The Football Tourist 2: The Second Half


Football is the world’s game. Wherever you are on earth there will be a group of players, a ball and a pitch. Stuart Fuller has set out to find as many as possible. In this second volume, Stuart casts the net wider than ever before, taking in games on four different continents. Be it popular European destinations in Germany and Belgium, getting lost trying to find a game in Hong Kong, or waiting for a referee to cross the Spain-Gibraltar border, Stuart makes the trip so that you don’t have to. Part travelogue, part love letter to the beautiful game, this book is a must for any aspiring football tourist.

An excerpt from Chapter 8 – Gibraltar – New kids on the Rock

“Some years ago I came up with a brilliant idea for a TV show. It would be a six-part, travelogue around the smallest nations in Europe watching football. On my way I would take in the local culture, and, of course, the local food. A camera crew would follow me from the airport as I experienced such cultural highpoints as Lichtenstein’s false teeth museum, San Marino’s homage to medieval torture, and the bar in Malta where Oliver Reed fell off his bar stool for the last time; a sort of cross between Michael Palin, Alan Whicker, and James Richardson. It was a certain winner, so I sat back and waited for the bidding war to start. Six months after my letters were dispatched I hadn’t had one single reply. Not even UK Conquest were interested, and they bought the rights to Howards Way. But I wasn’t going to be beaten and set off on a journey across Europe.

IMG_7680The Super Cup in Monaco, sitting next to Gerard Houllier as AC Milan beat Porto, arriving by helicopter from Nice Airport was nice. Staying in the same 5 star hotel as Sepp Blatter, in Lichtenstein, prior to their game against Turkey was good. Seeing San Marino come within 15 seconds of grabbing their first ever point in a major tournament qualifying against Latvia, and then enjoying a treble-header in the national stadium in Malta, with the over-amorous wives of some of the players. Andorra passed without any incident which basically sums up the sleepiness of the principality. Then life got in the way.

Interest in finally completing the mission was peaked again in early 2014. I dusted down the draft proposal and prepared to finish off the job, as Gibraltar were finally being accepted into the world footballing family, and the British Overseas Territory would be number six on my list of the smallest footballing nations in Europe to visit.

Gibraltar has a population of just 30,000, about the same size as Lewes and Peacehaven put together. That makes supporting a football league quite difficult, tough. Add in the fact that there is only one stadium and you can start to see some of the problems they have to compete with. What it does mean though is, on any given weekend, you will always be able to find a game or six at the national stadium, the 2,000 capacity Victoria Stadium adjacent to the airport runway.

This season, as part of the benefits package they get from being in the UEFA-affiliated club, the winners of the Premier Division will get a place in the Champions League, well at least the extra-preliminary forgotten round of qualifying, where they will probably play the winner of the Andorran Lliga de Primera in June when football is a million miles from everyone’s thoughts.

Eight teams make up the Premier Division meaning that qualification for Europe, with a spot in the Champions League and Europa League is possible for all of the sides. All except one it seems.  With just over half of the season completed, one side sit all alone at the bottom of the league with a 100% loss record.  Gibraltar Phoenix were promoted last season but are almost nailed on certainties to go back to where they have come from at the end of the season. In their last two games they had the displeasure to face league-leaders Lincoln. The good news was that they did manage to score a goal, increasing their goals-for tally this season by an impressive 33%. Unfortunately, they managed to ship in a total of thirty-two goals at the other end. I was sold – I was heading to see Gibraltar Phoenix play. The question was – should I take my boots?

My friend Andy had bunked off work for an hour to pick me up in his British Jag, imported from the UK, to give me the 30 minute whistle-stop tour of the Rock. First up was a visit to Europa Point, the most southerly tip of Gibraltar and home to a bloody big gun and the Gibraltar Cricket Club. But not for much longer. If the Gibraltar Football Association get the funding this will be the location of the new 10,000 national stadium. Today it is a barren patch of very, very expensive land.

