Search the Community

Showing results for tags 'james rendall'.



More search options

  • Search By Tags

    Type tags separated by commas.
  • Search By Author

Content Type


Categories

  • News 2019-20
  • Previews 2019-20
  • Reports 2019-20
  • Uncategorized
  • History
  • Archives
    • News Archive
    • Preview Archive
    • Report Archive
    • Gringo
    • Boardroom Banter

Forums

  • The Terracing
    • Caley Thistle
    • Supporters Trust
    • UK Football
    • World Football
    • Rumour Mill
    • Other Sports
    • Gringo's NPL
    • Betting Forum
  • Down The Pub
    • Serious Discussion
    • General Nonsense
    • For Sale/Swap/Auction
    • Technical Support
  • Memory Lane
    • Olde Inverness
    • Classic Music
    • Retro TV

Blogs

There are no results to display.

There are no results to display.


Find results in...

Find results that contain...


Date Created

  • Start

    End


Last Updated

  • Start

    End


Filter by number of...

Joined

  • Start

    End


Group


Website


Facebook


Twitter


Skype


Location


Interests

Found 31 results

  1. RENDALLS RAMBLES We have created a nostalgic look back at our first 25 years thanks to James Rendall, a fan from the start who has been sharing his love of this club with all. Were you at these games and what do you remember. I will add some comments from the site to the articles if they are relevant and will add to the enjoyment of the article. James also has his own world football blog of his travels and that can be found HERE. Certainly worth a read from our well travelled fan. I hope you all enjoy these articles which we will add a couple every week. The first three are published now ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Enjoy a walk down memory lane with Caley Jags and world football fan James Rendall. He's a well travelled football connoisseur who has been following the Caley Jags from the start. He has put together a fascinating nostalgic review of Inverness Caledonian Thistle's first 25 years as witnessed through his own eyes. Thanks James, a remarkable commitment to the beautiful game. Take a walk in James' shoes and relive the early days..............
  2. Rendalls Rambles #9 The final two seasons from James in his wonderful nostalgic look at 25 years of Inverness Caledonian Thistle and more, from the first game at East Stirling to the last game at Tannadice in the play off semi-final. It's been some journey and the roller coaster that is following the Caley Jags will continue; for better or for worse. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No.24 (Games 1,125 to 1,204) Old familiar: After the trauma of the previous season and the agony of the narrow margin which saw us relegated, it was good to see a sensible choice in manager come to fruition. It is said, never go back, and in the case of Craig Brewster it hadn't worked, but Robbo is folklore in Inverness, he was the man who guided us into the top flight all those years ago. Now he was tasked with ripping up the squad and starting over. It was never going to be easy, and the early results were typical of a side who had just come down. I am sure though, as October and November clicked round some of us were remembering the run we put together to get us immediately back up previously! It was an inconspicuous start to my viewing season, a turgid 0-0 at Stirling (not the first in recent history) followed by a narrow 2-0 penalty shoot out win, the lowest penalty shoot out win in Scottish history ☺. Having taken Dunfermline apart in the League Cup at East End last season, they got early August league revenge this time around, as we went down 5-1, and we knew it was going to be a long season. Hapless Brechin were thumped 4-0 at the iconic Glebe Park, but the next time we pitched up there in late December they still hadn't won a game and ran us close, however we came from behind to win 3-2. In October a 2-0 win at Tannadice was the catalyst for thinking we were ready to go on a run! Bedding in for a point at Livingston wasn't all bad, they rather disturbingly from an ex-Meadowbank perspective were going well. The goals dried up, but Robbo was endeavouring to get our defence more solid too, and the leaking of goals also dried up. We were becoming tougher to beat, and another 0-0 with QotS at home was case in point, then a narrow 1-0 win over Dumbarton in early December, the first time we'd met the Sons at home in a league game! Morton nibbled a 1-0 win at Cappielow, although I have a vague recollection this was a dubious penalty?! Post Glebe joy, we toughed out a draw to open the New Year 1-1 with Livi, but it was a real quality game, before losing again in Renfrewshire at the Methadome. More élan was on display as we sweep QotS aside 3-1, but going down at the Bairnabeu by the same score was making this season seem like a game of snakes and ladders, no consistency. The score was tighter but the Pars won 1-0 at Parslandia, a team that would inadvertently come back to bite us a few months later. While the league results were up and down we had found ourselves in the Challenge Cup Final having seen off Northern Ireland's Crusaders amongst others. Dumbarton were in the final too, a first final for 100+ years! They nearly took us all the way, but a late, late goal won us this gong again and sent the Sons back to the Rock with nada! That result did inject impetuous to a late charge for the play offs, and when we played the Sons in mid April the Pars management were hiding amongst the ICT fans running their eye over our form. We won that night 1-0 and four days later we were on our way leading Dunfermline 2-1 until a late equaliser meant that they had the advantage going into the last game, at home to play out bound Dumbarton, and they saw it through, we ended fifth. We'd left it too late, but signs of green shoots were visible in our play. It was encouraging, unlike my solitary peek at Scotland's continued European debacles. St Johnstone having lost out to Armenian debutants Alashkert last term went and did it again, this time with a home loss to Trakai from Lithuania! The most unusual friendly ever, saw Stranraer entertain Twente Enschede on a glorious day down at Stair Park. They got thumped 5-0 but that was never the point, the bandstand outside the ground was a kitchen for the evening, as food, drink, dance and friendships were made, an absolutely brilliant day. Buckie came down to Cowdenbeath in the League Cup, a sample of what might have been had the Moray boys got past East Kilbride at the end of last season. The Fifers won 3-2 but they'd have more Highland battles by the season's end. Brora were also in Fife in the Challenge Cup, they lost 3-0 but it was a cruel scoreline on a brave open performance at Raith, but in January they'd be along the road at Methil beating East Fife 1-0 in the 4th round of the Scottish Cup. Spartans were regularly viewed and CSS, Dalbeattie, Gala and Edinburgh Uni were all beaten home or away as they headed towards a terrific Championship winning season culminating in a 0-0 with East Stirlingshire, which was enough courtesy of Stirling Uni stunning East Kilbride. They also hosted Linfield in the Challenge Cup, coming up just short of a shock. The league below the Lowland, the East of Scotland League was now a step on the ladder to the league football and the inaugural Junior defectors Kelty Hearts were run close by Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale, but when I saw them play Tweedmouth they won big 11,1! That was part of a weather hampered groundhop, which included a Burntisland home game for the first ever time for me, and a first ever Shipyard goal in a 2-1 loss to Preston Athletic. The final game of the day saw another first, my first ever indoor game at the Oriam, a cracking 2-2 draw between Heriot Watt Uni and Leith Athletic, whose equaliser still ranks amongst the best goals I have ever seen. I continued seeing Spartans on occasion as the title came closer, going down to Innerleithen and Hawick to see them win. I then found myself in Castle Douglas for the first ever South v East play off for promotion. A tight first half led to a four goal Kelty blitz in the second. Threave's trip north was a mere formality the following week, and having nipped up for the second half from Cowdenbeath, it was 6-0 to the Fifers at the break, and remarkably they failed to add to the score in the second. Cove fell short at Central Park where dubious officiating had played with the Cove heads, aiding them losing 3-2 as Dung for a second successive season had survived, just! The domestic season ended with Kelty winning the very old Kings Cup 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 draw with Preston Athletic at Dalkeith. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No 25 2018/19 (Games 1205 to 1310) So nearly joyous: With the 26th league campaign of the Empire starting out next Saturday, it seems appropriate the curtain comes down on a quarter of a century of memories on Mother Inverness with the final recollection here. Of course it all ended so horribly last May in Arabia, and guess where it all starts on Saturday? Yip back in the sands of Arabia, in a street we will be well familiar with by the end of August as today (Jul28th) we play Arabia's near neighbours, the Dee and again in under 4 weeks! Passport obliteration with Arabia stamps 😁. But one is jumping the gun 🔫, lest we wind back the clock just over a year. France hadn't lifted the World Cup yet when we trotted out at home to Cove in the League Cup! The first game of any new season, always a bunting kind of occasion, and against the crack Highland League winners so cruelly denied at Cowdenbeath a few weeks earlier. However, before a ball was kicked the first disappointment of the season? You will notice in the photo below an array of programmes, from the English 6th and 7th tier, the Scottish 5th and 6th tier and even the German 3rd tier, but not one Inverness souvenir of the season 😔. We have gone digital, and I for one am not happy. It is a cheap cop out, and a tawdry online effort too! The programme might be a diminished notion in the eyes of some, but it is still a highly treasured item for those who love their football. The club should at least offer a printed version at a cost if anyone wishes to have a hard copy, and they should at least attempt to make even the online effort worthy of people looking it up! I see this malaise continues in the north with Peterhead joining the ranks this season. But not to have a feature celebrating the first 25 years in a traditional programme, it's shabby. Rant over! 😀. You'll find me contributing to the Aberdeen programme for the Euro clash with Chikhura and if they progress, Rijecka! They put together a programme together that they can rightly be proud! So we saw off Cove 2-0 on a bright mid July day and trotted into Tynecastle with a maximum nine points having thumped Cowdenbeath 5-2, but we got a right doing that day 5-0 against a team we could benchmark ourselves against later in the campaign. The league opener saw us collect all three points from the Bairnabeu, 1-0, and a few weeks later having drawn at home with new boys Alloa and Ayr, Dunfermline were despatched convincingly 3-0 at Parslandia. The squad hadn't altered hugely, the confidence of the near play off late charge last season was still there. But it somehow got bogged down in too many draws and we started to lose touch with those who were collecting three rather than one point. By late November we were still unbeaten, and I hadn't been at an ICT game since late August due to a variety of trips and other sundry debacles, but the club record unbeaten record was close. It seemed to be going up in a puff of smoke, but remarkably the metal of the team was shown, racing back from three down at Palmerston to get a draw, indeed we nearly won it! Alas, an inability to beat QotS and struggles versus Alloa were two reasons we would fall short of challenging for the top spot. In the Scottish Cup at Edinburgh City, the drawing theme continued in a game we seemed comfortable but were ultimately hanging on. By the start of 2019 the unbeaten run was over, but the draws kept coming, 2-2 at the Bairns in a game that really ebbed and flowed, but the second trip to the Pars saw us lose 1-0, followed by a similar score at Arabia, albeit via a dubious penalty. It was all slipping away, enthusiasm started to dampen. When I next pitched up it was Hampden, sandwiched between trips to Italy and Germany. Hearts fans were nervous and unlike the 5-0 drubbing we were in this. Even after falling behind we came at them strong, and had it been a right footed player whom tackled Mulraney it would have been more obvious that ball came of the Hearts players foot and no offside would have denied McCart's exquisite finish. The JT keeper had a magnificent save and from then our fight back petered out as Hearts found a little confidence and ran out 3-0 winners. We made the play offs, a first for the club, and we kept our fine hoodoo over Ayr with a good win down at Somerset Park in the first joust 3-1. It all seemed to be coming together nicely, how marvellous would it have been to end 25 years back at the top table. Alas the officials had other ideas, and Liam Polworth's last contribution to the club was a harsh red in a tight first leg at home to Arabia. However that incident pales into insignificance along side ridiculous penalty award they got just ahead of the break in the second game. It was the straw that broke the camels back, as up until that moment we were in the game. Karma comes in a variety of forms, but Arabia missed ALL the penalties versus St Mirren after two tedious play off final encounters. We will trot out there next Saturday looking for revenge!! However, James is a man of many stadiums and here's an insight into how he spent his non Caley Jags time last season........ The season started for me on the 5th July at the Bairnabeu when East Stirlingshire were hosting Frickley?! And two days later Wick beat Orkney in a thriller up north!! Cove were back at Central Park for a re-match in our LC group, but this was a tame affair, the Fifers prevailing 1-0, before zipping up to Kelty to see Brora beat Clydebank 2-1, as you do! The Spartans entertained Killie in the LC too, losing 3-0 but putting in a brave shift. Hibs were in Europe and this time I saw all the goals as they roared back from 2-0 down to Greek side Asteras Tripolis to win 3-2. They then hosted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Molde as he showed his Man United credentials with a 0-0 in Leith 😁. Kelty Hearts had been promoted to the Lowland League at the first time of asking and hosted Dalbeattie in their first ever game in that league. It ended 2-2, but exactly a year on, the same fixture ended 8-0 yesterday with Nathan Austin getting a brace. My Football Weekends escapades took me beyond Inverness to Golspie to cover the Scottish Cup tie with that other great Cup name Burntisland Shipyard. The Shippy are now semi professional having ditched the amateur status and won here relatively comfortably, 4-1, and I saw them host Bonnyrigg, a side who beat them 14-0 as amateurs last season. The same 4-1 score for the Rose, but it flattered the visitors. The explosion of East Juniors into the East of Scotland League spiced up the entertainment locally from that league. At the lower end of the leagues you have to admire the commitment of the players and back ground staff, as well as programme producers for the sheer effort and love of the game. As money continues to ruin the game at the top end, it is wonderful to enjoy merely a game without all the nonsense! A host of new venues were experienced. Tranent, without Ian Black lost 1-8 to Bonnyrigg, but with him, they would end the season in sweet revenge beating the Rose to win the King's Cup. By season's end Bonnyrigg were floundering, having won the most astonishing conclusion to the East of Scotland League season only to find out days later the SFA had denied them a license. It ruined a potentially significant haul of cups, but they won the league, and eventually commonsense prevailed as they were promoted. I saw the first Lowland fixture yesterday and intent was signalled with a 6-0 thumping of Vale of Leithen. It will be intriguing to see how they go at Berwick on Tuesday, teams who were two leagues apart last season! I was at all three of the one off title deciders in the East of Scotland League with Penicuik narrowly seeing off Broxburn, and then they lost narrowly at Bonnyrigg. The final game at Broxburn had everything! Leading 2-0 and Rose down to ten men, Broxburn were winning the title. At 2-1 Penicuik were Champions, then at 2-2 Rose 🌹 were back on top. In the final seconds as Broxburn looked for the winner, the ten men broke free and scored to win!! I ventured down to Annan to see Fraserburgh beat this joke side Edusports, now moved to Strathclyde Park and called Caledonian Braves, is this some American franchise?!! Brora fell tamely 1-0 at Cowdenbeath in the cup, while the CSS stalled East Kilbride's title charge with a 3-1 win. There are too many to go through the lot, when the dust settled on last term I had been at 105 games! I had never been close to that number previously. Meanwhile, back to the task at hand, the celebration of 25 years of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and James has the last words on his voyage.......... What a season that was, what a quarter of a century for ICT too! A Scottish Cup, third in the league, two Challenge Cups, playing in Europe and a host of drama aside. I hope I have caught a flavour of the times here over the last six months. Fingers crossed for a fantastic 26th season, starting soon at Dens!! Thanks James for sharing 25 years of the Caley Jags. Here's to more success and the next 25 seasons of our club. James' own blog of his worldwide football adventures can be found HERE. Enjoy
  3. Working on the assumption that Aberdeen nibble by Chikhura Sachkhere tomorrow night, this piece will be submitted to The Reds programme on Friday for use in the Europa League Third Round second leg versus Croatian visitors, HNK Rijeka, otherwise brown paper bags all round! Having been at three European games in Luxembourg, it would be great to enjoy more than one here! I am still gutted at being denied my first Partizan Beograd viewing. With HNK Rijeka having twice been an opponent in recent seasons, it is maybe from variety’s perspective a good thing that Fola Esch lost out to Chikhura, or it would have been two repeat rounds in a row for Reds away days! Tonight’s visitors and the previous Georgian guests both come from newish Independent lands, following the relatively straight forward break up of the Soviet Union at the time (except for Georgia, and now Ukraine), and the horrific war torn splintering of Yugoslavia. These two previous “super” states now account for 18 UEFA members, with the most recently added being Kosovo, perhaps the most controversial of them all as large swathes of the world don’t even recognise it as a country! When you consider that in the same period, little dots of land like Andorra, San Marino, Gibraltar and The Faroe Islands were added to the roster as well, you can see how the early rounds of the European competitions have become congested. The Intertoto Cup, that once angst ridden early season event that Scotland only ever advanced one solitary round, once, which was thanks to Hibs seeing off a truly dreadful Latvian club Dinaburg Daugavapils. That said I found myself smiling at the notion that the Latvians would love the new rule of being able to take the ball from a goal kick inside the box as it would have helped them immeasurably back then! I have never seen a goalkeeper so reticent to kick the ball long which resulted in the Hibs players just lined up on the edge of the box and awaited their prey! Only al trio of our clubs ever entered the doomed competition that had no winner or trophy! Partick Thistle were the pioneers back on the 1st July 1995 when they beat Icelandic side IBK Keflavik 3-1. This was the first game in a group of five clubs where you played two home and two away ties. NK Zagreb from Croatia were the second team to play in Glasgow and they won 2,1 at Firhill, a result that prevented the Jags from progressing. Now I know 24 years ago the world was less connected, but reading in that Partick programme that day that they knew absolutely nothing about their opponents was quite jarring! I have endeavoured to help out a few clubs since! Dundee were one, the third of our Intertoto participants but they merely lasted one joust losing out to Sartid Semederevo from Serbia. Oddly, that annual little “bible” of Scottish football, The Wee Red Book chooses not to include these European games in its listings for each club! I may have a unique claim to having been at all seven Intertoto games ever played in Scotland! I guess because of the early start to the season, our clubs didn’t always want to compete, and eventually the Intertoto was merged into the UEFA Cup thus making participation mandatory. In finishing fourth last term, Aberdeen have qualified from what was once Intertoto spot! It is only through this coming together of competitions that Wolves, Torino, Eintracht Frankfurt, Strasbourg and Espanol are involved in the second round from the big five nations in this seasons Europa League. UEFA seeding and co-efficient tables mean that even clubs who have never even participated in Europe can go straight into the Champion’s League and Europa League group stages if the country in which they compete domestically is high up the rankings, and they avoided the “Intertoto” slot. Wigan Athletic are one club that springs to mind, and perhaps a less obvious one was Augsburg from Germany. This North Bavarian city is twinned with Inverness, and remarkably both clubs debuted in European football in the same season, alas Caley Thistle were out long before the group stage ever came around! In many regards, I think from a fans perspective, aside from the desperately short notice to book trips, the quirky early round ties are enjoyed. Yes we all want to continue to the group stages, but by then you are coming up against the vacuum packed monied end of the European game. It is always good to challenge against the best, but it is also great to go to other lands, and see new places and cultures, as long as no visa is required! Those who ventured to the furthest end of the UEFA family in Almaty, I am sure they would have enjoyed the old Kazakh capital. Tbilisi is also an amazing city, and it might have whetted the appetite for further holiday plundering in Georgia. You haven’t done Georgian properly unless you had Khachapuri (a kind of pizza) washed down with a bottle of Borjomi, a distinctly curious drop of salty fizzy water! Rijeka isn’t the standout place to visit on the Croatian coastline, but its proximity to Slovenia and Trieste in Italy makes it an appealing area to discover. Rumours abound that UEFA are planning to re-introduce a third club competition again! Might we see the Cup Winners Cup back on the roster, albeit under a new name? If it was brought back, and the domestic cup winner was already qualified for the Champions League, or the Europa League, perhaps the cup runner up could get in again, or a play off featuring the losing semi-finalists maybe to decide who would represent the country. Yes that might on occasion mean Inverness are playing Dundee in a play off to take part, or Watford or Brighton representing England in a tournament full of lesser names, but does that matter? Do we always have to pander to money these days? It would give lesser lights a chance to shine. Michel Platini famously once said he wanted the second competition of Europe to be like an FA Cup, no seeding and if you weren’t good enough for the Champions League you didn’t deserve favouritism. That bold vision of course never came to pass, with pressure from the top football associations and their need to have as many safety nets and ways to keep generating money as possible on the table. The English top clubs have only really become interested in winning the Europa League since the instigation of a guaranteed Champions League slot for the winner. Prior to that on many an occasion it would be diminished by fielding weakened sides and grumbles about playing on a Thursday, but funnily enough that all seems to have gone now! If the third trophy is coming out of the closet, be inventive UEFA, chuck one name from each national association in a pot and let’s have a proper competition, no falling into any other cup, maybe even just one legged games with the lesser nation’s representative getting home advantage if it’s to be a short and snappy affair! Yes maybe Spain’s representative would meet Italy’s and Andorra’s might draw Germany’s in the first round, but great! I am fed up despairing that we will never see the likes of Carl Zeiss Jena v Dinamo Tbilisi or even in the more modern era a Porto v Monaco as a final again. A glimmer of hope came from Ajax’s ultimately cruel loss in the Champions League semi-final last season, which was the first time in many a year where you could say a talented youth system had triumphed over multi-millionaires when the Amsterdam outfit beat Real Madrid and Juventus, and just came up short versus Tottenham. Money is ruining our beautiful game, lets get some of the quirky fun back in it with a less top tier weighted competition! Rijeka have of course sampled the Europa League group stages on a number of occasions, and Croatian football has been riding on a high since Russia 2018, but nowhere is immune to that early July shock these days and Gzira United from Malta winning at Hajduk Split was perhaps one of the stand out shocks from Round One this season! The breaking apart of Yugoslavia might have benefited the northern two lands of Slovenia and Croatia hugely economically, both now EU members, but the domestic football product in the now seven constituent lands that once made up the country has been diminished by the lack of serious, and consistently challenging fixtures. Gone are the Partizan Belgrade v Hajduk Split, or the Red Star Belgrade v Dinamo Zagreb fixtures, and even Zeljeznicar Sarajevo v Vardar Skopje was a tasty tie back in the days of Tito! While the first four names continue to dominate in the smaller pool of their own leagues, the Bosnian and Macedonian as well as the Montenegrin leagues have all really struggled. F91 Dudelange from Luxembourg beat Shkendija, a familiar name to Aberdeen, in the last round meaning North Macedonia (to give the country its new full title!) have lost all its clubs by round two, and even then only because of the farcical notion that all Champions League exitees get a second bite at European competition by dropping into the Europa League, and Shkendija will have lost twice! FK Sarajevo the last representative from Bosnia have only advanced to Round three courtesy of an odd quirk where a need to even out the number of participants resulted in the loser of the tie versus Celtic skipping a round! UEFA of course are vehemently against any cross border leagues, and well organised sides like Rijeka have enjoyed the fruits of European competition regularly since the inception of the Croatian league. They might not necessarily agree with this, but retaining talent and drawing bigger crowds for domestic games would benefit hugely from somehow bringing all the Balkan lands together in one top flight again! A few years ago, terrible flooding that affected Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia showed that these lands can put their differences aside and come together. Perhaps the most astonishing game I have ever attended was Serbia v Croatia in Scotland’s World Cup group leading up to the 2014 finals. No away fans were allowed but it was still an intimidating and crackling atmosphere. Maybe away fans would require to be banned should such a pipe dream of a league ever come to fruition, but I know many in that region would welcome the boost of enthusiasm and interest, which would bring more fans back to the stadium’s, and get a bigger television audience, which is what it is all about these days, sadly. This region will always produce skilful footballers, and the International teams may well continue to do well as the prodigious talent continues to come through, but largely they will only progress to their maximum potential having been sold to clubs in other lands, and not necessarily the absolute top clubs as even going from the Croatian to the Swiss league will still see quite a bump in wages! In a land that has brought us Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker and Luka Modric, the talent is undoubted and it needs to be nurtured at the highest level to get the best out of the next generation of stars, it’s just a pity that journey can only happen outside Croatia. Rijeka struggled to establish itself in the Yugoslav top flight, but when they did finally get a more regular foothold, European football came along too, reaching the Quarter Finals of the Cup Winners Cup in 1979/80 losing narrowly 2-0 on aggregate to Juventus. A few years later they beat Real Madrid 3-1 at home only to go down 3-0 in the return, a game fraught with controversy. The most recent famous scalp from 19 European campaigns came a couple of years ago beating AC Milan 2-0 in the group stages, but Feyenoord, Standard Liege, and Stuttgart have all been beaten in recent seasons too. The duels between Croatian and Scottish clubs total just eleven encounters, even including the Yugoslavian days. Only five Croatian clubs have ever been involved and six from here. Rijeka become only the third Croat team to play here more than once, and oddly no Scottish team have played more than one side from the Balkan land! In Yugoslavian times only Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split played here, with the Croatian capital giants the pioneers in 1963/64 losing 4-2 on aggregate to Celtic. They were back three years later losing 4-2 at Dunfermline but prevailing on away goals after winning 2-0 in Zagreb. The Yugo baton was then passed onto Hajduk Split, who were the only visitor through the ‘70’s and 80’s until the country broke apart. Hajduk saw off Hibs 5-4 on aggregate, and then pitched up at Tannadice, losing 2-0 on aggregate to United as they warmed up for doing the double over Barcelona and making the UEFA Cup Final in ‘86/87. The modern country of Croatia’s football history of jousts with Scottish clubs started with that aforementioned Intertoto game between Partick and NK Zagreb in ‘95, a game that brought Croatia’s only ever win in Scotland! By 1998/99 when NK’s bigger city rivals were back here, governmental flag waving pressure had changed the name of Dinamo to Croatia Zagreb who saw off Celtic 3-1 on aggregate. Eleven years passed before the two lands crossed paths again, and in the intervening years, fan power had brought the name Dinamo back. This time they were in the Scottish capital playing Hearts and defending a first leg 4-0 mauling of the maroons. The Edinburgh police were taking no chances as every Dinamo fan was photographed as they went into the away end! That didn’t prevent flares being taken into the stadium, and amid the pyrotechnics the shirtless Dinamo fans sang themselves silly despite going down 2-0 on chilly Auld Reekie night, but oh boy they were the most intimidating away fans I have ever seen in Scotland! Dinamo were back in ‘14/15 for a fifth game in Scotland, and a third at Celtic Park this time a Europa League group game losing 1-0, but gaining three points from a 4-3 win in Zagreb. Thus far, only the cities of Zagreb and Split had been involved but in the more recent years Aberdeen playing Rijeka and Rangers encountering Osijek added new names to the history of contests between the two lands. When Aberdeen won 3-0 in Croatia they became the first Scottish club to win there at the 9th time of asking, followed soon after by Rangers last season! The nature of the coefficient calculations by UEFA means that a five year rolling period is in constant calculation, but a season behind last term if that makes sense, so any given country gets notice of gaining or losing a team, or nudging further up the table which gets a country away from the early rounds, and ultimately it can lead to teams going directly into the group stage with no qualifying, a sort of utopia for teams like Wigan and Augsburg et all. Scotland nosedived down the table courtesy of disastrous losses to Maltese, Armenian debutantes, Lithuanians and Luxembourgers all in a catalogue of serious disasters, with certain club names that will ever haunt a variety of our clubs in the shape of Progres Niederkorn, Artmedia Petrazalka (sadly no more), Sigma Olomouc and Malmo, who inflicted the mother of all 0,7 home losses on Hibs! While things seem to have started to steady, the potential for our clubs to be caught out by part-time opponents is still amongst us with Kilmarnock feeling the pain this year, as we add Wales to the roster of horror exits. However, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic’s performances in Europe have been slipping recently, leaving Scotland, Kazakhstan and Serbia in particular gradually clawing their way up a few places, with Turkey, and Greece the next nations to try to reach for in the coming seasons, which might see later entry dates for our teams. It is a slow progression, but Aberdeen making the Group stages would be a fine feather in the cap for the club and for the collective coefficient of Scotland. View the full article
