Frank who? Pirlo consigns Lampard to the bargain bin on his debut


Our Englishman in New York, Luge Pravda,  breaks his vow never to set foot in Yankee Stadium, to see the Pirlo show.

Yesterday, Sunday, just as I was wondering how I would get over the void left by the Tour de France finishing my laptop beeped with the familiar sound of a message in my Gmail chat. It was good friend and fellow sports nut Andy, asking me if I fancied seeing NYCFC at Yankee Stadium vs. Orlando City? Furthermore, we would be in the “Ultra’s” section! Moreover, it was a free ticket. I quickly checked the MTA for travel time. I would have to leave before the end of the last TdF stage. Andy informed me of a recent invention called “DVR” and what with the stage being largely processional for the Maillot jaune I was very soon on the subway heading to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Changing for the 4 train at Union Square I was instantly greeted by a sea of sky blue on the platform. 75% of the passengers getting on had on club colours of some sort.

Talking of sky blue, it is probably worth reiterating for newer readers of my extremely occasional pieces for this hallowed blog that I am a lifelong Utd fan, that being Manchester United of course. Since their inception I had vociferously told anyone asking about NYCFC that I could never in a million years endorse a City outfit. That all went up in a puff of smoke when I considered that a) Andy was going b) Pirlo was going to make his debut and c) the ticket was free. I should also add d) courtesy of a friend who tweeted me, somewhat sarcastically:

2

Turns out the “Ultra’s” section is simply the “Supporters” section: those most vocal and loyal fans occupying the bleachers (can they be loyal in their inaugural season?) I have to say it was hugely impressive to see such a turn out and so many fans of a new club so into it. The cynic in me may wish to ask if the fandom and apparent passion is all somehow manufactured, but frankly, the more people get into the beautiful game here in the US, the better in my opinion. And New York was crying out for a team that plays in, er, New York (here’s looking at you New York Red Bulls, now home to not one but two Wright-Phillips, in Harrison, New Jersey).

3As for the match? Well, the first half was edged by Orlando until David Villa scored a good goal right on half time. When asked about the quality of the sides, Andy confidently informed me that both teams had a few stars surrounded by “guys like me”. Which means Andy sees himself as English League One quality! And on topic one of the stars on show, Kaka, had a right old barney at least 4 of his teams mates, finger wager and remonstrating with them; presumably for never having won a World Cup.

The match ended 5-3 to the home team, and in typical LP style, I was not actually looking in the right direction for about 3 of those goals. But I was most definitely concentrating in the 56th minute. Pirlo time:

1

And boy the place went bonkers. As in full on popcorn showering bonkers. And boy did Pirlo look good out there. As one of Andy’s friends succinctly put it: “every time Pirlo passes the ball it is the best pass in the history of MLS”! I think my tweet sums it up:

All-in-all a very enjoyable experience. Mostly I have to admit for the Pirlo show. But also to see a large crowd so into it, even trying to sing chants that don’t along the standard US “let’s go____ <insert team name>”whilst flinging beer and popcorn everywhere. There were even some flares being set off outside after the match. Ultra’s indeed. Even if this is a City franchise, my wish to see soccer the biggest sport in the USA, outweighs my own personal club allegiance. And quite why the Glazers don’t do something similar I will never know.

Lastly, very different circumstances to the last time I saw Orlando play, last year up in Rochester, in the league below the MLS. Which you can read all about here.

Everybody needs good neighbours


19183144984_09dad2cd1c_kHaving a professional club just five miles down the road often appears to be a bad thing for a Non-League club.  You have to make the best of the situation and respect the pecking order in terms of league position.  Sometimes, when home league fixtures clash, we have to compromise on either suffering lower gates or moving our game much to the annoyance of our fans.  But the cold, hard economic truth is that if we don’t, we lose out.  Our bigger, stronger neighbours don’t even register a raised heartbeat if we move to an earlier or later game to accommodate the few dozen fans who otherwise may not come to us. But that few dozen matter.  Financially, that’s another £500 in the bank.  Whilst that is less than a couple of hours pay for some Championship players these days, that is a quarter of our budget for the whole of our squad.

