Groundhopper: Athletic Club, San Mamés Stadium

It was match day in Bilbao as the red and white of Athletic Club was proudly on display throughout the city.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Me and my partner crossed the Nervión river before approaching the Guggenheim Museum. This stunning piece of modern architecture epitomises the structural essence of Bilbao; a stunning blend of both old and new, having opened in 1997 and helped turn a then struggling industrial town into a cultural metropolis. We carried on along the Nervíon, where we approached a maze of green spaces – providing both a relaxing setting and recreational outlet for locals within the concrete jungle of a city.

We chatted between each other as we looked back on our first three days of a five-night stay in the Basque Country. Our time there had seen us indulge pretty heavily in the local cuisine (mainly cerveza, vino tinto and pintxos), whilst the Friday night had seen us celebrate our engagement in a traditional Basque restaurant in the Casco Viejo (Old Town) district.

Yet on this particular day, and slightly different to our first two days in the city, there was a certain sense of anticipation in the air. Flags adorned balconies throughout each and every side street. It was match day in Bilbao as the red and white of Athletic Club was proudly on display in preparation for the visit of Getafe.

This was my second visit to the city. I first visited back in 2012, when Manchester United were completely outplayed over two legs against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic in a UEFA Europa League last-16 tie. The city and its inhabitants certainly left its mark on me back then, so much so that I always insisted on heading back there one day – especially with a new stadium to be ticked off.

The Old San Mamés that I visited back then, also known as La Catedral, has since been replaced by a rather futuristic modern-build version San Mamés. As impressive as it is, when we first approached the stadium on our second day, I couldn’t help but yearn for the romanticism of the old one. Nonetheless I was still satisfied to have been lucky enough to attend a match before its demolition in June 2013.

We reached the stadium’s surrounding streets a couple of hours before kick-off. Desperate for a beverage, we made a beeline to a bar called Bar Swansea. Now, this isn’t a British bar or nothing like that, it’s a traditional bar which serves a great choice of pintxos and alcohol. According to the bar manager, the name is thought to come from the original owner of the bar who came to adore Swansea following a holiday there.

Having finished our drinks and pintxos, we made our way from Bar Swansea towards the ground itself, where around ten different bars, accompanied by the odd souvenir shop, creates a passageway to the San Mamés. Again, we stopped along the way, ensuring that we weren’t missing out on any local delicacies.

We headed for our seats around 45 minutes before kick-off. Stopping for the obligatory photo outside of the stadium, we took in the view – a stadium resembling a spacecraft, with aluminium-looking spears pointing downwards towards the unknowing fans as they search for their turnstile.

It had none of the essence of the Old San Mamés, although in truth, how could this new-build ever come close to the soul and history of La Catedral?

Seated in the heavens, we had quite the view of the internal organs of the stadium, although if I’m being honest I opted for the cheapest tickets (€45) available to us from the ticket booth the day prior the match. Yet none of that seemed to bother us. It’s all about being part of the wider sense of the match; the camaraderie, singing and enjoyment.

There was to be very little of the latter. Getafe, despite conceding the majority of possession to Athletic (71%-29%), were much more potent in attack. They sat back, absorbed and nullified Athletic’s blunt forward line, before countering and displaying a killer instinct that has seen them rise to lofty heights in La Liga.

Getafe took the lead when Damian Suarez broke forward and sliced the Athletic back-line open like a hot knife through butter, before his well-placed shot beat Unai Simon in the Athletic goal. This was Damian Suarez’s first of the season and he was rightly overjoyed.

The goal did nothing to awaken a sleepy San Mamés crowd. The atmosphere had been pretty subdued from the off. We were relatively surprised at the low-key nature of the home fans, with the team’s woeful performance dampening it even further.

Athletic went in at half-time 1-0 down. Their manager, Gaizka Garitano, undoubtedly did his best to generate some sort of reaction. Nevertheless, just five minutes into the second half the game was pushed out of reach as a VAR awarded penalty saw Jaime Mata power one home to the bottom-right corner of Unai Simon’s goal.

Athletic did their utmost to garner a comeback with a triple substitution on the hour mark. Aritz Aduriz, the legendary and soon to be leaving striker, replaced his long-term replacement Asier Villalibre up-front, Ibai Gomez came on for Unai Lopez on the wing, whilst Ander Capa replaced Ivan Lekue at full-back. This, however, failed to kick-start a flailing Athletic.

Gaizka Garitano appeared flat on the touchline compared to Getafe’s Pepe Bordales. This wasn’t helped as VAR struck again by disallowing a goal for Athletic on 80mins. This was quickly followed by Ibai Gomez’s shot hitting the bar on 84mins, before Aritz Aduriz shot wide on 90mins.

A strong finish on the whole by Athletic, where one goal could easily have seen the match turn on its head. However, Getafe had more quality overall and rightly saw the match out to the dismay of the home fans.

The standard on show from both sides wasn’t the best, yet neither was the atmosphere. Perhaps I expected too much following my previous visit to the Old San Mamés. New grounds tend to take time to build that affinity with the home fans. As years go by, memories are created and unforgettable nights are experienced – none more so than Athletic’s subsequent home match resulting in a 1-0 Copa del Rey quarter final victory against Barcelona.

Athletic have since guaranteed their place in the final where they will face arch rivals Real Sociedad in Sevilla. This will be their fourth cup final in 11 years, quite the feat as they continue to follow their La Cantera policy of only fielding Basque heritage players. I’ll once again be keeping a close eye on their final, quietly cheering on this special side.

Groundhopper: A new beginning for Portugal

“That gesture, along with the passion on display from the fans around us as they sung the national anthem and backed their team, only endeared me more to the country and its people.”

With the cold air creeping back through Britain’s streets over the course of October, my girlfriend and I started to become increasingly impatient. It had been almost 12 months since Saffron and I last travelled abroad: a trek to Germany that involved being refused entry to Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park for having dodgy tickets from Viagogo.

That incident-filled getaway concluded a year where we’d travelled to five countries apiece. Burnout and then financial difficulties stopped us from exploring again in 2018. But as money steadily improved, things fell into place with cheap flights to Porto available and Portugal’s final Nations League match against Poland in nearby Guimaraes priced at €10 per ticket.

