Come on you lions! Following the three cubs in the land of the Swedes


Two years ago I traveled to the end of the earth, or so it seemed to follow the UEFA Under21’s tournament in Holland. England didn’t exactly deliver on the exciting football promise and staggered through the groups to make it to the semi-finals before they were defeated in a marathon penalty shoot out to the eventual winners Holland.

England had impressed much more in the build up to this tournament, qualifying with ease, although they had to overcome a playoff with Wales. The tournament itself promised much more as well as the host, Sweden, had gone to the trouble of building two new stadiums in Goteborg and Malmo. The latter would be hosting the final, and I had already done my homework with a visit a few weeks previously (see Ny Grund post). My plan would of course as you would expect, take in as many games as I could in the shortest possible time. In theory you could see most of four games in the opening two days, but I didn’t want to be greedy so I planned just three!

I was flying into little ol’ Goteborg City airport, essentially a field with a small landing strip that a Ryanair flight found one day and converted into an airport. It was convenient though and I would be in the city centre and off to the New Gamla Ullevi stadium to pick up my accreditation. The first game of the tournament was surprisingly not being played in one of the newer grounds, or featuring the host nation but instead was England v Finland in the small coastal town of Halmstad, an hour south of Goteborg. It would be a new venue for me, having never ventured south of Sweden’s 2nd city before and I was due to meet up with Dan for a beer before the game. Right on full time I was heading back up to Goteborg to catch the 2nd half of Spain v Germany at the Ullevi before getting a 3am coach down to Copenhagen for a full day’s graft. Why 3am? Well I could get the train at 7am which would get me into the office at 10am but the £70 single fare wasn’t exactly winning any hearts in the wallet department so I figured a £12 bus would allow me 4 hours to sleep and I could but the difference I saved to a beer – only one mind you as that is how expensive beer is out here. After a full day’s graft (which is normally until 3pm in the summer for the Danes) I would be heading back over the Oresund into Sweden for the host nations opening game in Malmo versus the surprise qualifiers, Belarus before flying back from Denmark at 10pm….Easy eh!

Of course I had to negotiate the hell that is Stansted Airport at 6am on a Monday morning. It is never a good time to fly from this outpost but on a Monday you have people flying home after a weekend of wearing fake policeman’s helmets, having their pictures taken at Madame Tussards and thinking that the height of the English culinary experience is the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse in Leicester Square. Add to that a few “exchange” trips going here and there – that one phrase sends shivers up my spine – the thought of a complete stranger who cannot speak any English, who simply wants to hump your cat/wife/car and then steals your CD’s fills me with dread, and you get the picture that it is England’s closest example of hell on earth. Still at least I had a nice relaxing Ryanair flight to look forward to.

I have to say I was impressed. Normally Ryanair’s flights are staffed by the most miserable flight crews you will find, primarily because they are Polish/Latvian/Ukranian and actually do not understand any English. Today’s quartet surpassed anything I had seen before. Not even a smile on entering the plane. Not even a please or thank you when doing the safety briefing – (“You will not smoke”, “You will not use the toilet”, “If you have been using battery operated equipment switch it off now!” were some examples). Instead of asking if anyone wanted a magazine they simply threw them at you. Not that anyone was arguing – the three girls (Clarrisa, Alexandria and Rula if you want to know) were built for comfort and not for joy – perhaps they had been warned the flight was going to be full of English football hooligans and staffed the crew with the front row of Ryanair’s womens rugby XV. I am sure a few years ago they published a calendar featuring some of their more picturesque crew – where are they kept because I have never seen them!

However, we did land on ten minutes early although someone forgot to tell the captain that when the plane hits (note hits not touches down) the runway you are supposed to put the brakes on. Queue the ridiculous jingle about “another” on time landing, which actually isn’t true. I have taken this route four times and on each occasion the flight time has been the same (I am sad I make a note) – 1 hour 25 minutes, yet the scheduled time is 1 hour 55 minutes. Easyjet are no better, scheduling the Stansted Copenhagen route as 2 hours when even in a near hurricane headwind and de-icing in Denmark it is a 1 hour 50 minute trip max. The great bit of confusion the Swedes had added to the mix was that the only bus to the city centre did not take cash anymore. So you had to go into the she, sorry terminal building and buy a 60SEK (£5) ticket there. For some reasons a couple of posh middle aged English people who had fussed throughout the whole flight thought this was “rather unfair” as they had been queueing for twenty minutes, and demanded the driver reserved them a seat whilst hubby went off to get the tickets. Now my Swedish hasn’t yet extended to swear words but I am sure I learnt one with his reply!