We are fortunate to have Brighton & Hove Albion almost on our doorstep.  Relations between them and us (in that order as it’s not a symbiotic relationship) are good, and for the second year in a row, they agreed to send a first team squad down the A27 in a luxury coach for our first home game of the season.  Interest for the game locally is obviously very high.  So high that we have to make the game all ticket and cap the attendance at 2,300.  Whilst the Pan probably could hold more, fans want to be able to buy food, get to the bar and have a decent view.  At that number all of that is possible.

19185004683_23c0e26130_kObviously we have to make a number of logistical changes for the game.  As tickets are only sold online and have to be printed out, we need an army of volunteers armed with scanners, rather than turnstile operators taking cash.  We need additional toilets, food kiosks and car parking for the TV crews (yep, plural this year) who will be attending.  Because we are playing a Championship side then the draconian FA rules on when and where alcohol can be served have to be adhered to.  Yep, we know it was just a friendly, and yes we know that they will probably never know if someone sneaks a pint out of the clubhouse, but rules are rules. *takes health and safety hat back off*

Off the pitch the club is in rude health at the moment.  The 3G is the talk of the town and has had a very positive impact on the first team’s training, with smiling facing, fitter, stronger players and a queue of players who are interested in signing for us.  Alas for the reduced budget.

The result is more irrelevant for us than for the Seagulls.  They will be expected to win.  The fans are growing more and more impatient with Chris Hughton after his negative tactics at the end of last season (which did keep them in the division mind).  Last season it ended 5-0 to Brighton and no Lewes fans would go home feeling ashamed by that.  But manager Steve Brown was having none of that, telling anyone who would listen that we would give them a fight.

19183085844_5c7a44553b_kSo with the sun shining, the drummers drumming, the pitch looks superb and the fans are in full voice as the two captains led the teams out. Neither season will be made or broken today, but to 2,300 fans of East Sussex football it promised to kick off a long, hard season.  Before the football could start the whole ground observed a minute’s silence in memory of Don Lock, a life-long Brighton fan who had been killed a few days earlier.

Lewes 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 18th July 2015
Some may think that the awarding of the Man of the Match to the young Lewes keeper Dan Hutchings told a different story to the one the score line did.  However, they would be wrong.  Whilst Hutchings was called upon to make a couple of good saves, he was one of five or six Lewes players who could have won the award, chosen by the Match Sponsors.  He would have been my choice, both for the excellent second half double save that denied Colunga a nailed-on goal (and would have won me the Golden Goal!) but also for the way he has slotted into the side in the last week.  It probably helped having a vastly experienced back four in front of him, made up of two A Trialists (OK – Steve Sutherland from Met Police and Jordan Wilson from Grays Athletic if you really want to know), Rooks legend Chris Breach and new signing March-Brown.

For the first few minutes Lewes probably gave the visitors too much respect, allowing them to retain possession of the ball.  But when they realised that Brighton’s best chance of a goal came from 17 year old James Tilley, confidence grew and they started playing the ball around.  It was always going to be a tough ask to win this one but Lewes had a very good shout for a penalty in the first period when Nathan Crabb was wrestled to the floor by the Seagulls keeper and Calderon as a corner was on its way over.

19183340834_64e028387b_kThe second half saw 20 changes made in total, which for me on the PA was a nightmare.  At one point I announced Brighton’s third choice keeper Sanchez had donned the number 26 shirt and was playing on the right wing, whilst Josh Courtney came on for the Rooks, looking very similar to Steve Brinkhurst (because it was Steve Brinkhurst).  Whilst Brighton fans will point to the very young eleven that finished the game, so can Lewes with Hutchings, Welch, Marshall, Conlon, Laing and Brown all still young enough to turn out for our Under21’s/Development squad.

19810651691_5e4511b218_zWhilst Brighton should have wrapped it up at the death when Ward pulled his shot wide, a draw was a fair result for both teams, although obviously one set of fans went off down Mountfield Road much happier than the other set.  Putting my Chairman’s hat back on, we couldn’t have been happier.  Excellent crowd, good bar and food takings, award-winning programmes all sold out, great TV coverage and I even got to nutmeg Gully, the Brighton mascot.  Not quite up there with the wedding day but close.  Roll on 8th August and the start of the new season.

 

Just bloody shoot!


