitchie, Skinner, Mann, Gilmour, Sinclair, Andrew, MacDonald, Lisle, Urquhart, Christie, Robertson. Subs: McAllister, Caldwell.
      The game was settled by a Bruce Campbell goal after 15 minutes. For all Caley’s second half pressure, it was The Blue Toon who deservedly progressed, gaining revenge for their 3-2 defeat in the previous year’s Final. Peterhead lost at Cove in the next round, and by one of those quirks, also lost there in the first round of the Scottish.

      One great thing about the old park was that it backed onto Raemoss Park where Buchanhaven Hearts played, so at half time we watched a bit of their game which I believe they won 5-1. Indeed, Recreation Park was originally part of Raemoss Park and was gifted to the club.
      The old ground saw its record crowd as recently as 1987, when anything between 6500 – 8500 are reported to have witnessed a 3-3 draw against Raith Rovers in a 4th round replay. The Blue Toon had previously beaten East Stirlingshire, Rothes and Clyde, and drawn 2-2 at Starks Park, before going out 3-0 in the second replay at Gayfield. However Balmoor saw the club’s record victory, 17-0 versus Fort William in 1998, which demonstrates that, for The Fort, little changes.

      So, fast forward to 2015 and Balmoor Stadium. ICT were playing on Sunday against Celtic, so with Livingston visiting Peterhead on Scottish Cup business, it was a perfect opportunity to tick off the last ground of the SPFL. No driving for me this time – using the newly acquired Bus Pass on the Megabus Gold and the Aberdeen to Peterhead bus meant that I could have a few refreshments.
      I mentioned McHardy’s the butcher, but in Peterhead you have to try the pies by Coutts & Son. I would say they are the best I’ve ever had at a game anywhere. As well as that, the club shop had what they called ‘toffee’ at £1 a bag. This turned out to be the local name for what I always knew as ‘tablet’.

      A bit about Peterhead FC. Founded in 1890, they were admitted to the Highland League in 1931, winning it 5 times, the last being 1998-99, before being admitted to the Scottish league along with Elgin City for season 2000-1. Balmoor Stadium had been opened on 28/9/97 and probably played a significant part in the application. The capacity of the new facility is quoted as 3150, although it hosted a record crowd of 4885 against Rangers in 2013, apparently by using temporary terracing. The two stands look almost identical, but the main stand is slightly larger, and total seating is reported as 998. Behind both goals are hard standing areas.
      Livi celebrate going a goal up
      Peterhead spent their first 5 seasons in the bottom tier but with the arrival of ex-ICT legend Iain Stewart that was about to change. Stewart came to the club as a striker, but in his first  full season as manager, replacing ex-Scotland Internationalist Ian Wilson, he guided them to promotion on the coat-tails of Gretna in 2005. They were relegated in 2010-11 but returned as champions in 2013. Another ICT legend, Steve Paterson, managed the club from 2006-2008.
      As I write, they have won through to the 2018 League 1 playoff final and will meet Stenhousemuir.

      So, back to the Scottish Cup and the Round 3 match against Livingston. Like many followers of the Cup, I travelled up hoping for an upset on the day. Livingston were in the Championship but ended up being relegated by the playoffs. Peterhead were in League 1 and just missed out on promotion in the same playoffs.
      The Peterhead side included the high scoring Rory McAllister, who had a spell in the SPL with ICT, but never really cut it, despite 49 appearances. He then attained legendary status at Brechin City, before winning the hearts of the Peterhead faithful. Peterhead also had Shane Sutherland, who had a similar record at ICT, before having his best days at Elgin.

      Livi had Liam Buchanan, man of many clubs, whom I had met a couple of times as he had joined in pre-season training at Whitehill. Any thoughts of a shock were quickly washed away as Livi totally dominated, taking the lead through ex-Hearts and Ross County striker Gary Glen after quarter of an hour, and adding a further 2 goals from Jordan White to qualify comfortably for the last 32. Rory McAllister added a consolation from the penalty spot in stoppage time. Final score 1-3.
      I slipped away just as the final whistle sounded and reached the bus station for the 5pm connection to Aberdeen. Due to congestion in Union Street I made the Megabus to Edinburgh with about 4 minutes to spare. Match Highlights Here.
      View the full article
    • By tm4tj in Football adventures with James Rendall
      Click to view slideshow.
      The capital of Uruguay is without doubt a hotbed of football. Indeed, given it hosted the first ever World Cup in 1930 single handed, its passion for the beautiful game has never diminished! The iconic Centenario Stadium, built for that tournament is coined as “the home of football” has FIFA heritage status, coupled with a fantastic museum within its walls, taking you back in time. Despite a population of only just over 3 million people, by South American standards Uruguay is a very small country, by area size too, but on the International football scene it is a name to conjure with, a team to be feared. The National team has undoubtedly been through some troughs since the Golden era (’30’s-’50’s), and while they may never win the World Cup again, the production line of talent is endless with the club football set up in the country as it is.  
