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!

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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!

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.

On the eighth day of TBIR Christmas – The Best Atmosphere


Happy New Year one and all…I hope last night wasn’t too hard on you all mentally and have your winter woollies on ready for a day at football.

What do you get when you cross the Best Game with the Best Grounds?  Well, that would be the Best Atmosphere of course!  Last year the winners were AS Roma, Bayern Munich and the All-German Champions League final at Wembley.  The dilemma of being a Non-League fan is that the atmosphere at games is generally poor.  You don’t really have high expectations in terms of noise, colour and flare(s) when your fellow supporters all have carrier bags to keep their programmes in or dogs with scarves on.  At some grounds the silence is punctuated with the stir of a cup of tea or the news that Walton & Hersham have taken the lead against South Park.  And I appreciate the beauty and serenity of the Non-League game.  But sometimes we want noise.  We want passion.  We want people waving fireworks around above their heads.  So let’s raise a glass to three grounds we visited in 2014 that had just that.

3rd Place – Lithuania v Estonia, LFF Stadion, Vilnius
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A cold, chilly night in Lithuania isn’t many people’s idea of fun, but add in the spice of a Baltic derby, played at a time when the national team are playing some of their best football in history and you have a decent night out in one of Europe’s best, undiscovered cities.  The downside?  A three sides, mainly open-air stadium.  The upside, passionate locals who had fueled up on on cheap local spirits. Noise galore, roaring their team on to another, surprising victory.  Lithuania is the new Mallorca – you heard it here first.

2nd Place – Holstein Kiel 1 1860 Munich 2, Holstein Stadion, Kiel
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The Pokal is taken very seriously in German Football.  None of this putting out the reserve/kids XI out – clubs take it very seriously.  Bayern Munich, arguably the best team in the world, want to win it every year – why wouldn’t they?  The rules means that the lower-ranked team plays at home, with no replays.  When the draw this season was made, 3rd tier Holstein Kiel were to host 1860 Munich – a near one thousand mile round trip.  But, without any surprises, the game was a sell out with nearly a thousand 1860 fans making the journey to bring their colour, songs and bad dress sense (well, a few anyway) to the famous port city in Northern Germany. The home fans did themselves proud on and off the pitch with a riot of colour, flag waving and singing.  Oh, and beer.  Lots of beer.

1st Place – Romania v Northern Ireland, Stadium National, Bucharest
15170367364_fc78920572_k (1)
Nearly an hour after the end of this European Championship qualifier had ended, the noise was still reverberating around my head.  The result was in some way irrespective – the noise in the enclosed Stadium National was turned up to 15 and this was despite various sections being closed due to crowd trouble in the last game against Hungary.  The Irish, whilst outnumbered nearly 30 to 1 played their part, never stopping their soundtrack, but it was the home side, with their cheering, coupled with the odd fire cracker and flare that kept the cold at bay.  Domestic football in Romania may not be much to write home about, but when the national team take to the field, expect something special.

Tomorrow, the festive journey continues with our look at the best tales from Non-League football.

 

On the fifth day of TBIR Christmas – The Best EFW/Day out


The definition of a EFW is simply a trip across borders to watch football, drink beer and basically act like a 10 year old.  It doesn’t have to be in Europe – it’s just that that was where the term started, coined by my old mucka, Danny Last.  Every year we head off on an irregular basis (well, that’s what we tell our wives) to places old and new to enjoy a museum, art gallery and local crafts….

So 2014 brought a few new venues to my world map, but in the interests of fairness, I’ve limited the top three to those where we traveled as a group, drank as a group, laughed as a group and lost each other/our wallets/our phones as a group.

3rd Place – Edinburgh
20140726-202447-73487013Our annual trip to Scotland was planned to take in some of the Commonwealth Games events in Glasgow just so happened to coincide with the first round of the Petrofac Training Cup no less, with Hearts playing their first home game under supporter ownership at Tynecastle.  What better place to spend a weekend with a bit of football in the middle.  Decent pubs, some outstanding beer (just the six different Innis & Gunn brews for me), great food and of course a range of games all within an hour of the city.  You can’t go far wrong that heading up here for the weekend. Just expect rain at any time of the year.

2nd Place- Bucharest
15170374174_33ebcbeb20_kRomania isn’t somewhere I’d have ever thought I’d like.  Bucharest doesn’t exactly come with glowing reviews but I bloody loved it.  Some great nightlife, very cheap, friendly locals and a country that is just starting to reap the benefits of EU membership.  There are three major teams in the city as well as the National stadium, giving options in the North, South, East and West.  The main arena, the National Stadium is an outstanding venue for football.  Read our sister site, 24 Hours in the City for a more in depth review of Bucharest.

