Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ayr United FC – Glasgow Rangers FC (XI) (28-07-2008)

For some reason Ayr United has always had an attraction on me. As I hadn’t been able to visit the club during my 2.5 years in Scotland, and they now played a rare Monday evening game, my trip to Edinburgh was the perfect opportunity. So, I extended my stay for a day, decided to fly back from Glasgow, and made my way on Monday to Ayr, about 50 minutes by train to the south of Glasgow. It was an extremely hot day, which is not very enjoyable in Britain (unless you enjoy watching shirtless white- or pink-skinned thin guys and overweight girls). After a torturous three hours in the ‘centre’ of town, including a disastrous meal in an ‘Italian’ restaurant, it was finally time to walk to Somerset Park, roughly 15 minutes from the main railway station.

Roughly a month ago, when I first read about this game, the website had announced that it was all-ticket (i.e. no ticket sales on match day) because of security risks. At that time it also still presented its opponent as “Glasgow Rangers”, however. Consequently, I had emailed the club to reserve a ticket for me, which they had kindly done. I picked it up at the ticket office – 12 pounds (ca. 15 euro) for a seat on the “Central Stand” – and bought a pennant at the desolate and smothering hot fan shop.

Somerset Park is a typical run-down British ground, counting one big stand (seats), two smaller stand behind the goals, and an open stand. It was built in 1888 (!) and, as far as I could see, has not been renovated since. It can hold 12.128 people, but has only 1.597 seats. Not surprisingly, Ayr United is planning to build a new stadium, smaller but more modern. To illustrate my point, this was the view from my seat.

Tonight, some 1.200 people had made it to the old stadium, including some 400 away supporters (undoubtedly many from Ayr itself). Many home supporters also came for another reason, i.e. honoring the 30 years of service of groundsman Davie Harkness, as this game was the “Davie Harkness Testimonial Match”. These kind of games present some of the best in British football, true respect for people who make the beautiful game possible. And so, before the game, both teams stood in line for “Harko” to walk in between them and be applauded.

While initially a bit annoyed that it wouldn’t be the real Rangers, but its youth team, according to the Ayr United website report the “Ibrox babes”, I soon saw the positives of it. This team full of young hopefuls was eager to impress and played intelligent and attractive football. The Ayr attack in the first minute was directly one of the few of the whole game. And already in the direct counter-attack the Rangers youngsters showed their clever play and good technique. Several more chances followed before, in the 23rd minute, the first goal was scored. After the ball got stuck in the box, it was tipped in from close distance: 0-1.

Two minutes later a beautiful long ball of Ayr was finished with a weak shot. The last notable attack of the hosts this first half. In the 32nd minute Rangers countered yet again, finishing with an easy header from a couple of meters: 0-2. Just a minute later they had the next big chance, before scoring a deflected shot in the 39th minute. 0-3 was also the half time score.

After having watched the many seagulls flying above the pitch at half time, it was time for the second half. Already after 5 minutes Rangers hit the post, in front of an empty goal, which seemed the start of a sloppier second half.

The only player to keep his fantastic game up was the captain, the number 6, who was a cross between Steven Gerard (Liverpool) and Barry Ferguson (Rangers). What a phenomenal player, always looking for the easy solution. But even he couldn’t prevent the consolation goal of Ayr United, after a nice attack in the 62nd minute: 1-3.

This woke the youngster up again, and the next minutes saw various good chances for the visitors. In the 69th minute they finally scored again, after another beautifully executed counter-attack: 1-4. Despite many other chances, 1-4 was also the final score. Everyone seemed happy with the game, which did indeed show some top football (despite the lack of opposition by Ayr United). Happily I walked back to the station: happy to leave Ayr, happy to have seen the Ibrox babes, and happy to have celebrated Harko.
East Stirlingshire FC – Ayr United FC (27-07-2008)

(by way of ticket)

Visiting my old home town of Edinburgh, I couldn’t resist making a hop. However, as all games for the (still sponsorless) Scottish Challenge Cup were on Saturday, I had a problem. Fortunately, East Stirlingshire had left their regular home ground, Firs Park, as they are unable to afford ground improvements, and in the coming five years they will play their home games at Ochilview Park, the home ground of city rivals Stenhuismuir FC, which played at home on Saturday. So, on Sunday my friend L.M. and I set out for Falkirk, some 45 km from Edinburgh, to see the third team of that relatively small city play its first official game of the new season. As it was the hottest day in Scotland this year, we had some trouble finding the stadium (which we passed by chance), our car didn’t have airco, we arrived at Stenhuisemuir toasted.

