2016 – A year in football


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

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

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

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

Glentoran – The Oval

30121617471_f88270985f_k-1

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

Athletic Bilbao – San Mamés

30137706163_dd6feb0214_k

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

Olympique Marseille – Stade Vélodrome

27641166695_ed5ab69520_k

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

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

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

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

 

Athletic Bilbao 5 KRC Genk 3
30736490366_3fc05340db_k
It’s not often that you see one player dominate one game to so much of an extent as Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz did in this Europa League tie back in November at the San Mamés but anyone who scores five goals in a game deserved all the respect of world football.  Granted he scored a hatrick of penalties given by Martin Atkinson but he could have five or six more goals from open play.  The game ebbed and flowed, with both teams committed to trying to win the game.  Add in a few yellow cards and a decent atmosphere in an outstanding stadium and it is up there with one of the best games I’ve seen in recent years.

Here’s to 2017….

 

Advertisements

A tale of two cities – Part 2 – Belfast


15071508454_f1523fba47_oA week after leaving Ireland I was touching down again, this time north of the border at George Best Airport, named after one of Belfast’s greatest sons.  Best was born forty years too early.  His antics at the height of his career would have hardly raised an eyebrow in today’s media spotlight dominated game, where anything and everything is expected and accepted from the modern-day footballer. In fact people may have concentrated on his footballing genius more rather than his off-the-field behaviour and his career may have been prolonged.

My abiding memory of my first trip to Belfast back in 1999 was sitting on a bus with the Current Mrs Fuller reading names out of a baby book whilst a group of school girls told us which would be their favourites, CMF was pregnant with our first-born at the time so it was par for the course that we headed overseas for the weekend and walked miles around a city that was going through radical change. Faced with the transition of our life for the next 20 years into responsible parenting, we crammed in as many trips abroad as we could handle and afford.

Belfast was a very different place back then. The shipyards of Harland and Wolf were in decline, the great history of building The Titanic an inconvenient truth of a once glorious industry. It still wasn’t recommended to wander down the Falls or Shankill Roads and the police stations still looked like watchtowers in prisoner of war camps. We wandered the city centre, enjoying the last few weeks of adult irresponsibility, eating well, drinking well (or at least I did) and then headed down to Ravenhill to watch the then European Rugby Champions and pride of Northern Ireland, Ulster, take on Wasps.

Earlier this season I started writing a new regular column for the Lewes FC match programme. Entitled Rooking All Over The World, I tried to find a club playing in every UEFA country that wore a similar red and black striped kit. Not as easy as it first seems. Eintract Frankfurt, OGC Nice, IP Brommapojkarna in Sweden and Belfast’s own Crusaders FC. Any club that plays at a ground called Seaview, where there isn’t actually a view of the sea is a winner in my book. I imaged every week some Basil Fawlty character fending off complains from visiting fans about the lack of a sea view, pointing out if they cared to climb the floodlights with a pair of binoculars then you could just make it out over there, between the land and the sky.

So why Seaview? Well this was the first question I asked Crusaders Media manager Michael Long when I met him at lunch time before the game versus Warrenpoint Town. It’s always a lottery when you try to connect with a club before a visit. Some simply ignore requests, others request all manner of documents to prove your identity and credentials and then there are clubs like Crusaders who couldn’t have been more accommodating, inviting me up to the ground early doors for a tour and a history lesson. And what a lesson it was. Pride oozes out of every pore of Long’s body at being involved in the club he has supported since a child. Crusaders are a fan-owned club – of course they are, all the best teams sporting the black and red always are. The rebirth of the club is almost identical to the story of Lewes Football Club in the last few years, from almost financial ruin at the hands of the taxman to a thriving community club, owned by the fans, run by the fans.

15500117378_77007885ba_o“Back in the day” Michael had taken me behind the East Stand where the perimeter wall separated the football ground from the train line, “the water used to be on the other side of the wall. The view from the main stand would be of ships coming in and out of the shipyards”. Today the land has been reclaimed and now there is the M2 motorway and an industrial estate on the other side of the railway tracks. The club have made the most of grants to build a decent little ground, but is this where their future lay?”

“We drew up plans to move a few miles north to Fort William”, which is now where the core of their support come from “but the process has been problematic and we are now back at square one”. With crowds for most games hovering around the 1,200 mark and some excellent facilities, including the 3G pitch, that have turned the club into a 7-day a week business, some fans may not see a need to move anywhere. But Long once again talked about progression on and off the pitch, and you could get the sense that the club do not see standing still as an option. Michael gave me the full tour with genuine pride. Whilst the names of the famous players from yesteryear were new to me, his animated story-telling brought them.