1st Place – Sheffield
12160930704_ccddf1fd5e_bWithout a doubt, hands down, the best night out in England at the moment, bar none as long as you head for the right places.  Kelham Island is the place to be seen in just now.  With every weekend hosting either United or Wednesday, the original pioneers of the beautiful game, Sheffield FC plus Rotherham now just one promotion from the Premier League just up the road, there is always a game on as an appetizer for a night sampling some of the local ales.  The tiny Kelham Island Brewery, with its dozen local beers, The Shakespeare and the true home of Football, The Cutters Arm with his host of Thornbridge ales.  Drop everything and go now.  You will not regret it.

Tomorrow – Day six of our TBIR Christmas – The best Non-League day out

On the first day of TBIR Christmas – The Best New Ground visited


It’s been another top year of football over at TBIR, taking in 76 games in 12 countries, including visiting four continents.  It’s not always about football though, and that is reflected in our choice of the Best New Ground visited during the last 12 months.  Our judging criteria?  Simply the grounds that make us want to back time and time again, irrespective of the quality of the game and the atmosphere.  It’s an aesthetic thing.

Our winners last year were Sheffield FC’s Coach and Horses Ground, Arundel FC’s Mill Road and The Guldensporenstadion, the magnificent arena of Belgian aces KV Kortrijk.  It is the most anticipated award in our set of twelve, the one that has seen our message pass around the world in Christmas spirit.

So to this year’s winners.  We saw games in 21 new grounds this year, but that’s just the football – we also visited half a dozen other grounds to sample sports including Baseball, American Football, Cricket, Rugby Union, Rugby League and Aussie Rules Football.  And that is where we start with this year’s top three.

3rd Place – The Melbourne Cricket Ground
14279762608_8aeefa9446_kThe MCG is a legendary venue – It is the 11th-largest stadium in the world, the largest in Australia, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, the largest stadium for playing cricket, and has the highest light towers at any sporting venue. It drips history and should be one of the stadiums to see on a world pilgrimage of stadiums.  Alas, the football season had ended when I was in Melbourne back in June, but the Australian Rules season was in flight and so I got to experience my first taste of Australia’s famous past time – drinking pots of Coopers Ale.  Oh, and a game between Richmond and Sydney.  Thirty thousands were in the famous crowd, creating a bit of noise, but you can just imagine what it is like on a Boxing Day test.  Spine-tingling.

2nd Place – The Arena National, Bucharest
15604928938_565cc6ad8e_k (1)As you approach the new national stadium of Romania your breath is taken away by the superb architecture.  It is built like a Greek temple, sitting high on a mound, with uniform columns and arches around the whole ground.  Whilst the inner area of the stadium isn’t anything special, spartan in fact, the actual bowl itself is a cauldron of noise.  A canopy roof, held in place by huge TV screens ensures that the cold Romanian nights are kept out and the white-hot atmosphere is kept in.  Already highly rated by UEFA, with the 2012 Europa League final being held here.

1st Place – Causeway Lane, Matlock
14834944870_ce9c8487ad_kFollowing in the footsteps of Belgium, Germany and Poland comes….Matlock.  A town of 10,000 people on the edge of the Peak District Park in Derbyshire, home to Northern Premier League side Matlock Town.  And quite simply, one of the best grounds you can visit in the world.  Of course there is the heart-felt Non-League hospitality, the tip-top pie and peas but it’s the views that are the reason why Causeway Lane has scooped this year’s award.  A three-sided ground sat in a bowl with a spooky Scooby-Doo inspired castle on the hill looking ominously down on the game.  Words fail to sum up the beauty of the ground so I will leave it to my pictures from the visit back in August here.

Tomorrow – The ying of the yang…the worst new ground visited.

Ulster men Papp’d


Premier League (and Championship games) are a pain in the arse, getting in the way of these International breaks.  Whoever came up with the idea of 6 consecutive days of top class football should be given a knighthood, or at least a gold card at The Harvester.  The opportunity to visit a few new places, sample a few new beers and of course take in some new culture.  Last month it was Lithuania and Latvia, both new ticks in the box for me. So where would I end up this time around?  The options included Moldova (the poorest country by GDP in Europe and the main sport being wrestling), Luxembourg (currently being hammered by the G14 for their lax tax rules) and Cyprus (foam parties…mmmm).  All relatively good choices but who could resist 20 pence beers, the world’s second biggest building and a table topping clash all washed down on an airmiles return flight and a free hotel room? Bucharest here I come.

15791879632_0be24a2e8b_kThe European Union’s six biggest city spreads its tentacles far and wide.  The former Soviet Bloc influences are clear to see by just picking up a map.  The areas of the city are divided into Sektors, reminding you immediately of 1984 or more recently The Hunger Games.  Whilst the city sits near the top in terms of size in the European Union, according to the annual study carried out by Mercer International on the quality of life, Bucharest is in a lowly 107th place.  I can tell I have already sold you on a visit haven’t I?

