Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Chelsea v Norwich City

Chelsea 3-1 Norwich City (27:08:11)

August 1992. Aged ten, there were many things I didn’t understand about football, having been converted to it, like so many others, by England’s run to the World Cup semi-final in Italy 1990, writes Juliet Jacques. Inexplicably, being from Surrey, I’d opted to support Norwich City, rather than our nearest top flight clubs, Crystal Palace and Wimbledon, or my mother’s team, Chelsea.

Looking back, the historical window where a child could consider Norwich one of England’s leading clubs was very small. As I learned from 90 Minutes and When Saturday Comes, it was supposed to close that summer, after star striker Robert Fleck joined Chelsea for £2.1m, becoming their record signing. Having narrowly escaped the previous season, Norwich were favourites for relegation, despite two FA Cup semi-finals and two top-five finishes in the last five years.

Norwich’s strategy of selling their stars and replacing them with top flight reserves, experienced free transfers and lower league players continued to work better than expected, and they finished third in the new Premier League in 1993. City’s campaign included two wins over Chelsea, the first at Carrow Road against a side that featured Andy Townsend (sold by Norwich to Chelsea in July 1990 for £1.2m), the likes of Vinnie Jones, Mick Harford and Joe Allon, and ex-trainees Eddie Newton, Damian Matthew and Graham Stuart. The second win, at Stamford Bridge, became infamous for the two Dave Beasant blunders that handed Norwich a 3-2 victory, and ended his Chelsea career.

Soon, though, I saw how money, and the concerns of a club’s owner, could rapidly change a seemingly tightly run club’s fortunes. Norwich chairman Robert Chase’s refusal to release funds led to manager Mike Walker decamping to Everton, before several players were sold, including astute young centre-forward Chris Sutton, who became England’s first £5m player. Norwich were relegated in 1995 but recruited talented Wycombe manager Martin O’Neill. O’Neill quit after receiving little of the £5m promised for transfers, spending virtually nothing besides £650,000 to rescue Fleck from his disastrous spell at Chelsea, where he scored just four goals in 48 Premier League games.

Fleck and Norwich’s attempts to recapture former glories remaining unfruitful long after furious fan protests forced Chase to resign, whilst Chelsea went from strength to strength. As Fleck left, Ruud Gullit arrived, followed by international stars such as Italy’s Roberto di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, French World Cup winners Marcel Desailly, and Frank Lebœuf (and later captain Didier Deschamps) and many others who gradually moved Chelsea beyond the likes of Harford, Jones and Allon, Newton, Matthew and Stuart. With a mixture of continental flair and British grit, and home-grown talent such as Graeme Le Saux and Michael Duberry, this hugely enjoyable Chelsea team won the club’s second FA Cup in 1997 and then their second European Cup Winners’ Cup the next season, before another Cup triumph in 2000.

Built during the power struggle between owner Ken Bates and vice-chairman Matthew Harding, before Harding’s death in a helicopter crash, this team was very different to the one my mother used to watch with my grandfather in the early Seventies. When Bates sold the club, which he said was almost bankrupt, to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for £140m in summer 2003, Chelsea entered a new stage in their history, which felt both like a continuation of their late Nineties successes and a step beyond it. Italian coach Claudio Ranieri lasted just one season before José Mourinho replaced him, spending exorbitant sums on Didier Drogba and others, grotesquely distorting the transfer market and breaking Arsenal and Manchester United’s recent dominance of English football.

Even before Abramovich changed the game, Norwich were out of contention for major honours, perhaps for ever. As Mourinho arrived in the Premiership, City returned, going through five managers before settling on Nigel Worthington, who found the right blend to get them back into the top flight but not to keep them there. In December 2004, Norwich lost 4-0 at Chelsea, partly due to an error from Denmark full-back Thomas Helveg – their only player who, at his peak, might have got near Mourinho’s ruthlessly efficient outfit.

Neither Worthington nor Norwich’s board ever seemed comfortable with the foreign influences on the Premier League. Adrift in the relegation zone and reluctant to play Helveg, Morocco midfielder Youssef Safri or Sweden winger Mattias Jonson, Worthington inexplicably signed 34-year-old Graham Stuart to add experience to his squad, but Stuart and new record signing Dean Ashton could not save Norwich. As Chelsea won their first title since 1954-1955 – the season in which my mother was born – Norwich were relegated, losing 6-0 at Chelsea’s local rivals Fulham in a must-win final game.

Mourinho’s Chelsea powered their way to a dispiritingly easy second title, whilst Nigel Worthington’s decision to fill his team with (mostly) British players who’d “understand” the second tier started a process of decline that led to his sacking and three more managers (Peter Grant, Glenn Roeder and Bryan Gunn) coming and going as Norwich fell into League One in 2009. During this time, Abramovich fired Mourinho and then hired Avram Grant, Guus Hiddink and Luiz Félipe Scolari in an attempt to wrestle the Premiership title back from resurgent Manchester United, who had themselves opened up to foreign investment in their successful effort to break Chelsea’s stranglehold.

2009-2010 was a remarkable success for both clubs: new coach Carlo Ancelotti led Chelsea to a Premier League and FA Cup double, during which they played a brand of attacking football rarely seen since Ranieri’s management, becoming the first team to score more than one hundred top flight goals since 1963. Meanwhile, Norwich won the League One title at a canter under Paul Lambert, and – miraculously – were immediately promoted again, with the trip to Stamford Bridge coming as their third game back in the Premier League.

Having endured defeats at Colchester United, Leyton Orient, Crystal Palace and others during City’s long exile, I felt I deserved the chance to watch my club test themselves against some of the most successful players of this generation. Despite being appalled by the expense and expecting nothing but a miserable thrashing, and, when I consider it rationally, hating everything about the Premier League, I spent £47.50 on a ticket for the lower tier of the Shed end. Truly, I am addicted, and thus easily exploited – and besides, I might just be there when Norwich win at Chelsea, and as a fan, you can’t put a price on that. (Of course, you can, and Chelsea have …)

When Abramovich’s Chelsea won their first title, my friend Joe Stretch was one of many to lament its manner, telling me that the club had no soul and no history. I felt he was being unfair: the 1955 champions led by Roy Bentley and (particularly) the stylish FA Cup winners of 1970 are fondly remembered, with Ron Harris, Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson and Peter Bonetti well recalled by football fans. There was much violence at Stamford Bridge during the Eighties as Chelsea declined; later, the Headhunters firm, formed in the Sixties and still around today, featured prominently in The Football Factory – one of several books and films to examine (if not romanticise) hooliganism after the fighting, crumbling terraces and fences gave way to the new football culture of which I formed a part.

I take my seat just behind the goal a few minutes before kick-off – I’ve missed Norwich’s line-up, but Chelsea’s includes the long-standing English heart of their side, John Terry and Frank Lampard, as well as Drogba and his £50m partner Fernando Torres. Once the teams are announced, the PA plays Blue Day, written by Suggs and performed with members of Chelsea’s squad before the 1997 FA Cup final victory (which seems a more likely choice than Norman Long’s sarcastic 1933 music hall number about the hypothetical ‘Day That Chelsea Went and Won the Cup’).

There are not as many conscious attempts to emphasise the club’s history as at Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium (with its murals of famous players outside and dates of trophies on its stands), a banner saying ‘Bentley Boys’ and another commemorating Matthew Harding being the main reminders of Chelsea’s past. The other banners seem more concerned with providing legitimacy to a contemporary set-up that few neutrals seem prepared to accept, although I feel that this team has acquired a level of cultural weight through its longevity and relative success – plenty of other teams have tried to buy trophies and failed, of course.

There are tributes to ‘JT’ and ‘Super Frankie Lampard’ – the two Londoners who bridged the Bates and Abramovich eras and have been central to their three recent title wins. Both are booed by Norwich’s fans throughout, along with Drogba and the objectionable Ashley Cole, but it’s not hard to understand why the Chelsea crowd worship them – their enthusiastic, emblematic contribution to the 2005 championship was particularly memorable.

