Hedging my bets on top of the table clashes

As I pulled into the car park at Gatwick Airport I was pretty sure I had remembered everything for my latest sojourn to Scotland.  Everything that is bar a coat.  You need a coat in Scotland in mid-July, so not wearing one on an October night could get a man sectioned.  Only two types of people could possibly get away with such a mistake – girls from Newcastle and Inuit’s.  Whilst I do have relatively girly eye-lashes, so I am told, and can rub noses on request, I can’t profess any strong association with either group and thus had to buy a replacement coat.

Fifty pounds lighter in my pocket and five pounds heavier in weight, I landed in Edinburgh ready to start a whirlwind twenty five hours that would see me take in four games in four different grounds, taking advantage of the fact the mighty Lewes’s FA Trophy tie with Kingstonian had been pushed back to the Sunday.  With our latest injury crisis, I may even bring back more than a Tam o’Shanter wig and a packet of Scottish shortbread, the standard family presents when travelling north of the border.

30542588462_136c95bc9c_kOriginally, when looking at options for the day I was going to let the train take the strain, travelling from Edinburgh up the beautiful East Coast to Aberdeen and then back again via a couple of stops along the way.  I had pencilled in a visit to Forfar’s Station Park ground as my 3pm option but soon found out that despite playing at Station Park, Forfar doesn’t have a train station.  Perhaps it was an aspirational idea to name the area, a local counsellor having a Bull Durham moment (“build it and they will come”) or simply that it was a trendy thing to do?  I had to consult my father, a guru on late 20th century railway lines in Great Britain for the answer.

“Forfar was the principal station between Perth and Aberdeen in the days when trains between Glasgow and Aberdeen always ran via Stanley and Kinnaber Junctions on the Caledonian Railway.  It was running until 1967 although on occasion they ran trains on the line, the last one being in June 1982.  If you look carefully on Google Maps you can still see where the line went.  The buildings behind the South Stand at Forfar were almost certainly goods sheds and hence why it got the name Station Park”

Thanks Dad.  I asked him how I was therefore supposed to get to Forfar from Aberdeen.

“No idea son.  Trying asking someone who gives a shit about places without train stations”.

It soon became clear that the train option wasn’t really an option at all.  Whilst I didn’t fancy driving 300 miles in a day, that was going to be my only option if I wanted to squeeze in three Saturday games.  I’d have to swap the Brewdog Brewery tour option for a case of IrnBru but that’s the level of sacrifice you often have to make as a Football Tourist.  So the plan would be Aberdeen-Brechin-Raith Rovers.  Not a bad haul in a day.  But first I had a Friday night bonus game just four stops on the tram from my hotel, albeit of the oval ball variety as Edinburgh would be taking on the Italians from Zebre (Italian for Zebra in case you wanted to know) in the Pro12 League.

30026052603_d4dcb922fd_k-1Zebre’s record in the competition hasn’t yet given many hope that the Italian teams can compete at this level.  They’ve finished in last place in every season they have played in the competition so far bar last season when Benetton Treviso finished below them and arrived in Scotland pointless from the opening five games.  The lush and fertile lands around Parma are hardly a hot-bed of rugby, underlined by modest crowds at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.  But you cannot deny the spirit they put into every game, which once in a while provides an upset and justifies why they should still be part of the tournament.  They had lost on their last four visits to Edinburgh and hadn’t scored a point at Murrayfield since November 2013.

Edinburgh 14 Zebre 19 – Murrayfield – Friday 28th October 2016
Of course that stat was the cue for the Italian’s first ever win in the Pro12 League and it was fully deserved.  They led for virtually the whole game, only going behind with ten to play but responding with a try in the final minutes.  The Edinburgh fans went into the night wondering what happened to the team from seven days ago that beat Harlequins.  As I wandered down to pitch side I bumped into a group of Halloween revellers, who had decided to take in the game first before heading to wherever the kids head to these days.  Whilst they had made some effort with their grizzly costumes, they had a long way to go to be as scary as some of the Italian players, coming off the pitch battered and bloodied after their famous victory.

