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?

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!

 

 

On an even Kiel


In the grand scheme of things it had been a pretty good weekend. Whilst the rain was lashing it down outside, we were happily snuggled up in , just round the corner from Hamburg’s Altona station.  Whilst thrill seekers had headed for the seedy delights on offer on Reeperbahn for centuries, or the lurid window displays of Herbertstrasse where literally anything can be bought, we had chosen to mingle with the locals.  Bar Botega, obviously a parody name as it couldn’t be any further away from being Spain both geographically or culturally, at 10pm on a Sunday night wasn’t exactly rocking when we arrived but by the time we left at midnight the locals were linking arms, swaying from side to side as Danny led them in a chorus of “No ney never”.  These were our new best friends.

14954398355_d46c482456_zWhy, I hear you think.  Why indeed.  Two words my learned friend. DFB Pokal. The magic of the German Cup. It does funny things in all parts of Germany as our last 36 hours would  attest to.  Life is all about experiencing something new and that was what this weekend was all about. So whilst we flew into Hamburg, the more refined European Capital of Sin, our destination was 100km north, close to the Danish border in Schlosweig-Holstein. The newest, trendiest, fashionable name on the European Football Weekends map, ladies and gentlemen, is Kiel.

Kiel doesn’t rate highly in many of the guide books about Europe, let alone one for the Danish borders region. Comments like “a gritty urban sprawl”, “when brochures flag up the first pedestrian street in Germany, you know tourist authorities are struggling” , “The city centre is unlovable but unavoidable” and finally, “It’s OK” you know the weekend isn’t going to be high on culture.  But who needs museums, architecture and theme parks when you have football, great company and a couple of beers? Kiel would be our new best friend.

Home to the German navy, it can boast a population of around 240,000, a Subway and two breweries.  That’ll do us.  Panama? Suez? Venice? Call those canals? Kiel, my friend is the standard-bearer in this area, boasting the world’s busiest man-made canal in the form of the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal.  Still not enough to convince you?  Then how about this. The German Cup had thrown up a tasty tie, pairing Regionalliga Nord Holstein Kiel against struggling Bundesliga 2 side 1860 Munich.  That was enough to have Stoffers leap into organisation mode and before you could say Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (a genuine word which would score you over 1.2 million points in Scrabble)  we had booked flights and hotels.  I have no idea how it happens; no sooner have I tentatively agreed to going on one of these trips than the confirmation emails start to appear in my inbox.  With my previous jaunt to Germany two weeks previous still fresh in the memory (and the liver) I had to stretch to a box of Milk Tray as well as the regular Petrol Station Flowers to appease the Current Mrs Fuller.  She knows the bond I have with the German Cup though so she did what every good wife does – made me a packed lunch for the train to the airport, told me to give her three rings when I landed and not to return with:-

a) a crap tattoo with another girl’s name on it
b) a communicable disease other than one that was related to beer; or
c) someone else’s pants (again)

She’s funny about those things.  She was of course heartened to learn that Danny and Kenny would also be coming but was suspicious when I threw in a fourth name alongside Stoffers.  We would be joined by Facebook’s own Ofer Prossner, making his debut on the annual German Cup EFW.  Ofer, Malta’s most famous Larry David look-a-like had been living close to Stoffers and Kenny in Berlin for the last few months and had grown so attached to Kenny’s free Wi-Fi that he couldn’t bear to part with it for the weekend.

The good news, Stoffers triumphed when the draw was made,  was because the game between Holstein Kiel and 1860 was being played on the Sunday, we would have time to grab a game as well on the Saturday.  Really? Do we have to? Sigh..ok then. This was supposed to be a weekend of long meetings, discussing the annual issues of the European Football Weekends company and high on the agenda were items such as “Is it really difficult to get tickets for the Sud Tribune at Dortmund?”, “How do I get to the Bernabau?” and “Where is the best place to sit in the Nou Camp?” Matters like these don’t just answer themselves on the Internet these days and as we took our duties as founders, administrators and general European football experts very seriously, so it was determined to convene our AGM on the train to and from Kiel.  With beer liberally added.

