Darwen 2 Runcorn Town 2

Darwen 2 Runcorn Town 2 (12th November 2017)

Football fans can be an absurdly nostalgic and sentimental bunch. Little more so than regarding the early years of football, where fans have a strange attachment to the early pioneers of the game, especially those now departed from the limelight. There’s just something evocative about those old names.

It explains the joy many had when Accrington Stanley returned to the Football League, boosted by the mistaken belief held by many that Accrington Stanley were founder members of the Football League (that was Accrington FC – Stanley were a completely separate club who formed while Accrington were still in the league). It was also the reason why a trip to Darwen, League members from 1891 to 1899, was a decent option on a weekend that admittedly wasn’t overflowing with alternatives. Even their painfully predictable decision to follow modern phoenix club convention and add AFC to the start of their name, after reforming after folding in 2006, didn’t detract much from the idea of travelling four hours to see a match in the 9th level of the English league system.

OK, this isn’t the same ground at which Darwen played league football all those years ago, but it’s not far off. Darwen moved from their old Barley Bank ground, apparently taking their old main stand with them, to their current Anchor Ground in 1899, presumably for the first season out of the Football League.

I’ve no idea how long the old main stand lasted, but it’s clearly not at the Anchor Ground now. Instead one side looks more like a terracing to seats conversion, with seats built up on stacks of bricks, and often made into little enclosures. Part of this covered side is still terracing, as if they ran out of bricks, or just the will to carry on adding more seats.

Next to this stand is the club bar – small but very smart – with a balcony at the front providing a popular elevated viewing spot. The rest of the ground is just a few steps of open terrace on three sides, with the steps high enough to offer the hint of a view. Shipping containers served as changing room for the players and officials, tucked away in one corner. The remnant of what looks like on old toilet block behind one terrace is fenced off, and full of junk.

What makes a trip to grounds in this part of the world a pleasure though is the views of the hills all around. Looming over the ground, and the Town of Darwen in general, is Darwen Hill, 372m high, and topped off with the Darwen Tower. Opened in 1898 for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it would have offered tourists with very good eyesight a free view of Darwen’s last League season. Given that Darwen’s 1898/99 season set a professional league record of 18 consecutive defeats, this probably wasn’t as good a deal as it might have seemed. Paying to get in that year, even less so. Darwin’s season average crowd of 1225 was the league’s worst by some distance, and exactly half of the average of the next lowest club.

While nowhere near as bad, Darwen’s current NW Counties League season wasn’t going too well, with them currently in the relegation zone. Not that you’d have known it from the league table printed in the matchday programme, which had magicked a third win of the season out of thin air, and chalked off a defeat, to push them up to 17th place.

Runcorn Town, on the other hand, were top of the table, correctly, and came to the Anchor Ground, with a fair-sized travelling contingent, having won fourteen of their fifteen games so far. They’d also signed a new goalkeeper, although his Runcorn Town career didn’t get off to the best start. Five minutes in, and Darwen hit a shot from the edge of the area. It was going for the top of the net, but should still have been a routine save. The keeper got both hands to it, but only pushed it upwards rather than away. He then turned in horror to see it dropping into the net to give Darwen an unexpected lead.

A pitch inspection earlier in the day had passed the pitch playable after overnight rain, but had a prefix of “just about” been added, it would have been fair. It wasn’t waterlogged, but its softness did in parts resemble a peat bog enough to make you suspect that a sliding tackle might unearth the preserved remains of an iron-age Lancastrian. Whether such a pitch is a “great leveller”, as the cliché insists, is open to debate, but what is sure is that Darwen looked the better side for much of the match. Runcorn Town barely threatened in the first half, and Darwen should probably have gone in at half time more than a goal ahead.

If there was any sense of regretting those missed opportunities, they were dispelled a bit by Darwen yet again getting an early goal in the 2nd half, hitting a shot though a crowd of players to give the home side a very unexpected 2-0 lead. A female Runcorn Town fan had been overheard saying that Runcorn are notoriously slow starters, and often give teams a lead before coming back to win, but this would be a test today, based on what they’d shown so far.