It would be my second time in Porto but my first time in Guimaraes. This is what we saw in the city credited as being the ‘birthplace’ of Portugal.

A warm welcome

The Portuguese were ultra-chill during my last visit to their country and I was so pleased to sample that vibe again in Porto, while discovering it also extended to further cities like Guimaraes. When we arrived at the game, for example, we found our seats were wet. Without even mentioning this as a problem, a man next to us pulled some tissue out of his bag for us to wipe them down.

That gesture, along with the passion on display from the fans around us as they sung the national anthem and backed their team, only endeared me more to the country and its people.

Renato reborn

The very first game I watched in 2018 was the FA Cup third round clash between Wolves and Swansea. Many big-name players were rested for both sides that day but one player who did start for the Swans was Renato Sanches. I recall being very excited at seeing the man on-loan from Bayern Munich, especially after he played such a major role in Portugal’s Euro 2016 success.

However, the game was a rather drab goalless draw and was most notable for Sanches’ terrible performance leading up to his 34th minute substitution because of injury. I’m still unsure if the midfielder was carrying a knock going into the game which led to his poor showing but he looked out of his depth at Molineux, giving the ball away several times and being easily out-muscled in the middle of the park.

Sanches didn’t play another game for Swansea and returned to Bayern in the summer. But since then, the man has turned things around dramatically. He’s played 12 games for the German champions so far, scoring in the Champions League at his former club Benfica, and playing five times for Portugal after being omitted from their World Cup squad.

And in Guimaraes, he continued his rebirth. The 21-year-old looked like a different man against Poland – a team who he scored past in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. His passes were so much more accurate, his touch was sharper and he looked stronger – both physically and mentally. It was from his corner that Andre Silva opened the scoring for Portugal and he helped control the game alongside Danilo in the heart of midfield.

Unfortunately, though, Danilo was later sent off in strange circumstances. William Carvalho let Poland in on goal after a poor headed pass and Arkadiusz Milik only had the goalkeeper to beat. In my eyes, Milik made the most of Danilo’s touch on his shoulder as the Porto man chased him down. Milik sprawled spectacularly to the floor – notably falling forward despite being, apparently, pulled back – a penalty was given and Danilo saw red.

Milik stepped up and found the bottom right-hand corner but had to retake his spot-kick due to encroachment. Despite the sound of piercing whistles from the crowd, the Napoli forward hit his second effort in the same corner even more accurately than his first and Portugal were in danger of losing a game they’d been in control of.

Looking towards the Poland fans from inside the stadium.

However, with the match being effectively a dead rubber (Portugal had already won their Nations League group and Poland had already been relegated) the only thing at stake was Poland’s place in the best pot for European Championship qualifying. A draw was enough for them to oust Germany as a top seed and thus the game ended with little more goal action from either side.

No superstars

During the days leading up to the game, I’d eagerly awaited news of the Portuguese and Polish squads. Portugal captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo remained unselected since his last appearance at the World Cup but Manchester City’s in-form midfielder Bernardo Silva was included. Poland, meanwhile, called up their all-time top goal scorer Robert Lewandowski and their record cap holder Jakub Blaszczykowski

Whilst out in Portugal, however, news emerged before the game that Silva was injured – which was sad but nowhere near as crushing as the team news we heard at the stadium. I was devastated to see Lewandowski wasn’t in the matchday squad – the first Poland game he’d missed since 2013! I felt so unlucky and the feeling was only compounded by Blaszczykowski being an unused sub.

There were some exciting players on show though. Even at 35-years-of-age, Pepe showed his multi-title winning credentials, while his defensive partner Joao Cancelo produced a fantastic headed clearance off the line from a deflected effort. Milik also looked very sharp and so intelligent up front. And, in a bizarre discovery, I found out I’d seen Andre Silva and Grzegorz Krychowiak three times apiece since the start of 2017. Silva, in particular, is becoming a cult hero.

Disenchanting surroundings

Getting into Guimaraes quite early gave us a chance to see the city and also collect our tickets without queueing. I was quite looking forward to seeing the ground as it hosted two matches at Euro 2004 and a number of Portugal games in the past. But when we arrived, Saff accurately noted that its exterior resembled a car park more than an international stadium. It was very grey, very soulless and just looked a bit unkept.

It was honestly the worst-looking ground I’ve seen from the outside, which is so confusing because the interior was very impressive. It holds 30,000 seats, which is the eighth-biggest in Portugal, and is similarly designed to Porto’s stadium where you walk in and the pitch is on a lower level to the gates.

Soulless exterior.

Outside the ground was a statue of Afonso Henriques, who was the first king of Portugal. Vitoria SC – who play their home games at the stadium – feature Henriques on their badge and the nearby Guimaraes castle has lots of information on how he formed the Portuguese nation back in the 12th century. Many also believe he was born in the city and was baptised in the church located on the castle grounds.

But unfortunately, beyond these sights, there was very little to do in Guimaraes. We spent most of the day killing time in the Portuguese rain and trying to find savoury food before all the restaurants opened. Neither task was that enjoyable. Or particularly rewarding.

Overall

I remember leaving Guimaraes feeling underwhelmed but reflecting on the experience now, it was really good value for money and definitely worth the journey. Learning about the history of Portugal and seeing some great players of the past and future of both national teams, is hard to be disgruntled by. A near sell-out crowd of 29,000 was a bonus and it was nice to experience the Portuguese cheering on their Euro 2016 heroes; especially Eder, who scored their winning goal in the final.

Despite the red card, the whole contest had a friendly vibe to it and felt like a celebration of Portugal’s achievements in the European Championships and winning their Nations League group – typified by the home fans doing a Mexican Wave with 20 minutes on the clock.

Credit to the Poland fans who packed the away end, they refused to take part in such nonsense and showed great support through constant chanting and even a ‘Poznan’. On the train back they seemed in good spirits too. I think they were pleased to be in a good pot for Euro qualifying. So everyone was a winner in the end.

Portugal 1-1 Poland
Estadio D. Afonso Henriques

Best Of The Rest

Another one of our north Portugal day trips was to Braga, the third-biggest city in the country after Lisbon and Porto. A bit like Guimaraes, Braga didn’t have much else to see other than the Bom Jesus do Monte. But having said that, it’s quite a stunning thing to have as your major landmark.

