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Found 29 results

  1. I have had the pleasure of bringing more than a dozen towns, cities and regions of Italy to life for Football Weekends and only once from Serie A when newly promoted SPAL rumbled into the top flight. My world is more the characterful under card of Serie B, C and D, and writing a piece about Como has been high on my “must do list” for a long time, as it was on the banks of this beautiful lake where my love for Italy started way back in July 1982! I was on holiday with my parents in Como the night Italy beat West Germany in the Bernabeu, Madrid to be crowned World Cup winners for the first time since 1938! When Marco Tardelli scored to make it 2-0, and turned away to celebrate in a spine tingling passionate style that resonates to this day, people poured out onto the streets in wild celebration. Twenty minutes remained, but it didn’t seem likely gli Azzurri were going to blow that classic dangerous two goal lead, and when the referee brought proceedings to an end at 3-1, an impressionable young teenager was completely sold on my first ever trip to the country! It was largely a wonderful sleepless night, marvelling at the passion and joy unfolding in the main square and down by the lake, where flags were waving furiously, car horns beeping, and endless singing of “Italia, Italia”, or “campioni” were ringing out.This was such a memorable experience, Como Calcio became my second Italian team behind Cesena, who came into my world courtesy of subbuteo! Como is just 40 minutes on a fast train from Milan, making it a favourite weekend escape, or day trip for the hard working Milanese, as well as the entire lake pulling throngs of tourists from near and far. Italian rail company Trenord run a joint venture Lombardia/Ticino service with Swiss Rail, and regular trains connect Milan, Monza, Como, Chiasso, Lugano and Bellinzona, all great footballing hubs! Some of the places on Lake Como truly are the domain of the glitterati, but the same named city of Como remains more accessible to all, indeed a wee bit of money needs to be spent on the waterfront to bring it up to standard. One of the lakes most famous glitterati residents is George Clooney, who was certainly more regularly spotted in the vicinity before he got wed. Indeed George also took an interest in the football club, and for a time rumours circled that he was considering getting involved in the financing, but that never happened, which from a Como perspective was perhaps unfortunate. The far side of the waterfront near the funicular is full of bars, restaurants and cafes, as well as small areas of parkland and walkways by the harbour which houses some private boats, but not the sort of sea going massive yachts you’ll find in Portofino or Spezia for example. Being a lake, rather than a sea makes for a range of smaller pleasure boats, aside from the more regular transport vessels for locals and tourists that will whisk you to all points of this sizeable lake. Seaplanes are perhaps more the lake land play things of those with money, and right behind the stadium is the Como Seaplane Club! Even on a bright crisp winter Sunday in January hordes of Milanese pour off the trains making the tight pavements busy with walkers along the water’s edge. In summer it will be two or three times busier. A favourite subsequent trek is to queue to take the funicular ten minutes up to the hilltop settlement of Brunate, where the village provides a quiet ambience, for walks, eateries and stunning views of the lake and Como, with the football stadium clearly visible, even from this giddy height. Como is the principal city on the lake, with a population of 85,000. Lake Como splits into two legs halfway down at the fabulous hinterland village of Bellagio. Como is on the southern tip of the left hand leg as you look at a map, with Lecco, a smaller town at the tip of the right hand leg. Both clubs representing these towns are in Serie C this term, and it will come as no surprise that the rivalry between these near neighbours is one of the fiercest in Lombardia, even if historically Como have largely been playing in higher leagues. When Italy won the World Cup in 1982, Como had just been relegated from Serie A, where they’d managed two consecutive seasons constituting their third go at the top table. They first graced the top flight in 1949 when they stayed around for four seasons, but the next twenty years would mirror large swathes of the clubs subsequent history as they have been playing snakes and ladders with Italian football for decades! Another ladder appeared in the mid ‘70’s that saw them briefly back in Serie A for one term only, and then a Pietro Vierchowod inspired Como took them back in 1980 for those two pre World Cup winning seasons. By 1984 they were back in A for a club record five terms, which would include two impressive ninth placed finishes. This was the period when Italian football was at its global height in terms of luring the best “stranieri” (foreign players), albeit restricted to two per club. A Swedish centre forward called Dan Corneliusson (1984-1989) became a hero of mine as he regularly found the goals that kept Como up, along with more local Stefano Borgonovo. The German Hansi Muller joined from Inter Milan, brought in to pull the strings in midfield, albeit just for one season, with Pasquale Bruno (1983-1987) acting as the hard man who kept the defence in order. He would move onto greater things at the likes of Juventus, Torino, Fiorentina and Hearts, but who would have thought I would see his last ever game as a professional playing in the Scottish fourth tier for Cowdenbeath in a 2-3 loss to Ross County in March 1999! When Bruno left Stadio Sinigaglia the fate of Como seemed to nose dive, with relegation from Serie A signalling four successive demotions! It is fair to say that they were back on the snakes and ladder board, with added elements of violence and more regular issues with insolvency added to the troubles. Club captain Massimo Ferrigno was banned for three years following an horrific violent incident in a game with Modena as the club climbed back to Serie B, which led to another immediate promotion and an ill fated last visit to Serie A the very next season in 2002/03. However it was a disaster, with the fans taking up the violent mantle from the captain, actions that resulted in the Sinigaglia being closed for a number of matches. Yet again two successive relegations’ and surprise, surprise the club went bust, albeit for the first time, but more sinisterly they were liquidated as no one came forward to pump money in. A morsel of good fortune saw the new club, Calcio Como Srl being allowed to start in the 5th tier, then Serie D in 2006 and they worked their way back up the ladder for a brief run out in Serie B once more in 2015/16, but the relegation brought another bankruptcy, with the present club, Como 1907 being born from the burning embers back in D, which had become the fourth tier by then! They are back in the third tier now, but given the clubs entire history, we know this won’t be forever! Eleven Sports IT gives an online season ticket for every Serie C game this term, a bargain for an Italophile like me, and Como have been viewed a number of times along with a few of my other favourites! It is amazing how many “great” old Italian clubs can be found languishing at this level. There continual financial issues have seen fans deserted the cause. Como is case in point, once a very well supported club, but now, even when jousting for a promotion play off spot they are struggling to get 1,500 in the door! It was great to be back in Como, after 1982 I finally saw a game in the Sinigaglia in April 1994 when i Lariani, as Como are known put on a real show thumping Spezia 5-0 also in the third tier. Aside from the goal fest, it will be forever remembered for the horrendous thunder clouds that eclipsed the sun as the game started but thankfully for a day visitor from Brescia in his shorts and T shirt, the cloud remarkably didn’t let go of its load until I was safely on the way south! Twenty six years on I was back, and having introduced my partner to football at Bolzano the week before, I was setting the bar very high for spectacular football venues, Como charmed her even more! I cannot think of two more picturesque stadiums in Italy or elsewhere to have as your inaugural venues to watch football! Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia (capacity 13,602) has been home to the club since 1927 and was built to precise specifications of Mussolini! It sits right on the banks of the lake, forming part of Como’s crescent shaped waterfront. If you find yourself at the top of the considerable home Curva, you can enjoy views of the lake as well as the funicular train winding its way up the hillside behind the city. Local team Renate were in town for this encounter, and I knew they are another small, well organised club who can’t play at home because their own stadium, the Stadio Riboldi doesn’t meet Serie C requirements, and are using nearby Citta di Meda’s ground. Renate has no great history or indeed any historical clashes with Como to speak about. What did surprise me was that they had absolutely no fans present for this early evening clash despite being third in the table to Como’s 10th, and with less than 30 kilometres to travel. The game was fractious and end to end passages of play were rare. Despite having considerably more points Renate always looked second best as Como set about them with relish, but the bumpy surface wasn’t conducive to a smooth passing game. A pair of penalties, both dispatched well by Como’s Simone Ganz sent the 1,750 in attendance home relatively happy with the proceedings. Renate’s normal kit is identical to Inter Milan, but they trotted out in a change orange outfit for this clash. Pitch side adverts alerted everyone to the fact that Como were at home again the following week with Pistoiese in town, a fact that amused me in the sense that Italy’s only official orange kitted club would be playing in almost identical shirts to Renate, perhaps the first time such an occurrence of back to back orange kits playing in Como! The following week highlighted Como’s erratic form as the Tuscan team from Pistoia took the points south. Stadio Sinigaglia is one of the closest to a city centre and the main Como San Giovanni railway station. It is three quarters of a kilometre, and a very simple trek once alighting a train. From the station, it is down the steps to the main road and turn left heading down toward the lake. You arrive at the stadium at the main stand side, but if you walk all the way to the lake and turn left you will find the ticket booth for the more impressive home Curva, and all the delights of the views, but if a thunder cloud is passing and you want shelter, head for the main stand as it is the only part of the ground that is covered. There are no bars close to the stadium, but the central area amenities are nearby, although beer is available in the stadium. Como has been through some dramatic twists, and going bankrupt has a way of alienating some of the faithful as local businesses can get screwed by non payment of credit afforded, and staff lose their jobs etc. Once is forgivable, a second occasion becomes harder to mend fences and maybe that is why Como’s support has dropped off. Securing a berth in the exciting but lengthy play offs might help bring the crowds back just like they did at Arezzo and Trieste last season, even in glorious failure. Como is a place geared for a higher level, they just have to land on that next ladder to B, and who knows where they’ll go after that! One thing is for sure, it is a fabulous place, and as a football club they don’t hang around in any given league for long! View the full article
