All that glitters certainly isn’t gold


It is a clear free-kick on the edge of the Inter Milan box.  25 yards out, dead centre and ten world-class players queueing up to create some magic.  86,000 fans wait expectantly.  The stadium all of a sudden lights up with tens of thousands of mobile phones, trained on the pitch, the owners of them choosing to view the incident through a small screen rather than with their own eyes.  Welcome to Modern Football.

IMG_3771

It was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss.  A major industry event in Barcelona coinciding with Barcelona’s Champions League tie against Inter Milan.  I wasn’t the only one who had the same idea and almost everyone I bumped into during the day around the conference centre mentioned they were heading to the Camp Nou for the game.

For many of them, especially our cousins from across the Atlantic, would be attending their first ever game.  For me it was Charlton Athletic versus Burnley at a decaying Valley back in 1974, so a visit to Europe’s biggest stadium isn’t a bad way to lose your cherry.

For the club, European games are a gold-mine for the club.  With season tickets not valid for these games, it is all pay and with so much demand for seats, the club set the price high….eye-watering, vertigo-inducing high.  By the time I bought my ticket I paid €109 for a place in the top tier, almost closer to the stars than the gutter.

IMG_4486

As you climb up towards the Gods you see that the Camp Nou is far from a world-class stadium behind the veneer.  The stairwells are cramped and show their age – some parts of the stadium haven’t been touched since 1982.  Whilst there are plans in place for an upgrade and expansion of the stadium in the near future, today it is light-years away from the image of the club on the pitch.  At half-time fans have to queue on stairways to get a drink or something to eat, with the narrow concourses dangerously overcrowded.

The seating areas are basic to say the least.  Seats exposed to the hot Catalan sunshine have faded over time, offer little leg-room and are exposed to the elements.  It’s hardly any different to the San Siro, the Stade de France or Stadio Olimpico.  But few who visit care, they are here to watch the magic on the pitch..in theory.

I took my seat just as the teams came out on the pitch.  My first sign of the demographic of the fans around me was when the club anthem, Cant del Barca, fired up.  All around me the phones came out, videoing the scene.

The couple in front of me settled down for the next 90 minutes.  Each of them had a carton of popcorn and got their phones out.  As the game started he pressed the record button on his phone, she fired up her Netflix app and started watching ‘The Good Place”.  Welcome to the world of the Modern Football Fan.

Resplendent in their £70 shirts (or £99 if you want the ‘vapour’ version whatever that is) and half/half scarves, they are the perfect fans for Barca.  Spending close to £500 on a single visit to the Camp Nou is what Modern Football is all about.  Popcorn-eating, Netflix-watching fans who actually don’t care what happens on the pitch but have at least Instagramed their visit and ticked off another tourist destination.

The free-kick in question caused quite a stir.  Not for the quality of the strike but for the tactic used by the visitors in laying a player on the floor to stop the genius of a free-kick hit low to take advantage of the jumping wall.  The fan in front captured the moment on his phone and replayed the moment first to himself and then to his non-interested girlfriend, missing the resulting corner and goal-line clearance.

I’m sure my neighbours aren’t unique either in the Camp Nou or in most other major stadiums in Europe.  The huge increase in commercial and TV revenues now means major clubs and their stars are as big as movie stars, and people are prepared to pay top dollar to watch them.  That means clubs are prepared to price-out some of their traditional, loyal fans who turn up close to kick-off, don’t spend in the club shop or overpriced concessions stands.  Unfortunately, that is Modern Football.

As a self-appointed Football Tourist I have nothing against the sentiment of travelling around the world to watch football, but that is what it should be – watching football.  Not watching football through a lens, or watching US hit TV shows.

 

Advertisements

Be careful what you wish for would-be Premier League clubs


Over the weekend I had a lively debate with a Wolverhampton Wanderers-supporting friend who was venting his anger that eight out of their first ten games in 2019 would be moved for TV purposes. My argument was that he should have known what he had signed up for at the start of the season. Whilst Wolves are the current ‘fad’ club, fuelled by significant overseas investment from a long line of messiah’s who would make the club “the biggest in the world” within a few years.

