Carshalton 1 Ramsgate 1

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Carshalton Athletic 1 Ramsgate 1 (22nd October 2016)

With the demographic of non-league football fans skewed towards men with grey or very little hair, and small grandchildren asking how long until they can go home, it doesn’t seem the most obvious target audience for adverts for shops selling sexy lingerie, yet there’ll be a one in every Rymans League match programme. It’s explained by the fact that Rymans’ owner is ex “Dragons Den” star Theo Paphitis, who also owns the Boux Avenue chain. Every programme will also feature, along with an ad for Rymans, a photo of a comely model in her smalls, hopefully enticing you to buy their range of lingerie, nightwear and accessories.

Or maybe I’ve misjudged. The club secretary’s notes in the programme, the main introduction for the issue, had the innuendo-laden title of “Sec’s Talk”, and only this morning, when checking the site comments for approval, I found someone had decided my Slough v Chippenham write-up could be an ideal platform to advertise his website selling “anal toys” (I’m assuming he doesn’t mean Star Wars figures for people who are obsessively organsised).

Either way, there’d be nothing else in the afternoon, perhaps mercifully, that could lead my thoughts to stray in that direction.

This was my first foray into non-league football for three months, and it felt almost stereotypical. Lots of the grey and the very young, who often wandered off and played their own games. The true loyal hardcore, distinguished by their bar scarves in maroon and white, as opposed to the red Carshalton currently plan in. A few dads and sons, with the dads keeping tabs on the score of  the other team they support elsewhere, and a lot of fans who appear to know each other. When a club averages 200 fans, regulars will get known pretty quickly.

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It’s a friendly club, with a decent ground. A fair-sized terrace down one side, with roof sections dropping in height every twenty metres or so, hinted at considerably larger crowds in the past. English flags adorn the roof every few yards, adding small touch of class to the most impressive part of the ground.

Also looking good on this occasionally sunny afternoon was the 3G pitch – an increasingly common feature at a level of the game where they need every penny they can get. Whether it’s coincidence or down to the pitch, I don’t know, but Carshalton certainly make an effort to play football along the floor rather than in the air. It may not always succeed, but it’s good to see nonetheless.

Carshalton’s passing game meant they completely dominated the first half, but forwards constantly taking one touch too many, or perhaps trying to be a little too cute with lay-offs, meant that shots were either getting blocked, or not getting away at all. You could tell among the fans that our ingrained English football-DNA was feeling that we just need to give it a welly now and then. Frustration mounted.

Just before half time the Ramsgate goal led a charmed life. In quick succession a looping shot came back off the crossbar, was hacked away, fired back in, saved, half cleared again, then fired over the bar. The Ramsgate keeper collapsed to the floor for treatment, and it’s fair to say the home fans behind him weren’t overflowing with sympathy.

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To make matter worse, during the time added on for this stoppage, Ramsgate did the inevitable, and made one of their rare breakaways count. A through ball wasn’t cut out, and cutting in from the left, the ball was fired across the keeper to put the visitors ahead, in front of their knot of travelling fans.

Carshalton again came out looking determined, but playing with a bit more width now, they looked more dangerous. It took just over 10 minutes to draw level. From a similar position to the opening goal, the ball was again hit across the keeper. He got a glove on it, and looked like he ought to have saved it, but somehow it just carried on rolling with no deviation at all, into the far corner of the net.

That ought to have been the platform for Carshalton to go on to win, but wastefulness was again their downfall. They hit the side netting, just as the did in the first half. One attacker even went round the keeper, but with the keeper on the floor, was unable to even get a shot away. Various other chances were skied over the bar, and far too many corners were wasted by training-ground short-corner routines coming to nothing.

In some ways you have to praise Ramsgate too. They did defend as if a defeat would mean they’d be forced to walk home, and it the last ten minutes, as Carshalton seemed to tire, there were even signs they were perhaps more likely to nick a 2nd. The last chance went to the home side though. Deep into injury time, a lofted pass put a home striker clear, but at an angle with bouncing ball. A deft chip would have won the game, but sadly a mishit slice meant nothing but a goal kick. For the Carshalton fans and officials, including one in a club tie who complained more than anyone else, to anyone who would listen, it was just one of those days.

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Eastern 2 Rangers 1

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Eastern 2 Rangers 1 (25th September 2016)

After attending two Hong Kong games that felt like they’d been specially organised for Hong Kong’s claustrophobia sufferers, such was the paucity of the crowds, I was looking forward to my third game having something that resembled a crowd.

In theory, playing out of a ground in Mong Kok, supposedly the most densely populated district on the planet, fans shouldn’t be a problem. Then again, Hong Kong itself is one of the most densely populated regions going, and crowds struggle to average much over 1000, even with a population of over seven million.