What better way to immerse myself in the city than to experience their national side play football? Who would have thought that this game would be a top of the table clash?  In fact what odds would you have got of Northern Ireland qualifying for their first European Championships when the draw was made for France 2016? A positive result here in Bucharest result would keep them top of Group F, a group that few saw them progressing from when the draw was made earlier this year.  Greece and Romania both have recent major tournament pedigree, whilst Hungary and Finland could always upset the odds.  Northern Ireland’s only hope was to pick up points against the Faroe Islands if you believed some “experts”. Two months into qualifying and the Irish arrived in Bucharest top of the group with a 100% record thanks to wins in Hungary and Greece, as well as the predictable home win versus the Faroe Islands. Football is a predictable game right – I mean it wasn’t as if the bottom of the table Faroe Islanders were going to get a win in Greece was it?

The bus from the airport took me on a tour of the suburbs.  Ikea, Homebase, car showrooms, McDonalds.  You could be anywhere on earth.  That’s what global commercialisation has given us.  Finally I arrived at the InterContinental hotel, the tallest building in Romania no less, and temporary home to the Irish squad.  A work colleague offered some vital advice before I left London, shouting it across the office in front of at least one of our Senior Executives. “Stu – don’t ring up from your hotel room for a prostitute. Not only is it illegal, but you may find 19 year old 42 inch chested Inga doesn’t arrive in school uniform at all but as a 55 year old matron whose breasts touch her knees. Just head up to the Club Lounge, they will come and find you.” Well that’s next year’s pay rise scuppered then.

The Europa Royale Hotel, a ten minute stroll down away in Piati Unirii, was the beating heart of the city centre.  Bordered by the biggest shopping centre in the Bucharest, wide Soviet- inspired dead straight boulevards and the heaving nightlife of The Old Town, it was here that the Northern Ireland fans had set up camp. And they were in fine voice when I arrived.  Free buses had been laid on to take the fans to the stadium although the riot police had a stern warning for the Irish fans. “No bottles on board” was the stern instruction from Bucharest’s top Robocop.  “Singing is good. Drinking now is bad. You will want to pee-pee and we will not stop the bus.” Fair point.

15170374174_33ebcbeb20_kWe set off on a tour of the city centre with a police escort, meaning our bus driver had the opportunity to pretend to be Keanu Reeves in Speed and drive at 50mph, ignoring all road signals.  As if the fans cared as they (well, OK, we) launched into verse. “Sweet Caroline”, “All you need is love” a David Healy inspired version of “Away in a Manger” and of course, “We aren’t Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland”.

The buses arrived at the relatively deserted stadium.  It seemed that the locals weren’t exactly excited by the visit of the Irish.  Last month there had been significant trouble both in the city centre and in the stadium when Hungary had been the visitors.  For a brief while it looked as if this game may have had to be played behind closed doors as part of a UEFA sanction.  Fortunately, with nearly a thousand Northern Ireland fans already booked up for Bucharest, UEFA saw sense and imposed a £25,000 fine and a partial stadium closure, though I’m not sure where, penalty on the Romanians.

Prior to 2011, Romania didn’t have a national stadium. The old 60,000 seater open air stadium located on the same site had been demolished in 2009, with games played at the Ghencea, home of Steaua Bucharest, where the two sides last met back in 2006.  The new 55,000 all seater stadium was completed in 2011 and is certainly impressive, already hosting its first major game when the 2012 Europa League Final between Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was held here.  The stadium will also host matches during the ridiculous Europe-wide 2020 European Championships.

The stadium is sat upon a large mound, like a castle, with Neo-Gothic arches around the outside and almost Santiago Calatrava-style interior ones (Spanish chap who loves straight lined, white columns and elegant curves in his building design, dummy).  Without sounding too arty, it’s basically a beauty to behold, especially when lit up at night.

Our way was being blocked by two riot police, both young females who you would object to using their handcuffs on you.  “If I am going to end the night being battered black and blue then can it please be by them two?” A very un-Irish sounding chap had starry eyes for our protectorate.  He soon realised I was also from England when I chirped in my agreement. “You’re not one of them?” He said quietly, looking at the Irish fans behind us. “Please help us. We’ve been kidnapped.  We only came to Bucharest for a cheap weekend away. We got caught up in the wrong crowd and then before we knew it we were on the buses.  We don’t have tickets – heck we don’t even particularly like football.” Before I could answer, the girls had stepped aside and my fellow countrymen were swept along with the tide of green, never to be seen again.

