The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.

Is that all you have at home?


12389631394_b0baf187aa_zDespite all the grumblings of being a Non-League fan, we have it quite good in England.  Down here in the seventh tier of English football we often see crowds break the four figure barrier, even on occasions pulling in bigger crowds than teams in the Football League.  In the Evostik League North, FC United of Manchester average nearly 1,900, whilst five other clubs have recorded crowds of over 1,000.  In the Ryman Premier League Maidstone United continue to set the standard, averaging over 1,700 whilst both Margate and Dulwich Hamlet can lay claim to gates in excess of 2,000 so far this season.  Down at The Dripping Pan we’ve averaged just over 500 so far this season, a figure that would have been much higher if our lucrative game in January against Dulwich Hamlet would have gone ahead.  Whilst every club at our level wants bigger crowds and has to constantly fight to grab the attention of the fan who parks their car outside the ground before heading off on public transport to the Premier/Football League side down the road, we aren’t doing that bad when we look at the situation in other European leagues.

Bar Germany, nowhere else in Europe has such an extensive league pyramid.  In fact, scratch below the surface of the major leagues in other countries and you will see games played in front of one man and his dog.  Whilst the best support leagues in Europe rarely change from season to season (Germany, England, Spain, Italy and France), the worst supported leagues may raise an eyebrow or two. So here is your definitive guide to the five worst supported top football leagues in Europe*

5th Place – Montenegro (average attendance – 473)
The “Black Mountains” of the Balkans, Montenegro only got their place at the UEFA table in 2006. Prior to that they were lumped in with Yugoslavia (until 1991) and then Serbia.  Water Polo is deemed to be the most popular sport, although a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics for Womens Handball has given rise to anpther distraction from watching the domestic T-Com Prva CFL.  The best supported team is FK Sutjeska Nikšić of course, who regularly attract crowds of nearly 1,000 although the biggest club is FK Budućnost Podgorica who have fallen on harder times and have to make do with just crowds of around 700 floating around the 12,000 capacity national stadium, the Pod Goricom.

4th Place – Faroe Islands (average attendance – 472)
With a population of around 50,000, the fact that 1% regularly watch the domestic EffoDeildin is actually pretty impressive – significantly more than virtually every other nation in the world.  Considering the only other leisure activities involve puffin watching, lace knitting or sheep baiting, then football is actually a very passionate affair on the islands.  B36 Tórshavn are the best supported and most successful side, regularly trying their hand to progress in the Champions League qualifying rounds.  They play at the national stadium, the Gundadalur, a short work from the bright lights of central Tórshavn in front of an average 774, with derbies against HB often attracting crowds of over 2,000.

3rd Place – Wales (average attendance – 324)
6013190150_0da9e359be_zDespite the promise of three European spots for the twelve teams who complete in the Corbett Sport Welsh Premier League (plus a fourth spot for the winners of the Welsh Cup), the clubs fail to attract the attention of the Cardiff City/Swansea City/Wrexham/Newport County supporting locals.  Add in the distractions of major European Rugby Union most weekends and you can see why the domestic game struggles to grab the attention of the locals.  In the past few seasons, Neath FC tried to raise the bar by bringing in players like former Football League sharp-shooter Lee Trundle, but soon found themselves in financial ruin and out of the league.  Today, most games are played out in front of less than 500 fans with Bangor City the best supported, gaining some new fans after their run in the Champions League qualifying competition this year and their picturesque Nantporth ground on the banks of the Menai Straits.  Port Talbot Town, sitting in between Cardiff and Swansea are bottom of the attendance list, although their Victoria Road ground allows you to watch games from the comfort of your car.

2nd Place – Latvia (average attendance – 276)
It’s all about Ice Hockey in Latvia when those long winter nights descend on cities like Riga.  Football takes a back seat, despite a decent national team showing over the past few years.  Domestic crowds in the catchily-named SMSCredit.lv Virsliga are on a par with the majority of teams in the Ryman Premier League with only FK Liepāja breaking the 1,000 mark.  Stadiums are more akin to county league standards although the beer is cheaper.  The big Riga derby played between former champions Skonto and Metta is normally played out in front of a 90% empty national stadium.

1st Place – Estonia (average attendance – 255)
this-is-first-division-football-tallinn-styleAs an outsider, you may wonder what Estonians have to do if it isn’t pitching up to watch a game of football each week.  Well, having visited the beautiful city of Tallinn I can suggest that the local “attractions” keep the locals amused come 3pm on a Saturday.  Add in some cheap beer, even cheaper local spirits and their love of Ice Hockey and Basketball and you can understand why an average Meistriliiga game is only watched by 255.  The best supported team, Flora Tallinn who play in the 10,000 all seater Le Coq Arena often break the 1,000 mark but the rest of the league get crowds that wouldn’t look out of place in the Ryman League South.

