Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Island Games XIV - Isle of Wight

Islands In The Sun

Gotland 2-4 Isle of Man (Cowes Sports FC)
Rhodes 2-1 Greenland (Brading Town FC)
Åland 3-3 Saaremaa (East Cowes FC)
Isle of Wight 4-0 Ynys Môn (Newport (IW) FC)

The Island Games: 3,500 athletes from 25 islands going for gold in 14 different sports.

Tommy Boyd once said that on a clear day you can see the Isle of Wight from atop of Brighton pier. I live a pitch and putt away from that pier, and if there's a festival of football going on that I can virtually see from my house, then I was jolly well signing up for it. They love a festival on this fair isle don't they? Granted, this one didn't have Dave Grohl positioned centre stage frantically shaking his wig, but it did have Ynys Môn FC on the bill. Boom.

Sadly, we couldn't put Tommy's theory into practice as a thick blanket of fog had engulfed the whole of the South Coast early on, and we couldn't see past our hooters, never mind the Isle of Wight. It soon lifted though to reveal a sumptuous summers day as I chugged into Fishbourne Harbour armed with a long list of fixtures and accompanied by usual suspects Cynical Dave and Mr Fuller. Travelling to a football match by ferry is just about as good as life gets. I've got previous in the floating to football matches department having arrived to games at Fenerbahce, Helsingborgs and FC Copenhagen on the old Bryan.

After picking up our press accreditation, sinking a couple of pints of 'Ale of Wight' (see what they did there?), and giggling at middle class chaps with jumpers tied around their necks, we headed to the first match of four during the day: Gotland v Isle of Man at Cowes Sports. It was here we struck up the first song of the day: "We all follow the Gotland over land and sea" - we all laughed, and then headed off to the bar for another pint to celebrate our fine work.

Full marks to the Isle of Man for their Melchester Rovers inspired kit and classic team photo pose.

Bonnie Gotland - Sweden's largest island and the largest island in the Baltic Sea - started well, very well in fact. They were a goal up within 8 (eight) seconds of the start when Peter Öhman struck a rasping 25 yard effort that ricocheted in off the post of Isle of Man keeper Manx Thomas' goal. A quick phone call to the Guinness Book of Records confirmed this to be the fastest goal in Island Games history. The Gotland players ran towards the EFW team, and did a little victory dance. 120 seconds later they were wiping hearty meatballs with gravy off their faces as the IOM equalised. Any early skepticism about the pace and quality of the football had been swept aside within two minutes. This was clearly going to be the best day of our lives.

The Isle of Man won the game 4-2 in a repeat of the scoreline from when the two teams met in the previous games in Åland in 2009. That match was marred by controversy as the Manx team accused Gotland of bringing in ringers from the Swedish mainland. No such complaints today though. The Isle of Man were worthy winners, and laid down a big marker in this group (of death) which also contained The Falkland Islands and big time Charlie's Guernsey. The latter of whom have gone all show business recently by taking the shill and entering the Combined Counties League in England.  

Öhman alive. New Island Games record holder Peter Öhman celebrates his goal after just 8 seconds.

Which cheeky scamp put this poster up at the match? *walks away whistling* 

All Rhodes (sic) then led to Rhodes v Greenland at Brading Town FC, which, to my surprise, was a complete sell out - many were locked out and two people sustained a graze to the knee in the crush outside - and we had to do battle with Talk Sport and jostle with Sky Sports to get through the turnstiles in time for kick off.  Actually, strictly speaking, that wasn't true. Apparently the locals were saving themselves for the big one the following day: The Tree Planting Ceremony to mark the Games at the Sandown Athletics Track. Boom.

This was one beautiful setting for a football match. It must be up there in the top 10 of Britain's most picturesque grounds (see top photo). Old London Underground cast-off tube trains shoot past one of the goals every ten minutes, it has a pitch sloppier than Yeovil Town's old gaff and you can set up a deckchair and watch the match unfold on a big grassy bank surrounded by flowers. 

And in this green and pleasant land......

Rhodes held on for a 2-1 victory despite having two men sent off in the final few minutes. There was a brief moment of comedy as the No.8 stormed off to the changing rooms and smashing a polystyrene cup up in the process, causing eight pence worth of damage. The keeper soon followed after handling outside of his area, no such histrionics from him though, sadly. By now news had filtered back to the Greek Island, and they were already out dancing on the streets of Psinthos. 

Following a quick two pint pit-stop in the Hare and Hounds, where Cynical Dave negotiated some free stuffing balls with our drinks (dry as since you ask) were on our way to the Baltic Sea derby between Åland and Saaremaa at East Cowes FC. As you do. In truth, we didn't stay long at this game. For sure it had goals, six of them, but the clubhouse and the surroundings were fairly bleak and some nit-wit groundhoppers, complete with sandals and socks, were moaning about having to pay 20p for a programme. It's not as if the football club at East Cowes were milking fans like Friesians was it? Udderly ridiculous. Moo-ve on.

Safe to say the Reed Stand had never seen anything like it as Åland and Saaremaa trotted out onto the pitch.

The second Island Games record of the day: Lowest ever dugout. 

"I'm living and breathing this" said Cynical Dave as we pitched up to our fourth and final game of the day in the relatively throbbing metropolis of Newport. Stand by for some non-Wiki (non-Wiki!) research about the St Georges Park football ground at Newport (IW), (loving those brackets by the way - Ed.): At early games at this stadium, and we're talking 1888, the players had to change in a pub across the road and then enter the pitch a few minutes prior to kick off to clear the cows from the field before play could commence. 

This was the host islands first game in the group against the mighty-ish Ynys Môn, and happily the locals had come out in force with just under a thousand fans paying £3 each to click through the turnstiles. The fact that this was the biggest ground and club on the island was hammered home immediately when upon entering the big bar underneath the main stand, I noticed they had their own Newport (IW) branded dart board. Wolf whistles ahoy. 

"A few in today gaffer"

Bobs Full House in the main stand.

The tree planting ceremony was already starting to pay dividends.

Any tension in the crowd dissipated as the IOW took the lead with an early penalty before eventually running out comfortable 4-0 winners. A bit of shame for the fans that they weren't allowed to drink a sociable beer on the terraces. I don't think there would have been running battles between the two sets of fans if they'd drunk anywhere other than the club bar. And the club could have filled their boots with much needed extra revenue, surely? 

Anyway, my first visit back to the Isle of Wight in over 20 years had yielded 19 goals in 4 games in a single day. I'd worked up a lava on that last visit cycling around the island, and - checks nobody is still reading (not to worry they've all moved on to Zonal Marking now - Ed) this nonsense - stayed on a folk camp and learnt how to juggle. The organisers of this particular island games certainly managed to juggle 14 different sports into one week. Everybody involved deserves a gold medal. London 2012 take note: The Isle of Wight games were officially a rip-roaring success, it's over to you.... 

For lots more photos from the day CLICK ME

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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Interview: Oliver Holt - Daily Mirror

Holt. Who goes there....

We all know Oliver Holt.  We’ve followed him on twitter, we’ve read his columns and we’ve all got his opinions on him. We might criticise him, we might disagree with him, but you’ve got to give the guy credit for sticking his opinions out there and, like all the best folks on twitter, he’s prepared to engage with those who disagree with him, and often to notable effect.

And so over in EFW headquarters we decided he’d be perfect to face the European Football Weekends treatment. With a recent twitter spat with Rio Ferdinand (In which he published a Direct Message sent to him by Rio calling him ‘a fat prick’) making waves in the twitterverse, the timing was perfect. And so, over an hour in a North-West London pub, this opus occurred. Enjoy.

