Friday, 26 September 2008

Istanbul part 2

Beşiktaş 3-0 Gaziantepspor (21-09-09)

After the previous nights VIP treatment at Fenerbahçe and in the interests of keeping things real, the next evening we travelled by public transport and stood behind the goal with the hardcore home support for the Beşiktaş v Gaziantepspor encounter.

The match didn't kick off until 21:45 so beforehand we set out on a ten hour pre-match of sight seeing, eating and drinking. Istanbul is a food-lover's paradise and the best place we found to eat and drink were the plethora of Meyhane bars branching off the side streets from the main road between Taksim and Tunel. These establishments serve up Turkish tapas to die for and all washed down with some very agreeable local beer.

Beşiktaş İnönü Stadium really is located in an idyllic spot. Set on the European side of the Bosphorus, opposite the imposing Dolmabahce Palace, clock tower and mosque, it's the only stadium in the world from which you can view two continents (Europe and Asia). Pele once famously described it as the most beautiful in the world. It was renovated in 2004 and it's quite passable on the inside. However, it doesn't look as though anything has changed on the exterior since the year dot.

Initially, there wasn't too much noise in the stadium. Then the two teams trotted out, the Turkish national anthem was played - as it is before every league match in Turkey - and then all hell broke loose in the stands. It was a breathtaking show of support. They engaged in choreographed singing from stand to stand, side to side and top to bottom. It was almost impossible to keep your eyes on the match. I'm happy to declare the competition for Europe's best fans officially closed.

The Istanbullus football fans are the loud and raucous yin to the often quiet and impassive Premiership fans yang. Beşiktaş fans must afford themselves a chuckle when they hear the English media declaring Newcastle fans to be 'the best in the world' or that Fratton Park can be 'a bit intimidating'. Not even the Kop on 'another famous European night' can come close to Beşiktaş and this remember was just a run of the mill league match with only 50 or so away fans for competition.

Beşiktaş won the match at a canter. Gaziantepspor were crawling on the very bottom of the ocean of bad. They could have been awarded a penalty shortly after half time but the referee took one look around the ground and sensibly - fearing for his own personal safety - pulled out a red card and sent the opposition striker off for diving - a very wise move.

Despite the lack of away fans, roughly half the population of Turkey had turned out to steward and police the match both inside and outside the stadium. At one point, I nipped to the loo and returned, looked across the stand and thought 'I can't believe my wife is alone in the middle of that lot'. At no point did either of us feel threatened though, indeed she enjoyed the whole experience immensely.

I had been a trifle concerned with being met with a cordial response at these matches, what with being English and all. I needn't have worried, we were met with warmth and smiles all round. In fact 100% of the Turkish people we met during the week were friendly.

After the football we had four days to investigate Istanbul. We must have explored every nook and cranny, every mosque, palace, Grand Bazar, Spice Bazar and the weird and wonderfully bazar (sic).

Thank your lucky stars you don't have to drive there. The number one sound you'll hear is the chorus of car horns being sounded by frustrated drivers. The traffic situation in Sultanahmet appears to have been organised by the Trotters Independent Security. Thankfully the public transport system is excellent. You can also expect to see a serious amount of cats. There are at least two sitting on every street corner and the Istanbullus appear to cherish them.

If you like a beer then make sure your taste buds are up for sampling a drop of Efes Pilsen. Weighing in at 5% abv it's pretty much the only beer you'll be able to lay your hands on.

The Turks are a very proud nation. Everywhere you look, the Turkish flag flies proudly and prominently. Providing you don't insult them, respect their culture and keep your wits about you then it's as safe as houses. Welcome to hell!? Welcome to paradise more like.

On our last night in Istanbul, news filtered through of the Albion's win over Manchester City in the Carling Cup. I believe that beating the richest club in the world technically means Brighton are now the best team in the world. A strange old week then but what a cracker - cheers Turkey!

Outside the main stand. This is the nicest bit by a country mile.

Ready for action. The fans warming up. Note pitiful away support to the left of the scoreboard.

The main stand which incidentally costs an arm and a leg to get in. Even they were up and singing towards the end.

The Yeni Acik stand behind the goal which we were in the middle of.

The Kapali stand is the best I've ever encountered for noise. The bit at the top in the middle has to be seen to be believed during the match.

Blue Mosque, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart.....good old Manchester City.


Fenerbahçe 3-0 Gençlerbirliği (20-09-08)

When I explained to my work colleagues that I intended taking my wife to Istanbul for a feast of football and culture, I was met with blank expressions, upturned noses and I rather got the feeling they thought I was a bit of a mentalist. Three words kept on being repeated back to me 'Welcome to hell'. Well, if spending our 3rd wedding anniversary watching two games of football, in two different continents in one of the world's great cities is an act of madness, then lock me up and throw away the key.

