Essex Park. Try finding that one on the map of grounds in Europe and I bet your efforts at locating it will end in frustration after you have trawled through the English Non Leagues. You see it isn’t on these shores at all. It’s in Denmark, in the city of Randers to be precise and is home to Superliga Randers FC. Quite why it is called such I do not know, but when someone recently asked me I vowed to find out and that is why at 6.30am on a freezing cold Sunday morning I was boarding a Ryanair flight to the even colder area of Denmark known as Jutland.
Sunday morning and Ryanair go together like marmite and toast. You either love it or you hate it. I am quite spoilt in the fact that my weekly commute to Denmark is with British Airways, who depart at sensible times, smile when you get on and serve you free beer. So I fall distinctly in the “Hate” category, as it seems do 99% of the people I asked. However, no one else flies to Aarhus on a Sunday from the UK so I begrudgingly paid them my £9.99, plus taxes, fees, charges, levies and tolls to take the total to £45 and closed my eyes and ears to not be brainwashed by the latest O’Leary marketing ideas. For once the cabin crew were British, pretty and smiley despite the early hour.
Ninety minutes we landed I assume at Aarhus airport. There was so much snow on the ground that Tarmac wasn’t visible. With so many games falling foul of the weather yesterday in England I feared for the game in Randers. I could but wait, killing a few hours in the capital of Jutland (pronounced Julelan) before getting on the train north west to Randers. With two hours to go to kick off I logged onto the Randers website and saw with my own eyes the immaculate pitch. Game on!
Randers is the 6th largest city in Denmark and is a short distance from the cultural capital of Jutland, Aarhus. Apparently it has problems with Motorcycle Gangs and has Europe’s largest artificial rainforest – co-incidence? I don’t think so. However, it was hardly tropical when I stepped off the train from Aarhus. Denmark had had its first fall of snow a few days previously and by all accounts it was going to be a long and cold winter. Oh what joy. Memories flooded back of last year and the disruption it caused to my commute, including spending 7 hours of my 40th birthday on an Easyjet plane on Liverpool John Lennon International runway. With FC Copenhagen the visitors there was obviously a big focus on the game. Was it ever in any doubt? Of course not. This is Scandinavia after all. It would take a strike from all the breweries out here to send the cool Danes into a panic.
The current incarnation of Randers FC is, like so many other Danish clubs, built on the foundations of other clubs. In this case it was 3 times Danish cup winners Randers Freja who they merged with as well as a number of other local clubs in 2003 to create the club we see today. Under the guidance of former national team captain Lars Olsen the club were promoted in their second season of existence to the Superliga. They bounced backwards and forwards between the two top leagues for a few seasons and claimed their first real honour by winning the Danish Cup in May 2006, beating Esbjerg in Copenhagen.
The following season they finished in 8th place, their highest ever position in the SAS Superliga, as well as embarking on their maiden European adventure where they beat the Icelanders from Akranes and the Lithuanians from Kaunas before losing to Fenerbahce.
The next few years saw a couple of well known managerial changes. Olsen moved on and Colin Todd was appointed as manager in July 2007. Despite taking the club to 6th in his first season, his contract was no renewed when it expired in late 2008 and he was replaced by John Jensen, the former Arsenal midfielder who will be best remembered for his lack of scoring prowess.
Today, Ove Christensen is the man in the hot seat and after guiding the club to the relative safety of 10th place last season which was a remarkable position based on the fact they were all but down at Christmas. But a sixteen game unbeaten run saw them finish one spot above the drop zone AND due to the UEFA fair play system qualify again for the Europa League.
Again, two wins over relatively low level opposition saw the club in the 3rd qualifying round where they lost to Lausanne of Switzerland despite a credible draw in the second leg. With half the season almost completed it looked like another long struggle as the club sat in 10th place and were welcoming, gulp, FCK.
What can you say about FCK this season? Well you could deride them for being knocked out of the Danish Cup by Horsens at Parken, but then again it came in between two games versus Barcelona in the Champions League so we cannot really blame them for fielding a weakened team. Ståle Solbakken’s team have been nothing short of magnificent this season and coming into this game they not only held a SIXTEEN point advantage in the SAS Ligean as well as a +THIRTY goal difference. Oh and let’s not forget the Champions League campaign where they are 90 minutes away from finishing as runners up to Barcelona.
It wasn’t too much of a surprise that the normal huge FCK following was slightly reduced for this game. Firstly, there must have been a doubt it was going to be played up until kick off. Secondly it is over three and a half hours by train from Copenhagen (and on a two coach train), and finally surely a win was all but guaranteed. After all they have only dropped six points all season. We shall see.