EFW: I guess the obvious place to kick off is the Rio incident. What was your take on that, is there anything you’d do differently? 

Oliver Holt: I suppose maybe, when I flagged it up on twitter, before the article came out, maybe I wouldn’t have flagged up the ‘you fat prick thing (the DM)’ straight away, maybe I would have flagged up him saying ‘you cock’ in the mixed zone (after England/ Switzerland). They’re effectively the same thing, but by me doing that it allowed the debate to morph into a debate about privacy or confidentiality, which I thought was a bogus debate. And maybe I was slightly culpable in that. I think it allowed people who wanted to shift the debate, the chance to shift the debate. Aside from that, I wouldn’t change anything. In terms of the confidentiality aspect, it took me by surprise to be honest, I didn’t see that there was any confidentiality to be broken. It would have been different if he’d been giving me a sensitive piece of information, a phone number, or said ‘this is between you and me’ then fine, but none of that was the case.

I guess if I, or anyone else on twitter, got a message from Rio calling me a fat prick, we’d tell everyone.....

I talked to a lot of people about it afterwards and, confidentiality is a two-way street, if I send an abusive letter to you, have I got the right to expect you to keep that confidential? For one thing, he didn’t ask me to keep it confidential, but has he got that right to expect him to keep it confidential? If I’d done that I wouldn’t expect it to be kept private, apart from anything else, I just don’t see what confidence there was to break. There was just that piece of abuse, which didn’t really offend me. What annoyed me about his tweets and DMs was the accusation that I’d never fronted him up about the drugs issue and that I’d had many opportunities to do it. Technically I’ve had opportunities in press conferences to do it, but in reality it would be hijacking a pre-match press conference, or an impromptu press conference in a mixed zone when other journalists want to talk about a match, something like that isn’t feasible. The last time I’d seen him in a casual setting was at the 2006 World Cup, I’ve got no problem with him personally, and I still don’t.

I think where I do have some sympathy for him, is that the missed drugs test was some time ago, and he’s served his punishment, and that his name has been dragged back into this (over the Kolo Toure) incident. Ironically it was Man United fans that brought it up because they were annoyed that Kolo only got 6 months, quite rightly, and that Rio got 8. And I understand why he was annoyed, but his name was in that debate, and I entered that debate. Rio was obviously angry that I’d entered that debate, but without getting pretentious about it, that’s what twitter is about, I like getting involved with the debate. I don’t just want to say something and let everyone else talk about it, I like to get involved too. He seemed to think that I had some sort of vendetta, which I don’t. But he’s probably not going to be persuaded of that.

How has twitter changed your relationships with players?

I’m not sure if it’s changed them that much yet, maybe it will. I think the change twitter has brought so far, is that it’s given fans and media alike better understandings of players. I think someone like Wayne Rooney comes across incredibly well on twitter. It feels like you’re seeing the real him, and he comes across as a really likeable and actually quite a bright bloke. I think he’s been one of the biggest beneficiaries of twitter, and OK, he got involved in a bit of scrap with someone, but that’s a bit of an irrelevance to be honest, as that Rio abuse was an irrelevance. 

I’m not sure whether it’s had any effect on the relationships with press and players, but going back to Rooney it allows players to bypass the media. If you think about Rooney and the hair-transplant, it came out in The Sun, and then he talked about it on twitter, and it was him that posted the picture of it. If he hadn’t done that there would have been an absolute feeding frenzy to get the first picture. By doing that he just cut out that avenue. The papers the next day printed the picture he had posted up and suddenly there’s no scramble for the picture anymore. 

You’re not going to get a situation where you see a player and it’s like ‘Hello mate we’ve been talking on twitter’ I don’t think that’s gonna happen. But from my own experience I enjoy having conversations with players such as Michael Owen, whom I know, and like.  It’s nice to have some form of debate, same with people that I know like Phil and Gary Neville, but I don’t think it would open up relationships for people I didn’t know.

Is a twitter ban for players inevitable?

Well I hope not. I think it’s been good for all of us, players too. People talk a lot about the democratisation of the media that blogging and social media has brought, and I think there’s a big element of truth to that, and that part of that is a feeling of greater accessibility that twitter brings. Players are criticised a lot by the media for being untouchable and living their lives behind tinted windows and I think twitter is the opposite of that. It shows something of themselves to fans and media. I think it’s a great thing and it would be a really shame if clubs or the FA tried to hit too heavy on that.

You mention the rise of new media. Has twitter changed the way you do your job?

I think, at a very basic level, it’s a news source. I think a lot of people are on twitter, you look at the amount of stories generated on twitter. It’s a primary source. I’m not talking me and Rio, or Rooney, but just what players say casually. 

I suppose it has changed the job a bit, it’s another form of interaction. I keep going back to the Ferdinand thing, but one of the few interesting about it is that it was an example of how ‘new media’ works in that I started feeding out elements of a column that goes in a paper on a Wednesday morning at about 7pm on a Tuesday evening. Then The Mirror flag it up on their website at 10pm or whatever, and then I get involved in a kind of hectic night of tweeting with people, and obviously mainly enraged Man Utd fans. The sort of upshot of it is that my entire article is dissected and chewed over by midnight, before it’s even appeared in the paper. Hopefully it encourages people to buy the paper as well, but it’s certainly an acceleration of the whole reading process. I think it was a good example of the ways papers can use twitter and interact.

What about the way you interact with ‘new media,’ blogs, podcasts...

I read blogs but I suppose I’m semi-traditional in that I read a lot of established journalists blogs rather than fans blogs. I find it hard to distil what I should read and cut through the mass of what’s out there.  I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there but I guess because I’m not particularly technically adept I don’t necessarily know where to find it. I mean look, I love fanzines, stuff like ‘United We Stand’ and the stuff Andy Mitten does for instance, someone like him is a terrific journalist, and I’m obviously aware of that kind of thing. 

I’ve got a great deal of respect for some of the people on twitter, some of the fans who are prolific tweeters, on behalf effectively of their respective clubs. And at the risk of sounding too pretentious, I find that it’s for me anyway, it’s educational and keeps you honest in a way. If you tweet something about a player, for example, I said something, when England were playing Switzerland, about what a nightmare game Johan Djourou was  having, and how it highlighted the need for Arsenal to strengthen at the back. I had a lot of tweets from Arsenal fans saying ‘don’t be so ignorant, he had a fantastic season for us.’ Or ‘ He’s one of the reasons we had a good defensive record.’ I saw arsenal play as much as anyone I saw last season, but probably a maximum of 10 times. So I thought, ok, obviously I got that wrong. So it keeps you abreast of things, it’s a source of information as well as a tool for communication.

The line comes there I guess between partisan club nature and actual insight? There’s so many voices, for example the Villa/Martin O’Neill thing.  I’d disagree with your view, but the interesting thing is that anyone who’s not a villa fan would agree with a lot of your criticism of the club and support for O’Neill.

I think that’s a good example. You’re right, I’m a fan of O’Neill. I like him personally and I’ve also been a fan of his professionally. But you’re right the volume of tweets from Villa fans that are anti-O’Neill is fairly big, and I have to say that many of them make a persuasive case, and so, from an educational position, a lot of tweeters are incredibly forensic in their kind of knowledge so you go through the buys O’Neill made and the one’s that flopped and I can see there is a point there. My counter argument to that would be that under him Villa still finished 6th 3 season in succession.  I remember saying, one of the few things I get right, on Sunday supplement that I’d guarantee  Villa wouldn’t finish 6th this season, and you can go round in circles, and that’s partly because he left on the eve of the start of the season. He was given a lot of money, and achieved a fair degree of success, they flirted with success. So I think, I’ve got a lot of time for O’Neill but I can see the point that villa fans are making and again it fits into that category of keeping you honest as a journalist.