So after a little wander around various football sites of Goteborg and a sneak look in the New Ullevi during daylight I nabbed my pass and headed an hour south to Halmstad. Now I wouldn’t say it was a sleepy little Swedish town, but I am a liar – it is and as Dan said, anywhere and everywhere is 8 minutes away. It is certainly picturesque and the walk up the canal to the stadium was very pleasant indeed, especially as the locals had deemed it a “wear as little as we wanted” day. The stadiums media facilities was essentially an extended shed with a bar at the home. No problems there as it had power, wireless network, food and of course local maidens on hand to help a lost visitor.

Niclas Alexandersson apparently

Niclas Alexandersson apparently

I met up with Dan in the fanspark in the town square – essentially a big bit of artificial grass with a goal in it so all the locals could take pot shots at the mad Englishmen brave enough to go in goal. I did bump into Niclas Alexandersson – the most famous local from these parts who actually played 8 games for the Hammers in the dark days of 2004 when every home game saw another loanee at the club.

Many people were surprised when Halmstad’s 15,500 capacity stadium was chosen as one of the four venues as there are much better venues not only on the west coast but also close to Goteborg such as Elfsborg’s Boras Arena. The original plan was to include the Boras Arena but because they had a “Max” burger restaurant as part of the ground (and one of the sponsors of the club) which they refused to close for the tournament, McDonalds (one of the main UEFA partners) “allegedly threw their apple pies out of the pram and the games were moved a few miles down the road to Halmstad. But the intimate venue has some real history. Int he 1958 World Cup the ground hosted games between Northern Ireland, Argentina and Czechoslovakia.

The Fins had certainly traveled in numbers and for once the English were outnumbered by a fair distance and really made themselves at home in the very quaint and picturesque little stadium. A beautiful setting on a long summer night but I bet it is horrible on a dark autumn one! And they had brought a few of the better looking fans with them as well, which had certainly endeared them to the English.

After some pitch side meet and greets with Stuart Pearce and Sir Trev it was time to sit back and watch the young Three Lions set a marker for the rest to follow.

England 2 Finland 1 – Örjans Vall, Halmstad – Monday 15th June

How did they get them in there?

How did they get them in there?

Pearce had put a very strong England team out, featuring five players in Hart, Mancienne, Agbonlahor, Walcott and Richards who had games under their belt for the senior team plus the likes of James Milner and Mark Noble (and even, dare I say it, another Arsenal player who is actually English in Kieran Gibbs) against the team who were the weakest in the group.

Having seen the poor crowds at the majority of the tournament two years ago I was very surprised (and pleased) to see so many in the stadium – although the vast majority were either Finns or locals supporting the Finns giving us Englanders a complex. It probably helped that a sensible ticket pricing scheme was in place with the cheapest category of seats being just 60SEK or £7, although or dear (quite appropriately) FA sold the “official” allocation at £25.

Finland certainly had the better of the opening exchanges, taking every opportunity to throw the ball into the penalty area to choruses of “boring, boring” from their supporters (Apparently it was “Suomi, Suomi” but it sounded like boring, boring).  But on 14 minutes the English took the lead as Lee Cattermole slotted home from close range after a good run into the box by Gabby, Gabby, Gabby Agbonlahor.

The football rattle? What happened to them? Well in a world of happy clappers and blow up “rumble” sticks that we have seen recently at Wembley and Lords alike it was good to see that some of the Finns had got minature white and blue flags made out of plastic that doubled up as rattles – a great touch and one I am sure that Mr Last would approve of (see his post on cricket lowlights here for more details).

Back to the game, which is a shame as it was spoiling a lovely sunny evening. Thirty minutes gone and a long punt upfield caused Mancienne to dither and Berat Dadik nipped in and as he pulled back the trigger, Mancienne tripped him – Penalty and Red Card – no question…Up stepped captain Tim Sparv and it was 1-1. The Finns went wild, none more so than the goalscorer who disappeared into the fans behind the goal and it took four stewards to get him back!

The roll call of players sitting around us was quite impressive. Newcastle’s (or is he?) Stephen Taylor, ex-Liverpool defender(s) Marcus Babbel and more recently Sami Hyppia were all happy to be snapped away with the fans, less so Germany’s ex-World Cup referee Markus Merk who hid behind his programme when approached.

Pearce withdrew Walcott at half time, obviously having received a call from either Arsene Wenger or Mrs Walcott that his tea was ready, and Fraizer Campbell took his place. Seven minutes into the second half and England restored their lead thanks to a powerful header from Micah Richards from a set piece which woke up the English fans who were enjoying the sunshine a little too much – indeed it even roused the England fans behind the goal into a chorus of “You’re not singing anymore” – the first time we had been heard all evening.