Welcome to the Granite City said the sign as I drove across the River Dee at 11am.  Autumn was in full bloom with the warm sunshine reflecting off the trawlers in the quayside.  Aberdeen.  Home to Henry Cecil, Graeme Garden, Brewdog and Alex Salmond, winner of Britain in Bloom a record ten times and the 56th most habitable city in the world.  What better way to start my triple header of games in Scotland than here at Pittordrie, home to Aberdeen since 1899 where Celtic were the visitors for the early televised game.

My day had started some hours earlier, at 3.15am to be precise, when the fire alarm at the hotel rudely awoke everyone’s sleep.  I hastily dressed, realising that I had left my new coat, the one bought yesterday to replace the one I forgot, in the bar the previous evening.  It turned out to be a false alarm fortunately.  Someone was trying to tell me something and at 8am I had brought replacement number two from the Tesco Extra across the road.

30659434885_3840ef989d_kA win in this early kick off would extend the Bhoys lead at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership to 10 points with a game in hand over the Dons in second place.  These were the two form on teams in the league over the last six games and many felt that Derek McInnes side were the best placed of the crashing pack to challenge Celtic this season, borne out that the two sides would be meeting again in four weeks’ time in the Bedfred League Cup final at Hampden Park.

Perched almost on the edge of the North Sea, Pittordrie has been home to The Dons since 1903 although was actually in use from 1899 by the previous incarnations of the club, Aberdeen, Victoria United an Orion.  The site was a former Police horse dung heap, giving rise to the term “a pile of crap”.  It was here in 1920 that the dugout was first used in a football club anywhere in the world when then head coach Donald  Coleman dug a trench in the side of the pitch so that he could view the ball at the players feet to try to improve their skill levels.  In 1978 the stadium became the second all-seater in Great Britain, following the trend set by the now defunct Clydebank FC.  As with many grounds of a similar age, improvements have been made as and when finances are available or when legislation has necessitated.  The last addition to the stadium is the impressive Richard Donald Stand at the East end of the ground which does at least provide a decent windbreak from the biting North Sea air.

However, ambition to challenge the likes of Celtic and Rangers off the pitch has meant the club thinking about the future.  The idea of the New Aberdeen Stadium at Kingsford in the city, a 21,000 modern all-seater has received planning approval but with strong objections in the Kingsford community the club hasn’t been able to proceed yet.  For now Pittordrie, with history dripping from every seat, remains the Dons home and the home fans had come out in droves to bask in the Autumnal sunshine and hopefully close the gap on the league leaders.

Aberdeen 0 Celtic 1 – Pittordrie – Saturday 29th October 2016
One thing you cannot afford to do against teams at the top of the table is waste opportunities and the failure of the home side to deliver a decent corner from their first three attempts heightened the angst around the stadium, whilst the perceived easy nature that the Celtic players were going to ground was enraging the crowd, none more so than the lady with her kids in front of me who launched into impressive, coherent rant at the linesman that included an impressive six different four-letter swear words (now there’s a good idea for a Family Christmas game!)

30659435595_04f04f1cc3_k-1Twenty four minutes on the clock and Celtic took the lead.  There didn’t seem to be any danger when the ball bounced awkwardly in front of Tom Rogic on the edge of the box but the Australian controlled it with his right and then as it rose off the ground, struck it with his left past a flailing Joe Lewis in the Dons goal. Whilst the goal spurred Aberdeen forward, the lack of an end product was evident as they couldn’t find a way through the Celtic backline.  In fact it was the visitors who should have added a second when Stuart Armstrong side-footed wide when he had the goal at his mercy.  Half-time, 0-1 and a chance to sample the Pittordrie Pie.

The world of Scottish football savoury snacks has been turned on its head after the KilliePieGate in the summer.  Up here at Pittordrie they saw the danger such a similar situation could mean financially for them and so they are aiming to become the first football club in the world to trademark their own pie – The Pittordrie Pie, a mince pie with a golden crust that last season sold over 100,000.  I’d love to give a critical review but they were so good that by the time I went to the bar at half-time they were sold out so I had to make do with the Macaroni pie, which was “interesting” to say the least.  The concept of cheesy pasta in a pie doesn’t read well when written down and tastes just about the same.  Looking around me it seemed the trick I missed was to carefully lift the pie lid and squirt in half a bottle of tomato ketchup.  Amateur mistake.

