A former Soviet State of mind

Modern football is rubbish.  We’ve all heard that and at some point we have all bemoaned fixtures being moved by Sky, the rising cost of a bit of plastic to sit on and those football tourists who turn up at grounds and just take lots of pictures rather than watching the game (shocking).  But sometimes it is actually bloody great.

With our footballing authorities doing everything possible to ensure that every “big” country qualifies for major tournaments, the International Break now lasts for six days, every month.  Premier League clubs (and the fans) must hold their head in their hands, holding that the underpaid, over stressed footballers return safe and sound on their private jets from 20 minutes of exertion against Andorra or San Marino.  Of course, there are no such things as easy games in International football, and the qualifying games for France 2016 are taken very seriously indeed.  With 53 nations competing for just 23 places it means that countries have to win at least three games to get a playoff spot in all honestly.  And there were those who thought that it was tough when the tournament used to be just 8 teams!

But, with the new structure of qualifying games there was the opportunity for an ultimate road trip, if you are interested in that sort of thing.  Six games, potentially six different countries?  Sounds rubbish I know.  I mean who would fancy seeing Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Estonia, Norway and Denmark on consecutive days? Well me for a start.

Alas, this was one trip that I was never going to get official sign off for.  Despite being the most understanding wife in the world, even I could n’t swing that trip, especially as it was the Current Mrs Fuller’s birthday in the middle of the set of games.  But being the good lady that she is, we reached a compromise that would see me jet off to the Baltic’s before heading back in time for jelly and ice cream.  I was happy with that – after all I’d seen enough of Norway and Denmark in the past five years, yet never set foot in Lithuania or Latvia.  That’s enough to get anyone’s pulse racing.

15487437071_3f37759af7_oI’d heard good and bad about Vilnius and Riga.  The good – UNESCO Heritage Old Towns, cheap food and drink, the world’s best Christmas tree (Vilnius – as voted for by CNN); The bad – the gloomy weather, the stag and hen parties, the language; and the downright ugly – the Soviet-style architecture and the fact I had to fly with Wizzair, one of those airlines that lure you in with cheap prices and then want to charge you for wearing clothes or breathing their oxygen on board.

My plan quickly came together – afternoon flight to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania where I would take in the game against Estonia.  The following morning up before the dawn chorus and on a bus to Riga where Latvia would be taking on Iceland. Two new countries, two new grounds.  What could possibly go wrong?

One downside was that I wouldn’t see much of Vilnius, landing as the sun went down. It’s supposed to be a beautiful city but from touch down to departure on my executive bus it would be 11 hours of darkness. My taxi driver from the airport offered to show me the sights of the city on the way to the hotel.

“There is Ikea. Now we go to McDonalds and then a brothel” I managed to convince him that McDonalds, being opposite my hotel was actually a better alighting point.  “But no titty-titty?” He looked crest-fallen that I preferred a McFlurry to a “naked help-yourself buffet” but soon cheered up when I gave him a 10 Litu note as a tip (which incidentally had a picture of the Kemp twins on).

I’d struck lucky in picking a hotel not only because it was opposite a 24 hour fast food outlet but because it was a 5 minute walk to the LFF Stadium. Oh, and a bar offering 50 pence beers open until everyone had gone to bed, which as I learnt later, was about 6am.

15303880200_62d9376dea_oFootball isn’t exactly one of the most favourite past times in Lithuania.  According to my taxi driver guide watching domestic football ranked alongside ironing and stoning olives in terms of leisure activities.  Last season the SMSCredit.lv A Lyga, the top division in Lithuania had an average attendance last season of 744. It’s all about basketball on a Saturday and a Sunday, with the national team having won bronze at the Olympics three times out of the last six Summer Games and are currently ranked 4th in the World Rankings.  But come national team football team games, the fans come out in force which was evident as I walked up to the LFF Stadium with an hour to kick off.

In terms of current UEFA rankings, Lithuania are down in 41st place, alongside the likes of Albania, Moldova and Cyprus.  Drawn in a group with England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia and San Marino they would have targeted games such as the visit of Estonia as a “must-win” if they were to stand any chance of qualification.  A 2-0 win in San Marino in the opening game was all that could have been asked.  Now was the time for Igoris Pankratjevas’s team to step up to the mark and get one over on their Baltic rivals.

Lithuania 1 Estonia 0 – LFF Stadium – Thursday 9th October 2014
Good job the weather was a little bit kinder in Lithuania than back in London.  The LFF Stadium would be a brilliant place to sit back and top up your tan in the middle of Summer, but in mid-October where temperatures and rain can fall there is little shelter from any of the elements.  This stadium, which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Conference Premier, albeit a three-sided, 3G version.  Despite their apathy for the domestic game, the national team was a different story.  By the time the teams had lined up for a UEFA sponsored “Say No to Racism” PR photo, the ground was almost full.

15490233582_e118b063f6_oThis was a must-win game for Lithuania and that is exactly what they did.  The very impressive Bundesliga (two) winger Arvydas Novikovas was the stand out player, causing all sorts of problems for the Estonian defenders although it was his left-wing counterpart who set up the winner. for Mikoliunas to clinch the points with 14 minutes to go. Estonian keeper Pareiko spilled a shot from distance into the path of Matulevičius, but appeared to make up for the slip with an excellent smothering stop. However, the ball rebounded to the centre-forward who crossed for the substitute to nod in the winner.

With the game finishing a few minutes before England’s game with San Marino, Lithuania leaped to the top of Group E.  Was that the high point in Lithuanian football history I asked the coach in the press conference?  It appeared my question got lost in translation as his answer was “Our football may not have been beautiful but three points are the most important thing,” Thanks for that.

I headed back down the hill to the hotel.  Despite the Estonian fans with bulging wallets queuing for the bar, the hotel decided that a 12pm closure meant just that.  Boo.

5.30am was a cruel mistress on Friday morning but I had a bus to catch.  The Lux Express rolled into Vilnius bus station bang on time, looking like a tour bus used by rock giants such as REM, The Rolling Stones or Right Said Fred.  I’d paid a whopping €25 for my “executive” seat which turned out to be almost airplane Business Class quality.  Throw in free drinks, free Wi-Fi and free movies on demand and you couldn’t have spent a better four hours.  Well, perhaps if they had a few stewardesses wandering up and down selling….best stop there.

15493547971_954346c647_oThe landscape looking flat.  And gloomy.  It was fair to say that the highlights of the trip could be packaged on a Vine video.  The gloom gave way to rain as the coach eased into Riga.  First impressions weren’t good.  It looked like I had been transported back to 1970 Soviet Union.  Depressed looking people, huddled together around sparsely stocked market stools and old fashion trolleybuses rattling up and down the streets.