West Ham United 1 Birkirkara FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 16th July 2015
FullSizeRender (1)
For the second consecutive Europa League home game, West Ham flattered to deceive against a team they were expected to beat comfortably.  If it wasn’t for James Tompkins stomach the Hammers would have been travelling to Malta next week with the tie all square and the Maltese team recording possibly the greatest result in the countries European history.  West Ham didn’t play well, per se.  The stats don’t lie – 74% of the possession, 8 corners, 18 crosses successfully delivered but for all of those positives, they could only muster 7 shots on target.  All of a sudden, West Ham seem to have become Arsenal overnight.

It seems that someone didn’t do their homework on Birkirkara. Their strength was the centre-back pairing including the vastly experienced Argentinian Mauricio Mazzetti, especially in the air.  So what did West Ham do? Pepper the box with crosses.  Perhaps is Sakho would have been available it may have worked but The Hammers started with Modibo Maiga, a man most of us had forgotten was still at the club after spending the last eighteen months out on loan.  Ineffective is probably a kind description of Modibo’s efforts although he did come closest to scoring when he hit the post in the first half.

FullSizeRender (2)West Ham had a couple of good shouts for penalties in the first period when Birkirkara rode their luck.  Maltese National keeper Justin Haber made a couple of saves, although he was a keeper who loved a dramatic punch when he could have stood up and simply caught the ball but apart from a Zarate first half free-kick he was rarely troubled.  Jarvis and Almafitano had the beating of their full-backs time after time but how West Ham longed for the creative spark and ability to shoot from distance that Stewart Downing brought to the side last season.  Alas, as the game was progressing, Downing was making his way up the A19 with his new Middlesbrough shirt in his bag. The neat passing play across the box was nice to watch but with no one willing to take a shot, the moves broke down much to the increasing annoyance of the 33,500 crowd.

The frustration started to show in the second half as O’Brien, Cresswell and Reid all went into the referees book for late challenges, which gave the Maltese players even more opportunity to waste time.  Nolan was replaced in 79th minute to a chorus of muted boos, the fans not appreciating his defensive approach to the game.

The Maltese fans had chartered a plane to bring them to London for arguably the biggest game in their history and they brought colour and noise to the away section that some Premier League clubs would be proud of.  However, their hopes of a famous result were thwarted in injury time when Cresswell’s corner was missed by Haber and smacked the onrushing Tomkins in the mid-rift and bounced over the line.

So West Ham simply need to avoid defeat next week in Malta, which they should do.  No Maltese team has ever beaten an English team in European competition – that in itself is a fact that should motivate the Hammers to get the job done and progress to Round Three and a tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle or FC Astra Giurgiu.

 

So where could West Ham United be off to next?


The draw for the 3rd Qualifying Round of the Europa League will see West Ham head to either Scotland or deepest, darkest Romania assuming they avoid defeat next week in Malta.  After their first leg tie,  FC Astra Giurgiu hold a one goal advantage from the game at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and will probably be favourites to progress into the next round.  So what do we know about both potential opponents?

FC Astra Giugiu
The city of Giugiu sits on the banks of the Danube right on the Romanian border with Bulgaria.  It’s not really known as a tourist destination, with some heavy industry in and around the city, although the opportunity to visit two countries (the city of Ruse is on the other side of the river and connected via the Friendship Bridge) is too good an opportunity to miss.  The nearest airport is Bucharest, which is around 50 miles away.  If you pre-book a taxi you can get one from the airport for less than 50 each way.  There is also a number of bus companies that make the hour long journey for no more than a few pounds including Nelmatour and Autotrans Calatori.  Alternatively, Varna in Bulgaria is around a three hour drive away.   The best, and only real hotel in town, is the Best Western Bistra & Galina Hotel although you could hardly call this central.

Astra Giurgiu was known as Astra Ploiești until September 2012 when it was moved from Ploiești to Giurgiu, by owner Ioan Niculae.  The club play at the Marin Anastasovici Stadium , which was re-opened in 2012 and a nice, modern affair that holds just shy of 9,000.  Pleasingly it doesn’t have an athletics track around the pitch.  It is located a 15 minutes walk east of the main city centre, not far from the river bank.