Mong Kok is certainly a lively place, with several markets. There’s the famous touristy Temple St night market to the south, a flower market for those wishing to buy flowers, a bird market for those wanting birds and bird accessories, an electronics market for electrical goods, a goldfish market for people wanting a goldfish. There’s also a ladies market, but sadly that just sold clothes.

The goldfish market actually sold a variety of fish, as well as a range of other pets. It also had quite a few restaurants, which meant I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of the pets that didn’t sell.

Two of the markets, the flower market and the bird market, are directly next to the Mong Kok Stadium, with perhaps the most interesting being the bird market – a place not just for shopping, but also a place where men would sometimes brings there birds out for a “walk” on a Sunday afternoon.

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On my previous visit to the Mong Kok Stadium, nine years ago, I’d noticed that the shops along Flower Market Road all sold flowers, except for one that for some reason sold motorbike crash helmets. That shop had gone, but now the exception to the rule, possibly in the very same shop unit, was a shop selling Halloween goods, a whole five weeks early.

I said I’d been to the Mong Kok Stadium before. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have gone back. The ground was somewhat functional to say the least, but I’d noticed it had been completely rebuilt since then, and now looked quite smart.

Another advantage, with this being an afternoon kick-off, rather than an evening one, was the chance to see the impressive backdrop of hills to the north. No rolling dales here – in Hong Kong hills rise up like small mountain ridges, defying almost any effort to build on them.

Having just missed accidentally enrolling in the Eastern FC supporters club by standing in the wrong queue, I made my way in, paying a curiously cheap HK$30 (£3) to get in, got another cheap beer, but was again let down by the food options, having to opt for a large packet of tomato flavour crisps to tide me over.

Walking round to find a vantage point for the first half, I could help but notice two things. Firstly, the pitch was composed of a kind of wide grass that only seems to grow in this part of the world. Secondly, the women who go to football here dress…well, all I’ll say is that the usual kind of lads who complain about women at football probably wouldn’t do so here.

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The crowd at this game was touching 1300, and while the day would hardly rival Galatasaray for atmosphere, it did at least not have the pre-season friendly feel of the previous two games. It was a good open game too, although it could have done with a touch more finesse in the box. At times, the strikers weighed up shots like the ball was made of plutonium, and wanted to spend as little time near with the ball as possible.

The first half ended 1-1, with both goals coming from the spot. Rangers took the lead after 35 minutes, and Eastern levelled the score in 1st half stoppage time, which was the least they deserved after a good first half.

Nighttime descends almost like a flick of a switch in these parts, with the equalising goal being scored in daylight, and the 2nd half, just 15 minutes later, kicking off in darkness. My plan had been to sit in the stand on the far side, towards the goal Eastern were attacking, before moving round to the end for the last 15 minutes or so. It was only as I was considering moving that I noticed that this otherwise smart little ground had absolutely no way of getting behind the goal from the stand I was in, barring a trek round the other three sides. I opted for the other end instead. Maybe I’d see a Rangers goal on one of their ever-rarer breakaways instead.

Instead Eastern won it with 5 minutes to go. Down to 10 men, something I’d somehow completely missed, they made a mockery of the previous poor shooting by curling a perfect 20 yarder across the keeper into the far top corner. The crowd went, well…not ecstatic, but certainly very pleased, except for the glum away following on the far side.

Could Rangers snatch a draw? No, and didn’t really look like doing so, allowing the knot of polite (unless they were swearing in Cantonese – I’d never know) Eastern Ultras to wave their flags and hail the victory.

“We Bleed Blue” said an Eastern supporter banner in the stadium, and with the flower market still doing a trade as the fans filed past into the street as they left, they could even buy some blue flowers to celebrate the day if they fancied, or found a nice blue parrot round the corner. Blue options at the Halloween shop, I’d guess, were rather more limited.

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Pegasus 2 Yuen Long 2

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Pegasus 2 Yuen Long 2 (24th September 2016)

Just a quarter of a mile east of the famous Happy Valley Racecourse is the Hong Kong stadium, an impressive 40,000 capacity place probably best known for being the venue of the Hong Kong Rugby 7s every year.

I had seen the venue before. On my last trip to Hong Kong, nine years ago, I’d taken a wander round the ground, hoping to get inside and take a photo or too. Not only was I not able to get inside, attempts to walk round the stadium were curtailed when a pack of wild dogs came charging down a hill on the stadium’s eastern side, forcing me into a swift return to the direction I’d come.