The Aberdeen fans hoped that the team were given a lecture at half-time on being wasteful in midfield but within the first ten minutes it appeared the only words were “more of the same, lads” as Celtic continued to press forward.  On 75 minutes the referee finally lost it.  His performance had been erratic to say the least but in the process of separating a flare up started by a late, cynical tackle by Scott Brown, he managed to floor the Celtic captain as he stretched out his arm to make a point, then to add insult to injury, he booked Brown.

A crowd of over 17,000, the second biggest of the season at Pittordrie departed having seen Celtic underline their dominance.  Bar the last five minutes of pressure, the visitors had been in total control and Rogers will need to analyse the performance and assess why they weren’t well out of sight before the injury time onslaught by the home side.

One down, three to go.  Whilst many fans would head to the pubs around Aberdeen for the rest of the afternoon, my day was only just beginning. Next stop, Glebe Park and THAT hedge.

30028215794_1574956099_kThe approach to Glebe Park, home of the football club is rural to say the least, hidden down a turning between some houses.  Whilst the club are nicknamed “The City”, Brechin itself is technically only a Town.  Whilst the presence of a cathedral was once the only real criteria for being able to be defined as a city, today there’s forms, royal warrants and interviews.  Faced with so much red tape, Brechin decided to simply put their fingers in their ears and go “la” until someone important notices.  But the club’s main claim to fame is the impressive hedge that forms the perimeter of the ground on two sides.  No other ground in the world can boast such impressive shrubbery.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Glebe Park.  Not only do they have the hedge, resplendent in different Autumnal shades but they have a superb old Main Stand with the cathedral spire towering over it.  Remember Hedgegate that almost threatened the finest example of football horticulture? I’m sure most of you do but for those who don’t pay much attention to Scottish lower league football politics, let me give you a brief summary.

Back in 2009 UEFA mandated the minimum size of a pitch that could be used to host football at a professional level.  Unfortunately, Glebe Park’s pitch didn’t measure up and so there was a suggestion that the cheapest way around the problem was to get the hedge trimmers out and widen the pitch.  Common sense prevailed (unusual words when talking about UEFA) and the club retained its unique feature.  To add to the eclectic mix of features at the ground, the newest addition to Glebe Park is the large stand set back from the goal line with the multi-coloured seats, opened in the 1990’s, offering fine views of the surrounding area.  Having walked around the ground and taken a million photos (you can never have enough football hedge photos in your life I always say) I sat back and watched to see whether Brechin could retain their spot at the top of the league.

Brechin City 0 Livingston 3 – Glebe Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
I sat high up in the stand behind the goal, giving me a fine view of the action as well as the surrounding area.  Despite their position at the top of the league, Brechin appeared nervous on the ball in the opening period, allowing Livingston far too much time on the ball and consequently on top for the first quarter of the game.  Twenty minutes in and Livingston created the best chance of the game as Alan Lithgow had a half-volley well saved, whilst the chance of the half also fell to the visitors as Buchanan was set free by Da Vito, but the Brechin keeper’s outstretched leg diverted the ball wide.

30623241196_b43048d7c3_kHalf-time and whilst the visitors could claim they had the best of the half, they hadn’t been able to take any of their chances.  Apparently, according to a Brechin fan in the queue for a Scotch Pie (no Glebe Pie here alas), Brechin were a second half side.  In fact, whilst they had won seven games so far in the league, they had only led twice at half-time, with their last five wins coming when they had been level at the break.  “Not that I believe in omens” he said, stroking his rabbits foot keyring.

Alas, the omens were wrong.  Livingston came out strongly in the second half and scored three times without reply, although with twenty minutes left to play it was time to head south for the final game of the day, so I missed Livingston grab a third which would see them leapfrog Brechin at the top of the table when Bryne tapped into an empty net after Smith had pulled off a great save.