Otherwise, two things seem to epitomise the sanitised, commercialised 21st century football that, for some, Chelsea and the imposingly redeveloped Stamford Bridge represent – firstly, banners celebrating supporters’ clubs in Dundalk, Cyprus, Hungary and Bermuda, and secondly a sign next to the goal, like those in office receptions on rainy mornings, saying ‘Beware Flying Footballs: Players Practising’ as if anyone who’d followed Norwich over the years would not recognise strikers hammering shots into the stands to be an occupational hazard. It’s removed before kick-off, but every time the ageing and ponderous Lampard rifles a free-kick over the bar, I think of it and smirk.

Norwich’s side contains little Premier League experience and when the entire defence backs away from full-back José Bosingwa, allowing him to fire Chelsea into a seventh-minute lead, I fear the anticipated hammering. However, Norwich work hard to stay in the game, and are helped by the utter ineptitude of Torres, who looks just as out of place as Fleck or Sutton – the latter brought to Chelsea for £10m in 1999 – did during their spells in West London.

One of the world’s greatest strikers until some point before the 2010 World Cup, which he won despite his own minimal contribution, Torres now looks like someone who does not like or even really understand football, being forced to play against his will. One moment sums up his decline in form and confidence: Malouda plays in a cross from the left, which the Torres of 2009 would have brought down before turning and smashing his team into a two-goal lead. Instead, he limply chests the ball back to Drogba who is forced wide by City’s rapidly improving defence, and besides a kick at Leon Barnett, his threat is negligible throughout.

Just as Torres resembles Fleck at Chelsea, so Grant Holt recalls Fleck’s glorious first spell with Norwich. Amazingly, the ‘Holy Trinity’ of forwards that fired Norwich out of League One in 2009-2010 all start at Stamford Bridge, with delicate playmaker Wes Hoolahan and industrious youth team graduate Chris Martin combining as well with Holt against Chelsea as they did against Bristol Rovers, Yeovil Town et al two years earlier. Like ‘Flecky’, Holt is burly, combative and deceptively skilful, loved by Norwich supporters as much for his ability to irritate opposing players and fans as for his prolific scoring and smart hold-up play. During the second half, City have Chelsea rattled, substitutes Anthony Pilkington and Steve Morison threatening, if not penetrating, before Hilário and Branislav Ivanović fail to decide who should meet a long, hopeful cross. They collide and Holt instinctively volleys home. Holt has progressed the bottom division of the English League to the top in consecutive seasons (having previously played non-league football) and has now scored in all four: he and his team-mates race to the predictably rapturous away fans.

For all the disparity – Chelsea paid 125 times as much for Torres as Norwich did for Holt – it seems, fleetingly, that the visitors mightbe able to snatch a point, or even more. There’s a long delay after Drogba clashes with Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy and is eventually stretchered off, but the game turns when Chelsea’s Brazilian international midfielder, Ramires, who has looked as leaden as Lampard so far, races onto a perfectly-pitched through ball. Ruddy rushes out to meet him, forcing him wide – and then brings him down. The referee rightly gives a penalty, but sends off Ruddy as well, despite Norwich defenders covering the goal. Teenager Declan Rudd makes his Premier League debut, his first action being to retrieve the ball after Lampard’s fierce, well-judged shot.

Having barely emitted a sound when Chelsea first took the lead, Stamford Bridge finally comes alive. A small group of home fans in the upper tier of the Shed end, who seem slightly out of place in a ground that perhaps belongs to them more than anyone else, scream at the Norwich crowd, as if to put us in our place. The man behind me, who has been particularly resentful in his abuse of Terry and Lampard, has had enough: “Fucking biased refs! Fucking media bigging this shit up! Fucking Chelsea and their fucking Russian owner! They’ve got no fucking soul! They used to but they fucking don’t now!” Nobody in the away end argues with him, however they feel about the underlying xenophobia, and less and less of the Chelsea fans I know would entirely disagree either.

A minute later, new Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas finally cuts his losses on Torres, replacing him with 18-year-old, £18m Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku – the second of Chelsea’s new signings to come off the bench, after fellow Spanish World Cup winner Juan Mata has also made his debut. Mata scores a well-taken goal in the eleventh minute of injury time, but Norwich have lost by then anyway.

As Blue is the Colour, by the Chelsea squad ahead of the 1972 League Cup final (which they lost), echoes around the Bridge, we leave our seats strangely pleased, satisfied that our collection of loanees and signings from Shrewsbury Town, Colchester United, Brighton & Hove Albion and elsewhere have essentially been beaten only by a late penalty and a harsh red card. We talk about how we’d written this game off as soon as the season started, coming partly out of habit, and partly because we’d grown up thinking that there was always – always – chance that smaller sides could upset the odds, and though it can still happen, it seems to happen far less now than in the early Nineties.

As we recall Fleck and Mike Walker, I remember that the present situation owes much to the horror of Eighties football culture, particularly the Hillsborough disaster. Norwich played in the other FA Cup semi-final that day, and my older friends who were at Villa Park say that the fenced terraces and poor crowd-handling could easily have caused a similar tragedy, and I realise that my nostalgia is for a world that I never experienced, and can never really know.

Like this? Juliet has also written on the French clásico between Marseille and PSG for EFW.

Juliet Jacques is the author of Orwell Prize longlisted Guardian blog Transgender Journey. She also covers European literature, experimental film, art, music & (usually French) football on her BLOG.

You can follow both Juliet and European Football Weekends on Twitter

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Dnipro v Fulham

Down, down, Dnipro on down

Dnipro 1-0 Fulham (25:08:11)

Fulham took 67 fans to their Europa League game with Dnipro, Eddie Fremantle was one of them...

If you look at a map more than 25 years old, you won’t find Dnepropetrovsk, as the conurbation of more than a million inhabitants was a closed city under the Soviet regime because of its nuclear, ballistic weapons and space rocket building. Since foreigners were allowed back in from 1987, Dnepropetrovsk is easier to spot in an atlas but it is still pretty difficult to get to.

There are a number of different ways to reach the city and Fulham fans going to their side’s second leg Europa League play-off round match against FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk – I’ve no idea why the football club is spelt different from the city - mostly flew to Kiev for leg one of the journey. From there, some took the overnight train to the south-eastern city. It was, by all accounts, a hot and uncomfortable seven-hour journey with no buffet car, even in the 50-dollar first class cars.

Harry and I flew Wizzair from Luton to Kiev Zhulyany, a magnificently outdated airport on the edge of the city, and took a transfer to Kiev Boryspil, where they have built a new terminal, terminal F, in readiness for next year’s European Championships. Terminal D is in the process of being built. When it is finished there will be five terminals at Boryspil, A, B, C, D and F, though it is hardly Heathrow. Who knows why there is no E? It could be something to do with the Cyrillic alphabet in use in the Ukraine.

Our driver Olexander tells us that Dynamo Kiev’s new stadium that is being rebuilt for Euro 2012 is ‘80 per cent finished.’ At the little café near terminal A, where our flight to Dnepro leaves from, we spot Derek, a Fulham fan who lives in Belgium. He has flown from Brussels to Boryspil. Remarkably, Derek went to every Fulham game last season. Something just can’t keep him away. Another friend of ours, Mike, flew out of Gatwick via Berlin and is waiting for us at the Reikartz Hotel in Dnepro when we arrive around 10.30pm. They are two hours ahead of British summertime and it has taken eight hours to reach the Reikartz from Luton.

The Reikartz is brand new and expensive by Dnepro standards at around £50 a night for a single, £75 for a double. They don’t mind serving a meal at this time of night but we have to make do with beer as some bureaucratic oversight means their wine and spirits licence has not come through. It is a hardship with which we can cope before a welcome sleep.

After a magnificent breakfast, we take a stroll up to the ground, bumping into a couple of Fulham fans. One of them is Peter. Peter goes to just about all the away games and is an avid collector of Fulham memorabilia, possessing the largest collection of programmes imaginable. He says they are going to have a drink at the Shamrock at one o’clock. Every city in the world has an Irish pub, it seems.

There’s a queue of around 40 at the ticket office, one of two elegant kind of mock Georgian, in the British sense of the word, gatehouses at the main entrance to the ground. Match tickets start at 15 Hrivna, around £1.20. We paid £4.25 for ours from Fulham, including booking fee. Ripped off again.

They only queue for the Fulham. The ornate ticket office.