Despite being a fine stadium, no club has ever made a success of using it as a home venue. With Hong Kong League crowds averaging around 1000 or so, it’s somewhat oversized for purpose, rather like Southport having a stab at playing home games at Goodison Park. Current occupants are Pegasus FC, who didn’t even exist the last time I was over there. Based originally in the north of Hong Kong, not far from the Chinese border, the decision to move 25 miles south seems a strange one, and not one that appears to have captured the imagination of the public around the stadium. Only 692 would turn up for this fixture, with maybe 100 or those making the trip from Yuen Long, whose stadium Pegasus originally played in.

The low crowd didn’t matter to me. The whole of the lower tier was opened up, and again, cheap beer was available, which always helps. Plenty of noodles, and chicken food options too, but as I found in this region, they seem to love having their chicken with the bones and gristle still attached. An attempt at eating a duck, chicken & rice dish in a backstreet eaterie was ruined somewhat by needing to separate the slivers of edible meat from the bones using nothing but chopsticks and a blunt plastic spoon. It was similar here too. Even the KFC outlet only offered the “with bone” drumstick options, which I’ve never been keen on, never enjoying the sensation of warm grease dripping down my chin and fingers. Another chicken place did offer a fork to aid those not wishing to get messy, but alas it was a cheap plastic fork, and was about as much use as a pair of knitted wellingtons.

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The Hong Kong stadium is certainly one of the more dramatic ones of its size. Even with the two dominant curving sides empty (and the lower tier only speckled with fans) it’s still quite a venue. Like the Happy Valley Racecourse, the place is surrounded by tower blocks, with the bright lights of the Causeway Bay shopping and business district a short distance away at one end. The other was blocked off by the steep tree-lined hill that harboured Hong Kong’s homeless dog community, as I found on my last visit.

Signs around the ground warned that the stadium was a no-smoking venue, noting that not only cigarettes, but cigars and pipes were also banned, as if people might otherwise suspect that a Henri Winterman, or puffing away on a few ounces of ready rubbed in their briar pipe would be fine. And for those who really might not get the message, the PA system even stated that the pitch was also a no-smoking area.

At least this time I knew which team the home side were, and in an entertaining and open first half, they soon began to get on top. In contrast to the frustratingly poor finishing the previous night, Pegasus took a deserved lead after just 12 minutes. Brazilian attacker Dhiego Martins broke into the box on the left and lifted a deft little chip over the keeper, before running to the corner, arms back, to take the adulation of the literally zero people in that part of the stadium.

Another Brazilian, one of three in the Pegasus team, put the home side two up from the spot after half an hour, and getting towards half time, a comfortable home victory looked on the cards. Had they not spurned a couple of gilt-edged chances, it surely would have been too.

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Five minutes before the break, things took a little twist though. Encouraged by the enthusiastic, if not particularly numerous away support, Yuen Long had a little bit of pressure. This resulted in a shot which (as far as I could tell from the far end) got blocked before taking a huge bounce off the turf, looping up rather fortuitously over the helpless Pegasus keeper. The player who took the shot shamelessly celebrated like he’d meant it, and it changed the feeling of the game.

It wasn’t that they dominated from then on. Pegasus still looked the stronger team, but Yuen Long now looked more dangerous. Pegasus never regained their cutting edge, while the away side were just doing enough on breakaways to look a threat. They’d not had that many clear chances, but with a quarter of an hour to go, a shot through a crowd of players somehow found its way into the corner to level the score.

From them on Pegasus doubled their efforts to regain the lead they surely must have felt they should never have given away, but in doing so they left suicidal gaps at the back. Yuen Long really ought to have won it, rampaging through one such gap and knocking a ball back in past a stranded keeper, only for the away attacker to suffer “Toblerone-boot syndrome”, spooning a shot high and wide with just a defender on the line to beat.

Given how it finished, a draw was probably a fair result, even if both teams will have walked off thinking they could have won. Yuen Long fans would definitely be happier though, as they made their long and arduous trip back to the far side of the country, a full 25 miles away. For the home fans, a number of whom would be making almost exactly the same return trip too, perhaps not quite so good. I was just pleased not to be chased by wild dogs this time. After that, anything is a bonus.

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Hong Kong 0 Kitchee 2

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Hong Kong FC 0 Kitchee 2 (23rd Sept 2016)

Having been to over 300 grounds, you don’t get a lot of “firsts” very often, but this game would offer not only one, but two of them.

For starters, this would be the first game I’ve been to where the stadium was actually inside another stadium, unless I very generously count Leipzig, where there stadium was built inside the oval bowl of the former stadium. Hong Kong FC’s ground though was entirely located within the track of the much more famous Happy Valley Racecourse. It wasn’t even the only stadium in there either, with a hockey match taking place next door, and crown green bowls being played behind the opposite end.