For all we know, Fosun International’s claims may be right. Wolves fans, who have suffered years of boom and bust (significantly more of the latter than the former), are quite rightly full of beans at the moment, blinkered to the pit-falls of their owners current strategy. Unfortunately, they are in a crowded race of other high net-worth club owners, all trying to make their club the biggest in the world.

Few football fans or commentators would have predicted Manchester United’s current predicament of looking at a League Cup trophy as a good return from their season, but they are now behind their “noisy” neighbours in terms of on and off field success. Who would have seen that a decade ago? And it’s not just City. Add in Chelsea and a resurgent Liverpool. Spurs new stadium could see them finally make the step up to that level too. West Ham, with their 50,000+ stadium they play at for a hugely subsidized fee, could potentially move into that elite category if they find owners who are willing to invest in the squad.

Why? Why are wealthy individuals investing in clubs? Whilst fans may believe it is to deliver on-field success, at the end of the day it is simply an investment, one which they expect to grow substantially over time. Part of that growth is based on success on the field, but the English Premier League is like no other – it is the potential returns off the pitch that fuels that interest.

Most clubs now make more money from TV than from gate receipts, which in its most basic form means that the fans have become less important than the TV slot, which is why you won’t see club owners complaining when they have to play on a Friday night 250 miles away. There will be some noises made about “the difficult journey for our loyal fans” but no one involved is prepared to go out on a limb and say “no”.

So, the situation for clubs like Wolves, or further down the leagues, Leeds United won’t get better any time soon. Success on the pitch means compliance off it. But what if there was no TV revenue of substance? To understand a little how that would look fly 1,375 miles east to Belarus.

In the next few weeks Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electronics, or BATE as they are more commonly known, should wrap up their 13th consecutive title, a European record also held by Norway’s Rosenberg. The former works team from Belarusian’s biggest tractor manufacturer rose to become the biggest club in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1992. Dinamo Minsk, funded as most other “Dinamo” clubs within the Soviet Union by the Military, were the biggest club and had won the Soviet Championship back in 1992 but since then their dominance has waned and in 1996 the company, and consequently, the football team were taken over by successful businessman Anatoli Kapski. A decade later and the club had retained their title at the start of their record-breaking run.

That initial investment happened at the right time as other clubs struggled to find their feet in Belorussia’s post-independent world, whilst money started to flow from UEFA and their commercial partners into European competition. As each season passed and BATE celebrated another title, the prize money from their forays into Europe got bigger and bigger, which in turn saw them build a stronger and stronger squad.

They became the first, and only Belarusian side to feature in the Champions League Group Stages, a feat they have repeated on four occasions and can include wins against Roma, Bayern Munich and Athletic Bilbao. Each game played in the competition just adds another obstacle to the remaining teams back in the Belarusian Football League.

Without meaningful domestic TV money, no other club stands a chance of competing in the foreseeable future. This is the alternative scenario for fans who feel that the TV companies have too much influence over the Premier League. I’m sure there will come a time when Dinamo Brest, owned by Middle Eastern company Sohra, will challenge for the title but until then, domestic fans will have to make do with the odd domestic cup and a long-shot at the Europa League.

So, what do we want? The devil or the deep blue sea?

Many thanks to Steve Menary for his excellent background on BATE in October’s When Saturday Comes.

Premier League football German-style


It’s 5pm on a beautiful Wednesday evening in early August and the FC Kaiserslautern team bus is slowly maneuvering itself down a lane not really wide enough of a Smart car in the heart of Saarland, South-West Germany.  Die Roten Tuefel, or the Red Devils, may have arrived in style but a few hours later they will leave with their forked tails between their legs.  Whilst the team who took the 3G surface in Wiesbach may not have been the Red Devils first XI, this was a competitive game and one that would still embarrass the management of one of Germany’s founding members of the Bundesliga.

