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Malta

31 Jan

28 January 2012

Bank of Valletta Premier Division

Birkirkara FC 00  v  Floriana FC 01

Sliema Wanderers 00 v Valletta FC 00 (att 1,585)

Ta’Qali National Stadium, Malta

Pre-match warm-up. Well, another jolly away from South London but with a spate of midweek postponements and general lack of activity around the unblogged grounds of South London, I’ve been forced to stick up another tales from afar.

This week, I was convinced to visit the land of my father and home to multiple relatives. After 72 hours of visiting over 17 of the extended Masini tribe, I was reduced to a moment of stubbornness befitting of my status as an only-child and demanded some well researched ‘me time’. The kind of me time that meant my darling wife and less darling family could officially bugger off for an afternoon whilst I went to the football.

Team(s) talk. Malta is a football bloggers haven. Every weekend, you can get a look at all twelve teams in the Bank of Valletta Premier Division with two games played back-to-back on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday across the Ta’Qali in the middle of the island, the Victor Tedesco Stadium in the upmarket Valletta suburb of Hamrun and the Hibernians Stadium in Paola. Consequently no team is really ever ‘at home’, even Hibs and Hamrun Spartans play home games at the other grounds.

Last Saturday saw four of the top five sides in the league meet in the Maltese equivalent of Super Sunday at the National Stadium in Ta’Qali.

Birkirkara are somewhat pretenders to the throne having only won their first league title in the 1999/2000 season. That said, they won a further two titles, most recen tly in 2009/2010. Their performance in this 2010’s Champions League was also an unheralded success. Not only did they accomplish the impossible and progress from the 1st qualifying round, but they even had Czech (former conqueror of Rangers) Zilina on the ropes after a 1st leg 1-0 win at Ta’Qali. Despite this, a fourth league title looks a wee way off as the Stripes sit some way back in 5th.

Their opponents were 3rd placed Floriana, a side who despite having one of the most successful histories in Maltese Football, haven’t won a league title since 1993. They are, I suppose, the Liverpool of the league, perhaps without the irritating scroat of a manager or northern pony-tails…but probably just as many racists.

Floriana are probably my least favourite team in Malta due to their green and white hooped kits and all that those colours represent. Founded by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1894, Floriana were so keen to build on their Irish connections that they turned to former League of Ireland journeyman and Carlisle United manager, Roddy Collins which was swiftly followed by a partnership agreement with Shamrock Rovers. Neither relationship with the Emerald Isle lasted very long and Collins was back in Ireland quicker than you can say “Ryanair hidden surcharges”.

The second match saw two of the powerhouses of the Maltese game face off. Reigning championsValletta have twenty league titles to their name (and that of their pre-merger incarnations: Valletta Prestons, Valletta St. Paul’s and Valletta United) and currently sit atop the league. The Whites have been able to attract a number of higher profile Maltese and international players (well, Jordi Cruyff) in recent times. Currently former Coventry City midfielder Michael Mifsud has returned to the island of his birth to play for Valletta and is seen as some sort of prodigal son despite never previously playing for Valletta and turning out for Sliema Wanderers in nearly 100 games. Disappointingly, former Macclesfeld Town goalie and the only Rosbif on any of the four rosters, Matt Towns, was on the bench.

Sliema Wanderers have won more titles in Maltese football than any other side. A whopping 26 titles have come their way but they haven’t tasted success in over 5 years. Currently sitting 4th and some way back, they look unlikely to challenge again this year.

Park the bus.  Travel in Malta is always pretty easy and hopping over to Ta’Qali is no different. The 52 or 53 bus from Valletta takes 20 minutes and will drop you a few hundred metres from the ground. Alternatively, a taxi will set you back around 15 euros (or less than 10 if you speak Maltese).

The Empire Strikes Black (and white)...sorry

Homefield advantage. There’s been a stadium in Ta’Qali since 1980 when the charismatic Maltese Prime Minister (and fan of belts), Dom Mintoff, requested a stadium be built to replace the outdated Empire Stadium.

Herein lies the long and chequered history of Ta’Qali and in many ways, Malta’s development as a whole. Whilst the stadium opened for business in 1981, it was far from complete and the works to complete the ground were stunted for the next 20 years by parliamentary wrangling and an ever-changing party-political landscape where single-seat parliamentary majorities are the norm. Viewed as a signature of the Malta Labour Party, the Malta Nationalists refused to do very much to improve the stadium. I recall seeing Malta lose 6-0 to Holland in 1995 in a storm that turned the unsurfaced car park into 4 foot of mud, the result of obdurate politicians who refused to complete another party’s project.

However, common sense comes to all men…eventually, and in 1999 a wholesale renovation of the ground was ordered by Nats Prime Minister (and fan of waxwork popes) Fenech Adami. This led to the opening of the Millennium Stand a stand that hasn’t actually changed on the inside of the ground, but housed a new office for the Maltese Football Federation.

Inside, the Millennium Stand is basic but provides adequate shelter from both the sun and rain and features a small corporate hospitality area on the upper tier. The Millennium is probably the closest thing to a Pigeon Stand that Ta’Qali can offer, although there wasn’t a pigeon in sight; instead there was a baffling array of thrushes, flycatchers and warblers. Alive, a rare sight in Malta. Dead, sadly very common.

The new West Stand looks decent. It wouldn’t look out of place in any normal stadium and was the busier area at the game with all the ‘Ultras’, bar those supporting Birkirkara, favouring it’s ample shelter. Birkirkara sat through the drizzle with a voice of general surly discontent. They were ace.

Both the North and South Stands were closed and remain so unless there’s a big international. The ground’s 17,000 capacity is rarely threatened.

Tickets are purchased from a series of windows next to the turnstiles. Because I was running a bit late I didn’t have time to scope out the busier West Stand and headed for the Millennium where I purchased my ticket. Just 6 euros for 2 games.

