A tale of two cities – Part 1 Dublin


15627072842_faf855b2e2_oEvery Saturday football fans from Ireland’s two biggest cities, Belfast and Dublin head off in serious numbers to support their teams. Unfortunately for the League of Ireland and the Danska Premier League that often means heading to the airport rather than the stadium down the road and jumping aboard the Ryanair express to Liverpool, Manchester or London where they will join the rest of the Premier League fans on the road to expensive, ultimate disappointment. The huge expansion of the budget airline network has meant that it is often as cheap and fast to fly from Dublin to Manchester than it is to get the train from SE9 to London Bridge using SouthEastern Railways. Back in the day when clubs considered foreign pastures exotic places such as Cork, Coleraine and Cowdenbeath, the scouts from the English top league were notorious for finding Celtic gems such as Alan Hanson (Partick Thistle), Frank McAvennie (St Mirrean) and Roy Keane (Cobh Ramblers). The backbone of the finest clubs in Europe thirty years ago was made from Irish rock and Scottish steel.

The expansion of scouting networks to the other side of the English Channel, and further afield meant that the reliance on players from Ireland in particular diminished. With it went some of the investment in the home leagues and so the downward spiral started. As soon as the likes of Ryanair and Easyjet started offering cheap seats across the Irish Sea clubs in Ireland had to start facing up to the bleak reality of having to compete each week with the Premier League for fans.

Tourism is the one growth factor in the Irish economy, ravaged by the global financial crisis and the bottom falling out of the property market. Whilst the budget airlines continue to drop their cargos of Craic-seeking tourists each week, few ever think about heading to a stadium to take in a local game. But not me! Oh no. Yes, there would be some Guinness and yes there would be a full Irish breakfast or two but I would be heading off to watch a game not only in Dublin but in a week’s time in Belfast too. If you are going to do your research, do it properly. First up would be a trip to one of Ireland’s most successful clubs, Shamrock Rovers.

An hour after losing the tourists at the airport we were hoping off the bus in Tallaght, not the traditional stop on the tourist trail. Our hotel was some way out of the city centre, but conveniently located opposite Shamrock Rover’s Tallaght Stadium. Funny that, said CMF. Of course I pleaded ignorance and blamed it on the corporate travel agent we use at work. We’d only been in the hotel a matter of minutes before a waitress in the bar spotted us.

“Look at you’se all. You need a full Irish breakfast immediate. Guinness with that for the adults?” Irish hospitality at its best. The Fuller girls had mapped a day of touristy things for me to do which conveniently avoided any pubs in Temple Bar and instead was to take us 44 metres up in the air, walking along the roof of Croke Park. Certainly one to enjoy for those, unlike me, who don’t have a morbid fear of heights, especially in the section when the walkway juts out over the pitch. “This is a cantilever design, meaning essentially there is nothing keeping us up in the air” Our chatty guide certainly had a way with words to put us at ease. Spending 90 minutes 17 stories in the air is enough to send even the most sober person to the bar.

15618248342_4e4ba5d97a_oFast forward two hours and I was sitting in a deserted Tallaght Stadium as the players of Shamrock Rovers and Limerick went through their warm ups. This was a dead rubber in terms of influence on the final shake up for the season. Shamrock could grab the final Europa League spot but only with a bizarre set of results, like those you see in Italy the end of a season. Limerick were firmly wedged in mid-table. However, all of the drama would be happening away from Dublin as just one point separated Dundalk from Cork City at the top as the two sides met in County Louth.

Whilst this would be the climax to the season that the League of Ireland would have wanted, they haven’t really enjoyed the best decade. Three of its most successful clubs, Bohemians, Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers have all come perilously close to ceasing to exist, whilst others such as Drogheda and Cork weren’t so lucky and had to reform. The move to a summer league was designed to breathe life back into the league and take advantage of the lack of Premier League action from May to August. However, with average crowds in the top league of just over 1,500, it is hard to see how some clubs remain afloat.