Shaun Harvey and the management of the EFL must look longingly at Germany (and Spain) and see how the top flight teams are allowed to enter their reserve sides into the competitive league structure.  Of course there are rules around who they can and cannot field, as well as a rule that means they can never be in the same division, but it is accepted here in a way that I doubt it could never be back in England.

FC Kaiserslautern’s reserve side play in the fifth tier of German football, the Oberliga.  Those of you with O-Level German will know that ‘Ober’ in German means ‘upper’, so Oberliga literally means ‘the top league’ or as we would call it The Premier League (well, until the marketing men took their millions for coming up with EPL).  Confused?  Yep, me too.

Werder Bremen had the highest placed reserve team, last season playing in the Bundesliga III but relegation back in May meant they will be in the Regionalliga along with the stiffs from 18 other Bundesliga I and II clubs.  Step down one more level and you will find a host of others including Kaisersluatern II, now playing in the Oberliga Rheinland-Pfalz/Saar along with clubs such as BFV Hassia Bingen, TSV Schott Mainz and today’s hosts, Hertha Wiesbach.

One way to look at the similarities between the respective step 5 leagues in the English and German footballing pyramids is average attendances.  The Conference Premier/National League in England has some clubs who have certainly had better days such as Leyton Orient, Chesterfield and Wrexham but their core support hasn’t disappeared as they’ve headed down the pyramid.  Last season the National League had an average attendance of 2,048 with three clubs (the aforementioned Leyton Orient and Wrexham, plus promoted Tranmere Rovers) averaging over 4,000. Compare that to the Oberliga, which had an average of just 289, with only two clubs out of the 14 leagues with average attendances over 1,000 (FC 08 Homburg and SC Borussia 04 Fulda in case you wanted to know).

Facilities at this level are probably on a par with England’s Step 5 or 6.  Hertha Wiesbach’s ProWin Stadion was situated in a small valley, with steep hills rising behind the club house and the main stand – perfect on a hot, summer’s night but treacherous I would imagine come the winter.  Their 3G pitch provides a facility for the local community, whilst the club-house was advertising a number of events over the coming weeks. Oh, and being Germany, you could have a beer whilst standing on the hill watching the game, trusted that you wouldn’t start a Mexican Wave or some Icelandic Clap.

On the pitch it is a different matter – the Step 5 teams here in Germany certainly looked technically as good as our National League, if not better.  The home side blew the famous visitors aside, scoring three second-half goals as Kaiserslautern wilted in the sunshine (and bizarrely only arrived with two on the bench).  The win, lifted the home side to top of the table, with a 100% record after three league games and no goals conceded.

There can be few better ways to spend a hot Summer’s evening than watching football, beer and sausage in hand and Wiesbach delivered on every level.  I wasn’t the only one who left with a spring in my step, with the knowledge that David had sort of got one over on Goliath, albeit Goliath’s little brother, Bob.

Thankfully the 6.30pm kick-off meant that as I headed south-wards towards my hotel for the night, I drove right past (OK, so there was a 2.5km detour) the Sportplatz Papiermühle (or Paper Mill Sportsfield), where the second half between SPV Dillingen and SV Engers 07, also in the Oberliga Rheinland-Pfalz/Saar was just kicking off.  The ground wasn’t too dissimilar to the ProWin Stadion, with one low-level clubhouse with standing in front.  A similar demographic of fan was watching this one, albeit with contrasting fortunes to the first match as unbeaten Engers ran out 4-0 winners.

Not a bad evening all being told.  Just like there’s some real gems in and around the Non-League scene in England, seek and you shall find beauty in the most unlikely of places in Germany too.

It’s better to travel in hope than not to travel at all


Watching the great Dynamo Tblisi team of the early 1980’s is one of my foremost footballing memories.  This piece, written in March 2010 captured the trials and tribulations of “exotic” travel thirty five years ago.

We take travel today with a pinch of salt.  Budget airlines have opened up a world we would have never seen and thanks to this t’internet thing we can now get independent reviews, photos and even videos of hotels, bars and restaurants around the world all from the safety of our DFS sofa.  But can you remember what it was like to travel thirty years ago?  Sure you had your package deals with DanAir or British Caledonian, somehow managing to get off the ground and heading for the cultural high points of Majorca and the Costa Brava but what would it have been like to make a trip behind the Iron Curtain?