* We do not have any figures for potentially smaller leagues such as Andorra or Malta.

Willem, it was really something


“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town
this town has dragged you down
oh the rain falls hard on a humdrum town
this town has dragged you down

And everybody’s got to live their life
and God knows I’ve got to live mine
God knows I’ve got to live mine”

There’s not many places more depressing than a Dutch town centre at 10am on a Sunday morning.  That is unless it is also a National Holiday.  The excesses of the previous night’s hi-jinx were slowly wearing off, thanks to the cold rain as we wandered the streets of Eindhoven looking for somewhere, anywhere to get some breakfast.  We’d declined the €17 “all you could eat Continental” offering at the hotel,

Finally, we came up trumps.  The Restaurant De Volder was not only open, but the lovely waitresses were almost begging us to come into the warm, flashing their hot Dutch muffins at us.  We all remember the De Volder, right?  Well, perhaps not the restaurant itself, but its outside tables and chairs made a number of appearances across global media channels in June 2000 when England fans decided to use them to launch at the Dutch fans and police prior to the European Championship game against Portugal.  Dave was tempted to re-create the scene but we pointed out that he simply didn’t have enough Stone Island on to be taken credibly.

I can see a hand up at the back. Yes?  Ah, why were we in Eindhoven on a National Holiday I hear you ask.  Well, pull up a seat and let me explain.  Danny said it was what we had to do.  “Stu, do you know Holland has gone craft beer crazy?”  I assumed he had just discovered that Heineken also made Amstel, but no, he was right.  His book “Which countries have gone craft beer crazy” list The Netherlands as a new entry in the top five, pop-pickers.  So that was it, I was sold.  So too was Kenny Legg, hot-footing it from Berlin and a new addition to our gang, Dave who coming from Manchester, had grown up from a teet-filled with Boddingtons.

Oh, and there was the small matter of some football too.  The original plan involved seeing the holy trinity of Dutch football.  PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord.  But then pesky TV coverage got in the way and we had to make some difficult choices with conflicting priorities.  But there was still going to be beer, so it was all right.

16599055966_cfb0bb8745_zSaturday morning and Danny & I met our advance party, who had arrived 24 hours earlier and taken in the Eindhoven FC game, in a bar obviously.  Nothing unusual about that, nor was drinking 9% beer at 2pm.  Seemed a strange choice from Kenny and Dave.  Then we saw the attraction.  A steady stream of young ladies coming through the doors and making their way to “the back room”.  Our minds were racing, Kenny was already pulling on his “hot fireman’s outfit” (his words, not ours) and grabbing a bottle of baby oil.  Alas, the steamiest thing happening in the room was the teapot in the middle of the table.  Ladies who luck, Dutch style.

Our first destination for the weekend was Sittard, a 45 minute (2 can strategy) train ride away, home of Wim Hof or “Iceman” as he is known as, not because of his cool composure under pressure, or the fact he is a look-a-like from Top Gun.  But because he once walked to within 7km of the summit of Mount Everest wearing a small pair of shorts.  It is also the home of Francine Houben, creator of Mecano.  Sittard is a rocking place I can tell you.  Danny had done his research and our first pre-match warm-up location promised a craft beer list as long as your arm.  For sake of brevity, below is an edited conversation that took place between Danny and said landlord:-

“Do you have any of these beers?” Danny shows a list on his phone

“Yes”

“Which ones?”

“Which ones do you want to try?”

“Well, if I know which ones you have then I can let you have them”

Enter Stuart – “Danny, they have Maximus on draft.  That’s on the list”

“We don’t have any Maximus.  The beer pump is just for display”

Danny, sighing..“Do you have a beer list?”

“No….you really do not understand how craft beer works, do you?”

Enter Kenny with a beer list that was on every table “Can I have four Le Trapp Blonde’s?”

“Yes”

As we speak, world-famous playwright and good friend of this website, Patrick Marber, is writing a script for a play that will be put on at the Domnar Warehouse based on the very scene in Sittard.

16434882400_07987e219f_zA few other craft beers later, all of which were on the beer menu, we headed to the Offermans Joosten Stadion, a significantly better name than its previous identity of the Trendwork Arena.  I may not be selling it very well by saying it is an out-of-town, out of the box, identikit stadium with no soul or character.  The club, having survived numerous financial problems seem rooted in the Eereste Division, the second tier of Dutch football, having been relegated from the top tier in 2002 – the Sheffield Wednesday of the league if you like.  The fans, wrapped up warm on a cold and wet night in the far corner of The Netherlands made their way to the stadium, with hope rather than expectation, of a win against the visitors FC Almere City.