The other first, and a hugely welcome one on this hot and sweaty evening at the tail end of Hong Kong’s very humid rainy season, was the inclusion of ceiling fans under the roof of the stand I was in. I had hoped to sit in the stand opposite, which would have offered a view of the tall racecourse grandstands, but that stand was for members only, as was a bar and beer garden area at the crown green bowls end of the ground. Still, I had my fans, so I was happy.

Fans of the spectating variety were in short supply for HKFC though, with most in my stand wearing the blue of visitors, and league leaders, Kitchee. Had I “followed the crowds” to the game, on the 15 minute walk from my hotel in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district, I’d have either made a very short trip to one of the numerous bars, or ended up in the Causeway Bay shopping district, a little north of the ground. As it was I had to ask directions from a club official on how to actually get into the ground, being directed down a tunnel off from the entrance to the racecourse’s underground car park.

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After purchasing my HK$80 (£8) ticket, I was pointed to a table giving away something that looked like a match programme. It was actually a season guide for the league, with stats and features about all the clubs. Nearly all of it was in Chinese, but it’d break off into English at random moments. It was clearly vitally important that in the Chairman’s message, the words “Embrace the Moment” were readable by all, even if which moment they were meant to be embracing, or what form that embracing would take, wouldn’t be clear to those not able to read Chinese.

The Programme/guide had a page for each team, with individual pictures of each player. This made it almost like owning a small-scale Panini sticker album of the Hong Kong League, only without having the expense of buying the stickers, nor the pain of opening a packet and seeing you now had eight swapsies of Pegasus’ Wu Chun Ming.

Pleasure, on the other hand, was seeing that beer was being sold for HK$30. In a city where beer could often go for around HK$80 (£8!) that was very welcome. Less popular, to me anyway, was a food selection which appeared to offer noodles (my chopsticks skills aren’t that advanced), chicken legs messily dipped in sauce (spilling down my trousers guaranteed) or fish balls, which are probably nicer than they sound.

A Conference South-sized crowd of 662 would eventually trickle into the stands for a match of perhaps a similar standard, although I doubt St Albans City would be able to play in this sort of heat and humidity for too long without wilting.

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Embarrassingly, the match kicked off without me knowing which team was which. Eventually I realised I could check the kits out in the programme/guide I’d been given, but by then I sort of guessed the team in the blue shirts were title favourites Kitchee, due to their total domination of winless HKFC. The lack of encouragement towards the home team, who to be honest didn’t do a lot to encourage their fans, made it feel like a Kitchee home game at times. Even HKFC’s failed efforts didn’t help, as it doesn’t seem to matter which team bodges something up in the HK league, the result is mirth all round.

Amazingly, the visitors, who outshot their hosts 20-2 on the night, took until the 71st minute to take the lead, thumping the ball in low from 15 yards after a sustained spell of pressure. This prompted a token effort from HKFC to equalise, but they never really looked like they knew how.

It took until the 89th minute for Kitchee to wrap up a game they should have won comfortably. Winning the ball on the left, a Kitchee attacker just ran straight for goal before stroking the ball past the keeper, just inside the far post to seal the points, to the delight of the travelling Kitchee fans.

For the home fans, perhaps the most enjoyable part of the night, of this very one-sided game, was a bit of light relief caused by a hockey ball from the pitch next door finding its way onto the field. It was that kind of night.

For me, while it may not have been a great contest, it was still a decent open game, and located as it was surrounded by the lights of tall tower blocks and skyscrapers, it offered a rather better backdrop than most games drawing 662 in England would. Now if only I could find a pub selling beer for something like English prices, I’d be truly happy.

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Weymouth 2 Dorchester 1

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Weymouth 2 Dorchester Town 1 (29th August 2016)

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…

…and sadly so does everyone else on a warm Bank Holiday Monday. Plans to have a leisurely afternoon at the front, perhaps with a pub meal, were rather scuppered by joining what was effectively a three hour queue to this corner of the south coast. This left me with about an hour to look round, before having to head up for the game.

That said, Weymouth is a quite lovely little seaside town, and an hour is enough to stroll up and down the promenade, being reminded of a certain song by The Stranglers for some reason. My pub lunch also got replaced, due to time, by a cheeseburger from a beachside hut/cafe called “The View”.

It was aptly named. Not only did it offer a view across the bay (admittedly the same view as everywhere else on the promenade), but the rather pleasant serving girls, and the skimpiness of their attire on this hot afternoon, would have put a Weymouth branch of Hooters out of business. Suddenly, having to wait five minutes for a burger to be cooked didn’t seem a burden at all. Sadly, while the serving girls may have been hot, tasty (other misogynistic adjectives are available) etc, the burger wasn’t, but oddly I didn’t mind.