I set the SatNav to Kirkcaldy which was fifty minutes away, meaning I’d get there just on kick off.  A simple plan.  Or was it.  Ten minutes down the road the signpost said “Forfar 2”.  I must have read it as Forfar is 2 good to miss and before I had time to realise what had happened, the self-drive functionality of the Citroen had me exiting the A90 and heading for the floodlights in the near distance. I knew it wasn’t in the plan but something drew me to Station Park like a moth to a flame.  This was a home banker if there ever was one.  Forfar Athletic were top of League Two, whilst the visitors, Edinburgh City, in their first ever season in the professional game, were rock bottom with just three points from their opening ten games.

Forfar Athletic 1 Edinburgh City 1 – Station Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
As I parked outside the ground a cheer went up.  I assumed it was another Forfar Athletic goal but when I entered the ground and asked the score I was very surprised to hear the goal was actually a Forfar equaliser, after the visitors had been leading since the 25th minute.

30359627930_b5b7adbae6_kConfession time – I hadn’t been motivated to divert to catch the action at Station Park by a desire to “tick off a ground”, although of course I will claim a visit, but to indulge in the world-famous Forfar Bridie.  A delicious mix of minced steak, butter beef suet and onion in a semi-circular shortcrust pastry shape (that’s how you can tell they are from Forfar).  To the uneducated they look and taste like Cornish Pasties BUT never say that to a Forfarian and they will get very very annoyed.  For your reference a Bridie doesn’t have any potato in.

Fortunately, they hadn’t sold out of these, making the short trip worthwhile even if I didn’t see any further action, or acquire any Forfar Athletic socks.  Time to depart and complete the journey through the Scottish Leagues.

So after a brief detour into Forfar, I arrived in Kirkcaldy for the final game of the day, the televised Championship game between Raith Rovers and Queen of the South.  Who needs the X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing when you have live Scottish Championship football on the TV?  Some may moan about the impact of the TV companies on kick off times but thanks to them I’d managed to watch football in each of the four Scottish divisions in one afternoon today.

Kirkcaldy can claim a few famous residents although it is highly unlikely that many of them ever attended a game at Stark’s Park.  Whilst it is likely former unelected Prime Minister Gordon Brown popped in from time to time, the town’s most famous resident, Adam Smith was too busy writing the Wealth of Nations to worry about football – that and the fact he finished writing his epic 116 years before the football club were formed although it is clear to anyone who shares a passion for football and economic theory as I do that the “invisible hand” Smith refers to as the way supply and demand interact is actually Sky Sports.

“The ability to self-regulate and to ensure maximum efficiency, however, is threatened by monopolies, tax preferences, lobbying groups, and other “privileges” extended to certain members of the economy at the expense of others” Said Smith – you tell me that’s not a statement that Rupert Murdoch would be proud of saying?

Stark’s Park is approached from the town centre up a steep hill, giving the impression it is some kind of citadel sitting in a strategic position to defend the town. The ground is a strange mix of different styles, underlining how clubs at this level have had to develop their infrastructure as and when the good times roll into town.  The main stand, with its very distinguishable Archibald Leitch gabled roof is an unusual L-shape but only extends two-thirds of the way down the side of the pitch due to the road outside, whilst two newish stands, identical stands at either end of the stadium act as windbreaks from the biting East winds from across the North Sea.

Raith Rovers 1 Queen of the South 0 – Stark’s Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
“Games aren’t won on stats” said the Queen of the South fan in front of me as we exited the ground.  Despite having five times as many shots as the home side, the visitors would be heading back to Dumfries pointless after an injury time goal settled this rather dour encounter.  In truth there was little between the two sides for the most part, although the lack of confidence in the home side to pull the trigger when in a dangerous position appeared to have cost them two points, only for Raith’s Mark Stewart to have the final say and lift them up to third in the table.  Ironically, when the two teams met here around the same time last season, Raith won 1-0 thanks to a single goal, against the run of play late in the game.

30571465961_8d52a4bf31_kSomehow I missed the fact that the empty North Stand was sponsored by Val McDermid, the crime writer.  I could have hardly missed it as it was plastered in five foot letters across the top of it.  A quick search not only confirmed that one of the UK’s best crime writers,  Ms McDermid was born in Kirkcaldy, was a Rovers fan but was also a director of the club and a former front of shirt sponsor.  As dedicated goes, that’s pretty impressive and I scanned the Main Stand to see if I could see her, but alas my detective skills were not on a par with some of those of her characters from her books.