Luckily for them, a needless challenge of the edge of the area gave them a lifeline just five minutes later, with the spot-kick given the Darwen keeper little chance.

This sparked a period of understandable pressure from the away side, and it wasn’t much of a shock that they levelled just ten minutes later. A cross from the right was put in, high across the keeper and into the far corner, to level things up a 2-2.

The formbook would surely have dictated that Runcorn Town would now push on to claim all three points, but it didn’t happen. In fact the rest of the game was pretty even, even if the away side did perhaps have the better chances to win the game. Perhaps the best was another shot from distance, but this one, with the diving keeper beaten, went safely the wrong side of the post.

One thing that did happen was that it got more than a tad nippy, as well as pretty dark. Getting dark at this time of year isn’t unusual, but the Darwen floodlight’s were probably not the league’s best, and produced some of the worst dark patches during a game I’ve seen since I was a kid, and tried “floodlighting” my Subbuteo pitch with a couple of torches.

As the gloom deepened, so did the mood of some of the Runcorn Town travelling support, none too happy that an expected three points would not be taking the trip home with them to Cheshire, with a few of the women making some of the more choice comments up by the balcony. The final whistle blew, handshakes all round, and various “well done, lads” types comments from fans towards the players as they made their way to their packing crate changing rooms.

In contrast a female with a Scouse accent loudly added her opinion of “load of shite!” into the night air, on the way out. It’s probably safe to say I enjoyed it rather more than she did.

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Lye 0 Stourport 1

Lye Town 0 Stourport Swifts 1 (4th November 2017)

With it being my turn to drive, and the prospect of a long trip north next weekend, this was something of a wimp out option, with trips to Goole, Grantham, Corby and Rochdale dismissed in favour of this two-hour trip to Lye, next to Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

Vibrant! Impressive! Stunning! – these are all words rarely used to describe the central part of Lye that the football ground finds itself in, but the nearby pub was decent enough, even if it was a bit gastropubby, with a hipsterish oddly-dressed barman. A few years back I used to think ‘young’ was the age at which you still believed wearing low-slung jeans looked good. Now I’d say it’s believing misshapen trousers that are tight round the calf yet baggy round the hips, worn to expose several inches on sockless shin, is a style to aspire to. A player had turned up similarly attired at Lye’s ground earlier, with his tracksuit bottoms ridden up like he’d just awoken having worn them in bed, after a sleeplessly tossing and turning all night.

The fair-sized Lye club bar was free of such young trend setters, as is the norm for non-league football, especially at this level. It was also strangely free of the usual Sky Soccer Saturday on the TV, with Jeff Stelling being replaced by an episode of Foyle’s War on ITV3. It was homely enough though, and a reasonable place to read the Lye Town programme, which was about as good as you’ll get for a programme that costs £1 these days.

After a post-pint dash to the stereotypically cosy non-league club bar toilets, we ventured out just as the teams were preparing to kick off. Like Stourbridge up the road, Lye share their ground with a cricket club, so have a three-sided ground. Also like Stourbridge, perhaps the most notable feature is the fair-sized cover behind one goal. While not as big as the one at Stourbridge, this one had an old-fashion barrel rood, and its rust seemed very at home with the yellow and brown autumnal foliage on the trees and the floor below. A couple of park benches at the back provided a lazy option for those who couldn’t be bothered to walk round to the main stand for a seat.

The main stand itself was a bit of a mish-mash of terracing and seats, with a roof that had been cobbled together from scaffolding poles a few decades previously. It was showing its age, but at step 5 of the non-league pyramid, so are most of the spectators, so it fitted in well.

Behind the other goal was a raised embankment offering a great view. Being just grass, you do expect a health & safety harassed club steward to tell you that standing up there is banned, but the only club official we spoke to was a very amiable chap, rather than the kind that exist who missed their calling in life as a car park attendant. Only a handful of people went up onto the embankment, although one of the three dogs in attendance did venture up.