Andy used to call Cambridge home but he has now swapped that for the tax haven of Gibraltar. He lives in a flat with a view of the sea, overlooking the landing point where Nelson’s body was eventually brought to shore, spending his spare time sitting on his balcony watching the ships pass by. Not that it is all relaxation and cruising the roads of the Rock in his Jag. He sometimes has to work, wandering into the office in Ocean Village, overlooking the marina, O’Reilly’s Irish Bar and Gala Bingo. Tax-free beer did I hear you say?  Absolutely – £2 a pint if you please. Could life be any better? Well, throw in free Wi-Fi almost everywhere (which uses British IP addresses, thus you can use iPlayer and iTunes!), free car parking, free leisure activities and free football.

You would think that life here is idyllic, but there is the other side to being a tax-exile here.  As Andy said “Everything seems nice but if you take a closer look things are a bit crap”.  Projects would be started and grind to a halt or never get off the ground at all. It also appeared that it was incredibly expensive to live here. Accommodation (both permanent and temporary) across the border in La Linea was abundant and cheap, but the current strife with Spain meant it was impractical to commute across the border when delays could be up to two hours each way depending on the day of the week, the weather, or simply what had been on TV the night before.

Gibraltar Phoenix 0 College Europa 11 – Victoria Stadium – Friday 14th March 2014

According to the website this game was supposed to kick off at 8pm. I say “supposed” because we arrived late (around 8.15pm) and thus missed the start. But we soon smelt something fishy when the game appeared to be entering its 60th minute in the first half.  We eventually found a supporter who could shed some light on the delayed kick off, or at least this opinion.

“Referee lives in Spain doesn’t he? So he got delayed at the border. Game kicked off at 8.15pm”.

Fifteen minutes into the game and the score was still goalless. Whilst the home goal was being peppered with shots, only Phoenix keeper, Tito Podeta, stood in College Europa’s way.

It took a few words from the side lines before they finally opened the scoring. And once they had the flood gates opened.  One-nil (22 mins), two-nil (29 mins), three-nil (30 mins), four-nil (34 mins), five-nil (39 mins) and finally six-nil just before half-time.

Seven became eight and then nine, although there was an element of greed starting to creep in from the College players who frequently elected to take the ball themselves when their five man attack (everyone wanted a slice of the action) broke. An injury to one of the Phoenix players gave them a chance to have a breather (and in one case a quick puff on an inhaler).  With fifteen minutes to go Phoenix made their final substitution, taking off one of the more athletic players on the pitch and replacing them with a chap who had gloves on and had to hand his inhaler to the coach. Alas it didn’t do any good and, despite us willing them to score, all of the action was still at the other end as College Europa scored two more goals to make the final score eleven-nil. Quite what the score would have been if their keeper hadn’t played a blinder I don’t know, or if College had hit the target instead of striking the woodwork on six occasions.

Despite the final score you cannot fault the effort of the home side, especially the heroic performance of Podeta. It takes some bottle to take to the field every week knowing that you are likely to be on the end of another hiding.

I’m still waiting for someone, anyone to show some interest in my TV show.

The Football Tourist 2: The Second Half is available from Ockley Books priced £10.99.

Introducing “The Handful”


30472575510_055cfb20d1_kOne is one

Two is a brace

Three is a hatrick

Four is a haul

So how do you refer to someone who scores five in a game? I asked my esteemed colleagues from the Spanish and Belgian press who sat either side of me in the San Mamés stadium at full-time on Thursday night, but neither seemed to know either.  “A handful?” was the best we came up with as we headed down to the press conference to see if either manager knew….they didn’t.

The player in question was the veteran Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz who had just scored all five goals in the Europa League tie against KRC Genk.  Granted three had been penalty kicks, awarded by English referee Martin Atkinson, but Aduriz could and should have added a couple more.  He was simply head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch.

Let’s rewind a few hours to when I touched down at Bilbao Airport.  I’d replaced the standard English Autumnal fayre of “drizzle” with beautiful, hot sunshine.  For the second week in a row, I was going to be watching football somewhere that was officially “hotter than Greece”.  I was here in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe to visit the new San Mamés stadium for the first time, officially the 2015 Best Stadium in the World at the World Architectural Festival in Singapore no less as well as have an afternoon of bar hopping and sampling some Pintxos, the Basque version of Tapas that is taken so seriously in these parts.