The rest of the second half passed with very little goalmouth action.  The interest of the fans was peaked when Raith were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box but the effort came to nothing.  As the game entered the added period many fans were already on their way home as Stewart slid inbetween the Queen of the South defence to net.

The official line on the game from the Raith Rovers website summed it up quite nicely:-

“Make no mistake, this was not a game that would leave the football purist purring, but those of a Raith Rovers persuasion can be satisfied with three points which keep the club within touching distance of the summit of what is a very competitive league.”

But I couldn’t complain.  Thanks to some fortuitous fixtures, some favourable traffic conditions and some detailed planning I had sampled four games in one day, almost equalling my record from 2008 when I managed five in one day in Copenhagen.  Scotland is the gift that keeps on giving for the Football Tourist and I very much doubt this will be my last trip north of the border this season.

It’s all a bit academic

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride – where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”

Perhaps the first time an article about football has started with a quote from Jane Austen.  But my rare football wanderings had taken me to Scotland where it was all about Pride.  Motherwell came into their home game with Celtic in 4th place but if other results went against them, they could finish in the bottom six, meaning that they would play out the final weeks of the season in the “relegation” group rather than the top six “European” group.  Sitting 15 points behind 3rd place and a Europa League spot, and 15 points above the relegation Play-off, the season is essentially over for ‘Well.  Not so for the visitors to Celtic who are just a few wins from their fifth consecutive Premiership Championship.

The whole Promotion/Relegation split for the final five games of the season has rarely led to any excitement in the Scottish game.  This season the clubs who entered the final five games in 4th, 5th and 6th had nothing to play for in terms of the title or European football, whilst those in 7th, 8th and 9th were safe from relegation.  If the concept of introducing the system was to stop a hatful of dead rubbers at the end of the season then I think it may have failed, with at least half of the league already on their sun loungers.  Still, it could be worse – they could have adopted the Belgian Play-off system which Stephen Hawking tried to describe a few years ago, gave up and published his book “A Brief History of Time”.

26341907565_0f2ae4073f_zLet me rewind just a few paragraphs and start again.  Hi! How are you?  So with Lewes already relegated, and an inevitable 2-2 draw on the cards for their home game with Staines Town (it end 2-2 as well), I took advantage of a work trip to stay on in Glasgow and “tick off” two more Scottish Premiership grounds.  Not just any old two either – two that are separated by just three miles a river, a motorway and a racecourse.  Motherwell have been an almost permanent fixture in the top flight of Scottish football without ever really having the golden period that clubs such as Dundee United or Aberdeen had had.  In fact, this May marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of their last major honour, when they won the Scottish Cup.  The absence of Rangers from the top flight had given them the opportunity to try to be the “best of the rest” and had finished runners-up, inevitably to Celtic, two seasons ago.

Thanks to those pesky people at Sky Sports re-arranging this game, I could see two games in my afternoon with nothing more than an eight minute train ride and a ten minute walk, with Fir Park my first destination for the 12.30pm start.

My train from Glasgow Central would eventually end up, some thirteen hours later, in Penzance so not one to just have a little snooze on.  Twitter told me to head for the Brandon Works, just a couple of minutes from the station, for a decent beer.  Alas, even at 11.07am, it was heaving with away fans as too were all the bars en route to the ground.  The Football Grounds Guide suggested the Fir Park Social Club next to the ground which was doing a good impression of Jessops when I arrived (i.e closed down).  I had to console myself with a new pair of football socks (£5 in the sale) and a greetings card that said “Get ‘Well Soon” before I headed into the ground.

26315943256_e18b61071e_zNot many people know that just over a year ago Motherwell manager Mark McGhee was sort-of assisting good-old Lewes FC in their quest for cup glory.  We had parted ways with our management team but had the small matter of a Sussex Senior Cup Semi-Final to prepare for.  McGhee, in his role as Assistant to Scottish National Team boss Gordon Strachan, living on the South Coast and a School run acquaintance of one of our directors agreed to help on a “let me give you a bit of my ample experience” basis – nothing formal you understand but a few pointers as to what we could be doing better.  We beat Loxwood 3-0 and that will forever see Mark immortalised as the most successful non-manager that we’ve ever had.

