Young Turks bounce the Czechs


My original ticket application for the European Championships was divided into two distinct trips that would essentially have taken in a game in every venue, working my way up the country with a small break in the middle. Five years ago, whilst travelling between Trnava in Slovakia and Budapest, the idea of touring France had first been discussed. During the course if the evening we’d decided to buy an old London double-decker bus, do it up with sleeping quarters upstairs and a bar downstairs. What more could we want.

There were a couple of stumbling blocks. First there was the small matter of finding £30,000 for a bus. Surely a company out there would want to sponsor us? A brewery for instance? I’m sure that Meantime and Fullers will one day answer but it’s a big too late. Then there was the issue of driving. It was great that Danny, Deaksy and Stoffers contributed to the idea but none of them could contribute to the actual driving. I didn’t really want to be the Reg Vardy of the group if truth be told. Finally, there was the issue of trying to get tickets for the games we wanted.

When the original ticket allocations were announced our hopes of a Summer Holiday were dashed. Two tickets for two games over a week apart at opposite ends of the country put pay to our great ideas.

So after the trip to the chic and sunny Riviera I was now heading to the gloomy coal fields of Pas-des-Calais swapping the Promenade des Anglais for the slag heaps of Lens, with the ginger bearded wonder James Boyes at my side.

27215898903_8900ba26c3_kDespite the industrial hinterland, for football lovers you can’t go wrong with a visit to Lens. There’s no surprise that the town, where the whole population could fit into the football ground and still have a few spares, is a favourite when tournaments come a-knocking. And not just football either – the Stade Bollaert-Delelis has hosted games in the Rugby World Cup (twice) too. It is one of the most atmospheric grounds in France, built in a style not too dissimilar to Villa Park or a slim-downed St James’ Park (Newcastle United not Exeter City), which rocks on a match day.

27827478225_89d987786c_kA few years ago I read a story about the number of English-based fans who had season tickets for RC Lens. Fed up of the spiralling cost of tickets for the sanitised Premier and Football League games, groups of fans realised that it was cheaper and in some cases, quicker to head across the Channel and watch their football. From leaving TBIR Towers the 116 mile drive took around 3 hours including the time on Eurotunnel and cost less than £80. Add in a season ticket in the Delacourt Stand behind the goal at a ridiculous €125 for the 19 league games and you have a great day out.

The ground is not only really easy to find but also has plenty of street parking within a ten minute walk. We dropped the car off and headed into the town centre to find a spot to watch whether Northern Ireland could upset the odds and get a result from their game against Germany. There aren’t many drinking options in Lens and even less that had a TV so we attempted to go into the Fanzone.

If you want evidence that the pen is mightier than a sword then go and visit the UEFA Fanzone in Lens. Anyone trying to enter the area with such offence weapons as a pen, an iPad mini or even a keyfob with a badge on will be denied entry. Six foot flag pole? Come on in sir! Of course, I may have been singled out by a West Ham (key fob), technophobe who favoured the quill but I doubt it. I was denied entry, much to the amusement of James, and the chap who managed to sneak in a pack of beers whilst the stewards attention was drawn to my pen. Another example of the head-scratching, juxtaposing, randomness of everyday life in France.

27793098506_aa7c1942f5_kFortunately we found a bar that had converted it’s back yard into a “stadium”, as the signs read. The rows of plastic chairs were hardly The Emirates but it did the job and provided shelter from the impending doom that the dark clouds overhead were threatening before we headed to the stadium. Both sets of fans mingled without any sign of any problems whilst hundreds of individuals lined the route back to the stadium trying to sell spare tickets – it was certainly a buyers market with some fans who were prepared to hold their nerve being able to pick up a bargain as kick off approached. Once again, entry into the ground was swift with little regard paid to the contents of my bag (the lethal pen, mini iPad and key fob) or any checks on whether I was the named individual on the ticket (I was).

The two sets of fans were giving it their all in the build up to kick off. Both could still progress even though they only had one point between them such was the complexity and confused caused by the third place situation with a win, although based on their poor showing in their opening two games the odds were stacked against the Turks. But perhaps their fans could lift them at the eleventh hour and give them a chance of a few more days in the competition?