First impressions can be wrong.  A five minute walk from the confines of the bus and train station and the outstanding beauty of the Old Town (another UNESCO Heritage Site) revealed itself to me.  Wow.  I had “New York Neck” after 30 minutes, constantly looking up at the stunning architecture.  Lunch (£3.50) was a huge local dish of chicken and potatoes, washed down with a pint of Livu (35p).  After an afternoon snooze it was time for dinner – huge steak, pepper sauce and more beer (£8).  Good job the plan was to walk to the Skonto Riga stadium although a couple of bars along the way were too good to miss, for local aesthetic reasons.  I passed one of the Irish Bars in town.  With England playing next door in Tallinn in 24 hours, a number of England fans had descended on Riga and taken up residence in the Irish Bar, belting out almost note-perfect versions of Wonderwall and Park Life.

Latvia 0 Iceland 3 – Skonto Stadium – Friday 17th October 2014
It seems to be a common theme developing here of incomplete stadiums.  Whilst the stadium in Vilnius had three sides, Riga’s national stadium had 2 3/4.  At one end the present of a large sports hall had taken up part of the stand giving the stadium a strange unfinished look.  Latvia haven’t had the best of times since their appearance ten years ago in the European Championship in Portugal.  That team featured Marians Pahars and Aleksandrs Kolinko and impressed the watching world, coming away from the sunshine with a 0-0 draw with Germany.  A decade later and the dynamic duo were back together, although Pahars had swapped his magic boots from a snazzy black raincoat and was now the national coach.

15495449221_2632b88166_oAlas, Pahars couldn’t recreate the magic.  Iceland were head and shoulders above the home side, cheered on by a rowdy contingent as they scored three second half goals, including one apiece for Sigurosson (Swansea City) and Gunnarsson (Cardiff City) to give us some British interest.

The game wasn’t a classic but once again it was good to see the home fans had turned out in big numbers.  Over 6,000 home fans were in the Skonto Stadium, about 5,700 more than would normally be in here for a domestic league game.  Like their neighbours in Lithuania, football isn’t the biggest leisure activity.  Excluding tucking into the superb food and drink, Ice Hockey is the sport of choice here with crowds for domestic games often topping five figures.

I headed back to the Old Town for a nightcap.  Some of the quaint pavement cafes and bars had been replaced by megatropolis-style clubs, all touting their wares through women wearing nothing more than strategically placed flannels.  This was the Riga that I had read about not the one I had enjoyed earlier in the day.  I resisted the temptations on offer, with that small voice in my head reminding me I had to get up in four hours for my flight home.  See, sometimes I do listen to common sense!

Luton at most times of the day isn’t something to sing about, but after a nearly three-hour flight, squeezed in between Mr Sweaty and Miss Fidget I felt like getting down on my knees and kissing the tarmac.  Welcome home.  As the saying goes, the greatest journey starts with the smallest step. Two new countries ticked off the list, two decent cities that ticked all the EFW boxes.  Go, before it’s too late!

On an even Kiel

In the grand scheme of things it had been a pretty good weekend. Whilst the rain was lashing it down outside, we were happily snuggled up in , just round the corner from Hamburg’s Altona station.  Whilst thrill seekers had headed for the seedy delights on offer on Reeperbahn for centuries, or the lurid window displays of Herbertstrasse where literally anything can be bought, we had chosen to mingle with the locals.  Bar Botega, obviously a parody name as it couldn’t be any further away from being Spain both geographically or culturally, at 10pm on a Sunday night wasn’t exactly rocking when we arrived but by the time we left at midnight the locals were linking arms, swaying from side to side as Danny led them in a chorus of “No ney never”.  These were our new best friends.

14954398355_d46c482456_zWhy, I hear you think.  Why indeed.  Two words my learned friend. DFB Pokal. The magic of the German Cup. It does funny things in all parts of Germany as our last 36 hours would  attest to.  Life is all about experiencing something new and that was what this weekend was all about. So whilst we flew into Hamburg, the more refined European Capital of Sin, our destination was 100km north, close to the Danish border in Schlosweig-Holstein. The newest, trendiest, fashionable name on the European Football Weekends map, ladies and gentlemen, is Kiel.

Kiel doesn’t rate highly in many of the guide books about Europe, let alone one for the Danish borders region. Comments like “a gritty urban sprawl”, “when brochures flag up the first pedestrian street in Germany, you know tourist authorities are struggling” , “The city centre is unlovable but unavoidable” and finally, “It’s OK” you know the weekend isn’t going to be high on culture.  But who needs museums, architecture and theme parks when you have football, great company and a couple of beers? Kiel would be our new best friend.

Home to the German navy, it can boast a population of around 240,000, a Subway and two breweries.  That’ll do us.  Panama? Suez? Venice? Call those canals? Kiel, my friend is the standard-bearer in this area, boasting the world’s busiest man-made canal in the form of the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal.  Still not enough to convince you?  Then how about this. The German Cup had thrown up a tasty tie, pairing Regionalliga Nord Holstein Kiel against struggling Bundesliga 2 side 1860 Munich.  That was enough to have Stoffers leap into organisation mode and before you could say Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (a genuine word which would score you over 1.2 million points in Scrabble)  we had booked flights and hotels.  I have no idea how it happens; no sooner have I tentatively agreed to going on one of these trips than the confirmation emails start to appear in my inbox.  With my previous jaunt to Germany two weeks previous still fresh in the memory (and the liver) I had to stretch to a box of Milk Tray as well as the regular Petrol Station Flowers to appease the Current Mrs Fuller.  She knows the bond I have with the German Cup though so she did what every good wife does – made me a packed lunch for the train to the airport, told me to give her three rings when I landed and not to return with:-

a) a crap tattoo with another girl’s name on it
b) a communicable disease other than one that was related to beer; or
c) someone else’s pants (again)

She’s funny about those things.  She was of course heartened to learn that Danny and Kenny would also be coming but was suspicious when I threw in a fourth name alongside Stoffers.  We would be joined by Facebook’s own Ofer Prossner, making his debut on the annual German Cup EFW.  Ofer, Malta’s most famous Larry David look-a-like had been living close to Stoffers and Kenny in Berlin for the last few months and had grown so attached to Kenny’s free Wi-Fi that he couldn’t bear to part with it for the weekend.

The good news, Stoffers triumphed when the draw was made,  was because the game between Holstein Kiel and 1860 was being played on the Sunday, we would have time to grab a game as well on the Saturday.  Really? Do we have to? Sigh..ok then. This was supposed to be a weekend of long meetings, discussing the annual issues of the European Football Weekends company and high on the agenda were items such as “Is it really difficult to get tickets for the Sud Tribune at Dortmund?”, “How do I get to the Bernabau?” and “Where is the best place to sit in the Nou Camp?” Matters like these don’t just answer themselves on the Internet these days and as we took our duties as founders, administrators and general European football experts very seriously, so it was determined to convene our AGM on the train to and from Kiel.  With beer liberally added.

Stoffers was pacing nervously outside the arrivals gate at Hamburg airport when Danny and I arrived.  He is Mr German Efficiency 2011 after all.  He had a whole host of different plans for the day depending on the exact minute of our arrival.  Fortunately, all of his hard work was wasted as Plan A was invoked at 11.04am on the dot.  We would be going to the ball. A swift change of trains at the Central Station, a bag full of beers (when it Germany and all that) and a slice of pizza for breakfast later and we were in Ron’s 22.