12 months later and McGhee is doing a fine job in what must be a less stressful environment than Sussex Non-League football.  Manager of the month for the second time in just a few months, Motherwell had more than held their own in the top half of the league, actually beating Celtic away earlier in the season.  Despite the futility of the league split in their current situation, pride meant that a top half finish was desired and that almost certainly meant needing a point, or more, against the champions elect.

My good friend Stoffers had told me prior to the games that I would “love” Fir Park and “hate” New Douglas Park.  Michael knows we well and he was not far from the truth.  Fir Park was rocking with noise as the two teams emerged.  Celtic had filled the gigantic South Stand with their voracious support, whilst the Motherwell band of hardcore fans in the corner nearest the visitors tried to raise the roof themselves.  Talking of roofs, on the opposite side of the pitch from me was the strange Main Stand, named after former captain Phil O’Donnell stand which according to Simon Inglis in his book ‘The Football Grounds Of Great Britain’, was supposed to run the full length of the pitch and the frame was built accordingly but due to a dispute with a an owner of a house beyond the corner of that ground (a dispute which the club lost) it was never completed as intended. And we thought NIMBY’s were a modern thing.

Motherwell 1 Celtic 2 – Fir Park – Saturday 9th April 2016
It was a case of what could have been as the full-time whistle blew.  The stats will show that the visitors dominated the game, with 23 attempts on goal to Motherwell’s 9, but it could have so nearly been a point apiece.  The hero and villain of the game was Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths who bagged two goals, one in each half, but missed an earlier penalty, given for a soft challenge on the promising Patrick Roberts.

25739132863_7471401bc0_zFor most of the first half it looked like Men versus Boys (as opposed to Bhoys).  Even the ultra-neutral BBC website said “Celtic lorded it early on”.  It’s fair to say that Motherwell keeper Connor Ripley was the Man of the Match, making a string of saves when Celtic threatened to run away with it.  Somehow they needed 44 minutes to open the scoring, with Griffiths finally getting his goal and then running the full length of the pitch, evading his team mates, shedding his shirt on the way to reveal a natty black sports bra thing and picking up a yellow card for his fashion show.  Pointless.

McGhee must have read to The Dossiers (surely one of the best football club nicknames ever) as they came out firing on all cylinders.  McDonald had the ball in the Celtic net on 55 minutes but a linesman’s flag denied them their goal. Five minutes later McDonald got his goal, against his old club, thumping the ball home from close range. A point was probably enough for Motherwell, but they could sniff all three.

26341900495_c604d81e8d_zCeltic’s players started to bicker among themselves.  Kazim-Richards should have seen red for his reaction to a challenge from a Motherwell player and nothing appeared to be going right for them.  The title was never in doubt – for them the small matter of a long-overdue Old Firm meeting in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final in eight days was on their mind.  However, Griffiths once again proved to be their saviour, finally beating Ripley to score the winner with fifteen minutes left.

“Well done ‘Well.  Blown it again” said a chap as we filed out of the ground.  Apparently, it now needed Partick Thistle, St Johnstone and Dundee all to lose for Motherwell to stay in the top half.  And that, as my new friend told me, was as likely to happen as “Lulu marrying the Pope”.

Hamilton Academicals 2 Dundee 1 – New Douglas Park – Saturday 9th April 2016
As you get off the train at Hamilton West you follow the path that runs along side the track to get to New Douglas Park.  You walk past Sainsbury’s which was built back in 1995 on the site of Douglas Park, Hamilton Academicals former home.  Despite the new ground having been open for nearly fifteen years, it is still only two-sided with skin-flint fans able to watch the whole game from the Sainsbury’s loading bays.  It simply doesn’t look right, and whilst the facilities are adequate for the club and its ambitions, the whole ground feels unfinished.