As someone who divides opinion, do you thrive on it, and ever look to do it on purpose of ‘heighten’ your opinions to get a reaction, on twitter for example?

Well, the first part, do I thrive on it? I suppose when you’re a columnist for a tabloid, you can’t be grey. You can’t do an ‘on one hand this....’ kind of piece, you’ve got to go for it. Whatever your opinion is, it has to be strong and the whole point of a column is that is an opinion. So it’s kind of obvious that some people will agree and some won’t, and it’s part of that.

I don’t set out to be provocative, but if you’ve got strong opinions about stuff, then they necessarily will be provocative. So recently I wrote a piece about Nani, about how I’d never vote for him to be player of the year, and why. Now I didn’t write that to win up United fans, I genuinely felt it , but as it happens, I was aware that it would wind up United fans. But the worse option would be to shy away from something because it’s provocative.

Has that changed from going to The Mirror from The Times and being in a more tabloid setting?

I suppose it has. I loved every moment of my time there (at The Times) but I never really had that outlet there, I never had a column, an opinion piece as such. And I did more reportage, reporting from events, which I still do now, but I didn’t have a sports column which I really enjoy having at the Mirror. So I suppose it’s been a change in as much as it’s something I didn’t do before. 

The thing I enjoyed doing with the Rio piece was that I thought it was a reasonable piece and that sometimes it’s nice to talk about things that the fans don’t see. That’s what I found strange about the whole affair. If he was going to write that DM, what was he concerned about? Why didn’t he just tweet it? And obviously the whole exchange in the mixed zone, obviously there were 100s of journalists there, so everybody was aware of that and others were tweeting about that before I did. I think personally those kind of pieces are worthwhile

How does neutrality as a journalist fit alongside growing up as a football fan? Does being a Stockport fan makes that aspect a bit easier?

When I was growing up I’d watch Stockport on a Friday night and either City or United on a Saturday. When I was in my teens I went through spells of watching City or United more. 83, 84 and 85 I watched a lot of United, both home and away. I think journalists differ, and it’s wrong for me to generalise and some still feel an allegiance to a club as fiercely as they ever did. But maybe it’s because I did have those divided loyalties (between City, Utd and Stockport), but I found fairly quickly when working as a sports journalist that it kind of diluted my allegiances. I started not to care whether City or United won or not and started to see the story really, and think about the match as part of a story, and what the angle to take. I started to look at games professionally rather than personally I guess. And maybe that’s a fault, I don’t know. I feel more dispassionately about watching games now, but I think you have to be dispassionate up to a point. I still believe that most reporters are, but every fan thinks that you are against their club, and I understand that because you don’t feel the same passion for that club that a fan of that club feels. So if we’re sitting in the press box at OT, and someone shouts “Are you going to write something nice about us this week?” (not specifically to me, but to the box in general), and you think, mate we write something nice about you every week because we have to because you’re always winning! And yet fan of individual clubs feel persecuted by everyone. And sometimes rightly so, some of the treatment Man United have had recently has been ugly, the warning to Fergie of praising Howard Webb for example was very harsh. So I can see there are individual instances where clubs are victimised but I don’t think reporters for national newspapers are biased.

But you’re right, it was easier for me, being a Stockport fan has meant I’ve never had to report on them, I’ve written pieces on them when they’ve been in financial difficulty, but never had to report on them. But even journalists I know who are Arsenal or West Ham fans, when they report on them, I don’t think it impacts their match report. You can be bias on twitter, someone like John Cross, who I’ve got the upmost respect for, his match reports on Arsenal would be scrupulously fair, but on twitter he’s got more licence to talk about his allegiances, talking at fans forums. 

You mention being a Stockport fan, what have you made of their recent difficulties?

I’m slightly wary of bigging up my Stockport credentials, I feel slightly fraudulent, I know how incredibly committed a lot of Stockport fans are and I’m keenly aware that I only went to 10 or games last season, mostly away games, due to necessity of work at times. I’ve got a season ticket for me and one of my daughters, mainly as an expression of support for the club. But I’d be nervous to speak on their behalf, as one friend there comes up from Devon for games home and away, so he’s far more qualified by comparison!

I felt more deeply in touch with it the season before when we were threatened with extinction after being in receivership for 18 months. And I felt extremely deeply about that, as every fan would, it’s every fans worst nightmare really. But once the club was saved, I understood the anger going on about mismanagement of the club, but a lot of clubs are mismanaged, so I found it easier to deal with us slipping out of the league on footballing terms rather than because we’d been booted out financially. Again when I was growing up, it was always my worst nightmare that Stockport would lose their league status. But I guess now there’s automatic promotion from the conference it’s happened to other clubs and other clubs have survived it, so it’s just getting used to a new reality I guess and the conference is such an incredibly difficult league to get out of. 

The football match I enjoyed most last season, out of everything I covered both professionally and personally was Port Vale Vs Stockport. That was the one that I got the most enjoyment out of. I took my little boy who’s 3, he didn’t watch the game but he just pottered about the away end. For Stockport if we’d lost we could have gone down that day. But Port Vale were pressing for the playoffs so we expected to lose. We won 2-1, the winner was at our end. It was just brilliant. Nothing you do professionally compares to that feeling of being a fan, it was just brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

If I wasn’t a journalist and I had my weekends free, I wouldn’t go to the Premier League I live in North-West London you know, I think I’d to go Barnet, I’ve been a couple of times recently, and I liked it there. It’s more intimate (at that level), you get intimacy you don’t get at the Premier League level, there’s something that feels real, more real and intimate about it.

As a fan of a lower league club, what do you make of the recent cut in funding for Supporters Direct?

I’m a massive fan of what David Conn does at the Guardian, and I’ve read all the stuff he’s written about it. And again as a fan of a lower league club I’m aware of the stuff that work that Supporters Direct have done. I saw what Dan Johnson from the Premier League said, how they never got any credit for the money they put into them, and he’s right, they do deserve credit for that, but equally I find it a bizarre decision. At worst those tweets that Dave Boyle sent were ill-considered, but I wouldn’t even say they were sacking offenses, let alone a reason to cut off the funding.

I think what Supporters Direct have done is entirely appropriate, told him to watch his future tweets, and I don’t think anything more needed to be done, he’s a guy that’s done an awful lot of good work, and he didn’t deserve to be sacked for a one off incident. To further compound that by withdrawing their funding is bizarre frankly and very sad. I thought it was the saddest story of the week to be honest.

Do you feel you can use your column to write about that side of the game?

To a point I do. To be fair to the Mirror, if I’d wanted to write about that in my column I could have done, but I kind of thought that the Villa story (his column that day) was more interesting and mainstream. I think that Supporters Direct have a lot of very good champions amongst some of the broadsheet papers who have written about it superbly, but I’m pleased I at least have a platform to at least register an opinion on the Supporters Direct thing, and I’m glad they’ve had a lot of support.

What about all the recent shenanigans at FIFA? Do you wish you’d done and said more, earlier?

I think it was difficult to do more earlier, because well, I liked Andy Anson the head of our bid but he made an appalling mistake for labelling BBC unpatriotic for doing that Panorama, and the more time has gone on and the more stuff has come out about FIFA the more you can see that what the BBC was trying to do was right and they were castigated for it by a lot of people, and in fact they were castigated by other media.

