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.

Our Marathon Man takes on Loch Ness


Brian Parish choses Scottish Premier League football over his beloved Dagenham & Redbridge….but for more reasons than just a decent pie.

Last year, I jetted off to Toronto to run a marathon that turned into a bit of an ice hockey fest as well. Attending two games over the course of three days could definitely be marked up as “ambition achieved”. Last year though, I had the holiday from work to be able to fly across the Atlantic for an eight day trip for running and hockey. This year though, having spent a fair few days visiting Olympic Park for various sporting events, I am a bit lighter in the holiday allowance than I was twelve months ago, so I have looked closer to home for my marathon trip.

Having done a bit of research, I came up with a trip to Inverness for the Loch Ness marathon. A few people from my running club had completed it, and it sounded like a good idea, so back in March, I signed up, booked my flights, and sorted out the hotel.

Of course, signing up for a trip like this meant that I also needed the fixture list to be kind, and therefore needed Inverness to be at home the weekend I would be in town. Not only that, but I needed them to be playing a league game that I could get a ticket for.

With all of the Rangers stuff going on over the summer, when the fixtures did appear with “Team 12” included, I didn’t know what to think; whether the list would be re-done, or whether they would stay as originally announced. The original list had Inverness at home to Dundee United on the marathon weekend, so I kept a watch on the fixtures. When this was confirmed, I bought my ticket and so the day before running another twenty-six miler, I finally get to go to my first game in Scotland.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle was a club born of a merger between two clubs that had over a century of history each. Thistle FC (formed 1885) and Caledonian (1886) joined forces when the Scottish league was expanded from thirty-eight to forty clubs in 1994. As with many mergers between clubs, this did not go down well with the support of both teams, but at least it bought the Scottish Football League to a region of the country that had (by the looks of things) only encountered them when the Scottish Cup came around. Having spent half of their first season playing home games at Aberdeen while their original stadium was made ready for the SFl, they eventually got back to the capital of the Highlands in January 1994, and beat Dunfermline in their first game back. Continue reading