Sunday, 29 August 2010

Ahem, Sylvester the Cat at Alton Town FC

I tawt I taw a puddy tat

Hats off to Merstham fan Gary Lomas who sent in this photo of an Alton Town fan at yesterdays FA Cup match. This chap, lets call him Mr Legend, takes a 4foot Sylvester the Cat to every match. He sits him the basket of his bike, and jolly well rides him to every game. Clearly, this is a craze that could well sweep the nation.

If you've seen anything better than this at a football match, then feel free to comment below.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Rushden and Diamonds FC

A rush and push and the lands is ours

Rushden and Diamonds 1-0 AFC Wimbledon (24:08:10)

Making his EFW debut today is David Bevan from The Guardian endorsed 'Seventy Two' Football League website. Beaven talks us through the top of the table clash at Nene Park in the Football Conference:

Non-league games are my guilty pleasure. I support a Championship club, watch a fair bit of Premiership football, run a Football League website and have soft spots for various foreign teams. But there is something about the non-league scene that casts a spell over me. This game, a fairly routine home win which is already lost to the sands of time, perfectly encapsulated the reasons for my captivation.

Handily, my flatmate Haydon is similarly enamoured. We make regular trips to local games and, no matter how terrible the football is, there is always a talking point and there are always a few laughs. And we are getting awfully familiar to the same look of horror on the faces of stewards at non-league clubs across Northamptonshire and the bordering counties.

Haydon is a wheelchair user, you see. Access is improving and some facilities have been extremely impressive. Pretty much everyone we have encountered along the way has been fantastically helpful in ensuring that our hunger for non-league football is taken care of. And when you rock up at Leamington and a steward has to manoeuvre a small plastic mascot sheep out of their rudimentary wheelchair section to make room for you, it's clear that you're onto a winner.

Upon arrival at Nene Park, primarily a conference centre and secondarily a football ground, we were promptly asked for three of our English pounds sterling in exchange for a spot in Rushden's admittedly lovely car park. Flash of the blue badge.

"It's still three pounds mate".

Worth a go. All parked up, we headed into the ground. We'd decided beforehand to go in with the AFC Wimbledon supporters and were prepared to part with twelve quid for the privilege, but it quickly became clear that Rushden's stewards were more concerned with where we would be located than taking any money off us at the disabled entrance gate. Perhaps some people would cough up regardless of whether they were actually asked to or not, but I've had enough unmerited grief off stewards over the years to have earned a few free non-league games.

In the end, we were plonked halfway between the home fans and the away section. We turned our attention to the teamsheet. I was particularly interested to see the name of Andre Blackman in the visiting lineup. Blackman is following a well-trodden path, tumbling down the league ladder from heady heights. He began his career with youth team outings for Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, but has ended up with the Wombles via a spell at Portsmouth and trials this summer with both Bristol City and my own team Leicester City. Wimbledon played Blackman at left-back and he duly made a beeline for goal whenever he got the ball, in the manner of a player who thought he could do it all on his own. He couldn't.

Wimbledon brought a respectable following of between 150 and 200 fans, who made a very decent noise throughout. The real stars of the show, however, were the characters on the pitch. Both Rushden and Wimbledon are continuing the time-honoured tradition of sticking a gigantic bloke in central defence and inviting said bloke to propel the ball into orbit whenever it dares go near him. Curtis Osano fulfilled this task for the home side, while Wimbledon were calling upon the former Barnet stopper Ismail Yakubu. The latter comfortably won the contest, managing to launch the ball high into the fading light on an impressively regular basis. Osano admittedly looked the better player on this showing, but never threatened to match Yakubu's incredible feats of aimless hoofing.

Both teams also opted for a bit of a unit up front, Rushden fielding the much-travelled Rene Howe and Wimbledon being led by their centre-forward, captain and all-round bull-in-china-shop Danny Kedwell. Again, the Dons man provoked the greater levels of laughter. Not that I'd tell him to his face, so I sincerely hope he doesn't read European Football Weekends.

Kedwell appears to treat passing, shooting, crossing, dribbling and other similar talents as almost entirely redundant when compared with the merits of charging down an opposition clearance. Never in my life have I seen a more formidable display of closing down. And that includes a good few years watching Paul Dickov every week. The Wimbledon skipper takes closing down to a ferocious new level, only stopping just short of scraping his foot on the ground in cartoon fashion before barrelling towards each target with unrivalled velocity. I think he managed to block one clearance all game, conceding a throw-in a few yards inside Rushden's half. He also launched a series of abusive torrents at the linesman on our side of the pitch. Admittedly, there may have been the odd wrong decision or five.

The best thing about our location was its proximity to the dugouts. I love listening to managers barking instructions at their players. Wimbledon manager Terry Brown fired himself straight into second place in my own personal chart for his efforts at Nene Park, narrowly losing out on top spot to lower-league nomad Carl Heggs. Former Northampton striker Heggs was managing the ill-fated King's Lynn when Leicester travelled there for a friendly a couple of seasons ago. He spent the entire game repeating two phrases ad nauseum - when his side had the ball, he yelled "now we play!" and when they didn't, he shrieked "now we squeeze!" For ninety minutes. It was insane.

Brown ran him very close, though. At one point in the first half against Rushden, one of Wimbledon's midfielders cheaply surrendered possession and his manager strode purposefully to the touchline:

"You can play later! You can play later! First you've got to put a shift in!"

We wondered aloud about the wisdom of 45 minutes worth of being Vinnie Jones earning you the right to play like Xavi or Iniesta during the second half. As it turned out, 42 was instead the magic number. Perhaps Brown is a big fan of the works of Douglas Adams. Who knows. Three minutes before the break, the same poor sod in the Wombles engine room thumped a ball out of play under pressure from his opposite number. Cue Brown:

"Play some football! Play some football!"

Two minutes later, someone tried a backheel that went out of play. I wasn't altogether sure whether this plan would continue in the second half. As it turned out, Wimbledon didn't get much of a chance to play any football. Rushden got on top and the burly Howe, shortly after escaping a red card following an altercation with Blackman, scored a goal of real quality, picking the ball up outside the area and curling it into the top corner.

And that was about that. Wimbledon pressed late on and their fans were left furious at referee Stephen Martin for not awarding them a late penalty, but it was anger that veiled their side's poor showing. The home side just about deserved their three points, courtesy of a goal that deserved to win any game.

- Feel free to comment below -

Woking FC

Looking through David Gilroy's eyes

Woking 2-1 Lewes (24:08:10)

Work dictates that I don't get out much during the week. I can only surface for very special occasions, like for instance, the Finnish branch of the Lewes Supporters Club travelling from Helsinki to Woking on a Tuesday night - just to see The Mighty Rooks. That is a special occasion no?

EFW stalwarts Cynical Dave and Big Deaks were keen as the proverbial mustard as well. Why wouldn't they be? This was going to be the best day of our lives - again.

Trying to find a pub that won't drain the life and soul out of you between Woking Station and the Kingfield Stadium isn't as easy as one might think. The Woking Railway Athletic Club looked to have some characters in there, but, not being life members of the Railway, we were refused entry. In hindsight, we should have taken a punt and said that Paddy, Mick, Scouse or Jock would sign us in.