The Sun did a back page absolutely slaughtering it. And so, I think it was a very difficult kind of thing, when you’ve got people at the 2018 bid people accusing you of being unpatriotic and saying you’re going to ruin the bid, it was difficult, I mean, we all wanted us to get the World Cup, it would have been brilliant.  I think you’re called jingoistic but I think we deserved the World Cup, we’ve got great stadiums, great supporters, good infrastructure, hotel rooms and I think we deserved it. It’s less easy to complain about our treatment given that  Russia won and I suppose that’s a new territory, but the whole bidding process is just a sick farce. If you want to go to new territories, say you want to go to new territories, don’t let us spend however much it we spent on a doomed bid. But actually, you know, I was really proud of the BBC for doing that thing and it was a really good bit of journalism.

Is there some stuff then that you wouldn’t write about (at risk of causing some kind of harm)?

I find it uncomfortable to be overly critical of an England team going into a major tournament, and I think that’s probably wrong and probably a weakness in me. Someone like Steve Howard in The Sun, I think has called things extremely well recently, and wrote off our chances of succeeding pre-World Cup and got it right. 

I think sometimes I feel, wrongly, wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt, and I end up trying to persuade myself that we have got a chance. I mean, you look at our individual players and you think Ashley Cole, may be the best LB in the world, John Terry and Rio are both fantastic centre halves. You’ve got Gerrard, and Lampard, who then looked like 2 world class central midfielders, you’ve got Rooney etc... and you start to convince yourself. 

And sometimes you have moments of clarity, like the England/Spain under-21s recently and you see us belting balls 40 yards upfield and hoping for a knockdown and you then see the way Spain pass it around and you think that we’re looking at our under 21s and we’re looking at years of this kind of football, and we’re kind of kidding ourselves. It’s the hope that kills you and you need to be totally dispassionate and say we’ve got no chance of winning Euro 2012, but the nearer it gets to the tournament but the more we’ll start to tell ourselves that we do have a chance and we get into this cycle of boom and bust.

Clearly you’ve got a love of other sports, will you fill your summer with those or will you still be on football duty?

When you work for an English tabloid it’s kind of difficult during the season to look at anything else. 70% of what we do is football, I love football so that’s hardly a chore. But you know, I spent 3 weeks in Australia watching the Ashes, in terms of work trips that has been my favourite. I love covering football but I love writing about and covering boxing so I’m going out to David Haye’s fight in Hamburg. For the under 21s we’ve got someone there and most paper’s view is that it’s a one man job and probably we’d send someone else out if England got to the final. (EFW note- Ah the joys of hindsight). But you know Wimbledon starts next week and I’d rather be at Wimbledon than at the under 21s. Football has become something bigger. As soon as the season ends you get this mania with transfers and rumours and the managerial merry-go round.

Yourself and Barry Glendenning were talking recently about the hoop-la that surrounds football, what role you think yourself, the press as a whole plays in perpetuating that?

I think it’s self-perpetuating to be honest. I don’t actively set-out to big up the Premier League, sometimes the opposite, I sometimes feel that I’m sometimes negatively about it as an entity. Sometimes I feel that the Premier League with its money should do more to help the lower league. So I don’t set out to big it up, but I guess as a result of writing so much about it that may go some way to perpetuating it, so it’s not something I actively think about bigging it up. I think I write more about the sport rather than what goes on around it.

But I guess the media as a whole is responsible for this but footballers have become you know the equivalent of pop-stars and movie-stars, they’re a-listers now and we can’t get away from that. And I guess that’s largely to do with Sky and the money that they have pumped into football and the knock on effect on the wealth that has been lavished onto footballers that has turned them into these celebrity beings.

What’s been your favourite moment watching football as a journalist?

I’d have to say 2. The 1999 champions league final- United Vs Bayern, just for that finish. And, it sounds slightly obvious but the 2005 final, Liverpool in Istanbul. Those were both amazing things to cover, amazing emotional nights. Two great nights professionally with just fantastic scenes, and seeing both clubs succeeding in incredibly dramatic circumstances. So yeah, I’d have to go for those two.

As someone who travels to watch football, where are your favourite places in the UK to watch football, and where would you recommend for a European Football Weekend?

Over here, on a personal level I would say Edgeley Park, season ticket there, next to the press box, because when I was a kid I’d look up at the press box (not just at Edgeley Park) like it was some kind of magical place and how incredibly lucky people were to be doing that job, and sometimes I’d try and blag a programme off them if they’d sold out before the game. So I got myself and my daughter season tickets there.

I love watching Arsenal playing football, and as a club but I like the older grounds. I like Villa Park, Goodison, I like Old Trafford. But I suppose the best atmosphere I’ve been at in recent years was at the Liverpool/Chelsea  Champions League semi final second leg in 2005, the ‘ghost-goal’ game. That night was the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen. So I suppose for your question, Anfield on a big night game is pretty hard to beat. 

The Bernabau is my favourite stadium, I love it, you can feel the history of it, I like the steep sides of it and I just think it’s a brilliant stadium. It’s slightly tempered for me by the experience of being there when England played there and there was the racist abuse of SWP and Heskey, it was so widespread. I’ve never seen anything like that, even in the bad-old days of English hooliganism, it was everywhere, and that has tainted it for me. Thought it’s wrong to condemn everyone because of that, I love the stadium, I love the city. I suppose that’s my favourite. The San Siro is fantastic as well.

I’d say that watching football in Brazil is pretty hard to beat. The Maracana is a pretty special place to go. There are 3 stadiums I haven’t been to that I’d love to go. One is Eden Gardens in Calcutta to watch cricket, I’ve not been to the Chicago Cubs’ stadium Wrigley Field and I’d love to go there. The one place in football I’d love to go to would be the Bombonera in Buenos Aries where Boca Juniors place. A few of my friends have been there. Matt Dickenson from the Time said it was the most unbelievable experience.

Thanks a million to both Jamie Cutteridge and Oliver Holt for their valuable time.

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Argentinos Juniors

Argentinos Juniors and the “Hand of Dan”.

Argentina has been well documented at EFW as a footballing utopia. From the great football clubs of Boca Juniors and River Plate, their stadiums of ‘La Bombonera’ and ‘El Monumental’, to players like Lionel Messi and Diego Armando Maradona. Paul Whitaker wondered what it must be like to watch regular Argentine club football, away from ‘El classico’ encounters between Boca and River. So he decided to have a chat with Daniel Schweimeler, author of the website “The hand of Dan”, an excellent blog on football and life in Argentina. Daniel has been a resident of Buenos Aires since 2006 and was formerly a BBC correspondent for South America. Today he is a freelance journalist and has been a season ticket or “socio” of first division football club Argentinos Juniors since 2009.

How long have you been watching football in Argentina? I first went to see Boca Juniors on my first visit to Argentina in 1986. My wife is Argentine...all the women in her family are Boca fans, all the males, Platense (now in their third division)

What was the first Argentinian football match you attended? I think it was Platense v Sporting Italiano, then both in the first division, with my future father-in-law and brother-in-law. What could I do?

Why do you support Argentinos Juniors ? I hit on the idea of writing a blog looking at Argentine life through the eyes of a football fan and for that I needed a club. I didn’t want to do Boca or River since they were too obvious. Argentinos Juniors’ ground lies about 20mins bus ride on the 113 from my house so I went to investigate their last game of the 2009 Apertura season. They lost and finished last but I loved the atmosphere. And the more I looked into them the more I found similarities with West Ham United. A club which nurtured young players who then moved on to better things, a club passionate about good football, that tries (but doesn’t always succeed) to play attractive football, a neighbourhood club and one always likely to be overshadowed by its big city rivals.