We flew to Istanbul's
Sabiha Gökçen from Luton Airport very early (6am) on Saturday morning. I have an annoying inability to sleep on planes. The only moment of brief excitement on the near 4 hour flight occurred when a member of the cabin crew woke up all the remaining passengers to ask them if they fancied purchasing either a scratchcard or an Easy Jet teddy bear.

Now then, I'd better explain how we ended up getting picked up by a chauffeur from the airport who took us to our hotel. A friend of mine suggested that as we were going to see
Fenerbahçe, I should try and contact Turkish international and ex-Brighton player Colin Kazim-Richards and let him know we were coming.

I made contact with Colin's Dad through the Albion fans forum 'North Stand Chat' a few weeks prior to our trip. He turned out to be one of the nicest chaps one could hope to meet and could not have done more to make our trip a memorable one.

In an age when footballers often receive adverse publicity for their off the field activities, I'm only too pleased to report the following tale. Between them, Colin and his Dad Rod arranged for the aforementioned chauffeur to pick us up and take us into Sultanahmet to where we where staying. After a few hours of sight seeing, our friendly driver returned to take us to th
e Fenerbahçe v Gençlerbirliğie match.

Our chauffeur spoke only in Turkish and when he explained something to us en route to the game we both smiled and nodded in agreement. What he was in fact telling us was that he had to stop on our way at Colin's house to feed his dog. So, in a surreal moment, an hour before kick off, there we jolly well were, standing outside a gorgeous house on the banks of the Bosphorus with a bowl of Pedigree Chum, scratching Colin Kazim-Richards dog behind the ear.

My wife and I are not used to being treated like royalty, indeed this was our very first time. We parked up beneath the main stand, out came two literally golden passes - which appeared to open every door we wanted - and before you could say 'best seats in the house' we were being ushered into that very place.

Fenerbahçe are Turkey's biggest and richest club with an estimated fan base of 30 million. Their recently renovated Saracoğlu Stadium
is - unusually for a Turkish ground - very modern. It's located on the Asian side of Istanbul in the Kadikoy district. The teams president Aziz Yildirim has injected pots of cash into the club. He dug deep to sign Roberto Carlos, pleasing the locals and they have their own TV channel as well which rivals the BBC for ratings.

For me, these trips are as much about watching the fans as well as the football and at 'Fener' there is lots to take in. They have five different singing sections, one behind each goal, one each on the upper tier of the half way line and just for luck, another in one corner of the ground. This resulted in an ear-splitting crescendo of noise that reverberated around the stadium for the full 90 minutes. The fans motto is "Hep Destek Tam Destek" (continual unwavering support), never has a motto been so apt.

After a scrappy first half in which Fener were leading 1-0, I managed to grab a word with Colin (who was on the bench). He told me that he would come over at the end of the match.

Fener upped their game in the second half, after going 2-0 up in the 64th minute Luis Aragonés - fresh from winning Euro 2008 with Spain and now coach with Fener - brought on our man. Just before taking the pitch to a huge ovation, CKR looked up to our seats, I gave him a bit of encouragement courtesy of a wave of the arm and he returned with a nod a wink. It was showtime.

As it happened, he did not put a foot wrong. It was as if the ball was tied to his boot with string. The Fener crowd were soon singing his name and as it echoed around us, up he popped with a near post header in the last minute to make it 3-0. Despite the excitement all around, Colin kept his word and at the final whistle he headed straight over to find me in stands. Without further ado he took off his shirt and handed it over to me in front of around 33,000 fans. I had a grin the size of the Bosphorus - what a moment! We had another chat and again he arranged for the driver to take us back afterwards.

That may sound like a fanciable version of the story but that's what happened. It felt like I was on Jim'll Fix It. It had proved to be a wonderful introduction to Turkish football and a fascinating insight into the city's psyche.

That night we returned to our hotel and sat and considered all that happened over a nice cold beer on our roof top terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofa - good old life

With the dog happy with his food we arrive at the stadium.

We appear to be in the best seats in the house - happy days!

I find a new 'arty' feature on my camera.

That'll be Roberto Carlos then.

Right then Colin, if you can just entertain the crowd with your box of tricks, score a last minute goal and then run over and give your shirt to Dan then that'll do nicely thanks mate.

CKR hands his shirt over to me. Grin the size of the Bosphorus ensues.

Fenerbahce make new 12 million pound signing.

My wife Ana and I popped back the next day to take in the clubs museum and have a less vociferous look around the place.

And returned on the ferry back to Sultanahmet afterwards at sunset. Happy anniversary indeed!

Monday, 15 September 2008

Yeovil Town v Brighton and Hove Albion

Yeovil Town 1-1 Brighton and Hove Albion (13:09:08)

Before next weeks trip to Istanbul whereby I shall be sampling the (Turkish) delights of Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, I decided to take in a trip to Somerset to watch the blue and white wizards take on the Glovers.