With five minutes to go I packed up and yomped across this pretty little town and just made the 8.05pm train to Goteborg where I hoped that a kindly blonde beauty would take pity on me and break the traditional UEFA role of one day one match – i.e you cannot see two games in one day, even though it is possible.  The train pulled in on time and five minutes later I was disappointed. Yes, there was no blonde beauty but a lovely UEFA lady waved her magic marker pen and I was in, ten minutes before half time.

Spain 0 Germany 0 – The New Gamla Ullevi, Goteborg – Monday 15th June

Spain 0 Germany 0

Spain 0 Germany 0

It is now not uncommon to see two teams sharing a stadium in Europe,especially one built thanks to central funding, but Goteborg’s Ullevia must be the only one in one of the major European leagues that has three tenants. IFK, GAIS and Örgryte IS all share the stadium for their Allsvenskan games – in fact there was original talks of BK Häcken moving in as well but that would have just been plain silly. The construction was not without controversy as supporters from all corners voiced displeasure at a number of aspects of the design. It opened to an almost full house on the 5th April 2009 when GAIS and Örgryte played in front of over 17,000 fans.

But that was then, and this is now. The first half wasn’t the most open of games with few chances for either side (thanks BBC.co.uk for that one line summary of the game so far) but my interest was split with events in SE1 where England were playing West Indies in a winner takes all Twenty20 game. The torrential rain had reduced the game to a slog fest that made for interesting t’internet viewing with a place in the Semi-Final at stake.

But back to the football. What a strange stadium it was. Probably around 7/8th full but completely devoid of any atmosphere, just a general chatter amongst the fans. You can see why the normally passionate Swedish football fans were disappointed with the finished article. The lower tier had strange patio doors around half of it that gave it the look of a 21st century Kenilworth Road. Small and compact yes but really unimaginative.

First chance of the half fell to Germany’s tattooed centre forward Ashkan Dejagah who had been part of the title winning VfL Wolfsburg team this season. A great pull back from Castro found the forward on the penalty spot and after he turned his man he fired the ball into the upper tier (which is not hard with only eight rows in the lower tier).

Spain’s captain, Raul Garcia had come into the tournament with a big reputation, after a good season in the Atletico Madrid team and scoring the goal that got the Spaniards to the tournament last year but he was really annoying the ref with his whining and a few stern words were required on a number of occasions, although on each time he did look like he was going to cry! He also managed a great run of 50 yards, although it was to protest in the referees face after a foul by Germany’s Beck had left one of their players prostrate (favourite players – “Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack” I bet it reads in the programme, but I can’t read German so you will just have to take my word that it is so!).  Unsurprisingly he got his deserved yellow card in the 90th minute.

It certainly wasn’t a shabby game with both teams playing in a way their seniors would be proud of. Spain’s technical pass and move was a joy to watch but every attack was snuffed out by the quick and powerful German centre backs Howedes and Aogo. Ozil someone managed to miss a great effort on the hour mark, taking the ball around the keeper but delaying long enough for him to get back and turn the ball over.

With the temperature falling despite the late evening sunshine and news filtering through that England had lost to the Windies in the last over at the Oval I needed some cheering up. CMF was on “putting children to bed duty” so I couldn’t drive down that avenue so I started eye wandering (you know when you look around somewhere looking for something interesting?). The first thing that struck me was the managers. Germany’s Horst Hrubesch had won the European Championships in 1980 with two goals in the final. As a ten year old I remember “Rubbish” as Motty called him with his mullet hairstyle and bad dress sense. Well here he was tonight. Older, fatter but still with a crap haircut and a cheap looking suit. If you met him in a room of a thousand strangers, without even speaking to him you would know he was German. Balance this with Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, Spain’s coach. Tanned, smartly dressed and standing impassively in his technical area, hiding a tough interior from his time as Real Madrid’s reserve coach (and 1st team one as a caretaker in 2004/05 season). Two contrasting styles but very much conforming to a stereotype. Come to think of it, Stuart Pearce had a tracksuit on and the Finnish coach was blonde so we have a quartet of predictability tonight.

Mesut Ozil really should have wrapped it up for the Germans in the 80th minute when he beat the offside trap but shot weakly at the Spanish goalkeeper. Both teams had chances to win it in injury time but couldn’t find a way through. Horst thought that the Germans were the better team, and that they feared no one and he forgot to buy any meatballs from Ikea for his wife *well I am sure that is what I translated it from German).  So England really became the only winners, knowing that a victory over either of these teams would take them through to the semi-finals. I was off to be bed for a ludicrous 2 hours power nap before I got the overnight coach down to Copenhagen and a day for mirth and mayhem in the office there before heading off to the Swedes opening game in Malmo.