How much does it cost to be a ‘socio’ (season ticket holder) for Argentinos Juniors? Last season I paid 300pesos (about £50)...that got me in to all 10 home games.

What do you get for your ‘pesos’ with being a socio?. Does being a socio get you first in ticket queue for big fixtures? Being a socio got me a neat little plastic card with my photo on it. It gave me early access to tickets for the last game of the 2010 Clausura season away to Huracan which we needed to win to clinch the title. I still queued for four hours though. The club simply doesn’t expect nor is geared up for success.

How does supporter organisations operate in Argentinian football?. Do socios have a ‘positive influence’ on the running of their particular clubs? Supporters on club boards etc? The club president and board are elected by the socios so it’s in their interests to look after us. Argentinos Juniors boasts a massive and well equipped complex with tennis courts, swimming pool, basketball courts, picnic tables and more. It’s far more swanky than the ground. Depending on what kind of socio you are, you and your family get to use those facilities.

The ‘positive influence’ is reference to the one negative subject that seems almost obligatory for articles on Argentinian football: Barra Brava or hooligans. Do Argentinos Juniors suffer a Barra Brava problem? There is a barra brava at Argentinos Juniors but it’s very small and ageing. There’s a group with very loud drums who stand behind the goal. I’ve seen a couple of scuffles with the police and violence was reported during the away game at Godoy Cruz in Mendoza, western Argentina, and in the visit to Montevideo to play Nacional in the Copa Libertadores. But it’s generally very friendly at home games...grannies and babies. The away games are a little more tense but fans are well segregated and guarded.

What is a typical matchday experience at Argentinos Juniors? Do Argentinian supporters have an equivalent routine for a ‘pre-match pint in a pub near ground, get into the ground 5 minutes before kick-off and a half-time pie?’ There’s not much alcohol involved. But a ‘must’ before the game is a Choripan --- a fat, greasy sausage in bread. Argentinos fans gather outside the ground for up to an hour beforehand.

Argentinos Juniors supporters celebrating winning the 2009 Clausura championship away to Huracan.

I read you have been to quite a few Argentinos Juniors away fixtures in Primera Division. Do you always go on your own steam or through organised transport?. Is it safe enough to wear club colours travelling to away fixtures? I’ve seen the buses that take the fans to away games....little in the way of lights, seats or tread on the tyres. So I make my own way. I keep my shirt covered because most of the Buenos Aires stadiums are situated in neighbourhoods most middle-class residents have never been to and my mother-in-law tells me I’m lucky to escape from alive. It’s really not that bad but I prefer to take precautions. I’ve taken my sons (aged 11 and 13) and insist they do the same.

If you could pick one Argentinos Junior home fixture for a visiting tourist, which would have the best atmosphere? Who are Argentinos Juniors fiercest rivals or are they loved by everybody?Their fiercest rivals are Platense, nicknamed the squid, and there are plenty of songs making reference to cooking and eating seafood. But they’re currently in the third division so kind of irrelevant. Their nearest rivals are All Boys, fairly newly promoted and just 3km up the road. Also any match involving Boca and River.

Could a tourist buy a ticket in the away section on the day of a match? You buy the away section tickets from the ground of the visiting club rather than the ground where it’s being played. There’re on sale at the Argentinos Juniors ground two days before and on the day of the fixture. They’ve never asked me to prove I’m a socio or asked which team I’m supporting.

One of the main differences between English premiership and Primera Division appears to be that the Primera Division seems very unpredicatable and more exciting for supporters. You celebrated Argentinos Juniors winning Clausura 2010, but brace yourself, you will probably never see West Ham win the English premiership. The big clubs here are in decline through a combination of corruption and bad management but mostly because so many talented, young players are sold abroad. More than 1,000 Argentines play in foreign leagues. So it’s very difficult to hold a team together for more than a season – especially if they’re successful. It used to be that Boca and River won 9 titles out of 10...a bit like Celtic and Rangers. Some like the idea that things have levelled out....recent champions have been Lanus, Argentinos Juniors and Banfield. Others lament the loss of talent and complain that the standards are not what they were. After a pretty mediocre season in which Argentinos Juniors finished fifth with a poor team and only scoring 16 goals in 19 games, I tend to agree.

How would Argentina react if River Plate lose relegation play-off matches to Belgrano.? I thought their complicated promotion/relegation system was to prevent one of the big boys going down? It was and you really have to be consistently bad to end up in the River Plate situation. But they have been consistently woeful. It’s being talked about as a national tragedy – while Boca fans are rubbing their hands in glee.

(At time of going to ‘press’, River lost the first leg 2-0 and River supporters attacked their own players, after second goal was conceded)

I was always amazed in Argentina how there were more counterfeit shirts on sale (and being bought) outside the stadiums on the streets, than in the club shops. The clubs must miss out on plenty of merchandising revenue.. It’s a counterfeit country with most CDs, DVDs, running shoes and sportsware and more being sold on the counterfeit market. So football shirts simply fit into that situation.

Do you get to see many West ham matches on TV there? Not any more, I won’t. Cable TV gives us three channels that show Premiership football. Some Saturdays you can watch three at the same time. I saw plenty of the Hammers, especially when Tevez was there. The Championship is another matter though.

Did you get Argentinian pundits or was Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker dubbed into Spanish? Fox and ESPN have their Latin America offices so the pundits are a mix of Mexican, Argentine and Colombian.

Looking at the Argentinian cheerleaders and those brolly girls that pop up behind a player being interviewed on TV, Andy Gray and Richard Keys would fit right into Argentinian football scene. They’d have to improve their line in patter though. The women here expect a little more subtle than: “Woor!!! Look at the rack on that.”

What is there general opinion of English Premier League , over there? They love the Premier League. The action and excitement and the English style of play. You see a lot of English club shirts on display...probably as many Chelsea and Man United as Barcelona and AC Milan which is odd given the fact that most Argentines are of Italian and Spanish descent.

Would the locals be so keen to see a ‘Game 39 match in Buenos Aires, that was muted by Premier League a couple of years ago? It’d sell out in hours.

How did Argentinos Juniors supporters and players celebrate winning Clausura 2010. Pitch invasion? Conga on the terrace? Open top bus around ‘La Paternal’ neighbourhood? Pitch invasions are difficult since fans are fenced in. Luckily our last game was away to Huracan in the west of Buenos Aires. It’s a great ground and they gave Argentinos extra tickets since they didn’t have much to play for. There was a lot of dancing and singing on the terraces then the party moved to the La Paternal neighbourhood and the Argentinos stadium. There was an open-topped bus but the terraces were too packed for a conga. Most Argentine fan bases are centred around the neighbourhood – either you live there or your dad or grandfather are from there. My father-in-law is pure Platense since he was born and brought up in Saavedra where that club is based. The only exceptions are Boca and River whose fan bases transcend their neighbourhoods.

The walls outside Argentinos Junior’s Diego Maradona Stadium feature, well, you know who....

If only Mick and Keith knew they were Bichos fans!

Apart from Argentinos Juniors winning Clausura 2010 at Huracan, what has been your most memorable match in Argentina? It has to be the previous match, at home to Independiente. We were losing 3-1 with twenty minutes to go. The Bichos Colorados (Ladybirds) brought the score level with about 5 to play. The manager, Claudio Borghi, took off two defenders and replaced them with a couple of strikers....then the winner, scored by a defender, in injury time. Rodrigo de los Rovers stuff.