The panoramic views at the hilltop church rival those at Porto’s iconic Ponte Luiz I. In one direction is a sprawling cityscape and around you stands a miraculous piece of architecture that’s difficult to register as a real life construction. Looking at my own photos really don’t do any justice to the scale, intricacy or wonder of actually being there.

The Bom Jesus do Monte.

We walked back to the centre of Braga down the same path that worshippers would have climbed in order to show their faith and headed for the city centre. Our goal was to see the Estadio Municipal de Braga before sunset. I’d read on the train up that it had a cliffside as one of its stands and it was possible to view the stadium from on top.

As rain fell, we got closer and headed down a long road in a residential area full of apartments. At the end, we could spot Braga’s training pitches from a lookout point but the main ground was obstructed by trees. We then noticed a muddy path at the bottom of a side street that went over a steep hill. We took a gamble on checking it out and were rewarded by another phenomenal 360 view on the edge of the stadium’s cliffside stand.

Estádio Municipal de Braga

I’d never seen a ground quite like that before. We could easily get a stone and throw it on to the pitch, it was such a crazy vantage point. Particularly as, behind us, we could see all the sanctuaries and churches on top of the hills. When I spotted a crack of lightning strike over the horizon, it made the whole thing that more thrilling. But I also began to get wary of electrocution from an oncoming storm, so we quickly departed. What an amazing stadium to find though… and exhilarating to see even without a game being played.

Trains, Planes and a Crazy Taxi Driver

“The beer was vile so I again plumped for pear cider all the way from Cornwall! The old BATE stadium was adjacent to the bar and it seemed a pity we weren’t playing here – proper old skool stadium.”

When Chelsea’s UEFA Europa League draw was made I knew that I would miss PAOK as I was on holiday, whilst Vidi in December was a non starter, thus I fancied Bate Borisov in Belarus due to it being a country I hadn’t previously visited.

Visa

This was no straight forward trip to arrange even for Tommies Tours. The easiest way it seemed was to fly via somewhere to the capital of Belarus, Minsk, Borisov was about an hour away. The flight was touching £300 and the return was via Istanbul with a four-hour wait there as well. I explored the other options and flying to neighbouring Lithuania seemed a decent choice and again a country I hadn’t visited. However, by going this way you required a visa, what a stupid situation this was, if you fly into Minsk a visa isn’t required but entering any other way you need one – it should be all or nothing.

The visa seemed reasonable at £60 on top of the £143 flight to Vilnius, but problems lay ahead. The Belorussian Embassy in London would not answer any emails or phone calls, it was a complicated visa form thus I needed to speak to them. Eventually we decided to pay £100 for a visa company to assist us, which I must say they did well – the train to Minsk came out at £30 – not bad for a return which took over two hours both ways.

So flights booked and the visa arrived in time and match ticket was purchased for £17.50. The usual ticket collection was in place and with luck at our hotel, which by the way was excellent – kudos to Billy for booking, at least he didn’t moan about the hotel.

Baltic States

We flew to Vilnius via Stockholm where I refused to pay €12 for a pint at the airport but cracked and paid €9 for a bottle of pear cider – no logic in that. We arrived in Vilnius and a decent night was had. It wasn’t a poor place by any means but, my understanding is that compared to the other Baltic states such as Estonia and Latvia, Vilnius isn’t the nicest of the three. Maybe we weren’t there long enough but there was it seems only one street with bars and there wasn’t many, although they were decent. The beer was fine, we did look for a late bar, but to no avail we couldn’t find one, albeit a good outcome probably due to us having to catch the 06.15 train. There was passport control procedures at the station and the border crossing was nervous, they inspected our passports like they were looking for gold, but when they got the stamp out I knew we were in.

20181108_142132
Catching a glimpse through the taxi window

The station in Minsk was a taxi ride away to the hotel where we passed the renovated national stadium – it looked impressive, as far as floodlight go it was porn, they were like gigantic tennis rackets.

Check in

The hotel bar was open when we arrived at 10.00am thus beers were ordered and we refused to pay the €77 for an early check in. We checked in at 12.00, showered and headed back to the bar and left for the mini bus to Borisov. Once again, this was a contentious decision as most were staying in Minsk till later – kick off wasn’t until 21.00, Google had shown a couple of bars in Borisov but the driver firstly decided to drop us of at the impressive stadium on the outskirts, I mean who wants to go in the stadium at 14.00 – he eventually managed to find a bar – the obligatory shamrock was outside and it had wooden decor inside. This area was grim, I’ve travelled a lot and this city was the grimmest I’d visited: it had nothing going for it.

20181108_162637
Old ground walls.

Ordering food and drink was a nightmare, the waitress brought us two plates of cheese balls instead of the chicken and chips we ordered, she didn’t understand what a vodka and orange was: we were in Belarus! The beer was vile so I again plumped for pear cider all the way from Cornwall! The old Bate stadium was adjacent to the bar and it seemed a pity we weren’t playing here – proper old skool stadium. It seemed that some Chelsea fans were happy to stay in one bar but I wanted to say that I’d been to more than one, so we decide to head off to bar Pinta.

Crazy driver

The taxi arrived and promptly expected us to walk through the mud and puddles to it. Billy was having none of it and we persuaded her to drive to an area not as muddy. She drove off and whilst pulling out of a junction I could see the lorry drivers eyes, we were lucky – I’m sure someone had just given her a set of keys and said drive, she was character but wasn’t fit to be behind the wheel. To make matters worse, bar Pinta didn’t exist, to save our embarrassment of going back she came up trumps and took us to bar Dogma her local. It was a great bar and the thought of grim Borisov soon vanished.

The local Chelsea fans were there and wouldn’t take no for an answer regarding buying us a little drink, large shots of vodka were bought and I swear we couldn’t say no. A bear of a man then came in with a ‘Cymru am byth’ jumper (Wales for ever) but he was in no mood for a laugh, he was the sort of guy who you didn’t want to upset, he persuaded us to join him and share his jug of vodka, a man of little words, a gentle giant perhaps, but possibly ex-forces. Came across as a bit of a nutter.

