Tag Archives: Sutton United

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.  

Sutton United

3 Oct

1 October 2011

FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round

Sutton United 05 v Dulwich Hamlet 01 (att. 494)

The Borough Sports Ground/Gander Green Lane, Sutton SM1

Team Talk. On FA Cup Saturday, certain words come to mind, “Romance of the Cup”, “Giant Killing”, “A team of (insert 3 to 5 different non-sporting professions) taking on the might of…”, the list is endless.

Sutton United are possibly the most famous giant killers of the last 25 years, having beaten Coventry City in the third round of the 1989 FA Cup. This momentous game remains the last time that a team from outside of the football league beat a top division side in the cup and so the opportunity to visit them for a cup game was always going to be inviting.

Sutton’s rich history runs much deeper than a single high-ish profile victory. Having been established in 1898, Sutton claimed their first senior title, the Athenian League in 1928, a title they won twice more including a victory in the first season of competition after the Second World War. Unlike so many of South London’s clubs whose primary exploits have taken place in the pre-war years, it’s Sutton’s more recent history that contains many of their biggest achievements, with 4 of their 5 Isthmian League titles having been won in the past 25 years.

As well as league success, the U’s (sic) are famed cup specialists (although they’re certainly not heading towards the Champions League of Grammar (although SUFC believe they’d just scrape into the group stages)). As well as domestic trophies, they hold the honour of being the only team to play in three Anglo-Italian Cup finals, winning it once (in 1979) and in the process, joining Newcastle, Notts County, Blackpool and Swindon as the only English victors.

But it’s the FA Cup which has shone most favourably on Sutton. The club first made it big in 1970 when they reached the 4th Round where they faced Don Revie’s Leeds United. Hunter, Bremner, Charlton, Lorimer at al all graced the Gander Green Lane pitch that afternoon as 14,000 fans watched on as Sutton were shown the pimp-hand and took a 6-0 beating as Leeds marched on to the Final of that year’s competition.

Lorimer makes it five for Leeds. (c) http://www.mightyleeds.co.uk

Briefly deterred from domestic cup action, Sutton waited another 11 years before their next taste of success, an appearance in the final of the 1981 FA trophy final, a game they would lose to Bishop’s Stortford.

Sutton made it back to FA Cup 3rd round on a further three occasions, firstly in 1988 when they hosted Middlesbrough and took them to a replay at Ayresome Park, only to lose 1-0. Most recently, in 1993 they lost to Notts County, who the following year added insult to injury by taking Sutton’s crown of being the last English side to win the Anglo-Italian Cup.

Sandwiched between these two fine cup displays is the historic 3rd round win versus Cov which can’t go without a little bit more of a mention. On January 7th 1989, nearly 8,000 fans crammed into the Borough Sports Ground to witness history as Matt Hanlan scored the winner in a 2-1 victory. The likes of Steve Sedgely, Davie Speedie and  Steve “Oggy” Ogrizovich were humbled and frustrated by the U’s mighty efforts and poor Cyrille Regis found the Sutton net even more elusive than his own Panini sticker from the 92-93 season (not that I’m still bitter or anything).

During this time Sutton were a high-flying Step 1 Conference outfit, however, over the course of the past two decades, they have slipped down the Pyramid, although promotion last season and a very positive start to the 2011-12 campaign suggest that Sutton are hunting down those glory days.

Speaking of glory days, Sutton’s opponents in this 2nd qualifying round tie were Dulwich Hamlet who find themselves atop the Isthmian League Division 1 South for the first time in years. This meant that some of us entered the Borough Sports Ground with the hope of seeing yet another giant killing, this time for the away side. Being somewhat of a lucky mascot for cup underdogs (witnessing both Wrexham v Arsenal in 1992 and Crawley v Derby last year), I was optimistic to say the least. I shouldn’t have been.

I also have to mention the odd and slightly irregular link between Sutton and Gambia. One day a few years ago a holidaymaker known only as ‘Walter’ struck up a friendship with the then Sanchaba United faithful/players, gave them a load of kit and suggested they change their name to Sutton United (Gambia). Mental. Nevertheless, the two sides have become close allies with the London U’s providing mentoring and guidance to their Gambian counterparts. Impressively Sutton Utd (Gambia) often get bigger gates than their mentors. Surely a two-legged pre-season friendly between the two sides can’t be far away?

Down in front! Sutton United (Gambia) prepare for war...hopefully not civil

Park the Bus. The Borough Sports Ground is located less than 5 minutes from West Sutton railway station and around a 20 minute walk from Sutton station. A trip from London Bridge will take you about 45 minutes.

Home-field Advantage. The Borough Sports Ground also known as Gander Green Lane has been home to Sutton United since 1912 and by looks of it little has been done to improve it in this time. In many ways this is a good thing, it’s a charming wee ground with lots of character. Although unpopular with many – me included – is the remnants of the running track which originally surrounded the pitch. Despite the track since been removed, the rails, and therefore the support, remain some distance from the pitch.

Renovations are due in the near future as Sutton continue their quest to return to Step 1. It’s about time too, as the remnants of earlier works are starting to look a bit worn themselves. The bright blue seats in the main stand, a donation from Chelsea following the refurbishment of part of Stanford Bridge, are somewhat of an anomaly for a team playing in yellow but are a telling reminder of the influence of London’s bigger sides, it’s nice that for once, this isn’t a negative influence. Nevertheless, they’ve come to the end of their natural life and I’m sure the Sutton faithful would welcome some shiny new yellow seats…or at least a nice hand-me-down from Carrow Road.