  2. I guess the Austro-Hungrian and Ottoman Empires both helped the displacement of people throughout the Eastern side of Europe in particular with Bosnia, Macedonia, Romania to name just three who have significant ethnic populations. I had certainly experienced morsels of such in Trieste, with its dual language status for Slovenian and Italian, but in Italy’s most Easterly outpost, it still felt distinctly Italian, with their language and the cuisine the dominant partner, albeit in a more Austrian feeling architectural setting. Rijecka, who played a European tie at Aberdeen at the start of the season, is a Croatian city on the Adriatic that used to be Italy! It was perhaps an unusual location to set eyes on a Fiume (Rijecka’s previous Italian name!) football scarf just days before, but if you are ever going through the museum at Anfield, a selection of scarves hang from the ceiling at one part, and amongst them is this rare gem! These anecdotes merely act as scene setting for my second visit to the Dolomite region of Italy, known as the Alto Adige, or Sud Tirol, depending on your persuasion. I was further north this time, having experienced Trento some years before, where it certainly felt more Italian. Bolzano is the flip side to Trieste, with the Italian language seemingly largely banished to mutterings in corners of Bozen as they’d have you believe the town is singularly called! It is a region with a complex history which I will return too, but this particular football and cultural expedition was also a first ever football match for my beautiful partner, Tania from St Petersburg, once photographer for my article on San Marino for FW, and now co-writer here. On our arrival and her thoughts on Bolzano, I will let her explain: “Это была прекрасная 90-минутная поездка на поезде из Вероны через все более впечатляющие горы …… English would be better!! It was a beautiful 90 minute train ride from Verona, through increasingly spectacular mountains, with so many vine groves sitting dormant awaiting the spring growth for a new harvest all the way up the line. Bolzano is a wonderful city, surrounded by spectacular mountains. The streets are very clean with a nice atmosphere, and it was easy to relax. The buildings aren’t classic Italy, we could easily have been in Bavaria. It is a real mix of German and Italian influences. When you come from St Petersburg, even thinking about eating outside in the middle of March, let alone January is something we could only dream about, but the sun was warm and eating outside in the main square having lunch was a new and wonderful experience for us both. As northern visitors we felt obliged to indulge the local cuisine and we tried the local strudel, not once, but twice!”. The first of those strudel had come from a delicatessen in the city where my request in Italian had been totally ignored and responded too in blurty German, which meant nothing to us! I was determined not to revert to English and the transaction had been rather frosty, a similar encounter would occur in the football stadium later at the German only speaking cafe! The strudel was jolly tasty though, better than the lunch time outdoor restaurant version! Before getting to the football, a little understanding as to why this region is so different won’t go a miss perhaps, as I am sure some readers are already surprised to read of such Germanic ways in Italy! The movement of German speakers south goes further back than the Austro-Hungarian days, indeed, as early as 7th Century with a first Bavarian ruler. In 1027 it was conferred to the Bishops of Trento, becoming part of the Roman Empire. By 1363 the Hapsburg Empire ruled, albeit overseen for centuries by two Italian and two German officers appointed by the Austrian Duchess. It’s most pertinent and tragic history started during the First World War when Italy was promised land if they entered the war by the Triple Alliance, and so on the 24th May 1915, three and a half years of heavy fighting in the region commenced with the loss of countless thousands on both sides after Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarians. When a peace treaty was finally signed, Italian troops marched into a predominantly German speaking Bolzano, and a period of Italianisation commenced, with high immigration of Italians from the south encouraged. The use of the German language was banned as was referring to the region at the Tirol. Ahead of the Second World War, Mussolini signed a treaty with Hitler where the region would not be invaded, and allowed the German population the option to relocate to other parts of the Weimar Republic. Those who refused to move were subjected to even greater Italianisation with the loss of their language and removal of their German names! Bolzano would still be used for the German cause when Italy surrendered in 1943 and the Nazi’s moved in, setting up a concentration camp here, one of only two on Italian soil, ironically the other was in Trieste! All of these facts merely go to add credence to why in one regard, having been given back all the rights of language and culture in the ‘50’s, the German based populace seem reluctant to embrace Italy. To this day Bolzano is part of an autonomous, self governing region of Italy having gone through one last dreadful passage of its history when German separatists turned to terrorist tactics to gain further concessions, nearly bringing Northern Italy to its knees with strikes on power stations in the ’60’s. Having set the fraught historical picture, stepping off the train in Bolzano immediately brings the sight of the awe inspiring snow covered jagged peaks of the Dolomites in the distance. A Bolzano-Eye carousel is right across from the railway station, and if time is short, a whirl on this wheel high above the city will bring stunning views. The Druso Stadium is a 20 minute walk from the railway station. If you turn left as you come out of the station and follow the road round and the head across the river via the main bridge, taking an immediate left down a path into a riverside park as soon as you cross the bridge. Here you are close to the ground, and the floodlights are visible. In the coming year or so you could follow the river round and gain access to the stadium, but the Druso is undergoing significant upgrade as the club prepares for fulfilling the dream stepping up into Serie B. For now you’ll need to follow the path to the right at the signpost away from the river. Minutes later you will be behind the main stand which runs the length of the pitch and is also the main entrance. The away fans are housed in a temporary scaffold seating area behind the goal to the right, a feature that so often becomes permanent in Italy, but with the other two sides under construction and looking likely to be more permanent and covered areas, once completed the Druso will be an impressive venue. Thankfully the relatively shallow terracing won’t impact on the view from the main stand, a stunning vista of mountains, which certainly added colour to Tania’s first football experience! In the early ‘90’s there became a growing desire to have a professional football team in the Italian league, following the collapse of FC Bolzano in the eighties. Endeavouring to “fast track” the new club up a few leagues and avoiding a potential 9 league ladder to Serie A, the unsuspecting SV Miland from nearby Bressanone, or Brixen were acquired and renamed FC Sud Tirol-Alto Adige in 1995, tipping the hat with its name to the dual language area, but the new choice of badge certainly leans the club more towards German speakers. Indeed, they have an infuriating need to pander to both world’s, with even the shirt numbers as the teams are read out given in both Italian and German, with the excellent club magazine published in both languages, page by page. SV Miland had just been relegated to the 7th tier at that point when they were acquired, and while Bressanone remained the clubs home at that point, two back to back promotions brought them to Serie D, which was the fifth tier in those days. In 2000 they gained promotion to the now defunct Serie C2, the fourth tier, the first step on the professional football ladder in Italy. That year the German aspect of the club grew in prominence and Alto Adige was lopped off the official name, even if it stayed on the badge as the club moved to Bolzano! Nine years later they were promoted to the third tier for the first time, and while the clubs sole relegation was experienced two years later, they were quickly back in the third tier, where they remain to this day, always competing at the upper end of the table and entry into the protracted 28 team promotion play offs as a regular occurrence. In Italy the club was more generally referred to as Alto Adige, just as the region is called. Indeed, until more recent times the FIGC league tables had the Italian name, but given the badge alteration in 2016, FC Sud Tirol is now exclusively used. Whether this has added greater enthusiasm for the club from the German speaking world in Bozen and beyond remains to be seen. At this particular encounter when we were in town for joust with Rimini, on a glorious sunny winter’s day, a mere 700 turned up! Once upon a time Bolzano had no professional football team, and while FC Sud Tirol lead the way, AC Virtus Bolzano, perhaps a more Italianesque club are just one step behind them in Serie D now, and might explain the dropping of Alto Adige at FC Sud Tirol. The construction of a Serie B standard ground ahead of being promoted is perhaps a very German attitude! Presently the ground has a 2,500 capacity, having lost 1,000 in reconstruction, but 5,000 is the required standard for the next level, and this or beyond that number will be the aim of the present significant work. In general, Italian clubs seem happy to get the promotion firmed up before worrying about the venue! This can sometimes be a hindrance with AC Mestre’s need to play some distance away at Portogruaro (64 km), which was more to do with a fear of playing across the lagoon in Venice and being swallowed up again! However, with the rent, the lack of fans etc this situation merely saw them go bust anyway! Carpi needed to move to nearby Modena when they were in Serie A, but now have a Serie B standard ground, albeit in C now!. Little Sassuolo moved into Reggio Emilia, and became so successful they bought the stadium! This season, Pordenone, who came out of FC Sud Tirol’s division last season are needing to play in Udine, a considerable distance away (55kms), as they are another club with a cycling velodrome round their own pitch making reconstruction tricky, and while they are doubtlessly a well organised team, protracted periods asking fans to travel is asking for trouble, especially in a country where ground hopping or even crossing the road to watch another team is largely an alien concept! A moment of good fortune welcomed us to the Druso Stadium! I had forgotten to tell Tania to bring her passport, and while I had bought the tickets online, I was amazed that the vague wafting of my passport under both tickets was enough to get us through the solitary ticket check! Ordinarily the details are poured over before entry is granted! The entrance takes you straight to the sole club bar/cafe/club shop, where German is the language of choice. I had arranged central main stand seats as a gentle introduction to calcio for Tania. It was very much to her liking as the seats had cushions, a welcome soft seat on a cooling day as the sun fell below mountains. The visitors Rimini were bottom of the table and in need of a win. The hardy 20 or so who had travelled north from the southern reaches of coastal Emilia-Romagna were in fine voice, getting in a round of “Italia, Italia” in just as Padova’s considerably larger throng had at Triestina! I had seen Rimini twice before, a 1-0 win at Mantova and a commendable 0-0 at the Bentegodi versus Hellas Verona, albeit a result that knocked them out of the Serie C play offs that season. In this encounter they were immediately in trouble, let Tania take up the story; “When the game started it was obvious Sud Tirol were so superior. Rimini had no cohesion in their play, and two goals in the first six minutes was a spectacular introduction to football for me. It was going to be a long day for Rimini. The view from the stand was stunning and it was a nice crowd, a quiet atmosphere, overall I enjoyed the experience”. Indeed, Rimini were blown away, but