I travelled down in a car which included life long Brighton fan Mr Cherry and ex-Middlesbrough fan Cynical Dave. Cynical has frankly lost the will to live when it comes to top flight football, indeed he only came along for the drive and had no intention of watching the actual match.

En route, a quick flick around the radio dial inevitably ended up with us tuned into Radio Five Live. They had commentary on the Liverpool v Manchester United lunchtime snore fest. I myself have no interest whatsoever in this fixture or indeed anything that occurs in the Premiership.

There was one saving grace though. The expert analysis was provided by ex-England manager Graham Taylor. You can brighten up any mundane game he is involved in by playing Graham Taylor bingo. Write down the phrases ‘No doubt about it’, ‘Of that I have no doubt’ ‘No doubt about it in my mind’, ‘I have to say..’ and ‘On this occasion’ and every time he says them - roughly every time he opens his mouth - award yourself with raucous cheers, gold stars and a punch to the air with delight.

A trip to Yeovil from Brighton isn’t the quickest journey you’ll ever encounter but it’s likely to be up there in your top 5 scenic drives of the season. You chalk up a staggering amount of quintessential English villages and small towns en route; it really is England’s green and pleasant land. Thatched cottages, ponds, closed Post Offices and village cricket. At one stage, due to a diversion we found ourselves driving down ‘Teapot Street’ – I rest my case.

Upon arrival in Yeovil we dropped of Mr Mckay in the town centre. Our discussions on the way down about the death of football had only increased his desire not to attend the match. He would spend the afternoon merrily skipping from one public house to the next before rejoining us post match.

Mr Cherry and I headed to the beer tent behind the main stand at Huish Park. As the ground is smack bang in the middle of nowhere this is the only realistic option for a pre-match pint. Strictly speaking it’s only meant to be for home fans but providing you’re not totally stupid you will gain entry without any problems.

After a couple of pints it’s quite hard not to slip into a West Country accent. There is a big sign bearing the legend ‘Welcome to Huish Park – home of The Glovers’ as you walk in. Try saying ‘The Glovers’ without descending into Cornish drawl. You see, it’s impossible.

The ground itself isn’t the most inspiring. Two similar all-seater stands line the length of the pitch. A covered terrace (happily sponsored by a cider company) is home to the vocal element of the home fans and an uncovered terrace opposite houses the travelling hordes.I have to say on this occasion Brighton had around 600 away fans, I’ve no doubt about that in my mind.

Yeovil was the first ground I’d been to where they had placed flowers in the toilets. Who could possible misbehave in a toilet block that had flowers strategically placed around them!? Answer, nobody of course, five FIFA stars awarded to Yeovil Town. The other pleasing aspect was the advertising boards around the ground. My particular favourite was a sign for ‘Blackacre Farm Eggs’ – you wouldn’t get that at Old Trafford would you!?

It was a good job the sun was beating down because nothing much happened in the actual match up until the 59th minute. A couple of minutes before then Brighton debutant Joe Anyinsah had been booked for having the cheek to go up for a header with Glovers defender Nathan Jones. In the aforementioned 59th minute, Anyinsah tapped Jones on the back and he went down pathetically clutching his face. You would have hoped for better from someone who used to pull on an Albion shirt himself. Out popped a red card and the mood of the match changed in an instant.

Tackles and insults were then traded until the 77th minute when Adam Virgo was mauled down inside the box. Nicky Forster sent the keeper the wrong way and the Albion looked as though they were heading for their sixth away win on the bounce. Just three minutes later Yeovil were level. Darren Way swung his right boot from twenty yards out sending the ball into the bottom right hand corner of the net via a couple of deflections. Full time score Yeovil Town 1-1 Brighton and Hove Albion. A good point well made.

We picked up Cynical outside the ground. He’d been to three pubs, won £100 in the bookies and only had a single complaint which was the fact he’d had to endure Setanta Sports coverage of the football all afternoon.

To avoid the monotony, we opted to drive back a slightly different route. This paid of handsomely when unexpectedly we found ourselves driving past Cuthbury, home to Wimborne Town FC. They’d just played Tiverton in the FA Cup so we thought it rude not to pop in momentarily and have a quick poke around.

To our delight we discovered the pitch at the Cuthbury ground slopped considerably from one side to the other. In the old days you’d always be guaranteed a slopping pitch on a visit to Yeovil. Sadly they didn’t incorporate that within their new stadium design so it was left to The Magpies of WTFC to get our slopping pitch fix for the day.

We arrived back in Brighton at the civilised hour of 20:30 which allowed us to engage in a pub crawl of some of Brighton’s finest pubs for four hours. A delightful way to round off what had been a most enjoyable day.