The other side was just a series of crowd barriers across the cricket pitch, with the cricket pavilion beyond. One solitary figure stood on that side, exhibiting a Greta Garbo style desire to want to be alone.

Looking at the stats, an away win always looked likely, despite both teams not looking far apart in the table. Lye had made a grade start to the season, taking 14 points from their first six games, but hadn’t won since. Stourport, after a poor start, had won eight of the last ten.

Stourport also looked on paper the more entertaining side. While Lye’s six home games had yielded just nine goals, Stourport’s eight away games had seen a ridiculous 37 goals fly in.

Sadly my hopes of seeing something approaching Southports 4.625 goals per games away average were dashed by neither side playing that well up front. Both teams were attacking though, and it made for a strange game that had few clear chances, but was still quite enjoyable.

Perhaps the most entertaining player was the Lye goalkeeper, who seemed to be permanently the most angry man in the West Midlands, constantly shouting abuse at all around him as if he had a severe Tourette’s affliction. You got the expected range of profanities, but now and then you’d get comments such as when the ref merely had a word with a Stourport player after a hefty challenge, of “F***ing hell ref. If you want to talk to him you could take him out for dinner.”

Admittedly, more typical were comments like the one where a Stourport player was complaining of rough treatment after sliding under a challenge into the advertising boards behind the goal. “Get up you little c***” was his comment then, which was odd, and a little unwise, considering the Stourport player in question was bigger and more hefty than him.

Lye’s keeper was understandably thrilled when the ref blew for a soft penalty to Stourport shortly before half time. He was fired up enough though to dive low to his left to keep the spotkick out, and it was hacked to safety to keep the scores level going into the break.

Half time came, but still no Jeff Stelling on the TV (I think Midsomer Murders now, instead) but news of the scores coming through were good. We just needed a goal to get this game started now.

It came fairly early in the second half. Lye tried to play offside from a ball chipped over and across the defence, and got it wrong. The Stourport striker steadied, and then fired a shot low past the keeper – a shot which joined my fine collection of photos of goals being scored where something entirely blocks the view of the ball – this time a fat bloke in a tracksuit. “Gosh, how unfortunate” said Lye’s ever-happy keeper, or words similar in meaning to that.

My camera wasn’t the only thing to miss the goal being scored. A Stourport fan was collecting his raffle prize of a bottle of wine (he’d thought it was whiskey and looked a little disappointed) from the directors’ bar nearby at the exactly moment the goal went in, and missed it completely.

Could this breakthrough lead now to a flurry of goals? No.

Stourport, despite their rather garish “yellow with black hoops round half of the shirt” kit, definitely deserved to be winning, probably by more than one goal, but could never quite find the composure, always need one touch too many. Lye, on the other hand, were looking every inch a team who hadn’t won in the league for two months, and rarely threatened.

It was one of those games where the rustic backdrop, and some angry clouds in the distance perhaps made the game seem a bit better than it was. Sometimes the occasions and the setting can make the day almost as much as the game does, especially at a friendly club like Lye, who deserve better than what they’ve clearly been watching for the last couple of months. They weren’t terrible by any means, even if the Lye keeper no doubt had a few words to say about the performance of the ten in front of him. I may have used rather more words, but at least mine had the advantage of being printable.

 

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Brackley 3 Blyth 1

Brackley Town 3 Blyth Spartans 1 (21st October 2017)

Going to non-league football, there’s a moment where you know the weather has turned, going from pleasant to not pleasant as the winter nears. Each fan probably has their own yardstick, but my personal litmus test is when the cheese on a portion of cheesy chips refuses to melt. And that was the case on this day, even when the chips below glowed like embers through their heat, it still remained a portion chips with a side order of grated cheese.

This was partly due to impact of “Storm Brian” sweeping in on promises of gales and havoc nationwide, even if it did sound like a supply teacher from the 1970s. I await the inevitable storms “Clive” and “Derek”, which surely must come next in the sequence, just to see if it’ll give weathermen the horn, or make them talk about the worst job they ever had.

