Ulster men Papp’d

Premier League (and Championship games) are a pain in the arse, getting in the way of these International breaks.  Whoever came up with the idea of 6 consecutive days of top class football should be given a knighthood, or at least a gold card at The Harvester.  The opportunity to visit a few new places, sample a few new beers and of course take in some new culture.  Last month it was Lithuania and Latvia, both new ticks in the box for me. So where would I end up this time around?  The options included Moldova (the poorest country by GDP in Europe and the main sport being wrestling), Luxembourg (currently being hammered by the G14 for their lax tax rules) and Cyprus (foam parties…mmmm).  All relatively good choices but who could resist 20 pence beers, the world’s second biggest building and a table topping clash all washed down on an airmiles return flight and a free hotel room? Bucharest here I come.

15791879632_0be24a2e8b_kThe European Union’s six biggest city spreads its tentacles far and wide.  The former Soviet Bloc influences are clear to see by just picking up a map.  The areas of the city are divided into Sektors, reminding you immediately of 1984 or more recently The Hunger Games.  Whilst the city sits near the top in terms of size in the European Union, according to the annual study carried out by Mercer International on the quality of life, Bucharest is in a lowly 107th place.  I can tell I have already sold you on a visit haven’t I?

What better way to immerse myself in the city than to experience their national side play football? Who would have thought that this game would be a top of the table clash?  In fact what odds would you have got of Northern Ireland qualifying for their first European Championships when the draw was made for France 2016? A positive result here in Bucharest result would keep them top of Group F, a group that few saw them progressing from when the draw was made earlier this year.  Greece and Romania both have recent major tournament pedigree, whilst Hungary and Finland could always upset the odds.  Northern Ireland’s only hope was to pick up points against the Faroe Islands if you believed some “experts”. Two months into qualifying and the Irish arrived in Bucharest top of the group with a 100% record thanks to wins in Hungary and Greece, as well as the predictable home win versus the Faroe Islands. Football is a predictable game right – I mean it wasn’t as if the bottom of the table Faroe Islanders were going to get a win in Greece was it?

The bus from the airport took me on a tour of the suburbs.  Ikea, Homebase, car showrooms, McDonalds.  You could be anywhere on earth.  That’s what global commercialisation has given us.  Finally I arrived at the InterContinental hotel, the tallest building in Romania no less, and temporary home to the Irish squad.  A work colleague offered some vital advice before I left London, shouting it across the office in front of at least one of our Senior Executives. “Stu – don’t ring up from your hotel room for a prostitute. Not only is it illegal, but you may find 19 year old 42 inch chested Inga doesn’t arrive in school uniform at all but as a 55 year old matron whose breasts touch her knees. Just head up to the Club Lounge, they will come and find you.” Well that’s next year’s pay rise scuppered then.

The Europa Royale Hotel, a ten minute stroll down away in Piati Unirii, was the beating heart of the city centre.  Bordered by the biggest shopping centre in the Bucharest, wide Soviet- inspired dead straight boulevards and the heaving nightlife of The Old Town, it was here that the Northern Ireland fans had set up camp. And they were in fine voice when I arrived.  Free buses had been laid on to take the fans to the stadium although the riot police had a stern warning for the Irish fans. “No bottles on board” was the stern instruction from Bucharest’s top Robocop.  “Singing is good. Drinking now is bad. You will want to pee-pee and we will not stop the bus.” Fair point.

15170374174_33ebcbeb20_kWe set off on a tour of the city centre with a police escort, meaning our bus driver had the opportunity to pretend to be Keanu Reeves in Speed and drive at 50mph, ignoring all road signals.  As if the fans cared as they (well, OK, we) launched into verse. “Sweet Caroline”, “All you need is love” a David Healy inspired version of “Away in a Manger” and of course, “We aren’t Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland”.

The buses arrived at the relatively deserted stadium.  It seemed that the locals weren’t exactly excited by the visit of the Irish.  Last month there had been significant trouble both in the city centre and in the stadium when Hungary had been the visitors.  For a brief while it looked as if this game may have had to be played behind closed doors as part of a UEFA sanction.  Fortunately, with nearly a thousand Northern Ireland fans already booked up for Bucharest, UEFA saw sense and imposed a £25,000 fine and a partial stadium closure, though I’m not sure where, penalty on the Romanians.

Prior to 2011, Romania didn’t have a national stadium. The old 60,000 seater open air stadium located on the same site had been demolished in 2009, with games played at the Ghencea, home of Steaua Bucharest, where the two sides last met back in 2006.  The new 55,000 all seater stadium was completed in 2011 and is certainly impressive, already hosting its first major game when the 2012 Europa League Final between Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was held here.  The stadium will also host matches during the ridiculous Europe-wide 2020 European Championships.