What would Paul Weller do in this situation? Write 'Town Called Malice', and then head to the Snooker Club probably. So that's what we did, after we'd walked through the infamous park near to the ground. Infamous in that even the Woking FC website recommends that, for personal safety reasons, women and young children do not walk unaccompanied. It was actually rather pleasant and, as luck would have it - in bloom.

You can only look at fat blokes playing snooker surrounded by mandatory cartoon etchings of Tony Meo and Jimmy White for so long can't you?

Into the Woking Clubhouse then - where we met with the aforementioned Finnish Branch of the Lewes Supporters Club. His name is Ville Miettinen. Granted, it only consists of one member right now, but it's early days for the FLSC. Ville is a freelance football journalist, and pleasingly, a very nice chap. He even presented us with Finnish scarves for the Rook Inn. We like Ville.

Woking FC are in financial meltdown. Of course they are, virtually every club is. They were on the well worn path to administration last week until - somewhat reluctantly - former Chairman Chris Ingram dug deep to find £200,000 to plug a huge funding gap. Ouch.

The Kingfield Stadium itself is a right old mixed bag of goodies. Two marvellous old stands that - if you squint your eyes and use your imagination - could pass for the pavilion at the Sydney Cricket Ground. They're dwarfed though by an enormous new stand behind one goal. It is the size of a bus. In fact it's the size of about two hundred buses. And it's shiny.

Since you asked so nicely.

The size of a two hundred buses, and shiny - tick.

Don't panic Mr Mannering, Dave Gilory is playing.

The stadium is also in the Guinness Book of Records, or it should be, for having a record amount of signs declaring 'No standing in this area please'. I counted 416.

So to the match. Beforehand, we'd told anyone who'd listen that we feared Cards striker Dave Gilroy. He is the scourge of Lewes Football Club. He looks at the fixture list to see who we're playing, signs for them, scores against us, and then moves on. Until he signs for Lewes, which must be imminent - I hate him.

Naturally Gilroy scored twice early on as the Cards threatened to run riot. As we looked around the terrace for something to humour us we noticed a couple of faces. Talk about luck out. Patrick Marber and Drop the Dead Donkey's Neil Pearson anyone? Patrick is one of the six chaps who has stepped in to save Lewes and turn the club into a 100% community owned venture. He is, as one might expect, extremely good company. The sort of thing you need when you're two-bloody-nil down to Woking on a Tuesday night.

Please be upstanding for the Finnish Branch of the Lewes Supporters Club - Ville.

We'll see your Finnish branch and raise you a Woking German fanclub. Well played Simone.

Woking World Wide Web.

We saw through this lino straight away.

The second half was a different story. Lewes came out like caged tigers and took the game to their hosts. Lewis Ide began to pull a few midfield strings, substitutes Aaron Hopkinson and Tom Murphy added pace, guile, Coca-Cola skills and verve to the attack and youth team prodigy deservedly Jordan Lang pulled a goal back with a cushioned (cushioned!) shot with the inside of his boot.

In the end the sweaty palms of the home support dried out and Woking clung on for their second win in four days.

The EFW team headed back the station with our new Finnish friend in toe. Beers were procured for the journey home, and life was good again. Next up for The Rooks is a home game with Dover Athletic this Saturday. You'd be mad as a box of frogs to miss it. See you down the Pan.

For more photos from the day CLICK ME.

- Feel free to comment below -

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Lewes FC

The green, green grass of home

Lewes 0-0 Basingstoke Town (22:08:10)

The joy of non-league football is proximity, authenticity, an absence of graft and greed, and, in Lewes's case, a chance to gather behind the goal with a pint of Harvey's, the local nectar, and talk to old friends whilst the South Downs frame the efforts of a mostly homegrown side.

I wish I'd written that paragraph (see above) but I didn't. It was a snippet taken from today's Observer, and penned by the fair hand of Paul Hayward. I loved it for two reasons. Firstly, it sums up the joy of an afternoon spent watching football at the Dripping Pan, and, secondly, tremendous use of commas don't you think?

Articles about The Rooks have surfaced in the Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Observer this week - everybody is talking about them. They're newsworthy because they're now owned by a not-for-profit community benefit society. Six blokes basically, who've picked up the mess of last season, seen the light, and plan to allow the club to become fully owned by the fans within two years.

I met the aforementioned six blokes yesterday morning on Lewes High Street. My normal pre-match routine of a few pints was put on hold while we, and a number of other volunteers, stuck posters up around the town and placed leaflets into the palms of the locals. The plan was, and is, to raise the profile of the club and moreover, get people through the turnstiles at the club. We need more supporters.

Talking to old friends while the South Downs frame the efforts a mostly homegrown side - tick.

Gates from the opening two home games of the season have been hugely encouraging. On Wednesday night, over 600 fans, including 13 from Thurrock, turned up to see Lewes turn on the style and stick three points on the mantle piece in the process. That crowd was almost exactly double of the corresponding fixture last season which took place almost exactly one year ago.

The events of Wednesday night were summed up HERE by the ever brilliant Ian from the Two Hundred Percent Blog. Bobble hats off to him for that.

The clubhouse inside the Dripping Pan is affectionately referred to as The Rook Inn. Over the Summer volunteers (of course volunteers) took it upon themselves to rid the place of its stale look, and brown paint. Readers of European Football Weekends helped. Scarves and pennants from all over Europe have been sent in and now adorn the walls. It's work in progress obviously but the aim is to have the place covered. A football fan-house to be proud of.

Football, football memorabilia, beer, and beer festivals. What's not to like?

One naughty scarf escaped to watch the action unfold.

It was great to see the Rook Inn packed yesterday. As I wandered around the place, I can't tell you how rewarding it was to overhear conversations from the travelling Basingstoke fans complementing the look of the place, and nodding in like at the memorabilia. I even caught European Cup winner Eddie, sorry Frank Gray taking time out from his gaffer duties to have a nose around.

It was edge of the terrace stuff to begin with as The Rooks breathed fire onto the Dragons goal. After just two minutes, Simon Wormull aka Worms (of course Worms) produced a Johan Cruyff turn which - I'll be honest with you - made me miss a heartbeat. Silly old me. The game eventually petered out into a goalless draw, oh.

Four points from the opening three games then for Lewes and I think everybody would have signed up for that before the season.

I think I may have unmasked the chap behind the fabulous Zonal Marking website. There is a site that, unlike this one, knows what it's talking about. If it's not Lewes manager Steve Ibbitson then I'll be damned. I'll be the first to admit that - even though I've seen, and played in a thousand games of football - I still haven't got a clue about tactics and formations. Ibbo though took time out, as he always does, to explain everything afterwards. He is after-all - the nicest man in football.

Oh when the stripes, and plain bits of red, go marching in, go marching in...

In conclusion, we would have got away with all three points if it hadn't of been for their meddling kids.

A quick word of praise for Basingstoke's keeper as well if I may (go on then - Ed.) His name is Chris Tardif, he's rejoined the club from Maidenhead United over the Summer, and we always give a bit of stick - which he takes in good spirit. He's a bloody brilliant keeper and we always shake hands at the end of the game.