Czech Republic 0 Turkey 2 – Stade Bollaert-Delelis – Tuesday 21st June 2016
It wasn’t just the Turks who were dancing in the streets of Lens at the full-time whistle. The two-nil win meant that Northern Ireland would also progress to the second round joining the Turks who simply blew the Czech Republic away in a performance that was up there with the best in the tournament.

27215895593_587672d0bf_kIt took just ten minutes for the Turks to take the lead. The impressive Arda Turan played in young full-debutant Emre Mor down the right and his perfect cross was met at the near post by Burak Yilmaz to fire home, giving Petr Cech no chance. The celebrations both on and off the pitch were fuelled as much by relief as delight – the Turks had been disappointing up until this point on the tournament.

The Czechs immediately responded. Tomas Sivok powered a header from a corner against the base of the post, full-back Pavel Kadeřábek wasted a couple of good chances and Jaroslav Plašil seeing a vicious long-ranger tipped over the bar. But they were ultimately undone by a second goal from Turkey scored in the Ozan Tufan in the 65th minute, smashing the ball home after the Czechs couldn’t clear their lines.

The Turkish fans at the far end responded by lighting flares. Not just one but at one point we counted eleven. A number of Turkish players ran to the crowd to plead with the fans but they needn’t have worried – UEFA appear to have turned a blind eye to the incident despite once again it underlined the appalling lax security on getting into the ground. I’m sure if the incident was reported it would have been blamed in England fans.

27215917043_dcf391b7cb_kThe atmosphere for the whole games was up there with the best I’ve experienced. Two hours of intense noise. I had to drag James away at the end – being a Man United fan he’s not used to an atmosphere. Seventy five minutes after leaving the ground we arrived at the terminal at Calais.

“Where have you been lads?” Asked the UK Border Guard.

“Footballing heaven”…..

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!

New kids on the Rock


Three weeks ago the European footballing world officially welcomed its 54th member when Gibraltar were included in the draw for the 2016 European Championship qualifying.  Their journey for acceptance on the world footballing stage has been a tortuous one, filled with inconsistencies and back-stabbing that has dogged the governing bodies for years.  Despite not being “at war” or even military-ready against any other nation, it has taken longer for Gibraltar to be allowed to compete than the former Balkan states, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Russia and Georgia or even Greece and Turkey.  And that has been because one nation has disputed their authenticity to be considered an equal member.  One against fifty-two other nations – no brainer? Well, it would be in most circumstances but when that nation is the most successful footballing country of the last fifty years then the rules change.

13173336393_571287081d_bFormed in 1895 by British sailors, The Football Association of Gibraltar first applied to FIFA back in 1997 and despite not actually having a stadium capable of hosting an international game the Swiss big cheeses said a big Yes in 1999 and passed the manilla folder down the road to Nyon to UEFA.  Immediately Spain started to throw their castanets out of the pram.  Whilst the rest of Europe was moving to closer, forgiving not forgetting the conflicts of the past, Spain were creating a problem over a 2.3 square mile rock that they hadn’t owned for over 300 years ago.  It seemed that their lobbying worked as in 2001 UEFA changed its statutes so that only associations in a country “recognised by the United Nations as an independent State” could become members. On such grounds, UEFA denied the Gibraltar’s application.  Of course that ruling should have meant the immediate expulsion of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales but that never happened.  Whilst the rest of Europe started qualifying for the 2004 European Championships hosted by Portugal, Gibraltar consoled themselves with a trip to Guernsey to take part in the Island Games Tournament.

There was still a hope that FIFA would allow them to take part in qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.  Other British Overseas Territories such as Bermuda, British Virgin Islands and Anguilla were allowed to line up in the qualifying tournament but the invite to Gibraltar got lost in the post it seemed.  Instead of a shot at a trip to Bavaria to enjoy a month of football, Fräuleins and frikadellen, Gibraltar headed to the Shetland Islands for another shot at the Island Games title. Continue reading

On the verge of greatness


With England about to take on the 2nd worst international team on the globe, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane on one of my first overseas trips to watch football.