  4. This is a relatively short piece I have put together for the Aberdeen match programme when they welcome Georgian side Chikhura Sachkhere on Thursday 1st August having already played the first leg in Georgia. For those who ventured out to Georgia for the first leg, I am hopeful that they will have returned full of tales as to just how wonderful Tbilisi is, as well as how friendly the Georgian people are too! Georgia is one of the best kept secrets of Europe, a truly diverse gem of a country, from the amazing beach resort of Batumi, through the mountainous beauty of Svaneti, Kakheti and Tusheti to the stunning location and amazing buildings of the capital. Georgian cuisine is one of the highest regarded in the world, and from its vineyards, a Georgian red wine is equally regarded and quite exquisite. This a brave little country, who endeavoured to stand up to the invasion of Putin’s Russia, and went to war to try to protect its territory, but ultimately lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These areas are sadly off limits to Georgians still as tensions continue. It is advisable not to wear any Russian shirts in Georgia, although when you are in Russia, you will find the people have a deep affection for Georgia. Amusingly, if you ever find yourself looking to post anything to Georgia like I do from time to time, the post office assistant will seem momentarily confused as South Georgia and then US state come up first! Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, this will be only the second club encounter between a Scottish and Georgian club with Celtic having played Dinamo Batumi way back in 1995/96! Aberdeen have played an array of teams from different lands, but Georgian opposition is newly added with these matches. Our National team have infamously come to grief, not once but twice in the Dinamo Stadium in Tbilisi. Dinamo were the flag carriers of Georgia in the Supreme Soviet League days, winning the title twice in 1964 and 1978 and they can always claim to be one of only three teams never to have been relegated from what was a high powered league, encompassing eleven independent UEFA nations, let alone the Central Asian Republics. Curiously the three sides who avoided the drop were all called Dinamo! The Georgian Dinamo even managed to win the Cup Winners Cup in 1981, in what was the only ever “Iron Curtain” final when they beat then East German side Carl Zeiss Jena 2-1 in front of the lowest ever European Final crowd of 4,750 in Dusseldorf! It was a UEFA own goal in a sense, just how many would have been allowed to travel to the West to watch?! It is amusing to see that both teams reached the final having played just four rounds! That’s how many matches Aberdeen or Chikhura need to negotiate just to get into the Europa League groups! As you’d expect, having been a big player in the Soviet era, when Independence came along in the early ‘90’s, Dinamo were and remain the biggest team in Georgia, and they have accumulated sixteen titles since. However, the club has had a number of financial issues in coming to terms with a drop in standard and enthusiasm from a much quieter league, resulting in them no longer completely dominating, even if they will always be the biggest club name in the country! The financial pearls of the league are only too visible, teams come and go, relying heavily on sponsors or rich local benefactors, as well as progression in European competitions, or selling on talent to make any money. At one point it was free entry to most league games as the authorities tried everything to encourage people to come to the stadiums, but crowds are still awful, sadly. Football has struggled in Georgia as the country has discovered a real rich vein of passion for the egg shaped game, Rugby Union. The progress of the Lelos as the Georgian rugby side are known has seen enthusiasm for the round ball game diminish. They have been so successful, the ground swell continues to grow whereby the Six Nations might just have suck it up and let Georgia get involved. They will shortly have two tests, home and away with Scotland ahead of both nations heading to Japan for the World Cup. Scotland will become the first ever top tier nation to play in Georgia. It is a big moment for rugby in this sport mad land, where wrestling is popular too! However, football is fighting back, and the Nations League gave the Georgian national team a chance to shine, and they grabbed it with both hands! Perhaps harshly starting in the bottom tier, they easily swept aside Kazakhstan amongst others to step into the third tier next time around, but with added carrot of being in competition with Belarus, North Macedonia and Kosovo for a place in the 2020 European Championships, with the play offs set for next spring. Buoyed by that success, the Georgian clubs have had reasonable success in round one of this seasons European competitions. Saburtalo Tbilisi who stunned the country by winning the league last season for the first time, also caught out the Sherif from Tiraspol, Moldova, winning 3-0 away in Transnistria before hanging on for a 4-3 aggregate success in Tbilisi. You’d expect Dinamo to see off an Andorran club, and they easily did, winning 7-0 on aggregate, leaving Torpedo Kutaisi the only Georgian club to fall at the first hurdle, but they were playing another summer league team in Ordabasy Shymkent from Kazakhstan who are going extremely well in the league, conceding only 9 goals in 18 games, and pushing for the title. Saburtalo and Chikhura stadium capacities will tell you a lot about the audience size for the domestic league in Georgia, with both only holding 2,000! It was both a shame and a surprise that Kutaisi, so much closer to Sachkhere doesn’t have a UEFA licensed stadium. Having been in Kutaisi, the third city of Georgia, it has a very tidy rugby stadium with a 5,000 capacity, surely the two codes could get together. As it was Torpedo and Chikhura had to join the Tbilisi duo in playing all European ties in two acceptable stadiums in the capital, resulting in the fixtures nightmare that saw this ties original scheduling reversed. While people will travel abroad in great numbers from here, and not bat an eyelid at travelling great distances for a midweek match, the sheer size of Georgia, the relatively poor transport infrastructure and disposable income, all combine to make sure the crowds for the Kutaisi and Sachkhere teams in Tbilisi were miserable. As I watched the return game with Fola in the cavernous Dinamo stadium, the lack of atmosphere was awful. It is also a real shame that Aberdeen fans didn’t get to sample Sachkhere’s delights in the foothills of Svaneti’s National Park, or even Kutaisi, which is relatively easy to fly to these days, and nearer for the Chikhura fans too. Sachkhere is a small town in Western Georgia in the Imereti region, it acts as a hub for the considerable farming community in the outlying lands. The football team Chikhura is named after the river that runs through the town, but they have had a variety of names since starting out as a club in 1938. The clubs modern history was largely modest placing in the third tier, and second until 2006/07 when they sampled top flight football for the first time, albeit merely for a season at that juncture. In 2012 they were back, and they’ve been there ever since. Before kicking off in Tbilisi last week, they’d played 20 games in Europe winning six and drawing 8. Chikhura are playing in Europe for the sixth season in seven having debuted in 2013/14 with an away goal progression against Vaduz. They have accounted for a couple of impressive scalps, Bursapor, once club of Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd, as well as Beitar Jerusalem. Only Maribor and Swiss club Thun have seen them off with a modicum of ease. Chikhura have almost exclusively a Georgian roster of players save one Bosnian in the ranks. European games will act as a welcome escape from domestic struggles this year. It is fair to say that they won’t be making the Europa League next season, they’ll just have to make sure they don’t get sucked into any relegation play offs. Given what has befallen Kilmarnock, I am sure no one at Aberdeen is taking the Georgians lightly. Last month I booked a trip to Luxembourg to capture the flavour of European games abroad for Football Weekends magazine for whom I write. I got especially lucky as three nights on the trot the Grand Duchy hosted European football, and by the time I flew out it became apparent that Fola Esch or Chikhura would potentially be playing Aberdeen. Fola is a relatively recent name of the Dons roster of Euro encounters, and I know that fans would have been hoping for much easier and cheaper flight to Luxembourg, but once you arrived in Georgia everything would be so much cheaper, and I really hope the locals friendly ways were felt. When Aberdeen played Fola the game was moved from their small Emile Mayrisch stadium in Esch Sur Alzette to the soon to be redundant National stadium, the Josy Barthel, with a new stadium imminently ready on the outskirts of the capital. Chikhura played in Esch, at Fola’s quaint tree surrounded stadium high on the hill above the town. Just under 1,100 were in attendance, but with allegedly only seating allowed to be used for UEFA games, only a few more hundred and it would have been a sell out! Thankfully, with rain periodically falling, the stewards were understanding and shelter could be sought under roof overhangs from the inordinate number of sheds in the stadium, or amongst the trees! Chikhura were the fitter side from playing in a summer league and they started the game the brighter, looking well organised and sharp. Having seen both legs versus Fola, both 2-1 wins, Chikhura are a reasonably slick passing team, that said, Fola weren’t great and if you aren’t unduly rushed off the ball, maybe any team can look good. The Luxembourg team had one warm up match before these encounters! Fola did take the lead, a quick through ball caught the Georgian defence sleeping and they conceded a penalty. A second half free kick just outside the Fola box crashed off the crossbar and Sardalishvili reacted first to stab home the equaliser. He would also get on the score sheet in Tbilisi. The winner in Esch was a slightly contentious penalty minutes from the end, a draw might have been fairer, but despite a lack of atmosphere in the enormous Dinamo Stadium for the return, Chikhura stuck to their task and ran out comfortable winners, with Fola’s away goal coming from another penalty very late, too late for any panic in the home ranks! View the full article
  5. A skip through South West Luxembourg, the hotbed of Grand Duchy football, whilst enjoying a trio of European ties. Click to view slideshow. 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! View the full article
  6. Rendalls Rambles#8 Another couple of seasons from James' remarkable lookback at our first 25 years in existence, and in his own words, the good, the bad and the ugly............ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No.22 2015/16 (Games 993 to 1053) The Good, the Bad and the quite frankly ugly! Since I became interested in football on the other side of the seas surrounding this island it has been a longstanding dream of mine to watch my team play in Europe. At Meadowbank this was merely a pipe dream, and in 1994 who would have thought it could ever happen for Inverness, but it did. It brought up a JFK moment, I will always remember where I was when the news broke of the Europa League draw, do you?! I was in Salzburg supping coffee ☕ with an Armenian lass, as you do, when a message from home brought the news we were headed to Romania and Giurgiu. I knew the club, but hadn't a clue where it was. St Johnstone had drawn a club from Yerevan as it happens in an earlier round, and I was immediately writing to a colleague in the office to pass information on to my boss regarding getting there and where to stay. He went, had a great time, but in the return leg Alashkert playing their inaugural Euro ties beat St J, who were out before we'd got started. It became apparent that none of my wee ICT gang were going to Romania sadly, but I was determined not to miss out, after all I had been in Denmark for the first friendly! Giurgiu was south of Bucharest, tucked away on the Romanian side of the Danube. My stroke of luck came in the form of a Brazilian friend, Luciano who had a translation buddy in Bucharest who was willing to meet me at the airport and head south. I booked my passage for the day of the game! In the first leg in Inverness, it kind of demonstrated again the lack of any club organisation or undue pride in this momentos occasion. They'd printed half and half scarves for a game versus a Liverpool third string, but when Euro football came to town, it was just like any other game, aside from the usual sized programme being ramped up to a fiver! Odd quirk number one saw a goalkeeper, just signed that day, starting the game! Owain Fon Williams would prove his worth in the coming months, but their still remains a nagging doubt that the goal Astra scored that night was stoppable. They were slightly better on the night, if too willing to take a tumble holding limbs. It was disappointing to have lost at home but at one down, it wasn't an impossible position. Before we headed to Romania, it was known that West Ham or a Maltese side would play the winners, Astra had knocked the Hammers out last season! It was an early flight to Amsterdam and then Bucharest, complete with a loss of two hours in the time difference, making it all the more remarkable that Razvan had time to take me to my Bucharest hotel, before heading south, through Giurgiu into a major roadworks traffic jam to cross the Danube and eat in Ruse in Bulgaria before the game! We managed it easily and joined the away throng in the 'cage'. It was a fantastic away support, circa 600, and we so nearly got the goal that would have forced extra time, but alas despite a few near things, Astra held on for 0-0. It was back to the capital late that evening, but two more games were on my roster, at stadiums where ex-Caley centre forwards were plying there trade!! Going out having failed to score was disappointing, but we could have pride in the away display against a useful and experienced team. Before the season had started Yogi had gone to the board and got them to pay Russell Latpay's contract up until the end and release him. He was hellbent on getting Brian Rice in, and while we didn't know it then, he would oversee some of the worst moments in the club's history. This script gets reproduced on Caleythistleonline and by virtue I am unwilling to regale the tale of what I was told regarding the circumstances of this disturbing replacement of our assistant manager, suffice is to say, it still leaves a bad taste and further diminished my limited admiration of Yogi, who by the season's end did a runner before his stock fell too dramatically, but oddly no one has taken him on since! Post Europe, a 1-1 draw in the league at Perth was a tedious affair, and a chance to trade "what if" stories with another early Euro exitee! Livingston were recovering from financial woes but we saw them off 2-0 down in West Lothian in the League Cup. By November a 3-1 win at Motherwell was a welcome three points, but once again we lost at Partick with me in the stadium! But the year ended with a bizarre 4-3 win at Hamilton. Cruising 2-0 up we nearly blew the whole thing, save Liam Polworth and a late, late pile driver that will stay forever in the memory. By early January, the defending Cup holders trotted out at Stirling Albion and in the end we were hanging on for 0-0! Kilmarnock beat us 2-1 at Rugby Park, a regular away loss, followed by another win at Motherwell by the same score reversed. Dens is rarely a bad hunting ground but merely got a point ahead of a 2-0 loss at Tynecastle. We had been spluttering and the lofty high of last term might have set the bar too high but shambolic displays with no forward thinking prowess was beginning to become common place. Somehow we toughed out a 1-1 draw in the cup at Easter Road, and before the replay in Inverness another toothless loss at Perth was endured. Both these games had seen a huge centre forward from Cambridge called Hughes play, and he was absolutely useless, making Andy Barrowman seem like a great signing a few years back. The growing unrest and disquiet 'boiled' over among the usually calm centre stand crowd at the replay versus Hibs. Remember, they were a Championship team at the time and we were second best for long spells of the game. I have rarely seen such animation at a home game. An incident in the second half involving the Hibs keeper that went on for nearly ten minutes drew foam from our usually passive fans! You know, I am unsure if that goalie ever played again for Hibs! It merely acted as a mask for the discontent of our own teams display, and while some late bluster nearly brought an equaliser, at full time our Cup had gone, not that we expected to retain it, but the manner of the loss drew knives in the angry booos at the end. It was a night that signalled a changing of attitude in my opinion. If Yogi had enjoyed a honeymoon start, it was over now, and he knew it. It all fell flat after that, losses here, there and everywhere. By the summer, doubtlessly unable to find the right players to replace the departing heroes of yesteryear, Yogi blamed the board and scampered. Things were never his fault!! Elsewhere, Kairat Almaty were in Aberdeen on European duty, and I did the programme notes for the Reds magazine, getting a couple of tickets for the game for my trouble. I sat in the back row of the old stand just in front of Richard Gordon and Co in my yellow and black tracksuit top chuffed to bits with how Kairat managed the game, a 1-1 draw and a 2-3 aggregate success for the Kazakhs. Forres Mechanics were at East Kilbride in Cup, so I went through and had the joy of telling the Can Can directors that they had missed the equaliser from Forres, caught over doing the hospitality at half time!! Another Cup tie brought Fort W to Prestonpans, and you will never guess, they won 3-2!! I have a 100% win record with the Fort ☺. Huntly ended up along at Spartans twice, winning a pre season friendly 2-0, but going down 3-0 in December in a cup replay with sixth tier LTHV. Fraserburgh were in the central belt in a later round, but Falkirk were to good, winning 4-1, as were Linlithgow Rose who thrashed Wick 5-1 but some horrible officiating aided the result as Wick ended with 9 men. Hibs, perennial Cup Final blowers did it again, Ross County getting top silverware in winning 2-1, but a trophy that brings no Euro place these days. We will always have that wee extra over them ☺. I was inadvertently at Shires last ever league match, a 3-0 drubbing by Elgin, but I missed the relegation against Edinburgh City as I was on the Faroe Islands! English escapes took me to Holker Street, where Barrow saw off Southport, and an Easter duo, with Accrington beating Orient, and FC Halifax getting the better of Altrincham on a day they thought they'd done enough to survive, but a late missed penalty on the last day sent them down to the sixth tier, a week before the highlight of the Shaymens history. I was at Wembley to see them beat Grimsby to win the FA Trophy amid tears still lingering from the week before. Morpeth thrashed Hereford to win the FA Vase before hand, but the Bulls were the best supported of them all! The day after the Inverness game in Giurgiu, I was at Dinamo Bucharest's stadium, home for Marius Nicolae! Alas, a newly promoted side FC Voluntari from outside the capital were ground sharing while their home was being buffed up. A healthy Voluntari crowd saw a second 0-0 draw for me against Targu Jiu. The following night I was in the national stadium in my Caley shirt hoping to see any ICT stragglers like me, but none were spotted, aside Gregory Tade, rested by Steau ahead of Champions League qualifier versus Partizan Belgrade! This game brought two goals in a 1-1 draw with Cluj. After a few years away I was back in Italy with the top draw, the third tier 'friendly' between Ancona and SPAL, a 1-2 away win that took the Ferrara club to within touching distance of promotion. Ahead of this game I watched a turgid encounter between Bologna and Torino, and followed by Modena thrashing Perugia creating a false dawn before relegation, and a third 0-0 draw on my CV involving Sampdoria, this time at Sassuolo. The curtain on my Euro travels came down in the unlikely village of Stremnes on the Faroes where EB/Streymur beat Giza/Hoyvik 3-0 in the Faroese second tier as Whit Sunday had moved the top tier fixtures to the day I was flying home 😔. The final game of the season was in early June, a first ever Junior league match for me with Kelty Hearts ahead of jumping codes beating Linlithgow. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No. 23 2016/17 (Games 993 to 1,053) New depths: It was a brave move, doubtlessly a cheap option, but the moment we appointed one of our footballing heroes of the modern era, Richie Foran to the lofty position of manager, I knew it was a risk. With no experience, and left with Brian Rice as his only experience, the downward spiral sadly continued. In the end, after the dust settled, down we went, but it ended up frustratingly close! A litany of missed penalties would cost us, as well as Hamilton having gained three points, just, after two St Johnstone players decided to have a fight at the half time whistle! Dundee couldn't do us a favour on the last day, and we were relegated a mere one point behind Accies. The only consolation was we had accumulated the second highest points for a side going down, second to our first demotion!! Yet it all started reasonably well, winning narrowly at bumpy Central Park, Cowdenbeath in the new group stage League Cup, and continued along the road at Dunfermline in a fabulous 5-1. Driving home that night, Richard Gordon on BBC Radio Scotland said, 'Inverness are going to be fun to watch this season'! But while July moments of joy gave rise to possibilities all to briefly, reality hit home came as early as the opening gambits of August! We lost at Partick, again, and even worse, weakly submitted to Alloa, then a third tier team 1-0 in the League Cup, followed by a pathetic 5-1 mauling at Hearts. It wasn't a crisis yet, but Richie hadn't found the secret of getting a better link up between midfield and attack. It was fairly clear we would be fighting a battle at the bottom end of the table, and a crucial joust at Hamilton in October ended 1-1, then post a trip to Italy a return to Lanarkshire saw maybe the high point of the season, an imperious 3-0 win at Motherwell. Had we turned the corner? It spluttered on. In January we had a first competitive game at Elgin as a merged club, a renewal of old rivalries. It was a cracking day, and a competitive game, where we prevailed narrowly 2-1. Losing 3-0 at Hamilton was a sore one, but they showed fighting spirit at Tynecastle in a 1-1 draw. We even managed a similar score at Maryhill, a rare moment for me there where we didn't lose! Wins were needed, and another 1-1 at home to Ross County was further frustration, as was yet another at home to Killie. This sequence of draws would be another reason we went down. At least we weren't losing, but like last season, draws killed us! We couldn't repeat the success at Motherwell, going down 4-2, a too late in the day last hoorah at Kilmarnock failed to bring us a point, losing 2-1. I didn't head north for the last game, I just had lost faith, and with Dundee down so quickly at Hamilton their was no excitement in the possibility of getting the play off place. With my own charges a difficult watch, the wanderlust to other venues was always more relaxing. Hearts and Hibs were both in Europe. The JT struggled to beat FC Infonet Tallinn, who subsequently merged with Levadia in Estonia. Hibs were hosting Brondby, and I was going to the game with one of my Hibby chums. He was late, and as he had tickets I was stood outside as a roar went up to welcome to the teams, followed by immediate silence. I checked my phone, and sure enough the Danes had scored. When we eventually found the right stand, it was a quarter of an hour in, and we'd missed the only goal! There was a giddy week in late August into September, when East Stirlingshire were 7-3 up at HT at CSS, a new high of ten goals in a half! They only scored one more, winning 8-3. The following Saturday Bonnyrigg Rose 🌹 thrashed Burntisland Shipyard in the Scottish Cup 14-0, the biggest win of my football viewing! They only managed nine goals in a half though 😊. Wick were down in Dalbeattie in September, and with a horrendous wind howling down the pitch, it was a game of two halves, with Wick seeing it through 3-1. The next day, Leith Athletic were making a rare Scottish Cup appearance, a 0-0 draw with Cumbernauld. At Christmas time I saw Buckie beat Cove 1-0 as the fishing port town nibbled it's way to a Highland League success sandwiched in between braces by Brora and Cove to come! They would lose out to East Kilbride in the promotion play off, and the west side ran Cowdenbeath very close, but one missed penalty in a downpour saved the Fifers. A quick whisk in land saw Alloa's excellent start to the season count for nothing as Brechin forced penalties as well after a brilliant 4-3 lose, but 5-5 aggregate. City wouldn't necessarily regret going up, but they set a whole bunch of new records! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Thanks James, nearly there.............. You can read all about James' worldwide footballing travels in his own excellent blog FOOTBALL ADVENTURES WITH JAMES RENDALL
  7. Click 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. View the full article
