Getting the horn


After a long overdue absence from these pages, our Englishman in New York, Luge Pravda is BACK.  And when we say BACK we really mean BACK.  Whilst the Guinness International Champions Cup is talking taking place across the States, we wanted Luge to experience REAL US soccer and tell us had the World Cup effect kicked in yet.  Miami, Seattle, Columbus Ohio?  Nope.  Somewhere even better than that….

IMG_0212Two weeks ago I was supposed to be in Rochester, NY for a client meeting. For those not well versed in non-big US city geography, think upstate New York, near Niagara, next to Canada and you’re getting very warm. Unfortunately, a massive storm put pay to my flight (as I was in a cab on the way to the airport, such is the glamor of business travel) so Rochester and I would have to wait to become acquainted. Fast forward two weeks and I had a rearranged meeting on a Monday. Not wanting to cancel a second time I sacrificed my Sunday to fly up at lunch time and make an afternoon/evening of it. Of course my flight was delayed an hour or so, so by the time I arrived in my hotel in downtown Rochester it was too late to do what I originally planned – hire a bike – so I did what any discerning business traveler does, I reached for the local guide magazine on the desk. Which as usual, was pretty useless, all adverts for golf courses and wedding locations. Unperturbed, I carried on my search and quite fortuitously stumbled upon a soccer (sorry, I have lived here too long, football) match. When I originally told The Ball is Round I think he imagined I was wandering the streets; sorry, stumbled as in web search. Anyway, the Rochester Rhinos were playing the Orlando City Lions, in a USL Pro match. The USL being the third tier of US soccer, below the NASL and the top-of-the-pyramid MLS above it.

The time was 3:15pm. The match started at 4:05pm (of course – and something that causes endless amusement to The Ball is Round himself – US matches never start on the hour, unless they involve the US national team in the small matter of a World Cup for instance, and all because of TV advertising). With no cycling on my horizon, and less than favorable reviews for a local brewery on Yelp, panic set in: I didn’t have a car, didn’t have time to Google local public transport options, so had to hope the stadium wasn’t miles away somewhere. Little did I know I could actually see the floodlights from my hotel room if I looked in the right direction: Google maps confirmed a 35 minute walk (and we all know it assumes you walk at your dear old granny’s pace).

IMG_0213So I set off. My walk took me through a very dead quiet downtown Rochester. Like many US cities, not much goes on downtown as people tend to live in the suburbs. Imagine Brighton being like a ghost town on a Sunday? Exactly, it always strikes me as strange and somewhat eerie. I did, however, walk past a prescription drug deal going down outside a derelict ‘adult’ DVD store though. With a spring in my step – I’m not in the market for painkillers thank you very much – I turned a corner and saw the giant Kodak building looming large in the skyline.

Rochester is/was famous for being home to a select group of companies – not for nothing was it known as the ‘World’s Image Center’ – namely, Kodak Eastman, Bausch & Lomb and Xerox. Of course the smartphone all but killed off Kodak many years ago but subletting their old parking lot, in the shadows of the Kodak building sits the Frontier Field, the home of Triple A Baseball team, the Rochester Redwings. This was a good sign as Google maps was telling me Sahlen’s Stadium, the Rhino’s home, was just behind it.

I got to my hotel room at 3pm. At 3.50pm I was sat in the bleachers with a beer in hand waiting for a team I never even knew existed some 35 minutes earlier. I had a feeling The Ball is Round would be proud of me.

6 things about Rochester Rhinos vs. Orlando City Lions

IMG_0216* All US sports events are proceeded by a rendition of the national anthem. This was one of the best I’ve heard. A young local lass, I’m sure she’ll go far on X-Factor someday. (If you want to hear a bad, and I mean BAD, national anthem rendition, check this one out).

* One player out of 22, the Orlando Number 16 had black boots. The majority wore lime green or orange but fortunately no mixing of the two.

* The hardcore are called the Oak Street Brigade and sit in section 101. There are about 30 of them. They sing the ubiquitous ‘Lets’s go <insert team name>‘. ‘Let’s go Rhino’s’. Original.

IMG_1790* I was not the only Englishman in attendance, 100% guaranteed. Ex Toffee Adrian Heath was here in his capacity as manager of Orlando. American life seems to have treated him well (but at least he was wearing trousers, a shirt and smart shoes. Are you listening ‘Big Phil’ Scolari?)