      That Golden era started with Uruguay winning the Olympic Titles of 1924 and 1928, essentially the World Club before Jules Rimet came along. It was a brave, and yet natural choice to award the first World Cup to the Gold medal holders. Europe may not have agreed, and only a handful of nations made the trip south, all sharing the same vessel, training on deck as they went! It all boiled down to the more local rivalry with Argentina in the final, with the hosts winning 4-2 to send the little nation into raptures. What is less known, while Italy won the next two editions in ’34 and 38, when Uruguay turned up in Brazil in 1950 after the war, it was their first participation since they won it twenty years earlier! If Germany’s dismantling of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup is the new “hangover” that haunts Brazilian football, their first hosting of the tournament in 1950 saw them lose the last finals group match to Uruguay 2-1 in the Maracana in front of 199,854, a record crowd for a “final”, likely never to be beaten! A draw would have oddly won it for Brazil, but in losing, such was the trauma they became convinced the white shirt and blue shorts combo that was Brazil’s colours at the time was cursed! A new kit was born soon after with the famous yellow and green of today being suggested and adopted following a competition, ironically won by a Uruguayan!
      While Brazil wallowed in its own self pity of sorts, they have managed to knock out five World Cup wins since, albeit never at home, in that same period Uruguay might have won a few Copa America titles, but the recapturing the big one has eluded them. However, occasionally they still reach the semi-finals, which in the modern era is still a magnificent achievement. If Hungary had a golden era that failed to spark anything beyond that generation, considering Uruguay’s size, Celeste (light blue and also the nickname of Uruguay) continues to punch above its weight on the global stage, largely thanks to a wonderful youth system buried deep with an extraordinary number of Montevideo based clubs!    
      It is acknowledged that a trip to Uruguay is more than a weekend gig, but if you were drawn to these parts, even to watch the big Buenos Aires clubs, with all the hincha (fans) passion, a weekend across the River Plate in Montevideo would potentially offer you many opportunities to see similar passion, albeit largely on a smaller scale, unless you encounter the big two, Nacional and Penarol, whose fan bases can rival anything in Buenos Aires. 67 of my 184 games outside the UK to date have been in Argentina and Uruguay, 37 in the former, so you can see it is a land that has caught my imagination. If you factor in 69 games in Italy, Europe’s “South American” atmosphere equivalent it is easy to see it’s the edgy Latin passion in football that attracts me!
      Montevideo sits at the headland of the south eastern reaches of the Rio De La Plata (River Plate), and can be reached by Buquebus fast ferry direct from Buenos Aires (3 hours), or a one hour trip by ferry to Colonia, and two hours further by bus. It is a wonderful city, a well kept secret of South America, with its faded charm in the cuidad vieja area near the port, and its astonishing 27 kilometres of Rambla (coastal walkway) with beaches, little yachting harbours, as well as the country’s main link to the outside world, the enormous and always active port. Parts of the old city will remind you of Havana in a way, even if these areas are gradually being modernised, they still retain the old colonial style.
      In Uruguay, as well as Argentina, the names of some of the clubs show the influence of British involvement at the outset of football history in the region. Railway construction men, Banfield and Newell’s still have teams in Argentina, Almirante Brown (Admiral Brown, an Irishman) another example over there, while across in Uruguay Albion, Wanderers and Liverpool are all still playing, the latter two in the top flight. Albion were involved in the first ever game in Uruguay versus Nacional in 1900! A more recent team, Canadian has been founded by a group of Uruguayan exiles living in Canada! Both countries have a Racing and a River Plate! Significantly smaller in Uruguay, but again, both top flight teams. In England’s city of Liverpool, Everton played a friendly at home to Vino Del Mar’s (Chile) Everton a few years ago, but as far as I am aware Uruguay’s little Liverpool, who play in blue and black stripes have never been invited to Anfield, yet!!     
      Uruguay has more recently been operating with a three tier league set up. Sixteen in the top flight, then unusually 15 in the second tier (only 13 this season), with an Amateur third tier whose numbers can vary depending on who wishes to raise a team! Since the addition of the Amateur league less than 10 years ago, three clubs Villa Teresa, Villa Espanola and El Torque have risen from the third tier to grace the top flight. In El Torque’s case it was just last season,  their first ever top table nibbling, albeit briefly, and they are now back in the second flight, but intriguingly they are now owned by the Middle Eastern group who run Manchester City. Villa Espanola had reached the Primera, the First Division a few years ago but then went bust half way through that season, and their results were to expunged, something that also happened El Tanque Sisley last season! After a few years in the wilderness Villa Espanola reformed and had back to back promotions from the amateur tier to reach the top flight, a rise too quick perhaps and they went straight back down. El Tanque’s fall has been cushioned by new owners and despite going bust mid-season, they start 2019 in the second tier.  Much of South America is now moving away from the Opening (Apertura) and Closing (Clausura) set up, preferring a more traditional European league set up. Uruguay is sticking by the tried and trusted formula, but they had a mini “transitional” Torneo Especial a couple of years ago so that the entire season will be played out in one calendar year, with the Apertura league winners playing the Clausura winners, and then a final versus the Tabla Anual winner (overall accumulation table). Starting in February each year they play each other home and away over the two mini championships with a break in July. Calculations over a two year averages works out who goes down, with games played divided by number points achieved. It might sound complicated, but every point is a prisoner to the lower placed teams, and end of season meaningless games don’t exist!