  8. RENDALLS RAMBLES #7 And it's here in this threesome, the cup final season from James. He's been everywhere man! And he has been following the Caley Jags from the start. He has put together this fascinating nostalgic recap of Inverness Caledonian Thistle's first 25 years and more, as witnessed through his own eyes. Thanks James, a remarkable commitment to the beautiful game. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No19 (Games 830 to 887) Runaround now!! The wanderlust was starting all over again, but trekking outwith the confines of Britain still hadn't recovered its mojo, and it's only in looking back now, how did such an avid World football fan go two seasons without such adventures? Never again!! The variety on offer however was as ever eclectic ☺. The ICT start to the campaign was fairly dreadful, but their were new names being tried out, and while the quality seemed to suggest we were going to struggle, hey, what do I know!! They say even when playing badly, if you can tough out results then you will succeed, and two horror show 2-2 draws at Edinburgh's duo was case in point. The draw at the Cabbage was especially memorable for one extra moment! Hibs had played us off the park for 40 minutes and led 2-0, but in pulling one back just before half time out of nothing, the Hibs fans booed their team off!! It was hilarious as well as doubtlessly galling for the home players, who never recovered the same superiority and we might have nicked all three points. League Cup progression was equally stuttering seeing off the maroons of Arbroath and Stenhousemuir, 0-2 and 5-6 on penalties after a turgid 1-1 draw. County came to Inverness for the first time in the top league in early October and left with a good 3-1 spanking, complete with a raging Derek Adams, lovely! This was the pivotal moment, confidence started to rise. Dundee were slapped about 4-1 at Dens, and we held Hearts to a 1-1 at home. As Christmas approached I was witness to another of those absolutely remarkable games. Trailing 3-0 in Arabia a Billy Mckay triple and another from Gary Warren put us 4-3 up! Alas, an Arabian took a tumble in the box late in the game (this sounds familiar!) and the conversion made it 4-4. We walked out feeling we'd lost!! An angry Inverness bagged another four versus the other half of Dundee the following week with just two from Billy, but Owain Tudor-Jones and Andrew Shinnie (remember them!) got amongst the goals, whereas the D got merely one 😀. The feeling of joy in Inverness' play was such a contrast to the start of the season the Festive draws with St Midden and Les Johnoise seemed anti-climatic, but we were ticking up the points and the top six, that mythical waste of time engineered merely for the greedy to get more greed was in sight, and when Aberdeen were screaming murder after a 3-0 Highland capital thwacking, ambition nudged into new realms!! Alas the progress to a first ever Big Cup Final was tempered for another season with a third Semi final loss, this time in the League Cup and only going down on penalties 4-5 to Hearts at Fester Road after a 1-1 draw. The moment the last of our penalty takers stepped forward, their was a collective need to hide in our stand. The on loan lad from Arsenal (I have forgotten his name! Or airbrushed it out! ((Phillip)Roberts, I think), an absolutely over confident misfit who was only going to miss, did 😔. The ship wobbled at Les Buddoise who beat us at the Methadome 2-1 in midweek, then Killie and Well added to our misery. These would be important losses at the end of the campaign. We finally got back on the horse 🐴 with a morsel of revenge for the LC loss by seeing off Hearts 2-3 at their own pavilion. Two draws with County and Dees away, was followed by another derby win at home to Moss Co, and we were in the top six, but so were they!! By the time we got a rare home win versus Motherwell in a belter of a last home game, the possibility of finishing 4th and qualifying for Europe seemed on! But on that fateful day, the last game of the season in Dingwall, it almost seemed that the whole thing was too much for the club, and we feebly allowed Moss to beat us in the top flight for the first ever time 1-0. Finishing fifth was the highest we had ever been, but I didn't hang around to applaud at the end, my dream of European football had died, and I felt that we didn't want it, which annoyed me!! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No.20 2013/14 (Games 888 to 935) Back on the travel game. While it may be close season for the domestic football game, just in Italy with the last game last night, but our journey through the first twenty five years will nearly be over as ICT step out in the League Cup of 2019/20 and the start of the 26th year of the Empire! The 20th year was another stepping stone on the upwardly mobile progression of Inverness, and we took full advantage of the "natural order" being shot to bits. We even managed to send a Trojan Horse to another club, and by the end of campaign, three of Scotland's biggest clubs were in the second tier! Even the time honoured tradition of being rubbish in August was cast asunder with an opening day trashing of St Midden, followed up by three points at Arabia before ending the month with another win against troubled Hearts, all three without loss of a goal. Terry Butcher's team was beginning to mould wonderful into a solid, and at times, exciting unit. In September, despite a narrow loss at Aberdeen, we thrashed Hibs in Inverness 3-0 by which time our boss was starting to attract attention. Indeed, while I scampered off to Armenia, the curiosities of the Scottish fixtures meant in early November upon my return, we played Hibs away with no manager, as he sat in the stand as Hibs manager in waiting. The small, but vocal away support made sure that he knew he was making a mistake, and the players did it too, winning the game 2-0. By seasons end he'd done it again, taking a 7th placed side post split down, albeit via a Hamilton penalty shoot out success. The winning feeling kept going, seeing off the Johnnies, and the Jambos, but County ruined New Year's Day winning 2-1 at our place, however a rare win at Pittodrie was the perfect tonic. John 'Yogi' Hughes had of course moved in to the hot seat, a relatively easy position to take over as the team were very familiar with each other and the formula was already tried and tested. In many regards, what happened in the next two seasons was built by Butcher, and merely pushed on by Yogi. My own thoughts on his legacy, statistically our most successful boss, but when we needed fresh faces and the unit started breaking up, his ability to replace like with like was at times questionable. By the time we played Hibs in a cup replay, the year after we won the cup, we were a shambles! But I am getting ahead of myself. In his first real test, a groundhog League Cup semi v Hearts at Fester went all the way this time, holding out with nine men valiantly for a penalty shoot out win. We were going to our first 'big' final, but before that, the very next week down at Stair Park, Stranraer, we were brought down to earth having to fight so hard for a 2-2 draw. The League Cup saw a near full Celtic Park a riot of Northern passion and colour for the game with the Dons. Yogi set us up in a very defensive way, a failing he would regularly trot out especially when visiting the same stadium for league action. We took some horror thumping here, and likewise against Aberdeen we rarely threatened. Looking back I can't recall one moment when you could say, 'if only'. We cancelled Aberdeen well, but never looked like scoring, and even in the penalty shoot out we weren't at the races, missing the first two kicks, losing 4-2. This loss shook the confidence and while we made the top six, no mean feat in itself, but it had all been threatening so much more glory laden earlier in the campaign. Undoubtedly expectations had risen, and just being one of the top tier teams didn't seem enough, and yet that was where it was all wrong, we were riding the crest of our own wave, and it was going to get higher yet!! ___________________________________ The season had started with the unique one off double header between Spartans and Threave for a place in the Challenge Cup. This was the start of the Lowland League, a bedding in season before the new pyramid system came into play the following year. Spartans saw off Threave and went on to win the inaugural Lowland League title, and I saw a few of the home games along the way. Brora came down to Clyde in the cup with Munro and Tokely at the back, but lost out narrowly 2-1. Fraserburgh made it one round further but lost heavier 3-0 at Stenhousemuir. Raith Rovers had made the Quarter Finals and hosted St Johnstone in front of a big crowd losing 3-1 as the Perth team went on to win the trophy for the first ever time! Earlier in the season they had a fabulous European win over Rosenborg, a cracking win, the night Malmo were slapping the Cabbage about 7-0!! Having had innumerable treks south over the last two years, this season I only had an Easter scamper, Accrington v Mansfield (1-1), Doncaster v Derby (0-2) and Halifax v Macclesfield (2-1), all entertaining jousts. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No.21 2014/15 (Games 936 to 992) The Castle 🏰 on the Hill: There are seasons in football that are instantly forgettable, but every now and again, an absolute golden nugget of a season comes along, maybe just once in a lifetime. Roy of the Rovers could not have written the script any differently, Inverness reached two incredible milestones, finishing third in the league, and winning the Scottish Cup. Delightfully, in the week leading up to this article, our Cup winning goal hero James Vincent has returned to the club. Wow, just remembering the moment Jamie MacDonald palmed a trundler from Marley into his path. He had ran the length of the field, boof, unbridled joy! We had been in survival mode, a man light, but the spirit of this team was it's gritty determination. Even in the semi, we were pegged back twice against Celtic, but we never stopped believing. Will we ever see the likes again? You know, we can always dream, but it doesn't matter, those who were there will never forget it, and long after we are gone, the longest name in Scottish football will forever be engraved on the Scottish Cup! It was absolutely amazing. Jamie of course entered the pantheon of the Inverness song book, and it is always nice to sing that he won us the cup!! 😀 Right under our name on the trophy sits the name of Hibernian, a club who had craved a cup win for 114 years! That monkey is off their back, and they did it in dramatic style too, but their fans genuinely think winning the cup was a bigger thing than an Inverness success?! I would suggest having to wait that long as one of the lands 'bigger' clubs is more embarrassing than anything! No matter, these two Cup successes were the last before tedium returned to predictable trophy hand outs. At one point, more Scottish teams had won trophies than any other country!! It all started somewhat late for me with a 23rd July friendly at Banff, complete with Mariano, an Argentine chum who'd whisky sampled his way off the A9 along to Deveronvale v ICT for a routine 0-3 win, he was deliriously happy. August didn't start badly either with a 2-0 success at Hamilton, followed by a disappointing 0-0 against strategically placed Dundee dustbins "15 points and you ****ed it up' ringing in their ears, still!! Life was changing for me, my dear mum was starting to need more help, something that continues to this day, so "staying local" has been a necessity of my football ⚽ days, which resulted in less travelling to Inverness. In September we lost to Partick away, we always lose at Firhill when I am there! A 1-1 draw with County in early November suggests we still hadn't kicked into gear, but a month later "15 points" was back in vogue as we won at Dens 2-1, always a good hunting ground for us, but back to back 1-0 losses at Perth and home to the Dons made for a disappointing Christmas. That scoreline was reversed as we saw off the Darling Buds of Chic in the first game of 2015, "our year". Accies were despatched 2-0 again away before those resolute and pesky neighbours ran over the Kessock Bridge 🌉 with another draw. My season is always interspersed with trips abroad, when I can get cover for mum, I am off, and in 2015 after a long 5 year gap I was back in Argentina and Uruguay, meaning by late March when I returned it was back to the Maryhill Magyars, and we lost, again! Dundee held us again. Looking at these repeat games now, every one of them had the same outcome?!! Celtic were beaten in the Scottish Cup for a third time in a third different venue, (do we get to keep them), and the rest is history. My only regret is staying away from the last league games of that remarkable run that got us third place, just so that the Cup Final would be my 500th game! But what a game 🏆 😀. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Here's Graeme Shinnie holding the Scottish Cup aloft as painted by local artist Sophie Robb💗 Eclectic is how you would describe my increasingly here, there and everywhere viewing! With my great Italian friend Stefano we plundered Carlisle for a 0-2 loss to Derby, followed by a similar score as Rochdale lost to PNE. I would be back at Carlisle a few months later for a belter, 4-4 with Wimbledon, and again the day Falkirk beat Hibs in the cup semi. In order to settle cup nerves I watched Carlisle beat Plymouth 2-0. The 4-4 wasn't the biggest goal fest of the season with Bo'ness beating Elgin in the cup 5-4. In late August when I went to the coastal Angus derby at Arbroath, the visitors from Montrose were top of the league having won all three games. By seasons end I was watching them toil to see off Brora in the first ever relegation/promotion play off having finished bottom! St Johnstone provided my sole Scottish Euro encounter, edging out Luzerne 5-4 on pens, but an impressive and rare scalp! Fraserburgh were close by at Linlithgow but went down 2-1 in the cup, and then I was at Elgin v Forres in the cup too, but it ended 0-0. Spartans were regularly viewed, and they caused a shock knocking out Morton, and scoring late to grab a replay with Berwick. I was down at the second game, by which time the winners knew that they were going to Easter Road. A huge Spartans support went down, but the team rarely threatened, losing 1-0. Remarkable to think that this will be a league fixture next season! Edinburgh City, who won the Lowland League hosted Brora twice, losing 2-3 in the cup, and drawing 1-1 in the first ever Lowland v Highland promotion play off! The most eclectic game of the season was the Highland League bottom of the table joust at Rothes, with Strathspey in town, a game that ended 1-1. More wonderful memories in there once again. And there's more to come from James, the next three seasons coming along soon. Prepare yourself for less memorable times. It happens.............. You can read all about James' worldwide footballing travels in his own excellent blog FOOTBALL ADVENTURES WITH JAMES RENDALL
  9. Rendall's Rambles #6 Here's the next three seasons from James. He does get around and he has been following the Caley Jags from the start. He has put together this fascinating nostalgic recap of Inverness Caledonian Thistle's first 25 years as witnessed through his own eyes. Thanks James, a remarkable commitment to the beautiful game. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No. 16 2009/10 (Games 697 to 745) The Charge of the Blue and Red Brigade. Life out of the penthouse suite started reasonably enough, just nibbling by lowly Montrose away in the Challenge Cup wasn't great, but an away 1-0 win at Parslandia showed how much we'd improved since our last inauguration in the second tier, a 4-0 spank that day. It was an August, take it and run!! A home draw to Ayr and a home loss to Moss County wasn't however the form of challengers. September was a mix bag, but a 3-0 win at Greenock was a good result. The likelihood of going straight back up seemed tricky as Dundee were horsing away at the top! Indeed, driving to Ayr, (as I will be on Tuesday once more), bored with how we were performing saw me decide to keep going at the roundabout outside Ayr?! Wick were down the road at Girvan and being a Scorries sympathiser I decided to go and watch this Cup tie! Oh boy did I luck out in terms of seeing Caley Thistle absolutely tonk Ayr, but hey, where else can you find a bottle of Old Pulteney being passed around following the wind assisted quelling of the Ayrshire side 4-1! I scampered to South America for the first of two treks in the season, but when I returned the wins were becoming more regular, alas not before a second El Kessicko loss over the Isle and far away, and also the loss of the Challenge Cup Final to the Dees, 3-2 in a cracking final. However, by the time the dust settled on this particular season, what would we rather have won, this papier-mache gong or a much bigger prize? This was our Trojan Horse 🐴 gift to Dundee, who subsequently self destructed in a swarm of belief in their own greatness! 😀 A draw at Dumfries the following week would set in motion an unbeaten sequence that would go all the way to the end of the season, beating Raith, Airdrie and Partick before I went back to Argentina/Uruguay. Upon my return Morton, Qos and the Pars were all despatched and we were on our way. The night our promotion back to the top table was confirmed and we didn't even kick a ball! Raith sealed Dundee's fate, and I was surprised how few Caley Thistle eyes went to Kirkcaldy to see us promoted, but everyone would be on hand to add salt to the Dees wounds the following week as we hosted them, allowing for the quaint ditty, 'fifteen points and you f***ed it up' to be born and reverberate around the Caledonian Stadium. We duly beat them in this one 1-0, and became the first team in a decade to go straight back up! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No.17 2010/11 (Games 746 to 797) Back in the.....it might as well have been the USSR. Another wanderlust season ensued, a remarkable one really aiding that perennial DNA within me that never allows me to feel unduly comfortable at the top table. That is especially true when the only outcome seems to be bottom six survival. It can be turgid and lacking colour, but like mining for gold, the fans of lesser clubs are always looking out for those little morsels to enliven the campaign. By seasons end I had watched football in seven lands, and ICT had featured in less than half of the games I viewed. The nuggets seemed few, but we did survive, and our days in the sun were just around the corner, but we didn't know that then! It all started so well, a routine 3-0 in the League Cup versus the thinking man's Glasgow, the Spiders, and then a portent for this coming week, a colossal 0-4 stuffing of Arabia in August too! McCann, Duncan, and an Adam Rooney double effected a fire drill at Tannadice! What we would give for one of those on Friday night! We had peaked too early, lured into a false sense of a new dawn, a 0-1 home loss to Hamilton Kaccies brought us down to earth, followed by a mere one point from six from the Edinburgh duo, an especially poor return as in those days we'd beaten Hibs so often, by rights we should have been allowed to keep them 😁. What came next though was a real highlight, we rarely could get the better of Aberdeen at home, but we won 2-0. I cashed out for a while on that win, and upon returning to the ICT fold a commendable 1-1 at Tynie wasn't at all bad, followed by a depressing Boxing Day home loss to Les Buddoise, ouch! This was an especially harsh winter and I recall being mighty peeved at the closure of the A9 for snow preventing me getting to Inverness for the Cup game with old rivals Elgin, who rather embarrassingly had more fans at the game than we did! We won late, and it set up another home joust with Morton, despatched 5-1 and my game roster shows my next game was in the Cilindro versus Boca Juniors! Weeks later my re-appear at a Caley game saw a marginal 1-0 Arabian home win, but a draw with Hearts in the north was followed by a rare 3-0 win versus the Johnnies in Perth and an another away success versus Hamilton, but these latter games were run of the mill bottom six encounters. Not only were seven lands on my football CV (beaten only by this season) but many a visitor from abroad too. A Port Alegre chum, Luciano was on hand to witness the most astonishing goalkeeping display by Stirling Albion's custodian in a remarkable one sided 0-0 at home to the Bairns, who did everything but score in the 120 minutes before submitting to a Zeuss like goalkeeping display in the penalties too, while they did score two, but he saved three!! Next up was my first sighting of an Icelandic side in Scotland since Keflavik opened the floodlights at Old Douglas Park! Reykjavik suburb, Breidablik were playing their European bow at Motherwell, going down narrowly 1-0. My oldest friend from outside Scotland, Andrea from Padova was in Edinburgh for the first and only time so far and we took in the opening day 1-1 at Tynecastle between Hearts and St Johnstone. Elgin were easily cast aside there too, 4-0, before Brora came to town in late September to play Edinburgh University. These were the days when Brora were about as good as Clachnacuddin always near the bottom of the table, not the top! Brora scored an equaliser that day at Peffermill late in the game which I think is still the most amazing goal I have ever seen!! It was struck from just inside the opponents half and if the net wasn't there it might have made Cameron Toll! An absolute rocket! Fabian was at Hartlepool in those days and I went to see him, but unfortunately he didn't play, Peterborough were beaten 2-0. Back on the Highland Cup run next, but as I neared Rosewell the game v Wick was called off, so a quick about turn and off to Prestonpans to see them play Annan, and force replay. Both were non league at the time! Bo'ness were seen off by Buckie and a quick scamper along the road caught Spartans going down to Shire just a few years ahead of this becoming a regular league fixture! Shire then oddly played Buckie and while they won 1-0 they were kicked out of the competition! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT No.18 2011/12 (Games 798 to 829) A piece of driftwood. There was an impoverish driftwood feel to this season, the stark reality of the collapse of my employer and the subsequent, crushing depletion in my 'nest egg' resulted in an immediate pulling in of the belt! South America was off roster and any trips abroad didn't include football for perhaps the only year in this 25 year passage of time! 😱But hey, no sympathy please , as I have been a lucky, lucky boy throughout life, and while this hiatus maybe signalled a changing of the guard, with South America making way after 12 years on the trot for Eastern European trips to come. The football at home didn't brighten the mood, with Hibs winning in Inverness for the first ever time courtesy of a Garry O'Connor horror trundler that just dribbled over the line in agonising fashion in the very last minute for an 0-1 opening day home loss. A couple of draws at Dunfermline 3-3 and at home to the JT, but we weren't playing great football and quite frankly I was bored by Butcher's turgid style. I found myself drifting off to find more local football entertainment for a while, but a game at Tynecastle was never to be missed, always a cracking day out with my posse of ICT chums, but a 2-1 took me to Christmas Eve and a home game with Aberdeen before I would see us win! Stuart Golabek and Gregory Tade got the goals that made sure that the stuffing with the turkey had added spice! Gregory would a few seasons later be sat in the posh seats rested for a forthcoming Champions League game by Steau Bucharest when I pitched up two days after ICT debuted in Europe! It seemed an unlikely gig going into 2012 but not before we nibbled another draw at the Cabbage. A brief rich vein was tapped into as the year began, a rare win at Motherwell was followed by another 1-0 win at home to Hearts. Three wins and a draw in four games viewed, as Natalie Merchant once sang, 'these are days to remember', but merely a pocket of joy in a fraught season. A 1-1 draw in February at Dunfermline and the subsequent closing of the door on being anywhere else other than the bottom six and I had raised the white flag by mid February! Looking back it was a scandalously early departure from the ICT nation! Scottish Cup Highland support has always been part of my viewing, and Edinburgh City's 4-0 thwacking of Brora was in the last days of Brora being a poor side. They would be back at Meadowbank in season's to come with a completely different approach! In the next round I set off for Galashiels to watch that mythical side Golspie Sutherland, only to learn the game had been moved to Hawick?! A good bit further down the road for the Sutherland side, but arriving shortly before kick off, I was never going to get caught in the rush! Another 4-1 for the nominal 'home' side, but Golspie did the North Caledonian league proud. The next day Buckie were back at Shire, a potentially fraught occasion after the exact same fixture resulted in the Falkirk side being kicked out of the cup last season. It had its moments this one, but ended 1-1, with Shire taking the spoils in the replay. Elgin were having one of their best season's and I got caught up in cheering them in the run up to the play offs. They fell short in the play off semi versus Albion Rovers, so I transferred my cheering to my southern Blues, Stranraer, who also lost out to Albion in a dramatic penalty shoot out. However, when the dust settled it had all been for nothing as not only did RBS explode, so did one of Glasgow's bigger sides, and Stranraer stepped up anyway as Rangers slipped from the top league to the basement and everyone else shuffled up one 😎 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ More wonderful memories in there once again. And there's more to come from James, the next three seasons coming along next week. You can read all about James' worldwide footballing travels in his own excellent blog FOOTBALL ADVENTURES WITH JAMES RENDALL
