Saturday, 28 May 2011

Women's Champions League Final

Les Fenottes: Champions of Europe

Lyon 2-0 Potsdam (26:05:11)

You wait a couple of years for an EFW report on women's football, and then two come along at once. After yesterday's look at the FA Cup Final, here's Calum Mechie on the Champions League Final....

It was my aim to write about this game on its own terms, without continual comparison with the men’s game, and I will do so – in a paragraph or two.

It would be remiss, in the period between the two UEFA Champions League finals, of me not to mention the huge disparity that characterizes football’s gender divide. On Saturday evening, Wembley (capacity 90,000) will be full to the brim of punters who have each paid at least £175 for the privilege. On Thursday night, Craven Cottage (capacity 25,700) was around half-full; this in spite of tickets being priced at a very friendly £5 a pop. UEFA is a consummate marketing machine and they know the value of their product. The huge gap in the affordability of access to these two flagship events is a sorry indictment of UEFA’s estimation of the quality of one half of that product.

Think of it like this, Platini and his cronies are sufficiently brazen to charge a frankly ludicrous £26 ‘administration fee’ on top of the already painful price of a ticket to the men’s final because they know that people will pay it. That the same amount would get you five (5! FIVE!) actual, tangible tickets (as opposed to the abstract, ethereal and most probably non-existent phenomena of ‘admin’) shows how little faith they have in the women’s game. It’s a disrespectfully token amount: ‘Obviously we’re going to lose on this one, but we’ve got to charge something’. This price is so low, remember the game’s in London where theatre tickets start at 10 times that amount, that it probably discouraged as many potentially interested punters as it attracted. 

All of this is a massive shame. Craven Cottage is a fun place to watch football and this was a brilliantly entertaining game.

My evening started with Tube delays. It took me the best part of two hours to get from Swiss Cottage to Ealing Broadway. I know! Unbelievable right? So annoying, I don’t know how/why we put up with it. Blah blah blah etc. etc.

Anyway, it had been pissing it down beforehand and some stations had flooded (hence the delays), so my time spent underground allowed me to compose the following joke, which was to be my opening sentence: ‘Apparently, not even God gives a shit about the Women’s UEFA Cup Final and has released the last six weeks’ worth of pent up rain upon it this evening’. Great isn’t it? Unfortunately/Fortunately the weather improved and I didn’t get to use it…

Apart from spawning comic gold (see above), the rain delay seriously curtailed my pre-match drinking. Which was limited to a (very) swift pint of something called ‘Junction’ in a non-descript, but not cheap, pub on the Fulham Palace Road. The sun had come up by this point, so we were able to enjoy our drinks outside; which is always nice isn’t it?

Outside the ground the atmosphere was wonderfully genial. A personal highlight was when I endeared myself to two old boys in luminous jackets, volunteers presumably (must keep costs down!), by asking cheekily where ‘the statue’ was, being stonily informed that it was ‘that way’ before lightening the mood by clarifying that ‘I meant Johnny, not Michael – come on lads!’ Oh how we laughed.

Of course, we really were only interested in seeing the abominable shrine to one of humanity’s most shameful creations (Michael, not Johnny) but I now had a ‘rep’ to protect, so we wandered off in the direction of Johnny Haynes and our seats (don’t worry, we snuck back later).

THE statue

I didn't get in here


We were heartwarmingly, but equally unbearably, situated right in front of a group of around ten 10-14 year-old girls (I’m not very good at guessing young girl’s ages – a trait perhaps attributed once or twice to a certain famous pop-star). These seemed to be a football team, and their near incessant high-pitched shrieking (‘ooh… it’s a corner. ooh… it’s a corner’; ‘the referee’s a tomato’ – she actually sort of was, more later) was punctuated by some occasionally telling commentary (‘she has a good first touch, Miss’). These were exactly the type of people the game should (but didn’t really) attract – although the 8 o’clock kick-off time probably did some damage here – and they seemed to really, really enjoy themselves. Which is great (though annoying).

Although, as I’ve already said, the game was very exciting, the first-half took a bit of time to get going. Lyon’s quick and skillful winger Elodie Thomis carried most of the early running, and although she tired in the second half her link-up play with the magnificent Swedish centre forward Lotta Schelin was one of the principal reasons for Lyon’s sharper attacking edge throughout. It was through their combination play that Lyon won the corner from which they opened the scoring, Wendie Renard bundling home after Sarholz in the Potsdam goal had kept out the original effort. The girls behind us were particularly delighted by the identity of the goalscorer. Renard, with her superb bonce, stands out and seemed to be their favourite player.

Renard: An exceptionally popular hairdo

My favourite player (though Lyon’s Camille Abily won the Player of the Match award) was Amandine Henry, who anchored Lyon’s midfield three with a mixture of astute positioning, combative tackling and neat passing. She and Schelin looked the most technically accomplished players, and Lyon’s victory was based on their shared ability to dictate the pace of the game.

That’s not to say, however, that Potsdam were completely overran. Lyon’s first goal came in the 29th minute and the second didn’t arrive until the last five minutes. In the interim period their star Fatmire Bajramaj (top scorer Yuki Nagasoto missed out through injury) showed incredibly quick feet and lovely touch in creating a number of chances; two particularly presentable examples squandered by players I unfortunately couldn’t identify (one of them could have been Mittag, who had a really poor game).