I loaded up with some culture on arrival in the city centre, braving the 45 metre high Vizcaya Bridge walkway across the River Nervion and even went into the Guggenheim Museum, the focal point for all of the regeneration of the city.  I say “went in”, I just visited the gift shop, bought a fridge magnet and left.  I like a Van Gogh like the rest of you, but some of the more “abstract” pieces that were on display would just get me annoyed.  I remember visiting the museum with CMF for the first time 15 years ago and creating that family favourite game “Art or not”, where we tried to guess whether our concept of art, such as a fire extinguisher or a plug socket held as much merit as some of the exhibits.  Of course they did.

The opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 was the defibrillator that the region needed though. Over €500 million was generated for the region in just a few years as over 4 million tourists visited the museum. The regional council estimated that the money visitors spent on hotels, restaurants, shops and transport allowed it to collect €100 million in taxes, which more than paid for the building cost. In economic theory terms, the Return on Investment was bat-shit crazy and everyone benefited, whether it was the bars and restaurants who went Pintxos crazy, the regeneration projects along the Nervion River or the football club who eventually got to swap the historic, but very dated San Mamés stadium, for a stunning new version complete with retractable roof and 50,000+ seats.

30137706163_dd6feb0214_k

My afternoon was spent in a number of bars around the Old Town with a group of Genk fans who I had bumped into.  We traded football stories – me selling them the concept of the Lewes beach huts, them trying to explain how on earth the Belgian end of season Play-offs worked.  Two hours later, and several 7% plus beers down the line and I was still none-the-wiser. Last season’s eventual 4th place finish had been enough to see the club enter the Europa League where they made light work in qualifying to reach the group stages.  Two wins (both at home including a 2-0 victory over Athletic Club a few weeks ago) saw them top the group but with five of the six games in the group going with home advantage so far, a win for the home side could technically see them leapfrog Genk before the end of the night.

30141331984_6f2b21c887_kWe stopped off for a bit of a sing-song in Plaza Moyua in the heart of the city centre where the fans at least resisted the temptation to not do “an England” as one fan put it to me and jump in the fountain.  It was a very good-natured affair with some Athletic Club fans passing by stopping to share a drink and a chat in sign-language – a Limburgish dialect of Dutch and a local version of Basque made for an interesting mix.  The group started to migrate westwards a couple of hours before kick off along Gran Via and towards the stadium.  As we reached the inner ring road I headed right to find my hotel, which had inconveniently been built slap-bang next to the stadium.  Well, technically, the new stadium had been built next to it, almost within touching distance from my hotel room.

There’s something very satisfying about staying in a hotel so close to a ground.  For a start on a matchday the security on the door makes you feel like a VIP (unless you forget your room card as I did once at The Croke Park hotel in Dublin when the Irish hosted Italy and I had to wait for an hour to get back in), you also have that smug feeling when the full-time whistle blows that you will have a beer in your hand before most fans have made it onto a bus or a train and of course you can you the staple line when checking in of “is there a match on tonight?” – gets them every time.

30137697553_7f44587bb0_kRefreshed, revived and ready for action I picked up my accreditation, which simply referred to me as “The Football Tourist” and headed up to the press box ready to see if Athletic Club could get themselves back in the group or will the Belgians take a massive step towards qualification.

I would have imagined that a delegation from White Hart Lane had headed over to Bilbao to understand how the club built the new stadium whilst playing in the old one next door.  The old ground ran North to South, pressed up against Calles Des Briñas and the supporters bars opposite.  Construction on the new ground, which would run East to West started in 2010 after the demolition of the old Trade Fair site.  With three of the four sides constructed over the next few years whilst games continued in the old ground, the club was able to take up residence “next door” with the first game played there in September 2013.  They then demolished the old ground, finished off the east stand and today it is one of the finest sights in football, up there with the Allianz Arena in Munich or The Dripping Pan.

Athletic Club Bilbao 5 KRC Genk 3 – Estadio San Mamés – Thursday 3rd November 2016
Aduriz will of course grab all of the headlines for his five-star performance but Genk certainly played their part with a never say die attitude which up until the 90th minute saw them pressing for an equaliser.  English referee Martin Atkinson manage to award three penalties, by his own admission something he hadn’t done in a game for years, all of which were converted by the veteran Bilbao striker.