what surprised me of a Tyrolean pitch in January was the dust coming out when the ball bounced, and the horrendously uneven bounce! It shows how dry the winter had been, but a slight watering of the field might have helped the play. That said, Sud Tirol are used to their surface and they took full advantage racing into the two goal lead. It could have been more before Rimini settled and gradually they started to be a nuisance, halving the lead by the break was a welcome event for those of us showing Riminense sympathies! Tania and I enjoyed a wonderful holiday there last June, and both being Italophiles, our support was pinned on the visitors, quietly of course in a quiet crowd! New clubs lack the deep rooted fan traditions, with a small gaggle of “ultras” trying to make some noise at the far end of the stand for Sud Tirol. Interestingly their repertoire of songs was strictly from the Italian song book! Sud Tirol came out after the break in a hurry, and very quickly they’d re-established their two goal lead. Rimini’s resistance never floundered, and their spirited play was a glimpse of light that they might get off the bottom of the league and avoid relegation by the seasons end, and with a morsel more composure they might have scored one or two more, but Sud Tirol could have also scored a few more. It was an open and entertaining match, but only one more goal was scored leaving a 4-1 home win, a well deserved three points were staying in Bolzano, enough to keep them in the top five, but Vicenza and Reggiana are looking likely to contest the sole automatic promotion slot. We made a quick exit as the train south back was just thirty minutes after the finish. It was dark all the way, but a wonderful meal sat outside under a heater in the sumptuous Piazza Delle Erbe in Verona awaited, as we reflected on our Tyrolean day, acting as a fine end to a cracking day. Bolzano takes a little getting used to from an Italian arrival point, but if you are headed south from Germany or Austria, it’ll feel just like home! View the full article
  3. I have rarely ventured to the famous parthenons of World football, although I have gradually ticked a number of them off, albeit on a tortoise timescale. Occasional big gigs have been drip fed onto my stadia CV over a forty plus year passage of time! The Azteca in Mexico City and Racing Club’s Il Cilindro in Avellaneda run the Centenario in Montevideo close as my favourite, but It took the first ever Kazakh club side to play in England to get me eager to head to Old Trafford to notch up only my fourth “big” English club stadium after Anfield, Hillsborough and St James Park. I guess it makes me a relative novice in such surroundings! Holker Street, The Shay and the much missed Belle Vue are more my domain, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy my treks to more famous venues, and perhaps not being inured in the big stadium culture makes me view these arenas from a fresh perspective! Manchester United are arguably the world’s best supported team. The Ferguson era coincided with the explosion of global appreciation with television starting to bring games from around the globe to a wider audience, and being hugely successful at that time doubtlessly added millions to join their fan base. However, given the clubs stark lack of trophies in the post Sir Alex era, the transient nature of a distant fan might have seen their popularity diminish, but they still command a significant support. The nouveau riche from across the city might be the dominant force in Manchester for now, but it would take decades of City at the pinnacle for them to get close to United’s global loyal fans, and the longer the Champions League continues to evade City, the longer it will take. Money ultimately can only account for a portion of success and loyalty, and for a certain generation, the Busby babes who perished in Munich, with the subsequent team of Sir Matt Busby including the likes of George Best et all, it made them fall in love with the Red Devils of Manchester and started the notion that Old Trafford was the theatre of dreams! Old Trafford has changed beyond recognition from those black and white images of Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and George Best weaving magic on a sodden pitch with what seemed like a white picket fence surrounding before the vast terraces rose skyward. The modern day stadium is flawlessly slick, sat in its own considerable grounds with no buildings in its immediate wake to spoil the view, making it look even more impressive! Outside the stadium in a separate building is the enormous ticket office, giving credence to the sheer scale of ticket organising. This office is just to the right of a walkway that has doubtlessly been constructed to replicate the feeling of Wembley Way! No sooner are you off the walkway than a statue of Sir Alex Ferguson greets you at the back of the stand given over to his name. The great man was so successful, and still in attendance as a fan, but even he must see that he has left an enormous problem for the club, just quite how do you get a team together now that could even come close to his hugely success “golden” generation where Beckham, Giggs, Scholls and the Neville brothers were the backbone that allowed the occasional stardust of Eric Cantona or a young Ronaldo to name but two, sufficient freedom to add that elan to a remarkable, and consistently successful United. The Munich air disaster is poignantly recalled on a wall near the sizeable club shop housed under the stand opposite the Stretford End. In front of the shop is a statue of Dennis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best, perhaps capturing the most famous trio of heroes of the club from yesteryear on one large plinth, The United Trinity as it proclaims, and who could argue with that! Catering is available outside the ground, a veritable caravan of different varieties of takeaway munchies ahead of going through the turnstiles. Once inside, beer is for sale, unlike outside, as well as the clubs own catering menu, and then it is out through any given walkway towards your seat and that first sight of the hallowed turf and the full arena. It is a superb stadium with the Sir Alex Ferguson stand in particular an absolute colossus, towering high above the other three sides, and from the very back row you must be able to see out over the main stand towards the Manchester skyline. With the visit of FC Astana for the opening game of the Europa League group stage, the Kazakhs weren’t the top draw for a classic European Old Trafford night. Swathes of the upper tiers were empty, but a near 50,000 audience was still easily my biggest crowd of the season! The famous Stretford end to my surprise isn’t where the hardcore fans do the cheerleading. They are housed in the corner to the right of the main stand, and if thinking from a TV camera viewing perspective, they are largely out of sight from the cameras and extraordinarily close to the away fans. FC Astana’s enthusiastic 200 or so supporters would pale into insignificance against a Liverpool visit, although I immediately thought the next Euro guests Partizan Belgrade with their formidable Ultras would be a potential flashpoint if they are so close to the singing United core. Thankfully that encountered passed off without any undue incident, although I have to call out one or two naughty songs directed at the Kazakhs the night I was there, which appalled me! I have seen Kazakh clubs and the National side play in Scotland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and in none of these countries did I hear blatant racist chants, nor even one slight on the visitors from the East. I was on the point of walking out at Old Trafford, especially because of the sniggering at the songs by people around me in the Sir Alex lower stand, where my perception seemed on the face of it, a section housing fans who should have known better. It seems a topic quick to be called out when visiting other lands but it starts at home and their is a problem. It was over in a few minutes and doubtlessly swept away by those in authority on the night, but it was distressing, especially for the visiting fans, most of whom study here. This match-up would certainly not sit high on the roster of famous European nights at the old venue, with FC Astana happy to sit in and frustrate an ultimately youthful United side. As a keen scholar of the Kazakh game, and a Kairat Almaty fan at that, going to watch their fiercest rivals would be close to heresy in the grander scheme of fan loyalty! However, the lure of this morsel of Kazakh club football history with a first ever competitive game in England, it acted as the main ambition for my trip, as well as capturing a taste of Old Trafford for Football Weekends of course! The game stubbornly got stuck in the mould of defence versus attack, with an occasional attempt to break out by the Kazakhs, but just as they had started to look more comfortable, the introduction of a few United A listers with a quarter of an hour to go, Mata and Lingard especially had the desired effect of upping the tempo. It brought almost instant dividends with an exquisite strike from the most impressive youngster on the field, Marcus Greenwood to score the games only goal after some fine build up play.. No one could deny Man Utd weren’t good value for the win, but I am sure having held out until the 77th minute the long flight back to the Kazakh capital would have included discussions about “what if”. The subsequent lose at home to Partizan was enough for Astana to chuck aspirations of progressing in the Europa, fielding weakened sides in both ties with AZ Alkmaar as the need to retain the Kazakh league title became more pressing, winning the vital clash with Kairat and the title by a mere point. Manchester United are still a club in transition, still searching for the perfect formula to re-establish themselves as a title challenger, and while that looks a little way off presently, knuckling down in the Europa League is the new access to the Champions League by virtue of winning the tournament, just as Jose Mourinho managed amid growing pangs of angst amongst the United faithful that his tactics were too defensive and dull for the Man Utd template of more expansive and exciting ways of playing. There are accommodations a bit closer to Old Trafford near the Lowry Centre, but driving down from Scotland and uncertain of where would be a sensible place to park, I decided to hole up at a relatively new Holiday Inn Express near the Trafford Centre just off the M60 motorway Manchester ring road. There is just one bus route but that goes from the Trafford Centre to the city via Old Trafford with a stop right outside the Holiday Inn, and it goes past the Kellogg’s factory, a “who knew” moment for me! I had bought a return bus ticket but after the game with the traffic in the vicinity of the stadium slowed by virtue of the volume of people and traffic setting off, so I decided to walk the 2 ½ miles to the hotel with the idea that if I saw a bus coming I would hop on. However I was nearly back at my overnight base when the first bus sped by! It was an enjoyable experience, a rare chance to dip into one of the great stadiums of world football, albeit on a relatively sedate European evening, but we shouldn’t underestimate the significance for the Kazakhs in going toe to toe with one of the great club sides in their own backyard, The Theatre of Dreams, as they’ve coined it! View the full article