Whilst today, Shamrock Rovers are the best supported side in Ireland, they haven’t always had the rub of the green. Huge off-the-field issues, changes of ownership and legal and financial wranglings dogged them in the late 1990’s and into this millennium until finally in 2005 they were relegated and faced financial meltdown, hampered by falling attendances in a ground they didn’t own. With a record 17 League of Ireland titles to their name as well as providing the national team with more players than any other Irish club, Rovers simply couldn’t die.

Once again, supporter power was the answer and a fan-ownership model saved the day, with. 400-strong group managing to wrestle power from the want-away owner. The fan-owned club achieved promotion back to the top league at the first attempt and have never looked back. Ten years in and they can call the 6,000 all-seater Tallaght Stadium home as well as two League of Ireland titles plus a couple of decent European campaigns under their belt including the 2011-12 season when after losing in the Champions League Play-off against FC Copenhagen they qualified for the Europa League Group Stages, the first time an Irish club has done so, taking in ties against Tottenham, Hotspur, Rubin Kazan and PAOK.

Rovers home form had been pretty good this season, and they came into the final game having won their last four at Tallaght in a run that stretched back to those long balmy summer nights in July. A must for any visitor to the Tallaght Stadium is to visit the ticket office. This isn’t your run of the mill office – it is a memorabilia-laden trip down memory lane. Well worth a half an hour of anyone’s time. Inside the stadium the two sided stadiums probably does the job in the warmer months, but in the dying days of October it was bloody freezing, with the wind blowing in from each end. The hardcore Rovers fans were all huddled together in the east stand, whilst the Limerick fans had arrived in fancy dress. Scooby Do, Super Mario, Osama Bin Laden and finally one chap who obviously got to the fancy dress shop late and had to take the last outfit on the peg, Katie Price. Actually he pulled the look off rather well and could probably earn a living as her body double and brain.

Shamrock Rovers 1 Limerick 0 – Tallaght Stadium – Friday 24th October 2014
The two teams took to the field with Erasure’s “A Little Respect” playing. Forty five minutes later the referee blew for half time and there hadn’t been much that had warmed our freezing cockles in between a Bell and a whistle (cryptic reference there pop pickers) with Limerick coming the closest to breaking the deadlock when Ian Turner’s shot hit the underside of the bar and flew back out. At least the fans tried to generate some real atmosphere, despite this being the last game of the season.

15597489006_8ce5818c65_oEven the most optimistic reporters around me were struggling to fill their word count for the match reports. Just after half-time the effects of my Irish breakfast were wearing off and so I ventured down to the chip van, which of course meant as soon as I was out of sight of the pitch the only piece of drama in the evening occurred. Rovers were awarded a penalty when Kilduff was adjudged to have been fouled by Oji. McCabe stepped up and scored. Typing and eating steaming chips doesn’t really mix so I relied on voice to text to complete my match report, which makes interesting reading, interspersed with phrases like “oooh hot” and “mmmm vinegar”. Hard to really factor those into the second half update. Fortunately I’d polished them off before anything else meaningful happened when Limerick missed a final minute sitter. Full time on the game and the season. A small mutter went up at the announcement of Dundalk’s win at home against Cork City, perhaps in irony at the fact the Dundalk manager was Stephen Kenny, sacked by Rovers two years ago, now a double winner. However, their real ire was saved for the Bohemians score, a 2-1 win over Derry City. They really don’t like the chaps from Dalymount Park in these parts.

15618787861_5897a6caf2_oSo what next for Rovers? The League of Ireland continues to be a very open league, with Dundalk becoming the fourth winner in the last five years.  Whilst European football brings in additional revenue for the clubs involved, it is interesting that the team who ends up winning the league are those who do not have the distraction of Europe.  Rover’s issue has been the lack of goals, scoring 30 less than champions Dundalk.

Sunshine greeted us the following morning as we headed out to see the main sights of Dublin, which were punctuated by numerous refuelling stops. My aim was to find and sample the three “lesser” spotted variants of Guinness – Foreign Extra Stout, Special Export and the relatively new Black Lager. Objectives achieved, Lewes and West Ham recorded wins in the early games and another Irish breakfast that Alan (Partridge) would have struggled to have fitted on his special big plate and I was a very happy man. Life was good. Hats off to Dublin for delivering on virtually every aspect of a great weekend – the actual match aside. Now, could Belfast step up to the plate?