14954064122_d9f81fbf1c_zJust forty-five north of Hamburg (so close that there is still some credibility in Ryanair referring to the airport here as “Hamburg”) lays the medieval city of Lübeck, birthplace of marzipan, home to the internationally acclaimed Museum of Theatre Puppets and once capital of the Hanseatic League (the forerunner of the Human League).  A perfect destination for a romantic weekend with the one you love.  In fact I had once brought the Current Mrs Fuller here to enjoy a cup of Glühwein, a nibble on a gingerbread man and a ride up the canal.  The city is full of old buildings, pavement cafes and ringed by waterways – a German Venice if you will (travel writers, please don’t steal that – think up your own original taglines!).  We wouldn’t see any of that though, with the railway station on the edge of the city centre and the Stadion an der Lohmühle even further out. After all, seen one canal, seen them all, right? Whereas football grounds, on the other hand…

VfB Lübeck 1 Goslarer SC 0 – Stadion an der Lohmühle – Saturday 16th August 2014
Two teams struggling for form, with a 100% beaten start to the season.  Never going to be a classic, right?  Absolutely.  It was hard to find one thing to write about in terms of the game itself.  The goal perhaps?  Maybe, although when Finn-Lasse Thomas’s shot hit the back of the net with eight minutes to go, Danny and I were on a bus on our way back to the pub.  Such was the disgust of our actions that Thomas was booked for angrily confronting Stoffers wanting to know where those “Englischers” had gone (that last bit may not be quite true).

14954415645_7158b69938_zHowever, let’s not do the club, the fans or even the stadium any disservice here. Admission was 6 Euro (SIX).  Cheaper than a bag of Emirates popcorn or a nodding bobblehead of David Gold.  For that we got to have a drink with the Ultras in their clubhouse (by mistake), stand with the Ultras on the terraces (another mistake) and enjoy a few beers (definitely no mistake).  The whole Ultras thing was a big mistake but hey, we’d all had a drink so let’s just move on.  Talking of moving on, we were on a tight Stoffers deadline to get a train to Kiel for our big Saturday night out.

We weren’t going to have a traditional Saturday night either.  Oh no. It seemed news of our impending arrival had spread like wildfire through the great and good of Kiel.  Now here was a first.  Someone who not only wanted to meet us, but to cook for us.  Obviously we have EFW groupies who send us saucy messages all the time, with promises of marriage and pots of cash in embargoed African bank accounts belonging to dead despots.  But this one was genuine.  An invite to dinner from Kiel’s most famous Football-loving Chef, Matthæus Arminius Kilius.  Who were we to argue? So after a quick change in our luxury apartment overlooking a tug boat pumping out the toilets of a cruise ship, we jumped into a complete stranger’s car and headed to the Kiel suburbs.

Matthæus loves his football, you couldn’t fail to notice that when you walked into his flat.  Football paraphernalia covered every surface.  His wife, Frauke, didn’t seem to mind sharing her bath with a plastic duck in the colours of every Bundesliga team, or laying on her Holstein Kiel bedspread. He’d cooked us a local dish with smoked bacon, green beans, potatoes and a big pear right in the middle.  German hospitality at its finest.  An hour later and we were sampling some of the delights of the gritty urban sprawl as the guide book had told us to expect.  Who needs baroque buildings when you have three different types of local Flensburger Pilsner.

Sunday morning and we were in the pub again at 11am.  Time for a Full German.  Like a Full English but with a beer it hit the spot perfectly.  The Palenka pub was a stopping off spot for the Kiel fans on their journey to the stadium so it would be rude not to join them, accompanied by a few German riot police to keep us company.

1860 Munich, had brought a few hundred fans and they were doing what German fans love to do on a Sunday lunchtime – standing on a petrol station forecourt drinking beer.  We were immediately singled out as being “foreign” because we were drinking Paderboner beer – the English equivalent of Fosters.  Does anyone really choose Fosters when given a choice of beers?  Really?  Same with Paderboner which made us look a little bit silly.  Then a chap walked passed with a pair of home-made trousers made out of old Kiel football shirts and immediately our street credibility rose.

Holstein Kiel 1 1860 Munich 2 – Holstein Stadion – Sunday 16th August 2014
We took our spot in the away end as the teams emerged.  The game had Pokal upset written all over it, with 1860 not enjoying the best of starts of season so far.  Two defeats in their first games had the fans hopping mad, so they hoped that a win against Liga 3 Holstein Kiel would give the squad a welcome boost before they returned to league action at Heidenheim in a week’s time.  The fans struck up their soundtrack for the afternoon, accompanied by drums and huge flags, all choreographed by a single chap with a megaphone sitting atop the perimeter fence.

For all of the hazards that standing on an open terrace with some hard-core fans brings, during the afternoon we saw the worst of the worst.  Someone had left a programme on the floor.  Not exactly a small, inconspicuous item, weighing in at A4 in size, yet we lost count with the number of people who stepped on it and slipped.  One chap took his humiliation, embarrassment and anger out on it by trying to kick it which led to him slipping again.  Of course we didn’t laugh. Much.

14820048790_7f2e2fa190_zWith just eight minutes on the clock, a great run to the byline saw the ball pulled back to Kiel’s Siedschlag who smashed the ball home.  Instead of groans on the away terrace we all just bounced up and down a bit and sang abusive songs about those bastards in Red (apparently).  1860 simply didn’t look like scoring until just after the hour mark when their Austrian forward Rubin Rafael Okotie equalised.  Ten minutes later and he put 1860 ahead, converting a penalty after he had been brought down from behind. Game over.

The final whistle brought some good-natured thigh slapping, the sound of flesh on Lederhosen filling the air.  A row of blonde female riot police kept the home fans back with minimal effort to let us grab the only taxi in the rank, quite literally, and we headed for the Kieler Braurei, the one tourist attraction that we all wanted to visit in our 24 hours in Kiel.  Craft beer is the home-brew of the 21st century but without having to use your best jumper to keep the beer warm in the airing cupboard.  The brew house was certainly worth the wait and we had soon sampled our way through most of the menu.  Alas, we had a train to catch so we grabbed a takeaway and headed for the station.

15006114692_83aa8797de_zIn the grand scheme of things it had been a pretty good weekend. Whilst the rain was lashing it down outside the bar back in Hamburg, we were happily snuggled up inside.  Whilst thrill seekers had headed for the seedy delights on offer on Reeperbahn for centuries, or the lurid window displays of Herbertstrasse where literally anything can be bought, we had chosen to mingle with the locals.  Bar Bodega at 10pm on a Sunday night wasn’t exactly rocking when we arrived but by the time we left the locals were linking arms, swaying from side to side as Danny led them in a chorus of “No ney never”.  These were our new best friends.

After an emotional farewell at Altona, we headed to the airport where our beds for the night awaited.  By night I obviously mean 4 hours which Danny spent sleeping in his shoes, “just in case there was a fire” Of course at 5am on Monday morning he couldn’t remember any of the events from the night before, the sign of a great night.