Stoffers was pacing nervously outside the arrivals gate at Hamburg airport when Danny and I arrived.  He is Mr German Efficiency 2011 after all.  He had a whole host of different plans for the day depending on the exact minute of our arrival.  Fortunately, all of his hard work was wasted as Plan A was invoked at 11.04am on the dot.  We would be going to the ball. A swift change of trains at the Central Station, a bag full of beers (when it Germany and all that) and a slice of pizza for breakfast later and we were in Ron’s 22.

14954064122_d9f81fbf1c_zJust forty-five north of Hamburg (so close that there is still some credibility in Ryanair referring to the airport here as “Hamburg”) lays the medieval city of Lübeck, birthplace of marzipan, home to the internationally acclaimed Museum of Theatre Puppets and once capital of the Hanseatic League (the forerunner of the Human League).  A perfect destination for a romantic weekend with the one you love.  In fact I had once brought the Current Mrs Fuller here to enjoy a cup of Glühwein, a nibble on a gingerbread man and a ride up the canal.  The city is full of old buildings, pavement cafes and ringed by waterways – a German Venice if you will (travel writers, please don’t steal that – think up your own original taglines!).  We wouldn’t see any of that though, with the railway station on the edge of the city centre and the Stadion an der Lohmühle even further out. After all, seen one canal, seen them all, right? Whereas football grounds, on the other hand…

VfB Lübeck 1 Goslarer SC 0 – Stadion an der Lohmühle – Saturday 16th August 2014
Two teams struggling for form, with a 100% beaten start to the season.  Never going to be a classic, right?  Absolutely.  It was hard to find one thing to write about in terms of the game itself.  The goal perhaps?  Maybe, although when Finn-Lasse Thomas’s shot hit the back of the net with eight minutes to go, Danny and I were on a bus on our way back to the pub.  Such was the disgust of our actions that Thomas was booked for angrily confronting Stoffers wanting to know where those “Englischers” had gone (that last bit may not be quite true).

14954415645_7158b69938_zHowever, let’s not do the club, the fans or even the stadium any disservice here. Admission was 6 Euro (SIX).  Cheaper than a bag of Emirates popcorn or a nodding bobblehead of David Gold.  For that we got to have a drink with the Ultras in their clubhouse (by mistake), stand with the Ultras on the terraces (another mistake) and enjoy a few beers (definitely no mistake).  The whole Ultras thing was a big mistake but hey, we’d all had a drink so let’s just move on.  Talking of moving on, we were on a tight Stoffers deadline to get a train to Kiel for our big Saturday night out.

We weren’t going to have a traditional Saturday night either.  Oh no. It seemed news of our impending arrival had spread like wildfire through the great and good of Kiel.  Now here was a first.  Someone who not only wanted to meet us, but to cook for us.  Obviously we have EFW groupies who send us saucy messages all the time, with promises of marriage and pots of cash in embargoed African bank accounts belonging to dead despots.  But this one was genuine.  An invite to dinner from Kiel’s most famous Football-loving Chef, Matthæus Arminius Kilius.  Who were we to argue? So after a quick change in our luxury apartment overlooking a tug boat pumping out the toilets of a cruise ship, we jumped into a complete stranger’s car and headed to the Kiel suburbs.

Matthæus loves his football, you couldn’t fail to notice that when you walked into his flat.  Football paraphernalia covered every surface.  His wife, Frauke, didn’t seem to mind sharing her bath with a plastic duck in the colours of every Bundesliga team, or laying on her Holstein Kiel bedspread. He’d cooked us a local dish with smoked bacon, green beans, potatoes and a big pear right in the middle.  German hospitality at its finest.  An hour later and we were sampling some of the delights of the gritty urban sprawl as the guide book had told us to expect.  Who needs baroque buildings when you have three different types of local Flensburger Pilsner.