      I am long an advocate of the two “half” season idea, with an opening and closing campaign might just work in some leagues in Europe where one or two teams dominate within a smallish league, Scotland being a prime example. Three years ago, for the second time in a decade, a small rural team won one half of the Championship, that honour went to Plaza Colonia, with the previous “surprise” winners, Rocha another small team well outside Montevideo were the other. Plaza are back in the top flight again this term, but Rocha have dropped into the amateur third tier, a real fall from grace from when I saw them making their Copa Libertadores bow at Estadio Amalfitani, Liniers versus Argentine giants Velez Sarsfield, going down 3-0. Clubs like these can put together a run of results over a short 15 game half season to potentially win a title, over the longer campaign, the bigger clubs Nacional and Penarol are more likely to win it, but that’s not always guaranteed in Uruguay as they have fierce competition.  
      During the football season, February to June, then August to early December you will always find football in the capital. Based on the current league set up, 13 of the 16 are Montevideo clubs in the top flight! In the second tier 10 of the 13 are from the capital, with the amateur league always playing their games as double headers in Montevideo, even if the teams are from “out of town”! In the professional ranks, that is 23 teams in a city of 1.3m!! They might have small support some of them, but they all have fabulous tradition, and passionate fans. One or two have tried to drift as far away as 100 kilometres outside the city to see if they can get a bigger fan base but that experiment has failed, as the majority of players come from Montevideo. Boston River and Sud America tried sharing the Laguarda stadium in San Jose, 100km away in the general direction of Colonia. Boston never seem to have had a “home” of their own in the modern era in the capital, and now share with Rentistas on the edge of Montevideo, while Sud America (IASA) had left their own Parque Fossa in Montevideo, but it has now been upgraded and they are back home for the 2019 second tier campaign. Boston River were recently promoted  for the first ever time to La Primera, and they have established themselves very well, and a 2-2 draw at Nacional in the early rounds of this Apertura would suggest they’ll be around for a while yet. Last season they even had a first involvement in International competition in the South American equivalent of the Europa League, the Copa Sudamericana. Occasionally one or two others have tried similarly to base themselves away from Montevideo, but invariably they end up back in the capital. I can think of twenty one city stadia in active use.
      There is always much debate as to what is the closest derby match in the world. Racing v Independiente is certainly close, Dundee v Dundee United might even be closer, but you cannot get any closer than two clubs, whose grounds share an adjoining wall that runs the length of their respective pitches! Miramar Misiones play at Mendez Piana, while rivals Central Espanol are across the wall at Parque Palermo! I have been at this derby twice, once in each stadium, and remarkably, the away team doesn’t bother to use their hosts changing facilities, they just come through a gate that links the two stadiums!! So there you have it, end of debate, you cannot get any closer than that!! Remarkably, Mendez Piana is right across the road from the Centenario, and it may also be the second closest! That said, now Penarol have finally got their own new home stadium, El Siglo, the National stadium is less utilised, but some of these “wee” clubs still rent it to get a bigger crowd when they are due to host either of the big two! Writing about the closest derby for the Inverness Caledonian Thistle programme when Gretna came north many years ago in 2008, it was arranged as such because within Gretna’s ranks that day was a player who had been playing for Miramar when I saw the first of these derbies in 2007, Fabian Yantorno. He subsequently played most notably for Hartlepool and Hibernian as well as various clubs in Uruguay, and still plays for Sud America. That article started a friendship that has spanned 11 years now.  
      A wonderful anecdote from one of my first games in Uruguay, a 10,15 am kick off (the second tier still do the early starts for TV on a Saturday!) at Parque Palladino in the La Teja district of Montevideo, home of Progreso (another small team with a title to its name!), but on this occasion it was being rented by the magnificently named, and aforementioned El Tanque Sisley who were hosting Racing, who were undoubtedly on the way back to the top flight at the time. When I entered the stadium both teams and the referees were out warming up as usual, but they seemed oblivious to what I had noticed? They all disappeared, and came out as a unit for the start of the game, and then the penny finally dropped, the pitch had no lines!! The overnight rain had washed them all away. Hilariously an elderly chap appeared with his wee paint wheeled bucket, but it was obvious for TV schedules this was going to take too long! They merely painted the important bits, and kicked off 25 minutes late!! Perhaps with Racing in steamroller mood and winning 6-0, no disputes erupted over a lack of lines! Racing who are from the Sayago area of the capital had a great return to La Primera and qualified for the Libertadores for the first time ever. They even got through the qualifying round to reach the group stages, and I was thrilled to be at their first ever Libertadores Group match at home to Cerro Porteno from Paraquay, which they won 2-0. Racing finished second in the group and in any given year such a position would have seen them progress to the last 16. However, Mexican teams had been ejected the year before due to the Swine Flu outbreak, and the two teams from Mexico were promised a place in the last 16 the following year! The two lowest point accumulations from the second placed teams meant failure to progress, and Racing were one of those, very unlucky. Thus far, they have never made it back to South America’s top International tournament. Cheering for Racing came naturally given my love of the “bigger” Racing club across the Rio, they are nicknamed La Academia, the academy, whereas Racing Montevideo are La Escuela, the school! 
