The Seven Year Itch and how England can’t scratch it


After the short hop across the Channel to Lens on Tuesday I was heading back again a few days later to visit Lille for the fifth Second Round game of Euro16. I was thankful to Dan for this one, not only sorting the ticket for the game but also arranging a lift there and back. Can’t grumble at that I thought.

Whilst we left these green and pleasant lands at a time where most sensible people would be just getting in from a decent night out. The warm glow of a beautiful sunrise was replaced with rain as we parked up near the stadium. We had seven hours to kill before the game. My last trip to this fantastic city was on a fact-finding visit back in November 2014. Along with my brother we “researched” more than a dozen bars, a couple of restaurants and a souvenir shop – well at some point I’d bought a number of gifts for the family anyway. It’s fair to say that Lille has some decent bars.

27822919522_3852582bfd_kAlas, with Dan and Neil on driving duty and Brian not a drinker, revisiting the best bars wasn’t going to be an option so we went with the eat ourselves silly option, swiftly following breakfast with lunch, sticking our fingers up to those who insist on mixing the two as “brunch”. One bowl of “meat”, with a couple of token potatoes thrown in later we headed to the Fanzone to watch the France v Ireland game just as the rain started falling. Whilst unsurprisingly the French outnumbered the Irish fans significantly, the presence of hundreds of Belgians gave some voice to the underdogs as they took a second minute lead.

We departed at half time for the tram ride to the stadium, thankfully missing the insufferable moments when France scored two quick goals to seal their place in the Quarter-Final in six days time in Paris against England. I mean, we were hardly likely not to beat Iceland were we?

I’d been to the Stade Pierre Mauroy once before, where I’d seen one of the worst games of football in my life. A Champions League game against Valencia on a freezing cold December night, where the Lille Fans either stayed away under protest or sat in complete silence. 9/10 for the impressive stadium, 1/10 for the atmosphere.

27646072240_495dcef5b9_kThis was going to be different. The stadium was of course officially full, but tickets could be bought all along the walk from 4 Cantons metro stop, whilst inside the ground hundreds of empty seats shouted loudly. Not that they needed to. The upbeat opening ceremony gave way to a huge flag covering the lower tier of the German fans, reminding us as if we’d forgotten that they were world champions. Could they add a long-overdue European Championship to their list of international honours? They’d have to be in their best form to beat a hard-working Slovakian side that’s for sure….well, that’s what we thought as the game kicked off anyway.

Germany 3 Slovakia 0 – Stade Pierre Mauroy – Sunday 26th June 2016
Seven years ago this week England were stuffed 4-0 by Germany in the final of the UEFA Under21s championship in Malmö. The team under Stuart Peace’s guidance were strongly tipped for the tournament and won the group which featured Germany, Spain and Finland. After a dramatic 3-3 draw with the hosts Sweden in Malmö, England did something rare – they won a penalty shoot out but it came at a cost. Joe Hart picked up a second booking of the competition for “sledging” the Swedish penalty takers and missed the final. Despite his absence, England were strong favourites to lift the trophy for the first time in twenty-five years.

Alas the final turned out to be a nightmare for the Englishmen. I sat in the press area on that night in Malmö and saw the technical brilliance from the Germans. Their strength came from the core of the starting XI supplemented by a play maker who looked head and shoulders above every other player on the pitch despite his diminutive stature.
Our side that night includes names that today have long since drifted down the leagues. Loach, Cranie, Onuoha and a certain Adam Johnson. The one player in the starting XI who played in EURO16 was James Milner, although captain Mark Noble undoubtedly had his best ever Premier League season last year but was not even considered.

Perhaps the fact that Germany still has nearly five times as many qualified UEFA A coaches is part of the reason (or that our FA charge ten times as much for the course as the German FA do) or the availability of training facilities?  Whatever the reason it seems that in ten years time we will still be posing the same questions though.

27687060060_c31dbcf098_kGermany simply took apart a Slovakian team that had been a match for England just a few days previous and had actually beaten Germany 3-1 in Augsburg just four weeks previous. Over half of that side that played in Malmö in June 2009 graced the pitch in Lille seven years later. Goalkeeper Neuer is recognised as one of the best in the world today, the strong centre-back pairing of Hummels and Boetang (replaced towards the end of the game by Höwedes) and a central midfield duo of Khedira and that play maker, Mesut Özil. Those six took home winners medals that night in Malmö as well as the ultimate prize in world football, a FIFA World Cup winners medal in 2014 where only Khedira didn’t start in the final against Argentina after picking up an injury in the warm-up.

An early goal, drilled home from the edge of the box by Jérôme Boetang, settled their nerves. Özil missed a penalty ten minutes later after Šrktel had committed one of those fouls we see go unpunished every week in regular football but Mario Gomez gave the Germans a two-goal half time advantage after a superb run by the impressive Draxler (player of the tournament so far according to Lolly although I don’t think that’s anything to do with his incisive passing abilities).

27312500164_518770b9e5_kDraxler completed the scoring with a smart finish from a knock-down just after the hour mark, confirming the Germans as the favourites to win the tournament although a tricky tie against the winner of Spain and Italy lay ahead.

I’d like to say our journey home was as smooth as that on the way out. For the second time in a week, a “technical problem” and “enhanced security checks” at the Channel Tunnel resulted in a five-hour wait at Calais. It’s fair to say that a few thousand people are unlikely to use the Chunnel every again based on that experience. At 4.30am I finally got home. I had an hour turn around before heading to the airport for Helsinki. What could possibly go wrong watching our game v Iceland in a bar full of Scandinavians??

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Young Turks bounce the Czechs


My original ticket application for the European Championships was divided into two distinct trips that would essentially have taken in a game in every venue, working my way up the country with a small break in the middle. Five years ago, whilst travelling between Trnava in Slovakia and Budapest, the idea of touring France had first been discussed. During the course if the evening we’d decided to buy an old London double-decker bus, do it up with sleeping quarters upstairs and a bar downstairs. What more could we want.