The stadium is sat upon a large mound, like a castle, with Neo-Gothic arches around the outside and almost Santiago Calatrava-style interior ones (Spanish chap who loves straight lined, white columns and elegant curves in his building design, dummy).  Without sounding too arty, it’s basically a beauty to behold, especially when lit up at night.

Our way was being blocked by two riot police, both young females who you would object to using their handcuffs on you.  “If I am going to end the night being battered black and blue then can it please be by them two?” A very un-Irish sounding chap had starry eyes for our protectorate.  He soon realised I was also from England when I chirped in my agreement. “You’re not one of them?” He said quietly, looking at the Irish fans behind us. “Please help us. We’ve been kidnapped.  We only came to Bucharest for a cheap weekend away. We got caught up in the wrong crowd and then before we knew it we were on the buses.  We don’t have tickets – heck we don’t even particularly like football.” Before I could answer, the girls had stepped aside and my fellow countrymen were swept along with the tide of green, never to be seen again.

15791900352_7c3f4075f6_kThe view inside the stadium was certainly impressive.  The canopy roof, similar to the one in Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Arena which famous ripped under the weight of water ten years ago in the Confederations Cup Final between Brazil and Argentina, was closed although it hadn’t done anything to make the stadium any warmer.  In fact it was bloody freezing.

The Romanians, despite sitting behind the Irish coming into the game, were firm favourites.  Whilst today’s team doesn’t have the same world-class players as they’ve had in the past, they are still a dangerous side and should be odds on to qualify for the 2016 tournament.

For one brief moment in time back in 2004, Romanian football was catapulted into the global stage thanks to the performance of the side at the World Cup in America. The team arrived with little few people giving them a chance in a group featuring the highly fancied Colombians, Switzerland and the host nation.  In their opening gave, they blew apart the South Americans with goals from a blonde-haired centre-forward, Florin Răducioiu and a diminutive creative midfielder in the mould of Diego Maradona, Gheorghe Hagi.  Whilst the wheels came off the bus in their next match, a solitary goal by dashing full-back Dan Petrescu against the USA saw them reach the next round and a game that changed Romanian football forever.

The new generation of Romanian players came at a time when domestic football was going through a massive change, off the back of the social and political changes in the country.  Steaua, traditionally the side of the Romanian Army and Dinamo, the “Interior Ministry’s side, are the most successful teams in Romania and up until the fall of Ceausescu, had won nine consecutive titles plus Steaua became the first Romanian side to win the European Cup in 1986, beating Barcelona and were runners up to AC Milan three years later.

That golden generation went on to impress in two of the next three major tournaments with the next generation of players being given a chance. Adrian Mutu, Cosmin Contra and Cristian Chivu all enjoyed success overseas whilst performing for the national side. But success has been thin on the ground in recent years. Coach Anghel Iordănescu is in the role for the third time, hoping to recreate the magic that he cast during the Golden Age of Romanian football in the mid-1990s.

Romania 2 Northern Ireland 0 – Arena National – Friday 14th November 2014
“We are top of the league, I say we are top of the league” National anthems done and dusted and for a few brief seconds the Irish fans have a chance to make their presence known.  Their chorus lasts but 10 seconds before the Romanians burst into song, amplified tenfold by the closed roof.  With the stadium just over half full it’s deafening. I cannot imagine what it’s like when full.  Northern Ireland line up 4-5-1, with Kyle Lafferty deployed as the nuisance up front. Out of the 22 players starting the game just one, Fleetwood Town’s Connor McLaughlin sports black boots. Playing opposite to him is the Romanian captain and West Ham flop, Răzvan Rat.

15604928938_565cc6ad8e_kIt took 16 minutes for the Irish to venture into the Romanian penalty area when Chris Brunt fired narrowly wide.  It was going to be a long evening for them, firmly under the cosh.  Romania nearly took the lead two minutes later when the lively Chipciu hit the underside of the bar from close range.  Chipciu wasn’t having the best of nights, following up this miss by falling over in the six yard box with the goal at his mercy after a brilliant run by Sanmartean. Northern Ireland finished the half with Lafferty nearly getting the reward for his tireless running and physical treatment from the Romanian centre-backs when he broke free and forced the keeper into. Smart save at his near post.

With three quarters of the game gone the score was still goal less.  The strength of the Northern Ireland team is their work rate, spirit and discipline.  Everyone knows their position and what is expected of them.  No stars but sheer talent.  With tensions boiling over in the South stand, the riot police were brought into action to quell a disagreement between the Ultras (‘cos that’s what their flag said) and the surrounding fans.  It appeared from the reaction of some fans that tear gas was used which was a real shame as just a few yards away, Romania finally found a way past Roy Carroll, when Paul Papp smashed the ball into the roof of the net after McAuley had failed to clear.

