Tears and Tantrums and a penalty too far

The Rise of the Big Green Monster – June 2007
Not exactly a 10,000 crowdIn my quest to fill the void left by the end of the football season I had planned a number of trips months in advance. Then something strange happened. Something that hadn’t happened for at least five years. England U21’s qualified for a major tournament. The U21’s used to be legends under the guidance of Peter Taylor and players like Rio Ferdinand, Paul Robinson, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher had all come through the “juniors” under his guidance. Then it all went wrong when the suits decided to replace the knowledgeable Taylor with the clueless David Platt. Under Mr Potato Head a system of squad rotation was introduced that seemed to mean any and every English player was capped at U21 level and consistency in team selection went out the window. After a couple of failed attempts at qualifying for the European Championships, which are held every 2 years, Platt was on his way to destroy Nottingham Forest, and Stuart Pearce was put in charge. Psycho relished the task and instilled a sense of pride in playing for the shirt again. A new crop of players started to gel as a team and all of a sudden the team starts to win. After a play off victory the team qualified for the 8 team European Championships to be played in Holland.

The U21 tournaments are normally well organised. Usually played in smaller stadiums close together and rarely very busy it is a stadium hoppers dream. And there is always the chance you will get to see a few stars in the making. Many players at this level also play once in their career at the Olympics level, which in terms of U21’s (well actually Under 23 at Olympic level) is the equivalent of the World Cup. Unfortunately we are allowed to play – something to do with the fact that we have professional leagues in England, Scotland and Ireland but don’t have a single team, or something like that. The 2007 version featured Portugal, Belgium, Israel, Italy, Serbia as well as the host nation and England. The games were to be played in four venues – two in the north – Groningen and Heerenveen and two in the south east, Arnhem and Nijmegen. England were drawn in the latter stadiums in a group featuring Italy, Serbia and Czech Republic. The opening games were being played in the north and it was to here that I was initially planning on visiting, taking in both games on the opening day.

I arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on a sunny Saturday. I cannot think of a year where I have not landed at this airport more than once in a year. So bad was it in 2007 that I am sure I must have been under suspicion as a drug trafficker. The plan was to pick up a car at the airport, drive up to Heerenveen for the first game featuring the Dutch, leaving a few minutes early and continuing north to Groningen for Belgium v Portugal, staying the night in a small village outside Groningen before heading south on Sunday and taking in England’s opener in Arnhem and the game 10 miles away at Nijmegen. An overnight stop back in Arnhem then a drive to Amsterdam airport for a 7am flight back to work on the Monday. What could possibly go wrong? Absolutely everything.

Car hire is not what it is used to be. In the olden days they used to take a credit card imprint and then once you returned the car then it would be torn up in front of your eyes. Today they “block” a deposit from your card which basically means for the period of the rental (and actually for as long as they want to as I found out to my cost later in the year in Poland when it was blocked for three weeks) you cannot use the amount they have blocked. Fine if you have a credit card, but I don’t. My cash was all in my First Direct account, which is accessible by my Maestro card. The Netherlands is one of the few places in Europe where Maestro is not commonly accepted as I found out. I had only a few hundred on my Visa Debit (they wanted a deposit of €800) and being a Saturday I could not arrange a CHAPS transfer from one account to the other, neither would they take a cash deposit. So I was stuck. All my plans had disappeared down the drain. I had made such a fuss at the counter that I couldn’t try my luck elsewhere so I threw myself on the mercy of the Dutch rail network.