There were a couple of stumbling blocks. First there was the small matter of finding £30,000 for a bus. Surely a company out there would want to sponsor us? A brewery for instance? I’m sure that Meantime and Fullers will one day answer but it’s a big too late. Then there was the issue of driving. It was great that Danny, Deaksy and Stoffers contributed to the idea but none of them could contribute to the actual driving. I didn’t really want to be the Reg Vardy of the group if truth be told. Finally, there was the issue of trying to get tickets for the games we wanted.

When the original ticket allocations were announced our hopes of a Summer Holiday were dashed. Two tickets for two games over a week apart at opposite ends of the country put pay to our great ideas.

So after the trip to the chic and sunny Riviera I was now heading to the gloomy coal fields of Pas-des-Calais swapping the Promenade des Anglais for the slag heaps of Lens, with the ginger bearded wonder James Boyes at my side.

27215898903_8900ba26c3_kDespite the industrial hinterland, for football lovers you can’t go wrong with a visit to Lens. There’s no surprise that the town, where the whole population could fit into the football ground and still have a few spares, is a favourite when tournaments come a-knocking. And not just football either – the Stade Bollaert-Delelis has hosted games in the Rugby World Cup (twice) too. It is one of the most atmospheric grounds in France, built in a style not too dissimilar to Villa Park or a slim-downed St James’ Park (Newcastle United not Exeter City), which rocks on a match day.

27827478225_89d987786c_kA few years ago I read a story about the number of English-based fans who had season tickets for RC Lens. Fed up of the spiralling cost of tickets for the sanitised Premier and Football League games, groups of fans realised that it was cheaper and in some cases, quicker to head across the Channel and watch their football. From leaving TBIR Towers the 116 mile drive took around 3 hours including the time on Eurotunnel and cost less than £80. Add in a season ticket in the Delacourt Stand behind the goal at a ridiculous €125 for the 19 league games and you have a great day out.

The ground is not only really easy to find but also has plenty of street parking within a ten minute walk. We dropped the car off and headed into the town centre to find a spot to watch whether Northern Ireland could upset the odds and get a result from their game against Germany. There aren’t many drinking options in Lens and even less that had a TV so we attempted to go into the Fanzone.

If you want evidence that the pen is mightier than a sword then go and visit the UEFA Fanzone in Lens. Anyone trying to enter the area with such offence weapons as a pen, an iPad mini or even a keyfob with a badge on will be denied entry. Six foot flag pole? Come on in sir! Of course, I may have been singled out by a West Ham (key fob), technophobe who favoured the quill but I doubt it. I was denied entry, much to the amusement of James, and the chap who managed to sneak in a pack of beers whilst the stewards attention was drawn to my pen. Another example of the head-scratching, juxtaposing, randomness of everyday life in France.

27793098506_aa7c1942f5_kFortunately we found a bar that had converted it’s back yard into a “stadium”, as the signs read. The rows of plastic chairs were hardly The Emirates but it did the job and provided shelter from the impending doom that the dark clouds overhead were threatening before we headed to the stadium. Both sets of fans mingled without any sign of any problems whilst hundreds of individuals lined the route back to the stadium trying to sell spare tickets – it was certainly a buyers market with some fans who were prepared to hold their nerve being able to pick up a bargain as kick off approached. Once again, entry into the ground was swift with little regard paid to the contents of my bag (the lethal pen, mini iPad and key fob) or any checks on whether I was the named individual on the ticket (I was).

The two sets of fans were giving it their all in the build up to kick off. Both could still progress even though they only had one point between them such was the complexity and confused caused by the third place situation with a win, although based on their poor showing in their opening two games the odds were stacked against the Turks. But perhaps their fans could lift them at the eleventh hour and give them a chance of a few more days in the competition?

Czech Republic 0 Turkey 2 – Stade Bollaert-Delelis – Tuesday 21st June 2016
It wasn’t just the Turks who were dancing in the streets of Lens at the full-time whistle. The two-nil win meant that Northern Ireland would also progress to the second round joining the Turks who simply blew the Czech Republic away in a performance that was up there with the best in the tournament.

27215895593_587672d0bf_kIt took just ten minutes for the Turks to take the lead. The impressive Arda Turan played in young full-debutant Emre Mor down the right and his perfect cross was met at the near post by Burak Yilmaz to fire home, giving Petr Cech no chance. The celebrations both on and off the pitch were fuelled as much by relief as delight – the Turks had been disappointing up until this point on the tournament.

The Czechs immediately responded. Tomas Sivok powered a header from a corner against the base of the post, full-back Pavel Kadeřábek wasted a couple of good chances and Jaroslav Plašil seeing a vicious long-ranger tipped over the bar. But they were ultimately undone by a second goal from Turkey scored in the Ozan Tufan in the 65th minute, smashing the ball home after the Czechs couldn’t clear their lines.

The Turkish fans at the far end responded by lighting flares. Not just one but at one point we counted eleven. A number of Turkish players ran to the crowd to plead with the fans but they needn’t have worried – UEFA appear to have turned a blind eye to the incident despite once again it underlined the appalling lax security on getting into the ground. I’m sure if the incident was reported it would have been blamed in England fans.

27215917043_dcf391b7cb_kThe atmosphere for the whole games was up there with the best I’ve experienced. Two hours of intense noise. I had to drag James away at the end – being a Man United fan he’s not used to an atmosphere. Seventy five minutes after leaving the ground we arrived at the terminal at Calais.

“Where have you been lads?” Asked the UK Border Guard.

“Footballing heaven”…..

Teargas and tantrums in the South of France


There’s nothing unusual about stories of strikes affecting public services and transportation in France. As far back as I care to remember there’s been stories of blockades at ports or flight delays caused by air traffic control strikes. In some ways it’s no different to what we experience on a weekly basis in the United Kingdom and being very British we may moan about it whilst simply struggling on. However, I’d like to think if we were hosting a major sporting event that meant the focus of international media was on our nation wed put our differences aside for the duration. Certainly during the Olympics, nothing was allowed to interfere with the smooth operation of the event as demonstrated by the deployment of the military to run security when it was felt the private contractor wasn’t up to scratch.