      Getting tickets for any game will be largely straight forward. If Nacional are doing well, their compact and historical Parque Central can get close to selling out. The capacity has been increasing year on year as they add a second tier, as they are a very well supported club, probably with the biggest support in the country. Penarol’s new Siglo stadium has a bigger capacity, meaning an easier chance of a ticket. When the two meet, the games get moved to the Centenario to allow an even bigger crowd. The two most successful clubs under the big duo are Defensor Sporting, whose Franzini stadium is right across from the first beach you come too as you walk along the Rambla from the port in the Ramirez district. Danubio’s Jardines stadium is a good trek from the centre, and while buses go close by, taxi’s are very cheap too! There is an enormous park in the city called Prado, and within that park you will find three stadiums! River Plate’s Saroldi stadium is separated from Wanderers Viera merely by stables! and just a little further along you will find Parque Nasazzi, named after one of the heroes of the 1930 team! This was home to Bellavista, (another former winner) who had fallen on hard times and temporarily disappeared as a club, but winning the third tier final versus Colon last December sees them back in the professional ranks in La Segunda for 2019. Villa Teresa and Albion ground share with Bellavista! Cerro (translated is hill), a hilly area with an old fortified lighthouse on the top of the Cerro, is technically another town, but is so close to Montevideo it really is just a suburb. The derby here is Cerro v Rampla Juniors, the “villa” derby as its known, villa being slum in this context! Cerro’s Troccolli stadium is a large bowl that has fallen into disrepair, while Rampla’s two sided Olimpico is right down on the water’s edge affording wonderful views across the bay to Montevideo. Halfway round that bay on the main road to Cerro you will see Parque Capurro, home to Fenix. Liverpool’s Belvedere; Progreso’s Parque Paladino; Parque Roberto, Racing’s home, and Obdulio Varela, home to Villa Espanola are not too far from the Prado park either. Villa Espanola’s derby is with Cerrito (little hill), who play at the wonderfully named Maracana!! Another Cerro exists, Cerro Largo (Big hill) but they are from Melo away up in the North East of the country. But where else can you have Hill, Little Hill and big Hill as teams!! With some early kick offs at 10.15 and various afternoon, evenings times, it is possible to see three matches in a day, and given the close proximity, even two games in 4 hours as I once did!
      My 37 games in Uruguay includes 35 in the capital in sixteen different canchas as they call stadiums. The two anomalies were a Copa Libertadores tie between Fenix from the capital and Venezuelan side UA Maracaibo which they moved to Parque Burgueno in Maldonado, home to second tier Deportivo, which is along the southern coast near the big beach resort for Argentine visitors, Punta Del Este. This particular match brought some national soul searching with a first ever home loss to a Venezuelan side 1,2. The other game was in San Jose to see IASA or Sud America as they are also known, hosting fellow Montevideo side Los Bichos of Rentistas. The draw here for me was to watch my friend Fabian play, and having never seen him play and win, leading 2-0 at half time it was looking good, but a dramatic late comeback saw Rentistas win 3-2. Ironically, a few years earlier, before Fabian was with them, I saw the exact same fixture in IASA’s true home Parque Fossa, and they won that day 2-1! Outside Scotland I have only seen more games in Ancona (19) than the fifteen at the home of football in the Centenario. On the 5th March 2002, my first ever day in Montevideo I was in the stadium watching an absolutely brilliant 2-2 between Nacional and Argentine side Velez Sarsfield. The very next night I was back for another cross Rio de la Plata joust in the Libertadores with Penarol edging San Lorenzo 1-0. The very next year Penarol drew 2-2 with Gremio, and the following week my most proud game in the Centenario, being amongst the away Racing fans with my great friend Juan Manuel watching them beat Nacional 2,1 in the first game they’d played there since becoming World Club Champions in 1967! Sandwiched between these matches was another Fenix International match, this time in the capital at Defensor’s Franzini were they lost, but ran Brazilian giants Corinthians close, 1-2.
      The recollection of games in Montevideo could go on for a while, but I will curtail with just a short paragraph of a few other gems! Another of my great friends in Buenos Aires, Osvaldo came across to Uruguay with his sister as their beloved Banfield were playing Nacional, a game moved to the Centenario, and another big crowd enjoyed a real cracking 2-2 draw, This particular fixture was the first time I had ever seen the return match until Inverness played in Europe! I was a relatively well behaved Bolso fan (Nacional) with a big grin amidst the Taladro (Banfield) as the visitors ran out 2,0 winners. Games in the Centenario have always been prized, but so have games at the Parque Central, another venue dating back to 1930. Nacional have done a wonderful job of redeveloping the ground, and it gradually is becoming an intimidating, claustrophobic stadium as the tiers rise tightly close to the field. It has developed incredibly since my first game their in 2007 a 1-1 draw with Bellavista, through a 4-0 thumping of Defensor in 2008, a 3-2 narrow win against local Racing the year after, Richard Morales et all, and a 0-1 reverse against Argentinos Juniors in the Libertadores. In 2015, the last time I was in Montevideo they weren’t at home, partly due to one of my footballing weekends being lost to a strike, but I watch games online often, and it looks an even more developed venue now, and I look forward to seeing a game in the Parque Central next year when I will be back!   
      The wonderful world Uruguayan club football, with its many quaint parks, ropey grass pitches, curiously named clubs, passionate fans, and exciting games. It’s my staple watch on any given weekend even online for me!            