Merchandising was restricted to a table full of Valletta swag: Two types of wall clocks, a calendar, FOUR types of tracksuit, not to mention the usual hats and scarves. This was a bounty that almost rivalled the Sutton United club shop and made the merch table at Champion Hill look rather spartan (good job Dulwich have a new merch shed).

Blurry merch heaven

Prawn sandwiches. Refreshments in the Millennium Stand are served from a tiny hatch in the tea coop: A prison of beverages and stacks to rival the great Leatherhead beer cage at Fetcham Grove. A pint of locally-brewed (and mighty fine) beer will set you back less than 2 euros but a chilly afternoon called for 80c coffee, served black; for you see, in Malta, milk is for pussies. Various crisps and chocolates were retailing around the standard 50c to 90c mark and whilst there we no pies to be had, a large slice of pizza (probably about 10 by 7 inches) was yours for 2 euros. Had it not been for a big lunch, I’d have been on it quicker than an Arsenal-supporting prison rapist on Harry Redknapp’s soon to be incarcerated behind.

UNLEASH THE SNACKS!

…and the game(s). Two games, one goal. Not ideal but nevertheless a pair of interesting games interwoven with the sounds of Jurassic Park: The Official Soundtrack at half-time and between matches. The first game was a lot more free-flowing with both sides having a go right to the end. Floriana were clearly the better side and look like the most competent of the four teams on show. Floriana striker Ivan Woods caused problems for the Stripes defence throughout the game and was rewarded with a goal 20 minutes before the end with a well worked breakaway goal to send the Floriana support away happy.

At the conclusion of match one, there was a quick turnaround. In less than 10 minutes, flags and banners were removed and new ones erected. There were nods of mutual respect between the clubs supporters as they got to work fastening/unfastening their respective signs from the North and South Stands.

On the pitch too, there was a speedy rotation. Within minutes of one set of 22 men disappearing, another 22 arrived. Seemingly, the players in the second game warm up on the pitch next door, that or they go about it like real men and do a couple of half-hearted lunges before bossing an entire 90 minutes.

Valletta and Sliema played out a relatively uneventful 0-0. Michael Mifsud was orchestrating throughout and the pocket rocket was visibly frustrated by the quality of the admittedly poor service. In the end it was Mifsud who was at fault after missing a late penalty with a weak effort that was easily turned away by Wanderers’ keeper, Henry Bonello.

Man of the match. Super Sunday at Ta’Qali. A sell out, no? No. Sadly, football in Malta revolves around Serie A and, more prominently, the English Premier League. So on a day when millionaire mercenaries of the Liverpool Red Sox and Manchester Buccaneers did battle at Anfield, finding anyone willing to go and watch their local Maltese teams was a struggle. Yet those who turned out were largely vocal and had a heck of a time. Half English cheering support, half Italian chanting, it was an interesting mix. I particularly enjoyed the ESL version of “When the Greens Go Marching In” by the Floriana loyal.

However, my man of the match has to go to Valletta’s ‘Beltin Ultras’ trumpeter. A rare honour bestowed by me as I hate musical accompaniment on the terraces. That England band that got free tickets for years, Portsmouth John, Manolo El Del Bombo: They can all fuck right off. It’s gimmicky nonsense. However, the Valletta trumpeter is a rare and beautiful talent. Instead of a 90 minute barrage, the lad picked is moments launching into a dazzling array of hits: the Lambada, Ob-la-di-ob-la-da, the match of the day theme, Rivers of Babylon and a classic blast of “here we go, here we go, here we go”. Outstanding stuff.

Ultras Beltin. Passenger seat advice that we call learn from

Post-match rubdown. Malta isn’t exactly renowned for its football but there are still plenty of opportunities to take in a game or two (or six) if you find yourself on the island. Tickets are cheap and readily available and on a nice sunny afternoon, it’s highly recommended. Maybe less so on a chilly January afternoon. That said, it’s live football and if you prefer to sample a bit of local sub-culture instead of sitting in a bar watching the Premiership. You’ll be assured of a warm welcome and four hours of tolerable sport.  

SSV Jahn Regensburg

18 Dec

10 December 2011

German Liga. 3

SSV Jahn Regensburg 03 v Weder Breman II 02 (att – cica 3000)

Städtische Jahnstadion, Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany

Team Talk. Regular readers of this blog will know that, despite its south London focus, the Pigeon Stands has from time to time strayed beyond what can strictly by regarded as the southern boundary of the M25. We know this is a bit self indulgent but we have nowhere else to write about visits to foreign places like France, Italy, and Yorkshire.

In keeping with this we could not help ourselves when the chance arose for a Christmas time blog about the German lower leagues. The focus of this trip was SSV Jahn Regensburg, the main team in Regensburg, Bavaria.

The football club formed part of a multi-disciplinary sports club that was originally founded back in 1886 with the football club itself starting around 1907. “Jahn” refers to Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, whose ideas of gymnastics greatly influenced German sports in the 19th century, so much so that he is often referred to as “the father of gymnastics”.

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Friedrich Ludwig Jahn - not to be confused with Santa

In 1924, the football players (and apparently the swimmers) had had enough of the gymnasts, and left to form a break away club. The football club eventually became an independent club in its own right in 2000.

Arguably the club’s biggest success was winning the 2nd Oberliga Sud, what was the second division in Germany, in 1953. More recent achievements include winning the Bavarian Cup in 2010 and 2011.

Notable amongst the current bunch of Regensburg players is attacking midfielder Tobias Schweinsteiger (AKA Schweinsteiger II), older brother of Bastian Schweinsteiger.

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Schweinsteiger I and II

Jahn have played in the the 3.Liga since it started in 2008. This is the third division of football in Germany between 2.Bundesliga and the semi-pro Regionalliga.

Today’s game was with Weder Breman II, the second team of the Bundasliga outfit. Jahn lay in second place in 3.Liga at the beginning of the day and could go top of the league with a win if other results went their way. A win for Jahn seemed likely as Weder Breman II were languishing at the lower end of the league.

