And so the countdown starts


So after a break of just 5 days it was time to get back into the swing of a new season.  And what better way to kick off proceedings than a trip to The Boleyn Ground, London E13.  None of this pre-season friendly malarkey either – this would be a full-blooded European game, played in front of a capacity crowd.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_h35,000 tickets had been snapped up in less than 4 days – that’s simply incredible.  If this was a second round league cup game against a smaller team then a crowd of 15,000 would be considered good, in four weeks they host Werder Bremen in a friendly and will be happy with a crowd of over 10,000, so why has the Boleyn sold out in almost record time for the visit of the second best team in Andorra, and sit in 411th spot in the UEFA rankings. The attendance would be over 100 times that of a normal club game for Lusitanos. That’s the magic of European football.

West Ham fans know that the club are lucky to be in the tournament, having qualified through a back door route that has now been permanently shut by UEFA.  But there is a generation of fans who have never experienced the thrill or excitement of a European Tour.  It’s been nine years since we played just two games in the UEFA Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to a strong Palermo side, before that it was over fifteen years ago to the halcyon days of the Intertoto Cup.  Fans too young to remember the games against Jokerit, Heerenveen and Metz now have their passports at the ready.  We’ve seen our London rivals Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal all enjoy season after season of European trips, to an extent that some fans now take it for granted.  We’ve also seen the contempt that some clubs have for playing in the competition, something that in cases like Hull City have backfired in the worst possible sense.

Then there is the new manager factor.  Bilic was a popular choice, being an old player and all that but it’s probably fair to say the (long overdue) appointment of club legend Julian Dicks to his backroom staff that has really got the Hammers excited.  The “never say die” and “win at all costs” mentality that has been sadly lacking for a number of seasons.  Bilic technically wasn’t in charge yet, that honour was with Development Squad coach Terry Westley but he would undoubtably be paraded in front of the sell-out crowd, sending the bubbles machines into a fury.

19362983675_89e4515eb1_zOf course there is the nostalgic element too.  This is the last season at the Boleyn and general sale tickets come the start of the season will be at a premium.  So fans have taken the opportunity to get a game in whilst they can.  And for once, I’m actually going to praise the club with their ticket pricing – there can certainly be no complaints of affordability for this game – less than the price of two pints of beer in the bar across the road from work in Canary Wharf.  On my world-famous Ticketobeer ratio, a price of £10 sits firmly in the green zone.

It may also be the lure of the visitors.  As far as my extensive research went, I cannot see any games played in the last twenty years between an Andorran team and an English side.  If there has been one somewhere it’s pretty fair to say the English team would have won.  Andorra are ranked 48th in European footballing terms, with out Armenia and Gibraltar below them.  Their record in the past five years of European club competition reads P 37 W 1 D 3 L 33. FC Santa Coloma hold the distinction of that solitary win (and – of the three draws) after beating the Armenian side Barants 1-0 a year ago.  New club sponsor Betway were being a little bit charitable by only offering 2/1 on there being more than 7.5 goals in the game, although 50/1 on a Lusitanas win was probably priced about right. As Saint and Greavsie used to say, “It’s a funny old game”.

18740470144_f19aa069cb_zWhilst there had been undoubtable honour in being granted a Europa League spot, the timing couldn’t have been worse.  New boss Bilic only had the first team squad for a few days of initial first team training in Ireland before it was time to pick his first squad. Despite being 50/1 to win the cup, West Ham fancied their chances of a decent run in the competition.  To get to the final though would be a mammoth 22 games played over 45 weeks.  To stand any chance you essentially need two squads of players, something a club of West Ham’s size could never do.

Stepping out of the tube station at Upton Park is an assault on the senses.  Claret and Blue everywhere, the shouts of programme and fanzine sellers, mixed with ticket touts and half ‘n’ scarf sellers (with our opponents name spelt wrong) competing for the title of the scourge of the modern game.  The Queens, one of the most famous West Ham pubs, Ken’s Cafe and London’s Best Buger (sic) all trying to entice you in.  Football is more relaxed these days.  Fans buy their beer from the numerous off licences down Green Street and sit on the walls of the houses and shops, enjoying the summer sunshine. Families make their way into the ground, clutching carrier bags from the shop where the special “farewell to the Boleyn” replica shirt is setting the tills ringing at £49.99 a piece.
A quick “Mad Dog” from the cafe in the wall on the South East corner of the ground (sausage in French bread with bacon and cheese – named after Martin Allen) and it was time to squeeze through the turnstiles designed for Kate Moss and take my seat, designed for Bridget the Midget, ready for the start of the final season at the ground I’d be coming to for 40 years.