How did Argentinos Juniors fare in subsequent Copa Libertadores campaign? Do Copa Libertadores fixtures tend to be more ‘commercialised’ than Primera Division fixtures, like the Champions League in Europe? Restrictions on standing, etc.. Argentinos were dumped into what inevitably was dubbed ‘the Group of Death’ along with Fluminse of Brazil, Nacional from Uruguay and America of Mexico. They then shocked even themselves by taking the group by storm. Early home wins and away draws took them top of the group...then it all fell apart. I went to the last home game against Fluminense which we needed to draw to have a chance of advancing. It was a passionate game with the away terracing filled with Brazilian fans...and we lost it 4-2. There was a huge player punch-up at the end. It wasn’t any more or less commercialised than league games. I seem to remember my socio card didn’t get me a ticket.

Reference the player punch up. Is the Argentina-Brazil rivalry that exists at international level, also played out at club level? Very much so. Like any big neighbours there’s a rivalry between these two in almost everything but especially at all levels of football.

Argentinos Juniors have a good reputation for producing players through famous youth academy. Do they rely on player sales abroad to boost the club coffers? Every year every Argentine clubs lose players abroad. It’s a case of who you can hold on to. Our defender, Juan Savio, has committed himself to next season and received a rapturous ovation from fans at the last game of the season last Saturday.

Any young players currently at Argentinos Juniors we should keep an eye out for? Argentinos Juniors, true to tradition, put a lot of effort into their youth teams and are reaping the benefits. Two that have impressed me are the goalkeeper, Luis Ojeda, who seems to have earned a regular first team place. Very confident and great authority. And Juan Ramirez, an 18-year-old left-sided front man, fast and with great control. But please keep it quiet. We don’t want to lose them just yet!

Their most famous player is of course Diego Armando Maradona. Please can I just clear up a few ‘stories’ I have heard/read about El Diego at Argentinos Juniors: Was it true that Diego Maradona was apparently sold for $20m to Barcelona, but Argentinos Juniors never saw any of the money? Probably not...since they’d already sold him to Boca Juniors and cut all ties with the player.

Is it true that Sheffield United had an opportunity to buy Diego Maradona from Argentinos Juniors? Yes – but international ties in those days were less strong and contacts were difficult. Just imagine!

Is it true Diego Maradona’s father has a seat at Estadio Diego Maradona and regularly watches Argentinos Juniors? There is only one box at the ground and it’s in the name of Diego’s dad who is a life-long fan.

What’s the best Diego Maradona ‘story’ you have heard at Argentinos Juniors? None in particular since he was there in his ‘innocent’ days. But the club is full of men of a certain age who will talk endlessly about how they were there the game the 15-year-old made his debut and in the subsequent years.

Were you lucky enough to see El Diego play? I’m old enough to have seen him twice. The first time in 1980 at Wembley in a friendly against England. We didn’t know much about him but froze every time he had the ball. Seemed like anything was possible. England were lucky to win 3-1. Then in the testimonial for Ossie Ardiles at White Hart Lane.

Speaking of El Diego, what’s next for former national coach. Boca manager or Argentinian presidential candidate, perhaps? Diego is probably still the most loved footballer in Argentina. But while Julio Grondona – the most hated man in football here but the most powerful – remains in the top job, the Number 10 wouldn’t get a job in the car park at the AFA headquarters.

Is the Argentine FA held in as such high esteem there as the English FA here? Pretty much. I suspect that everything Sepp Blatter knows, he learnt from Julio Grondona.

I read that the English FA put a lot of noses out of joint around the world with their crusade against FIFA corruption?. What was Argentinian reaction to all going on at FIFA and the World Cup bid? The Argentines are used to corruption in football. What they saw in FIFA, with the involvement of their own Julio Grondona, was pretty much business as usual.

As difficult as it is for me (being an England supporter) to talk about international football, I have at least to terms with England being just tournament quarter-finalists at best. How did Argentinians take unexpected early elimination at 2006 and 2010 World Cups? I was in Buenos Aires for both tournaments. I wasn’t surprised by the passion, some might call it obsession, with Argentina winning. Life ground to a standstill, schools put screens up in the hall and cancelled lessons, you had to wear blue and white. But they know their football here and were surprisingly philosophical about defeat. I was surprised they took the walloping by Germany as well as they did. I thought they were the best team in 2006 but a lack of self-belief let them down. I found few Argentines who agreed with me.

Do Argentinians think Messi will ever emulate El Diego and lead Argentina to World Cup victory, say in Brazil 2014? They know how good he is. They hope he does but I’d say that Messi doesn’t inspire quite the same passion in most Argentines as Diego did. Maybe because he’s from Rosario, not Buenos Aires, but more likely because he left Argentina so young.

How do Argentinians feel that a lot of their home friendlies are played in Europe? Was the recent home match v Spain a sign that more friendlies will be played in Argentina? They beat Albania 4-0 in Buenos Aires with goals from Messi, Tevez and Aguero over the weekend. What more do they want?

Do you think we will ever see England national team play in Buenos Aires again? I hope so. It would be tense but the rivalry, for most, is much more about the football than it is about the islands.

Argentina are due to host 2011 Copa America this month. Will you be going to any matches? I won’t, simply because the only match being played in Buenos Aires is the final – and tickets for that sold out months ago. The rest are dotted around the country – a deal done between Senor Grondona and the regional football associations to ensure they get a piece of the action which generally takes place in Buenos Aires.

How did Argentina get to host the tournament, bearing in mind how antiquated many of their stadiums are? Apart from a paint job, El Monumental seems to have not changed since the 1978 World Cup. Will terraces be open to supporters or have they picked all seater stadia only? They’ve not hosted it since the 1980s. You’re right about the Monumental and the same is true of Boca’s ground, the Bombonera. But a fair bit of investment has gone into other grounds. The La Plata stadium is said to be a dream.

Will you get many foreign supporters visiting Argentina for the tournament? I imagine a few will come over from Uruguay. Do any other South American countries supporters travel in numbers to Argentina for Copa America or Copa Libertadores matches? There will be plenty. Both Nacional of Uruguay and Fluminense of Brazil brought their full contingent of fans for the games against Argentinos Juniors. It ain’t cheap and distances are ridiculous. Uruguay, Brazil and Chile will bring thousands for the Copa America. Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay all boast huge populations in Argentina....possibily as many as a million Bolivians and a million Paraguayans live here.

Are Copa America tournaments as commercialized as European Championships? Are ticket prices affordable for ordinary Argentinians? Tickets for the Argentina games sold out in a flash. There are Argentine with a lot of money and plenty with very little.

Who is your tip for Copa America? Will the hosts handle the pressure? Argentina to beat Brazil in the final. Messi will finally come good for his national team. The outside bets are Uruguay and Paraguay.

…and finally. Will Argentinos Juniors ever build a 4th stand behind that goal? I was told last season that they would and was surprised at the start of this season to see no progress. I hope so. It must be very lonely for those goalkeepers.

Many thanks to Daniel for interview. Catch up with him and lots more on the Argentinos Juniors at www.handofdan.com. Their next campaign starts in August.

The 2011 Copa America kicks off on 1st July and the final is on 24th July at El Monumental, Buenos Aires.

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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

European Under-21 Championship

Aarhus, in the middle of Denmark

Denmark U21 1-3 Iceland U21 (18:06:11)
England U21 1-2 Czech Republic U21 (19:06:11)

Self-confessed football geek Vinny Goodfield tucked his AFC Bournemouth flag into his hand luggage and flew over to Denmark for the European Under-21 Championship....

