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By tm4tj in Football adventures with James RendallA skip through South West Luxembourg, the hotbed of Grand Duchy football, whilst enjoying a trio of European ties.
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The day before the First Round of the European Draws were made in Switzerland for the 2019/20 season I decided that given the Edinburgh sides had let me down, I’d head overseas to catch a game. Perusal of the teams going into the hat brought Luxembourg to mind, as oddly the relatively small town of Esch-Sur- Alzette was providing two sides to the Europa League, so I reasoned one must surely be drawn home in the first leg. Having only been in the Grand Duchy for three hours way back in 1982 I found myself researching ways to fly there ahead of the draw; Brussels, Charleroi, Amsterdam and Paris were all considered, but lo and behold there are direct flights to Luxembourg from Edinburgh, who knew! Ahead of the Esch duo of Jeunesse and Fola going in the bowl, the Champions League draw coughed up F91 Dudelange v FC Valletta, adding the notion they might play on the Wednesday, allowing two games from my potential two night stay. An hour or so later a joyful punch of the air upon seeing Jeunesse paired with Tobol Kostanay from Kazakhstan was quickly tempered soon after when Fola were also drawn at home to a Georgian side Chikhura Sachkhere. I was convinced one of these games would be switched, and I hoped it wouldn’t be the Kazakh encounter. I held off booking for a few days waiting for UEFA to settle the matter. When it finally became apparent these three ties would be scheduled on three consecutive Luxembourg nights, I got greedy and booked a Monday to Friday trip to encompass the lot!
The Luxembourgeoise football star has been rising in recent years, both in the International and European club arenas. It is hard to believe that Luxembourg reached the Quarter Finals of the European Championships in 1964, having defeated The Netherlands 3-2, before going out 6-5 on aggregate to Denmark after three games! Alas they gradually sank into the also ran category, ending many a qualifying group without a point, and rarely a goal. In the last few years they have rediscovered the joy of not losing as much, culminating in a proud away point with World Champions elect France, 0-0 in September 2017!
F91 Dudelange became the first club side to make the Europa League group stages just last term, beating Legia Warsaw and CFR Cluj en route. They had a tough group with AC Milan, Olympiakos and Real Betis, who they held 0-0 to pick up their solitary group point, but it isn’t just F91 making strides, other clubs from the Grand Duchy are starting to grow in confidence. How far have they all progressed? Just ask Glasgow Rangers beaten by Progres Niederkorn 2-0, who advanced into the second round of a European competition for the first time in 2017/18 with that first ever competitive continental win at the 14th attempt! They obviously enjoyed the taste of success, having since beaten Gabala of Azerbaijan and the once illustrustrious Honved, both 2-0 last season, before narrowly losing out to Russians Ufa 4-3 on aggregate, who ironically went on to play Rangers in the next round! Progres had already progressed by the time I got involved this season, seeing of Cardiff Metropolitan on the away goals rule and were headed to Cork in the first round, meaning they were the only Luxembourg side away in the first leg. So with all this recent upsurge in fortunes for the Luxembourg sides, seeing three of them in action, as well as ask questions of the locals, it was a chance to get behind the stats and add credence to the Luxembourg revival.
With a population of just over 600,000 Luxembourg is bigger than some of the smaller footballing nations of Europe, Faroe Islands, San Marino and Andorra to name but three, but while its land area is significantly less, it has a population of nearly double that of Iceland and we all know what giddy heights its national team has recently attained, although the Icelandic clubs have made very little impact in European competition. Ville de Luxembourg as the capital is known locally, whose old town and fortifications brought the city UNESCO World Heritage status in the 1990’s, is a leafy place surrounding and inhabiting a deep gorge. It feels like the city is still evolving, with an extraordinary amount of construction and major road upheaval as new tram lines are being put down. They say that a city forging ahead with new projects is a sign of affluence, and with one of the highest GDP in the world, in Luxembourg their prosperity is not in question! This will be further highlighted next March when everyone can travel by rail or bus, anywhere in the country for free! However, it is only 4 Euros for a day pass to travel all over the country now! It is a lovely wee capital, but with a population of only a fifth of the country’s total at 120,000. Small population hubs are spread throughout the country with Esch-sur-Alzette, where I am also headed is the second biggest with merely 40,000, and two Euro qualified football teams, not a bad return, are we taking notes Edinburgh!
In relative terms, F91 Dudelange are the new kid on the block, and as the number in the title would suggest, they’ve only been going since 1991. The club is a merger of three Dudelange clubs, Alliance, US and Stade (remarkable they had three clubs with a population of less than 20,000!) , with all three having been successful in winning trophies in their own right, but none were nearly as dominant as the merged club, who have claimed 15 league titles since 1999/00, as well as 8 cups in that period too! With a capacity of just 2,558, the Jos Nosbaum stadium in Dudelange is too small for European games, so the big game with FC Valletta was moved 18 kilometres to the National Stadium, the Josy Berthel in the capital. This was the first time either side had faced a club from their opponents country, and while Valletta have 25 league titles, they’ve been at it a lot longer winning the league for the first time in 1914/15. Indeed in the same period since F91’s first title, the Luxembourg side win 15-8 on that score! The Maltese team will be remembered more fondly by Rangers fans, despatched 18-0 and 10-0 on aggregate in the days before the gulf in class narrowed immeasurably!
The Josy Barthel stadium is about two miles from Gare de Luxembourg (the main train station), and a jolly pleasant stroll it is too, and yet this ground might not be used for much longer. Flying in (you rarely escape aeroplanes in the city as it is right on the flight path for the nearby airport!) I spotted a fairly advanced construction of a new stadium. Further investigation revealed that this is the new National Stadium, well out of town, but I am sure it will have excellent transport connections, as this is what Luxembourg does, with its very well organised transport infrastructure. The new venue is scheduled to be ready by the end of the year.