West Ham United 3 Lusitanos FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 2nd July 2015
So this is a difficult one to call.  There’s no doubt, despite the whole “there’s no easy game in football” rubbish that West Ham will now be in the next round of the competition, but the manner of victory was hardly emphatic.  But, who really remembers the score or margin of victory when you are a few rounds in? Deep down the capacity crowd were hoping to see a hatful of goals.  Perhaps if they would have got the ball into the Lusitanos penalty area quicker for Sakho and Zarate instead of some possession play in midfield that often went nowhere it might have been a different story.  But we have to bear in mind that this was the first game of a very long season, one that’s started whilst many other clubs players haven’t even started their summer holidays yet, let alone pre-season.

19363026465_b81c0ba7f9_kFirstly the positives – despite one shot from the kick off after West Ham had taken the lead, the Andorrans didn’t trouble debutant Randoph in the Hammers goal.  They back four looked assured and it was great to see Reece Oxford, the youngest ever player to play for the first team, just 16 years and 198 days old, looking so assured on the ball. A number of other youngsters were also blooded by temporary boss Terry Westley including second half subs Elliott Lee and Josh Cullen.  A three-nil victory flattered the opposition, although they couldn’t be accused of suffering stage fright on their biggest night of their lives.
West Ham made hard work of the first half, trying to overplay at times with Zarate and Almafitano dancing around the defence but failing to deliver an end product.  Matt Jarvis was the stand-out player in the first period, beating his man time and time again, creating the chances for Sakho.  The Andorrans had come with a whole book full of time-wasting tactics, none better than the all too often triple pike, double somersault reaction to some soft challenges, although the referee was having none of it and they simply disgraced themselves with the histrionix on such a big stage.
Sakho picked up where he left last season, grabbing two first half goals whilst Tompkins added a third with a well-taken second half header.  It could and should have been more with Cullen hitting the bar late on, by which time most fans had left the ground to join the half-mile long queue for the tube.
18740427314_9da2111cb4_kSitting in the old East Stand upper tier certainly gave me a great view of the action but also put into context just how bad the facilities are.  Cramped seats, obstructed views, narrow concourses.  You can’t help think that the Boleyn is still a magnificent venue on three sides, perfectly adequate for the club. Yet on the east side of the ground there is room for a redeveloped East Stand.  The club has always insisted this isn’t a viable option yet opinion is still divided on the relocation.  Nobody wants to stand in the way of progress but likewise it seems such a shame to throw away the history of a ground that with a smallish investment could be ideal.  So many local businesses will suffer massively when West Ham move out – community is a big word these days in football and it does feel in some ways as if West Ham have won the lottery and will be moving out of their council terrace house and into a detached on a posh estate.  Of course they won’t forget their old friends – it’s just they don’t want to be reminded of them once they move.
Next up, Andorra away, for arguably the principalities biggest ever football match. Alas, with only 450 tickets on offer I’d be watching this one online.

 

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England versus the Shepherds


Andorra versus England was always going to be one of those games that was destined to be a disaster. From the moment the two teams were drawn in teh same qualifying group, 99.9% of the population of the tiny principality (or is it a country?) sandwiched in the mountains between Spain and France, wanted nothing to do with the game, and couldn’t wait to see the game moved elsewhere. That other 0.1%, the Andorran FA only saw cash. Cash that the traveling English fans would bring to the country. Sod the fact their national stadium was in worse shape than Welling United’s (no disrespect Welling) but with a capacity of less than 2,000 it was never going to be played there.

So the debates started – Barcelona was the favourite – but would it be the Nou Camp or the mini Nou Camp. Perpignan was mentioned as well (despite the fact they don’t actually have a football ground – it is a Rugby ground) and even San Sebastian was muted. The decision was to be taken by UEFA in late November 2006. In the meantime every England fan seemed to have already booked flights and hotels to the Catalan capital – after all this was one trip where it would be easy to get a reasonable flight and hotel. Seeing an opportunity to use up some air miles, flights were booked early doors and a decent hotel secured – after all as you know by now dear readers I do not do less than 4 stars.

