Long live the European Football Weekend

Whilst Danny Last’s famous site closed its doors just over a year ago, the EFW is still as big as ever.  This weekend Danny himself, Big Deaksy, Kenny Legg, Huddo Hudson, Spencer Webb and myself got familiar with the German beer, sausages and football at the weekend, our paths almost crossed with the Daggers Diary team who made the foray into Düsseldorf territory as part of their four game, three countries road trip.

About a year ago, Neil, Dagenham Dan and I made a trip into Europe to take in a game in four different countries over the course of one weekend. Even as we were making our way back from Oostende to Calais to catch the train back home, there were already plans to repeat (or improve) on the trip in 2013.

Despite the schedule of four games in such a short space of time, the only mad rush between games was between Koln and Venlo, and that was comfortably achieved without too much drama.

So this year, we thought we should try to do it all again. Obviously with different venues (fixtures permitting), but to attempt to repeat our 2012 trip would be great. A weekend was selected, and then we set about going through the games, seeing which ones we could feasibly attend. We selected four games, and unlike last year, they would all be in the top division of the respective leagues. Except that the French league was causing a bit of a problem, and after all of the others were more or less confirmed, we were kind of hoping that Lille would be scheduled for the Sunday evening, so that we could get a fifth game in. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to happen, so we would have to make do with just the four.

Of course, while we have got lucky with the fixtures and kick off times, there have been other things where we (or more specifically Neil), haven’t been so fortunate. Last year, about a week before the trip, Neil had an accident in the car, which meant that we ended up hiring a vehicle for the weekend. This year, the car hasn’t been the problem, but instead over the New Year period, Neil managed to break his wrist. This meant that, for a few days the trip was in the balance before the hospital proclaimed that the break should be healed in about a month’s time, and in plenty of time for the trip.

I say we have been lucky with the fixtures, and to a certain degree, we have. While Dan and I will be attending four new grounds (it’s two for Neil), we have potentially missed out on a couple of other games. For example, Anderlecht have a home game on the Friday of our trip, while Borussia Dortmund are at home on the Saturday night. Having already booked tickets for the other games as well as the hotels, we have decided to stick to the planned games. However, both clubs are ones that we all want to visit, but as we have found out before, getting tickets for Dortmund can be difficult.

So, now that we are half way through February, Neil’s fracture is healed, and we are on our way through the channel tunnel towards our first stop on the trip, Nijmegen.

Meeting Dan at Chafford at just before eight in the morning, we were lucky enough that the Dartford bridge was not too clogged up, and once across, we were able to make good progress on to our meeting point with Neil at Folkestone services. Arriving just after nine, we were able to sort out payment for Dan’s car parking before we carried on towards the Channel Tunnel. Booked on the 10.50 crossing, we were (after having breakfast in the terminal), through and onto a train, earlier than planned.

The trip to Nijmegen takes about three hours, and so once we emerged into the French sunshine at Calais, we hit the motorway and headed east to the Netherlands.

Friday 15th February 2013, NEC Nijmegen v VVV Venlo, Goffert Stadion

We have been lucky with our European trips, in that tickets haven’t been too difficult to come by, and at no point have we been turned away. Last year, when we attended Venlo, Dan schmoozed his way into three seats for us, and this year, he has done the same again, but obviously at Nijmegen; getting them for Venlo would after all, be pointless, as they wouldn’t be there. Ward Van Eck has been the hero for this one, so Dan adds another name to his ever-growing list of European ticket contacts, and we get our tickets for only €18.

The day before the trip though, Dan got an email through from Venlo. Having bought tickets to a game when we did our trip twelve months ago, Dan is now on their mailing list, and the email was offering tickets for tonight’s game, at only €14.50 each. While tempting (well, not that much), from previous experience, the away sections in the Dutch league aren’t great.

As we make our way eastwards, the temperature gauge in the car starts to drop from the balmy ten degrees when we emerged at Calais, to a low of about two when we reach the hotel, having first encountered several one way streets and no entry signs. As we approach, we drive through a snow-covered forest (there has been gradually more snow visible as we travel eastwards), and with the mist not rising above the tops of the trees, it gives the impression of being used as a location for one of those horror films about the gradual dismemberment of various tourists. The hotel is very nice though, and Dan has come up trumps again with the place, as we have an apartment between the three of us. Once we’ve got the television working, all we need to do is get the heating sorted out.