Sunday morning and we were in the pub again at 11am.  Time for a Full German.  Like a Full English but with a beer it hit the spot perfectly.  The Palenka pub was a stopping off spot for the Kiel fans on their journey to the stadium so it would be rude not to join them, accompanied by a few German riot police to keep us company.

1860 Munich, had brought a few hundred fans and they were doing what German fans love to do on a Sunday lunchtime – standing on a petrol station forecourt drinking beer.  We were immediately singled out as being “foreign” because we were drinking Paderboner beer – the English equivalent of Fosters.  Does anyone really choose Fosters when given a choice of beers?  Really?  Same with Paderboner which made us look a little bit silly.  Then a chap walked passed with a pair of home-made trousers made out of old Kiel football shirts and immediately our street credibility rose.

Holstein Kiel 1 1860 Munich 2 – Holstein Stadion – Sunday 16th August 2014
We took our spot in the away end as the teams emerged.  The game had Pokal upset written all over it, with 1860 not enjoying the best of starts of season so far.  Two defeats in their first games had the fans hopping mad, so they hoped that a win against Liga 3 Holstein Kiel would give the squad a welcome boost before they returned to league action at Heidenheim in a week’s time.  The fans struck up their soundtrack for the afternoon, accompanied by drums and huge flags, all choreographed by a single chap with a megaphone sitting atop the perimeter fence.

For all of the hazards that standing on an open terrace with some hard-core fans brings, during the afternoon we saw the worst of the worst.  Someone had left a programme on the floor.  Not exactly a small, inconspicuous item, weighing in at A4 in size, yet we lost count with the number of people who stepped on it and slipped.  One chap took his humiliation, embarrassment and anger out on it by trying to kick it which led to him slipping again.  Of course we didn’t laugh. Much.

14820048790_7f2e2fa190_zWith just eight minutes on the clock, a great run to the byline saw the ball pulled back to Kiel’s Siedschlag who smashed the ball home.  Instead of groans on the away terrace we all just bounced up and down a bit and sang abusive songs about those bastards in Red (apparently).  1860 simply didn’t look like scoring until just after the hour mark when their Austrian forward Rubin Rafael Okotie equalised.  Ten minutes later and he put 1860 ahead, converting a penalty after he had been brought down from behind. Game over.

The final whistle brought some good-natured thigh slapping, the sound of flesh on Lederhosen filling the air.  A row of blonde female riot police kept the home fans back with minimal effort to let us grab the only taxi in the rank, quite literally, and we headed for the Kieler Braurei, the one tourist attraction that we all wanted to visit in our 24 hours in Kiel.  Craft beer is the home-brew of the 21st century but without having to use your best jumper to keep the beer warm in the airing cupboard.  The brew house was certainly worth the wait and we had soon sampled our way through most of the menu.  Alas, we had a train to catch so we grabbed a takeaway and headed for the station.

15006114692_83aa8797de_zIn the grand scheme of things it had been a pretty good weekend. Whilst the rain was lashing it down outside the bar back in Hamburg, we were happily snuggled up inside.  Whilst thrill seekers had headed for the seedy delights on offer on Reeperbahn for centuries, or the lurid window displays of Herbertstrasse where literally anything can be bought, we had chosen to mingle with the locals.  Bar Bodega at 10pm on a Sunday night wasn’t exactly rocking when we arrived but by the time we left the locals were linking arms, swaying from side to side as Danny led them in a chorus of “No ney never”.  These were our new best friends.

After an emotional farewell at Altona, we headed to the airport where our beds for the night awaited.  By night I obviously mean 4 hours which Danny spent sleeping in his shoes, “just in case there was a fire” Of course at 5am on Monday morning he couldn’t remember any of the events from the night before, the sign of a great night.

Until next season Germany.  Be good, don’t go changing.