  4. Click to view slideshow. I am sure when you hear the name Monza in sporting chat, unless you are a Formula One guru, you’ll switch off! The town just slightly north of Milan is synonymous with the race car scene, so fire up the guitar solo from Fleetwood Mac’s, The Chain, but while Monza might be the home to the Italian Grand Prix, there is also a football team too, and they might just be on the cusp of the clubs grandest days! AC Monza are the football option in the town that have been up to this point, in various guises, solidly and reliably playing well under the radar to anyone outside Italy, save the Calcio aficionado. As a club they’ve been going since 1912, but the road has had many potholes, culminating in a most recent bankruptcy coming at the end of the 2014/15 season. The phoenix club SSD Monza 1912 started life outside the professional ranks in Serie D, but they quickly won promotion to Serie C, the third tier, where the story is beginning to gather pace! Monza have never graced Serie A, and while they sit 12 points clear in the third tier nearing the halfway point in the fixture schedule you could be forgiven for thinking such a fine start to this campaign isn’t necessarily going to have anyone dreaming of local derbies with the Milanese giants anytime soon. However, at the start of last term, the financial security of the club found itself a sugar daddy! Having sold AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi’s love for calcio and the Milan area was obviously still prevalent in his ageing mind, and he bought Monza! A divisive figure in many regards, the ex-President of Italian can’t be faulted for his love of our beautiful game. Last season Monza started to show signs of the form that has taken them well clear this term, and they very nearly added a fifth Coppa Italia C to the clubs roll of honour, coming up short in Viterbo. The home sides need was greater as the winner of this lower tier cup gets into the second tier promotion play offs, and while Monza had already secured a relative high berth in the lengthy 28 team competition, finishing twelfth meant Viterbese needed to win, and they duly did. Neither would make it through the tangled web of that play off series, and while Monza have gone from strength to strength this season, Viterbese continue to muddle along! Monza have been knocked out of this year’s Coppa Italia C competition, beaten 3-2 at home by Aurora Pro Patria, a near neighbour club, so it is very much eyes on the prize, a return to Serie B. Aside from winning the C cup, Monza have four Serie C Championship titles to their name, but no trophy is ever presented for such a success, however they do have a replica Anglo-Italian Cup from winning the 1976 edition. It was the first running of the cup after a small hiatus in the history of the troubled but entertaining tournament where “lesser” lights from both nations started participating from ‘76 onwards. They beat Wimbledon 1-0 in the final having gone unbeaten through the entire competition. The second tier of the Italian game is an old familiar place for i biancorossi (the red and whites), as the club have participated in 38 Serie B campaigns, (an Italian record) and never once truly troubled the promotion slots to A. They were last in B 18 years ago, so it might feel more like unchartered territory should they continue the pace to the automatic promotion place. If they were to shoot straight through the second tier, they wouldn’t be the first to achieve back to back promotions, SPAL certainly were one who did it quite recently. One thing I am sure of is the knowledge that the purse strings will be loosened in order for the club to have the best opportunity to reach Serie A. Monza’s home, Stadio Brianteo has a more than adequate capacity for C and B at 7,499, mostly housed within a sizeable roofed main stand, with visiting fans and home Ultras housed in the “curvas” behind either goal. Opposite the main stand is an imposing two tiered old unroofed stand, and whether it is available, should it be needed, or sat there unused as condemned and in need of upgrade is up for debate. Italian clubs register capacities lower than the actual, partly because the upper figure will rarely if ever be needed, and it also cuts down on bureaucratic paperwork for health and safety, stewarding etc. Monza’s full capacity is quoted as a whopping 18,568! If all of these seats were available for any future shot in Serie A, that would be more than adequate. As it is, the unused seating acts as a vaudeville-esque theatre piece for a game under the lights, with red and white spotlights bringing the whole thing to life, and beyond! In the build up to kick off, all lights, including the floodlights went off and sparked into life on and off as if disco lights to the music, with the strobing red and white effect across from the main stand being quite striking, let alone the dancing bulbs of the floodlight pylons! The floodlights had one final party piece with the letters of the home team being spelt out on them as the announcer read out the team lines! The Brianteo stadium is quite far out of the centre of Monza right opposite the race track area which is considerable in size. The road to the stadium might be long at 3km, but it is almost straight. If arriving by train from Milan at the main station in Monza it is just over three kilometres, but if it isn’t a night game the Sobborghi station comes into play, just two kilometres from the stadium. Monza is not far from Milan, just 15 km, and the frequent trains take between 10-20 minutes depending on the nature of the service. Trenord are the carrier for the local trains, and just beware that after a night match their trains don’t go back to Milan Centrale after 22,15, terminating instead at Milan Porta Garibaldi. With a population of 123,000 Monza is the third largest city in Lombardia. It’s proximity to Milan, the financial capital of Italy doubtlessly makes Monza a popular commuter town. There is nothing special here, only sporting tourism will bring anyone outside the business fraternity to Monza, but you will find hotel accommodation available should you wish to stay, assuming no Grand Prix is imminent! On my first visit to Monza back in 1998 I stayed in the city ahead of joining the away fans of my beloved Ancona at the Brianteo, a vital penultimate Serie B fixture, where only an away win would suffice to potentially avoid the drop. Three nil down, Ancona were waving B farewell with a whimper, but while wounded they weren’t broken, and as storm clouds gathered over head Ancona were throwing everything at the Monza goal looking for a winner, having pulled it back to 3,3 in one of the most pulsating games I have ever witnessed! As the final whistle sounded and the brave visiting players fell to the turf in anguish of being relegated, the heavens opened and instead of giving our brave lads a fine hand, we were all taking shelter under the terracing as it was one of the most biblical showers I have ever witnessed! Twenty one years on, I found myself back in Monza for an evening encounter with Carrarese, having scampered from Brescia where I had watched Torino tear the home side asunder. It was a cold, crisp night and two of C’s most entertaining sides were not about to let us feel the cold! Right from the off this was an absolute belter of a game, with Monza racing into the lead on two minutes powering home a header from their first corner. They kept up a relentless fast pace winning countless corners and keeping the reeling Tuscans hemmed in. What happened next is a script we have all seen played out on a football field before; Carrarese won their first corner, and from the ensuing melee they were level. Buoyed by getting back into the game, the action swung from one end to the other, and with only twenty minutes on the clock they stunned Monza by taking the lead from a well placed shot following a slalom dribble. The game ebbed and flowed from end to end and both sets of players headed down the tunnel for a well earned rest without any more goals, but quite how was mystifying! If Monza were once kings of B, Carrarese are the C equivalent, almost reliably solid and entertaining, but an “always the bridesmaid” kind of team. The second half continued in a similar vein with Monza especially looking the more dangerous side, and just about everyone in the stadium of a home persuasion thought they’d equalised except the important people, the officials. It was a decision that sparked a mini bout of a handbag reenactment of a battle, where just one yellow card was brandished on the field, but a Carrarese coach was told to walk the plank! Having subsequently seen the incident, the ball hadn’t crossed the line, it was a brave save. The tactic of arrowing a dangerous ball from the right wing into the left side of the visitors box was proving a useful weapon, and if the keeper had prevented that ball crossing the line once, the very next time the same ball zipped across, Carraese were a defender light again and this time the net bulged for the equaliser. Carrarese were punch drunk by now and offered little in attack, but they held out for a priceless point, and both sets of players deserved the applause at the end. This had been Serie C football at its very best, a tremendous advert for the Italian third tier. As to whether Monza can scale the heights to Serie A remains to be seen, but if they do, it might just give the place a little more sporting acknowledgement away from the race track! View the full article
  5. Click to view slideshow. As Henley the Scrounger said to the poorly sighted Colin the Forger, “twenty minutes over this ridge, next stop Switzerland” !! Buckle up, we are off to the land of clocks, chocolate, cheese and Calcio Swiss style! I am sure when readers are planning a trip there is always a desire to collect information on all available fixtures within a given travel distance of your chosen base ahead of making the finalised plan. It is always a little more of an allure if that plan includes a cross-border game! That was exactly my situation when contemplating the options for an early November last year with my trip to North Italy, where thankfully TV schedules seemed secured earlier than normal. I had booked flights Friday to Monday but when the Europa League group fixtures became known I contemplated flying out a day earlier as Lugano were scheduled to play Malmo, a city reasonably close to Milan. It had the look of an entertaining joust, but something made me hold off making the flight alteration, which transpired to be a good idea as Lugano’s Cornaredo Stadium isn’t up to UEFA standards apparently and they are having to travel some distance to St Gallen to host games in front of considerably lower crowds than had they been able to play in front of at home. I am sure these circumstances were of great disappointment to the good people of Lugano as it is 250 kilometres to St Gallen! All was not lost on the notion of catching a game in Ticino, the Italian speaking region of Switzerland. Europa League duty guaranteed a Sunday fixture, and a home one at that with Lugano hosting big boys FC Basel! The lakeside beauty of Lugano for a day, or pitch up in the commuter town of Busto Arsizio solely for the game?! The feisty rivalry between Aurora Pro Patria and Alessandria in Italy’s Serie C would have to wait another season! It was a no brainer, Switzerland won hands down! I had been there a few times but not since 1986 or so, and never for a game, but arranging this adventure, Switzerland became the 30th country I have watched a game! I bought my ticket online via the Lugano website (Swiss Francs, 24 for the terracing at the side of the main stand), but even with Basel in town the early purchase had been unnecessary as the ground was nowhere near full. As the train snakes around the hillsides and through tunnels from Como, via Chiasso the Swiss border town, the height of the Lugano Prealps, as the mountains in this region are known, seem to get higher and higher with the snow caps showing more frequently. It is an awe inspiring view as the train edges around the lake ahead of Lugano coming into sight. The railway station sits high above the majority of the city and from just outside it affords wonderful views across Lugano rooftops, spires and out across the lake, as well as allowing the football fan to get a first glimpse of the Cornaredo floodlight pylons off in the distance! It’s a good old hike from here to the stadium, but the game wasn’t until 4pm and arriving at just after 10,30 in the morning following the 90 minute train from Milan, with the sun shining I was relishing plunder the city ahead of the football. Lugano is beautiful, it’s crescent shaped coast affords wonderful lakeside walks with cafe stops aplenty, piers for lake