On the second day of Christmas – The best game

“On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me….a top game of football or three.”

In 2010 (so far as this is written prior to the potential games post Boxing Day) we have seen 86 games of football, featuring 224 goals, 6 red cards, 3 dogs in 10 different countries.  So we have been a bit busy.  Consequently we have seen our fair share of dross (few of the 30,000 at West Ham United 0 Blackburn Rovers 0 in January 2010 for instance will remember anything) but we have also seen a few games that will live in the memory for a long time.  Here are our top three in no particular order.

Lewes 5 Dorchester Town 0Looking back now this game was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  However, at the time, Lewes’s biggest victory for over 3 years was priceless in their fight for survival in the Blue Square South.  Needing to win at least three of their last four games to claw their way out of the relegation zone, the team had gone away to Worcester City and won their first away game in 17 months.  Then came the “do or die” game against Dorchester.  The team simply over ran their opponents on a beautiful sunny day in East Sussex, with the Harveys flowing and the silky skills of David Wheeler on the wing setting up goals at will.  All of the reasons why I love Lewes so much in one afternoon.

Malmö FF 2 Helsingborgs IF 0We know from bitter experience that the meeting of the top two in any league towards the end of the season is a receipe for a dull encounter.  But not in Sweden.  The Allsvenskan was the tightest it had been for years in 2010 with bitter rivals Malmö FF and Helsingborgs IF matching each other result for result.  Coming into this game in mid September they were separated by 3 points.  Not only was the atmosphere one of the best we have EVER experienced at a game (see here for an example of what it was like to be there) but the game itself was an absolute cracker – end to end action that you rarely see in the Allsvenskan and two decent goals to boot.  Few of the 21,000 in the stadium that night will ever forget this one.

Carshalton Athletic 3 Tonbridge Angels 2A Ryman Premier League game on a chilly September night with England playing away in Switzerland on TV would hardly rank high on most peoples agenda for a night out but it turned into a classic game of cut and thrust.  In a real old fashioned football ground both teams were committed to attacking play from the first whistle, and whilst the skill on offer may not have been Premier League but it was a great game, capped off by a come back from the home team in the last 3 minutes from 2-1 down to win 3-2 including a stunner of a 35 yarder in the final minute.  All this for less than a tenner as well.

Skane and Abel

I’ve been to a few tasty games in my life.  Those where you wake up the next morning with cordite still wafting around your nose, a persistent ringing in your ears from the screams and chants, and if you are really lucky wearing nothing but a strange football scarf (hats off to Mr Danny Last for the last one).  Whilst we may claim to have the “Best League in the World” (©Sky Sports) we are woefully bad at generating a real atmosphere at a game.  Occasionally we get a game that may have some passionate followings, but we are so scared of the thought of two sets of fans in the same postcode at the same time that we are now experts at the “Bubble Games” – where away fans are bused in and out of a city/town/village/out-of-town shopping centre irrespective how they want to get to the game.  All in the name of safety the authorities will have us believe. Continue reading

Double Danish with a portion of Swede – Part 2

I rarely get hangovers these days but after a night of pub hopping in Copenhagen and more than a few Carlsberg/Tuborg/Jacobsens I woke up on Sunday morning with a banging noise in my head.  Turns out I had gone to sleep with my iPod on and it had looped around to a bit of Metallica.  So I took them out and the noise simply got louder.  A quick shower and a nurofen breakfast later and the EFW/TBIR team were on our way north for the first leg of a classic “two games in two countries in one day”.  Not something new for the team as we had more recently seen games at Essen and Arnhem on the same day to add to an England/Wales, Bratislava/Vienna and a Germany/Austrian one.