Park the bus. Jahn have played at Städtische Jahnstadion, which is located in one of the smarter suburbs of the City, since 1926. The ground can easily be reached from the City centre on foot in about 20 mins (which includes a pleasant walk through the City park). Alternatively there are frequently buses.

Home Advantage. Like all good tourists I did some homework before the game, eager to learn the songs and customs that would allow me to blend effortlessly in with the Bavarian crowd. Luckily YouTube came to my rescue by hosting a video posted by no less than the Jahn Ultras (video below).

I made every effort to learn this song, and even asked a German speaker to translate some of the key words for me so that I could (1) understand what made the Ultras tick and (2) to make sure that I was not swanning around Regensburg singing anything deeply offensive.

As we approached the ground about half an hour before kick off it was clear that my hard work was going to pay off as this very same song could be heard blasting from the tannoy within 50 metres of so of the ground. I felt instantly at home.

We picked the tickets up from the club shop close to the main entrance on the west side of the ground. The shop is an open shed and looked like something between a Christmas market stall and the new shop at Dulwich Hamlet (shameless plug – open most match days selling fine pink and blue wares). The range of Jahn branded merch on sale was something else – my favorites being a teddy figurine in a football strip and the somewhat confusing looking salt and pepper dispenser.

The main entrance is through a brightly painted turnstile behind the stand. Once inside you head down a short walkway with walls decorated with Pannini sticker style pictures of the currently playing squad before finally arriving pitch side.

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Main turnstile

The vast majority of the 11,800 capacity is given over to standing room, which is set out as concrete steps that run almost continuously along the east side of the pitch and both ends. The standing areas are entirely open to the elements (i.e. probably a bit grim if it rains).

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East side

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East end

Seats can be found in the impressive and largely covered stand on the west side of the pitch (although beware if paying for a seat, the front ten of so rows are uncovered). The stand also includes a VIP area which frankly is not much different to the rest of the stand. Complementary Jahn foam seat cushions are also available for everyone.

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West side

A major feature of the pitch at Städtische Jahnstadion is that it stands in the shadow of a large brewery. This is exciting and convenient for anyone wanting to combine a football and brewery tour into an afternoon. The Bischofshof Brewery has been in Regenburg since at least 1649 and is actively involved in local life – including sponsoring yearly ironman contests and formally crowning a “beer queen” on the last day of the beer festival.

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Brewery

All hail the queen of beer

The main crowd noise came from the 50 or so Regensburg Ultras, who were stood parallel with the centre circle on the east side of the pitch, beneath the clock. These guys were great and did a fantastic job of getting behind their team, led by a fella with a megaphone. I was unsure before the game what the German version of the Ultras would be like. It is fair to say that, if German football supporters like a sing song, the Ultras REALLY like a sing song. They belted out tune after tune (all different) for 90mins solid. Easily the best of these was “Jahn Regensburg… JA, JA, JA, JA, JA, JA, JA, JA, JA!!!!” to the chorus of On the Floor by Jennifer Lopez (see 1min 45sec on the video below if, like me, you have not heard this).

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The Ultras

Prawn Sandwiches. Lovers of beer in big glasses and ham sarnies are VERY well catered for at Jahn. There is a burger (ham) van in each corner of the pitch. But the big draw here (particularly on cold December afternoons) is the bar. Located under the main stand the bar fantastically set out like a proper German beer hall. Bar service looked incredibly swift, partly because of the sheer efficiency of the staff (one pre-pouring and one taking money) and partly due to the restricted choice of one type of beer (Bischofshof of course). Ham sarnies were also available from a basket at the end of the bar.

An important thing to note about the bar is not to sit in the area marked “stammtisch”. This is reserved for the longest serving regulars of the bar. Sitting here will surely get you a bashing or at the very least a few disapproving glares.

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Bar bouncer? Definitely not to be confused with Santa.

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and the game. Before the game the teams lined the tunnel with young kids as mascots. Each kid (bar one) got a high five from his/her player. The teams entered onto the pitch to Europe’s the Final Countdown. Coincidently we had watched Europe perform live on German TV the night before – yes they are still together. The Final Countdown finished and was blended effortlessly into pumping techno music. I am told that the techno was a reworking of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. The players must have been so pumped at the start of the game – I know that I was.

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The game itself was actually a fairly forgettable. Regensburg took the lead very early on with a goal that was very scrappy. After this the home team struggled to string a couple of passes together and slowly allowed Weder Breman II to get into the game. Even the Ultras could not get these guys going. I was not at all surprised when the away team scored towards the end of the first half.

In the second half Regensburg were much better, due largely to putting a second striker on. This allowed Schweinsteiger, who had been playing on his own up front, to drop into midfield a bit more to get things going. Two more goals were to follow for Regensburg and one for Weder Breman II

Man of the Match. Despite there being a few candidates for this I have to choose the Regensburg Ultras. Firstly, they posted a video on YouTube that allowed me to get into the swing of things early. Probably more importantly they were truly relentless in the support of their team and were a real credit to the club on this occasion.

Post-match rub-down. Well worth a visit if you happen to be down this way. A fine football ground, friendly people, and close to brewery… I need say no more than this.

Thackley FC

11 Nov

04 November 2011

Northern Counties East Premier Division (step 5)

Thackley FC 00  v Scarborough Athletic 05 (att 208)

Dennyfield, Thackley, West Yorkshire

 

Team Talk. A weekend away visiting the folks in Bradford, West Yorkshire and a great chance to visit one of the many local non league teams that I failed to visit in my years growing up here. As a youngster I was too preoccupied with the exploits of Bradford City to give other local teams the time of day. Like excessive nosehair, the love of non league football seems to be something that comes to most of us later in life. Today I am looking to put this injustice right with a visit to Northern Counties East Premier Division (step 5) side Thackley FC – with my 19 year old non-league virgin brother in tow.