Fortuna Sittard 1 FC Almere City 2 – Offermans Joosten Stadion – Saturday 21st February 2015
The Fortuna Sittard website summed up this game perfectly when they said “Op uiterst onfortuinlijke wijze heeft Fortuna Sittard de thuiswedstrijd tegen Almere City FC verloren.” Or, we were robbed.  An 88th minute winner for the away team was rough justice perhaps, but Fortuna paid the price of not putting their chances away.

16414595207_b709b20dfe_zBeing a Dutch ground, we had to get munted up before we could indulge in some traditional refreshments.  These strange plastic coins almost serve no purpose when you think about it. 2 munts cost €1.  A beer costs 2 munts, therefore why not simply charge €2 for a beer?  Logic?  We didn’t complain though, although the walk to the top of the stand holding four of them, plus a couple of Frikadelle in each pocket was problematic.

The home fans tried to raise the team’s performance but ultimately they fell short (the team not the fans).  Almere took a 24th minute lead when Bode Wine (brother of Red and White) scored from close range. Somewhere in the stadium a few away fans made some noise, but that was drowned out three minutes later when Connech equalised, following up like all good strikers should when a shot hit the post.

Alas, there was (almost) last-minute heartache for the 2,000 fans when Ahannach scored from close range and sent the away coach, Fred Grim into frenzied delight that his name suggests.

Despite it only being 9.30pm, Sittard was officially shut.  The only source of heat was a Dominos pizza.  Saturday night appears to be a non-event in these parts.  Our only option was a train back to Eindhoven.

Of course, Eindhoven delivered in large dollops, with the hedonistic delights of Stratumseind delivering on every level.  We turned our back on the ear-splitting Europop bars, taking solace in the 100+ different beers in the BierProfessor and The Jack.  Heck, we even indulged in the Dutch’s third most popular past time, football being the first, the second being….well, we’ve all seen the window displays in Amsterdam.

So back to the future on Sunday morning in the cafe.  Our original plan for the weekend was PSV at home Saturday, then a trip to see Willem II v Ajax on Sunday lunchtime then Feyenoord on Sunday evening.  The reality was essentially all three ending up playing at the same time.  Logic would have seen us make the 10 minute walk through the city centre to the PSV Stadion, but we don’t do logic so we were heading to Tilburg to watch Ajax play on and off the pitch.

16434816068_621aca3d46_zIf Eindhoven was dead, then Tilburg at midday was in Rigor Mortis.  We knocked up a bar owner, not in THAT way – he was in his mid-fifties and well passed his child-bearing years) before heading down to Koning II Stadion.  Ajax’s fearsome reputation seemed to have been lost on the locals who were happily going about their Sunday afternoon, cycling and eating pancakes. But the closer you got to the stadium, the more the atmosphere built.  In the club bar, with the obligatory Europop playing, fans were discussing the recent revelations about match fixing (well, that’s what it sounded like over a soundtrack of Melissa Tkatz and Franky Gee).  In early 2015, journalists from the publication Volkskrant revealed that Willem II had been involved in games that appeared to have been influenced by an “Asian gambling syndicate” in regard to games against Ajax and Feyenoord, played over five years previous. Not much the current owners, players and officials of the club can do about that now.

Willem II Tilburg 1 Ajax 1 – Koning II Stadion – Sunday 22nd February 2015
This was certainly the hottest ticket in town, with the game sold out.  The sun was shining, the fans were singing and the beer was flowing.  You can’t beat a day out like this.  A draw was a fair result as both teams seemed to struggle to break down each other’s midfield.  Champions Ajax came into the game off the back of a tricky Europa League tie in Poland just three days previous and took the lead in the first half when Milik’s low shot found the corner of the net.

16621235692_d41fdf74cc_zAfter the break Tilburg upped their game and grabbed an equaliser when Messaoud and could well have gone on to win the game.  At full-time there was the usual confrontation between the two sets of fans across two sets of security fences and police but it was all good-natured (as good-natured as it can be in these parts anyway).

Our night, well afternoon really, was young and we headed for the bright light of the city centre (there is only one – Cafe Kandinsky) for a couple of well-earned beers before heading back to Eindhoven. One last tip – if you ever find yourself in Eindhoven, forget the bars in Stratumseind and head to Van Moll for one of the best evenings ever, surrounded by over 50 beers.  Lovely stuff – not my words, but those of Kenny “AITINPOT” Legg.