Classic floodlights

The train north was eventful for the bizarre hobbits sitting opposite us.  Two women, one of whom had a better beard that any of us who complained about the temperature on the train, kept her ticket on a string around her neck, felt she was being “victimised and persecuted” when asked by the conductor for her ticket and then took her shoes off and put her feet on the seats before tucking into a homemade lentil salad that she ate with her fingers.  Her “mate” who kept her back to us at all times appeared to have a plastic face with a scarf keeping a birds nest on her head in place decided they needed a “treat” after such a hassled start to the day and went and got them an instanst Hot Chocolate to share…and to make things worse – they were both English!  Now who is more anti-social?  The group of English fans having a beer on the train or a woman with body odour rabbiting on about patterns on the window (oh how we laughed when we saw them on the train on the way home too!)

Olympia - home of the gods

Our destination was Helsingør, home of Hamlet but there was no time for a cigar here as we headed onto the Auroa of the Sound, one of the ferries that makes the 20 minute regular crossing between Denmark and Sweden.  For it was opening day in the Swedish Allsvenskan, and we were heading across to see Helsingborgs IF, and life for them after Henrik Larsson.  This was my third visit to the stadium, which is becoming one of my favourite Swedish grounds.  I had last been back in the Autumn for a stormy Swedish Cup game versus IFK (See here).  The stadium can actually be seen from Denmark.  Not that it is big, but because it sits on top of a hill, that looks like a mountain from 2 miles away, let alone when you are on the 15 minute trek up.  Capello – simply bring the England team here for altitude training!

The one away fan...locked in after the game

The club had been in the transfer market, with the biggest new signing being Erik Edman, once of Spurs, Torino and Rennes no less.  The visitors IP Brommapojkarna, had retained their spot in the top league last season, probably due to the awful form of the two clubs from the capital Hammarby (who were relegated) and Djurgården (who were saved via the play offs).  Now there are small clubs, and there are small clubs.  But I have never seen a club only have 1 away fan like we saw here – “Come on a unicycle, did you come on a unicycle!”.

That will be my entrance then....

With our press passes picked up (Thank you Mr Ericsson) we went in search of a beer. No such luck in the ground, although the lovely lady in the press area saw that we were three hungover Englishmen and made us some toasted cheese and ham sandwiches.   The ground is in the middle of sleepy-ville Sweden, and on a Sunday lunchtime there was simply nothing open.  Deaks has to be given oxygen to get through this difficult time until kick off.

Helsingborgs IF 1 IP Bromma 0 – Olympia – Sunday 14th March 2010

Three yellows make a red

So all the hopes and dreams of fans across the nation were still floating in the air as the game kicked off at 2pm.  There is so much magic at this stage of the season and it is often the only point in the season when all teams are equal.  And often the magic is dispelled in one swift move.  Twenty nine  minutes into this game, with the scores all level, IP Bromma’s keeper races out of the area to clear a ball but inexplicably decides to handle the ball.  The linesman spots the infringement and alerts the referee.  Realising he has been busted the keeper kicks the ball out of the ground.  The referee wanders over, looking very old school in all black, very rare these days, and issues a yellow for the handball, a yellow for the kick away, a red for two yellows and then another yellow for dissent as he wanders off.  Well done Kristoffer Nordfeldt – a great start to the season.

Eric Edman, the new signing

As is the case in all of these situations that a player has to be sacrificed to bring on a new goalkeeper, and it took a good few minutes and some heated discussions on the touchline before young Dalil Benyahia was brought off who headed down the tunnel to say thank you to his goalkeeping chum I am sure. Up until this point it had been an open game with just one chance falling to the home team when a shot from Christoffer Andersen was partially saved but the ball instead of bouncing goalward somehow developed back spin and the ball bounced to safety.

Nobody knows where the ball is going to end up

Just a minute after coming on as a sub, Benny Lekström kept out Helsingborgs again with a fine double save from Marcus Nilsson.  It wasn’t all one way traffic though, as Bromma also had a chance of two, the best one falling to Andreas Eriksson who saw his chip being cleared off the line by a retreating Joel Ekstrand who then painfully collided with the post.  Half time and no goals but plenty of action.  We retreated into the press room but not before posing for a couple of snaps with Helsingborgs Man of the Century, Henrik Larsson.

