Ulster men Papp’d


Premier League (and Championship games) are a pain in the arse, getting in the way of these International breaks.  Whoever came up with the idea of 6 consecutive days of top class football should be given a knighthood, or at least a gold card at The Harvester.  The opportunity to visit a few new places, sample a few new beers and of course take in some new culture.  Last month it was Lithuania and Latvia, both new ticks in the box for me. So where would I end up this time around?  The options included Moldova (the poorest country by GDP in Europe and the main sport being wrestling), Luxembourg (currently being hammered by the G14 for their lax tax rules) and Cyprus (foam parties…mmmm).  All relatively good choices but who could resist 20 pence beers, the world’s second biggest building and a table topping clash all washed down on an airmiles return flight and a free hotel room? Bucharest here I come.

15791879632_0be24a2e8b_kThe European Union’s six biggest city spreads its tentacles far and wide.  The former Soviet Bloc influences are clear to see by just picking up a map.  The areas of the city are divided into Sektors, reminding you immediately of 1984 or more recently The Hunger Games.  Whilst the city sits near the top in terms of size in the European Union, according to the annual study carried out by Mercer International on the quality of life, Bucharest is in a lowly 107th place.  I can tell I have already sold you on a visit haven’t I?

What better way to immerse myself in the city than to experience their national side play football? Who would have thought that this game would be a top of the table clash?  In fact what odds would you have got of Northern Ireland qualifying for their first European Championships when the draw was made for France 2016? A positive result here in Bucharest result would keep them top of Group F, a group that few saw them progressing from when the draw was made earlier this year.  Greece and Romania both have recent major tournament pedigree, whilst Hungary and Finland could always upset the odds.  Northern Ireland’s only hope was to pick up points against the Faroe Islands if you believed some “experts”. Two months into qualifying and the Irish arrived in Bucharest top of the group with a 100% record thanks to wins in Hungary and Greece, as well as the predictable home win versus the Faroe Islands. Football is a predictable game right – I mean it wasn’t as if the bottom of the table Faroe Islanders were going to get a win in Greece was it?

The bus from the airport took me on a tour of the suburbs.  Ikea, Homebase, car showrooms, McDonalds.  You could be anywhere on earth.  That’s what global commercialisation has given us.  Finally I arrived at the InterContinental hotel, the tallest building in Romania no less, and temporary home to the Irish squad.  A work colleague offered some vital advice before I left London, shouting it across the office in front of at least one of our Senior Executives. “Stu – don’t ring up from your hotel room for a prostitute. Not only is it illegal, but you may find 19 year old 42 inch chested Inga doesn’t arrive in school uniform at all but as a 55 year old matron whose breasts touch her knees. Just head up to the Club Lounge, they will come and find you.” Well that’s next year’s pay rise scuppered then.

The Europa Royale Hotel, a ten minute stroll down away in Piati Unirii, was the beating heart of the city centre.  Bordered by the biggest shopping centre in the Bucharest, wide Soviet- inspired dead straight boulevards and the heaving nightlife of The Old Town, it was here that the Northern Ireland fans had set up camp. And they were in fine voice when I arrived.  Free buses had been laid on to take the fans to the stadium although the riot police had a stern warning for the Irish fans. “No bottles on board” was the stern instruction from Bucharest’s top Robocop.  “Singing is good. Drinking now is bad. You will want to pee-pee and we will not stop the bus.” Fair point.

15170374174_33ebcbeb20_kWe set off on a tour of the city centre with a police escort, meaning our bus driver had the opportunity to pretend to be Keanu Reeves in Speed and drive at 50mph, ignoring all road signals.  As if the fans cared as they (well, OK, we) launched into verse. “Sweet Caroline”, “All you need is love” a David Healy inspired version of “Away in a Manger” and of course, “We aren’t Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland”.

The buses arrived at the relatively deserted stadium.  It seemed that the locals weren’t exactly excited by the visit of the Irish.  Last month there had been significant trouble both in the city centre and in the stadium when Hungary had been the visitors.  For a brief while it looked as if this game may have had to be played behind closed doors as part of a UEFA sanction.  Fortunately, with nearly a thousand Northern Ireland fans already booked up for Bucharest, UEFA saw sense and imposed a £25,000 fine and a partial stadium closure, though I’m not sure where, penalty on the Romanians.

Prior to 2011, Romania didn’t have a national stadium. The old 60,000 seater open air stadium located on the same site had been demolished in 2009, with games played at the Ghencea, home of Steaua Bucharest, where the two sides last met back in 2006.  The new 55,000 all seater stadium was completed in 2011 and is certainly impressive, already hosting its first major game when the 2012 Europa League Final between Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was held here.  The stadium will also host matches during the ridiculous Europe-wide 2020 European Championships.