Until next season Germany.  Be good, don’t go changing.

The Djurgarden of Eden

Just over a year ago I was lucky enough to attend one of the final football matches played in the Olympia Stadion in Stockholm.  In normal circumstances, clubs move elsewhere because they have outgrown their grounds and they can gain greater financial rewards by moving to the out-of-town, identikit stadiums.  In the case of the Olympia Stadion, and its then tenants, Djurgården IF, it was a case of them being told they could no longer play games there.  The iconic stadium is a legacy of a past era of watching football, with wooden benches, poor sight lines and a creaking infrastructure and the Swedish FA, after giving them a few stays of execution, finally told them that 2013 would be their final season in the ground.

8900669783_0e4f02f888_zFast forward twelve months and the Järnkaminerna are now firmly at home, with their slippered feet well under the table at the Tele2 Arena in the Johanneshov area of the city.  Average attendances have gone from just below 9,000 in the last decade to over 15,000 in the first year, with over 25,000 for the explosive derby matches against AIK.  As you would expect from a brand spanking new arena, with thousands of shiny metal plates attached to the outside and a sliding roof that moves with the action of a CD player at Tandy’s (Partridge gag).  Transport links are excellent, with a number of train stations around the ground – who would have thought of that when building a stadium eh!

After numerous troubles on and off the pitch in recent years the club is at last able to look up.  Coming into this game, nearly at the half way point in the season, they seventh, one point and one place behind the visitors, BK Häcken.  A little run of form now and they could be putting pressure on city rivals AIK who sat in second place, jut six points away.

10837676685_f17af0b580_zWork done for another day I took my place in the new arena which looked relatively similar inside to the stadiums in Cardiff and Düsseldorf.  Three things were lacking for me. One was a beer (Swedes and their crazy alcohol rules for you), two was any flares from the home fans – especially as I had seen their displays in the past at the good-old Råsunda and last year in the game at the Stockholms Stadion and finally was any away fans.  In fact there were 8 of them, with a flag between them, perched in the upper tier.  Whilst it is a fair way from Göteborg, it wasn’t a school night.  Still, at least there was probably room on the team bus for them to get a lift back home.

Djurgården IF BK Häcken – Tele2 Arena – Monday 21st July 2014
After collecting my media pass I followed signs to the press seats which takes you up a tunnel and onto the edge of the 3G pitch which was enjoying a liberal watering.  With ten minutes to kick off the DIF fans were in full voice and it was tempting just to stand there and get a close up of their pre-match display.  Alas, a friendly steward pointed out to me that I was likely to have things thrown at me if I did so I took refuse up in the stands.

14730122413_5f5d42bebb_zTen minutes on the clock and with their first attack the visitors forced a corner.  The ball bobbled around the 3G pitch before Carlos Strandberg häckened (too good an opportunity to miss) it home from close range. The DIF fans behind the goal didn’t miss a beat, simply turning up the volume a notch, launching into the Swedish version of “Build a bonfire” (well, the same tune at least), bouncing choruses between the Ultras behind the goal and a section standing under a banner that said Östermalms Gentlemannaklubb, which Google translate told me was not family friendly nor was it open for breakfast.

Twenty minutes later and another mix up led to Martin Ericsson being allowed to sneak behind the defence (as they were all positioned to look the other way – fact from my scouting course) and he side-footed into the corner of the net.  Two-nil and for a full thirty seconds the stadium was silent.  The truth was that the visitors had only had two forays into the DIF area and scored on both occasions, whilst at the other end the Häcken keeper, Källqvist had to be on his toes to keep out chances from Jawo, Radetinac and Tibbing. The noise slowly built again and the whole stadium rose in unison, with a symphony of “ooohs” as Stefan Karlsson’s rocket was tipped the bar.  It looked like being one of those nights for the home side.

As you would expect, DIF came out fired up for the second half and created a number of chances in the opening fifteen minutes.  But try as they might, and willed on by a wall of noise they simply couldn’t break down the stubborn Häcken defence.  It’s also fair to say that the half-time substitute Prijovic had an absolute stinker, somehow managing to connect with every part of his body bar his head or foot when in a dangerous position.

14709960342_461a2c57ee_zFinally in the 74th minute they got their slice of luck.  Martin Broberg beat the offside trap and with only the keeper to beat managed to slice his lob sideways into the path of Fejzullahu who walked the ball into an empty net.  What effect would that goal have on the team? In short very little.  They took the tactic of trying to stretch the visitors, looking to get in behind them and to the by-line but the pace of the artificial surface often took the overlapping runners by surprise.

So in the end it was a missed opportunity to gain some ground on those above, whilst the visitors closed the gap themselves with AIK to just 2 points.  However, there is more to football than just a result and it had been an entertaining game, in a very impressive new stadium.  With a loyal fanbase that oozes passion and now a brand new home it can’t be too long before DIF will be challenging for the major honours again.

 

 

New kids on the Rock

Three weeks ago the European footballing world officially welcomed its 54th member when Gibraltar were included in the draw for the 2016 European Championship qualifying.  Their journey for acceptance on the world footballing stage has been a tortuous one, filled with inconsistencies and back-stabbing that has dogged the governing bodies for years.  Despite not being “at war” or even military-ready against any other nation, it has taken longer for Gibraltar to be allowed to compete than the former Balkan states, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Russia and Georgia or even Greece and Turkey.  And that has been because one nation has disputed their authenticity to be considered an equal member.  One against fifty-two other nations – no brainer? Well, it would be in most circumstances but when that nation is the most successful footballing country of the last fifty years then the rules change.

13173336393_571287081d_bFormed in 1895 by British sailors, The Football Association of Gibraltar first applied to FIFA back in 1997 and despite not actually having a stadium capable of hosting an international game the Swiss big cheeses said a big Yes in 1999 and passed the manilla folder down the road to Nyon to UEFA.  Immediately Spain started to throw their castanets out of the pram.  Whilst the rest of Europe was moving to closer, forgiving not forgetting the conflicts of the past, Spain were creating a problem over a 2.3 square mile rock that they hadn’t owned for over 300 years ago.  It seemed that their lobbying worked as in 2001 UEFA changed its statutes so that only associations in a country “recognised by the United Nations as an independent State” could become members. On such grounds, UEFA denied the Gibraltar’s application.  Of course that ruling should have meant the immediate expulsion of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales but that never happened.  Whilst the rest of Europe started qualifying for the 2004 European Championships hosted by Portugal, Gibraltar consoled themselves with a trip to Guernsey to take part in the Island Games Tournament.

There was still a hope that FIFA would allow them to take part in qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.  Other British Overseas Territories such as Bermuda, British Virgin Islands and Anguilla were allowed to line up in the qualifying tournament but the invite to Gibraltar got lost in the post it seemed.  Instead of a shot at a trip to Bavaria to enjoy a month of football, Fräuleins and frikadellen, Gibraltar headed to the Shetland Islands for another shot at the Island Games title.

