Master of none


What happens when you get a bit lippy and suggest to one of your colleagues that their job on a match day was “easy”? It seemed I was just about to find out the hard way as our beloved club secretary Barry was heading off on a business trip 24 hours prior to our final game of 2016.  To make matters worse, we also had no kit man for the game.  First rule behind the scenes in Non-League football is “Be prepared to do it yourself” which is why I was wandering into the Dripping Pan four hours before kick off against Three Bridges with a bag full of assorted sock tape.

Lay the kit out, pump up a few balls, write out the team sheet and shake hands with the referee right?  What’s so difficult about that?  Alas, it if was that simple I would have been enjoying a beer or two an hour before the game rather than worriedly looking for instructions about how to use Football Web Pages live system and trying to find the season ticket list for Gate 3.

img_2255The first issue on arrival was the fog.  The previous evening has seen the game at The Amex postponed due to it and it appeared that overnight the problem hadn’t got much better in these parts. There was not a lot I could do about that bar man the phones and let people know that I could see both goals from the office and we “should” be OK for 1pm.

Before Barry headed off to try to increase our 12th Man Fund in Las Vegas, he left some instructions for me in terms of the Club Secretary duties for a match day.  Even by Barry’s very organised standards, I wasn’t expecting a four page document for each role (plus attachments), all colour-coded and in chronological order.  According to his list, by 1:45pm I should have been collecting biscuits from the Referees room.  Or was it giving them biscuits and taking their expense claims?  Of course, Barry had forgotten we had moved the kick off forward to 1pm so I was either 2 hours early or 2 hours late.  I’m not sure which.  The biggest worry was the fact if I didn’t do something to someone on the Internet at 1pm/3pm then Kellie Discipline, the League Secretary, would be straight on the phone giving me a dressing or a fine.  Or perhaps both.  Oh, and the fact it said “5:30pm – relax and have a beer” – that was three hours away.

img_2136So here I am thirty minutes before kick off trying to sort out a kit issue (one of those strange cut-off under socks has gone missing), whilst re-printing forty team sheets that had a big spelling mistake on (Thee Bridges may have been popular in Shakespeare’s time but not today apparently) on a printer that will only allow me to print one at a time due to a cartridge “issue”.  Oh and sorting out the play list which has all of a sudden started playing Isabella’s Disney Princess mix from 2008.  The phone rings and someone from the local paper wants to come along and watch the game and would like a pass for the 3pm game which he then goes into a panic over when I say it is a 1pm kick off as he has just arrived as “Monkey Biz” with his daughter and “there was no way he could get her out of the ball pool in 15 minutes’.  First world problems.

A normal pre-match for me involves a pint, chatting with some of my fellow fans, an in-depth discussion with Darren on our opponents and where the strengths/weaknesses are before preparing myself for any tricky names to read out on the team sheet.  Today I’m having to find the charger adapter for the substitutes board (The League donated one to each club but when we opened the package it had a European plug on), that should have been on charge an hour ago whilst ensuring that the referees assessor was put on the guest list.

I’d already had the dilemma of how to lay out the kit.  The home dressing room only has 24 pegs up – we have a squad of 20 arriving, but should the 1-11 get two pegs (one to hang the kit and one for their stuff) or does everyone get one each?  I’m mildly concerned that we have two slightly different sets of socks and my OCD kicks in by unravelling every pair to ensure that at least each pair matches.  Then there is the TV – it should be showing BT Sports but it has QVC on.  The signal comes from the bar, which is currently locked.

img_2256Best of all, our superb Groundsmen have arrived to use a fancy new machine on the pitch but they are unaware it is a 1pm start and so are trying to ride this contraption up and down the grass, avoiding the players now warming up.

Sounds like fun?  Too right it is.  I love being part of the magic that is match day.  Huge amounts of work goes into making sure that everyone gets to try to enjoy ninety minutes of football.  Whilst we can’t influence the result directly, the preparation that is necessary before every game should be aimed at giving Darren’s side the best opportunity possible to win the match.

I started this year sitting in the stands scouting at Peacehaven & Telscombe and would end it clearing up the detritus from the home team bench. That’s the beauty of the game at this level – you make a difference, as too does every other volunteer that gives up their personal time to help the club.

So how has 2016 treated us?  With all the doom and gloom around in the past few weeks you’d be mistaken to think that our relegation at the end of last season automatically made 2016 a bad year for us.  Actually, we probably made more progress this year on and off the pitch that any year in the past five including winning the Sussex Intermediate Cup.  2015 saw us avoid relegation technically on the last day of the season (although events elsewhere meant we couldn’t be relegated even if we had lost to Bury Town on the final day), get hammered in the Sussex Senior Cup Final and then start the 2015/16 season poorly.  The first half of the 2015/16 was no better as we started poorly and got worse.  It wasn’t until last December that things began to improve on the pitch.  Since January performances have been stronger and there is more of a settled feel in the squad as the stats below illustrate.

