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.

 

 

Economic Theory explained by Football 21 – The Kaldor-Hicks Theorem


It doesn’t matter what the decision is, someone somewhere will be worse off.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a political decision, an economic decision or a referee’s decision, there will be winners and losers.  In theory there could be a decision made that benefits everyone and penalises nobody, called the Pareto Improvement, but that’s hardly like to happen – everyone could be given free entry to football if the clubs were compensated but somewhere along the line someone will have to pay, for instance by increasing the subscription fees to watch games on TV, or a decision to lower the cost of a replica shirt will impact margins somewhere and cause pain to a manufacturer or the work force employed to make it.

I’ve no idea if Nicholas Kaldor and John Hicks were football fans or even if they were thinking about the beautiful game when came up with a theory that determined for every decision that was seen as positive in some people’s eyes, there would be a group of people who would be made worse off in some way (economical or socially) but their criteria to determine whether a decision is as holistically beneficial can be applied to virtually every decision we, or any club makes.

For instance, in the summer we made the decision to reduce our admission prices by £1 for Adults and Concessions.  Everyone benefited right?  The fans had an extra £1 in their pockets which they could potentially spend elsewhere in the club for sure but the club loses out.  We are pretty sure that it isn’t price that impacts our attendances rather than whether Brighton & Hove Albion are at home, and most importantly how we are playing.

If we continue to play as we are then we could probably increase admission back to £11 and £6 and there will be no material impact on the crowd.  Our fans want to see winning football and our pricing strategy does not inhibit attendances.  Last season we averaged 413 at this stage of the season, this season 409.  So we’ve dropped down a division and reduced prices by £1 but no more fans are coming through the gate.  BUT if we look at our attendances since our mid-September turnaround happened and we started playing better, we are actually averaging 440, nearly 10% up on last year.

The obvious loser in the decision to reduce admission charges is the club.  Our costs have either increased or at best stayed the same.  Our playing budget is still £2k per week.   We play 23 home league games in the season, which works out at £3,200 in costs per home game.  If our average attendance falls, as it has so far, despite admission being reduced then we have a hole to fill.  Taking the facts as red and assuming we have 300 paying fans each home game, we are £300 down per game or almost £7k down on the season.  We could try and sell 152 additional programmes per game to make up the deficit or simply suck it up (which we’ve done).

I remember seeing one side a few years ago try to introduce a variable pricing strategy based on league position with four check points in the season.  So they set the pricing at the start of the season, then reviewed after circa 10, 20 and 30 games.  The concept was that the better the team were doing, the lower the admission was.

However, this is economically wrong.  Let me demonstrate:-

If the average admission paid per spectator at the start of the season is £10 and the average attendance is 1,000 then match day ticket revenue is £10,000.

After 10 games the club are having a shocker and fall to the bottom of the league.  The club can’t justify changing admission prices despite average attendances dropping to 900, thus match day ticket revenue is £9,000.

After 20 games they’ve changed their manager and have improved, sitting just outside the playoffs.  The club drops ticket prices by 10%.  Average attendances rise back to 1,000.  Match day ticket revenue is still £9,000 (£9 x 1,000)

After 30 games they are challenging for the title and the club drops pricing down for the final home games to £8 to bring the fans in.  Attendances go up to 1,200 so match day revenue is now £9,600, which is less that they were getting when they were bottom of the league. The total season revenue for 40 games is £376,000.

Of course the more fans attend games, the more they will spend in the ground but even so, the theory above shows that it is flawed.

If instead the club would have reversed their strategy, it would have looked like this:-

Game 1 – £10 admission, 1,000 average attendance = £10,000 match day revenue

Game 11 – £8 admission as they are bottom of the leave, 900 average attendance = £7,200 revenue

Game 21 – £10 admission, 900 average admission = £9,000 match day revenue

Game 31 – £12 admission, 1,200 average admission = £14,400 match day revenue

Total match day revenue is £406,000 or 8% more than the strategy most clubs would employ.

According to Kaldor and Hicks, whilst the economic rationale behind a decision to lower pricing when the team was doing well was sound, it actually makes no economic sense.

The decision by the Premier League and the member clubs to cap ticket prices at £30 for away fans is another example of the Kaldor-Hicks Theorem in practice.  Whilst the decision will benefit the travelling fans, the clubs themselves will see a reduction in revenues unless they raise ticket prices for home fans.  Hopefully, the huge sums of money the clubs now receive from the new TV deal will more than compensate them – in fact they could still afford to reduce pricing comparably for home and away fans, although let’s face it, that’s hardly likely to happen is it?

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!