Had I been going to watch Weymouth just over 30 years ago I’d have had just a brisk stroll from the beach to the ground, half a mile to the west. The same journey now would see me at, predictably enough, a supermarket – an Asda. One day the tables will be turned, and a football ground will be built on the site of an old supermarket, and middle-aged supermarket buffs will turn up at the ground and reminisce about how, just by the penalty spot, is where the self-service checkouts used to be.

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Thirty years on and Weymouth are planning to move again, with their current ground being deemed inadequate for modern-day demands. It looks perfectly presentable, if a little rusty in places. It’s not going to make the shortlist for UNESCO listing any day soon, granted, but it has cover on all four sides, a decent amount of substantial terracing on each side too, and (one for the anoraks) four old-style proper corner floodlight pylons. Strung up from a line attached to one, a faded flag of the club crest added a much-needed dash of asymmetry to the place.

Unusually for a Southern League game, segregation was in place. Occupying the away end were fans of neighbours Dorchester, just seven miles north. Their old ground was also built on by a surpemarket – Tesco this time – but at least they didn’t have to move far, with their new ground being built directly next door.

This is a derby that has certainly produced some decent crowds. The record crowd at Dorchester is over 4000, for a derby v Weymouth, but with neither team having a great start this year, a slightly disappointing 1231 were present for this one.

At least they saw a decent and keenly contested derby. Dorchester dominated for the first 20 minutes or so, before the home side got into it, forcing a succession of corners. The pressure looked like it was going to come to naught in the first half, as each corner was defended to the last, until a cleared ball was whacked back in from outside the box, and the Dorchester keeper could only stand and watch as it found the top corner.

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The game might have been in England’s 7th tier, but there was a definite edge to it, with plenty of singing from both sets of fans. Weymouth’s seemed to take a lot of delight in referring to Dorchester as “dirty northern bastards” after every stiff challenge, of which there were a few, and I suppose if you are from Weymouth, there’s not a lot of the country that’s not north.

Despite the endeavor, neither side had too much composure inside the box. Thankfully they made up for it from outside the box, for the two other strikes. Both were fine free kicks from over 20 yards. Weymouth made it 2-0 first. The Dorchester keeper did at least dive this time, but still got nowhere near it.

With the game looking safe, Dorchester pulled one back with a long-range free kick of their own. The ball flew into the top corner beyond the reach of the Weymouth keeper’s flailing left hand.

It felt like the game had one last goal in it, but it wasn’t to be, with several half-chances coming to nothing. The Weymouth players celebrated in front of the fans, and you could tell it was more than just three points to them. This derby in this outpost of Dorset might not have the glamour or the fame of some, but it meant something all the same.

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Ireland 1 Italy 0

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Ireland 1 Italy 0 (Lille, 22nd June 2016)

The Irish seem to like a drink. I arrived back in Lille at around Midnight, after the Czech v Turkey game down the road in Lens, to find that so much beer had been drunk and spilled in Lille city centre that the pavement felt like one of those 80s pubs with a sticky carpet. A liberal scattering of broken glass and a conspicuous lack of pubs still open made me wonder if there’d been trouble in the town, or maybe Lille police are just a bunch of killjoys taking no chances.

With very few Italian fans about, the city belonged to Ireland, turning the place into a sea of green. Not all were quite the welcome happy-go-lucky stereotype Irish fan though. One, sat at table in a café just off the Grand Place, was feeling the effects of the previous night’s drinking to such a degree that he’d slumped sideways in his chair, mouth open, asleep verging on comatose, with the knuckles of one hand dragging on the floor. I’m sure the café owner was delighted to have such a delightful customer at a prominent corner table, advertising the high calibre clientèle his café could attract.

After battling queues at the metro station, with increasing numbers not letting half the ticket machines being broken hold back a hot and sweaty sing-song, the 10 minute walk to the stadium was a cooling relief on a muggy evening. High spirits saw fans try to kick plastic footballs through the high up open windows of a hotel near the stadium. They were subdued a tad by what would thankfully be my last half-hour scrum at a security check-point, before emerging on the concourse of the newly built Stade Pierre Mauroy.

The stadium holds 50,000 but although it looks very smart from the outside, with LEDs along the exterior creating a wall of TV style images, I’d not been too sold on pictures I’d seen of the interior. This was mainly due to the very heavy mechanical roof, which even when open, seemed to overpower the rest of the stadium.

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As it turned out aesthetics really weren’t the problem. The roof was shut, which was very disappointing on a sunny evening, but a hot and humid day and a shut roof made for an oppressively warm and humid atmosphere inside the stadium. I’ve been to football in Thailand, Japan, and other tropical places in the far east, and I’m not sure I’ve watched a game anywhere so uncomfortable – I swear there were clouds forming inside by the roof, even if in reality it was probably smoke from a flare.