In the previous year we played 50 Ryman League games, gaining just 37 points and conceding a mammoth 93 goals in the process.  We won just 10 times, whilst tasted defeat on 33 occasions.  It is fair to say that was relegation form.  Prior to today’s game we’d played 43 Ryman League games in 2016 and gained 65 points, winning 17 and drawing 14.  We had scored 69 goals and conceded 70.  If we think back to that period between the start of March and the end of the season where we drew eight out of our ten games, losing just once, what might have happened if we would have not conceded late equalisers (Grays Athletic and VCD Athletic at home anyone?).  Extrapolate the 43 games into 46 and we have a 70 point season, enough in recent years to be in the top third of the table.

img_2257Unbeaten at home since early October, we hoped to finish the year off with a win against a Three Bridges side who have just two wins on the road (although they have been in their last trips away).  But football can be as unpredictable as the playlist I had put on before the match.  Just because the last two songs have been by the Killers, there’s no guarantee song three will not be something by The Cheeky Girls, or that Apollo 440, lined up as the walk-out song for the two teams actually turns out to be the Jive Bunny.

Lewes 4 Three Bridges 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 31st December 2016
Well, we’d got to the point where the referee had kicked off so we must have got most things right.  I checked Football Web Pages and saw that our starting XI was remarkably similar to last week’s, which wasn’t right so had to quickly amend that, not the easiest thing to do on a mobile.  Seven minutes gone and The Rooks were in front as Jonté Smith turned in the ball from close range.  Five minutes later I remembered that not only did I have to announce the goal but also add it onto Football Web Pages.

It wasn’t the best of halves to be honest although we were playing some nice football and never looked under threat.  Jamie Brotherton added a second in the 35th minute after a neat exchange of passes with Jonté and we should have had a penalty on the stroke of half-time when Conlon was bundled over.

The Lewes side emerged for the second half but there was no sign of our opponents or the officials.  The referee, showing that he is human, had not put enough change in the parking meter and so had to dash out to top it up, meaning nobody called the Three Bridges side out.  The additional time sat in the warm hardly did them any favours as Ronnie Conlon curled a beauty into the top corner within 46 seconds of the restart to make it 3-0.  Game over.  The fans in Philcox started singing “You’ve got more bridges than fans”, winning the chant of the year competition.

Or not quite.  We still have this ability to try to let victory slip out of our fingers.  It’s nothing new, especially here at The Pan.  Last season we gave up four points in two games by conceding injury time equalisers and all of a sudden in this game it went from 3-0 to 3-2.  There was an audible hum of discontent around the ground.  If we are to have any thoughts of breaking into the play-offs then we need to be winning games against teams at the wrong end of the table.

One magic substitution later and it was all smiles again as Charlie Coppola spanked home a loose ball in the area to make it 4-2.  In the two games between these sides this season there have been 14 goals.  Undoubtedly there could have been half a dozen more had it not been for the fine form of former Rook Kieron Thorp in the Three Bridges goal who kept the scoreline respectable in the final ten minutes.

At the final whistle I can enjoy that long overdue pint.  Alas it is not for relaxation – I just need to wait for the players to get changed so I can start sorting the kit and cleaning the dressing room so that come 1pm on Monday when they walk back in for the game against Horsham.  I’m not sure that 20 individuals could purposely make more mess if they tried.

With a game on Monday there would be no time for our usual kit washing or dressing room cleaning routine.  Duncan (Ops Manager) and I grabbed the brooms, buckets and mops and got to work whilst Jane (Director) picked up the kit to deliver to Carol (Director) to wash and dry all of the kit – the happiest of happy new year eve’s I’m sure with 21 shirts, 22 pairs of shorts (not quite sure why there were more shorts than shirts!), 22 pairs of socks, 11 pairs of cut-off socks, 24 warm up t-shirts, 18 warm up jacket and a random pair of Pringle pants for company as Big Ben struck twelve.

img_2262I’d read earlier in the day that the reason why it was a 1pm kick off was so that the directors had time to get ready before going up to London.  I wish that was the case.  The two hours we gave everyone back to enjoy the last night of the year was taken up for me by cleaning and then sitting in a traffic jam on the M25.  Did I mind?  Not one bit.

