In Flanders fields the flare smoke blows

11179742773_79c4a65478_bYou can never do enough research or planning for these trips.  To maximise the short amount of time you have to sort out logistics before you depart.  Fortunately Danny and I are good at this stuff.  Very good in fact.  Unfortunately, ending up at 3am in a night club in a very strange French town and consequently sleep through three alarm calls ruins all of the homework. Welcome to day two of our European Football Weekend.

We, which of course means I, had a short drive across the border into Belgium today for what promised to be some spicy football.  Game one was a relative local battle of pride in the centre of Belgium.  Aalst, home of the textile industry, isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of Belgian football.  In fact it is a relative cool bed of most things, but we had been promised the best day ever so who was we to say no?

Confession time.  I’ve only ever had two kebabs in my life.  Once, back in 1989 and then again I had a moment of weakness in Cardiff after the 2006 FA Cup Final.  But with just 10 minutes at Gent St Peters station between trains, and no food, our only option was a kebab shop.  So we indulged, and I have to say, on a Sunday morning, it was wonderful.  I can now understand what all of the fuss is about. Sorry Current Mrs Fuller, a moment’s weakness.

Aalst certainly wasn’t rocking when we arrived at midday.  Perhaps it was the fear of the invading Royal Antwerp fans or the fact that time stands still in Belgium on a Sunday.  We were due to meet Yves, “Mr Fix It” at Eendracht Aalst.  With Antwerp being the visitors, this game had been designated as a “Combi” game (or a “Bubble” game in English speak), so tickets for three visitors from England would be difficult to get hold of.  Danny reached out for help via the Aalst forum and the answer was clear “Ask Yves”.  So he did, and three tickets were procured.  All we had to do was meet with Yves.

11179668336_d68068ee40_bOur chosen meeting point was, of course, a bar.  One of the Aalst fans bar.  In walked a chap with a big camera and a bigger moustache.  Judging by the back-slaps, high fives and kisses on each cheek this was our man.  Yves was a legend.  He gave us our staples for life – tickets to the football and a beer.  What more could we ask for?  Well how about a private audience with the Aalst mascot, a massive walking Onion?

Five minutes later we were ushered into a private room in the stadium.  In front of us was the half man/half onion outfit. The TV cameras were due to record a special programme on the chap who would be slipping on the famous outfit, having been doing the job for decades.  On the floor were the special onion shoes.  Opportunities to slip into the shoes of someone famous rarely come along and so Danny tried to put one on.  Alas, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters, he couldn’t get his foot in.  But it was a different story for me and I would be marrying the prince.  That was until the “prince” walked in and we made a hasty retreat.

Time to watch some football.  The Royal Antwerp fans didn’t seem to be too happy with their accommodation and started throwing everything they could get their hands on.  For far too many years they had been languishing in the second division and the fans were growing weary of seeing smaller teams gaining promotion.  They now had Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in the hotseat but he hadn’t exactly set the division alight.  But perhaps this game would kick-start their season?

Eendracht Aalst 1 Royal Antwerp 0 – Sunday 1st December 2013 – Pierre Cornelisstadion
At the full-time whistle the home fans surged to the front of the perimeter barriers and joined in a spontaneous Zorba’s dance with the Aalst players.  After a decent first half, they had faded towards the end of the game and hung on for all three points. The single goal, scored by Andy Carroll look-alike Glouftsis was the difference between the two teams although it was the home keeper, Verhoeven who was the busier of the two.

11179600085_847ed533a2_bAalst took to the field with 11 Belgians in their starting line-up and came out of the blocks like a train.  Glouftsis had the ball in the net after a few minutes, heading in unchallenged after the ball had rebounded off the advertising boards behind the goal.  Apparently, the rule about playing off the boards still hasn’t been introduced by FIFA so the goal was ruled out.  Fortunately the pony-tailed striker didn’t have to wait long before his goal, taking the ball on his knee, swivelling and shooting in one flowing move.