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    • By tm4tj in Football adventures with James Rendall
      Click to view slideshow.
      The heading to this article will see smoke billowing out of any ardent Vicenza fans ears! But if they were honest, they have to be thankful for the owner of the team from Bassano del Grappa for keeping the “il biancorossi” in the third tier this term. This modern story is yet another classic Oliver Hardy tie fumbling moment of “another fine mess”, and it’s such a real shame to have fallen upon the oldest club in Veneto.
      Last season Vicenza were really struggling in the third division, and they fell into administration. They continued to play and avoided any undue point deductions that seem to get handed out like confetti in Italy these days. Whether such a penalty was averted by virtue of the new owners intimating their intentions I am unsure, but Vicenza did stay up under their own steam following a Play Out success, seeing off Emilia Romagna tiddlers Santarcangelo. In the summer the appropriately named Renzo Rosso, the owner of Diesel clothing, and also Bassano Virtus football club, decided to get on his white horse and ride to the savour of Vicenza Calcio. Italian football has rule that allows a team to usurp another side within a certain radius, and it has been used on a number of occasions to stop bankrupt clubs falling all the way to bottom of the ladder. SPAL, Ancona, and Nocerina have all used this rule to their advantage, the latter preferring to go into abeyance for a season until an opportunity to take over another club presented itself! What is unusual in this instance is that Bassano Virtus were also in the same league and finished much higher up the table. I saw them play at Forli, and I was very impressed by their slick counter attacking style, which swept the home side away relatively easily.
      Bassano Del Grappa is 33 kilometres north of Vicenza but perhaps is not a traditional footballing town, indeed their small stadium has a cycle track around it. Finishing in the top six in Serie C was maybe as good it was going to get, whereas Vicenza is a football town with a rich history. Businessmen perhaps always have an eye for a bigger ticket opportunity, as well as lacking undue sentiment, which I guess might explain why Mr Rosso closed down his senior Bassano Virtus side and moved their assets to Vicenza, adding not only Virtus to the name, but also bringing back Lanerossi, a more famous word associated with the club. You have to feel for the fans of Bassano Virtus, a name that still exists but merely having retained a junior team. While the Vicenza fans are doubtlessly grateful to still have their club in the third tier, the word Virtus is merely an anomaly as far as they are concerned, and it won’t be a word that you’ll hear the tifosi using, let alone catch it on a scarf or merchandise, or the club badge!! I would not be surprised if Virtus just gets swept away in time, but for now the new owner will wish to pacify Bassano fans, but I am curious as to whether any have followed the team after the upheaval. I was a Meadowbank Thistle fan, and my club were unusually for GB hijacked by almost the last act of West Lothian Development Council before it was wound up. They wanted a team for the growing “new” town, Livingston. The lunacy of not even allowing the word Thistle to be retained meant that none of the Meadowbank fans went on with our support, but have Vicenza kept some of the original Bassano Virtus fans? I seriously have my doubts, as Italians are passionate for their club, but they generally don’t travel very far, and they certainly don’t do neutral viewing. Indeed in my regular trips to catch a variety of games in Italy my escapades are always met with incredulity. I doubt even along the road in Verona that Hellas fans go to watch Chievo or it’s very own Verona Virtus when Hellas aren’t in town!
      Vicenza is a beautiful town, and in a separate article you can read all about it! The local football team have been on the go since 1902, and very early in their history they came within a whisker of a Scudetto in 1911, but came up against a Pro Vercelli side at the height of their powers and lost the final. In 1947, with Serie A now a national league as opposed to the earlier years of regional leagues with knock out conclusion, Vicenza finished 5th, and that was as good as it ever got for them. By the early ’50’s they encountered round one of financial issues, and the white knight at that juncture can in shape of a local woollen company Lanerossi, thus explaining where that portion of the name came! The Lanerossi involvement steadied the ship and from 1955 until 1975 the club were stalwarts of the top flight, which explains why the name Lanerossi is held in high regard.
      The great Roberto Baggio started his career with il biancorossi and in 1986 the club had won promotion back to Serie A, only to be denied as they had been found to be involved in a match fixing scandal! They have never really recovered, and the club have largely lurched from one crisis to another. I first got involved with them in early June 1990 in the days leading up to the World Cup, when a Scotsman was full of optimism ahead of the Costa Rica debacle in Genoa a few days later! The scenario could not have been more similar to last terms last gasp survival in Serie C. Vicenza were three points from safety, but oddly the situation was in their own hands as the last day visitors to the Romeo Menti stadium were Prato, the team they could catch. A home win would result in a Play off between the two in Ferrara a few days later. It is perhaps indicative of the decline in people’s passion for their local team, but in 1990, the club wanted a full house, and tickets were merely 1,000 Lira, remember them! They duly got a full and vociferous stadium, but by contrast, I watched online last May when the stadium was no more than half full when Santarcangelo were in town for the play out! Perhaps the fans thought all was lost no matter whether they won or not last term, and hadn’t reckoned on Mr Rosso saving the day and avoiding a first ever slip into D territory, the fourth tier.