Unlike its German counterpart the Dutch network is in dire need of modernisation in terms of its trains meaning that it is not exactly the most comfortable to travel long distances. But, like its German counterpart it was very efficient and trains run regularly to all parts. So I headed down to the station under the arrivals area at Schiphol and caught a train northwards. The journey required a change in a small unremarkable station north of Amsterdam. Of course being the opening day of the biggest sporting tournament the country had held for 7 years (since Euro2000) coincided with the start of a major rail network improvement programme meaning there was no trains to Heerenveen. Brilliant – so plan B (formulated whilst waiting at unremarkable train station in middle of nowhere) kicked in. Head to Groningen, pick up Media accreditation for tournament, go to hotel, check in and get bus to Heerenveen in time for 1st game. Brilliant, except that I hadn’t bargained for the fact that the term Replacement Bus service reared its head…TWICE. So the 92 minute journey took over three hours. With an hour to kick off in Heerenveen I jumped in the nearest taxi (which turned out to be a brand new Chrysler – nice!) and negotiated for the driver to be my personal driver for the next few hours at the bargain cost of €150. So first stop was the stadium – known as the Big Green Cathedral. Groningen are one of the most progressive teams in Dutch football and many scoffed at them when they demolished their old stadium and built a brand new 20,000 arena on the outskirts of town complete with numerous leisure facilities including a casino, a number of restaurants and cinema. In their first season they averaged over 19,000 and vindicated the investment as the team qualified for the UEFA Cup by beating Feyenoord in a play off match.

I picked up my pass and asked how long it would take to get to Heerenveen. The officials scoffed at my plan and said “no chance”. I pointed out my vehicle outside and they seemed impressed, and I left with a good luck cheer. An accident on the motorway out of town meant we had to take a long detour to the village of Eelde where the hotel was, and the taxi had already run up nearly €70 so far so I decided to abandon the plan to get to the Netherlands game and relax for a few hours in the exquisite hotel. On far too many occasions when I travel I neglect to take time out, trying to cram in so much in so little time and coming back as tired as I was before I traveled. So I sat back with a beer and started watching the opening game from a very orange and full Abe Lenstra stadium in Heerenveen. A single goal was enough to start the hosts on the winning way but of course my plans had taken another wrong turn as I had got so relaxed that I had fallen asleep and not only missed 85 minutes of the game but also the bus I needed to get to the stadium. Another €20 for a taxi now saw my alternative travel arrangements total over €200 in a single day so far but at least I made it to the stadium.

The crowds weren’t exactly flocking to the stadium, and those that had made the effort to attend (it should be stated in the defence of the organisers that tickets were only €10) were in the colours of the Dutch and not of Portugal or Belgium. Inside the stadium the immediate thing you had to say it was very green. Every seat, surface, wall and roof was in the same green. Not exactly pleasing to the eye, and where they thought of the name the Green Monster was completely beyond me.
Officially over 7,000 saw a drab 0-0 which was only livened up with a huge fight in the second half when Manchester United-bound Nani pushed his histrionix too far with the Belgians and they took him down a peg or too. However, the crowd number did seem to be on the generous side as I would imagine there was no more than a quarter of that in the stadium. So two games down and only one goal scored – so much for a festival of free flowing football.

Groningen is not exactly a party town. It does has a large student population, but being mid-June the students had left for the summer. Which meant most bars and restaurants were closed. For christ sake it was a Saturday night! I gave up after half an hour of searching and headed back to the hotel (another €14) for dinner. Day one complete and absolutely nothing had gone to plan.

Sunday morning broke and the sun was shining. Families cycled up and down past the hotel whilst I waited for the buses for the station. Of course, this being Sunday I failed to read the timetable correctly that showed that I had already missed the only bus of the day to the town centre, which left at 7.30am. So another taxi, another €10 and I was off to civilisation in the historic town of Arnhem. Only three train changes and three hours left and I arrived in the town that was made famous in the Second World War for the story that lead to the film of A Bridge Too Far. England were in town and unsurpisingly the support was magnificant. Thousands had made their way over to Holland for this game against the Czech Republic and hopes were high under the guidance of Stuart Pearce. The team were captained by Nigel Reo-Coker who was in the process of making himself 35,000 enemies for life by bad mouthing West Ham in an attempt to broker a move to Aston Villa. Also in the team was failed pathetic gansta wallabee Anton Ferdinand, Preston scoring machine David Nugent and Reading striker Leroy Lita. One notable absence was David Bentley who had pulled out of the squad the day after being on the bench for the full international with Brazil, stating he was “too tired” to play for the Under21’s. What a tosser. This one decision shows all that is wrong with young footballers today. Happy to act like Billy Big Balls when they want but given the opportunity they will shirk their responsibilities. A number of fans and journalists, myself included, called for him to never represent his country again.