I did that field reconnaissance walk to the Josy Barthel hours before the game, all in the name of hopefully capturing daylights snaps for my article, but it never fails to amaze me just how many grounds are open and available for plundering with gates wide open! It is an all seated arena with a limited number under cover in the main stand. It is a tidy place, if too many fences, needless ones I am sure between spectator areas and field, which partly spoiling the view, but then again, an unusually short 6 lane running track pushes the action further away anyway. Given I never saw such fencing in the seven other venues during my trip, it begs the question, why is it here?! The National stadium wasn’t my first ground of the morning as being a Racing Club de Avellenada fan, wherever there is a Racing team my interest rises! As it transpired, Racing Union’s Stade Hammerel was not far from where I was staying. This is another of those mass merger clubs, swallowing up Spora Luxembourg as they went, but judging by last season’s average crowds, Racing had the lowest in the top flight, despite finishing fifth! I did get a plausible reason for this, and it isn’t a case of fans staying away from the new club having seen their own club losing its individual identity. Luxembourg City has a huge number of transient workers, and Racing’s main issue is being too central in the city! On the weekend a significant number of people head not just out of town, but out of the country, leaving the centre of Luxembourg City largely to the tourists!
So on a lovely early July evening, F91 Diddeleng (the Luxembourgish language name) trotted out with FC Valletta. Given that both sides were just recently back training, for a first competitive match this was an entertaining joust. The Maltese hadn’t come to just sit back, but with good reason as their defence was seriously ropey, and F91 soon realised they could get at them with a counter attacking style. Territorially Valletta might have been on top, but they were hit right down the centre of the field at lightning speed and Diddeleng led. In the solitary minute added on before the break, some neat home passing in the build up to a cross brought a fine second goal. It was all looking rather rosey for the Luxembourg side, but the old clique “two nil is a dangerous score” would come back to haunt them. Did coaching attitudes manifest the cautious approach at the start of the second half? F91 seemed to be playing to the remit of “don’t concede”, which merely gave Valletta the courage to push on. A fairly innocuous foul about 20 metres from the F91 brought a free kick, which was despatched with such class into the top right hand corner of the goal by a Brazilian named Packer, that even the home fans applauded. Buoyed by this exquisite goal Valletta smelled blood, as Diddeleng continued to lack any cohesion, and less than ten minutes later it was 2-2, waking the thirty or so Maltese fans, who had been largely quiet, from their slumber! The game became more and more stretched as F91 finally re-discovered the art of attack once more, desperate to re-establish a lead. There were a few near things, and a heep of Maltese time wasting, but on the final whistle, they all shook hands on a draw with a lovely sunset acting as a splendid backdrop. There is nothing between the teams, and I wouldn’t be writing off F91’s chances of progressing. If you are looking for a pre or post match pub, you won’t find anything close, but beer is served in the stadium.
The following day I found myself travelling south of the capital, and changing train at Bettembourg for a relatively short trip down to Dudelange, a town of only 20,000 but it has four railway stations! The Jos Nosbaum stadium was home to US Dudelange, and now the buffed up home of F91. The ground is up a serious hill and it is easier to access if you get off the train at Centre or Usines station. Two minutes from Usines is Stade Amadeo Barazzi once was home to Alliance, a spartan ground with an artificial surface. If the stadium sounds very Italian you’d be right as many Italians came here to work in the mines and an area of Dudelange is still known as the Italian quarter. The Alyose Meyer Stadium is equally spartan, once home to US Stade, but this is now the training facilities for F91. If you want to have a look, it is five minutes up another steep incline on the other side of the town from Ville station.
Long before Dudelange ganged up on the rest, Jeunesse Esch were the team to beat in the Grand Duchy with 28 league titles to its name. The club was founded in 1907 as Jeunesse La Frontiera D’esch, winning its first title in 1920/21, but the fifties through to the eighties was the clubs real heyday amassing 19 more in that period. Since F91’s first league success, they’ve only managed two more in 2003/04 and 2009/10, with a horror show play off win to stay in the top flight sandwiched in between in 2006/07! Despite being neutral in both wars, Germany occupied the country, and Jeunesse temporarily had to play in the Gauliga Mosselland as SV Schwarz-Weiss 07 Esch, where they were runners up in 1943/44! While Jeunesse have played 71 games in Europe, they’ve only won nine games, but they were the only Luxembourg club to reach round 2 of the European Cup on two occasions before the Champions League came along and diluted the mere Champions trophy all in the name of money! Jeunesse missed out on European action altogether last term, so they were relishing the opportunity to welcome Tobol Kostanay to their compact and tidy 4,000 capacity (albeit for UEFA games only seats can be used) Stade de la Frontiere, a tipping of the hat to the clubs origins.
By sheer coincidence this was the middle match of the trio, and for me it was the centrepiece of the trip. As a regular follower of the Kazakh game, Kairat in particular, it was a delightful bonus to add a third team from the vast Eastern land to my viewing CV. Wonderfully, all Kazakh Premier League games are available on YouTube this season, and what better way to fill the gap between the seasons than get familiar with all the clubs and grounds I had never previously seen. Tobol (more commonly written as Tobyl from my viewing this season) is named after the river that flows through Kostanay, having settled on this name since 1995, previously drifting through names such as, Avtomobilist, Energetik, Kusyanayets (all in the Soviet era), as well as Kimik from 1992 for a brief period. The city is in the far north of the country, close to the Russian border and the club have the luxury of not one, but two stadiums, an indoor arena (used often in the early months of the season due to the weather outside) and obviously an outdoor venue, Central Stadium with a 9,000 capacity, but the return game with Jeunesse would be played in a near empty Astana Arena (or Nur Sultan if you want to be pedantic about the Kazakh capitals new name!) because the city of Kostanay does not have an International standard airport as yet, although I am assured it is imminently going to be ready! Tobol have been league winners just once, as recently as 2010, but this was just before FC Astana started benefiting from the sovereign purse as a flagship for success and Kairat’s billionaire owner continues to try to match them. However in 2019, the monied men are not getting things their own way, and as Tobol flew into Luxembourg they were jointly leading the table with Astana but with two games in hand too. Astana get assistance with an easing of their schedule with so much travel between Euro ties by playing additional league games ahead of the Champions League qualifiers, but it is the same for all four Kazakh entrants, so this is a tad naughty in my opinion!