      That June 1990 game will live long in my memory, and I was so lucky to get a ticket, but I was tucked in a corner with a low view of the pitch, with an imposing fence right in front of me. Prato were clinically swept aside 3-1, and duly dispatched to D themselves in Ferrara days later when Vicenza won 2-0. The World Cup was on the cusp of starting and I had moved across to Liguria by then, but I would have loved to have been in Ferrara! I developed a soft spot for both clubs and being an Italian calcio afficionado, I keep an eye on them both. Oddly, twenty nine years on from that encounter, Vicenza are back in C and Prato in D, just as that play off for relegation had left them!
      I was to be back at the Romeo Menti shortly after Scotland’s last World Cup, a much more sedate occasion in October 1998, when my own charges Ancona were in town. I don’t recall very much about the game, but I had dragged my oldest Italian buddy Andrea from the safety of Padova, for what I am sure was his only ever game in Vicenza that didn’t involve Padova! It ended goalless, a positive result on my Ancona away CV which has yet to register an away win, even Lodigiani, Sangiovannese and Port Vale denied me a win!!
      With a desire to see “technically” this new club, which still retains the old clubs history, I went along to the Romeo Menti recently to watch the Serie C game with third tier new boys from Imola, Imolese. A town more famed for it’s race track than football, but with the San Marino Grand Prix off the roster allegedly, the local football side are doing their bit to compensate, and try to get to the top echelon of the football circuit instead! This one also ended 0-0, and it had that look from an early point, much to the frustration of the 8,000 plus crowd, which included only 8 from Imola!! Perhaps, having played each other only a matter of weeks earlier in Vicenza in a Coppa Italia C joust, with the home side winning a scrappy game 1-0, they knew too much about each others style of play. The visitors created the better chances and are higher up the table at the time of writing, but the protracted play off to Serie B is the limit of either teams ambition. Given Cosenza went up having finished 9th in Girone C last season, any team in the 27 team play offs who can string a series of late in the season results together can progress up, and in progressing to the last eight, and in Vicenza’s case, the semi-final of the C cup, both they and Imolese have already demonstrated a cup tie winning mentality that could stand either in good stead come late May, early June.
      The stadium in Vicenza is fabulously well kept and a proper ground too, with a very British style main stand running the length of the pitch. The behind the goal “curvas” were two tier affairs in 1990 when I was first there, but these have been modernised into a single, sizeable sloping terracing at either end. The capacity is now reduced to 12,000, more than adequate for the third or second tier, but it will be interesting to see if the new owners manage to bring the famous red and white striped, Stoke City-esque kit back to Serie A, and if they do Virtus might just stay!!
      If you arriving on a train merely to go to a game, shame on you, as Vicenza deserves more of your time. But from the station, turn immediately right and follow the tracks and climb up to a junction where you want to edge left where a dual carriage road is separated by the train tracks in a hollow in the middle. When you see a rather lavish old Roman gate, you want to turn left and very soon thereafter the floodlights will come into sight. A small river means you have to go further down than you’d ideally want and then double back on yourself once crossed the wee bridge. I would allow 20/25 minutes to walk from the station. Otherwise, if you are sightseeing ahead of the game, you want to head all the way through Palladio’s marvels and when you arrive near the outside of Teatro Olimpico, you want to start nudging right! There isn’t anywhere to eat near the stadium, but under the Gradinata opposite the main stand, the Stadio Bar will serve you a beer before you go into the ground!
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    • By tm4tj in Football adventures with James Rendall
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      Veneto is one of the most visited regions of Italy with the lure of Venetian canal splendours and Veronese balconies being the main draw. The more adventurous travellers will doubtlessly have a look at Padova too given its proximity to Venezia with it’s beautiful piazza’s and slightly less manic tourism, but equidistant between Verona and Padova on the main Milan to Trieste railway line is Vicenza, which is a real gem of a city.
      Here is the home of Andrea Palladio, a great architect of yesteryear, and like Gaudi in Barcelona, his mark has been left all over the centre of Vicenza, and indeed his work can be found sprinkled around the surrounding area amongst some of the most amazing rural mansions you will see anywhere, especially La Rotunda. Vicenza is more than a trip for a football match, and in many respects it is worthy of longer than a mere day trip too!
      As you head out of the railway station, instead of turning immediately right for the stadium, if you head down the road straight in front of you which cuts through park lands on either side. If you are in need of a refreshment before you set off, or on the way back, just before you set, having crossed the road in front of the station, on the right you’ll see a little round building with tables outside, and it really is a fabulous cafe. While it is near a busy road, if the sun is out, the tables are sufficiently back from the road to not spoil the enjoyment.
      The entrance to the old city is your right following a half mile walk down that straight road, and a fine city gate in the wall is what greets you. There is a very fine little park just to the left of the entrance, with a river, as well as lots of smouldering statuary and shade making it a wonderful place to chill out on a hot day. Green space inside the wall is non existent, but around it, Vicenza has a number of lovely park spaces.
      Through the gates and you are starting to step back in time. Like so many central areas of Italian cities, the buildings have been preserved wonderfully, and Vicenza is no exception. It is not the biggest place you will ever visit with a population of 112,000, most of whom live outside the historical centre.
