Sunday, 20 January 2008

It was a cold windy night and the wind did blow

Falkirk 2 Aberdeen 2 (12:01:08)

Clyde P-P Dundee Utd (frozen pitch)

Airdrie P-P Kilmarnock (frozen pitch)

Rangers P-P East Stirling (waterlogged pitch)

Gale force winds, sleet, snow blizzards, freezing fog, heavy rain, treacherous roads, fallen trees, toppled lorries, power cuts, frozen and waterlogged pitches. Welcome to Scotland in January.

The aim prior to the above was to travel up by plane and see two Scottish Cup games on Saturday and one more on Sunday. What could possibly go wrong!?

How nice it was on the Friday night as we made our way through customs at Gatwick Airport to bump into our very dear friend Marcel Desailly. Marcel and I go way back when – passport control two minutes beforehand – and as he hauled his world and European cup medals through security we chatted at length until he had to dash off to the BA club lounge.

We were met at Glasgow Airport by a representative of the Scottish FA whom we’d met on a previous visit to Scotland. If there is a nicer man in show business then I for one have yet to meet him. I won’t embarrass the chap by naming him so for the purposes of this article I shall refer to him as John Smith.

We’d arrived in Glasgow in time for a few beers on Friday evening. We duly set about our task of drinking as much as possible whilst listening to Smithies fabulous tales on footballers past and present. Just for starters there was this one story about (oh no you don’t – Ed).

With the car hire (£15 thanks very much) in the bag, we set off for our first destination – Clyde FC. Their game was being shown live on Sky Sports with a 12:45 kick off. This would enable us to see that game then jump in the car and head down the road to Airdrie for their 3pm start with Kilmarnock.

As we pulled over near to Stirling – yes, yes we’d taken a very wrong turning- I received a phone call saying the Clyde game had been called off, as had the Airdrie game due to frozen pitches.

What to do in a time of crisis!? Well, we were near to Stirling so we went up and had a look at the castle. It’s one of the largest and most important, both historically and architecturally in Scotland and indeed Western Europe. Enough of that however, from up there we could see it in all its glory; The Forthbank Stadium, home to Stirling Albion.

The woman on the reception of said stadium could not have been more accommodating to our request of a ‘quick look around’. She found the magic keys, opened the door and with a polite “just stay off the pitch lads” we were in.

There simply aren’t many finer things in life than just you and your mates in a football ground alone with nobody to bother you. Everybody should do it at least once. We sat in the dug outs, made a couple of substitutions, ran out of the tunnel, nosed around the dressing rooms, sat in the boardroom – brilliant fun.

Hmmm...I think I need to mix things up a bit, make a sub maybe...

Who wouldn't make a substitution in an empty stadium in Stirling given the chance?

A quick look in the paper assured us that Falkirk were at home to Aberdeen. Falkirk is not far from Stirling – we’d see a game after all. Whereas Stirling was pleasing on the eye being a medieval old City with the castle and all that gubbins, Falkirk isn’t. It’s an old industrial base and nowadays acts as a retail and administrative centre for the area.

The terribly named Falkirk Stadium is still being built. Two sides of it consist of two fancy new stands. The other two sides amount to a temporary stand along one side of the pitch and nothing but advertising boards behind one of the goals.

The locals warm themselves up with a tune

A fine example of an Eric (gates - ask you Dad)

The green green grass of home

You can’t buy beers inside Scottish football grounds due to a Rangers v Celtic match that ended in chaos in 1980. Get over it everybody would be my advice and let the ale flow.

The game itself was an absolute belter. Three goals inside the first ten minutes warmed the cockles and it ended up 2-2. A very impressive turn out from the vocal Aberdeen fans and the home fans responded late on with their own repertoire of songs.

I don’t think I have ever heard so much swearing at a match. Every decision by the referee was greeted with howls of derision from both sets of supporters. At one point midway through the second half, Falkirk’s keeper took a goal kick and a chap near me leaped out his seat and shouted “You are a fu*k*ng disgrace referee”. Fairly harsh I thought.

After the game we drove back to Glasgow and met up with John Smith for a pub crawl around the west end of the City. More fabulous stories and free flowing beer ensued – it was a great night.

I awoke on Sunday morning to my normal diet of Sky Sports news. They were informing anyone sober enough to care that Rangers game with East Stirling had just been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. With that game being the only one taking place in Scotland that day we’d had what is commonly referred to as ‘a stinker’.

John rang us to confirm the bad news and told us that instead he would show us around his place of work. Not normally something to write home about but when you work at Hampden Park, the national stadium in Scotland with fine football museum to boot, it’s not a bad alternative.

We met up with and chatted with all the staff in the museum. What a great place it is and if you ever get the chance to, pop in and have a look. One display boasts an exact replica of the European Cup which was made up for Alex Ferguson after he won in with Manchester United. He loans it out to the museum.

I was then asked something I’d dreamed about ever since 1979 when I watched John McGovern lift it for Nottingham Forest - “Do you want to hold the European Cup!?” Of course I did. So out came another set of magic keys and before you know it – I was holding the European Cup aloft complete with cheesy grin.

Want to hold the European Cup Danny Boy? If you insist.

After that we had a good look around the stadium, and another stadium and in fact two more stadiums. John had chosen this day to put in a man of the match performance and drove us around Glasgow taking in Partick Thistle FC, Third Lanark FC (check them out on Wikipedia) and Ibrox, where we should have been watching Glasgow Rangers stick ten past East Stirling.