  10. Rendall's Rambles #5 If you have been following James on his ICT journey, here's the next three seasons. He's a well travelled football connoisseur who has been following the Caley Jags from the start. He has put together a fascinating nostalgic recap of Inverness Caledonian Thistle's first 25 years as witnessed through his own eyes. Thanks James, a remarkable commitment to the beautiful game. Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years No.13 #ICT25 Season 2006/07 (Games 512 to 578) A very European feel season. Football in eight countries!! The third season of Caley Thistle at the top table. While the essence of each campaign was survival, the general feeling amongst the fans seemed to be more insistent that cheap Pomagne was traded in for a drop of the proper stuff. Reaching for the fabled top six was the want, but the reality for a brilliantly run club on a shoestring, they can't just switch up and splash the cash. Our 13th season wasn't unlucky but it wasn't one that lives long in the memory. That said, I was here, there and everywhere so I may have missed a classic memorable game or four! Before the season started Neil Warlock brought Sheffield United to Inverness for Ross Tokely's Testimonial. It was a good crowd, a worthy attendance for a wonderful servant of the club, who many years later was poorly dealt with by Terry Butcher. In this game, the Blades were flashing past us, and ran out 3-0 winners. The league didn't start brilliantly, it rarely does, and losing at home to St Mirren was a poor opening gambit. A brave point at Aberdeen, as well as home points versus the green duo steadied the ship somewhat, but it was the 29th September before I saw us win a game, a narrow 1-0 at home to the Pars. Falkirk were then beaten at home 3-2, a rare moment of joy versus the Bairns in the Highland Capital. A bag of struggles ensued, but Christmas came with a morsel of festive cheer, a 2-1 versus Rangers. This remains to this day, the only time I have ever seen Rangers lose!! Darren Dods and a John Rankin screamer won the day. The biggest win of the season that I saw was a 3-0 thumping of Hibs, who rarely enjoyed their trip up the A9. Ultimately it was the bottom six again, but with limited chance of going down, and perhaps with a relaxed, let's enjoy life attitude, we beat Motherwell, Dunfermline and St Mirren before the curtain came down. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No. 14 2007/2008 (Games 579 to 631) Fourth top table safety secured: August is still a month I dread when it comes to ICT even if we have marginally improved in learning to hit the ground running! In this particular season we absolutely hit rock bottom with four straight defeats, two home 0-3 biffings by Rangers and Arabia, with narrower 2-1 losses on the road at Well and Les Buddoise sandwiched in between. I was so hacked off I scampered off to Italy and Doncaster before casting eyes on a win finally, 2-1 on the 22 September at home to Hearts. A bit like buses another win came the following weekend with a 4-2 with over the Bairns also at the Caledonian Stadium. A rare moment of home joy against a team that had previously inflected such painful home losses, but the monkey was far from gone as next season will tell 😥. In truth this season quickly panned out as a walk in the park, even for the less ambitious teams. Gretna had overstretched in too quick a time, and having to play 'home' games at Fir Park for a small village team, it was the financial straw that broke the camels back, and indeed, maybe it exacerbated Miles Brookson's illness. His investments in the USA were collapsing, his health was deteriorating and his family were trying to hold onto what family legacy hadn't been pumped into Gretna, and to a lesser extent Workington. Miles was a good egg, his heart was in the right place, Gretna was the mouse that briefly roared, but despite completing the season, they would fold by the summer. The new Gretna doesn't ever wish to be associated with the old one which I find sad. As mentioned previously seeing Miramar Misiones beat Central Español in Montevideo the previous season, one of the stars of that win would end up at Gretna, Fabian Yantorno. ICT had already thumped them 4-0 away, but when they came to Inverness on the 5th January, my programme article on the Uruguayan game would start a beautiful friendship, and I hope I will get to see him play one last time before he hangs up his boots when I head across to South America in late Feb next year! We won that encounter 3-0 but prior to that from late November, we won four games on the trot making up for August loses to St Mirren and Dundee United before back to back home wins versus the green duo, 2-0 v Hibs and more memorably 3-2 versus the hoops, John Rankin, David Proctor and Don Cowie with the goals. The day before that I had watched third tier Moss County struggle to beat Berwick Rangers 2-1. Ironic that next weekend the Dingwall mob will be promoted to the top table again, and Berwick could well be sent to walk the plank versus East Kilbride or Cove! Scotland could lose it's English club 😉. It kind of dribbled away after that home win v Gretna, I scampered off to South America and Donny again but did catch a close run 3-4 home loss to Aberdeen, but following a 6-1 clubbing of poor Gretna again, the 0-0 last day draw at home to St Mirren kind of summed it all up. There would be no Gretna the following season, were we ready for the fight? Find out in next week's gripping instalment!! My neutral games in Scotland hit an all time low in this season! I never saw any European games, save a Murrayfield friendly between Hearts and Barcelona. I will let you work out who won 😂. I finally got a league game at Borough Briggs Elgin, a 2-1 home win versus Dumbarton. What I didn't know then was that this Sons goal would be the only one I had seen to this day since they pulped Hearts 5-2 at Tynecastle!! There was a fire drill that day 😂. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No.15 - 2008/09 (Games 632 to 696) That sinking feeling! August, usually that perennial bad month for ICT started so well, a 2-0 win at Pittodrie, but a week later, the new boys Hamilton Kaccies, beat us 1-0. However this was to be a different first month of the season, but before any more league hostilities, Liverpool duped 7,000+ at the Caley Stadium for Barry Wilson's Testimonial into thinking an 'XI' might include a star or two, but they were in my opinion disrespectful in sending a bunch of kids, and they got what they deserved in a 5-0 home win! Things settled down nicely, a 1-1 versus Hibs was followed by a rare August win versus Falkirk, albeit away, and it merely acted as a poking of a well oiled bear that would haunt the rest of this season. Sandwiched in between these league games was an uninspiring 2-2 (4-2 pens) win at Arbroath, although Gayfield is always one of the great wee stadium of this land! We were still picking up points here and there, beating Killie 3-1 at home days after getting the better of Morton in the League Cup. Narrow losses at Arabia and at home to Well, who had a cracking record versus us in Inverness in those days, sadly, before we were back at the Bairnabeu for the League Cup Quarter-final, going down 1-0. Somewhere soon after that game Craig Brewster departed, and Terence Butcher arrived! We bounced back in the league with a 2-1 over Hibs at Fester Road. We had a habit of winning there at this juncture, but what is more remarkable is that my mate Fabian played his only full game for Hibs that day! Sorry hombre ☺. The tale end of the year was fairly torrid, Les Jambons, the Darling Buds of Chic, Dons, Arabia and the Castle Greyskull tenants all stuffed us without us even as much as tickling their under carriage so to speak! The new year started in better fettle with a fine 3-0 dismantling of the Maryhill Magyar, before I scampered off to South America a few weeks earlier than normal. Upon my return, a draw at Tannadice and another win against the Cabbage saw us nearing a top six place, but we would fall short, as well as exit the Scottish Cup in a bad tempered home fixture to Falkirk. Two weeks later they murdered us 4-0 down at their place, but we ended the regular campaign comfortably clear of the bottom. Alas, Butcher would experience this post split demise not only with us, but Hibs a few years later. We just couldn't get the win that would keep us safe, and other results conspired to drag us further and further into the muck. Two points from twelve meant we were 11th just above Falkirk going into the last game. They had already thrashed us 4-0 and knocked us out of both cups, the sense of foreboding was prevalent before we kicked a ball. Hughes had moulded a street fighting unit, marshalled by one Steven Pressley, who would fall down holding his head so often after a corner it was embarrassing. When he did it in the cup match and winked at the crowd, the normally passive home crowd were positively foaming. Bad blood was overflowing on the last day, six games in a season playing each other was taking it's toll. Tokely's red card was central belt decision making and the game was up. Hughes ran on the field at the end like a demented flea and we were down. His antics that day never left me, and while he might have overseen ICT highs in latter years, he was never fully embraced by a good number of Caley Thistle fans. The one crumb of comfort from a real fall from grace might have been we were, and still are, the team relegated with the highest ever points total, only ran close by our second relegation! But hey, what fun we had the next season, and it would be years before we ever had to play the Bairns again, and despite having ten men that day too, oh what joy 😂. European games in Scotland numbered two viewings, Hibs were eased aside by Swedish team Elfsborg 2-0 in the Intertoto to kick off the season on the 6th July, but Queen of the South put in a braver effort against Nordsjaelland, going down 0-1 to the Danish outfit on one soggy Airdrie night! South America called me and the curtain came down on futbol Sud America across in Greater Bueños Aires, with Lanus playing out a 1-1 draw with the Goats (Chivas) of Guadalajara in the Libertadores! All done before heading home for the hangman's noose and our first demotion in the fifteen year history of ICT. 'Fifteen points and you f***ed up' next time out 😎 Thanks James, some great memories in there once again. Not all of them enjoyable, but thems the breaks More to come from James, the next three seasons coming along next week. You can read all about James' worldwide footballing travels in his own excellent blog FOOTBALL ADVENTURES WITH JAMES RENDALL
  11. The six venues chosen for this summer’s U21 European Championships in Italy is a curious mix, strandling two countries too! The North East pairing of the Friulian cities of Udine and Trieste are quite a distance from the other four. Reggio Emilia and Bologna form the “central” pairing, but it is the appointment of fourth tier stadiums at Cesena and San Marino, acting as the “southern” venues that might have been the surprise picks! Part of this article was penned for Football Weekends embellished with anecdotes of my travels to the latter duo for football. CESENA Had Cesena (pronounced ch-zane-A) been hosting last summer, the town might have been a little gloomy in outlook as AC Cesena went bust having been party to an inflated transfer fee scandal in an attempt to balance the books. A two league demotion, and the subtle alteration to Cesena FC later, the club are on the way back, promoted as Champions from the fourth tier. They were once held in highest regard, perceived to be well run with a conveyor belt of talent youth system, but it will take time to remove the tarnished reputation outwith the local area. The town has a population of just under 100,000, but given it is host to a sizeable part of the University of Bologna’s curriculum, it can have a distinctly youthful and busy feel. The quaint Piazza Popolo is the centrepiece of the town. Here you will find restaurants, a bar and an ice cream parlour. One side of piazza has a high wall which is the periphery of the Rocco Malatestiana, accessed through the arched tunnel on the piazza near the fountain, then up and up to the hilltop fortress. The Stadio Dino Manuzzi is named after a famous son of Cesena calcio from yesteryear. Having hosted Serie A football less than a decade ago, the Manucci was always going to be too big for Serie D with its 23,900 capacity, but the fans stayed loyal throughout a troubled year. It is a fabulous stadium, one worthy of International occasions, albeit with an artificial pitch. It is about a twenty to thirty minute walk from the railway or bus station, as they are opposite each other. From the road outside the railway station, turn left and follow it a few hundred yards to a small roundabout where the road goes slightly left, but you want to turn right, and head up in this direction for half a kilometre or so. You will eventually come to a busy thoroughfare crossing your path, here you want to turn left and follow it until the stadium appears, complete with a sizeable seahorse, the clubs emblem in the middle of a grassy roundabout just outside. In the vicinity you will find two or three small bars and a cafe or two as well. When Cesena are at home catering vans appear to add alternatives to the grub available, but as to whether they will be on hand for these games I am unsure. The Seahorse is a curious emblem for a landlocked town and club, but Cesenatico, some 10 kilometres away is considered the beach extension of Cesena. There is no railway link between the two, and if using such transportation Cesenatico is easier reached by train from Rimini, about 25 minutes away. It is a fine resort, with wonderful restaurants on the river side that runs through the town and doubles up as the harbour for its fishing fleet too, so guess what is very fresh and in abundance! At the Cesenatico railway station you will find a wonderful museum to the great Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, a local lad. Cesenatico have their own team, but in mid-June only the conclusion of the third tier play offs might still be rumbling on from the domestic game! Cesena traditionally make periodic appearances in the top flight and were last promoted to Serie A in 2010 which was a fourth promotion to the top table for a club only founded in 1940! The high point was in 75/76 with a 6th place finish in Serie A being good enough to qualify for Europe, where they suffered a round one exit in the UEFA Cup against then East German side Magdeburg, losing 4-3 on aggregate but they gave it a real go having lost the first leg away 3-0! They became only the second Emilia side to play in Europe, and 40 years on, only Parma and Sassuolo have been added to that roster!! But the aforementioned sides have perhaps rumbled Cesena’s status as once being the second team of the region behind Bologna! I first stepped off a train in Cesena in June 1987 to see the “Seahorses” play, it was my first game in Italy, and one of the first clubs in the country for whom I had a passion! If Como were the first, by virtue of being in the city the night Italy won the World Cup, Cesena were second, an intriguing name at the bottom of the clubs in the Subbuteo catalogue for white top and black shorts, listed under West Germany, Derby, Hereford and Ayr, but of course I was going to be drawn to Cesena!! Thinking back, it was incredible we got tickets but having arrived 6 hours before kick off we went straight to the stadium to get our briefs as promotion to Serie A was on that day! The stadium was absolutely full, the last game in the ground with the enormously high and bouncing temporary stands, before it was very quickly reconstructed to its magnificent present day look! A 2-1 win versus Catania didn’t get them up automatically that day as other results hadn’t all gone their way, but they did make it up via a convoluted three way play off, with a “final” play off win 2-1 against Lecce in San Benedetto del Tronto! I have had the pleasure of four subsequent matches in Cesena over the intervening years which capture the see-saw fortunes of the club. I earned my stripes with third tier action v Pro Sesto (2008), Serie B versus Bari (2006) and Serie A v Inter (2011) which saw another full house and a very memorable match! Cesena were leading right until the end, when two late strikes from the visitors broke the bianconeri hearts! In April 2017 Brescia were in town for a mid week league fixture, and while both clubs have Serie A pedigree, they were both struggling to make it clear of the relegation zone. I know Brescia is a fair distance from Cesena for a midweek game, but it was surprising to see no away fans, after all, these two clubs have “fan” friendship! Indeed, the local Ultras were operating a first half protest of their own, with their “zone” empty and no singing. Cesena played relaxed and well to the polite applause of a sizeable crowd, and deserved the lead at the break. Protest over, the tape was removed and the Ultras banners were swaying and the atmosphere returned to normality, but oddly their first ditty was “Brescia, Brescia”, an acknowledgement of their absence friends! Brescia had upped their game and were much more menacing and got the equaliser. Cesena pressed for a winner and despite some terrific near things that came and went, we all trotted out after a 1-1 draw! The sad footnote to all of this was the clubs involvement in an accountancy scam with Chievo Verona, where an inflated transfer fee, subsequently rumbled it created a cataclysmic sized debt. They have waded their way past Forli and tidily Santarcangelo in derby matches en route to the third tier next term, where Imolese, Ravenna and Rimini will be lying in wait for derby games too, a far cry from the once great regional top derby, Cesena v Bologna, which is still a few seasons off yet, sadly! SAN MARINO The inclusion of San Marino on the roster of venues is a wonderful touch, and a boost for the Most Serene Republic of San Marino as the hilltop state can be known! The country is named after a stonemason from the island of Rab in modern day Croatia! Saint Marinus moved to Rimini with his chums, but his sermons were continually being persecuted so he fled to nearby Mount Titano, where the Republic founded as early as 301!! Gradually surrounding areas joined and the land area grew, albeit it is still a miniscule country with a very small population of just 33,300, and flat land is very much at a real premium. Right up at the top of hill is the “city” of San Marino, and what a wonderful place it is too. This is the real tourist hub of the country, as well as its economic and governmental powerhouse. It’s tight streets are full of souvenir shops, as well as San Marino labelled goods similar those you’d get elsewhere but at a fraction of the cost, and probably a lesser quality too. Bars and restaurants abound as you wind up to the very top, the fortress, Guaita at the summit of Mount Titano. The views from here on a clear day will allow sight of Rimini and the Adriatic Sea as well as the surrounding, distinctly flat lands of Emilia-Romagna. The San Marino national side have hit rock bottom, now allegedly the worst International team in the world, but are they really worse than Guam, or American Samoa? Pleasingly they have abandoned their dark blue kit, and reverted to the classic light blue original, having given up on the notion that the darker shade would mean they’d be taken more seriously! One of the last areas to join the Republic just over 500 years ago was Serravalle. This area at the base of the hill, almost the first place you come through after the border, and before the winding route to the top. If you are coming to San Marino by public transport, you need to catch the Bonelli Bus Company bus from Rimini. There stop is just across the road from the railway station, 50 yards to the right, but the first of a variety of bus stops lined up on that side of the street. The majority of the tourist on the bus will be going to the final stop right up at San Marino town, but if you are merely going for the game and don’t fancy a lengthy walk down the hill, make sure they let you off at Serravalle. The stadium is just off the road to the right, hidden behind trees down in a hollow. I stayed in a hotel just above the stadium when I was at a game here in 2007, so local options to stay are available. The ground is now known as the San Marino stadium, essentially it is just two stands running the length of the pitch with a running track around it. With a capacity of just 6,664 it is by some distance the smallest stadium hosting U21 action. Aside from the national side, San Marino calcio, the Italian fourth tier league side also play here, as well as some big matches from the local league. It is debatable as to whether the locals will embrace this tournament, but I hope they do, as it is a rare opportunity for San Marino to host such an event, and for them to perhaps see goals scored by both participating International teams for a change! My sole endeavour to watch a game in San Marino was in May 1991 but it turned out to be a bit of a disaster! I thought I was doing the right thing, checking into a Serravalle hotel for two nights either side of an International with Bulgaria, positively glowing having seen Ancona beat Ascoli in the big Marche derby 2-0 at a jam packed Stadio Dorico before heading north. The night before the game I strolled down to stadium, pretty much a one stand arena in those days, but it was all locked up, and no posters were visible suggesting the kick off time. These were the days long before “apps” that would resolve such a query immediately, and on game day I became more and more perplexed, no one in the hotel or any given establishment in the town had a clue when the kick off was scheduled. I suspect a lot didn’t even know there was an International! The only plausible explanation came from a chap who had a perfectly valid theory! Inter Milan were playing Roma in the UEFA Cup Final that night at 8,45pm, so a 6pm kicked off down in Serravalle would allow everyone to get home in time for that final. I bought it, and ambled down the winding way from San Marino town to the ground. I arrived about 5,45pm and surprisingly it was a case of just walking in, no one was looking for cash! A few hundred people were already in the ground, and shortly after taking a seat, the teams trotted out. Maybe ten minutes later something struck me, they hadn’t stood for the National Anthems, and an enquiry of a chap behind me brought the news, this was the second half, with Bulgaria already leading 2-0!! It wasn’t much more than a training exercise, you’ve seen the film, San Marino sitting deep and hoping for the final whistle without being humiliated. They merely lost a third from the penalty spot, but against Stoichkov, Kostadinov and Letchkov a 3-0 loss was a bit of a result! I am staying in Rimini for two weeks over the next International weekend in June and I had hoped that I could have added a full 90 minutes to my San Marino CV, but it transpires they are away for both fixtures in order to prepare the stadium for hosting the U21 Championships. Thankfully this takes place after we have departed as otherwise Rimini might have been busier in June than one would wish for a quiet, relaxing holiday! View the full article
  12. Click to view slideshow. It is often said that a game under the lights adds a certain extra special element to the experience. This is a cliche trotted out at a variety of venues, along with the notion European nights are even better. Whether any such thoughts are even vaguely true would require experience of both at any given stadium to know for sure. I consider myself very lucky to have watched as much football in so many corners of the globe as I have, but the volume of different grounds would have been double the 250+ if it wasn’t for my support attaching to certain clubs away from my principal passion, Inverness Caledonian Thistle. That said, having a morsel of involvement for one of the participants is much better from an entertainment perspective than merely just turning up to tick a box of another ground for mw at any rate. if I wasn’t drawn back to certain places, I wouldn’t have experienced three games in the Bentegodi, Verona! The spectacular third demise of Ancona has allowed me a greater exploration of other favoured teams, but as they continue to recover under Anconitana, recently promoted to the 5th tier, the Marche Eccellenza awaits next season, where I would hope to get back on the Conero’s Curva Nord terraces as I did the last time they went bust! Verona lures visitors to the city everyday by the thousands. The fabled balcony of Juillet is a major attraction for the young backpacking crowd, but the city holds so much more intrigue and beauty than this overcrowd balustrade. With a population of just short of 260,000 it is a reasonable size, and the centre has UNESCO World Heritage status. It is a wonderful place, with it’s complete Roman Arena, still used to host outdoor concerts and opera productions. The narrow pedestrian shopping thoroughfare through towards the balcony is always crowded unless you arrive early. Many of the visitors will turn right at the bottom of this street en route to paying homage to love, but turning left brings you to my favourite part of Verona, Piazza Erbe. It is a spectacularly well preserved ancient square, bustling with market life and cafe’s. A walk to Castel San Pietro will be rewarded with wonderful panoramic views of the city and the Adige river. A certain fascination with Hellas started for me in the ‘80’s when they won Serie A just after I started really following the Italian scene. It was a rare shot in the arm for the “smaller” team and Veneto football in general. It remains the regions only ever Scudetto! Then Tim Parks’ fabulous book “A Season with Verona” followed the infamous Brigate Gialloblu up and down the world of Serie B. It was a fascinating read of a somewhat rogue fan base in a seemingly sophisticated city! The title of the book really should have been, “A Season in Hellas” rather than Verona, but in 2002 when it was published he might just have got away with it as The Flying Donkey’s of Chievo hadn’t taken off at that time! The situation has muddied even more now with the recent introduction of a third Verona team to the league, Virtus Vecomp Verona, who debuted in Serie C this season. Chievo have steered a more consistent path in Serie A almost since Tim’s book was written, and despite being an upstart wee suburb of the city, they are cohabiting the Bentegodi. While Hellas were fluffing their lines and ploughing a furrow as low as the third tier, Chievo were banging out continuous Serie A campaigns, if stultifyingly dull ones. I guess many years before, Sampdoria’s rise started to eat into Genoa’s monopoly in the Ligurian capital, and Sassuolo’s continued lofty vantage point these days has caused Reggiana to struggle and ultimately implode, despite Sassuolo being a small town well outside Reggio Emilia, who merely moved into town originally to get a big enough stadium for the top two divisions. They have become part of the Serie A furniture, and they even own the stadium in Reggio now. Older fans will always stay loyal, but younger fans might be drawn to the higher league team just by virtue of the greater exposure and bigger named visiting sides. However, despite only fleeting returns to Serie A, Hellas will always be the biggest Veronese club. Chievo have never won the majority of the city over, and they are struggling to recover from a significant points deduction start to this season, caught with their fingers in an accounting scam transfer that tipped the other guilty party, Cesena into bankruptcy, while the Flying Donkey’s are going back to Serie B! Hellas will still be hoping of crossing over with Chievo and step up, if not automatically now, then through the play offs, claiming the rightful crown as the kings of Verona once more in terms of league status, as well as on fan base! Hellas meaning Greece is undoubtedly an unusual name, but it is a nod to the founding fathers of civilisation rather than the clubs founding fathers. Disappointingly they weren’t started by a bunch of Greek philosophers, walking around in white toga and scrolls tucked under their arms! No Hellas hail merely from a group of students in 1903, and the name merely came along at the insistence of their “Classics” teacher! A sophisticated city like Verona took a little time to warm to the beautiful game, and it needed an exhibition game between two local sides in that marvellous Roman Arena three years later before a whiff of enthusiasm lit the touch paper to the notion of acceptance. The intrigue surrounding the club goes beyond the club name though, as you’d expect the stadium to be named after an ex-player, but no! Bentegodi were the team to beat at local level in the early days, and as the idea of an Italian league structure came along in the ‘20’s, it was thought Verona would have a better chance of success if the three bigger teams of the city merged to form AC Verona, Hellas, Bentegodi and Scaligera all came together at in 1929. Despite the greater synergy (oddly Hellas’ shirt sponsor this season!) it took 28 Serie B seasons before AC Verona finally were promoted to Serie A in 1957/58, and even then it was merely for a taster one season. Somewhere in those three decades another Hellas had been started and following AC’s relegation back to B the newer version of Hellas merged with the more established club in 1959. With two of the four constituent parts of the merged clubs now being Hellas based, a desire to bring back the essence of that part of the merger to the club won the day and Hellas Verona AC became the name which largely stands today, aside from the Hellas name disappearing fleetingly in the early ‘90’s for four years through that familiar old tale, bankruptcy, when AC also morphed into FC! It is wonderful that the Bentegodi name survives if merely in the title of the Municipal owned Verona stadium, now shared by Hellas and Chievo, but the name Scaligera has disappeared almost completely, other than being one of the clubs nicknames, Gli Scaligeri! But the local basketball team keep Scaligera alive! Once they’d dipped a toe outwith the city into the regional set up, a fierce rivalry was quickly established with Vicenza, a friction that continues to this day. You are more likely to see the Brigate Gialloblu getting het up by an encounter with the team 57 kilometres along the road, than playing Chievo. History leaves it mark, and it takes decades for mindsets to change, if ever, when it comes rivalries. Having merely sampled top flight football for one season, it took ten years for the club to be back there under the guidance of Swedish legend Niels Lindholm. This time they were to establish themselves at the top table in a spell of Serie A football that would last until 1990, save one season, 1973/74 when they were sent down despite being safe due to a scandal involving the then club President! When Osvaldo Bagnoli arrived as coach in the early ‘80’s they were getting in amongst the big boy with a couple of Coppa Italia final appearances, one was a narrow 3-2 aggregate loss to Juventus, having led 2-0 from the home first leg. Despite losing Hellas got it’s first European experience going down to Sturm Graz the following season, as well as an even closer, more heartbreaking late Coppa Italia Final defeat, 1-0 to Roma. All of these near scrapes were merely leading up to the historic 1984/85 campaign, when Hellas had one helluva team! A team full of names to conjure with for tifosi of a certain vintage; Antonio Di Gennaro the midfield magician, who was complimented upfront by Giuseppe Galderisi’s eye for goal and his imposing strike partner, the Great Dane, Preben Elkjaer. The supply of ammunition for the goals came via the wing wizardry of Pietro Fanna, and the defence was aided by the arrival of the immense German, Hans-Peter Briegel. These were days when you could only have two “stranieri” (foreigners) and Hellas had chosen well. An early season 2-0 win at Juventus signalled intent, and beating Roma added belief, but the crucial point was delivered not too far away from Verona in Bergamo in a 1-1 draw with Atalanta. A European Cup campaign followed and having got by PAOK Thessaloniki in the first round, they lucked out drawing Juventus next, and they were out. These were the glorious days when only the Champions of each nation and defending winners could participate, long before money and corporate greed took over! Interestingly, the top four in ‘84/85 were Hellas, Torino, Inter and Sampdoria! This was not a typical top of the table, and it coincided with a season where the officials were randomly drawn rather than appointed! Sadly, it was obviously all too much for some to stomach with regular selection methods being re-instigated the following season, and normal service was resumed at the top end of the table, sadly! This one Scudetto was the pinnacle for Hellas, as the players aged or left, but not before a European high of a Quarter Final in the UEFA Cup in 1988 versus Werder Bremen. It would be a last hoorah before relegation in 1990. The subsequent three decades have been volatile, with occasional visits back to Serie A, but more depressingly, bankruptcy in 1991 a legacy of overstretching to try to keep the side jousting at the top of Serie A in a new era where sadly moderate sized clubs were starting to struggle as money took control. As mentioned the name Hellas disappeared until 1995, but having got the name back the woes weren’t over as the club started to really struggle to keep Serie B status. Five thousand travelled to Como to see them survive one season, but by now it was becoming routine and the unthinkable happened when they lost a Play Out to Spezia, and after 64 years the club was in the third tier for 2007/08. Just when you thought the club had hit rock bottom they had a shocking first half of the Serie C campaign that saw some chap called Maurizio Sarri sacked as the club were bottom! The recovery was slow and ultimately only a 2-1 aggregate win versus Pro Patria Aurora saved the fourth tier! No one could say the fans had deserted the ship, as crowds remained strong with a 15,000 average. It was amid these fraught moments in the clubs