Henrik Larsson meets a legend

Now just in case you had been living in cloud cuckoo land for the last few years you may not realise exactly how famous Mr Larsson is in these parts.  He was voted Helsingborgs man of the century a few years back and has a wood carving of himself sitting in the city museum down the road.  He was watching the game with a chap who we all knew, yet no one could actually say who it was.  Wim Jansen? the Irish dad from Shameless and countless others were rejected by Uncle Google.  So if you were there on Sunday and know who he was, please get in touch.  Henrik posed happily for pictures, and we passed small talk about the weather (as us English do) before he left us in peace and went back to the press room (us not him – its not for ex-players you know just us working journalists!).

The sun was still shining and that may have been the reason for a sudden 400% rise in the away support as our sole traveller had been joined by three more, all equalling spread across the terrace.  Less than 7,000 had taken the trouble to come to the game, and that was disappointing as there seemed to be very little else to do in the sleepy town and less than £15 to watch a game in a town where a beer and a bit of pizza (Did you know 7/11 were doing a promotion on pizza?) would set you back the same.

When the football is boring just turn around and watch another game

Helsingborgs continued to push forward but apart from another one of those spinning backwards balls in the 65th minute, there was little action to be had.  And every so often a bing-bong sound would divert all attention to the big screen that showed goals from elsewhere in the league.  Quite bizarre although based on some of the dire fayre I have seen this season at The Circus (aka Upton Park) I think this may just take off in England.  Good old BK Häcken putting two past Djurgården though.

With just fifteen minutes to go we had to leave.  With time tight to get back into Denmark for the main event we headed off.  Of course we knew we would miss a 90th winner, and that is exactly what happened when Mattias Lindström scored.  By this stage we were back on the ferry, having found beer at last and readying ourself for the fun and antics at Parken.  a lovely way to spend a few hours on a cold yet sunny day.  If you haven’t been to Helsingborgs before, go now – literally now.  But remember your oxygen mask for the steep walk up the hill.

Another view of the day can be found at my compardre Danny Last’s blog here.

The most famous Swede of the lot

Ask 100 non Swedes who they think the most famous Swede is and you will get a variety of answers including Bjorn Borg, Abba, Britt Ekland and Alfred Nobel….ask the same question to Swedes and you will almost certainly get one name cropping up that you would not expect – Henrik Larsson. The striker who for so long was a fixture in the Celtic first eleven is idolised in the country, even more so announcing he would spend two seasons with his boyhood club Helsingborgs before he retired.

He duly kept his word and started the 2007 season leading the front line for Helsingborgs IF as they tried to win a title that they had last won in 1999. With no team able to win back to back titles for many a season the opportunity to hit the top was within their reach as they started the season in March 2007. The great thing about the Swedish season is its timing – meaning that football fans based in and around Copenhagen can watch football all year round. And with work giving me the time to spend in this wonderful part of the world a trip across the water to the historic town of Helsingborg became a must once Henrik had finished his stint with Manchester United and returned home.

The club’s centenary season had started well. Favourites Elfsborg, Djurgaarden and IFK Gotenborg had been distracted by European competition and with Henrik scoring freely things were shaping up nicely. With a midweek game on the horizon with Hammerby from the capital I managed to arrange a meeting with my friends from Google in Malmo and hop across the bridge in the early afternoon. The train from Malmo takes around an hour, and deposits you at the transport interchange – where trains, buses and ferries meet. Helsingborg is a major ferry port, with the regular route across to the confusingly named Helsingor in Denmark. In fact Helsingborg was part of Denmark for centuries, and has been one of those strategic locations that has seen a fair bit of action. Today in true flat pack form it is better known for the fact it is the global HQ of Ikea.