So what next? I know how about a trip to Woking on Tuesday night (phwoar, Where do we sign? - Ed.). I'm told a member of the Rooks Finnish Supporters Club is coming as well. The Rooks have gone all global, the Rooks have gone all global (Repeat to fade).

New for this season: Patrick Marber interviews Lewes gaffer Ibbo after the game. Pretty standard stuff until just past the three minutes mark, when Marber ups the anti and gags start flying around. Brilliant.

For more photos from the day CLICK ME

- Feel free to comment below -

Friday, 20 August 2010

Sam Wallace - The Independent

Sam's Town

Deadline-phobia? Pah! Not a problem for Sam Wallace, football correspondent for The Independent. Off screen set-tos on the Sunday Supplement? Not with a secret stash of Maltesers on the go. Twitter? Don't be daft lad.

In this - the latest of EFW's interviews with big name football journalists - we get down to the nitty, and indeed the gritty of the greatest game on earth.

As if that isn't enough - half way through this interview - standby as Wallace takes a run up at answering the longest question ever posted on these pages. A question so long, even Garth 'King of the long question' Crooks would have been proud. Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for The Independent's very own Sam Wallace:

I've interviewed a few football journalists lately and it would appear to be all doom and gloom in your trade. Tell us something positive about the life of a football journalist. I don’t think it is all doom and gloom. I read all our national papers obsessively and I think the sport pages are full of good stories, interviews, analysis and comment. Yes, newspaper circulations are in decline but I think as an industry we sell ourselves short. For the ludicrously cheap cover price of a newspaper you get match reports from all the night’s previous games and stories that radio and TV spend the next day catching up with. And that’s just the sport pages. I’ll get off the soapbox now.

And is there much of a downside? Like every job there are good and bad days. It is a competitive business and if you miss a story that others have then, unfortunately, it is there for everyone to see. But the beauty of newspapers is that there is always the next day to try to put it right (unless you work for a Sunday, in which case you have to stew for a week).

I know it's hard work and long hours, but is reporting back from the World Cup as good as it gets? Yes. I realise the whole England/Three Lions thing leaves some people cold but I love international football and, for me, a World Cup finals has a magical quality. Once every four years? That makes it four times as special as Christmas! As for the long hours, everyone wants to make sure their paper looks as good as possible. And, yes, we reporters do love a moan about how hard we work. The chaps back on The Independent sports desk also work very hard putting the pages together and do a great job. At least that’s what they tell me.

Does your heart sink when you have to moralise about the private lives of footballers? I don’t do it. My position on the whole John Terry-Wayne Bridge saga is that Fabio Capello was making life difficult for himself by making a decision on the private life of a player. Things are never as straightforward as they look and it set a very dangerous precedent.

Ah, John Terry. You left him out of your ideal English line up in The Indy recently. Is he past it in terms of representing his country? Time for a change. I’m not going to rehearse all the old arguments about Terry and his infamous press conference after the Algeria game but I thought that said it all. And before people email, the key press conference was not the one you watched on Sky it was the one he gave to the newspapers away from the cameras

You've called for Wayne Rooney to break his silence on his, and the England teams shambolic World Cup performance. That won't happen until it comes to booky wook time though will it? I think you’re referring to something I said on the Sunday Supplement.

I am, but having said that, I'm usually fairly fragile at that time on a Sunday morning...What I actually said was that Rooney might take some of the pressure off himself by volunteering for a pre-match England press conference and dealing with the issues from South Africa. What I didn’t say was that we in the Press had a moral right to haul him before us. It is just that until we get some kind of insight into why our best player didn’t perform at the World Cup it feels like everyone – especially the fans – will find it hard to move on. Having listened to the World Cup-related stick Rooney got from the Newcastle fans at Old Trafford, I haven’t changed my mind on that one.

What was your career path to the Indy? I was fortunate enough to get a place on the Telegraph graduate scheme where I did my training as a reporter. I will always be very grateful to the paper for that. Apart from six months at the Evening Standard as a news reporter I stayed at the Daily Telegraph for more than five years. The last three were as the paper’s north-west football reporter, based in Manchester. I have been at The Independent since December 2004.

Do you have any thoughts on the disparity between "quality sports writing" and the finger-pointing hysteria/knee jerks of the red tops? I really don’t see the “disparity”. I think there are lots of good stories and writing in the “red tops”, as you call them. A good story or a really insightful column has currency whatever paper it appears in. People from outside the industry seem to divide us into two tribes. I suppose that is a natural assumption but it is not like that in reality. I can say with confidence that some of my best friends in newspapers work for “red tops”. I don’t discriminate on grounds of (newspaper) colour.

Is there any piss-taking between the journalists of broadsheet and, lets stick with the phrase "red top" newspapers in the press box? Yes, lots. But just as much between fellow broadsheet journalists and also “red top on red top” piss-taking. Some of it is very funny. But you have to be there really.

When was the last time you paid to see a match? Hmmm, good question. Probably my brother’s stag do last year. West Ham v Sunderland on April 4. 2-0 to West Ham. My brother is a West Ham fan. It suits his optimistic outlook on life.

Talking of money, should we pay to read your online work? Yes. I really hope The Times’ pay-wall experiment works out to their favour and others follow. It costs a lot of money to run a newspaper. Keeping a correspondent in Baghdad, Helmand, Washington, Moscow and wherever else is not cheap. Then you have football reporters travelling all over Europe. The list goes on. People have to understand that good journalism costs money and also that it is worth supporting it. Otherwise all you will be left with will be football club websites who report on their clubs with much the same objectivity as Pravda would report on Soviet cucumber harvests. Do I sound like a grumpy old man?

*longest ever question alert* You're just about to press send on a report on a routine midweek win for Man United, then - out of the blue - Birmingham City surprise everybody with a flurry of injury-time goals - causing Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have a punch up on the way back to the tunnel. Given your deadline, is that your favourite worst nightmare or would you think 'this is what I was born to do'? I don’t subscribe to your deadline-phobia. No match report or story is so good that it can’t be chucked away in an instant when the story changes at the last minute. The whole point of a newspaper is to make it as fresh and up-to-date as possible, right up until that last second when you absolutely have to send the copy. Besides, if I’ve driven up to Birmingham what’s another hour’s difference going to make? I’m going to get stuck on the M6 anyway.

Do you hoard any football memorabilia? No. And I happily give away my teamsheets/programmes. There seems to be a “sub-culture” of people – usually middle-aged men – who hang around outside press entrances asking for that sort of stuff. They’re welcome to it.

You're not signed up to Twitter. Even Jonathan Wilson bit the bullet this week -and racked up 4500 followers in just 24 hours in the process. I'd have thought it would have been a valuable aid to your work these days. Do you ever look at it and have you thought about setting up an account? I think Twitter has passed me by. I’ll happily sign up to the next internet phenomenon as long as someone alerts me to it. Would it be rude to say that I find Twitter a bit disappointing? I read some of my fellow reporters’ tweets during the World Cup and they seemed to veer from the mundane (“Just got to Port Elizabeth, hotel room not ready”) to the inane (“Nelson Mandela – what a legend!!!”). Also, isn’t it just another case of “journalism for free” (see earlier rant)?