The Stade de la Frontiere in Esch is about a mile from Esch/Alzette railway station tucked away amongst a housing development that may have been miners houses at one time, with the Rue des Mines one of the surrounding streets that affords access to the main entrance. It is a well maintained ground, and this game would bring the biggest attendance of the three games, at just under 1,400. Jeunesse also have a good core of “proper” fans who created a nice atmosphere during this ultimately tame encounter. I am not unduly moaning, after all one of these Esch ties could have been switched, but making Europa League games kick off early so they are finished by Champions League game time, especially in Round One, really?! This was the hottest day of my days in Luxembourg and the heat took its toll with neither team ever really getting up a head of steam. In the second half Jeunesse visibly wilted and Tobol dominated the ball, as well as creating a few near things, bringing one fine save from the home keeper, but it ended 0-0. The half dozen Kazakhs fans, none from Kostanay, were happy, and doubtlessly the team weren’t disappointed either, but this is the thing with Kazakh football, they need to become more ruthless and stop being happy with draws on the road, especially when they are playing well within themselves. I get that they were straight back to the airport after the game for a long, long flight, ahead of another considerable flight to southern Kazakhstan for a huge league game with Ordabasy Shymkent on Sunday, so maybe I am being harsh on them.
There are a few hostelries within easy reach of the Jeunesse stadium, Cafe Op der Grenz (Luxembourg language for “of the frontier”) doubles up as a supporters clubhouse, with the walls festooned with photos of Jeunesse teams of yesteryear, and on match day of a nice evening, you can even get yourself a sausage sizzle fried out on the pavement at the front door! The San Siro Bar isn’t very far away either, even if it is on a busy traffic corner for outside supping! The entertainment doesn’t end with the local pubs, as fast food outlets for Tacos or Kebabs and an Italian restaurant are all on hand right next door to each other, making it a proper match day experience, unlike up the hill at Fola, more later! Inside the stadium you will be able to grab a beer, and indeed a plastic wine glass of Champagne too if you fancy, albeit you need to go to the club shop to buy a Euro club card for crossing off with your spending at the beverage or food counters!
With Progres Neiderkorn the only Euro represent that I wouldn’t see, ahead of the last game, I had time to pop down the tracks to see their stadium, as well as visit where they’d played Cardiff, and would be hosting Cork, at nearby Differdange. But first up was the most recent merger in 2015 in Petange, where local CS merged with suburban club Titus Lamadelaine, and are now enjoying the fruits of their pulled efforts finishing a giddy 8th in the top flight last season. Stade Municipal is nearer Lamadelaine station, the one after Petange if you are on a train that terminates at the border village of Rodange, the end of the line from Luxembourg City. The two villages of Petange and Lamadelaine are essentially one commune with a collective population of 7,500, more than double that of Niederkorn! Union Titus’s stadium is an out of town affair, and walking to it requires negotiating a busy roundabout. The 2,400 venue has a fabulous stand and I have the feeling this club might just be heading to the upper end of the Luxembourg domestic game, they seem to have all the proper facilities in place as well as a significant hospitality suite opposite the main stand.
Neiderkorn is two stops back towards Esch and less than ten minutes from Lamadelaine on the train. The Jos Naupert stadium is also out of town, tucked in behind an Industrial Estate. It is around 1 ½ miles from the railway station, but unless you are headed here for domestic football, the stadium doesn’t have a UEFA license. The club has three league titles to its name, but the last time was 1980/81, and yet despite not winning anything in recent times, this small village teams confidence took off the night they knocked out Glasgow Rangers two years ago, and since then they’ve enjoyed some more European success. At the time of writing Progres were on the cusp of a re-match with the Scottish club having stunned Cork 2-0 away! Cardiff Metropolitan and Cork were both hosted five minutes along the road at the modern home of FC Differdange 03, a 2003 merger of the famous Red Boys and AS Differdange. Red Boys were champions six times, plus accumulating fifteen Cup wins, and while the merged club has yet to land a league title, they have added another four Cup victories to that tally, as well as being regularly involved in Europe themselves, albeit missing out this time around. The Stade Municipal is actually much closer to Oberkorn railway station, a few minutes further along the tracks from Differdange. The Avenue Parc des Sports is signed when you get off there, and is less than a ten minute walk.
The third game was also in Esch-sur-Alzette, courtesy of good fortune that saw this modest old mining town hosting Europa League encounters on consecutive nights. CS Fola Esch are actually the older of the two teams having been founded in 1906, a year before Jeunesse. If their rivals were the team to beat through the 30’ to the 80’s, Fola’s moments in the sun were in the post WW1 period until 1930, when they passed the baton across town having won five of the clubs seven titles in that period. It took eighty two years before the Championship was Fola’s again in 2012/13, followed up with another two years later. They came up short as runners up last term, but they finished higher than Jeunesse again, retaining local bragging rights. The kindly Scottish connection gave Fola a first ever European win, 1-0 versus Aberdeen in 2016/17, but they lost 3-1 at Pittodrie. Like Progres Neiderkorn, that win kick started Fola, and they didn’t just progress through one round the following season, but two! Milsami Orhei from Moldova were beaten 3-2 on aggregate, and then Inter Baku 4-2, before coming unstuck for the third time against Swedish opposition, on this occasion Ostersund, 1-3. Last season they toughed out two 0-0 draws with Prishtina from Kosovo, progressing 5-4 on penalties only to get whacked 9-1 on aggregate by Belgian neighbours Genk.