With their tails up, one became two soon after when full-back Papp scored again, heading home at the far post after a long cross from Sanmartean. There was no way back now for the Irish. Time to sing until the final whistle instead.

The performance had been spirited, and whilst many Irish fans may look at the two first half chances from Brunt and Lafferty, they had been beaten by the better side.  The inevitable lock-in after the game saw the riot police happy to pose pictures with the away fans and join in the odd song or two.  Thirty minutes after the game finished I was back on the bar at the hotel, finally thawing out, and ready to bat away the advances of the professional ladies of the night.  Around 1am the Irish squad arrived back, tired but proud of their performance.  There was no shame in defeat tonight.

Saturday morning dawned. From my balcony the grey cloud blended in with the grey buildings. Time to see the city in daylight.  I had made a plan to maximise my last few hours in the city which of course meant a visit to Dinamo and Steaeu’s respective grounds (thanking the God of open magic doors), a purchase of some football socks and a drink or two in the best-named bar in these parts, Beer O’ Clock.  Cheers Bucharest, you’d delivered a top 24 hours.  Until the next International break I wish you well.

15795039492_7c2c37dce6_k

 

A tale of two cities – Part 2 – Belfast

15071508454_f1523fba47_oA week after leaving Ireland I was touching down again, this time north of the border at George Best Airport, named after one of Belfast’s greatest sons.  Best was born forty years too early.  His antics at the height of his career would have hardly raised an eyebrow in today’s media spotlight dominated game, where anything and everything is expected and accepted from the modern-day footballer. In fact people may have concentrated on his footballing genius more rather than his off-the-field behaviour and his career may have been prolonged.

My abiding memory of my first trip to Belfast back in 1999 was sitting on a bus with the Current Mrs Fuller reading names out of a baby book whilst a group of school girls told us which would be their favourites, CMF was pregnant with our first-born at the time so it was par for the course that we headed overseas for the weekend and walked miles around a city that was going through radical change. Faced with the transition of our life for the next 20 years into responsible parenting, we crammed in as many trips abroad as we could handle and afford.

Belfast was a very different place back then. The shipyards of Harland and Wolf were in decline, the great history of building The Titanic an inconvenient truth of a once glorious industry. It still wasn’t recommended to wander down the Falls or Shankill Roads and the police stations still looked like watchtowers in prisoner of war camps. We wandered the city centre, enjoying the last few weeks of adult irresponsibility, eating well, drinking well (or at least I did) and then headed down to Ravenhill to watch the then European Rugby Champions and pride of Northern Ireland, Ulster, take on Wasps.

Earlier this season I started writing a new regular column for the Lewes FC match programme. Entitled Rooking All Over The World, I tried to find a club playing in every UEFA country that wore a similar red and black striped kit. Not as easy as it first seems. Eintract Frankfurt, OGC Nice, IP Brommapojkarna in Sweden and Belfast’s own Crusaders FC. Any club that plays at a ground called Seaview, where there isn’t actually a view of the sea is a winner in my book. I imaged every week some Basil Fawlty character fending off complains from visiting fans about the lack of a sea view, pointing out if they cared to climb the floodlights with a pair of binoculars then you could just make it out over there, between the land and the sky.

So why Seaview? Well this was the first question I asked Crusaders Media manager Michael Long when I met him at lunch time before the game versus Warrenpoint Town. It’s always a lottery when you try to connect with a club before a visit. Some simply ignore requests, others request all manner of documents to prove your identity and credentials and then there are clubs like Crusaders who couldn’t have been more accommodating, inviting me up to the ground early doors for a tour and a history lesson. And what a lesson it was. Pride oozes out of every pore of Long’s body at being involved in the club he has supported since a child. Crusaders are a fan-owned club – of course they are, all the best teams sporting the black and red always are. The rebirth of the club is almost identical to the story of Lewes Football Club in the last few years, from almost financial ruin at the hands of the taxman to a thriving community club, owned by the fans, run by the fans.

15500117378_77007885ba_o“Back in the day” Michael had taken me behind the East Stand where the perimeter wall separated the football ground from the train line, “the water used to be on the other side of the wall. The view from the main stand would be of ships coming in and out of the shipyards”. Today the land has been reclaimed and now there is the M2 motorway and an industrial estate on the other side of the railway tracks. The club have made the most of grants to build a decent little ground, but is this where their future lay?”

“We drew up plans to move a few miles north to Fort William”, which is now where the core of their support come from “but the process has been problematic and we are now back at square one”. With crowds for most games hovering around the 1,200 mark and some excellent facilities, including the 3G pitch, that have turned the club into a 7-day a week business, some fans may not see a need to move anywhere. But Long once again talked about progression on and off the pitch, and you could get the sense that the club do not see standing still as an option. Michael gave me the full tour with genuine pride. Whilst the names of the famous players from yesteryear were new to me, his animated story-telling brought them.