I'm not sure if you're away but it's Non-League day on September 4. Seeing as there are no Premiership or Championship games on Saturday, fans of those clubs are being actively encouraged to support their local team. Will you be watching your local club that day or does it sound like a day off for you? My hometown team Stevenage FC (as they are now known) are now, for the first time in my lifetime, a Football League club so that rules them out. My local non-league team is Hendon. I will do my best to go at some point but I don’t feel I need to watch a non-league game to prove that I love football.

Do you enjoy appearing on the Sunday Supplement? Yes. I like the show and I get the impression that a lot of people in football watch it. Whether they agree with the opinions discussed is another matter. But I think viewers recognise that the reporters on it care about football. We (as in the reporters) may not have the “been-there, done-that” experience of former players but by the same token we are less likely to hold back if we feel strongly on an issue.

Has there ever been any meaty disagreements away from the cameras on that show? Not in my experience. Personally, I’m too busy tackling the croissants.

Well, the breakfast certainly looks good on there...Yes - and look out for the glass tumbler full of Maltesers. It’s a welcome addition to any breakfast table.

In your experience what's the best European ground for atmosphere? Tough one. I like the club anthem at the Nou Camp and the fans’ reaction to it. Incidentally, Bayer Leverkusen have a terrible soft rock-style club anthem that makes all of us in the press box laugh. The Leverkusen supporters, however, love it. When the mist comes down at San Siro it feels very atmospheric. The Mestalla was always a good place to go and I was pleasantly surprised by Real Betis’ ground when they played Chelsea and Liverpool in the Champions League in 2005. I have seen a World Cup game at the Westfalenstadion (Borussia Dortmund) which is another favourite.

Obviously, we're all about European Football Weekends on here, if you had to choose one destination in Europe for a weekend of football, where would you head to? Given that it is about the city as well as the team it would have to be Barcelona. [tries to think of more original alternative] In 2001, in the build-up to England’s World Cup qualifier against Greece I covered a feisty Greece v Albania game in the OFI stadium in Heraklion in Crete. Great little ground. Nice weather too.

What's better, sitting in the press box or [nod to Oliver Kay] being a ball boy at Wembley? That’s the problem with Kay. He never forgets a thing you tell him. I was a ball boy for the England v Brazil game in March 1990. I never touched the ball and I got gobbed at (by the fans, not the players) but despite all that I was thrilled to do it. These days I have to say that the Football Association have done a great job with the press facilities at Wembley. If only they could do the same for the England team.

It was actually Oli who recommended we interview you on EFW - so, who in turn would you like to see us question next, and do you have his/her number? Neil Ashton of the News of the World. He can lay to rest all your tabloid-broadsheet sectarian fears. Please don’t ask him about his childhood scrapbooks full of Crystal Palace match reports that he would compile obsessively from the newspapers. Or the letters of complaint he wrote in those days to any reporter with the temerity to criticise his heroes. His email is NeilAsh [snip - Ed.]

Follow Sam on Twitter at, oh - well you can always follow European Football Weekends.

You can read his work on-line at The Independent and for free, for now here.

- Feel free to comment below -

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Mark Chapman - Broadcaster version

Chatting with Chappers

In recent weeks on these pages it's been journalists ahoy as we've interviewed some of our favourite football hacks. I've thoroughly enjoyed doing those and it's something we're going to return to soon, but for now anyway - it's time to spread our wings a little.

I thought for a change, we'd chat to someone who has - wait for it - presented and worked on Radio 1, 5Live, ESPN, Match of the Day, Football Italia, Rugby and League shows, been on Masterchef and Mastermind, written a book, presents podcasts, cuddly get the picture. Mark 'Chappers' Chapman has done the Jewson lot.

After 10 (ten!) years on Radio 1 he moved on to 5Live where he is currently living the dream. As someone who has 5Live on all day and all of the night I'm delighted that Chappers agreed to talk to EFW.

So pull up a chair as we discuss necking bottles of wine with Danny Baker and David Moyes at the World Cup, potentially exciting news from the BBC about Non-League Day, his open views on Manchester United - you may have heard of them - and whether or not he'd like to slip into Gary Lineker's Match of the Day presenting shoes:

I'm exhausted just reading your CV. What's been the highlight of your work as a presenter thus far? Oh god. The first question and it is impossible to answer. I always wanted to host the Radio 1 breakfast show as a kid so presenting that (with other people) while I worked there was a highlight. When I got the call in 1999 to say I had the job to do the sport on the breakfast show I burst into tears. This will sound twee but I work on what I call goosebump moments. So when I presented a MOTD live game and heard the theme in my earpiece, I got goosebumps. The first time I said 'This is BBC Radio 5live, it's 5 o'clock, here's sports report' and heard that iconic music I got goosebumps. I am very very lucky.

What where you World Cup highs and lows aside from the actual football? The actual football wasn't a high anyway. The highlight was spending time with so many football people and hearing their stories. 3 hours of beer, Danny Baker and Chris Waddle and their Gazza stories left me laughing so much I couldn't stop coughing. David Moyes asking me after some of the games, if I was a manager who I would have signed from the 90 minutes I had just watched, and one night at 2am, having just got back from a game and nearly been killed by a dreadful driver, sharing a bottle of red wine by an open log fire with Moyes and Baker. The lowlights included seeing 5live's Darren Fletcher in his training gear and more seriously our inability to actually go out and explore country as I had done in Japan and Germany, because of health and safety people who were worried about what might happen to you. I spent a lot of my time in Joburg and guess what? It was no different to any other big city in the world. Act like a tit and you could be in danger. Be sensible and you were fine.

Do you find it easy to switch off from sport when you're not at work? Why would I want to switch off from sport? I am a fan of most sports so will watch or listen to anything, though I find a F1 a bit of struggle.

How easy it to broadcast whilst someone is shouting instructions in your earpiece? You get used to it. Sometimes you ignore them, sometimes you take notice of them. I have had plenty of practice over the years because I am used to my mum or my other half bellowing instructions at me. Most of the time I ignore them, sometimes I listen to them.

You've covered a plethora of sports. Have you ever had to bluff your way through on one or are you an expert in every field, pitch, track, court and course? I think most people who have listened to me would say I am an expert in none of them. I like to think I know my stuff about most of them but the most important thing is not to bluff your way through it. If i didn't know something about a sport I was doing on air I would ask the correspondent or the interviewee. I don't think you should ever be scared to admit not knowing something. I think people can tell you if you try to blag it.

Have you ever dropped a Denis Norden type blooper live on air? Fortunately not. Or not one that comes to mind. I have missed links through being stuck in a toilet. I also once said that Altrincham Ice Rink was a great place to meet 13 year old girls over a slush puppy. It was during a link with Dave when we were reminiscing about our youth. However I forgot to sat that it was good to meet 13 year olds when I was a 13 year old myself. Hundreds of people texted in asking if I was on a register.

Jake Humphrey deserves 5 FIFA stars for holding it together in a professional manor whilst presenting from Sheff Wed v Palace at Hillsborough last season when all hell was breaking loose around his commentary box. Have you ever found yourself in a compromising position whilst broadcasting? He was great that day. He is a top broadcaster. Every time you do a live piece on telly there will always be one nobhead in the background trying to get himself on camera. It is one of the first rules of tv. They are normally on a mobile waving at their mate who is probably telling them they are on the telly. I know, it's hilarious. And it never ceases to make me laugh every time I see it. Which is daily.