Whatever the heat, it did nothing to deter the Irish fans in backing their team, with “The Fields of Athenry” blasting out from the three sides of the ground that were predominantly green. They knew they had to win, something which seemed a tough call on paper, with Italy having won their opening two games, and looking quite impressive. Earlier in the evening I’d chatted to an Italy supporter, from Scotland oddly enough, who expected an Irish win. “This is effectively a friendly for Italy, and Italy doesn’t do friendlies” was his take.

How right he was. Not that Italy rolled over and died, but they seemed to have no ambition beyond not losing. For Ireland it was a case of could they make that breakthrough? They never stopped going, an even as time ticked by, you just got that feeling a goal was coming. And come it did, with just five minutes left. Just as fans were probably beginning to wonder if wearing that false ginger beard was not a good look for being picked out by the stadium cameras, despondent, an old-fashioned cross was met head on my Robbie Brady, taking advantage of some uncharacteristically sloppy Italian marking, to send the stadium’s large green contingent wild.

A dramatic end to the game, and a fittingly dramatic end to my little six-game tour. The holiday itself would effectively end at about 1 am in brasserie round the corner from my hotel – one of the few central bars still open. A bar where I learned that my appalling schoolboy French is still better than whatever they teach in Ireland, and that if you ask for a “glass of vin rouge” in a northern (English) accent, the similarity between “glass” and the french word “glace” (ice) causes no end of confusion. Then again, as an Englishman, I’d spent the last few nights cheering for Wales and Ireland, and that’s probably confusing enough.

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Czech Republic 0 Turkey 2

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Czech Republic 0 Turkey 2 (Lens, 21st June 2016)

If the Wales v Russia game was the best overall game of my six, this game and overall day would sadly be the most disappointing. Lens isn’t really on anybody’s tourist itineraries, but after flying up from Toulouse earlier in the day, I had planned to make something of a day of it. I’d pencilled in a trip to a series of preserved WWI trenches just south of the city for starters, but even that was scuppered by EasyJet moving my flight back nearly three hours, leaving me with perhaps a couple of hours at best in the town.

Unfortunately Lille airport is something of a shambles when it comes to ground transportation, and it took nearly an hour to get a taxi, as Lille only seems to have about five of them. There was a bus, but that only departed about 10 minutes before I got the taxi. This meant that after checking into my Lille hotel and dumping my bags, I had the misfortune of the next train to Lens being a slow stopper service, which didn’t get into Lens until nearly twenty past seven.

Lens’ small centre would probably be fine if I’d had a decent amount of time to find somewhere and stop for a meal, but time pressures meant I’d be choosing an eatery based on speed rather than quality. Just off the main square, more of an elongated triangle, like a slice of cheese really, I found the venue for a food pit-stop. I’ve eaten in a few luxurious-looking places over the years, and this wasn’t one of them. In fact I think I was drawn in somehow, by how terrible it was.

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Clearly someone had just taken over a recently vacated shop unit and knocked up a presumably makeshift cafe. Or I could be wrong, and this could be a whole new range in minimalist dining. The chipboard work-surfaces of the bar and serving areas were set off nicely by the old truck tyres they were resting on. Clearly the owners had thought having four starkly blank white walls would be too much, so at least one side had to be decorated along about half or its length. And what says “class” more than four widely spaced magazine posters of naked/topless women sellotaped to the wall?  Other touches, included the other side of the room having a hyrdraulic pallet-loader against the wall, next to a couple of gaps in the parquet flooring. As for the food…well, lets just say they spent all the money and imagination on the decor. It filled a hole, but it would probably have been put to better using filling the holes in the floor instead.

Still, if there’s one very good thing about Lens it’s that the ground is only about half a mile from the centre. No being crammed onto shuttle buses or trains to a city’s edge. Here you could walk there, and see the steelwork of the ground as well for much of the journey.

Other than being at an end, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was in the ground. I was hoping it was the near end, and also in the Czech end of the ground, as I wanted them to win. I found I was in the far end, which involved another UEFA-inspired grand detour to get there, although not quite as bad as some of the others. I’d also be in the Turkish end, which was a disappointment.

I was in the lower tier behind the goal, and it turned out the Row 12 was a lot lower than I hoped. I could see over the crossbar, but not by much. What I couldn’t see over was the human pillar sat right in front of me, who must have been about 6’4″, and made me think of contacting UEFA to see if my ticket could be re-classified as “obstructed view”. I spent the who game peering round him. Even when I realised the seat behind me was empty, and moved back a row, I still couldn’t see over him.

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If that wasn’t enough, the cameraman operating the boom camera behind goal thought it was fine to leave it up even when not in use, providing yet another obstruction.