The hour between the two goals was fairly heroic. To say that referee Dagmar Damkova (yes, she’s a she too) let the game flow would be an enormous understatement as even blows to the head were deemed insufficient justification for a blown whistle. Essentially, she blew for disruptive fouls of a cynical nature and very little else. This was not because of unusually dainty tackling; far from it, tackles were flying in all over the shop and players showed an incredible readiness to go to ground in pursuit of possession, but not in pursuit of free-kicks (they wouldn’t have got them anyway). For a while, it looked as though the physically superior German side were going to use the veggie-fruitlike referee’s leniency to their advantage with Thomis, in particular, on the end of some seriously hefty challenges. Things never got out of hand however and it was to the players’ credit that every challenge was rebounded from and responded to with a grin and a handshake.

That said, it would have been nice to see the Lyon phsyio (possibly Europe’s fastest almost-bald man) sprint into action on more than the one occasion on which he was required. On the other hand, the referee did fall over and you can’t have it all.

Almost-bald Physio (right), a very very fast man; and look! A Female ‘Lino’, whatever next…

Incredibly, even after substitute Lara Dickenmann rounded off a neat move by absolutely shellacking the ball beyond Sarholz, Potsdam manager Bernd Schröder didn’t make a single substitution. I really don’t know what to say about that, any ideas?

At full-time the Lyon bench sprinted out to celebrate and the entire squad ran over to dance in front of the area of the stand dedicated to their small but passionate support. They then climbed the stairs into the stands together, which is the best way to receive a trophy. This was handed to them by UEFA president Michel Platini, who I hope enjoyed the game and deemed a fiver exceptionally good value for such entertaining fare*.
I certainly, certainly, did.


* I mean ‘fare’ here in a firmly metaphorical sense. The actual fare on offer, sampled by me in the form of a ‘gourmet beef pie’, was absolutely repugnant. For some reason it was wrapped in some form of cellophane – how was it cooked, how on Earth was it cooked? – and was so greasy that I had to skip the post-match pint in order to run home to my toothbrush: so much grease, why oh why won’t it come off….


Yuck, Yuck

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Calum is the Editor of Good Feet for a Big Man

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Friday, 27 May 2011

The FA Women's Cup Final

The Female Of The Species

Arsenal 2-0 Bristol Academy (21:05:11)

To our eternal shame, we've yet to feature the women's game here on European Football Weekends - until now. Putting that to rights is Ryan Keaney, Editor of The First Eleven who had the pleasure of visiting The FA Women's Cup Final in Coventry.....

Picture the scene. 10:22am, Saturday 21st May 2011, London Euston station.

A tension fills the air. Two AFC Wimbledon fans peer up at the screens to check the time of departure for their train to Manchester. Neither says anything. They can't quite vocalise how they feel. They don’t want to. There is too much trepidation. Too much hope. The taller one, the one on the right, mumbles something about going to Burger King and sulks away. I'm one of those two men. I’m not even travelling with them. I'm standing near them. I've shuffled over to bask in their feeling of worry and anxiety as I have no allegiance to either side in the game I'm going to watch. I loiter with intent, soaking up the early morning atmosphere.

Thinking about it, it's unfair to give the impression that I'm going to the same game as them. You know I’m not anyway. Their destination is the City of Manchester Stadium and the Conference Play-Off final. I'm headed for the Women's FA Cup final but in the absence of any Arsenal Ladies and Bristol Academy supporters to interact with; they seemed the best bet.

That's right. My eventual destination is the Ricoh Arena in Coventry via the scenic-route-travelling train that takes nearly two hours. The "normal" (read: far too expensive for a man still getting used to the harsh financial reality of living in Putney) route would have got me there in 56 minutes; but not the super off-peak return ticket I’ve picked up. But it's okay. I'm on a mission to discover women's football. A mission that started less than 48 hours prior to the game kicking off; so I don’t mind an extra 44 minutes on the train.

She, my better half, has a habit of travelling for her work. When She is gone, there is no-one around to reign in my careless whims that normally end on a second thought. She is the someone that forces me into a realisation of impracticality and the notion that I may be concocting a plan that will end with me frittering away my pennies. Without that someone to force me into the much needed second thought, I embark on missions.

As such, on Thursday afternoon at 3:36pm I had a spark of brain activity.

By 3:43pm, my train ticket was booked and ticket purchased for the showcase of the women’s domestic game.

By 3:51pm rolled around, I'd also sorted myself a ticket for the Women's Champions League final at Craven Cottage but that will be another story for another day. Maybe tomorrow.

The train split into two at Northampton, with the front four carriages heading for Crewe and the rear carriages taking everyone else to Coventry. Having sat in the fifth carriage I did have a minor panic I was in the wrong place. My mind was swiftly put at ease by a lovely Nigerian woman.

I'd never been to Coventry. Once I had gotten over seeing it for the first time (7 seconds) and used up my string of jokes about seeing potential Arsenal Ladies players Andrea Arshavin, Jackie Wilshere, Nicola Bendtner and Robin van Persie (3 minutes 28 seconds); I educated myself on the two teams.

Hang on; that last name actually works.

For those of you that don't know, Arsenal Ladies are the dominant force of British football; winning basically every title going. Imagine the exact opposite of their men's side. They were in search of their 11th cup triumph in their history. Bristol Academy had reached their first ever FA Cup final, having lost out at the semi-final stage on five previous occasions before this season.

Given that Arsenal Ladies currently sit second in the FA Women's Super League and Bristol are fifth with seven points from seven games, I only expected the match to go one way. As a Manchester United fan and even though we don't have a women's team; a big part of me wanted it to go Bristol's way or at least to penalties.

It didn't.