30 Hrivna for a ticket. Rip-off Ukraine. That's nearly £2-50.

The Dnipro Arena was opened in 2008. It is built into the side of a hill and impressive from the outside. Because of a UEFA ruling that 33,000 is the minimum capacity to be considered, the lovely 31,000 Arena will not be hosting any Euro 2012 games and that’s a pity. Despite one of our party not being keen to climb up to the top of the incline to see the rest of the ground – “it’s just a concrete bowl” – he is soon snapping pictures of the main stand on his phone.

Back at the ticket office, a guy waves a Dnipro-Fulham half and half scarf from an upstairs window. Mike asks where he bought it. “Magasin, magasin,” he says. “Shop?” asks Mike and the man comes down, points to a woman and tells us to follow her. Her name is Ira, who can’t speak any English but takes us to the club shop via a housing estate. There is some building work going on and graffiti on the corrugated wall. One message reads ‘FUCK OFF KHARKIV’, a reference to Dnipro’s hated rivals Metallist Kharkiv. There may not be much English spoken round here but a certain Anglo-Saxon phrase crops up a fair bit.
The shop has loads of gear if you are into that sort of thing. The replica shirts include, oddly, a Middlesborough shirt from the 888 sponsorship days. A few jokes are cracked about twin towns and air pollution. We buy scarves, t-shirts and a pin badge or two but leave the Smoggie shirt on the peg.

A stroll down Karl Marx avenue that dominates the city centre reveals shops, restaurants and bars and we take a look round the St Troitskiy Cathedral. Dodging the delights of the Shamrock, where Peter and his mates are holed up by now, we reach the bank of the River Dnieper, which is around a mile wide here and wends its 1,400 mile way to the Black Sea. The staff of the August Restaurant by the river are welcoming but we don’t speak Ukranian or Russian, can’t read Ukranian or Russian and they don’t speak English, not one word. By a combination of sign-language, crude drawings and google translate – there is free wifi in just about every establishment in the city – we manage to order three beef shashliks and a steamed river fish. The fish is for Derek, who endures a long wait. The food is excellent but arrives at wide intervals, as at the Reikartz the previous night. Diana and Sergei are most attentive but they have a bit of a tiff when we ask for a mixed salad. Diana says we can’t have one but Sergei insists that we can. They get it done, make up with each other and pose for a picture.

One half of Sergei and Diana of the August are Dnipro fans.

Dnipro club shop and Peter is nowhere to be seen.

It's all Greek to Mike and Derek on the August menu.

To walk the lunch off we stroll down the riverfront and over the bridge to the Monastery Island. The monastery is long gone, sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century, but there is a huge statue of Shevchenko, not at all like the one that was at Stamford Bridge a few years ago. Taras Shevchenko was the father of Ukranian literature, a kind of Shakespeare figure for the country. Born in 1814, he had a few run-ins with the Russian rulers, being banged up in St Petersburg by Tsar Nicholas I, exiled for a spell and died at the tender age of 47. His statue is being renovated with a couple of blokes with a chainsaw perched round his considerable neck.

Shevchenko never moved as quickly at the Bridge.

Further along the island is a kiddies amusement park with a mini zoo and an aquarium and a long man-made beach. A few brave ones have taken the plunge in the river – cue more Boro/Chernobyl jokes – and there are a couple of groups playing volleyball. They don’t look as though they are Olympic standard but there are a couple of 70-year-olds who are far fitter than any of us. It is noticeable how few people look overweight compared to England or even Kiev.

On the way back to the Hotel we stop for a drink in a bar and buy a couple of bottles of wine from a supermarket for the evening meal. On the way, we are twice stopped by locals who want to wish us good luck. We hope it won’t be needed. We made a rick with the first bottle of wine as it turns out to be a dessert wine. Sickly sweet. We still drink it with the meal, which is good, although served slowly as usual. There is a Newcastle spy staying in the hotel, ready to report on Fulham’s performance ahead of their game at St James’s Park on Sunday. He has not been as impressed with the city of Dnepro as we have.

When we reach the ground, we enter via what we think is the away end and turn out to be at the other end of the stadium but have no problems walking round the inside to the opposite end where a tiny band of Fulham fans are gathering, almost outnumbered by soldiers and police. The official count is 67. None of us can work out why Fulham, with around 14,000 season ticket holders, have such pitiful away support. It’s expensive to come abroad in August but Fulham fans are supposed to have more disposable income than any others in the Premier – a survey says so.

Come and have a go at the East End turnstiles.

Dnipro, playing better than they had at the Cottage, gain an early hold on the midfield, making sure Fulham sorties into their half are halted, even if it means a cynical foul or three, particularly from Bobo Zenden lookalike Vitaliy Denisov – there’s another Boro joke there somewhere - and Yevhen Shakhov. Shakhov scores a goal that has the home fans bouncing back and forth along the terrace and we fear the worst.

The second half brings a series of scares. Fulham are not playing well and their only meaningful attack brings a blast over the bar from Pajtim Kasami with 15 minutes to go. He really should have scored and calmed our nerves. Despite plenty of hairy moments, Fulham do not concede again and go through to the Group Stage 3-1 on aggregate.

We are told we are going to be kept in for 15 minutes and when we go downstairs there are Dnipro fans waiting for us. But they don’t want a fight, they want souvenirs. They plead for scarves, shirts, tickets. Anything to do with Fulham. A couple of half and halfs bought in the Dnipro club shop are swapped for home scarves, others exchange shirts. Harry gives someone his ticket from last week’s away game at Wolves. The expression on the guy’s face is pure delight. There is a party atmosphere.

The police want to put us on a coach back to hotels or the station but some of us don’t want to go. Eventually, it's sorted after negotiation with Fulham’s excellent fan liaison chappie, Tommy Guthrie and Peter, who tells them we are staying at the Sports Hotel. Peter is being a little economical with the truth as the Sports is a bar just around the corner, where he and his mates drank before the match. The soldiers and police buy it and we are given an escort. It’s all pretty unnecessary but all is friendly and as we walk into the bar the Dnipro fans give us a round of applause. They certainly don’t want to ruck with our motley crew. They just want to have a few drinks and a chat. Peter announces that he is going to buy all of us a drink. 17 beers comes to 85 Hrivna – around seven quid.

'17 pints please'

The soldiers leave but not before asking us if we want them to stay but there’s not going to be any trouble. In any case, there are three coppers in their blue shirts in the corner having their supper. The beer continues flowing as we try to chat to the Dnipro fans. One of them says his name is “Hervé.” “Like Harvey,” I ask. “No, Heavy,” he replies, showing his muscles. “If I told you my real name you wouldn’t understand.” Photos are taken and the Dnipro boys are particularly impressed with one of the Brothers’ England and Fulham tattoos. The pair of Brothers have not missed a Fulham game for more than six years, home and away, friendly and serious. They should not be confused with another older pair of brothers who have barely missed a game in 20 years. They wound Peter up earlier in the day by telling him they had bought a Dnipro poster for 100 Hrivna from a bill sticker. He believed them for a while, thinking he had missed out on a coup for his collection. Peter, although generous with the beer, is still upset he couldn’t find the club shop. It’s the sort of thing that gets to him, goodness knows why.

Heavy speaks pretty good English from school and college and is drinking with Alech and Max. Heavy and his pals couldn’t come to Craven Cottage. Apart from the expense, they find it almost impossible to obtain visas to enter the UK. “You are lucky, you are free men. We are not free men but we live in paradise. We have cheap beer and prostitutes everywhere,” quips Heavy. “When England played here, we drank all night with Liverpool fans. I love Liverpool,” he says, even though he has never been there. But he’s not pleased by Dnipro’s season so far, nor their fairly new manager. “What do you think of Juande Fucking Ramos?” he asks. When he doesn’t get much of a response, he rings a mate to have confirmation that Dnipro’s manager is a hopeless case. “We got a 0-0 with Vorksla last week. They are not a team.” “Normaal,” says Alech, with a long emphasis on the ‘a’. Alech says ‘normaal’ a good deal. It is hard to tell whether it means good, bad or indifferent. Apparently, both Fulham and Dnipro are ‘normaal’. We’ll take it to be indifferent, then.