tour boats to whisk you off out to sea, or merely a pedalo for hire for more sedate recreational inshore fun! With a population of 63,185 Lugano is the ninth city of Switzerland, but it is the largest Italian speaking place in the world outside Italy, but it isn’t the capital of Ticino, that honour falls to Bellinzona further north in the region. A funicular railway will take you from the station down into the city, or you can just walk, albeit a zig zag route, steps and all, but it is relatively easy. As you’d expect of a well to do Swiss lakeside city, the streets, the houses and the gardens are immaculate indeed the whole place is pristine and clean, and the shops are largely designer! There are bars and restaurants to accommodate all tastes, and a MacDonald’s that must have one of the most glorious views of any in its franchise portfolio! We might scoff at such a venue for lunch, but if you are on a tight budget it’s an option as nothing is cheap, indeed the local shops etc will happily take your Euros but on a 1:1 basis to the Swiss Franc with change given in the local currency. The Cornaredo Stadium is 3 kilometres from the centre of the city and its shoreline. I was there on a Sunday, a day when some of the bus routes aren’t running, but the walk to the stadium is flat, leisurely and leafy, as well as being as straight as an arrow following a small river that acts as a tributary of the lake. Eventually the buildings dissipate and fenced off practise pitches act as a forerunner to the stadium coming into view. Don’t bank on following the black and white scarves or flags to guide you towards the stadium as I only ever saw a handful of club colours and even then, only in the immediate vicinity of the stadium! With a capacity of just 6,330 the Cornaredo is a relatively small venue, but given it was maybe just over half full for the visit of the big boys from Basel, the stadium perhaps rarely gets close to a sell out these days. It is a municipal facility with one of those pesky running tracks around the pitch. It is also sadly surrounded by unnecessary fencing which doesn’t unduly impinge on your viewing if you are on the top steps of the relatively low terracing, but a seat in either stand will alleviate any viewing issues completely. Next to the main stand is an unusual glass house stand with a lot of soft seating acting as the hospitality zone, and with the visit of Basel this area was certainly full. FC Lugano are in their eighth passage of Swiss club football history in the top flight. Having been founded in 1908 the club made its First Division debut 14 years later in 1922. In 1931 they won their first honour, the Swiss Cup, a trophy that has headed to Lugano on two more occasions in 1968 and 1993, with both wins seeing the club qualify for Europe, with lofty league position also adding to the clubs eight Euro campaigns. The last two Euro outings were relatively fruitless attempts at getting out of Europa League groups in very recent years where they qualified directly, doubtlessly aided by the efforts of FC Basel and Young Boys Bern on the Swiss co-efficiency table! Amongst the first six ever European games Lugano ever played were against three of the giants of the continent, starting with a European debut in the Cup Winners Cup of 1968/69 against Barcelona, losing 4-0 on aggregate. Twenty five years later, having got by Belorussian outfit Neman Grodno 6-2 on aggregate to give Lugano a first ever Euro progression, Real Madrid were next in Ticino, with the Spanish winning 3-1 en route to a 6-1 aggregate success. Two years later, having seen off Jeunesse Esch, Lugano claimed their most famous scalp beating Inter Milan 1-0 at home and holding on for a 1-1 draw at the San Siro! It was the last time the club progressed in Europe as Slavia Prague saw them off with home and away wins in the next round. Lugano also have three Swiss league titles on the clubs roll of honour; 1938, 1941 and 1948 all long before the European Cup came along, so they have never had the opportunity to play in the top competition thus far, not that actually winning the title is paramount for an invite these days! The darkest period in the clubs history came in 2003 after relegation from the top flight, when the club was declared bankrupt. Only in 2004 following that familiar quirk in Italy where the club “merged” with an unassuming backwater side Malcantone Agno, and moving it to Lugano, changing the badge and club colours back to the original black and white kit, essentially a usurping, albeit temporarily becoming AC Lugano. They set about working there way through the Swiss leagues returning to the Super League in 2015 where they have settled ever since, qualifying twice for the Europa League via a high league placing. It was both interesting and sad to read in the excellent little free programme that a Ticino super club is being muted, where Bellinzona, Chiasso and Lugano would all pull resources to compete with the more powerful clubs in the German and French regions. Bellinzona in particular have been struggling to get back to an acceptable level, but if this was going to happen it would be another sad essay on the modern game. I for one hope these three famous Ticino clubs retain their independence. From a home perspective the first half of the Basel game was a shocker. Perhaps the legs were tired after the effort put in during the 0-0 draw on Thursday versus Malmo, coupled with being sent out in a containing formation rather than getting the sleeves rolled up and getting stuck into their more illustrious visitors. It got me thinking that Basel doubtlessly face this tactic in a number of games just as the big duo in Scotland seem to command similar subservience! Leading 2-0 and having rarely broken sweat, it was a good thing the visiting fans were in fine voice otherwise the atmosphere which was already sedate would have edged toward the point of comatose! When I was watching Sassuolo in Reggio Emilia a couple of days before Lugano, the small band of Ultras was positively miniscule by Serie A standards, but they had way more than the thirty or so who gathered on the terrace behind the goal at the Cornaredo and tried to give a little home spin to the atmosphere, but they were badly out sung by the visiting end. Indeed, an attempt by the Basel fans to sing in Italian to insult the Luganese didn’t draw any form of vociferous riposte, merely brought a bout of tutting and head shaking from those around me! We are in the realm of the mature, adult attitudes toward football! The second half saw Lugano a bit more energised as Basel, who also had a Europa League game on the Thursday, resorted to stifling tactics, but the home side did create moments of mayhem, crashing one against the bar and forcing the keeper to show agility. Had they pulled one back it would have seen a cracking conclusion, but as it was, with the last kick of the game Basel scored a third, almost apologetically, a job well done for them. Lugano’s season has started in a spluttering fashion, perhaps hampered by the extra distraction of six Europa League games, all technically away encounters, but I hope they will stay clear of relegation and keep the flag of Ticino flying proudly in the Swiss Super League. View the full article
  6. To celebrate Football Weekends 50th edition next month, Jim the editor asked me to nominate three of my favourite “old school” stadiums there. Having been at 40 Italian grounds I am undoubtedly qualified to make such a call, and it was quite entertaining coming up with my choices, which I guess true to form are quite eclectic! This is a relatively short piece as it will be incorporated into a much larger Pan European article in the November edition of the magazine, but ahead of publication, here are my picks Click to view slideshow. Largely the Italian stadiums are either modern, similar in style or full of far too much scaffolding. What some of the grounds lack in outstanding quirky style, they make up with awe inspiring views. Carrarese’s stadium has incredible views of the nearby mountains that appear to be permanently covered in snow but they are in fact merely scarred slopes from the marble mining that Carrara is famed, but spectacularly scarred! In an arch around the eastern flank of Tuscany, Pistoiese, Prato and Arezzo’s stadiums all afford wonderful views too, and slightly further south in the region Siena’s stadium on the edge of the historical centre is eye catching, but has that scaffolding thing in spades, just like the unique location in Venezia, and the picturesque lakeside ground in Como. There are some real gems around Italy, Bologna and Fiorentina’s external facades are iconic, but if we are looking for more distinctly old school interiors we have to look in the lower leagues. Numero UNO In the southern reaches of Liguria the coastal town of La Spezia houses one of the great old stadiums of Italy. The local club, Spezia are in Serie B and have been playing at the 10,336 capacity Alberto Picci Stadio since 1919. The old stand is a throwback to another era, and if they have listed building protection in Italy, I hope that it will be preserved forever. The home curva is a thing of beauty too, steeply rising like the mountains behind the stadium. Numero DUE In Veneto the home of Lanerossi Vicenza Virtus, the Romeo Menti has been home to the various guises of the club since 1935 when it was opened as the Stadio Communale. The current capacity is 12,000, and while the ground has been buffed up over the years, the seated terraces are close to the action, unlike many of the ellipse style stadia in Italy where “curva” are well named but are too far from the action. The mainstand runs the length of the pitch and could have been moved lock, stock and barrel from the old Victoria Ground in Stoke, where doubtlessly the similarity of kit brought them immediately to mind! Numero TRE The biggest and my favourite of my trio of “classic” stadio is significantly far down the Adriatic coast in the town of San Benedetto Del Tronto. The Stadio Riviera Delle Palme is home to Sambenedettese, perhaps the least well known of the three clubs, and yet with a 22,000 capacity, Vicenza and Spezia’s capacity could fit into this one! The ground is relatively modern, inaugurated only in 1985 but old enough to have a retro feel. Samb have never reached Serie A, and rarely appeared in Serie B but they are always perceived as a sleeping giant, and the size of the stadium, as well as the loyalty of their fans add to that myth, but they continue to languish in the third tier. The stadium has two circular corner walkways like the San Siro to the upper tier of the seated terraces that go round three sides, complimented by a vast main stand where from the very top you can look out to sea as the game progresses. The stadiums in Messina, Catanzaro and the buffed up SPAL stadium in Ferrara might have made the cut, as would have the now old pearls of Stadio Dorico in Ancona and Stadio Appiani in Padova, but these are no longer in use by the top teams to be considered. Does anyone have any other stadio they’d have included? View the full article