* The stadium announcer proclaimed 8 (eight) thousand people were in attendance. The place holds thirteen thousand apparently. I would be amazed if there were more than four thousand, maybe less. Look at those stands above!

* Certain parts of the bleachers seemed to go crazier for ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ being played over the PA than some of the football on show. I put that down to being in upstate New York. In New York City it would be Jay-Z causing a merry fervor.

Oh, the match you ask? Well, the first shot on target in anger was in 18th min, with some of neat build up to be fair. Encouraging at this level, but equally the football was in the main also what you tend to get at this level: enthusiastic, probing, energetic, perhaps sometimes what English journalists might call ‘honest’. The match ended 1-0 to the Rhinos, after a 1st half goal. Which I missed – of course I did – as I was outside checking out with some interest precisely what the local legend Nick Tahou Hots food truck was serving called, wait for it, ‘Garbage Plates’. As seen on Adam Richman’s ‘Man vs Food’ a few years back a garbage plate, a local Rochester specialty, is a heart attack on a plate:

So what did I learn about the Rochester Rhinos? Not a great deal, but I will forever be in their debt: just when flying to a new city on a Sunday afternoon for a meeting the next morning looked like a sacrifice too far, up popped a random soccer team I had never heard of, to provide a few very pleasant hours in the sunshine watching a sport I love. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them Rhinos now for sure * (*I probably won’t but you get my drift).

As for the rescheduled meeting, it went very well, thank you. Unfortunately my flight on the Monday evening back to NYC was cancelled due to, once again, inclement weather. Shame the Rhinos weren’t playing back to back matches.

Hearts and minds


Two years ago life looked quite good for Hearts fans as they took the field for the Europa League Play-Off against Liverpool at Tynecastle.  They had finished the previous season in fifth place but had taken the silverware and city bragging rights by destroying their local rivals, Hibernian at Hampden Park in the Scottish Cup Final. Talk around Edinburgh was of a push for second spot in the Rangers-less SPL. Dreams were of repeating the 2006 feat of reaching the Champions League Qualifying Rounds, and nights of hosting more European greats at one of Britain’s oldest used football grounds.

20140726-202446-73486584.jpgInstead a series of “unfortunate events” off the pitch saw the club lurch from one financial crisis to another. Lithuanian owner Vladimir Romanov, having failed in attempts to buy Dundee United, Dundee and Dunfermline took majority control of the club in 2005. He underlined his knowledge of the game by sacking manager George Burley after the club had won their first eight games of the season and were top of the Premier League. The Lithuanian’s time in charge would see nine managers appointed in just seven seasons, with many of those ejected through the revolving doors in a similar brutal way to Burley.

During this period debt mounted as the complex ownership structure of the club failed to deliver any re-assurances to the authorities or the fans that the club had a viable future. Last summer the club, saddled with debt close to £25 million, entered administration and received a 15 point penalty and a transfer embargo. Even the most ardent Hearts fan knew that avoiding relegation would be akin to climbing Arthur’s Seat dressed with both legs tied together.

But light came at the end of the tunnel in the form of The Foundation of Hearts. Once again, a supporter-led initiative had shown football the importance of the fans voice. Administration and the painful memory of the Romanov decade officially ended on 11 June 2014. Having been through similar experiences, albeit at a smaller level with Lewes FC, I know that feeling of despair when it seems there is no future for your club.

20140726-202449-73489010.jpgFast forward six weeks and Tynecastle would be hosting its first ever Petrofac Training Cup game.  As they say in the East End, “just like my dreams, they fade and die”. Instead of welcoming the likes of Gerrard, Suarez, Sturridge and Andy Carroll again it would be the Messrs Swinglehurst, McNiff and Carcary that variety lining up for Annan Athletic, currently plying their trade in the fourth tier of Scottish Football. This was to be the first meeting between the two sides – a event of such historic proportions that I simply had to be there. Well, the fact I was already in town for the Commonwealth Games was just pure coincidence.

This was my first visit to Tynecastle, long overdue having done every other major club in Scotland. The ground is a mixture of old and new. Three modern, uniform stands provide the comfort for the fans making their way down Gorgie Road, whilst the Archibald Leitch- built Main Stand, dating back to 1914, still reminds the fans of former glories.