The suits at UEFA made a good decision back in 2007 when they decided to move the U21 Tournaments to odd numbered years, giving those of us who haven't been to a game for a few weeks the chance to do some summer football. To be honest I wasn't overly fussed about doing this one, but seeing as the flights were only £22 in total it would have been rude not to. Most of that amount was a Ryanair fee to pay with a credit card. I was thinking I could have booked another cheap flight to go to their head office in Dublin and pay in cash, but they've got you cornered as you'd then have to pay the card fee for the flight to Dublin I suppose.

UEFA did 'print at home' tickets on their website for the games that were little more than a fiver each, so not bad at all. I guess 'print at home' tickets (or maybe even 'flash your smartphone with a barcode at the turnstile' tickets) are the way forward, although this is a bit distressing for someone like me who carefully preserves all of their match tickets in a nice shoebox. A scrappy printout just doesn't cut it.

We flew to Aarhus - or what I understand is a field somewhere in the vicinity of Aarhus - on Saturday morning. Having paid for an economy hire car we got given a pretty sizeable Toyota Avensis, and when you stuck it in reverse a live image came up on the dashboard screen of what is behind you, I was amazed! Not sure why I said it was live, wouldn't be much use if it had a five minute delay.

Now there was a game on in Aarhus (Switzerland v Belarus) but I figured it would be better to drive an hour or so to see the host nation play and get caught up in the fervent fever of an U21 tournament, so off to Aalborg it was for Denmark v Iceland. The weather was a bit rainy and grim so we headed off for some scran and a couple of beers in the centre before setting off for the twenty minute walk to the stadium.

The Aalborg stadium reminded me a bit of Wycombe, similar sort of size, with one big two tiered stand towering over the other three. The 'print at home' tickets didn't scan so Mr Steward had to wave us through. Bizarrely with the game being a sell out our tickets were for unreserved seating so it took quite a bit of hunting before we found two seats together. The game was very open, and with a decent atmosphere, but surprisingly remained 0-0 at half time. Apparently this was the first time ever in an U21 Tournament that no team was mathematically eliminated before the final group game, and also the first time no team had qualified before the last round of games. Of course the experts on Sky Sports did say that Iceland were all but eliminated barring a freak miracle.

Of course what then happened in the second half was that the men from Iceland showed ice cool nerve and came within a whisker of qualifying for the next round. A 3-1 win coupled with a 3-0 reverse for Belarus against Spain in Aarhus meant that the unthinkable nearly happened. Remarkable scenes. This meant that both teams lay distraught and motionless on the sodden turf on the final whistle. One more goal for Iceland and they would have pulled it off.

For those sad geeks that like football grounds (oh that will be me then) bizarrely there were two sets of floodlights with two sets next to each other in each corner. One set were proper old school and unused, black criss cross style, the other looking all angular and modern. It's like the new floodlights have bullied the old floodlights out of the way, but for some reason the old ones have stayed up.

Back to the game and there were 42 shots on goal! That worked out about 10p a shot. Bayer Leverkusen striker Jorgensen was very good for Denmark but the Danish centre half, who was also called Jorgensen (or Zanka as he has on the back of his shirt was terrible. He must be one of these players that gets away with having his nickname on there - personally I think only Pele should be allowed to get away with that). Bournemouth had a Danish player called Jorgensen once, and of course there was also Martin Jorgensen the Inter Milan midfielder. I think Jorgensen must be the Danish version of Jones.

Oh Denners we love you...

Then it was off out onto the Jomfru Ane Gade. This is a very famous strip of bars and nightclubs in Aalborg. Think Magaluf but with drinks ten times dearer. I took a bit of a shine to a drink called a Cult Modju which was a mixture of a Red Bull-type energy drink and cider, deeeeecent! Leaving to call it a night at 3am, the whole street was still absolutely rammed inside the bars and outside you could hardly move in the street for people and there was no danger of anything closing. All of the Jorgensens were out enjoying themselves.

After a lazy morning and some brunch it was off to Viborg and game number 2. England v Czech Republic, with England needing a win to progress. I think it is a rule that in these tournaments all of the venues have to be within a certain radius so it was only an hour or so to Viborg. Stuart Fuller from The Ball is Round told me that Viborg had two cows and nothing else, but he was wrong as we found a couple of bars open, and an Italian place with a cracking all you can eat buffet - which might have got slightly abused by yours truly.

They also had a live band on in the fanzone thing in the little square, this also had a jumbo screen on that showed a twitter feed with any hashtags #U21 in them. This means that unknown to me my previous insightful tweets on the tournament from watching the games on TV have been appearing on these giant screens in the host cities. Of course this also gave me something else to abuse which meant some jokey tweets about certain mates of mine followed by #U21 of course. Beckie [wife] said I was being immature but I thought it was funny (and still do).

Thousand of fans lapping up the joys of the Aalborg Fanzone, oh, wait...

My Twitter name @Richmond_Red up in lights. Up The Cherries.

On to the game and the stadium, just a ten minute walk away from the thriving metropolis was another 10,000 capacity, a bit like Walsall but without the giant adverts facing the M6. Plenty of room to get my AFC Bournemouth flag up in prime position behind Frank Fielding's goal. Most of the English fans seemed to be up the other end, but there certainly weren't many, maybe about 30 or so.

The whole game consisted of Jordan Henderson collecting the ball from the centre backs and then not really knowing where to pass to. What we had learnt from the first two games was to keep the ball better and cut down on the long balls, but we forgot to really deliver anything incisive in the final third. We were easily the better side and when Welbeck notched a smart header near the end we thought that was it, but of course we are England and we ended up losing. Not good enough really! Having said that Smalling and Jones were outstanding, Man United have got a couple of right good defenders there. I am also a big fan of Frank Fielding, no-one else wants to play second fiddle to Joe Hart so get him in the full squad now.

It was then back to the luxurious Motel Viborg ready for the early start to come home on Monday morning. The motel even had Shetland Ponies and a goat in the grounds. Seeing a goat in Viborg is quite exciting as there isn't really a lot else to see.

All in all a decent trip for what we spent, no chance of a cheap trip to the next one in 2013 as it's in Israel. I wonder if they have goats in Israel?

That AFC Bournemouth flag

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Friday, 17 June 2011

DUC v Dahra & Jeanne D'Arc v Casa Sports (Football in Senegal)


DUC 2-0 Dahra, Jeanne D'Arc 1-0 Casa Sports (Senegalese Ligue 1, 05:06:11)

Nick Ames writes on a double-bill of Senegalese football action. Woof.....

I'm halfway round the perimeter of Stade Demba Diop, and I'm feeling pleasantly surprised. They'd told me nobody went to local league games, that the teams - especially the slew of similarly-sized outfits based in Dakar - were losing their identity, that the vibrant atmosphere you'd hope for at an African football match was a thing of the imagination. Yet it seems they're wrong; there may still be 45 minutes until kick-off, but as I near the north-west corner the sound of drums, whistles and assorted percussion items gains in clarity, while people file to and fro around a single entrance that leads to two turnstiles in a slightly protruding, domed wing of the stadium. I enter, resisting a pocket of vivid-smelling food stalls to slither under a felt-tipped sign informing me that tickets would cost 100CFA - an extraordinary deal given that a double bill's imminent. I cough up, and realise that the noise really is deafening now, as are the shouts that intersperse any lull. Ears several steps ahead of my feet, I move through the barrier and edge down a dingy, unlit corridor. I scale a flight of steps wondering what spectacle this labyrinthine approach has concealed. Surfacing amid what is by now a deafening racket. I look to my left and right, and see an arena packed to bursting with teenagers. I look down, and see two men standing tall, dignified, in long white robes - waiting for a man in a green suit to move from between them. I look up, and see a roof. I notice a placard, and realise what I've done. This isn't DUC vs Dahra in Senegalese Ligue 1 - it's the University of Dakar Karate Championship.