But it seems the start of the European Championships in France has simply added fuel to the already considerable flames of unrest in the country. Last night’s opening game between the hosts and Romania at Stade de France was played out with news of strikes by train drivers on the routes that served the stadium in St Denis, whilst a national strike by refuse collectors had left piles of rubbish building up in the city. A proposed strike by Air France pilots had meant last-minute changes to the travel plans of thousands of fans. Hardly the most auspicious of welcomes for the travelling nations.

The tournament would take place surrounded by unprecedented levels of security after recent terrorist actions and threats. The last thing the security forces would need is large groups of fans not being able to travel around the country and being stuck in one place, especially when the volatile mixture of sunshine and beer is taken into account. Welcome to Marseille.

Our trip had been well over a year in the planning. We’d applied for tickets and booked flights and hotels long before the draw had taken place. Safe in the knowledge that we had secure seats for a weekend in the South of France we watched the draw live on TV hoping that we wouldn’t be seeing England in Marseille. That may seem unpatriotic but having followed The Three Lions across the world in the last twenty years there’s certain places that have the words “trouble” written all over them. Out of the ten venues being used for this tournament, the one venue that I’d imagine the authorities hoped England wouldn’t be visiting was Marseille.

A combination of the history of events here in the 1998 FIFA World Cup plus the tinderbox atmosphere of the different cultures of the city could lead to public order issues and sure enough 48 hours before the game England fans clashed with locals and riot police. Back in 1998 the words Social Media meant sharing a copy of The Sun in the office. Today social journalism means anyone with a smartphone can now be a front line reporter sending images and video across the world in seconds. This of course can be incredibly powerful but can also blow events out of proportion. The events in Marseille in the lead up to the game versus Russia were undoubtably disappointing but certainly not surprising. The fans who headed to the Old Port area on Thursday and Friday had one intention – to enjoy the sunshine and have a drink (and a sing-song). Alas, history shows that such revelry, whilst accepted back in the High Streets in England, isn’t so overseas. Whether the fans were provoked or goaded by locals is another story of course, but to be a considered a victim you need to be aware of putting yourself in positions of danger.

Journalist Ian Macintosh wrote an interesting piece about attitudes after getting caught up in the problems on Friday night. The attitude of a minority of the English fans, the actions of a minority of locals and the approach of the French riot police, which is very much about swift action to dispel and disable any threats – very different to the approach used by British police in trying to contain problems and slowly disperse the crowds.

Even though we’d got the game we probably didn’t want we’d still be heading for the impressive Stade Velodrome on Saturday night for the game. The format of the tournament meant that teams could be ultra defensive and still progress out of the group stages. That well-known football statistician Lee Dixon reminded us (three times) during the coverage of the opening game that there was an 87% chance that a team could progress if they drew all three group games. On the other hand a team who won that first game would have an 87% chance of progressing. Unfortunately Platini’s legacy to the championships was the most complicated knock-out stage qualification criteria. If he was so insistent on allowing just shy of 50% of UEFA Nations to qualify for the tournament then why not have 4 groups of 6 teams with the top four going into the next stage, or top 2 going directly into the quarter finals?

Saturday morning arrived and as we sat waiting to board our flight to Nice we heard on the grapevine (well from Fergie who was already in Nice) that our train back from Marseille on Sunday morning had already been cancelled due to strike action from the SNCF train drivers which was due to “only” impact one area of the country – in fact it wasn’t just our train impacted, it was every train from Marseille. Yep, the area where hundreds of thousands were heading for the England game on Saturday and Northern Ireland’s opening game with Poland in Nice on Sunday. It wasn’t just that route impacted with fans unable to find accommodation in Marseille seeing their trains out of the city post-match cancelled. You’d have thought that after all of the issues over the past three days the authorities may have done everything they could to move people away but there was simply an arrogant air of “it’s no my problem” when you tried to find out what was going on.

Keeping with the striking theme, there were no buses running from the airport to the station, nor had a couple of the earlier trains meaning that everyone had to cram onto the 13:50. First class reservation on earlier services? Tough. President Hollander came out with a statement last week saying, vowing to take on the strikers. Fortunately Danny found a seat next to two Russian fans who had a full litre of Jameson’s to drink on the journey – enough to go around and start the whisky giggles.

27363593010_905fe1f4dd_kOur hotel was essentially on the edge of the “danger zone”. Close enough to smell and taste the tear gas but far enough away not to have it in our faces. Soon enough we were hearing tales of fans being attacked from all angles whilst the police were simply over run, with their only response being tear gas and latterly the water cannon. Of course, as these events took place outside of the stadium UEFA can wash their hands of it and not fake any blame.

Despite all of the media, we actually found Marseille to be a decent place. We did come across one group of Russians who Danny thought he’d heard them say “we need to find someone to beat”, whereas I heard them say “we need to find something to eat”. We walked in the opposite direction just in case. Just five minutes walk uphill from our hotel was a beautiful tree-ringed square with about a dozen bars where we could sit and enjoy the sunshine. Every so often a familiar face would walk by and we would get the latest news from the grapevine, some complete with fresh war wounds.

We’d all been told security would be tight at the stadium so we headed to the ground in plenty of time. Dozens of ticket touts were selling right under the noses of the police without any fear of problems. Consequently there was no ID check – just a quick test to see if our ticket was genuine and then a brief pat down and we were in. The issues around such lax security would be seen in front of millions later in the game when the Russian fans set off fire-crackers and flares inside the ground.

Our seats were up in the Pyrenees but the hike was certainly worth it. You can not be impressed by the stadium. It’s huge with curves like Marilyn Monroe. The acoustics were superb and the atmosphere built quickly. As the game kicked off there wasn’t a hint of any problems. What was very noticeable was a) the thin line of stewards separating the Russian fans from the section of mixed fans and b) the hundreds, if not thousands of empty seats in the main stand, especially in the corporate areas.