Thackley AFC was founded in 1930 by the younger members of Thackley Wesleyan Methodist Church. This was back in the days when Thackley would have been regarded as a stand alone village, before it was swallowed by Bradford. A founding member of the Northern Counties East Football League in 1982, one of Thackley’s most notable footballing achievements is winning the Bradford and District FA Senior Cup on 13 occasions. This is a competition record.

Thackley can count human bean pole and Bradford City legend Ian ‘Stix’ Ormondroyd amongst their former players. Standing at 6 ft 7 inches – my abiding memory of watching Ormondroyd from the stands at Valley Parade as a nipper was his introduction as a super sub. This was always in the 80th minute and always seemed to be with the sole intention of confusing the hell out of tired opposition defenders with his gangly appearance and his never say die attitude. It was Ormondroyd’s willingness to always have a go (despite obvious lack of any real technique – see classic local news footage below of Stix destroying Cardiff) that makes him one of my all time favorite players to have worn the claret and amber of Bradford City. He is also probably the reason for my continuing enthusiasm for the big man up front (ideally accompanied by a very small strike partner). In recent years, players such as Tooting and Mitchum striker Fola Onibuje and former Dulwich Hamlet forward Scott Edgar have paid their own tributes to Ormondroyd on the pitches of south east London. On the issue of tall players, the stat-tastic and always entertaining Best Eleven did a piece on the world’s tallest footballers last year that is worth checking out.

Ian 'Stix' Ormondroyd

Thackley’s opponents today, Scarborough Athletic, were formed in 2007 by the fan-led Seadogs Trust after Scarborough FC went into liquidation. At present the team ground share with current NCEL Premier Division table toppers Bridlington Town.  Despite having to do the 34 mile round trip between Brid and Scarborough around Flamborough Head to get to home games, the team were promoted from NCEL Division One in 2009. Interest in the club has been high and they are starting to get what can only be described as a bit of a cult following. Part of the reason for this has to be the appointment as manager this season of porno-tashed Chuckle brother a-like Rudy Funk and the signing in recent weeks of another Bradford legend – Dean Windass. It is hard to pick just one favourite Windass moment, but the image of his stunned face following a wonder strike against Liverpool at Anfield in 2000 always sticks in the mind.

They've got the funk.... Rudi Funk

Both Thackley and Scarborough have had strong starts to the season. A quick look at the NCEL Premier Division before the game showed that there was only two points between Thackley in 7th and Scarborough in 4th in what is a really tight league this year.  If results went their way Scarborough could be top of the league by the end of the day – so all to play for.

Park the bus. Thackley play at Dennyfield, which is the reason for their nickname the Dennyboys. Talking about the public transport options here seems like a bit of a waste of time as only dossers, children and the old get the bus in Yorkshire. So I will say only this… there is ample parking.

Home Advantage. Access to Dennyfield is maybe a mile or so from central Thackley – up a narrow country lane where the urban fringe soon gives way to dense woodland. Just before you start to think that you have made a wrong turn that could lead to some awful Evil Dead style consequences there is a clearing in the woodland that leads to the big car park for the main ground. The ground sits nicely on the border between the woodland and farmers fields. Readers of this blog will know that the Pigeon Stands love a ground in the middle of nowhere.

The clubhouse is located in the car park, outside the main ground. It is an understated single storey building that resembles a campsite toilet block from the outside – but is far nicer inside.

Club house

Inside the ground all the buildings run along the west side of the pitch. The main turnstile (£5 in plus £1 for a programme) in the south west corner leads straight into a small concreted area with a few tables and chairs close to the real toilet block and  the burger bar. Further down on the west side is the main seated stand (the only covered area at the ground). The rest of the ground is open, allowing views out to the farmers fields.

South west corner

West stand

Inside west stand

East and south sides

Prawn Sandwiches. Despite the external appearance, the clubhouse is really nice. Very welcoming and mercifully warm. There are two big TVs at either end of the bar showing the football scores (none of the horse racing, Dickinson’s deal, or Morse crap that we have seen elsewhere) and the chat in the bar was lively. The biggest news from the bar being the tale of a game at Eccleshill the week before. A goalkeeper was so annoyed at having a goal awarded against him and getting a yellow card for his reaction that he took the ball and locked himself in the changing rooms – leading to the game being called off. I never got around to asking if they had a spare ball that could have been used to finish the game and should imagine that there was bit of Chinese whispers going on – best not to ask and just enjoy the story I reckon.

The burger bar in the ground wins the award for having the cheapest food I have ever seen at a non league football ground. Now I cannot speak for the quality of the food, but pie and peas for £1.70 seems like a bargain to me.

Burger bar venue

Pie and peas. Ow much!!!

and the game. Massive supporter turnout for Scarborough this afternoon – I would say around three quarters of the 208 fans in attendance were Seadogs. Part of the reason for this may have been that Bradford were at home but there is also no doubt that Scarborough have quite a following.

Thackley just never really got going here. Scarborough played a high tempo game with heavy pressing in the midfield that Thackley could not cope with. Even when Thackley got the ball they never really looked like scoring. After three early goals from the Seadogs it looked like Thackley would be on the wrong end of a stuffing. What the home team threatened to start playing towards the end of the first half they conceded another to make it 4-0 at half time.

The second half continued in a similar way to the first and my only criticism of an excellent Scarborough side is that they only managed to score only one more goal in the second half – they should have had another two or three really. A full match report is here

Dean Windass didn’t start the game and was introduced with 20 mins to go. By this time the game had more of an exhibition match feel to it with Thackley all but dead and buried and utterly clueless. Overall Windass was a willing runner and clearly still has the touch. But the counter attacking game that Scarborough were playing by this point didn’t play to his strengths. Windass’s impact was limited to some first rate banter with the linesman who blew him offside quite a few times and at one stage yelled “yer offside again Deano.. come on sort it out”.