history that I first stepped into the Bentegodi, watching a 0-0 draw with Rimini on a miserable day in a Serie C promotion play off at the end of 2009/10. It was enough to get Hellas into the final versus Pescara, and I could have been there too, but in these early days of individualised ticketing it was impossible to get off a train an hour before kick off and get a ticket, as the Arena ticket office in the city centre was the only ticket outlet at the time! A hassle I had accepted for the Rimini game, but I was still struggling to get my head around this ridiculous new ticketing regime. It was a situation that had been imposed on clubs, most were lacking the facilities to expedite it properly, hence the outsourcing. Hellas could have gone up automatically that season, but in front of 25,000 a last day party went sour as Portoguaro won 2,0. They were clearly punch drunk versus Rimini, but they just got the job done. However a week later Pescara condemned them to a fourth successive C season winning the promotion final 3-2 on aggregate after an entertaining 2-2 draw in the home first leg. The Bentegodi experience had entered my psyche though, and despite a relatively mundane goalless draw, Hellas had been leading 1-0 from the away leg, and the Brigate Gialloblu were in vociferous mood. Subsequent visits have demonstrated that they are largely always in such fine fettle no matter the result, but I know that can’t be the case as like any group of fans, if they are disgruntled they will let the team know! I base my hypothesis on having seen a draw, and a loss without scoring in either before finally seeing them win. My three visits also covered the full array of leagues, C, A and B in that order. It did take me 7 years to go back though, and it took the enthusiasm of a Lazio supporting Georgian lass to get me back there! Hellas were on the upper end of the yo-yo cycle merry go round that they find themselves on these days, back in Serie A but with a distinctly blunt attack. This was an achilles heel that would sweep them back to B by the seasons end, but for this sun soaked encounter against the capital side they were always second best. Despite losing 3,0 and with pressure mounting on a manager who would be gone shortly after, the fans stayed supportive throughout a very one sided affair. With a second game under my belt at the Bentegodi, I found myself catching as many Hellas games online as I could, despite the relegation. When I saw a derby was versus Venezia was scheduled for a Sunday night slot when I was back in Italy, I had to be there. The art of ticket purchase is now easier, not only do they have sales available outside the stadium, you can purchase online, or in my case, surprise a lady in a record shop in Novara who was acting as a ticket agent for the agency Hellas use. I suspect no one has rumbled into her premises before and asked for tickets to a Verona v Venezia match, but with only half an hour to get from station to stadium due to a medical issue on the train from ssssssh whisper it quietly, Vicenza, I was glad I had my brief! There is nothing special about the stadium in Verona, it has a running track around it making the action seem distant, which is never good, but ticks boxes for municipal involvement. The three layer seating is a little unusual, but it is the hardcore fans of the Brigate that create the incredible atmosphere, and under the lights on a quiet, warm early March night the songs rang out louder than ever. Despite a 9pm kick off and the match being played during Carnival in Venezia, the visiting fans were here in big numbers too. This would be Walter Zengas last match as the Venetian coach as the clubs fortune had nose dived. I finally saw Hellas score, and experience the explosion of joy at the Bentegodi, but in winning 1,0 the scoreline suggested a closer game than it’s reality. Giampaolo Pazzini had played well, as did the buzz bomb South Korean lad Lee Seung-Woo, despite demonstrating some woeful finishing for the second time in my presence, but no one can question his enthusiasm! If Hellas had been toothless in Serie A the season before, that baton had passed to Venezia in B. They huffed and puffed but they rarely looked like grabbing an equaliser. It was an odd second half for me when Venezia introduced a substitute Hugo St Clair, a Scot, doubling the number involved with Liam Henderson showing some tidy touches in the Hellas midfield. Two Scots involved in any game abroad must be a rare sighting!! The win kept Hellas close to the automatic promotion slots in the table, but spluttering results has closed that door, and they will need to work hard to avoid collapsing out of the play off picture altogether, a scenario that would be considered a disastrous outcome. Failure to be promoted will see the two Bentegodi tenants going toe to toe in B next season, not that Hellas lose much sleep over the Flying Donkeys, in il derby della Scala!! View the full article
  13. Click to view slideshow. As Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarn “Tomkinson School Days” begins, “training for the hop was a nightmare”, and sitting having a look at the roster of games, as well as plotting routes between the venues, the idea of six games in 41 hours including four games in a day was simply terrifying! I love my football, and while I had done three games in a day twice, four seemed daunting. Following last year’s hop which was weather hampered and reduced to four jousts, with just three on the Saturday, good sense prevailed in delaying this seasons diet by two weeks. It certainly worked out well as had they plumped for the same weekend again, it would have seen a highly likely total wipe out of the entire card as that mid March weekend saw torrential downpours, and only one East of Scotland league fixture survived at St Andrews. Since last season the sixth tier of Scottish football has seen a remarkable change of scene. As Tracy Chapman once sang, “we are talking about revolution”, with 26 East Junior sides following Kelty Hearts and jumping across to the senior game. Obviously it wasn’t possible to have one league with thirty nine clubs (although Argentina would give it a real go!!), so they were spread across three leagues (conferences) with the winners playing off for overall Champions and one promotion spot in the Lowland League, the southern half of Scotland’s fifth tier. The losing two winners as well as the remainder of the top five in each conference are guaranteed to form a new sixth tier, a sixteen team “super league” along with some 6th placed teams depending on who gets relegated from the Lowland league. The hop brought together a veritable potpourri of the new members and the long established East of Scotland gang for our entertainment. It was a journey that took me to some places in my own country that I have never been, so it was considered a useful exercise. It is maybe just a personal preference, but having only ever watched three “Junior” games in my life, the switching of these 26 clubs was akin to adding extra colour to my “Senior” world! Little by little I have been ticking them off for a first peek, but the hop was bringing a torrent of new grounds for me with five of the six getting an inaugural visit. It all kicked off in Denny, a small town just west of Falkirk and home to Dunipace. Westfield Park is a new facility for the club and community, a basic place, and one of those 3G pitches to allow multi use, but frowned on by many a seasoned hopper! Dunipace were never a top Junior side, and that form has transferred across to the new league, but the essence of the clubs ambition will see them improve in time. For this 8pm Friday night fixture under the lights, Dunipace were hosting the Manchester City of the East Juniors of old, and continuing in similar fashion this term in the shape of Bonnyrigg Rose, who just needed a point to sew up their conference. Dunipace set about the task of frustrating Rose by applying that old Bob Crampsey adage, “it’s never easy beating strategically placed dustbins”, which is maybe a slightly harsh analysis of the home sides blanket defending as they did put a lot of effort into stifling the opposition. That said, Bonnyrigg almost knew the breakthrough would come and they rarely broke sweat, or got out of second gear. However, at 1-0, any team will have a chance and Dunipace perhaps should have levelled from a rare corner, but the big defender headed over. Towards the end, with legs tiring, Bonnyrigg found the net a further three times, one an audacious “Panenka-esque” chip into the centre of the goal from a spot kick. In winning 4-0 and indeed clinching the Conference, Bonnyrigg players showed little joy or emotion, the job is only half done, and two crucial matches in a few weeks against the likely opponents of Penicuik Athletic and Broxburn Athletic for the title and promotion will be the real barometer of success. Bonnyrigg are rightly an ambitious club. Saturday mornings 11am kick off at Camelon saw me exit the motorway at the same junction as the night before, merely turning left instead of right, heading towards Falkirk, of which Camelon is a suburb. Carmuirs Park is a proper old fashioned football stadium, with the pavilion/changing rooms immediately reminding me of Kilbowie, once the home of Clydebank. The ground has seen better days with the terracing crumbling and off limits behind one goal, but it has charm and I am sure most of us like a stadium with a bit of character. In a garden behind one goal was a cleverly built little viewing box, complete with roof, on legs just high enough to see all the action, and sure enough, right on kick off a capacity crowd of two fitted into the box for watching the game for free!! Edinburgh United were in town, the fourth Junior “jumper” of the hop thus far, and like Dunipace, not from the top echelon. I had seen Edinburgh United twice already this season, shipping eight and four goals respectively, and in fielding a young team in this encounter, defeat was always likely, but to be fair to them, in losing 5-1 they did contribute to the spectacle with some attacking prowess, unlike Dunipace! Camelon were too good on the day and are comfortably in the top five in their conference to bring “Super” league East football, and the big boys of the old Junior days back good Carsmuirs. Camelon have a Junior Cup win on their roll of honour, and I am sure they will be aiming higher. It was a good crowd for such an early start too, but some of the “hoppers” rebelled and went off to watch other afternoon games, believing that the next venue constituted a lowering of standards! Inverkeithing was the 2,15 pm start, a whizz back along the M9 and across the new Queensferry Crossing over the Firth of Forth. Inverkeithing is very close to the Fife side of the bridge, and indeed, down by the playing field you are right beside an inlet of the Firth, and from the far side of the pitch you can see the top of all three bridges that cross the Firth, affording a spectacular backdrop. Granted that the Ballast Bank ground is extremely basic with nothing more than a perimeter fence to lean against and portable dugouts, but these are fledgling days for the Swifts who have togged up from merely being a club for kids, to adding an adult wing. They had a terrible start to the season, but gradually they’ve won a few points. This game saw the first sighting of an old guard East of Scotland team in the shape of Heriot Watt University. They were the only alternative last year for the 5,15 pm game last year, and while I am sure some must have hated not only the artificial surface, but the fact it was an indoor game, the 2-2 draw with Leith Athletic was the pick of the games from the 2018 edition, with the last goal from Leith being my goal of the season! Heriot Watt must feel a little peeved as they are the lowest of the three Uni sides involved in the senior set up, but they needn’t fret unduly as I suspect the other duo will soon drift downwards as the Lowland gets choke full of highly ambitious ex-Junior sides! This game was to ebb and flow, but Inverkeithing gifted HWU the first two goals before knuckling down and making a real old fist of it, with ten men too, and even with nine, however at 2-4 and down to eight, the game was up!! I suspect that the referee would have been hunted out of town pretty quickly afterwards, but he got the decisions pretty spot on in my opinion! Inverkeithing Hillfield Swifts can though claim the longest name in Scottish senior football now, nicking that title off my mob, ICT! It was back in the car, across the bridge and along the M8 in a westerly direction this time headed to Blackburn! I have to confess that I didn’t realise such a place existed before this season, and even when you are off the M8, thank goodness for Sat-Nav as the name Blackburn only seems to appear on a sign at the roundabout just outside the town limits! New Murrayfield is the name of the home to Blackburn United, and a tidy community set up they have here too. Being the tea-time kick off, the food was flying off the shelf, and the inventive option of a curry was all gone before kick off! Some of the “rogue” hoppers had returned as alternative early evening kick offs were non-existent, but another plastic pitch would have seen them muttering in their bovril! That said, give me a true artificial surface like this over the dry and bumpy pitch at Camelon, or the excessively long grass of the Sunday game, which we will get too eventually!! A morsel of pithy wit had given our English guests a Lancashire derby in name at any rate, with Blackburn v Preston! Albeit it is Preston Athletic from Prestonpans on the coast in East Lothian. Preston have been serially involved in the last four hops!! The first attempt was cancelled due to a waterlogged pitch, which resulted in a call being made to Edinburgh and Civil Service Strollers to tip them off about the unplanned arrival of the hoppers. They just had enough time to get along to the local supermarket to hoover up as many pies as they could get! In recompense for the cancellation, the next year the hop started in Prestonpans, and last year they were the visitors to Burntisland, and here they were again popping up in Blackburn. Preston did start life in the inaugural Lowland League, and they have the unenviable claim to have been the first club relegated from the new league. Given the explosion of new clubs at this level, they will struggle to find a way back to the Lowland, but they are the closest of the original East teams to clinching a top 5 finish, but defeat here at Blackburn might have put pay to such an outcome. Blackburn had been thrashed 7-0 at home by Linlithgow the following week, but they knuckled down here and put in a good shift winning 4-1, a scoreline that slightly flattered as Preston had good spells in the game too. Each game had served up a hat full of goals, the trio of Saturday games had brought 17 thus far, 21 if you include Dunipace the night before, but I was now in unchartered territory, a fourth game in the day. This was the tightest turnaround from a 19,10 finish to an 20,00 ko, but with only 11 miles to travel to Linlithgow, it was easily achieved. Linlithgow Rose are one of the big Junior clubs from the East to have jumped across and the 3,500 capacity Prestonfield stadium is a fabulously well kept venue. I had been here a few times, seeing them beat Fraserburgh and Wick in the Scottish Cup, as well as one of those three Junior games, the fabled derby with Bo’ness, which resulted in an easy 0,3 away win that day in front of a big crowd. Rose have not been without issues this term, and it seems that they won’t make the Conference promotion play offs as Broxburn Athletic might just have kept their nerve enough to win this particular section. However, Bo’ness have failed to make the play offs too, so they can look forward to re-establishing that classic derby fixture next season as they have been in different conferences this term. This evening kick off was not only the highest attended of the six game at 580 (some counted 620), complete with a good number of fans down from Perth to see their beloved Jeanfield Swifts (a club record away following apparently!), but it would become the game of the hop. All four Saturday game had been played at a good tempo, and chances fell for all teams, but my goodness, this was the fastest paced game, and while Linlithgow were to edge it 3-2, no one could have denied the Swifts a draw, or even a win, as they were very impressive and dangerous on the break. Saturday’s football was over, I had not only survived, but enjoyed each and every game. The goals tally for the day closed at 22, not a bad return for £23 entry to all four games! Where else could any given Saturday serve up two Swifts, and including Friday night provide two Roses as well! It was back along the M9 to Edinburgh for the nights kip, foreshortened by the clocks going forward, ahead of the final piece of the hop action in the Scottish Borders. Peebles Rovers were similar to Preston Athletic in having suffered a postponement for the Sunday game last season due to overnight snow! I know they had produced a lavish programme for the visit of Ormiston on that occasion, and doubtlessly forked out a lot for catering, so in the rescheduling on the roster for this season I hope it brought them some financial compensation. That said, judging by a souvenir programme (complete with biggest ticket I have ever seen!) on the spartan stall of Peebles goodies, Celtic had sent an XI at the start of the season and I would hope a good crowd came out for that one! If Brendan Rodgers had been at the game, given his constant whining about the length of the grass at Tynecastle every time he went there, he wouldn’t have liked the length of the blades on the lumpy surface at Whitestone Park. It is a lovely setting for a ground with the rolling Borders hills providing a stunning backdrop, and unlike everywhere we visited except Linlithgow it does have a stand, but judging by pitchside mutterings, a stand in a park doesn’t constitute a ground, and whoever that was decided to stay in the pub to watch some match between two Glasgow clubs?! Nope, can’t think who!! I had never seen Peebles play until five days earlier when I was at the new Leadburn derby, (way better than anything Glasgow can offer!) Penicuik Athletic v Peebles Rovers! Penicuik are one of the Conference winners and they are a slick, fast paced team, who will cause Bonnyrigg problems in the promotion play offs. Peebles by contrast are one of the “middle table” old East of Scotland sides, muddling through a tough campaign against more ambitious teams relatively well. Once everyone finds their level next season it will all settle down. At Penicuik they heroically only lost 3-0, playing the last thirty minutes with just nine men and not conceding again, but exactly how remains a mystery! Newtongrange Star, another “bigger” club were in town for the last game of the hop, and maybe I was beginning to feel punch drunk, or the pitch wasn’t helping either team play cohesive football, or we’d found ourselves a piece of fence beside “hoppers” who hardly had a good thing to say about anything , but it dragged! Nittin as Newtongrange are called were always likely to win, and they did 3-1 bagging a penalty amongst the goals to make sure every game had a converted spot kick and nicely bringing the entire hop half dozen games tally to a neat 30 goals. Rumours suggest that the six games were just 20 people short of the hop record for Scotland, but the many visitors by car and bus had undoubtedly swollen the gates at five of the six venues to potentially season highs, and while it was a few short of the biggest crowd of the season at Linlithgow, it would have been one of their bigger gates too. Last season I mulled the motivation of a far travelled hopper. Many a camera was about, little notebooks to keep the teams and substitutions etc, could be spotted, I get that. A prerequisite of a chosen venue for the hop is for a programme to be produced, which I am sure adds an extra few pounds to the coffers if they sell enough, and I must confess I do like a programme from games I attend, but don’t go all sniffy just because it isn’t a thing of beauty! These are small, and wonderful clubs that add real colour and tapestry to the Scottish game. Poor old Peebles Rovers have a collapsible perimeter fence on one side because the cricket club use part of their ground for the outfield in summer! And when they asked to put down an artificial surface the locals in their mansion houses up the hill on the road objected!! They have enough “local” issues without visitors losing all sense of perspective and looking down their noses at them. The good people of Peebles don’t care about the pontifications of who referees in the Glasgow Universities league, or what the ramifications of a car crash of big English clubs in League One next season might mean in preventing Ipswich getting an easy rise back up!! As money is ruining the top end of the game in every country, be thankful for these fabulous teams, whose every effort to make to ends meet and continue playing each and every season is a marvel in itself. Turn off the TV and go and support your local team, it’s the only way!! View the full article
  14. Click to view slideshow. This article has been penned with a view to appearing in the Football Weekends magazine in August or September, hence the reference to last season when the dust has yet to settle on the present one! History was made at the end of the last Scottish season with a Highland League club stepping into the league for the very first time through league effort, and as the 19/20 campaign gets underway Aberdeen will join the rest of Scotland’s big cities with two clubs. Cove Bay is a small coastal satellite town (population, 7,000) but the clubs new Balmoral stadium is actually on the outskirts of Aberdeen itself, a mile or so away from Cove. This was the second time since the inception of the Scottish pyramid system a non-league side has replaced one of the stalwarts of the previously closed shop structure. It was a case of third time lucky for Cove Rangers in the Play Offs. Getting into the Scottish League is an ambition they have openly embraced for more than a decade, having been pipped by Annan Athletic to replace the demised Gretna well before the relatively new pyramid play off route was opened merely five years ago now. Cove failed in the semi-finals in 2016 losing 4-1 on aggregate to Edinburgh City, who went on to be the pioneers of this promotion seeing off East Stirlingshire. Cove finally made the final in April 2018 but were left feeling rightly aggrieved by some “odd” officiating in a 3-2 loss to Cowdenbeath that culminated in their manager John Sheran having an astonishingly withering attack on the standard of refereeing! Back they went to the Highland League, licked their wounds, dusted themselves down and got ready for another crack at promotion at their new new stadium, albeit initially with the boss taking a touchline ban for his outburst! John sadly had a heart attack in the lead up to the last few weeks of last season, but pleasingly he recovered sufficiently to be on the touchline for the celebrations down in Berwick Upon Tweed. Brora pushed them hard last season but Cove always looked to have something in reserve, aided by 49 goals from Mitch Megginson. Having cliched a third title in four seasons they came through two semi-final jousts with an equally ambitious club in East Kilbride, even if allowing a club with a 500 capacity ground into the league wouldn’t be a healthy option. That particular argument is for another day and never arose as relevant with Cove imperiously sweeping the Lowland League winners aside 5-1 on aggregate, winning both legs. They progressed to the final where it seemed for 90% of the season they would be playing Albion Rovers, but the Coatbridge side were gifted three points for Clyde fielding an ineligible player and that seemed to act as the catalyst to claw back the gap on second bottom Berwick Rangers, culminating in guaranteeing themselves safety and condemning Berwick to the play off matches with a win on the penultimate round of games south of the border. It was a real fall from grace for Berwick Rangers, they have rarely struggled as badly as this term, and I am unsure when they last finished bottom of the Scottish leagues. In the inaugural play off season, Montrose found themselves on the brink, they were 45 minutes from going down at home to Brora. A collection was being made at half-time by the Brora fans to buy a road map of the Highlands for Montrose! A controversial red card, and a howling gale aided the Gable Endies recovery, and a few seasons on, they went down to Dumfries at the end of last term 90 minutes away from the final to gain access to the second tier, leading 2-1 from the first leg. They were duly humbled 5-0 by half time by a Queen of the South side who had endured a Berwick-esque slump in form late in the season, but I am sure as the Montrose fans drove home they’d reflect on how wonderfully the club has turned around since that awful play off day. Cowdenbeath are the only league club to have played in two of these end of season plank walks, and they survived them both, just on both occasions. East Kilbride had got by Buckie Thistle and then took Cowdenbeath to penalty kicks amid monsoon rain at Central Park. One missed EK penalty was enough for Cowden to retain their status, 5-4 in the spot kicks. They didn’t improve and scraped by Cove 3-2 last season in a real nasty spat of a second half, that kicked off as soon as the Cove keeper was tripped up as he tried to get back in his goal allowing a goal to be scored into an unguarded net! It messed with the Cove heads, and they never recovered the necessary composure. Berwick were England’s Scottish League side, but in last season’s play off final they were never at the races. With a winning mentality against a crestfallen losing one, it’s not easy to change the mindset, despite Berwick’s desperate attempt to fortunes by changing manager days before, but it didn’t work. Somewhat predictably Cove powered their way into the league, winning 4-0 at home, making the second leg a mere formality. However, they maintained a professional attitude, adding another three goals to the aggregate score at a muted Shielfield, save the partying visiting fan base, whose “Highland dynamite” song rang out regularly as well as hero worship of oddly not 49 goal Mitch, but substitute Eric Watson, “Balon D’Or elect” goes the song!! At 7-0 up on aggregate, the management who had been giggling at the songs, finally relented and on trotted Eric to the loudest cheer of the day! The idea the crowd was 1314 was just someone trying to reinvent a famous battle with a morsel of humour! The win is a signalling of intent for the forthcoming inaugural league campaign. I think I can quite easily predict that Cove will not struggle, and they won’t be hanging around the bottom league for any longer than merely bedding in! It is all far removed from the club that merely dotted around the Aberdeen Amateur circuit from foundation in 1922 until 1984, when they briefly flirted with the North Junior scene, before joining the SFA affiliated Highland League the very next year! It soon became apparent that Cove were not merely making up the numbers, and even having to become nomadic for three seasons until last July, it makes their continual high performance standard even more admirable, including an unbeaten Highland League title in 2017. Those left behind in the Highland League will wish Cove well, but delight in a more level playing field until the next “ambitious” club, more than likely another from the Aberdeenshire clubs who will endeavour to get the better of Brora, with Formartine, Inverurie or Fraserburgh lining up to be the likely challengers. Cove’s grandly named Balmoral Stadium with a capacity of 2,602 was nearly stretched to that number when Berwick came to town, with a new record high of 1,955, higher than the ground opening friendly with Aberdeen that sadly had to be abandoned due to a terrible injury to a Cove player, and bigger than when Hearts were the first competitive opponent in the League Cup last July! It is a very well appointed stadium, if in a hidden away location. It ticks all the boxes for lower league football with a small stand, three relatively small, terraced sheds (a very Highland League thing!) and plenty of perimeter fence to lean on thus providing a good view. Alas, as at the Berwick game, if you are standing behind the fence hoggers, make sure they are suitably smaller than you as the lack of any terracing aside from these wee sheds means everywhere is flat. As I discovered the Balmoral isn’t the easiest place to find, and you can’t for now necessarily rely on Sat-Nav as the new Aberdeen bypass seems to have sent that particular tool into meltdown! Upon switching to Google maps on my phone, it will guide you to where you can see the stadium, but on the wrong side of the Retail/Business development where the stadium is squirrelled away, and their is no access from where Google takes you! If you are heading up the A90 take the Aberdeen Harbour turn off as you would for Pittodrie, then turn right at the lights at the top of the new exit slip road. You are now headed towards Aberdeen, and indeed, ignore the sign pointing off to Cove to the right a little further along. At the first major roundabout you want to take the first turning left, taking you between a petrol station and a burger selling pavilion with Retail outlets in front of you. Follow the road round to the right and keep going as far as the road allows, and after about half a mile the stadium presents itself tucked in behind an enormous Royal Mail depot. Now that Cove might be attracting larger crowds on a regular basis, the Retail car parks might try and stop you parking nearby, but for now you are ok! Aside from Burger King, or the shop at the filling station, nearby amenities are at a premium. There is a bar/restaurant about half a mile further down the dual carriageway if you are looking for proper bib and tucker pre or post match! So Aberdeen, joins Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow on the two teams or more roster, and being bigger than Dundee it has capacity to take a new league team under its wing. Just how far, or how high Cove’s seemingly limitless ambition goes, well who knows! Cove Bay is after all bigger than Dingwall, and look where Ross County are now! As for Berwick, they will slip into the Lowland League and doubtlessly need time to steady the ship before trying to get their league place back. Treks north of Edinburgh will be limited to Kelty in Fife, with new “local” Borders rivalries available with Vale of Leithen and Gala Fairydean Rovers as well as bringing the first ever “old” league fixture to be played in the non league environment with East Stirlingshire. They may or may not be spared the Lowland league inclusion of another ambitious club in Bonnyrigg Rose, who won the East of Scotland title in sensational fashion at Broxburn only for the rug to be pulled from under their title success days later by being denied promotion due to the requirement for floodlights being added to the list of requirements after they were invited to put in their affiliation application, and despite the club guaranteeing they would be in place before a ball of 19/20 season was kicked! This particular issue rumbles on, and legal teams might be called upon! The members of the Lowland and East of Leagues play joint cup competitions, and Berwick could play Tweedmouth, who use the ground behind Shielfield’s shed, in what would be an historic all English tie in a Scottish competition! Oddly both are called Rangers! Let’s hope Berwick Rangers can get themselves sorted, and that they’ll enjoy the Lowland League, it’s becoming a hotbed of well run, ambitious clubs. Good luck to Cove another Rangers as they step into a new brave world of league football, but as the fans were singing “we’re on our way, on our way”. . View the full article