In terms of the game I still don’t get the impression Hodgson knows his best XI. Sterling was wasteful in possession whilst Kane, our tallest attacking threat was still taking corners. We created little in the way of chances in the first hour, the only consolation being the Russians created even less. The goal from Dier was a well-worked free kick but we then simply lacked and creative spark to kill the game off, and were made to pay in the last-minute when the Russians equalised. The goal was the cue for madness – a single flare seemed to act as the signal for the fans to breach the feeble line of stewards and attack whoever was in their path.

27641555285_7729dfb44d_kWe took that as a sign to leave. Only one problem – the gates were locked. The first rule about any venue management is never lock the exits. The stewards tried to tell us to retrace our steps by going back up to the concourse (about four flights of steps) and go down a different way but with hundreds of fans coming down towards us that wasn’t an option. Eventually, a senior steward saw that the problem would soon escalate very quickly and frantically tried to open the gates, screaming into his radio that he needed help. Finally the gates opened and we quickly got onto the metro. The area around our hotel was shut – all the bars had their shutters down and who can blame them.

We headed to our room, flung open the shutters and enjoyed our bottles of red whilst taking in the taste and smell of tear gas wafting in from down below. French TV was in overdrive about the events with “hooligans” being the trending story, followed by the breaking news that despite playing for West Ham, Payet was a very good player indeed. The French TV blamed the English, the alcohol and the Russians but omitted the bit about locals being proactively involved too. The assertion that alcohol was a major factor, and perhaps that should be banned on match days completely missed the point, underlined by the Football Supporters Federation CEO, Kevin Miles, that the Russians who were involved in the trouble don’t drink and prepare fir months for such encounters.

It’s also true that some of the England fans involved were out of their depth, attending a major tournament fir the first time and thinking it would be like Green Street on Sea. Those who are aged 18-21 may have been attending a tournament for the first time – with Brazil being too far to go and being too young to attend before. So they only see in their head the romanticised “stand your ground and fight” notion and act accordingly. Alcohol will always be available even if the bars are shut. So what’s the answer? Pass but with Russia meeting Slovakia in Lille on Wednesday, just twenty-four hours before England meet Wales in next door Lens, the authorise have some quick thinking to do.

Sunday morning dawned and now we had the small issue of getting out of the city. Of course the train drivers had gone on strike meaning the first direct train to Nice would be at 12.31….with more and more fans arriving at the station to go their various ways and with no information being forthcoming the tension started to rise. All it needed was one person to say – fake this train then change at this place – and it would have been all ok. Fortunately most heard through the grapevine that the train was the 9.35am and the place to change was Toulon. The journey was far more comfortable than the one from yesterday with Poles and Northern Ireland fans mixing without any issue.

27542035602_b0bbd46b02_kNice was a million miles away from the atmosphere in Marseille. The pavement bars and cafes were full of fans eating and drinking, sharing jokes. There was no visible police or security and even when there was the potential for problems when the two sets of fans created a strand off in the main square, taking turns to try to ousting each other, there was no overtly over the top police presence. We headed to the beach with a bottle of wine (€1 cheaper than a can of beer) and two straws to enjoy the, “ahem”, scenery.

The Allianz Stadium, or Stade de Nice, to give it its tournament name is a fair way out of town…well, about 8 miles to be precise meaning that a bus was needed. Shuttle buses were laid on and dropped everyone at a point around 1.5 miles from the ground. The final part had to be done in foot…..along a brand new dual carriageway that was empty far the occasional VIP minibus passing by….no concessions had been made for fans with mobility issues – apparently, as they didn’t run any major ramp up events they couldn’t use the road – 5 stars for that one UEFA. Thirsty? No problems as once you reached the stadium you could spend €6.50 on a 0.5% pint of Carlsberg.

27363681150_a1cec05000_kNo complaints about the stadium itself. It’s well designed and access to all parts was easy. We did feel a little out-of-place not wearing green or white. The atmosphere was superb with both sets of fans singing their hearts out. No issues here with fans of opposite sides mingling. The game itself wasn’t the best with Poland easily the better side with the Irish appearing to freeze on the day. Full-back  Conor McLaughlin had a shocker, frequently out of position and conceding both possession and free kicks. The much-lauded Polish forward line looked lively but Lewondowski looked disinterested for long periods of time, acting as if he was above his team mates.

The goal was inevitable. The Poles possession built as the game went on and finally it paid off as the highly rated Milik struck in the 51st minute, his shot passing through a group of players, with McGovern in the Irish goal only able to get fingertips to the shot but not enough to divert it wide. The response from the Irish fans was to turn the noise up a notch but the team couldn’t match their enthusiasm. An opening game defeat is not the end of the world in this tournament – all eyes would now be on whether Germany could beat Ukraine.

We had hoped that they’d driven the buses up the empty road to load the fans but alas that wasn’t in the folder marked “sensible plans for Euro16”, so we walked back to the pick up point 30 minutes away. The process their wasn’t too bad as the walk meant fans had spaced out and we were in a bus and away within a minute.

Most bars had set up TVs outside so we had a top spot to enjoy the Germany game complete with a decent bottle of red and a pizza the size of Monaco. Again, fans mixed without any problems at all – Nice 1 Marseille 0.

So it had been an interesting trip – it’s fair to say armed with the knowledge of what might happen with regards to flashpoints and strikes nothing had been too surprising. Knowing where to not go was more important on Saturday and we sat in blissful ignorance (well apart from the constant Social Media updates!) enjoying the sunshine and the real Marseille. The trouble in the stadium on Saturday now means UEFA have to act rather than shrugging their shoulders and saying “not our problem” with the events in the Old Port area of Marseille. The two stadiums have been impressive, the access to the Stade de Nice less so but what do UEFA really care about that? We now sit and wait to see what happens later in the week, hoping there’s something still standing for my last two games in the tournament in Lens and Lille next week.