We left the game with the chants of “Deano” ringing in our ears. To be fair the adoration would have been better directed at the rest of the Scarborough team. They were excellent, particularly flying wing man Billy Laws (a proper old school footballers name if ever I heard one).

Dean Windass in training

Man of the Match. My 19 year old brother had a great time at the game and may well now come with me to future games in this neck of the woods. This got me thinking about the youngsters who week in and week out shun league football to visit places like Thackley instead. Hats off to any brave kid who has to tell their school classmates that they support Thackley rather than Bradford or Leeds.

Post-match rub-down. Not a bad little club at all. The few Thackley fans in attendance were very welcoming and the setting of the ground certainly gives you a different experience. I bet it’s bloody freezing in the depths of winter though.

Pradines SVD’olt

27 Sep

18 September 2011

Coupe de France Round 3

Pradines SVD’olt 0 v Blagnac 1 (att c.150)

Stade Municipal, St Vincent, France

Early indications were that Pradines would be happy with a score draw

Pre-match warm-up. OK, I know I said we’d keep things South London, but in light of my fellow Pigeon Stander’s report from the egg-chasing, I thought I’d once again self-indulgently take a wild and wonderful tour of lower-league football from the continent. This time from our cousins across the Channel. With the FA Cup in full swing back home, I felt it appropriate to attend some cup football of our own so with my mate Barry and our respective WAGs in tow, we took in some 3rd round Coupe de France action in wonderful Lotoise countryside.

Team Talk. Pradines SVD’olt (or Pradines St Vincent Douelle Mercuès d’Olt to give them their full title) play in the 7th step in the French football pyramid in the Midi-Pyrenees Division d’Honneur Régionale. The club was formed 3 years ago with the merger of 3 local sides:  Pradine-Rignac, Club Pradines and St Vincent Rive d’olt Douelle.

Separated by the Malbec vineyards of the Lot Valley, the four towns who form the nucleus of the PSV support are united by football which remains the local and hyper-local sport in this corner of France which is far more renowned for its rugby than its football. It has not always been sugar and spice between the towns. Minor discord broke out in the public meeting of the local municipality (who provide financial support) when the club were incorporated. The Mayor of Mercuès argued that his town should be included in the shortened club name. Luckily incumbent president, Charles Beaufils, stated that the name was chosen as it was “a nod to big football clubs such as PSV Eindhoven” and therefore an ‘M’ would not be acceptable. Hard to argue with that one. Please tweet us if you can name the other “big football clubs” with a PSV acronym that Monsieur Beaufils was referring to but so gracefully failed to mention.

The players coming out. In the case of Number 4, REALLY coming out

PSV’s opponents were Blagnac of the Championnat de France Amateurs 2 (step 5) who play in the Toulouse suburbs around the city’s primary airport. They currently sit 14th out of 16 in their group but, with a clear division between the sides, were heavy favourites.

Park the bus. This game was played at the Stade Municipal in St Vincent, normally home to the PSV reserves and under 17s. It’s located about a 30 minute drive from the county-town of Cahors, which is roughly a 90 minutes train ride from Toulouse or a short 11 hour trip from London.

Home Advantage. As mentioned above, this game was played out in St Vincent as opposed to PSV’s regular home at the Stade Henri Barrau in Pradines because of renovations to the changing rooms at the Henri Barrau. Having looked at a satellite image of the Stade Municipal, I was more than a little concerned/excited that the game would be played in a clearing in the woods.

Restricted view but nicer than the one at Raynes Park

As it happens, I wasn’t that far from the truth. It was a clearing in the woods but was most definitely a formal sporting arena, akin to those of the Scottish Juniors (for more info, visit our friends at No Train to Brechin), whilst also being one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever watched football.

A possible France 2016 venue?

The turnstile took the form of two old boys sitting round a small table on a bridge over a stream (sadly void of water). Having paid my 5 Euros, I entered the theatre of dreams to be greeted by a raised tree-lined verge which made for an excellent natural stand. The other sideline was relatively sparse, featuring a small concessions stand and van-powered amplifier which was used to announce the team line-ups and (presumably) other vital information.

Roll up roll up

A playground was located at the back of one end with additional training pitches behind of the other end. Oddly, the training pitches were fitted with floodlights but the main pitch was not.

Deux bieres, s'il vous plait

Prawn Sandwiches. The small hut on the sidelines was most definitely the primary source of beverages. A limited range of coffee, soft drinks and beer were available. Obviously, we went for beer. Sadly, our Kronenbergs was soured somewhat by the presence of Jamiroquai all over the can. As of right now I’m not squire sure who was sponsoring who.

Virtually Insanity

Il pleut

and the game. The first half saw some cracking performances from both sides, the game was probably of a similar standard to our step 6 and there was negligible difference between the two sides, despite Blagnac’s divisional advantage. The most notable difference was the attire of the coaching staff. PSV’s manager, trying to keep up the nods to big football clubs, was sporting jeans and a stereotypically French turtleneck jumper. On the other end of the spectrum, Blagnac’s head honcho donned a Chas Tenembaum tracksuit. He was all business.

The pitch wasn’t in the best shape so there was a lot of reliance on the high through-balls, something PSV’s keeper seemed pretty uncomfortable with. Once settled, PSV probably looked the more comfortable.

This in no small part was due to some of the most physical play I’ve ever witnessed. I know we were in rugby country but some of the savagery was nothing short of admirable. Key protagonist, was PSV number 5 and inspirational lord of violence, a man known only as ‘Fabien’. This guy was a flat-out mentalist. He was by far and away the biggest guy on the field, a good 6’3, 16 stone of nutter. To start with, there was a vicious stamp in the first 5 minutes, clearly in front of the referee. Having escaped punishment, big Fabien decided to go for an off the ball kick to the shins. Again, this was totally unpunished. They say that if you give a man enough rope, he’ll eventually hang himself. Not old Fabien, he thrives on having lots of rope. After getting involved in almost every decision given against (and sometimes for) PSV, he decided that feet are overrated and decided the best way to get the ball is to decapitate his opponent with a masterful shoulder to the face. The victim was out cold for a good few seconds and even Fabien was down on the ground grabbing is ailing shoulder. Those intrepid sleuths would smartly work out that man holding shoulder + man holding face = guilty man holding shoulder. Nope. Not even a ticking off. Spurned on by this is teammates started to join in with the savagery, luckily for Blagnac, the ref finally got wise to this and started to give out a few yellows.

