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.

I heard a rumour


“Have you seen John Terry?”

As random questions go, this was up there with some of those uttered from my parents.  I was queueing to get some more beer underneath the Sud tribune in Brøndby Stadion when the question was asked by a complete stranger who somehow figured I was English (perhaps it was the socks with sandals combination?).

26895142486_85c86a2c5c_z“Do you mean, have I ever seen John Terry?”  I had once seen the much maligned Chelsea captain in Huck’s restaurant at Elveden CenterParcs back in 2001 apart from playing for Chelsea and England so I wasn’t lying when I answered in the affirmative.

“No, here.  He is sitting over there” the women said, waving her arm in a direction that was either towards the Gents toilet or the Main Stand depending on how literal you wanted to be.  I hoped for Terry’s sake it was the latter otherwise he’d be all over the front pages (again) for the wrong reasons (again).

Depending on which rumour you care to believe, Terry was at tonight’s Superliga derby between Brøndby IF and FC Nordsjælland because a) he’s good friends with club owner Jan Bech Andersen and accepted an invite to pop over as he would not play again this season (or ever) for Chelsea due to suspension, b) he was about to take over as head coach from Aurelijus Skarbalius who had joined a long list of managers who had heralded a new dawn but simply made the club darker or c) he was actually planning on buying out Andersen and running the club himself. There was a fourth reason of course, which was why I was here with Ben. And that is you can’t beat a beer (or three), a sausage (or two) and a good jump around on the terraces on a Monday night.

This used to be a regular occurrence for me. For over two years Copenhagen had been my midweek home and instead of spending every night in my apartment watching Kroning Gade (Danish Coronation Street), I went off in search of football. In two years I managed to watch games at 37 different Danish and Swedish grounds but there was nowhere really like Brøndby (OK – apart from Malmö). My very good friend and Ultras expert Kenny Legg ranked the Copenhagen Derby played at the Brøndby Stadion as, as he eloquently put it, “F’ing insane” – and he’s a man whose experienced Weymouth versus Dorchester Town (twice!). Quite simply it should be one game that every football fan takes in once in their lives.

26323371404_525d2c9a37_zA rare need for a work trip to Copenhagen fortuitously fell on the very day Brøndby were hosting their cross-city rivals, FC Nordsjælland from leafy Farum. Whilst it’s currently the fashion to talk about clubs overcoming insurmountable odds to win the league (Leicester City were 5000/1 to win the Premier League in case you missed that little fact), we should pause and reflect on the story of FC Nordsjælland who broke the FCK dominance of winning seven of the previous nine titles.  Whilst the club had always been respected for its youth development, they hadn’t really made a mark on domestic football in Denmark until 2010 when they won their first major honour, the Danish Cup.  A year later they retained the trophy, once again beating FC Midtjylland in the final.  However in 2011/12 they led from the front almost on day one and never looking back.  Not only did they cap that season with the title but five of their players were called up to the National team.

It was always felt that the dominance of FCK on the domestic game, fuelled by perennial Champions League money would never be broken but FCN proved it could be done.  Whilst FCK won the title twelve months later (with FCN hosting Chelsea and Juventus in the Champions League ironically at FCK’s Parken), the last two titles have been won by two more “upstarts”.  Alas, neither were Brøndby.

Last season the story over here, and also back in England, was of FC Midtjylland who again if you believed the media, won the league through the footballing equivalent of card counting.  The club, based a few miles up the road from Legoland had been on the fringes of the honours for a while but it took the investment of Brentford owner Matthew Benham and his statistical approach to both recruitment and retention of players to reach that Tipping Point that saw them crowned as champions.

26895138446_4e8aec971e_zBut back to today.  Ben had procured the tickets for a ridiculous 60DKK (£6) each but failed to remember that we were in Denmark and so a 7pm kick off meant 7pm Danish time, not 6pm that was displayed on Soccerways….Ben has only lived in Denmark for 8 years now.  He was quickly forgiven when we took our place at the front of the beer and sausage queue though.  He brought me up to speed on the state of play in Denmark’s Superliga.  FCK were as good as champions again, holding a seven point league over this season’s surprise package, SønderjyskE.  Then came AaB (champions in 2014) and FC Midtjylland (champions in 2015)…and then Brøndby, some seventeen points behind FCK with six games to play.  “So the title still isn’t out of the question Stu”.  He is a Spurs fan and up until the draw with Chelsea was absolutely convinced Spurs would win the title on goal difference.

With only 2nd and 3rd place qualifying for the Europa League and having painfully lost a two-legged Danish Cup semi-final to FCK it looked bleak for a return to European football.  That was unless they could get three points tonight.