The afternoon summed up all that was good with the club.  I’m sure a few will grumble about the queue for food (a solution is in the pipe, or should I say pie, line) whereas I heard of a few others who missed the game because they didn’t know it was a 1pm kick off despite us promoting it through every available channel.  But a team effort on and off the pitch saw us end 2016 with three points and a smile on everyone’s faces.

Same again tomorrow everyone?

2016 – A year in football


So that was 2016.  A year most will remember for famous people dying, although the stats will show that no more than a normal year (our love of Social Media partly fuels this hyperbole about the mourning of our celebrity culture) but also a year of watching football.  Footballing duties at the mighty Lewes have restricted my consumption of random games and most certainly weekends away in the past twelve months but with the contract renewed for a third Football Tourist book in 2017/18 I will again be dusting down the passport.

Even so, 2016’s haul hasn’t been bad.  82 games, an average of one every 4 1/2 days in seven countries at 45 different grounds including 24 new stadiums.  In the process I witnessed 255 goals, an average of 3.1 goals per game, 36 home wins, 28 away wins and 17 draws.  Some games will be memorable for years, others have already been forgotten.

We all see games through various shades of rose tint.  A thriller for the neutral will be heartache for one set of fans.  The best referee in the world is a purely subjective decision based on what marginal calls he makes for your side.  So my list of the “best of” is how I saw football in 2016 – there’s no right or wrong just the opinions based on the games I saw.

The Best New Grounds visited
There’s always a sense of excitement visiting a new ground, especially one that people have raved about for years.  Some of my new “ticks” in 2016 were as basic, albeit enjoyable, as Glebe FC down in the SCEFL division 1, others told a story of success against the odds such as last week’s trip to Fisher FC’s new community stadium in Bermondsey.  But the three stadiums below, in no particular order were hands down the best visited for different reasons in 2016.

Glentoran – The Oval

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A hulking main stand, grass banks behind the goal, a bar buried in the history of the club and the stand, the giant cranes of Harland & Wolff in the distance and the planes making their descent into Belfast City Airport overhead – sometimes first time visitors to the iconic Oval may forget there’s a game going on.  The club are contemplating the future of the ground, drastically cut in capacity due to the sands of time but no football fan can ignore the lure of its rustic beauty.

Athletic Bilbao – San Mamés

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Inside the new San Mamés you could be forgiven that you are in any big new stadium in the world – functional is a word I’d use to describe the 60,000 odd red seats.  But put a roof on and smother the exterior with black and white panels and you’ve got a design icon that even Sir Norman Foster gave an approving nod to. Bilbao is already a weekend destination that just about hits every note, the addition of the new San Mamés has simply added it to the top of the list for the Football Tourist.

Olympique Marseille – Stade Vélodrome

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It’s hard to imagine this is the same ground I visited over a decade ago to watch an England v France rugby match but it is.  Back then there was no roof and the atmosphere drifted into the night sky, carried away on the Mistral.  Millions were spent upgrading the stadium making it fit for the 2016 European Championships.  The result is a stunning arena with curves that make Marilyn Monroe slimmer of the month.  Obviously what happened in the game between England and Russia is not how a visit should be remembered but still.

The Best Games of 2016
Goals win games and whilst we’ve all seen “entertaining” scoreless draws, unless a match has some life then it’s just going to fade into the memory bank along with all those other 2/5 rated games.  We saw some absolute shockers in 2016, some perhaps that may appear on other fans top games of the year (Faversham Town 5 Lewes 0 anyone?) but the games below are those that as a neutral had that ‘X’ factor…and goals plus a red card or two…oh, and a pie.  Who doesn’t love a pie at football?

AFC Guiseley 4 Torquay United 3
26138079974_c44c4ab0bd_kWhat could be better than a last day of the season “must-win” home game? One where attentions will also be focused on events elsewhere that could ultimately make the score irrelevant.  Add in a season-best crowd, a good natured pitch invasion and the seven goals and this was the best game ever.  The home side needed to win and hope that Halifax didn’t in their home game against Macclesfield Town.  After racing to a 3-0 lead the home nerves were put on edge when Halifax scored.  It got even worse in the second half when Torquay, with nothing left to play for suddenly pulled it back to 3-2.  Then Macclesfield scored and to make the situation even better Gisele scored a fourth.  Torquay made it 4-3 ensuring the final few minutes were very nervous but with the full time whistle blown at The New Shay, the fans invaded the pitch to celebrate ultimate safety.