Bulls plunged into dispair


There have been so many appalling scandals involving football teams in the last 20 years that it is difficult to pick out one for special mention, but the shocking going-ons at Hereford United take some beating.

A proud club, Hereford will always be remembered for that Ronnie Radford thunderbolt in the FA Cup victory against mighty Newcastle United in 1972.  But as recently as 2009 the Bulls were in League One, upsetting the football betting odds left, right, and centre by playing and beating the likes of Leeds United, renowned for their attacking football and financial security.

Fast-forward five years and Hereford United is a club in turmoil, its heart broken by greedy businessman, and the fans boycotting the team’s matches.  Relegated from League Two in 2011-12, just six years after clinching promotion from the Conference, the Bulls finished sixth in their first season back at level five under the stewardship of Martin Foyle before the problems really started.

Former chairman David Keyte somehow managed to increase the club’s debts to £1.5million despite a deterioration in the quality on the pitch and annoyed Foyle so much that the former Port Vale striker launched a winding-up petition against the club in May.

Lurch from one crisis to another

More winding-up orders came and went and the reviled Keyte eventually sold the club to Tommy Agombar, who became one of the few men to fail the FA’s owners and directors test. He then sold up to a company specialising in distressed debts, Alpha Choice Finance.

Despite handing the club several new deadlines to sort out their debts, the Conference finally lost patience with Hereford and threw them out of their league, ironically just weeks after a last-gasp Michael Rankine goal had staved off relegation on the pitch.

Hereford were accepted into the Southern Premier League despite still lurching from one crisis to another, a league two levels further down the football pyramid than the Conference.  A rag-tag of players continue to wear the Hereford shirt but less than 250 people paid to watch the team lose 2-1 to Corby Town in October, just ten per cent of the numbers that regularly turned up at Edgar Street less than five years ago.

In an attempt to draw more attention to their plight, more than 200 United fans took their protest against the club’s current regime to Kidderminster for their game against Welling United at Aggborough.

Future looks bleak

Banners explaining Hereford’s situation were on view at a match which was televised by BT Sport, and applause broke out around the ground in the 24th minute to mark the club’s foundation in 1924. But the future looks bleak. Agombar’s holding companies have sought to take control of the club’s leases on Edgar Street, although the council, who own the land, opposed the moves and the requests were withdrawn. The whole situation remains a mess and, as usual, it is the fans who suffer.

 

Great Scott – The best British football awaydays


Over the past week or so the BBC’s survey into the cost of football has been dissected to death.  We have questioned the validity of the survey, especially when looking at the costs of some of the ticket prices submitted by the clubs in question, especially in the Premier League category.  Earlier this week, the chaps at Scotts Menswear revealed the results of their survey, taken from questions posed to their customers and football pundits alike.  The results, which can be seen in all of their glory here, have certainly thrown up a few surprises.

Best Overall Match day Experience – Wembley Stadium (2nd – Man Utd, 3rd – Tottenham Hotspur)
8728975011_2d1a4f0641_bComing from the Non-Leagues I shouldn’t really agree with this one but there is no doubt that every fan wants to see their team play at Wembley.  Whilst the fans of Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd plus smaller clubs like Arsenal (joke) moan about the cost and the travel arrangements, try telling a fan of Tunbridge Wells or Gosport Borough, both of whom have played at the World’s most famous stadium in the past two seasons that it was over rated.  I can only assume that lots of West Ham fans voted to make Spurs the third best away day after last seasons two wins out of two there!

Best Pie – Wigan Athletic (2nd – Kilmarnock 3rd – Kidderminster)
I was disappointed to see that Brighton & Hove Albion only came in 4th in this one with their locally made pies which every home game feature a special “guest” pie.  At the game last week we tucked into the delicious Sausage and Cheesy Beans pie..outstanding.  So what is on offer at Wigan must be really special.  Poole’s Pies is the name on everyone’s lips in Lancashire it appears.