For sale – one England goal keeper’s kit – as new


16767042859_ae286e4fe1_kWhilst the biggest cheer in the second half came at Wembley in the 70th minute when Harry Kane scored with his second touch in international football just eighty seconds after coming on to replace Wayne Rooney, the most significant moment came a few minutes before. With 68 minutes on the clock Joe Hart got his hands on the ball for the first time since the break, and the third time in the whole game.  Even in the most one-sided of FA Cup games where Non-League minnows are pitted against a Premier League side the keeper will see more of the action.  Welcome to modern International football.

Hart actually got 3 touches of the ball in the first half, although 2 of those were in relation to back passes. At the other end, England scored four and could have easily got double that.  Nobody will really care though as 4-0 sits in that “comprehensive, yet respectful” result bracket that still allows managers to roll out quotes such as “There’s no easy games in international football”, “they were tough opponents” and “it was a professional performance”. It the grand scheme of things it mattered very little.  Since Platini got his way in increasing the size of the European Championships to 24 teams, or putting it in a statistical way, 49% of the nation’s affiliated to UEFA, England only really needed to avoid defeat in their toughest group game away in Switzerland.  That game was the first in the campaign and the Three Lions won with ease.  Since then San Marino, Estonia, Slovenia and now Lithuania have been brushed aside with efficiency rather than with panache. By the time they return from the game in San Marino in September I’d wager (if I was allowed by the ridiculous FA betting rules) that the 21 points will have already guaranteed a place on the Dover-Calais ferry for the finals in June 2016.

Hodgson will have learnt more from the friendly games again Scotland, Norway and the forthcoming games away in Turin and Dublin than these games.  The calls for Kane tonight started as soon as Rooney had smartly headed England ahead in the 7th minute, but Hodgson ignored the growing calls from the crowd for the nation’s latest great hope until the 70th minute. Kane waited 80 seconds before he headed home.  The Spurs fan next to me jumped for joy. “That’s my boy! Wizard Harry!” As he sat down a more dour chap reminded him that both Dennis Wise, David Nugent and Francis Jeffers also marked their debuts with a goal.  Harsh words indeed.

It was good to see the team keep possession of the ball so well and for long periods of time.  Passing at times was crisp and pacy – today’s coaches earn their Pro-licence money by trying to integrate often self-centred players with egos the size of small planets, who are used to playing for every million-pound point in the Premier League into a different style than at international level.  You can’t fault some of the approach play which saw the Lithuanian defence carved open time and time again. Each of the four goals showed touches of training ground moves rather than individual brilliance and that would please any coach.

16765523988_e22825595b_hThe news that Hodgson may be given a new contract should be welcomed.  He has affected a quiet revolution in the approach of the squad, failing to pander to the media.  His experience at managing at the top-level in different countries has given the squad a more humble approach.  There may have been a temptation to listen to those journalists who yearn for one last hurrah for the “golden generation”. Terry, Gerrard and Lampard have all been touted as coming out of retirement to play this season. That would be a massive backward step.  England looked assured with Jones, Henderson and Delph.  Clyne played with maturity at full back and Welbeck seems to raise his game on the International stage.  It is more than possible we will go through qualifying with a 100% record which will then translate in some quarters of the media to an arrogance that we have a God-given right to win the European Championships.  Whilst the Premier League may be lauded as the best league in the world by many, the truth (as borne out in some ways by the failure of any English team to reach the last 8 of either European club competition this season) is that it isn’t.  We have to accept that we are a solid, sometimes explosive team, that on its day will perform well.  We are no Germany, Netherlands, Spain or even France where decades of investment into coaching has put them on a different level to the English game.

Things are changing though, and with patience and most importantly an attitude from the top clubs to develop AND play home grown talent, we will start to close the gap.  Southampton and now to an extent Liverpool should be applauded for the investment they have made in their Academies as well as giving the youngsters a chance.  One day, Man City and Chelsea will realise that buying their way to the Premier League is actually damaging the national game.

16333126293_f4deb7f4b8_kThis was my first trip to see England at Wembley in almost three years.   It was good to see a few things had changed.  The tie up with EE meant that a mobile signal was actually possible during the game.  The whole concept of integrating the crowd into the event via social media worked well.  “Upload your Wembley selfie using the hashtag #WembleySelfie” saw thousands of fans posing, whilst the post match chaos at Wembley Park was managed well and within 15 minutes of the final whistle we was on a southbound tube.

Alas there are still some things that never change.  Sitting next to the bank of “corporates” behind the dugout (the ones that face the cameras and are always empty post half-time) it was disheartening to see people stumbling back to their seats twenty minutes into the second period, with no interest in the game at all. Half and half scarves seemed to be popular, selling at £10 – a 100% mark up from a respective Premier League version.  Oh, and the band.  They were still there, occasionally breaking into an out of tune version of Self-Preservation Society or God Save The Queen before giving up as no one joined in.  And talking of joining in, adverts run by Mars around the pitch encouraging fans to start a Mexican Wave? Please! Stick to making chocolate.

It was a great night for Harry Kane, a good one for Hodgson and most of the 84,000 (!!!) fans but my man of the match had to be Joe Hart.  How we kept his concentration is beyond me – a true professional performance.  At least the Kitman doesn’t have to wash his kit for the Italian game on Tuesday!

A former State of mind


Modern football is rubbish.  We’ve all heard that and at some point we have all bemoaned fixtures being moved by Sky, the rising cost of a bit of plastic to sit on and those football tourists who turn up at grounds and just take lots of pictures rather than watching the game (shocking).  But sometimes it is actually bloody great.

With our footballing authorities doing everything possible to ensure that every “big” country qualifies for major tournaments, the International Break now lasts for six days, every month.  Premier League clubs (and the fans) must hold their head in their hands, holding that the underpaid, over stressed footballers return safe and sound on their private jets from 20 minutes of exertion against Andorra or San Marino.  Of course, there are no such things as easy games in International football, and the qualifying games for France 2016 are taken very seriously indeed.  With 53 nations competing for just 23 places it means that countries have to win at least three games to get a playoff spot in all honestly.  And there were those who thought that it was tough when the tournament used to be just 8 teams!