  7. Click to view slideshow. The first competitive home game of the season is always worthy of getting out the bunting, especially when the visitors are from relatively close by. This was the lure for my Italian friend Stefano from Ancona and I as it took us to Great Grimsby, or Cleethorpes if you want to get picky, as Grimsby Town play in the neighbours backyard so to speak! The town is prefixed by Great to distinguish itself from Little Grimsby a little further down the road, but as we were to discover it felt like an ironic title. The “by” at the end of any town or city in this country signifies Viking involvement, and in Grimsby’s case it was allegedly named after a Danish fisherman called Grim in the 9th Century AD, not just yesterday! As to whether he was one of the brothers remains unclear! He certainly had the right occupation for a port famous to this day for its fishing. Sadly the unfortunately named Mr Grim might also be well named for modern day Grimsby as with its industries and fishing fleet diminished, the legacy has left a feeling of a down at heel town trying its best to improve itself, but “Great” Grimsby it is not for now! Checking into the town centre’s best hotel The Holiday Inn Express I enquired as to the proximity of the stadium, and was delighted to hear it was no more than ten minutes, but alas upon declaring we had plenty of time before walking, the receptionist changed her estimation to about an hour!! We aren’t that slow at walking I quipped, which she ultimately didn’t mean, merely that it was a more complicated route! If only we’d heided her warning, but up in the room Google maps suggested a mere 45 minutes, and after a drive right across England from Liverpool to Grimsby, a stretch of the legs was needed!! Now I have done a few crazy things all in the name of a good photo for the FW magazine, mostly walking into open stadio in Italy uninvited, including getting locked in at Livorno! This expedition required a shot of the iconic Dock Tower, Grimsby’s tip of the hat to Firenze or Venezia, where it wouldn’t be out of place in either city! Having seen a game from Blundell Park on TV I was familiar with the idea that the ground was close to the sea, and one of the three Google map walking routes was taking us by the port, it couldn’t have been better…until we happened upon a security hut at the entry to the port! Understandably Grimsby is a large working port where access isn’t allowed, but in asking the chap what was the best way to the stadium, I showed him my phone with its suggested possible walk through the port. This apparently is the North Walk, and access is allowed if you are heading there!! He gave us way too detailed route information, and it got to the point where my brain shutdown thinking it’s all on the Google map anyway! While the Tower was still illusively in the distance, the start of the walk along the yacht harbour did afford the clearest view. Twenty minutes later having walked by one industrial unit after another we came to a gate in the fence, but it was locked, we had no option but to double back. The clock was ticking and if we tried to walk all the way we’d never make kick off and so an executive decision was taken when we arrived outside Grimsby Town’s sponsors HQ in the port, I called a cab! The taxi driver was shocked to learn the security man had let us into the docks as the North walk was dangerous in his opinion, but I suspect we never found that route, as we’d walked along nothing more dangerous than occasionally crumbling pavement! Less than ten minutes in the taxi and we were in the queue for tickets outside the ground. It was a glorious night and immediately the magnificent old style floodlight pylons caught my eye. Entry through the turnstiles brought a wonderful old fashioned stadium. Blundell Park should be preserved forever as a reminder of how stadia were all different and quirky back in the day before the bland template for all seater arenas came along. The main stand is unusual and unique too with its slight forward lean. A seat on the upper tier would afford views of the port, that iconic tower and out to sea. Alas we’d opted for the lower tier, and our seats were right in the front row at pitch level! It was an unusual view, as well as a frustrating one with people shuffling by on a regular basis en route to the conveniences and the snack truck. The attendance was relatively poor at around 2,500 but it meant a good number of seats were free in the home stand behind the goal and so we took up a different vantage point for the second half. Doncaster are my English team, a curiosity that started from news footage of fans carrying a coffin through the streets of the town at the point when the club were relegated from the football league in the late ‘90’s after a truly disastrous season, and the threat of the club going out of business. Well ahead of the troubles at Bury especially this season, a ruinous owner nearly brought Doncaster to its knees. I started following their Conference results, and gradually their saviour John Ryan brought the club back to life. Eventually the intrigue got too much and I headed down to Belle Vue to see them play Hereford United one early November Saturday in 2002 for a fifth tier joust. Belle Vue was another proper old ground with real character, and it afforded a cracking atmosphere. Another reason Rovers grew on me was the development of a new badge with a Viking, something the Viking settlement of Grimsby missed out on, but then they have got fish! In more recent years it became apparent via a historian that Doncaster had never been “officially” signed back to England after the plunderings of William Wallace, and “technically” was Scottish! A touristic quirk to trade off perhaps, a Scottish enclave in England, but not for a proud Yorkshire town! Indeed the chanting of their proud county’s name at Middlesbrough when Rovers were in the Championship caused particular angst amongst a contingent of the home support and it sadly lead to trouble outside the Riverside when I was there. In my twelve visits to the old ground, the most curious scheduling afforded me three consecutive years of the August Bank Holiday Monday fixture against Huddersfield Town with a win, loss and a draw across two leagues between the clubs! The best day for me at Belle Vue was a fortuitous Easter Monday fixture against Cambridge United that saw the ground encountering a last ever lock out for many disappointed fans ahead a 2-0 win that brought Rovers promotion to the third tier in only the clubs second season back in the league. All the Good Friday results had all gone in Donny’s favour and it caught the club out in terms of when promotion would be clinched, and having a lack of time to issue tickets. I was in the stadium more than an hour before kick off and it was nearly full by then such was the excitement! Obviously in beating Leeds United to reach the Championship in the League One Play Off was a real high by which time the club were settled into the Keepmoat Stadium, and while I had to settle for watching this game on TV, I journeyed down to Cardiff for the Johnstone Paint Pot final versus Bristol Rovers, where an extra time winner took the Cup to South Yorkshire after a thrilling 3-2 success. The only time I had come across Grimsby had been at Wembley when they played FC Halifax Town in the FA Trophy Final in 2016. It was The Mariners second weekend on the trot at the National Stadium having beaten Forest Green 3-1 to regain the clubs league place after six years in the wilderness. The following Sunday in a close run match, the Shaymen won out 1-0 amid floods of tears, a first major honour for Halifax a week after the club had slipped into National League North amid fears the club would struggle to bounce back, but they were promoted immediately within the year, doubtlessly on the coattails of this success. Grimsby’s real cup final had been getting back into the league and they have consolidated in League Two. Grimsby started life as Grimsby Pelham in 1878, an odd name, but a year later the taking of Pelham (as the film goes) was replaced by Town, a name you’ll hear more than Grimsby at Blundell Park, “We are Town”, “Come on Town” or “fish” seem the staple of the faithful as they encourage in a stadium that has been the clubs home for 121 years! Bill Shankly was once the Town boss, ahead of going on to greater things across the breadth of the country at Liverpool. Lawrie McMenemy won promotion to the third tier with the Mariners in 1972 before moving onto Southampton and an FA Cup success with them in 1976. Alan Buckley though is the most successful boss guiding them to three promotions amongst three separate spells in the hot seat. While Lincoln might be blazing a trail through the leagues for now, Grimsby can still claim bragging rights in Lincolnshire as the only one of the three league clubs from the county to have played in all four divisions, as well as a brace of FA Cup semi finals. With Scunthorpe slipping back into League Two and replacing Lincoln, a derby will still be on the fixture roster at Blundell this season. One unusual permission Grimsby and Hull held was the right to host home matches on Christmas Day to coincide with the fishing fleets being in harbour! Given how diminished these fleets are now, such an anomaly no longer exists, which is good news for the Town players as well as the opposition, not to mention all the staff involved in match days too. The visit of Doncaster wasn’t necessarily a derby, but a club from reasonable proximity gave it a local edge. Rovers having come within a penalty shoot out of Wembley for a place in the Championship for a third time in their recent history last term might have lost their boss and top striker in the close season, but they started off the more confident and capable side in this encounter. They were perhaps a touch too indulgent at times and a lack of a true cutting edge became apparent. That said, Town’s keeper was in inspired form early on with one quite brilliant save to keep the visitors out. Grimsby grew into the game and started looking more dangerous on the break. One such counter attack brought a tidy finish to the delight of the home crowd. In the second half Doncaster were never as threatening and it almost felt they were going to go out with a whimper, but a late rally, including a near header from their keeper in the Town box nearly forced extra time, but it was too little to late, and they were out. The walk back to the hotel was needless to say attempted on the more sensible regular road route, initially a straight as an arrow road crossing the divide between Cleethorpes and Grimsby. We then came to the issue as to why ten minutes in the car becomes nearer an hour walking, with a flyover of no more than 500 metres in length in our way and it had no pavement! You have to turn left up a road that only relents with a walkway across industrial wastelands after more than a mile up a poorly light and disturbingly quiet road, complete with hookers on corners across the road! It wasn’t the most relaxed walk, but safety in number of not being alone was fine. It isn’t a walk I would ever wish to repeat! I know the good people of Grimsby are friendly, and those we chatted too were happy visitors had ventured from Italy and Scotland to see Town, but as a town, sadly grim sums it up! After four years without seeing Rovers play, this was a disappointing loss, meaning it is six years since I last saw them win a game, so I better get myself down to Doncaster this season and rectify this statistic! As for Grimsby, I wouldn’t be adverse to watching more games at cracking Blundell Park, but I would pincer in and out of the area on the day. View the full article
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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
  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. 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
  18. 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
  19. 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
  20. 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
  21. 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
  22. 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
  23. 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