Hats off for tackling the subject of homosexuality in football on that documentary. How did you find that experience? Refreshing. The fact that a top flight footballers hasn't come out since Justin Fashanu is always blamed on the fans. They would make the player's life hell is the argument. By the end of the documentary I doubted that. I am sick of football fans not being given the credit they deserve. A minority would not accept a gay footballer, but the majority couldn't care less. The media are the problem I think and some of the dinosaurs who work in PR. They wouldn't leave the poor bloke alone, they would delve into his past and I think his life would be hell for 6 months or so. He would be beseiged. The player that does come out has to be older, experienced and at the top of his game. It also needs more straight men to stand up in football and speak out for the gay community.

I'm guessing the BBC gets it in the neck from willy-waving (© The Guardian's Daniel Taylor) Liverpool and Manchester United fans accusing them of biased coverage on every level? Not to my knowledge is it doesn't. I am not just saying that to play the corporate line, I genuinely am not aware of it.

How easy is it for you to maintain balanced view given the fact you support Manchester United? Very easy. It helps that they were my local team. I am a Manc and when I started going they were crap! I think it helps with other fans that I am not a glory hunting cockney red. I am also open about who I support. I can't understand why in this day and age people try and cover up who they support. You shouldn't be working in sport if you don't have a team. How can you have a passion for the game without following a team. I have a team in every single sport going from Sale in rugby union to Hull in Superleague to Lancashire in cricket to Boston Red Sox in baseball. I can still be objective and critical and praise other sides. My biggest worry this summer was if Kenny Dalglish had become Liverpool manager. I work with Kelly a lot. She is a friend and you don't want a friend's dad to do badly, and yet he could have been Liverpool manager! As it is they have still appointed a really nice guy and someone I have worked with several times in Roy Hodgson so it is still a bit of an uncomfortable position for me.

It must be hugely frustrating that Sir Alex still doesn't talk to the BBC? I couldn't care less.

The Glazers have saddled the club with over £700m of debt. Green and gold until they're sold? Definitely. It annoys me how narrow minded the media have been. So many people have said well you have won all these trophies under them so it can't be all bad. Yes, but in that time my season ticket has gone up from 500 quid to 950. Nearly 50% in 4 years. Oh and despite that we are still massively in debt.

You can always support City if get fed up with it, they're coming good now eh? Never never never. But I think it is great for the derby. I went to two of the derbies last year - one at Eastlands in the league and the 2nd leg of the Carling Cup at Old Trafford. And the atmosphere was the best it has ever been for the derby. They are a proper threat, a proper team and I think that's what Manchester needs. You want big games where you feel sick and nervous in the week leading up to it don't you?

Do you know anyone in sport with a better taste in music than Pat Nevin? I quite like my own collection actually. Does Pat switch between Stone Roses and Girls Aloud. I don't think so. Mark wins.

You must have a whole host of people to choose from in the 'worst taste in music' category? Any footballer who does an interview with a pair of massive headphones round their next. They just scream out, 'I am listening to bland r n b shite'.

Radio 1 or 5Live? I love them both. Radio 1 is the biggest radio station in the world and it matters to the nation. Look at the debate that goes on around its breakfast show, whoever is doing it. I am so glad I did 10 years there But I was never as happy at Radio 1 as I am at 5live. Never To be in the thick of sports coverage and journalism is an honour. I get to use my brain now and not just play this grumpy character who comes out with sarcastic one liners

Who is your best friend in football? Boney. We have played in the same team since going to University in 1991, and we are still going now. I don't want to be friends with anybody in the professional game. How can I be objective if they are my friends?

September 4 marks the first ever Non-League Day. Given the fact there are no Premiership or Championship games on that day, fans of those clubs are being urged to actively support their local Non-League team. Are you aware of this project and will the BBC be covering it in anyway? We are and I have suggested that I present 5live sport from a non league game that day. It is being investigated.

Who is your local Non-League club and have you been to see them play? Altrincham. I would watch them when United were away as a kid. I still try and go every now and then when I am back seeing Mum and Dad. For most of the past decade we have been relegated from the Conference only for another club to go bust, or have played 17 players on the pitch in one game and had points deducted so have always been rescued at the last minute. Last season tho we reached the dizzy heights of mid table. Alty were a strong old club back in the day then as soon as promotion to the football league came in they fell away, bar one season when Barnet pipped us to promotion.

In your book 'Heroes, Hairbands and Hissy Fits' you were quite critical of modern football and players. Have any players brought you to task over that? Firstly thank you for being one of the 3 people who have read it. It is still in bargain bins up and down the country or on Amazon and 7 paperback copies will be released just after Christmas. Nobody has brought me to task no, probably because they haven't read it. I try not to slag people off and I don't go down the route of blaming money for everything. It's more the little things that wind up, John Terry wearing the socks over his knees, William Gallas wearing 10 at Arsenal, and ticker tape and fireworks ruining every trophy presentation for example. Grumpy old man eh?

What's your most treasured piece of football memorabilia? Mine and my Dad's two tickets to Utd v Wolves in October '81. Framed by my dad and given to me for my birthday a few years ago. It was the first game we ever went to.

I've just started listening to the Chappers podcast. Do you plan on branching out from purely reporting on the Premiership? We try and do a bit of everything - football league, europe, stats, refereeing problems. I think it has the Premier League in the podcast title but that is only a small part of what we cover.

You give Roy Meredith a bit of stick on that show for being a font of all footballing knowledge. He'd be the first name down your pub quiz team though right? I give him stick cos he claims to support 5 different teams across the continent. His football knowledge is amazing. I am surprised he has ever kissed a girl to be honest with you, let alone got a family. But yes if I ever did a pub quiz he would be on my team.

You've got [has a quick look] 20,377 followers on Twitter. That's bloody impressive! Do you tease your fellow colleagues with your legion of followers? That's not a lot in the Twitter world is it? I think most people followed me thinking I was the other Mark Chapman and are now right royally disppointed that they aren't getting an insight into a life in a high security American prison but instead are reading about Craig Bellamy going to Cardiff and Masterchef.

Do you have to change your style of presenting for the ESPN work? I have to wear a shirt and tie but that's the only change. As a presenter you should be true to yourself. Try and be something you are not and you are in all sorts of trouble.

When Gary Lineker moves on do you fancy stepping into his MOTD presenting shoes? Horrible question - say yes and you bill it as I want Lineker's job, say no and you will just think that I am lying. I want to be challenged as a presenter. 5live sport challenges me, 606 challenges me, Final Score and PTI both challenge me and make me think on my feet. Would MOTD be a challenge? I don't know until I have done one.

And finally, who would you like to see interviewing next on European Football Weekends, and do you have his/her number? If you are trying to find out if I have the numbers of famous people - then I can offer you one of the Chuckle brothers or Patrick Kielty. I know, life in the showbiz fast lane eh?