Bat-shit crazy Fabien

In the end, Blagnac had the last laugh with a goal from a penalty box scramble towards the end of the first half.

The second half was more like a stock standard game of edgy cup football with Blagnac playing a lot of percentage football. Not exactly glamorous stuff, so questions have to be raised as to why Bernie Ecclestonewas on the sidelines taking notes.

Bernie

In the end, Blagnac were just about worthy of their 1-0 win and I was pleased to see big Fabien had mellowed somewhat, having a laugh with some of the PSV faithful and indeed some of his earlier victims, most of who cowered briefly before shaking hands.

Man of the Match.  I think it’s safe to say that the standard of refereeing in the lower leagues of the UK is pretty mince but bless ‘em, most of them just enjoy watching a good game of football. This character was no different, he was so keen to let the play go, that downright assaults were waved on. Commendable for fans of outright violence, Blagnac’s support may see it differently. Nevertheless, take a bow Monsieur Cebrian Jerome.

Post-match rub-down. The fixtures/flight times hadn’t been kind to me and for a long time it looked like I’d be struggling to find any games so I was grateful as always for the opportunity to enjoy some foreign football. PSV seemed like a really decent community sports project and were well supported with a crowd of around 150 watching their side’s cup exit. I doubt you’ll be in the neighbourhood any time soon, but if you are, the Lot Valley’s finest are well worth a punt.

Back to South London football action soon. We promise.

AS Roma

25 Apr

19 March 2011

TIM Coppa Italia Semi Final First Leg

AS Roma 0  v  Internazionale 1 (att 23979)

Stadio Olimpico, Rome

Team talk. OK, one last blast  from Italy. This time from one of the grand old sides of the Serie A: AS Roma.

Like most of the big Italian sides, Roma started off this year with the intriguing prospect being a genuine title contender. Not through any great expertise but because no  single team was considered to be the dominant force in Serie A. Arguably, Inter still had the best squad although without the genius of Jose Mourinho, they were no sure thing. Milan looked old at the back and crowded upfront and Juve remain an anomaly ever since the authorities had decided that bribing referees was something to be frowned upon.

This would mean that the original Tinkerman himself, Claudio Ranieri would have a real shot at guiding Roma out of the pack and towards their first Scudetto since 2001.

As things turned out, it was Napoli who would take on the challenge and they look on course to play Champions League football for the first time, probably as Serie A runners up to an again united and disciplined AC Milan who have (quite surprisingly) landed a talent in manager Massimiliano Allegri.

As for poor old Ranieri, Roma relieved him from his post in February after a disappointing run of results. His replacement, by popular demand, was Roma icon Vincenzo Montella, who played 194 time for the Giallorossi. If he hadn’t been faced with the indignity of being loaned to Fulham in 2007, he may have broken the 200 game mark for Roma. As it is, he doesn’t seem to care (or hasn’t realised) and certainly didn’t hold a grudge when Roma asked him to step up and take become manager until at least the end of the season.

Vincenzo Montella arrives at Fulham (please note: this is not a statue)

After nearly 2 months at the helm, he’s steadied the ship and has given Roma an outside chance of a Champions League berth as well guiding them to the cup semi final. However, the less we talk about his recent exploits in this season’s Champions League, the better.

The cup semi marked the start of an interesting chapter in Roma’s history, if not of the entire Italian game. As of last weekend, Roma became the first team in Serie A to fall into foreign ownership after Thomas DiBenedetto (or Tommaso DiBenedetto as his publicists etc are avidly promoting) took control of the club. DiBenedetto is a partner in John Henry’s NESV group who currently boast oft-bridesmaids Boston Red Sox and Liverpool in their portfolio so it’s no wonder he’s looking the part, saying all the right things and adding yet another of sport’s nearly men to the collection. Certainly from what I saw, he was being welcomed with open (yet understandably cautious) arms by most of the supports, with a few Star-spangled banners making an appearance in the terraces.

Roma’s opponents on this night were current league, cup and European champions, Inter. Like Roma, Inter’s season hinged on a managerial switch, after the walking car-crash Rafa Benitez was sacked in December. After inheriting greatness in Valencia (let’s just pause for a moment to think about Hector Cuper’s pant-wettingly good, yet desperately unlucky Valencia side….), the Spaniard thought he’d try and do the same with Mourinho’s Inter. Sadly for him, lightening doesn’t strike twice and Inter moved swiftly to appoint Leonardo, a man previously considered to be AC Milan to his core, representing them both as player and more recently as manager.

A warm welcome for the visiting support

Park the bus. Getting to the Olimpico is a piece of cake. Take the number 2 tram from Flaminio metro station and you’re there in 15 minutes. Tickets can be bought in advance from one of Roma’s numerous city centre club shops. Interestingly, girls get a 20% discount. Whether this is to encourage them to attend or because of some outmoded sexism, it’s hard to tell, but Mrs M (reluctantly attending her first game as a Pigeon Stander) seemed happy enough.

Home advantage.  First thing to consider when visiting the Olimpico is that the stadium was built on the orders of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and remains one of very few reminders of his grim part in Italy’s history. It’s not subtle either: Upon crossing the Tiber from the tram station, you’re instantly greeted by a 10 metre obelisk inscribed with the words “Mussolini Dux”.