Brøndby IF 2 FC Nordsjælland 1 – Brøndby Stadion – Monday 9th May 2016
The warm, yellow liquid currently raining down on us reminded us why it’s a bad move to stand at the bottom of the Sud Tribune. Fortunately the liquid appeared to be beer, thrown in the air to celebrate Kamil Wilczek’s goal. Brøndby had conceded in an all too familiar manner just three minutes before much to the groans of a number of fans around us.  A rather animated chap, in full kit with the name “Aggar” on his back tried to show his mate how to clear an attacking ball that had led to Marcondes’s equaliser, using a small teddy bear.  She wasn’t impressed and stormed off just as Wilczek’s goal went in.

Whilst the game was fairly entertaining, with Brøndby understanding that they key to winning the game was to stop the opposition getting the ball (possession is 9/10th of a win as well as the law), the real spectacle was the fans.  It may have been five years since I was last standing on the terraces here but you never forget the feeling of the ground beneath your feet literally bouncing as the fans jumped up and down, sank their lungs out and waved the flags.  You cannot fail to be impressed.  This was what watching football should be like.  Passion.  Of course it helped that you were trusted enough to have a beer, although it did seem to be the standard pratice to throw it up in the air when the home side scored.

John Terry couldn’t help be impressed by the atmosphere – certainly a little less manufactured some of the grounds in England.  He at least won’t have to learn a new language and of course their liberal attitude to the vices means he may stay off the front pages.  Then again, it is just as likely that Celtic boss Ronnie Deila will pitch up here in a few weeks once the Celtic gig has finished.

The Ayr that I breathe


Standing in the pouring rain on a terrace that has seen better days watching Scottish third tier football doesn’t sound like a particular fun way to spend an early Saturday evening but unless you’ve experienced the raw beauty of Somerset Park in Ayr then your life cannot be considered complete.  Add in a greasy Scotch Pie and a mug of instant coffee and perhaps I’m beginning to wear you down.  Up there with my wedding day.

My plan for this weekend had originally involved three games, two Scottish Premier League ones and then a trip to round the weekend off at Somerset Park with their kick off being handily moved to later in the day to accommodate the TV cameras.  That was until the latest Storm (Storm Roger or something like that) hit Glasgow and my plans had to be rapidly re-arranged.  My saving grace was that I had decided to hire a car on arrival at Glasgow airport, meaning not only could I see how many Magic Doors I could find (five in two days since you asked) but was able to put Plan B into full effect.

FullSizeRender (3)That meant a trip down to Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park on Friday rather than Saturday, to watch rugby. Never has there been a more apt name for a stadium, bar Stamford Bridge hosting the world Rubber Bridge championships.  Two trips to Scotland’s Most Improved Town (does that mean it was really really bad before, or that the improvement has been so good?) would be a bit excessive even if the opportunity for double Killie Pie was on offer.  Friday night’s rugby was a decent affair though, watched by almost double the number who would watch Kilmarnock take on Dundee on Saturday afternoon.  Should you be that way inclined, feel free to have a read of my report on that excellent website The Ball is Oval.

An early start on Saturday meant that I could complete a circuit of the surrounding area of Glasgow before heading down to Paisley for the first game of the day.  In the course of four hours I managed to visit Airdrieonians, Alloa Athletic, Albion Rovers, Clyde, Stirling Albion, Dumbarton and Morton’s grounds with a brief scenic detour to Loch Lomond Shores somewhere in between.  What was quite interesting was three of these grounds (Airdrie, Alloa Athletic and Clyde) had various Saturday morning kids coaching sessions going on, utilising the 3G facilities to full use.  Whilst the national side may be in the doldrums at the moment, the focus on youth development and the availability of facilities is something that can only benefit the development of the game and players in due course.  I watched a pitch inspection at Albion Rovers fail to convince the referee the pitch was playable and was given a guided tour of Cappielow Park, one of the best old-school grounds I have ever visited (see my pictorial highlights here).

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The rain hadn’t let up all day until I parked just a stones throw from St Mirren Park in Paisley.  Sunshine welcomed me to Renfrewshire’s biggest town, Paisley, birthplace of Gerard Butler, residence in his youth of David Tennant and famed for the Paisley Snail, a historic case in British Legal history, setting the precedent of modern Tort Law.  But today it was all about football.  St Mirren can lay claim to something that no other club can in British football.  They own two football stadiums.  Their old Love Street ground, vacated seven years ago is still standing after repeated planning requests for the redevelopment have been turned dow, whilst the club have moved around three-quarters of a mile westwards down Murray Street to the smart, if relatively character-less St Mirren Park.