At the heart of Antwerp’s midfield was a certain J. Bostock.  Six years ago Bostock made his debut for Crystal Palace at the age of 15 years old.  A year later, after just four appearances for Palace,  he was a Spurs player, after a heated legal row on his ownership.  Six years later the “wonder-kid” he has played just sixty games in his career.  In the summer Spurs released him, once again underlining the way in which promising youngsters are often simply warehoused by the top clubs.  Royal Antwerp have taken a chance on him and here he was in all of his glory.

The atmosphere created by just 3,500 was certainly impressive.  The away fans sent over a few flares, and the home fans retorted with a few songs about the parentage of the away fans.  But who was we to care.  We were in the middle of the biggest conga since Zorba the Greek.

K.V Kortrijk 1 Zulte Waregem 1 – Sunday 1st December 2013 – Guldensporonstadion
On the way to Aalst we’d passed through Waregem on the train.  Damon had been here in May and suggested that is was a sleepy little place, akin to “Hereford” and that he didn’t think there would be much of an atmosphere for our final game of the weekend.  “About 4 or 5,000 I reckon” he told us.  So when our train pulled into Kortrijk station some 2 hour before kick off, we had to pinch ourselves at the scene unfolding in front of us.

Thousands of fans, dressed in red and white were preparing to march to the stadium.  And by preparing I mean firing flares into the air, throwing fire-crackers on the floor and twirling their scarves like there was no tomorrow. It was the best night ever.  Danny and Damon aren’t easily bought but put them a beer in one hand and the chance of a flare in the other than they are anyones.  As the sensible one in the group I went and got the car and drove it to the Guldensporonstadion and waited patiently for their three rings to say they had safely arrived.

11179715195_5ebaa87f80_bThe atmosphere in the ground was outstanding, with a couple of thousand home fans crammed into the big terrace behind the goal.  Think Ashton Gate mixed with Griffin Park and then you have the Guldensporonstadion.  Around six hundred away fans were crammed into a side stand and were drowned out by the fireworks and song after song (“We all agree, Waregem fans are Wankers” was a firm favourite).

The away keeper, Bossut, was welcomed at the home end with a shower of potatoes.  Not once did he bat an eyelid though.  Three minutes into the game and he needed to be on the top of his game as he faced a penalty from Santini, making a great save to silence the home fans. But it wasn’t long before they did take the lead when De Smet scored after some smart close control in the area and unsurprisingly the fans went mental.

11179720385_46a9ea672c_bThere wasn’t a moment in the game when we weren’t jumping up and down, linking arms and Poznaning across the terraces or swirling our scarves around our head.  Occasionally we watched some of the game, with the home side being reduced to ten men after a second yellow for De Smet.  Deep down we wanted to see what would happen if the Zulte scored at our end, and sure enough with just two minutes to go Habibou slotted home and cups of beers showered down from all sides.  A draw was the least the away side deserved based on possession and chances.  Once again they are fighting at the top of the table and are still in the Europa League.

It was time for us to come home.  For Damon and Danny it was a chance of a snooze, but for me it was a trip on the concentration highway.  It had been a long, tiring trip but one that had ultimately been more rewarding than a trip to Marseilles.  Even the UK border guard who questioned us about our trip agreed.  Rome, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Stockholm and Belgrade – The best derbies in Europe for atmosphere by far. Add to that list Kortrijk.

The great EU bailout

It warms our hearts when we hear about some of the trips people make to see football around Europe. This week our beloved Brian Parish and Dagenham Dan teamed up with long-suffering Wolves fan Neil Shenton and hopped across the Channel to fit in an astounding four games in four countries in just over 48 hours.  Jealous?  Who would be:-

It was during half time at a home game towards the end of last season (which Dan assures me was the Easter fixture at home to Plymouth Argyle) when the ideafor this trip was first formed. Having not done a non-Spanish league game for a while, we decided that we should try and get to a couple of games in Europe over a weekend, just by way of a change. The Bundesliga was the unanimous choice, and so we set about thinking about where in Germany we would like to visit.

Within a couple of days, the trip had been increased to a two game trip, with the notion that we should try and get to a game on the way to Germany. Soon it was three then four, and then the best selling point of all. Four games, in three days, in four different countries.