      The centre piece of Palladian Vicenza is the Basilica, a huge building shoe horned into the surrounding piazza’s which have the Venetian lion aplenty in a variety of positions, we are after all in the realm of the Doge. The Basilica’s vast green roof is clearly visible from afar at the magnificent Monte Berico, another place worthy of note, and not just for the incredible church, but the breathtaking views its position over the city affords. If you are standing on a railway platform looking up at the hill in front of you, Monte Berico is staring right down on you. It is merely a thirty minute walk, but all uphill!
      Back in Vicenza, Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico is an extraordinary thing, essentially the recreation of an outdoor theatre indoors! Just across from here is another of his creations the Palazzo Chiericati.
      It is a vibrant little city, and along with Parma and Lucca, a place I love going back too. There is enough accommodation and eateries to keep everyone happy, and while it can get busy at times, the volume is nothing like those in the centre of Verona or Venezia. Indeed, given their proximity, Vicenza is a cheaper base to see all the great Veneto cities and any given calcio match that might take your fancy. Mantova, Ferrara and Brescia are all within easy reach too, although in the case of the latter, be aware the stadium is a long, long way from the railway station!
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    • By tm4tj in Football adventures with James Rendall
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      Readers of a certain vintage will perhaps recall the UEFA Cup Final of 1981, when Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town defeated AZ’67 their Dutch opponents, 5-4 on aggregate, complete with Dutchmen Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen in the Portman Road side. By modern day standards it was perhaps an unusual double act for a European final, but in the days before excessively seeded draws, coefficients and big money made the route for the lesser clubs to a final more protracted, the European competitions, especially the UEFA and Cup Winners Cup finals, did throw up a curve ball on occasion. That said, both Ipswich and AZ were at the height of their powers in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s so a coming together in a near “local” derby across the North Sea was no fluke. While Ipswich had already enjoyed FA Cup success, as well finishing runners up in the league twice in ’81 and ’82, AZ’67’s consolation for losing the UEFA Cup to the Tractor boys was winning the Dutch Eredivisie for the first time in the clubs history that month, and becoming the first team outside the “big” three (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord) to win the title since the magnificently named DWS Amsterdam (Door Wilskracht Sterk, translates as Strong Through Willpower!), who won their only title in 1964.   
      The fortunes of these UEFA Cup finalists fluctuated thereafter with both relegated by the mid to late ’80’s. AZ dropped down a level for nine out of ten seasons from ’89 to ’98, returning to the top flight just before Ipswich settled into the English second tier, where both teams have respectively been ever since, albeit the Tractor Boys look doomed to the third tier this season now. AZ’s decline coincided with departure of the club owner Klaas Molenaar, who together with his brother had arrived at the club in 1972 and invested heavily. Three Dutch Cup wins and that first ever championship were their legacy.
      AZ (which stands for Alkmaar Zaanstreek, the names of two nearby towns following mergers long before 1967) have always played in Alkmaar, and they moved into their new home, the 17.000 capacity AZ Stadion in 2006, with sponsorship altering the initials more recently to AFAS. It would soon be witness the clubs second league title in 2008/09, and more recently a fourth Dutch Cup win in ’12/13. Oddly, AZ’s second league title was first outwith the big trio since their last success, but the trophy didn’t go back to Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Eindhoven the next season, with FC Twente Enschede getting in on the Roll of Honour for the first time. What is even more odd is I have now seen two Dutch clubs in my life, both in the last 15 months, AZ and FC Twente, the two “rogue” Eredivisie Champions of the last 54 years, with FC Twente were sighted in the most unlikely but wonderful surroundings of a sun soaked Stair Park, Stranraer! It was a mismatch of a friendly at the start of last season, with Twente winning 5,0, but new friends were forged! AZ v Kairat Almaty is perhaps not a conventional first ever game in the Netherlands on my first ever day in the country, but the lure of the Kazakh visitors was the real draw for me!
      Since Kazakhstan successfully switched across from the Asian conference to UEFA, arguing the Western part of the country is within Europe as the Ural mountains are the dividing line between the two continents, their club sides have little by little progressed up the UEFA coefficient table. FC Astana from the same named modern day capital are essentially backed by the sovereign purse of the Kazakh government and they have been leading the charge, but Kairat, from the old capital Almaty have been knocking on the door of making the group stages of the Europa League too in recent seasons. In Soviet times Kairat were the Kazakh regions leading club and they occasionally graced the top flight in those days going toe to toe with the Moscow and Kiev giants. In the modern world of independent Kazakhstan, the closest Kairat have come so far to making the Europa groups was in 2015 when they made the Play Off round, only narrowly losing out to Bordeaux on the away goals rule. On that run they had played Aberdeen, and not only was I the author of the programme notes on Kazakh football and Almaty, but I got to see Kairat for the first ever time and meet some of the fans! You have to respect fans who travel from the furthest eastern extremity of Kazakhstan to anywhere in Western Europe, although some had travelled from as far as Edinburgh where they were at University! The games with Bordeaux set a new “longest distance” record for a European match at the time, but Astana’s games v Benfica might have beaten that now, although the Kazakh capital is a good bit west of Almaty.