The stadium is sat upon a large mound, like a castle, with Neo-Gothic arches around the outside and almost Santiago Calatrava-style interior ones (Spanish chap who loves straight lined, white columns and elegant curves in his building design, dummy).  Without sounding too arty, it’s basically a beauty to behold, especially when lit up at night.

Our way was being blocked by two riot police, both young females who you would object to using their handcuffs on you.  “If I am going to end the night being battered black and blue then can it please be by them two?” A very un-Irish sounding chap had starry eyes for our protectorate.  He soon realised I was also from England when I chirped in my agreement. “You’re not one of them?” He said quietly, looking at the Irish fans behind us. “Please help us. We’ve been kidnapped.  We only came to Bucharest for a cheap weekend away. We got caught up in the wrong crowd and then before we knew it we were on the buses.  We don’t have tickets – heck we don’t even particularly like football.” Before I could answer, the girls had stepped aside and my fellow countrymen were swept along with the tide of green, never to be seen again.

15791900352_7c3f4075f6_kThe view inside the stadium was certainly impressive.  The canopy roof, similar to the one in Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Arena which famous ripped under the weight of water ten years ago in the Confederations Cup Final between Brazil and Argentina, was closed although it hadn’t done anything to make the stadium any warmer.  In fact it was bloody freezing.

The Romanians, despite sitting behind the Irish coming into the game, were firm favourites.  Whilst today’s team doesn’t have the same world-class players as they’ve had in the past, they are still a dangerous side and should be odds on to qualify for the 2016 tournament.

For one brief moment in time back in 2004, Romanian football was catapulted into the global stage thanks to the performance of the side at the World Cup in America. The team arrived with little few people giving them a chance in a group featuring the highly fancied Colombians, Switzerland and the host nation.  In their opening gave, they blew apart the South Americans with goals from a blonde-haired centre-forward, Florin Răducioiu and a diminutive creative midfielder in the mould of Diego Maradona, Gheorghe Hagi.  Whilst the wheels came off the bus in their next match, a solitary goal by dashing full-back Dan Petrescu against the USA saw them reach the next round and a game that changed Romanian football forever.

The new generation of Romanian players came at a time when domestic football was going through a massive change, off the back of the social and political changes in the country.  Steaua, traditionally the side of the Romanian Army and Dinamo, the “Interior Ministry’s side, are the most successful teams in Romania and up until the fall of Ceausescu, had won nine consecutive titles plus Steaua became the first Romanian side to win the European Cup in 1986, beating Barcelona and were runners up to AC Milan three years later.

That golden generation went on to impress in two of the next three major tournaments with the next generation of players being given a chance. Adrian Mutu, Cosmin Contra and Cristian Chivu all enjoyed success overseas whilst performing for the national side. But success has been thin on the ground in recent years. Coach Anghel Iordănescu is in the role for the third time, hoping to recreate the magic that he cast during the Golden Age of Romanian football in the mid-1990s.

Romania 2 Northern Ireland 0 – Arena National – Friday 14th November 2014
“We are top of the league, I say we are top of the league” National anthems done and dusted and for a few brief seconds the Irish fans have a chance to make their presence known.  Their chorus lasts but 10 seconds before the Romanians burst into song, amplified tenfold by the closed roof.  With the stadium just over half full it’s deafening. I cannot imagine what it’s like when full.  Northern Ireland line up 4-5-1, with Kyle Lafferty deployed as the nuisance up front. Out of the 22 players starting the game just one, Fleetwood Town’s Connor McLaughlin sports black boots. Playing opposite to him is the Romanian captain and West Ham flop, Răzvan Rat.

15604928938_565cc6ad8e_kIt took 16 minutes for the Irish to venture into the Romanian penalty area when Chris Brunt fired narrowly wide.  It was going to be a long evening for them, firmly under the cosh.  Romania nearly took the lead two minutes later when the lively Chipciu hit the underside of the bar from close range.  Chipciu wasn’t having the best of nights, following up this miss by falling over in the six yard box with the goal at his mercy after a brilliant run by Sanmartean. Northern Ireland finished the half with Lafferty nearly getting the reward for his tireless running and physical treatment from the Romanian centre-backs when he broke free and forced the keeper into. Smart save at his near post.

With three quarters of the game gone the score was still goal less.  The strength of the Northern Ireland team is their work rate, spirit and discipline.  Everyone knows their position and what is expected of them.  No stars but sheer talent.  With tensions boiling over in the South stand, the riot police were brought into action to quell a disagreement between the Ultras (‘cos that’s what their flag said) and the surrounding fans.  It appeared from the reaction of some fans that tear gas was used which was a real shame as just a few yards away, Romania finally found a way past Roy Carroll, when Paul Papp smashed the ball into the roof of the net after McAuley had failed to clear.