Northern Ireland 4 San Marino 0
29577405693_e86f13bde5_kThe opening of the redeveloped Windsor Park was a night of celebration with Northern Ireland’s finest sons and daughters paraded before a sell-out crowd on a chilly night in October.  Unlike a Audley Harrison fight, their opponents hadn’t been chosen at random to ensure that the night of celebration would result in a win.  San Marino’s hopeless cause wasn’t helped by the dismissal early in the second half of Mirko Palazzi but even still Northern Ireland peppered the visitors goal with 35 shots over the ninety minutes yet somehow only scored four.  A superb atmosphere accompanied the one way traffic and there was even time post match for a beer or two in the city centre.  Marvellous.

 

Athletic Bilbao 5 KRC Genk 3
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It’s not often that you see one player dominate one game to so much of an extent as Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz did in this Europa League tie back in November at the San Mamés but anyone who scores five goals in a game deserved all the respect of world football.  Granted he scored a hatrick of penalties given by Martin Atkinson but he could have five or six more goals from open play.  The game ebbed and flowed, with both teams committed to trying to win the game.  Add in a few yellow cards and a decent atmosphere in an outstanding stadium and it is up there with one of the best games I’ve seen in recent years.

Here’s to 2017….

 

Who benefits from Stadium naming rights?


There’s a fantastic new book that’s been published by Leon Gladwell called “Beyond the turnstile” which is full of oustanding pictures from his quest to capture the beauty of the game around the world.  Leon contacted me about 18 months ago and asked me to write the forward for his book, which I was absolutely honoured to do.  I focused on the comparison between football and religion and how the stadium had become the modern day place of worship, the new age cathedral.

But is football the new religion?  And are football stadiums the cathedrals for the new common man? These are two questions that people have asked for years.  Whilst the questions may be fanciful to some, belittling to others, there is some truth in the statements.  Based on the continued growth in the commercialisation of the game I would suggest that some football clubs have a cult-like approach to fan engagement.  Get them in as young as possible, ram emails down their throats as often as you can and then brainwash them to come and spend ridiculous sums of money on things like branded toasters, branded bottles of water and even branded vodka.  There is certainly no end to what a football club will slap an advert on these days for cash – in some cases even the club themselves such as Red Bull Salzburg.  However, apart from shirt sponsorship, stadium naming rights are the biggest asset a club has that they could monetise.  In some countries, such as Germany, it is the norm to sell the naming rights on a regular basis but elsewhere in Europe where many grounds are not owned by the clubs, but by local authorities it is not as common, such as in Italy or Spain.

The situation in England is confused to say the least. If you look at the twenty biggest stadiums in England, only five are sponsored.  The Emirates, The Etihad, The Ipro, The Ricoh Arena and The King Power Stadium.  Interestingly there are a couple of other stadiums in the list that used to be “named” but have now dropped the convention.  Middlesborough’s The Riverside started off life as the Cellnet and then the BT Cellnet stadium before reverting back to its proper name in 2003.  Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium was originally known as the Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium, quite a mouthful before they withdrew their support in 2006. Oh, and who can forget the ridiculous situation at Newcastle United when St James’ Park was renamed the SportsDirect@St.James’ Park or something else ridiculous for a period of time.  At number four on the list of stadiums based on capacity is the London Stadium, aka The Olympic Stadium where it is only a matter of time before some random name is added to the title (Mahindra or Tesco’s were the front runners a few months ago).

Stadium rebranding his hardly the religious approach akin to the “cathedrals for the common man” is it?  For whose purpose is the naming of a stadium?  The players?  Will the team be more likely to turn performances up by 10% if they have a new name above their heads. The fans? Look at the situation in Dortmund.  Do the Borussia fans bedecked in their yellow and black say, obviously translated from our German cousins “Are you going down the Westfalonstadion today” or “Shall we head off to the Signal Iduna Park”?

Even down in the Ryman League South we come across clubs who have sold the naming rights to their ground which leads to some confusion with the fans.  Whilst the Shepherds Neame Stadium resonates with the town of Faversham and thus the football team, the Heards Renault Stadium is a grand name for Molesey’s Walton Road ground and the GAC Stadium is perhaps unknown to those outside of East Grinstead.

I have no issues with stadium naming rights as long as they are done for the right reasons.  A long term commercial partnership for instance.  You cannot have a better example than the Reebok.  Most football fans will still consider it the name of Bolton Wanderer’s stadium despite the fact it has actually been sponsored by Macron since 2014.  That’s the danger that could impact Arsenal when the naming rights of the Emirates comes up for renegotiation in 2028 – it will be hard for any brand to gain any commercial traction after twenty four years of sponsorship – which actually puts the airline in a strong negotiating position, knowing that few other organisations would be willing to invest in the brand.