Having travelled a few times to the ex-Soviet states I know how hard it is today to get a visa, fill in the landing card and remember to keep enough dollars spare for the inevitable bribes for standing in the wrong place, or taking a picture of some government building.  Take this experience back to the early 1980’s when the Red Machine was in full effect and Russia was an almost closed country.  But football has always been a universal language, crossing even the most difficult borders and with three European football competitions every season it was inevitable that every so often our brave boys would have to experience a slice of life in the Eastern Bloc.

In March 1981 in the middle of their record-breaking promotion season, West Ham United headed off to Tblisi, capital of the Soviet region of Georgia to play the second leg of their European Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final.  It was never going to be an easy trip as Liverpool had found a few years before in the European Cup, but to go there on the back of a 4-1 defeat and just four days after a League Cup Final appearance at Wembley it was always going to be a tough trip.

But there is tough, and there is tough. Whilst the club had known that Tbilisi would be their opponents at this stage for some time, the winter break had made it almost impossible for the Hammers to find out much about their opponents before the home tie.  They had been given a brief scouting report by Waterford Town, who had played them in a previous round and Liverpool who had lost there in the European Cup the previous year suggested not to go at all!  The club found some help from unlikely sources.

The London Correspondent for TASS, the Soviet news agency had a friend who supported the club and managed to send over some videos of the team, plus a Swedish based journalist whose company had daily Russian newspapers was able to translate a few things relevant to the tie.  “Latin flair in lifestyle and play” he wrote on one memo to West Ham.  In the same report, published in the West Ham programme for the game that Russian football was not like our own game.  It was in fact much more controlled and regimented.  For instance, none of this playing for a draw every week – once a team had drawn 10 games in a season they simply got no more points from drawn games.  And penalties handed out to players were incredibly harsh.  A player who showed dissent to a referee could expect a 10 game ban, and feigning injury or time wasting a 3 game ban…..so what went wrong?

Most West Ham fans who turned up on Wednesday 4th March 1981 at Upton Park had never heard of any of the Russians and probably expected another easy home win, which they had become accustomed to during the season.  However, Tbilisi came to London with a squad full of class. Ten full Russian Internationals and four players who had represented their country at the Olympic Games the previous summer.  Included in this was Russian Football of the Year for 1978 Ramaz Shengelia, described in the match day programme as “fast and always on the move”, and the captain of the side, Aleksandr Chivadze.

At the time I was a promising young striker, happily banging in 4 or 5 goals a week at schoolboy level, but it is fair to say that on that March night I wanted to be like Chivadze from that moment on.  He had been voted Russian Player of the Year in 1980, beating Oleg Blokhin by some 80 votes from the Russian sports journalists and had become one of only a few footballers ever profiled by Pravda – the modern day equivalent of featuring in Tatler I would assume.  In a recent game against world champions Argentina, the world cup winning captain Daniel Pasarella had been quoted saying Chivadze would “grace any footballing nation”.  He was the best thing since sliced beetroot in the Soviet Union AND was clever to boot, studying for an Economics degree whilst playing for Dinamo.

It seemed that all attacks stemmed from Aleksandr bringing the ball out of defence.  He swayed past Trevor Brooking and rang rings around Alan Devonshire.  David “Psycho” Cross, at that moment the leading scorer in all of the English leagues may as well have been on a beach in Magaluf – he simply did not get a sniff out of Chivadze.

Chivadze opened the scoring in the game, starting and finishing a move that swept from one end of the pitch to another.  A second followed from Gutsaev before half time but the near 35,000 had seen enough to realise that the Hammer’s European adventure would go no further.  Cross pulled one back after the break but Shengelia added two more to put the Russians out of sight.  At full time, to a man the West Ham fans applauded Dinamo off the pitch, rubbing their eyes at what they had seen.