Finally a decision was made by UEFA to play the game in Barcelona, but surprisingly at the Olympic Stadium home of Espanyol. However, capacity would be restricted to 30,000 – meaning the atmosphere would be pants – in an open air stadium with a running track and only two sides open.

As usual the England fans surpassed themselves – 12,000 tickets were made available, of which all of those desperate fans who said “I’d be there”, only 9,000 took up a flight option…Perhaps they had a premonition as to how bad the team were!

Now Barcelona is not one of my favourite places – in fact I would say it is a real shit hole. It is the only place on earth I have been threatened, pick pocketed and ripped off – on different occasions. The travel press is full of horror stories of people being mugged, especially those who venture down the dark alleys when drunk close to Las Ramblas. It was always likely to be a petty crime bonanza, and the locals did not disappoint. From compiling my own evidence I would say that 1 in every 3 fans who were in the city had something knicked off them….Fortunately, safely holed up in the 5 star Gran Marina hotel meant we avoided all of the “banter” and instead opted for a bit of tapas on the harbour side.

The other thing to bear in mind is that Barcelona has such an image of sunshine all year round – so what joy it was to see almost Blackpoolesque weather on the day of the game – wind, rain and plummeting temperature greeted us fans – and especially those on the organised day trips who arrived in shorts and tea shirts – oh how we laughed!!!

The other “funny” was Ryanair’s decision to cancel two out of three of its flights to arrive into Girona (Barcelona to Ryanair – despite the 85km distance) on the day of the game – fog was the excuse for the first one, couldn’t be arsed to carry a plane load of English fans was the second. Never mind they said at Stansted, fly to Perpignan (170km), Valencia (300km) or Carcassone (400km) instead – they are all nearby…or of course we will refund you your ticket – but not any flight ticket or hotel!!! Good old Ryanair – how they have done so much for the spirits of England’s travelers.

And so to the game itself…Much has been written already. Suffice as to say that it was the worst 45 minutes of English football – EVER. To go in at half time at 0-0 was an insult and should have led to immediate expulsion from the competition. How any commentator can criticise the fans for booing that performance I will never know.

Whilst history will show a 3-0 win, anyone who braved the cold wet weather, the free wheeling batons of the Spanish police (again – thanks FA officials for standing by and watching) and the annoying performance of the band ( even they couldn’t be arsed) will say that this was the most embarrassing performance in English national teams history. How McGinger can walk away from that without apologising to the fans is a traversty. In fact, the players if they feel for us “Best fans in the world” quote Gerrard, Lampard, Terry etc then put your hand in those huge pockets and buy each fan who saw the two embarrassing shows in March a beer – 4,000 fans at £5 = £20,000 – less than a days wages for the likes of Rio.

And so the journey back into town – the sensible option was the head for the Funicular to go down to Parallel – but being Spain this had closed at 10pm and so a group of a hundred or so fans decided to find their own way down the hill, via the posh Miramar restaurant, through a villa and then across what can only be described as an allotment. Just in time for the nights muggings….Barcelona – Spanish for bunch of arse!

The Facts

The Stadium – The Olympic Stadium
Passieg Olimpic, Montjuric, Barcelona

Capacity : 54,000 All seater

Plans have at last been put in motion to return Espanyol to their own ground after enforced exile for the past ten years in the Olympic Stadium. Their previous ground, the Sarriá, was a homley affair but wasn’t up to the increased standards required by La Liga football, despite hosting games during the 1982 World Cup Finals. It is hoped that the new stadium, in the Sarriá area of the city by the start of the 2008/09 season. This new stadium will hold 40,000 fans and is being built to UEFA 4 star standards, making it eligible for UEFA Cup finals – although interestingly the current Olympic stadium is only one of 3 UEFA 5 Star Stadiums.

Whilst it can be all too plain to see why Espanyol want to move from the atmosphere and lack of crowds for games like Getafe, Santandar and Cadiz, the stadium itself is steeped in history and has one of the most magnificent façade’s in world football. The stadium is most famous for hosting the Olympic Games in 1992, although it was originally opened in 1929.

The stadium is far from ideal for football, with the stands set quite along way back from the action. The lack of a roof on three of the four sides also means that the atmosphere is easily lost. For normal league games the upper tiers of the Lateral and Tribuna only tend to be opened. This means that if inclement weather is forecast, demand for the seats in the covered Tribuna rises significantly. The views from all stands are unobstructed – if the weather is good then head for the upper lateral which offers a fantastic backdrop over the west of the city.