Fola are back in Europe for the 8th season in a row, and I am sure they were feeling confident as they trotted out at Stade Emilie Mayrisch (capacity 4,900, less for European games) against Georgian side Chikhura Sachkhere, who were also playing in their sixth consecutive European campaign, having started with an away goal progression against Vaduz as recently as 2013/14. That said, Georgia’s league is a summer league and Chikhura were 21 games into the season when they arrived in Esch, so match fitness was on their side, although I suspect they’ll be resigned to missing out on Europe next season as they are hovering nearer the relegation play off slot. Chikhura’s European record has impressive wins over Bursaspor and Beitar Jerusalem, while only Maribor and Thun have beaten them by more than a goal, 2-0 in both cases. The winner of this tie would be playing Aberdeen, a potential re-match for Fola should they get through, it promised to be a tight occasion!
The stadium is in the trees high above Esch, and the kean observer will spot one floodlight peeking out above the trees as the train comes round the bend into the station. It is about one mile from the railway station, two thirds of which is a serious uphill trek. Unlike Jeunesse, this is a ground in a very well to do area of the town, and there are no amenities anywhere nearby. The Fola fan base lacks the community togetherness and camaraderie that the Jeunesse fans exhibit, perhaps as they are more obviously the monied club of the duo. There social media and online presence leaves a lot to be desired too, and even on a big European night, not to have any club souvenirs available for the visiting fans amongst the 1,100 crowd was disappointing, as well as being the poorest attendance of the trio of games, albeit only by a few hundred. Even the beakers of beer seem a little on the frugal side here! Despite having been at Jeunesse cheering the opposition, you can probably tell I warmed to them more!
A little rain greeted the kick off, and with uncovered seats, thankfully what stewards were visible weren’t insisting on everyone sitting per the ludicrous UEFA edict! A variety of shed roof overhangs and trees acted as temporary umbrellas. Kick off was 95 minutes later than the game at Jeunesse as this was Thursday, Europa League day, but the air was also significantly cooler anyway, making for a faster pace to the game right from the off. Chikhura immediately looked more organised and sharp, but Fola weren’t for sitting back either, which helped make this one an entertaining spectacle. A first half penalty put Fola in front, but on the hour mark a Chikhura free kick crashed off the bar and from the resultant rebound Sardalishvili was first to react and equalise. Fola pressed forward bringing a couple of good saves from the Georgian keeper, but the visitors were always lively on the break. With the clock ticking down, they broke into the Fola box, and over exuberance to prevent a shot saw the Fola defender tangle with the Chikhura forward and down he went, allowing the Azeri ref pointed to the spot once more. It was nicely taken, sparking great scenes of delight amongst the little pockets of Georgian fans. Given Chikhura’s excellent European record, despite never having played at their home stadium, Aberdeen look to have the longer trek to the wonderful country of Georgia in the next round. Fola didn’t offer me enough, like Jeunesse, to make me think either can progress and keep the Luxembourg star flying high in the next round, but F91 and Progres should make it.
This game brought the curtain down on my little Grand Duchy tour. I failed to see any of the local teams win, or indeed glimpse any signs that the Luxembourg game is on the cusp of moving up a notch, but it is a wonderful wee country, and while they enjoy their football, it does not rule lives here, and I like that. The pace of living is relaxed out with the capital, and that is reflected in its football too. None of the towns I stayed in or visited, aside from Luxembourg City are anything more than functional and tidy, they have no big draw attractions, but that doesn’t mean they lack character. Luxembourg has its own array of football folklore already, and a re-match between Progres and Rangers might just add to its pantheon!
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By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's ToepokerAlloa Athletic: what will life after Goodwin be like?
Jim Goodwin's successor will join the Wasps at an awkward time, in that the club have signed up a load of players that Goodwin wanted; in fact the squad now is about the same size as it was last season before it was augmented with savvy loan signings. The new Alloa boss will need to decide whether he can pull off the same trick with temporary transfers or convince the chairman to find the money for a few more new faces, as well as ponder what to do with the ones he has inherited. It doesn't help that Goodwin will be such a hard act to follow - avoiding relegation once was a miracle, but to do it twice would be...er....what's even more unlikely than a miracle?
Arbroath: can the League One winners make the step up?
Dick Campbell actually admitted to the BBC that he will have to dip into the loan market to strengthen his team further, though out of necessity he has stuck with the guys that won promotion. There simply isn't anyone out there who will play for part-time wages and who is better than the Red Lichties already have. The trouble is that what they already have - as you'd expect - are players who are either in the twilight of their careers or who couldn't cut it at full-time clubs. Campbell is a master at making his team stronger than the sum of their parts, but after two promotions with Arbroath this could be a step too far.
Ayr United - how will they cope with losing so many key players?
Everyone knows about Lawrence Shankland's exit, but Ayr have also lost defenders Michael Rose and Liam Smith this summer, while goalkeeper Ross Doohan has returned to parent club Celtic. That quartet were United's four best players last season, and first choice midfielders Robbie Crawford and Declan McDaid have left too. That's a lot of holes to fill, and many of those who are still at the club are, diplomatically speaking, getting on a bit. Mark Kerr (37), Michael Moffat (35), Steven Bell (34) and Andy Geggan (32) are joined by Kris Doolan, a savvy and clever forward who nevertheless is now 32 and scored only six goals last season. Can he really replace the freescoring Shankland?
Dundee - can James McPake gel a new team together quickly enough?
This blogger wasn't overly impressed with Dundee's early business this window, but he has been appeased by the impressive signings of Jordon Forster and Shaun Byrne. Nevertheless the squad turnover has been huge - only seven senior players remain from the squad that was relegated in May - and integrating the new players will take time. Bear in mind both Partick Thistle and Caley Thistle decimated their squads after relegation and had shocking starts to their first seasons back in the Championship. The risk of this happening at Dens seems high with a rookie manager and some dodgy results in July and August could heap the pressure on McPake...especially if their city rivals get off to a flier.
Dundee United - have they any space for further new signings?