With their tails up, one became two soon after when full-back Papp scored again, heading home at the far post after a long cross from Sanmartean. There was no way back now for the Irish. Time to sing until the final whistle instead.

The performance had been spirited, and whilst many Irish fans may look at the two first half chances from Brunt and Lafferty, they had been beaten by the better side.  The inevitable lock-in after the game saw the riot police happy to pose pictures with the away fans and join in the odd song or two.  Thirty minutes after the game finished I was back on the bar at the hotel, finally thawing out, and ready to bat away the advances of the professional ladies of the night.  Around 1am the Irish squad arrived back, tired but proud of their performance.  There was no shame in defeat tonight.

Saturday morning dawned. From my balcony the grey cloud blended in with the grey buildings. Time to see the city in daylight.  I had made a plan to maximise my last few hours in the city which of course meant a visit to Dinamo and Steaeu’s respective grounds (thanking the God of open magic doors), a purchase of some football socks and a drink or two in the best-named bar in these parts, Beer O’ Clock.  Cheers Bucharest, you’d delivered a top 24 hours.  Until the next International break I wish you well.

15795039492_7c2c37dce6_k

 

A tale of two cities – Part 2 – Belfast


15071508454_f1523fba47_oA week after leaving Ireland I was touching down again, this time north of the border at George Best Airport, named after one of Belfast’s greatest sons.  Best was born forty years too early.  His antics at the height of his career would have hardly raised an eyebrow in today’s media spotlight dominated game, where anything and everything is expected and accepted from the modern-day footballer. In fact people may have concentrated on his footballing genius more rather than his off-the-field behaviour and his career may have been prolonged.

My abiding memory of my first trip to Belfast back in 1999 was sitting on a bus with the Current Mrs Fuller reading names out of a baby book whilst a group of school girls told us which would be their favourites, CMF was pregnant with our first-born at the time so it was par for the course that we headed overseas for the weekend and walked miles around a city that was going through radical change. Faced with the transition of our life for the next 20 years into responsible parenting, we crammed in as many trips abroad as we could handle and afford.

Belfast was a very different place back then. The shipyards of Harland and Wolf were in decline, the great history of building The Titanic an inconvenient truth of a once glorious industry. It still wasn’t recommended to wander down the Falls or Shankill Roads and the police stations still looked like watchtowers in prisoner of war camps. We wandered the city centre, enjoying the last few weeks of adult irresponsibility, eating well, drinking well (or at least I did) and then headed down to Ravenhill to watch the then European Rugby Champions and pride of Northern Ireland, Ulster, take on Wasps.

Earlier this season I started writing a new regular column for the Lewes FC match programme. Entitled Rooking All Over The World, I tried to find a club playing in every UEFA country that wore a similar red and black striped kit. Not as easy as it first seems. Eintract Frankfurt, OGC Nice, IP Brommapojkarna in Sweden and Belfast’s own Crusaders FC. Any club that plays at a ground called Seaview, where there isn’t actually a view of the sea is a winner in my book. I imaged every week some Basil Fawlty character fending off complains from visiting fans about the lack of a sea view, pointing out if they cared to climb the floodlights with a pair of binoculars then you could just make it out over there, between the land and the sky.

So why Seaview? Well this was the first question I asked Crusaders Media manager Michael Long when I met him at lunch time before the game versus Warrenpoint Town. It’s always a lottery when you try to connect with a club before a visit. Some simply ignore requests, others request all manner of documents to prove your identity and credentials and then there are clubs like Crusaders who couldn’t have been more accommodating, inviting me up to the ground early doors for a tour and a history lesson. And what a lesson it was. Pride oozes out of every pore of Long’s body at being involved in the club he has supported since a child. Crusaders are a fan-owned club – of course they are, all the best teams sporting the black and red always are. The rebirth of the club is almost identical to the story of Lewes Football Club in the last few years, from almost financial ruin at the hands of the taxman to a thriving community club, owned by the fans, run by the fans.

15500117378_77007885ba_o“Back in the day” Michael had taken me behind the East Stand where the perimeter wall separated the football ground from the train line, “the water used to be on the other side of the wall. The view from the main stand would be of ships coming in and out of the shipyards”. Today the land has been reclaimed and now there is the M2 motorway and an industrial estate on the other side of the railway tracks. The club have made the most of grants to build a decent little ground, but is this where their future lay?”

“We drew up plans to move a few miles north to Fort William”, which is now where the core of their support come from “but the process has been problematic and we are now back at square one”. With crowds for most games hovering around the 1,200 mark and some excellent facilities, including the 3G pitch, that have turned the club into a 7-day a week business, some fans may not see a need to move anywhere. But Long once again talked about progression on and off the pitch, and you could get the sense that the club do not see standing still as an option. Michael gave me the full tour with genuine pride. Whilst the names of the famous players from yesteryear were new to me, his animated story-telling brought them.

The club also hold a record in British football. In 1979 when they hosted Cliftonville in an Ulster Cup match there were over 1,900 police officers on duty in and around Seaview, more than have ever been involved at a football match on British soil. More than Cardiff City v Swansea City, Millwall v West Ham or even Lewes v Peacehaven & Telscombe.

15500194207_8de1337319_oThe two clubs are separated by just 1.5 miles although in Belfast terms that is a big divide, especially in the North and West of the city. The rivalry of the two clubs was heightened during The Troubles with Crusaders having a traditional Unionist following whilst Cliftonville are based in the mainly Nationalist areas. What was clear though is the huge amounts of work the two clubs have undertaken in their respective communities to reduce the tensions. In two weeks the real proof would be in the pudding as Cliftonville would be visiting Seaview for what promised to be a top of the table clash.

Life is good at Seaview at the moment. The club is progressing with redevelopment plans that have seen two new stands constructed at either end of Seaview in recent years, new floodlights as well as the real golden goose, the 3G pitch which is used every day of the year. Yep, even Christmas Day when the club hosts the annual Steel and Sons Cup Final match which can attract thousands of fans, fed up with Christmas Jumpers and sprouts boiled to death.

My lofty position atop the Main Stand certainly gave me a good view of the rooftops of Belfast and the massive cranes at Harland and Wolff but damn it was chilly. 24 hours earlier we’d had tropical temperatures of nearly 24 degrees in London but now it was gloves and scarf weather, neither of which I owned. Schoolboy error in these parts where it’s essential to pack for all four seasons in a day. Plan B deployed – chips with chicken gravy – it’s what all the kool kids were eating in North Belfast.

Crusaders 3 Warrenpoint Town 0 – Seaview – Saturday 1st November 2014
Unsurprising the opening exchanges all took place in the Warrenpoint half. The visitors from on the border with Southern Ireland arrived propping up the league with just 8 points and fell behind with jut 12 minutes in the clock when centre-forward Jordan Owens stroked the ball home from close range. Five minutes later Owens missed a sitter when cleverly put through by the impressive Whyte. The artificial surface certainly suited the Hatchet Men’s play, building from the back and constantly looking for the pass behind the centre-backs. The torrential rain didn’t make it easy but as a spectator you always had that feeling that it would lead to a calamitous mistake at some point in the afternoon.

15066039943_6ffe305641_oWarrenpoint came back into the game with false nine (wearing 10 of course) Stephen Hughes creating a few chances as the half wound up. In keeping with being one of the nicest clubs in the world I was invited into the boardroom at half-time for a hot sausage or two and heralded as a guest of honour by the Chairman. In fact everyone I was introduced to seemed to know of me. It was like the episode of Only Fools and Horses (again I know) where Rodney brings a video camera home from college and Del starts selling roles in his play to the regulars in the Nags Head.

Crusaders came out for the second half all guns blazing again, knowing that a 1-0 scoreline was far too dangerous to hold onto when the conditions were so poor. In the philosophy of John Beck, it doesn’t matter what a goal looks like, you only get one point for it on the scoreboard. And he is right. Crusaders second was as ugly as Iain Dowie in a Halloween mask. Owens shot from point-blank range was well saved by the Warrenpoint keeper, the rebound hit a defender then Owen again before O’Carroll got his shin to it and it rolled into the net. Fortunately number three, scored in the 67th minute was better looking (think Holly Willoughby as an air stewardess…….oh, sorry) as Owen drilled the ball home from 25 yards.

15685506195_03090187e1_oCrusaders had their tails up but couldn’t find another goal. A three-nil win kept them in the leading pack and everyone happy in the boardroom after the game. It had been a top afternoon, spent in the company of fellow devotees to a club at the heart of their community.  Now to negotiate the trip back into the city centre in the pouring rain.

My hotel was in the University district meaning that it was over run by fake zombies and girls wearing lingerie and a smattering of fake blood…oh, and a group of boys dressed as One Direction – “the ultimate scary sight” as one reveller told me. Fast forward twelve hours and the dregs of the Halloween celebrators were not enjoying the beautiful, crisp Sunday morning with the sun illuminating the carnage of the night before. The irony of seeing a chap, dressed as Dracula, sitting on the steps of a church wasn’t lost on me although I’m sure he wouldn’t get a particularly warm welcome from the congregation.

Belfast had been brilliant. Come prepared for rain, sleet, snow and sunshine and you cannot fail to enjoy yourself. Despite being just a hundred or so miles apart, the two capital cities of Belfast and Dublin offer two different views on life and above all football. Whilst the fan exodus continues to take place every Saturday, you get the feeling that football is in ruder health North of the border and clubs are learning to adapt and grow, whereas in the South, the competition posed by the more traditional Irish sports is simply a war of fan attention that the club’s simply cannot win

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.