Benito's big column...sorry

Walk a little further and you’ll find yourself staring at a walkway decorated in ornate faux-Roman mosaics with “Duce Duce Duce Duce” and a series of giant “M”s. Whilst a lot of this pleasing ode to early Modernist design (albeit with an odd nod towards Roman Classicism), it’s hard to forget why it’s there and what a hateful thing it represents.  Upon approaching the stadium, my eye was drawn to the training pitches next door, here stands the Stadio dei Marmi, the Stadium of Marble, where 50 faux-classical marble men surround a running track and pitch, all striking preposterous homo-erotic poses. It’s quite a sight when sat alongside the comparatively contemporary Stadio Olimpico of 2011 and is yet another enduring image of the original Faro Mussolini sports complex.

Prawn sandwiches. Not much to write home about at the shop. Although after Viareggio, I wasn’t expecting much. There was the offer of pizza or something which at some point in time may have resembled a burger, but I chose to pass on both. Interestingly, there was a flurry of vendors walking up and down the stands selling pop, beer and ice creams. I like the idea of in-terrace vendors, I’m sure some larger British clubs must be doing the same thing but I’ve never encountered it before. Surely it’s worth someone looking into it…that and the booze-laden espressos.

…and the game.  Being a cup game (albeit a semi final) the attendance was unsurprisingly small, only around a third of the seats in 70,000 capacity stadium were taken. Luckily for us, we were sat in the corner next to the ever-present and ever-vocal Curva Sud Ultras.

I was massively impressed by their enthusiasm and vim from beginning to end. It might have lacked spontaneity, with the crowd lead in song by conductors at the front of the stand but it certainly provided the quintessential Italian football atmosphere.

I’ve never really bought into the argument that stadia with running tracks make it hard to generate atmosphere. Most large grounds I’ve been to aren’t exactly brimming with energy anyway and unless you’re sitting in the first 10 rows or so, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll feel part of the action, so what does it matter if there’s a running track?? I’d agree that viewing angles aren’t nearly as good and it can be quite distant, but as someone who’s had the misfortune of sitting in the West End at Hampden Park, I can assure you, that running tracks are just one way to present supporters with distant views.

The Curva also made a suitable mockery of the pre-match decision to have a Police marching band play the national anthem pre-match (something to do with the 150 anniversary of the unification of Italy) by booing the boys in blue before launching into another chorus of the team’s anthem, a rather gushy number more suited to a Burlesconi’s cruise ship cabaret than the terraces but still better than any marching band in my opinion.

The game itself was pleasant enough. Italian football gets a lot of stick, particularly from UK media outlets but this was a reasonably good advert for the game. Whilst obviously slower in pace, two teams (both at virtually full strength) played the game with a definitive attacking spirit. Inter looked far superior throughout much of the first half and deserved their goal on the stroke of the interval. What a goal it was too: This tasty strike from aged bad guy, Dejan Stankovic.

Disappointingly Roma’s only line of attack in the second half came via the right channel with no less than 8 bungled crosses landing in front of Inter’s first man or way over in the near-empty Tribuna Tevere Stand. On the whole, it was the right result on the night and we may be edging closer to another Milan derby showdown in the final. I’m sure Leonardo will be looking forward to see what AC Milan’s support come up with this time.

Man of the match. Short, sweet and milk curdlingly soppy. My man of the match for this one was my good lady wife who not only let me slip off for the Viareggio match last week but put set aside her general contempt for the beautiful game to accompany me to the Olimpico on this night. I’m sure the 20% discount made it all the more enjoyable for her, even if there was a near death encounter with a scooter after the game. Nice one Mrs M.

Post game rub down. A trip to Olimpico should be on most football fans’ itineraries for a trip to Rome. It’s one of only 18 venues to host a World Cup Final (the 5th I’ve visited) and its place in history makes it unique if not slightly uncomfortable. Roma have recently announced their intentions to look for a move away and with the national side playing most of its games away from Rome, one has to question how much longer the stadium will be there.

It was also nice to see two players I’ve grown up watching on TV, battle it out in the dugout. Both coaches still seem to be finding their feet at the moment but may well come out all guns blazing at the start of next season. I suspect that might be exactly what they’ll need to do if they’re to compete with this current Milan side who in my opinion are just 3 young(er) players away from once again becoming a major pan-European threat.

As for the team, Roma are an entertaining yet frustrating team to watch. My intolerance of misfit 5-4-1 formations was tested to its fullest thanks to their one-dimensional line of attack which was far better suited to a 4-4-2. Nevertheless, I was glad to get to watch some action in the Olimpico (the free matchday programme was also a nice touch) and the Curva Sud certainly gave the night a fun burst of sound and colour.

That’s about it from Italy. I hope the past couple of dispatches have kept you lot satisfied and I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that next time we’ll be back to blogging from our homelands of South London.

FC Esperia Viareggio

14 Apr

10 April 2011

Italian Lega Pro Prima

FC Esperia Viareggio 1 v 1 Cavese (att 1000 +/-)

Stadio dei Pini, Viareggio, Italy

Pre-match warm up. Following last month’s breaking of a Pigeon Stands’ golden rule, I thought I’d self indulgently break another: Thou shalt not blog about football north of the Thames and/or outside of the M25.

Today, I’m blogging from Viareggio in Tuscany. Well, if you’re going to break the rules, you might as well do it properly. Viareggio is a busy little seaside town, popular more so with locals visiting from the landlocked conurbations of Florence, Pisa and Lucca than with foreign tourists. It’s basically exactly what Saltcoats could be like if it wasn’t in Scotland and more people holidayed at home…and generally wasn’t shit. Much like Salty, Viareggio’s links to football are perhaps a little limited. It’s major footballing claim to fame is that it’s the hometown of football icon and general good egg(head) Pierluigi Collina. The man widely accepted as the best referee in the history of the modern game and one of very few top-class Italian referees to retain his reputation following Calciopoli.