Half an hour later, I reflect that perhaps somebody had been trying to tell me something - and if so, it'd probably been the taxi driver who'd mistakenly taken me to an empty dustbowl named in homage to a different Diop, Iba Mar, even before my martial brain-fart. By now, take three has seen me successfully gain passage into the day's football, joined by around 200 others. Not content with the remote flank I'm corralled into, I've deployed 500CFA to sweeten a policeman into letting me enter what passes for a VIP area or directors' box. I sit among a group of middle-aged men, trying to strike a balance between courtesy and obliviousness to the fact that my presence is piquing no little interest. Two and two has made five - a few non-playing footballers gather round, ask who I'm working for, which of their friends I'm looking at. I reply truthfully and move the conversation onto the fortunes of their two teams, who take to the artificial turf soon enough.

The entrance to the Demba Diop

DUC and Dahra poised for action

The away fans 

This one's the warm-up act. Mid-table DUC are nominally the university side, and clearly not as well-regarded as their karateka compadres. Dahra, who lie just above the relegation zone, come from 200 miles away but seem to have the more obvious support, primarily in the form of sotto-voce grumbles among a small group of wizened sages to my left. If few care overly about this one, its audience will at least be gradually swelled by those drifting in ahead of the main meal - second-place Casa Sports facing off against ailing, basement-dwelling giants Jeanne D'Arc.

Dahra pass the ball deliberately, joylessly into touch from kick-off, and the fare rarely improves from then on. This league averages a little over 1.4 goals a game; it's not so much that chances are non-existent, although genuine creativity through the middle is painfully rare, but finishes are hurried and final balls ill-timed. The play in midfield is niggly and patternless, although the hosts' wide players provide a few moments to savour. DUC should be at least two up by the time the interval arrives, but there's little to suggest this match can rise above the mean.

Daha manager exhorts

Drinks all round

Buoyed by the unexpected addition of a teamsheet, mysteriously couriered to me by a Mr Cisse, I settle in for the second half and immediately witness a goal. Not that I'd admit it to anyone, but a little part of me has been watching in the hope of spotting a rough diamond neglected by previous European emissaries (unlikely; this league's average age is depressingly old, around 28 I'm told, and most of the players on view have been around the block two or three times). Dahra centre-back Cheikh Sene had gradually become the focus of my inner scout in the opening period, but now he misses a straightforward diagonal ball and DUC's Dembo Coly - certainly one of the best players on view - smashes home from close in.

Everything is resolved within the space of 30 seconds, around the hour mark. Dahra centre-forward Fidel Gomis, a name pressed urgently into my consciousness by one of their sympathisers before the match, runs clear but blasts his big chance high and wide. Play switches upfield, and DUC provide the moment worth sitting up for - a superb six-man move that culminates in Fadel Fall's sweet dink over the Dahra 'keeper, whose eccentric choice of a 'Ronaldo 9' Brazil outfield shirt can save nobody.

The stadium's filling up now, but my concentration starts to waver - there won't be another goal in this match, and both sides are well attuned to the fact. My mind drifts 22 hours or so, back to Dakar's vast Yoff Beach. There, I'd sat on a stray tyre watching two teams of 15 or 16 year-olds on a full-sized pitch in front of a staggeringly big crowd. As the evening shadows lengthened, so had their passes - but the intensity and imagination of the occasion had far outdone what lay here at Stade Demba Diop. If I'd unwittingly seen the next young Senegalese pretender to the famous Class of 2002, I'd done so yesterday.

DUC and Dahra are finally ushered away, with a 15-minute turnaround scheduled before their better-supported colleagues line up. There's now some genuine atmosphere. Casa Sports hail from Ziguinchor, an inland port in troubled southern region of Casamance. It's best reached by overnight ferry from Dakar, but the few thousand supporters Casa have attracted - who form a verdant collage in the stand opposite me - are primarily students, soldiers or police workers who've based themselves in the capital. Their sense of regional identity remains strong, to say the least, and this time the instrumentals that spread through incense-suffused air are for real. This is more like it.

JA v Casa 

As is the sideshow that unfolds while the teams meet and greet. A large, heavily-gowned gentleman is making an uncomfortable but valiant attempt to vault his way into the VIP zone, arms and voice fluctuating wildly. Everyone's on their feet now, and about a dozen pile into the melee before he's bizarrely extracted by a peacemaker wearing 'Fabregas 4' Arsenal getup. "He does this all the time," sighs the newcomer to the seat next to mine, to my considerable amusement. "He's trying to get to the Jeanne D'Arc president, trying to confront him. He'll try next time, too." Perhaps it's a just war - Jeanne D'Arc have been ritually burned this season, despite being the country's most successful club, and in context their plight is quite staggering. But their players kick off, the commotion dies down, and fury does little more than hang in the air for the next hour or two.

The heightened sense of occasion does lend itself to a feistier game. Casa field two or three of the national Olympic squad, including prominent number ten Stephane Badys, and have some poise; Jeanne D'Arc seem aware of the stakes, and pile into challenges that a demoralised outfit might shy from. There's a half-chance or two at either end, a few preposterously poor set-piece attempts, and I've subconsciously eased into talent-spotting mode again - Jeanne D'Arc right-back Adawa Seck looks a player.

The main stand

Dusk is drawing in now, the light's getting poor and the waft of the Casa fans' drums and chants becomes lulling. A 15-minute spell of relative inactivity ends abruptly, tireless Jeanne D'Arc striker Pape Diop receiving his first accurate delivery and heading astonishingly wide from a couple of yards out. At half time, the league's freshly-bolstered goal average looks in some danger.

Jeanne D'Arc start the second period in comfort. Casa need the win to keep up their title challenge, and soon switch to what is effectively a front four, with Badys pulling the strings behind it. It doesn't change a lot, moves breaking down around the hosts' penalty area far too often, and discontent is becoming audible from the green mass across the pitch. The enveloping darkness really can't be helping, and the introduction of a floodlight or two around the 70-minute mark is long overdue if not an immediate cure. But the game's becoming stretched, at least, and Jeanne D'Arc are looking more confident on the break - epitomised when substitute Celestine Faye charges through and, with men free for a tap-in, drills well wide.

He doesn't make the same mistake twice. On 82 minutes, Casa's goalkeeper makes a confounding dash from his line to greet a harmless long ball. He then stops, but Faye has kept on running, and he lobs over the stranded shot-stopper to spark extravagant touchline celebrations. Casa miss a big chance almost straightaway, but the strugglers scrape over the line amid tension on a different scale to anything else I've witnessed this afternoon. In this mish-mash of a day's football (average goals per game: 1.5) I've stumbled across the shock result of the Senegalese season.

I'd like to get away sharply, because I'm in Dakar for professional reasons and have a dinner engagement to honour. There's quite a crush upon departing, though, the cause of which is unclear but seems to owe something to Casa fans' displeasure outside. My ribs and I edge out slowly, breathily, and find themselves on the main road about 15 minutes later. The scene outside is surprisingly calm, but the yellows taxis that drive past are all full. I walk back around the stadium, and find a car that pulls over, only to be beaten to the back seat by a figure that has darted lightly out of a corner, apparently from nowhere. As he shuts the door, I can clearly read the writing on the back of his top - 'Université de Dakar Karate' - and I know, then, that my wait will only be a long one.

Nick Ames is a writer for Arsenal Football Club. You can follow both Nick and European Football Weekends on Twitter.

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