But, with the new structure of qualifying games there was the opportunity for an ultimate road trip, if you are interested in that sort of thing.  Six games, potentially six different countries?  Sounds rubbish I know.  I mean who would fancy seeing Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Estonia, Norway and Denmark on consecutive days? Well me for a start.

Alas, this was one trip that I was never going to get official sign off for.  Despite being the most understanding wife in the world, even I could n’t swing that trip, especially as it was the Current Mrs Fuller’s birthday in the middle of the set of games.  But being the good lady that she is, we reached a compromise that would see me jet off to the Baltic’s before heading back in time for jelly and ice cream.  I was happy with that – after all I’d seen enough of Norway and Denmark in the past five years, yet never set foot in Lithuania or Latvia.  That’s enough to get anyone’s pulse racing.

15487437071_3f37759af7_oI’d heard good and bad about Vilnius and Riga.  The good – UNESCO Heritage Old Towns, cheap food and drink, the world’s best Christmas tree (Vilnius – as voted for by CNN); The bad – the gloomy weather, the stag and hen parties, the language; and the downright ugly – the Soviet-style architecture and the fact I had to fly with Wizzair, one of those airlines that lure you in with cheap prices and then want to charge you for wearing clothes or breathing their oxygen on board.

My plan quickly came together – afternoon flight to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania where I would take in the game against Estonia.  The following morning up before the dawn chorus and on a bus to Riga where Latvia would be taking on Iceland. Two new countries, two new grounds.  What could possibly go wrong?

One downside was that I wouldn’t see much of Vilnius, landing as the sun went down. It’s supposed to be a beautiful city but from touch down to departure on my executive bus it would be 11 hours of darkness. My taxi driver from the airport offered to show me the sights of the city on the way to the hotel.

“There is Ikea. Now we go to McDonalds and then a brothel” I managed to convince him that McDonalds, being opposite my hotel was actually a better alighting point.  “But no titty-titty?” He looked crest-fallen that I preferred a McFlurry to a “naked help-yourself buffet” but soon cheered up when I gave him a 10 Litu note as a tip (which incidentally had a picture of the Kemp twins on).

I’d struck lucky in picking a hotel not only because it was opposite a 24 hour fast food outlet but because it was a 5 minute walk to the LFF Stadium. Oh, and a bar offering 50 pence beers open until everyone had gone to bed, which as I learnt later, was about 6am.

15303880200_62d9376dea_oFootball isn’t exactly one of the most favourite past times in Lithuania.  According to my taxi driver guide watching domestic football ranked alongside ironing and stoning olives in terms of leisure activities.  Last season the SMSCredit.lv A Lyga, the top division in Lithuania had an average attendance last season of 744. It’s all about basketball on a Saturday and a Sunday, with the national team having won bronze at the Olympics three times out of the last six Summer Games and are currently ranked 4th in the World Rankings.  But come national team football team games, the fans come out in force which was evident as I walked up to the LFF Stadium with an hour to kick off.

In terms of current UEFA rankings, Lithuania are down in 41st place, alongside the likes of Albania, Moldova and Cyprus.  Drawn in a group with England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia and San Marino they would have targeted games such as the visit of Estonia as a “must-win” if they were to stand any chance of qualification.  A 2-0 win in San Marino in the opening game was all that could have been asked.  Now was the time for Igoris Pankratjevas’s team to step up to the mark and get one over on their Baltic rivals.

Lithuania 1 Estonia 0 – LFF Stadium – Thursday 9th October 2014
Good job the weather was a little bit kinder in Lithuania than back in London.  The LFF Stadium would be a brilliant place to sit back and top up your tan in the middle of Summer, but in mid-October where temperatures and rain can fall there is little shelter from any of the elements.  This stadium, which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Conference Premier, albeit a three-sided, 3G version.  Despite their apathy for the domestic game, the national team was a different story.  By the time the teams had lined up for a UEFA sponsored “Say No to Racism” PR photo, the ground was almost full.

15490233582_e118b063f6_oThis was a must-win game for Lithuania and that is exactly what they did.  The very impressive Bundesliga (two) winger Arvydas Novikovas was the stand out player, causing all sorts of problems for the Estonian defenders although it was his left-wing counterpart who set up the winner. for Mikoliunas to clinch the points with 14 minutes to go. Estonian keeper Pareiko spilled a shot from distance into the path of Matulevičius, but appeared to make up for the slip with an excellent smothering stop. However, the ball rebounded to the centre-forward who crossed for the substitute to nod in the winner.

With the game finishing a few minutes before England’s game with San Marino, Lithuania leaped to the top of Group E.  Was that the high point in Lithuanian football history I asked the coach in the press conference?  It appeared my question got lost in translation as his answer was “Our football may not have been beautiful but three points are the most important thing,” Thanks for that.

I headed back down the hill to the hotel.  Despite the Estonian fans with bulging wallets queuing for the bar, the hotel decided that a 12pm closure meant just that.  Boo.

5.30am was a cruel mistress on Friday morning but I had a bus to catch.  The Lux Express rolled into Vilnius bus station bang on time, looking like a tour bus used by rock giants such as REM, The Rolling Stones or Right Said Fred.  I’d paid a whopping €25 for my “executive” seat which turned out to be almost airplane Business Class quality.  Throw in free drinks, free Wi-Fi and free movies on demand and you couldn’t have spent a better four hours.  Well, perhaps if they had a few stewardesses wandering up and down selling….best stop there.

15493547971_954346c647_oThe landscape looking flat.  And gloomy.  It was fair to say that the highlights of the trip could be packaged on a Vine video.  The gloom gave way to rain as the coach eased into Riga.  First impressions weren’t good.  It looked like I had been transported back to 1970 Soviet Union.  Depressed looking people, huddled together around sparsely stocked market stools and old fashion trolleybuses rattling up and down the streets.

