Happy New Year one and all…I hope last night wasn’t too hard on you all mentally and have your winter woollies on ready for a day at football.
What do you get when you cross the Best Game with the Best Grounds? Well, that would be the Best Atmosphere of course! Last year the winners were AS Roma, Bayern Munich and the All-German Champions League final at Wembley. The dilemma of being a Non-League fan is that the atmosphere at games is generally poor. You don’t really have high expectations in terms of noise, colour and flare(s) when your fellow supporters all have carrier bags to keep their programmes in or dogs with scarves on. At some grounds the silence is punctuated with the stir of a cup of tea or the news that Walton & Hersham have taken the lead against South Park. And I appreciate the beauty and serenity of the Non-League game. But sometimes we want noise. We want passion. We want people waving fireworks around above their heads. So let’s raise a glass to three grounds we visited in 2014 that had just that.
3rd Place – Lithuania v Estonia, LFF Stadion, Vilnius
A cold, chilly night in Lithuania isn’t many people’s idea of fun, but add in the spice of a Baltic derby, played at a time when the national team are playing some of their best football in history and you have a decent night out in one of Europe’s best, undiscovered cities. The downside? A three sides, mainly open-air stadium. The upside, passionate locals who had fueled up on on cheap local spirits. Noise galore, roaring their team on to another, surprising victory. Lithuania is the new Mallorca – you heard it here first.
2nd Place – Holstein Kiel 1 1860 Munich 2, Holstein Stadion, Kiel
The Pokal is taken very seriously in German Football. None of this putting out the reserve/kids XI out – clubs take it very seriously. Bayern Munich, arguably the best team in the world, want to win it every year – why wouldn’t they? The rules means that the lower-ranked team plays at home, with no replays. When the draw this season was made, 3rd tier Holstein Kiel were to host 1860 Munich – a near one thousand mile round trip. But, without any surprises, the game was a sell out with nearly a thousand 1860 fans making the journey to bring their colour, songs and bad dress sense (well, a few anyway) to the famous port city in Northern Germany. The home fans did themselves proud on and off the pitch with a riot of colour, flag waving and singing. Oh, and beer. Lots of beer.
1st Place – Romania v Northern Ireland, Stadium National, Bucharest
Nearly an hour after the end of this European Championship qualifier had ended, the noise was still reverberating around my head. The result was in some way irrespective – the noise in the enclosed Stadium National was turned up to 15 and this was despite various sections being closed due to crowd trouble in the last game against Hungary. The Irish, whilst outnumbered nearly 30 to 1 played their part, never stopping their soundtrack, but it was the home side, with their cheering, coupled with the odd fire cracker and flare that kept the cold at bay. Domestic football in Romania may not be much to write home about, but when the national team take to the field, expect something special.
Tomorrow, the festive journey continues with our look at the best tales from Non-League football.