  24. Click to view slideshow. Every time I see the words “The North”, it brings back memories of a great Argentine friend of mine who had flown into Britain for the first time, lured here by Monty Python’s re-union at the 02 in London! Post the “bleedin’ demise” of that entertaining gig, the next day we set off on the drive to Scotland and as we hit the M1 just outside the capital, one the first signs he clapped his eyes on said “The North”, and every time subsequently he saw these words, he’d repeat them in a Pythonesque fashion and laugh!! I am sure the controversial columnist Julie Burchill always thought The North started just beyond Watford, but for southern English football fans, depending on how far south your club is, this will essentially determine where your perception of “north” starts! I tip my hat at all fans in lengthy lands where your club is at the extremity. I was at a Carlisle v Plymouth game a few seasons ago, the sort of game that shows the metal of a true fan. Up here in Scotland the century plus “closed shop” nature of the game meant that Aberdeen was the only real lengthy trek of the season. The expansion to include Inverness and Dingwall did bring a decade or so of top flight fans bleating that these away games were too far away! Elgin though is the furthest north venue in the Scottish league at this point! The North East tag conjures thoughts of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, or in Scotland the aforementioned Aberdeen, Peterhead and maybe Cove Rangers now, but the real North East might as well be the Ross Ice Shelf on Antarctica, only the brave and the adventurous get to know the true North East football of Scotland! Strap yourself in, here we go!! Beyond the Black Isle, a peninsula over the Kessock Bridge at Inverness, football is alive and kicking. The idea for this article developed the day England were playing Sweden at the World Cup! I was heading for Orkney but before taking the ferry, Wick Academy were playing Orkney for the magnificently named Ken Green Challenge Cup, and even more to my surprise, Orkney were defending the trophy! The game had a similar kick off to the WC action in Samara, but on a rare, gloriously sunny Caithness day, you can’t beat real action away from the TV! I have seen Wick a number of times in central/southern areas in Scottish Cup action, including treks to Girvan, Dalbeattie and Berwick Upon Tweed, but this was my first ever game at Harmsworth Park, and with my family island “homeland” of Orkney in town, it was the perfect opportunity. Harmsworth Park (capacity 2,412) is just inside the Town limit as you come in by car from the south. First you’ll see a cemetery on your right, and then the stadium next door where a distinctly sloped pitch awaits, but it is a very tidy Highland League home for Scotland’s most northerly SFA member. The main entrance is on main road, but up the back of the ground a gate will allow you to enter either by foot, or bring your car, where you can choose sit in it and have a perfect view of the game, as the car park terrace sits high above the pitch! This way of watching has tradition in the older stadiums on the Faroe Islands, as well as nearer at hand in Shetland and Orkney. When Wick scored in this match, a few horns would peep! I can imagine of a winter’s day, with the wind howling this is an all ticket area!! When the Highland League lost three of its incumbents during the summer of ’94, with Caledonian and Thistle merging in Inverness and Dingwall’s Ross County all joining the Scottish league, Wick were finally accepted into what is now the fifth tier of the Scottish game. They had been playing in the North Caledonian League, a small league which has no promotion to the Highland League as yet, but given the revolution in the Lowland area with the 6th tier East of Scotland league going from 13 members to 39 over the summer, times are changing. Wick, unlike Fort William and Strathspey Thistle have been a fine addition to the Highland League, and while it took them a few seasons to really get to grips with the more demanding fixtures and travel schedule (Wick to Cove and many of the Aberdeenshire sides can be a 5 hour trip!), they have become a top half team, and on occasion they’ve finished in the top six. The fact that the Highland League winner can now potentially get promoted to the Scottish League has seen more ambitious clubs, especially in the Aberdeenshire area dominate, but the North does have it’s own team that can joust with the best of them in Brora Rangers, as well as Wick on their day! Orkney have in recent years entered a team into the North Caledonian League, and it is perhaps beginning to pay dividends, winning the title last season for the first time, a new feather for the island footballers. While Orkney has its own summer league, including Rendall FC (Rendall is not only a district of the mainland but a popular Orcadian surname!) some of the lads that play for their respective “local” team, also play for the Orkney FC league side. Those who do play for both are effectively playing all year round as the Orkney league is a summer league, and the North Caledonian League runs from autumn to spring. When you factor in the travelling off the island to away fixtures as far south as Inverness, it takes a lot of dedication. Perhaps given some of Orkney’s players had been playing all summer they looked sharper straight from the kick off versus Wick and the raced into the lead. I was astonished just how useful, and fit they looked. The Scorries, Wick’s nickname (a North name for seagulls) also lost a player with a bad injury, and an ambulance was needed, but in a tremendous opening 45 minutes, Academy not only found the equaliser but went in 2-1 up after an absolute cracking drive. The second half was slower, more fractious by virtue of an astonishing number of Orkney substitutions! Wick scored a third but it should have been 3-2 right at the end when what seemed like a perfectly good goal, but it was belatedly chalked off for the visitors. Upon my arrival on Orkney, the idea for this article started growing arms and legs! Suddenly the plethora of substitutions at Wick was beginning to make sense when I learned that the 100th Milne Cup match was just around the corner, Orkney v Shetland, the old “north isle” rivalry was hitting its century of games. It started out in 1908 as Kirkwall v Lerwick, the two Capitals of the respective islands, with the Shetlanders winning 5-1. It wasn’t until 1919 that the game changed name to Orkney v Shetland, an excuse for another Centenary event next year in Lerwick of the island named fixture perhaps?! The game alternates between the islands year on year, and Shetland being that bit larger have tended to have the upper hand since the mid ’70’s at which point Orkney led the series 32-20, but going into the 100th match Shetland had turned that statistic around to lead 55-39, with five drawn games. Orkney’s only away win in that period coming in 1981 with a 1-0 success. Shetland have hosted and won the Island Games football competition, something Orkney will have the honour of hosting in 2023. Indeed before the Faroes joined FIFA, all three groups of islands would play for the North Atlantic Cup! A crowd of around 700 turned out on a dreich late July Saturday afternoon at the Pickaquoy stadium, Kirkwall (known locally as Picky) to witness this historic 100th encounter, some way short of the 6,000 record crowd in 1935, but times are a changed, and the local Kirkwall Open Golf tournament is badly timed for the same day. It was a game that will live long in the memory of Orcadian football fans, as that inaugural 5-1 loss in Lerwick 110 years on was replicated and reversed with a magnificent 5-1 Orkney win! Isn’t it strange how football scores and statistics have a habit of cropping up again, and again?! The boys in red and white raced into a 3-0 half time lead, aided by a brace from Man of the Match young Liam Delday. Shetland must have received a real tongue lashing at half time and emerged with more fighting spirit putting Orkney under relentless pressure. It took them until 15 minutes from the end to find the net though, and as they endeavoured to reduce the deficit yet further, a fit and youthfully athletic Orkney side countered at blistering pace, scoring a fourth soon after, and putting the icing on the Milne Cup cake with that all important fifth goal in added on time just after Shetland had struck the Orkney crossbar with a header. It was the biggest margin of victory in 46 years, a result built on fine fitness and great team unity, something that Orkney FC might have brought to the County team. The next stage of the evolving Orkney side is to try and win on Shetland for the first time in 38 years next July, and if they continue to do well in the North Caledonian League, and compete well with the likes of Wick Academy, that elusive away win is not an unrealistic prospect. The future of Orkney football looks bright, and if the Caledonian League becomes a Highland League feeder, might we see Wick v Orkney as a league fixture? It would be great! Back on the mainland, as you head south down the stunning, if twisty A9 road that hugs the coastline from Wick, the next major footballing “hub” you’ll drive into is Brora. Of all the teams in this region, Brora Rangers are maybe the one most people will know. In recent years they have changed from a Highland League also-ran to back to back league winners, and despite the two most recent seasons being without title success, they are still a force to be reckoned with and they are running Cove close this term. Brora were the first Non League side to be involved in the promotion play off final versus League Two’s bottom club, Montrose in 2015. I was at both these ties, and while rumours abound about a lack of desire to step up, the “Cattachs” as Brora are known, held Montrose 1-1 at their own Dudgeon Park, a 4,000 capacity ground on the southern edge of town, and they led at half time in the return leg 1-0 at Links Park. Hilariously the Brora fans were going round asking for money that they could leave with Montrose to buy a road map of the Highland League area where Montrose would have ended up had they lost! However, a harsh red card and a strong wind behind the home side in the second half both contrived to assist Montrose to a win and league safety, but it was a fine effort by the Sutherland side. Last season Brora had a poor league campaign by their own high standards, but they did go on a Scottish Cup run that will live long in the memory, that saw them reach the last sixteen of the competition beating Edinburgh’s CSS (Civil Service Strollers), Stranraer (quite a trip!), East Fife and then putting up stiff resistance at Rugby Park versus Kilmarnock. Incredibly every game was away from home! I saw them dig out a 1-0 win at East Fife, but the most amazing goal I have ever seen was scored by Brora, a late equaliser at Edinburgh University in the cup a few years ago when a shot from just inside the halfway line hit the top corner of the net at some rate, what a screamer! The final part of this Northern tale seemed to beautifully fit into place soon after my trip to Orkney when the Scottish Cup draw was made! The final may be in late May next year at Hampden, but it all started on 11th August, and as luck would have it, the last “big” north team for my story had been drawn at home, Golspie Sutherland v Burntisland Shipyard. These two were “non non” league anomalies of the Scottish Cup, but Burntisland have upped their game, turning semi-professional less than a year ago in a bid to stay more competitive in the burgeoning East of Scotland set up. They won the Fife Cup at the end of last season for the first ever time, and are slowly losing the “joke” tag that horrendous cup thumpings of old bestowed on them. So, all in the name of journalism for a good piece for Football Weekends, I drove by my own teams stadium in Inverness on a day newly promoted Ayr were bringing their five wins on the trot start to the season to town, and out over the aforementioned Kessock Bridge headed to Sutherland once more. Golspie Sutherland are still an anomaly, playing in the North Caledonian League (they have won the title 9 times), with no promotion prospects, but they are a fully affiliated SFA member allowing them to participate in the Scottish as well as the North of Scotland Cup! This was my first ever game at the romantically named King George V ground (capacity 1,000), but I have driven by on numerous occasions, and even done that classic football fan thing, stopped and had a peek over the wall! The ground is visible from the A9 but you have to know where to look especially coming into town from south, but where the round dips down to the right, beyond a play park, the wall is visible but they have no floodlights. I had seen Golspie in Scottish Cup action before, an away tie versus Gala Fairydean before they added Rovers, but upon arriving in Galashiels I discovered the game was being played in Hawick further south as the pitch was being taken up to be replaced by an artificial surface. Golspie put up a brave fight, but lost 4.1. The repetition of scores rears its head again, with Golspie going down 4-1 to Burntisland in this Scottish Cup tie, the first time in four games I have seen The Shipyard win. A red card for the home side at 0-1 aided the “Shippy” as Burntisland are known, and they scored two more before the break. However, I cannot fault the conviction and effort of Golspie, and despite losing a fourth in the earlier part of the second half, they finished the stronger, and while they only managed one consolation goal, they could easily had one or two more. So having seen off one “anomaly” of the Scottish Cup participants, Burntisland head across to Ayrshire to play another in the shape of Girvan Amateurs, the only “Junior” side that get a shot at the Scottish Cup no matter their league position as they have retained their membership! For Golspie, they’ll have the competition of Orkney in the North Caledonian League this autumn, and judging on the matches I saw for this article, Orkney could very well retain the title, but then again I might just be bias! View the full article