First impressions can be wrong.  A five minute walk from the confines of the bus and train station and the outstanding beauty of the Old Town (another UNESCO Heritage Site) revealed itself to me.  Wow.  I had “New York Neck” after 30 minutes, constantly looking up at the stunning architecture.  Lunch (£3.50) was a huge local dish of chicken and potatoes, washed down with a pint of Livu (35p).  After an afternoon snooze it was time for dinner – huge steak, pepper sauce and more beer (£8).  Good job the plan was to walk to the Skonto Riga stadium although a couple of bars along the way were too good to miss, for local aesthetic reasons.  I passed one of the Irish Bars in town.  With England playing next door in Tallinn in 24 hours, a number of England fans had descended on Riga and taken up residence in the Irish Bar, belting out almost note-perfect versions of Wonderwall and Park Life.

Latvia 0 Iceland 3 – Skonto Stadium – Friday 17th October 2014
It seems to be a common theme developing here of incomplete stadiums.  Whilst the stadium in Vilnius had three sides, Riga’s national stadium had 2 3/4.  At one end the present of a large sports hall had taken up part of the stand giving the stadium a strange unfinished look.  Latvia haven’t had the best of times since their appearance ten years ago in the European Championship in Portugal.  That team featured Marians Pahars and Aleksandrs Kolinko and impressed the watching world, coming away from the sunshine with a 0-0 draw with Germany.  A decade later and the dynamic duo were back together, although Pahars had swapped his magic boots from a snazzy black raincoat and was now the national coach.

15495449221_2632b88166_oAlas, Pahars couldn’t recreate the magic.  Iceland were head and shoulders above the home side, cheered on by a rowdy contingent as they scored three second half goals, including one apiece for Sigurosson (Swansea City) and Gunnarsson (Cardiff City) to give us some British interest.

The game wasn’t a classic but once again it was good to see the home fans had turned out in big numbers.  Over 6,000 home fans were in the Skonto Stadium, about 5,700 more than would normally be in here for a domestic league game.  Like their neighbours in Lithuania, football isn’t the biggest leisure activity.  Excluding tucking into the superb food and drink, Ice Hockey is the sport of choice here with crowds for domestic games often topping five figures.

I headed back to the Old Town for a nightcap.  Some of the quaint pavement cafes and bars had been replaced by megatropolis-style clubs, all touting their wares through women wearing nothing more than strategically placed flannels.  This was the Riga that I had read about not the one I had enjoyed earlier in the day.  I resisted the temptations on offer, with that small voice in my head reminding me I had to get up in four hours for my flight home.  See, sometimes I do listen to common sense!

Luton at most times of the day isn’t something to sing about, but after a nearly three-hour flight, squeezed in between Mr Sweaty and Miss Fidget I felt like getting down on my knees and kissing the tarmac.  Welcome home.  As the saying goes, the greatest journey starts with the smallest step. Two new countries ticked off the list, two decent cities that ticked all the EFW boxes.  Go, before it’s too late!

 

 

The tournament that freedom forgot


Back in the late 1980’s Europe’s political landscape was changing.  The Eastern Bloc was crumbling. Football was one language whereby different political ideals could be set aside for 90 minutes.  That was unless you lived in the divided Germany at the time.  It is hard to imagine today when we look at Germany that it was still a country partitioned by a wall into the haves and the have-nots. No place on earth saw this divide more than Berlin where the wall completely cut off a section of the city, known as West Berlin, which was a West German isle surrounded by a sea of the Eastern Bloc, a capitalist island in a sea of communism. Football was being suffocated by the political situation.

Whilst the ageing, yet still impressive Olympiastadion, was still one of the biggest stadiums in the country, and its tenants Hertha Berlin were still able to cross the wall to compete in the Bundesliga, it was deemed a journey too far for the West German national side.  The team featuring the likes of Harald Schumacher, Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and captain Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had finished runners-up to Argentina in the 1986 World Cup Final in Mexico and would go onto win the trophy four years later.  This was a golden generation of West Germans, yet the West Berliners were denied the opportunity to see their national team play in the city for nearly four years from 1983 as the political situation took priority over the beautiful game.

During this period, West Germany had won the right to host the 1988 European Championships ahead of a joint Scandinavian bid from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and an expression of interest from England. However, political arguments kicked in from day one about the initial West German mutterings of hosting some of the games during the tournament in the Olympiastadion. The Eastern Bloc disagreed with the fact that West Berlin were part of the Federal Republic of Germany (despite Hertha Berlin’s participation in the Bundesliga and Oberliga) and concerns were expressed that should games be held there, the Eastern Bloc may withdraw their membership from UEFA.  Despite three games being played at the Olympiastadion in the 1974 FIFA World Cup, including East Germany versus Chile, it was now a footballing hot potato that the West German football federation, the DFB,  did not want to handle.

After significant political debate on both sides of the Berlin Wall, West Germany relented and agreed that the host venues would be Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Gelsenkirchen, Stuttgart, Cologne, Hanover and Düsseldorf. West Berlin would have to look over the wall with envious eyes.

However, DFB committee member Hermann Neuberger came up with a compromise that would placate most parties. The Berlin Four Nation Tournament was announced in late 1987 to take place prior to the European Championships, in West Berlin. Invites were sent to World Champions Argentina, European Championship favourites Soviet Union (and thus getting the Eastern Bloc onside), Sweden and West Germany. Whilst there had been calls for the participation of East Germany, many observers suggested that the Eastern Bloc didn’t want an embarrassing and politically sensitive situation of the two German sides meeting and playing with a political football.

The tournament was arranged over Easter weekend in the simplest format. Two semi-finals were played back to back in the Olympiastadion on 31 March 1988, with West Germany drawn against Sweden and the Soviets against Argentina. With a disappointing 23,700 fans in the stadium for the start of the tournament, West Germany took the lead when Olympique de Marsaille’s Klaus Allofs netted just before half time against the Swedes. Their lead was cancelled out in the 75th minute when Peter Truedsson equalised. As the stadium at the time had poor floodlight facilities at the time, there was little time scheduled between the two games and so extra time was scrapped and the tie went direct to penalties which saw the Swedes run out 4-2 winners after Lothar Matthäus and Rudi Völler missed their spot kicks.