Hopes were raised in 2007 when UEFA agreed that a vote would take place at its annual Congress.  Unfortunately 45 members voted against allowing them in, with only England, Scotland and Wales saying yes, although they did allow Montenegro in.  It took another six years for opinions to change in UEFA thanks to significant lobbying by Gibraltar, and to an extent by the English FA, the 2013 Congress vote saw Gibraltar finally accepted into the footballing family with just Spain (no surprise there) and Belarus (who thought they were voting whether to have a vegetarian option for dinner) voting against.

13149428424_94b745e419_b (1)When the draw for their first major competition was made, it was with some irony that they were initially put in the same qualifying group as Spain.  Oh how we all laughed until someone with a clipboard made a cutting sign across their throats and the Gibraltar ball miraculously popped into a Group headed by Germany and including Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Poland and Georgia.  The pub and bar owners on the Rock all let out a huge groan when the draw was made, knowing they will miss out on the Celtic-Nation tourist pounds and Euros as all of Gibraltar’s home games will be played some 250 miles away in Faro, Portugal as the current Victoria Stadium on the Rock is not deemed capable of hosting international games.  The good news is that plans are underway to build a new stadium at Europa Point, literally on the end of Europe.  However they have to first evict the cricket club who play on the sandy pitch.

Gibraltar has a population of just 30,000, about the same size as Lewes and Peacehaven put together.  That makes supporting a football league quite difficult, but that is part of the entry criteria for UEFA.  But this year it has stepped up a notch with the winners of the Premier Division getting a place in the Champions League, well at least the extra preliminary forgotten round of qualifying where they will probably play the winner of the Andorran Lliga de Primera.  Unfortunately, it does seem that that Gibraltar is suffering from “Scottish Syndrome” whereby one team simply wins almost every game and the league is done and dusted by Easter.  That team is Lincoln Red Imps FC, winners of thirteen of the last fourteen Premier Division titles. Oh, and this year’s League Cup where they beat “Manchester United” three weeks ago.

I have no idea what the association is with the Red Imps of Lincoln City, although for a period in the last decade they decided to rename themselves as Newcastle United, as you do.  Manchester United, on the other hand, can lay claim to currently be the most successful team of that name in the world.  League Cup runners-up, still in the “Rock” Cup and third in the league.  The club was given permission by the then United manager Matt Busby back in 1962 and they have kept it ever since.

Six other teams make up the division meaning that qualification for Europe, with a spot in the Champions League and Europa League is possible for all of the sides.  All except one it seems.  With just over half of the season completed one side sit all alone at the bottom of the league with a 100% loss record.  Gibraltar Phoenix were promoted two seasons ago but are almost nailed on certainties to go back to where they have come from at the end of the season.  In their last two games they had the displeasure to face Lincoln.  The good news is that they did manage to score a goal, increasing their goals for tally this season by an impressive 33%.  Unfortunately they managed to ship in a total of thirty-two goals at the other end.

13185559793_eecafa4ee5_bWhen I left London at 10.45am it was 17 degrees and sunny.  When I landed some 150 minutes later in Gibraltar I was met with drizzle.  That certainly wasn’t in the plan for the weekend.  Of course it would be a beautiful evening I thought as I ditched any type of jumper/coat before leaving the house this morning.

Are the above facts a good enough reason to explain why I was sitting in the Victoria Stadium waiting for the first game of the weekend’s Premier Division to start?  Of course it was.  It does help I have a good friend who lives and works on the Rock so he was acting as my driver, cook, butler and tour guide for the weekend.  He had picked me up from the airport, given me the 30 minute guided tour, including a visit to Europa Point, Gibraltar’s only MOT garage and told me the stories about the Apes visiting Burger King.  What more do you need to know?

The co-owner (founder, Chairman and centre-back) for the “home” side (in theory they are all home sides with the stadium hosting 7 domestic games this weekend) Garry Lowe had given me the low-down on his team and domestic football in general.  Phoenix were only formed by Lowe two years ago and last season won promotion.  But as soon as they reached the top league they saw their better players poached by the bigger sides who could afford to pay players.  With such a small pool of commercial opportunities it is a constant fight to attract the funds that will enable them to compete and potentially grab one of those European slots.

Gibraltar Phoenix 0 College Europa 11 – Victoria Stadium – Friday 14th March 2014
A Friday night after work in Gibraltar is no different to that from other cities around the work.  Workers head to the bright lights for some well deserved rest and relaxation, the exception being here was that the sun was now shining.  We took a few steps from Andy’s office and found a seat in a restaurant with the water of the marina at our feet.  It would have been rude to rush our dinner for the sake of football so we took our time which proved to be a wise decision as a floodlight issue (and not the fact that the referee had been detained at the border as we were originally told) had delayed the start until 8.20pm.

13155357305_39ce63ea18_bWe arrived just as the game kicked off, wandering into the almost deserted Victoria Stadium freely (as with many other things on the Rock, if you are a resident, you get in for nothing) and saw College hit the bar with their first attack.  Five minutes later they did it again, and were then denied by a fantastic save from Phoenix keeper Tito Podeta.  In fact the keeper kept the home side in the game single-handedly with College only scoring once in the opening quarter despite peppering the goal with shots.  It couldn’t last and it didn’t.  2-0 (23 mins), 3-0 (24 mins), 4-0 (29 mins), 5-0 (37 mins) and then 6-0 (44 mins).  The home side actually took to seeing who could give away the best penalty with two conceded and at least two others that should have been awarded.  However, all through the half the home side never gave up trying, especially our new hero Tito who was having a blinder.

Whilst the home team sat in the dressing room wishing away the next 45 minutes, we headed down to the Wanderers bar for a swift pint.  We wondered how many of them would want to swap places with us at that moment?  Come to think of it, both Andy and I would have fancied a run out in the second half.  Perhaps it would be a Liverpool v AC Milan style inspirational team talk or even an Al Pacino speech in Any Given Sunday?  Alas it appeared it was neither as number seven was added within a minute of the restart.

13155620654_9fbc1e986b_bSeven became eight and then nine, although there was an element of greed starting to creep in from the College players who frequently elected to take the ball themselves when their five man attack (everyone wanted a slice of the action) broke. An injury to one of the Phoenix players gave them a chance to have a breather (and in one case a quick puff on an inhaler).  Alas, our hopes that all Gibraltan football physios came from the same mould as Chelsea’s Eva Carneiro (the territory’s most famous woman apparently) were dashed when a chap with a scouse accent wearing three-quarter length trousers ambled on.  Gibraltar brought on a sub, choosing to take off one of the most athletic players in their side and replacing him with someone who was wearing gloves.  Within a few minutes he had given the ball away and it was ten.

Somehow, somewhere along the way we appeared to have missed a goal.  The final score was recorded as 11-0 with Tostao scoring 5, Toncheff 3, Montovio 2 and Bakkari completing the rout for College Europe.  Gibraltar Phoenix will be counting down the weeks until the season ends and they can start the rebuilding process once again.