Visitors Annan Athletic’s biggest claim to fame is beating Rangers two seasons ago when they were bed-fellows in the Scottish Third Division. Elected into the professional leagues after the demise of Gretna in 2008. They couldn’t have asked for a tougher draw in the Challenge Cup, although with both clubs sharing the gate receipts, they would at least get a nice windfall from the game.

The Scottish Challenge Cup, this season sponsored by Petrofac Training, is an interesting concept. All clubs below the Premier League enter the cup at the first round stage, with “wildcard” entries this season Brora Rangers and Spartans adding some junior league spice. With Hearts, Hibernian and Rangers all in the First Division this season, it may well be the most competitive yet.

20140726-202447-73487013.jpgThis was the traditional Fuller Family trip to Scotland, with a visit to the Commonwealth Games in the cards for tomorrow. While the girls headed to spot Yuang Guang and Tian Tian at the Zoo, I headed down the Dalry Road to find Tynecastle. Thirsty from my long walk I decided to have a spot of refreshment in The Tynecastle Arms. Despite my feeble attempts at trying to disguise my English accent, asking for a pint of Belhaven was like the scene from American Werewolf In London where the two backpackers enter the pub in the Yorkshire Moors. I was saved by a man coming in, wearing a pair of Stuart Pearce’s Italia 90 shorts, shrunken in the wash, who diverted the majority of the pub’s attention for me to disappear into a dark corner.

A quick trip round the Club Shop revealed a complete lack of Heart- shaped merchandise or even any jam tarts so I made do with my customary pair of socks, although the Littlest Fuller will be disappointed to hear that maroon-coloured Loom bands had sold out, before heading for my seat in press box just as the sun disappeared behind the ominous grey storm clouds. Welcome to Scotland.

Heart of Midlothian 3 Annan Athletic 1 – Tynecastle – Saturday 26th July 2014
When Hearts opened the scoring in the 8th minute the surprise was it had taken so long. Billy King’s pile-driver into the roof of the net was their fourth shot on target in the game that appeared from the first few seconds to be a complete mis-match. It was good to see the PA announcer also taken by surprise, having to ask a chap sitting next to me who scored – people don’t realise what a tough job it is, especially when you are playing Scrabble on your iPhone.

Hearts looked like they meant business. Very smart deep claret, or as I’m told, maroon shirts, no sponsor’s logo (tick) and their manager Robbie Neilson looking very smart on the touch line in his Barbour. One became two in the 20th minute when Osman Sow was allowed to overlap on the right and placed the ball into the corner of the net, then almost added a third seconds later. The group of vocal Annan fans (well, children) positioned at the top of the away stand who had been so vocal about their hatred for Edinburgh fifteen minutes previously were now silent.

20140726-202448-73488108.jpgThe third arrived in the 40th minute when full back Callum Paterson headed home unmarked from a corner. Paterson’s happiness would turn to tears just five minutes later when on the half-time whistle he fell awkwardly after a challenge and was stretchered off the pitch.

Fair do’s to the stadium announcer. He was obviously under orders to slip in the sponsor’s name at every opportunity and he didn’t waste the chance in a break in play to remind us where we could find all the latest Petrofac Training news, Petrofac Training reaction and even Petrofac Training Instagram pictures. My attention though was caught by the number of birds in the stadium. They were everywhere, sitting ominously on top of the stand opposite, waiting for their chance to swoop and head one in. A lone duck-like creature (sorry, I have no idea on ornithology) patrolled the Annan penalty area in the first half and could well have had the last touch on Sow’s goal.

20140726-202445-73485661.jpgThe second half didn’t quite have the same storyline. Hearts continued to attack, using pace to get to the byline but the Annan keeper, Alex Mitchell, was in inspired form. Then in injury time Scott Davidson gave the fifty or so away fans something to shout about when he scored the goal of the game for Annan, striking home from distance.

Just over 6,700 had come out on a sunny, then windy, rainy and sunny again afternoon to see the “New” Hearts. Whilst it was only the Challenge Cup, the fans cannot complain that the team hadn’t taken it seriously. With the huge images on the sides of the stands of bygone heroes such as Tommy Walker looking down on today’s players, there is a sense that the club is once again starting to build for the future.