The play was neat and tidy and the ball control was very good. The Bristol players knew that they job was to try and upset the odds but in Rachel Yankey, Ellen White, Katie Chapman and Julie Fleeting; Arsenal possessed the flair player, the fast-rising superstar, the midfield dynamo and the clinical finisher of the British game.

In Jess Fishlock, Bristol had a hope and a prayer of something happening. Fishlock had scored in every round on their way to the final and was seen as playing a vital role in any success Bristol would enjoy.

Sadly for this neutral, they didn't get that something they needed. They battled hard, defended well and didn't panic. Unfortunately, they didn't trouble Arsenal. The Academy's tactics were clear from the start. They put bodies behind the ball and tried to hit Arsenal on the break. Fishlock was expected to link up with Anne-Marie Heatherson as much as possible. It was on them to conjure up a chance; while Arsenal supposedly toiled in front of the West Country rear-guard action.

The Gunners didn't toil. They exploited their straight-line speed on the wings. Bristol tried to congest the central areas with bodies, so Arsenal simply drew back and put the ball in over the heads of the fullbacks with White and Yankey doing the chasing. An Arsenal with a back-up plan; I couldn't believe my eyes.

But for some fine saves from Siobhan Chamberlain in the Bristol goal, Arsenal would have won the game by more. Of course, if Chamberlain hadn't of made one of her early saves, the game would have infinitely different so who is to say that the score may or may not have been. Oh well; it can't be changed now. It's over. It's finished 2-0.

Kim Little and Julie Fleeting, both Scottish internationals, scored first-half goals that settled the tie. Little, busy through the game at the forward point of the midfield three, cut out a poor clearance, sold a defender a dummy and then sent the 'keeper the wrong way. Fleeting added the second on the half hour, moments after Chamberlain had kept matters competitive. She tipped a free-kick onto the bar and then made a point-blank stop from a volley before the number 10 nodded Little's cross past her before she could react.

If some life was sapped from the Bristol players thanks to Fleeting's fine finish, it was completely gone when Fishlock failed to return for the second half. She was Bristol's most promising hope of a comeback into the game but went down in the 41st minute after an aerial class with Jordan Nobbs. Four minutes of treatment and the half-time break wasn't enough for her to return. Without their talisman... taliswoman... talisperson? Without their leading star and her streak of dazzling white hair, the belief amongst the Bristol players appeared gone.

Her replacement, Lillie Billson tried valiantly to link-up with Heatherson as much as she could but she lacked the ability of Fishlock to take players on; and on numerous occasions she didn't get the chance. Instead of trying to build an attack, the Bristol defence resorted to clearing the ball into Arsenal's half where none of their players were. Laura Harvey's side were allowed to build attacks steadily from the back without the pressure and harrying that had been ever-present in the first 45 minutes.

It was all far too comfortable for Arsenal so much so that I went for a wander at the beginning of the second half. I did so that I’d be in a better position for the eventual trophy presentation on the other side of the pitch. I did so, safe in the knowledge that Arsenal were unlikely to lose possession while I was gone. They didn’t. I kept tabs on them via the scenes in the concourse showing Sky’s live coverage of the game.

In the end, it was nothing like the 2-2 draw the two teams had played out just eight days before this clash (if the highlights on the FAWSL are anything to go by). Still, it was well-worth the £5 entry; even if sodding Arsenal won.

Now, Danny mentioned something about travel expenses.

Ryan is the Editor of The First Eleven

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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Levante v Real Zaragoza

Madder Than A Box Of Frogs. Olé!

Levante 1-2 Real Zaragoza (21:05:11)

It's a path I've worn many times before, but not too much quickens my pulse more than a walk to a new foreign field. You simply can't beat a journey into the European football unknown, blissfully unaware as to what lies around the next corner. In this instance it turned out to be thousands of Real Zaragoza fans climbing lampposts, buildings, and dancing and singing in the streets, together with one Levante fan, looking resplendent with 20 or more frogs tied around his neck. I was back in Spain for another European Football Weekend. Olé.

Away supporters? In Spain? Whatever next? This must have been a special occasion. It was. Real Zaragoza were one of six clubs all of whom could be relegated on this, the last round of La Liga matches. Spanish fans don't get out of bed for nothing, but these ones from Zaragoza not only got out of theirs, they moved them outside the Estadio de La Romareda, and camped out all night for tickets. 3,500 were snapped up quicker than the Argos catalogue, then the Blanquillos President, Agapito Iglesias - previous hobby: collecting scandals - intervened and secured another 1,000. These also went like hot cakes, and thus their usual away following of around a hundred quickly turned into four and half thousand. Olé.

Palm down lads.

Reclaiming the streets, and climbing lampposts, tick. 

As usual, the Spanish FA and television companies couldn't give two hoots about those fans. For no other reason other than to cause maximum inconvenience to all concerned, they scheduled this match just 6 (six) days beforehand, and with a slightly ridiculous - for this time of year - kick off time of 10pm. A Real pain in the culo for those Zaragoza supporters, slightly appeased by the fact the club laid on a fleet of over 100 coaches, many of them for free, to ferry them nearly four hours down to the Mediterranean coast. Olé.

Eight hours before the game, and things were seemingly a lot more tranquil as I rowed my wife across the wide freshwater lagoon of La Albufera, just south of Valencia, in a beautiful pea green boat - earning a golden pass to the football in the process. It might seem obvious to recommend the quaffing of paella in Spain, but here, in and around Valencia, really is the place to sample such foodie heaven. After my Sir Steve Redgrave-bit, we settled down for a traditionally elongated afternoon of the finest food and beer known to man. Cheap as chips as well, only better than chips (better than chips!). Olé.