The Djurgarden of Eden


Just over a year ago I was lucky enough to attend one of the final football matches played in the Olympia Stadion in Stockholm.  In normal circumstances, clubs move elsewhere because they have outgrown their grounds and they can gain greater financial rewards by moving to the out-of-town, identikit stadiums.  In the case of the Olympia Stadion, and its then tenants, Djurgården IF, it was a case of them being told they could no longer play games there.  The iconic stadium is a legacy of a past era of watching football, with wooden benches, poor sight lines and a creaking infrastructure and the Swedish FA, after giving them a few stays of execution, finally told them that 2013 would be their final season in the ground.

8900669783_0e4f02f888_zFast forward twelve months and the Järnkaminerna are now firmly at home, with their slippered feet well under the table at the Tele2 Arena in the Johanneshov area of the city.  Average attendances have gone from just below 9,000 in the last decade to over 15,000 in the first year, with over 25,000 for the explosive derby matches against AIK.  As you would expect from a brand spanking new arena, with thousands of shiny metal plates attached to the outside and a sliding roof that moves with the action of a CD player at Tandy’s (Partridge gag).  Transport links are excellent, with a number of train stations around the ground – who would have thought of that when building a stadium eh!

After numerous troubles on and off the pitch in recent years the club is at last able to look up.  Coming into this game, nearly at the half way point in the season, they seventh, one point and one place behind the visitors, BK Häcken.  A little run of form now and they could be putting pressure on city rivals AIK who sat in second place, jut six points away.

10837676685_f17af0b580_zWork done for another day I took my place in the new arena which looked relatively similar inside to the stadiums in Cardiff and Düsseldorf.  Three things were lacking for me. One was a beer (Swedes and their crazy alcohol rules for you), two was any flares from the home fans – especially as I had seen their displays in the past at the good-old Råsunda and last year in the game at the Stockholms Stadion and finally was any away fans.  In fact there were 8 of them, with a flag between them, perched in the upper tier.  Whilst it is a fair way from Göteborg, it wasn’t a school night.  Still, at least there was probably room on the team bus for them to get a lift back home.

Djurgården IF BK Häcken – Tele2 Arena – Monday 21st July 2014
After collecting my media pass I followed signs to the press seats which takes you up a tunnel and onto the edge of the 3G pitch which was enjoying a liberal watering.  With ten minutes to kick off the DIF fans were in full voice and it was tempting just to stand there and get a close up of their pre-match display.  Alas, a friendly steward pointed out to me that I was likely to have things thrown at me if I did so I took refuse up in the stands.

14730122413_5f5d42bebb_zTen minutes on the clock and with their first attack the visitors forced a corner.  The ball bobbled around the 3G pitch before Carlos Strandberg häckened (too good an opportunity to miss) it home from close range. The DIF fans behind the goal didn’t miss a beat, simply turning up the volume a notch, launching into the Swedish version of “Build a bonfire” (well, the same tune at least), bouncing choruses between the Ultras behind the goal and a section standing under a banner that said Östermalms Gentlemannaklubb, which Google translate told me was not family friendly nor was it open for breakfast.

Twenty minutes later and another mix up led to Martin Ericsson being allowed to sneak behind the defence (as they were all positioned to look the other way – fact from my scouting course) and he side-footed into the corner of the net.  Two-nil and for a full thirty seconds the stadium was silent.  The truth was that the visitors had only had two forays into the DIF area and scored on both occasions, whilst at the other end the Häcken keeper, Källqvist had to be on his toes to keep out chances from Jawo, Radetinac and Tibbing. The noise slowly built again and the whole stadium rose in unison, with a symphony of “ooohs” as Stefan Karlsson’s rocket was tipped the bar.  It looked like being one of those nights for the home side.

As you would expect, DIF came out fired up for the second half and created a number of chances in the opening fifteen minutes.  But try as they might, and willed on by a wall of noise they simply couldn’t break down the stubborn Häcken defence.  It’s also fair to say that the half-time substitute Prijovic had an absolute stinker, somehow managing to connect with every part of his body bar his head or foot when in a dangerous position.

