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
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.

Welcome to Fat Town

Let me take you back to 26 June 1990.  England are one minute away from a penalty shoot out in the 2nd Round of the FIFA World Cup against Belgium.  Gascoigne floats in a free-kick from the left hand side which appears to be drifting over everyone’s head.  Everyone?  No, because at the back post is 24-year-old Aston Villa midfielder David Platt, on the field as a replacement for Steve McMahon and making one of his first appearances for the national side followed the flight of the ball perfectly and volleyed the ball home.  It could be argued that that one moment set Platt onto be one of the first footballing millionaires.  Less than 12 months after that goal Platt was on his way to Serie A side Bari for a whopping £5.5 million.

Three years later…Graham Taylor’s reign as England manager is coming to an inglorious end. His last game in charge is against San Marino. Bookies are stopping taking odds on an England win, despite Taylor’s reign and the failure of the team to reach the 1994 World Cup finals in the USA. Whilst it is possible that England could still qualify for the finals, it would take miracles elsewhere. The ask on them is simple – win by seven clear goals.

San Marino kicked off and hoofed the ball hopefully into the right-hand quadrant. Stuart Pearce picked the ball up and under no pressure at all played the ball back to David Seaman. Unfortunately, Davide Gualtieri had guessed this is what the experienced full back would do and nipped in and planted the ball past the Arsenal keeper. Just over 8 seconds were on the clock – the fastest goal in international history and still the greatest moment in San Marino’s history.

Relevance? Because those memorable nights had been played out on our TV screens live from Bologna’s Stadio Renate Dall’Ara. Fat Town, as it is often referred to in Italian culture, is known for its hearty food was our second destination for the day of Serie A football. After the magic in Reggio Emilia we had headed back down to the most important city in North Italy. Bar Turin. And Milan, of course. Not forgetting Venice mind, and Genoa now I think about it. Well, one of the most important cities anyway.

11074746774_0ecec4611f_bThe almost completely open-air stadium would have been a beautiful venue back in June 1990, but in late November twenty-three years later, it promised to be bloody cold. Still, with Internazionale the visitors, we hoped the atmosphere created by the Tifosi Bulgarelli would keep us warm and entertained. Despite winning the Italian title on seven occasions, and being the most successful Italian team outside of Milan, Turin or Rome, recent times have been very tough on the Rossoblù.

Only one thing is more important to Italians than football, and that is food. So before the game we made sure we blended in with the locals by heading to an old-school Italian restaurant (aka one that didn’t serve Spaghetti Bolognese – a dish created for those bloody tourists) and ate our own body weight in local cold meats, cheeses, pasta (Squid ink tortellini filled with truffle carbonara as you have asked), washed down with a couple of beers. But no ordinary beer. Oh, no. Being one of the centres of style in the country, Bologna serve their bottles of beer in a clear plastic handbag, filled with ice.

11080351776_d7c064029e_bAdam had managed to remember his pedometer and as we washed down our feast with a double espresso, he told me that the 37 minute walk to the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara would burn off around 1,000 calories, or approximately half of the pasta I had just wolfed down. So we set off, hot footing it through the historic centre of Bologna, dodging locals on scooters and gelato-wielding tourists. Fortunately the Italian footballing mentality isn’t to pitch up at the turnstiles five minutes before kick off and we breezed into the stadium and started the monumental climb up to the top of the Curva Ospiti. Ah yes, that was the slight detail I had omitted to tell Adam. I’m sure 90 minutes of acrid flare smoke, bouncing around like a loon was exactly what he was looking forward to on his Sunday night.

The Dall’Ara is essentially an open-air athletics stadium, with basic small plastic seats sitting directly on the concrete steps. It was certainly never built for comfort, or even with 25,000 or so spectators in mind but it certainly delivered joy in the bucket-full. We appeared to have taken a wrong turn somewhere on our way up into the Curve and ended up slap-bang in the middle of the Vecchia Guardia, one of the Tifosi groups. What to do in such circumstances? Simple, jump around, clap your hands and shout abuse at the referee.