All of the main fun in the town is located within a 5 minute walk of the station, with pavement bars and restaurants lining the narrow pedestrian zone on the way up the hill to the stadium….Ah yes – the stadium…The Olympia Stadium…Open since 1898 and named after……pass. It has certainly never hosted the Olympics, nor does it look like Mount Olympia and so where on earth the name came from I do not know. It was due to be demolished next year, and rebuilt exactly the same size about 500 yards away but the club eventually saw sense and realised the current stadium was more than adequate enough to host the UEFA Under21’s championships.

With Henrik back in the fold tickets are not exactly easy to get, and so I had to rely on the media pass again. The club had produced a special Henrik-inspired media pack, with a Henrik badge, Henrik CD and a special Henrik endorsed housing estate brochure…Do you get the picture of how much Henrik means to these people?

One of the nice things about football at Helsingborg was that they had invested in the small things. The singing of the nation anthem before the game was unusual considering it was a normal league game – made all the better by the very blonde, very cute singer. The teams emerged to a ticker tape welcome, and with the sun setting over the stadium the scene was set hopefully for a classic, and the teams didn’t disappoint, serving up a six goal treat with Henrik scoring a brace on the way to a 4-2 win….and that is about it – nothing remarkable on the 90 minute journey from Copenhagen, nothing remarkable about the pcituresque town, a great game and finally a text book trip back. If only every trip was as easy as this!

About The Olympia Stadion
The Olympia Stadion is one of the most atmospheric stadiums in the Swedish top division. It can hardly be called traditional as it is a mixture of the old and new, perched on a hill high above the historic port city of Helsingborg. The stadium was originally opened in 1898 as a multi-sport venue and was further developed during the 1990’s when the main stand and east stand were rebuilt, and the athletics track removed.

The stadium is one of the most famous in Swedish football, and unusually the hardcore fans can be seen to congregate in one particular corner on both the terrace and the seated area. The views from the main stand and the east stand are very good, although the setting sun during the summer months does cause an issue for those seated in the latter. Away supporters are located in the corner of the north stand terrace. Expect lots of co-ordinated singing and a few ticker-tape showers.

Who plays there?
Helsingborgs IF were founded in June 1907 although their formative years brought little joy in terms of success. The club played in the regional leagues until the end of the First World War when they began to dominate Swedish football, but never quite winning the honours. All that changed in 1929 when the team at last lived up to their potential by winning the Championship. They followed this up by retaining their title in 1930, and went on to win the trophy in 1933, 1934 and 1941 when they completed the domestic double.

After the Second World War ended in 1946, and football returned to normal in Sweden, the club struggled to compete with the big teams, and found themselves on a number of occasions in the 2nd division. They returned in 1993 to herald a new era of success for the club. In the late 1990’s the team at last delivered the goods again by firstly winning the Swedish Cup in 1998 and the following season the title for the final time.

The club have played in Europe a number of times – in fact they played in European competition every season from 1996/97 through to 2002. During that period the most notable success was playing in the Champions League in 2000/01 when they beat Inter Milan over two legs to qualify for the group stages along with Paris Saint Germain, Rosenborg and Bayern Munich. They will once again return to the UEFA Cup in 2007 after winning the Swedish Cup in 2006 by beating Gefle IF 2-0.

The club is managed by Scot Stuart Baxter who has been playing and managing in Sweden since the mid 1980’s. Their most famous player, without doubt is ex-Celtic and Barcelona legend Henrik Larsson who promised the club he first made his name with at least one season at the end of his career. He was good to his word, despite turning down an offer to stay at Manchester United where he was on loan during 2006/07. Larsson was actually voted Helsingborgs Player of the Century in 2007. One notable feature of the team this season is that they have more sponsors on their kit that a Formula One car – with 6 different sponsors on the short and 2 on their shorts.

How to get there
Most visitors will arrive at the central station which is close to the ferry terminal and adjacent to the bus station. If the weather is nice then the best way to reach the stadium is to walk through the pedestrian area opposite the station, stopping at a few hostelries along the way before taking one of the paths that wind their way up the steep hill. Once you are in the park area, keep heading eastwards and the stadium will come into view behind the houses. The walk from the station takes around 15 minutes. There are a number of special buses laid on for the football that run from the bus station.

