Just who made the decision to play that side?


I could be accused of being mellow-dramatic but I believe that last night could have been the last time for a generation that West Ham played in a major European Competition.  Few fans who watched the game will feel that the decision to field the team they did was justified in terms of the “long game” of ensuring Premier League survival.  If that was ever an issue, then why have the owners sanctioned such pre-season signings as Lanzini, Payat and Ogbonna or even recruited Slaven Bilic?  In his post match interview the Croat said he was “bitterly disappointed” to have lost but showed complete contempt for the competition, the opponents and the West Ham fans who traveled to the far reaches of Romania for the game against FC Astra by fielding a team that would have been considered “inexperienced” in Capital One Cup terms.  When perennial fence-sitter Michael Owen says “I think West Ham may have made a mistake here” prior to kick-off you know that you have a problem.

Last week the Hammers were cruising at 2-0 up at The Boleyn Ground.  Collins is then sent off and the team fall apart.  Players get sent off week in, week out and don’t lose, or even concede a goal.  The footballing guru David Pleat always tells us it’s harder to play against ten men than eleven.  That’s the theory of Numerical Disadvantage.  But why did it all go wrong?  If you were lucky enough to see the game you will notice that both goals came as a result of West Ham standing off the player with the ball, allowing them far too much time to in the first instance shoot and for the second goal, play the ball into the area.  It’s all very well in having flair players such as Zarate, Payat and Jarvis in the side (you could add Lanzini in that but he didn’t play last week) but if none of them are prepared to close down the man on the ball you are asking for trouble whether you have 10,11 or 12 players on the pitch.  A few years ago that would have been Mark Noble’s role.  Today?

Bilic had already made his mind up before last week’s game that the match versus Arsenal was far more important than the Europa League tie against the Romanians.  Yet that should have given him even more incentive to take the competition seriously and reach the Group Stage.  Let’s face reality.  Arsenal, like they have for 18 out of the last 19 seasons, will finish in the top 4 at the end of the season.  Why?  Because they are a good team, with a good manager who despite seeming reticent to use it, has funds at his disposal.  Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd are in almost the same boat.  It would take a brave man to suggest the title, or even the top four will not feature one of those four (or all in the case of the Champions League qualifiers).  Liverpool and Spurs may say otherwise but it is for the top four to lose rather than the other two to win.  West Ham’s record away to these top teams in the past few seasons has been poor – four defeats, ten goals conceded last season for instance.  It would take a very brave man to bet on anything apart from a defeat on Sunday.  In all reality there are games that the management will target as “must wins”, others that are “should wins” and some that are “could wins”.  Arsenal away is unlikely to be in those.  So why rest players for the second leg? And what is the ambition this year?  Finish in the top six or seven just to qualify for the Europa League and go through the same thought logic next season?

The most annoying aspect here is that Bilic used twenty first team players in a pointless friendly last Sunday against Werder Bremen.  Why? A meaningless game played in front of a crowd of 10/15,000 at the expense of putting out a decent team who would make a fight of the game in Romania and whilst the chance of reaching the final is slim, every game they play in in Europe they earn cash.  Whilst not in the same league as the Premier League TV money, it is still cash.

“Bring back Allardyce” someone suggested to me today.  But let’s not forget that he did something similar in a televised cup game away at Nottingham Forest two seasons ago where they were beaten 5-0.  Whilst managers will outwardly say they they listen to the fans, they only really answer to one master.  And if that voice is saying that Premier League points are the most important thing in the world then there can be no room for any risk in a tournament such as the Europa League.

Just like the campaigns of 1999 and 2006, it was fun whilst it lasted.  But with an outlook that the Premier League is so important, we are hardly likely to take any cup competition seriously and thus denying any further route back into Europe.  Hull City fans only know too well from painful experience last season that treating the Europa League with disrespect ultimately meant nothing as they were relegated nine months later.  Was that down to playing competitive matches in July?  Of course not.

Update – so we go and beat Arsenal against all the odds. What do I know about football anyway. Come on you Hammers!

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail


Two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of tactics and what appeared to be a naivety in the way West Ham approached their first leg Europa League tie against the Maltese team Birkirkara.  With an injury time, fortuitous goal being the only thing that separated the two teams as they headed for Malta, there was an assumption that The Hammers would raise their game on the night and comfortably progress.  After all, no English team had ever lost to a Maltese side in European competition, and the odds on a West Ham defeat were still as long as South Eastern Trains running my train on time for a week.  But West Ham once again showed their lack of discipline, and what appeared to be once again a lack of preparation.  Tomkins became the second West Ham player in this season’s competition to be sent off for an “off the ball” incident, with Noble incredibly lucky not to follow him for some pathetic, childish behaviour, mocking Birkirkara’s Fabrizio Miccoli for his weight (all captured on camera)…Miccoli’s response was to score the only goal of the game.