Best Pint  – Derby County (2nd – Newcastle 3rd – Brighton)
Pull on your best Fred Perry clobber and head to the game early for a beer or two.  But let’s park the Stella and Fosters for one minute and try something different.  No arguments in this category for the winner as the pubs on offer around Derby offer some top class ales.  Newcastle has the advantage of a city centre location and so around 200 match day choices whilst Brighton has the superb local beers from Harveys and Dark Star on sale in the Amex Stadium.

 

 

Seagulls brought down to earth by busy Boro


This week has once again seen the cost of watching the beautiful game hit the headlines with the release of the BBC’s annual cost of watching football survey.  Like last year (and the years before that) the results of the survey simply proved a platform of out-of-touch politicians to bleat about how unfair it was on the average fan and their family whilst not actually having the balls to do something about it.  Football clubs on the most part hid in a corner, not prepared to justify the true reasons behind the rise in the whole matchday experience.

The situation wasn’t helped by the comments of rent-a-gob Robbie Savage who added fuel to the flames by saying that “To be completely honest, during my 20-year playing career, I never once thought about how much it was costing fans to go to game”.  Why did he think that would be a good thing to say?  Why not just keep his mouth shut.  Comments like this just make him look even more out of touch.  His frequent responses on Radio5Live’s 606 to fans phoning in of “have you played the game?” to try and put down people’s valid opinions have simply added to the irritant factor that he developed as a player.  In all of the years I have been watching football I have never found anyone who has a good word about Savage.

The main reaction to the results for the English clubs was to compare it to watching football in Europe.  The BBC somehow managed to concoct a figure that 1,000 (an amazingly exact figure) watch Borussia Dortmund at every home game.  How on earth do they know that?  Having been a relatively regular visitor to the Bundesliga, you rarely hear an English voice.  With demand for Dortmund and Bayern Munich far outstripping supply, where these 1,000 tickets come from is still a mystery. Likewise, the mythical sub £100 season tickets are on available to those on a long waiting list.  Of course there are some English-based fans who do own season tickets with overseas clubs and make frequent trips overseas, but these are in the minority.

Arsenal came out of the survey poorly, once again, with their cheapest season ticket the most expensive in British football three-times more expensive than Premier League Champions Manchester City.  In their AGM, held just 24 hours after the result of the survey were released, the club tried to justify that paying over £1,000 for a season ticket or £97 for a seat was value for money.  After all, they did beat Wigan Athletic and Hull City in the FA Cup last season.  According to the survey, you can buy a ticket for West Ham for £20.  That is correct.  For the Leicester City game only.  For seven other games in the Premier League this season that same seat would cost between £50 and £60.

Nowadays my viewing pleasure is almost exclusively restricted to the Non-League game…and European matches.  But today I would be making a rare excursion in the SkyBet Championship.  According to the survey, a trip to watch Brighton & Hove Albion is the most expensive in the whole Football League, and five pounds more than a trip to Upton Park.  Exactly. That’s why some of the results of the survey cannot be taken on face value, a comment echoed in the match day programme by CEO Paul Barber.  What you cannot fault The Seagulls for though is the imagination they put into their match day catering.  For this game we had the choice of a Sausage with Cheezy Beans Pie and a pint of Hobgoblin.  Take that Pukka and Fosters!

IMG_3534Every couple of weeks I drive past the monument to the Seagulls on my way to The Dripping Pan. The Amex is one of the best new stadiums built in this country in the last fifty years.  A bold statement but one backed up by the views of the fans who flock there every two weeks. In the first season the “sold out” signs were a frequent occurance leading to the club increasing the capacity by adding an additional tier on the East Stand leading to the club having the highest average attendance in the Championship for the last two years.  Part of the reason for the growth has been the expectations set on the pitch – two consecutive appearances in the Play-offs have been bitter-sweet rewards for the fans who have experienced the pain of defeat and the subsequent loss of their manager.