The stadium also has a small museum tracing the preparations for the 1992 Olympics at the far end to the main entrance. On most days, the stadium is also open for tourists and locals alike to wander in and have a drink at one of the bars at the north end.

How to get to the Olympic Stadium
The stadium sits proudly on the Montjuic, overlooking the city of Barcelona and the Mediterranian Sea. Whilst there are a number of options available to fans in reaching the stadium, one of the best ways to reach the stadium is by cable car from the port area of the city (Torre de Sant Sebstia), offering some magnificent views over the whole area. The stadium is a 5 minute walk back down the hill from the Cable Car stop. There is also a funicular railway running from Paral lel metro station which runs until 8pm daily. Bus numbers 9, 27, 30, 37, 50, 55 and 56 all run from Plaza Espanya if your legs can’t manage the walk up past the national museum (although there are escalators that take out much of the hard work). The nearest metro is Plaza Espanya which is on Red line 1 and Green line 3.

How to get a ticket for the Olympic Stadium
Tickets for most Espanyol games are on sale up until kick off from the two ticket offices on either side of the stadium. Sell outs are very rare – even a Barcelona derby game sometimes doesn’t sell out. With European football returning to both stadiums in 2006, no doubt the average attendances will be set to rise. If you want to book your tickets before you arrive them you are able to via the official website http://www.rcdespanyol.com which has a very impressive online booking facility.

For a normal league game (i.e not Barcelona or Real Madrid), tickets for the Lateral Superior (upper tier) are €30, Tribuna Superior (upper tier under cover) €40 and for a place amongst the hardcore Espanyol fans then head for the Gol section where tickets are €25.

As a trial, the official tourist office is selling tickets for both Espanyol and Barca games online via its official website (http://www.barcelonaturisme.com) from €25, although don’t expect many to be available for the latter.

Around the Olympic Stadium
The stadium is part of the historic Montjuric area of Barcelona, and enjoys some of the best views of the city. From the cable car station just 5 minutes walk away from the stadium you can see across the whole city and into the Mediterranean Sea. The area is one of significant cultural importance and so there is little in the way of commercial activity around the stadium bar from a couple of temporary bars set up on match days. There can be no better sight than leaving the Olympic Stadium at night and walking down towards the Plaza Espana and seeing the fountains lit up and music playing.

How to get to Barcelona
Barcelona is one of the main destinations on the Budget airline map, with three airports serving the city – although only El Prat is located within the city boundaries. Whilst train is an option from Madrid, the long awaited AVE Line has not yet been completed, meaning the journey time of 10 hours are still common. Once this line is completed in 2008 the 600km journey will be possible in just 2 ½ hours – making it one of the fastest trainlines in the world.

Barcelona El Prat Airport (Airport Code BCN)
Website: http://www.aena.es
Telephone: +34 900 100 405

El Prat airport is second only in Spain to Madrid in terms of passenger numbes, but this is due to increase when the new South Terminal opens in 2008. This will be the hub for Spanair, as well as the Barcelona-Madrid shuttle which is the busiest inter city route in the world. The airport has is one of the major hubs of the budget airline network with over 100 airlines using it. From the UK the following airlines fly at least daily to Barcelona.

British Airways – London Heathrow and Gatwick
BA Connect – Birmingham
Easyjet – Bristol, Liverpool, London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted and Newcastle
Flyglobespan – Edinburgh and Glasgow
Iberia – London Heathrow
Jet2.com – Belfast and Leeds/Bradford
Monarch Airlines – Manchester
Thomsonfly – Coventry

Currently, the easiest way to reach the city centre is by train from the terminal across the main car park. Trains run every 30 minutes to Sants station with a journey time of 20 minutes. A scheduled bus line – Aerobús also runs via Sants, Plaza d’Espanya and terminating at Plaza Catalunya. When the new AVE line is open, there will be a new station at the airport, as well as metro stops on lines 2 and 9. A taxi takes around 25 minutes and should cost less than €20.

Girona-Costa Brava Airport (Airport Code GRO)
Website: http://www.aena.es
Telephone: +34 900 100 405

Despite being over 100km from Barcelona, Ryanair class Girona as Barcelona in terms of a destination hub. The airport is located around 12km from the city of Girona, serving both the Catalan capital and the popular tourist coast of the Costa Brava. The airport was originally built in 1965, but it really took off when Ryanair announced it would be used as one of their European hubs. To reach Barcelona from the airport catch one of the Sagales buses that leave on the hour and take around 70 minutes to make the journey – terminating at Estacio del Nord. A taxi is not an option – the 100km journey will cost over €100.