Despite being comfortably the most drunken person in the place, Alech insists on escorting us the half-mile to the Hotel. “Security,” he grunts as he sways with us out of the door. “Metallist guv’nor, I’m the Metallist guv’nor,” he chants as he sashays impressively over the considerable potholes and pitfalls of the pavements. His mood darkens as he sees something not ‘normaal’. It is the huge building of the Interior Ministry, lit up in the darkness. “That is the SBU, Ukrainian KGB. Bastards.” This and the derelict buildings opposite the Reikartz are reminders of this great city’s history. “The Russians did that,” says Alech, without elaborating. He is not in much of a state to elaborate. But as he bids us goodnight and totters off into the night, he says, “Dnipro is my life.”

Alech (centre) leans on Mike and Harry to pose with Max (rear)

He's not Heavy, he's my brother.

'The Russians did this,' said Alech without elaborating.

Back in the Hotel, the Newcastle scout is at the bar. His name is Dave Goodwin and it turns out he has been watching a different game from us. Goodwin is full of praise for a “thoroughly professional defensive performance.” He goes on, “I was hoping they would have the legs run off them in the last half-hour to tire them out for Sunday but Jol shut up shop.” We wished we’d known that, because it didn’t look shut up to the Fulham fans with last-ditch tackles from Baird and Hughes preventing apparently certain goals. Mind you, Dave had a better view from the VIP area. Dave says he has visited 94 countries, six in the last month, including Sierra Leone, watching football and looking at players. He discovered Rio Ferdinand and recommended him to West Ham, where he then became chief scout for Harry Redknapp. Glenn Roeder took him to Newcastle around ten years ago. He knows what he is talking about. The second bottle of wine goes down well. This time it’s dry and wellworth the 37 Hrivna - £3. Bed is at 2am. It’s a long way back from Dnipropetrovsk.

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Friday, 26 August 2011

Barcelona v Napoli

And now… Camp Nou

Barcelona 5-0 Napoli (22:08:10)

I’m guessing that, for many of us, FC Barcelona and Camp Nou was the beginning of the dream: the dream of continental football adventures, the first foreign stadium on our ‘to visit’ list should we ever save up enough pocket money to get beyond Croxley Green on the bus, writes Nick Davidson. The reasons for this obsession will vary according to age but could include: Kubala, Cruyff, Neeskens, Schuster, El Tel, Archibald, Lineker, Laudrup, Stoichkov, Guardiola, Romário, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi. Or maybe you’d been inspired by the role the club played as a symbol for Catalan resistance during the Franco regime, or were mesmerized by Jimmy Burn's incredible club biopic Barça – A People’s Passion. Or like me, perhaps, your interest was pricked by those cheap, counterfeit Barcelona shirts that hung tantalizingly out-of-reach at the back of every tourist shop on the Costa Brava in the early 1980s. Yep, it was spotting those exotic replica shirts on a cheap package holiday to sunny Spain that first alerted me to Barça – although, I never did have enough spending money to buy one.

Anyway, back to the present. It’s not often that both authors of Modern Football is Rubbish get to attend games together, so when Shaun announced that he was in Spain on a family holiday towards the end of August and fancied a trip to Camp Nou, we began to hatch a plan. We scanned the La Liga fixture list, but Barça were away at Malaga on the weekend he was in the country – darn it. But hang on, what was this: Barcelona v Napoli at Camp Nou, in the 46th Joan Gamper Trophy on 22nd August? Could we be in luck? A quick bit research (nods, sagely in the general direction of Jimmy Burns) revealed that Joan Gamper should really have had pride of place at the head of our list of legends at the top of the page (fortunately the predictably lame, “sounds like they’ve named it after the tea lady,” jokes were dispensed with fairly early on,) combining, as he did, the role of founding father, player and, later, president of FC Barcelona. Sure, it wasn’t a league game, and they did have a league fixture the day before so chances were that most of the first team would be rested, but this was an opportunity to watch a game at Camp Nou! (I’d done the tour on a trip to the city 10-years previously, and although it’s impressive, it’s not the same as watching a game there.)

It is fair to say that, like the rest of the world, we’d been mesmerized by last season’s performances as the team marched to another La Liga & Champions League double, with the various demolitions of Real, and that night at Wembley (Eek, I’m going all Tyldesley) being the closest thing I’ve ever seen to football perfection. We’d talked about watching this Barcelona team at the top of the curve, before for whatever reason their powers started to wane. And with Pep Guardiola only signing those one-year contracts we had the feeling that we needed to act soon.

The Gamper had the added advantage of being the only fixture where season ticket holders don’t get first dibs at their tickets, meaning of a reasonable(ish) price of €56 we could bag central seats in the middle-tier, rather than sitting up in the clouds or paying a fortune through a third-party ticket agency. So, whilst Shaun sorted the tickets for us all, I busied myself in booking flights and a hotel for me, Kathryn and our two girls (fortunately, K didn’t need much persuading to re-visit Barcelona, grab a bit of sunshine, check on the progress of the Sagrada Família and immerse the girls a bit of Catalan culture.) Flights, hotel, tickets – sorted. We were all set.

As I said, we were all reasonably content with seeing a makeshift Barcelona side at Camp Nou – but then the strike happened. At first we were overjoyed, with no league fixture, Pep would surely give a run out to many of his established stars ahead of Friday’s European Super Cup fixture against Porto. But then, whispers (oh, alright, Tweets) started to emerge that the Napoli game would be off too. With the strike called between Friday and Monday, the teams weren’t even supposed to train, let alone take part in friendly matches. I spent a good couple of hours slumped on the sofa in a state of depression at the thought of getting so close to a match. But as our departure drew closer, things started looking up – despite a worrying lack of pre-match build-up on the official website – a statement released to the press by club vice president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, confirmed the match was going ahead. The Joan Gamper trophy, is not only the traditional curtain-raiser to the new season, but is also used to present the squad to the fans and this event simply couldn’t be re-scheduled. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Like a rogue Status Quo lyric, the game had been, ‘on and off, and on again’ but our Barcelona bridges were far from burned (sorry, it’s not often you can legitimately shoe-horn The Quo into a match report these days, it’s an act so foolhardy even the legendary Stuart Hall wouldn’t attempt it!)

So, we made it. The game was on and we were ensconced in our hotel which, apparently served as the headquarters of the republican youth movement, Joventut Radical Republicana at the beginning of the 20th century – the inside had been completely rebuilt but the façade did have an air of Catalonia grandeur about it (and you could see the Sagrada Família from the roof.) We managed to successfully rendez-vous with Shaun and the kids at the Plaça de Catalunya and had a leisurely stroll down Las Ramblas (on a state of high-alert against the pickpockets – despite the dire warnings, we didn’t spot any.) Then, Kathryn and my youngest daughter headed back to the hotel for a swim, while the rest of us (including my other daughter Bess – previous European football experience SC Freiburg v FC St Pauli last year) took the wonderfully air-conditioned metro to the stadium.

From the outside, Camp Nou doesn’t blow you away, but as I explained to a slightly under-whelmed Bess – wait to you get inside. Shaun had set aside ‘an hour minimum’ to peruse the club shop, little did we realize that it would take nearly that long to battle through the entrance and get near the replica shirt section – it was heaving. With named and numbered shirts flying out the door for nigh on €74 a pop – it wouldn’t take too long to pay of Cesc’s transfer fee? Due to the ticketing situation, this fixture appealed to the casual fan and tourists like us – perhaps, this was the reason the game was going ahead – the average spend in the club shop per spectator must be way above that of a regular league fixture. Anyway, Shaun’s son emerged with a Messi home shirt (good choice as it turns out!) and Bess was happy with a water bottle for her lunch box and a big postcard of a smiling Lionel Messi (are you spotting a theme?) Showing enormous self-restraint, I managed to avoid spending €44 on a beautiful clay model of Camp Nou (but it is my 40th coming up in November, hint, hint!)

Model stadium in a presentation box only €44, you say?