Randers FC 0 FC Copenhagen 3 – Essex Park Randers – Sunday 28th November 2010
Red lines, two feet of snow around the pitch, referees with gloves on (again) and shocking pink kits it could only be in Denmark. FCK took to the pitch in what can only be described as one of the worst coloured kits I have ever seen. Think the cheapest lingerie set you could buy your partner..well turn the contrast up to ten and you get the idea. Eighteen players started the game with gloves on, and four (including both keepers) with tights on. It was chilly – the stadium clock said minus six at kick off time. Hats off to FCK’s William Kvist who had neither on AND sported a short sleeve shirt.
Randers had done a great job clearing the pitch. The snow around the ground and in the town centre was a good couple of foot think but the playing surface was impeccable. However, just in case we had a sudden blizzard they had painted the lines red. A new one to me. But alas there was no orange, or even yellow ball which is fine as long as the white one does fly wide and into a huge pile of snow on the side of the pitch. White ball in big pile of white stuff. Well, its like a one of those sharp pointy things in one of those stacks of dried wheat isn’t it.
The game kicked off and we almost had a goal apiece within minutes. FCK broke, a long shot looked comfortable for the Randers keeper David Ousted but his buttery fingers dropped the ball and it span agonizingly close to a Roy Carroll moment. Randers then went up the other end and Yura Movsisyan saw his lob beat the FCk keeper Willand but not the post. End to end stuff indeed. Just what we needed as the temperature dropped to the levels normally reserved for teams in administration at the start of the season.
FCK will count themselves not to be ahead after ten minutes when twice they were denied by desperate defending first from a Randers defenders head (which he knew nothing about) and then by a great save by the keeper. But the inevitable had to come and FCK’s César Santin beat the offside trap on the half hour, accelerated away from the Randers defence and calmly slotted the ball home, taking time to turn in his celebratory run and go and dance in front of the home fans.
Two minutes later and another controversial decision. Randers Ousmane Sarr fairly challenged the FCK keeper in an one on one but he stayed down. As the ball came back in an FCK player punched the ball away denying a clear goal. But the referee was having none of it and of course sided with the keeper. Keepers, protection..don’t get me started down that route.
Injury time brought another talking point as that man Movsisyan ran into the box and ran on purpose straight into the FCK defender and went down like a sack of spuds. No penalty but a yellow card for his antics, and quite right. Choruses of “Sing when you are winning” went up from the Randers fans in the top of the stand directed at the FCK fans who must have been frozen on the open terrace. Even a quick flare didn’t warm them up for long and half time was a welcome relief not only for them but for us in the stands with frozen fingers.
The second half saw the temperature drop a few more degrees and FCK’s goal scorer Wendt acquire not only tights but one of those bloody snoods, as worn by Tevez and that rain mac bloke who plays for Arsenal. Why? They would be straight in my Football Room 101 when I succeed Blatter I can tell you. In fact I will email Sepp straight away at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More drama in the 55th minute as the linesman’s flag broke and the game was held up whilst a replacement was found. And this seems like a perfect point for a bit of trivia. Did you know that the 1974 World Cup Final kick off was delayed as the ground staff had forgotten to put out any corner flags? Unbelievable but true. By this point the FCK fans were getting a bit bored and kept throwing fans at the front over the low barrier and into the snow, then pelting them with snow balls. All harmless fun and the stewards turned a blind eye. But then FCK full back Pospech bundled the ball home and all hell broke loose (in a nice way). Fans poured onto the snow in front of the stand to celebrate.
There is a reason why FCK are dominating this season so much and that is that they never give up. Their third came in the 75th minute when a speculative shot from the edge of the box the old warhorse Jesper Grønkjaer slipped through the hands again of Ousted, hit the bar and went in. This time a few of the FCK fans decided to whip their tops off and then pelt the hapless Randers keeper with snow balls. When your down….
Nearly 3,500 had braved the sub zero temperatures for this the last home game for Randers before the four month winter break and as the crowd filtered out you got the sense that they would be going into hibernation, with a few crates of Jacobsen Golden Naked Christmas Ale and some sausages to keep them going,
As for FCK well they have bigger matters to concentrate on. Assuming Rubin Kazan didn’t pull off a remarkable win in Barcelona then they would be venturing into the second stage of the Champions League and a guaranteed tie against one of the British teams (assuming Arsenal make it through). So not that they have dominated the league already but when it restarts in March FCK will have already tested themselves against some of Europe’s finest teams. And that spells bad news for the rest of the league who are already light years behind.
And as for me? I thawed out and headed back to the station. Only a four hour train ride back to Copenhagen after all.
For more photos from the freezing cold day head over to our Flickr stream here.