To donate to The Foundation of Hearts, the organisation behind the revival of the club, click here.

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.

 

 

Spanish eyes aren’t smiling today


During the summer months my licence to roam to watch football carries a few endorsements.  I have to factor in “family time” around any games I want to get to, and my wanderlust desire is relatively muted – after all who really wants to drive 5 hours to Bangor City on a Thursday night just to watch some football (that’s what I told myself after I lost a coin toss a few weeks ago).  Last weekend, with the sun shining brightly I suggested a trip to the Outlet Shopping Centre at Hatfield whilst I went to watch Stevenage v West Ham United, and next weekend there is the small matter of tickets to see the “is she/isn’t she up the duff” Pandas at Edinburgh Zoo whilst I go to watch Hearts v Annan Athletic.  This weekend it was all about a trip to Hastings.

Despite being the birthplace of Erasure’s Andy Bell, everybody’s favourite comedian Jo Brand and Neil Ruddock (now listed on Wikipedia simply as “bankrupt”) it did give the world the genius talents of Alan Turing, Spike Milligan and Suggs.  Oh, and Anna McNeill Whistler, better known as Whistler’s Mum for all you Mr Bean fans out there.  It also has a pier, arcades, fish and chip shops and some amusements that look more dangerous than they really are, especially as a parent AND that they appear to be the same ones, with the same operators from when I came here as a child back in the 1980’s. Oh, and a football team who coincidently happened to be playing Lewes on the very day I suggested a Fuller Family day out. Funny that.

Alas, the mother of all storms on Friday night had driven the littlest Fullers under their beds, still not emerging by breakfast time on Saturday and the BBC weather forecast clearly said rain from 12pm to 5pm.  Perfect football weather.  So the family fun day was off (boo), but I was still able to go (yah!).  It was still only a friendly, and we had lost our previous two, including one last week to Sussex County League side Hassocks.  We all know it is all about the performance not the result at this stage of the season…unless you win of course, when it is vice-versa.

cropped-14692633105_6708776470_k.jpgHastings United’s The Pilot Field is a cracking old ground.  Once upon a time it hosted Speedway and Greyhound racing (not at the same time of course as that would be silly) and you can still see remnants of the track today. You can also see the overgrown old grandstand on the upper pitch, once the home of Rock-a-Nore FC on the walk down Elphinstone Road.  Today, with its cavernous grandstand and tall covered terrace it is showing its age.  Three years ago Hastings United reached the Third Round of the FA Cup, losing to Middlesborough, although there appears to be little in the way of a legacy of that brilliant cup run (and the significant prize money) apart from a half and half scarf above the bar.

Whilst the two clubs are both in East Sussex, there is little in the way of animosity between them.  Both seem to enjoy the challenge of beating Eastbourne Borough, sitting almost equidistant between the two towns.  Of course I say this with the fact that Hastings have had the better of the most recent games against the Rooks despite our different league fortunes.

14692344702_d3d2264174_kOf course when we finally arrived in Hastings, after a tortuous 3 hour detour to avoid the bane of modern motoring, the over turned caravan, the sun was shining.  The BBC weather app was still telling me that right now I should be cooling off in a heavy shower, rather than standing on the veranda (such a colonial word), enjoying a cold pint of MasterBrew as the teams emerged.  Modern technology can tell us who scored the opening goal in the game between Tammeka v Paide in the Estonian Meistriliiga within seconds of the ball hitting the net (Nigerian-born Jasper Uwaegbulam as you asked) yet ask it to report what is going on above us in the sky and it is rarely right.

Hastings United 2 Lewes 1 – The Pilot Field – Saturday 19th July 2014
Most games will throw up one main talking point, with both sets of fans arguing the toss for hours.  Whilst this game was only a pre-season friendly, it was a game of football and thus was played under the rules that the FA set out.  So I do not buy the “it’s only a pre-season game” when controversial issues are discussed.  In normal circumstances, and by that I mean in any other game refereed according to the laws of the game, Hastings would have gone in at half-time down to ten, possibly nine men.  That’s taking nothing away from the result – Hastings’took advantage of two pieces of calamity defending to win the game – but without their first choice keeper for over an hour, the result may have been different.