20181108_194456 (1)
Vodka man

We eventually managed to free ourselves from vodka man and got to the ground. The evening sky was the same as the city, dank misty and grey. Chelsea scraped a win and the trip back to Minsk was a thirsty one, the hotel bar was crammed with Chelsea until the early hours of the morning where most realised they had a plane or train to catch.

Grim

I can’t really judge Minsk as I didn’t see enough but the contrast between Belarus and Lithuania was immense. Belarus people seemed regimented, and it seemed like a job for everyone, whilst when we arrived back in Vilnius everyone seemed jovial and happy. Borisov is the worst place I’ve ever been to, although I’m in Albania soon…

Four flights – ran a mile to catch a connection

Two trains

One nutter

One crazy taxi

Vodka – lost count

Beer- mostly good

Food – good

One grim city.

Groundhopper: Missing out on glory in North Yorkshire

“It wasn’t going to be the easiest of matchdays. With the game being played in midweek, I had to book some time off work. Meanwhile, getting back home on the cheap meant I’d have to get the first train back from York at 3:50am…”

A few people may have noticed the National League is pretty lopsided this season – and that’s not a reference to Salford City’s budget either. It’s the noticeable north-south divide when looking at the footballing map that grabs my attention. Fourteen of the 24 clubs that make up the league are located south of Milton Keynes – with five of these based in London and three sat on the English Channel coastline. Elsewhere, the likes of Gateshead, Hartlepool and Barrow pose difficult ventures in the opposite direction.

Being a Wrexham fan based in Shropshire, it’s made following the Reds trickier. Last season, we had Tranmere, Chester and Macclesfield nearby. But with two going up and one going down, the groundhopping opportunities have dried up. North Yorkshire’s Harrogate Town are our fifth-closest rivals this term and it’s for that reason that I earmarked them as an essential away day.

It wasn’t going to be the easiest of matchdays. With the game being played in midweek, I had to book some time off work. Meanwhile, getting back home on the cheap meant I’d have to get the first train back from York at 3:50am. But, thankfully, I wasn’t going to be alone. My girlfriend, Saffron, couldn’t resist seeing the mighty Reds take on fellow early season high-flyers Harrogate either, and also looked forward to exploring the historical city of York with me until the wee hours of the morning.

Highlights

Away crowd

Last season, Wrexham fans were packing out away ends across the country. This year, however, they’re making them swell. We’ve already taken over 1,000 to Solihull Moors and averaged 300 at the teams in the south of England, which often makes up a third of the overall attendance.

At Harrogate’s CNG Stadium, there were 700 of us behind the goal – a figure I’m sure would have been more if the game had landed on a weekend. But it’s still a very impressive turnout, especially for a midweek encounter and on the back of a 3-0 defeat in our previous game at Sutton United.

Wrexham supporters were in a jovial mood too. They backed the team throughout and exchanged some great chants between the cluster of vocal Harrogate fans in the main stand. There was even a few verbals shared amongst themselves and the Harrogate players. All in good fun, of course, and it made the occasion a lot more enjoyable.

A good point

The home side came into the fixture on the back of a 3-0 defeat themselves – at home to table-toppers Leyton Orient. That was their first defeat of the season so far and it was easy to see why they’d done so well.

Their pressing caused Wrexham all kinds of problems in the opening exchanges. We couldn’t string any passes together. The team in yellow and black were like wasps, buzzing around us whenever we were in possession and forcing us to make mistakes.

Matters weren’t helped by the referee either. Some of the decisions he gave were questionable but it was the ones he didn’t give that were unbelievable. Dominic Knowles, in particular, took out Shaun Pearson every time he jumped to head the ball. I wasn’t surprised to later learn Knowles had 39 fouls to his name already this season – 20 more than any other Harrogate player! Clearly the referee saw him in a different light to his fellow officials.

Things did eventually settle down, both in terms of action and dodgy decisions. Then Wrexham actually turned the screw in the second half and should have won the game. Harrogate had goalkeeper James Belshaw to thank for saving a number of clear-cut chances. But it was still a good point against a promotion rival.

Disappointments

Fondop miss(es)

Mike Fondop-Talom was an absolute revelation at the beginning of this season. Five goals in six games put him amongst the division’s top goalscorers and helped us achieve our best ever start to a National League campaign. But after netting a beautiful chip against Bromley last month, ‘Big Mike’ has found the goals harder to rack up and the bench more of a familiar surrounding.

He did return to the starting line-up in North Yorkshire and looked the most threatening player on the pitch. However, there were a number of opportunities that he could have done better with, including a miss from Paul Rutherford’s cross that was begging to be put away. Being right behind the goal, I was just waiting to see the net bulge. It was agonising to see the ball go wide instead.

That wasn’t the only chance he spurned either. Wrexham’s number nine was twice put through on goal but his shots found the gloves of the on-rushing Belshaw. The Harrogate stopper received the man-of-the-match award at the end of the game having saved a further effort from Luke Summerfield’s free-kick, but I feel like Fondop missed the chance for us to take a massive three points home.

Overall

I travelled to the CNG Stadium expecting to see a physical team that used their artificial surface to slow the game down, soak up pressure and hit deadly counters. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Harrogate are a very good attacking side that pass remarkably well on an unpredictable 4G terrain. The first half an hour really put us on the ropes and if we didn’t have such defensive cover in our team – like the holding midfielders Akil Wright and Brad Walker – then I think we could have been a couple of goals down by half-time.

We didn’t know how to handle their high-pressing tactics. But, thankfully, they dropped off their intensity and we could impose the same tactics on them in the second half. And it almost worked; a lot of mistakes were made in the final third that we should have taken full advantage of.

Having said all that, a point against a very good team isn’t bad. We’re still in the mix at the right end of the league, while we’re starting to learn and gel more on the field. I also rate Harrogate as a club. Besides the plastic pitch, their facilities are some of the best I’ve seen in non-league and their fans are a good bunch. I’d happily visit again in the future.

Best Of The Rest

Before going to Harrogate, Saffron and I met up with some friends in York. It was a chance to explore the city and go inside some of the places we wouldn’t have access to at night. Our reckoning was that we’d leave enough things to explore whilst waiting for our early train after the match.