Sweden 5 Belarus 1 – The Swedbank Stadion, Malmo – Tuesday 16th June

The opening ceremony...in game 3!

The opening ceremony...in game 3!

Well I survived the 2am start and the 4 1/2 hours coach trip which arrived into Copenhagen city centre a scandalous 1 minute late after the 250 mile journey. I was scrubbed up and at my desk by 8am (although the rest of the office still hadn’t made it out of bed yet), although our regular EDF induced power cut in London meant I couldn’t actually access any of my systems – a short nap was a consideration but with two cups of Black Citron Tea inside me I was ready for the day. And apart from a low period after lunch where sleep seemed an inevitable next step I survived, hopped on a train and was in Malmo less than an hour later.

It was good to see that the builders had been on overtime since I was here last month (see post here) and that the outside of the stadium had been finished. I was looking forward to being in the stadium for this one to see how many locals would turn out bedecked in yellow and blue. Rumours in the office were that it was a sell out, and thus the biggest ever Under21 game played in Sweden ever. The team were coached by Tommy Soderberg who had been co-coach to the national team that had qualified for Euro2000, Euro 2004 and the 2002 World Cup. Belarus on the other hand were an unknown force. They finished 2nd in Serbia’s group and had the most fantastically named Igor Shitov starting the game at full back.

Ten minutes before kick off and a group of children ran onto the pitch with the flags of the various countries playing in the tournament. Ah the opening ceremony. Now some traditionalists will have you believe that the opening ceremony should precede the opening game. Not so in ultra modern, hip, cool and trendy Sweden who planned the event to maximise the capacity local crowd. Except the locals forgot to turn up, and when the crescendo of music reached its climax nothing happened. Judging by the frantic talking into walkie-talkie’s I imagine the players should have emerged at this point. However, tonight the DJ saved their lives by playing the Euro-pop song again, even louder to remind the players that they were supposed to come out 2 minutes before.

The children could have stayed on the pitch with their flags and not got in the way based on the opening twenty minutes. Again at this level the teams were disappointing. UEFA had marketed this (quite cleverly in my opinion) as a tournament to watch the “stars of today before they become the superstars of tomorrow”, but they seemed happy to be forgotten in a season players. The ball was hit long on most occasions, and only some over zealous Swedish tackling livened up the opening quarter.

The first real chance came in the 29th minute when a smart Swedish move on the edge of the box saw the goal open up for Emir Bajrami who slid his shot just wide of the post. However against the run of play it was the Belarussians who took the lead with a fantastic strike from Sergei Kislyak from around 30 yards, powering the ball into the roof of the net after being teed up by Afanasiev. The lead lasted 6 minutes before Rasmus Elm’s hopeful shot took a deflection off Martynovich’s head and left the Belarussian goalkeeper clutching at air.

Two minutes later they scored again as Marcus Berg kept his feet in the penalty area, got a lucky rebound and pushed the ball into the net to send the slowly filling up stadium into a collective yellow and blue party zone. Berg certainly looked lively and had carried his form for FC Groningen into this game where he had scored 30 goals in just fifty appearances which had earnt him a number of call ups to the senior squad. Five minutes later and he had a second, slotting home with ease after some excellent hold up play on the edge of the area to put the game out of the Belarussians reach.  Half time and the Swedes were well in control.

The second half started in the same vein with Sweden pressing the Belarussians back but they managed to hold out until the 81st minute when a ball over the top saw Berg squeeze a leg between the onrushing goalkeeper and the defender to lift the ball over their heads and to complete his hatrick with the simplest of finishes.  If truth be told he should have had a 4th a few minutes later when his header was well saved from close range.  But Sweden were not finished and with the game entering the 90th minute Svensson scored a cracking goal with a drive into the top corner from 25 yards.  Sweden had been mightily impressive although it was hard to see how good the Belarussians really were on this form.

So my final job of the trip was to make it back to Copenhagen airport in time for my Easyjet flight.  Phase one was getting a cab to the station – check.  Phase two was getting the train – early one running late so a big check there.  With an hour to go I was walking towards an empty security zone which is almost unheard of here.  I passed over my printed at the office boarding card but it wouldn’t scan.  “Try the machines downstairs” the security guard told me.  Only the machines cannot accept Easyjet bookings, so I had to queue up at their sales desk.  Fifteen minutes later when I am eventually served I am told I need to go to the check in desks and have a new boarding card printed.  So off  I go again(Copenhagen airport is not “compact” by the way).  Nice smiley lady at check in sympathises and writes me a new card and I am off, through security, grabbed some food and make it to the gate just as the inbound flight lands 30 minutes early.