Possibly the least successful example of stadium naming rights has to belong to Darlington FC.  For 120 years of their history they played in the town centre at Feethams until the club were taken over by millionnaire George Reynolds who moved them in 2003 to the out of town, 25,000 capacity Reynolds Arena, complete with gold taps in the toilets and marble throughout.  The club averaged 3,500 during their time in the stadium and fell out of the Football League in 2010. During that period the ground was known as the Northern Echo Darlington Arena, Williamson Motors, 96.6 TFM and Balfour Webnet before Darlington folded and reformed as Darlington 1883, moving to the more homely Blackwell Meadows.  Today the stadium is owned by Darlington Mowden Park rugby club.

 

 

1966 and Not All That


CaptureIn celebration of the 50th anniversay of our greatest ever footballing day as a nation, below is an extract of the chapter I wrote for Mark Perryman’s excellent book ‘1966 and Not All That’.  The book looks at the build up to the 1966 World Cup from a social and a sporting aspect in England as well as containing updated match reports 50 years on, written by some of the finest footballing authors around today (plus me).

My chapter focuses on the changing nature of the travelling English football fan in the last 50 years, starting 4 years before the 1966 World Cup in Chile and finishing up with the run up to the European Championships in France last month.  If you want to buy a copy then head over to Amazon by clicking here.

Have tickets, will travel

The England squad that travelled to the 1962 World Cup in Chile had to endure a flight with two separate changes to Lima where they played a warm up game against Peru before moving onto Santiago, then Rancagua where they would play their group games and then bus to their base in the Braden Copper Company staff house in Coya, some 2,500ft up in the Andes.  The journey of over 7,500 miles would have taken them more than 24 hours.  Hardly an ideal preparation for the tournament.  Very few fans could afford the high cost of travel (around £4,000 in today’s money) or the five refuelling-stop flight to the Southern Hemisphere on a BOAC Comet, meaning that England played their games in the Estadio El Teniente in Rancagua in front of less than 10,000 locals.   Today, that same journey would take 13 hours and cost as little as £500, with no stops. On the basis of England’s travelling support in the past twenty years several thousand would follow the team should they ever play Chile away in the near future.

When Walter Winterbottom’s squad left these shores for Chile in 1962 it was from the Oceanic Terminal at London Airport.  Four years later, when the squads for the 1966 tournament landed on English soil, the airport had a more familiar ring to it – Heathrow.  It would be from departure points like this that the shift in our boundaries as fans would start.  The travel revolution was still a couple of decades away when the 1966 World Cup kicked off on 11th July with England taking on Uruguay in front of nearly 88,000 fans, but there is no doubt that the staging of the tournament in England changed the perceptions of whole communities in terms of overseas visitors, the like of which many English people had never seen before.  If the North Korean, Argentine and Mexican fans could travel halfway around the world to support their countrymen then so could England football fans from Consett, Corby and Chatham.

It would however be a further 16 years before England fans got the opportunities to really experience what it was like to be a Football Tourist.  Four years after the tournament in England, Mexico offered better opportunities for the travelling fan than Chile ever did but still the cost and the misguided perceptions created by the media of what visiting foreign countries was really like restricted the number of supporters prepared to travel to Central America.  However the 1970 FIFA World Cup did see the first attempt to create an official England supporters travel club for those now intending to follow the team overseas.  The England Football Supporters’ Association offered members who wanted to travel to Mexico the opportunity to travel on an organised trip to watch the tournament, with travel, hotels, a full English washed down with pints of Watney Ale.  The downside?  Fans would need to part with between £230 and £250 per person for a three week trip, or around 8 weeks money for someone on the then average UK wage of £32 per week, around £7,500 in today’s money. Britain was on the verge of a recession, after the “never had it so good” Sixties.  The typical demographic of football fans at the start of the decade was more likely to spend their money on a new Ford Cortina or Teasmade for their semi-detached in suburbia.

English football in the intervening years between 1970 and our next appearance in Spain in 1982 went through a radical change.  To many, the watershed moment in the development of a culture of following club and country came two years earlier in Italy when England qualified for the new-look European Championships.  Thousands of fans travelled by plane, train and automobile to the group games against Belgium, Spain and hosts, Italy. This was a new generation of football fan who had not previously had the opportunity to watch their nation play in an international tournament. Many of these fans, only used to the passionate, if sometimes unruly terrace culture of England simply weren’t prepared for the way the Italian authorities treated them.  With few having experience of watching football abroad, many didn’t adapt their behaviour and faced with a new foe in the Italian police and the locals too, the English responded, by running riot.