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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

FK Partizan

A Passage to Inđija

Serbian Superliga

FK Partizan 2-1 FK Inđija (14:08:10)

Until we strike that sponsorship deal with Easy Jet (what are they waiting for?) we can't be all over Europe every week watching football. One of our friends in the north Matt Wilkinson was lucky enough to be out in Belgrade last weekend. Did he managed to sneak a cheeky game in? Of course he did, and here he is making his EFW debut on that very subject:

My old friend Jim has always had an adventurous streak, so when he suggested a visit to Belgrade for his stag-do, I immediately thought football as one of the activities for the weekend. And we were in luck, reigning champions Partizan were at home to newly promoted FK Inđija on the Saturday night. Personally, being a Man United fan I'd have preferred Crvena Zvezda due to their associations with United and the Munich Air Crash, or even the Partizan - Red Star derby, but I could hardly start ordering a group of lads about just for my footballing whims.

There was a group of nine of us, none of whom had been Serbia before. One of our group hadn't even been on a holiday for five years, so we weren't sure of what to expect. Our knowledge was little more than the media representation of a nationalist war-mongering regime that has had all sorts of accusations thrown at it such as murder, ethnic cleansing and genocide. That was a few years back, so whilst we had a few preconceptions, we were pretty sure we weren't entering a war zone.

That said, the taxi from the airport provided us with the sight of a number of spectacular bombed out embassies and government buildings. Left as they were since NATO bombed them in 1999 in response to Serbia's role in the Kosovan war, which certainly caused no little discussion.

Louder than bombs.

Pre game was a bout of bar and restaurant hopping, with the obligatory amazement at the cheapness of good honest ale in such Eastern European capitals (I'm on my way - Ed.). Partizan's ground didn't appear to be too far out of the city centre, however, after a good feed at a traditional Serbian restaurant we felt a taxi would make life easier, and at around 400 Dinar (around £4) for a 3 mile journey we weren't complaining.

We knew that outside of the big derby games, Serbian SupaLiga matches were tragically unattended but upon arriving at Stadion Partizan we were surprised to see the Police and five touts outside, and not really anyone else. Turns out that the kick off had been switched at the last minute, we arrived at 8pm for a 7.30 kick off. The touts were hassling us big style, and as we couldn't see the ticket office, we took our chances... a fiver each, we could cope with that.

I'd been a few euro aways with MUFC so wasn't surprised with some of the behaviour at the entrance, chucking away of change and lighters etc, though some of the lads were a bit peeved to say the least. The police were dressed up like extras from Rollerball and the concourses around the ground were vast, musty concrete 'spaces' that luckily carried on with the great Serb tradition of strong ale at a working mans price.

For what was left of the first half we just found our bearings and took a minute to find our breath. It was around 34 degrees, and humid with it. Whilst sweating through the seats of our pants we discovered Partizan had taken the lead in the 2nd minute through the bizarrely named 'Cleverson', though he wore 'Cleo' on his back.

There is a light that never goes out.

Cheap as chips - tick.

The Tunnel of Love?

The ground held in excess of 30,000, but there couldn't have been more than 6,000 there. Luckily the majority tucked themselves tightly into one corner, which resulted in some impressive chanting and synchronised European 'Ultra' behaviour, such as bouncing up and down in unison, turning their backs to the game and linking shoulders etc. There were some impressive looking banners, including a union jack in black and white as well as pictures of bygone army generals in 19th century uniform. A little more disconcerting were a number of flags with the Celtic Cross symbol, a symbol I'd come across with Lazio fans related with the White Power movement.

Half time was an excuse for more cheap ale, and rather surprisingly there was no queue, something we couldn't imagine back home. The second half was a livelier affair with FK Inđija bringing on subs, in particular the lively Augusto Batioja and taking the game to Partizan. Some good midfield and tricky forward play almost made an impact, with a free kick striking the bar late on. However, Partizan broke with ten minutes left and through some comedic defending went two up through local hero Radosav Petrović to effectively kill the game.

Stadion FK Partizan. Five quid well spent.

One of the lads was a bit legless by this stage...

Inđija pulled a goal back with a Ljubinkovic free kick. He crossed the ball into the box which bounced off the ground, went up and into the net besides confused keeper Ilic, and without anyone touching it. A few minutes earlier and we could have had a tighter affair.

Partizan left the pitch to raptuous applause, probably more to the fact that Crvena Zvezda had drawn than their own victory. This was Inđija's first game in the Serbian top division and by that display, they shouldn't be too downhearted.

Taxis were in short supply so a lengthy hike back to the city centre ensued. After a few more ales and resting our feet we were ready for another night on the tiles. We ended up at a club in what seemed to be a derelict hospital playing anything from so called 'Turbo Folk' to 'The Clash' to 'Rammstein' in the courtyard of said building amongst gorgeous Serbian ladies who wanted nothing to do with a load of beered-up Mancunians at 5am and, who could blame them.

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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Oliver Kay - The Times

Oliver's Army

There aren't too many Englishmen who returned home from the World Cup with their reputation enhanced. Oliver Kay was one of them though. The Times football correspondent is one of the finest football journalists there is and, has an army of over 16,000 followers on Twitter.

Newspapers are becoming increasingly obsolete - especially for the younger generation. Why pay when you can have the on-line version for free? News International took the plunge and started charging for The Times meaning to read Oliver's pearls of wisdom - we now have to either buy the paper (remember that?) or pay a £2 a week subscription charge.

So to find out what Oliver makes about the changing times in both his profession and his industry I interviewed him. It wasn't easy. Not because he didn't want to do it - he did. It was tricky because every time we sat down to press record - a manager would resign (bad timing Martin O'Neill) or players would turn their back on England. It was worth the wait though:

You're just back from your holiday, do you find it easy to switch off from football when you're not at work? When you’ve been away at the World Cup for six weeks, you have to switch off when you get back. But there’s a difference between switching off from work, which I can do, and switching off from football. At least once every day my wife would catch me checking the Blackberry for transfer news: “Joe Cole to Liverpool! Dekel Keinan to Blackpool!” I can switch off from work, but it’s very hard to switch off from football.

What were your World Cup highlights and lowlights aside from the actual football? I think the experience was different for those of us covering England and those who saw more of the tournament and more of the country. Covering England day-in, day-out left you isolated from the “real” World Cup and the “real” South Africa. I would see these amazingly joyous scenes from Johannesburg – the stadiums, the townships, the fanzones – and feel incredibly remote from the whole thing. I would speak to non-England-covering colleagues and ask them “So what’s it like?” Breaking free for the Brazil-Holland quarter-final was a real highlight. The lowlights were a few grim nights in Sun City (nothing like as glamorous as the name suggests) when, after writing another tale of woe from the England camp, I would finish too late to get anything to eat. People have this image of football-reporting as one big jolly-up. It is a brilliant job – don’t get me wrong – but it’s not always as enjoyable as you would imagine.

I've spoken with a few football journalists lately and morale seems to be quite low amongst your colleagues. Is it all doom and gloom in the press box these days? There has been a lot of frustration at the distance that has built up between ourselves and the players over the past decade, but that has been overtaken over the last few years by concerns about the industry itself. On an individual level, the biggest difficulty is seeing really good, talented people, who you like and rate, lose their jobs. Every time you hear of another person being laid off, your heart sinks. In that climate, we have to adapt – as individuals, as newspapers and as an industry – to ensure that newspapers remain the most relevant source of newsgathering and reporting. I’m absolutely certain they are, especially where football is concerned.