Getting a ticket
Swedish football is enjoying a renaissance, and with the signing of Henrik Larsson, Helsingborg have become a very attractive team to watch now, and so tickets can be in short supply for some matches. However, the good news is that it is easy to book a ticket in advance using http://www.ticnet.se where tickets go on sale around 6 weeks prior to the match. Tickets can also be purchased from the stadium. Ticket prices depend on the opposition, but in general you will pay 105SKR for a place on the terrace for most matches, rising to 145SKR for the game versus Mälmo, whilst a good seat would be 175SKR and 245SKR respectively.

Getting around
Helsingborg is very compact and you will really not need any public transport once you arrive unless you are planning on going up the coast towards Gothenburg, or southwards towards Landskrona and Mälmo. Local buses will get you a bit further a field if you need to – they run from the central bus station which is attached to the train station.

Local Hotels & Bars
Despite its relatively small size, Helsingborg is a popular city, both as a landing point for ferries from Denmark and further a field but also on the main Swedish west coast train line. However, it does have a number of good hotels which means that you should not have many issues in finding a bed for the night. There is a small tourist office at Rådhuset and they can be contacted on +46 42 10 43 50. Their website is http://www.helsingborg.se. The following hotels are central, good value and near all of the action.

Clarion Grand Hotel – Stortorget 8-12
Tel: +46 42 38 0400 http://www.clarionhotelhelsingborg.se
Best Western Hotel Helsingborg – Stortorget 20
Tel: +46 42 37 18 00 http://www.bestwestern.com
Elite Hotel Marina Plaza – Kungstorget 6
Tel: +46 771 788789 http://www.elite.se

The city also has some reknown restaurants that unsurprisingly have some excellent seafood. The following are some of the best that you will find, and don’t have too high prices.

Restaurant Amica – Rönnowsgatan 19 (Tel: +46 42 13 0715)
Wärdshuset Gamlegård – Nor Storgatan 9 (Tel: +46 42 147950)
Lagmarks – Sundstorget 3 (Tel: +46 42 14 8830)

The main concentration of bars and cafés are close to the station in the pedestrianised side streets. Here you will find traditional pubs as well as pavement bars where you can sit outside and enjoy some excellent Swedish food and drink. The following should be a stopping off point if you have a night out planned in the city.

Bara Vara – Fågelsångsgatan 23
Crombar – Drottninggatan 7
Gretas Krog – Furutorpsgatan 38

If you want to find somewhere to watch a game from back home then head for one of the following that show regular live Premiership games.

The Charles Dickens – Södergatan 43
The Bishop’s Arms – Södra Storgatan 32
Pub Norrbro – Norrbroplatsen 7

Nearest Airport – Kastrup Copenhagen (CPH)
Telephone: +45 3231 3231
Website: http://www.cph.dk

Despite being in a different country, Copenhagen’s main airport is the nearest airport, located around 60 miles to the south across the Øresund Bridge. It has three terminals – two dedicated to international and intercontinental flights, and the remote Terminal 1 is dedicated to internal flights. Easyjet are the main budget carrier to fly to Copenhagen. They fly here daily from London Stansted. BA and SAS also fly here from London Heathrow. Snowflake, SAS’s budget brand fly twice daily from London City. Sterling are Denmark’s biggest Budget airline – they fly three times a day from London Gatwick.

From Copenhagen Airport train station under terminal 3 you can catch an hourly train direct to Helsingborg. The journey takes around 75 minutes – but make sure you are in the right carriage as the train often divides at Mälmo Central. A return ticket costs 265DKR.

Other Airport – Mälmo Sturup Airport (MMX)
Telephone: +46 40 613 10 00
Website: http://www.lvf.se

Ryanair fly into Malmö’s small and compact Sturup airport. . Buses link the airport to the central station, where you can change onto a train to Helsingborg. The bus takes around 40 minutes and costs 25SKR.