The club will have looked on enviously as Leicester City, Burnley, Hull City and especially bitter rivals Crystal Palace move up into the land of milk and honey.  With the new TV deal in place for the lucky twenty clubs in the Premier League, The Seagulls acted quickly in the summer to bring in a manager with top league experience, recruiting ex-Bayer Leverkusen manager Sami Hyypiä.  Results haven’t so far been stellar, with four draws in their eleven league games so far.  Depending on how you look at results, they came into the game against Middlesbrough on a five game unbeaten run, including a win in the League Cup that has taken them into the last sixteen and a game against Spurs, or they had only won once in the last eight.  Football, eh!

The visitors also had their eye on the Premier League, having endured the last six seasons in the Championship and dispensed with the services of club legend Tony Mowbray last year, replacing him with Spaniard Aitor Karanka.  So far, so good this season as Boro’ arrived in East Sussex just one point of top spot.  Had a score draw written all over it.

Brighton & Hove Albion 1 Middlesbrough 2- The Amex – Saturday 18th October 2014
Despite the late, last-gasp rally by The Seagulls they were clearly the second best team on display at The Amex despite what the stats say.  Brighton had 62% of the possession and sixteen shots on target yet it Boro’ keeper Konstantopoulos hardly got his gloves dirty as the the visitors defence held firm and threw themselves at everything heading their way.

The visitors, starting the game with just one up front, could have possibly been down to ten men in the first fifteen seconds when George Friend’s “welcome” to Brighton’s Teixeira was late and high.  Ref Andy D’Urso (remember him?  The stress of refereeing has turned him grey) elected not to play the advantage despite Teixeira’s pass having sent one of his colleagues free on goal.  D’Urso adopted the “well, it’s early in the game” rule meaning Friend escaped any censorship at all.  Fifteen minutes he finally went in the book after another “robust” challenge.  Teixeira would only go on to last half an hour.

The visitors took the lead in the 7th minute when a well-worked move saw Tomlin sweep the ball high into the Seagulls net after Brighton had failed to clear any danger.  Whilst Albion huffed and puffed around the edge of the box they lacked the cutting edge that put the Boro goal under pressure.  The half-time break couldn’t have come quick enough for Hyypiä, nor by the look of the queue for beer on the concourse the vast majority of the Seagulls fans.DCIM100GOPROHyypiä made a change at half-time and for the first few minutes they played with some pace, but then in the 52nd minute they were undonw by a Middlesbrough counter-attack and when the ball was played into the danger area Adomah reacted quickest.  Although his first effort was well saved down at the near post, he Boro’ forward was on hand to squeeze the rebound home from a tight angle.  Two-nil and it appeared game over.

With just ten points separating the promotion from relegation positions in the Championship, teams can move up and down the table quickly and the in-play score saw Middlesbrough heading to the summit whilst Brighton headed towards the League One trap door.  Some fans around us high in the West Stand started to vent their frustration and headed for the exits…although in truth they were really going to the bar and would watch the rest of the game on the TV screens.  There’s almost 3/4th of the season to play for – plenty of time for things to go right (or wrong).

A late spell of pressure on the Boro’ goal resulted in Greer heading home after a spell of aerial pinball to give Albion hope but even with five added minutes to play they never really looked, or in truth, deserved an equaliser against a very well marshalled Middlesbrough team.

To relate back to the BBC survey – had we had value for money?  Absolutely.  Whilst the cold, hard stats suggest The Amex is not the cheapest place to visit, it certainly is one of the best in the Football League and certainly a favourite among away fans, especially when they don’t have to work too hard to come away with three points.

A former State of mind


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I heard it on the Twitter Vine


Football has much bigger things to worry about than six second videos being shared across Social Media hasn’t it?  Well not if you read some of the more recent news stories and official comments made by the governing bodies that run the game in England.  Statements using words such as “crackdown”, “unlawful” and “infringing” have elevated the issue to headline status with organisations including the BBC, Bloomberg and The Financial Times covering the story in depth in the past few weeks.  But is it all just a storm in a tea cup?

