Introducing “The Handful”


30472575510_055cfb20d1_kOne is one

Two is a brace

Three is a hatrick

Four is a haul

So how do you refer to someone who scores five in a game? I asked my esteemed colleagues from the Spanish and Belgian press who sat either side of me in the San Mamés stadium at full-time on Thursday night, but neither seemed to know either.  “A handful?” was the best we came up with as we headed down to the press conference to see if either manager knew….they didn’t.

The player in question was the veteran Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz who had just scored all five goals in the Europa League tie against KRC Genk.  Granted three had been penalty kicks, awarded by English referee Martin Atkinson, but Aduriz could and should have added a couple more.  He was simply head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch.

Let’s rewind a few hours to when I touched down at Bilbao Airport.  I’d replaced the standard English Autumnal fayre of “drizzle” with beautiful, hot sunshine.  For the second week in a row, I was going to be watching football somewhere that was officially “hotter than Greece”.  I was here in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe to visit the new San Mamés stadium for the first time, officially the 2015 Best Stadium in the World at the World Architectural Festival in Singapore no less as well as have an afternoon of bar hopping and sampling some Pintxos, the Basque version of Tapas that is taken so seriously in these parts.

I loaded up with some culture on arrival in the city centre, braving the 45 metre high Vizcaya Bridge walkway across the River Nervion and even went into the Guggenheim Museum, the focal point for all of the regeneration of the city.  I say “went in”, I just visited the gift shop, bought a fridge magnet and left.  I like a Van Gogh like the rest of you, but some of the more “abstract” pieces that were on display would just get me annoyed.  I remember visiting the museum with CMF for the first time 15 years ago and creating that family favourite game “Art or not”, where we tried to guess whether our concept of art, such as a fire extinguisher or a plug socket held as much merit as some of the exhibits.  Of course they did.

The opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 was the defibrillator that the region needed though. Over €500 million was generated for the region in just a few years as over 4 million tourists visited the museum. The regional council estimated that the money visitors spent on hotels, restaurants, shops and transport allowed it to collect €100 million in taxes, which more than paid for the building cost. In economic theory terms, the Return on Investment was bat-shit crazy and everyone benefited, whether it was the bars and restaurants who went Pintxos crazy, the regeneration projects along the Nervion River or the football club who eventually got to swap the historic, but very dated San Mamés stadium, for a stunning new version complete with retractable roof and 50,000+ seats.

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My afternoon was spent in a number of bars around the Old Town with a group of Genk fans who I had bumped into.  We traded football stories – me selling them the concept of the Lewes beach huts, them trying to explain how on earth the Belgian end of season Play-offs worked.  Two hours later, and several 7% plus beers down the line and I was still none-the-wiser. Last season’s eventual 4th place finish had been enough to see the club enter the Europa League where they made light work in qualifying to reach the group stages.  Two wins (both at home including a 2-0 victory over Athletic Club a few weeks ago) saw them top the group but with five of the six games in the group going with home advantage so far, a win for the home side could technically see them leapfrog Genk before the end of the night.

30141331984_6f2b21c887_kWe stopped off for a bit of a sing-song in Plaza Moyua in the heart of the city centre where the fans at least resisted the temptation to not do “an England” as one fan put it to me and jump in the fountain.  It was a very good-natured affair with some Athletic Club fans passing by stopping to share a drink and a chat in sign-language – a Limburgish dialect of Dutch and a local version of Basque made for an interesting mix.  The group started to migrate westwards a couple of hours before kick off along Gran Via and towards the stadium.  As we reached the inner ring road I headed right to find my hotel, which had inconveniently been built slap-bang next to the stadium.  Well, technically, the new stadium had been built next to it, almost within touching distance from my hotel room.

There’s something very satisfying about staying in a hotel so close to a ground.  For a start on a matchday the security on the door makes you feel like a VIP (unless you forget your room card as I did once at The Croke Park hotel in Dublin when the Irish hosted Italy and I had to wait for an hour to get back in), you also have that smug feeling when the full-time whistle blows that you will have a beer in your hand before most fans have made it onto a bus or a train and of course you can you the staple line when checking in of “is there a match on tonight?” – gets them every time.