Luckily for the big guy, ref chasing wasn’t on my Itinerary as my time would be taken up by the town’s sleepy little 3rd Division (Lega Pro Prima) side F.C. Esperia Viareggio. So having successfully deposited Mrs M at the beach with an ice-cream, I headed for the terraces.

Please have some sympathy with me as this post was written, photographed and uploaded via on my iPhone. Consequentially, the final product is somewhat rough around the edges.

Team Talk. Viareggio, known as the The Zebras (so called because of their black and white kits) have been competing in their current division for only 2 years. AS Viareggio Calcio, the town’s previous team had previously competed in the old Serie C and even played 4 seasons in the 30s in Serie B, however, the team fell on hard times during the 90s and folded in 1994. After a 9 year absence, Viareggio was reborn in 2003 under the name of the town’s first side: L’Esperia. A quick rise through the provincial divisions has seen them establish themselves in the Lega Pro Prima, although a tough start to 2011 has seen them take just 1 point in their last 6 games to leave them in 17th, one place off the bottom and automatic relegation. Their opponents on this fine day on the Tuscan coast was the only side more lowly than them, Cavese.

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Park the bus. Viareggio is a relatively compact city and Stadio Dei Pini is located just a 10 minute walk from either the middle of town or the beach. There appears to be several bus routes, however, the timetables looked harder to decipher than the Enigma Code. Walking is definitely the safe option.

Home Advantage. Stadio dei Pini is what most would assume is a classic Italian football ground: Massively utilitarian with no real sense of being designed for spectators, or even football. An 8 lane running track separates the supporters from the pitch, with the majority of fans located in the main stand. Another stand was located on the far touchline, though this was in the direct sunlight and too much of a risk for my fair hair and pasty complexion. Neither end was terraced. One seemed to lead off into some dark (and hopefully mystical) woods whilst the other served as the main entrance to the ground and was decorated in mock-renaissance statues. Around the whole perimeter was a mural depicting a number of sports…apart from football. Even skiing gets a mural. In a ground used primarily for the beautiful game, its absence was duly noted (by me at least). A not so fun fact worth noting is that it’s law for EVERY Italian league side to take down passport details of those attending. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t left mine in the trusty Mary Poppins handbag of my good lady wife. So after an unexpected visit to the beach to pick up my ID, I finally made it inside the ground.

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Prawn Sandwiches. As you might expect, the prospect of investigating a continental tea bar was far too great to resist. Alas, the faint hope of pizza and fine pastries was wiped out as the tea hut looked more like a bar-cum-newsagent with chocolate, nuts, chupa-chups and crisps all that i could see on offer in terms of food. Luckily there was one interesting offer on the menu, a ‘Corrected’ coffee. This was basically an espresso super-charged with a shot of sambuca (or local aniseed-based spirit alternative). To say to was a taste sensation would be an understatement. On a cold winter’s night, I could imagine these slipping down a treat at Champion Hill, however, on a 30+ degree afternoon in spring, it seemed slightly unnecessary.

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…and the game. I went not really knowing what sort of game to expect. In the end it turned out to be a classic, and very familiar looking, relegation tussle. Although instead of the atypical British long ball contest, it was played very much in the Italian style of percentage football. Easy on the eye, great fundamentals but little cutting edge. No surprise then that Cavese’s opener came from a misplaced clearance in midfield. Equally unsurprisingly, Viareggio equalised from a penalty, a weak decision but one Viareggio’s deserved after two blatant stonewallers were rejected, these refereeing blunders were highlighted by the home support, prompting cries of “Mafiosi Mafiosi” and “You’re more x than Burlesconi”. Now, my italian isn’t amazing and depending on circumstance the value of that x could represent “orange” or “horny” or a whole manner of other words, but in this instance, I dare say it was “Corrupt”. My favourite part of this ref bashing was the waving of Bank notes in a Real Madrid white-hanky style as the officials left the pitch at half time.

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If I’m honest, I was hoping to come away from the game with a ringing endorsement of Viareggio’s 20 year old goalkeeper, Carlo Pinsoglio. Currently registered to Juventus, he was expected to go out on loan to a side in Serie B at the start of this season, as it happened, he was allowed to drop to Viareggio. Already an Italian under 21 international (currently the only player from outside the top two divisions), he has been labelled by many as the new Gigi Buffon. No doubt a lazy comparison based solely on his parent club and nothing at all on his ability as a keeper. Whilst the lad did seem to have something about him, he fell short of looking unstoppable or even that he was playing below his station. With the average age of Viareggio being just over 20 (almost as young as Dulwich Hamlet), maybe the powers that be in Turin decided that he’d have a better time commanding a line defence of his peers as opposed to battle-weary veterans that very much rule the roost at a number of Serie B sides. However, at times he seemed more lost than any of his back 4 and some rogue punching left his side in a massive pickle on more than one occasion.

Man of the match. Well sadly it wasn’t Carlo Pinsoglio, who may  take a few more years to develop. Luckily for him Juve seem hell-bent on keeping Buffon in town for as long as possible so he may still yet get his chance to represent another side in black and white.

My man of the match was Burlamacco the Clown, Viareggio’s town mascot and terrifying icon of the Viareggio’s annual beach carnival. He was all over the place, statues, flags, masks, the lot. Whilst the nickname The Clowns probably isn’t sending out the right vibes for the football team, The Terrifying Beach Clowns might do the trick. It’d certainly keep me awake the night before the match.

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Post match rub down. I had a blast at Viareggio but suspect I would have had an equally fun time at any game at this level. There’s something (as the blogging community knows only too well) about opening you’re football horizons when abroad, and the lower the divisions you go (within reason) the more likely you’ll be to make a real find. I was welcomed with open arms by everyone I met, all delighted that their little team had attracted (albeit minor) foreign interest, frankly I’d be equally impressed if I saw some tourists down the Hamlet. Having enjoyed Viareggio so much, I’m left wondering if I’ll have nearly so much fun at the Olimpico in Rome next week.

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