2016 – A year in football


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

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

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

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

Glentoran – The Oval

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

Athletic Bilbao – San Mamés

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

Olympique Marseille – Stade Vélodrome

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

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

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

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

 

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

Here’s to 2017….

 

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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.

Ulster men Papp’d


Premier League (and Championship games) are a pain in the arse, getting in the way of these International breaks.  Whoever came up with the idea of 6 consecutive days of top class football should be given a knighthood, or at least a gold card at The Harvester.  The opportunity to visit a few new places, sample a few new beers and of course take in some new culture.  Last month it was Lithuania and Latvia, both new ticks in the box for me. So where would I end up this time around?  The options included Moldova (the poorest country by GDP in Europe and the main sport being wrestling), Luxembourg (currently being hammered by the G14 for their lax tax rules) and Cyprus (foam parties…mmmm).  All relatively good choices but who could resist 20 pence beers, the world’s second biggest building and a table topping clash all washed down on an airmiles return flight and a free hotel room? Bucharest here I come.

15791879632_0be24a2e8b_kThe European Union’s six biggest city spreads its tentacles far and wide.  The former Soviet Bloc influences are clear to see by just picking up a map.  The areas of the city are divided into Sektors, reminding you immediately of 1984 or more recently The Hunger Games.  Whilst the city sits near the top in terms of size in the European Union, according to the annual study carried out by Mercer International on the quality of life, Bucharest is in a lowly 107th place.  I can tell I have already sold you on a visit haven’t I?

What better way to immerse myself in the city than to experience their national side play football? Who would have thought that this game would be a top of the table clash?  In fact what odds would you have got of Northern Ireland qualifying for their first European Championships when the draw was made for France 2016? A positive result here in Bucharest result would keep them top of Group F, a group that few saw them progressing from when the draw was made earlier this year.  Greece and Romania both have recent major tournament pedigree, whilst Hungary and Finland could always upset the odds.  Northern Ireland’s only hope was to pick up points against the Faroe Islands if you believed some “experts”. Two months into qualifying and the Irish arrived in Bucharest top of the group with a 100% record thanks to wins in Hungary and Greece, as well as the predictable home win versus the Faroe Islands. Football is a predictable game right – I mean it wasn’t as if the bottom of the table Faroe Islanders were going to get a win in Greece was it?

The bus from the airport took me on a tour of the suburbs.  Ikea, Homebase, car showrooms, McDonalds.  You could be anywhere on earth.  That’s what global commercialisation has given us.  Finally I arrived at the InterContinental hotel, the tallest building in Romania no less, and temporary home to the Irish squad.  A work colleague offered some vital advice before I left London, shouting it across the office in front of at least one of our Senior Executives. “Stu – don’t ring up from your hotel room for a prostitute. Not only is it illegal, but you may find 19 year old 42 inch chested Inga doesn’t arrive in school uniform at all but as a 55 year old matron whose breasts touch her knees. Just head up to the Club Lounge, they will come and find you.” Well that’s next year’s pay rise scuppered then.

The Europa Royale Hotel, a ten minute stroll down away in Piati Unirii, was the beating heart of the city centre.  Bordered by the biggest shopping centre in the Bucharest, wide Soviet- inspired dead straight boulevards and the heaving nightlife of The Old Town, it was here that the Northern Ireland fans had set up camp. And they were in fine voice when I arrived.  Free buses had been laid on to take the fans to the stadium although the riot police had a stern warning for the Irish fans. “No bottles on board” was the stern instruction from Bucharest’s top Robocop.  “Singing is good. Drinking now is bad. You will want to pee-pee and we will not stop the bus.” Fair point.

15170374174_33ebcbeb20_kWe set off on a tour of the city centre with a police escort, meaning our bus driver had the opportunity to pretend to be Keanu Reeves in Speed and drive at 50mph, ignoring all road signals.  As if the fans cared as they (well, OK, we) launched into verse. “Sweet Caroline”, “All you need is love” a David Healy inspired version of “Away in a Manger” and of course, “We aren’t Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland”.

The buses arrived at the relatively deserted stadium.  It seemed that the locals weren’t exactly excited by the visit of the Irish.  Last month there had been significant trouble both in the city centre and in the stadium when Hungary had been the visitors.  For a brief while it looked as if this game may have had to be played behind closed doors as part of a UEFA sanction.  Fortunately, with nearly a thousand Northern Ireland fans already booked up for Bucharest, UEFA saw sense and imposed a £25,000 fine and a partial stadium closure, though I’m not sure where, penalty on the Romanians.

Prior to 2011, Romania didn’t have a national stadium. The old 60,000 seater open air stadium located on the same site had been demolished in 2009, with games played at the Ghencea, home of Steaua Bucharest, where the two sides last met back in 2006.  The new 55,000 all seater stadium was completed in 2011 and is certainly impressive, already hosting its first major game when the 2012 Europa League Final between Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was held here.  The stadium will also host matches during the ridiculous Europe-wide 2020 European Championships.

The stadium is sat upon a large mound, like a castle, with Neo-Gothic arches around the outside and almost Santiago Calatrava-style interior ones (Spanish chap who loves straight lined, white columns and elegant curves in his building design, dummy).  Without sounding too arty, it’s basically a beauty to behold, especially when lit up at night.