The first incident happened when new signing Elliott Romain chased what appeared to be a lost ball over the top but got in front of the defender and knocked it past the on-rushing Hastings keeper, who simply brought the Lewes forward down.  Clear penalty, clear professional foul yet the referee didn’t even produce a card.  Jack Dixon stepped up, and put the ball in his favoured corner.  1-0.

A few minutes later and veteran Sean Ray appeared to strike Romain in the face with his arm.  The Lewes forward didn’t make a big deal of it, although the referee decided to take the Lewes player to one side to have a chat.  A few minutes later the referee sided up to Ray and said something…no guesses what it was.

14505964729_feeb73921c_hHastings equalised just before the break when a corner was dropped under pressure by Rikki Banks and the ball was finally bundled home by Sawyer.  Even-stevens although the Lewes bench were clearly unhappy with the lack of action about the two incidents.  In normal instances we would have all gone down the opposite end for the second half, but our viewing position was more than adequate in the sunshine and close to the bar.  What else could you want in Non-League football?

If they weren’t bad enough then the Hastings keeper decided to try his luck again, this time flattening Romain outside the box when he was clear on goal.  This time the referee pulled out a yellow card.  What’s the point in that?  If he gave nothing for either incident in first half, why caution the player in the second?  He was never going to send him off in the game so it simply because a gesture that had no meaning.

With fifteen minutes to go Hastings once again capitalised on indecision and inability to clear the ball in the area and substitute Bankole had a simple job of turning the ball in.  The result gave the home side some local pride, although it counts for very little once the season gets underway.  Overall, a very pleasant afternoon on the Sussex coast.  It may not have been hotter than the Mediterranean but we did feel the pain in Spain…..*

*The referee, David Spain, isn’t that well liked in Lewes due to a number of refereeing performances in seasons gone by…let’s just leave it there.

Five things from….Argentina 0 Germany 1


So this is it. 30 days since it all started, over 15,000 words written on this blog and countless beers in the name of World Cup research.  The two best teams in the world?  Possibly not.  The two best teams in the tournament?  Maybe.  But when has the best two teams ever competed in the final?  That is the beauty of the tournament.  But here I am with split loyalties.  My head and heart says Germany – I think they have had the right attitude from the first game against Portugal with incredible teamwork.  I also had a top night with the German fans in Singapore on the night they played the Portuguese.  But my stomach says Argentina as my department at work got them in the sweepstake and if they win we get a free lunch this week.  My choice of beer?  Icelandic White Ale of course.

With the global ban on football for anyone involved in a club due to come into force this would be my last chance to bet.  I’d put a cheeky £5 on Müller to the top scorer at start of the tournament so I followed that up with a £5 on Germany 1-0.

photo 1 (28)1. Rio the Easyjet Steward- Footballers never look comfortable wearing ties but Rio has taken this smart look to a new level, with his blazer and orange tie, last seen on the Easyjet flight from Malaga to Liverpool.  Surely, someone in wardrobe must have said to him he looked a little silly? Or did he simply buy the outfit on eBay from Luis Van Gaal?  And why did they need to dress up anyway?  It’s the last day of “term” – they should have brought in board games, party food and all worn t-shirts that the rest of the group could sign.

2. Concussion – Why do team doctors always wear suits?  That was one of the things I noticed last night in the Dutch game?  They walk on confidently and all of the players immediately stand back, giving them the respect they deserve.  Tonight the German man was called on to look at last minute replacement for Khedira and then was on the end of a sickening collison when he ran into Garay.  Immediately the commentators assumed he was concussed – a superb diagnosis from the TV gantry where there is often no external visible signs.

3. Goal face – Is there anything funnier in football than seeing a player run away in celebration for half a minute or so when everyone else in the stadium has seen the linesman’s flag raised?  That is unless it is your team that has scored.  A perfect DVD compilation for someone to release just in time for Christmas, voiced by Alan Partridge in his “Crash, Bang, What a video” voice.