Club shop done, it was time to head towards the stadium. The gates hadn’t opened, but there were thousands of fans milling about outside. And, it was here that we had to face down a dilemma that every parent will know only too well – your offspring’s sudden and desperate need for the loo. The problem was that there were a grand total of four Portaloos serving, say, 4,000 people. The queue was huge. But we had no choice. So we stood. For about 35-minutes. Then just as we neared the front, we spied a decidedly drunk looking Napoli fan, hovering shiftily to the side of the queue. In a flash, as the door opened, he queue jumped and made a desperate lunge for the door. Now, I’ve been going to football for thirty years, and I’ve never once considered an act of aggression, but having made our – absolutely bursting kids – hold on for over half-an-hour, I was livid that this bloke had jumped in ahead of us, and so was the rest of the queue. One chap in front, mimed pushing the loo over with our ‘friend’ still inside it whilst others settled for a lot of gesticulating and shouting in Catalan. Our response? Rather than provoke an international incident, we opted for a very mean stare at the rest of his mates. Napoli Ultras or not, they looked pretty sheepish under the glare of an 8 and 11-year old girl and their dads. Fortunately, the other cubicles became free, and on our exit, the Napoli fans had disappeared into the crowd.

Toilet drama over, we finally made it inside. Phew, it was impressive! Our seats were fabulous, as Bess pointed out, my yellow one formed the top part of the ‘N’ on Mes Que Un Club. It was a pleasure to sit in the evening sunshine watching the stadium fill up. Pre-match entertainment consisted of the usual dance troupe, navigating their way around some giant inflatable balls, each depicting one of the club’s European Cup wins. This was followed by something akin to a 21-gun salute by men in traditional dress standing in both goalmouths, and the mysterious appearance of a piano in the middle of the pitch – perhaps Cesc was going to belt out some Barry Manilow by way of a homecoming? Now maybe, the excitement had got to me, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the piano was actually used for, and before I knew what was happening, Pep and the squad were being introduced to the crowd, one by one. Xavi, Puyol and Iniesta got pretty loud cheers, but the volume only really got turned up to eleven for Leo. If the roar didn’t get you, then you were certainly left reeling by the explosion of 78,000 flashbulbs.

Stupid hair? Yep. MFIR author 1: Nick at Camp Nou

Piano. Check. Now where's Cesc?

Slightly less stupid hair, MFIR author 2: Shaun at Camp Nou

At last the football got underway, the strike had done us something of a favour with Guardiola opting for a mixture of established stars and squad players in his line-up. Fabregas made his first start alongside the experience of Iniesta, Piqué, Keita and Villa. Of course, we were all a little disappointed there was no Messi, but we knew it would be unlikely, after all the lad needs a rest, he seems to play virtually every minute of every competitive fixture Barça play. Before long Fabregas had marked his full debut with a tap-in and then Keita made it 2-0 at the break. Poor old Napoli had looked well of the pace (Shaun was especially disappointed as Napoli are his FIFA team of choice, due to their adventurous 3-4-3 formation and wealth of attacking options.) We anticipated that Pep would ring the changes at half-time and contented ourselves that we might catch a glimpse of a future star in the making. True to form, aside from Villa swapping for Pedro, the half-time subs were mostly squad players. But then on 57 minutes, the noise level rose again. Who was that little figure striping out of his tracksuit? Another La Masia starlet? It couldn’t be Lionel, surely? It was indeed – a straight swap Messi for Fabregas. The flash-bulbs went ballistic and kids young and old, leapt from their seats in delight. World’s best player, right in front of us? Check.

Within five minutes Messi had made one goal and score one for himself. First, he crashed a free-kick against the bar which was then deftly nodded home by Pedro, then Pedro returned the favour providing a cross for Messi to turn home. There was still time for Messi to grab a second and make it 5-0 with a low shot across goal. Fabulous stuff, seemingly achieved without breaking sweat. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Napoli brought on the famous left-winger (cum centre-forward,) Cristiano Lucarelli, which pretty much completed a perfect evening for me (along with a timely text informing me of my beloved FC St Pauli’s 93rd minute winner against MSV Duisburg, which put us top of 2.Liga.)

Top tier seats from  9 filling up nicely.

Pretty decent sunset

It was another perfect Barcelona performance orchestrated by The Flea, the diminutive little chap who’s name and number is on the back of 100,000 shirts – including, no doubt, those hanging at the back of tourist shops all along the Costas. Bess summed it up astutely when she said, “he’s like a little magician.” I can’t really add to that.

With that, we legged it for the metro, whilst Shaun and family waited for their taxi back to their resort along the coast. We had two days left to explore the rest of Barcelona and we were going to enjoy it – my top-tip – if you find yourself in the city during July or August head up to the Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc, a swimming pool used for the diving during the 1992 Olympics. Today, it’s sadly neglected but offers a peaceful swim and the most amazing views of the city.

I’ve been lucky this year, ticking off the Westfalenstadion, Anfield and now, Camp Nou on my travels. Barcelona might be an obvious starting point for a European adventure, but it’s most definitely a worthwhile one. It’s not often you get to tick off: a team at the peak of it’s powers; a fabulous stadium; a beautiful city and the world’s greatest player – all in one weekend.

The Flea, not actual size.

Final score: Napoli handed Champions League warning.

The pool at Montjuic (also the location of Kylie's Slow video, pop pickers!)

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Nick is the author of the rather brilliant www.modernfootballisrubbish.com

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

1. FC Union Berlin & Hertha BSC Berlin

Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

FC Union Berlin 3-0 SC Paderborn (05:08:11)
Hertha Berlin 0-1 FC Nürnberg (06:08:11)

The t-shirts, beer cups and the signs on the numerous merchandise cabins dotted around Hertha Berlin’s Olympiastadion all bore the same slogan: One city. One club. One goal, writes Thomas Carding. Despite this boast, and as anyone present in the very same stadium during last season’s Berlin derby can testify, the Old Lady is starting to take note of her upstart eastern rivals. On a rare weekend when the German capital hosted both the Hertha and 1.FC Union Berlin, last year’s Derbysieger, the German capital showed it is far from a one-club city.

Already three games into a busy 2011/2012 season, spirits were low at Union Berlin’s Alte Försterei stadium on Friday night. After leaving Frankfurt with one fortuitous point in the season’s opener, a 0:4 home crushing by Fürth was followed by an early exit from the German Cup at the hands of fifth-tier Rot-Weiss Essen. Even the scoreboard seemed resigned to further disappointment, its ‘inspirational’ pre-game message a quotation from David Lloyd George: “The proof of heroism is not in winning a battle, but in bearing a defeat.”

This hardly helped to stem the palpable air of tension in the Köpenick forest. The customary chant of Fußballgott! which normally greets the names of the starting line-up was noticeably quiet for certain new additions to the Union side. This time, the ritual was accompanied by a banner decreeing that the title of ‘Football God’ was one that must be earned. Another banner unfurled by the Ultras just before kick-off summed up the general mood among the Unioner more succinctly: Unzufrieden. Dissatisfied.

The power of the cult club’s fans, however, can also be a positive force. Hollering along to the club’s hymns, Stimmung in der Alten Försterei and Eisern Union, by East Berlin heroes Achim Mentzel and Nina Hagen respectively, and then taking over the mantle themselves after kick-off, the wall of sound they create almost seems to create another line of defence. When your goalkeeper is a month shy of his nineteenth birthday and playing his first ever professional football match, this is quite an asset. All told, young Kilian Pruschke, covering for the injured Marcel Höttecke and Jan Glinker, had little chance to distinguish himself during a quiet evening in front of the Union goal. Most of the action happened at the other end.

Eisern Union

‘Iron’ Union are a proper, proud, working-class club, with their roots in the East German trade union movement. Sometimes, the football their representatives on the pitch play can be appropriately straightforward, no-nonsense, traditional fare, all long hoofs, tough tackles and flying wingers. That Union’s first goal of the afternoon came from a set-piece does little to dispel this somewhat simplistic notion of Germany’s Stoke (that the Potters’ Robert Huth is a local boy who was plucked from Union Berlin’s youth set-up hardly helps). Christian Stuff, a strapping Berliner in the Huth mould, had found so much room in the box that as soon as the corner was kicked, you knew it was his to squander. A powerful header, beating the Paderborn keeper’s outstretched hand and hitting the back of the net, emphatically answered any momentary doubts that it could be quite so straightforward.

While the fans roared on, Union seemed to hold back a little, with promising wing play from young Christopher Quiring and fit-again Michael Parensen (nominally a defender), petering out upon reaching the Union strike force. Simon Terodde and Silvio, both promising against lesser opposition (and Hearts) in pre-season, have yet to really find their feet this season, and will have a lot to do to replace the confirmed deity Karim Benyamina, who left for FSV Frankfurt in the close season.