Bologna 1 Internazionale 1 – Stadio Renato Dall’Ara – Sunday 24th November 2013
In the grand scheme of things, this could be a very valuable point for Bologna.  The point actually took them out of the relegation zone although Inter will rue the two points they dropped, and the opportunity to go back into the top three.  Inter had over 60% of the possession, 23 shots to Bologna’s 9 and a staggering 15 corners, but it took a dubious goal by Brazilian full-back Jonathan to bring them back into the game just after half time.  Prior to this Bologna strolled around the pitch holding a one-goal lead thanks to Kone’s 12th minute goal, like a boy who has just discovered their elder brother’s porn stash.

11074755264_c1fd16f656_bIn truth we saw very little of the game.  In between taking a million pictures of fans holding flares and looking a bit “Danny Dyerish”, trying to blend in by jumping around like loons and discovering they served real beer in the bar by the Ultras entrance there wasn’t a lot of time for ball watching.  This was what continental football was all about – and what is missing from our own game.  Yes, the stadium was poor for fans.  Yes, the fans in Italy are treated more like criminals with the security, fences and moats around the pitch and yes, the fans seemed completely oblivious to what was happening off the pitch but even with 20,000 empty seats in an open air stadium, the atmosphere was cracking. Deep down (or for some of us a little closer to the surface) we are all jealous of such atmosphere.  There wasn’t one policeman in the stadium, nor did we see any hint of trouble, despite Inter having around a quarter of the stadium for their fans.

11074804883_8ff63e89d6_bNeither team would have been satisfied with the point at full time, although both sets of fans wandered into the night relatively happy.  We piled onto the buses waiting outside the ground, rather than the “brisk” 40 minute walk back into town.  On the stroke of midnight we were back in the hotel bar for a nightcap.  It had been a long, enjoyable, day getting re-acquainted with Serie A.  Adam’s pedometer informed us we had walked over 10 miles in the day, perfectly balancing out of excesses although in truth you can never get enough of Bologna, whether it be food, drink or calcio.

Gentlemen, to bed.  For we rise at dawn for Rome.

More pictures from the game can be found here.

Sou sou Sassuolo

Fifteen years ago we were all Serie A crazy.  Thanks to the James Richardson fronted, Channel 4 programme “Gazetta” every Saturday morning millions used to tune in to hear the latest gossip from James as he sat coolly at a table in a Piazza somewhere in Italy, sipping a Cappuccino (but only before 11am of course).  24 hours later even more people watched the live game which was the best game of the season, every week.  This was a time before live football from around the globe saturated our TV screens and thus this was something new, exciting, and even fearful.  This was what it was like when Cheese & Onion became the second flavour of crisp to be launched after decades of Ready Salted.

We lapped up the games, quickly learning who the teams, the players and of course the stadiums were.  We marvelled at the pyrotechnics of their fans and wondered what had gone wrong with our own game.  Everyone wanted to have a bit of that, and us adventurous Brits slowly wised up to the fact that visiting Italy was easy, cheap and the Best Weekend Ever.

Italy was the destination for my first ever European Football Weekend.  Two days in Milan, with a trip to the San Siro to watch Maldini, Baresi and Van Basten struggle to beat Lecce.  I was hooked and there wasn’t a month that went passed where I didn’t hop over to Italia for a bit of Sunday afternoon Calcio.  A morning arrival into Milan Linate, train down to Bologna, up to Como or even if I was hungry, Parma.  Football, food and a few Peroni’s before I headed back in time for storytime for the little Fullers.

11080410554_99ae6cd72e_bBut nothing lasts forever and as Jimbo disappeared from our screens and Sky Sports took over the world, Serie A slipped down the popularity stakes behind La Liga, Bundesliga and even Scottish football in TV coverage terms. Our weekend footballing treats took us further afield and Italy became a distant memory.