Despite the experience of being tear gassed, or worse, or two years later even more fans headed to the World Cup in Spain. For some the appeal would be to repeat the Italian experience, while for others just like the Scots and Northern Irish they would bring their very English version of carnival football to the World Cup for the first time since 1966. This was the first major tournament where individual English national identity would come to the fore.  Whilst the English fans would still confusingly be waving the Union Jack, the Scots and the Northern Irish defined their support as ‘anyone but English for decades to come.  Spain was the founding moment for the Scots’ Tartan Army, whilst the mainly Unionist Northern Irish support would put their politics aside and proudly wear their own Northern Irish Green then, and ever since.  The Scots and Northern Irish, perhaps not weighed down with the expectations of a nation on the pitch, made the most of their time in the sunshine off it, while the troublesome reputation that wrapped itself round England at Italia ’80 was resurrected once more across the tournament at Spain ’82 too.

That reputation stayed with England and their travelling support for a number of years, and was one of the main reasons why the nation’s group games in the 1990 World Cup were held on the island of Sardinia.  The Italian police felt that by containing the fans in one place for the first part of the tournament would be a benefit for all.  Despite a tepid start and scraping through the group on goals scored, England woke up in the knock-out stages and gave the fans belief that nearly twenty five years of hurt could be put to rest.  Of course penalties were our undoing in the semi-finals but the national team had a new identity amongst the fans and the media back home.

To read more then buy the book!

Teargas and tantrums in the South of France


There’s nothing unusual about stories of strikes affecting public services and transportation in France. As far back as I care to remember there’s been stories of blockades at ports or flight delays caused by air traffic control strikes. In some ways it’s no different to what we experience on a weekly basis in the United Kingdom and being very British we may moan about it whilst simply struggling on. However, I’d like to think if we were hosting a major sporting event that meant the focus of international media was on our nation wed put our differences aside for the duration. Certainly during the Olympics, nothing was allowed to interfere with the smooth operation of the event as demonstrated by the deployment of the military to run security when it was felt the private contractor wasn’t up to scratch.

But it seems the start of the European Championships in France has simply added fuel to the already considerable flames of unrest in the country. Last night’s opening game between the hosts and Romania at Stade de France was played out with news of strikes by train drivers on the routes that served the stadium in St Denis, whilst a national strike by refuse collectors had left piles of rubbish building up in the city. A proposed strike by Air France pilots had meant last-minute changes to the travel plans of thousands of fans. Hardly the most auspicious of welcomes for the travelling nations.

The tournament would take place surrounded by unprecedented levels of security after recent terrorist actions and threats. The last thing the security forces would need is large groups of fans not being able to travel around the country and being stuck in one place, especially when the volatile mixture of sunshine and beer is taken into account. Welcome to Marseille.

Our trip had been well over a year in the planning. We’d applied for tickets and booked flights and hotels long before the draw had taken place. Safe in the knowledge that we had secure seats for a weekend in the South of France we watched the draw live on TV hoping that we wouldn’t be seeing England in Marseille. That may seem unpatriotic but having followed The Three Lions across the world in the last twenty years there’s certain places that have the words “trouble” written all over them. Out of the ten venues being used for this tournament, the one venue that I’d imagine the authorities hoped England wouldn’t be visiting was Marseille.

A combination of the history of events here in the 1998 FIFA World Cup plus the tinderbox atmosphere of the different cultures of the city could lead to public order issues and sure enough 48 hours before the game England fans clashed with locals and riot police. Back in 1998 the words Social Media meant sharing a copy of The Sun in the office. Today social journalism means anyone with a smartphone can now be a front line reporter sending images and video across the world in seconds. This of course can be incredibly powerful but can also blow events out of proportion. The events in Marseille in the lead up to the game versus Russia were undoubtably disappointing but certainly not surprising. The fans who headed to the Old Port area on Thursday and Friday had one intention – to enjoy the sunshine and have a drink (and a sing-song). Alas, history shows that such revelry, whilst accepted back in the High Streets in England, isn’t so overseas. Whether the fans were provoked or goaded by locals is another story of course, but to be a considered a victim you need to be aware of putting yourself in positions of danger.

Journalist Ian Macintosh wrote an interesting piece about attitudes after getting caught up in the problems on Friday night. The attitude of a minority of the English fans, the actions of a minority of locals and the approach of the French riot police, which is very much about swift action to dispel and disable any threats – very different to the approach used by British police in trying to contain problems and slowly disperse the crowds.