Just thirty minutes after the end of the first semi-final, Argentina and Soviet Union kicked off the second semi-final. Despite having Diego Maradona in their starting eleven, Russia underlined their promise as potential European Champions by racing to a three-nil lead after just fifteen minutes thanks to goals from Zavarov, Prostasov and Lytovchenko. Prostasov added a fourth late in the game after Diego had scored from a freekick. The Soviet Union’s 4-2 victory meant that the final everyone wanted to see, a repeat of the 1986 World Cup Final, would be a mere warm up to the final two days later. Ironically, the official attendance for the second game is recorded as 1,300 more than the West German game earlier in the afternoon.

Once again the soccer-starved public of West Berlin hardly flocked to the Olympiastadion. Just over 25,000 saw the 3rd/4th play off game between West Germany and Argentina two days later which was decided by a single Matthäus goal, and unofficially considerably more than that stayed in their seats for the final between Sweden and the Soviets. Two second half goals from Hans Eskilsson and Hans Holmquist saw the tournament won by the Swedes with a huge sigh of relief from the organisers that the weekend had passed off without any political incidents, although disappointed at the lack of attendance for both games.

By the time the European Championships kicked off in June the competition was long forgotten.  West Berlin had to look on with envious eyes as the huge crowds flocked to the West German stadiums and saw a tournament that crackled with passion, drama and talent the like we had not seen before in the European Championships.  Both West Germany and Russia made the semi-finals, although the hosts were beaten by eventual winners Holland, inspired by Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.

The concept of the Berlin tournament was never repeated, perhaps because of the fall of the Berlin Wall eighteen months later and the subsequent fall of the Eastern Bloc in the proceeding few years, although it could be said that various attempts to resurrect a similar competition were behind such tournaments as the Umbro Cup held in England in 1995 featuring England, Japan, Sweden and Brazil or the Tournoi de France featuring Brazil, Italy, England and the host nation in June 1997.  But for one bright moment in Spring 1988 it seemed that football might break the political divide between the East and West in Europe. Alas, it was not to be.

On the verge of greatness


With England about to take on the 2nd worst international team on the globe, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane on one of my first overseas trips to watch football.

On the 20th November 2002, I came within seconds of witnessing footballing history. I was in the tiny principality of San Marino, sitting on the edge of the Apennine Mountains in northern Italy, watching the world’s oldest sovereign state play one of the newest, Latvia, and there was just a minute left on the clock when a San Marino corner appeared to be handled in the area by a Latvia player. The score was nil-nil and had the penalty been given it would have meant a first ever win for the country after some fifty internationals. Alas it was not to be. Latvia attacked, a free kick was awarded and from the resulting kick the ball was erroneously diverted into his own net by a San Marino player for the only goal of the game. There was 13 seconds left of injury time. Played 53, lost 52, drawn 1 read their record now according to the records.

Ten years ago I came up with a bright idea, or at least I thought it was. I wanted to travel to Europe’s smallest footballing nations, in order, until I saw one of them win. The likes of Malta, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino rarely get an opportunity for a win so I figured this could be a long journey. And so this was why I was sitting in the makeshift press area of the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle along with a reported crowd of six hundred. I say reported because there certainly wasn’t anywhere near 100 in the first half but as soon as word spread that “this could be the night”, the locals literally walked here.

This was the third “leg” of my trip and so far I had seen two heavy defeats for the underdogs, firstly in Vaduz as Liechtenstein had been spanked by Portugal, and then Malta had been humbled by Denmark. I arrived in Rimini with hope in my heart and Euro in my pocket. Rimini likes to think it is the Cannes or Marbella of Italy. But on a cold morning in November it just looked like Skegness on a bad day (is there a good day in Skeggy?). Even the most ardent Italian Lothario looked like Sid James in Carry on Girls and there was no sign of the famous Italian supermodels in their teenie-weenie itsy-bitsy swimwear. Fortunately I was not staying long and my carriage awaited me. Well, a local bus that whisked me through the Italian countryside and up, up and further up until we broke the clouds at the border with San Marino, a little less than 10 miles from the Italian Coast.

Back in 2002 not everyone had the internet to research places. And by not everyone I mean I didn’t at work, and at home I had to pay £19 per month for dial up charges for my 64Kbps Compuserve product. This was the dark days before the dawn of the internet we know and love today. We all remember looking at those “entertainment” sites where pictures took an hour to load and then just when it got to a good bit, someone would come in the room, or the telephone connection would fail. Looking back now and trying to describe what it used to be like to the kids seems so unreal. Twitter was something birds did, YouTube was something Alan Brazil used to say, Facebook was a make up catalogue and Googling was reserved for using binoculars near the nudist beach at Brighton.

So I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in San Marino. I had looked for a guide book before the trip without luck. I certainly didn’t expect such a mountainous place. The bus continued to climb upwards, towards the highest point of the enclave, the 750metre Monte Titano. On the way up to the city of San Marino (population 4,493) we passed the Stadio Olimpico. It was too good an offer to miss. I hoped off the bus and had a wander into the ground.

It was certainly a grand title for basically an athletics ground with one covered stand. I tried to recall when the Olympics had been held in San Marino but couldn’t for the life of me remember when. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the lower reaches of the Ryman League. Work was continuing on the other side of the ground where a second stand was being built. Apparently UEFA had decreed that to gain their 2 star status to continue to host International games they needed to have a capacity of at least 1,000. I queued up for the official tour, and ninety seconds later it was all over. A visit to the gift shop saw me come away with a car sticker.  Everyone who went to the shop got a car sticker.  They were free and the only item in stock. I could hardly be more excited for the big game. Continue reading