The SPFL club with the most players over 21 under contract are Rangers. The club with the second most are Dundee United, despite the fact that Robbie Neilson punted pretty everyone whose contract was up. Amongst those still on the payroll at Tannadice are Adam Barton, Fraser Aird, Christoph Rabitsch, Yannick Loemba, Frederic Frans and Sam Wardrop. Expect all seven, plus possibly Callum Booth and Sam Stanton, to be away by the end of August, but how much will it cost to pay off their contracts? And how much leeway do United have to bring in more new players until they go? Thankfully Neilson did decent business in January and the signings he has made are in areas of weakness, with new full-backs (Adrian Sporle and Liam Smith) and a replacement for Pavol Safranko (Lawrence Shankland) signed up. This is a squad that can, and should, win this league.
Dunfermline - is their new strategy going to work?
"The playing budget, our most significant cost, will need to be reduced significantly. Our focus will be on investing in young, hungry players who are on an upward trajectory in their career, looking to develop those players as future assets which we can then realise to mutual advantage." So stated Dunfermline's board in May. Has any club ever wanted players that aren't 'hungry', by the way? Stevie Crawford retained just seven senior players and has scoured Scotland's lower divisions and English under 23 sides for youngsters...and Paul Paton. With luck, they'll find some gems who can fire them to promotion and earn them a few bucks in transfer fees. But as Falkirk - and Paul Paton - will attest to, when this sort of plan goes wrong, it goes very wrong.
Greenock Morton - are we reading too much into the Sutton move?
It's been all change at Cappielow this summer with a new manager and only half a dozen senior players retained. Unsurprisingly, David Hopkin has been busy, making eight signings so far. He appears to be staking a lot on Aidan Nesbitt - underwhelming at Dundee United last season - and Robbie Muirhead - a complete non-factor at Dunfermline - fulfilling some of their potential. And while Nicky Cadden and Kyle Jacobs will boost the midfield, the other signings are from League One and the English non-leagues; are they rough diamonds, or are they just cheap? The worry that it is the latter has been exacerbated by the fanfare over John Sutton re-registering as a player. 35 year old Sutton hung up his boots a year ago and to be honest looked past it well before then. Is this just a prudent move to make sure he's an option in an emergency? Or is it a sign that Morton's budget is really tight?
Inverness CT - how will they replace Liam Polworth?
Whatever Caley Thistle supporters thought of Polworth, the bottom line is that he was an assist machine both from open play and set pieces. Now he's gone to Motherwell they'll have to find a new source of goalscoring chances. Pre-season signs are that John Robertson is moving towards a 4-4-2 with James Keatings as a second striker. Inverness do have two excellent wide players in Aaron Doran and Tom Walsh, and the burden of supplying Keatings and Jordan White is likely to fall on them. The flipside is that it will be harder to dominate the midfield area and get possession further ip the pitch in the first place.
Partick Thistle - are there enough goals in this side?
The surprise return of Scott Fox to Firhill, and the return from injury of Tam O'Ware should give Thistle a good defensive foundation to build upon. At the other end, it's a different matter. The club's top three league scorers - Blair Spittal, Kris Doolan and Scott McDonald - have all left, and they were hardly goal machines. If Aidan Fitzpatrick moves to Norwich as expected then there will be no-one left who scored more than two league goals last season. At the moment Caldwell's options are Lewis Mansell, who did enough on loan from Blackburn last season to earn a permanent deal but who is very raw, and 39 year old Kenny Miller. Has Miller got enough left in the tank? We'll see. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Fitzpatrick money is used to strengthen the attack further, and last month they were linked with a loan move for Rangers' Zak Rudden, who would be an excellent addition.
Queen of the South - will Allan Johnston have to perform some magic?
Lack of money is a bit of a theme here, isn't it? Johnston saved the Doonhamers from the drop after being parachuted in for the playoff games, but only six players remain from last season's squad (thankfully, one of them is Stephen Dobbie). Some will have been surplus to requirements but Jordan Marshall, Kyle Jacobs, Josh Todd and Michael Doyle got better offers from other full-time clubs. Johnston has brought in five players so far, four of whom are in their second spell at the club - getting back Callum Semple looks like a real coup - but reports of sixteen trialists been used in a friendly match suggest he's still scratching around. And at the time of writing, less than a fortnight before the League Cup games start, he has a grand total of zero midfield players. Not an ideal situation.
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.
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By tm4tj in Football adventures with James RendallClick to view slideshow.
If you have ever seen Roberto Benigni’s film, Life is Beautiful, the funny first half of the movie is set in Arezzo, a real gem of Southern Tuscany. It is a wonderful region of Italy, perhaps the most famous, and also the most visited in its entirety. Yes, Firenze and the Torre Pendiente in Pisa are the main attractions, but Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca as well as my destination for my last game of the season, Arezzo, they are all “classic” Tuscan towns.
Three of the aforementioned towns were involved in the protracted, but increasingly popular 28 team Serie C promotion play offs, and one in the relegation play-out! Lucchese who featured earlier in the season, pleasingly, despite having a fraught season off the field have survived in the third tier. Siena who went all the way to the final of the 17/18 promotion edition only to lose to Cosenza, fell at the first hurdle this time around losing at home to Novara. The Piemonte side, who also featured in a recent FW’s then went across some Tuscan hills from Siena to Arezzo in Round 2 and having trailed 2-0 late on, Novara gave the home team a few last minute jitters when they level at 2-2. Now here is the interesting thing about the Italian play-offs where league position counts for something, and despite being held, having finished higher in the table, Arezzo moved onto Round 3. Viterbese were next in town from the “southern” third tier having won the Coppa Italia C, and despite finishing 12th the cup success gave them the advantage of any draw against Arezzo who had finished 4th. Each round now saw home and away affairs with the higher ranked granted home advantage in the second game, but while Viterbese might have done well in winning the cup, a confident Arezzo swept them away 5,0 on aggregate. At the same time Pisa were seeing off another Tuscan side Carrarese, one of those forever a third tier teams, and true to form Pisa nudged them out 4-3 before heading south to tackle Arezzo, which is where I got involved!