Even though we’d got the game we probably didn’t want we’d still be heading for the impressive Stade Velodrome on Saturday night for the game. The format of the tournament meant that teams could be ultra defensive and still progress out of the group stages. That well-known football statistician Lee Dixon reminded us (three times) during the coverage of the opening game that there was an 87% chance that a team could progress if they drew all three group games. On the other hand a team who won that first game would have an 87% chance of progressing. Unfortunately Platini’s legacy to the championships was the most complicated knock-out stage qualification criteria. If he was so insistent on allowing just shy of 50% of UEFA Nations to qualify for the tournament then why not have 4 groups of 6 teams with the top four going into the next stage, or top 2 going directly into the quarter finals?

Saturday morning arrived and as we sat waiting to board our flight to Nice we heard on the grapevine (well from Fergie who was already in Nice) that our train back from Marseille on Sunday morning had already been cancelled due to strike action from the SNCF train drivers which was due to “only” impact one area of the country – in fact it wasn’t just our train impacted, it was every train from Marseille. Yep, the area where hundreds of thousands were heading for the England game on Saturday and Northern Ireland’s opening game with Poland in Nice on Sunday. It wasn’t just that route impacted with fans unable to find accommodation in Marseille seeing their trains out of the city post-match cancelled. You’d have thought that after all of the issues over the past three days the authorities may have done everything they could to move people away but there was simply an arrogant air of “it’s no my problem” when you tried to find out what was going on.

Keeping with the striking theme, there were no buses running from the airport to the station, nor had a couple of the earlier trains meaning that everyone had to cram onto the 13:50. First class reservation on earlier services? Tough. President Hollander came out with a statement last week saying, vowing to take on the strikers. Fortunately Danny found a seat next to two Russian fans who had a full litre of Jameson’s to drink on the journey – enough to go around and start the whisky giggles.

27363593010_905fe1f4dd_kOur hotel was essentially on the edge of the “danger zone”. Close enough to smell and taste the tear gas but far enough away not to have it in our faces. Soon enough we were hearing tales of fans being attacked from all angles whilst the police were simply over run, with their only response being tear gas and latterly the water cannon. Of course, as these events took place outside of the stadium UEFA can wash their hands of it and not fake any blame.

Despite all of the media, we actually found Marseille to be a decent place. We did come across one group of Russians who Danny thought he’d heard them say “we need to find someone to beat”, whereas I heard them say “we need to find something to eat”. We walked in the opposite direction just in case. Just five minutes walk uphill from our hotel was a beautiful tree-ringed square with about a dozen bars where we could sit and enjoy the sunshine. Every so often a familiar face would walk by and we would get the latest news from the grapevine, some complete with fresh war wounds.

We’d all been told security would be tight at the stadium so we headed to the ground in plenty of time. Dozens of ticket touts were selling right under the noses of the police without any fear of problems. Consequently there was no ID check – just a quick test to see if our ticket was genuine and then a brief pat down and we were in. The issues around such lax security would be seen in front of millions later in the game when the Russian fans set off fire-crackers and flares inside the ground.

Our seats were up in the Pyrenees but the hike was certainly worth it. You can not be impressed by the stadium. It’s huge with curves like Marilyn Monroe. The acoustics were superb and the atmosphere built quickly. As the game kicked off there wasn’t a hint of any problems. What was very noticeable was a) the thin line of stewards separating the Russian fans from the section of mixed fans and b) the hundreds, if not thousands of empty seats in the main stand, especially in the corporate areas.

In terms of the game I still don’t get the impression Hodgson knows his best XI. Sterling was wasteful in possession whilst Kane, our tallest attacking threat was still taking corners. We created little in the way of chances in the first hour, the only consolation being the Russians created even less. The goal from Dier was a well-worked free kick but we then simply lacked and creative spark to kill the game off, and were made to pay in the last-minute when the Russians equalised. The goal was the cue for madness – a single flare seemed to act as the signal for the fans to breach the feeble line of stewards and attack whoever was in their path.

27641555285_7729dfb44d_kWe took that as a sign to leave. Only one problem – the gates were locked. The first rule about any venue management is never lock the exits. The stewards tried to tell us to retrace our steps by going back up to the concourse (about four flights of steps) and go down a different way but with hundreds of fans coming down towards us that wasn’t an option. Eventually, a senior steward saw that the problem would soon escalate very quickly and frantically tried to open the gates, screaming into his radio that he needed help. Finally the gates opened and we quickly got onto the metro. The area around our hotel was shut – all the bars had their shutters down and who can blame them.