  15. Rendall's Rambles #4 If you have been following James on his ICT journey, here's the next three seasons. He's a well travelled football connoisseur who has been following the Caley Jags from the start. He has put together a fascinating nostalgic recap of Inverness Caledonian Thistle's first 25 years as witnessed through his own eyes. Thanks James, a remarkable commitment to the beautiful game. Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years No.10 #ICT25 2003/04 (Games 344 to 396) First floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, going up 😎: And so it came to pass, that upon the last kick of the 10th year of the empire, Mother Inverness were going to the top table! It started in exquisite fashion back in early August with a 5-0 win over Gretna in the Challenge Cup, our only ever visit to Raydale well ahead of the Border team making its brief mark on the world of Scottish football. Did we lose to Falkirk in August? What do you think?!! 2-1 for the Bairns, and even in the closing games of the season they held us 0-0 in the third last game of the season, a result that kept us off the top of the league, but only for one more week! Aside from the Bairns bogey, other teams were put to the swords with 4-0 away wins over Raith, St Mirren, and Queen of the South beaten 4-1 at home. We had never hit the top of the league until the penultimate day when we went to Cumbernauld to play long time leaders Clyde! That was the closest the Bully Wee came to the top flight in the modern three or four tier era. It didn't start well, as Clyde took the lead, but their was a momentum to us, and the equaliser when it came from the most unlikely scorer in Liam Keogh saw a celebration akin to Marco Tardelli scoring versus West Germany in a World Cup Final! The winner came from our at times frustrating but equally reliable Steve Hislop, and we didn't just win the game, we went top! They had a "helicopter" Saturday the following week, but in truth the Championship was never in doubt, David Bingham settled the nerves, Paul Ritchie got the second, and Barry Wilson blasted a late penalty to see off St Johnstone 3-1 with a pitch invasion of riotous joy ahead of the trophy arriving. I am sure Partick Thistle thought our Championship would see us denied promotion, but assurances were made, and while we played a lot of the next season in Aberdeen, when we came home the stadium met all the necessary requirements. The cups were joyful too this term, with the club winning it's first Scottish knock out trophy with a 2-0 win over Airdrie United in the Challenge Cup Final in Perth. We reached a second consecutive Scottish Cup Semi Final, with Dunfermline our opponents at Hampden. A 1-1 draw saw maybe the last ever semi final replay, which took place at Pittodrie. We lost a cracking match 3-2 but I am still haunted by a near miss by Paul Ritchie that might have made all the difference. We would get used to Pittodrie the following year, and we would take our revenge on the Pars, but that's next week's tale! The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No 11 2004/05 (Games 397 to 453) Nibbling at the top table: Life in the Premier, the top league in Scotland, they say it doesn't get any better than that! In our eleventh year, we had scaled the whole way up the leagues, and while I am sure many were relishing the challenge, I was both shocked and terrified! Yes in 1973 when I first went to a game with my dad it was a top flight game, but Hearts v Arbroath in a league on 18. We only ever went against the lesser lights, and with fan violence on the increase, by 1978 I had rebelled and I had gone off to find my own adventures, far from any such goings on. In the fifteen years I was a Meadowbank fan, only once did we even get vaguely close to the Premier League, finishing second behind Hamilton. Only once before I walked out in 1993, sickened by the hijacking of the club and the protests, did we play in Glasgow against either of the Old Firm, a League Cup semi final first leg at Ibrox. We lost 4-0 but stuff was being hurled at us, and it was a very uncomfortable night. For ICT playing in the Premier League, I needed my own ground rules, and that was banning myself from going to Ibrox or Celtic Park for any league game! Having made that decision, I relaxed and I have stuck to it to this day, and even though we played The Rangers in a League Cup tie at Ibrox and won, I didn't. I have never seen us play at Ibrox, but I have been at Celtic Park for Cup ties just twice, once rather memorably! The start of the campaign didn't have a very top table feel too it, Livi away, and Dunfermline 'home' at Aberdeen, much to Partick Thistle's disgruntlement!! We were absolutely horrible on debut, going down meekly 3-0, just as we had been a few years earlier in our first game in the Championship, a 4-0 loss at the Pars. Oddly the last time we played Dunfermline had also been at Aberdeen, the cup semi replay loss, but this time we got things right, and game two of the season brought us a 2-0 win, with the honour of our first ever Premier League goal going to an unlikely scorer, Stuart Golabek! It was never going to be an easy season, doubly so playing so many games away from Inverness, but this early win was vital. Our next Pittodrie home match was versus Celtic and we were competing terrifically well and then came a sickening moment that I will never forget, and while many seem to dislike Neil Lennon for a variety of idiotic reasons, the utter shameful gamesmanship of going down holding his face when Juanjo nudged his chest was one of the worst moments of cheating I have ever witnessed. Juanjo was sent off, Lennon never received any retrospective punishment (it probably didn't exist then) and the dynamic of the game changed, from 1-1 we lost 3-1. Hosting Aberdeen at Pittodrie was always going to be a unique and funny thing. We got the home stand and doubtlessly the home dressing room. It was a terrific atmosphere, and while hardly a derby, we are two northern teams. We did get the chance to keep the wee team firmly in its place too, winning 1-0 in Dingwall in the League Cup. We ended up playing home games in three stadiums that season, with our Scottish Cup win over St Johnstone coming shortly after the last game at Aberdeen, with this one being played in Dingwall with a 1-0 ICT win. On the 29th January we were home finally and we did the home double over the Pars with another 2-0 win, Barry Wilson scoring our first proper home top flight goal! A March into April series of wins were enough to see us clear of trouble at the bottom, starting with a fine 2-0 win at Tynecastle, then a rare win at Kilmarnock and a stirring 3-2 win over Dundee. The Dees neighbours came to Inverness on the last day of the season in their thousands, where a dubious penalty saw mayhem erupt at the away end, scored by Barry Robson. The Arabs had saved themselves but it was a portent of things to come! It was never going to be anything other than a hard season, but we made it!! We'd even get a wee trip abroad before we knuckled down to life at the top table again the following season, stay tuned for the next instalment next week! I was doubtlessly missing trips to Inverness as I found myself at Clachnacuddin versus Brora in November, on a day when ICT were making a league debut at Celtic Park. It ended in a 3-0 home win for the Lilywhites, a result that wouldn't happen now! Oddly, I was to see two more Highland teams the very next week! I was just entering Aberdeen for our match with Dundee United when the radio informed me that the game was off. No one had cleared the snow off the pitch! As luck would have it, Inverurie were playing Keith in the Scottish Cup, so I headed there. The referee was none other than my old work mate and Pomona player Crawford Allan. It was an odd appointment for an Edinburgh ref, and in chatting to him, the last thing he wanted was a replay. Well nothing like a dubious last minute penalty to save the journey north again, with Keith the happy recipients winning 2-1 courtesy of the spot kick! The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No12 2005/06 (Games 455 to 511 Five dots to Farum ..... 🚂The second campaign in the top flight was always going to have an anti-climax feel to it for me after the season started with Inverness in action abroad! The train down to South Denmark from Copenhagen to Nykobing wasn't exactly with the same anticipation as the trek to Giurgiu, but in 2005 who could have envisaged that ICT would ever play competitive International football! Walking around the quaint Danish town I was beginning to fear I might be the only visiting fan! The small posse never bumped into each other ahead of the game, but we were ultimately a collected gathering of five at the first ever ICT game abroad with Don Taylor, his wife and son as well as another lass lending our support. Nykobing Falsters Alliancen was the rather cumbersome name of an allegedly new Danish super club, but as far as I am aware they have never troubled the top tier. They were to beat ICT on our European bow 2-1 with Liam Fox claiming our first overseas goal. We all spent some quality time in Copenhagen, which really is a fabulous city, joined as we were by one more fan, Alex ahead of the local metro train out to Farum. It was a well heeled sleepy hedgerow suburban town at the end of the metro line. It took an age, but we eventually got down to five dots on the train map in the carriage, a phrase that stuck in the legend of the trip! Nordsjaelland's stadium had a hotel, where the team were staying, complete with a bar/restaurant. The pre and post match tipples were scooped here, latterly with the team chomping a meal ahead of having a night on the town in the city. This was a well earned night out as we had just beaten an up and coming top flight Danish team 1-0 on a very warm afternoon. David Proctor gave us the win, as we all enjoyed cinema-esque padded seats, albeit they were getting rather hot! Nordsjaelland would crop up in competitive European football versus Queen of the South a few years later, and only one fan travelled to Scotland, so respect to the six of us who went to Denmark for friendlies! Back to the bread and butter Premier League football we started with a moment of reverse history defeating Falkirk in their back yard in August as a welcome to the top flight! We didn't suffer too badly from second season syndrome and picked up points regularly to keep the bottom well below, but never enough to make the top six. A 2-1 win at Easter Road was a notable early result, which eventually became a treble over the Leith side winning 2-0 in Inverness, and 2-0 on our second visit to Easter Road. We nibbled a home point off Celtic in a 1-1 draw as well as thrashing the Bairns 4-1 at home too. Ridiculously we played at Livingston four times away including a League Cup Quarter Final loss, finally winning one of these jousts to keep us safe in the top flight in late April. This was the season where George Burley's Hearts won the first ten games of the season including a 1-0 success at Caledonian Stadium, but then he was sacked, and where did he disappear to after that? Hearts did have something to celebrate at the end of the season, just, when third tier village sensations Gretna nearly won it, and maybe only a perfectly timed Robbie Neilson tackle saved them from losing ahead of winning the penalty shoot out! Hibs had a horrible season when I was in the stadium, murdered 4-0 at Tynecastle and in the only game I saw that they didn't lose was a feeble 0-0 with Dnipropetrovsk from Ukraine. I was at three English games in three days at Preston, Doncaster (the first of three in the season), then Chesterfield, a chance to see Saltergate before it disappeared with the bees of Brentford winning 1-3. Scotland very nearly beat Italy but a controversial late free kick for Italy brought their goal in a 1-1 draw, but we then lost to Belarus at home 0-1. Typical modern day Scotland! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Thanks James, some great memories in there. Five dots to Farum? When asked how far to go, I looked at the electronic display in the carriage and that's where the five dots to Farum came from, each dot representing a station. Mee was the other fan, all the way from Foyers. Farum was home to FC Nordsjælland, managed at the time by former Celtic player Morten Wieghorst, really nice guy. The floodlights were not visible as we strolled to the ground en mass, all six of us, and the reason became clear when we got there. The ground was close to a flight path and the floodlights were on hydraulics enabling them to be retracted when not in use. The Stadium was 10,000 all seated with leather seats and beer cup holders on each one. Wonderful! More to come from James, the next three seasons coming along next week. You can read all about James' worldwide footballing travels in his own excellent blog FOOTBALL ADVENTURES WITH JAMES RENDALL
  16. There are certain badges of honour in my world, the most important remains the absence of the USA on my 51 country travel CV. Another is borne of a longstanding fascination with the old DDR, East Germany, and a desire to watch football only in this part of the unified land! It all started in the mid ‘70’s when Lokomotive Leipzig were involved in my first ever European match at Tynecastle versus Hearts, and what a night that was, with Hearts 4,2 down from the first leg, and conceding first in Edinburgh, only to storm back and win! No other European match has come close to that drama when I have been in a stadium since! Lokomotive brought an exotic name from a mysterious land to my city. In the days long before the Internet and freer communication, the closed off nature of the Eastern part of Europe only brought anything from these lands to the West only largely for sporting occasions. This mythical feel was perpetuated by older Meadowbank Thistle chums who would return to the frozen lands of the now demolished Meadowbank Stadium (the coldest stand in the world!) regaling tales from beyond Checkpoint Charlie; of quaffing Isle of Skye whisky straight from an East Berlin fridge et all! Anna Funder’s exceptional book “Stasiland” shone a light on the DDR, and modern day movies like “Goodbye Lenin” and “The Lives of Others” all put the reality of life in the East into true perspective, as have the more recent TV “Deutschland ‘83 and ‘86” series’. However my fascination remains unbowed with a deep seated fascination of principally borne from football, with a nagging regret I didn’t get to visit before the wall came down, just to see! Dynamo Dresden, Karl Marx Stadt (now Chemintzer), Magdeburg, Carl Zeiss Jena and the aforementioned Lokomotive Leipzig all names that conjured up a sense of mystery in me. Sadly, no one has ever written a history of East German football, even in German as far as I am aware, a proper gap in the market! Now while I keep an eye on the old DDR clubs in the German leagues these days, watching Dresden or Magdeburg when I can only online, Italy will always be my true European passion. It took a friend, Sir Alex of Munchen, housing himself in Germany for a few months for me to scrutinise the German fixtures for potential tasty ties to coincide with my visit! Prior to this recent expedition I had been to Berlin a couple of times, but not for football, and my only ever game in the country had delightfully been in the East, but for Spain v Ukraine at the 2006 World Cup in Leipzig! The new stadium there has been cleverly housed inside the enormous bowl arena, complete with obligatory running track of what had been the occasionally used bigger venue used by Lokomotive Leipzig. Walkways into the new ground take you across what once were the terracing of the vast stadium. Leipzig that day was a riot of red or blue and yellow from both sets of fans. Ukraine were making their debut in the finals and they got a right old going over, 4-0, but as the venue was the closest of all the stadiums in Germany to Ukraine they were very well supported. Indeed, our tout purchased tickets, down an alleyway from a bloke from London, were for the Ukrainian end, and while they left that match down hearted, they did go on to make the quarter finals, a round further than Spain went!! I always mentally noted to go back to Leipzig to see the city without its colourful fans and bright decking that was strewn everywhere in the centre, but sadly, despite having been to Dresden now three times in the intervening period I haven’t been back, yet! Leipzig has of course, courtesy of the significant backing from Red Bull broken the cosy “Western” orientated Bundesliga with a clever move to invest in a small time team and take them on a journey. This would largely be something lauded in other lands, but RB Leipzig have yet to be accepted by a predominantly sniffy elite, despite the rules of the Bundesliga being written to allow the exceptions of company owned clubs at Leverkusen and Wolfsburg! This is the modern world of business orientated top flight football, no matter how they dress it up, so suck it up and embrace a little Eastern spice in the German top flight I say! There rise might not have as yet have sparked a more “classic” DDR side to return to the Bundesliga, but the signs are that one or two might join them in the near future, Union are certainly leading the charge. Following an amusing chat with a Chemitzer and Zwickau fan at Inverness a few years, as you do, drawn as they were to my bright yellow Dynamo Dresden tracksuit top, they amusingly call RB Leipzig, “Austria” Leipzig!! It kind of stuck with me as an amusing name and while I hope Lokomotiv can make it higher than their present 4th tier, and Chemie will return from the Oberligas, I still embrace RB’s involvement at the top table, even if they are not my team! A scrutiny of German football fixtures for a trip was a new gig for me. If you consider 150+ of my 186 games outside the UK have been in merely three countries, Italy, Uruguay and Argentina, and 4th best with eight games being the Faroe Islands, Germany edging from one to three games after this trip was quite a leap. Wonderfully I found two fixtures on the same weekend that embraced my DDR fascination as all four teams would hail from the East, starting in the third tier at Jena. Jena is a nice little town, with just a population of 110,000. It is surrounded by high hill’s, sitting in the valley with the Saale river meandering by. Jena is a University town, and judging by its many statues of famous students, this is either a legacy of the Communist celebration of high minds, or a more recent expose of those who made a name for themselves having studied in the town. One area we strolled certainly teemed with fine mansion houses, a tipping of the hat for a town also renown for its high end technology and research. And yet, high on the hill behind these houses, an old East German look out post still stands, the only such sighting we’d see, as even the once fraught border crossing areas have seamlessly fade back into nature. Carl Zeiss is perhaps the most famous son of Jena, forever preserved in the name of the camera production, and it’s local football team, whose close colleague and equally eminent scientist buddy Ernst Abbe recalled by the name of the football stadium. None of this naming the ground after a famous ex-player mullarky in the highbrow world of Jena! Carl Zeiss Jena (known as FCC locally) dropped into my psyche in the early ‘80’s when the most unlikely Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final brought the East German side face to face with Newport County! I even took both programmes from these occasions back to Jena with me, and I am pleased to report that a Welsh flag and a Newport/FCC banner were draped around the ground, the friendship wonderfully still exists to this day. Carl Zeiss went on to the final, where an equally unlikely CWC Final with Dinamo Tbilisi took place in Dusseldorf. It remains, and quite possibly will never be beaten as the lowest ever Euro final crowd at around the 13,000 mark, but given the majority of both sets of fans would have been banned from travelling, it was a bit of UEFA error not to move the game behind the Iron Curtain as it was then! The then Soviet side from Tbilisi won the day, Georgia’s only ever European success, and FCC’s failure left Magdeburg as the only DDR Euro trophy winner. When will we see the likes again? Probably never, sadly, money has taken away the curiosity and the anomalies. Energie Cottbus were in town for a vital match at the bottom end of the third tier. The Bundesliga name doesn’t extend to the third league, and this level will allow the bigger clubs second teams in. Delightfully season 2018/19 has been “II” free, and given the size of Germany, and the number of well supported teams in the lower leagues, if ever the DFB had the chance to close the door on entry beyond the Regionalliga (4th tier) to these reserve sides it was now! The Ernst Abbe stadium has a running track around it, never great from getting involved in the action perspective. The main stand is sizeable, with low terracing behind both goals, and uncovered seating running the length of the field opposite the stand, with only maybe ten rows of seats. There is scope to expand behind here should FCC ever need too. With a 17,000 capacity in a town of 110,000, it seems more than adequate at its present size. Just shy of 7,000 were in the ground for this clash with an old foe! The curious thing about the ground is that both the visiting fans and the hardcore local support are at the one end separated merely by an old electronic scoreboard! It made for a cacophony of noise from the one end, with both groups endeavouring to out point each other. The FCC fans had gone to town to get their message across, unfurling a “Cottbus not welcome” banner just ahead of kick off, followed by an array of cleverly crafted boards to make their point, and I will let my photos do the further explaining! Suffice is to say, the legacy of the DDR days has left it mark! Carl Zeiss are only in their second term in the third tier this time around having been in the lower league wilderness for too long. That tricky second season syndrome has seen them struggle, drawing too many games, and not scoring enough largely being the issue. The home sides need for the three points was greater, and they set about Cottbus with an energy that Energie weren’t displaying. After some near things FCC took a deserved lead, but that merely poked the bear and for the next passage of the game they were pushed back as Cottbus looked fleetingly accomplished. The equaliser came, a comedy own goal, but the red and white brigade of Energie weren’t bothering about that. Just before the break a rocket of a shot rocked the Cottbus crossbar, and the follow up save from the keeper will be hard to top as my save of the season, top notch stuff! FCC dominated after the break against a side who oddly seemed happy with a point. Despite the greater possession Jena weren’t unduly troubling the keeper, but when a penalty was awarded, the dispatched spot kick sent the stadium into raptures, and upon the final whistle great scenes of delight. They still had a long way to go to get out of the bottom four, but this win might well have proven pivotal in getting them to safety. The Ernst Abbe stadium is in a large park area on the edge of town, with the river cutting through it. Jena Paradies railway station is the nearest and you want to come out the back of the station towards the river and start walking right as close to the water as the path will allow, then cross the bridge near the stadium and you are on your way. It is no more than a 15 minute brisk walk. An iconic wooden clock tower with Carl Zeiss Jena that sits behind one terracing on top of the “club house” is a thing of great history. That evening we set off from Jena, via Halle and Leipzig where we changed trains on both occasions to Dresden. I took a mental note that either of these cities would be the ideal base for future DDR plundering, as I especially want to see Magdeburg play at home. Leipzig/Halle has an airport between them too, future plans already taking shape! I love Dresden, this was my third time in the city, but the first to include football. The last time I was in Dresden it was the day after they’d played Chemitzer in what would have been another great DDR tussle in the third tier, but I did at least get the chance to raid the club shop. From my first visit in 2006 until now the central area of the city has changed beyond recognition, with the complete restoration of not just the iconic church the Frauenkirche but all the surrounding buildings, bringing back a feel of how Dresden may have looked before that end of war bombing that destroyed so many of its wonderful facades. My favourite place is the Zwinger Gardens, a lavish group of buildings with ornamental gardens, but it is now undergoing extensive restoration work. I had a soft spot for Dynamo in the old DDR days, they were always the most likely to take trophies away from the hated Dynamo Berlin with all their Stasi governmental fudging behind them. The clubs best period came in the 1970’s when they won five league titles pulling in crowds of 25,000 the envy of the rest of the league the East German teams. Benfica, Juventus and Porto were all beaten during a decade of continual European football in Dresden, but three times they lost out to Liverpool, who would go on to win the trophy on all three occasions. Unlike the East German national side who won their only competitive game with West Germany, 1-0 at the ‘74 World Cup, Dynamo came up against Bayern Munich in that ‘70’s period losing a classic two legged joust 7,6 on aggregate. Dresden lacks a Euro final on the CV unlike others from the East, indeed, they floundered regularly in the quarter finals, which was the furthest they ever got. A revamped version of the old Dynamo stadium is across the Elbe river near Neustadt station, which now plays host to DD II and FC Dresden who bob around in the lower reaches of the German pyramid. From the train, the ground is clearly visible and it has been scaled down as well as buffed up for much lower attendances, but the classic electronic scoreboard is still there behind the goals. In 2009 as part of the city’s revamping, SGD ( SG is short for Sportgemeinschaft) as Dynamo are also known moved into the magnificent Rudolf Harbig Stadion (a famous athlete, not ex-player) at a cost 43 million Euros. It is owned by the local council, rather than the club as a safeguard against any financial issues the club might face, but it is Dynamo’s home, Dresden is largely a one club city and what a fervent support they have too! Despite having watching a lot of SDG’s Bundesliga 2 clashes online, nothing compares to be being in the stadium, wow what an atmosphere. It was almost a sell out for this encounter with Union, and even minutes after public sale opened online, the only seats together were close to visiting fans in the stand opposite the main one. The Union fans were great, but being so close to them was a pity as they were messing with desire to focus more on the magnificent home support. The Dynamo fans had no menacing banners or choreography like the FCC fans the day before for the visit of the capital’s “eastern” team, but they started with a massive “Poznan” and then turned to enjoy the game amid a riot of flags, scarves twirling and passionate singing. Enjoying the game might be pushing the limits as Dynamo’s mid-season tumble down the table has seen them sent out to sit in and play on the counter attack, even at home. With two agendas of survival versus promotion, Union were the slicker team in the first half, and as they grew increasingly more desperate, Dresden were finding some gaps to exploit, and only choosing the wrong pass or over exuberance failed to bring a home goal. A goalless draw was sadly about right, both had ultimately been powder puff, but neither team seemed disappointed at the end. The extraordinary number of police vans outside the stadium at the end was a reminder that Dynamo fans come with a certain reputation, and while nothing seemed to be about to kick off, the police weren’t taking any chances. The stadium is about a twenty minute walk from Dresden’s Hauptbanhof (Central Station) and maybe a good thirty minute walk from the centre of the historical area. A need to compare the Italian game with the German one was inevitable for me! In many regards the German fans are a throwback to Italy pre-turnstile/individualised ticketing, as neither are a prerequisite in Germany surprisingly. Somehow as attendance stay positive in Germany, especially in the lower Italian leagues, the fans are staying away in droves, whether due to dissatisfaction with the product or the endless mucking about of the kick off times. The style of game is different, with the German version largely played at a faster pace, but it is less technical! I enjoyed my German experience, and I will return for more DDR action, but in a few weeks I will be back in Italy and looking forward to a Serie B or C play off encounter which is more familiar surroundings, after all this is my land, and I am a loyal tifoso! View the full article