Somewhat inevitably, there's been an adverse reaction to the paywall on The Times website and, you've supposedly lost 90% of your (online) readers as a result. News International isn't a charity though, is it? How have you coped with the change? I know we’ve lost online readers, even if people do seem to be giving too much credence to what The Guardian admitted was only an estimate, but people talk about it like it’s daylight robbery or an outrage. Given the cost of producing a newspaper, I could never fathom why newspapers the continent was available for free online. Charging for something that was previously free is never going to be popular, but in some ways it’s like when Premier League football went from being free-to-air to being available to the small number of people who paid for a Sky dish. Rather than kill the product, it generated the money to produce better coverage, which, over time, more people became willing to pay for. And contrary to what some would have you believe, there are a lot of people who are very willing to pay for the quality they get in The Times.

Are you able to enjoy a game fully when you're reporting or does having to file a report on or before the final whistle scupper your enjoyment? Oh you enjoy it. In some ways you prefer it. If it’s one of those night matches when it’s mind-blowing drama, up against a tight and rigid deadline, it feels like there’s smoke coming out of your laptop and probably your ears too, but the moment you press “send”, you breathe a sigh of relief and you think to yourself: “That was bloody good.” By which I mean the event, not the report … . And then you have a split-second to draw breath before rushing off to the post-match press conferences and rewriting hastily for the next edition. Night matches – good ones at least – are a real buzz. The one thing that scuppers your enjoyment is technological problems. The San Siro has always been good for those.

Have you ever dropped a journalistic clanger? Of course. No huge ones so far, touch wood, but plenty of small ones and maybe just the odd medium-sized one. But it depends what you call a clanger. I wrote a story on Tuesday about Chelsea making a serious bid to sign Mesut Ozil, when everyone else has been writing that he’s either joining United or Barcelona. If he ends up going elsewhere or staying with Werder Bremen, does that make it a “clanger”? Some might feel it does, but what I wrote was correct. As opposed to, say, writing that Manchester City were about to approach Zico to become their next manager on the morning they got permission to speak to Mark Hughes. That was a good one … .

I've reported from the Wembley press box a couple of times and I have to say that aside from a few custard creams there's not too much to get excited about. Is there anywhere that stands out when it comes to hospitality for the press? Wembley is actually better than most. Arsenal always get a lot of praise for the food in the press lounge – it’s the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that does it, I think – but, for me, the carvery at Manchester City takes some beating. Make sure you don’t have any lunch before going to City. The worst? When I think about it, two of the most media-friendly Premier League clubs – Bolton and Wigan – have terrible food. Maybe they’ve decided post-match access matters more than food. It’s certainly a better situation than at Old Trafford, where the food is average and the closest you get to a press conference with Fergie is when you huddle around the TV to watch his no-holds-barred interview with MUTV … .

Do you have a favourite ground both and home and abroad? The first time I go to a new stadium – the Emirates, the Allianz Arena, Green Point in Cape Town – I often find myself awe-struck, but the grounds I really love are the ones that are atmospheric and have a bit of history and passion about them. I love Anfield, Goodison, Fratton Park, Turf Moor, Craven Cottage. I loved Roker Park, Highbury and Maine Road. I loved Layer Road on the one occasion I went there, even though it was basically a shithole. The Ali Sami Yen had an incredible atmosphere, the old Olympiakos Stadium too. It’s always a privilege to go to Camp Nou or the Bernabeu, but I’ve rarely experienced what I would call a “proper” atmosphere there. The San Siro is eye-catching, historic and loud. I would put it up there with Celtic Park, the Westfalenstadion, Anfield and Goodison in my top five. Old Trafford gets a bad press with the whole “prawn sandwich” thing, but, when it’s loud, it’s a great place to watch football.

Didn't you used to write books full of football reports when you were a child and do you still have those to this day? Not just match reports. I also did team-by-team previews for the World Cup in 1982 and 1986. From an early age, I would often watch matches on TV with an exercise book on my lap. I would even write match reports on my Subbuteo games against, erm, myself. This all sounds pretty sad, doesn’t it? And yes they’re still around somewhere. Even if I wanted to throw them away, my dear mum wouldn’t allow it.

Are you one for football memorabilia and if so what is the most treasured item you possess? My study at home is crammed full of programmes and ticket stubs dating back to my childhood (and before), but I’m not one to go out of my way to collect stuff or get things signed. I’ve got plenty of things I treasure – photos, shirts, old programmes – but no real stand-out item.

Will the football in the 2012 Olympics get the Kay juices flowing? I’m one of those people who pays more attention to the football than the athletics at the Olympics. It tends to be a pretty good tournament, actually. Given that England – I mean Great Britain, of course – will be competing, there will be far more media interest this time. I’ll be in the press box, I’m sure.

What should happen to that Stadium after the Olympics? I’m split on this. I would rather see it occupied by a football club than see it become just another white-elephant stadium, but, as I mentioned before, I love the old, atmospheric grounds and Upton Park is certainly one of them. When you have had Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst etc play on that pitch, with all that history, wouldn’t you want to preserve that? I hate it when clubs leave historic grounds. Absolutely hate it. For me, the thought of Anfield or Goodison or Upton Park or White Hart Lane being bulldozed is terribly sad.

I'm not sure if you're aware but September 4 marks the first ever Non-League Day. As there are no Premiership or Championship games that day, fans of those clubs are being urged to go and actively support their local Non-League side. Will The Times be lending their support to this fine idea? I’m certain we will. It’s a really good idea and I can see a lot of people going for it. The bigger issue is whether you can get non-match-going fans to go and watch their local team. They are the ones the non-league clubs need to tap into and attract on a regular basis.

Who are your local Non-League side and have you been down to see them play? My local non-league side – surprisingly, perhaps, because people seem to assume that every national journalist wants to live in London – is the club that now goes by the name of FC Halifax Town. To my shame, I haven’t been to The Shay. My excuse is that I haven’t been in the area that long and it’s not easy when you go to three or four games a week and watch more on TV. But I’ll get down there soon, I promise.

You're one of the most popular journalists on Twitter with over 15,000 followers (check you out). Is it a valuable tool for your trade or do just do it all for fun? I’d say it started off as a bit of fun, quickly become useful and is now becoming valuable (though not yet essential). I was defiantly anti-Twitter until an American journalist friend persuaded me of its merits. So I signed up in February and, yes, it’s nice to have [checks] 16,784 followers. I try to interact with them and debate on certain issues, but it becomes harder the more followers and replies you get. I was actually quite touched by the number of appreciative messages I got when I signed off at the end of the World Cup and then when I signed on again three weeks later. Quite apart from whether Twitter is good for individual journalists, it has made us more accessible to the fans and, importantly, vice-versa. That can only be a good thing.

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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Toronto FC

Oh Canada!