You see – it’s not always about the football…..

Economic Theory explained by Football – Part 5 – The fake deal in football shirts


In 2012, the major professional sports leagues in the United States lost over $13 Billion in revenue due to sales of counterfeit shirts and merchandise including a whopping $3 Billion alone from the 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL).  Some top end “authentic elite” team shirts which should retail for $250 could be found online with an 80% discount*.   These numbers, whilst staggering on their own, are just a drop in the ocean when we look at the total “black” economy which runs annually into trillions of dollars.

8835116252_85b97df617_kIn Europe, football means something very different to the American version.  Whilst the biggest NFL sides can expect to sell tens of thousands of shirts (neither official shirt supplier Nike or the NFL will actually reveal unit sales), the unit sales for the best selling “franchise”, 2014 Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks pales into insignificance to current European Champions League winners Real Madrid who sell over 1.4 million shirt sales per annum, the vast majority now bearing the names of twin superstars Ronaldo and our very own Gareth Bale.  Hot on their heels is Manchester United and Barcelona, each selling over a million shirts per annum. The top ten football clubs sell over 7.5 million shirts per annum across the globe, significantly more than the top ten clubs of any other sport.

Obviously these numbers only reflect the official sales.  Browsing the new adidas store at Bluewater last week I picked up a Real Madrid shirt, complete with an official Champions League badge on the sleeve. The prices tag? £60. Last month Nike and the Football Association found themselves being the talk of the town for the wrong reasons with questions even being raised in the Houses of Parliament over the price of the New England shirt, with those “authentic elite” versions again costing upwards of £90.

Football shirts are not luxury items, yet their official price tag puts them in the same category as similar types of items sold by the likes of Armani, Gucci and Versace.  £60 for what essentially is a t-shirt is simply crazy, irrespective of the new-fangled material used to differentiate the latest version from the almost identical one released the previous year.  They are a lifestyle purchase. Whilst a very small numbers of sales will be based on fashion sense, the vast majority are based on the blind loyalty that football fans have for their team.

In the last few years manufacturers and clubs alike have come under criticism for the number of new kits they bring out.  Whilst nobody is forced to buy the new, upgraded version of the shirt when it is released, that same blind loyalty has has queuing up to buy the shirt on the first day of sale.

It is the rule rather than the exception that clubs bring out a new football shirt every year.  Not just one shirt, but in some instances six different versions if you count the special “European campaign” and goal keeper ones. Chelsea, for instance, have released fourteen different kits, excluding their goalkeepers one, in just five seasons.

With the retail cost increasing every year it is no wonder that the market for counterfeit goods is swelling every year. Just last month a huge haul of fake football shirts was discovered on its way into the United States. More than $1 million worth of Chelsea, Barcelona and other major European football teams shirts were found in a container at Savannah Port in Georgia that had arrived from China.  The US Customs and Border Protection force will readily admit they got lucky in finding the counterfeit items in Georgia – hundreds of millions more pass under their noses every year without detection.

The majority of counterfeit football shirts are made in Asia where raw materials and workers wages are very low.  Over the course of the last few years I’ve been to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the Night Market in Marrakech, the Ladies Market in Hong Kong and even the Sunday Boot Fairs of Sidcup.  Vast ranges of every major football shirt can be bought for just a few pounds.  The quality of the counterfeits varies per seller, with some offering “special edition” shirts.  When I was in. Morocco two years ago, one stall was selling Manchester United, 2012 Premier League Champions shirts, made specifically for the Reds title success.  The problem? Rivals Manchester City won the title with virtually the last kick of the season.

It is fairly obvious that you aren’t buying the real thing at the price they are being sold for, although production techniques now mean that fakes come in a variety of grades of quality.  At the low end the wrong material and non-exact match colours will be used and often there will be spelling mistakes (Liecester City anyone?) whilst the higher grade ones will often have all the bells and whistles of the real thing including holograms and inside printing.

But there is another side to counterfeit football shirts that you may not have considered and that is the conundrum of brand awareness.

Consider this situation.  Every counterfeit shirt carries the branding of not only the football club, but also their main commercial partner(s).  The whole reason why major brands invest millions into putting their logo on the front of a football shirt is to increase their brand awareness both in existing and new markets.  The hundreds of millions invested by Emirates into their sponsorship of Arsenal, Olympiakos, Paris Saint-Germain, Hamburger SV, AC Milan and now the European Champions, Real Madrid means they have huge global exposure from the sales of official shirts.  But their logo also appears on counterfeit items as well, increasing their global reach albeit through illegitimate channels.