Saturday dawned with bright sunshine along Main Street, illuminating the tourists from the cruise ships docked in the marina filling up on cheap tobacco, cheap food and marvelling at the fact that there was a Marks & Spencers, BHS and WH Smiths there.  But halfway up the tourist drag was a sports shop.  In its windows it displayed a Manchester United and a Barcelona shirt. But displayed in-between was a red Gibraltar home shirt.  If ever there was a sign that there was hope for football on the Rock then this was it.

Messi back to prove a point

Faced with another weekend of rain and cancellations, the Daggers Diary team headed to the Costa del Messi to do a scouting report on Manchester City’s next opponents.

In November 2012, Dagenham Dan, Neil and I were on our way back from a trip to Borussia Moenchengladbach, when the subject of Dan’s impending marriage to Aimee came up. Having wondered aloud about whether we would be able to continue our trips abroad for football, we had an idea as we made our way back to the hotel.

1655894_10153812848150223_1876244631_nFast forward to the wedding last July, and Neil is making his best man speech at the aforementioned wedding. About half way through, Neil produces a copy of the contract written up in the back of the car from that Germany trip, which allows Dan to continue his trips abroad with certain conditions. One of these is that Aimee will continue to come along with us on a Barcelona trip at least once a season, but will have unfettered access to Dan’s credit card for the duration of the weekend. So, in front of all of the assembled guests, Aimee signed the contract, and so it is with this in mind, that we find ourselves here in Barcelona for the weekend.

It has been an interesting few weeks for Barca. There has been the announcement of the stadium redevelopment, in favour over a move to a new stadium; we’ve had the resignation of club president Sandro Rosell, over the Neymar transfer from last summer, as well as a home defeat by Valencia, and Dani Alves criticising fans for staying away from the home leg of the cup semi final against Real Sociedad, which to be fair did start at 10pm on a Wednesday night. Given that the game was also on local television, it’s probably why many stayed away, although an attendance of nearly forty thousand still wasn’t that bad.

Throughout the week leading up to this trip, the weather dominated the news programmes. Whether it be the flooding in Somerset, or the Thames lapping up against the western suburbs of London, it was the seemingly endless wind and rain that dominated the bulletins.

As our flight approached, it was the gale force winds that concerned me. A quick glance at the easy jet website on Saturday morning noted that they were not expecting any delays from Southend, although Bristol was affected. The sound of the wind howling around on the Friday night meant a rough nights sleep, which coupled with the early start, wasn’t the best way to start a weekend away.

I am lucky enough to be a frequent flyer. Ok, so I don’t have my own security lane yet, but I consider myself fortunate to be able to do these trips. I don’t enjoy flying though, and it is a means to an end. Without the ability to afford the flights to exotic locations, I would be limited in my football journeys to those reachable by train.

Having met Dan and Aimee at Chafford Hundred, we made our way to Southend Airport. Being early, we were the only ones in the departure lounge for a few minutes, meaning that there was no queue in the cafe. We had a whole two hours to wait until our flight, meaning that we could at least relax before jetting off to Spain.

Unfortunately, that two hours soon became three, as our plane was delayed on the inbound journey. This meant that we had to sit and watch as flights for Dublin and Geneva left before us, leaving those bound for Catalonia waiting for our plane to arrive.

An hour later than scheduled, we are finally taking off, although it is very bumpy as we ascend through the clouds. As we hurtle down the runway, the plane is wobbling from side to side, and while it’s probably nothing, it doesn’t help my nerves, and I am grateful that I haven’t left any marks in the arm rests, having gripped them that hard.

Once over France, the flight becomes a bit smoother, and while Dan is making all kinds of noises with his driving game in the iPad, I start to feel hungry as the cheese toasters ordered by our fellow passengers are bought around.

Saturday 15th February 2014, FC Barcelona v Rayo Vallecano, Camp Nou
The ticket offices around the stadium are still offering tickets for the game, leading to a bit of speculation on our part that this might not be a particularly good gate. As it turns out, there are over seventy-four thousand in the stadium, although this isn’t visible from our seats.

1922501_10153812848520223_1294933795_nWe are seated in the back rows of the lower tier, making a nice change from our usual vantage point of behind one of the goals. It’s handy, as we are in a perfect line to see the first goal, which arrives in the first ninety seconds, courtesy of Adriano. It is the first shot on goal of the night, and won’t be the last; he is able to venture in from the right hand side, and curl a low shot inside the far post to start the rout.

To be fair to Vallecano, they continue to press despite the early goal, and are making life hard for the home team. It is also interesting to see Victor Valdes kicking the ball long so much; I doubt I have seen it hit long so often.

When we visited in November, I reckoned that the player that they missed most was Xavi, and for a while it appears to be the same thing tonight. The cohesion isn’t quite there in the first half, although Barca are able to double their lead, thanks to Lionel Messi getting his first of the night; Fabregas is able to thread the ball through to an on rushing Messi, who lifts the ball over the advancing keeper.

While Barca seemed to have controlled the first half, I opine that Manchester City will win, if they continue to play as they have in the first half. Sure, the score line of 2-0 would have seemed to guarantee the points, Vallecano have not threatened too much, despite their hard work.

The coach has clearly had words with his team, is the game is put of sight by the mid way point of he second half. First up is Alexis Sanchez, then closely followed by Pedro before Messi nets his second of the night, and the teams fifth. These three all arrive within fifteen minutes of each other, and Vallecano are now just chasing shadows. While on the first half they were making limited progress with their game plan, now it is shot to bits and they are getting nowhere near the home team. So much has the game changed that Gerard Pique is venturing forward when he can, clearly desperate to get on the scoresheet. This leaves Barca with only two at the back at times, but Vallecano are very limited in their attacking chances and it barely matters.

1601372_10153812849310223_120167431_nWe have been to enough of these games to know that Barca generally declare on five, and having reached that by seventy minutes, we are starting to expect that the same will happen here. There is more chanting this time than on previous occasions, but then again, we also have a “Mexican Wave” go round, which is not so good, especially as it seems to go past us just when the home team are on the attack again. Luckily for us, Neymar is introduced, and while Messi will be denied his hat-trick (much to Aimee’s disappointment), they do add another one, and the substitute is the scorer with an excellent shot into the top corner of the net. After a bright beginning, Vallecano have been totally blown away, and have been lucky that they have only let in six.

For a while, it looked like the Barca of old; chasing down, trying to win the ball back within six seconds and all that. While they scored six tonight, they hit the woodwork at least twice, and went close on several other occasions. As we leave the ground, our feeling is that they should have had double figures.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that, as the Manchester City tie approaches, that this might be the year that the hopes of winning the champions league end early. While I think that the attacking side of the team may be getting back on track following injuries, it is the defensive side that bothers me. Against some of the more limited attacks in the league, they will clearly be ok, but it against a team like City, with over one hundred goals and counting this season, that the problems will be exposed. As a Barca fan, I hope I am wrong, but the local reaction to the draw was not positive, and I have to agree with that pessimism. However, a team doesn’t win trophies without having some ability, and I hope that it is Barca, and not City going into the draw for the next round.