There’s also some less-than-Emirates-standard directors’ seating, which come in a fetching brown and are located in a rich mahogany box (possibly just varnished MDF) to keep the plebs away from the high-powered brokers of sport that frequent the Blue Square South.

On the other sideline is a covered terrace running about half the length of the pitch. This was home to the most vocal members of the Sutton support, they’re not the not the Curva Sud, but considering I’d heard they were a virtually silent support, they were louder than some had led me to believe.

One end has a small covered Pigeon Stand and the other is open, both feature around a dozen rows of shallow terracing. In spite of the rather pedestrian rake, the viewing angle is far better the top of the steps than being on the railings and because the old running track, you only feel negligibly further away from the action.

Prawn Sandwiches. Eateries are plentiful at the Borough Sports Ground. A tea hut on each sideline means that you never have to stray too far from the action for a brew. There’s sadly no drinking outside but a trip to the bar is highly recommended. Similar to Kingsmeadow, access to the bar is via the player’s tunnel. For big kids such as myself, this is still a massive thrill. One wrong turn and I could have been helping to dish out the pre-match speech. As it is, I had to make do with a quick pint.

The bar is not without its charms. It’s reminiscent of a campsite recreation room with a sort of medical green paint, clearly donated from the local hospital. There were plenty of photos of Sutton teams throughout the ages as well as a large charidee scarf marking up the donations to the local hospice (presumably in return for some more leftover paint) and impressively, a dart board. A rare find and almost worthy of a trip to Sutton in itself.

The notice-boards at these places are always worth a butcher’s, Sutton is no different. On sifting though the usual stuff about the under 12s team and pleas for matchday volunteers, my eye was drawn to a poster for Gentleman’s Evening. Sounds fun, eh? A swanky night on the tiles with some of Sutton’s leading lights. Now, throw into that a guest speaker? Maybe Mr Neil “Razor” Ruddock? Jackpot. Well worth the £40 admission charge, I’m sure you’d all agree. If they had only added a personal appearance from Barry Chuckle, you might just have the best night out ever.

…and the game. Without wanting to sound like a total knobber, I’d forgotten what defeat tasted like for Dulwich. At 5pm last Saturday, I remembered. It’s shit. Drunken discussions about how I though this current Hamlet side would give a League 2 side a good run for their money proved (as you might expect) to be the booze-addled ramblings of deluded man. Sutton looked like they played two divisions better and the scoreline didn’t really flatter them, in truth they could have happily put 7 or 8 past us. Right from kick-off, Sutton attacked with journeyman Leroy Griffiths richly deserving his hat-trick. Once ahead, Sutton relied on attacking Dulwich on the break, a tactic that’s served the Hamlet well over the past few weeks. The most exciting point in the game was just after the break when Sutton made it 2-0, only for Dulwich to score from the kick-off thanks to a defensive blunder (much to my joy) from ex-Celtic man Paul Telfer. With one eye on a reply at Champion Hill, Hamlet switched off and less than 2 minutes later, Sutton had restored their two goal lead. Thrilling stuff for those of us who drink our half time drinks swiftly but incredibly frustrating for those who don’t and consequently fell foul of Sutton’s pitchside booze embargo as they remained in the bar after the restart.

Man of the match. Easy one this week. Our award goes to Alison,the manager of Sutton’s Club Shop and her staff. I think it’s possibly the finest non-league shop I’ve visited. In fact, it probably rivals a lot of league grounds. Inauspicious from the outside, it contains an Aladdin’s Cave of Sutton-related merchandise: kits both old and new, books, TWO different rulers, pens, badges from around the world, even a collection of DVDs from some of Sutton’s glory days were all available alongside the usual selection of programmes, scarves and mugs. It felt like a real labour of love and was one of the few personal positives to come out of my afternoon.

Post-match rub down. Certainly, the huddled masses hadn’t turned out in 1970 numbers or even 1989 numbers. Sadly it’s hardly surprising that in places like Sutton, the draw to the likes of Chelsea (in particular), Palace, and Arsenal have an ever-tightening stranglehold. Still, on a baking hot afternoon, I was a tad disappointed to see that Sutton couldn’t pull in a bigger crowd, especially considering it’s been more than a decade since these two sides played competitively and this was once a fairly tasty rivalry. Maybe paying £11 was a step too far to watch Sutton play a team from two divisions below.

Sutton are decent enough side to watch who at the very least look like they’ll be competitive in the Blue Square South. I think their current position of 4th in the league is a tad false and I doubt they’ll be in the playoff picture come May but they look like a decent mid-table outfit. Their football might not be the most attractive (although in fairness, I don’t know if they got out of second gear), but it’s effective and ultimately, that’s what matters. Their support, at least those that were old enough to vote, seemed knowledgeable and reasonably hospitable. The younger ones, a tad less so, with the little toe-rags assuming that our dandy pink and blues were the colours of a paedophile and made us all look like ‘Pink Faggots’. Safe to assume that Jack Wills won’t be opening a branch on Sutton High Street any time soon.