From the calm waters of the La Alburfera we made a beeline to the Las Arenas beach, Valencia which was awash with thousands of Maños - the word for people from the Aragon region; famous for being friendly, honest and noble. Not bad characteristics to have attributed to you - in full on party mode. A real carnival atmosphere was developing, similar to a cup final. This was their cup final. Let's face it, only two teams can ever win La Liga, so staying up by the skin of your teeth on the last day of the season is as good as gets for most sets of fans. Erm...I've started this thing now so.....Olé.

In response to the endless songs echoing around the beach, some local bar owners belted out versions of the local traditional fiesta song: Paquito el Chocolatero. I've danced to this before, and it gets very messy. It got very messy. Good fun though. Olé.

After a quick and very noisy tram ride it was time to accelerate the pre-match drinking in the surrounding streets of the Estadi Ciutat de València. There was a little bit of silliness - with glasses and bottles of beer being thrown and fans trying to stop traffic - but this was nipped in the bud early doors by a large police presence. One of the bar owners told me that fans had been knocking back the beers since 10am. I did a quick sum in my head and concluded, several minutes later, that would have been a 12 (twelve) hour pre-match. Impressive. Olé.

I could have parked here if it wasn't for you meddling kids

Waiting for the team bus

Hero worship, and look, a woman peeking out of her office window (top right)

Eight paragraphs into this report and I'm finally at the stadium. To be met by chaotic scenes. There were fans in every nook and cranny. It quickly became very clear that even though they'd officially sold 4,500 tickets, many more had travelled. Segregation? Forget it. The Spanish press reported the next day that in excess of 9,000 Real Zaragoza fans were in the stadium. With queues snaking around the block, I was thankful to be ushered through a magic door where I collected my press pass and took up my seat directly behind the Levante bench. Olé.

Behind me in the main stand thick plumes of cigar smoke filled the night air as the Levante fans celebrated another astonishingly successful season. "Plucky little" Levante (nod to The Fiver) have the lowest average support in the division, the smallest budget, sign players for nought pence, and were described by influential skipper and local hero Sergio Ballesteros as being a "miracle of construction on the cheap". And yet, defying all sorts of logic, and proving for once that money isn't the be all and end all of football, they'd comfortably survived another season in Spain's top flight. Olé.

There were frogs (frogs!) everywhere. The home fans wore them with pride around their necks. I now know that Granotes, the club nickname of Levante UD, is the Valencian word for frogs. This lucky charm is exactly the reason that these particular Granotes are jumping up La Liga. They've got, ahem, more ribbit than Sainsbury's. In conclusion, not nearly enough football fans go to matches with amphibians tied around their neck. Danny likes this. Olé.

More ribbit than Sainsbury's

Dear stadium announcers of Europe, when there are fans inside your ground, all of whom are singing their hearts out like there is no tomorrow, wind your neck in, put your head back in the clouds and shut your mouth. And switch off the Black Eyed Peas whilst you're about it. In fact, never put them on your turntable again. Enough is enough. Twenty thousand football fans in full voice in your stadium is all we need to hear. It's all we want to hear. So, callate la boca. Kind regards, Danny. P.S. Olé.

A loss would see the end of Real Zaragoza as we know it. Maybe for good. They're €90m in debt, were more so before they flogged off their training ground, and are a club full to the brim with internal strife, not to mention administrators knocking on their door every two minutes. That was why only 75% of Real Zaragoza fans' songs were in support of their club. 20% of them were anti-Agapito [President] ditties: "hijo de puta" and just for good measure, and because beer had been taken, the remaining 5% concerned themselves with insulting hated rivals, Osasuna. Olé.

Great support, and the deepest goal-nets in Europe

Real Zaragoza fans were everywhere you looked

And a few Levante

The game kicked off. Olé.

It quickly became clear that the home side weren't too bothered about putting in their best performance of the season. Real Zaragoza dominated the game, but for a side that hadn't won in this stadium since 1964/65 - yes, I got a free match programme, well spotted - this wasn't going to be an easy ask. But cometh the hour, cometh the skipper. Gabi chose this game to become an Aragon legend. For his first trick he knocked in a textbook free-kick with his right boot. For his second, he crashed a shot into the roof of the net from outside the box with his left. Real Zaragoza had itself a new superhero. Just reward for those fans who had painted the town blue and white. Perfecto. Olé.

Not quite in the script was Levante pulling a goal back towards the end. Cristian Stuani looked almost embarrassed as he glanced in a header to shred a few more Aragonese nerve ends. But apologies accepted, the teams played out the final 11 minutes and the biggest party in town was about to start. Olé.

Gabi shoots...

...and scores

For hours after the final whistle, bedlam ensued. You know the deal in Spain: flags out of sun roofs, beeping horns and, fittingly for Valencia; swirls of fireworks, explosions of noise and fire. Olé.

It was so tight at the bottom that, incredibly, from starting "relegation Saturday" third from bottom, Real Zaragoza actually finished in 13th place. They only just missed out on a Europa League spot for crying out loud. Deportivo La Coruna ended up filling the last available spot, thus ending a twenty year spell in the top flight. They had failed to score in 21 of their 38 games, and so probably deserved to go down. That sounds boring, this EFW was anything but. It was madder than a box of frogs. I loved it. Altogether now....Olé.