Since their relocation, the cash investment from Niculae has become apparent as the club have finished in 4th, 2nd and then last season 4th again, their most successful spell in their history.  They made their European debut in 2013 when they got to the Play-Off round of the Europa League before they lost to Maccabi Haifa.  Last season they reached the group stages of the competition, beating Lyon on away goals along the way.  They were drawn in a tough group along with Red Bull Salzburg, Celtic and Dinamo Zagreb, consequently finishing in last place with four points.  Ranked 147th by UEFA this season, they entered the competition in the 2nd qualifying round with the game away at Inverness Caledonian Thistle where where captain Constantin Budescu’s first half goal gave them the lead over the tie.

The majority of their squad is Romanian, including international capped goal keeper Silviu Lung and defender Gabriel Enache.  They also have a bevvy of Portuguese players including Filipe Teixeira who had a couple of seasons in England with West Brom and Barnsley.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Thistle’s European debut against Astra didn’t exactly go the way they planned, and now they will be desperate for a positive result in Romania to get the money-spinning tie against West Ham (assuming The Hammers can avoid defeat in Malta).  Last season was the pinnacle in a long-hard slog for the club, formed after the merger of Inverness Thistle and Caledonian FC twenty years ago.  Not only did they finish in third place but they also won the Scottish Cup for the first time, beating Falkirk at Hampden Park.  John Hughes’ squad is dominated by Englishmen, with half of his twenty-two man pack being from across the border.  Last season’s top scorer Billy McKay left to join Wigan Athletic in January.

The Tulloch Caledonian Stadium has a capacity of just under 8,000 but that would be reduced for the game should we play against Thistle.  The ground sits on the banks of the Moray Firth which means the wind plays a big part in the flow of the game.   The ground has been developed over recent years as their place in the top flight of Scottish football has been assured.  Each side now has a covered stand, with the Main Stand facing the Moray.   This all seated stand, is is partly covered. At one end is the Bridge End, which is an all seated covered stand whilst the South Stand, is a similar looking all seated stand, that is given to away supporters.   It is a fifteen minute walk up Longman Road from the centre of the city to the ground or 5 minutes in a taxi.  Inverness station is about a mile away from the ground, which is about a 20 minute walk away. On leaving Inverness station follow the signs for the car park and bus station (going along Railway Terrace). Cross through the car park, keeping the bus station on your left and on your right you can see a bridge crossing the railway line. Go across the bridge and then continue straight ahead along Longman Road. Eventually you will reach the stadium on your left.

Inverness is the most nothernly city in the British Isles and is a popular tourist destination, sitting in the middle of some beautiful countryside and at the mouth of Loch Ness.  There are hotels and guesthouses a-plenty for those planning to make the trip as well as plenty of watering holes.

The nearest airport is Inverness Dalcross 8 miles north-east of the city centre.  Only Easyjet fly the route from London, with departures from Gatwick and Luton daily.  Alternatively, you could fly to Aberdeen and then get the 2 1/2 hour train to Inverness.

We’ll win nothing with kids….probably


It’s been fourteen games and nearly three years since Lewes’s first team squad won a Pre-Season Friendly.  Of course we will always be told that at this stage of the season it is all about the performance and not the final score – but that’s three years, or to be precise 1,084 days of pre-season hurt.  Only a very small percentage of fans turn out for the pre-season games – whether it is because of holidays, because you can’t every really gauge anything from them or simply on a day like today it is simply the chance to sit in the sunshine.  Nobody would surely forsake the football for a trip to Ikea or B&Q megastore?

Once again we have a mix of opponents this season – Our headline game is the, now annual, visit of Brighton & Hove Albion next week with their full first team squad, whilst in a few weeks Alan Pardew will bring down his second string Palace side (which to a man will probably earn more in a week than we do in a year).  Our home programme is completed by Eastbourne Borough in the “we play each other every year and really should get a cup but we can’t be bothered sort of way”.  Away from home we visit Sussex League Hassocks, Ryman South League Worthing and today’s trip down the River Ouse and along a bit to the Sports Park at Peacehaven.

Last season the Magpies suffered the heartbreak of a last day relegation, having been two-nil up in their final game needing a win to be safe.  Four second half goals, coupled with virtually every result going against them saw them relegated after just one season in the Ryman Premier League.  Despite them being our nearest rivals, there’s no animosity between the two clubs and their loss will be felt by us this season in terms of two local derbies.  So an opportunity for an early season local trip was more than welcome.