Once the heating issue is resolved, and Dan’s iPhone has been charged sufficiently, we are on the way back to the stadium, to collect our tickets. As we move away from the ticket office with said tickets now in our possession, the Venlo team coach arrives, from which disembarked the whole squad. Given that there is only just over an hour before the game, it seems a bit on the late side for a team to be arriving at the venue.

Prior to the game, there is an air of confidence amongst the home fans. There are even highlights of a game played on FIFA13 between the two clubs, displayed on the screens inside the ground. The confidence is well founded early on in the game. In the first minute, the home side force a corner, and from this, there is a header wide. The early minutes are one-way traffic, and within six minutes they are in front. A shot from just outside the area from Nick van der Velden beats a goalkeeper who doesn’t appear to cover himself in glory attempting to save the shot. This early domination by the home side means that it already looks as though this could be game over already.

Except that the second bottom visitors are level about five minutes later. Uche Nwofor has already put a header over from a corner, and then equalizes when he played through into a one-on-one with the Nijmegen goalkeeper. Keeping his cool, he is able to slot the ball calmly past Gabor Babos

From looking as though it going to be a comfortable home win, it is now very much in the balance, and Venlo are looking better than their league position suggests. There is however, no addition to the score, and so as the groundstaff hang a plastic target over one of the goals for the half time penalty competition, it’s 1-1.

The atmosphere hasn’t been great so far, but just after the hour, it all changes. The impressive Venlo number eleven, Bryan Linssen is fouled by Nathaniel Will, who is shown a red card. Cue the indignation from the home fans, who will howl their displeasure and protest against every decision that will now go against them.

Venlo are able to take advantage on the extra player, when Linssen is able to score what will turn out to be the winner. His header, comes from a right-wing cross from Ricky van Haaren, and it’s probably deserved, as Venlo have been the better side for some time.

Linssen hits the post a few minutes later after cutting in from the left side, and releasing a right foot shot that leaves Babos clutching at thin air as the ball disappears in a blur beyond him. Nijmegen do have chances in the remainder of the game, but Danny van den Meiracker’s follow up after Boymans’ shot is saved by Maenpaa, but the last chance goes to van Haaren of Venlo, who hits the cross-bar.

Following a dip in the middle of the game after a good opening, the last twenty-five minutes have more than made up for the less fun bits. It’s a better opening to the weekend than last year, but having made our way back to the hotel, we discover that, not only is the bar shut, but the whole of the lower level is shut and locked up. Finally, we locate the night-time entrance to the hotel, and the television is on within thirty seconds of getting through the door. It’s been a long day, but there are two still to go.

Saturday 16th February 2013, Fortuna Düsseldorf v Greunther Fürth, Esprit Arena

Day two of our trip involves two games, and plenty more of road miles to be clocked up. The trip from Nijmegen to Düsseldorf doesn’t take long, with the drive reckoned to only take about seventy minutes. The day has dawned foggy, and after an attempt to cook our own breakfast, we are on our way by about half past ten. The trip to Germany means a chance to drive on the autobahn, which Neil clearly enjoys, judging by the way the accelerator pedal got just that bit closer to the floor of the car.

We arrive at the stadium before mid-day. After clocking up another mile or two driving round the huge car park, we eventually locate the best position for what we hope will be a very quick get away after the game, if we are get to Leuven in time. We have to pick our tickets up from the ticket office, but it doesn’t open until half past one, so we are at somewhat of a loose end for a while. We can’t even go into the club shop, which is located inside the stadium. Luckily, the hotel next to the ground is open, so we decide to head towards the bar. We are only there for about half an hour, but while there, we spot two Düsseldorf players in there (one who looks like he is conferring with his agent), as well as the head coach of Fortuna. Actually, as he strolled, into the bar, Dan announces that he reckons that it is the manager, although myself and Neil are somewhat sceptical. Dan then goes online, and produces his picture, which prompts Dan to bask in his own intelligence for a moment or two, while Neil just seems to slump into his chair, not quite believing what he has just witnessed.

Once the tickets are finally collected, we go straight into the stadium. The first port of call is at one of the various food bars around the ground. The currywürst tastes as good as ever, as does the bratwurst, and it is washed down with beer (for Dan and Neil), and a coke for me. It’s also the first time that I haven’t had to buy a pre-paid card to purchase anything from the bar inside a German stadium.