St Mirren 1 Dumbarton 0 – St Mirren Park – Saturday 20th February 2016 3pm
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On 37 minutes something strange happened that caused players, managers and the fans to stop and wonder what was going on.  The sun came out.  It was probably the highlight of a tepid first half that the visitors could probably say they dominated with midfielder Grant Gallagher the stand-out man.  St Mirren did have the ball in the net in the first half with a corner that appeared to catch the jet stream and beat the Dumbarton keeper all ends up.  The referee obviously felt it was a tad unfair and blew for an imaginary foul.

The game sprang into life early in the second half.  Well, the one moment that could be used as part of a highlights package happened just after the hour mark when Shankland played a decent one-two that put him in the clear and he made no mistake.  The visitors tried to rally but the effective St Mirren defence held firm and take all three points to keep alive their chances of a Play-off spot at the end of the season.  Actually, in all honesty I missed the last twenty-five minutes of the match as I headed back to the car in readiness for the main event of the day happening some 33 miles due south-west.

Ayr United 2 Forfar Athletic 1 – Somerset Park – Saturday 20th February 2016 5:15pm
I made it to Somerset Park with five minutes to spare, finding a parking spot slap-bang outside the turnstiles.  From the outside the ground looked brilliant – such a contrast to St Mirren Park and some of the other grounds I had visited during the day.  The TV cameras were in town for this clash so everyone was on their best behaviour, suited, booted and well turned out.  It’s something that Ayr is used to, still smug from winning the coveted 2014 Royal Society for Public Health’s 2nd place in United Kingdom’s “healthiest High Street”, narrowly missing out on the title to Shrewsbury.

IMG_7650Scotch Pie in hand I headed to the open terrace.  I heard a rumour that Biffy Clyro’s lead singer, and resident of Ayr, Simon Neil was in the ground but to be honest, whilst liking their music, I wouldn’t recognise him from Adam.  This was proper football being played in a proper old ground.  The footballing world may have moved on but what’s the hurry down here in Scottish League One?  The club had one of the best stocked club shops known to man, a great covered terrace perfect for making a din and that Scotch Pie which outscored the Killie Pie in my complicated scoring system for football ground food.

The game itself was a decent affair.  The conditions made it an entertaining affair, especially when the rain really started to fall just as Ayr took the lead thanks to Ryan “Stevo” Stevenson’s header from a corner.  Half-time and another Scotch Pie?  Why not!

IMG_7627With a crowd of around 750 making the noise of 3,000 (apparently they have a mild dislike of Killmarnock in these parts), Ayr roared out for the second half but it was the visitors who drew level just after the hour mark when Ryan ran onto a smart through ball, dancing on the wet surface like a ballerina as he rounded the Ayr keeper and slotted home.  However, it was the Stevo show as the Ayr midfielder scored the winner ten minutes later with an overhead kick, again from another corner that was worthy of winning any game.

Ayr gets a massive thumbs up from the Football Tourist panel.  Give it a go…go on.

The unknown rule makers


Many watchers of the beautiful game may not realise the part that Great Britain still has in setting the rules of the game across the world.  Virtually everyone thinks that it is FIFA who make (and break) the rules but they are wrong.  The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is the body that determines the Laws of the Game of Association Football since it was founded in 1886.  Their original mandate was to agree standardised laws for international competition, and has since acted as the “guardian” of the internationally used rules from their office in Zurich and under the guidance of General Secretary Lukas Brud.

It is a separate body from FIFA, though FIFA is represented on the board and but holds only 50% of the voting power. As a legacy of association football’s origins in Great Britain, the other organisations represented are the governing bodies of the game in the four countries of the United Kingdom. Amendments to the Laws, including any changes, require a three-quarter majority vote, meaning that FIFA’s support is necessary but not sufficient for a motion to pass.

Each UK association has one vote and FIFA has four. IFAB deliberations must be approved by three-quarters of the vote, which translates to at least six votes. Thus, FIFA’s approval is necessary for any IFAB decision, but FIFA alone cannot change the Laws of the Game—they need to be agreed by at least two of the UK members. There is also a quorum requirement that at least four of the five member associations, one of which must be FIFA, have to be present for a meeting to proceed. The Board meets twice a year, once to decide on possible changes to the rules governing the game of Football and once to deliberate on its internal affairs.  The IFAB today consists of 31 members, including everyone’s favourite footballing figure, Sepp Blatter.  The FA’s representation includes Greg Dyke, ex-Manchester United CEO David Gill and former referee David Elleray.

At the last AGM, held in February in Belfast, there were a number of interesting proposals on the agenda.    FIFA proposed that a fourth substitute be allowed in games that had entered Extra Time; the US federation proposed using the “stopping the clock” method of timing games, similar to that used in Rugby Union and NFL; There was a preliminary discussion around the potential use of ‘sin bins’ and one that will be interesting to see how it is interpreted, the ending of “triple punishment” for denying a goal-scoring opportunity in the penalty area which leads to a penalty, a red card and a subsequent one-match ban.  The proposed new rule, which came into effect on the 1 June 2015, sees the one-match ban being dropped, as the red card and penalty are deemed to be sufficient enough.  That decision annoyed UEFA who had pushed for the red card to be made into a yellow card.