However, things didn’t go as great as we’d hoped. York does have many beautiful landmarks and is full of history. But it’s also very expensive. York Minster, for example, costs £11 to look around and a further £6 to climb to the top. Elsewhere, the castle is £6 entry, its adjacent museum is £10 and York Museum is £7.50. Add that on to the prices we paid just to get to York and it all seemed very steep.

It meant that when Saffron and I returned to the city after the game, we had nothing left to explore. We’d walked the city walls, marvelled at the cathedral and castle, and enjoyed the museum gardens during the day. The five or so hours we spent waiting for our train were, therefore, pretty boring.

Seeing the River Ouse and the street which inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley in moonlight were cool experiences. But York wasn’t big enough to go back and explore, and it left us feeling like the city had been well and truly ticked off any future itineraries.

Forest Green Rovers: Tasting the vegan football experience

“A vegan menu, at an eco-friendly club that attracts worldwide fans thanks to its moral values, was a unique matchday premise that I’d been keen to sample.”

Forest Green Rovers have been on my groundhop shopping list for a while. They’re renowned for being the only vegan football club in the world – no meat or dairy is available on matchdays, their pitch is organic and the stadium is powered entirely by solar energy.

A vegan menu, at an eco-friendly club that attracts worldwide fans thanks to its moral values, was a unique matchday premise that I’d been keen to sample. So when my friend and old work colleague, Toby, re-located to Stroud, I couldn’t pass down his invite to see his new local team in action.

Highlights

Salopians on tour

The last time I joined Toby on a football trip was when his Shrewsbury Town team took on Blackburn Rovers last January. It wasn’t the best of days up in Lancashire, with many Salop fans over-fuelled on alcohol and overzealous in nature. However, this experience was a lot more enjoyable.

I met up with Toby, and fellow Shrewsbury Town fans Brett and Matt, outside Stroud train station. We then headed straight down the road to soak up the pre-match atmosphere in Rovers’ home town/parish of Nailsworth.

Unsurprisingly for a place with a 7,000 populus, there wasn’t much anticipation in the air when we arrived. However, we did come across a number of interesting sights. After crossing the Nailsworth stream, we discovered a couple of golden postboxes dedicated to Olympic champion Peter Reed. The rower had grown up in the town before going on to compete in the men’s four at the 2012 Games in London. Having won gold, the postboxes were sprayed that colour by the Royal Mail to honour his achievements.

Further discoveries were made at our first pub, The Victoria Inn. The bar was decorated with two and five pence pieces and we found a number of games hidden in a table drawer where we were sitting. We played Pointless and moved onto our next pub.

At The Britannia, we were greeted by a chihuahua sat on a stool at the bar. A couple of Rovers fans were there too but the atmosphere still wasn’t building. So we concluded our pre-match tour and headed up the massive sloped road that led to the suburban area called Forest Green. Toby quipped: ‘It’s literally all downhill from here.’ And as the rain began to fall on our climb to The New Lawn, we didn’t know how right he’d be.

Disappointments

It not only rained, it poured

When we arrived, we made the decision to stand with the away supporters. Our hunch was that they’d provide a better atmosphere – and it seemed to pay off. The Crawley fans were very vocal in the gazebo outside the ground and continued their support during the early stages of the game.

Their side had the best of the chances despite the home team dominating possession. The in-form Ollie Palmer – with five goals to his name in League Two already – looked the most threatening for the Red Devils. He latched on to Panutche Camara’s through-ball and forced Rovers goalkeeper Robert Sanchez into a save, with the rebound put wide by the on-rushing George Francomb.

DSC_0978

Palmer then had a header easily collected by Sanchez before the goalkeeper was in action again to deny Filipe Morais from distance. But after that early spell of pressure, things levelled out and the game became quite lifeless.

When half-time came, Wrexham’s score came in too and I began getting further disgruntled. My team were 2-0 behind and down to 10 men for the rest of the game. Soon after the restart, Shrewsbury went a goal down as well, and the Salop boys began feeling as subdued as I was.

Being amongst the away fans soon lost its novelty as the rain got heavier and Crawley took an onslaught of pressure. The only time it ceased was when the Town fans began a 59th minute applause for one of their supporters, Gill Courtney, who recently passed away from cancer. They actually almost scored when the clapping reached its climax, in what would have been an extraordinary end to a warming tribute.

Crawley couldn’t keep that spark going though, and Rovers resumed dominance straight afterwards. At that point, we kind of forgot about our allegiance to the Red Devils and enjoyed the flowing football their Green counterparts were displaying. Some of the link-up play was a joy to behold. Reece Brown looked so composed in the middle of the park and Reuben Reid impressed me with his ability to hold the ball and bring others into play.

The away side were stuck in their own half and didn’t heed the warning of a spilled shot that was deemed not fully over the goal-line. Brown played Reid a delicious ball soon after, which he controlled well, and hit a deflected strike into the top corner for the game’s only goal.

I think we might have celebrated a bit. A 0-0 draw in those conditions would have been tough to take. But it must have been even worse to be a Crawley fan. Their substitute Joe McNerney received a second yellow card in injury-time to compound a miserable afternoon for them.

The food

I’d done some research about the food on offer at Forest Green before attending the match and I was really looking forward to trying a vegan Mexican fajita at half-time. However, when I got to the booth, there was no fajita and the alternative options weren’t particularly appetising.

Chips were the menu’s staple food. The option to have them with gravy or Quorn nuggets was about the only form of variety available. Quite a comedown from my dreamy fajita.

The Salop boys and I all stood under the turnstile entrance for shelter and ate our basic meals as our raffle numbers weren’t called out. Meanwhile, a number of Crawley fans were arguing with stewards about their inflatable pigs and fish being confiscated. Apparently it was because one swine had entered the field of play – which wasn’t strictly true, as it barely reached the touchline.

With that bit of fun taken away and the rain setting in, full-time felt a long way off.

Overall

My girlfriend, Saffron, is a vegan and she was very envious about my visit to Forest Green. But, to be honest, I don’t think she would have enjoyed herself too much. It certainly wasn’t a great matchday experience for myself in the away end. The food wasn’t what I was expecting and the covered terracing didn’t do that great a job. The atmosphere felt really flat all day as well.