On the 20th November 2002, I came within seconds of witnessing footballing history. I was in the tiny principality of San Marino, sitting on the edge of the Apennine Mountains in northern Italy, watching the world’s oldest sovereign state play one of the newest, Latvia, and there was just a minute left on the clock when a San Marino corner appeared to be handled in the area by a Latvia player. The score was nil-nil and had the penalty been given it would have meant a first ever win for the country after some fifty internationals. Alas it was not to be. Latvia attacked, a free kick was awarded and from the resulting kick the ball was erroneously diverted into his own net by a San Marino player for the only goal of the game. There was 13 seconds left of injury time. Played 53, lost 52, drawn 1 read their record now according to the records.

Ten years ago I came up with a bright idea, or at least I thought it was. I wanted to travel to Europe’s smallest footballing nations, in order, until I saw one of them win. The likes of Malta, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino rarely get an opportunity for a win so I figured this could be a long journey. And so this was why I was sitting in the makeshift press area of the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle along with a reported crowd of six hundred. I say reported because there certainly wasn’t anywhere near 100 in the first half but as soon as word spread that “this could be the night”, the locals literally walked here.

This was the third “leg” of my trip and so far I had seen two heavy defeats for the underdogs, firstly in Vaduz as Liechtenstein had been spanked by Portugal, and then Malta had been humbled by Denmark. I arrived in Rimini with hope in my heart and Euro in my pocket. Rimini likes to think it is the Cannes or Marbella of Italy. But on a cold morning in November it just looked like Skegness on a bad day (is there a good day in Skeggy?). Even the most ardent Italian Lothario looked like Sid James in Carry on Girls and there was no sign of the famous Italian supermodels in their teenie-weenie itsy-bitsy swimwear. Fortunately I was not staying long and my carriage awaited me. Well, a local bus that whisked me through the Italian countryside and up, up and further up until we broke the clouds at the border with San Marino, a little less than 10 miles from the Italian Coast.

Back in 2002 not everyone had the internet to research places. And by not everyone I mean I didn’t at work, and at home I had to pay £19 per month for dial up charges for my 64Kbps Compuserve product. This was the dark days before the dawn of the internet we know and love today. We all remember looking at those “entertainment” sites where pictures took an hour to load and then just when it got to a good bit, someone would come in the room, or the telephone connection would fail. Looking back now and trying to describe what it used to be like to the kids seems so unreal. Twitter was something birds did, YouTube was something Alan Brazil used to say, Facebook was a make up catalogue and Googling was reserved for using binoculars near the nudist beach at Brighton.

So I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in San Marino. I had looked for a guide book before the trip without luck. I certainly didn’t expect such a mountainous place. The bus continued to climb upwards, towards the highest point of the enclave, the 750metre Monte Titano. On the way up to the city of San Marino (population 4,493) we passed the Stadio Olimpico. It was too good an offer to miss. I hoped off the bus and had a wander into the ground.

It was certainly a grand title for basically an athletics ground with one covered stand. I tried to recall when the Olympics had been held in San Marino but couldn’t for the life of me remember when. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the lower reaches of the Ryman League. Work was continuing on the other side of the ground where a second stand was being built. Apparently UEFA had decreed that to gain their 2 star status to continue to host International games they needed to have a capacity of at least 1,000. I queued up for the official tour, and ninety seconds later it was all over. A visit to the gift shop saw me come away with a car sticker.  Everyone who went to the shop got a car sticker.  They were free and the only item in stock. I could hardly be more excited for the big game. Continue reading

Devaluing the Euros


After just over three weeks of football, the world’s second biggest football tournament has played out in front of our eyes in Poland and Ukraine. Sixteen of Europe’s best teams have competed in thirty nine games to determine who would win the Henri Delaunay and join the likes of France, Holland, Denmark, West Germany, Greece and Spain in being crowned the champions of European Football. A few weeks before the tournament the bookies suggested that you should look no further than 2008 champions Spain for the winner of the tournament and when Iker Casillas elbowed Platini out of the way to lift the trophy they proved that class and form were both well judged.

However, that is all due to change in four years time. UEFA President Michel Platini has deemed the current tournament not open and fair enough and is expanding it so that 24 teams, instead of the current 16 will compete for the cup when the fifteenth tournament kicks off in France in four years time.