30137697553_7f44587bb0_kRefreshed, revived and ready for action I picked up my accreditation, which simply referred to me as “The Football Tourist” and headed up to the press box ready to see if Athletic Club could get themselves back in the group or will the Belgians take a massive step towards qualification.

I would have imagined that a delegation from White Hart Lane had headed over to Bilbao to understand how the club built the new stadium whilst playing in the old one next door.  The old ground ran North to South, pressed up against Calles Des Briñas and the supporters bars opposite.  Construction on the new ground, which would run East to West started in 2010 after the demolition of the old Trade Fair site.  With three of the four sides constructed over the next few years whilst games continued in the old ground, the club was able to take up residence “next door” with the first game played there in September 2013.  They then demolished the old ground, finished off the east stand and today it is one of the finest sights in football, up there with the Allianz Arena in Munich or The Dripping Pan.

Athletic Club Bilbao 5 KRC Genk 3 – Estadio San Mamés – Thursday 3rd November 2016
Aduriz will of course grab all of the headlines for his five-star performance but Genk certainly played their part with a never say die attitude which up until the 90th minute saw them pressing for an equaliser.  English referee Martin Atkinson manage to award three penalties, by his own admission something he hadn’t done in a game for years, all of which were converted by the veteran Bilbao striker.

It wasn’t the best of games to start with to be honest, with neither team prepared to risk everything going forward.  The turning point came in the 8th minute with a goal of simplicity for the home side.  Cross from the left, nod back across the six yard box by Garcia and Aduriz nipped in and toe-poked it home.  One became two with the first penalty award in the 23rd minute after Muniain was tripped.  No complaints about the foul but Aduriz’s stutter in the run up to take the kick looked very much like it breached the new rules.  2-0

30736490366_3fc05340db_kFive minutes later and Genk, roared on by their fans get back into the game when the impressive Leon Bailey slots home after a neat through ball. 2-1.  García runs into the box and is blocked by a Genk defender.  Home fans appeal for a corner, Atkinson gives a penalty, with replays showing he got that spot on.  Aduriz steps up, stutters and sends the keeper the wrong way. 3-1.

Half-time and a chance to grab our breath.  Four goals, four booking.  Not bad entertainment.

The second half continued in the same vein.  Aduriz missed a golden opportunity in the first minute before Buffel turns the Athletic defence inside out, crosses to Ndidi and his header flies into the top corner.  3-2.

However, Genk can’t build on that goal and with fifteen minutes left Alvarez’s perfect ball between the centre-backs sees Aduriz race onto it and slot home for his fourth.  4-2.  But back come Genk, as Bailey goes on a mazy run and is thwarted as he is about to pull the trigger but the ball falls to Sušic who slots home. 4-3.

Athletic continue to press and could have quite easily added a fifth before in injury time Atkinson points to the spot again as Ndidi fouls the impressive Athletic substitute Williams and Aduriz does his thing again. 5-3 and full-time. Eight goals from just nine attempts on goal.  In the style of Opta Joe, “clinical”.

The win, coupled with the draw between Rapid Wein and Sussolo means that the four teams are separated by just 1 point with two games to play.  A win for Athletic in their final home game against the Italian’s, assuming they can avoid a heavy defeat in Vienna should be enough to see them through.

I sat in on the press conference, unable to understand a word but felt I should be there, before heading to one of the supporter’s bars opposite the stadium to join up with the Genks fans I’d met earlier.  They were disappointed with the result, blaming me as an Englishman because Martin Atkinson was English too.  Harsh. I told Atkinson that when I bumped into him at Bilbao airport the following morning, narrowly avoiding a booking for dissent.  The Spanish press certainly didn’t have a bad word to say about his performance, nor did they for Athletic Club’s best night in European football for many-a-year.

Bilbao is right up there with the best places to go to watch football in.  A cracking city that is certainly on the up with a vibrant bar scene, excellent food and some really genuine football fans.  The team is more than just a football club – it represents the hopes and beliefs of a whole region.  Some may question their policy of recruitment but it hasn’t done them bad so far and in year’s to come with the new stadium generating more revenue opportunities perhaps they can break the dominance of Real and Barca in Spain.  Without hope we have nothing.