So I could make it home for play time – or so I thought.  We boarded early and I took my seat at the rear of the plane.  I have got to know a few of the Easyjet staff over the past year of doing this route regularly and had a chat about the storm from the previous evening.  For some reason there was an issue with headcount.  We appeared to have too many passengers on board and had lost a baby!  So a manual count was done, which was inconclusive.  The main stewardess asked the ground crew for a passenger manifest and they said that a computer malfunction had wiped the list – very handy….So calls were made to the world and their dog and eventually they got a list.  The baby issue turned out to be an infant who had turned 2 years old since getting the outbound flight and was thus officially classed now as an Adult but not in the eyes of the manifest.  But there were still two too many passengers on the flight.  We were now 40 minutes late leaving and people were understandably getting frustrated.  Eventually they found out why…

“Would a Mr Stuart Fuller please make himself known to the cabin crew”.  Well I was sitting there talking to them – couldn’t really make myself anymore familiar without being in breach of a number of airline regulations.  It appears that I had been checked in not just once, but three times!  Once at the office and twice by the check in staff at Copenhagen airport, so I was on the manifest three times.  A simple search would have thrown up this error straight away.  The captain came down to verify that I was just one person, leading to many passengers speculating that I was a “wrong ‘un” but it was soon put right by a cabin announcement by the captain who told a few home truths about the ground crew.

So there we are.  I crawled into bed at 12.30am and immediately started dreaming of Helsinki in August….could it be, could it be!

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Tears and Tantrums and a penalty too far


The Rise of the Big Green Monster – June 2007
Not exactly a 10,000 crowdIn my quest to fill the void left by the end of the football season I had planned a number of trips months in advance. Then something strange happened. Something that hadn’t happened for at least five years. England U21’s qualified for a major tournament. The U21’s used to be legends under the guidance of Peter Taylor and players like Rio Ferdinand, Paul Robinson, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher had all come through the “juniors” under his guidance. Then it all went wrong when the suits decided to replace the knowledgeable Taylor with the clueless David Platt. Under Mr Potato Head a system of squad rotation was introduced that seemed to mean any and every English player was capped at U21 level and consistency in team selection went out the window. After a couple of failed attempts at qualifying for the European Championships, which are held every 2 years, Platt was on his way to destroy Nottingham Forest, and Stuart Pearce was put in charge. Psycho relished the task and instilled a sense of pride in playing for the shirt again. A new crop of players started to gel as a team and all of a sudden the team starts to win. After a play off victory the team qualified for the 8 team European Championships to be played in Holland.

The U21 tournaments are normally well organised. Usually played in smaller stadiums close together and rarely very busy it is a stadium hoppers dream. And there is always the chance you will get to see a few stars in the making. Many players at this level also play once in their career at the Olympics level, which in terms of U21’s (well actually Under 23 at Olympic level) is the equivalent of the World Cup. Unfortunately we are allowed to play – something to do with the fact that we have professional leagues in England, Scotland and Ireland but don’t have a single team, or something like that. The 2007 version featured Portugal, Belgium, Israel, Italy, Serbia as well as the host nation and England. The games were to be played in four venues – two in the north – Groningen and Heerenveen and two in the south east, Arnhem and Nijmegen. England were drawn in the latter stadiums in a group featuring Italy, Serbia and Czech Republic. The opening games were being played in the north and it was to here that I was initially planning on visiting, taking in both games on the opening day.

I arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on a sunny Saturday. I cannot think of a year where I have not landed at this airport more than once in a year. So bad was it in 2007 that I am sure I must have been under suspicion as a drug trafficker. The plan was to pick up a car at the airport, drive up to Heerenveen for the first game featuring the Dutch, leaving a few minutes early and continuing north to Groningen for Belgium v Portugal, staying the night in a small village outside Groningen before heading south on Sunday and taking in England’s opener in Arnhem and the game 10 miles away at Nijmegen. An overnight stop back in Arnhem then a drive to Amsterdam airport for a 7am flight back to work on the Monday. What could possibly go wrong? Absolutely everything.

