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


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
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
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….


Bank Holiday blues as Surrey are thwarted by the rain

I couldn’t hold out any longer…two weeks without any sport and I was a broken man.  So I made my excuses from Her Majesty’s BBQ in the garden and headed to the Oval for Surrey Lions versus the Scotland Saltires.  Yes I knew the weather forecast wasn’t good but with a game almost on the doorstep I couldn’t miss it.

The Lions came into the Ladies Day game as the only unbeaten side in their division with four wins from five games and expected to beat the Scots with ease who had only one win from five.

Surrey Lions v Scotland Saltires 124-4 (23 overs) – The Oval – Tuesday 5th June 2012
Of course the weather won.  Scotland won the toss and made heavy going of their innings, struggling to 23-3 off 8 overs before Symes and Mommsen came to the crease. Their unbeaten stand of 78 looked promising before the heavy rain came down and drew proceedings to a close.

The crowd of just a few hundred were consoled by the fly past of the Red Arrows and free cake celebrating Ladies Day although we missed out on a refund by just 18 balls.

Not exactly the start to the 2012 Domestic Season I had planned, but with so much cricket coming up it can only get better, surely?

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It’s just not cricket

Can you imagine Manchester United playing Chelsea in a home game at The Emirates, or West Ham playing Everton at Anfield?  It simply would not happen unless there was a blooming good reason such as some ground redevelopment going on.  Well those crazy marketing people at the Twenty20 just keep the silly season going a bit longer.  We’ve had players wearing microphones when they have been batting or fielding, we’ve had the “lets win a seat in a jacuzzi on the boundary” and this year we have seen the introduction of the dancing “girls”.  So why now do we have the equivalent of the Premier League’s game 39?  The “not at home, home game”.

Step forward Kent Spitfires.  County Ground – Canterbury.  Lovely cathedral city in the garden of England, some 60 miles from London.  And therein lies the issue.  It is too bloody far away from London.  The ideal market for Twenty20 are lads, wanting a few beers after work.  Unless you take a half day you are not going to get down to Canterbury for a 5.30pm start unless you take a half day.  So here is the solution – play the game in London!

Not that I am really complaining of course.  With the chosen venue, the Oval just a beamer away from the office I was guaranteed to be there for the toss.  Twenty20 transcends across all types of people and so CMF’s office had also decided to travel UP from Kent to watch the game.  Who was I to argue – I would get to go out with suitable chums (Mr Grumble of course being one and a guest appearance from Barnet John) for a few beers, whilst being able to lovingly gaze into the eyes of my wife.  Or more likely she would be frowning back at me for being “embarrassing”…Lets just see shall we once that pint of Pimms has been finished! Continue reading

A double dose of disappointment

England woke up on Saturday 19th June to a dark cloud hanging over most areas.  The events the previous evening in Cape Town had taken the wind out of the sails of those horrible car window flags and the press had sharpened their knives in preparation to cut down another promising tournament.  I had taken Friday off, a rare break from the stresses of work.  So what did I end up doing?  Of course, working and then watching sport – a typical TBIR day off really.

Don’t feel too sorry for me though (no please really – I don’t want medals, or even money for such dedication).  The joys of the World Cup meant that by 12.30pm I was watching the Germany v Serbia game in the pub with a cold glass of Fuller’s Honey Dew beer.  A great game thanks to some bizarre refereeing but made even bizarre by the commentary on the TV being at least 10 seconds behind the picture.  It would have been rude not to have stayed for one more and of course the first half of the Slovenia v USA game, which as you will know USA won again (don’t believe me? Look here) before I headed down to the Oval. Continue reading

The return of the JBO 4

The Jolly Boys were back. After the return of Take That, Duran Duran and more recently the Reynolds Girls, it was time for one of the most formidable acts of the late 20th century to make a re-appearance. The Jolly Boys were formed after the inspiration of Delboy’s trip he arranged to Margate in the classic Only Fools and Horses episode of the same name.

The rules were simple. Boys only, and what went on on tour certainly didn’t stay on tour!