It wasn’t the best of games to start with to be honest, with neither team prepared to risk everything going forward.  The turning point came in the 8th minute with a goal of simplicity for the home side.  Cross from the left, nod back across the six yard box by Garcia and Aduriz nipped in and toe-poked it home.  One became two with the first penalty award in the 23rd minute after Muniain was tripped.  No complaints about the foul but Aduriz’s stutter in the run up to take the kick looked very much like it breached the new rules.  2-0

30736490366_3fc05340db_kFive minutes later and Genk, roared on by their fans get back into the game when the impressive Leon Bailey slots home after a neat through ball. 2-1.  García runs into the box and is blocked by a Genk defender.  Home fans appeal for a corner, Atkinson gives a penalty, with replays showing he got that spot on.  Aduriz steps up, stutters and sends the keeper the wrong way. 3-1.

Half-time and a chance to grab our breath.  Four goals, four booking.  Not bad entertainment.

The second half continued in the same vein.  Aduriz missed a golden opportunity in the first minute before Buffel turns the Athletic defence inside out, crosses to Ndidi and his header flies into the top corner.  3-2.

However, Genk can’t build on that goal and with fifteen minutes left Alvarez’s perfect ball between the centre-backs sees Aduriz race onto it and slot home for his fourth.  4-2.  But back come Genk, as Bailey goes on a mazy run and is thwarted as he is about to pull the trigger but the ball falls to Sušic who slots home. 4-3.

Athletic continue to press and could have quite easily added a fifth before in injury time Atkinson points to the spot again as Ndidi fouls the impressive Athletic substitute Williams and Aduriz does his thing again. 5-3 and full-time. Eight goals from just nine attempts on goal.  In the style of Opta Joe, “clinical”.

The win, coupled with the draw between Rapid Wein and Sussolo means that the four teams are separated by just 1 point with two games to play.  A win for Athletic in their final home game against the Italian’s, assuming they can avoid a heavy defeat in Vienna should be enough to see them through.

I sat in on the press conference, unable to understand a word but felt I should be there, before heading to one of the supporter’s bars opposite the stadium to join up with the Genks fans I’d met earlier.  They were disappointed with the result, blaming me as an Englishman because Martin Atkinson was English too.  Harsh. I told Atkinson that when I bumped into him at Bilbao airport the following morning, narrowly avoiding a booking for dissent.  The Spanish press certainly didn’t have a bad word to say about his performance, nor did they for Athletic Club’s best night in European football for many-a-year.

Bilbao is right up there with the best places to go to watch football in.  A cracking city that is certainly on the up with a vibrant bar scene, excellent food and some really genuine football fans.  The team is more than just a football club – it represents the hopes and beliefs of a whole region.  Some may question their policy of recruitment but it hasn’t done them bad so far and in year’s to come with the new stadium generating more revenue opportunities perhaps they can break the dominance of Real and Barca in Spain.  Without hope we have nothing.

 

The tide has turned


Michelle: What do you prefer? Astroturf or grass?
Rodney: I don’t know, I’ve never smoked AstroTurf

It’s been almost ten years since I started The Ball is Round.  Back in 2006 I was at my Football Tourist peak, dashing off to somewhere new almost every other week.  European football was opening up for us all with the Internet giving us the answers to the important questions about local public transport and ticket buying procedures, whilst budget airlines seemed to be falling over themselves to open up more exotic routes.  It was certainly the golden age to be a fan of football rather than just being a football fan.

Today the mystery and glamour of the Eternal Derby (take your pick between Rome, Belgrade and Sarajevo) has been well and truly debunked thanks to Social Media.  We’ve all stood on the Sud Tribune at the Westfalonstadion in Dortmund, right?  Or been hit by a toilet brush as the Spakenburg derby.  European football no longer holds any surprises.

So in some ways the purpose of The Ball is Round has diminished, or rather our objectives have been achieved.  I hope that we’ve helped a few people discover there is more to life that Sky Sports and the sanitised Premier League.  We’ve all grown a little bit older and when I meet the few bloggers who were still around a decade ago, we no longer talk about daily website hits or #FFs.  Those who are still left write because they love to write not for any commercial gain.