Arezzo’s encouraging conclusion to the regular season, as well as their continued good form in the opening rounds of the play-offs, combined with a joust with Tuscan rivals Pisa, sparked a frenzy for tickets, the likes of which the town had rarely experienced in the modern era! It became increasingly fraught for anyone not actually staying in Arezzo as the online sales were withdrawn when it became apparent that Pisan fans were buying them up as fast as they could! In the end, these were largely tracked down and exchanged but the online element never became available again. Luckily I was arriving in Arezzo at lunch-time the day before the game, but upon checking into my hotel, I was greeted with the news from Enrico the receptionist that all the tickets were gone, which had been my worst fear travelling down from Bologna that morning. I could not have wished for a more helpful receptionist though, Enrico is a season ticket holder, and had ventured down to Viterbo for the second leg of the last round too. When he saw my Arezzo t-shirt, and that I had travelled from Edinburgh, he was immediately on the case trying to help my quest for a ticket. It became apparent that a few briefs were still available and getting myself along to the club for the ticket office re-opening would guarantee me access to the hottest ticket in town!
Arezzo is an hour south of Firenze on the main rail route to Roma, a mere 80 kilometres. From the minute you step out of the railway station and look up, the street in front gradually opens up to the spires of old Arezzo town skyline. I have been in Arezzo many times, twice previously for football, and it is a town that will keep pulling me back, I love it. The centre piece is the seriously sloping Piazza Grande, complete with a wishing well, and a small fountain, but surrounded on all sides by a magnificent church and lavish period buildings, with a municipal building beside the Santa Maria Della Pieve church allowing you access to the roof, affording stunning views of the Piazza as well as the rooftops of Arezzo and the surrounding Tuscan hills. In the film “Life is Beautiful”, Roberto Benigni would run down one of the narrow streets that lead onto Piazza Grande to meet his wife and son with a warm embrace and “Buongiorno principessa! A little further up the hill from the Piazza, the sumptuous gardens at the back of the Cathedral are a wonderful place to chill out, as well as affording stunning views from the city wall ramparts.
I have been to two games prior to this big occasion in Arezzo, and on both visits I was sitting in the main covered Tribuna stand, which runs the length of the pitch. For the Pisa game, what tickets were left were merely for the Curva Sud, a vast high terracing behind one goal. I was just happy to be in attendance, and while the forecast was for potential showers, I would have gladly got soaked if need be to witness this marvellous occasion. As it was, taking my umbrella warded away the rain, and the sky broke to add a little sunshine to the early exchanges. What I hadn’t legislated for was the view back over the ground towards Arezzo from the Curva, wow it is breathtaking, and for any subsequent matches here, it can only be the Curva for me from now on!
A joust with Pisa is a very suitable term to use, as like Siena with it’s spectacularly dangerous bareback horse race, il Palio, and Firenze’s violent “ancient” football, Arezzo has it’s very own medieval pageantry il Giostra del Saracino, the Saracen Joust. This is essentially, a bi-annual jousting contest between the different areas of Arezzo in the Piazza Grande, and for the locals it’s serious business. I was once in Arezzo for dress rehearsal night, with each team parading in full pageant dress, complete with drummers and long horn players, but the centrepiece of each team was the lavishly dressed horse and the jouster! On the day of the Pisa match the build up to the next joust was just starting as all the emblems of the city had appeared on the buildings in the Piazza Grande overnight, and doubtlessly in the coming days the square wouldn’t be looking so spectacular as the scaffolding for seats, and the sand for the joust track would be arriving! As it was, the morning after the game I left town, but as I did, a note to self was made, try and witness il Giostra one day!
The Citta di Arezzo stadio is on the edge of town, a 20/30 minute walk to the right from the road in front of the railway station if daytripping in for a game, but try and stay, you won’t be disappointed! It had an official registered capacity of 7,350, and while they easily packed more than that in for the Pisa game, it could have been even more if the Gradinata opposite the main stand wasn’t condemned and merely sits there acting as a large advertising billboard for the clubs main sponsors! On the night, the attendance was recorded as 8,500, Arezzo had gone football mad!
It was like arriving in a different Arezzo from any previous visit, Racing Roma had been “low” key, and Lucchese, while another Tuscan derby, was midweek and too early in the season last term for anyone to be too excited! The 2017/18 season had in fact been a horror show for Arezzo, having games suspended for a couple of weeks and points being deducted but they even managed to avoid a play-out with Prato by managing to create an 8 point gap between the clubs by the very last day, thereby averting a two leg play off and sending Prato down automatically! Another fair curiosity of the Italian rule book! The fighting spirit that had saved them then was still apparent throughout the current campaign, and expectations were rising in the town, it was palpable and with good reason, they hadn’t lost even a goal to Pisa in the regular campaign! Shops were adorned with the clubs colours (another maroon team!) complete with the club badge with it’s rearing horse logo, the city emblem. An aggregate win over Pisa would set up a two legged “final” for a place in Serie B with sleeping giants Triestina as it transpired.
In October 1983 when I bought my first edition of Guerin Sportivo, Arezzo were top of Serie B along with Campobasso, another where are they now club! Alas Arezzo fell agonisingly close to making the top flight for the first ever time that season, and it is still an ambition that eludes them, as ‘83/84 was about as good as it ever got. Four years later they were back in C, and they’ve never been higher since. The club had two previous spells in the second tier, the first was in 1966 which was celebrated with a friendly against unusual opposition from Rio de Janeiro in the form of Vasco de Gama, and in 1971 they had cult player Francesco Graziani leading the line. The clubs only honour came in 1980/81 when they defeated Ternana to win the Coppa Italia C. The obligatory bankruptcies came in 1993 and 2009/10. A few years ago, having finished runners up in Serie D, a very late in the day place in the third tier became available and the authorities “plucked” Arezzo out of D to the consternation of all the other second placed teams in the other eight groups! Aside from struggling financially off the pitch last season, the club had never looked back since that stroke of luck, and now it was getting ready for the biggest home game in more than a decade at least!