Up The Jags - Its Partick Thistle

And if you know your history - Third Lanark FC

Here's what you could've won.

So we only saw one game instead of three. We did however, make a friend for life in John, sunk a few pints, chatted merrily for hours on end and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Mental note to self though; don’t go to Scotland in January to watch football. Brrrrrr…………

- Feel free to comment below -

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Atletico Madrid v Espanyol

Atletico Madrid 1 Espanyol 2 (23:11:07)

First and foremost, I better let it be known that I have ‘goods to declare’ here. My wife is Spanish and Madrid is my favourite city. And, if I ever end up living in Madrid – which is not beyond the realms of possibility – ‘Atleti’ would be my team.

I’ve been to Real Madrid many times and granted your virtually guaranteed champagne football in one of the world’s best stadiums. If however, your willing to downgrade champagne for cava in exchange for genuine passion and an oft raucous atmosphere, then it’s the Estadio Vicente Calderon every time.

I spent the night before the match bar hopping around the La Latina district. It’s a ‘castizo’ neighbourhood, which successfully maintains the very essence of Madrid.

You can’t go far wrong in the ‘Cava Baja’. It’s a street containing countless bars and restaurants. Casa Lucio was one of David Beckhams favourite eateries in Madrid and opposite in the Taberna Lucio is where you and I can afford to down wine and consume ‘huevos rotos con jamon’ (broken eggs with ham).

After that try La Chata, another fine place for wine, beers and food and then the rest you can jolly well make up as you go merrily along.

Any notions of tickets being hard to come by were dispelled on the morning of the match. I wandered down to the stadium and picked one up from the ticket office after queuing for a short while. Easy, and furthermore, peasy.

I also took a little time out to have a snoop around the club museum. Usual football museum applied; over sized, outlandish bits of silverware on show awarded for friendly wins over Osasuna and Sporting Gijon in 1929.

The nearest metro to the stadium is Piramides; however, it’s only a twenty minute downhill walk from the centre. There’s also a plethora of bars to take in en route, so why take the metro!?

On my way to the match I paid a quick visit to my current favourite bar ‘Almacen de Vinos’ in Casa Gerrardo for a couple of pre-match ‘vermuts’ and some great tapas. Vermuts is a local drink made from red Martini, it’s a bit girlie but don’t worry; everybody drinks it in there at lunchtime.

It was tricky reading about the match in the sports papers beforehand. My game was on the same day as the Barca v Real Madrid clash. One of the papers (Marca) had 15 pages of coverage as well as a 24 page pull-out on ‘El Clasico’.

That match was being billed as ‘El Mejor Regalo de Navidad’ (the best present of Christmas) - whereas buried away on page 34 – Atleti coach Javier Aguirre was announcing my fixture as ‘El Partido mas importante del ano’ (the most important match of the year).

I’d treated myself to a nice seat near enough on the half way line in the main covered stand. The other three sides of the ground amount to a huge open two tiered bowl.

The opening exchanges of the match oscillated between rare bits of skill and futile diving. It ignited on 30 minutes when Espanyol’s Torrejon went for a cuddle with Atleti’s Kun and got a smash in his face for his troubles. Within a nanosecond the referee flashed a bright red card to Kun and a yellow to Torrejon.

Seven minutes of total comedy then ensued as a guilty feeling referee awarded the next ten decisions Atleti’s way. I have rarely seen such ineptitude. Highlights included an away goal ruled out for an imaginary offside and an Espanyol penalty for a clear handball denied.

On 37 minutes Simoa opened the scoring for the home side with a wrongly awarded (obviously) Juninihoesque type free-kick. A stunning strike which was awarded ‘El mejor gol de la jornada’ (the goal of the weekend) in the paper the next day.

Alcohol isn’t allowed inside Spanish stadiums but after Simao’s goal went in – out it jolly well came. Gruntled fans all around me started downing wine from ‘Botas’ (pouch type bottles). What a civilised way to celebrate a goal.

If the home fans thought Tamudo’s soft equaliser in the 52nd minute was bad, worse was to follow. Two minutes later the ref’s bright red card was aired again to dismiss Pernia for his second bookable offence.

Buoyed by this, Espanyol reached for a large box of expensive cigars and waited for Atleti to run out of steam. With five minutes remaining they decided it was about time they won. De La Pena delivered an exquisite through ball to Luis Garcia and he duly popped one into the roof of the net for the winner.

Prior to that the nine men of Madrid were defending like caged tigers. They could even have regained the lead twice through Diego Forlan. He is now actually quite good and hero-worshipped in this stadium.

Other points worthy of note; to my knowledge there was not one Espanyol fan in the ground. The home fans were magnificent throughout, save for a dodgy rendition of ‘Moonlight Shadow’ midway through the second half. Rather splendidly someone also told me that the chap who played Chewbacca in Star Wars went onto play professional basketball for Real Madrid.

Post match I boarded a coach for a night on the town in Cuenca, two hours east of Madrid. A place famous for it hanging houses, oversized plates of free tapas and the town where I got married.

The rest of the week was spent with the in-laws in the tiny rural village of Salinas del Manzano, whereby I was on the receiving end of seemingly never ending hospitality. Feliz Navidad indeed.