 

Just who made the decision to play that side?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail


Two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of tactics and what appeared to be a naivety in the way West Ham approached their first leg Europa League tie against the Maltese team Birkirkara.  With an injury time, fortuitous goal being the only thing that separated the two teams as they headed for Malta, there was an assumption that The Hammers would raise their game on the night and comfortably progress.  After all, no English team had ever lost to a Maltese side in European competition, and the odds on a West Ham defeat were still as long as South Eastern Trains running my train on time for a week.  But West Ham once again showed their lack of discipline, and what appeared to be once again a lack of preparation.  Tomkins became the second West Ham player in this season’s competition to be sent off for an “off the ball” incident, with Noble incredibly lucky not to follow him for some pathetic, childish behaviour, mocking Birkirkara’s Fabrizio Miccoli for his weight (all captured on camera)…Miccoli’s response was to score the only goal of the game.

Fortunately, the only credit (bar the support from the fans) The Hammers could take from the game was their ability to take penalties meaning they progressed into the Third Qualifying Round by the skin of their teeth.  Drawn to play Romanian side FC Astra Giurgui you would expect Bilic to have learnt his lesson, prepared correctly and told the team to keep their discipline..right.

FullSizeRender (2)Once again the fans took advantage of the £10 tickets.  There is a lesson here for all clubs.  Whilst it has been nearly a decade since the fans tasted European football, it is clearly the right thing to do to bring in potential new fans or those simply priced out of the Premier League games.  Two interesting side points to this.  Despite marketing the fact (to death already) that this is the Club’s last season at The Boleyn, the first two home games have not yet sold out despite being on general sale.  Perhaps it is the fact that the cheapest ticket is £42 (and £25 for an Under16), or that potentially the games may move from their 3pm on a Saturday slot due to progress in the Europa League.  The second will be the crowd for the friendly game on Sunday versus Werder Bremen.  The last pre-season friendly has traditionally been played at The Boleyn, always versus a foreign side and nearly always for some strange-named cup.  This Sunday it is the Betway Cup (Last season West Ham beat Sampdoria in the Marathonbet Cup) with ticket prices £20 for Adults (£15 for STH) – it will be interesting to see how many will come to that game.

IMG_5164Bilic shuffled his team around for this game against FC Astra with new signings Angelo Ogbonna and Dimitri Payet coming in for their home debuts, whilst James Collins replaced the suspended James Tomkins.  In midfield youngster Reece Oxford was given another chance after performing so well in the first round against the Andorrans.  The Romanians had filled their section of the stadium, their number boosted by locals from London.  They are on an upward trajectory thanks to the investment in the club by owner Ioan Niculae, who bought the club in 2010 and moved them from Ploiești to Giurgiu in 2012.  Whilst this was potentially the biggest game in their history, they weren’t coming to London just to make up the numbers.

West Ham United 2 FC Astra Giurgui 2 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 30th July 2015
It was as if West Ham had learnt nothing from the four games already played in this competition in the end and the boos that echoed around the stadium at full-time suggested that the fans felt the same.  Yes you could put it down to a “bad day in the office” but that would be the third bad day in a row with no idea how to make it better.  The icing on the cake was Bilic’s dismissal from the technical area near the end.  Quite why he got himself is a mystery in a game which wasn’t dirty nor did the officials get much wrong.  Worrying early signs of a temperament issue?

Two-nil up and in control of the game and we f@#k it up…royally.  It could have been worse I suppose.  We could have lost.  But the complete lack of discipline, tactical awareness and reliance on a striker that gives us all hope we could still play in the Premier League lays bare the fact the Hammers simply got this all wrong, again.

FullSizeRenderThe first half domination was plain to see as corner after corner was delivered into the box.  It wasn’t a question of if but when they would score.  Valencia finally broke the deadlock with a smart header before departing on a stretcher after a nasty fall.  With Carroll on permanent sick leave and Sakho still suspended from his lack of discipline in Andorra, the only real option was Maiga.  That is worrying for the season ahead.  Still, if we need an attacking midfielder we are fine – we can field a full XI of those at the moment as the club seem reluctant to sell any of them.