FullSizeRender (1)There’d been talk on the Lewes Forum in recent days as to whether we would be even able to raise a team.  Some fans don’t seem to understand the fluid nature of pre-season and that you can announce a player as signed today and tomorrow he is off down the road for £3 more per week.  Consequently, until we have 100% (or as close as we can get it) commitment, we will not announce someone as “signed”.  I’m sure that frustrates some fans who are expecting news, but that’s the way we want to run things now.

The squad that traveled down the A26 then around the Newhaven one-way system before climbing up the A259 would certainly be a young one although there’s not alot that the centre-back pairing of Lovett and Breach haven’t seen in their time.  Peacehaven on a sunny July afternoon is a great place to watch football.  The beautiful Sussex Downs roll away in the distance, the seagulls were flying overhead and the Harvey’s was on draft.  Heck, even the chips at £1.50 a pop were bringing a smile to Cynical Dave’s face.

Peacehaven & Telscombe 0 Lewes 3 – The Sports Park – Saturday 11th July 2015
“You’ll never win anything with kids” is probably one of the most famous lines ever uttered by a football pundit.  Alan Hanson will forever be reminded of his words by Manchester United fans after their opening day defeat to Aston Villa back in August 1995.  Those kids were the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Lee Sharpe and of course David Beckham.  Some kids, eh!

FullSizeRender (2)Nobody will get carried away with the result from the first game of Pre-season but those who did see the game will have all seen something we haven’t seen for a long time as Lewes fans.  Players playing without fear.  No fear of making a mistake.  No fear of taking players on.  No fear of trying a killer pass.  One game does not make a season, but even if we saw half as much of the communication, enterprise and spirit as we did yesterday in our league campaign we would have made some significant progress.

The Rooks finished the game with seven players under the age of 21, and more importantly, playing good football.  That to me is more important than the result.  Short passing to feet rather than hoofing it long, especially from the back.  Players talking to each other, encouraging each other.

For the record James Fraser opened the scoring on twenty minutes, slamming the ball home from ten yards after Jay Lovett’s goal-bound shot struck a Peacehaven arm.  The second was a deft flick from Elliot Levy from a deep Redwood cross that the Peacehaven keeper should have grabbed and the third in the opening minutes of the second period was tapped in by Nathan Crabb after a horrible mix up between keeper and defender from a Lewes free-kick.  It could have been more – the very impressive Alex Laing’s late free-kick cannoned off the bar.

Of course it will be a different story next Saturday when Chris Hughton brings his full Brighton & Hove Albion first team squad to the Pan.  But once again, the result will be secondary – it will be about testing the mental strength of the squad, giving them experience of what they will come up against sometimes this season and above all learning from how the professionals do it.

 

So where are we going next – Birkirkara FC


After the low-key win in Andorra it was a relative surprise that our next opponents turned out to be Birkirkara from Malta.  After their goal-less draw in Malta two weeks ago against the Armenians, Ulisses FC, the odds were stacked against the “Stripes” when they traveled to Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium in Yerevan.  But they won 3-1 meaning that they progressed in European competition for just the third time in their history.  In fact the game was only their fifth victory in thirty eight European games and a spot in the Second Qualifying Round gives them a chance to equal their best ever run in the competition.  Their finest moment came in 2010/11 when they got to the Second Qualifying round of the Champions League before losing to Slovakian Champions MŠK Zilina, although they did win the first leg of that tie in Malta.

The club were formed in 1950 and are four times winners of the Maltese Premier League as well as winning the Maltese Cup five times, the last of which was back in May when they beat Hibernians to qualify for the Europa League.  Ten years ago the club were coached by former Arsenal striker Alan Sunderland.  Whilst their UEFA ranking is 356th, they have a relatively impressive squad with 10 players capped at full international level by Malta, including captain Gareth Scriberras whilst defender Alejandro Moreno has over 40 caps for Venezuala.  Their danger man is the very experienced Fabrizio Miccoli who has played for Fiorentina, Juventus and Lecce although he is best known for his 74 goals in 165 games with Palermo.  Coach Gionvanni Tesesco also had a decent career in Serie A and was actually an unused sub when West Ham lost to Palermo in their last European adventure back in 2006.