Car hire is not what it is used to be. In the olden days they used to take a credit card imprint and then once you returned the car then it would be torn up in front of your eyes. Today they “block” a deposit from your card which basically means for the period of the rental (and actually for as long as they want to as I found out to my cost later in the year in Poland when it was blocked for three weeks) you cannot use the amount they have blocked. Fine if you have a credit card, but I don’t. My cash was all in my First Direct account, which is accessible by my Maestro card. The Netherlands is one of the few places in Europe where Maestro is not commonly accepted as I found out. I had only a few hundred on my Visa Debit (they wanted a deposit of €800) and being a Saturday I could not arrange a CHAPS transfer from one account to the other, neither would they take a cash deposit. So I was stuck. All my plans had disappeared down the drain. I had made such a fuss at the counter that I couldn’t try my luck elsewhere so I threw myself on the mercy of the Dutch rail network.

Unlike its German counterpart the Dutch network is in dire need of modernisation in terms of its trains meaning that it is not exactly the most comfortable to travel long distances. But, like its German counterpart it was very efficient and trains run regularly to all parts. So I headed down to the station under the arrivals area at Schiphol and caught a train northwards. The journey required a change in a small unremarkable station north of Amsterdam. Of course being the opening day of the biggest sporting tournament the country had held for 7 years (since Euro2000) coincided with the start of a major rail network improvement programme meaning there was no trains to Heerenveen. Brilliant – so plan B (formulated whilst waiting at unremarkable train station in middle of nowhere) kicked in. Head to Groningen, pick up Media accreditation for tournament, go to hotel, check in and get bus to Heerenveen in time for 1st game. Brilliant, except that I hadn’t bargained for the fact that the term Replacement Bus service reared its head…TWICE. So the 92 minute journey took over three hours. With an hour to kick off in Heerenveen I jumped in the nearest taxi (which turned out to be a brand new Chrysler – nice!) and negotiated for the driver to be my personal driver for the next few hours at the bargain cost of €150. So first stop was the stadium – known as the Big Green Cathedral. Groningen are one of the most progressive teams in Dutch football and many scoffed at them when they demolished their old stadium and built a brand new 20,000 arena on the outskirts of town complete with numerous leisure facilities including a casino, a number of restaurants and cinema. In their first season they averaged over 19,000 and vindicated the investment as the team qualified for the UEFA Cup by beating Feyenoord in a play off match.

I picked up my pass and asked how long it would take to get to Heerenveen. The officials scoffed at my plan and said “no chance”. I pointed out my vehicle outside and they seemed impressed, and I left with a good luck cheer. An accident on the motorway out of town meant we had to take a long detour to the village of Eelde where the hotel was, and the taxi had already run up nearly €70 so far so I decided to abandon the plan to get to the Netherlands game and relax for a few hours in the exquisite hotel. On far too many occasions when I travel I neglect to take time out, trying to cram in so much in so little time and coming back as tired as I was before I traveled. So I sat back with a beer and started watching the opening game from a very orange and full Abe Lenstra stadium in Heerenveen. A single goal was enough to start the hosts on the winning way but of course my plans had taken another wrong turn as I had got so relaxed that I had fallen asleep and not only missed 85 minutes of the game but also the bus I needed to get to the stadium. Another €20 for a taxi now saw my alternative travel arrangements total over €200 in a single day so far but at least I made it to the stadium.

The crowds weren’t exactly flocking to the stadium, and those that had made the effort to attend (it should be stated in the defence of the organisers that tickets were only €10) were in the colours of the Dutch and not of Portugal or Belgium. Inside the stadium the immediate thing you had to say it was very green. Every seat, surface, wall and roof was in the same green. Not exactly pleasing to the eye, and where they thought of the name the Green Monster was completely beyond me.
Officially over 7,000 saw a drab 0-0 which was only livened up with a huge fight in the second half when Manchester United-bound Nani pushed his histrionix too far with the Belgians and they took him down a peg or too. However, the crowd number did seem to be on the generous side as I would imagine there was no more than a quarter of that in the stadium. So two games down and only one goal scored – so much for a festival of free flowing football.

Groningen is not exactly a party town. It does has a large student population, but being mid-June the students had left for the summer. Which meant most bars and restaurants were closed. For christ sake it was a Saturday night! I gave up after half an hour of searching and headed back to the hotel (another €14) for dinner. Day one complete and absolutely nothing had gone to plan.