4. If Townsend is bad enough – I think we have tolerated Mark Lawrenson during the tournament because he was marginally better than Andy Townsend.  But faced with an either or option it really is hard to take.  It is incredible that both played football at the same time for so long yet can add absolutely nothing tactically to the commentary.  All they both do is tell us what we can blatently see and try to make cheap jokes.  “Some village has just lost his idiot” he said towards the end of normal time.  Not sure if he was talking in the 3rd person or about an unseen pitch invader. I’d rather have Harry Hill commentating – and I cannot stand him.

photo 4 (5)5. The best team won – I may be in the minority but I love watching German football and the team have been a pleasure to watch in this tournament.  Right from the maverick confidence of Neuer (you know that one day he will make an almighty clanger), the cool-headedness of Lahm, the warrior-like never say die attitude of Schweinsteiger and the attacking threat of Müller. Bear in mind that the squad was missing Marcus Reus, one of my favourite attacking players in Europe.  Five of the players now have a World Cup winners medal to go with last year’s Champions League winners medals.  Who would bet against them adding a European Championship one in two years?

So that’s it.  The World Cup candle has gone back into storage for four more years.  It’s been the best four weeks ever, having watched games in six countries at all hours of the day and night.  Let’s do it all again in Russia in four years.  I’ll bring the beer.

 

The Golden Generation of German football


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt finish saves Hammer’s pre-season blushes


At the end of last season many West Ham fans faced a dilemma.  Premier League survival had been assured, which of course was the prime objective of any club outside the top seven every season, especially with the increased revenues available from the overseas TV rights but the team had gone backwards under Sam Allardyce.  In the previous season the club had finished in 10th spot, and with the big money signing of Andy Carroll, expectations were for a push towards a Europa League spot.  Instead a dreadful run of form between November and January saw them lose nine Premier League games and be eliminated from the Capital One Cup at the Semi-Final stage by Manchester City, shipping in nine goals without reply over the two games.

Questions were asked of Allardyce’s stewardship, not only in terms of the results but also the style of play that was still not winning over the fans.  His relationship with the supporters had dropped to an all-time low as he often mentioned that the failure to get behind the team in difficult times was one of the reasons why their form was poor.  In April 2014 during the away game against West Bromwich Albion, a section of West Ham fans expressed their distaste at the style of football played under Allardyce by displaying a banner which read “Fat Sam Out, killing WHU”.  Owners Sullivan and Gold took an unprecedented step of almost undermining him by insisting he employ an attacking coach for this season to “ensure the team provides more entertainment”.

14635690272_14b416929c_kThe club moved quick to appoint former player Teddy Sheringham in the role, although he is yet to finish his coaching qualifications and has no background in similar roles which suggests it was more of a move to appease the fans rather than to assist Allardyce.  The main issue is that Allardyce had built a squad to play in a certain way, his way.  You simply cannot change the style a player plays just by coaching them for a few weeks.  So Allardyce has been given the cash to bring in some new faces.

So far four have arrived.  Argentine forward Mauro Zarate, Senegal international Cheikhou Kouyate, highly rated full-back Aaron Cresswell from Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic’s teenage midfielder Diego Poyet.  These aren’t the signings on paper that would have me purring with excitement at a new look, attack minded team.  Allardyce (and the owners) transfer record in bringing in overseas forwards has been shocking to say the least.  Let me throw some names out there and see whether you can say what impact they had on West Ham or English football in general:-

Maroune Chamakh (2 games, no goals), Modibo Maiga (31 games, 3 goals), John Carew (21 games, 2 goals), Brian Montenegro (2 games, 0 goals), Papa Bouba Diop (16 games, 1 goal), Pablo Barrera (2 games, 0 goals), Marceo Borriello (0 games, o goals)

Last season all the attacking eggs were placed in the Andy Carroll basket.  Carroll’s strike rate through his career has been just less than 1 goal in every 4 games.  So over the course of a Premier League season, even if we had changed our style massively by using two wide me, such as Jarvis and Downing, we would have only expected to score a dozen goals.  Hardly enough to push us into the top eight.  Alas, Carroll picked up an injury and missed over half the season – the reason that Allardyce continued to trot out as to why we were struggling.  He was forced to resign Carlton Cole who for many games was the only striking option we had.

14632781351_e28cdcbd53_kThe first opportunity for the new dawn of the Hammers was to be away at Stevenage in a pre-season friendly. Whilst these games can be dismissed as irrelevant in terms of a barometer for the season ahead, it would be one of the few opportunities Allardyce would have to demonstrate his new attacking intent before the Premier League season got underway. However, in an all too familiar story, Carroll, Cole and new striking option Zarate would not travel up the A1(M) for the game.