I was in the ground around an hour ahead of kick off, along with at least two thirds of the crowd. The only bar, The Stadio Bar on the main street close by is small to say the least, with many spilled out in the street. Queues were forming by 19,00 for a 20,30 kick off, so getting a good vantage point for viewing and photos was paramount. The Pisa fans arrived with police escort and little by little they grew in number, but it was well past kick off before they unfurled their choreographic response to Arezzo’s stunning effort just ahead of kick off. As I was part of the army of tifosi participating on the Curva Sud, it wasn’t until I saw a photo from the Tribuna of the magnificent spectacle, it was breathtaking. The photo of the Curva choreography comes from Rob a fellow football weekender who travelled from Chianti the day before I arrived to get his ticket! Neither of us would leave the stadium disappointed by this pulsating match, but with my attachment to Arezzo, the feeling of “what if” took days to leave me.
Pisa came out of the blocks stronger, perhaps the sense of occasion and the size of the crowd got to the home side, and it was no surprise when Marconi swept Pisa in front. Gradually Arezzo’s exciting forward thinking play was pushing the Pisans back, and ahead of the break they deservedly equalised through the excellent Cutolo. A minute into the second half saw a wonderful free flowing Arezzo move end in a goal leading to bedlam in the Curva. The atmosphere was amazing throughout, both sets of fans were brilliant, but at 2-1 it was spine tingling! Pisa are a well organised, gritty team, but the referee did seem to buy most of their antics, one of which brought a soft penalty to make it 2-2, and as Arezzo pressed on to try to regain the lead, Pisa picked them off to go in front again, and we still had half an hour to play! A late penalty award for Arezzo to level things up was well saved, and despite a lot of endeavour, Pisa held on to win 2,3. No one left in a hurry, the applause at both ends was warm. Arezzo would need to win by two clear goals in Pisa if they were going to progress, but I am sure the penalty miss weighed heavily.
When the dust settled on the return leg, a late strike in Pisa for a 1,0 home win sent them through to play Triestina, and despite being held 2,2 at home, Pisa took full advantage of a late red card to beat Triestina 3,1 in front of 26,000 in Trieste to get promotion to Serie B and bring back their huge derby with Livorno. These play offs are tough, and exciting with crowds swarming in droves to cheer their clubs on, that largely ends in heartache, but for the lucky team and their fans, it’s one huge adrenaline rush party! Arezzo as a town came together, belief in the team has rarely been higher, and if the players and management can keep the momentum going, 2019/20 could be a truly memorable one.
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By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's ToepokerAberdeen: how hard will this window hit them?
Graeme Shinnie has gone. Gary Mackay-Steven has gone. Max Lowe's loan spell has finished. And Celtic are sniffing around Scott McKenna again. It felt like the Dons took a small step backwards last season, and the same could happen this time around unless Derek McInnes has some decent signings up his sleeve - Craig Bryson counts as one, though on last year's showing James Wilson wouldn't.
Celtic: do they have a plan?
There may well have been a bit of gamesmanship involved in the David Turnbull saga, but there's a danger of the whole "magnificent offer" malarkey becoming the club's Concomitant moment. More concerning was the leaking of the team's transfer plans for the summer, partly because it was leaked and partly because the names were either uninspiring or unrealistic.With Kieran Tierney being courted by Arsenal and ex-messiah Brendan Rodgers sniffing around Callum McGregor, there's a risk of significant upheaval - exactly what the Neil Lennon appointment was designed to minimize. As for loan signings, West Brom's criticism of how Lennon treated Oli Burke might put other clubs off sending their youngsters to Parkhead.
Hamilton: does everyone really want to play for Brian Rice?
The theme of Accies' offseason seems to be that every new signing waxes lyrical about the skills of the club's Head Coach. Rice had a strong reputation as an assistant manager but the way some of his players are talking seems to suggest he's Pep Guardiola. To be fair though Hamilton's results, performances and style improved after he took over in January - though that wasn't hard given the rut Martin Canning left them in. If he has a squad that buys into his ethos then Hamilton's chances of avoiding a relegation battle are far better.
Hearts: what's their philosophy?
Hearts were unfairly lambasted for being a physical, long ball team last season. The truth is that their best stuff came when they were a physical long ball team, but they didn't play like that enough. Their spirited cup final performance seems to have bought Craig Levein a bit of breathing space but he's got to do better than sixth in the league with the resources he has available. One option is to gamble on the talented youngsters he has available; there are 18 players on Hearts' books who are under 21 but have played for the first team already, and Aaron Hickey, Harry Cochrane, Callumn Morrison and Anthony McDonald look particularly special. But does Levein - and the Tynecastle support - have the patience to deal with the inevitable ups and downs that would come with throwing in the kids?
Hibernian: is Heckingbottom a good recruiter?
There's been a high turnover at Easter Road, which is out of necessity - they had a ton of loan players - rather than because Paul Heckingbottom specifically wanted to bring in his own squad. And apart from Stephane Omeonga and Marc McNulty Hibs have only lost fringe players. But there's a significant lack of depth, particularly up front which needs corrected. Basically if Hibs are to push on they need to either find a new McNulty (or retain the old one) or hope Flo Kamberi gets his mojo back.
Kilmarnock: what does Alessio have in mind?
The appointment of Angelo Alessio is exciting, but Killie have essentially lost a month's worth of recruitment time and currently have just one striker on the books. Given his experience and contacts it wouldn't be a surprise if the Italian manager looked to the continent for new players; Killie fans live in hope that Antonio Conte might offer up some of his Internazionale youngsters on loan! In the meantime there's only two weeks before the clash with the mighty Connah's Quay Nomads...
Motherwell: how should they spend the Turnbull cash?
The windfall that the 'Well will receive for David Turnbull - apparently £2.8million plus add-ons - is approximately half the club's annual turnover. It will be interesting to see how much gets put back into the playing squad budget. In recent times they have been financially prudent and they will doubtless know that splashing the cash on new players and big wages will come back to bite them. And Stephen Robinson has already made six signings in this window. On the flipside there is now a fifteen-goal-shaped-hole in the centre of midfield that needs filled.
Rangers: can they get any return on their dead wood?