Our way was being blocked by two riot police, both young females who you would object to using their handcuffs on you.  “If I am going to end the night being battered black and blue then can it please be by them two?” A very un-Irish sounding chap had starry eyes for our protectorate.  He soon realised I was also from England when I chirped in my agreement. “You’re not one of them?” He said quietly, looking at the Irish fans behind us. “Please help us. We’ve been kidnapped.  We only came to Bucharest for a cheap weekend away. We got caught up in the wrong crowd and then before we knew it we were on the buses.  We don’t have tickets – heck we don’t even particularly like football.” Before I could answer, the girls had stepped aside and my fellow countrymen were swept along with the tide of green, never to be seen again.

15791900352_7c3f4075f6_kThe view inside the stadium was certainly impressive.  The canopy roof, similar to the one in Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Arena which famous ripped under the weight of water ten years ago in the Confederations Cup Final between Brazil and Argentina, was closed although it hadn’t done anything to make the stadium any warmer.  In fact it was bloody freezing.

The Romanians, despite sitting behind the Irish coming into the game, were firm favourites.  Whilst today’s team doesn’t have the same world-class players as they’ve had in the past, they are still a dangerous side and should be odds on to qualify for the 2016 tournament.

For one brief moment in time back in 2004, Romanian football was catapulted into the global stage thanks to the performance of the side at the World Cup in America. The team arrived with little few people giving them a chance in a group featuring the highly fancied Colombians, Switzerland and the host nation.  In their opening gave, they blew apart the South Americans with goals from a blonde-haired centre-forward, Florin Răducioiu and a diminutive creative midfielder in the mould of Diego Maradona, Gheorghe Hagi.  Whilst the wheels came off the bus in their next match, a solitary goal by dashing full-back Dan Petrescu against the USA saw them reach the next round and a game that changed Romanian football forever.

The new generation of Romanian players came at a time when domestic football was going through a massive change, off the back of the social and political changes in the country.  Steaua, traditionally the side of the Romanian Army and Dinamo, the “Interior Ministry’s side, are the most successful teams in Romania and up until the fall of Ceausescu, had won nine consecutive titles plus Steaua became the first Romanian side to win the European Cup in 1986, beating Barcelona and were runners up to AC Milan three years later.

That golden generation went on to impress in two of the next three major tournaments with the next generation of players being given a chance. Adrian Mutu, Cosmin Contra and Cristian Chivu all enjoyed success overseas whilst performing for the national side. But success has been thin on the ground in recent years. Coach Anghel Iordănescu is in the role for the third time, hoping to recreate the magic that he cast during the Golden Age of Romanian football in the mid-1990s.

Romania 2 Northern Ireland 0 – Arena National – Friday 14th November 2014
“We are top of the league, I say we are top of the league” National anthems done and dusted and for a few brief seconds the Irish fans have a chance to make their presence known.  Their chorus lasts but 10 seconds before the Romanians burst into song, amplified tenfold by the closed roof.  With the stadium just over half full it’s deafening. I cannot imagine what it’s like when full.  Northern Ireland line up 4-5-1, with Kyle Lafferty deployed as the nuisance up front. Out of the 22 players starting the game just one, Fleetwood Town’s Connor McLaughlin sports black boots. Playing opposite to him is the Romanian captain and West Ham flop, Răzvan Rat.

15604928938_565cc6ad8e_kIt took 16 minutes for the Irish to venture into the Romanian penalty area when Chris Brunt fired narrowly wide.  It was going to be a long evening for them, firmly under the cosh.  Romania nearly took the lead two minutes later when the lively Chipciu hit the underside of the bar from close range.  Chipciu wasn’t having the best of nights, following up this miss by falling over in the six yard box with the goal at his mercy after a brilliant run by Sanmartean. Northern Ireland finished the half with Lafferty nearly getting the reward for his tireless running and physical treatment from the Romanian centre-backs when he broke free and forced the keeper into. Smart save at his near post.

With three quarters of the game gone the score was still goal less.  The strength of the Northern Ireland team is their work rate, spirit and discipline.  Everyone knows their position and what is expected of them.  No stars but sheer talent.  With tensions boiling over in the South stand, the riot police were brought into action to quell a disagreement between the Ultras (‘cos that’s what their flag said) and the surrounding fans.  It appeared from the reaction of some fans that tear gas was used which was a real shame as just a few yards away, Romania finally found a way past Roy Carroll, when Paul Papp smashed the ball into the roof of the net after McAuley had failed to clear.

With their tails up, one became two soon after when full-back Papp scored again, heading home at the far post after a long cross from Sanmartean. There was no way back now for the Irish. Time to sing until the final whistle instead.

The performance had been spirited, and whilst many Irish fans may look at the two first half chances from Brunt and Lafferty, they had been beaten by the better side.  The inevitable lock-in after the game saw the riot police happy to pose pictures with the away fans and join in the odd song or two.  Thirty minutes after the game finished I was back on the bar at the hotel, finally thawing out, and ready to bat away the advances of the professional ladies of the night.  Around 1am the Irish squad arrived back, tired but proud of their performance.  There was no shame in defeat tonight.

Saturday morning dawned. From my balcony the grey cloud blended in with the grey buildings. Time to see the city in daylight.  I had made a plan to maximise my last few hours in the city which of course meant a visit to Dinamo and Steaeu’s respective grounds (thanking the God of open magic doors), a purchase of some football socks and a drink or two in the best-named bar in these parts, Beer O’ Clock.  Cheers Bucharest, you’d delivered a top 24 hours.  Until the next International break I wish you well.

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