We headed to our room, flung open the shutters and enjoyed our bottles of red whilst taking in the taste and smell of tear gas wafting in from down below. French TV was in overdrive about the events with “hooligans” being the trending story, followed by the breaking news that despite playing for West Ham, Payet was a very good player indeed. The French TV blamed the English, the alcohol and the Russians but omitted the bit about locals being proactively involved too. The assertion that alcohol was a major factor, and perhaps that should be banned on match days completely missed the point, underlined by the Football Supporters Federation CEO, Kevin Miles, that the Russians who were involved in the trouble don’t drink and prepare fir months for such encounters.

It’s also true that some of the England fans involved were out of their depth, attending a major tournament fir the first time and thinking it would be like Green Street on Sea. Those who are aged 18-21 may have been attending a tournament for the first time – with Brazil being too far to go and being too young to attend before. So they only see in their head the romanticised “stand your ground and fight” notion and act accordingly. Alcohol will always be available even if the bars are shut. So what’s the answer? Pass but with Russia meeting Slovakia in Lille on Wednesday, just twenty-four hours before England meet Wales in next door Lens, the authorise have some quick thinking to do.

Sunday morning dawned and now we had the small issue of getting out of the city. Of course the train drivers had gone on strike meaning the first direct train to Nice would be at 12.31….with more and more fans arriving at the station to go their various ways and with no information being forthcoming the tension started to rise. All it needed was one person to say – fake this train then change at this place – and it would have been all ok. Fortunately most heard through the grapevine that the train was the 9.35am and the place to change was Toulon. The journey was far more comfortable than the one from yesterday with Poles and Northern Ireland fans mixing without any issue.

27542035602_b0bbd46b02_kNice was a million miles away from the atmosphere in Marseille. The pavement bars and cafes were full of fans eating and drinking, sharing jokes. There was no visible police or security and even when there was the potential for problems when the two sets of fans created a strand off in the main square, taking turns to try to ousting each other, there was no overtly over the top police presence. We headed to the beach with a bottle of wine (€1 cheaper than a can of beer) and two straws to enjoy the, “ahem”, scenery.

The Allianz Stadium, or Stade de Nice, to give it its tournament name is a fair way out of town…well, about 8 miles to be precise meaning that a bus was needed. Shuttle buses were laid on and dropped everyone at a point around 1.5 miles from the ground. The final part had to be done in foot…..along a brand new dual carriageway that was empty far the occasional VIP minibus passing by….no concessions had been made for fans with mobility issues – apparently, as they didn’t run any major ramp up events they couldn’t use the road – 5 stars for that one UEFA. Thirsty? No problems as once you reached the stadium you could spend €6.50 on a 0.5% pint of Carlsberg.

27363681150_a1cec05000_kNo complaints about the stadium itself. It’s well designed and access to all parts was easy. We did feel a little out-of-place not wearing green or white. The atmosphere was superb with both sets of fans singing their hearts out. No issues here with fans of opposite sides mingling. The game itself wasn’t the best with Poland easily the better side with the Irish appearing to freeze on the day. Full-back  Conor McLaughlin had a shocker, frequently out of position and conceding both possession and free kicks. The much-lauded Polish forward line looked lively but Lewondowski looked disinterested for long periods of time, acting as if he was above his team mates.

The goal was inevitable. The Poles possession built as the game went on and finally it paid off as the highly rated Milik struck in the 51st minute, his shot passing through a group of players, with McGovern in the Irish goal only able to get fingertips to the shot but not enough to divert it wide. The response from the Irish fans was to turn the noise up a notch but the team couldn’t match their enthusiasm. An opening game defeat is not the end of the world in this tournament – all eyes would now be on whether Germany could beat Ukraine.

We had hoped that they’d driven the buses up the empty road to load the fans but alas that wasn’t in the folder marked “sensible plans for Euro16”, so we walked back to the pick up point 30 minutes away. The process their wasn’t too bad as the walk meant fans had spaced out and we were in a bus and away within a minute.

Most bars had set up TVs outside so we had a top spot to enjoy the Germany game complete with a decent bottle of red and a pizza the size of Monaco. Again, fans mixed without any problems at all – Nice 1 Marseille 0.

So it had been an interesting trip – it’s fair to say armed with the knowledge of what might happen with regards to flashpoints and strikes nothing had been too surprising. Knowing where to not go was more important on Saturday and we sat in blissful ignorance (well apart from the constant Social Media updates!) enjoying the sunshine and the real Marseille. The trouble in the stadium on Saturday now means UEFA have to act rather than shrugging their shoulders and saying “not our problem” with the events in the Old Port area of Marseille. The two stadiums have been impressive, the access to the Stade de Nice less so but what do UEFA really care about that? We now sit and wait to see what happens later in the week, hoping there’s something still standing for my last two games in the tournament in Lens and Lille next week.