Sunday morning broke and the sun was shining. Families cycled up and down past the hotel whilst I waited for the buses for the station. Of course, this being Sunday I failed to read the timetable correctly that showed that I had already missed the only bus of the day to the town centre, which left at 7.30am. So another taxi, another €10 and I was off to civilisation in the historic town of Arnhem. Only three train changes and three hours left and I arrived in the town that was made famous in the Second World War for the story that lead to the film of A Bridge Too Far. England were in town and unsurpisingly the support was magnificant. Thousands had made their way over to Holland for this game against the Czech Republic and hopes were high under the guidance of Stuart Pearce. The team were captained by Nigel Reo-Coker who was in the process of making himself 35,000 enemies for life by bad mouthing West Ham in an attempt to broker a move to Aston Villa. Also in the team was failed pathetic gansta wallabee Anton Ferdinand, Preston scoring machine David Nugent and Reading striker Leroy Lita. One notable absence was David Bentley who had pulled out of the squad the day after being on the bench for the full international with Brazil, stating he was “too tired” to play for the Under21’s. What a tosser. This one decision shows all that is wrong with young footballers today. Happy to act like Billy Big Balls when they want but given the opportunity they will shirk their responsibilities. A number of fans and journalists, myself included, called for him to never represent his country again.

The Gelredome was one of the most futuristic stadiums when it opened in late 1999. It was an ambitious project undertaken by the president of Vitesse Arnhem when his team were one of the most progressive in Dutch football. The stadium was the first to be cashless (similar with Amsterdam ArenA and Schalke’s Veltins ArenA) and the first to have a pitch that rolled out of the stadium on rollers meaning that it could be quickly converted into an indoor arena. For this game England had been given the whole of the north end of the stadium and came close to filling it. In keeping with the games the previous day excitement was on holiday and England toiled to a 0-0 draw although a missed penalty by Lita in the final few minutes would have sealed 3 points if his aim had been true. I had actually left by this point, heading 10 miles south to watch the Serbia v Italy game in the tiny town of Nijmegen. The 13,000 seater stadium is located in the town centre in a nice park and the locals had come out in force, taking most of the seats although there were a surprising number of Serbian fans in the 8,000 crowd. Another dull game was on the cards with Serbia scoring the only goal of the game in the middle of the second half. With all eight teams having played their opening game I can honestly say it had been one of the most disappointing tournaments on record. I headed back to my hotel in Arnhem annoyed at the fact I had spent over £400 on a weekend of three games of dull uninspiring football, tedious traveling and jobsworth car hire companies when I could have blown the whole lot in Amsterdam and had a silly grin on my face for weeks to come, and also told a much more interesting story that this one dear readers!

The tournament did liven up slightly. The Netherlands qualified for the semi-finals with a win in their second game in the Euroborg at Groningen, with rising star Ryan Babel proving to be the man of the tournament so far. They were joined by Portugal, Serbia and England, after the latter had beaten Italy and Serbia. The game against the Serbians had descended into the dark old days of football when some of the Serbians had racially abused Ferdinand and Lita at the end of the game. UEFA, as usual, with punishments like expulsion at their fingertips chose to give them 10 hail mary’s.

In the semi-final Netherlands and England could not be separated over 120 minutes and so it went to one of the most extraordinary penalty shoots out of all time. A total of 32 penalties were taken in front of a sell out 23,000 crowd making it the longest penalty shoot out in first class European games. It took an Anton Ferdinand miss 34 minutes after the shoot out started to settle the game and send the Dutch into the final where they eventually beat Serbia 4-1. A cracking end to a disappointing tournament and one I would never forget for the wrong reasons – when travel does go wrong it really does go wrong…Roll on Sweden in 2007.

About The Euroborg
When plans were initially published for a brand new multi-purpose stadium in Groningen for the then Second Division club, many people wondered what the point was. The old Oosterpark stadium, which stood on the same spot as the Euroborg, was a small intimate stadium which had a capacity of just over 11,000 and was known for the closeness of the crowd to the action. However, it was really showing signs of aging in the early part of this century – having been constructed in 1933.

The new stadium was constructed next door to the Oosterpark from late 2004 until its opening in January 2006. The 19,980 capacity may have seemed ambitious at first, but last season the stadium was full on almost every occasion proving that if you do build it they will come. It certainly is an impressive venue both inside and out. Around the perimeter of the stadium you will find a health spa, supermarket, chinese restaurant, cinema and a casino – converting the stadium into a true 7 day venue. Inside the stadium is a simple 2 tier uniform arena, with a double row of executive boxes in the upper tier of the main stand. Views are very good from all parts, although the presence of a perimeter fence does hinder the first few rows of the lower tier. The stadium certainly lives up to its Groene tag with all of the seats a bright green colour. The concourses are wide and provide plenty of space for people buying refreshments as well as allowing fans to watch the game from behind the seated areas.

Who plays there?
The Groene Kathedraal (The Green Cathedral) is the new home to one of the Netherlands’ most ambitious clubs FC Groningen. The team weren’t actually formed until 1971 but have made some massive strides, playing the majority of their existence in the top flight of Dutch football.