The wind may have been whipping in at a rate of knots, but at least it wasn’t raining, as seats apart, Brackley’s ground wouldn’t have offered a lot of cover. There’s a functional seated stand down one side, and a terrace behind one goal converted to seats, but the only other cover was behind the north goal. With the wind whipping in from the south, the roof might as well have been knitted for all the protection it would have offered.

I took a position at the start of the match behind the south goal, where a decent amount of terracing flanks the seated stand behind the goal. An enclosed artificial training pitch sits between there and the home of the Mercedes-Petronas F1 team, 250m away. The wind whistled through the close-mesh fence around the training pitch, making it sound like the ground was located on the north ridge of Mount Everest.

To my right, a couple of ball-boys greeted the emergence of the Blyth team with a round of “you’re f***ing shit…” which kind of made me hope that the creaking gate behind them would smack them on the arse as it blew in the wind, if they had to retrieve a ball through there.

With the wind blowing from that direction, it wasn’t likely. Anything hit into the air was moving backwards by the time it landed, and despite a decent start by the home side, kicking into the wind, it was Blyth who got the upper hand in the first half. A low shot from the right was hit across the keeper, and possibly with a touch of wind assist, it bounced off the inside of the post to give the away side the lead after 15 minutes. It was the 38th league goal Blyth had scored in just over 13 games, and if they could carry on in the same vein, they could almost make the game safe by half time.

The nearest they came though was from a shot from distance, which caught the wind and didn’t slow until it hit something very solid – sadly not a goal net. If anything the wind speed increased during this spell, and was maybe now so strong that it ceased to be an advantage. It became very hard to hit a ball forward that didn’t just run straight through to the keeper or out for a goal kick. Another effort hit the side netting, managing to fool a few of the Blyth fans into thinking it was in.

It wasn’t that cold in reality, but the wind chill was enough to make me glad of the chance to get in the club bar to warm a bit, and see the scores. I don’t like to knock the facilities of non-league clubs, so the smallness of the bar, I’ll let pass. I can even take them not having Guinness, even when their own brand Guinness substitute stout is a substitute is the same way that Simon Church is sometimes a substitute for Gareth Bale in the Wales team. When they have two screen showing the football scores though, and one is a barely legible non-HD channel on an HD TV, and the other is so out of focus that you feel like Mr Magoo looking at it, it’s a mark away I’m afraid.

One reason I was tempted to this game, aside from a small liking of Blyth after going up to see them play last season, was that they did offer the promise of goals. After a six game Italian trip that yielded just 8 goals in 6 games, seeing a team that averaged 4.4 goals a game did appeal. I’d not even seen a team score two goals in a game (except v Reading) since August, yet just six minutes into the 2nd half I had, and it wasn’t by Blyth either.

In the first minute of the half, another probably wind assisted shot from the edge of the box sailed past the Blyth keeper to level the scores. Just a couple of minutes later, a very similar effort went just past the post. And in the 51st minute, with the ball unable to be cleared, it was poked into the far corner of the net, to turn the game on its head.

One home fan even took his t-shirt off and danced about to celebrate. Given that this meant that he was now just only wearing what looked like beach shorts and flip-flops, you have to question his sanity.

The game was now completely changed, with the home side threatening to run riot, and the home fans sang away. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Credit to them for the effort, but they did like the “…and that’s the way we like it, like it, like it, oooh-oh-ooh-oh!” song, and while I wouldn’t call for the death penalty for those who sing it, I would necessarily oppose anyone who made the suggestion.

There then followed a good 35 minutes of both teams giving their all, battling the elements as well as the opposition, and both teams probably deserved more goals. Into the final minutes, and a decisive goal did come. A through ball led to a collision between keeper and attacker, and a penalty was awarded. It was blasted into the bottom corner, and that really was that, and Brackley had their first league win since August. Blyth, with a 5-6 coach trip home to contemplate things, and a league derby v Darlington coming up  next week, will be hoping for better fortunes, and probably better weather too.