“I think West Ham underestimated us but even by our standards, that was a very special performance. We had 11 players playing at their best” said coach Nodar Achalkatsi after the game whilst John Lyall could only comment that “if you are going to lose then you want to lose to a team like Dinamo.”

Only a couple of journalists made the trip out to Georgia after the first leg result, giving the Hammers very little chance of overturning the 4-1 deficit and their brief reports simply focused on the 1-0 win rather than the trip itself. A few Hammers fans made the trip, and with their reputation preceding them were surrounded by hundreds of soldiers for their time in the Georgian capital. Very little was ever heard about their trip, but fortunately, West Ham’s Club Doctor, Dr Gordon Brill wrote a report for his diary.  Below is an extract, published in West Ham United’s official programme in April 1981:-

“In retrospect, we cannot be sure which (if either) reflected the true situation, because the 27-hour “outward bound” venture contained so many incidents that we were beginning to feel like James Bonds of soccer.

The almost incredible snags which interrupted schedules, frayed tempers and brought physical discomforts to many were eventually overcome thanks to the bonhomie and mutual co-operation of the 40-odd members of the official party.

Stories filtered out of the plight of our squad in Moscow Airport.  This included the fact that it took approximately one hour to obtain permission to leave a departure compound in order to visit the toilet some 20 yards away under the vigilant eye of four strategically placed guards, visibly equipped with walkie-talkies.  The rules were “go one by one, and the second cannot go until the first one comes back”.  It was just as well that during the preceding four hours at the immigration desks most of the party had only been able to grab a small beer or a coffee.

Eventually, after three passport checks of anything up to 15 minutes per person, and two close scrutinies of every piece of luggage it was decided that we should stay at a hotel overnight.  Fortunately permission was obtained for some food to be unloaded (after a specially convened doctor’s certificate was signed), but unfortunately our baggage containing the grub was back on the plane and could not be unloaded – so it took a whip round on what was in everyone’s hand luggage to provide some sustenance.

The efforts of our catering team produced a meal in the airport  restaurant and we arrived at the hotel around 2am GMT.

Orders were for an 8am alarm call in preparation for a 9am departure on the second leg to Tblisi.  Those above the third floor had a cold water shower and a lucky few found some coffee and stale rolls in the restaurant during a further wait until 11am when the bus eventually arrived for the five minute back to the Airport.

We eventually took off just after noon and arrived in the Georgian capital at 4pm local time.  Our hosts had literally been awaiting us since the previous night with no word on our whereabouts.

From thence on it was roses all the way.  Our hosts catered for our needs and entertainment in various ways.  For the players it was training in the Olympic stadium – indeed being allowed to use the Dinamo Sports Science Complex – a real honour for the club.

The match is dealt with elsewhere but a 1-0 victory for the Hammers was a great result, although it was the Russians who went through on aggregate.

And then we came to the journey home.  We arrived at Tblisi airport to find that our plane was still some 1,500 miles away in Moscow.  Thanks to our hosts we at least had some food as they had given us all before we left, not knowing when our next meal would come from.  We were luckier this time at Moscow airport as it only took two and a half hours to be processed through a deserted airport, although a few questions arose over some of our declarations.

For instance Trevor Brooking’s “cash declaration” showed that he had more sterling to bring out than he brought in thanks to Trev’s card school win that took some careful explaining.

Twenty seven hours after we left we landed at Stansted airport in Essex, and with a day and a half until we faced Oldham Athletic.  The club would like to thank all those who helped make the 8,000 mile trip as smooth as possible, especially Tescos for kindly donating some steak for the players.”

An interesting summary of what travel was like then.  Dynamo went on to win the European Cup Winners Cup in that season before slowly fading into the background of Soviet football.   Chivadze stayed at Tbilisi his whole career, making nearly 350 appearances for them before going on to coach the Georgian national side on two separate occasions.

Footballers today with their private jets don’t know they are born and what happened to those disciplinary rules?  Can you imagine them in force today?  Ronaldo and Drogba would be permanently banned!  Can I have the number for FIFA please?