Consumers simply associate Emirates with these shirts, irrespective of the legitimacy of the shirt.  Whilst the airline may be deeply unhappy that their logo is being used on counterfeit items, they are essentially increasing their return on investment through free advertising. I have no doubt that the sales of fake shirts are taken into commercial consideration when they are negotiating their deals, but it is a by-product that they inadvertently benefit from.

And what of the clubs themselves? Football is now a global game.  The elite clubs no longer consider the summer break as a chance to rest and relax.  They now travel far afield to play exhibition games in front of sell-out crowds in new markets.  The forthcoming Guinness International Champions Cup in the USA is an example of this where some of the world’s biggest clubs including three of Emirates sponsored teams, Olympiakos, AC Milan and Real Madrid will play a series of games around the USA to boost interest in the game.  Last year Chelsea travelled to Singapore and Malaysia, whilst Manchester United played in Hong Kong as part of their strategy of increasing their global fanbase.

Many of these fans, in the Far East especially, have significantly less disposal income than their core fans have in England.  They cannot afford the real-deal, climacool, multi-weave new shirt at £60. But they can afford the counterfeit at £5.

By buying a counterfeit shirt, one that they can afford, they are still buying into the brand, happy to market the club by wearing the badge, albeit one that may not be official. Does this make them less of a fan?  By spending 90% less on a shirt they can then afford to buy a ticket or subscribe to the club’s online streaming content.  What is more important to the club? New fans who will engage with the club on a regular basis or ones who will contribute a small amount of money once a season through an official shirt purchase.

The whole sports apparel and merchandise market is unique.  Someone who buys a counterfeit Gucci shirt or a fake IPhone charger is doing so for very different reasons than someone who buys a fake replica Barcelona shirt.  Whilst football clubs need to have a brand protection strategy in place, are counterfeit shirts the maker concern for global sporting brands? It’s an interesting debate, one that will certainly differ whether you have the emotional engagement as a fan or the commercial view as a sponsor or the club itself.

*Source:  Allan Brettman, “NFL, Nike fight to keep counterfeit products off the market,” Orgonian, November 16, 2013.

 

On the second day of TBIR Christmas – The worst new ground visited


So Matlock Town scooped the prestigious honor of the best new ground visited in 2014 but which one of the 21 new grounds we visited was the worst.  Being the worst is very subjective of course – one man’s Wembley will be another man’s Mill Road, Aveley.  So if your club’s ground is on the list, don’t take offence.  We understand the efforts that go into trying to keep a ground maintained but…..

Last year we didn’t honour this category but this year we’ve been to a few places that kicked us back into action.  Without further ado…

3rd Place – Tallaght Stadium, Shamrock Rovers
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Despite the League of Ireland playing a summer league, there is only one season in South West Dublin – winter.  With only two stands the wind whips all around the ground whatever the day, whatever the hour.  The ground is located on the fringes of the city, meaning that the highlights of Temple Bar are a good 45 minute tram ride away.  You’re OK if you fancy a pre-match stop in Tescos though.  The advantage of no stands behind the goal means that you can buy and eat your hot chips and not miss a minute of the action.  The history of the club’s search for their own home is well documented but sitting freezing on a cold wooden seat in October may have tainted my view.

2nd Place – Skonto Stadion, Riga Latvia
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National stadiums fall into two catagories.  Those designed to wow, with innovation and supporter experience at their hearts.  These are your Wembley’s, your Parken stadium in Copenhagen and the new Stockholms Arena.  Then there are those that fall into the “must do better catagory”.  Welcome to Riga.  The city itself is awesome.  Medieval, historic city centre full of great little bars, superb restaurants and lively nightlife.  Then there is the football ground.  You can’t even call it three sided these days – one end is completely missing, the opposite end has a strange large domed-shaped structure in.  Think of Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, when it was half finished and then spray the remaining stands with shale.  It stays off bottom place because the beer is brilliant and cheap.

1st Place – South Kesteven Stadium, Grantham Town
13647123183_1b56e04bea_kI have a real problem with athletics grounds doubling up as football grounds.  It always seems that when I watch games in such places, the matches are quite frankly, rubbish.  Without any ball boys, the play is constantly broken up by players having to run miles to retrieve the ball.  Grantham’s ground looks like someone has simply stuck a two-tier structure on the edge of a school athletics track.  With crowds struggling to break the two hundred mark, match days aren’t filled with crackling atmosphere.  Inside the main stand the welcome is warm and hospitable but venture outside and be prepared to be blown away by the winds whipping in from the Urals.

Next up on the Third Day of Christmas – The best football book of the year!

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