You could hear the noise in Croak (sic) Park, Dublin

My hero. Rafa Jorda + Rafa Jorda's biggest fan*. *I was secretly very smug with this photo

Peep peep. We've done it. A pitch invasion (by journalists, not fans) greets the final whistle and Real Zaragoza players celebrate with around 10,000 of their supporters. Just. Like. Heaven.  

Like this? Try out visit to Sporting Gijon for size.

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A couple of videos of the Real Zaragoza fans both HERE and THERE

For Lots more photos from the day CLICK ME

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Saturday, 21 May 2011

Porto v Braga - Europa League Final

Europa: The Final Countdown

Braga 0-1 Porto (18:05:11)

Arsenal fan and aspiring football writer Josh Pedley in Dublin's fair city......

While Wembley may be playing host to the Champions League final this year, the mouth-watering, bed-wetting prospect of Barcelona, who if being more than just a club wasn’t enough are also champions of Spain for the third year running, and Manchester United, self titled ‘Biggest Club in the World’ and champions of England for the third time in four years, the actual real final, the Final’s final if you like, was taking place across the Irish Sea in Dublin.

Yes that’s right, Sporting Braga v FC Porto. Two teams from the same country, split by a mighty 30-odd miles, being made to travel all the way to Ireland to play the final of a competition that has about as much relevance nowadays as a mini-disc player.

Well, that’s the impression you get living in England. A country where the top teams spend the first 6 months of the season giving the maximum 110% effort to try and qualify for the Champions League only to realise in March that its an impossible dream and then simply spend the remaining two months planning their summer breaks in Miami, while hoping desperately that their lack of interest means they will miss out on the opportunity of appearing in a primetime slot on Channel 5 on a Thursday night next season.

Yet the attitude on the continent could not be different. This is still a prestigious Trophy to win and is a place for clubs to put themselves on the map and ultimately for players to grab the attention of the bigger clubs who compete in the Champions League each year.

In this respect, Dublin was the perfect city to host Uefa Europa League Final, albeit despite its obviously crap name.

While there was never a chance of an Irish team making the final here, in the Aviva Stadium they have a top class venue for the occasion.Yet landing on O’Connell Street in the centre of the city at 5pm on Wednesday afternoon with just a handful of Porto fans hanging around and I was starting to worry if this may turn into the non-event it was built up to be. Where were the thousands of boozed up supporters, drunk on optimism and 5euro pints of Guinness?

After walking around the streets for 10 minutes or so and finding pretty much all the pubs empty I began to dream of how different the scene would be if, for example, PSV prevailed to get this far.

If this was what was happening on the streets, then what about on the pitch? These maybe two teams from the same league but that’s where the similarities end.

After all, Porto are giants of Portuguese football and have just completed the league season with a not too shabby record of played 30, won 27 and drawn 3. Their coach André Villas-Boas is considered the most talented young manager since Jose Mourinho and in Falcao and Hulk they have two of the most sought-after forwards in Europe.

Meanwhile Braga have just finished 4th in the Primeira Liga and a massive 38 points behind their opponents. Yet they are arguably going through the finest period in the clubs history. After finishing second last season, Braga overcame Celtic and Sevilla to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League.

So my spirits were lifted considerably after jumping in a taxi and heading to the ground. With the Aviva Stadium being located a good 15 minute walk from the centre of the city, the streets were lined with both sets of supporters making there way to the game in harmony, singing together and drinking together with no animosity.

However there was never a chance of any trouble, mainly because the Porto fans outnumbered the Braga contingent by three to one. The streets and pubs around the ground were a sea of blue and white shirts and the chants of “Pooooorrrrtooooo, Poooooorrrrttttooooo…” were all that could be heard.

Once in the ground it also became apparent that it would be far from a sell out, a fact confirmed later with the attendance hitting 45,000, 6,000 short of capacity. With the ground starting to fill as the surprisingly impressive opening ceremony got under way the Porto fans began to find their voice and continued to sing through the whole 90 minutes. It was a shame though that the Braga supporters were in such low numbers that they were only heard briefly for 10 minutes during the first half. Which, unfortunately, was kind of like the performance of their team.

Braga made their intentions clear early on by sitting deep and soaking up the pressure. They also made it clear who they were threatened by most, as at least 3 players took their turn to see if Hulk, Porto’s powerhouse forward, could do it on a cold May Wednesday night in Dublin.

A rhythm soon settled with Porto playing he ball across the defence, linking with the impressive Fernando in midfield and looking at any opportunity to slip the Columbian Falcao in on goal.

To be fair to Braga they managed to keep Porto to long distance efforts and it was a mis- placed pass just before half time which allowed Porto to break and then cross for Falcao to deftly nod home the only goal of the game, and also what was Porto’s only shot on target.

Despite a brief spell of desperate pressure towards the end of the second half from Braga, complete with goalie up for corners, Porto were never in trouble and deservedly won their first European trophy since winning the Champions League in 2004.

While the game wasn’t the greatest and the atmosphere was slightly ruined by the number of empty seats, Dublin is a great city and a perfect host for occasions like this. The beer is great and the pubs were made for pre and post match drinking. It’s a shame they don’t have a football team worthy of competing at this level or higher on a regular basis.

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Thursday, 19 May 2011

Huddersfield Town v Bournemouth

That's Entertainment

Huddersfield Town* 3-3 AFC Bournemouth (18:05:11)

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr David Hartrick.....

Right, let me set this up for you.

I'm a Brighton fan - this is common knowledge but what you may not have realised is that I live in Huddersfield. This can be problematic as most of my mates are naturally Huddersfield Town fans (Brighton being beaten 7-1 the season before this made for an interesting few days let me tell you) but if I want a live football fix on my doorstep, I have to head to a Town game.