It’s annoying because I really applaud the initiatives and changes that Forest Green are trying to implement in football, business and the planet. But I don’t think many Crawley fans – or the chaps I was with – will take any of it on board. And I can’t really blame them, the vegan football experience didn’t have anything particularly fresh or exciting to offer us ‘away’ fans.

DSC_0983

I’m sure I’ll be going back to Forest Green with Saff in the future, so at least I can use my day as a learning curve. The home section might well have the better options for food, while the lady coming around with samosas during the first half might be the best bet if we’re in the visiting section. Getting to Nailsworth will be a problem though, as it’s quite a distance from Stroud train station.

I felt very fortunate to be in the company I was with. Toby and his girlfriend, Kate, drove me to and from the ground and also let me stay at their place while I waited for my train back. Whilst at the game itself, I had a lot of fun with the Salop boys and we all had Reuben Reid to thank for his strike. He really did save our bacon.

Women’s Championship: Scoring by the dozen

“Hopefully the WSL re-structuring will be the catalyst for domestic women’s football to reach the same heights and interest as international fixtures – where attendance records are continuously being broken.”

Women’s football is entering a new era in England. The league system has changed to three divisions: The FA Women’s Super League, The FA Women’s Championship and The FA Women’s National League – which is split into northern and southern sections. The FAWSL is a fully professional league, while the FAWC is made up of mostly semi-professional teams. Those that can’t meet the criteria of either league make up the FAWNL… and that caused quite a stir over the summer.

Many well-established clubs in women’s football have been forced to drop divisions due to their inability to meet new licence criteria in the leagues they were participating in. Sunderland Ladies and Doncaster Rovers Belles were the biggest names to suffer relegation as they couldn’t afford to stay in the FAWSL and FAWC respectively.

Sunderland had a track record for bringing through several players who went on to star for the England national team. However, they couldn’t meet the required pro or semi-pro standard after their parent men’s club cut ties with them. Meanwhile, Doncaster had actually won the Women’s Championship – previously known as Women’s Super League 2 – last season. They will now play in the National League (alongside Sunderland) with all of their players moving to other clubs.

On the flip side, one of the winners from the revamp is Manchester United. They’ve been given a second-tier licence and will field a women’s team for the first time in 13 years. Coached by former England defender Casey Stoney, they’ve amassed a host of international players and top, young prospects. I travelled to Aston Villa Ladies to see how they’d get on in their debut league game.

Highlights

Goals

Heading to Boldmere, a residential area on the fringes of Sutton Coldfield, none of my wildest thoughts could come close to what I was about to witness. And why would they? Who in their right mind goes to a ground thinking 12 goals will be scored? And by a single team, as well?

This was the first time I’d seen a game with a double-figure goal tally. The closest I’d come was nine when Gateshead beat Wrexham 7-2 at the Racecourse Ground back in 2011. That was a battering. This was a mauling.

The most ironic thing is, it actually started very brightly for Villa. The first 10 minutes featured a lot of home possession and some great tackles to win the ball back from United. However, for all their positive play, Villa couldn’t get it right in the final third and United soon found their rhythm.

img_4335

Lauren James, at just 16 years of age, showed so much ability in midfield, running at the Villa backline and causing problems with her exquisite passes out wide. She opened the scoring with a deflected shot and then doubled United’s lead after striking the ball superbly from outside the box.

Aston Villa already looked doomed before a flurry of goals killed off the match unequivocally. Jess Sigsworth – top goal scorer in the WSL2 last season and one of the Doncaster players who left during the summer – bagged a hat-trick in 10 minutes, while Katie Zelem also scored from the penalty spot. The half-time whistle blew and the away side led 6-0. Mental.

If Villa thought the worst was behind them, then they were severely mistaken. United actually matched their first half scoreline with 70 minutes on the clock. Sigsworth grabbed another two and the phenomenal Kirsty Hanson was rewarded for her amazing performance on the wing with a brace herself. Substitutes Mollie Green and Ella Toone showed how United’s bench is equally as dangerous with a goal apiece, before several more chances were spurned late on.

I genuinely lost count of the score at the end, as did those around me – one person thought they’d won 14-0! Honestly, it could so easily have been that much worse. Sian Rogers in the Villa goal was actually in good form and stopped a number of efforts throughout the game. She was mostly let down by a defence who couldn’t handle United’s excellent movement. As soon as they were in behind, their finishing was of the highest quality. Unfortunate for the keeper, who looked visibly upset at her side’s capitulation.

The Villa ultras

I’ve seen fans turn on a team within an instant of a goal being scored against them. So I must say, it was so refreshing to see – but mostly hear – Villa supporters rallying their side throughout the whole game.

The pocket of claret and blue in the corner of the ground were armed with a flag, a drum and an array of uplifting songs that never ceased after any goal. Each player had their own unique tune but the most frequent number they put out was the most warming. It went: “we don’t care what the score, we’ll love you evermore.”

One fan even sang this at club captain Kerri Welsh long after the final whistle had gone. A great effort from them fans; absolute true ultras.

Disappointments

United arrogance

The positivity of the Villa fans contrasted greatly to the poor attitude from some Man United followers. Their away pocket gave the “you’re getting sacked in the morning” to Villa’s Gemma Davies, a head coach who is 26-years-old and in her first league outing at the helm of any major team. Then they sang about which fans amongst themselves hated Villa more, asked the home side what the score was, mocked the use of their drum and asked why they weren’t singing during any 30-second breaks between chanting.

I’m all up for having a pop at opposing fans during a game but it didn’t feel like healthy banter. It felt more toxic than that. Almost arrogant. There was very little chanting in support of their own team and things didn’t help when I spotted a kid pointing at his United badge in front of Villa’s drumming fans, while someone in the opposite stand also stuck his middle finger up at them. All at 12-0 up and with no provocation. Why?

It wasn’t all bad though. There were a couple of Mancunians who I stood with at the start of the game that really got behind their team. They rallied around Sigsworth in particular, who they possibly knew. I enjoyed their elated reactions to her goals and also learnt a number of northern colloquialisms about football. It were a good knock from their side, that’s for sure.

