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
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
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
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
What 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
The 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
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….