Other than that, the ground was great, being a traditional looking ground, and looked vastly bigger than the Toulouse stadium I’d been in the previous night, despite it only holding 5000 more.

Further disappointment came with the game. I wanted the Czechs to win, and obviously they lost. In fact they were awful, and could probably have been beaten by more than two. Barely a peep out of their fans too, although they didn’t have a lot to sing about. Plenty of noise, plus the obligatory flare of two from the Turkish fans, chanting away in the curiously tuneless Turkish way, celebrating a victory which they clearly thought would take them to the next round, but if fact in the end didn’t.

At least I caught the earlier-than-advertised 11.36 back to Lille. I guess over the whole day I was at least owed something that would go right, but even allowing for the disappointments, I was still glad to have gone. Tournament games are an experience like no other in the game, and you take away from it far more than just a game.

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Wales 3 Russia 0

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Wales 3 Russia 0 (Toulouse, 20th June 2016)

If there’s a game I saw that would stand out as a highlight of the six I’d see, it’d be Wales v Belgium, not just for the game itself, but for the whole day. It was certainly eventful. I’d nipped along on the train to see the medieval walled city of Carcassonne in the morning, and got stuck in a train station for two and half hours in a barnacle of a town on the route back. I’d planned for a quiet drink in a pub near my hotel, but it turned out that The Melting Pot pub, rather than being somewhere that’d be less busy, turned out to be a Welshman magnet, with crowds forming on both sides of the road.

After the game it’d be shut, presumably by the police, and I’d end up in a much smaller bar directly opposite my hotel. Thankfully it’d be far less crowded, but there were still enough celebrating Welshmen to drink it dry of draught beer, and most of the bottled beer as well. In fact by 2 am they were down to bottles of white beer, which the owners felt the need to apologise for when serving. At some time around midnight Ian Rush turned up. If he’d hoped for a quiet nightcap, he picked the wrong place. And contrary to what the milk marketing board told us, milk is not what Ian Rush drinks. Maybe he’s hoping for a late career move to Accrington Stanley.

Perhaps my favorite post match moment was seeing a group of Welsh lads a 2 am pleading for a beer, only to be told that all the bar could serve now was champagne. They thought about it for a second, before buying a bottle of that instead, sipping away in their red polyester replica shirts.

The game itself was great. There’d been worries about violence from Russian fans, but the only Russian fans to draw attention to themselves were three women who turned up dressed in outfits that were a strange blend of skimpy and traditional. Even the police wanted a photo.

They turned up at the stadium in Toulouse, the smallest stadium in use for Euro 2016, which looked even smaller inside. Quite how it squeezes in 32000 seats is a mystery to me. It’s not a bad stadium though, being one of those that looks much better when you are there, very light and airy, although going the on a nice summer evening probably helped. It’s also very nice when you are in the back row, just on front of the executive boxes, and a guy in one of them doesn’t mine bringing out the odd free beer and passing it across.

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Despite the result dumping England down to 2nd in the group, and setting them up for an infamous fixture v Iceland, I wasn’t bothered. I knew England would be stupid and draw 0-0 as it suited both teams, and it was hard not to be swept up in the enthusiasm of the Welsh fans and team, who turned up just to enjoy it, and hopefully get out of their group, and achieve much more. Such a contrast to England, who take the field looking like they hope they won’t be splashed across the back pages in shame after failing yet again to clear the bar of expectation, even when it’s set so low that limbo-dancers would struggle to get beneath it.

Bale aside, the Welsh team has few stars or big names, but it has belief and organisation. Again, this is in contrast to England, packed full on “names”, who take the field with all the composure of Shaggy and Scooby going for a ride on the ghost train, and whose relentless managerial pandering to those big names who can’t be dropped, results in a tactical plan akin to a man trying to tile the roof of his house with blancmange.

They were helped by a Russian team who showed so little life that the ref must have considered stopping the game and checking if any of them had a pulse at some stages, but Wales were brilliant, and 3-0 was the least they deserved. Perhaps most deserving all were the Welsh fans who braved buying tickets in the Russian section, even if the Welsh flag one of them pinned up on the wall didn’t last long. The celebrations, however, would last a long time, and in was probably a good thing I didn’t have an early start the following morning.

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Iceland 1 Hungary 1

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Iceland I Hungary 1 (Marseille, Euro 2016, 18th June)

Marseille doesn’t have a great reputation. I’d heard tales of it being a dirty and dangerous city, a real gritty and edgy kind of place. News footage of drunken English idiots throwing chairs, and tear-gassings hardly helped.

I saw nothing like that. I thought it was a great city, located around an attractive harbour lined with bars and restaurants, with enough else there to see and do to make it a perfect place to stay for a few days.