The Gelredome was one of the most futuristic stadiums when it opened in late 1999. It was an ambitious project undertaken by the president of Vitesse Arnhem when his team were one of the most progressive in Dutch football. The stadium was the first to be cashless (similar with Amsterdam ArenA and Schalke’s Veltins ArenA) and the first to have a pitch that rolled out of the stadium on rollers meaning that it could be quickly converted into an indoor arena. For this game England had been given the whole of the north end of the stadium and came close to filling it. In keeping with the games the previous day excitement was on holiday and England toiled to a 0-0 draw although a missed penalty by Lita in the final few minutes would have sealed 3 points if his aim had been true. I had actually left by this point, heading 10 miles south to watch the Serbia v Italy game in the tiny town of Nijmegen. The 13,000 seater stadium is located in the town centre in a nice park and the locals had come out in force, taking most of the seats although there were a surprising number of Serbian fans in the 8,000 crowd. Another dull game was on the cards with Serbia scoring the only goal of the game in the middle of the second half. With all eight teams having played their opening game I can honestly say it had been one of the most disappointing tournaments on record. I headed back to my hotel in Arnhem annoyed at the fact I had spent over £400 on a weekend of three games of dull uninspiring football, tedious traveling and jobsworth car hire companies when I could have blown the whole lot in Amsterdam and had a silly grin on my face for weeks to come, and also told a much more interesting story that this one dear readers!

The tournament did liven up slightly. The Netherlands qualified for the semi-finals with a win in their second game in the Euroborg at Groningen, with rising star Ryan Babel proving to be the man of the tournament so far. They were joined by Portugal, Serbia and England, after the latter had beaten Italy and Serbia. The game against the Serbians had descended into the dark old days of football when some of the Serbians had racially abused Ferdinand and Lita at the end of the game. UEFA, as usual, with punishments like expulsion at their fingertips chose to give them 10 hail mary’s.

In the semi-final Netherlands and England could not be separated over 120 minutes and so it went to one of the most extraordinary penalty shoots out of all time. A total of 32 penalties were taken in front of a sell out 23,000 crowd making it the longest penalty shoot out in first class European games. It took an Anton Ferdinand miss 34 minutes after the shoot out started to settle the game and send the Dutch into the final where they eventually beat Serbia 4-1. A cracking end to a disappointing tournament and one I would never forget for the wrong reasons – when travel does go wrong it really does go wrong…Roll on Sweden in 2007.

About The Euroborg
When plans were initially published for a brand new multi-purpose stadium in Groningen for the then Second Division club, many people wondered what the point was. The old Oosterpark stadium, which stood on the same spot as the Euroborg, was a small intimate stadium which had a capacity of just over 11,000 and was known for the closeness of the crowd to the action. However, it was really showing signs of aging in the early part of this century – having been constructed in 1933.

The new stadium was constructed next door to the Oosterpark from late 2004 until its opening in January 2006. The 19,980 capacity may have seemed ambitious at first, but last season the stadium was full on almost every occasion proving that if you do build it they will come. It certainly is an impressive venue both inside and out. Around the perimeter of the stadium you will find a health spa, supermarket, chinese restaurant, cinema and a casino – converting the stadium into a true 7 day venue. Inside the stadium is a simple 2 tier uniform arena, with a double row of executive boxes in the upper tier of the main stand. Views are very good from all parts, although the presence of a perimeter fence does hinder the first few rows of the lower tier. The stadium certainly lives up to its Groene tag with all of the seats a bright green colour. The concourses are wide and provide plenty of space for people buying refreshments as well as allowing fans to watch the game from behind the seated areas.

Who plays there?
The Groene Kathedraal (The Green Cathedral) is the new home to one of the Netherlands’ most ambitious clubs FC Groningen. The team weren’t actually formed until 1971 but have made some massive strides, playing the majority of their existence in the top flight of Dutch football.

Their most famous ex-players are Ronald and Erwin Koeman who were the heart of the side in the heart of the 1980’s, a period where the club played European football for the first time. Their success has always been very modest – they still have not won a major honour yet – their best league position was 3rd in 1991.