When Union’s lead was doubled in the second half, it was promising in terms of both source and execution. A long, but by no means aimless ball from Markus Karl set Quiring racing, with the helpless left-back no match for the twenty year old’s pace. The first touch deftly wrong-footed the keeper, the second slotted the ball home with a calmness that belied his years. A third goal, and euphoria, soon followed, Quiring netting his second after Paderborn’s keeper could only parry Silvio’s shot into his path.

Three goals up with nearly twenty-five minutes to go and facing little resistance, Union’s players were content to sweep the ball around, possibly trying to build up confidence in an amateur goalkeeper and a defence that had been decidedly porous of late. Within minutes, however, the cries of Olé had turned into whistles and shouts of ‘Pfui!’, as the pre-match tension once more bubbled to the surface. After three disappointing matches, the Union fans clearly weren’t ready to see the Berlin bear sit on its haunches and retract its claws so soon. This being German football, in particular Union Berlin, what the fans want goes. But while the tempo did pick up a little, with Quiring and Parensen subbed off, the boys from East Berlin did not offer much of a threat, and the 3:0 was a formality.

By the final whistle, all negative thoughts and pre-game doubts seemed to have been forgotten. Union, though, will find themselves up against much tougher opposition than Paderborn this year, and with the momentum of the resurgent Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden (Union’s next opponents), and the constant threat of nearby Energie Cottbus, they don’t appear well-placed to become the next team from the former East Germany to crack the Bundesliga. There are, however, some reasons for optimism: the flashes of dynamic attacking football, the comfort with which Markus Karl seems to have stepped into Dominic Peitz’s shoes in the ‘number 6’ role in front of defence, and perhaps most obviously, the pool of young talent at their disposal, all mean their blue and white rivals at the far side of the city will eventually have to take notice.

Fast forward roughly 18 hours, and the mood outside the Olympiastadion matched the sunny weather. Basking in the afterglow of their successful season in Germany’s second league, which had brought instant promotion back to the Bundesliga, flags proudly proclaimed ‘Nie wieder 2.Liga!’ A hassle-free victory in the DFB-Pokal the previous weekend, also against fifth-tier opposition, had served to heighten expectations. Much of this is based on the young team Markus Babbel had moulded in the previous season, in particular the nineteen year old Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who in his first professional season scored thirteen goals and became a fan’s favourite and a regular starter. Goalkeeper Thomas Kraft, lured to the capital from Munich much to the chagrin of the Bayern fans, and his former teammate Andreas Ottl, both free transfers, seemed like shrewd and useful acquisitions.

The gateway to the Olympiastadion and the stadium's lawn, still watched over by statues of Aryan sportsmen.

To greet the Bundesliga season’s opener against FC Nürnberg (like the Premier League, the top-level in Germany starts later than the others), the Hertha Ultras in the Ostkurve had planned a spectacular piece of choreography. Timed to coincide with the players’ arrival on the pitch, and the singing of the Hertha hymn Nur nach Hause, this turned the entire end of the stadium into a giant blue and white sea, in front of which a momentous burly arm holding a flag was raised to the top of the stadium with on ropes.

That, sadly, was the most exciting thing to happen inside the Olympiastadion that day. Indeed, the ‘highlights’ collection of the first half later offered on Sky featured, after the said choreography, some choice pitchside advice from a Hertha-supporting actor (‘Just try and remember to breathe. Breathing is always important.’), a 31st minute incident in which the linesman was hit in the face with a ball, and then a collection of fouls. And no actual play whatsoever.

The main diversion early in the second half was the incredible and bewildering level of hatred shown towards FCN’s keeper Raphael Schäfer, an ear-piercing medley of Pfuis and whistles and even an effigy hanging from a makeshift cross. It wasn’t until almost fifty minutes into the game that Nürnberg, the more dominant side throughout, had a half-chance, and even then, it was a tame header from the edge of the box. Kraft, presumably for want of something to do, positively leapt onto the ball.

By the mid-second half, attention was beginning to wander from the game and discussion in certain sections was turning to the curious nature of fan-friendships in German football, possible reasons for the abuse Schäfer was receiving, and a planned trip to wander over to the Le Corbusier skyscraper adjoining the Olympic park after the match. Lasogga and Ramos, who had gobbled up goals in the 2.Liga, went hungry here, with barely even scraps to feed on from a tight opposition defence and a home midfield entirely devoid of ideas. Ottl broke up the play well, but then did not seem to know what to do with the ball. Hertha seemed to be missing a creative spark, but the Brazilian Raffael, relegated to the bench after disciplinary issues, looked disinterested when he was finally introduced.

The Nürnberg fan block

Meanwhile, Nürnberg were starting to awaken and threaten even more. Positive substitutions, with striker Alexander Esswein heading wide in a 4-3-3, and Jens Hegeler offering a link from midfield, eventually brought the breakthrough. Hegeler pulled back a cross from the goalline, and Czech international striker Thomas Pekhart, formerly of Tottenham, ghosted in at the front post to secure a neat debut goal. The final result of 0:1 was perhaps what Hertha deserved for an unadventurous and uninspired display.

It was a rude awakening for a team dreaming of a ‘rightful’ place in the Bundesliga and perhaps harbouring hopes of European football. Nürnberg, a team who finished 6th last season, were never going to be a walkover. If, though, such a powerful and positive atmosphere cannot spur the players into life, they may struggle come squeaky-bum time, and a Hauptstadt-Derby next season could still be a possibility.

Union’s game on the Friday night had been a tale of clinical victory assuaging a fair amount of angst and tension. Conversely, Hertha’s was a case of a drab performance turning a festival atmosphere sour. So sour, in fact, that it led to nineteen arrests. Incidentally, a little post-game research reveals that the abuse directed at Schäfer related to a rude gesture he had met the last time the two sides met. Like the excited build up before the paint-dries-faster game, it seems in hindsight like a lot of fuss over very little.

So early into the season for both teams it is hard to speculate as to where Berlin will be on next season’s footballing map. What is for certain is that Hertha should ignore their noisy neighbours at their peril – or they could find themselves embarrassed by their city neighbours all over again.

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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Dynamo Dresden v FC Union Berlin

Welcome To The Lion’s Lair

Dynamo Dresden 4-0 FC Union Berlin (12:08:11)

If someone asked me to list the reasons why I love football in Germany, I could probably fill up two sides of A4 about the stadiums alone, writes David Tunnicliffe. However, if I was to do the opposite and try and write a list of things I hate about German football, it would contain one, solitary item: Friday 6 p.m. kick-offs. The bane of my existence as a football supporter working a normal 9 to 5 office-type job. A Union Berlin-supporting friend of mine was telling me that even for him as a Berlin resident, it’s often quite tight to make it for kick-off to the Alte Försterei. How are away fans supposed to manage it? One of main pillars of last year’s “Zum Erhalt der Fankultur” fan demo in Berlin was for the DFB and DFL to start organising kick-off times to be more fan-friendly. Currently, three 2. Bundesliga matches take place on a Friday night, with another one taking place on the Monday night - and that doesn’t look like it’ll change in the near future.

One reason to be cheerful at the end of 2010-11, apart from Union staying up only after making heavy weather of it for a large majority of the season, was the promotion of SG Dynamo Dresden from the 3. Liga into the 2. Bundesliga. In terms of Friday night matches, Dresden is the only other city apart from Leipzig (where I live) that I could make it to to watch my beloved Union - and a trip to the “Florence of the Elbe” was one I was looking forward to. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the rivalry between the team, something which is deeply rooted in the GDR days and the use of the word “Dynamo” in their name. My hopes for a more comfortable Saturday or Sunday afternoon kick-off were soon dashed by the authorities, with the match being scheduled for the Friday evening. Right, I thought, no problem - get hold of a ticket, book the handy 4:30pm train from Leipzig and you’ll be sorted. Right? What could possibly go wrong?