Today Ryanair offer routes to Girona from Blackpool, Bournemouth, Bristol (from March 2007), Doncaster, Dublin, Durham Tees Valley, East Midlands, Glasgow Prestwick, Liverpool, London Luton, London Stansted, Newcastle (from March 2007) and Shannon.

Reus Airport (Airport Code REU)
Website: http://www.aena.es
Telephone: +34 900 100 405

Located around 80km to the south of Barcelona, and on the Costa Daurada, The airport has trebled in passenger numbers in the last 10 years, mainly due to the decision by Ryanair to locate themselves here. The area is also home to Port Aventura, home of one of Europe’s biggest theme parks, and during the summer the airport becomes a major hub for charter flights. To reach Barcelona, catch one of the Hispano Igualadina buses that run every 60 minutes and cost €11 each way to make the 90minute journey to Estacion del Nord. Ryanair currently fly out of Dublin, Glasgow Prestwick, Liverpool, London Luton and London Stansted. Thomsonfly also fly here from Belfast on a daily basis.

Where to Stay in Barcelona
Barcelona has more hotel beds than most cities in Europe, meaning that even in the peak summer season it is always possible to find a bed if you arrive n town without a reservation. The city boasts some of the most luxurious rooms in the world, such as the Ritz-Carlton owned Hotel Arts, and the famous amongst film stars, the Hotel Palace. The tourist offices in Passage de Gràcia and Plaza Catalunya will be able to assist. Their excellent English-language website is http://www.barcelonaturisme.com. The following hotels normally have rooms available at weekends, have a good safe location and offer some of the comforts from home.

Hotel 1898 – La Ramblas 109 (Tel: 0845 227 0141)
http://www.barcelonahotel1898.com
Located on Barcelona’s most famous street, the 1898 Hotel was once the former headquarters of the Philippine Tobacco Company. The main selling point of the hotel is the fantastic rooftop pool which has some fantastic views over the city and port airea. It also has an indoor pool, spa and LCD TV’s in all rooms. Weekend double rooms start from £111, rising to £180 for a suite.

Hotel Parallel – Poeta Cabanyes 5 (Tel: +34 933 291 104)
http://www.hotelparallel.com
If you are looking for a good value, centrally located hotel away from the noise and bussle of the city, the the Parallel is a perfect retreat. Located on a small lane off Avenida del Parallel , and a 10 minute walk from Las Ramblas and the Olympic Stadium on Montjuic, it has 66 rooms with Air Conditioning, Wireless internet access and Pay TV. The hotel doesn’t have its own restaurant, although there are a number of excellent eateries within a 5 minute walk. Weekend double rooms start from £55.

Hotel NH Les Corts – Travessera de les Corts (Tel: +34 93 322 0811)
http://www.nh-hotels.com
NH hotels are one of the biggest chains in Barcelona with over a dozen properties. The hotel in Les Corts is the closest to the Nou Camp, located a 10 minute walk away. And almost on the doorstep of the shops in Diagnol. The hotel has 81 Rooms with Air Conditioning, Cable TV and Wireless internet access. The hotel also serves an excellent buffet breakfast. Weekend doubles start from €85 for a standard room.

Where to Eat and Drink in Barcelona
Barcelona is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and this is reflected in the huge numbers of places to eat and drink. The few places listed below have an excellent menu of local specialities and Tapas, as well as being in safe areas in the city.

Bar Celta – Calle Merće 16
An authentic no-frills Tapas Bar. (Metro Drassanes).

Pollo Rico – Calle Sant Pau 31
One of the best places in town for chicken, as well as being one of the cheapest. (Metro Liceu).

Can Culleretes – Calle Quintana 5
One of the oldest restaurants in town – open since 1786, serving hearty portions (Metro Liceu).

Sureny – Palza de la Revolució 17
One of the top Tapas bars in the city (Metro Joanic).

If you need to get to a big screen TV to watch your Premiership games, then the following bars all show English games, as well as those from all around Europe, on a weekend.

Kitty O’Shea’s – Calle Nau Santa Maria 5-7 (Metro Santa Maria)
Michael Collins – Placa de la Sagrada Familia (Metro Sagrada Familia)
The Quiet Man – Marques de Barbera (Metro Palza Catalunya)