14709960342_461a2c57ee_zFinally in the 74th minute they got their slice of luck.  Martin Broberg beat the offside trap and with only the keeper to beat managed to slice his lob sideways into the path of Fejzullahu who walked the ball into an empty net.  What effect would that goal have on the team? In short very little.  They took the tactic of trying to stretch the visitors, looking to get in behind them and to the by-line but the pace of the artificial surface often took the overlapping runners by surprise.

So in the end it was a missed opportunity to gain some ground on those above, whilst the visitors closed the gap themselves with AIK to just 2 points.  However, there is more to football than just a result and it had been an entertaining game, in a very impressive new stadium.  With a loyal fanbase that oozes passion and now a brand new home it can’t be too long before DIF will be challenging for the major honours again.

 

 

The Golden Generation of German football


There has been millions of words written about the most remarkable game in the history of the World Cup Finals.  The six or so first half minutes when Germany scored four goals in Belo Horizonte stunned 60,000 fans in the Estadio Mineirao, the 200 million Brazilians watching on TV and hundreds of millions more around the world.  The Germans showed little mercy for some appalling defensive play, yet they came into the tournament not even favourites to win Group G, let alone progress to the latter stages.  Their opening game thrashing of Portugal made people sit up but nobody expected the utter domination of the Brazilians.  Irrespective of if they go on and beat Argentina today in the World Cup Final, that one game has re-defined the notion of Brazil as one of the best teams in the world.

The records came tumbling down in just an hour and a half of football.  Brazil’s first competitive defeat at home for 39 years, their biggest ever defeat, the biggest margin of victory in a World Cup Semi-Final, Germany’s biggest away win outside Europe and so on.  Is our shock at the result due to the strength and ruthlessness of the German side or the lack-lustre performance of the Brazilians?  A bit of both I’d say, although the home nations weak performance in the 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands four days later would suggest that they were rabbits caught in the headlights of 200 million fans.  The Brazilian media have naturally focused on the weaknesses of their squad and team management rather than the German performance.  Is thatSAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA fair?  Perhaps not.

Ten years ago the English media waxed lyrically about our “Golden Generation”, the core of players who would go on to dominate world football.  Beckham, Ferdinand, Lampard, Owen and Rooney. We went into the 2004 European Championships in Portugal full of hope that this time we would get it right, finally delivering some glory after nearly forty years of wasted effort.  Unfortunately injuries once again were our undoing (as well as penalties) as we crashed out in the Quarter-Finals to the host nation on penalties after Rooney, the 19 year old talisman of the England team, was injured early in the game.  Two years later in Germany it was déjà vu as Rooney was sent off in the repeat performance against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen and England crashed out on penalties once again.  The Golden generation slowly faded as age caught up with them and off the field issues became distractions.

So who would replace these potential world class stars?  In theory they should have been already moving up through the ranks, gaining experience in the England Under 18’s, 20’s and finally Under 21’s.  Stuart Pearce was working very closely with Fabio Capello in nurturing the young talent.  In June 2009 Pearce took his young squad to Sweden for the UEFA European Championships, full of confidence that they would come home with the title.

Two wins and a draw from the group stages took England into the Semi-Finals where they raced into a 3-0 first-half lead against the host nation.  The English media in the stadium couldn’t dream up enough superlatives for the team, already pencilling a number in for Capello’s World Cup squad the following year in South Africa.  In an all too familiar story, England then conceded three second half goals and had to rely on penalties, winning for once, to progress to the final where Germany would be waiting.  The only black mark was that keeper Joe Hart would miss the final having picked up a second tournament booking needlessly in the penalty shoot-out.

Hart’s absence would be crucial.  On the 29th June in the impressive Swedbank Arena in Malmö, nearly 19,000 fans saw the unfancied Germans destroy England.  The final score was 4-0 but it could have easily been double that, mustering 17 shots to England’s 6.  The star of the game was a small midfielder of Turkish descent, Mezut Özil.