Overall

This was my second women’s football league match, with the setting contrasting somewhat to my first experience down the road at Birmingham’s 30,000-capacity St. Andrew’s. I’d previously argued that women’s games should be at bigger stadiums like that all the time but I can understand the draw of tighter grounds like Midland Premier Division side Boldmere St. Michaels’.

The 3G pitch was off-putting (some of the bounces were ridiculous and actually helped United) but the Trevor Brown Memorial Ground – which is named after their former chairman – has a very decent set-up. And, from my experience, it’s a lot more accessible than Solihull Moors’ Damson Park, where Birmingham City Women play their home games. However, I still believe these elite-level female athletes deserve a stage equivalent to that standard.

Hopefully the league re-structuring will prove to be the catalyst for domestic women’s football to reach the same heights and interest as international fixtures – where attendance records are continuously being broken. I know a lot of people were angry with how certain clubs were shunned in the re-modelling process and I can understand how one would think it’s money taking over football again. But it feels like the right step to me. It must give a huge incentive to young girls knowing they can be paid to play football full-time.

The more clubs that are encouraged to become professional is surely a positive thing for aspiring females. Which is why Man United re-forming their women’s team is such a good move in my eyes. I don’t know why their full-time squad are in the predominantly semi-pro second tier though. Perhaps they feel like they should earn their WSL spot, which is fair enough. But it seems like they belong in the WSL already. The team that they’ve assembled would surely hold their own and maybe even challenge for the Champions League spots.

As for Aston Villa Ladies, I honestly don’t believe they’re a bad team. They looked good in spells but perhaps lacked a bit of experience with their squad averaging 21 years of age. There’s no way they’re going to be experiencing days like this every weekend. United were just a level above.

Groundhopper: Feyenoord Rotterdam

“I loved the Feyenoord atmosphere and how they pyro’d the hell out of the start of the match. So when I got an email through from the club offering me tickets, I was never going to say no, was I?”

De Kuip. Built in 1937 and the home of 17-time Dutch champions, Feyenoord Rotterdam. It’s a stadium I’ve wanted to visit for years and made all the easier now with me living in the Netherlands.

Being a Celtic fan you grow up knowing the name Feyenoord as they famously beat us in the European Cup final in 1970. Also with a number of players from the likes of Henrik Larsson and Pierre van Hooijdonk playing for both teams there has always been a link. Our infamous manger Wim Jansen who won us the league in ’97 also turned out for the Rotterdam club.

A few weeks prior, I attended the Johan Cruijff Schaal match between PSV and Feyenoord and loved the latter’s atmosphere with their singing, flags (which were green and white) and how they pyro’d the hell out of the start of the match. So when I got an email through from the club offering me tickets, I was never going to say no, was I?

715f37e6-9da9-4c58-9aa9-e6fef6af620f
Feyenoord and Celtic great, Henrik Larsson.

In the run up to this match, Feyenoord had not got off to a good start. The Dutch Super Cup aside, Feyenoord were beaten both in the Eredivisie and Europe, with a home draw in the latter resulting in elimination from the competition. So the derby match against their former feeder club Excelsior was a must win to kick-start their season.

Rotterdam is about a two hour train journey away from where I currently live in Maastricht. With all the years of following Celtic everywhere from Milan to Inverness, two hours is nothing. Train tickets in the Netherlands aren’t really cheap though with tickets for example from Maastricht to Amsterdam costing you €25 one way. Thankfully someone turned us on to a website offering half-price tickets before this trip.

The tram journey to the stadium from Centraal takes about 20-minutes and much to my delight, it’s free with a match ticket. The tram was full of a variety of fans, young and old. We asked a few fans about where was the best place to get a beer before the match and were advised that a lot of fans drink at a local amateur ground near the stadium.

6aa68df8-e094-4572-bb1b-dbdf6ea7ed5d-1
‘Stadion Feijenoord De Kuip sinds 1937’

We arrived off the trains and headed to a number of cafes and bars next to the tram station which were rammed full of Feyenoord fans with music blasting out the doors. A drink or two in there and we headed over to get a good look at De Kuip. In a world where new modern stadiums are built all over the place, De Kuip is a welcomed change. Old and gritty with flood lights outside the stadium pointing inwards. All around the stadium there is banners that celebrate players and moments from the club’s history. The stadium was buzzing before kick-off so we grabbed another few beers and made our way to our seats.

The game itself didn’t really get going until Robin van Persie calmly slotted home the first goal on the 17th minute mark. A lot of wasted chances and poor passes filled the rest of what was a frustrating half for the home support. The one noticeable occurrence was the Excelsior fans showering the sick kids from the local hospital below them with cuddly toys which was also done by Ado Den Haag a few years prior. The second half kicked off and much of the support was still tense. This was finally relieved on 78 minutes when Jerry St Juste slotted the ball home after some good play from Yassin Ayoub. A further goal from Jan-Arie van der Heijden in the 89th minute sent the fans home happy.

Whilst chatting away to a supporter beside me, he told me all about the plans for a new 70,000 seater stadium to be built in the near future. The decision is now in the hands of the Rotterdam council as the planning permission is all they are really waiting for. According to him there is a large quantity of the support strongly against the move. It would be a shame to see this stadium go but whatever is built in its place is sure to be a cracker.

The view from the seat.

Living where I live you are literally in the heart of Europe so you have a mixture of massive clubs and small clubs at your door step. The next fixture I would attend was VVV Venlo vs Heerenveen in the Eredivisie. After that I’m looking to head over to Belgium for a K.R.C Genk or Standard Liege match.

More on them in my next piece.

Groundhopper: Falling For Edinburgh

“My knowledge of Hearts – or Heart of Midlothian, to give them their full title – was pretty sparse before heading to Edinburgh. Walking to their stadium, though, I began learning more about the team…”

By Lewis Davies

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my 27th birthday. Not only did I spend the day looking around the immaculate gardens of Herefordshire’s Hampton Court Castle, but the days either side of it were a whirlwind of activity.

London, Dover, Wrexham and Castleton (in the Peak District) were all visited before my trip to Hampton Court, which was then followed up by a spur of the moment decision to see Edinburgh. My friend, Brad, was up there providing extra Fringe Festival cover for the restaurant he works for and he invited me to crash with him.