I have no reason why I was now sitting on a cross-country train running through the Northern Italian countryside.  I can’t even Danny Last – he was 700 miles away sitting on his sofa.  I could blame my travelling partner, Adam Lloyd, but that would be unfair.  It was my fault.  I saw the opportunity for a two-day, three game Serie A extravaganza.  Our destination for the first leg of the Italian Tripod was the city of Reggio Emilia, forty miles north-east of Bologna.

The Mapei Stadium – Città del Tricolore, to give it its full name, is described by our good friends at Wikipedia, as “multi-purpose”, which is the functional phrase for “completely lacking in character, atmosphere or facilities for spectators”. I hoped to be proved wrong but my experience of similar stadiums in Italy in Piacenza, Bergamo (Atalanta), Modena and Ancona hadn’t been good.  In fact I always wonder how these small clubs can justify charging ticket prices for ordinary games.  Ten years ago I paid over 100 Euro for a seat at Brescia v Bari because it was raining and the seat was one of the few under cover.  Even the Premier league clubs today rarely offer tickets over £90.   Unfortunately, with few stadiums privately owned in Italy, clubs need to get as much revenue as possible in on the gate because commercial opportunities are so limited.

We were here to see US Sassuolo.  Who? As I had been asked for the past two weeks when I had excitedly told everyone who would listen about this trip.  The Serie A debutants were playing in the third tier for the first time just five years ago.  Last season they upset the form book by winning Serie B, but their own Stadio Enzo Ricci with its 4,000 capacity wasn’t deemed big enough for Serie B, let along Serie A, so a deal was made with Reggiana AC to co-habit in their Mapei Stadium.

There isn’t really a lot I can tell you about Sassuolo.  The town itself, located just south of Modena, is the home of the Italian Tile industry.  There – I told you I couldn’t tell you much. Reggio Emilia was a little bit more racy, being the home of Lambrusco wine as well as being twinned with Fort Worth, Texas.  Boom. I had you on…..well, on nothing really.

11074691804_6ceedb9c6a_b (1)So far this season I Nerroverdi were keeping their head above water…just.  Two wins and four draws saw them outside of the relegation zone and with wins away at Sampdoria and in Reggio Emilia over local rivals Bologna in the bank already, they fancied their chances against the team from Bergamo.  Crowds were flocking to the Mapei, up by 218% on last season and Adam and I didn’t care who won.  We were the winners because we were back in the days of Mancini, Lombardo and Crespo, all washed down with a double espresso.

The first excitement of the trip was seeing Modena’s ground from the train window.  It was worth paying the small premium to go first class on the 40 minute journey from Bologna to see the hulking floodlights leaning in to see the action.  I’m sure the view wasn’t anywhere as good in second class – well that’s what we told each other as we alighted, beaming with joy, at Reggio Emilia.

We were joined on our 2 kilometre hike to the Stadio Malpai by “John”.  “John” (we had no idea if this was his name but he was a classic “John”), followed us off the train, under the subway and across the car park.  Eventually he spoke to us, asking if we knew where the ground was.  He was English, and apparently was here to “scout”, although wasn’t particularly forthcoming about who for or who he was scouting.  He also seemed to think the ground was by the station, as opposed to a twenty-minute hike northwards.

As we reached the stadium, he sloped off, wishing us well although he did seem bereft of any mechanism to capture details of the game (aka a pen, pad, book or computer).  We went through security, with the stewards asking us if we had any flares – apparently this was a very big No No in Reggio Emilia.  As we walked into the stadium it was amazing to believe this was a top flight stadium.  Basic is not a word you can use too often for stadiums in major leagues, but this summed it up perfectly.  No facilities bar one tiny coffee bar, concrete steps with numbers painted on for seats and open to all the elements.  At the far end around 1,500 Atalanta fans had made the journey eastwards from Bergamo, although the open air nature of the ground was diluting their efforts to create an atmosphere.  But we didn’t care, we were watching football and it was bloody great.

Sassuolo 2 Atalanta 0 – The Mapei Stadium – Sunday 24th November 2013
In the grand scheme of things this was surprising result.  In fact prior to the game when I checked the odds, Sassuolo were 7/2 to win the game, with the draw being the favourite.  However, two second half goals by the home side gave them only their third win of the season, and more importantly three valuable points to ease them away from the bottom of the Serie A table.

11080470143_fc517a00f6_b (2)The game wasn’t a classic – the fact that there was on average a free-kick every 110 seconds gives you an idea this was a stop/start game, and with just 10 shots on target it wont go down in the “classic” folder.  The home fans in the “bullpit” at the bottom of our stand tried to create some atmosphere and a beat for their team but in the first period nothing seemed to gel.  In fact the most impressive part of the first forty-five minutes was the sunset behind us.

However, in the second half, despite Antei receiving his marching orders for a second yellow, was dominated by Sassuolo.  The danger man was the holding midfielder Luca Marrone who set up both goals in a three-minute period just after the hour mark scored by the two forwards Zaza and Berardi.  Atalanta can have no grumbles at the end result, although the home keeper, Pegolo, was the busier of the two.  Sassuolo have built a team that the locals are rightly proud of.  Eleven Italian’s started the game, which in any major league these days is a miracle.

11074802253_734f0754c1_bMany commentators wrote off Sassuolo’s hopes of survival before a ball was ever kicked this season, but the three points meant they sit in the Serie A table above the likes of Sampdoria and Bologna.  They have earned their place at the top table, and they are certainly enjoying the feast.

For Adam and I full-time meant one thing.  A hike back to the station, a couple of beers and a short hop back to Fat Town where il Rossublu and Inter would be providing our evening’s entertainment….To be continued.

More pictures from the afternoon can be found here.

Just your Standard Super Sunday

“Are you getting up or what?” Danny wasn’t happy on the other end of the phone.  It seemed that Kenny had forgotten to change the time on his mobile from German to Belgium time, or so he told me.  Ten minutes later we were downstairs, raring to go.  It was 9am.  Whilst we were awake, Brussels certainly wasn’t.  Tourists gave us a wide berth as we marched across the old town wielding our croissants with menace.  Street cleaners were clearing away the detritus from the remnants of a lively Saturday night and the noise of their work echoed through our collective hangovers.  Was it too early for a beer?  Despite all the rules in the EFW charter, about being awake on foreign soil for more than 30 minutes and passing open drinking establishments, we stoically continued on our journey We had a train to catch, heading South East from the capital to Liège, the economic capital of Wallonia.

10404948905_0977f576f9_bToday was the day of the ‘Hate Derby’.  The rivalry between the two biggest teams in the French-speaking province of Wallonia isn’t in the league of any team and Anderlecht but it has still been spicy enough in the past few years for the Belgium police to class this as a ‘Bubble’ game and thus the few hundred Zebras fans to be bused direct from South Brussels to the ground.

Liège was the only venue I hadn’t visited during the fantastic summer of Euro2000 and in the past decade it had somehow eluded my attentions.  But few could ignore the outstanding architecture of the Liège-Guillemins railway station.  For those with a bit of an interest in the work of Santiago Calatrava will see on first sight that the €300 million new structure is up their with his best work alongside the terminal at Bilbao Airport, the Cuitat de las Arts i les Ciences in Valencia and Turning Torso in Malmö.

“Snap out of it Stuart” Kenny brought me back to the present by wafting an open bottle of Orval (“who is your very best friend, Stuart?”), enticing me onto the waiting bus that would take us along the banks of the Meuse River to the Stade Maurice Dufranse.  Despite the short hand only just reaching 11, and the game some three hours away, the area around the ground was a hub of activity.  Supporters bars were opening up, cranking out the tunes and turning on the TV’s.  It seemed the biggest show on Belgium TV on a Sunday morning was a programme called “September revisited” which was essentially a round-up of all the best goals in Europe from the past month.  Relatively interesting at 11am but by 1.30pm when it was still on, it got a tad boring.  Not that we were particularly interested in the TV as we had found a home in the Bois d’Avroy, one of the bars opposite the stadium.  Whilst the rest of the Standard fans were tucking into the Jupiler, we had asked for the “special stuff”.  Remember when you were a teenager when you went into the Video shop and asked what they had “under the counter”?  Well, that’s how we felt as the barman gave us a wink, and plonked four bottles of Chimay on the bar.  Yes, it was 3 hours until kick off but we could handle 8.5% of Belgium’s finest?