Fast forward five years and six of the starting line-up from that game in Malmötook the field in Belo Horizonte.  A seventh, Thomas Müller, scorer of four World Cup goals already in Brazil wasn’t deemed good enough to make the squad back in 2009.  From that same Swedish night, only James Milner had made the squad for England’s squad in Brazil.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAWhilst the likes of Martin Cranie, Nedum Onuoha, Mark Noble and Michael Mancienne have failed to progress further than the Under 21’s, the Germans have continued to produce young talent, constantly pushing them into the national team if they are deemed good enough.  In the squad that got on the plane for Brazil, nine were aged 24 or less.  Some players, such as the Bayern Munich trio of Müller, Kroos and Götze with an average age of 22 have over 30 caps.

So why have the Germans got it so right?  The whole issue of the number of coaches has been discussed before, with Germany having over 30,000 qualified coaches to England’s less than 5,000.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  We have some decent young players in England.  The issue is that they simply do not get enough game time to progress and develop.

Many Premier League teams have simply abandoned the principals and process of bringing young players through their Academies.  The chances of ever seeing anything like the Class of ’92 at Old Trafford is about as likely as Arjen Robben staying on his feet for more than five minutes.  Today, Premier League clubs seem more likely to invest in overseas players rather than investing in the development of their home-grown youth players.  Consequently promising youngsters often ending up with a career moving from club to club on loan.  Look at the example of Michael Mancienne, still a Chelsea player when he took the field as a second half substitute in the Under 21’s final back in 2009.  He went on to play just four times for the Blues, including two cup games where they fielded weakened teams.  He was forced to go on loan into the Championship to get game time, finally leaving Chelsea in the summer of 2011 for a fee of £1.7 million to Hamburg.  Since then he has played 40 times in the Bundesliga, but is nowhere near an England call up.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERACompare that to the likes of Kroos and midfield anchor man Bastian Schweinsteiger.  They have Bundesliga and Champions League medals to their names despite their relatively young age.  The German model of building their teams around young home developed talent is now reaping rewards for the national side.  Seven of the squad have been regulars for champions Bayern Munich over the past two seasons, with an eight, Marcus Reus only denied a place through injury.  Just over a year ago Germany’s two biggest clubs faced each other at Wembley in the Champions League Final.  Seven of the German squad played in that game.

The introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) is supposed to ensure that the best young players have access to the best facilities, although many see it another way for the big clubs to simply hoover up the best young talent at an early age, stockpiling them to stop anyone else getting them.

We have a number of promising youngsters playing at the top level, with the likes of Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxley-Chamberlain playing regularly at the highest level of the Premier League.  If English clubs can realise the error of their ways then there is hope for us yet.  Could the next “Golden Generation” be waiting in the Premier League wings already?

The tournament that freedom forgot


Back in the late 1980’s Europe’s political landscape was changing.  The Eastern Bloc was crumbling. Football was one language whereby different political ideals could be set aside for 90 minutes.  That was unless you lived in the divided Germany at the time.  It is hard to imagine today when we look at Germany that it was still a country partitioned by a wall into the haves and the have-nots. No place on earth saw this divide more than Berlin where the wall completely cut off a section of the city, known as West Berlin, which was a West German isle surrounded by a sea of the Eastern Bloc, a capitalist island in a sea of communism. Football was being suffocated by the political situation.

Whilst the ageing, yet still impressive Olympiastadion, was still one of the biggest stadiums in the country, and its tenants Hertha Berlin were still able to cross the wall to compete in the Bundesliga, it was deemed a journey too far for the West German national side.  The team featuring the likes of Harald Schumacher, Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and captain Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had finished runners-up to Argentina in the 1986 World Cup Final in Mexico and would go onto win the trophy four years later.  This was a golden generation of West Germans, yet the West Berliners were denied the opportunity to see their national team play in the city for nearly four years from 1983 as the political situation took priority over the beautiful game.