  17. Rendall's Rambles #3 If you have been following James on his ICT journey, here's the next three seasons. He's a well travelled football connoisseur who has been following the Caley Jags from the start. He has put together a fascinating nostalgic review of Inverness Caledonian Thistle's first 25 years as witnessed through his own eyes. Thanks James, a remarkable commitment to the beautiful game. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No. 7 2000/01 (Games 216 to 252) Bedding into the second tier: In the second season of life in Division One as it was known, was largely a dull mid table affair, but there were a few highs, one controversy and one angst ridden end. The first full season of the noughties was upon us, and it brought two new clubs to the league in Elgin City and Peterhead, amongst the last clubs to be 'voted' in following a summer of tweaking the roster. I was at the first Elgin game at Glebe Park, Brechin a 2-1 loss for the new boys. Indeed, edging close to twenty years in the league, Elgin have never kicked on, stuck perpetually in the bottom tier, which is a shame as they have true fan based potential to be a northern Queen of the South. The centre pieces of an up and down ICT season was our never say die attitude, especially in the New Year derby at home to County, when we trailed 3-1 going into injury time. Three minutes later, a Dennis Wyness brace had the regularly morgue like Caledonian Stadium in a lather! A little bit of payback on one of the Falkirk hammers of Caley in any given August (yes we lost 2-3 this season), Owen Coyle, tried to dribble to the corner flag at 2-3, he lost the ball, belted forward and our very own deadly Dennis the menace did the rest 😊. A few weeks later we were at it again! Ayr United raced away to a three nil lead in the Scottish Cup, taking advantage of our hopeless cross catching/line glued goalie Les Fridge. The chap beside me was so disgusted he left at half time! But this was the last hoorah days of our increasingly alcohol fuelled boss Steve Paterson, and his sides never knew when they were beaten. Paul Sheerin, Davide Xausa, Bobby Mann and Dennis 'he used to be shite, but now he's alright' had us in a Wyness wonderland!! We were 4-3 up with 25 minutes to play!! This win brought us a home game with the other Ayrshire mob, Kilmarnock, and after a 1-1 draw the replay brought another shocking top flight howler, a midweek abandonment because Killie switched off their undersoil heating so as not to disturb the neighbours!! The re-run a week later saw us narrowly knocked out 2-1. The season fizzled out and in the "what goes around, comes around" fashion, Livingston got a secondary doze of revenge for us denying them a promotion four years earlier. This time a 2-3 away win saw them clinch promotion to the top table for the first time. I rarely leave early, but a club wearing my old teams shirt with Livingston written over Meadowbank in crayon, I wasn't for watching them celebrate on our patch. Meadowbank under its own steam came within a whiff of the Premier League, but the SFA sent a ref to a home game with Clyde to clip our wings, and second top was the giddy high we achieved. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25 No.8 2001/02 (Games 253 to 289) A tale more of travels: It was almost as if I had foreseen a quiet season on the horizon for ICT as I was on the move around the globe more in this season than at any other point in my life, see below. Somethings were never changing, and August had developed into a real stumbling block for the club. The annual late loss to Falkirk was there, 1-2, as well as a loss to Partick, a place I have rarely ever seen us win, and a couple of draws at Clyde and St Mirren, oh, and a Challenge Cup loss to Alloa, again!! Before the season hit a true low with a league record 6-0 horsing at Airdrie, I was at a game that spooks me to this day! 11th September 2001 will go down in history as one of the worst days ever, the day of the Twin Towers collapse and terror was everywhere across the pond. I knew it had happened, and post work, I listened intently on the radio as I drove to Coatbridge, but only after a fairly routine 2-0 Caley Thistle win, seeing it on the TV back home, did the full horror sink in. All games were cancelled the next night, and while Cliftonhill is never a throng of lively atmosphere, that night it was eerily quiet and the players seemed to be just going through the motions. On a more positive note, three days earlier I took my nephew to his first ever game of football, a 5-1 first win of the season at home to Arbroath. When we scored initially the poor lad got a fright when everybody stood up cheering, and then he sat on the ground failing to realise the seat had sprung up! In time he would choose rugby as his sport, but he may have a rare claim to fame in that he has seen more football in Uruguay than anywhere else in the world!! The highlight of the season was winning our first ever game as a club in Edinburgh, a 3-1 win at Hearts on a dreich day in the Scottish Cup. Indeed, with such a sizeable following Martin and I were stuck in our third row seats getting soaked! A first ever game in my own city, a big win, and I ended up home under the shower to warm up by 5:30!! Mid table and a cup Quarter Final was as good as the season got. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years No9 #ICT25 2002/03 (Games 290 to 343) A Semi-final season: By now we were a well established second tier side, and in this our 4th season in the Championship as it is now, we were starting to knock on the door of the top end. It didn't start well losing our only ever game at Berwick Rangers, 1-0 in the Challenge Cup, followed by a first ever league win in the first encounter versus St Johnstone, also 1-0, and then the obligatory fifth season on the trot August home loss to Falkirk 1-2, who then won the second in Inverness 3-4! Beating St Mirren 4-0 was a real treat, then Arbroath were despatched 5-0 before two hat tricks by Paul Ritchie and Dennis Wyness saw us run riot 6-0 at Alloa, and we'd win 5-1 there later in the campaign. It was maybe another great Scottish Cup run that took our focus away from the league, first we beat Raith 2-0, and while I was in South America for the next round, I was in my seat for a 6:30 ko on a Sunday night for the Quarter Final versus Celtic. They had a shed load of chances, Larsson et all, but we did it again, with Dennis blasting the club into a first ever Scottish Cup Semi Final. One sour note was bad tempered Martin O'Neil's refusal to shake John Robertson and Donald Park's hands, he just stormed down the tunnel!! The semi final versus Dundee at Hampden was the wrong venue in terms of the size of the crowd, but it was good to be involved in such a prestigious event. We lost 1-0 and we didn't do ourselves justice, but little did I know then we'd get a few more opportunities! Thanks James, some great memories in there. More to come from James, the next three seasons coming along next week. You can read all about James' worldwide footballing travels in his own excellent blog FOOTBALL ADVENTURES WITH JAMES RENDALL
  18. Click to view slideshow. The passion of football in a number of countries is all part of the rich tapestry of the game in these lands. The commercial orchestration of the larger European leagues has taken something away from the fan versus the action, sanitising it all taking the games ultimate colour away in the process. Nowhere has managed to retain its passion in the stands as well as Argentina. The lunatic fringe may have brought national disgrace when the second leg of the Copa Libertadores Super Clasico final between River Plate and Boca Juniors ended up being played in Madrid because of the violent attack of the Boca team bus outside the Monumental in Buenos Aires a few weeks earlier. The game in Argentina, and a number of other countries has always had that edge, and if that disappeared completely these games would just become as vacuum packed as the corporate Manchester derby, or even Barca v Real these days. Things have in the past got completely out of hand in Argentina, and fans have tragically died. The solution within the Greater Buenos Aires area at any rate, where a large number of the clubs come from, was to ban away fans. Such an action you might think would have dampened the atmosphere in the stadiums, and while it is true that with no visiting fans, the home supporters have no one to abuse but it has opened the entirety of the stadium to home fans, and it has led a cacophony of partisan home support. These are Intimidating atmospheres for the visiting team, but supercharged encouragement for the home side as long as things are going well. In February 2000 I was at the first of over 70 games in South America and it could only have been in one stadium, Estadio Juan Domingo Peron, or El Cilindro, Avellaneda, the home of Racing Club. Even before I ever got close to going to Argentina, yo soy de Racing (pronounced Ra-sing), I am Racing! “Would your love of Racing have anything to do with the World Club win over Celtic” I hear you cry! And to an extent you’d be right! I had no idea of these encounters in the late sixties, as I was far too young at the time, but once I learned of these matches, Racing became the epitome of exotic long before it was available to watch just about every kicked of any team, anywhere in the world online. I always felt the media furore here was rather one sided, and I dreamed of both seeing Racing play, and getting the other side of the story. The closest I ever got to an unbiased neutral viewpoint came from an unplanned encounter with an elderly Uruguayan chap at a Danubio match in Montevideo. In a short half-time chat, when he realised I was Scottish he paused momentarily then said, “I saw a Scottish team once”, and I knew which team that was, but he couldn’t recall their name!! “Two very bad teams”, was his recollection, and in a nutshell a mere soundbite adding credence to the notion it takes two, and Celtic did not come away from South America as the innocents as they’d like the spin on history to have you believe. Jumping forward to November 2017, I had the great pleasure in hosting Jorge and Stella Lavrut, Racing hinchas (fans). Jorge had been in il Cilindro for the home leg in 1967, and now on the 50th anniversary of when Racing became the first Argentine side to be crowned as World Club champions he was in Scotland! On a day that started in Fort Augustus, we first visited Caledonian Stadium, Inverness for a photo or two, (becoming the 9th and 10th Argentines to visit my clubs ground, following in the footsteps of their sons!), then it was straight down the A9 as we had a booked tour of Hampden! For some reason the first leg of the World Club was played here and not at Celtic Park, and indeed the museum at Hampden houses souvenirs of these matches, and oddly nothing at Celtic, “they would rather not remember” said the guide! In the lead up to the anniversary Racing produced a souvenir “retro” football with the event embossed on it. I became one delighted recipient of one of these balls, and it now takes pride of place in my apartment. We had the ball with us for our trip to Hampden, along with Racing shirts for photos taken on the pitch side. It was a special moment for all of us, and personally it showed what a wonderful thing football can be, bringing people together from across the globe, from February 2000 my first game there without knowing anyone to November 2017, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a real high point in Racing’s history with true Racinguistas (true fans). Avellaneda is just south of Buenos Aires city, over the river at Boca, and the first suburban town of what is known at Gran (Greater) Buenos Aires (shortened to BsAs). It isn’t a place you would make a particular effort to go as a tourist, it has nothing to offer in that sense, but if you are into football, it is home to two of the biggest clubs in the country, Racing Club and Independiente, known affectionately as “rojo no existe” (red doesn’t exist!). The two canchas (stadiums) are sat right beside each other, and unlike the proximity of the two in Dundee, these are colossal sized stadiums. Rojo no existe’s ground has been modernised and looks imposing, but while I have watched football in 14 stadiums in Greater BsAs, I haven’t been to a game there, and why would you?!! The real jewel of the all the stadiums in Buenos Aires though is Racing’s El Cilindro, as it is a perfect oval, hence the name, the cylinder. It has a capacity of 61,000, with its iconic tower, as well as the view of the skyscrapers of downtown BsAs from the upper tier at the traditional home end. Okay I am bias, but it is a thing of beauty, and the atmosphere is electric. The club have plans to develop and upgrade the interior, but the shape will stay and I hope they do a proper job. Racing Club de Avellaneda were founded on the 23rd March 1903 and are nicknamed La Academia (the academy). Many teams in Argentina were founded by English settlers at the time, Banfield, Newell’s, Douglas Haig, and Almirante Brown all to this day carry English, or in the case of the latter, an Irish name. Racing were co-founded by a chap of French ancestry, German Vidaillic, a name that came from a French auto magazine! A number of sports clubs in France to this day have Racing in their name, Racing Club Strasbourg, Racing Club de Lens and Racing Metro ‘92 to name just a few. The club colours are now well established since 1910 as light blue and white stripes like the national shirt of Argentina, having been adopted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the May Revolution. Thankfully amongst previous kits that were jettisoned, black and yellow stripes lasted merely a week as someone said they looked like Penarol across in Montevideo, and you wouldn’t want that!! A more unusual light blue and pink in four squares ala Bristol Rovers kit didn’t last too long either! Just ten years after the clubs foundation it became Champions of Argentina in 1913 following two round robin play off wins with River Plate and San Isidro, and it would be 1920 before they failed to win it again, accumulating seven titles on the spin. A big hiatus of 29 years followed, finally ending in 1949 when Racing were to be celebrating a title win again, their first in the Professional era, backing that success up with another brace of titles in the subsequent two years. In 1950 during that Championship winning campaign the beating of Velez Sarsfield 1-0 heralded the opening of El Cilindro. The last of this triumvirate of titles came via a 1-0 aggregate play off win against Banfield. Another seven titles have arrived, and a win on Sunday away to Tigre will deliver an 18th on the penultimate game of this season, which will be the clubs first league flag in five years. Failure to gather the three points might bring a tantalizing last day showdown with second placed Defensa y Justicia at El Cilindro, but they need to better Racing’s result this weekend to have a chance of a first ever title! The fifteen title in 1966 provided the club with a second entry in the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the European Cup/Champions League now. The first attempted at this relatively new International club competition saw a first round exit in 1961, but the second campaign brought Racing their only ever Libertadores title beating Club Nacional de Football from Montevideo 2-1 in the final with a double from Norberto Raffo. That victory took them to the notorious World Club matches with Celtic, going down 2-1 in Glasgow, and winning the return in il Cilindro 1-0. In the modern era they’d have won the competition on away goals, but in those days a third game was needed a few days later a cross the River Plate in El Centenario, Montevideo, a fantastic Juan Carlos Cardenas strike was a moment of beauty, worthy of winning any trophy amid the utter chaos of two bad tempered teams who had grown to detest each other. Rumours abound that while Racing were rightly celebrating this win, some naughty “rojo no existe” fans broke into El Cilindro and buried seven dead cats! In an area of the world where superstition continues to be rife, only finding six of them weighed heavily. Perhaps the curse of that missing cat is true, as it was only finally discovered in 2000, and it’s discovery coincided with a first title in 35 years the year after!! The coach Reinaldo Merlo became a hero, and a statue has been raised to this living legend who guided a team that included a young Diego Milito. In those barren three and half decades, the club had suffered a relegation in 1983, needing two terms in the second tier before getting back up again. In 1998 the perilous financial state of the club became public knowledge and led to bankruptcy, but the switch to Blanquiceleste SA Corporation in 2000 might have more been the catalyst to that 2001 title rather the discovery of the dead cat!! They say you never forget your first love, and maybe that is true of a first game in a stadium that you have long held a desire to watch a game. In February 2000, I merely knew one local lass who I had met on the plane to Europe from BsAs the year before, but we weren’t as close friends then as we would become, so it was great that my good mate Martin from Edinburgh was with me that year, and especially to experience the full Racing effect in a “clasico” encounter with Boca Juniors. These were different days down in Argentina, the Peso was pegged falsely as it turned out, one to one with the American dollar, and it made Argentina an expensive country. The taxi to and from the stadium, and the match ticket for the game set us back £60, a trip that would probably cost a quarter of that price now! Racing’s new owners hadn’t signed up at that juncture, and the team were nowhere near the top of their powers, but when Boca or any of the other “big five” are playing, the atmosphere increases in volume and intimidation. What a welcome to Argentine football, and to life in El Cilindro, this was one of the great moments of my football life. The fans sang incessantly, and when Racing scored in the 37th minute through Maxi Estevez the whole place shook! It ended in a 1-1 draw courtesy a very dubious penalty, but Boca did strike the Racing crossbar three times in the game, so maybe a draw was a fair outcome. The result wasn’t important, the whole experience had sold me Racing as I had hoped, and in the years to come I would see them play a further 12 times and met a number of people that I am proud to call great friends now. My second game in El Cilindro would be three years later when I went along with Laura’s family friend Juan Pablo, who’d become a good friend of mine too by then. We have shared a number of games together over the years, starting with Chacarita v Boca in 2002. This particular Racing game was relatively low key in comparison to the Boca game, but they dug out a 2-0 win against Talleres Cordoba. What I didn’t know then was this would be my last Racing home win I would see until 2015, a twelve year passage of time, albeit, despite seeing 8 games in that period, only three were at home! One was a distinctly underwhelming 0-0 draw with Gimnasia Jujuy, but when that long overdue win came against Guarani Asuncion 4-1 in the Libertadores in February 2015 it was a joyous removal of a monkey off my back. By now I was a regular with the Lavrut family, great Racing fans one and all, introduced to me through Juan Pablo, with the elder brother Emanuelle his work colleague. This was to be the first time we had experience a win together at El Cilindro, albeit dad Jorge was on holiday, and we have still to share a win with us all collectively gathered! Perhaps I should have retired that trip on the 4-1 high, but two weeks later I was back, craving back to back home wins for the first ever time at home, but Sporting Cristal from Peru did a number on Racing and rode out of Avellaneda with all three Libertadores points in a 2-1 win when Racing had already qualified. It was also a poignant farewell to Diego Milito, a great servant to the club in two separate stints at Racing. It was the second great hero of the club I saw play their last game! After one of the losses at El Cilindro in 2006 to Velez Sarsfield a number of us went for a late evening meal in the amusingly named Museo De Jamon in the centre of BsAs. As we were ordering it transpired that Diego Simeone was upstairs eating! The waiter was sent away to tell Diego a fan from Scotland was across to watch Racing, and it appears he agreed to meet me, but only me! I was wheeled upstairs clutching both my camera and Matais’ Racing shirt (the younger Lavrut brother) to get a signature. He was very offhand, acting as if forced into such an encounter, and while his wife was more inquisitive, after he’d posed for a photo, he threw a hissy fit at being asked to sign the shirt and I was led away by the waiter having been unsuccessful in getting my friends shirt signed. Six days later I was down in Quilmes with another friend watching Racing lose 2-1 to Estudiantes La Plata, who were using the stadium in Quilmes while a new ground was being built in La Plata. It was the last ever time Simeone played, the very next week he was Racing’s manager, off and runnning on his new career path that has seen him become a very long serving and successful manager at Atletico Madrid. One footnote to my meeting with Diego, these were still the days of film rolls for the camera for me, and somehow the film with the photos of that encounter never made it home, lost in the hotel room before the journey home, perhaps poetic justice! The away Racing days have not been excessively more impressive to my win rate, but the only two successes on the road in six games are the most prized of them all! Having met another Racing fan in El Bolson in 2001, Juan Manuel, he was to become one of life’s great friends. In 2003 he came across to Montevideo to join me for a few days to coincide with Racing playing a Libertadores match in the city. It was no ordinary match, it was a tie against Nacional who they had beaten to win the Libertadores trophy in 1967, and the game was being played in the Centenario, where Racing had last played 36 years earlier to win the World Club title! It was thrilling and momentous to be amongst the Racing faithful and watch them carve out a 2-1 Centenario success where a crazy three goals in a seven minute period midway through the second half saw Milovan Mirosevic score the winner. Seven years later I was literally wading through **** in the stairway to the top tier of the away end at Boca’s La Bombonera with the Lavrut boys on our way to the top tier. What a fabulous view of the stadium you got from up there, crammed in like sardines as we were! But hey, who was caring as Racing put on a stunning performance and won 2-1, coming back from being an early goal down almost immediately through Gabriele Hauche, and when he thumped home the winner just before half-time the away section went crazy. Hauche was absolutely imperious throughout and could have scored a third. The **** had become a sea on the way down, but we were floating on air, and a mere change of shoes in the car and I was off out for a meal in Puerto Madero at 00,30 with Laura, and all of this on my first day in the city after a 13 hour flight, but it was a treasured night!! They say that to follow Racing is to suffer, and they do put us through the ringer, 4 wins in 13 games isn’t a great return, but when they do win it is all so worthwhile. If they can get that 18th title over the line in Tigre on Sunday night it will be a wonderful occasion, and open up the Libertadores in 2020, when as luck would have it, I will be back for the first time in five years to see if my wins record came improve! Yo soy de RACING! View the full article
  19. If you say the name Shay, the majority of “Sports” fans will assume you are talking about a famous baseball field on the other side of the pond! For the true football romantic, and supporters in the UK especially it can only be the home of FC Halifax Town. The Shay is a wonderful traditional football arena, in the truest sense of the word, it’s a proper football stadium where you can almost smell the grease paint, catch the faint whiff of a pie (They come complete with mushy peas here!), and the mighty thwack of boot to ball, all standing up, if you so wish!! The modern main East stand may have been controversial, as well as having been long in its construction (a corner remains incomplete), and the cost doubtlessly caused one of the clubs two bankruptcy issues, It does adds to the Shay a touch of modernity, yet still complimenting the other three sides that hark back to an era of standing terracing, with proper stanchions, that fill the sizeable terracing behind both goals. The South terracing is for home fans, and if a “big” away following, the North terracing will be opened, otherwise they are housed in the south wing of the main stand. The “West” stand opposite the main one, was doubtlessly a standing shed in years gone by, but is now partially seated, with room for more seats if needed to increase the capacity for another day if Halifax were ever to climb the leagues to such a giddy height where extra seating was needed. The Shay presently holds 14,061, which is more than sufficient for the fifth tier and higher if they were ever to recover their league status again. In 1921 AFC Halifax Town were among the founding members of the Division Three North, and while their CV was largely unspectacular, they were never in danger of being re-elected. In getting promotion from the bottom tier in 1970/71 Halifax found themselves involved in the short lived Watney Cup, where the top two from each of the four divisions played a mini pre-season tournament the following term. On the 31st July 1971 at the Shay, Manchester United complete with George Best et all came to play in the first round, and Halifax beat them 2-1! They then lost the semi-final 0-2 to WBA, who then lost the final to Colchester United! The competition only lasted four years, but Derby, Colchester, Bristol Rovers and Stoke all got a rare moment of silverware, and maybe like when the Anglo Scottish Cup died when Chesterfield won at Ibrox, the Watney was doomed as the bigger clubs obviously weren’t taking it seriously. That said, it was a great idea, and instead of going off on meaningless lavish global exhibition game treks for pots of money, these excessively rich clubs should be giving a little love back to the under card. Bring back the Watney!! I first caught a game at the Shay in April 2014 for a Conference (National League) encounter, a 2-1 win against Macclesfield Town, largely a mid-table joust, but I was just happy to witness a game in Halifax at last. It was the throwback nature of the stadium that bowled me over. I had been cursing my decision to take a seat in the new stand, but it was a sunny day and my decision was based on where I might catch the sun more, always a driving force at a game for me, especially when the majority of fixtures are played on such cold windy days! It did leave me with an excuse to return and experience the terracing next time. Halifax was a famous woollen mill town, now re-invented, tucked into the slopes of the West Yorkshire hills, and it has a population of 88,134. One of the Textile mills, known as Dean Clough on the edge of town has been converted in a variety of shopping, retail and hotel space, whilst retaining the original facade of the old mill. MacKintosh chocolates hail from Halifax, makers of Rollo and Quality Street, as well as still the town continuing to retain the HQ for probably the most famous Building Society, before coming a bank! Flat land is at a premium here, so respect to those who chose to build the stadium where it is. The ground is no more than a half a mile from the train station, a suitably gentle uphill walk. If coming by car, Halifax is a few miles off the M62, but once in the city limit head toward the centre and the Shay is well sign posted. There is a car park right at the ground, and some parking in the streets nearby, but if you are arriving as kick off approaches, expect to struggle to find anywhere close. The Shay has been the home to football in Halifax for 98 years, it is municipal owned now, and they share the ground with the town’s Rugby League club, which at the tail end a season sees the grass suffering from excessive use through a long wet winter. Fans of the now officially titled FC Halifax Town have been long suffering too, if you include the history of its predecessor. It caused remarkable consternation when the FC was put at the front of the name for the new club that rose from the ashes after the demise of Halifax Town AFC at the end of 2007/08. It does have a certain European swagger putting the FC first, and what is the harm in that! Judging by the banners around the Shay, the fans are embracing the change and not harking back to the old team name! The old club owed a considerable sum to the tax man, and the inevitable administration saw its demise. The new team started life in the Northern Premier Division One, effectively the 8th tier in 2008/2009, and they have relatively quickly worked their way back to the Conference or National League as it is now known, even flirting with a return to league football three seasons ago in their inaugural season in the fifth tier, losing out to Cambridge in the Play Off Semi-Finals in 2012/13. Neil Aspin, whose name will forever be written into the history of FC Halifax Town, was the manager from April 2009, until September 2015, winning more than half of his 270 games in charge. He also oversaw an incredible 30 games unbeaten at the Shay from April 2009 to November 2010. But by September ‘15 the club was struggling, and they parted ways. Neil moved on to manage at rivals Gateshead, where he’d still be when I wheeled into town to see Halifax visit in August 2017, for an entertaining 0-0. During the season 2015/16 Halifax had two further incumbents in charge to no effect after Aspin that season, and then Jim Harvey arrived, and gradually they finally found a winning formula that nearly kept them up, but a cruel missed penalty in the last game of the season helped relegated the “new” club for the first time. The second of my games at the Shay was at Easter of that particular campaign and the 1-0 win over Altrincham seemed to have them on the cusp of a great escape, but they just couldn’t get it done, and in failing to beat Macclesfield on the last day it proved fatal. However, in the wake of such tragedy, remarkably the following weekend they were off down to Wembley to play Grimsby Town in the FA Trophy Final the day after Manchester United had won the FA Cup against Crystal Palace, and more remarkably in Scotland, where Hibernian got a 114 year old monkey off there back winning the Scottish Cup 3-2 against fellow Championship side The Rangers, the first ever Scottish final not involving a top flight team! I was amongst the Shay fans, who had headed to Wembley in huge numbers, and an absolute peach of a strike was enough to secure the trophy. Amid wild celebrations, tears were flowing, a remnant of the angst of the relegation the previous week. Despite this silverware the fans had genuine fear that getting back to the National League could take years. However, they needn’t have fretted unduly as the energy of Wembley brought them straight back the very next season under the continued guidance of Jim Harvey. They have largely bedded into a mid-table for now, but I think we can expect another run at trying to get their league place back quite soon, albeit the league continues to be home to a number of monied and seriously ambitious clubs, Salford and Hyde to name two, and the likely return of Stockport and Torquay next season from the level below. That FA Trophy success was the clubs first ever “major” trophy in 105 years of football in the town, but unlike many clubs FC Halifax Town are not carrying forward the history of its AFC predecessor. Ironically, also on display that day at Wembley were Hereford FC, the new guise of the previous Hereford United, playing Morpeth Town in part one of a doubleheader in the FA Vase. Halifax Town once lost to Hereford in a Conference Play Off final to regain league status in 2006. That game was played at Leicester in the era when Wembley was being rejuvenated, by while the Bulls went back up, they have suffered even worse bankruptcy fate that Halifax dropping down to the 9th tier. Hereford had the largest support that Wembley day, but they got a real second half doing losing 4-1 from Morpeth. They have recovered from the 9th tier to the 6th now but they are still one level below Halifax, but they could be going head to head once more on the coming seasons for a shot at league football once more. Football Weekends, the magazine I write for is presently asking for nominations for the best old fashioned stadium in Europe. Given it is predominantly a UK readership, I suspect it will come down to an English ground, and I am nominating The Shay, and Edgar Street, Hereford the two mentioned above! View the full article