In 2006 they finished fifth in the league, meaning that they earnt the right to fight for Champions League qualification. In a tense match versus Ajax they eventually went down by a single goal. Last season they qualified for the UEFA Cup again, although a disappointing 4-3 defeat to Partizan Belgrade was not the welcome the new stadium was hoped to bring the club. In 2006/07 the club finished in 8th place, and qualified for the forthcoming UEFA Cup competition, beating Feyenoord and Utrecht in the domestic qualifying competition.

How to get there
The Euroborg is located in the south east of the city centre, next to the A7/E22 motorway. The area around the stadium is under development with such amenities as a health spa and casino already constructed, and a hotel due to be added in the next year or so. From the old town and train station it is a pleasant 20 minute walk. Simply follow Trompsingel eastwards until you reach the bridge over the canal, then turn right and follow Winschoterdiep southwards along the canal. Once you pass under the E22 ring road the stadium will be in front of you – although you will need to walk around the office block. Alternatively, use bus number 20 that runs from the bus station next to the central station and drops you right outside the stadium. Journey time is around 5 minutes.

Getting a ticket
FC Groningen’s attendances have risen dramatically over the past few seasons, co-inciding with the upturn in fortunes on the pitch. In the 2005/06 season the rise was over 30% to 15,500 and included 3 sell outs, whereas last season the average rose to close to 19,180 meaning that tickets for most games were in short supply.

With European competition returning to the Euroborg again in 2007, tickets will be in demand for most games. This means pre-booking is absolutely essential to avoid disappointment. The club does allow foreign fans to book tickets in advance – contact them at info@fcgroningen.nl. Last season tickets ranged in price from €20 in the Eerste Ring to €40 in the main stand. Tickets for the seats behind the goal were sold out last season to members.

Getting around
The centre of Groningen is very compact and walking is really the only option. Buses radiate from the central station, with a €2.40 three strip ticket enough to take you out to the countryside around Paterswolde. For central journeys then the fare is €1 – payable to the driver on boarding the bus.

Local Hotels & Bars
Whilst the city is relatively modest in terms of population size, it does attract people from the surrounding region and so a night out in the city is often a quite loud affair. It does not have a wide range of hotels, but the ones that are here are good value and nearly always have vacancies. The tourist office in Grote Markt can assist if you are struggling to find anywhere to stay.

Eden City Hotel – Gedempte Kattendiep 25
Tel: +31 50 588 6565 http://www.edenhotelgroup.com
Nh Hotel de Ville – Oude Boteringestraat 43
Tel: +31 50 318 1222 http://www.nh-hotels.com
Golden Tulip Paterswolde – Groningerweg 19
Tel +31 50 309 5400 http://www.goldentulip.com

Groningen is a student city and so you will find plenty of places to eat and drink that will not break the bank. The following restaurants are well worth trying to seek out and visit whilst you are here.

D’Ouwe Brandweer – Gedempte Zuiderdiep (+31 50 318 0323)
The Charthouse – Schuitendiep 78 (+31 50 312 1666)
En Zo – Poelestraat 53 (+31 50 313 6258)

Most of the nightlife is based in the streets around Grote Markt in the old town. Whilst you wont find the kind of frentic activity as you see in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. There are some nice bars where you can spend an hour or two at the pace you want, such as:-

De Eerste Kamer – Peperstraat 9
De Jongens Van de Witt Cafe – Gelkingestraat 56
Heminway’s Bar – Gdempte Kattendiep 23

If you need to find a bar to watch some action from back home then Groningen does have a couple of Irish Bars that show both Sky Sports and Setanta Sports. They are:-

O’Ceallaigh – Gdempte Kattendiep 13
Sally O’Brien’s – Oosterstraat 33

Nearest Airport – Groningen Eelde Airport (GRQ)
Telephone: +31 50 308 13 00
Website: http://www.gae.nl

The very small Groningen Eelde airport is located in the heart of the stunning village of Paterswolde, around 5 miles south of the city centre. It is only served by a handful of operators – Ryanair used to fly here but recently cut the route as it was not reaching its strict capacity levels.

Currently, BMI fly daily from Aberdeen, VLM once a day from London City via Amsterdam and KLM from Norwich. To reach the city centre from the airport, catch the twice hourly 52 bus that terminates at the central station. A single will cost €2.40 and the journey takes around 40 minutes. A taxi will cost around €30.

 

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