Fortunately, we could park near the stadium, so we arrived well in time of kick-off. As I had feared, we went into the turnstiles of the ticket office, paid 9 pounds (ca. 11.50 euro) each, and… did not get a ticket! ☹

Even before the game started we got worth for our money. The stadium speaker was a fountain of words. In his hilarious expose he thanked everyone coming to the ground, including “groundhoppers” (had I been spotted?). On this beautiful sunny day, no less than 761 people had found their way to Ochilview Park. In a sense both were away supporters, but the roughly 300 Ayr United supporters had traveled a highly respectful 100 km.

Ochilview Park is an old-school British stadium, close to the ground, but in a horrible state. It holds 3.776 people, of which 626 can be seated on the one main stand along one long side; there is also one small stand behind a goal (only standing). The other sides are empty and not open to the public. Consequently, many a ball would be lost there during the game.

As Ayr United plays a division higher than East Stirlingshire, Second and Third Division respectively, they were the clear favorites to proceed to the second round of the Challenge Cup – even for the announcer. And, while The Shire played with a lot of heart, the Ayr goal didn’t take long. In the 15th minute a cross came in from the right and two headers further it was 0-1. The rest of the first half it would be all Ayr United that threatened. At least at three times they tested the Shire goalie, with free shots from within the penalty box, but every time he responded well (though the shots were never really good). So, half time 0-1, which was much less than Ayr deserved.

The second half brought much the same, even if East Stirlingshire had the first decent chance. After that, Ayr took over again. In the 60th minute alone they had two half chances, while five minutes later they shot a half-volley from 11 meters just over the goal. In the 70th minute Shire shot just wide and shortly after an Ayr player crossed half of the pitch before shooting (softly) at the goalie. Two minutes later they overshot a volley and in the 88th minute they forced the home goalie to yet another safe, after a great attack.

To the credit of Shire, they stayed in the game, fighting rather than playing. But out of nowhere, in the 90th minute, everything changed. Out of desperation a midfielder shot from 20 meter at goal, just over the goalie yet under the crossbar: 1-1! What an enormous screw-up of the Ayr goalie! Although there had been little reason to have much extra time, we played on for another five minutes, in which Ayr was completely lost, and Shire pressured… with effect! In the 95th minute, after a good attack, a dry low shot in the far corner changed the whole game upside down: 2-1 for East Stirlingshire!

A minute later the referee blew the final whistle and people around us got crazy; as the stunned Ayr United supporters silently left the stadium. What an ending of a by and large mediocre game. More than worth the trip! Once you stay away from the big clubs (e.g. ManU, Chelsea, Celtic, Rangers), seeing games in Britain is often highly entertaining. Unfortunately, verbal aggression is often widespread and there are always a couple of people insulting the referee and/or away supporters, winging and whining over every decision. This was also the case here, which was the only dissonant in a further enjoyable afternoon of football.
Racing Waregem – Torhout 1992 KM (25-07-2008)

Hopping with P.S. means being reliant upon Belgian public transport, as neither of us owns a car. Normally this is not too bad, as long as we don’t travel too far away from ‘t Stad (Antwerp). This time we took a risk, going all the way to the outer boundaries of East Flanders, to Waregem. Unfortunately, the trip started badly, as our train had a 30 minutes delay, which meant we missed our connection in Ghent. In the end, we arrived in Waregem 30 minutes before kick-off. Despite warnings from everyone we asked for directions, that “Nieuwenhoven”, the area of the stadium, was much too far to walk, we set off on foot anyway. However, after 10 minutes we gave up, called a taxi, and were driven to the ground of Racing Waregem (an almost 10 minute drive, thus a good call). Consequently, we arrived just in time for kick-off, given that there were also no lines in front of the ticket-office (where we bought a general ticket for 4 euro).

De Rassing, as the club is called locally, is not very well-known; not even in Waregem itself, as even the taxi driver had never been to the stadium. It is the second team of this town, which has always lived in the shadow of KSV Waregem (now SV Zulte-Waregem). Racing Waregem plays its games in the Derde Klasse A (Third Division A) in its Mirakelstadion (Miracle Stadium), which has two small covered stands, of which the one below is the main stand, and can hold 2.960 people.

However, as the pitch was prepared for the new season, this friendly against Torhout 1992 KM, a team from the Vierde Klasse A (Fourth Division A), was played at the pitch behind the main ground. Some 100 people attended the game, including some 40 from Torhout, less than 40 km away; seemingly mostly people closely tied to the (players of the) two clubs. It seemed that it was not an official game, as they played without linesmen!

The game was clearly meant as a practice match, as there was a lot of coaching at the pitch and both teams played at times overly well-prepared attacks. I thought Torhout had the better of the play, although Waregem had two semi-chances. In the 18th minute the number 16 tried to curl the ball in the far corner, but was denied by a spectacular, if not too difficult, safe of the goalie. Ten minutes later the same player shot dry in the low left corner, but saw his shot again stopped by the goalie.

