And so the countdown starts


So after a break of just 5 days it was time to get back into the swing of a new season.  And what better way to kick off proceedings than a trip to The Boleyn Ground, London E13.  None of this pre-season friendly malarkey either – this would be a full-blooded European game, played in front of a capacity crowd.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_h35,000 tickets had been snapped up in less than 4 days – that’s simply incredible.  If this was a second round league cup game against a smaller team then a crowd of 15,000 would be considered good, in four weeks they host Werder Bremen in a friendly and will be happy with a crowd of over 10,000, so why has the Boleyn sold out in almost record time for the visit of the second best team in Andorra, and sit in 411th spot in the UEFA rankings. The attendance would be over 100 times that of a normal club game for Lusitanos. That’s the magic of European football.

West Ham fans know that the club are lucky to be in the tournament, having qualified through a back door route that has now been permanently shut by UEFA.  But there is a generation of fans who have never experienced the thrill or excitement of a European Tour.  It’s been nine years since we played just two games in the UEFA Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to a strong Palermo side, before that it was over fifteen years ago to the halcyon days of the Intertoto Cup.  Fans too young to remember the games against Jokerit, Heerenveen and Metz now have their passports at the ready.  We’ve seen our London rivals Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal all enjoy season after season of European trips, to an extent that some fans now take it for granted.  We’ve also seen the contempt that some clubs have for playing in the competition, something that in cases like Hull City have backfired in the worst possible sense.

Then there is the new manager factor.  Bilic was a popular choice, being an old player and all that but it’s probably fair to say the (long overdue) appointment of club legend Julian Dicks to his backroom staff that has really got the Hammers excited.  The “never say die” and “win at all costs” mentality that has been sadly lacking for a number of seasons.  Bilic technically wasn’t in charge yet, that honour was with Development Squad coach Terry Westley but he would undoubtably be paraded in front of the sell-out crowd, sending the bubbles machines into a fury.

19362983675_89e4515eb1_zOf course there is the nostalgic element too.  This is the last season at the Boleyn and general sale tickets come the start of the season will be at a premium.  So fans have taken the opportunity to get a game in whilst they can.  And for once, I’m actually going to praise the club with their ticket pricing – there can certainly be no complaints of affordability for this game – less than the price of two pints of beer in the bar across the road from work in Canary Wharf.  On my world-famous Ticketobeer ratio, a price of £10 sits firmly in the green zone.

It may also be the lure of the visitors.  As far as my extensive research went, I cannot see any games played in the last twenty years between an Andorran team and an English side.  If there has been one somewhere it’s pretty fair to say the English team would have won.  Andorra are ranked 48th in European footballing terms, with out Armenia and Gibraltar below them.  Their record in the past five years of European club competition reads P 37 W 1 D 3 L 33. FC Santa Coloma hold the distinction of that solitary win (and – of the three draws) after beating the Armenian side Barants 1-0 a year ago.  New club sponsor Betway were being a little bit charitable by only offering 2/1 on there being more than 7.5 goals in the game, although 50/1 on a Lusitanas win was probably priced about right. As Saint and Greavsie used to say, “It’s a funny old game”.

18740470144_f19aa069cb_zWhilst there had been undoubtable honour in being granted a Europa League spot, the timing couldn’t have been worse.  New boss Bilic only had the first team squad for a few days of initial first team training in Ireland before it was time to pick his first squad. Despite being 50/1 to win the cup, West Ham fancied their chances of a decent run in the competition.  To get to the final though would be a mammoth 22 games played over 45 weeks.  To stand any chance you essentially need two squads of players, something a club of West Ham’s size could never do.

Stepping out of the tube station at Upton Park is an assault on the senses.  Claret and Blue everywhere, the shouts of programme and fanzine sellers, mixed with ticket touts and half ‘n’ scarf sellers (with our opponents name spelt wrong) competing for the title of the scourge of the modern game.  The Queens, one of the most famous West Ham pubs, Ken’s Cafe and London’s Best Buger (sic) all trying to entice you in.  Football is more relaxed these days.  Fans buy their beer from the numerous off licences down Green Street and sit on the walls of the houses and shops, enjoying the summer sunshine. Families make their way into the ground, clutching carrier bags from the shop where the special “farewell to the Boleyn” replica shirt is setting the tills ringing at £49.99 a piece.
A quick “Mad Dog” from the cafe in the wall on the South East corner of the ground (sausage in French bread with bacon and cheese – named after Martin Allen) and it was time to squeeze through the turnstiles designed for Kate Moss and take my seat, designed for Bridget the Midget, ready for the start of the final season at the ground I’d be coming to for 40 years.

West Ham United 3 Lusitanos FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 2nd July 2015
So this is a difficult one to call.  There’s no doubt, despite the whole “there’s no easy game in football” rubbish that West Ham will now be in the next round of the competition, but the manner of victory was hardly emphatic.  But, who really remembers the score or margin of victory when you are a few rounds in? Deep down the capacity crowd were hoping to see a hatful of goals.  Perhaps if they would have got the ball into the Lusitanos penalty area quicker for Sakho and Zarate instead of some possession play in midfield that often went nowhere it might have been a different story.  But we have to bear in mind that this was the first game of a very long season, one that’s started whilst many other clubs players haven’t even started their summer holidays yet, let alone pre-season.