It proved very hard to turn down. A lot of my friends had recently visited Scotland for the first time and I’d yet to venture north of the border. Then when I found out Hearts v Celtic still had tickets available, the deal was sealed. I grabbed the cheapest seat available at Tynecastle and booked a 5.30am train up to Scotland’s capital the day before the game; plenty of time to see what Edinburgh had to offer.

Highlights

Loving Hearts

My knowledge of Hearts – or Heart of Midlothian, to give them their full title – was pretty sparse before heading to Edinburgh. I knew the basics: they played in purple, Hibernian were their city rivals and they were nicknamed The Jambos.

Walking to their stadium, though, I began learning more about the team – and admiring them a lot as well. The first flash of that purple kit started things off. It was more maroon than purple. And I loved it! My favourite colour, on a t-shirt that featured charity logo Save The Children rather than a betting or beer company. Very refreshing.

Being at Tynecastle only increased my admiration. The whole place had a really good vibe – from the super-cheery programme seller, to the fans relaxing at Foundation Plaza outside the main stand. The stadium really impressed me too. I really liked the open concourse that allows you to look into the ground from behind the floodlights. And the seats were all maroon! What a beautiful sight.

DSC_0856
The home goalkeeper, Zdenek Zlamal. Phtoto: Lewis Davies

The Hearts fans around me were a funny bunch as well. Because we were right behind the goal, every player could hear what was being shouted at them. I enjoyed the exchanges between the fans and home goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal in particular. Although, I still don’t know why they called him Bobby. He seemed to like it anyway, giving supporters a “wee” wink.

The Upset

Since the inception of the Scottish Premiership five years ago, only Celtic have been crowned champions. That must make them an almighty scalp – especially when they roll into town and leave with nothing. And for that reason, I couldn’t be more happier to see the biggest upset possible in my first experience of Scottish football.

Credit to Celtic’s fans, they absolutely packed out the away end and were backing their team right until the end. Hearts’ supporters, however, were even more ferocious. Emotions were running high with opposition carrying such high stock, and it probably contributed to the number of tackles flying in. It stopped any great football being played in truth, but that played into the hands of the home team.

Celtic had no real rhythm. Scott Sinclair looked their biggest threat but he was thwarted many times by a well-drilled home side. Whenever Celtic did get through their battling opponents, some key tackles and saves kept them out. Micheal Smith provided the most important of these – a last-ditch clearance off the line from the centre-back kept the score goalless going into the break.

Soon after the restart, the atmosphere went up a notch with the game’s only goal. Northern Ireland international Kyle Lafferty – scorer of many big goals in his career – produced a sublime volley from the outside of his left foot. From my position behind the goal, I honestly thought his shot was going wide. But he put that much spin on the ball that it rocketed past Gordon and into the bottom corner. Such fantastic technique and a goal worthy to be the difference between the two sides.

Huge praise must also go to Uche Ikpeazu. The forward – who Hearts fans constantly referred to as “big man” – provided the ball for Lafferty’s volley, while his strength and power also kept Celtic’s defence busy right until the final whistle. He was on the floor at full-time having just chased down Gordon with all the energy left in his body. He optimised Hearts’ efforts.

Disappointments

Berra injury

In the incident where Smith cleared Leigh Griffiths’ goal-bound effort off the line, Hearts captain Christophe Berra got his studs caught in the turf and ended up receiving treatment for some time. The centre-half had been immense at the back, and I began to worry about Hearts’ second-half prospects without him.

However, as he tried getting to his feet, just a second-half without him would have been a blessing. The former Scotland international couldn’t stand up and still looked in visible pain as he sank back down to the ground. He was then stretchered off to anxious applause from the crowd.

It’s since emerged that he’ll be out of action for six months with a torn hamstring – a big blow for a man in his mid-30’s. I just hope it’s not the end of his playing career.

Overall

Being located in a vast and vibrant city like Edinburgh, it’s no surprise Hearts have such a huge backing, along with a few famous supporters as well. One of which actually passed away very recently.

Scott Hutchison was the lead vocalist and songwriter for Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit, and took his own life last May after suffering from depression. I didn’t know Hutchison had died until the announcer mentioned it before kick-off. I figured I misheard him but when they played Hutchison’s rendition of the Hearts Song, things began to sink in.

I’m not massively into Frightened Rabbit beyond one song called The Woodpile, but that tune means a lot to me. I played it many times during my own period of depression five years ago. It takes me back to a time when I wanted to end my life. So obviously hearing the news about Hutchison shocked and saddened me.

His brother and Frightened Rabbit drummer, Grant, has since opened up and called for more action to be done to prevent people taking their own life. He was also at the Hearts-Celtic game and I’m so glad Hearts won for him. I just hope he knows how much their band – and Scott’s songwriting – has influenced people’s lives for the better. Mine included.

Best Of The Rest

Edinburgh became one of my favourite cities over the two days I was there. Just getting out of Waverley train station, you’re treated to an amazing stretch of Old Town architecture that peaks with the castle at the end. And what a castle! It dominates the skyline from the top of dark, jagged cliffs.

Adjacent to the castle is a stadium of sorts. It’s for the military tattoo, while there’s also plenty of other grounds to scope out in the Scottish capital. From the concourse of Tynecastle Park, you can see Murrayfield – the home of Scotland’s rugby team. I decided to have a quick look around after the game and was very impressed with its scale.

Elsewhere, Hibernian’s Easter Road is visible from the top of Calton Hill, a place that’s been created from volcanic rock. When I headed up there, I had the very fortunate pleasure of seeing a rainbow, which provided many photogenic scenes on top of the already-stunning surroundings.

DSC_0776
Auld Reekie. Photo: Lewis Davies

It would be interesting to visit Edinburgh when the Fringe Festival isn’t on. The streets were rammed full of performers, flyers and tourists – which I liked, but a less hectic time might have given me a different perspective of the city.

Even so, Brad and I enjoyed the free comedy being housed at various venues and the amazing backdrop, added with to the culture bursting through the streets, made Edinburgh a place we both wanted to return to.

%d bloggers like this: