2016 – A year in football


So that was 2016.  A year most will remember for famous people dying, although the stats will show that no more than a normal year (our love of Social Media partly fuels this hyperbole about the mourning of our celebrity culture) but also a year of watching football.  Footballing duties at the mighty Lewes have restricted my consumption of random games and most certainly weekends away in the past twelve months but with the contract renewed for a third Football Tourist book in 2017/18 I will again be dusting down the passport.

Even so, 2016’s haul hasn’t been bad.  82 games, an average of one every 4 1/2 days in seven countries at 45 different grounds including 24 new stadiums.  In the process I witnessed 255 goals, an average of 3.1 goals per game, 36 home wins, 28 away wins and 17 draws.  Some games will be memorable for years, others have already been forgotten.

We all see games through various shades of rose tint.  A thriller for the neutral will be heartache for one set of fans.  The best referee in the world is a purely subjective decision based on what marginal calls he makes for your side.  So my list of the “best of” is how I saw football in 2016 – there’s no right or wrong just the opinions based on the games I saw.

The Best New Grounds visited
There’s always a sense of excitement visiting a new ground, especially one that people have raved about for years.  Some of my new “ticks” in 2016 were as basic, albeit enjoyable, as Glebe FC down in the SCEFL division 1, others told a story of success against the odds such as last week’s trip to Fisher FC’s new community stadium in Bermondsey.  But the three stadiums below, in no particular order were hands down the best visited for different reasons in 2016.

Glentoran – The Oval

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A hulking main stand, grass banks behind the goal, a bar buried in the history of the club and the stand, the giant cranes of Harland & Wolff in the distance and the planes making their descent into Belfast City Airport overhead – sometimes first time visitors to the iconic Oval may forget there’s a game going on.  The club are contemplating the future of the ground, drastically cut in capacity due to the sands of time but no football fan can ignore the lure of its rustic beauty.

Athletic Bilbao – San Mamés

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Inside the new San Mamés you could be forgiven that you are in any big new stadium in the world – functional is a word I’d use to describe the 60,000 odd red seats.  But put a roof on and smother the exterior with black and white panels and you’ve got a design icon that even Sir Norman Foster gave an approving nod to. Bilbao is already a weekend destination that just about hits every note, the addition of the new San Mamés has simply added it to the top of the list for the Football Tourist.

Olympique Marseille – Stade Vélodrome

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It’s hard to imagine this is the same ground I visited over a decade ago to watch an England v France rugby match but it is.  Back then there was no roof and the atmosphere drifted into the night sky, carried away on the Mistral.  Millions were spent upgrading the stadium making it fit for the 2016 European Championships.  The result is a stunning arena with curves that make Marilyn Monroe slimmer of the month.  Obviously what happened in the game between England and Russia is not how a visit should be remembered but still.

The Best Games of 2016
Goals win games and whilst we’ve all seen “entertaining” scoreless draws, unless a match has some life then it’s just going to fade into the memory bank along with all those other 2/5 rated games.  We saw some absolute shockers in 2016, some perhaps that may appear on other fans top games of the year (Faversham Town 5 Lewes 0 anyone?) but the games below are those that as a neutral had that ‘X’ factor…and goals plus a red card or two…oh, and a pie.  Who doesn’t love a pie at football?

AFC Guiseley 4 Torquay United 3
26138079974_c44c4ab0bd_kWhat could be better than a last day of the season “must-win” home game? One where attentions will also be focused on events elsewhere that could ultimately make the score irrelevant.  Add in a season-best crowd, a good natured pitch invasion and the seven goals and this was the best game ever.  The home side needed to win and hope that Halifax didn’t in their home game against Macclesfield Town.  After racing to a 3-0 lead the home nerves were put on edge when Halifax scored.  It got even worse in the second half when Torquay, with nothing left to play for suddenly pulled it back to 3-2.  Then Macclesfield scored and to make the situation even better Gisele scored a fourth.  Torquay made it 4-3 ensuring the final few minutes were very nervous but with the full time whistle blown at The New Shay, the fans invaded the pitch to celebrate ultimate safety.

Northern Ireland 4 San Marino 0
29577405693_e86f13bde5_kThe opening of the redeveloped Windsor Park was a night of celebration with Northern Ireland’s finest sons and daughters paraded before a sell-out crowd on a chilly night in October.  Unlike a Audley Harrison fight, their opponents hadn’t been chosen at random to ensure that the night of celebration would result in a win.  San Marino’s hopeless cause wasn’t helped by the dismissal early in the second half of Mirko Palazzi but even still Northern Ireland peppered the visitors goal with 35 shots over the ninety minutes yet somehow only scored four.  A superb atmosphere accompanied the one way traffic and there was even time post match for a beer or two in the city centre.  Marvellous.

 

Athletic Bilbao 5 KRC Genk 3
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It’s not often that you see one player dominate one game to so much of an extent as Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz did in this Europa League tie back in November at the San Mamés but anyone who scores five goals in a game deserved all the respect of world football.  Granted he scored a hatrick of penalties given by Martin Atkinson but he could have five or six more goals from open play.  The game ebbed and flowed, with both teams committed to trying to win the game.  Add in a few yellow cards and a decent atmosphere in an outstanding stadium and it is up there with one of the best games I’ve seen in recent years.

Here’s to 2017….

 

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Introducing “The Handful”


30472575510_055cfb20d1_kOne is one

Two is a brace

Three is a hatrick

Four is a haul

So how do you refer to someone who scores five in a game? I asked my esteemed colleagues from the Spanish and Belgian press who sat either side of me in the San Mamés stadium at full-time on Thursday night, but neither seemed to know either.  “A handful?” was the best we came up with as we headed down to the press conference to see if either manager knew….they didn’t.

The player in question was the veteran Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz who had just scored all five goals in the Europa League tie against KRC Genk.  Granted three had been penalty kicks, awarded by English referee Martin Atkinson, but Aduriz could and should have added a couple more.  He was simply head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch.

Let’s rewind a few hours to when I touched down at Bilbao Airport.  I’d replaced the standard English Autumnal fayre of “drizzle” with beautiful, hot sunshine.  For the second week in a row, I was going to be watching football somewhere that was officially “hotter than Greece”.  I was here in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe to visit the new San Mamés stadium for the first time, officially the 2015 Best Stadium in the World at the World Architectural Festival in Singapore no less as well as have an afternoon of bar hopping and sampling some Pintxos, the Basque version of Tapas that is taken so seriously in these parts.

I loaded up with some culture on arrival in the city centre, braving the 45 metre high Vizcaya Bridge walkway across the River Nervion and even went into the Guggenheim Museum, the focal point for all of the regeneration of the city.  I say “went in”, I just visited the gift shop, bought a fridge magnet and left.  I like a Van Gogh like the rest of you, but some of the more “abstract” pieces that were on display would just get me annoyed.  I remember visiting the museum with CMF for the first time 15 years ago and creating that family favourite game “Art or not”, where we tried to guess whether our concept of art, such as a fire extinguisher or a plug socket held as much merit as some of the exhibits.  Of course they did.

The opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 was the defibrillator that the region needed though. Over €500 million was generated for the region in just a few years as over 4 million tourists visited the museum. The regional council estimated that the money visitors spent on hotels, restaurants, shops and transport allowed it to collect €100 million in taxes, which more than paid for the building cost. In economic theory terms, the Return on Investment was bat-shit crazy and everyone benefited, whether it was the bars and restaurants who went Pintxos crazy, the regeneration projects along the Nervion River or the football club who eventually got to swap the historic, but very dated San Mamés stadium, for a stunning new version complete with retractable roof and 50,000+ seats.

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My afternoon was spent in a number of bars around the Old Town with a group of Genk fans who I had bumped into.  We traded football stories – me selling them the concept of the Lewes beach huts, them trying to explain how on earth the Belgian end of season Play-offs worked.  Two hours later, and several 7% plus beers down the line and I was still none-the-wiser. Last season’s eventual 4th place finish had been enough to see the club enter the Europa League where they made light work in qualifying to reach the group stages.  Two wins (both at home including a 2-0 victory over Athletic Club a few weeks ago) saw them top the group but with five of the six games in the group going with home advantage so far, a win for the home side could technically see them leapfrog Genk before the end of the night.

30141331984_6f2b21c887_kWe stopped off for a bit of a sing-song in Plaza Moyua in the heart of the city centre where the fans at least resisted the temptation to not do “an England” as one fan put it to me and jump in the fountain.  It was a very good-natured affair with some Athletic Club fans passing by stopping to share a drink and a chat in sign-language – a Limburgish dialect of Dutch and a local version of Basque made for an interesting mix.  The group started to migrate westwards a couple of hours before kick off along Gran Via and towards the stadium.  As we reached the inner ring road I headed right to find my hotel, which had inconveniently been built slap-bang next to the stadium.  Well, technically, the new stadium had been built next to it, almost within touching distance from my hotel room.