Their most famous ex-players are Ronald and Erwin Koeman who were the heart of the side in the heart of the 1980’s, a period where the club played European football for the first time. Their success has always been very modest – they still have not won a major honour yet – their best league position was 3rd in 1991.

In 2006 they finished fifth in the league, meaning that they earnt the right to fight for Champions League qualification. In a tense match versus Ajax they eventually went down by a single goal. Last season they qualified for the UEFA Cup again, although a disappointing 4-3 defeat to Partizan Belgrade was not the welcome the new stadium was hoped to bring the club. In 2006/07 the club finished in 8th place, and qualified for the forthcoming UEFA Cup competition, beating Feyenoord and Utrecht in the domestic qualifying competition.

How to get there
The Euroborg is located in the south east of the city centre, next to the A7/E22 motorway. The area around the stadium is under development with such amenities as a health spa and casino already constructed, and a hotel due to be added in the next year or so. From the old town and train station it is a pleasant 20 minute walk. Simply follow Trompsingel eastwards until you reach the bridge over the canal, then turn right and follow Winschoterdiep southwards along the canal. Once you pass under the E22 ring road the stadium will be in front of you – although you will need to walk around the office block. Alternatively, use bus number 20 that runs from the bus station next to the central station and drops you right outside the stadium. Journey time is around 5 minutes.

Getting a ticket
FC Groningen’s attendances have risen dramatically over the past few seasons, co-inciding with the upturn in fortunes on the pitch. In the 2005/06 season the rise was over 30% to 15,500 and included 3 sell outs, whereas last season the average rose to close to 19,180 meaning that tickets for most games were in short supply.

With European competition returning to the Euroborg again in 2007, tickets will be in demand for most games. This means pre-booking is absolutely essential to avoid disappointment. The club does allow foreign fans to book tickets in advance – contact them at info@fcgroningen.nl. Last season tickets ranged in price from €20 in the Eerste Ring to €40 in the main stand. Tickets for the seats behind the goal were sold out last season to members.

Getting around
The centre of Groningen is very compact and walking is really the only option. Buses radiate from the central station, with a €2.40 three strip ticket enough to take you out to the countryside around Paterswolde. For central journeys then the fare is €1 – payable to the driver on boarding the bus.

Local Hotels & Bars
Whilst the city is relatively modest in terms of population size, it does attract people from the surrounding region and so a night out in the city is often a quite loud affair. It does not have a wide range of hotels, but the ones that are here are good value and nearly always have vacancies. The tourist office in Grote Markt can assist if you are struggling to find anywhere to stay.

Eden City Hotel – Gedempte Kattendiep 25
Tel: +31 50 588 6565 http://www.edenhotelgroup.com
Nh Hotel de Ville – Oude Boteringestraat 43
Tel: +31 50 318 1222 http://www.nh-hotels.com
Golden Tulip Paterswolde – Groningerweg 19
Tel +31 50 309 5400 http://www.goldentulip.com

Groningen is a student city and so you will find plenty of places to eat and drink that will not break the bank. The following restaurants are well worth trying to seek out and visit whilst you are here.

D’Ouwe Brandweer – Gedempte Zuiderdiep (+31 50 318 0323)
The Charthouse – Schuitendiep 78 (+31 50 312 1666)
En Zo – Poelestraat 53 (+31 50 313 6258)

Most of the nightlife is based in the streets around Grote Markt in the old town. Whilst you wont find the kind of frentic activity as you see in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. There are some nice bars where you can spend an hour or two at the pace you want, such as:-

De Eerste Kamer – Peperstraat 9
De Jongens Van de Witt Cafe – Gelkingestraat 56
Heminway’s Bar – Gdempte Kattendiep 23

If you need to find a bar to watch some action from back home then Groningen does have a couple of Irish Bars that show both Sky Sports and Setanta Sports. They are:-

O’Ceallaigh – Gdempte Kattendiep 13
Sally O’Brien’s – Oosterstraat 33

Nearest Airport – Groningen Eelde Airport (GRQ)
Telephone: +31 50 308 13 00
Website: http://www.gae.nl

The very small Groningen Eelde airport is located in the heart of the stunning village of Paterswolde, around 5 miles south of the city centre. It is only served by a handful of operators – Ryanair used to fly here but recently cut the route as it was not reaching its strict capacity levels.

Currently, BMI fly daily from Aberdeen, VLM once a day from London City via Amsterdam and KLM from Norwich. To reach the city centre from the airport, catch the twice hourly 52 bus that terminates at the central station. A single will cost €2.40 and the journey takes around 40 minutes. A taxi will cost around €30.