Just like Amino Acids are the building blocks for protein, the European Championships are the building blocks for many a player’s career.  Back in 1988, Marco Van Basten became a household name in no small part due to his tormenting of the English defence; In 1996 Gazza re-confirmed his genius on the world stage and in 2008 David Villa secured his huge transfer to Barcelona. The 1988 tournament was expanded from eight teams to sixteen to avoid the situation of heavy weights such as England, West Germany and Holland would never miss out on qualification. With just 53 nations competing for fifteen qualifications spots (fourteen this year due to the joint-hosting from Poland and Ukraine), it takes a serious shock for anyone apart from Europe’s top ranked teams not to make the tournament.

Of course occasionally there are shocks. Back in Portugal in 2004 Latvia turned up having beaten Turkey in the play offs; in 2000 Slovenia surprised everyone by qualifying and then went on to make an appearance in the World Cup Finals in South Korea two years later, whilst in 2008 the absence of England from the tournament in Austria and Switzerland was seen as a major financial blow to the tournament organisers who had budgeted on tens of thousands of England fans making the trip over the Alps. Continue reading

Don’t fix what’s not broken


In ten weeks time our pain will be over.  Thanks to an invite from Supporters Direct, we will be taking part in the inaugural Supporters Direct Shield when we face fellow fan-owned club Fisher Athletic at Enfield Town’s Donkey Lane.   Seventy days.  Ten Saturdays without any Lewes games to look forward to.  It is more than possible that we will line up on that Sunday in July without actually knowing who our first opponents are (in whatever league it could be).  Fortunately we have the best tournament in the world to keep us happy for a few weeks slap bang in the middle.

The European Championships will fill our screens from mid June for early July and showcase the best talent in European football.  Oh, and England will be there too.  The reason why this is the best tournament is that the best teams are always there.  Every game means something, and can in theory go either way.  Just look at Group B – Portugal, Germany, Holland and Denmark.  There isn’t one weak team in the whole tournament, and that is what makes it so good to watch.  Obviously, after England have been eliminated in the Quarter Finals on penalties (whose turn is it this time?  My money is on Germany again), we can enjoy the continental skill of the best players in the world (bar Messi, is there anyone else we would want to see?) in the final stages while the stampede for Euro 2012 Final Tickets begins. Continue reading

My summer of love for the beautiful game


In last month’s excellent When Saturday Comes, Phil Town writes about the legacy of Euro2004 in Portugal.  In the article he explores in brief what has happened to the stadiums used for the competition and how today 40% are basically white elephants or millstones around the respective club’s necks.

In our eyes 2004 was the finest tournament we have ever attended.  We had fond memories of South Korea in 2002, and Germany in 2006 was everything you expected from the Germans, but 2004 beat all of them hands down for various reasons.  During the course of the tournament we managed to squeeze in twelve games in nine of the venues, met Anders Frisk (the Swedish referee), played a 100 v 3 football match with Portuguese fans, shared a sun bed with Sepp Blatter’s number two (a person not something left in a toilet), gatecrashed the biggest meat-fest known to man, and hit a ball harder than Roberto Carlos.  There wasn’t one day where something extraordinary didn’t happen.

But it was very clear back in 2004 at the tournament that some of the stadiums, whilst looking absolutely out of this world, would sit almost empty after the tournament.  Prior to the final group game in Leiria I climbed to the top of the Castle Hill overlooking the ground to get a view of the town.  In the middle of my eyeline was the stadium, the Stadium Dr Magalhães Pessoa.  We saw Croatia v France in the stadium, thanks to a free complimentary corporate ticket given to us by a suntanned young lady at our 5 star hotel.  “I really cannot be bothered with all this football” She told us as she sipped another cocktail.  The ticket bore the name of her “boyfriend’s” company on (no names but it was “Priceless”), and you got the distinct impression she was looking forward to the attention of one of the waiters for the afternoon whilst her beau was at the game. With the money we saved on not buying it from an official source we went straight and put our cash on a Croatia. The 30,000 all seater stadium cost the town over €50m and is one of the best looking you will see in Europe.  But with only 50,000 people living in the town, and a club who averaged just 2,500 surely this was just a folly? Continue reading