Other hard hitting decisions the board have taken in recent years are the banning of Snoods, the rule about sock tape having to be the same colour as the socks and that assistant referees are not allowed to kick the ball back to players if it is at their feet.  We are often quick to blame officials but they are simply following the rules set by the blazers in their five star hotels around Europe twice a year.  So in years to come when half-time breaks are extended to 30 minutes to accommodate TV commercials, or we get four quarters instead of two halves, you know who to blame.

 

Just who made the decision to play that side?


I could be accused of being mellow-dramatic but I believe that last night could have been the last time for a generation that West Ham played in a major European Competition.  Few fans who watched the game will feel that the decision to field the team they did was justified in terms of the “long game” of ensuring Premier League survival.  If that was ever an issue, then why have the owners sanctioned such pre-season signings as Lanzini, Payat and Ogbonna or even recruited Slaven Bilic?  In his post match interview the Croat said he was “bitterly disappointed” to have lost but showed complete contempt for the competition, the opponents and the West Ham fans who traveled to the far reaches of Romania for the game against FC Astra by fielding a team that would have been considered “inexperienced” in Capital One Cup terms.  When perennial fence-sitter Michael Owen says “I think West Ham may have made a mistake here” prior to kick-off you know that you have a problem.

Last week the Hammers were cruising at 2-0 up at The Boleyn Ground.  Collins is then sent off and the team fall apart.  Players get sent off week in, week out and don’t lose, or even concede a goal.  The footballing guru David Pleat always tells us it’s harder to play against ten men than eleven.  That’s the theory of Numerical Disadvantage.  But why did it all go wrong?  If you were lucky enough to see the game you will notice that both goals came as a result of West Ham standing off the player with the ball, allowing them far too much time to in the first instance shoot and for the second goal, play the ball into the area.  It’s all very well in having flair players such as Zarate, Payat and Jarvis in the side (you could add Lanzini in that but he didn’t play last week) but if none of them are prepared to close down the man on the ball you are asking for trouble whether you have 10,11 or 12 players on the pitch.  A few years ago that would have been Mark Noble’s role.  Today?

Bilic had already made his mind up before last week’s game that the match versus Arsenal was far more important than the Europa League tie against the Romanians.  Yet that should have given him even more incentive to take the competition seriously and reach the Group Stage.  Let’s face reality.  Arsenal, like they have for 18 out of the last 19 seasons, will finish in the top 4 at the end of the season.  Why?  Because they are a good team, with a good manager who despite seeming reticent to use it, has funds at his disposal.  Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd are in almost the same boat.  It would take a brave man to suggest the title, or even the top four will not feature one of those four (or all in the case of the Champions League qualifiers).  Liverpool and Spurs may say otherwise but it is for the top four to lose rather than the other two to win.  West Ham’s record away to these top teams in the past few seasons has been poor – four defeats, ten goals conceded last season for instance.  It would take a very brave man to bet on anything apart from a defeat on Sunday.  In all reality there are games that the management will target as “must wins”, others that are “should wins” and some that are “could wins”.  Arsenal away is unlikely to be in those.  So why rest players for the second leg? And what is the ambition this year?  Finish in the top six or seven just to qualify for the Europa League and go through the same thought logic next season?

The most annoying aspect here is that Bilic used twenty first team players in a pointless friendly last Sunday against Werder Bremen.  Why? A meaningless game played in front of a crowd of 10/15,000 at the expense of putting out a decent team who would make a fight of the game in Romania and whilst the chance of reaching the final is slim, every game they play in in Europe they earn cash.  Whilst not in the same league as the Premier League TV money, it is still cash.

“Bring back Allardyce” someone suggested to me today.  But let’s not forget that he did something similar in a televised cup game away at Nottingham Forest two seasons ago where they were beaten 5-0.  Whilst managers will outwardly say they they listen to the fans, they only really answer to one master.  And if that voice is saying that Premier League points are the most important thing in the world then there can be no room for any risk in a tournament such as the Europa League.

Just like the campaigns of 1999 and 2006, it was fun whilst it lasted.  But with an outlook that the Premier League is so important, we are hardly likely to take any cup competition seriously and thus denying any further route back into Europe.  Hull City fans only know too well from painful experience last season that treating the Europa League with disrespect ultimately meant nothing as they were relegated nine months later.  Was that down to playing competitive matches in July?  Of course not.

Update – so we go and beat Arsenal against all the odds. What do I know about football anyway. Come on you Hammers!