My day to day work has become all-consuming.  My writing has had to take on a more serious tone about intellectual property infringements (with the occasional slant towards football such as this white paper published this year) rather than the slant I have taken before on the beautiful game.  Virtually all of my “golden generation” peers have quit or have severely reduced their output, beaten into submission by the need to cover every Premier League team/player/story from a “new angle”.  The likes of Danny Last, Damon Threadgold, Kenny Legg (3 of the 5 who along with David Hartrick and I put together the 500 Reasons to Love Football website) and Andy Hudson have all given up their writing.  I blame Leicester City – after their achievement last season there is nothing left to write about football.

My role at Lewes FC has also meant I have had to smooth the edges to some of the things I have written about in the past.  Putting anything controversial into a blog could land me with a “bringing the game into disripute” charge by the FA.

So whilst the words may become further spaced out, I haven’t yet fully given up the ghost.  Yesterday, for instance, saw Lewes travel to local rivals Eastbourne Borough, for a Pre-Season Friendly.  One of the perks of being Chairman is you do get access to almost part of the game.  So instead of a predictably mundane match report from our 2-0 defeat on Boro’s new 3G pitch (hence the classic quote at the start from “Go West My Son”, one of the first episodes of Only Fools and Horses), here’s a few “behind the scenes” pictures instead.  If you are really interested in reading my match report then go wild here.

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!

The Seven Year Itch and how England can’t scratch it


After the short hop across the Channel to Lens on Tuesday I was heading back again a few days later to visit Lille for the fifth Second Round game of Euro16. I was thankful to Dan for this one, not only sorting the ticket for the game but also arranging a lift there and back. Can’t grumble at that I thought.

Whilst we left these green and pleasant lands at a time where most sensible people would be just getting in from a decent night out. The warm glow of a beautiful sunrise was replaced with rain as we parked up near the stadium. We had seven hours to kill before the game. My last trip to this fantastic city was on a fact-finding visit back in November 2014. Along with my brother we “researched” more than a dozen bars, a couple of restaurants and a souvenir shop – well at some point I’d bought a number of gifts for the family anyway. It’s fair to say that Lille has some decent bars.

27822919522_3852582bfd_kAlas, with Dan and Neil on driving duty and Brian not a drinker, revisiting the best bars wasn’t going to be an option so we went with the eat ourselves silly option, swiftly following breakfast with lunch, sticking our fingers up to those who insist on mixing the two as “brunch”. One bowl of “meat”, with a couple of token potatoes thrown in later we headed to the Fanzone to watch the France v Ireland game just as the rain started falling. Whilst unsurprisingly the French outnumbered the Irish fans significantly, the presence of hundreds of Belgians gave some voice to the underdogs as they took a second minute lead.

We departed at half time for the tram ride to the stadium, thankfully missing the insufferable moments when France scored two quick goals to seal their place in the Quarter-Final in six days time in Paris against England. I mean, we were hardly likely not to beat Iceland were we?

I’d been to the Stade Pierre Mauroy once before, where I’d seen one of the worst games of football in my life. A Champions League game against Valencia on a freezing cold December night, where the Lille Fans either stayed away under protest or sat in complete silence. 9/10 for the impressive stadium, 1/10 for the atmosphere.

27646072240_495dcef5b9_kThis was going to be different. The stadium was of course officially full, but tickets could be bought all along the walk from 4 Cantons metro stop, whilst inside the ground hundreds of empty seats shouted loudly. Not that they needed to. The upbeat opening ceremony gave way to a huge flag covering the lower tier of the German fans, reminding us as if we’d forgotten that they were world champions. Could they add a long-overdue European Championship to their list of international honours? They’d have to be in their best form to beat a hard-working Slovakian side that’s for sure….well, that’s what we thought as the game kicked off anyway.

Germany 3 Slovakia 0 – Stade Pierre Mauroy – Sunday 26th June 2016
Seven years ago this week England were stuffed 4-0 by Germany in the final of the UEFA Under21s championship in Malmö. The team under Stuart Peace’s guidance were strongly tipped for the tournament and won the group which featured Germany, Spain and Finland. After a dramatic 3-3 draw with the hosts Sweden in Malmö, England did something rare – they won a penalty shoot out but it came at a cost. Joe Hart picked up a second booking of the competition for “sledging” the Swedish penalty takers and missed the final. Despite his absence, England were strong favourites to lift the trophy for the first time in twenty-five years.