Now this can be difficult. I have no attachment to Town at all - there are things about them that annoy me and things about them I like.

For example, I hate the name of the stadium - the Galpharm. If you say the word 'Galpharm' out loud it sounds like a noise you'd hear in the jungle at night and not a 'I'll sit out here and make sure nothing gets in your tent' sound, more a 'run, that thing that goes 'Galpharm' all the time is here and it will eat you' sound.

Also I don't like light blue and white strips on their shirt. It's like someone's taken a Brighton shirt and washed it to within an inch of its life.

But on the flip side there are things I like. The urinals have little dividers in them so rather then crowding in, everyone knows it's four to a trough and no splashing. This is particularly pleasing when you've had a few sleeves and need to frequent them more than once during a game. I also like the fact there are trees behind one of the stands, if you squint your eyes you could be anywhere in Europe.

So basically going to a Town game is a whole mix of emotions and more often than not an excuse to get Carling Extra Cold into my bloodstream but in a legitimate fashion when it comes to explaining things to the wife.

Sunshine, trees, fans

And so we come to Huddersfield Town vrs Bournemouth, play-off semi-final second leg.

I decided to go to the game for two very good and very valid reasons. Firstly, it was a chance to effectively see a cup game perfectly poised after the drawn first leg, potentially a great game for a neutral. Town and Bournemouth have both been terrific attacking units this season and the prospect of two evenly matched teams slugging it out was intriguing. Secondly, I fancied a few pots.

And so I met up with my usual band of Town mates - most season tickets holders - and headed to the game. Joining me were Billy Elliot (so called because he looks like Billy Elliot funnily enough), Bo (from the surname Ramsden, Ramsden to Rammy to Rambo to The Bo to Bo), Marsey (based around his second name - slightly boring), Bobby, Scott and Steve (so called because that's their first name and not everyone can have a 'cool' nickname).

First port of call was Ricky's for a quick pint(s) before the game. Now anyone who knows Huddersfield will be thinking 'Ricky's? That's where they put a load of strippers on isn't it?' and you'd be right but trust me, I was only there to make sure I was still morally outraged by the reducing of women to mere sex objects. After begging not to go *ahem* I was dragged there only to find out it was so busy, there'd be no turn on. To be honest with you I wasn't bothered either way, the last six strippers I've seen down there all had either caesarean scars or unsightly birthmarks so I was happy to head to the ground to have a drink there instead.

Now to cover the match I thought the best thing I could do as a neutral is bring you a blow-by-blow account of what turned out to be a cracker. Now this may not be the match report you might get in your newspaper but who do you believe, a man at the game or a journalist? (*disclaimer, journalist may also have been at the game*) I went about this by making notes and I feel the best thing to do is present these to you unedited for you to make your own minds up.

0 to 10 mins: Town massively on top but not carving out any chances. Bar had run out of lager by kick-off - rubbish. Had a wee and the dividers in the urinal cheered me up.

10 to 25 mins: Home crowd is buzzing, Bournemouth have got back into the game but there's a real lack of quality from both sides. Watching Kevin Kilbane to see if he should be playing at a better standard than League One. He shouldn't.

26 mins: Lee Peltier scores for Huddersfield to put them one up, tidy little header and crowd goes wild. I clap politely and smile at the trees ahead of me.

27 to 40 mins: Town knock it about a bit sitting on their lead. Need another wee but manage to stifle it for a while. 5 minutes before halftime I give the boys the nod and say I'll get the round in before the queue comes, nothing's really happening so I won't miss anything.

41 to 45 mins: Miss Bournemouth's penalty equaliser and Danny Ward's goal to put Huddersfield back in front. On the up side I do get to watch a man behind a counter struggle to work a till or get his head around the order '6 bottles of Magners (no beer left) and a meat and potato pie please'. I hear both roars, one as I queue, one as I shout the number 6 at him for ironically the sixth time.

Spotter's badge, man listening to commentary on a tranny

Halftime: Chill out, Town fans relaxed now back ahead. Eat meat and potato pie made almost entirely of pastry and potato. Would go back and complain but just can't be bothered to stand shouting the words 'there's no meat in my pie' at someone who doesn't care.

45 to 62 mins: Game gets bitty but I'm not really watching, pie lying heavy and repeating - far too peppery.

63 mins: Bournemouth equalise again with a great goal, Town's marking shocking. Point out that their marking was awful and nearly start a riot. Pie still working its way down.

64 to 90 mins: Bournemouth work their way on top but can't force a clear opening. Pie works it's way down and is in real danger of forcing a clear opening within me.

90 to 103 mins: Typical extra time, the game becomes stretched and both sides waste chances. Have a wee and break wind really loudly. Pie blockage cleared.

104 mins: The Cherries break and score a great goal, tidy little header put away by Danny Ings. The natives are as restless as bag of wasps. I'm just happy pie is no longer an issue.

105 mins: The ground explodes as Anthony Kay nods in an equaliser. This has been a great game for the neutral, an awful game for fans of either club. Kevin Kilbane is still poor, a sighting of Danny Cadamarteri on the Town bench reveals he is now the size of a small terrace house.

105 to 120 mins: Long ball after long ball from each side, terrible challenge brings a red card for Bournemouth's Jason Pearce but both sides look like they just want the game to end. Lovely little goalmouth scramble right at the end of the game, we're miles away from it so it looks like a load of men in football shirts playing Twister.