10404914476_5e13940276_bDespite hundreds of fans flooding into the bar, service had been nailed down to a tee.  A group of young girls roamed the room, looking for vulnerable beer-free fans and pounced on them to take their orders.  We all had our favourites and were willing to wait that extra time until they could serve us.  Outside the bar fans had taken over the road and the girls out there had their wares on brazen full show.  Girls, carrying trays of €2 beers in the middle of the street?  What will they think of next.

We were joined by Mark, a Standard die-hard who gave us the low-down on the finer points of watching the game (and the fans) in Belgium.  It seemed that the performance of the national side in recent years had given the game a boost and crowds were once again returning to clubs.  This game was deemed a sell out, but it appeared that Charleroi had only been allowed a few hundred of the seats in the away end for their own protection.

10405002076_40b7fd8fbf_bThe Stade Maurice Dufrasne was a cash-free zone.  The Munt is the currency in these parts and we were munted millionaires, ready to treat all our new friends with our pile of plastic coins.  Alas, bizarre stadium regulations mean that you cannot take any of Belgium’s finest treats into the seating area.  I can understand the problems a beer may cause, but does a hot chip really constitute a weapon these days?

The stadium was rocking and as the teams emerged a huge St. George’s Cross was held up at the far end to welcome us English fans.  Nice touch by the fans I thought to say hello.  Crank the atmosphere up to eleven – it’s match time!

Standard Liège 2 Sporting Charleroi 2 – Stade Maurice Dufrasne – Sunday 20th October 2013
Standard came into the game top of the league with nine wins from their opening ten games and a 100% record at home.  The visitors were mid-table and had struggled for points on the road.  Nobody really expected any other result that a home win, surely?  Well, apart from the few hundred Sporting fans who went nuts when our old friend from Lens David “The Chicken” Pollet opened the scoring against the run of play in the 37th minute.  What who Ray Winstone do in this situation?  Apart from growing a ten foot tall head and spinning round like someone possessed he would have backed the draw.  And that is exactly what I would have done, apart from the fact I had a little snooze.  A combination of a late late night, a few Chimay’s and the warm sun on my face provided ideal conditions for 40 winks.

10405071123_8be94a7016_bI was wide awake, of course, when Jelle Van Damme (the more timid of the Van Damme brothers) equalised on 65 minutes and didn’t miss Dewaest put Charleroi in the lead with ten minutes left.  Oh no, you wont catch me sleeping on the job.  Even when Ezekiel scored in the final minute to salvage a draw for Standard, I was up, fists pumping with the best of them.  A draw wasn’t in the plan for the league leaders and the fans trooped out into the Sunday afternoon sunshine rooing the wasteful nature of their first half display.

We headed to the Fans bar in the stadium, where Deaksy invented a new game involving three Euro coins which, rest assured, will be the biggest selling children’s game this Christmas.  A trip next door to the shop produced a big fat zero on the football socks scale, but a ten on the football club ruler one before we headed back into the old town for a few local ales, some oversized meatballs in a thick sauce and some dancing in a Turkish Tapas bar with a wedding party all before 8pm.  The night could have gone seriously downhill from this point so we took the easy option of a carrier bag full of plantain crisps (Despite living on his own, Kenny still hasn’t got the hang of shopping) and pocket full of Belgium beer for the train ride back to Brussels.

The weekend drew to a close in a familiar way – lively debate about the best ever player to wear a headband and the like – over a small beer or two.  Belgium had delivered on almost every level for us.  Would we be back?  Could we be back?  Should we be back?  A resounding YES from the quartet of Englishmen.