In Flanders fields the flare smoke blows

11179742773_79c4a65478_bYou can never do enough research or planning for these trips.  To maximise the short amount of time you have to sort out logistics before you depart.  Fortunately Danny and I are good at this stuff.  Very good in fact.  Unfortunately, ending up at 3am in a night club in a very strange French town and consequently sleep through three alarm calls ruins all of the homework. Welcome to day two of our European Football Weekend.

We, which of course means I, had a short drive across the border into Belgium today for what promised to be some spicy football.  Game one was a relative local battle of pride in the centre of Belgium.  Aalst, home of the textile industry, isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of Belgian football.  In fact it is a relative cool bed of most things, but we had been promised the best day ever so who was we to say no?

Confession time.  I’ve only ever had two kebabs in my life.  Once, back in 1989 and then again I had a moment of weakness in Cardiff after the 2006 FA Cup Final.  But with just 10 minutes at Gent St Peters station between trains, and no food, our only option was a kebab shop.  So we indulged, and I have to say, on a Sunday morning, it was wonderful.  I can now understand what all of the fuss is about. Sorry Current Mrs Fuller, a moment’s weakness.

Aalst certainly wasn’t rocking when we arrived at midday.  Perhaps it was the fear of the invading Royal Antwerp fans or the fact that time stands still in Belgium on a Sunday.  We were due to meet Yves, “Mr Fix It” at Eendracht Aalst.  With Antwerp being the visitors, this game had been designated as a “Combi” game (or a “Bubble” game in English speak), so tickets for three visitors from England would be difficult to get hold of.  Danny reached out for help via the Aalst forum and the answer was clear “Ask Yves”.  So he did, and three tickets were procured.  All we had to do was meet with Yves.

11179668336_d68068ee40_bOur chosen meeting point was, of course, a bar.  One of the Aalst fans bar.  In walked a chap with a big camera and a bigger moustache.  Judging by the back-slaps, high fives and kisses on each cheek this was our man.  Yves was a legend.  He gave us our staples for life – tickets to the football and a beer.  What more could we ask for?  Well how about a private audience with the Aalst mascot, a massive walking Onion?

Five minutes later we were ushered into a private room in the stadium.  In front of us was the half man/half onion outfit. The TV cameras were due to record a special programme on the chap who would be slipping on the famous outfit, having been doing the job for decades.  On the floor were the special onion shoes.  Opportunities to slip into the shoes of someone famous rarely come along and so Danny tried to put one on.  Alas, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters, he couldn’t get his foot in.  But it was a different story for me and I would be marrying the prince.  That was until the “prince” walked in and we made a hasty retreat.

Time to watch some football.  The Royal Antwerp fans didn’t seem to be too happy with their accommodation and started throwing everything they could get their hands on.  For far too many years they had been languishing in the second division and the fans were growing weary of seeing smaller teams gaining promotion.  They now had Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in the hotseat but he hadn’t exactly set the division alight.  But perhaps this game would kick-start their season?

Eendracht Aalst 1 Royal Antwerp 0 – Sunday 1st December 2013 – Pierre Cornelisstadion
At the full-time whistle the home fans surged to the front of the perimeter barriers and joined in a spontaneous Zorba’s dance with the Aalst players.  After a decent first half, they had faded towards the end of the game and hung on for all three points. The single goal, scored by Andy Carroll look-alike Glouftsis was the difference between the two teams although it was the home keeper, Verhoeven who was the busier of the two.

11179600085_847ed533a2_bAalst took to the field with 11 Belgians in their starting line-up and came out of the blocks like a train.  Glouftsis had the ball in the net after a few minutes, heading in unchallenged after the ball had rebounded off the advertising boards behind the goal.  Apparently, the rule about playing off the boards still hasn’t been introduced by FIFA so the goal was ruled out.  Fortunately the pony-tailed striker didn’t have to wait long before his goal, taking the ball on his knee, swivelling and shooting in one flowing move.

At the heart of Antwerp’s midfield was a certain J. Bostock.  Six years ago Bostock made his debut for Crystal Palace at the age of 15 years old.  A year later, after just four appearances for Palace,  he was a Spurs player, after a heated legal row on his ownership.  Six years later the “wonder-kid” he has played just sixty games in his career.  In the summer Spurs released him, once again underlining the way in which promising youngsters are often simply warehoused by the top clubs.  Royal Antwerp have taken a chance on him and here he was in all of his glory.

The atmosphere created by just 3,500 was certainly impressive.  The away fans sent over a few flares, and the home fans retorted with a few songs about the parentage of the away fans.  But who was we to care.  We were in the middle of the biggest conga since Zorba the Greek.

K.V Kortrijk 1 Zulte Waregem 1 – Sunday 1st December 2013 – Guldensporonstadion
11179784356_32d5ba7885_b
On the way to Aalst we’d passed through Waregem on the train.  Damon had been here in May and suggested that is was a sleepy little place, akin to “Hereford” and that he didn’t think there would be much of an atmosphere for our final game of the weekend.  “About 4 or 5,000 I reckon” he told us.  So when our train pulled into Kortrijk station some 2 hour before kick off, we had to pinch ourselves at the scene unfolding in front of us.

Thousands of fans, dressed in red and white were preparing to march to the stadium.  And by preparing I mean firing flares into the air, throwing fire-crackers on the floor and twirling their scarves like there was no tomorrow. It was the best night ever.  Danny and Damon aren’t easily bought but put them a beer in one hand and the chance of a flare in the other than they are anyones.  As the sensible one in the group I went and got the car and drove it to the Guldensporonstadion and waited patiently for their three rings to say they had safely arrived.

11179715195_5ebaa87f80_bThe atmosphere in the ground was outstanding, with a couple of thousand home fans crammed into the big terrace behind the goal.  Think Ashton Gate mixed with Griffin Park and then you have the Guldensporonstadion.  Around six hundred away fans were crammed into a side stand and were drowned out by the fireworks and song after song (“We all agree, Waregem fans are Wankers” was a firm favourite).

The away keeper, Bossut, was welcomed at the home end with a shower of potatoes.  Not once did he bat an eyelid though.  Three minutes into the game and he needed to be on the top of his game as he faced a penalty from Santini, making a great save to silence the home fans. But it wasn’t long before they did take the lead when De Smet scored after some smart close control in the area and unsurprisingly the fans went mental.

11179720385_46a9ea672c_bThere wasn’t a moment in the game when we weren’t jumping up and down, linking arms and Poznaning across the terraces or swirling our scarves around our head.  Occasionally we watched some of the game, with the home side being reduced to ten men after a second yellow for De Smet.  Deep down we wanted to see what would happen if the Zulte scored at our end, and sure enough with just two minutes to go Habibou slotted home and cups of beers showered down from all sides.  A draw was the least the away side deserved based on possession and chances.  Once again they are fighting at the top of the table and are still in the Europa League.

It was time for us to come home.  For Damon and Danny it was a chance of a snooze, but for me it was a trip on the concentration highway.  It had been a long, tiring trip but one that had ultimately been more rewarding than a trip to Marseilles.  Even the UK border guard who questioned us about our trip agreed.  Rome, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Stockholm and Belgrade – The best derbies in Europe for atmosphere by far. Add to that list Kortrijk.