Penalties: The drama of a live penalty shoot out - seeing as I don't care who wins, brilliant! Grown men bite their nails, the word 'believe' is used far too much. The crowd sing 'there's only one Ian Bennett' to Town's goalkeeper, fairly certain there's not, Bennett's a really common name. Unfortunately the idea of there being more than one Ian Bennett consumes me and I miss lots of the penalties as I weigh up sitting down with the phone book to check. People miss and people score, Town win and the ground goes bat-shit for 10 minutes, textbook pitch invasion ensues. Wander out into the night for another beer among a joyous throng of Town fans, remain utterly indifferent unless asked to which I reply 'the Town are going up' at the top of my voice.

Textbook pitch invasion

So there you have it, an undercover Brighton fan at a Huddersfield Town game swept along on a wave of light blue and white striped success. Am I going to Old Trafford for the final?


I'm a Brighton fan.

A couple of panoramic snaps from the away end for good measure? Aye, why not.

Thanks to Boscombe fan Ben Stanley-Clarke for those.

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AC Milan

Two Series in one day.. and a Scudetto

Novara v Frosinone 2-1 (14:05:11)
AC Milan v Cagliari 4-1 (14:05:11)

Jim Stewart is the Editor in Chief of EuroFootballCities: a handy guide to anyone wishing to travel abroad for the beautiful game....

I'll be honest, in the past I've never really been big on Italian football. Yep, there was a time way back in Gazzamania when it did stir some interest. Back in the days when James Richardson was sat in a Rome cafe reading Gazetta dello Sport that did seem the place to go. However, I'd always found the tactical play a bit negative, frankly boring, and the lure of Spanish skill or German.. beer… had always proved a bigger attraction. Still, the time had come to break my Serie A duck and give it a go. The San Siro stamp was a glaring omission on my European football passport so it was time to hop on a big orange plane from Luton and check it out.

So the weekend was chosen - and it turned out that it was the day AC Milan were playing at home after sealing the Scudetto for the first time in seven years. Jackpot!

The big game was at 8.45pm on the Saturday night. That left with me a slight quandry - what to do with the rest of the day. Check out the Duomo in the middle of town? Window shopping? Sitting in a cafe watching the fashion gurus stroll by? So after carefully considering all the options, there was clearly no other choice then to jump on a train, and head 45 minutes to take in a Serie B game at nearby Novara. Two games, one day, four hours between full time at the first and kick off at the next. It's all set up, what could possibly go wrong?

All the forecasts for the weekend said rain, clouds and more rain so it was no huge surprise to me when I strolled into the centre of Novara and it was glorious sunshine. A quick look around the centre of this provincial town and it was time to hop on a bus for the ride to the Stadio Comunale Silvio Piola, home of the mighty Novara.

A quick game of frogger ensued to get to those old skool floodlights

Not quite six-deep at the pre-match bar

First up, get a ticket. And after 15 minutes of obligatory wandering around I tracked down the ticket office, in a kiosk on the other side of the car park where i joined the queue with handful of Novara diehards.
A quick check of the ticket prices showed 4 options: the curve for 5 euros, then prices at 19, 21, and 30 euros for elsewhere.

Working on the theory that 5 euros sounded very cheap.. too cheap.. I was curious as to just how bad those seats would be. So, this being my first foray into the world of Italian football I decided to play safe, hop up one level and plumped for the 19 euros version in the Distinti sector.

There was time for a swift 4euro can of Becks in the car park before it was time to venture in.
Inside, and up the stairs, I looked to the right where the home fans were gathered in the cheap seats and yep, it looked pretty basic to me. An open end on a baking hot day, and the rows of seats were basically long slabs of concrete with seat numbers painted on. Ha! Well dodged, Jim. So I smugly headed down the stand to my seat - to find I was in the open, on a long slab of concrete with seat numbers painted on. So 14 euros more - to sit on the side.

Straight ahead was the 'posh' stand, ie it had a roof. Also proper seats (as did the people behind me, grrr). To the left was the away end, where come kick off there were a grand total of two fans. Thankfully, they were joined by the main Frosinone ultras to take the visiting following up to about 20 - but fair play, what they lacked in numbers they made up for in energy.

The Blue Crew, Novara Ultras

Not quite so full in the away end

It was a gloriously sunny day. Hot, very hot. Put it this way, if the Italians are cowering in the shade behind the stand at half time, and they're sticking their heads under the taps in the glorious public conveniences, and the most popular drink in the bar is water, you know it's baking.

Now my knowledge of Italian football below Serie A isn't the best, but I can tell you that Novara are the young upstarts who have had a mighty fine season so far. They're third in the league, and a win today would confirm a place in the play-offs and the chance. What I hadn't sussed is that their opponents were rock bottom and were staring relegation in the face. Despite that, Frosinone started like a bullet out of a gun and deservedly went ahead. But no fear, the hosts levelled before the break and normal order was restored with what turned out to be the winning goal early in the second half.

Stand up if you love the main stand

I have to say it was all rather good. The quality was impressive, there were sackloads of chances and even despite the heat the game was played at a rare old pace. There were a modest 5,400 fans there - Novara are a small club - but the boys in blue kept the noise going for the duration. The lino on our side faced the full wrath of the home fans in the first half when he failed to give half a dozen close offside calls their way. One spectator's gloriously impressive ongoing conversation with him included 17 shouts of 'Bastardo' (whatever that translates to in English) and, wonderfully, a 'Mamma Mia'.