Alas the final turned out to be a nightmare for the Englishmen. I sat in the press area on that night in Malmö and saw the technical brilliance from the Germans. Their strength came from the core of the starting XI supplemented by a play maker who looked head and shoulders above every other player on the pitch despite his diminutive stature.
Our side that night includes names that today have long since drifted down the leagues. Loach, Cranie, Onuoha and a certain Adam Johnson. The one player in the starting XI who played in EURO16 was James Milner, although captain Mark Noble undoubtedly had his best ever Premier League season last year but was not even considered.

Perhaps the fact that Germany still has nearly five times as many qualified UEFA A coaches is part of the reason (or that our FA charge ten times as much for the course as the German FA do) or the availability of training facilities?  Whatever the reason it seems that in ten years time we will still be posing the same questions though.

27687060060_c31dbcf098_kGermany simply took apart a Slovakian team that had been a match for England just a few days previous and had actually beaten Germany 3-1 in Augsburg just four weeks previous. Over half of that side that played in Malmö in June 2009 graced the pitch in Lille seven years later. Goalkeeper Neuer is recognised as one of the best in the world today, the strong centre-back pairing of Hummels and Boetang (replaced towards the end of the game by Höwedes) and a central midfield duo of Khedira and that play maker, Mesut Özil. Those six took home winners medals that night in Malmö as well as the ultimate prize in world football, a FIFA World Cup winners medal in 2014 where only Khedira didn’t start in the final against Argentina after picking up an injury in the warm-up.

An early goal, drilled home from the edge of the box by Jérôme Boetang, settled their nerves. Özil missed a penalty ten minutes later after Šrktel had committed one of those fouls we see go unpunished every week in regular football but Mario Gomez gave the Germans a two-goal half time advantage after a superb run by the impressive Draxler (player of the tournament so far according to Lolly although I don’t think that’s anything to do with his incisive passing abilities).

27312500164_518770b9e5_kDraxler completed the scoring with a smart finish from a knock-down just after the hour mark, confirming the Germans as the favourites to win the tournament although a tricky tie against the winner of Spain and Italy lay ahead.

I’d like to say our journey home was as smooth as that on the way out. For the second time in a week, a “technical problem” and “enhanced security checks” at the Channel Tunnel resulted in a five-hour wait at Calais. It’s fair to say that a few thousand people are unlikely to use the Chunnel every again based on that experience. At 4.30am I finally got home. I had an hour turn around before heading to the airport for Helsinki. What could possibly go wrong watching our game v Iceland in a bar full of Scandinavians??

Young Turks bounce the Czechs


My original ticket application for the European Championships was divided into two distinct trips that would essentially have taken in a game in every venue, working my way up the country with a small break in the middle. Five years ago, whilst travelling between Trnava in Slovakia and Budapest, the idea of touring France had first been discussed. During the course if the evening we’d decided to buy an old London double-decker bus, do it up with sleeping quarters upstairs and a bar downstairs. What more could we want.

There were a couple of stumbling blocks. First there was the small matter of finding £30,000 for a bus. Surely a company out there would want to sponsor us? A brewery for instance? I’m sure that Meantime and Fullers will one day answer but it’s a big too late. Then there was the issue of driving. It was great that Danny, Deaksy and Stoffers contributed to the idea but none of them could contribute to the actual driving. I didn’t really want to be the Reg Vardy of the group if truth be told. Finally, there was the issue of trying to get tickets for the games we wanted.

When the original ticket allocations were announced our hopes of a Summer Holiday were dashed. Two tickets for two games over a week apart at opposite ends of the country put pay to our great ideas.

So after the trip to the chic and sunny Riviera I was now heading to the gloomy coal fields of Pas-des-Calais swapping the Promenade des Anglais for the slag heaps of Lens, with the ginger bearded wonder James Boyes at my side.

27215898903_8900ba26c3_kDespite the industrial hinterland, for football lovers you can’t go wrong with a visit to Lens. There’s no surprise that the town, where the whole population could fit into the football ground and still have a few spares, is a favourite when tournaments come a-knocking. And not just football either – the Stade Bollaert-Delelis has hosted games in the Rugby World Cup (twice) too. It is one of the most atmospheric grounds in France, built in a style not too dissimilar to Villa Park or a slim-downed St James’ Park (Newcastle United not Exeter City), which rocks on a match day.