Fortunately, the only credit (bar the support from the fans) The Hammers could take from the game was their ability to take penalties meaning they progressed into the Third Qualifying Round by the skin of their teeth.  Drawn to play Romanian side FC Astra Giurgui you would expect Bilic to have learnt his lesson, prepared correctly and told the team to keep their discipline..right.

FullSizeRender (2)Once again the fans took advantage of the £10 tickets.  There is a lesson here for all clubs.  Whilst it has been nearly a decade since the fans tasted European football, it is clearly the right thing to do to bring in potential new fans or those simply priced out of the Premier League games.  Two interesting side points to this.  Despite marketing the fact (to death already) that this is the Club’s last season at The Boleyn, the first two home games have not yet sold out despite being on general sale.  Perhaps it is the fact that the cheapest ticket is £42 (and £25 for an Under16), or that potentially the games may move from their 3pm on a Saturday slot due to progress in the Europa League.  The second will be the crowd for the friendly game on Sunday versus Werder Bremen.  The last pre-season friendly has traditionally been played at The Boleyn, always versus a foreign side and nearly always for some strange-named cup.  This Sunday it is the Betway Cup (Last season West Ham beat Sampdoria in the Marathonbet Cup) with ticket prices £20 for Adults (£15 for STH) – it will be interesting to see how many will come to that game.

IMG_5164Bilic shuffled his team around for this game against FC Astra with new signings Angelo Ogbonna and Dimitri Payet coming in for their home debuts, whilst James Collins replaced the suspended James Tomkins.  In midfield youngster Reece Oxford was given another chance after performing so well in the first round against the Andorrans.  The Romanians had filled their section of the stadium, their number boosted by locals from London.  They are on an upward trajectory thanks to the investment in the club by owner Ioan Niculae, who bought the club in 2010 and moved them from Ploiești to Giurgiu in 2012.  Whilst this was potentially the biggest game in their history, they weren’t coming to London just to make up the numbers.

West Ham United 2 FC Astra Giurgui 2 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 30th July 2015
It was as if West Ham had learnt nothing from the four games already played in this competition in the end and the boos that echoed around the stadium at full-time suggested that the fans felt the same.  Yes you could put it down to a “bad day in the office” but that would be the third bad day in a row with no idea how to make it better.  The icing on the cake was Bilic’s dismissal from the technical area near the end.  Quite why he got himself is a mystery in a game which wasn’t dirty nor did the officials get much wrong.  Worrying early signs of a temperament issue?

Two-nil up and in control of the game and we f@#k it up…royally.  It could have been worse I suppose.  We could have lost.  But the complete lack of discipline, tactical awareness and reliance on a striker that gives us all hope we could still play in the Premier League lays bare the fact the Hammers simply got this all wrong, again.

FullSizeRenderThe first half domination was plain to see as corner after corner was delivered into the box.  It wasn’t a question of if but when they would score.  Valencia finally broke the deadlock with a smart header before departing on a stretcher after a nasty fall.  With Carroll on permanent sick leave and Sakho still suspended from his lack of discipline in Andorra, the only real option was Maiga.  That is worrying for the season ahead.  Still, if we need an attacking midfielder we are fine – we can field a full XI of those at the moment as the club seem reluctant to sell any of them.

The second half started well with Zarate dancing through the defence before slotting home a fine second goal for The Hammers.  Then it all went wrong.  Yellow’s for Noble (no surprise), Payat and Collins as the West Ham domination failed to materialise into any further changes.  Then Collins picked up a second yellow and off he went.  Three red cards in five games.  Whilst there is irony in the fact of how we got into the competition, it more importantly shows the lack of discipline and awareness of how playing European opponents differs from Premier League teams.

Within minutes the Romanians were back in the game when Boldrin’s stunning strike from distance cannoned off Adrian’s bar and over the line.  Many of the West Ham fans could not help applauding – it was a superb strike.  The visitors grew in confidence, forcing corner after corner before Ogbonna headed into his own net ten minutes later to level the tie.