The second half started well with Zarate dancing through the defence before slotting home a fine second goal for The Hammers.  Then it all went wrong.  Yellow’s for Noble (no surprise), Payat and Collins as the West Ham domination failed to materialise into any further changes.  Then Collins picked up a second yellow and off he went.  Three red cards in five games.  Whilst there is irony in the fact of how we got into the competition, it more importantly shows the lack of discipline and awareness of how playing European opponents differs from Premier League teams.

Within minutes the Romanians were back in the game when Boldrin’s stunning strike from distance cannoned off Adrian’s bar and over the line.  Many of the West Ham fans could not help applauding – it was a superb strike.  The visitors grew in confidence, forcing corner after corner before Ogbonna headed into his own net ten minutes later to level the tie.

Despite having over 66% of possession, 15 shots on target and 15 corners West Ham travel to deepest, darkest Romania in a week’s time knowing they have to out score their opponents.  A draw will see The Hammers exit the competition and potentially the last chance to play in Europe for a very long time.  That regret may take a while to sink in.

So how do they prepare for next week?  For starters, watch this game time and time again.  Look at how the Romanians exposed the defensive weaknesses after the loss of O’Brien in the first half and Collins in the second.  Fortunately Sakho will be available but unless he gets the service from the midfield it will be tough.  Payat showed some promise but he is a player used to playing with more intelligent footballers around him.  And please, no more red cards!

Just bloody shoot!


West Ham United 1 Birkirkara FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 16th July 2015
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For the second consecutive Europa League home game, West Ham flattered to deceive against a team they were expected to beat comfortably.  If it wasn’t for James Tompkins stomach the Hammers would have been travelling to Malta next week with the tie all square and the Maltese team recording possibly the greatest result in the countries European history.  West Ham didn’t play well, per se.  The stats don’t lie – 74% of the possession, 8 corners, 18 crosses successfully delivered but for all of those positives, they could only muster 7 shots on target.  All of a sudden, West Ham seem to have become Arsenal overnight.

It seems that someone didn’t do their homework on Birkirkara. Their strength was the centre-back pairing including the vastly experienced Argentinian Mauricio Mazzetti, especially in the air.  So what did West Ham do? Pepper the box with crosses.  Perhaps is Sakho would have been available it may have worked but The Hammers started with Modibo Maiga, a man most of us had forgotten was still at the club after spending the last eighteen months out on loan.  Ineffective is probably a kind description of Modibo’s efforts although he did come closest to scoring when he hit the post in the first half.

FullSizeRender (2)West Ham had a couple of good shouts for penalties in the first period when Birkirkara rode their luck.  Maltese National keeper Justin Haber made a couple of saves, although he was a keeper who loved a dramatic punch when he could have stood up and simply caught the ball but apart from a Zarate first half free-kick he was rarely troubled.  Jarvis and Almafitano had the beating of their full-backs time after time but how West Ham longed for the creative spark and ability to shoot from distance that Stewart Downing brought to the side last season.  Alas, as the game was progressing, Downing was making his way up the A19 with his new Middlesbrough shirt in his bag. The neat passing play across the box was nice to watch but with no one willing to take a shot, the moves broke down much to the increasing annoyance of the 33,500 crowd.

The frustration started to show in the second half as O’Brien, Cresswell and Reid all went into the referees book for late challenges, which gave the Maltese players even more opportunity to waste time.  Nolan was replaced in 79th minute to a chorus of muted boos, the fans not appreciating his defensive approach to the game.

The Maltese fans had chartered a plane to bring them to London for arguably the biggest game in their history and they brought colour and noise to the away section that some Premier League clubs would be proud of.  However, their hopes of a famous result were thwarted in injury time when Cresswell’s corner was missed by Haber and smacked the onrushing Tomkins in the mid-rift and bounced over the line.

So West Ham simply need to avoid defeat next week in Malta, which they should do.  No Maltese team has ever beaten an English team in European competition – that in itself is a fact that should motivate the Hammers to get the job done and progress to Round Three and a tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle or FC Astra Giurgiu.

 

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.