There’s something very satisfying about staying in a hotel so close to a ground.  For a start on a matchday the security on the door makes you feel like a VIP (unless you forget your room card as I did once at The Croke Park hotel in Dublin when the Irish hosted Italy and I had to wait for an hour to get back in), you also have that smug feeling when the full-time whistle blows that you will have a beer in your hand before most fans have made it onto a bus or a train and of course you can you the staple line when checking in of “is there a match on tonight?” – gets them every time.

30137697553_7f44587bb0_kRefreshed, revived and ready for action I picked up my accreditation, which simply referred to me as “The Football Tourist” and headed up to the press box ready to see if Athletic Club could get themselves back in the group or will the Belgians take a massive step towards qualification.

I would have imagined that a delegation from White Hart Lane had headed over to Bilbao to understand how the club built the new stadium whilst playing in the old one next door.  The old ground ran North to South, pressed up against Calles Des Briñas and the supporters bars opposite.  Construction on the new ground, which would run East to West started in 2010 after the demolition of the old Trade Fair site.  With three of the four sides constructed over the next few years whilst games continued in the old ground, the club was able to take up residence “next door” with the first game played there in September 2013.  They then demolished the old ground, finished off the east stand and today it is one of the finest sights in football, up there with the Allianz Arena in Munich or The Dripping Pan.

Athletic Club Bilbao 5 KRC Genk 3 – Estadio San Mamés – Thursday 3rd November 2016
Aduriz will of course grab all of the headlines for his five-star performance but Genk certainly played their part with a never say die attitude which up until the 90th minute saw them pressing for an equaliser.  English referee Martin Atkinson manage to award three penalties, by his own admission something he hadn’t done in a game for years, all of which were converted by the veteran Bilbao striker.

It wasn’t the best of games to start with to be honest, with neither team prepared to risk everything going forward.  The turning point came in the 8th minute with a goal of simplicity for the home side.  Cross from the left, nod back across the six yard box by Garcia and Aduriz nipped in and toe-poked it home.  One became two with the first penalty award in the 23rd minute after Muniain was tripped.  No complaints about the foul but Aduriz’s stutter in the run up to take the kick looked very much like it breached the new rules.  2-0

30736490366_3fc05340db_kFive minutes later and Genk, roared on by their fans get back into the game when the impressive Leon Bailey slots home after a neat through ball. 2-1.  García runs into the box and is blocked by a Genk defender.  Home fans appeal for a corner, Atkinson gives a penalty, with replays showing he got that spot on.  Aduriz steps up, stutters and sends the keeper the wrong way. 3-1.

Half-time and a chance to grab our breath.  Four goals, four booking.  Not bad entertainment.

The second half continued in the same vein.  Aduriz missed a golden opportunity in the first minute before Buffel turns the Athletic defence inside out, crosses to Ndidi and his header flies into the top corner.  3-2.

However, Genk can’t build on that goal and with fifteen minutes left Alvarez’s perfect ball between the centre-backs sees Aduriz race onto it and slot home for his fourth.  4-2.  But back come Genk, as Bailey goes on a mazy run and is thwarted as he is about to pull the trigger but the ball falls to Sušic who slots home. 4-3.

Athletic continue to press and could have quite easily added a fifth before in injury time Atkinson points to the spot again as Ndidi fouls the impressive Athletic substitute Williams and Aduriz does his thing again. 5-3 and full-time. Eight goals from just nine attempts on goal.  In the style of Opta Joe, “clinical”.

The win, coupled with the draw between Rapid Wein and Sussolo means that the four teams are separated by just 1 point with two games to play.  A win for Athletic in their final home game against the Italian’s, assuming they can avoid a heavy defeat in Vienna should be enough to see them through.

I sat in on the press conference, unable to understand a word but felt I should be there, before heading to one of the supporter’s bars opposite the stadium to join up with the Genks fans I’d met earlier.  They were disappointed with the result, blaming me as an Englishman because Martin Atkinson was English too.  Harsh. I told Atkinson that when I bumped into him at Bilbao airport the following morning, narrowly avoiding a booking for dissent.  The Spanish press certainly didn’t have a bad word to say about his performance, nor did they for Athletic Club’s best night in European football for many-a-year.

Bilbao is right up there with the best places to go to watch football in.  A cracking city that is certainly on the up with a vibrant bar scene, excellent food and some really genuine football fans.  The team is more than just a football club – it represents the hopes and beliefs of a whole region.  Some may question their policy of recruitment but it hasn’t done them bad so far and in year’s to come with the new stadium generating more revenue opportunities perhaps they can break the dominance of Real and Barca in Spain.  Without hope we have nothing.