Toronto FC 2 Chivas USA 1 (07:08:10)

1860 Munich fan Michael Stoffl travels the globe watching football and generally living the dream. His latest pit-stop was in Toronto, Canada where he saw Toronto FC - the only Canadian team playing in the MLS:

I recently stopped over in Toronto when the TFC played at home. So rather than going to the mall or take a look down from CN Tower - for a mere $22, I decided to spend my Saturday afternoon watching football and drinking beer.

After some basic research before the game, I got in touch with a number of supporters from a group called the "U-Sector". I received a very friendly welcome, they got me a ticket for my preferred section (cheapest available plus best atmosphere), and invited me to their pre-match bar before the game to boot. So, what's not to like?

Pitchers at Maro were only $12 (a bargain in Canada, and unlike south of the border they know how to do beer), only a 10-minute walk to the the ground, and the atmosphere was buzzing when we arrived - not really what I expected before going to my first soccer match in Canada. Incidentally, I noticed that many people I met in Toronto actually refer to the sport as football, not soccer.

I must have been one of the few not wearing red that day. Confetti and ticker tape all over the place, everyone standing on the seats behind the goal, and all accentuated by some decent chants and singing.

Gary Russell of the U-Sector was kind enough to answer a few questions I had:

What is the U-Sector? And where does that name come bearing in mind you congregate in section 113? U-Sector is a supporters' group founded in 2000, and pre-dates the existence of Toronto FC and BMO Field. Members supported a lower league team and the Canadian National team at the old Varsity stadium and met in Section U (the sections were alphabetical instead of numeric). That was before my time, but some of those founders remain active in U-Sector.

How many fans turn up for matches BMO Field? And how does this compare with other sports in town such as hockey or baseball? BMO Field's capacity was 20,500 when it opened in 2007, and was expanded last year to 21,800. Attendance is usually announced
somewhere between 20 and 21 thousand. This is about the same capacity as the hockey arena. The baseball stadium holds just shy of 50,000, but they have struggled for attendance in recent years, and they are also averaging about 20,000.

How much is a match ticket at TFC, and how many are taken up by sponsors, hospitality, etc.? Tickets range from $26 in the supporters' sections to $120 in the "club" seats. Most of the tickets are in the hands of fans, which makes for a better atmosphere. The club does have premium box suites it sells to corporations.

What is the greatest moment in the history of TFC? Speaking of history, how long has the club been around? This is the fourth season of TFC's existence. We're a very new team, the first top-level professional football team in Toronto since 1984 when the NASL folded. As a result, this club is making history every season. Our iconic moment was when Danny Dichio (former QPR, Sampdoria player) scored the first TFC goal at BMO Field on May 12, 2007. Since then, the club has won two Canadian championships and this summer qualified for the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time. Our first Canadian championship, the Miracle in Montreal, when the team needed 5 goals on aggregate to win the trophy and won 6-1, is probably the highlight so far.

I noticed at least three separate 'singing sections' at the stadium. What is your relation to those other supporter groups? Each of the groups has their own way of doing things, but we have often cooperated on displays in the past. Our capos consult on songs and chants with our near neighbours, the Red Patch Boys in section 112, and of course, we all look out for each other on away trips.

Who are the TFC's biggest rivals? And do you share any friendships with other teams/supporters? Geography is a big issue. Our real biggest rivals aren't even in the
same league with us yet. Montreal Impact are in the league below us, they are our nearest Canadian rivals, but will be joining MLS in 2012. We have contact with supporters' groups from some of the American clubs, but because of the distances, there isn't much of an away travelling culture in MLS. Except for our fans, of course, and we're still new.

I assume you're following football in the motherland and across Europe. Do TFC fans have a favourite other club or league? I'm a Hearts supporter. You met a Hertha fan, a Feyenoord fan, an Allianza Lima fan -- people here also support clubs from all over, the
places that they or their families are from. We have many fans of the big European leagues. As there are a lot of Liverpool supporters attached to TFC, and because the club wears Red, I think it is fair to say a lot of our chants are modelled on Liverpool chants. But we're always open to new songs and new ideas from anywhere.

Go on Stoffers lad!

With Columbus/Ohio being the shortest away trip at 500 miles, how many people actually follow the team away? We took 2000+ fans to Columbus one year, so the potential is there. We've had very good trips to New England, New York, Chicago, in spite
of the distances. There's only so much you can do when other teams in your league, like Los Angeles, are 3500 km away. All of our away games will have a small core of away support, whatever the obstacles.

I hear you're doing well in the CONCACAF's Champions League this season. After overcoming mighty Motagua of Honduras, you're now facing Cruz Azul from Mexico. What does this competition mean to you? It's hugely important, not only because we want to compete against the best teams on our continent, but because we need to raise the profile of our club. We have a very strong ownership group (TFC's owners also run the NHL Maple Leafs and the NBA Raptors), we have a good little stadium with an excellent atmosphere. Now we need to have success as a club and spread the name, so that we can attract players to take the team further. We think Toronto is a great city to live in, and we want
top players to want to come and play here.

What's the press coverage like in the local newspapers? I didn't find anything on soccer in this Saturday's 'The Globe and The Mail'. I might have overlooked it though in case there were a couple of lines. It is usually very good. There is a crust of old journos here who resent football and wanted it to fail, because they are invested in the established sports, but the media outlets aren't able to ignore the success of the football club among Torontonians. We get good coverage from all the major outlets, including the CBC, the national television network. Of course, the club is well-positioned on the web.

I learned a new acronym today: DP, which is short for 'designated player'. But what does it mean? Major League Soccer is a salary cap league. Each club is allowed a
maximum of 2.55 million dollars per season for the whole team's salary. In bigger leagues, that can easily be one player's salary. The idea is to control costs and to keep the league competitive, no one team can spend their way to success by bringing in a roster of expensive players. However, there is an escape clause -- the designated player. This is where David Beckham and Thierry Henry come in. Each club can have two players (and can buy the right to a third) for whom only $415,000 counts against the team's salary for cap purposes. The rest is paid by the team to the player directly. Toronto's DPs are the Canadian international (and local boy) Julian de Guzman, and the former Spanish international Mista, both of whom are former players from Deportivo La Coruna in Spain.

We do like a beer with our football here in Europe. And I was surprised to see 24 oz. cups of Carlsberg being sold at the stadium (that's 1.5 pints or 0.71 litres) that you are allowed to drink in the stand. But what is the beer of choice for the locals? There is a lot of variety. Toronto is a great place for microbrew or craft beer. Most fans buy their beer for the price! The stadium has an arrangement with Carlsberg, and it is great that we get to drink beer in the stands.

Now, tell me why the U-Sector meet up at a fancy nightclub - that opens its doors in the afternoon - rather than in a more appropriate old-fashioned pub or bar?
We had a suitable nearby pub where we used to meet and we were very happy there, but unfortunately, the owner became ill and died, and it closed. So we were stuck for a place to meet that was near the stadium and had the capacity to deal with a large loud group of thirsty supporters. Luckily for us, two of our members are friends with the owner of this club and they agreed to give us access on game days. It has been a very good situation for us, and I hope it has been good for them too.

Stoffers in that fancy nightclub wishing he'd selected a little red number from his wardrobe.

I hope so, too. And I definitely enjoyed myself. Thanks for your time and the great hospitality!

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