27827478225_89d987786c_kA few years ago I read a story about the number of English-based fans who had season tickets for RC Lens. Fed up of the spiralling cost of tickets for the sanitised Premier and Football League games, groups of fans realised that it was cheaper and in some cases, quicker to head across the Channel and watch their football. From leaving TBIR Towers the 116 mile drive took around 3 hours including the time on Eurotunnel and cost less than £80. Add in a season ticket in the Delacourt Stand behind the goal at a ridiculous €125 for the 19 league games and you have a great day out.

The ground is not only really easy to find but also has plenty of street parking within a ten minute walk. We dropped the car off and headed into the town centre to find a spot to watch whether Northern Ireland could upset the odds and get a result from their game against Germany. There aren’t many drinking options in Lens and even less that had a TV so we attempted to go into the Fanzone.

If you want evidence that the pen is mightier than a sword then go and visit the UEFA Fanzone in Lens. Anyone trying to enter the area with such offence weapons as a pen, an iPad mini or even a keyfob with a badge on will be denied entry. Six foot flag pole? Come on in sir! Of course, I may have been singled out by a West Ham (key fob), technophobe who favoured the quill but I doubt it. I was denied entry, much to the amusement of James, and the chap who managed to sneak in a pack of beers whilst the stewards attention was drawn to my pen. Another example of the head-scratching, juxtaposing, randomness of everyday life in France.

27793098506_aa7c1942f5_kFortunately we found a bar that had converted it’s back yard into a “stadium”, as the signs read. The rows of plastic chairs were hardly The Emirates but it did the job and provided shelter from the impending doom that the dark clouds overhead were threatening before we headed to the stadium. Both sets of fans mingled without any sign of any problems whilst hundreds of individuals lined the route back to the stadium trying to sell spare tickets – it was certainly a buyers market with some fans who were prepared to hold their nerve being able to pick up a bargain as kick off approached. Once again, entry into the ground was swift with little regard paid to the contents of my bag (the lethal pen, mini iPad and key fob) or any checks on whether I was the named individual on the ticket (I was).

The two sets of fans were giving it their all in the build up to kick off. Both could still progress even though they only had one point between them such was the complexity and confused caused by the third place situation with a win, although based on their poor showing in their opening two games the odds were stacked against the Turks. But perhaps their fans could lift them at the eleventh hour and give them a chance of a few more days in the competition?

Czech Republic 0 Turkey 2 – Stade Bollaert-Delelis – Tuesday 21st June 2016
It wasn’t just the Turks who were dancing in the streets of Lens at the full-time whistle. The two-nil win meant that Northern Ireland would also progress to the second round joining the Turks who simply blew the Czech Republic away in a performance that was up there with the best in the tournament.

27215895593_587672d0bf_kIt took just ten minutes for the Turks to take the lead. The impressive Arda Turan played in young full-debutant Emre Mor down the right and his perfect cross was met at the near post by Burak Yilmaz to fire home, giving Petr Cech no chance. The celebrations both on and off the pitch were fuelled as much by relief as delight – the Turks had been disappointing up until this point on the tournament.

The Czechs immediately responded. Tomas Sivok powered a header from a corner against the base of the post, full-back Pavel Kadeřábek wasted a couple of good chances and Jaroslav Plašil seeing a vicious long-ranger tipped over the bar. But they were ultimately undone by a second goal from Turkey scored in the Ozan Tufan in the 65th minute, smashing the ball home after the Czechs couldn’t clear their lines.

The Turkish fans at the far end responded by lighting flares. Not just one but at one point we counted eleven. A number of Turkish players ran to the crowd to plead with the fans but they needn’t have worried – UEFA appear to have turned a blind eye to the incident despite once again it underlined the appalling lax security on getting into the ground. I’m sure if the incident was reported it would have been blamed in England fans.

27215917043_dcf391b7cb_kThe atmosphere for the whole games was up there with the best I’ve experienced. Two hours of intense noise. I had to drag James away at the end – being a Man United fan he’s not used to an atmosphere. Seventy five minutes after leaving the ground we arrived at the terminal at Calais.

“Where have you been lads?” Asked the UK Border Guard.

“Footballing heaven”…..

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.