Unfortunately, the number 16 was not just the most talented player of De Rassing, he was also the most annoying. In the 38th minute he poked an opponent in the face, who reacted with a hit. After that, a true brawl broke out, in which the opponent (with a bloody nose now) got his revenge, by decking the number 16, before both were sent off. However, this was not enough for the enraged Torhout player, who directly after the red card, and in front of the referee, decked the number 16 yet again.

This almost led to a fight among the supporters, who later all agreed that it was all the fault of the referee. Obviously, the guy who had at least twice put his fist in the face of another player couldn’t be blamed. After all, as the away fans endearingly said, “he is Italian”. So, after a stop of almost 10 minutes the game restarted and everyone seemed to have learned his lesson, as nothing bad (or good) happened in the remaining minutes. Half time score: 0-0.

After another cola light and bag of crisps – they didn’t have any real snacks! – we returned to the pitch for the second half. Fortunately, everyone had calmed down on and off the pitch; leaving aside a vicious revenge for an earlier attack by a Torhout striker. This might have been partly the effect of the radical substitution policy of the Waregem coach, who had replaced almost his whole team at half time (the first-half team would be running around the stadium for the duration of the whole second half). Most remarkable, however, was that both teams started the second half again with 11 men each (!); as if the two red cards had never happened.

Although the game was now relatively fair, it remained also largely uneventful. There were almost no shots at goal. It was therefore not a big surprise that the first goal would be scored by a penalty, after an obvious push in the box. The 0-1 was not even undeserved.

Clearly a loss against a team from a division lower was too much for the ego of the home squad, even if they were the second picking, so they started to pressure increasingly, looking for at least an equalizer. And it also came, in the 80th minute, in good old Gerd Müller style. The striker had his ass toward the goal, turned, had his shot deflected by the defender, but it nevertheless crawled in. 1974 all over again! As the goal before it, the 1-1 hardly aroused enthusiasm of the fans; it seemed that only the Rassing players applauded.

In summary, this was a remarkable game. It was the first time I saw a game with no linesmen (even when I was 6 we had two – admittedly biased – linesmen). And it was the first time I saw a player deck the same player twice; once after receiving the red card and in full view of the referee. I’m curious how long he will be suspended. I would think a minimum of 4-6 months could be expected. If you want to come to De Rassing for the football, and experience the full beauty of the Mirakelstadion, come during the regular season and come by car!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

VfL Osnabrück – Lokomotiv Sofia (23-07-2008)

Growing up at the Dutch-German border, in the 1980s, VfL Osnabrück was a well-known team for people following German football. It was one of these teams, with Rot-Weiss Oberhausen, that I always thought I would see, whenever I didn’t want to travel too far, yet never did. But now it would finally happen; obviously in the usual company of JB. Unfortunately, it was not at the multi-use Osnatel-Arena, formerly known as Stadion an der Bremer Brücke, where the North Stand is being rebuilt, but in the Sportpark Illoshöhe, a communal sports park with a football pitch surrounded by an athletics track.

For some reason, the local hosts had decided to open only one gate, which created a Stau of almost 100 meter and a 20 minute delay. Consequently, we made it into the Sportpark only 10 minutes after kick-off, after getting a (nice) ticket for 8 euro. While that pissed off many people around us, the fact that there were no sausages for sale yet, because the bread had not been delivered and alternatives had to be de-frozen, created a near anarchy at the Wurst stand.

According to the official website, some 1.800 people had found their way to the Sportpark. Most were sitting at the one main stand, which can take 2.000 people, but some (like us) preferred to stand or sit around the pitch on this warm summer evening. At the program was a friendly between VfL Osnabrück, who only narrowly escaped relegation in the 2. Bundesliga last season, and Lokomotiv Sofia, third in the Bulgarian First Division and thereby qualified for the Uefa Cup.

While circling the ground, to find the best spot (in the sun but not too warm), we were mostly struck by the amazing amount of shouting that was going on at the pitch. We weren’t sure who was the main shouter, though we suspected the number 6 of the hosts, but almost everyone needed to comment every foul or move with a shout. To be fair, the game was pretty feisty from the beginning, particularly for a friendly.

The quality of the game was quite poor, as VfL Osnabrück lacked the quality, and Lokomotiv Sofia the motivation to play well. Despite the fact that the hosts had most of the ball, it was predictably the guests who scored first. In the 38th minute Ivan Ivanov took a loose ball on a volley: 0-1. Normally, that would have been the end of the home team, but in the 44th minute the visitors suffered a red card after a brutal foul and had to play the whole second half with one man down.