The club also hold a record in British football. In 1979 when they hosted Cliftonville in an Ulster Cup match there were over 1,900 police officers on duty in and around Seaview, more than have ever been involved at a football match on British soil. More than Cardiff City v Swansea City, Millwall v West Ham or even Lewes v Peacehaven & Telscombe.

15500194207_8de1337319_oThe two clubs are separated by just 1.5 miles although in Belfast terms that is a big divide, especially in the North and West of the city. The rivalry of the two clubs was heightened during The Troubles with Crusaders having a traditional Unionist following whilst Cliftonville are based in the mainly Nationalist areas. What was clear though is the huge amounts of work the two clubs have undertaken in their respective communities to reduce the tensions. In two weeks the real proof would be in the pudding as Cliftonville would be visiting Seaview for what promised to be a top of the table clash.

Life is good at Seaview at the moment. The club is progressing with redevelopment plans that have seen two new stands constructed at either end of Seaview in recent years, new floodlights as well as the real golden goose, the 3G pitch which is used every day of the year. Yep, even Christmas Day when the club hosts the annual Steel and Sons Cup Final match which can attract thousands of fans, fed up with Christmas Jumpers and sprouts boiled to death.

My lofty position atop the Main Stand certainly gave me a good view of the rooftops of Belfast and the massive cranes at Harland and Wolff but damn it was chilly. 24 hours earlier we’d had tropical temperatures of nearly 24 degrees in London but now it was gloves and scarf weather, neither of which I owned. Schoolboy error in these parts where it’s essential to pack for all four seasons in a day. Plan B deployed – chips with chicken gravy – it’s what all the kool kids were eating in North Belfast.

Crusaders 3 Warrenpoint Town 0 – Seaview – Saturday 1st November 2014
Unsurprising the opening exchanges all took place in the Warrenpoint half. The visitors from on the border with Southern Ireland arrived propping up the league with just 8 points and fell behind with jut 12 minutes in the clock when centre-forward Jordan Owens stroked the ball home from close range. Five minutes later Owens missed a sitter when cleverly put through by the impressive Whyte. The artificial surface certainly suited the Hatchet Men’s play, building from the back and constantly looking for the pass behind the centre-backs. The torrential rain didn’t make it easy but as a spectator you always had that feeling that it would lead to a calamitous mistake at some point in the afternoon.

15066039943_6ffe305641_oWarrenpoint came back into the game with false nine (wearing 10 of course) Stephen Hughes creating a few chances as the half wound up. In keeping with being one of the nicest clubs in the world I was invited into the boardroom at half-time for a hot sausage or two and heralded as a guest of honour by the Chairman. In fact everyone I was introduced to seemed to know of me. It was like the episode of Only Fools and Horses (again I know) where Rodney brings a video camera home from college and Del starts selling roles in his play to the regulars in the Nags Head.

Crusaders came out for the second half all guns blazing again, knowing that a 1-0 scoreline was far too dangerous to hold onto when the conditions were so poor. In the philosophy of John Beck, it doesn’t matter what a goal looks like, you only get one point for it on the scoreboard. And he is right. Crusaders second was as ugly as Iain Dowie in a Halloween mask. Owens shot from point-blank range was well saved by the Warrenpoint keeper, the rebound hit a defender then Owen again before O’Carroll got his shin to it and it rolled into the net. Fortunately number three, scored in the 67th minute was better looking (think Holly Willoughby as an air stewardess…….oh, sorry) as Owen drilled the ball home from 25 yards.

15685506195_03090187e1_oCrusaders had their tails up but couldn’t find another goal. A three-nil win kept them in the leading pack and everyone happy in the boardroom after the game. It had been a top afternoon, spent in the company of fellow devotees to a club at the heart of their community.  Now to negotiate the trip back into the city centre in the pouring rain.

My hotel was in the University district meaning that it was over run by fake zombies and girls wearing lingerie and a smattering of fake blood…oh, and a group of boys dressed as One Direction – “the ultimate scary sight” as one reveller told me. Fast forward twelve hours and the dregs of the Halloween celebrators were not enjoying the beautiful, crisp Sunday morning with the sun illuminating the carnage of the night before. The irony of seeing a chap, dressed as Dracula, sitting on the steps of a church wasn’t lost on me although I’m sure he wouldn’t get a particularly warm welcome from the congregation.

Belfast had been brilliant. Come prepared for rain, sleet, snow and sunshine and you cannot fail to enjoy yourself. Despite being just a hundred or so miles apart, the two capital cities of Belfast and Dublin offer two different views on life and above all football. Whilst the fan exodus continues to take place every Saturday, you get the feeling that football is in ruder health North of the border and clubs are learning to adapt and grow, whereas in the South, the competition posed by the more traditional Irish sports is simply a war of fan attention that the club’s simply cannot win