19363026465_b81c0ba7f9_kFirstly the positives – despite one shot from the kick off after West Ham had taken the lead, the Andorrans didn’t trouble debutant Randoph in the Hammers goal.  They back four looked assured and it was great to see Reece Oxford, the youngest ever player to play for the first team, just 16 years and 198 days old, looking so assured on the ball. A number of other youngsters were also blooded by temporary boss Terry Westley including second half subs Elliott Lee and Josh Cullen.  A three-nil victory flattered the opposition, although they couldn’t be accused of suffering stage fright on their biggest night of their lives.
West Ham made hard work of the first half, trying to overplay at times with Zarate and Almafitano dancing around the defence but failing to deliver an end product.  Matt Jarvis was the stand-out player in the first period, beating his man time and time again, creating the chances for Sakho.  The Andorrans had come with a whole book full of time-wasting tactics, none better than the all too often triple pike, double somersault reaction to some soft challenges, although the referee was having none of it and they simply disgraced themselves with the histrionix on such a big stage.
Sakho picked up where he left last season, grabbing two first half goals whilst Tompkins added a third with a well-taken second half header.  It could and should have been more with Cullen hitting the bar late on, by which time most fans had left the ground to join the half-mile long queue for the tube.
18740427314_9da2111cb4_kSitting in the old East Stand upper tier certainly gave me a great view of the action but also put into context just how bad the facilities are.  Cramped seats, obstructed views, narrow concourses.  You can’t help think that the Boleyn is still a magnificent venue on three sides, perfectly adequate for the club. Yet on the east side of the ground there is room for a redeveloped East Stand.  The club has always insisted this isn’t a viable option yet opinion is still divided on the relocation.  Nobody wants to stand in the way of progress but likewise it seems such a shame to throw away the history of a ground that with a smallish investment could be ideal.  So many local businesses will suffer massively when West Ham move out – community is a big word these days in football and it does feel in some ways as if West Ham have won the lottery and will be moving out of their council terrace house and into a detached on a posh estate.  Of course they won’t forget their old friends – it’s just they don’t want to be reminded of them once they move.
Next up, Andorra away, for arguably the principalities biggest ever football match. Alas, with only 450 tickets on offer I’d be watching this one online.

 

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So where are we going – First Qualifying Round – Andorra


FC Lusitans – Estadi Comunal d’Andorra la Vella – Andorra La Vella

I’m sure we’ve all read the Wikipedia page about FC Lusitan about their Portuguese heritage and all that useful relevant information for the hundreds/thousands of West Ham fans who may decide to make the trip to Europe’s highest capital.  Alas, with a population around the same size of Chesham or Seaham (basically around the equivalent of the 469th biggest place in the United Kingdom), it’s not a place that will keep many football fans engaged for long, despite the promises of the tourist office that remind us that:- “There are many places to see in this city from the old buildings to the majestic view of the Pyrenees mountains. A good idea would be to take your digital camera along to capture some beautiful pictures.”

Essentially, once you’ve seen the (stone) bridge, (stone) buildings, (stone) church and (stone) stone in the middle of the Plaça del Poble you will need a beer.  Fortunately the town has, quite literally one or two bars including La Birreria in Carrer de la Vall, L’Abadia Cerveceria and Barria Antic Pub in Cap Del Carrer.  The one thing Andorra has got is hotel rooms by the bucket-loads.  As one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe, there will be plenty of choice for the travelling Hammers as the winter-sports hotels will be rubbing their hands at the biggest summer pay day in their history.

It is expected that we will play at the 850-capacity Estadi Comunal d’Andorra la Valle which acts as the regional stadium used by Perimera Divisió FC and US Santa Coloma, Penya Encarnada d’Andorra as well as FC Lusitans.  It is possible that the game may be played two miles up the road at the bigger national stadium, Estadi Nacional d’Andorra where Wales played in front of a sell out 3,100 crowd.  The smaller stadium, as you would expect with such a harsh alpine climate, is a 3G whilst the single main stand wouldn’t look out of place in the lower reaches of our Non-Leagues.  That’s not meant to be disrespectful in any way – it is perfectly adequate for domestic purposes, whilst the national team have dispensation to host bigger nations in Barcelona, Girona or Toulouse all around 3 hours away by road.

Talking of roads, there isn’t any other way in or out of the principality other than by car, coach or bus.  Most fans fans will undoubtably land at Barcelona El Prat Airport which is around 130 miles away.  Don’t expect to be able to do the trip in anything less than 3 hours – it’s pretty twisty and turny all the way up the Pyrannes. Girona, used as a hub by Ryanair is around the same distance/time away but there are less transfer options.  Alternatively, Toulouse is a few miles closer on the other side of the mountains but time-wise it’s still around three hours drive.

Andorrabybus.com offer coach transfers from Barcelona Airport every two hours from 8am to 8pm returning daily from Andorra from 5am to 3pm at the same interval, costing €56 return. They also offer two departures per day to/from Girona and Toulouse respectively.

So what can we expect from our opponents? They blew a huge opportunity to grab the title they won in 2012 and 2013 by only taking five points from their last five games, allowing FC Santa Coloma to nip in and gain the championship as well as a place in the Champions League qualifying.their European pedigree isn’t exactly red hot, gaining one draw (at home to Faroe Islanders EB Streymur last season) and losing seven games including a 8-0 spanking in 2012 against Valletta of Malta.

Thirty nine year old Óscar Sonejee is the Lusitans rock at the back and has plenty of experience and is Andorra’s most capped player with 101 international appearances.  The Portuguese influences can be seen in the 15 or so Portuguese nationals that Lusitanos will likely be able to choose from.  

With just a few UEFA nations yet to watch a game in I couldn’t be happier drawing one of the two teams who were in the draw from Andorra.  Dates are still to be confirmed as fellow UE Sant Julià de Lòria have also been drawn at home in the first leg just up the road in the Camp d’Esports d’Aixovall against the Danes of Randers.

* Now confirmed as the 9th July