The club also hold a record in British football. In 1979 when they hosted Cliftonville in an Ulster Cup match there were over 1,900 police officers on duty in and around Seaview, more than have ever been involved at a football match on British soil. More than Cardiff City v Swansea City, Millwall v West Ham or even Lewes v Peacehaven & Telscombe.

15500194207_8de1337319_oThe two clubs are separated by just 1.5 miles although in Belfast terms that is a big divide, especially in the North and West of the city. The rivalry of the two clubs was heightened during The Troubles with Crusaders having a traditional Unionist following whilst Cliftonville are based in the mainly Nationalist areas. What was clear though is the huge amounts of work the two clubs have undertaken in their respective communities to reduce the tensions. In two weeks the real proof would be in the pudding as Cliftonville would be visiting Seaview for what promised to be a top of the table clash.

Life is good at Seaview at the moment. The club is progressing with redevelopment plans that have seen two new stands constructed at either end of Seaview in recent years, new floodlights as well as the real golden goose, the 3G pitch which is used every day of the year. Yep, even Christmas Day when the club hosts the annual Steel and Sons Cup Final match which can attract thousands of fans, fed up with Christmas Jumpers and sprouts boiled to death.

My lofty position atop the Main Stand certainly gave me a good view of the rooftops of Belfast and the massive cranes at Harland and Wolff but damn it was chilly. 24 hours earlier we’d had tropical temperatures of nearly 24 degrees in London but now it was gloves and scarf weather, neither of which I owned. Schoolboy error in these parts where it’s essential to pack for all four seasons in a day. Plan B deployed – chips with chicken gravy – it’s what all the kool kids were eating in North Belfast.

Crusaders 3 Warrenpoint Town 0 – Seaview – Saturday 1st November 2014
Unsurprising the opening exchanges all took place in the Warrenpoint half. The visitors from on the border with Southern Ireland arrived propping up the league with just 8 points and fell behind with jut 12 minutes in the clock when centre-forward Jordan Owens stroked the ball home from close range. Five minutes later Owens missed a sitter when cleverly put through by the impressive Whyte. The artificial surface certainly suited the Hatchet Men’s play, building from the back and constantly looking for the pass behind the centre-backs. The torrential rain didn’t make it easy but as a spectator you always had that feeling that it would lead to a calamitous mistake at some point in the afternoon.

15066039943_6ffe305641_oWarrenpoint came back into the game with false nine (wearing 10 of course) Stephen Hughes creating a few chances as the half wound up. In keeping with being one of the nicest clubs in the world I was invited into the boardroom at half-time for a hot sausage or two and heralded as a guest of honour by the Chairman. In fact everyone I was introduced to seemed to know of me. It was like the episode of Only Fools and Horses (again I know) where Rodney brings a video camera home from college and Del starts selling roles in his play to the regulars in the Nags Head.

Crusaders came out for the second half all guns blazing again, knowing that a 1-0 scoreline was far too dangerous to hold onto when the conditions were so poor. In the philosophy of John Beck, it doesn’t matter what a goal looks like, you only get one point for it on the scoreboard. And he is right. Crusaders second was as ugly as Iain Dowie in a Halloween mask. Owens shot from point-blank range was well saved by the Warrenpoint keeper, the rebound hit a defender then Owen again before O’Carroll got his shin to it and it rolled into the net. Fortunately number three, scored in the 67th minute was better looking (think Holly Willoughby as an air stewardess…….oh, sorry) as Owen drilled the ball home from 25 yards.

15685506195_03090187e1_oCrusaders had their tails up but couldn’t find another goal. A three-nil win kept them in the leading pack and everyone happy in the boardroom after the game. It had been a top afternoon, spent in the company of fellow devotees to a club at the heart of their community.  Now to negotiate the trip back into the city centre in the pouring rain.

My hotel was in the University district meaning that it was over run by fake zombies and girls wearing lingerie and a smattering of fake blood…oh, and a group of boys dressed as One Direction – “the ultimate scary sight” as one reveller told me. Fast forward twelve hours and the dregs of the Halloween celebrators were not enjoying the beautiful, crisp Sunday morning with the sun illuminating the carnage of the night before. The irony of seeing a chap, dressed as Dracula, sitting on the steps of a church wasn’t lost on me although I’m sure he wouldn’t get a particularly warm welcome from the congregation.

Belfast had been brilliant. Come prepared for rain, sleet, snow and sunshine and you cannot fail to enjoy yourself. Despite being just a hundred or so miles apart, the two capital cities of Belfast and Dublin offer two different views on life and above all football. Whilst the fan exodus continues to take place every Saturday, you get the feeling that football is in ruder health North of the border and clubs are learning to adapt and grow, whereas in the South, the competition posed by the more traditional Irish sports is simply a war of fan attention that the club’s simply cannot win