The match was tapering off so I decided to dodge the crowds, hop out with 15 minutes to go and see if I could grab the slightly earlier train back to Milan. That relied on there a) being a bus waiting, and b) there being a bus waiting that was going to drive to the station in the near future. Yes, I found the said bus but the driver was not about to set off. He suggested I walk and gave me the great advice that the railway station was 'about 15 minutes' by foot. So I set off.

Thirty minutes and two miles later I was still some away so it was time to admit defeat, and wait for the next train back to Milan and on to the San Siro. No panic, still plenty of time…And yes, there was plenty of time. Back from Novara to Milano Centrale by 6.45pm, a quick pit stop at my nearby hotel for the ticket and I was back out, with over an hour an an half to make the 30 minute pilgrimage to the San Siro.

So I headed to the metro and it was time to follow my popular rule if you're not entirely sure of the best way to go - follow the man with the football flag. So I did, on down to Line 2. The metro's there, tick. Jump on, five minutes round to Cardona Station and time to hop off and change to the direct line to the San Siro. All good. I joined the growing masses, surged down to the platform, the train was waiting.. and so, were the fans. On the platform. And the train's in complete darkness. There then follows announcements over the tannoy. The train will be leaving soon. A few more minutes. The train should be leaving shortly. Then, a few minutes later - there's a problem on the line, the train's going nowhere.

As I later discovered, an ultra on an earlier train had pulled the emergency cable - and the whole line was shut for an hour. So it was time for a mass exodus up to the street, and suss to do next. Everybody stood around for a bit. Then some wandered one way, some another, the rest filled the few taxis, others tried to flag down anybody in a car for a lift. while the rest just stood there. Which confirmed my suspicions - noone had a clue where to go and it was fairly pointless following any idiot with a flag. But, after a few minutes, and with now under an hour to kick off, it became clear there was no option but to walk. So I went with this majority, and off we walked. And walk. And run. and walk. And dodge the cars and the buses and the trams at endless road junctions, trying and failing to get on the trams that were rammed like sardines. Just keep on walking, a bizarre movement of the people.

The long road to the San Siro

When I got back home I google mapped the route to suss out how far it was. It felt like about three and a bit miles, which is funny really because the map said it was about three and a bit miles.

Finally, after the umpteenth corner, I finally heard the noise of the San Siro, just as they read out the team sheet. About five minutes later I could see it loom into view. Of course, that gives you slightly false hope because it's so huge, it still takes some time to get to it.

At last. And worth every minute. One of the wonders of the world.

Eventually I made it to entrance 14, smiled at the ticket checker on the gate and handed over my ticket.
Then he wanted ID. He looked at my ticket, then my passport, then my ticket, then my passport.. and told me something along the lines that it didn't match. And that meant in Italy, as I learned quickly, I wasn't getting in.
Now I thought the whole change of ticket owner thing had been sorted when I bought the ticket (you have to do that in Italy) but clearly not. So it was on to plan B, and I did what any good foreigner abroad does in this situations.. and shrugged, and smiled, and begged. And begged. And, amazingly, he shrugged, and let me in.
Of course, I wasn't going to be on the bottom tier. Oh no. Top tier. So I ran for about what seemed like another three and a bit mile miles up the spiralling concourses to the top, and into the arena.

I'm sure there's many reading this who have been to the San Siro and can vouch for the atmosphere and the scene. Throw in the fact the game was just kicking off, AC Milan had won the league and the party was under way and you can only imagine the noise, the frenzy. It's not a good time to try to find your seat, but I did. Well, a seat, it was only later that I realised I was sat in entirely the wrong sector but no-one seemed to care that much.

If you look very closely, yep, there he is: Silvio Berlusconi

AC Milan Campione d'Italia 2011

I was in the blue end, which I immediately learned is the AC home end. And while the main ultras are in the bottom and middle tiers, I can officially confirm that they're bonkers on the top tier too. I can also confirm that the view of the stadium is spectacular, but for viewing a game on the pitch several hundred miles below it is spectacularly bad. When the smoke from the endless firecrackers eventually cleared I spent the game looking over the 12 foot high grubby perspex glass that rings the third tier - and on top of that the netting that stretches to the roof.

You can see the action, but you couldn't really suss out who had the ball and it was only the announcements that gave me a clue as to who scored. Well, I'm blaming the view and not my dodgy knowledge of Italian players. However, it didn't really matter. For me going to the San Siro is all about the atmosphere. It's a Colosseum in a country that first did them 2000 years ago. Three sides have three massive tiers, the fourth a 'mere' two, and the noise, particularly in the home end, is incredible.

The score was pretty irrelevant but for the record, Milan won 4-1 with two from Robinho, one for Gattuso and a fourth from Seedorf. And Cagliari weren't even that bad.

Life up in the Gods

Of course, the final whistle was only the halfway point in the evening. We were then treated to a full rendition of all Milan's favourite club songs (think a CD of Chas and Dave belting out at Spurs and you're on the the right lines) before, finally, the players were brought back out one by one for the league trophy presentation. Eventually, the squad was all there and the cup was lifted. Cue Queen, half a dozen renditions of We Are The Champions, and the party was under way.

At somewhere towards half eleven it was time to go, and after a quick beer outside (dry Italian grounds don't get a big tick from me) the ultras were still in full voice inside. Thankfully, this time, the bus and metro got me back to town.

So that was that. 12 hours, two matches, two trains, two buses, three metros.. one longish walk and one epic 'legging it'. Legend! And yes, Italian football may just have won me over...

When Ambrosini went up, to lift the Coppa Campioni d'Italia, I was there, I was there...

If can creep in a small plug, there'll be a section on Milan on my website - in the close season, and the site will be getting a makeover too.

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