At half time kids flocked to a couple of VfL Osnabrück players, who stayed on a bench next to the pitch, while others used the athletics facilities to test their skills. All in the true spirit of a pre-season game. This is sharp contrast to the continued rough play on the pitch, where the red card hadn’t relaxed the tensions between the two games. With one man more, the guests were having even more of the game, creating half chances and giving almost nothing away against the uninterested Bulgarians.

Still, it took until the 68th minute for the hosts to score. After another player had shot a 100% chance at the post, another scored in the rebound: 1-1. VfL clearly wanted more, and also got it, just five minutes later., through a beautiful composed action of their new striker. After controlling the ball, he easily went around the first defender, than kept the ball to himself as the second defender slide beyond him, and coolly shot in the near low corner: 2-1!

This score satisfied both teams, so little else happened in the last 15 minutes of the game. VfL Osnabrück had their ‘big result’, while the Bulgarians undoubtedly had their ‘big paycheck’. All in all a nice summer evening game. And, given the pleasant atmosphere among the home fans, I will definitely come back to Osnabrück to see VfL in the Osnatel-Arena.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

FC Etzella Ettelbrück – FC Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast (13-07-2008)

It felt like it had been ages since I had made a groundhop. Moreover, as these are my last weeks in Europe, at least for the foreseeable future, the urgency was increasing and so was the urge. So, my loyal fellow-hopper JB and I decided that we would get the new season started with a top European game in the second round of the UEFA Intertoto Cup. Incidentally, this is also the last season of this European Cup for Losers, which never really took off.

After a tourist route through beautiful northern Luxembourg, we arrived in Luxembourg City, at about 17.30. Although FC Etzella comes from the little town of Ettelbrück, roughly 30 km to the north of Luxembourg City, and has it own Stade am Deich, it has to play its European games, like all Luxembourg teams, in the national stadium. However, as everything is small in Luxembourg, the national Stade Josy Barthel is all-seater but holds just 8,054 spectators, of which only a minority covered.

Although kick-off was 30 minutes away, there were only some 20 people in and around the entrance of the stadium, including a couple of policemen. We bought tickets for just 10 euro, which were for the covered stand, the only stand open to the public today. The tickets themselves were a clear product of low-budget creativity; i.e. cut and paste of logos from the various websites printed out at home on thick paper. ☺ When we entered the stand we saw a couple of Russian hang the one banner in the stadium.

I estimate that some 200 people attended the game, including at least 20 Russian supporters; I guess some local to Luxembourg. The to-me-unknown team of FC Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast (literally FC Saturn Moscow Region), from Ramenskoye, had won the first game with a convincing 7-0, and seemed set not to break a sweat today. FC Etzella must have been heavily disappointed, as they had gotten into the second round of the Intertoto Cup by eliminating Lokomotivo Tblisi (2-2 away, 0-0 home). Although they knew they were out of the competition, they seemed set at getting at least some result.

So, in the first half it would be mostly Etzella pushing, but not having the quality to truly pressure, and Saturn sleeping, yet having the quality to score at any moment. It would therefore also be the guests who create the biggest chances, including two shots at the crossbar! Still, half-time was 0-0 and none was really surprised by that.

After a mediocre and overprized German-ish sausage and some hanging around at the one bar open in the stadium, we decided to sit at the other side of the (one) stand for the second half. Here was only one Russian family, who also were the only ones to makes some noise. The second half would bring a bit more excitement, as the spaces became bigger and Etzella continued to pressure. Consequently, Saturn had again most of the chances, often reacting very fast to mistakes in the home defense. But after three good chances for the guests, the home team got what it deserved in the 70th minutes: 1-0 after a strong header from a corner kick.

Although this had no effect on the overall score, a defeat seemed a little too much for the players of FC Saturn. Although they remained slow and lazy, you could feel that they were a bit more agile. In the 77th minute the individual talent of FC Saturn produced the equalizer. Kovel, the attacker with the best technique and worst mentality, fired a free-kick from at least 25 meters into the far upper corner: 1-1.

While it initially seemed FC Saturn would use this goal to finish the game altogether, they soon slipped back into their earlier lethargy. Increasingly it became clear that both teams were happy with the 1-1 and the final 5 minutes were only played because they had to. So, 1-1 was the final score of the game, and 8-1 the overall score of the round. FC Etzella left the last season of the UEFA Intertoto Cup with its biggest successes in international football: three draws! FC Saturn will have to a lot more to get through the third round, where it meets VFB Stuttgart!

(Even the national stadium doesn’t have a functioning scoreboard)

Although I always liked the fact that the Intertoto made sure that there were already official games in July, I cannot be really sad that the tournament is canceled. There is simply no real purpose. Let’s hope the UEFA will soon force all national leagues to become summer competitions, so that we can see real games in real nice weather!