4581521355_858677dc11_bThe club play in the centrally-located town of the same name which with over 22,000 people, is the biggest town on the island.  Their ground, the Infetti (meaning “infected” in Italian by the way!), is an athletics stadium with basic facilities and a capacity of just 2,500 but the good news is that the game will actually be played 3 miles down the road at the 18,000 Ta’Qali National Stadium is just 3 miles away – Ta’Qali is Maltese for “in the middle of nowhere with no public transport”.  Birkirkana itself is just 5 miles from the airport and 4 miles from Valletta and Sliema.  Regular bus services run between the towns, including the N21 and N38 although very little routes (just the 106 from the University every 30 mins)  seem to run to the ground meaning a walk along dusty roads to get there from civilization.  It is located next door to a large vineyard and the Aviation Museum.

Malta is the only other country apart from the United Kingdom (and Ireland) that drives on the left. Drive is a loose term as speeding as fast as you can, not using your breaks and overtaking three abreast is not exactly something we see on single carriage roads in SE9. Accidents are common place, which makes travelling by big sturdy buses all the more appealing. As 99% of people in Malta speak English and are some of the most genuine and helpful people you will meet you wont struggle if you need anything.

With the Hammers host the first leg, they will be looking to build up a comfortable lead before they head to the sunshine in Malta.

 

 

 

 

And so the countdown starts


So after a break of just 5 days it was time to get back into the swing of a new season.  And what better way to kick off proceedings than a trip to The Boleyn Ground, London E13.  None of this pre-season friendly malarkey either – this would be a full-blooded European game, played in front of a capacity crowd.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_h35,000 tickets had been snapped up in less than 4 days – that’s simply incredible.  If this was a second round league cup game against a smaller team then a crowd of 15,000 would be considered good, in four weeks they host Werder Bremen in a friendly and will be happy with a crowd of over 10,000, so why has the Boleyn sold out in almost record time for the visit of the second best team in Andorra, and sit in 411th spot in the UEFA rankings. The attendance would be over 100 times that of a normal club game for Lusitanos. That’s the magic of European football.

West Ham fans know that the club are lucky to be in the tournament, having qualified through a back door route that has now been permanently shut by UEFA.  But there is a generation of fans who have never experienced the thrill or excitement of a European Tour.  It’s been nine years since we played just two games in the UEFA Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to a strong Palermo side, before that it was over fifteen years ago to the halcyon days of the Intertoto Cup.  Fans too young to remember the games against Jokerit, Heerenveen and Metz now have their passports at the ready.  We’ve seen our London rivals Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal all enjoy season after season of European trips, to an extent that some fans now take it for granted.  We’ve also seen the contempt that some clubs have for playing in the competition, something that in cases like Hull City have backfired in the worst possible sense.

Then there is the new manager factor.  Bilic was a popular choice, being an old player and all that but it’s probably fair to say the (long overdue) appointment of club legend Julian Dicks to his backroom staff that has really got the Hammers excited.  The “never say die” and “win at all costs” mentality that has been sadly lacking for a number of seasons.  Bilic technically wasn’t in charge yet, that honour was with Development Squad coach Terry Westley but he would undoubtably be paraded in front of the sell-out crowd, sending the bubbles machines into a fury.

19362983675_89e4515eb1_zOf course there is the nostalgic element too.  This is the last season at the Boleyn and general sale tickets come the start of the season will be at a premium.  So fans have taken the opportunity to get a game in whilst they can.  And for once, I’m actually going to praise the club with their ticket pricing – there can certainly be no complaints of affordability for this game – less than the price of two pints of beer in the bar across the road from work in Canary Wharf.  On my world-famous Ticketobeer ratio, a price of £10 sits firmly in the green zone.

It may also be the lure of the visitors.  As far as my extensive research went, I cannot see any games played in the last twenty years between an Andorran team and an English side.  If there has been one somewhere it’s pretty fair to say the English team would have won.  Andorra are ranked 48th in European footballing terms, with out Armenia and Gibraltar below them.  Their record in the past five years of European club competition reads P 37 W 1 D 3 L 33. FC Santa Coloma hold the distinction of that solitary win (and – of the three draws) after beating the Armenian side Barants 1-0 a year ago.  New club sponsor Betway were being a little bit charitable by only offering 2/1 on there being more than 7.5 goals in the game, although 50/1 on a Lusitanas win was probably priced about right. As Saint and Greavsie used to say, “It’s a funny old game”.