It is important to take a step back and understand the context before we can really pass any judgement.  The facts on face value are simple.  Any distribution of copyrighted material, irrespective of the medium, is piracy. Back in the day it used to be confined to taping the Top 40 off Radio 1, finger ready at the pause button to avoid Mike Reid’s voice.  Technology has presented us with so many opportunities to take our media with us wherever we go in a digital form, but that has increased the problem of piracy to untold lengths.  Illegal distribution of latest film releases is still a major issues for film studios as well as cinemas who need to constantly police their theatres to ensure nobody is covertly recording movies.

Vine-LogoVine seems to be the latest problem child.  The app, designed specifically for the smartphone, allows users to make their own 6 second “movie”, condensing video and pictures, then sharing with the world at the touch of a button.  Formed in June 2012, the start-up was acquired by Twitter before it even officially launched for a reported $30 million having been seen as a natural rival to what Facebook were trying to do with Instagram.  Today, with over 40 million users, Vine is a platform for those with creative vision, challenging users to make those six seconds unique, compelling and above all worthy of sharing on Social Media.  According to an article published by US Library of Medicine earlier this year, our attention span has dropped to just eight seconds on average, meaning that Vine is becoming the perfect media for advertisers who want to grab the attention of Internet users.

The fact that the word “vine” has now entered the modern day lexicon along with Tweet, SnapChat and Like shows how we consume digital content.  So why is there a problem?

During an average 90 minute football match, the ball is only actually in-play and live for around 50 minutes.  Out of that period how many minutes are taken up by goal mouth action or incidents?  Five minutes at the maximum?  You only have to watch the final game every Saturday on Match of the Day to see how brutal an editor can be with a mediocre game, reducing 90 minutes down into 90 seconds.  So if you are able to compartmentalise the key moments, Vine becomes the perfect medium to share the action.  With our short attention span, do we really need to see the same incident for every angle or just be able to pause and rewind it ourselves?

The Premier League is the richest football league in the world. The excesses in our national game have been driven by outlandish commercial deals, spiralling ticket prices but above all, multi-billion pound TV deals.  Having invested so much money into these deals, broadcasters such as Sky have to get the return on their investment in terms of subscribers.  One way to get new viewers and keep the old ones coming back month after month? Invest in the technology.  Sky Plus, TiVo boxes and hard disk recorders are all now staple items in living rooms up and down the country allowing us to record, pause, rewind and access additional content as standard.  By being able to rewind the action to the point where the latest action starts, Vine users can then simply take a screenshot of the action then press publish.  Seconds later the goal can be seen on timelines of millions of people across the world on Twitter. This has been the catalyst to the high-profile issue that the Premier League want to clamp down on.  So in summary, the commercial rights that they put on the table have essentially fuelled a problem they now want the broadcasters and Social Media to stop.

So what exactly is the issue?  In its simplest form it is one of copyright infringement.  Everything that happens on a Premier League football pitch is copyrighted, owned by the clubs, the governing bodies, the advertisers, the broadcasters or the sponsors.  Even taking pictures within a stadium can get you ejected or even arrested – the use of any device that can capture or distribute digital content is explicitly banned according to the stadiums conditions of entry, although few will mind you taking the odd snap or two.  The reason is that every time you capture an image it will contain copyrighted material.  A shirt sponsor, a perimeter board even a player’s face themselves.  Companies pay millions to have exclusive rights to be associated with the players, the clubs and the stadiums and they take a dim view of anyone else having a free ride.

Good old technology again has made the professional production of instant highlights possible and so the Premier League has been able to offer additional rights packages to commercial partners.  Last season the Premier League sold the online digital rights for the distribution of goal action to News International to mobile devices. Their paid-app product touts “almost immediate” access to every goal in the Premier League.  Yet before they can push the net-rippler out, thousands of people have already shared the moment through a Vine on Social Media.  What is the value then in a subscriber using their service if they can get it quicker, and cheaper, elsewhere?   If existing subscribers simply walk away from the paid service, what value are News International getting from their significant investment and are they likely to renew it?