On the day of the match, I was continually checking my train’s progress across Germany because, although rail travel in Germany is much more efficient and reliable than back home, there is always a chance that things can go wrong, and especially on a Friday afternoon. Everything was running perfectly on schedule (although trying to concentrate on work was proving difficult) until about half an hour before I was due to leave... there had been a “one-under”, as I believe it’s called in the rail industry, between Leipzig and Riesa and Deutsche Bahn whacked a massive red “+60 min” of doom next to my train on the departure board. Disaster.

As a result, at kick-off I wasn’t singing my heart out in the packed away terrace, I was sat on a stationary train in Falkenberg. Fortunately, I was able to keep up to date with the score on my phone through the excellent 1. FC Union Berlin Facebook and Twitter feeds (including pictures of the dapper Union lot all dressed in red). Arriving at Dresden Hauptbahnhof at about 6:30 p.m., I immediately sprinted towards the ground. In retrospect, I probably should have taken a taxi, but I guessed that I could follow another guy who I’d overheard on the train saying that he was also going to the match. What I hadn’t realised was that this man was Dresden’s very own Usain Bolt and, after losing him around a corner, I hadn’t a clue where I should be going. Fortunately, a couple of nice police officers helped me out and showed me where to get into the away end. Finally, the Rudolph-Harbig-Stadion (or Glücksgas Stadion if you want to say it like an idiot) came into view.

In the red corner ... (photo: http://www.unveu.de/)

Dynamo Dresden fans in full riot ... of colour (photo: http://www.unveu.de/)

The stadium was rebuilt piece-by-piece during the 2007/08 season from a decrepit roof-less bowl famed for its floodlights, known as “the giraffes”, into a smart, modern box-type stadium. As standard in new stadia in Germany, there is one huge section of terracing behind the goal for the most vocal home fans and/or ultras, with the away fans being housed in the opposite corner in a steep, kind of V-shaped terrace.

To be brutally honest, it’s hard to be complimentary about Dresden fans, for ideological and political reasons, but I’ll try to focus solely on the fan culture. The K block terracing behind the goal is very impressive, as is their slow “DY-NA-MO” clapping chant thing.

They also have a great array of pun-tastic banners such as one simply containing word “Gelbsucht”, which means “jaundice” but literally means “addiction to yellow”. I missed it of course, but they put on another impressive pre-match choreography depicting a scared/crying bear (the symbol of Berlin) with the words “Welcome to the lion’s lair”.

After arriving, I quickly located my friends in the block and got the lowdown on the first half. Apparently Union had been playing OK, but Dresden had taken their chance and led 1-0. As the second half kicked off, Union then had a chance straight away, but Terrode wasn’t able to convert it. This was when things started to go wrong. Dresden had a 15-minute period in which they scored three times and had one (or maybe two?) disallowed. It was difficult to keep track to be honest. Anyway, this knocked the stuffing out the Union supporters and, despite valiant efforts from a number of Union fans in the block, the rest of the match was spent trying to antagonise the Dresden lot about 10 metres to our left. As expected, they didn’t seem to care. I have to admit it, after the final whistle there were some unsavoury scenes from the Union fans, something I never thought I would see. There was booing and whistling at the team and chants of “(Uwe) Neuhaus raus”, which rather conveniently rhymes perfectly. I thought Union fans were different and supported their team to the hilt. I guess this incident should just be put down to pure frustration.

Quite. (photo: http://www.unveu.de/)

I had a more sensible gap between the final whistle and my train back, but I was still anxious to get back to the main station, especially as I was an away fan at a category A match. Dynamo had laid on buses from the stadium to the station for the Union fans, but as I wasn’t going on the football special back to Berlin and I had no desire to attempt to explain to a policeman that I was an Englishman (therefore no German ID card) Union fan living in Leipzig, I decided to walk it. There were plenty of Dresden troublemakers around trying to rub as much salt into the wound as physically possible but, despite a significant number of Union ultras leaving the ground with a minimal police presence, things were kept under control. I zipped up my jacket (thank god I had brought that with me) to hide my red T-shirt and hot-footed it towards the station. Again, the majority of Dresden’s fanbase is not exactly pleasant (although I’ve met some proper sound Dynamo fans before) so I followed that time-honoured advice of keeping my mouth shut and getting on with it. Dodging the skinheads and the bemused groups of Japanese tourists, I got a great view of the police trying to separate the two sets of fans. There was posturing on both sides, but it largely remained trouble-free. ‘Till next year, Dresden.

Like this? Then Hertha Berlin v FC Union Berlin is probably for you, too.

Dave Tunnicliffe is the Editor of Ostklassiker

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Friday, 19 August 2011

Interview: Patrick Collins - Mail on Sunday

Pat Wins Prizes

Patrick Collins has been the chief sports writer of the Mail on Sunday since the newspaper’s launch in 1982, writes Adam Bate. He has won the prestigious SJA Sports Writer of the Year award five times across three different decades.

Thanks for talking to EFW. As we speak, the Premier League has just got up and running again. Are you looking forward to the new season? Yeah it’s always good value isn’t it. I kind of think it comes one month too soon though and can then linger a little too long. I love track and field, for example, but it has been squeezed out. Starting the football season before we’ve played the third Test match doesn’t feel right but football doesn’t give a toss. I’m opposed to the idea of the Premier League. It was conceived in greed and I much prefer the old system where money was distributed more evenly. It was a co-operative. You could get a team like Nottingham Forest or Derby County winning the title. Now there are only four to six who can possibly be competitive.

So it’s fair to say you’re not happy with the direction in which the game is going. There are sheikhs and oligarchs on the one hand, bankruptcy and administration on the other. Should we be worried? Yes. Some of the people should not have passed the fit and proper persons test. Thaksin Shinawatra turned up with Amnesty International and other human rights organisations telling us how bad he was and it was just ignored. It was disgraceful. The old directors weren’t great but now it’s shameless. And what’s made the disparity worse are the parachute payments which I think are now £16m a year for three years? The intention is to create a closed shop. Now when people dream about their club they dream of an Abramovich or a passing sheikh. The game is better than that.

But there are still lots of things to enjoy in the game. We have Lionel Messi, right? Indeed. I don’t think the game has ever been played so well. I’ve never come away from a game feeling quite like I did after the 2011 European Cup Final. It cannot get better than that. The speed and the audacity – I’ve never seen anything like it.

High praise from a Charlton Athletic fan! It’s been a good start to the season. Do you have high hopes under Chris Powell? He’s a great choice. I hope they can find some money to support him as he’s a nice bloke. Charlton defied the odds under Alan Curbishley and what has happened since shows how it can go wrong. People were saying he had taken us as far as he could when the club was seventh or eighth in the league! A few bad decisions and it was gone – a club that had been seen as so well run too.

Do you still get the chance to go and watch Charlton much? I go as often as I can and certainly to the big games. If I didn’t have to report I’d go most weeks.

Aside from the Valley, what’s your favourite ground in England? After all these years, it’s still a thrill going to Old Trafford. The Emirates is an extraordinary stadium and Anfield is Anfield. But strangely the ground I have come to appreciate is Portsmouth’s. I have no obvious affiliation with the club but I always look forward to going. Fratton Park is very old fashioned and looks like it’s about to fall down but I love it.

How about away trips in Europe? I loved Turin, especially when it was the old Stadio Comunale. I went to the opening of the Stade de France which is a marvellous stadium. You can’t beat the two big Spanish grounds and Celtic Park on a European night is an amazing experience. One slightly different memory that stays with me is watching England play in Bulgaria back in the 1970s. The press table in Sofia was set up about three yards in from the touchline with a little parasol. I remember Trevor Brooking and others crashing into this table. You could hear every tackle – it was a unique experience.

Away from football you’ve been a big supporter of the 2012 Olympics in London. That must be something you’re hugely looking forward to? What can I say? I believe it’s the biggest and best thing that’s happened to sport in this country. Even this week there were a few mocking stories in the news but people turned out in huge numbers to see Mark Cavendish at the road race test event in Surrey.  There is a passion for it. This will be my tenth summer Olympics and nobody has approached it with this enthusiasm.