      The first leg of the AZ v Kairat fixture coincided not only with a European match in Edinburgh, Hibernian v Asteras Tripolis, but also FW’s editor Jim making his Scottish capital debut at a football match here! With the time difference to Almaty at five hours, it allowed me the opportunity to view both matches and by the time I met Jim for a beer ahead of the Easter Road game, I was positively gleeful at the imperious way Kairat had seen off AZ on a sticky Almaty night. A 2-0 win for the Kazakh’s is a result that isn’t just another feather in their cap, and keeps an impressive European home record going having only lost the very first ever European game to Red Star Belgrade in 2002, but beating a team who finished third in the Dutch Eredivisie last season would make afficionados of the European game sit up and take notice! The stage was beautifully set for my trip to Alkmaar.
      Alkmaar (pronounced Olkmar) has a population of just 107,000, adding even more credence to fantastic achievement of winning the Eredivisie once, let alone twice! It is situated in North Holland, no more than 35 minutes by train from Amsterdam, or Schipol (change at Zaandam) and it is a city famed for its Cheese Market. The nickname of AZ is “The Cheese heads” (Green Bay Packers might want a word!!). As you’d expect, like a number of Dutch cities, water abounds with a network of canals on one side of the city. The central area is classic Dutch architecture and very picturesque as well as clean. If you are here on a warm sunny day, cafe/bar society on the canal sides or squares abound. The Railway station to the stadium is a good 45 minute walk, as the AFAS Stadion is just outwith the city limit, with motorways surrounding it as well as that old Dutch favourite, water! Indeed, if you follow the logical trail out of the city, you can see the stadium across from a very busy roundabout, but how to get to the stadium will stump you unless you are close to match time when a stream of red and white colours will show you the route. Essentially you have to follow a walkway to the left at the roundabout which looks as though you are walking away from where you want to go, but lo and behold, an underpass appears! I am sure buses will get you close to the stadium, a taxi will take you to the door, at a cost, but if you don’t want to walk, follow the lead of the locals and get yourself a bike!!
      I guess Dutch football has its issues with hooliganism and the away area in the AZ ground is heavily penned in, both inside and out. The three hundred or so Kairat fans were pretty much isolated, and even after the game, a separate gate is opened for them to leave, right at that busy roundabout! It was to be their night, as I had suspected it would be, having surprised a few AZ fans in a bar in town on such matters! A 2-0 lead was always going to be a useful position to defend, and they largely did the job magnificently. Things might have been different had an AZ goal not been chalked off for offside in the first 15 minutes, but when Kairat’s impressive centre forward Aderinsola Eseola was cynically blocked in the AZ penalty box on 30 minutes, the ref pointed to the spot, and Islamkhan coolly slotted home the resultant kick to send the visiting fans wild. AZ had an hour to score four, but it was never going to happen, however by half time they were level. The Kairat keeper Vladimir Plotnikov, who had a couple of wobbles amid some exquisite saves, punched the ball but it spun up ending behind him nearer the goal! It then hit someone, probably an AZ leg, before dribbling into the corner of the goal. It brought encouragement to the hosts, who tried with fire and fury at the start of the second half, but similar to the game in Almaty, nothing came of their efforts,  with the midfield trio of Isael, Islamkhan and Arshavin supplementing the back line effort of Kairat led imperiously by Sheldon Bateau, a Trinidadian defender on loan from Krylia Sovietov Samara. Sitting deep, soaking up pressure and then breaking fast, it is a tactic that serves Kairat well, and they looked dangerous on the break. Eseola should have scored, and a younger Andrey Arshavin (ex Arsenal Arshavin) would have tucked away his chance having scampered from the halfway line to go one on one with the keeper, but either the legs or his mind failed him and the keeper easily saved. In the very last minute of injury time, the amusingly named Fred Friday went to ground in the Kairat box, a dive that had the AZ fans around me giggling, especially when the ref awarded a penalty, 2-1 AZ but seconds later no one from Almaty was caring. They had got through a potentially tough round against a useful side from a country proud of its footballing history, but like the Dutch National side that had hit the buffers in terms of qualification for finals tournaments before the Nationals League relaunched the Oranje, this result was a wake up to call to the shifting sands of the European club game. Kairat moved on to play Czech side Sigma Olomouc in the quest for Europa League Group stage football, while AZ had a little longer to get things sorted out ahead of the league campaign starting. In a brief exchange of words with Sheldon Bateau as he chatted to a friend by the touch line, they didn’t seem unduly concerned about Olomouc, but the Czech’s won both legs, becoming only the second side ever to win in Almaty, before going out themselves to Sevilla in the last round before the group stages.
      The Kazakh season runs from March until November, and maybe they have the advantage of catching sides a little lacking match fitness in July. The club are heavily geared to success in Europe, the Sigma loss saw the Spanish manager sacked, and while they maintained second place and won the Kazakh Cup, performances seemed flat, and in the winter break their has been a considerable turnaround in personnel ahead of kicking off the new season with a relatively routine 2-0 win at home to Taraz, but they did lose the Kazakh Super Cup 1-0 to the enemy, FC Astana.
      I have now seen Kairat twice, they have failed to win either game, but on both occasions they have taken the scalp of perceived “bigger” clubs Aberdeen and AZ over the two legs. Another away tie in the Northern parts of Europe for Kairat and I will have to see if I can get there!! Almaty a go, go one day soon!      
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