Of course, we had to wait until the fixtures were announced, and so while we had all these ideas of where we would like to go whirling around, it was all pointless until we could see who was playing and when. With three of us (Dagenham Dan, Neil Shenton and myself) making this trip, we would have to wait to see if there was a weekend where we wouldn’t miss a home game for any of our teams. Continue reading

On the third day of Christmas….The best new ground visited

“On the Third Day of Christmas my true love gave to me….a trio of new grounds to see”

This was a toughie.  We saw games in forty new grounds in 2011 and so to pick three was very difficult because all had endeering factors.  Whyteleafe’s Church Road ground was idyllic in the Indian Summer, coupled with an seven goal thriller, but visit it in the dead of winter with a nil-nil draw and it may seem like the worst place on earth.  So we based it on our pure gut instinct of what it would be like all year round. Last year the honours went to Spartak Trnava in Slovakia. This year the winners are:-

3rd – The Bosuilstadion – Royal Antwerp
Antwerp had to be in the top three after one of those post game night’s out when you cannot remember getting home, but you did so with more money than you went out with, a half eaten Marmite crepe by your side and a pair of big girls pants in your pocket.  “We are the great old” they sung at the Bosuilstadion both during the game and in the bar afterwards where the players freely mix with the fans.  A mixture of old and new, old-fashion benches alongside glassed in executive boxes.  Oh, and they serve strong Belgium beer!

2nd – The American Express Community Stadium – Brighton & Hove Albion
This was a tough one not to put top.  My first visit here was as a photographer on a baking hot day in July and so I had an all-access pass.  The stadium is magnificent and first time visitors approaching along the A27 from Brighton will be hard pressed to not swerve off the road when they first see the gleaming roof.  The stadium is perfect in so many ways.  Excellent site lines, a roof that seems to keep the noise of the fans in the stadium, pride in the heritage of the club around the edge of the ground and facilities that encourage fans to hang around after the game for a beer.

1st – Espelunde – BK Avarta
Who?  Where? I hear you say.  The Who is a Danish 2nd Division East side.  The Where is the western suburbs of Copenhagen.  So why has this topped the other thirty nine grounds?  Let me set the scene.  The sun is shining, the beer is cold and the sausages on the grill and sizzling.  The teams run out of an actual tunnel, made out of one of those huge concrete pipes set into the grassy hill. Fans sit on blankets on the grassy knolls watching the game fly by.  Even the home team bench sit on directors chairs, knowing that their ground is a cut above the rest.  See for yourself here.

Sexual Healing

“Let’s get it on”. 7.20am Sunday 17th April 2011. I was waiting outside East Croydon station for an Englishman, a Scotsman and a quasi-Spanishman. We were heading east to the Kent coast and further. Our purpose was of course football – why would it be anything else? Not just any old football either. Whilst England looked forward to the mouth-watering Bolton Wanderers versus Stoke City in the FA Cup Semi-Final, we were all over the Belgium EXQI League.

Nice beach hut formation

Sixty miles up the coast from Day Trip mecca Calais is the Belgium coastal town of Ostend. Or Oostend, even Oostende depending on how lazy you are when you type. Once home to the Belgium royal family when they wanted a knees up by the seaside, and a host venue for the 1920 Olympics when they hosted the sailing events on behalf of Antwerp down the road. Today it is fading a bit like Margate, unable to compete with the cheap package destinations of the Costa del Sol and the Algarve. But for a few hours it would be like paradise for us as we were here to see KV Oostende host Royal Antwerp.

I had been to the town twice, both times in transit to Bruges (or Brugge depending what day of the week it is). Once during Euro2000 when a group of us had used the now defunct Sea Cat from Dover to come over for the epic Yugoslavia v Spain game, and then on a Fuller-break when we flew from Stansted. Amazingly Ryanair actually launched this route and kept it open for nearly a year. Flight time? Approximately 23 minutes which I believe was their shortest ever route which meant that it was far too close a destination of interest to be viable. Continue reading