Despite having over 66% of possession, 15 shots on target and 15 corners West Ham travel to deepest, darkest Romania in a week’s time knowing they have to out score their opponents.  A draw will see The Hammers exit the competition and potentially the last chance to play in Europe for a very long time.  That regret may take a while to sink in.

So how do they prepare for next week?  For starters, watch this game time and time again.  Look at how the Romanians exposed the defensive weaknesses after the loss of O’Brien in the first half and Collins in the second.  Fortunately Sakho will be available but unless he gets the service from the midfield it will be tough.  Payat showed some promise but he is a player used to playing with more intelligent footballers around him.  And please, no more red cards!

Just bloody shoot!


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So where could West Ham United be off to next?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where are we going next – Birkirkara FC


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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

And so the countdown starts


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The best bar in the whole goddam world


“Best pub in the world, Stu” said Danny, wafting a printed sheet of A4 under my nose bearing a photo of an average looking bar.
“Says who?”
“Lonely Planet”, underlining the fact in the article with his finger, “That means we have to go there.”

I couldn’t really argue with Danny’s logic. It was after the best pub in the whole world as chosen by one of the most respected names in world travel. I sighed with resignation that this would happen. All that stood in our way was finding the right day and buying a bunch of petrol station flowers.

It look a good 30 seconds of research to find a suitable date and then a 2 minute walk down to the Shell garage at the bottom of the road to purchase the PSF’s. The Current Mrs Fuller was ecstatic at the floral arrangement, but quickly wised up when she saw the price tag and where they’d come from. Her first reaction was to suggest I had done something wrong. Once convinced I was not guilty of any crime she asked the follow-up question “So where are you going?”. I told her the plan and she nodded in silent approval before laying down two conditions. “Strictly no Guinness and no watching stripping Catholic nuns unless they are Margot Robbie”. The CMF is a wise judge of character.

18620654773_69423d400a_kWe had a deal and so that’s why we were fighting for elbow room at the bar of Wetherspoons at Gatwick South at 7am on a sunny Saturday morning. Whilst our port of arrival (and departure) would be Dublin, our final destination would be at the seaside in County Wicklow.

18612406154_738c04141a_zBray is a hidden treasure in that virtually all visitors to Dublin never venture further afield than St James’s Gate in the west of the city and thus it stays off the well-worn Stag/Hen party route. Just forty minutes on the DART from the carnage that is Temple Bar, Bray offers fresh air, clean beaches and of course football. As well as being home to the Harbour Bar, said best pub in the world, Bray was also home to Irish gold medal boxing Olympian Katie Taylor, new kid on the singing block Hozier and the quite frankly barmy Sinead O’Connor. I doubt we would bump into any of them in the Harbour Bar, The Porterhouse Brewery or The Carlisle Grounds, home to Bray Wanderers.

This was to be my final game of a long season which had started on the 5th July last year when Brighton & Hove Albion had visited Lewes. Eighty games later, having travelled to the other side of the world (twice) to watch games and I would be signing off for the campaign watching The Seagulls again, only this time the Bray variety. A long close season of 5 days was to follow before I began the 2015/16 campaign with West Ham’s first ever Europa League tie, against the Andorrans Lusitanas on Thursday. And they say footballers have it hard, what about us poor fans?

19208848236_3f75dfabb3_kOf course the football was really only a secondary concern on this trip.   The opportunity to sample some of the best beers in the whole of Ireland as well as a bracing 4 mile Sunday morning cliff-top walk were the main items on the agenda. My good friend Mr Air Miles had provided the flights, whilst the weak Euro vs the Pound meant it was cheaper to stay in a decent hotel in Bray than fill my car with petrol.

We hopped off the bus right in the middle of the Gay Pride march.  Fortunately it was heading in the same direction so we used it as cover to avoid the what seems like hundreds of people giving out leaflets on O’Connell Street for open top bus tours – unless someone had found scientific proof that gay people are more likely to take said trips than others, in which case it was genius marketing.  Our first venue was J W Sweetmans, a small brewery on the south bank of the Liffey which had launched its new summer beer the night before.  “Seven beers lads?” the barmaid asked us?  A bit familiar we thought until she placed seven “tasters” of all of their beers on a tray for us. Not a bad start to the weekend.

Next stop was Ireland’s best pub, no less.  The Brew Dock, almost opposite Connolly Station.  Within three minutes we could see why.  Galway Bay beer, including the rare as an Andy Carroll appearance, 8percenter Of Foam and Fury.  We could have stayed in there all day but we had a plan to maximise our time.  Forty five minutes later we stepped off the DART at Bray and braced ourselves for a slice of culture before the big match.

We checked into our hotel, went up to our room, found it was a double, went back to reception, explained we were friends but not that good friends, stopped ourselves combusting with laughter when the receptionist told us we were in room “230” (say it with an Irish accent) and that the bar closed at 9pm (really?  In Ireland?) and then headed out again.  We had the world’s best bar to visit after all.

I’m not sure what the chap from the Lonely Planet was on when he voted the Harbour Bar the “Best bar in the world” back in 2010.  It’s not bad, in fact it’s got bundles of character but the downstairs bar looked a bit like the Pheonix Club after the fire, with strange old objects on all available surfaces. I have nothing against old typewriters personally but I’d rather have somewhere to put my beer. You can’t argue that it had some decent beers and a great location, but I’ve been in better.  In fact by the end of the evening I would say it wasn’t even the best bar in Bray.  But we had to try it, just like we tried an untitled place almost opposite the ground which was full of very drunk men and women sitting alone at tables with beers double parked.

19047293280_e38eef7ce9_kThe Seagulls, or to give them their full Irish name, Cumann Peile Fánaithe Bhré, haven’t had the most successful of histories.  Their golden years, under the stewardship of the legendary Pat Devlin came back in the late nineties when they won the First Division twice and the FAI Cup.  Devlin has since stepped back into the managerial hotseat on no less than five occasions, although his services weren’t called for when Polish manager Maciej Tarnogrodzki was given the boot last month.  With off the field issues with the ownership of the club, coupled with a relegation fight it hasn’t been the best few months to be a Bray fan.  But fear not, we were here now – that was sure to make things better!!

Bray Wanderers 1 Sligo Rovers 0 – The Carlisle Grounds – Saturday 27th June 2015
When you are fighting for your lives at the wrong end of the table you will take any goal, and that is exactly the thoughts the 500 or so home fans will have come away from this game with.  McNally’s scrambled early effort which seemed to rebound off half a dozen players before creeping over the line lifted The Seagulls up to ten place, leap-frogging the visitors.

On the pitch there wasn’t much to talk about during the ninety minutes.  Sligo probably edged the first half and can feel unlucky that every time they had a chance on goal a Bray player somehow got in the way of the ball.  During the second half neither keeper had much to do as time after time the ball broke loose in midfield.

19047431600_15b5ab286a_kIt had all started so promisingly.  A €3 Seagulls key ring solved our craft beer bottle issue for later in the night, the chips with curry sauce were only marginally spoilt by a short, sharp shower that diluted the sauce and Danny got his picture taken with a giant seagull.  Best day ever you could say.  We even bumped into a ground of Finnish ground hoppers, one of whom sported a huge West Ham tattoo and smoked big, fat cigars like they were going out of fashion and regaled us of tales of fisticuffs the last time they came to England to see a game –  at Corby Town versus Hinckley United.  Obviously.

The Carlisle Grounds is a modest affair that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Ryman Premier League.  One old terrace with some seats bolted on with a new temporary stand on the other side.  Both ends have been cleared awaiting some redevelopment, but with the club looking for someone to take them over it could be awhile yet before anything new appears behind the goals.

We headed out of the ground, excited for what lay ahead.  The Porterhouse was our destination of choice for the evening and it treated us well.  Too well some may say as we staggered back to our hotel at 11pm with a paper bag full of chow mein.  Sophistication is our middle name and the Chinese would be washed down with our beers we had left in the sink before heading out.

But there seemed to be a conspiracy afoot.  The bar in the hotel didn’t close at 9pm.  It was heaving, with a live band playing when we arrived. It appeared to be a private party but two young handsome Englishmen were more than welcome it seemed.  When they left, we were invited in as poor substitutes.  Danny was soon up on his feet, jigging around the room to the Irish Rover, then bringing the house down with his rendition of Danny Boy.

Sunday dawned first at 6am when our alarms went off.  Then at 7am and finally at 7.30am.  Were we really going to do the 6km hike up the hill and along the cliff walk in the rain?  We felt we should and as soon as we had ascended to a point where we needed oxygen (about 10 metres above sea level) the sun was shining and we were in our groove.  What better way to blow out the cobwebs of a superb night.  Bray had been a star.

Most people don’t come to Bray for the football. We did, sort of, and it was up there with our wedding days, probably.

If you want more details of a trip to Bray then head on over to our sister site, 24 Hours in the City.