18740470144_f19aa069cb_zWhilst there had been undoubtable honour in being granted a Europa League spot, the timing couldn’t have been worse.  New boss Bilic only had the first team squad for a few days of initial first team training in Ireland before it was time to pick his first squad. Despite being 50/1 to win the cup, West Ham fancied their chances of a decent run in the competition.  To get to the final though would be a mammoth 22 games played over 45 weeks.  To stand any chance you essentially need two squads of players, something a club of West Ham’s size could never do.

Stepping out of the tube station at Upton Park is an assault on the senses.  Claret and Blue everywhere, the shouts of programme and fanzine sellers, mixed with ticket touts and half ‘n’ scarf sellers (with our opponents name spelt wrong) competing for the title of the scourge of the modern game.  The Queens, one of the most famous West Ham pubs, Ken’s Cafe and London’s Best Buger (sic) all trying to entice you in.  Football is more relaxed these days.  Fans buy their beer from the numerous off licences down Green Street and sit on the walls of the houses and shops, enjoying the summer sunshine. Families make their way into the ground, clutching carrier bags from the shop where the special “farewell to the Boleyn” replica shirt is setting the tills ringing at £49.99 a piece.
A quick “Mad Dog” from the cafe in the wall on the South East corner of the ground (sausage in French bread with bacon and cheese – named after Martin Allen) and it was time to squeeze through the turnstiles designed for Kate Moss and take my seat, designed for Bridget the Midget, ready for the start of the final season at the ground I’d be coming to for 40 years.

West Ham United 3 Lusitanos FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 2nd July 2015
So this is a difficult one to call.  There’s no doubt, despite the whole “there’s no easy game in football” rubbish that West Ham will now be in the next round of the competition, but the manner of victory was hardly emphatic.  But, who really remembers the score or margin of victory when you are a few rounds in? Deep down the capacity crowd were hoping to see a hatful of goals.  Perhaps if they would have got the ball into the Lusitanos penalty area quicker for Sakho and Zarate instead of some possession play in midfield that often went nowhere it might have been a different story.  But we have to bear in mind that this was the first game of a very long season, one that’s started whilst many other clubs players haven’t even started their summer holidays yet, let alone pre-season.

19363026465_b81c0ba7f9_kFirstly the positives – despite one shot from the kick off after West Ham had taken the lead, the Andorrans didn’t trouble debutant Randoph in the Hammers goal.  They back four looked assured and it was great to see Reece Oxford, the youngest ever player to play for the first team, just 16 years and 198 days old, looking so assured on the ball. A number of other youngsters were also blooded by temporary boss Terry Westley including second half subs Elliott Lee and Josh Cullen.  A three-nil victory flattered the opposition, although they couldn’t be accused of suffering stage fright on their biggest night of their lives.
West Ham made hard work of the first half, trying to overplay at times with Zarate and Almafitano dancing around the defence but failing to deliver an end product.  Matt Jarvis was the stand-out player in the first period, beating his man time and time again, creating the chances for Sakho.  The Andorrans had come with a whole book full of time-wasting tactics, none better than the all too often triple pike, double somersault reaction to some soft challenges, although the referee was having none of it and they simply disgraced themselves with the histrionix on such a big stage.
Sakho picked up where he left last season, grabbing two first half goals whilst Tompkins added a third with a well-taken second half header.  It could and should have been more with Cullen hitting the bar late on, by which time most fans had left the ground to join the half-mile long queue for the tube.
18740427314_9da2111cb4_kSitting in the old East Stand upper tier certainly gave me a great view of the action but also put into context just how bad the facilities are.  Cramped seats, obstructed views, narrow concourses.  You can’t help think that the Boleyn is still a magnificent venue on three sides, perfectly adequate for the club. Yet on the east side of the ground there is room for a redeveloped East Stand.  The club has always insisted this isn’t a viable option yet opinion is still divided on the relocation.  Nobody wants to stand in the way of progress but likewise it seems such a shame to throw away the history of a ground that with a smallish investment could be ideal.  So many local businesses will suffer massively when West Ham move out – community is a big word these days in football and it does feel in some ways as if West Ham have won the lottery and will be moving out of their council terrace house and into a detached on a posh estate.  Of course they won’t forget their old friends – it’s just they don’t want to be reminded of them once they move.
Next up, Andorra away, for arguably the principalities biggest ever football match. Alas, with only 450 tickets on offer I’d be watching this one online.