  25. Click to view slideshow. When I suggested to FW’s Editor Jim a cross border raid to cover back to back Spartans games on either side of the English and Scottish divide at Christmas, it was purely on the basis of the similar name, and the idea that in their respective lands both are high profile non league sides famed for cup exploits in particular. I never imagined that both clubs would be involved in festive social media **** storms, and in one case literally! Now I have to confess I strode into the well presented Croft Park, Blyth (capacity 4,435) oblivious to a certain billboard around the field. Unusually for a stadium I found myself drawn to the advertising hoardings, and with camera in hand I found myself taking photos of a quote from the ancient King of Sparta, a local poet and another board confirming Blyth Spartans are a registered Pena, thereby affiliated with Real Betis in Sevilla by virtue of similar kits I guess! But the controversial new advert passed me by, “Visit North Korea”!! If only I had perused the programme with greater pre-match enthusiasm, but capturing images for FW was higher on my list of things to do! Subsequent photos of the advert seen online and scrutiny of my photos would suggest that in the second half, Spennymoor fans had flags draped over the “intriguing” advert. I never once caught anyone commenting on it either, granted the game was absorbing, but the only non related chat seemed to be fretting about Newcastle’s plight at Liverpool! The billboard has had enough mileage on the social media airwaves and press, so getting into its relevance I will leave for you to investigate. The Edinburgh Spartans club, although just purely known as The Spartans, is a much more straightforward tale, something I witnessed first hand in their pre-Christmas home match with Gretna. In the 70th minute or so a routine free kick to Gretna was delayed until a chap appeared a minute or so later with a shovel. Fox-gate was open, poo removed, the game re-commenced. It was a remarkable first for me, and given Gretna had warmed up in that half, as well as 70 minutes of football raging by it, are they tell us that the ball never once encountered it, or a players boot?! If the answer is yes, astonishing!! A Boxing Day trip down the A1 from Edinburgh to Blyth on a relatively balmy winter’s day was a fine outing. Oddly I had been in Blyth once before for football, an early kick off of a Northern League Second Division tie, Blyth Town v Bedlington Terriers, which to this day remains the lowest ranked football match I have ever watched! Town’s little ground is on the edge of Blyth, so on that occasion I hadn’t discovered Blyth beach as Gateshead v Halifax was the Easter weekend afternoon diet that day! Gosh, what an astonishingly long stretch of sand there is too! Blyth is by no means a seaside holiday town, but even on Boxing Day it was full of walkers and people enjoying the great outdoors. Croft Park has been home to Blyth Spartans for 110 years now and while it has been buffed up in the last decade or so, it has witnessed many a footballing upset as Blyth have long been one of the great FA Cup giant killers. Perhaps the best FA Cup run was back in ’77/78 where they beat Chesterfield at home, and Stoke City away at the Victoria Ground before holding Wrexham away and earning a replay. Had Wrexham not beaten Newcastle in the round before, it would have set up a North East derby, but as it was, the wave of enthusiasm for the replay saw the game moved to St James Park anyway, where nearly 42,000 saw Spartans narrowly lose to the Welsh side, who went on to play Arsenal in the next round. This magnificent cup run is forever captured on a detailed T-shirt available in the club shop! In 2008/09, having beaten Shrewsbury Town at home 3-2, they brought Bournemouth back to Blyth after a 0-0 draw on the south coast. This was Bournemouth of a different era, struggling in the fourth tier and they were beaten 1-0 at Croft Park, bringing a Premiership side to town for the first ever time in the shape of Blackburn Rovers. This time they played it at home, and only lost out 0-1, but they also missed out on another “potential” north east derby as Blackburn drew Sunderland in the next round! There most recent cup run of note was four years ago when they won away at nearby Hartlepool before drawing Birmingham at home. Another televised Croft Park classic ensued with the Brummies run out winners in a five goal thriller! This National League North encounter with Spennymoor Town was a “derby” but I guess Spenny’s main “local” rivals are Darlington who were playing York that day. There was no police and minimal stewarding, just as it should be. A cracking match was to ebb and flow one way, then the other. Oddly, and by quirks of bankruptcy only, Spartans have never beaten Spennymoor Town (once Spennymoor United) and this was the sixth game between the two. They trotted off at the end having that record still hanging around their necks as the game ended 2-2, but as one lad said on his way out “a cracking game for a neutral”, it had a bit of everything, and thoroughly entertained the 1,133 in the stadium. There is no railway station in Blyth, so if you are relying on public transport, a bus from Newcastle will drop you at the bus station near the Shopping Centre and it is merely a 10 minute walk to the ground with an array of pubs on your way! If you want to enjoy the beach pre or post match, stick to the waterline by the harbour and the beach will present itself. Upon arrival at Croft Park, it certainly is a cracking non league ground, with a great history and the Blyth Spartans badge, is it better than The Spartans one?, you decide! The Spartans FC are based in North Edinburgh, playing their games now at the relatively modern Ainslie Park Stadium (capacity 3,000, home since 2008), so named as the ground is on what once were the playing fields of a similarly named school that has long closed. The original setting up of The Spartans in 1951 was to provide a footballing outlet for ex-Edinburgh University students, who might have enjoyed playing for the Uni whilst studying, but once graduated they were disqualified from representing them. The club have gradually become more and more successful, having accumulated nine East of Scotland League titles, the first of which was in 1971/72 before joining the setting up of the new Lowland League, Scotland’s fifth tier jointly with the Highland League. They won that inaugural title of the new league in 2013/14, but that particular championship flag did not bring the promotion play off scenario that it now allows. That opportunity had to wait until the end of last season after winning the title on a tense last day, where an unexpected 0-0 draw with East Stirling might have seen The Spartans blow the title had it not been for Stirling University who shocked East Kilbride with a 2-0 win. Two games with Cove Rangers from the north ensued, but the second leg in Edinburgh was largely a non event as ambitious Cove had put four past them in the first game. However, local pride was restored with a narrow home win in the second leg. The Spartans have a fabulous youth system with kids teams, coaching etc as well as a very successful women’s team. In this day and age it is pleasing to see kids in North Edinburgh walking around wearing Spartans tops and not big clubs shirts that are sadly viewed everywhere. They also have an offer to Hearts and Hibs fans who can buy a Spartans season ticket for half price if they have a season ticket for either of them! Indeed, this 29th December tussle was moved to a 2pm ko to allow those going to Easter Road for the second Edinburgh derby of the day the opportunity to do both! It is the Scottish Cup exploits in recent years that have been a feature of this ambitious club. In 2003/04, The Spartans were still playing across the road from the clubs present home at City Park, a real steep banked grassy terraced place it was too! Buckie were put to the sword first 6-1, then Alloa 5-3 after a 3-3 away draw, before another league scalp was claimed in Arbroath 4-1 away! That brought Premier League outfit Livingston to City Park, which had a twist of irony involved as Livingston had been Meadowbank Thistle, and prior to that Ferranti Thistle, who played their home games at City Park until 1974! A near capacity 3,000 saw the West Lothian side run out 4-0 winners but not before The Spartans had given them a scare or two! A couple of seasons later they were at it again, with Berwick Rangers, Lossiemouth and Queens Park all despatched before St Mirren came to City Park and they were given a very uncomfortable ride in a 0-0 draw. The Paisley men won the replay 3-0 but St Mirren is a name that keeps cropping up in modern Spartans history, most recently a 2-2 draw in the League Cup groups at New Love Street at the start of this campaign. Three years later Pollok (Junior side), Annan and Elgin were all beaten before going out to Airdrie. The most recent cup run in 2014/15 saw Clyde and Morton beaten before a last 16 time at home with Berwick Rangers which ended in a draw, thanks to a last gasp Spartans equaliser! By the time of the replay it was known that the winners would be away to Hibs in the quarter finals, and I found myself down at Shielfield amid an extraordinary number of away fans, but alas, a 1-0 loss ended the dream of a quarter final berth and a money spinning derby! As it was, on derby day in Edinburgh on the last footballing Saturday of 2018, The Spartans were hosting North Edinburgh rivals Civil Service Strollers who have been celebrating 100 years as a club this season. Indeed, the day CSS hosted and beat East Kilbride, the publishers had produced a brochure for the centenary dinner that night but forgotten to print a programme! The Spartans have shipped too many points to be in the running to retain the title this term, and another two points walked away as the teams shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw in a game where the compact CSS hardly threatened the hosts goal, save for the “soft” penalty award that brought the equaliser. The Spartans had taken the lead inside the first minute, and have a reputation at home for late, late goals to win games but it wasn’t forthcoming despite some close squeaks. The No. 19 or 8 bus will bring you from Edinburgh city centre to nearby Ainslie Park Stadium which is on the other side of an old railway line, that is a walkway now from Morrison’s Supermarket which is more prominently positioned on Ferry Road. Pubs in the area are non existent, a hotel at Crewe Toll will sell you a meal and beer, or you can come along early grab a drink and something to eat up the stairs in The Spartans Club room behind the goal. Blyth Spartans and The Spartans have played an occasional friendly as you might expect, but when came we introduce a European round robin feel to it, with Sparta Rotterdam and Sparta Prague completing the line up!! View the full article