During this period, West Germany had won the right to host the 1988 European Championships ahead of a joint Scandinavian bid from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and an expression of interest from England. However, political arguments kicked in from day one about the initial West German mutterings of hosting some of the games during the tournament in the Olympiastadion. The Eastern Bloc disagreed with the fact that West Berlin were part of the Federal Republic of Germany (despite Hertha Berlin’s participation in the Bundesliga and Oberliga) and concerns were expressed that should games be held there, the Eastern Bloc may withdraw their membership from UEFA.  Despite three games being played at the Olympiastadion in the 1974 FIFA World Cup, including East Germany versus Chile, it was now a footballing hot potato that the West German football federation, the DFB,  did not want to handle.

After significant political debate on both sides of the Berlin Wall, West Germany relented and agreed that the host venues would be Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Gelsenkirchen, Stuttgart, Cologne, Hanover and Düsseldorf. West Berlin would have to look over the wall with envious eyes.

However, DFB committee member Hermann Neuberger came up with a compromise that would placate most parties. The Berlin Four Nation Tournament was announced in late 1987 to take place prior to the European Championships, in West Berlin. Invites were sent to World Champions Argentina, European Championship favourites Soviet Union (and thus getting the Eastern Bloc onside), Sweden and West Germany. Whilst there had been calls for the participation of East Germany, many observers suggested that the Eastern Bloc didn’t want an embarrassing and politically sensitive situation of the two German sides meeting and playing with a political football.

The tournament was arranged over Easter weekend in the simplest format. Two semi-finals were played back to back in the Olympiastadion on 31 March 1988, with West Germany drawn against Sweden and the Soviets against Argentina. With a disappointing 23,700 fans in the stadium for the start of the tournament, West Germany took the lead when Olympique de Marsaille’s Klaus Allofs netted just before half time against the Swedes. Their lead was cancelled out in the 75th minute when Peter Truedsson equalised. As the stadium at the time had poor floodlight facilities at the time, there was little time scheduled between the two games and so extra time was scrapped and the tie went direct to penalties which saw the Swedes run out 4-2 winners after Lothar Matthäus and Rudi Völler missed their spot kicks.

Just thirty minutes after the end of the first semi-final, Argentina and Soviet Union kicked off the second semi-final. Despite having Diego Maradona in their starting eleven, Russia underlined their promise as potential European Champions by racing to a three-nil lead after just fifteen minutes thanks to goals from Zavarov, Prostasov and Lytovchenko. Prostasov added a fourth late in the game after Diego had scored from a freekick. The Soviet Union’s 4-2 victory meant that the final everyone wanted to see, a repeat of the 1986 World Cup Final, would be a mere warm up to the final two days later. Ironically, the official attendance for the second game is recorded as 1,300 more than the West German game earlier in the afternoon.

Once again the soccer-starved public of West Berlin hardly flocked to the Olympiastadion. Just over 25,000 saw the 3rd/4th play off game between West Germany and Argentina two days later which was decided by a single Matthäus goal, and unofficially considerably more than that stayed in their seats for the final between Sweden and the Soviets. Two second half goals from Hans Eskilsson and Hans Holmquist saw the tournament won by the Swedes with a huge sigh of relief from the organisers that the weekend had passed off without any political incidents, although disappointed at the lack of attendance for both games.

By the time the European Championships kicked off in June the competition was long forgotten.  West Berlin had to look on with envious eyes as the huge crowds flocked to the West German stadiums and saw a tournament that crackled with passion, drama and talent the like we had not seen before in the European Championships.  Both West Germany and Russia made the semi-finals, although the hosts were beaten by eventual winners Holland, inspired by Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.

The concept of the Berlin tournament was never repeated, perhaps because of the fall of the Berlin Wall eighteen months later and the subsequent fall of the Eastern Bloc in the proceeding few years, although it could be said that various attempts to resurrect a similar competition were behind such tournaments as the Umbro Cup held in England in 1995 featuring England, Japan, Sweden and Brazil or the Tournoi de France featuring Brazil, Italy, England and the host nation in June 1997.  But for one bright moment in Spring 1988 it seemed that football might break the political divide between the East and West in Europe. Alas, it was not to be.