Eros Grezda, Kyle Lafferty, Graeme Dorrans, Jason Holt, Eduardo Herrera, Joe Dodoo, plus surely one of the backup keepers...anyone else in Rangers' bloated squad that they are desperate to get rid of? (edit - Jordan Rossiter, it turns out) The trouble with everyone knowing the players are surplus to requirements is that getting any sort of fee for them is rather hard. But the Gers' early dealings seem to suggest that there won't be a repeat of the big spending of the last two summers unless they raise the money through sales. And flogging Alfredo Morelos and/or James Tavernier would come with significant risk.
Ross County: are they actually getting stronger?
County have shown loyalty to the squad that got them promoted by signing nearly all of them on for another year. When you have the support of someone like Roy McGregor, you can afford to do that even if it costs you later. But one would expect new signings to upgrade the starting eleven. Instead we have Joe Chalmers and Blair Spittal, neither of whom are better than what the Staggies already have in their positions, and two goalkeepers in Chelsea loanee Nathan Baxter and Hibs no.3 Ross Laidlaw, who are probably not an improvement on Scott Fox. Surely there will be more new faces, but they need quality, not depth.
St. Johnstone: can they get a goalscorer?
Only once in the last five years has a Saintee got into double figures for league goals. Whilst that wasn't such a huge factor when Steven Maclean was linking up play and helping set them up for teammates, Tommy Wright can't call on anyone of that calibre just now. Chris Kane is willing but hasn't developed as well as hoped, Callum Hendry is still raw and David McMillan is a bust. The trouble is, everyone wants a striker who can score goals; can Wright find one and convince him to come to Perth?
St. Mirren: what the hell is going on?
At the time of writing, Oran Kearney is on the brink of being punted, allegedly because he insists on commuting from Norn Iron. That would leave the Buddies looking for their eighth manager in five years just a few weeks before the League Cup games start. To make matters worse they have relatively few players under contract and this fiasco will hold up further signings; Mihai Popescu had turned up for training on Monday but doesn't know if he'll actually be kept on or not. This shambles will be very difficult for Kearney's successor to rectify.
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.
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By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's ToepokerSteve Clarke's first couple of games in charge will have given him an idea of what he has to work with. In some areas he is pretty well off, but in others he's either going to have to hope some players really improve or he's going to have to compensate for the deficiencies. Here's how his options look at each position, going from our strongest area to our weakest...
Greg Taylor did himself proud in Brussels with a tenacious, committed performance. He's got a bright future ahead of him...as Scotland's third choice at the position. That's how spoilt we are for left-backs. Captain Andrew Robertson will of course be the starter whenever he has two working legs.
Against Cyprus, we could field John McGinn and Kenny McLean, both of whom will be first choices for Premier League clubs next season, and Callum McGregor, arguably the best player in Scotland over the last two years. For the Belgium match in came Manchester United's Scott McTominay and, in a more advanced role, Stuart Armstrong of Southampton. For future matches where an attacking playmaker is needed, Clarke will be able to call upon Tom Cairney - who, going by his willingness to come along just to be a sub, clearly had a beef with Alex McLeish - and Ryan Christie, who missed this double-header with injury. There's also John Fleck, promoted to the English top flight with Sheffield United and who understandably declined to postpone his wedding for this round of games. We may not have an absolute world class talent, but we are pretty stacked at this position.
The setup against Cyprus shows that Clarke is not wedded to the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 that worked so well for him at Kilmarnock - which is just as well as the pace and dribbling of Ryan Fraser and James Forrest are our two best attacking assets. The caveat is that there is not a lot of depth; Johnny Russell started wide against Belgium because of his fresh legs and willingness to do defensive work, while Robert Snodgrass and Matt Ritchie remain out of the international picture and Matt Phillips has disappeared from contention.
David Marshall justified his recall and is probably an adequate option going forward. But I don't blame Clarke for trying to convince Jed Steer of Aston Villa and Angus Gunn of Southampton to join the fray. I also don't blame him for not rushing to anoint Scott Bain as first choice. The best case scenario is that Liam Kelly, still only 23, continues to blossom when he leaves Livingston this summer.
At the moment, the choice is between natural right-back Stephen O'Donnell (or Liam Palmer, though all I've seen of him was that Kazakhstan debacle), former right-back Callum Paterson who now plays his club football in midfield or up front, or shoehorning Kieran Tierney into this position. I personally don't mind the latter, but an awful lot of folk disagree. Regardless, none of the options are ideal.
The potential is there; Scott McKenna and John Souttar clearly have bright futures, while Stuart Findlay thoroughly deserved his call-up and David Bates hasn't disgraced himself when called upon. All four are 23 or under. What odds that two of them can step up and become the type of central defender Scotland used to have loads of in the eighties and nineties? In the meantime, Clarke has felt obliged to insert Charlie Mulgrew into the lineup as much for his experience as anything else, and will also fancy that he has the tactical nous to cover up some of the deficiencies in the backline. Oh, and this is another position I can see Tierney end up playing in...
Given the time constraints, it's so much easier to coach an international team to defend than to attack. And so having a centre forward who can do it on his own can make a middling side so much more dangerous - think Gareth Bale of Wales or Robert Lewandowski of Poland. In the last two matches Scotland played...Eamonn Brophy and Oli Burke. Brophy was a 'devil you know' option who knows exactly what Clarke wants from his front men, which is great in terms of defending from the front but he offered zilch in attacking threat. Burke gave us a microcosm of his career so far; twenty excellent minutes against Cyprus where he looked dangerous and showed his full array of physical attributes followed by a start against Belgium where he looked like a headless chicken and justified concerns about his football IQ with a series of bad decisions. He's still only 22; surely there's a player there?
As for the others, the best long-term hope might be Oli McBurnie who scored 22 goals in the Championship last season, but in the immediate future Steven Fletcher's experience and quality link-up play may make him first choice. Alternatively, Leigh Griffiths may come back from his absence as sharp as he was two years ago. But sadly the most likely outcome is that Scotland are going to have to look to other areas of the team for goals.
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.
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