This qualifies as our relegation battle of the weekend. Düsseldorf are in fifteenth place, while the visitors are at the bottom of the eighteen team Bundesliga. It’s been a tough debut season in the league, and it looks as though today may just continue that theme within two minutes of the kick off, when they concede a penalty. Dani Schahin takes the responsibility, but his shot is well saved by Wolfgang Hesl, and Furth are energized by this upturn in fortune.

Ten minutes later, Jozsef Varga of Furth is shown a yellow card, which will prove to be costly, although by the time that it is, they are already one down. On the quarter of an hour, Furth have two chances to score, but they are denied by first the post, then by Fabien Giefer. A couple of minutes later, Düsseldorf score. Furth have a corner, which is cleared, but it’s only back to the corner taker. He swings the ball back over, and it is claimed by Giefer. His quick clearance finds Axel Bellinghausen, but his control appears to let him down, and the ball is taken from him by his marker. Except that his back pass is nowhere near strong enough, and Bellinghausen is alert enough to latch on to it and force it past Hesl.

Düsseldorf have another chance soon after, although Leon Balogun’s header is over the bar. Düsseldorf appear too anxious to get the second goal that will help to secure the points, while Furth are putting lots of effort, but lack the final pass when getting into dangerous positions.

The effort being put in though will need to be stepped up a level after thirty-eight minutes, when Varga is shown a second yellow card, and dismissed. It’s a foul in the middle of the field which looks a bit on the weak side, but the card is out straight away, and now the home fans can sense a comfortable afternoon ahead. There is no addition to the score before the interval, so when the teams wander off for half time, and those in the seats wander off for whatever they do, Düsseldorf are leading 1-0.

The second half starts as we expected it would, with the home side on the attack. Schanin has a header, but it is well saved by Hesl. As the game wears on (with a few yellow cards starting to be produced), the tide starts to swing behind the visitors, and there are times when it is difficult to tell who has had the player sent off. Düsseldorf are starting to try to play on the break, and they do have chances to finish the game off, but they are either denied by the goalkeeper or they are errant in their shooting.

Greunther Fürth start to win the 50/50 balls and the home fans are getting nervous. There are some truly impressive bursts of noise from a crowd that number just over thirty-seven thousand, but they are not happy, especially when simple looking passes are off target. The visiting fans are also audible, but with a fraction in the away end compared to the home, they are always going to lose the noise battle, but they do have two of the more impressive drummers that you will hear at a game.

With pressure building on the home team (and not just from the visitors, but off the field as well), Fürth have a chance in the last-minute, but Sararer pulls his shot wide. There are three minutes added for stoppages, but Düsseldorf seem to use them for making two substitutions, the second of which is made about thirty seconds before the time is due to run out. By this time, we have moved from our seats, and are waiting at the stairs, watching the last few seconds before getting ready to run for the car. The referee ends proceedings, and even before the noise from the whistle has disappeared into the sky, we are on our way towards the car park. As we run past a hospitality marquee, the screens are showing the players leaving the pitch, but there doesn’t appear to be many heading in our direction, which we hope will be to our advantage.

Saturday 16th February 2013, Leuven v Beerschot, Stadion Den Dreef

We run most of the way back to the car, but we stop as we get to the away section, as three blokes running towards the visitors could give the impression that, if this was anything untoward, it would be almost a suicide mission.

Having now completed most of the distance back to the car, we slow down to a brisk stroll, and find that only one car is on the way out, so it looks like we might have got lucky. In fact our exit is so care free that we are on the autobahn within a few minutes.

This trip is supposed to take about ninety minutes, which should mean that we will be ok, but it does throw into some question whether we will check into the hotel prior to the game, or not. Last year in Venlo, we checked in, practically threw our bags into the hotel room, run back out like we had just robbed the place, and headed back to the car for the drive back to the stadium.

Our scheduled arrival time in Leuven is just after seven, so it’s agreed that we will go straight to the ground, and check into the hotel after the game. With the light diminishing, there is low-lying mist over the fields as we cross the border into the Netherlands. The next border crossing though is in the dark, and the rain as well, which means that we could get damp at this one.

Fortunately, it has all stopped by the time we get to the Stadion Den Dreef. We’ve arrived with just under an hour to kick off, and there is space in the car park next to the stadium. As we approach, one of the stewards appears at the passenger window. Dan asks if we are able to park for the football, but the answer is in the negative. However, his colleague has by now appeared at the drivers window, and says that we can park, and points us to the nearest spot. So, if at first you don’t get the answer you want, ask someone else.