Lille bit of Red in Valenciennes

“You are going where?” That is the usual response I get from The Current Mrs Fuller when I float the idea of a weekend watching football somewhere. Of course I always offer that she can come with me but surprisingly she always declines. Normally I blame the trips on Danny but this one was all down to French Television. F’ing Pay TV.

11179596644_5234b2ac93_bDespite having been to well over two hundred different grounds in Europe between us (probably – we don’t actually keep a record), and well over half of the current La Liga grounds, there has been one large gap in the list. Olympique Marseille, the Great OM. But we had a cunning plan to put that right. Our annual pre-Christmas trip this year was to be to the Mediterranean to watch Olympique take on Montpellier in the battle of the Cote D’Azur. Logistics were straight forward with tickets procured in the perfect spot to see the Ultras. After all, we weren’t really going to watch the football, were we?

And then it went wrong. Horribly wrong. Those underpaid, overworked, stressed French footballers announced they were going on strike in protest about the amount of tax they had to pay. They would be barricading the golf course/luxury car show rooms and country clubs with their camouflage Lamborghini until their demands were met. Our trip looked as if it would constitute one CFA2 game (think county league but with less dogs wearing scarves), lots of beer and buckets full of Bouillabaisse. And I hate fish stew.

Two weeks ago somewhere in their collective brains, the French footballers realised it wasn’t all about them, them, them. Someone told them about the fans, who week-in, week-out paid silly sums of money to watch them sweat for a few minutes and they decreed to cancel their planned action. We were back on! France was the best country in the world.

We were set, with just one small obstacle to get over. The French FA published their fixtures for the weekend and Marseille had been moved to Friday night. Around 12 hours AFTER we were due to arrive. Despite a Tuesday night Champions League game, the French FA thought this would be a great Friday night treat for everyone…apart Danny and me. We were screwed. Tickets, hotels, flights were all non-refundable. Thanks everyone. France was the worst country in the world.

Better men would have simply put it down to experience and given up, choosing on stand on the Jungle watching Lewes v Thamesmead Town when we should have been on the Virage Sud in Marseille. But that’s not we do. So within 24 hours Plan B was signed, sealed and delivered in triplicate to our respective wives. And for added value, Damon T, the brawn behind the Real FA Cup website agreed to come and hold our hands.

Not one, or even two but three (THREE) new grounds in one 24 hour shift across national borders including a couple of local derbies and it was a perfect substitute. OM’s loss would be Valenciennes, Aalst’s and Kortrijk’s gain. The only downside was the fact that we would have to drive there. And of course by we, I mean me. I seem to be in the minority within the footballing blogging/writing community in the fact that I can drive. I’m still positive it’s some kind of conspiracy against me.

11179517845_8758808416_bFast forward to 5pm on Saturday and we are prepared for a big night out in Valenciennes. When people asked me where I was going and I said “Valenciennes” the immediate response is of course “Valencia? Spain?” That’s right, I’m driving to Spain. A three-minute history lesson later and they are none the wiser and the topic changes to the weather. But Valenciennes is a real, trust me. From our motel room we could see all the sights of the city – industrial units as far as the eye could see. After a thirty minute wait in the closed motel bar a taxi finally arrived and was soon stuck in a traffic jam that seemed to stretch to Paris.

Finally we made it through the Saturday evening traffic and we arrived at Stade du Hainaut. We still had enough time for some Leffe Ruby and a big bag of chips with Hannibal sauce (Hannibal and his elephants obviously created Coronation sauce). Two of the three vital elements of an EFW sated, it was time to sample some the third – Le Foot.

Valenciennes are enjoying one of their longest stints in the top-level of French football after promotion in 2006.  They are one of a few teams in France who could really class themselves as “mid-table”.  Their noisy fans haven’t had much to cheer about in their history with just one appearance some sixty years ago in the Coup de France and still awaiting their first European adventure.  With a brand-spanking new stadium the infrastructure is now in place for the club and Les Athenian fans will be hoping that one day soon they will have something to cheer.

The visitors, on the other hand, are enjoying a fair share of the limelight in the French game.  Under coach Rudi Garcia, who has now departed to spin his magic at AS Roma, Les Doges won a domestic double in 2011/12 and followed it up with another Champions League appearance this year.  Coming into this game they were desperately trying to fight off the billions of AS Monaco for a place in the top two with Paris Saint Germain.

Despite being the nearest Liga 1 club to Valenciennes, Lille OSC fans have never seen this game as a “derby”. To them they are keeping their powder dry for the eventual return of Racing Club Lens to the top table. In fact, many of the hardcore fans couldn’t be arsed to make the journey down the A23 for the game.

There are three things that you need to be prepared for before you enter the ultra-new, ultra-modern Stade du Hainaut. Number One – it is very very red indeed. 25,000 red seats, a red roof and red lighting is a tad over the top and shouldn’t be experienced with a hangover or if you are taking and hallucinogenic substances. Number Two – like other French stadiums, no alcohol is served in the ground. Beer is over-priced and sans fun. And finally, Number Three – the concept of hatching is alien to the French. There was an imaginary line where you could stand behind at the back of the stands, but woe-betide anyone who stepped one inch over that line. Stewards marched back and forth, verbally berating anyone who was too forward. Damon tried to reason with them, explaining to them the notion of stripped lines on the concrete but they just shrugged their shoulders “in that way”.

The Valenciennes fans tried to make some noise to drown out the LOSC fans. Despite being small in number, they were big in voice which at least took our minds off a game that failed to live up to the pre-match billing of “North France’s biggest derby”.

Valenciennes 0 Lille OSC 1 – Stade du Hainaut – Saturday 30th November 2013
11179540535_a8152d3100_bThere was no surprise that the game was decided by one goal, although in truth it was quite a surprise that either team got close to actually threatening the goal. If this was played on a Saturday afternoon in England it would be fighting Stoke City for the last game on Match of the Day. So here goes with the highlights.

Kick-off. Half-time. Kick-off, Lille score, go down to 10 men when Béira is sent off for a second yellow. Full-time. Four shots on target, a few corners and far too many niggly fouls.  I bet the highlights DVD will be a best seller this Christmas. The win moved LOSC back into second place, after Monaco had briefly taken that spot earlier in the day. However, with the fire-power of Zlatan and Cavani and the billions of the Qatar Investment Authority, it would seem that Paris Saint Germain will be hard to beat if they don’t get distracted by the Champions League.

11179591936_e8e1086e1d_bSo what to do on a night out in Valenciennes? We went in with low expectations but eventually returned back to our small motel room at some point after 3am. Quite was transpired in the intervening five hours is still a bit of a mystery. We started in the Ultras bar, drinking beer out of a glass horn with Ronaldo’s body double and it ended in a night club with Danny wandering around singing “I wanna dance with somebody”. In between we spent an hour or so in a bar where everyone bar us was dressed as Superheroes. Just an average EFW night out.

Saturday was history. Sunday promised to be the Best. Day, Ever.