15791900352_7c3f4075f6_kThe view inside the stadium was certainly impressive.  The canopy roof, similar to the one in Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Arena which famous ripped under the weight of water ten years ago in the Confederations Cup Final between Brazil and Argentina, was closed although it hadn’t done anything to make the stadium any warmer.  In fact it was bloody freezing.

The Romanians, despite sitting behind the Irish coming into the game, were firm favourites.  Whilst today’s team doesn’t have the same world-class players as they’ve had in the past, they are still a dangerous side and should be odds on to qualify for the 2016 tournament.

For one brief moment in time back in 2004, Romanian football was catapulted into the global stage thanks to the performance of the side at the World Cup in America. The team arrived with little few people giving them a chance in a group featuring the highly fancied Colombians, Switzerland and the host nation.  In their opening gave, they blew apart the South Americans with goals from a blonde-haired centre-forward, Florin Răducioiu and a diminutive creative midfielder in the mould of Diego Maradona, Gheorghe Hagi.  Whilst the wheels came off the bus in their next match, a solitary goal by dashing full-back Dan Petrescu against the USA saw them reach the next round and a game that changed Romanian football forever.

The new generation of Romanian players came at a time when domestic football was going through a massive change, off the back of the social and political changes in the country.  Steaua, traditionally the side of the Romanian Army and Dinamo, the “Interior Ministry’s side, are the most successful teams in Romania and up until the fall of Ceausescu, had won nine consecutive titles plus Steaua became the first Romanian side to win the European Cup in 1986, beating Barcelona and were runners up to AC Milan three years later.

That golden generation went on to impress in two of the next three major tournaments with the next generation of players being given a chance. Adrian Mutu, Cosmin Contra and Cristian Chivu all enjoyed success overseas whilst performing for the national side. But success has been thin on the ground in recent years. Coach Anghel Iordănescu is in the role for the third time, hoping to recreate the magic that he cast during the Golden Age of Romanian football in the mid-1990s.

Romania 2 Northern Ireland 0 – Arena National – Friday 14th November 2014
“We are top of the league, I say we are top of the league” National anthems done and dusted and for a few brief seconds the Irish fans have a chance to make their presence known.  Their chorus lasts but 10 seconds before the Romanians burst into song, amplified tenfold by the closed roof.  With the stadium just over half full it’s deafening. I cannot imagine what it’s like when full.  Northern Ireland line up 4-5-1, with Kyle Lafferty deployed as the nuisance up front. Out of the 22 players starting the game just one, Fleetwood Town’s Connor McLaughlin sports black boots. Playing opposite to him is the Romanian captain and West Ham flop, Răzvan Rat.

15604928938_565cc6ad8e_kIt took 16 minutes for the Irish to venture into the Romanian penalty area when Chris Brunt fired narrowly wide.  It was going to be a long evening for them, firmly under the cosh.  Romania nearly took the lead two minutes later when the lively Chipciu hit the underside of the bar from close range.  Chipciu wasn’t having the best of nights, following up this miss by falling over in the six yard box with the goal at his mercy after a brilliant run by Sanmartean. Northern Ireland finished the half with Lafferty nearly getting the reward for his tireless running and physical treatment from the Romanian centre-backs when he broke free and forced the keeper into. Smart save at his near post.

With three quarters of the game gone the score was still goal less.  The strength of the Northern Ireland team is their work rate, spirit and discipline.  Everyone knows their position and what is expected of them.  No stars but sheer talent.  With tensions boiling over in the South stand, the riot police were brought into action to quell a disagreement between the Ultras (‘cos that’s what their flag said) and the surrounding fans.  It appeared from the reaction of some fans that tear gas was used which was a real shame as just a few yards away, Romania finally found a way past Roy Carroll, when Paul Papp smashed the ball into the roof of the net after McAuley had failed to clear.

With their tails up, one became two soon after when full-back Papp scored again, heading home at the far post after a long cross from Sanmartean. There was no way back now for the Irish. Time to sing until the final whistle instead.

The performance had been spirited, and whilst many Irish fans may look at the two first half chances from Brunt and Lafferty, they had been beaten by the better side.  The inevitable lock-in after the game saw the riot police happy to pose pictures with the away fans and join in the odd song or two.  Thirty minutes after the game finished I was back on the bar at the hotel, finally thawing out, and ready to bat away the advances of the professional ladies of the night.  Around 1am the Irish squad arrived back, tired but proud of their performance.  There was no shame in defeat tonight.

Saturday morning dawned. From my balcony the grey cloud blended in with the grey buildings. Time to see the city in daylight.  I had made a plan to maximise my last few hours in the city which of course meant a visit to Dinamo and Steaeu’s respective grounds (thanking the God of open magic doors), a purchase of some football socks and a drink or two in the best-named bar in these parts, Beer O’ Clock.  Cheers Bucharest, you’d delivered a top 24 hours.  Until the next International break I wish you well.

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