The collection of tickets hasn’t caused any problems so far, and that continues tonight. We are through the turnstiles almost in the blink of an eye, and once the fanshop has been visited, we walk round to the terrace that will be our home for the evening, with the music, like both of the previous games, sounding like it’s being provided by a d.j. on a winter break from Ibiza.

Beerschot may be second from bottom of the division, but they have started this game well, and have the first decent chance of the game, but following a cross from Losada and a header from Nwanganga, Suk’s shot on the turn is weak and comfortably saved by Lenaerts. Two minutes later, Suk is in the action again, but his shot hits the post

By half time, there is plenty of effort from both teams, but no goals. That changes four minutes into the second half. Leuven have a free kick just outside the area, but they dummy it at first, and when a defender breaks from the wall to defend the “shot”, but the time that it is taken, he is about five yards from the ball. Cue a yellow card from the referee, and a re-take. This time, they run the same routine again, but Sawaneh’s free kick wrong foots the goalkeeper, and at last we have a goal that will hopefully help the game to become a bit more interesting.

It certainly does get that way, as with just over a quarter of an hour left, we witness the third red card of the trip, when Beerschot are reduced to ten. The goalkeeper rushes from his area to confront an onrushing forward, but he saves the shot about a yard outside the box. The red card is brandished almost straight away, and the referee is then jostled for a good minute or two by the purple clad visitors, prompting another caution for one of the hunting posse.

Six minutes after this, Beerschot are level, thanks to a Raman header, which brings another couple of fireworks onto the pitch. The visitors have played quite well, and have probably earned a point, although only just. The remainder of the game is played out without either team displaying quite enough to actually produce a winning goal. It ends 1-1, and while the away team will undoubtedly be pleased with the result, the home side (even with a win), would still have remained in tenth place. The tight confines of the stadium mean that the referee heads towards the sanctuary of the dressing room, via a volley (or several) of abuse from fans in the stand next to the tunnel. I can’t quite work out why that is, but it’s probably frustration at the performance of the home team.

The stadium is only a ten minute drive to the hotel, and within twenty minutes of the final whistle, we are checking in for the second night of our trip. The hotel bar is calling, and once the bags are safely deposited, we are back downstairs to reflect on the days events, and to plan the journey for tomorrow. Although we only have the one game before catching the train back, we have to get to Lokeren, and then to Calais. It could be another long day.

Sunday 17th February 2013, Sporting Lokeren v Club Brugge, Daknamstadion

It’s taken several weeks in planning, and already the trip is almost over. The third and final day sees us stay in Belgium for our fourth game, and it’s the only one of the four that doesn’t involve a team in danger of relegation. Lokeren are currently in fourth place in the Jupiler League, and Brugge are two places behind, with only two points separating them.

Starting out from Leuven, we make our now customary pit-stop in Leefdaal, where Neil walks into what used to be his local while working here, to be greeted by the members of the Sunday morning drinking club. There are more people here today than there have been in our previous visits combined.

We’re there for about half an hour, before a quick visit to the bank, and then a stroll back to the car for the journey to Lokeren. It should take about an hour, so arrival time will be around 1pm, which is convenient as that will be when the ticket office will open.

So far the trip has gone really quite smoothly. The hotels have been easy enough to check into, and the ticket offices all seem to have been notified of our impending arrival, and have had the tickets ready as soon as we have pitched up. None of us have actually said it, but it’s been easy so far.

Of course, this is the one where we have the problem. Having finally found somewhere to park (we’ve arrived just as the police are placing barriers on all of the roads surrounding the stadium), we walk to the ticket office. As Dan has done all of the legwork in arranging these, he approaches the office window, armed with his email confirmation. The person behind the window looks as the email, and after what looks like a deep conversation on the phone, he directs Dan to the internet collection window a few feet along. Except that it isn’t open yet, and there is already a queue developing, so while Neil walks back to the car to check on where he has left the sat-nav, Dan joins the line. Eventually, someone comes along to open the office, but it takes a good ninety seconds before the door will actually open. Then there is another couple of minutes to wait while the tickets are bought over from the previous office, and then they start serving. It takes about five minutes before Dan emerges from the scrum around the office, holding the precious tickets in his hand.