So does some of the cynicism about London 2012 frustrate you? It does! I genuinely think we went into it with the best motives. I know [Lord Sebastian] Coe and it’s the job he was born to do. I remember going up a primitive viewing hatch with him overlooking the site and wondering how he could possibly get this done. It was just wasteland. It was poison. It’s closer to the centre than any Olympics I can remember and it has been completely regenerated. There are good people involved in the construction too. I don’t think it was commercially or politically motivated and the public response has been great. But then, Britain always does events well. I remember the Tour de France prologue a few years back and the crowds were bigger than in France. When athletes do amazing things people get behind them.

And beyond that, do you think you’ll be going out to Brazil to cover the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics? Oh that’s too far ahead to say! Let’s just say it’s probably not the location the England football team would have chosen.

Are you worried for the future of newspaper journalism then – what do you think the future holds? Of course it’s worrying. However, those in the print medium were strangely heartened by what happened following the demise of the News of the World. Some thought people just wouldn’t buy another paper but the overall market didn’t noticeably shrink. There’s still a newspaper-buying public out there and we sell an unbelievable amount. I think my own paper is selling two and a quarter million so I’m not one of the absolute doom and gloom brigade.

How has your job changed over the years? Do you feel under more pressure for online hits and selling papers or was it always like that? Not so much that aspect of it but it is a very different environment from, say, 15 years ago. For a Sunday paper you could get an idea on the Tuesday or Wednesday and know it would be ok for the weekend. Now everyone is so thorough that the idea wouldn’t keep, so it’s ten times harder to write a Sunday column. The emphasis now is on breaking news. You see the banner on the TV channels. It clearly isn’t breaking news but that’s how everyone expects it to be delivered these days.

Twitter is a part of that. I noticed you referred to Joey Barton’s tweets in your column last week. Do you think you’ll ever have a Twitter account? Absolutely not! This job takes all of my time as it is and most of the grounds are not terribly helpful with Wi-Fi. I genuinely don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to know. I realise that makes me a Luddite but when I see Joey Barton and Robbie Savage are on there I cannot imagine it’s terribly appealing. I know Paul [Hayward] does it now doesn’t he? Paddy Barclay had a book out recently and I went to the launch. I was sitting next to Henry Winter and every so often the phone would come out and he’d be sending these tweets. I must have been incredibly boring.

In the meantime, you’ve still got one of the best jobs in the world haven’t you? Easily. Golly, I never ever doubt that. I get a terrific kick out of it still. Even this week I was at Edgbaston watching England win the series against India. It’s wonderful seeing an event like that.

Agreed. Thanks for talking to EFW, Patrick. Pleasure.

Adam Bate is the Editor of GhostGoal. A Wolves fan based in Birmingham, Adam is a freelance sports journalist and writes for FourFourTwo, When Saturday Comes, Calcio Italia, In Bed With Maradona and BT Life's a Pitch.

Follow GhostGoal and European Football Football Weekends on Twitter. Not you though Patrick, obviously.

European Football Weekends (Belgium)

Les EFW - Un Petit Bonus

OMS Ingelmunster 0-1 Woluwe Zaventem (14:08:11)
Sint-Eloois-Winkel 1-1* Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (14:08:11)

Previously on LesEFW - we'd pitched up at Amiens Sporting Club, Racing Club de Lens and K.A.A. Gent. Now it was time to ditch the household names and get real. Here's Stuart Fuller on the last leg of our tour.....

After one of the best nights out known to man, where we attempted but failed in the ultimate XI of Belgium's finest beers, falling just one short, we rose early ready for the day ahead.  The previous night was a blur.  At one point there was a clown, or a mask.  Someone gave us some firewater - literally, and then I ended up ordering five baguettes when all I wanted was a sausage roll.  We also decided that the best ever football song was Sheffield United's version of "Annie's Song", but still Danny kept singing "like a gallon of Magners".  At some point there was the devastating news that our Sunday afternoon game at Harelbeke, just down the E17 had actually kicked off at 7.30pm on the Saturday.

Bugger. A week's worth of preparation, pouring over maps and planning our timings out of the window. It was back to the drawing board, but with beers such as Kwerk, Primus and my personal favourite Floris Apple our decision making was, how we would say, "cloudy".  We narrowed it down to two venues, both just north of Kortrijk - Ingelmunster and Sint Eloois Winkel. Both ticked the boxes, both were essentially on the way home but which one to choose?  Then Andy had a brainwave.  "Let's do a Souness"..."What?  Buy a grey curly wig and manage a number of teams badly?" was our considered response.  "No"..he slurred "let's do a half at Ingelmunster and then we are off......to Sint Eloois Winkel"...Uncle Google told me it was 11km, so it was possible.  GAME ON!

Sunday morning was as cloudy as the marvellous White Mystic wheat beer but after some breakfast in the romantic square, completely lost on us Englishmen, we headed off.  First to Kortrijk and then to Harelbeke "just in case" they had left a door/gate open so we could have a wander in.  And would you believe they had...sort of.  Boxes ticked we arrived at Ingelmunster.  The ground was overlooked by the Bacchus brewery that brews the world famous Kriek fruit beer as well as the Kasteel brewing house.  If you cannot organise a piss up here then, well, you must be an idiot.

A pair of absolute beauties, tick

Six Euro later and we were inside, still none the wiser who the opposing team was.  And we got no clue from our vantage point of the best football bar in Belgium when both teams SPRINTED onto the pitch before lining up on the halfway line.  The visitors sported the dullest kit in the world.  Plain blue Nike shorts and socks, an orange shirt and that was it.  No club badge, no sponsors logo, nothing.  We immediately felt pity on them and vowed to raise the funds to sponsor them.  That was if we could actually find out who they were.  An away fan (there were four) had a jacket on with KWVZ Crew on so we expected it all to kick off at any point.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world's dullest football kit

One for all.... @HuddoHudson and @DannyLast in not-on-Twitter, shock 

In truth the away team were the better team.  Faced with two or three of the oldest looking players I have ever seen since the Northern Writers United game a few weeks ago.  It turned out they were called KWV Zaventem, and came from the area close to Brussels Airport.  You learn something new everyday.  Gentlemen expect an offer you cannot refuse coming your way via email very very soon.  After amusing the locals with our "foreign" accents and tails of debauchery in Gent we were off to the village, or should that be hamlet, of Sint Eloois Winkel, population 3,500.

During the course of the afternoon we had seen a number of "nightclubs" on the edge of the road, in strange places.  Neon light, shutters down, but all with a dodgy look.  Of course, we figured, as we saw a shifty old bloke coming out of one on the edge of Ingelmunster, they were local brothels.  Unfortunately we were on a tight timescale so there was no chance to try and find a "magic" door so nothing to report there at all.  Nope, nothing at all.

Ten minutes later and we were pulling up outside the sports ground in the village.  The gates were wide open and we wandered in.  The away team, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise eleven times winners of the Belgium championship have fallen on hard times since the late 1980's and are now in the lower leagues.  However, they had brought a fair size following from Brussels and held a 1-0 half time lead.  This was like the equivalant of Leiston v Burnley. We resisted the charms of a cuppa-soup in the bar, and took our places amongst the away fans, including a dog wearing club colours, as if it was the most natural thing you can find in a ground these days.

A 'fair following' from Brussels

The mandatory 'dog in club colours' snap. Good. Old. Belgium. 

Eleven, ELEVEN times winners of the Belgian Championship, I tell thee ... 

"Oi Lino, that was a shocking offside call.  You should go to Specsavers"  Shouted Andy, only to find that he already had and was wearing glasses.  It looked all over for the home side when they had a player sent off for a second yellow with a few minutes to go, but just to prove how crazy this whole game is they then scored a stunning equaliser.

Full time and it was 1-1.  No time for extra-time for us nor the tall leggy blonde who looked more in keeping with one of those strange establishments by the side of the road than a lower league football club as we had a ferry to catch so we headed out.  The cheer as we got in the TBIR Taxi must have been for a corner surely...

An hour later we were back at the port of Calais.  Apparently they don't have extra time in the cup so it goes straight to penalties.  Fortunately we hadn't missed the story of the round as Saint-Gilloise had won 5-4 on penalties.

So after 650 miles, five games, two magic doors, over fifteen different beers and a number of belly-aching laughs, our first ever LesEFW was at an end.  Well not quite.  Keep an eye out for the post trip video, coming to all bad establishments soon.

Ferry good show. Thanks for reading and all that ...

Loads more photos from this day HERE

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