These trips were arranged on a regular basis, primarily before we got married and had children. The only theme was that they had to be based around football or cricket. Numbers varied, from three of us to Glasgow to watch Rangers v Kilmarnock, to a very impressive party of sixteen to Dublin in 1999 for the Cricket World Cup game between West Indies and Bangladesh. Some of these trips have faded into the dim distance but below are nine classic moments that I took into our reunion at the Weatherspoons at Victoria Station at 8am on the first day of the last Ashes test at the Oval. So in no particular order here we go:-

Mission One – Go to Liverpool at watch Liverpool play West Ham
Once uopn a time Easyjet actually flew from Luton to Liverpool, a journey of less than 200 miles that took just over 30 minutes.  Whilst not the shortest commercial flight in the UK (that honour being a BA flight of 7 minutes between two islands in the Outer Hebrides) it was the shortest by a budget airline.  Liverpool were due to host West Ham earlier in the season but their Champions League campaign got in the way so the game was re-arranged to October.  A total group of 7 of us flew, with Sleepy John coming by train, after he surprisingly overslept.  We stayed at the Britannia Hotel, famed for having its own “fly on the wall” TV series on BBC1 during the late 1990’s, and that was what we found – flies on the wall.  It was a real dump although he didn’t exactly spend much time there, taking a taxi on a cultural highlights tour of Toxteth before ending up playing pool all afternoon in a bar in Lytham St Annes.  As for the game, well predictable under Crapnapp we fielded 11 different nationals who could not understand each other and slipped to a 1-0 defeat thanks to a goal by Titi Camara.  So impressed was Crapnapp by the player, and not at all anything to do with his agent being Willie McKay, that he signed him soon after for £2m.  So impressed even further was Crapnapp that he played the striker just 5 times (scoring an impressive total of 0 goals) before offloading him THREE YEARS LATER to Al Ittihad.  High point of the trip had to be the walk back from Anfield through lets say to be kind, a war zone complete with burning cars.

Mission Two – Manchester – Attend the Cricket World Cup Super Six game between India and Pakistan
The four of us (Nige, Matt and Sleepy John) took the early morning flight from Gatwick for this one.  Matt had been to Old Trafford a few days before and had said gettings any beer was a nightmare as the queues were huge, so on landing we had our taxi driver divert to a friendly local off licence, similar to the one in Shameless, where he picked up 8 cans of “Panther” for £1.99 (there was some inspiration then for Viz Magazine’s character 8 Ace!).  Arriving at the ground at 10am we were told as this was a high profile game (due to escalating events on the other side of the world in Kashmir) no alcohol could be taken in, so being the classy Southerners that we are we had down the 9% cider on the spot – a nice start to the day.  One of the main cultural features of the two nations is that they abstain from alcohol and so the promised queues for beer did not exist.  We did however integrate ourselves in with the crowd around us, sharing numerous home made delights being passed our way during the day.  Play was held up when a Pakistani Iman kept appearing in the stands and the crowd flocked to him, not very handy when it happened behind the bowlers arm.

Misson Three – Chester Le Street – Go to England’s newest cricket ground to watch England play West Indies
An oversubscribed trip this one, flying into Newcastle then getting taxis down to Chester Le Street for the NatWest One Day International.  Now bear in mind this is mid July – i.e the height of summer.  The ground had never hosted an England game before and this was seen as a trial to see how they could cope with a full blown test.  Stunning location with the castle overlooking the ground but within minutes of arriving we were all freezing.  Our cricket outfits of shorts and t-shirts may have blended in with the locals, but they are made of hardier stuff then us and we were freezing.  For some bizarre reason the bars did not open until midday, and again with a no alcohol to be taken in we had to watch the game.  Windies were appalling, struggling to 169 for 8 in their fifty overs with only Lara putting up any sort of fight with 54.  I had admitted defeat against the weather and paid £50 for an oversized hooded top that I could pull down over my bear legs to keep warm.  Half of the boys had headed inside the club house where one of the greatest ever Rugby internationals was unfolding, far more entertaining than the cricket (for the record over 100,000 in Sydney saw the All Blacks come from 30-0 down to win 39-35).

Rain (in the north east – are you mad?) started falling at the end of the Windies innings so we went for plan B which was head into Chester-Le-Street for lunch.  We found a suitable pub and waited for the call from the landlord, whose brother worked at the Riverside as to when the game was going to restart.  Eight big old lunches, thirty five pints all for less than £100.  We stocked up on alcohol for the return trip, using the new daytime attire to full effect with me essentially becoming a Robocop with beer cans up each arm to make me look like Popeye.  Romford Mark decided on a more sutble tactic, using his charm to convince a couple of girls to stick the bags from wine boxes up their jumpers as if they were pregnant.  England polished off the 170 in just 35 overs for the loss of no wickets and by 5pm we were back in Newcastle ready for a night out in the Bigg Market.  The least said about that the better I think.