25739156553_1d6104a17a_zIt would be hard for even the most fanatical of fans to whip up an atmosphere here, especially in freezing cold and wet conditions but the Dundee fans tried.  After Motherwell’s defeat earlier they knew that a point could be enough for their top six finish, with Hamilton, without a win at home for six months, there for the taking.  Alas, it wasn’t until the final few minutes of this game that Dundee realised that when it was too late.

Hamilton started the brighter of the two sides and took the lead after fifteen minutes when Crawford turned the ball into the bottom corner of the net.  Ten minutes later they were 2-0 up when a harsh penalty was given against Extabeguren and Garica Tena scored from the spot.

25739155073_e114329094_zThe game wasn’t the best – in fact the most enjoyable aspect was watching the Hamilton “youths” in the main stand trying to flex their muscles with a group of stewards.  One accidentally knocked a cap off a steward and was meekly forced to go and fetch it.

Scores from elsewhere meant that Dundee now needed to win and they finally woke up with fifteen minutes to play.  The substitute Harkins scored at last with minutes to go but they needed a win rather than a draw to give them an unlikely boost back into the top six.

Alas, it was not to be and I joined the disappointed Dundee fans as they headed out of the ground, in the realisation they had nothing left to play for in the season.

Another successful mission accomplished in Scotland.  News of Lewes’s standard 2-2 draw didn’t fill me with joy but a couple of pints of Candy Kaiser in the Brewdog pub before I headed back to England soon put that right.

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).


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
FullSizeRender (7)
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.

So where could West Ham United be off to next?

The draw for the 3rd Qualifying Round of the Europa League will see West Ham head to either Scotland or deepest, darkest Romania assuming they avoid defeat next week in Malta.  After their first leg tie,  FC Astra Giurgiu hold a one goal advantage from the game at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and will probably be favourites to progress into the next round.  So what do we know about both potential opponents?

FC Astra Giugiu
The city of Giugiu sits on the banks of the Danube right on the Romanian border with Bulgaria.  It’s not really known as a tourist destination, with some heavy industry in and around the city, although the opportunity to visit two countries (the city of Ruse is on the other side of the river and connected via the Friendship Bridge) is too good an opportunity to miss.  The nearest airport is Bucharest, which is around 50 miles away.  If you pre-book a taxi you can get one from the airport for less than 50 each way.  There is also a number of bus companies that make the hour long journey for no more than a few pounds including Nelmatour and Autotrans Calatori.  Alternatively, Varna in Bulgaria is around a three hour drive away.   The best, and only real hotel in town, is the Best Western Bistra & Galina Hotel although you could hardly call this central.

Astra Giurgiu was known as Astra Ploiești until September 2012 when it was moved from Ploiești to Giurgiu, by owner Ioan Niculae.  The club play at the Marin Anastasovici Stadium , which was re-opened in 2012 and a nice, modern affair that holds just shy of 9,000.  Pleasingly it doesn’t have an athletics track around the pitch.  It is located a 15 minutes walk east of the main city centre, not far from the river bank.

Since their relocation, the cash investment from Niculae has become apparent as the club have finished in 4th, 2nd and then last season 4th again, their most successful spell in their history.  They made their European debut in 2013 when they got to the Play-Off round of the Europa League before they lost to Maccabi Haifa.  Last season they reached the group stages of the competition, beating Lyon on away goals along the way.  They were drawn in a tough group along with Red Bull Salzburg, Celtic and Dinamo Zagreb, consequently finishing in last place with four points.  Ranked 147th by UEFA this season, they entered the competition in the 2nd qualifying round with the game away at Inverness Caledonian Thistle where where captain Constantin Budescu’s first half goal gave them the lead over the tie.

The majority of their squad is Romanian, including international capped goal keeper Silviu Lung and defender Gabriel Enache.  They also have a bevvy of Portuguese players including Filipe Teixeira who had a couple of seasons in England with West Brom and Barnsley.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Thistle’s European debut against Astra didn’t exactly go the way they planned, and now they will be desperate for a positive result in Romania to get the money-spinning tie against West Ham (assuming The Hammers can avoid defeat in Malta).  Last season was the pinnacle in a long-hard slog for the club, formed after the merger of Inverness Thistle and Caledonian FC twenty years ago.  Not only did they finish in third place but they also won the Scottish Cup for the first time, beating Falkirk at Hampden Park.  John Hughes’ squad is dominated by Englishmen, with half of his twenty-two man pack being from across the border.  Last season’s top scorer Billy McKay left to join Wigan Athletic in January.