  20. Rendall's Rambles #2 After the first three seasons, enjoy another stroll down memory lane with Caley Jags and world football fan James Rendall. He's a well travelled football connoisseur who has been following the Caley Jags from the start. He has put together a fascinating nostalgic review of Inverness Caledonian Thistle's first 25 years as witnessed through his own eyes. Thanks James, a remarkable commitment to the beautiful game. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #25 No.4 1997/98 (Games 97 to 141) Following the joy of the club's first promotion as Champions from the fourth tier the season before the step up in quality, it took a little time to filter into our play. An August 0-1 home loss to East Fife was turned into a 5-1 away win by the end of October in Methil which signalled the changing of the guard. A veritable pot pourri of great servants for ICT scored that day: Paul Sheerin, Duncan Shearer, Mike Teasdale, Paul Cherry and a young Martin Bavidge, still knocking them in for Peterhead! The slow start meant a promotion push was not on, but we did play a magnificent role in deciding who went up! On the penultimate round of league fixtures, I saw a scenario that could alter the shake up at the top. Livingston, essentially my old club with a new name written in crayon over the beauty of a badge that once said Meadowbank Thistle, were top but Stranraer as well as Clydebank were close. I headed down to Stair Park in the hope Stranraer would beat them, and how they did, 2-0. That meant, ICT's last game of the season at Livingston just became huge! I would not have unduly expected people from the north to have any grudge about Livingston, but what happened that day was almost as if I had written to the club and pleaded for them to play as they did 😊. Paul Sheerin and our wee dynamo Ian Stewart scored in a 2-1, with Stranraer and Clydebank (enjoying their last moment of joy) winning, a combination of events that saw Livi plop from first to third 😂. And the Caley Thistle players partied as if we'd gone up! I could not have been more joyful. Needless to say at the other end of the stadium rage was building. A rivalry was set, and they would get a sort of revenge the next season! The cups are always special for an Inverness fan, and a signal of future intent was visible with a penalty kick win after a 2-2 draw at Motherwell in August in the the League Cup, our first ever visit as an opponent to a Premier League side! In the Scottish Cup we raked up our club record win, an 8-1 win over then non League Annan Athletic, memorable latterly for Steve Patterson fining our Norwegian left back Vetle Anderssen for being disrespectful to our opponents by juggling the ball between his feet as he nudged down the left wing!! The money probably went into Steve's gambling or drinking 🍻 fund. We hadn't quite worked out at this stage what problems our attack minded boss was having. His autobiography is one of the most warts and all reads of all time! The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #25 No.5 1998/99 (Games 142 to 182) "First floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, going up" 😊. In the fifth season of our existence a second promotion, but it would be the one Championship flag that eluded us! Alas I have no desire to step down to League One as it is now to put that record straight! Inverness and Livingston ran away from the rest, and by the penultimate game it was merely a question of who would win the title. This was Livingston's revenge for our part in preventing them going up the season before! Astonishingly they led 4-0 after not much more than 20 minutes! However with still a good thirty minutes to go it was 4-3. We threw everything at the Livi goal but it just wouldn't go in. I was tempted to stay away from the A9 the following week, but I always recall Martin imploring me to go, as if we could score, we would be the first team since the twenties to score in every league game! Alloa were the visitors with the irascible Terry Christie in the dug out. He sent his team out with one ambition, to stop us scoring, and our sole counter in a 1-1 draw came merely two minutes from the end. It was a proud achievement, but losing out to Livi meant it felt like a second prize, but no matter, we were heading to the second tier! In an odd and rare season where I didn't see a game abroad, a fledgling Bosnian league provided Zeljeznicar as Euro opponents for Kilmarnock in Europe so we crossed the Eaglesham Moor to watch, with Killie narrowly coming out on top. A small band of us always went to a top flight match in England in October for a few seasons, and Blackburn v Arsenal was this year's diet, with a narrow Gooner win. By the season's end Hearts found themselves down at the wrong end of the top flight and had they lost to Dunfermline on an early May Monday night it might have brought ICT to Tynecastle a lot sooner, but a 2-0 win eased nerves and kept them in the Premier League. The decline of our National team was noticeable, losing 1-2 at home to the Czech's but I guess in that fixture we played an attacker 😂. The following season the name Inverness Caledonian Thistle would become known throughout the world 🌍 😊. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #25 No.6 1999/00 (Games 183 to 215) Putting the city on the global map! Before a ball was kicked of the 99/00 season, an inaugural 'football free' trek to South America changed my world forever! Not so much the incredible beauty of Perü and Bolivia, or the winter chill of Santiago but a few days in Mendoza, where the atmosphere and the spirit of the Argentines just got me. Within nine months I would be back again, more later! The initial bedding into Scotland's second tier didn't go well for ICT, soundly beaten 4-0 at Dunfermline in our opener and then a narrow home loss to Falkirk. An innocent loss standing on its own, but remarkably Falkirk would beat us in August for the next five years!! This was merely the first chaotic last minute smash and grabs they would instigated in Inverness in that series! It took us until game five of the season to register a win, at home to Clydebank, a club that would play an inadvertent part in a moment of history never to be repeated, more later! That first win steadied the ship and while were never going to be promotion material, we settled into the lower mid table and just became a nuisance ☺. The season low was a Friday night fixture at Morton, thumped 5-1, a club record loss at the time, the night before Scotland hosted England in a Euro Play off, where that old adage of glorious failure became once again appropriate after we lost 0-2 at Hampden, but won at Wembley and nearly pushed it to extra-time. The following weekend we played in our first ever Cup final, The Challenge Cup Final at Airdrie v the mighty Alloa Athletic. It may well rank as the best Cup Final ever, a 4-4 draw, where we just couldn't swat those pesky Wasps away, and the final sting saw them come out on top 5-4 in the penalty shoot out! The very last game of 1999 in Scotland to finish was a 27th December home fixture against Clydebank, where Barry Wilson scored the last goal in a 4-1. Post Millennial skip, for some reason the first game in Scotland on the 2nd January included us at Inverness at Livingston, and who scored the first goal in a 1-1? Barry of course, Mr Millennium!! No one will ever achieve that wee claim again! February was the month of months, and yet as we sat in a shabby part of Glasgow stuck in a traffic jam, hearing our Saturday Cup fixture at Celtic was off due to the wind ripping part of the stand facing off left us wondering who was the amateur amongst us!! Indeed, twice in six years an abandonment or a cancellation, and both from that fabled top league!! If it had been the other way round, that horrific journey to Inverness, sic, and we would never have heard the last of it. But ten days later we were headed back for the rescheduled game and this time while the stadium stood up to the barrage, the opponents unravelled spectacularly, Inverness beat Celtic 3-1!! When Mark Viduka didn't appear for the second half we had not only got under their skin, they'd imploded!! It was just the most magical night, and thanks to The Sun newspaper we went viral before it was a proper thing!! "Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic are atrocious". They were all heroes, but the aforementioned Barry Wilson, Bobby Mann and Paul Sheerin scored as a fire drill broke out at Celtic Park 😂. Having taken an eternity to get there for the cancelled game, we set off sharp and found ourselves with time to kill in the concourse. The Bookies were offering 18/1 in a two horse race! Martin told me I should tap into my firm belief we were going to do it, but not being a betting man I missed an opportunity there, but I am sure a few highlanders landed a big payout! I am unsure if any club in Scotland has a winning record in Scottish Cup matches with Celtic, but we are leading that particular series 3-1 too ☺. Eight days later, having almost floated to Bueños Aires, Martin and I were in the theatre of dreams, Il Cilindro, Avellenada where Racing Club (another of Celtic's Dr Evils 😁) were playing Boca Juniors............ Thanks James, that's another great look back at our early years and February 8th 2000 will always be a special day in our history. Look forward to the next three seasons coming along next week. You can read all about James' worldwide footballing travels in his own excellent blog FOOTBALL ADVENTURES WITH JAMES RENDALL
  21. Last year’s World Cup in Russia was a wonderful event. It may have surprised a lot of onlookers, but those who ventured to the largest country on the planet returned home with glowing testimony. The cynical still refused to accept that Russia could so wonderfully organise the event, endeavouring to pour scorn on the positives with suggestions it was merely an elaborate stunt! I have been very fortunate in life, to travel extensively and indulge my passion for football at the same time. Despite the constant lure of Italy that has maybe accounted for around 50 trips alone, June 2018 and the Russia World Cup just happened to be my fifth World Cup and my 50th country! I had always resolved to go to Russia for the tournament, but I only really had eyes for the magnificent city of St Petersburg. Good fortune struck me again a year before the competition when I was in Kutaisi, Georgia, where something very special with a lady from St Petersburg started! One final element needed to fit into place, and that was a desire for games in the second city of Russia to be free of English involvement. I appreciate that they do not cause as much trouble these days, but I am still traumatised by the way the atmosphere in Kyoto, Japan changed in the second week of our time there when England fans arrived en masse. There was also a big threat from the Russian hooligans, who had been smacking their lips together at the prospect of getting into a fight with the English. Thankfully that never occurred, and indeed some significant behind the scenes lobbying must have taken place, as this was a wonderfully trouble free tournament. When the draw was made it was immediately St Petersburg a go, go for me as the fixtures showed real party atmosphere potential with both Brazil and Argentina coming to town. They were scheduled to be playing within a matter of days against entertaining opposition in Costa Rica and Nigeria respectively. I was swiftly logging into the FIFA ticketing system for both games, with fingers and toes crossed that I would be successful, as travel plans and accommodation needed to be booked. In my four previous editions of the World Cup, only for the first one did I officially purchase tickets in my name, for the Italia ‘90, well ahead of the option to buy online, these were acquired in an Italian bank in Genoa in April, a few months ahead of the competition! Thankfully I was successful in getting match tickets for Russia, leaving the only pre-travel angst to the securing of my return fast train ticket from St Petersburg to Helsinki despite having bought the ticket at considerable expense six months before the trip from Russian Trains. I suspect someone forgot about my reservation ahead of ticket production and the train was fully booked. Many a telephone conversation was required, as well as digging my heels in regarding a horrendous slow train alternative. Only a week before I set off it seems extra carriages were added to the fast train, and they compensated me for all the inconvenience by upgrading my travel to Russia to First Class. Aside from the first hour in St Petersburg when it felt very Soviet, I was soon bowled over by the city and it’s beauty. Arrival at Finlandskaya Railway Station saw the International train passengers shovelled through a rather unattractive side gate and a line of soldiers keeping the locals awaiting their loved ones out on the pavement. I was one of the lucky recipients of a such a very warm local embrace, always a special feeling. The Hotel St Petersburg was just a short walk along the Neva river, but in order to get to the waters edge we firstly walked by the considerable statue of Lenin in the square in front of the grand station facade reserved for more local travellers. It was an immediate reminder of the past, and the fact this was once Leningrad, his home town. The Soviet feel continued on the pavement by the Neva where we seemed to be fighting against a tide of immaculately dressed naval cadets on the way back to their barracks following a parade of some description. The hotel was right on an apex of the river, and the room afforded the most incredible views of the city across the Neva, complete with the Aurora, the famous old naval vessel where the revolution was signalled all those years ago. I never tired of that stunning hotel vista with floor to roof windows that ran the length of the room. The changing colours on the buildings across the water with the changing light were a marvel, culminating in a Saturday night extravaganza of fireworks with the best view in town restricted to a vast window facing couch for two, complete with Prosecco! Coinciding with the longest night, St Petersburg was celebrating the graduation of another year of students with a concert in the square by the Hermitage, shown live on tv, complete with the sailing of a majestic red sailed clipper through the gap caused by the visually arresting sight of the road bridge lifted to near the hotel, with a flotilla of boats in proximity to enjoy the fireworks from the water. From the minute I arrived at the railway station in Helsinki en route to Russia, the first people I saw were a small pocket of Mexican fans. This set the tone for my entire 10 day sojourn, this World Cup might have ultimately given a number of European nations a shot in the arm, but this was South and Latin Americas tournament, they came in vast numbers, and not just to see the football. Russia and neighbouring lands like Finland were privy to the curiosity and the delight of thousands of fans from every country qualified from the Americas, and in some cases, pockets of fans from non qualified lands too. One of my personal highlights was to meet, and get my photo taken with a group of El Salvador fans who had come to lend support to Costa Rica! I have been in many a beautiful city, Venezia, Paris, Prague and Buenos Aires to name merely a few, but none of them can compare to Peter the Great’s vision for a city, St Petersburg is simply stunning. It is a very large city, built on many different islands you are never that far water wherever you go. The main tourist attractions are all within a certain walkable radius, albeit it would be impossible to enjoy it all in a day. Peter and Paul fortress is built on the Peterhof island, with it’s stunning high gold gilded spires of the Cathedral which are a feature of the city skyline. Across the Neva, you can climb halfway up St Isaac’s Cathedral from where the views across the relatively flat city are wonderful. In the park in front of this church is the statue of the main man Peter the Great. On the Neva near this statue you have the option of taking a river boat cruise through the intricate canal system that gives St Petersburg the feel of a more lavish Amsterdam. The most stunning of the churches in the city is The Saviour on the Spilled Blood Cathedral, the most Russian Orthodox of them all with its iconic colourful domes and incredible paintings. The fan zone for the World Cup was in the vicinity of this church, affording a fantastic backdrop of those magnificent domes to the party atmosphere of the collectively gathered fans from all around the world. It wasn’t just because of Brazil and Argentina playing in the city that St Petersburg had a really South American carnival feel. The decision to allow fans access to the rail network across Russia between World Cup cities for free meant that fans moved around to soak up more culture in the days between matches, and of course St Petersburg is one of the top attractions in the country at any time. Peruvians, Mexicans, Colombians and the occasional Uruguayan could be spotted, bringing colour, flamboyance and excitement with them giving the city a truly International carnival feel. It was wonderful, especially for a man who was so regularly in South America until 2010, but with only one trip this decade it acted as a reminder of how much I miss it, I was in my element. The Russians were too, the sheer joy the visitor brought had a profound effect on the locals, a feel good factor pervaded the whole city. Russians are extremely friendly people anyway, but it is maybe an aspect of the country that those who have never been fail to realise as press coverage never focuses on the positives, sadly. The new St Petersburg Stadium is a little way from the centre of the city on its own island in the corner of a magnificent park. It is well served by two Metro lines that will bring you to either side of the magnificent ground. One of the underground options brings you to the far end of the park, but it was a wonderful tree lined boulevard-esque pedestrian only walk through the park to the “spaceship” like, futuristic new home of Zenit. On my two journeys to my games I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with two great friends from South America. Ahead of the Brazil game I had lunch at a restaurant in the park with Luciano from Port Alegre. This game was just one of eight that he attended across five of the host cities, where he estimates he clocked up 6,726 km’s!! Well we walked one of those kilometres together toward the real party atmosphere ahead of the Costa Rica game. The game was never dull, and it seemed to be heading to a 0-0 draw with VAR rightly overturning a decision for a penalty as Neymar had once again clearly cheated. Indeed, one of the low points of the tournament was his incessant antics, and I think he lost another chunk of admirers through such actions. The penalty being denied brought one of two unsavoury incidents that I witnessed at the games I watched. A woman a few rows behind me had clearly been cheering for Costa Rica, and in expressing her delight at the VAR decision she was rewarded by a Brazilian woman in the row above pouring her beer all over her! A real flash point arose, but sadly, only the woman who had been soaked got removed! The drink had kicked in, and the Brazilian joy was turning to anger as the majority of the neutrals were right behind plucky Costa Rica. The woman sat beside me packed away eight beers, and she may well have met her new partner during the game, but sadly he was sitting on the other side of an elderly Norwegian, and they just invaded this guy’s space without a thought, or indeed a suggestion someone swapped seats! In the end Brazil won it, deservedly so on chances created, but the first was so late in the game it felt cruel, with the second a mere cherry on top deep into added time. The mask of the constantly happy Brazilian fan had slipped during the course of this one, but by the final whistle they could all walk out into the St Petersburg early evening sun with that happy mask back on to delude for another few days! I am more drawn to Argentina and Uruguay, everyone who knows me will testify to that, so yes, maybe parts of that last paragraph are told with glee, but what happened in the next game left me feeling enraged! However, ahead of that particular match, I was waiting outside the same Metro stop, to go to the same restaurant to meet Champi, a friend of my great friends, the Lavrut family from San Fernandez, Buenos Aires. Champi was across in Scotland with two of the family as part of a quartet in the UK for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and in down time between games I gave them a tour of my country. It was cracking to catch up with him again, and you could feel the excitement in him, this was his first ever World Cup Finals game! It took me back to when we donned our kilts in Santa Margherita Ligure and took the train to Genoa for the tea total encounter with Costa Rica, as fan violence had meant a 24 hour drink ban within a significant radius of any hosting city! In light of the skirmishes I witnessed in the stadium in Russia, perhaps an out and out alcohol ban would be too much, but finding a way of restricting what each individual can buy would be sensible. No one should be allowed, let alone able to consume eight pints during a game, over and above however many beers my Brazilian neighbour had consumed in the run up to kick off! Anyway, Champi and I were merely trying to get a beer, but the restaurant was so busy and the service so poor, at least half of our time was lost waiting, however it did bring us an encounter with a really cool Nigerian guy. Post beer, the same walk to the stadium had a slightly different task to fulfill, as I wanted to reprise a photo from Japan 2002, with Argentine shirted me in between two Nigerian fans! It took too long and lacked the spontaneity of Kyoto, but we got one! This was the last of the round robin games in the group, and Argentina were hanging on by a thread. A draw with Iceland and a real thumping by Croatia had them on the brink, but a win here against Nigeria would get them through. The Argentine support was absolutely incredible, and the whole stadium rocked slightly when they hit full pelt! Argentine took the lead with a moment of genius from their talisman Lionel Messi, lift off!! Nigeria grew a little more confident, and the pockets of their fans who were seriously drown out started to believe. When the equaliser arrived and with Argentina misfiring, the atmosphere started to get tense. A draw was good enough for Nigeria to progress and they went back into their shell, playing the percentage game, and doubtlessly hoping the weight of angst from the seats would continue to upset albiceleste’s rhythm. In this period of parity a Boca shirted and hatted wee man squat barrel turned really nasty against Nigerians a good number of rows below. His racist chants encouraged one or two others around him, but he was largely causing outrage, and commendably other Argentine fans tried to reason with the guy, but he just turned his abusive tongue on fans wearing other Argentine club shirts, and a fight broke out. The black shirted “stewards” , who lay low until the day glow volunteers needed them waded in and at least three fans were lifted out. The Boca idiot left but not without spitting and punching anyone in his path, and a poor lad in a Venezuela shirt who had merely slapped his head having had beer thrown at him as he tried to calm the situation also got led away. One thing I feel Argentine fans need to do is lose the club shirt at an International game! I was embarrassed, and angry by this episode, but it coincided with one last hurrah of cohesive Argentine play, and it united the fans finally and the volume rose in support, you could just feel the frisson of anticipation. When the winner arrived minutes from the end the roof could have been blown off as the most incredible energy was released. It was one of the most spine tingling moments I have ever experienced in football, right up there with Steve Hislop’s winner at Clyde that sent Inverness into the Premier League! Argentina had qualified and the relief was palpable, and while the atmosphere was incredible, “the incident” had soured my night. I slipped out on full time and left the fans to party. It was already 23,00 and getting a swift metro ahead the crowds was advisable as I had a lengthy walk to the hotel from the nearest station, but it was still 12,30 before I arrived. I was up at 5am the next morning to catch the train back to Helsinki on a train full of Argentines who quite obviously hadn’t been to bed!! My World Cup was over, but I had loved the whole week. It was very special to have my very own local guide in Tania, who was struck by the colour and vibrancy the fans brought to her city despite not liking football. It will be interesting to go back when St Petersburg is less chaotic, but given people flock there every year, the queue for the Hermitage might only be a little smaller as I have yet to savour its splendours. It is always worthy of leaving something up your sleeve as a reason to go back, speaks the man who returns to his favourite cities often! View the full article
  22. 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! View the full article
  23. 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! View the full article
  24. Click to view slideshow. 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! View the full article
  25. Click to view slideshow. 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! View the full article