Mission Four – Aberdeen – Go and watch the most northerly top flight team in the UK
We welcomed a couple of new members for this short trip, with Matt unable to attend due to work commitments.  The day did not start the best as an accident on the M1 meant for the first time ever I (and the rest of us) missed a flight.  We actually arrived with 30 minutes to go, along with dozens of others also caught in the traffic at 5am, only had hand luggage and could have easily made it, but they were unrepentant.  One of the check in managers appeared and asked us if we would mind coming back in 20 minutes and repeating the scene so it could be filmed for their “Airline” show on ITV – thanks for that but no.  So we were moved to an Edinburgh flight and took the train up the coast, passing some of Scotland’s best scenery on a little 2 coach train.  Being Scotland and liking a beer or two even this little train had a buffet cart, and the steward soon realised the easiest job would be just to leave it by our seats and we would settle up on the McKewns when we got to the Granite city.  We had come to watch Aberdeen versus Hibernians and it was a great 2-2 draw, made even better for an irate fan invading the pitch to remonstrate with the Hibs manager about a substitution.  The angry gentlemen was allowed at least 45 seconds of his rant, whilst the police looked on in amusement before he was removed!

On the way back we did stumble upon a fish and chip shop that had its own confectionary section where you chose your chocolate bar and they deep fried it.  Maltesers have never tasted so good!

Mission Five – Inverness – Search for the Loch Ness Monster
It didnt help that I had got barely an hour’s sleep the night before after a sales conference in Dublin but I cannot remember much about this one.  A trip to watch Inverness Caledonian Thistle versus Stirling Albion and a drive down Loch Ness.  Sleepy John, so known because he loves a snooze decided to kip down in the Disabled toilet of the Golden Frog in Inverness High Street to avoid the couple from hell who were trying to get him to join them back at their house. It appeared through his indepth conversations that Mr Thistle lost the ability to perform some years ago and wanted to watch someone else service Mrs Thistle. We left him there, and failing to see him at breakfast the following morning we returned to the pub where the cleaner at the pub had to unlock the door and retrieve Sleepy John who was still sparko.

Mission Six – Taunton – Travel west for the NatWest Trophy game between Somerset and Kent.
Somerset versus Kent in the NatWest trophy as it was. Matt had managed to procure some freebies so we got the train down on a lovely early summers day. The journey down was heavy and we had drunk the best part of five beers each, plus a couple of G & T’s before a ball had been bowled. As the day wore on sleep took hold of Matt but before he dropped off he got out the sun lotion. Once he was fast asleep we put sunblock on his knees and shins, and replaced the rest of the contents with mayonnaise. A few hours later he woke up with a strange smell under his nose, and white stripes down his legs. He had no idea (to this day) and on the train back a small child burst into tears when he sat opposite it, scared by his appearance.

Mission Seven – Dublin – Head to the Irish capital for the Cricket World Cup
West Indies versus Bangladesh in the cricket World Cup – in Dublin!  Hardly the most conventional of venues but picturesque none the least.  Sixteen signed up for this one, in a weekend that can never be repeated. The trip combined with the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Newcastle United, so we planned ahead and arranged a private showing in the hotel. We booked the Burlington Hotel just outside the city centre, but famous for Annabel’s night club which at the time was one of only a few late night drinking holes in the city. We were joined by the Liverpool team at the hotel, including a certain Paul Ince who was cornered on the first night by a dozen of the ground who wanted to understand his reasons for leaving West Ham. The cricket was a sideshow to the main event, although I managed to win the advertising hoardings game and the pot of over £200 (each of you picks a company who are advertising and everytime the ball strikes your board you get a point – most points at end of game win!).

Come kick off time we had to ask the hotel to remove a number of the Liverpool team, Les Ferdinand, Courtney Walsh and Roy Walker from our reserved seating and food so that we could enjoy the show. The evening will also go down in history for a certain member of our crew claiming he pulled a mother and daughter combination, the latter of which must have been at least 60! The following morning we also gave a lift in our taxi to two young ladies who claimed to have gone through half a dozen of the Liverpool squad in the previous night – classy girls!