The Tulloch Caledonian Stadium has a capacity of just under 8,000 but that would be reduced for the game should we play against Thistle.  The ground sits on the banks of the Moray Firth which means the wind plays a big part in the flow of the game.   The ground has been developed over recent years as their place in the top flight of Scottish football has been assured.  Each side now has a covered stand, with the Main Stand facing the Moray.   This all seated stand, is is partly covered. At one end is the Bridge End, which is an all seated covered stand whilst the South Stand, is a similar looking all seated stand, that is given to away supporters.   It is a fifteen minute walk up Longman Road from the centre of the city to the ground or 5 minutes in a taxi.  Inverness station is about a mile away from the ground, which is about a 20 minute walk away. On leaving Inverness station follow the signs for the car park and bus station (going along Railway Terrace). Cross through the car park, keeping the bus station on your left and on your right you can see a bridge crossing the railway line. Go across the bridge and then continue straight ahead along Longman Road. Eventually you will reach the stadium on your left.

Inverness is the most nothernly city in the British Isles and is a popular tourist destination, sitting in the middle of some beautiful countryside and at the mouth of Loch Ness.  There are hotels and guesthouses a-plenty for those planning to make the trip as well as plenty of watering holes.

The nearest airport is Inverness Dalcross 8 miles north-east of the city centre.  Only Easyjet fly the route from London, with departures from Gatwick and Luton daily.  Alternatively, you could fly to Aberdeen and then get the 2 1/2 hour train to Inverness.

Birmingham banish the Blues and send the Scots packing

Making a welcome return as the new season is about to get underway, is Brian Parish, one half of the Daggers Diary team.  His first assignment – get to Birmingham and home again to see the Super Caley Thistle.

I am never quite sure about what to make of the Pre-season friendly games that take place at this time of year. Criteria that I apply to other teams never apply to my own, and while there are times when I reckon that opposition have played quite well, I am never that optimistic about my own team.

Of course, if you haven’t seen your usual football buddies over the summer, then these types of games are ideal for catching up. There have been many games in July, where a group of us have gone along and had only a passing interest in the game going on on front of us. I know of many that will refuse to attend friendly games and there are times when I can see why.

Today marks the one week to go stage, before the Football League gets going with its first round of games. The daggers are at home today in a fixture against a Tottenham xi, which if the premier league and Greg Dyke gets their way, could become a league fixture in the not too distant future. I have decided though that I am not going to pay to watch a possible Spurs reserve side, and so have taken the decision to travel to the midlands in order to get another ground tick, and to watch my Scottish team, Inverness.

A year ago, I had been to one ground in the midlands, which given my history of watching football, was a massive oversight on my behalf. I had been to Coventry (both at Highfield Road and the Ricoh), but nowhere else. Last October, I finally got to see Wolves at Molyneux, but I am still missing out on Aston Villa, Birmingham, West Bromwich Albion, as well as Walsall. The last of those is particularly annoying as the daggers have played them a few times in recent years, but the arranged date for the game has always clashed with something else.

photoLuckily I am going to be able to tick Birmingham City off the list today. A return train ticket of £18.50 from London Euston has persuaded me to make the journey, as well as the match ticket being only £7.

Saturday 2nd August 2014, Birmingham City v Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St. Andrews

Looking at Birmingham from outside he club, last season looked to be a right old struggle. Maintaining their status in the Championship division was probably not what most had in minds when the campaign started a year ago. With relegation avoided, it is to be hoped that the club can move further up the table this year, and not give their support quite so many sleepless nights.
For Caley thistle, 2013/14 will go down as the year that they made their first major cup final, and although it ended in defeat on penalties to Aberdeen, there was plent to be pleased about. There have been no major departures over the summer, and while Richie Foran will miss the start of the season, the club have to be looking at trying to finally crack a top four place. Continue reading