I didn’t see any hint of trouble either – something which goes for the entire 12 days I was there – even if some of the thousands of Hungarians in town did have a slight whiff of menace about them. In truth, they did little more than drink a lot and sing “allez Magyarország”, but the police were worried enough to put a double line of stewards and riot cops in front of the black t-shirt wearing ultras who stood at the front of the Hungarian section in the Stade Velodrome.

Contrary to reports about cities being declared alcohol-free on match days, I don’t think I saw any bars shut before or during a game, and only Lille had (some) bars shut after. In fact the only problem I had was the otherwise glorious Marseille weather deciding to dump June’s quota of rain in the city in a half-hour spell, just as I was about to set off for the game. There are worse places to be stuck than a pub though.

One of those places would definitely have been in the queues to get into the stadium. I’m fully appreciate the need the need for security searches, but sadly UEFA’s organisers don’t appreciate that if you are going to do a thorough search of everyone, you need to have enough people doing that search to stop chaotic half-hour queues forming to get in.

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Once in though…oh my. The stadium is huge. In reality a really big stadium such a Wembley probably is higher, but the way the ground curves, and especially the upturning curved roof, just make the place seem incredibly tall, not to mention steep. Standing at the back, the very back, of the upper tier of the highest stand, is enough to make you seek something to hang onto. My own seat was 19 rows further down, but still felt quite high enough thank you. I actually wouldn’t have minded being a couple of rows further back. There was a Hungarian fan in the row in front who was bouncing about at every twist and turn of the game. I admire the enthusiasm, but given the chance, I’d have gaffer-taped him to his chair.

Although I wouldn’t say they were the best fans I saw due to a limited range of songs, they probably were the loudest, aided by the great acoustics of the Stade Velodrome roof, and the vast number there for the game. That meant that despite favouring Iceland, due to the novelty value as well as the presence of ex-Reading midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, I wasn’t adverse to Hungary scoring.

Gylfi, no doubt, wouldn’t have been pleased with such disloyalty, especially as his goal from the spot looked to be giving Iceland a first major finals victory. With a minute left through, a cross was turned into his own net by an Icelandic defender, and the 20000 or so Magyars in the stadium went wild. With the fireworks being lit in the Hungarian end, plus a few thrown on the pitch, perhaps a little too wild for some.

 

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Portugal 1 Iceland 1

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Portugal 1 Iceland 1 (Euro 2016, 14th June) 

I can’t say I had high hopes for St Etienne. It’s not exactly high on the “must see” list of places to visit in France, being a mainly industrial/mining town, 45 minutes by train from its more glamorous neighbour, Lyon. Rail strikes had raised the possibility of not being able to get there at all, although thankfully there were enough services to the city to mean that even if two thirds of them were cancelled, there were still enough.

St Etienne is famous for its football team though, and St Etienne are 10 times winners of the French league, winning it nine times between 1964 and 1981, although 1981 was the last of those wins. Rivals Olympique Lyonnais are relative upstarts, although their seven French titles in row  in the 2000s would have turned St Etienne even more green than usual, in envy.

As it turned out, the centre of St Etienne wasn’t too bad, with a few pub/restaurant-laden streets that were sought out by fans, mainly clad in the blue, white and red of Iceland. Quite a few of them sounded surprisingly English, belting out “Gudjohnsson’s on fire, your defence is terrified…” and “We all dream of a team of Sigurdssons”, with just the odd Icelandic chant thrown in for good measure.

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Rather than having a new stadium, like their rivals up the road, St Etienne renovated their Stade Geoffroy Guichard, and it was one I was looking forward to. It’s walkable from the centre, although I took the tram. This turned out to be another poor “taking the best route the gate” choice, although it wasn’t entirely my fault. UEFA, in their wisdom, had decided to shut several roads to create hospitality areas, meaning to make the trip of just over a hundred metres from the side of the ground I was on, to the other side, where I needed to be, involved a nearly mile-long detour.

There were more niggles in the ground. It’s a good looking stadium, but I couldn’t really appreciate it until half-time, when I took a stroll to the Iceland end. I had a Category 1 €145 ticket, and while I couldn’t complain about the view of the pitch, the overhang from the upper tier gave me a letterbox view of play, and a lower-tier-only view of the rest of the ground.

If the crowd outside the stadium seemed mainly Icelandic, inside it looked like the Portuguese had the edge in numbers. In terms of possession Portugal definitely had the edge throughout, and when they went ahead I’m sure the press were preparing clichés about “plucky” Iceland. Iceland equalised though, to the delight of the fans, Icelandic or English, and few not wearing red & green shared Cristiano Ronaldo’s “why is the world so cruel to me?” emotions as his injury-time free kick failed to come off.

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