Taking road trips to the extremes


Last season only the brave band of the die-hard such as PJ, Gary, Deaksy and Cynical Dave headed to the Herne Bay and Ramsgate, Lewes’s two longest away trips (bar Guernsey of course!).  January’s not the best time to head to the Kentish coast but add in some fog and freezing conditions as well as a 7:45pm kick off time in the case of Herne Bay and you can understand why only a Ford Focus’ worth of away fans made the trip.

Whilst this year we at least had the privilege of heading to Herne Bay in August to kick off our campaign, our longest road trip to Ramsgate is once again in the cold and bleak winter.  The longest road-trip the Rooks have ever had to make was back in our brief sojourn in the Conference Premier when we had to take on Barrow AFC, a 700-mile round trip undertaken by just a dozen or so fans in March 2009.  But even our 212-mile round trip to the furthest point of South-East England this season pales into insignificance when you look at some of the other potential trips in Europe.

In the 2015/16 Champions League Group Stage Benfica had to travel to Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, just a short 7,717-mile midweek round trip.  It’s possible that this season the Kazakhstanis may be paired with fellow Portuguese side Marítimo, who based on Madeira some 4,500 miles away in a tie that would set a record for the furthest apart sides paired together in a European competition.

In the next few years that could possibly be broken again, if not absolutely smashed.  Russian side Luch-Energiya Vladivostok are banging on the door of the top flight whilst ongoing petitions from Greenland to be accepted into the UEFA on a similar basis to fellow constituent of the Kingdom of Denmark, Faroe Islands could see top club sides such as B-67 from Nuuk playing in the Champions and Europa League.  The distance from London to Vladivostok is 5,100 miles whilst to Nuuk is 2,100 miles.  From the two potential European outposts it is actually easier to fly across the International Date Line but is still nearly 3,000 miles.

The most extreme clubs who have played in European competition Norway’s Tromsø to the North who have played 27 UEFA home games at their Alfheim Stadium.  The city of Tromso’s coordinates are 69° 40′ 58″ N, which is inside the Arctic Circle

The most Southerly-based club to play in Europe has been Spain’s Las Palmas who have played five UEFA home games at their Estadio de Gran Canaria. Las Palmas lies in the Canary Islands, coordinates 28° 9′ 0″ N, which lie off the coast of Morocco and are further south than Cairo.

Russia’s Sibir Novosibirsk, located in Siberia and once a key stopping point on the Trans-Siberian Express, played two UEFA home games at their Spartak Stadium Novosibirsk. The coordinates are 82° 56′ 0″ E, making it about as far east as Nepal and thus the most furthest east.

The most westerly UEFA games were played by the Portuguese side Santa Clara who played two UEFA home games at the São Miguel Stadium in Ponta Delgada.  The main city in the Azores, its coordinates are 25° 44′ 50″ W, meaning it lies about as far west as Cape Verde.

Confine the search to only the clubs who have competed in UEFA competitions and the longest possible would be a 5,030-mile trip for a match between Sibir Novosibirsk and Tenerife.

The rules as to who can and can’t play in each domestic league mean that there’s the possibility of some ridiculous travel.  Whilst Guernsey are currently the highest placed English side (yes, I know Canvey Island is technically off-shore) to play off the British Island, technically a side from the Falkland Islands could rise through the English pyramid and take their place in a UEFA competition.

We aren’t alone. Sides from overseas territories are entitled to play in the Portuguese and French domestic cups.  Santa Clara’s base in the Azores is a long way west, but the situation in France is even more startling, given that sides from Mayotte, Reunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana could all theoretically qualify for European competition as French Cup winners.  Should current French Guyanese champions Matoury ever have to take on Luch-Energiya Vladivostok in a European game, it would involve a round trip of the best part of 24,000 miles.

I couldn’t see even Gary and PJ packing up the cheese and pickle sandwiches and a flask of tea for a journey like that!

Thanks to UEFA for some of the above info.

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

30121617471_f88270985f_k-1

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

30137706163_dd6feb0214_k

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

27641166695_ed5ab69520_k

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
30736490366_3fc05340db_k
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.