By now there is about fifty minutes to kick off, so we all head in and straight to the fan shop for the last of the pin badge purchases of the weekend. Then we are off round to tribune 3, which is where we have our tickets. Costing only €16 each, it brings our total spending on tickets to €69 for the four games. Not bad for four top flight matches.

The three of us then split up for a few minutes. Dan heads for the chips, Neil has a beefburger, while I go for a drink. Except that they won’t take cash, and will only accept pre-purchased tokens, which means that I have to find out where these are. Eventually one of the bar staff takes pity and takes me to the appropriate part of the bar so that I can purchase. Finally, I end up with my coke, and join the other two on the terraces.

We’ve all got pictures of ourselves at the individual stadiums, but the only group shot we have was at Nijmegen on Friday. So, we ask someone to take a picture of us on Dan’s camera. Take one doesn’t actually work, so we try again with the same person. That doesn’t work either, so instead of going for the hat-trick, we leave it.

We only have to wait eight minutes for the opening goal. A pass in the direction of Victor Vazquez sees him control the ball, but with two defenders in close attendance, he looks as though he will need support. The touch though is good, and the two defenders are too close to each other, and misjudge his control of the ball. It creates a bit of space for Vazquez, and he takes one more touch before placing the ball beyond Jugoslav Lazic. Understandably the Brugge fans, who are tightly packed into the away enclosure at the other end of the ground, take a bit of time to realize what has happened, but celebrate when they do.

The lead lasts ten minutes, and Lokeren equalize through a beautifully taken free kick by Milos Maric. Vladan Kujovic has left a huge gap to his right, and Maric is able to put the ball into the space without a problem. Naturally, the home support celebrate as much as the away did for their goal, and now we hope that the game will continue in this vein.

As the half continues, it is apparent that, despite the closeness of the clubs in terms of their current league position, that Brugge look to be much better than their hosts. Maxime Lestienne has been hugging the left touchline for most of the half and does quite well for the first thirty minutes of the half, but drifts out of the game. The same can’t be said of one of the few players that we do recognize, Eidur Gudjohnsen, who doesn’t even get the chance to fade from the game, simply because he doesn’t have any presence in the play whatsoever.

By half time, our hopes of getting a fourth red card of the weekend have been raised slightly, although the referee is inconsistent at best. There are cautions for De Pauw of Lokeren, and then for Vazquez, although it does give the impression that the second has only been given because he has let several previous challenges go without punishment, and that he feels that he has now to even the score up, lest he be accused of favouring the bigger club.

With Dan having won our score prediction competition for the weekend, he goes out to buy snacks for us, while Neil and I are chatting to a Lokeren fan, who is telling us about the injury list that they have, and how, for a small club like them, how great it is to be so high up in the league. He also asks who I support, as well as how we came to be at Lokeren. When I explain our schedule and where in the great scheme of things the Daggers are, it is met with raised eyebrows and a passing on of the newly gleaned information to his friends standing nearby.

The second half starts with Brugge the dominant force, and as we are standing at the opposite end of the ground to that they are attacking, we are looking almost constantly to our right, through a forest of other people. Brugge create little though with their almost constant pressure for the first thirty minutes of the second half, apart from one shot that flashes past the post.

As we enter the last fifteen minutes, the game suddenly switches, and now Lokeren start to pressure. Ryan Donk has been the best player on the pitch, in the centre of defence for Brugge, and now he has to hold the back line together. Almost all of the Lokeren attacks break down because of the former West Brom loanee, but as we get closer to stoppage time, there is an attack that he can’t do anything about.

The shot from outside the area comes from Killian Overmeire, and beats the Brugge goalkeeper Kujovic; the ball though strikes the post and rebounds to safety. Lokeren have one more chance as well, and it needs a very good save by Kujovic to keep a point for Brugge.

The final whistle looks like it can’t come soon enough for the visitors, and finally the referee ends the game. The referee has not earned himself any friend in Lokeren, with several decisions that looked debateable from our point of view.

As we drive away from Lokeren towards Calais, we can reflect on another successful trip. The football hasn’t been bad, and at least we’ve had a goal in each of the games. The ideas are already flowing for our 2014 trip, and although dates are already being suggested, we will need to wait until the fixtures for next season are released over the summer, with nothing being sorted out until at least October. The main aim will be a trip where all three of us are attending new grounds, rather than revisiting ones we have already been to. That though, is some way off. For now, we have our teams to return to and our own league games next weekend.

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