Mission Eight – Twickenham – Go and see England progress in the Rugby World Cup against Tonga
One closer to home this time for the Rugby World Cup match. Ever wondered why people wear those silly Guinness hats? You know the ones that are really tall and are made to look like a pint of the black stuff? Well  Matt took stick all afternoon about his headware until we were in the ground and in our seats, when he whipped it off to reveal 8 cans of Fosters and two hip flasks full of home made Peach snapps which were soon passed around the crowd to keep the chill away. We also had a whip round for a willing young girl in front of us to streak. We were prepared to go to £100, but at £30 she was off down the steps and onto the pitch, making the 22 metre line before she was taken down. Tricky Mickey T, always the ladies man offered to take her clothes down to the concourse, minus her knickers of course which he snaffled for himself.

Later in the evening we adjurned to a curry house, sitting with Andy Gomersall who challenged Matt to a drinking competition, featuring Chilli sauce, tabasco and Phal paste. Only ever going to be one winner there and he doesnt have over a dozen England caps!

Mission Nine – Headingley – Go north for the fourth Ashes test
England versus Australia in the fourth test in Leeds. We cashed in our airmiles and flew up from Gatwick to Leeds for this overnight trip. We were met at the airport by possibly the fattest cab driver ever. A man so fat that his wife had to push him in the car in the morning, and pull him out in the evening. He was armed with two one litre empty bottles for toilet breaks during the day. And what made it all the more surreal was that he used to play rugby league for Leeds! The day’s play was punctuated by a number of breaks for rain where we took refuse in Patel’s Mini Market across the road from the Kirkstall Lane End. For every four cans of Tetley’s we bought we not only got a free hat, but Mr Patel’s wife and daughters served us a delightful selection of free Indian goodies.

When play was abandoned at 4.30pm we have raked up over 20 hats between us, which we then sold to other England fans to keep the rain off their heads for a bargain of £5 each.  Who said capitalism was all bad!

So mission ten was the Oval, on an overcast day in mid August for this deciding Ashes test.

England 303 – 8 – The Oval – 20th August 2009

Sleepy John is awake but oh dear Matthew

Sleepy John is awake but oh dear Matthew

This game held a massive dilemma for me.  CMF had managed to surprise me some months ago by securing tickets for U2….in Sheffield!  However, on the same day my brother also surprised me with a ticket at the Oval for the first day of the final test.  Best rock band in the world v a game that would be pointless or so I thought back in March…But time can mean so much as those two brothers sang in a righteous way and a few weeks before the game with England putting up a fight for the Ashes and child care proving an issue my decision was firmly in the cricket camp.  The tickets went up on Seatwave but nobody was interested…not one person interested in the biggest rock band in the world.

To make matters more complicated the whole job thing had taken off in Copenhagen and I would have to fly back just for the game…So the Beautiful Day started at 8am with breakfast at a couple of beers at Weatherspoons in Victoria.  The four original JB’s were there, swapping stories of our children’s sports days and exam options rather than share options as we did ten years ago.  Two hours later we were at the real home of English cricket and praying for Strauss to win the toss, which he duly did and chose to bat first.

Crowds at cricket are so different to those found at football.  The banter is so much better with those around you and that is primarily down to alcohol.  And there was plenty of that as the runs started to flow on a pitch that was predicted to become hard to bat on later in the test.  Cook departed early, but Strauss kept things ticking along with Bell and we reached lunch without another wicket or any snoozing from Matt or John which was a record in itself, although within 30 minutes of the restart they were both long gone to the world of nod.  These guys can really sleep.  Everywhere we have ever been, including weddings (including their own!), christening and birthdays they have slept at some point during the day.

Matt had put a foolish bet on with a mate about who would score most runs in their respective 1st innings – Trott, the South African selected for his first game, or Ravi Bopara dropped to make way for him.  Trott batted sensibly for his 41 before he was suberbly run out….Bopara was eventually out 24 hours later for just 203!  Still at least he had woken up to verbally abuse the few Australians in the crowd.  Flintoff, long since losing his ability as a “big match player”, departed for 7 in his second but last ever test innings and once Swann departed the day was over at 308 for 8, thumbs up to England for the opening day.

The day didn’t end for us there.  We headed for a few more, reminiscing about the “good ol’ days” and at some point I thought it would be a good idea to get a cab home.  Oh how CMF laughed when I staggered through the door and proceeded to fall asleep sitting up in front of the Mummy Returns with a cup of tea perched on my chest.  And how I laughed even more when at 5am the following morning I had to get up to go back to Denmark.  A Beautiful Day?  Absolutley…here’s to another 10 year anniversay!