Match of the Day used to be our only way of seeing the day’s main action.  Today, before the famous theme tune starts just after 10.30pm on a Saturday, all of the day’s main talking points have been shown around the world thousands of times. What football fans want to see are those incidents that the TV broadcasters never show.  Take the example from the opening day’s Premier League game between West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur.  An eventful game with two sending offs, a missed penalty and a late winner for the visitors.  But the main event which was shared across the world via Vine was when a pitch invader ran on the turf and took a free-kick on goal that was being lined up whilst being pursued by stewards.  Yet that one incident will never be shown on Match of the Day, Sky Sports or BT Sports. Why?  Because it may encourage others to do the same? Maybe, but the main reason is that it could be deemed to undermine the value of our game to those commercial partners.

So what can the Premier League do to enforce the laws on copyright infringement on Vine?  Practically, very little.  The one aspect here is one of the fundamental principles of English law.  To be found guilty of an offence the perpetrator has to demonstrate the “mens rea” and the “actus rea”- the guilty mind and guilty act.  In theory, if someone didn’t mean to do something wrong, they can’t be found guilty of an offence.  It is not always as simple as that but does someone who takes a Vine of Aaron Ramsey’s 90th minute winner for Arsenal versus Crystal Palace doing so because he is intent on infringing the Premier League, among others, image rights or because he wanted to share the moment with millions of fellow Arsenal fans across the world?

Once infringing content has been identified, there is still the issue of removing it.  The beauty of Social Media is that it’s instantaneous.  I can quickly search using hashtag for the material I want and see immediately.  But if material needs to be removed there is a set process that has to be followed and that takes time.  The reason why hundreds of millions of people use Twitter is that it allows free speech.  If it was heavily policed then people would simply move elsewhere.  So whilst the Premier League can request that content is removed for legitimate copyright infringing reasons, it will have been seen by thousands of people already.

So is this just sabre-rattling by the football authorities, or will they genuinely crackdown on users sharing illegal content?  Brand and reputation monitoring solutions are becoming more effective every month but they would still need to justify the investment in a comprehensive solution would be effective in eliminating the problem.  We see technology advancing all the time, so who is to say what medium we will using and consuming in six months let alone six years.  Football has far too many other issues that need to be addressed before it can genuinely think about policing social media to stop these issues.

PS – I wrote this a few weeks ago.  On Saturday I noticed that a very well-known ex-Premier League footballer who is now a commentator on a national commercial radio station tweeted a “Vine” from the Liverpool v West Brom game whilst it was still in-play to his hundreds of thousands Twitter followers, breaching the rules.

England C get A Team treatment


England C head coach Paul Fairclough has been able to use the state-of-the-art training facilities at St George’s Park for the first time as he prepares his squad for their crucial Challenge Trophy Group A clash against Turkey. On the back of the summer’s disappointing 1-0 defeat to Slovakia, England know they need to come away from Turkey with a victory if they are going to maintain their place in the tournament, with England C then set to face Estonia in November.

Made up of players competing outside of the Football League (which you can follow and receive all the latest news and updates at bluesq.com), England C have now officially been made a part of Club England – opening the door for the squad to use the country’s £105m national football centre – and Fairclough has admitted he still has plenty to think about before the trip to Turkey.

“I’m not closing the door on anyone because we’ve still got a few weeks before the Turkey game. The lads who have been selected are in pole position. We’ve got to be sensitive to the needs of the clubs. The boys will come to us off the back of a very fierce league game.”

Bristol Rovers duo Lee Brown and Tom Parkes have been named in the squad for the match at Basaksehir Fatih Terim Stadium in Istanbul on October 14th. Both players are now expected to miss the trip to Aldershot in order to participate in the England C clash, although the twosome are due back at their club for the game against Forest Green on October 18. Both Brown and Parkes have been stand-outs in the Rovers team under Darrell Clarke this season, playing key roles in Rovers run of five wins in six games to leave the club sixth in the Conference and still very much in touch with league leaders Barnet.