Whilst not in the same financial bracket as a Non-League team hosting a big club, this would be an important game for Stevenage and they hoped for a bumper crowd.  Their relegation back to League Two at the end of last season had dented the momentum the club had after winning promotion to the Football League back in 2011.  Two seasons later and they were on the verge of a place in the Championship after reaching the Play-Offs, only to lose to Sheffield United.

This was my first visit back to Stevenage since they lost their Borough a few seasons ago.  I’d first been to Broadhall back in 1996 when they played Hayes in the FA Cup first round.  I’d stumbled on the ground by accident after visiting our prospective wedding venue down the road and celebrating by buying our first ever PC (an Intel desktop that cost a whopping £1,995) in the Industrial Park just off the A1.  Having seen a number of football fans parking outside Comet (RIP) I managed to persuade the then Future Mrs Fuller (FMF) to go to the game.

14635563612_4ef65c1a55_kEighteen years later and she was dropping me back in the same Industrial Park opposite the ground.  Alas, with the two little Fuller’s in tow she wouldn’t be joining me, opting for the shopping option instead.  The fans were out in force, with all those hopes and dreams for the season still in tact.  Whilst one day would not make them fade and die, they could start to plant those seeds of doubt that sit in all football fans.

Stevenage 2 West Ham United 2 – Saturday 12th July 2014 – Broadhall Stadium
Whilst we all know this is all about the performance, rather than the result, if it wasn’t for Matty Jarvis West Ham would have left Hertfordshire with their tail firmly between their legs with a defeat to a spirited Stevenage side.  His 84th minute header brought the Hammers back into the game then set up Stewart Downing to score a 90th minute equaliser much to the relief of the fifteen hundred travelling West Ham fans.

Without any first choice recognised strikers, Allardyce, sporting an American Hustle look with three (THREE!) shirt buttons undone, was forced to start with a first half side utilising Kevin Nolan and McCallum up front.  New signings Cresswell and Poyet also started, with youngster Leo Chambers playing alongside Winston Reid at the back.  Despite the wishes of the board, the opening exchanges simply saw the Hammers punt the ball long for the likes of Vaz Te and Ravel Morrison to chase, rarely troubling the Stevenage keeper, Sam Beasant, son of ex-Wimbledon legend David.

14450407710_0806dace44_kThe opening exchanges were unsurprisingly cagey, and played at a sedate pace, yet bang on 22 minutes the referee blew his whistle for a water break.  Ridiculous.  We were in Stevenage not Salvador.  During the break, both benches were on the field, coaching the teams.  You can see this playing right into the hands of the TV companies if this is allowed to continue, being able to sell more advertising slots in prime time TV.  Five minutes later, after the referee had been prompted as to where the game actually stopped from, Stevenage had a player down injured.  Once again, manager Graham Westley was on the pitch, obviously now the club doctor.  And the role of the fourth official is often dumbed down.

West Ham’s keeper Adrian had a torrid first half and was at fault for the opening goal of the afternoon.  Cresswell headed back to Adrian and as the keeper slid out  to gather, he dropped the ball at the feet of ex-Wealdstone winger Pett who said “Thank you very much” and tapped the ball into an empty net.  Adrian did what all good goalkeepers should do in that position – he appealed for a foul then started holding his wrist as if injured.  He then faffed at a low cross from Deacon and pushes the ball into the onrushing Stevenage forward, who couldn’t believe his luck and slammed the ball against the post.

14449338290_45762b6c6a_hHalf time and wholesale West Ham changes saw a brand new starting XI with Downing and Jarvis brought on to give the team some width.  However, it was Stevenage who struck again when that old favourite “A. Trialist” turned neatly and beat Jaaskelainen to double their lead.  It looked like being a miserable afternoon for West Ham until Jarvis threw himself at a Demel cross to score a rare headed goal.  Even rarer was a Downing goal, let alone a header but it was his nod, from Jarvis’s cross in the 90th minute that gave West Ham a share of the spoils.

So what would Allardyce have learnt from the 90 minutes?  There were certainly some positives – Winston Reid looked sharp, Jarvis positive and it was great to see assured performances from the young trio of Lee, Potts and Chambers.  On the flip side where must be some worries over the goal keeping situation, Tompkins looked very shaky against League Two strikers and the lack of strikers saw Nolan huffing and puffing away chasing long hoof balls.