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Fiorentina 1 Atalanta 1

Fiorentina 1 Atalanta 1 (24th September 2017)

In truth I was getting a little sick of trains. I’d been on far too many in the last week and a half. Not just from Venice to Genoa, to Pisa and then to Florence, for moving about the cities, but also the return trips to Verona, to Perugia, to La Spezia, and up and down the Cinque Terre coastal towns. I’d read the TrenItalia magazine several times, and reading in it about the thrill of Benevento getting to Serie A for the first time ever – just a year after getting to Serie B for the first time ever, was losing its appeal (as might be the case for Benevento’s Serie A season, where they’ve lost every game to date).

I had one more train journey to make though, but luckily this one only lasted five minutes, going from the main station to a few hundred yards from Fiorentina’s stadium.

I’d been staying not far from the station too, and one of the first things I’d done when arriving is visit a pub nearby, overlooking a square where there were several tv cameras set up. It turned out that Theresa May was giving a Brexit speech in the cathedral over the road, and the tv crews were there to film that, as well as a rather feeble pro-EU counter protest also taking place in the square.

It was a good pub though. Having female barstaff helped, as I’d learned that the male staff in Italian pubs have all the observation skills of Nazi sentries in war films, and I’d begun to feel that a siren and self-immolation would be about the only way to attract their attention.

Having had a beer or two, and the umpteenth cheese & ham focaccia toastie of my trip in there before going to the game meant arrival about an hour before kick-off was fine. I went through the usual tediously slow ticket-buying process before having a look round part of the outside of the ground. The ground, and notably the main stand, were designed by renowned architect Pier Luigi Nervi, whose vision was to make concrete graceful and beautiful, rather than making it look like a multi-storey carpark, which became the norm in later year.

The facade of the main stand looked more like the entrance to a museum than a football ground, managing to maintain a historic elegance, even with it being blighted by two overgrown portakabin style extensions in front. Even the terracing, completely open to the elements front and back, had a certain style to it, not only in being white rather than the usual concrete grey, but also in the lightness of the design. It’s just a shame that those end terraces are the ground’s worst feature.

Anyone who has ever seen an aerial shot of the ground will have wondered what on earth the architect was doing making the ground such a weird shape, as if he’d never seen football before, and thought the pitch is about 200m long. It turns out that the stadium was designed to accommodate not just an athletics track, but also a 220m long sprint straight in front of the main stand. This meant both ends were pushed back way beyond where they’d normally be, almost absurdly so.

With prices at the sides being pretty ridiculous, I opted for the end anyway, and actually ended up sat right at the back. The near goal – with “near” being a relative term in this context – didn’t actually seem too far away. The far goal, however, did almost feel like you were watching a game on a neighbouring pitch.

I’d actually got into the ground a bit too early, although this did allow me a bit of a wander round my end. There was enough of it to allow a wander, after all. At the side, in the corner of the “D” shape of the ground, was just a flat area, extended quite far forward, bordered with plexiglass walls. Stood watching through this plexiglass were a few souls looking like they were also wondering why they came in so early.

Across from there you looked across the curved section of seating behind the goal. This always looks on tv like a section of temporary seats, but is fully concreted in, set quite a distance from both the goal and the seats behind. It feels as if when the place got renovated for Italia ’90, they could couldn’t decide whether to put these seats nearer the pitch or the seats behind, so settled on being near neither instead. Clearly there was no will to make the ends less crap for the world cup, but surely one day they’ll be rebuilt so the fans at either end are at least watching from the same postal district as the pitch.

They might even cover the ground too. Other than the main stand, the place is completely open, which presented a problem I hadn’t anticipated when I’d bought a ticket in the open end. While four of the five days I was in Florence had been fine and sunny, there’d been intermittent rain all morning and afternoon on this Sunday. The forecast was adamant though, that the rain would cease in the afternoon, as it had, and it would be dry after that.

It was a bit annoying then, with about 20 minutes to kick off, the first spots of rain started falling. All around me the home fans, clearly prepared for such an occasion, began putting up umbrellas and taking plastic macs out of bags. Everyone was prepared for the odd shower. Everyone, that is, except me. I didn’t even have so much as a jacket.

Luckily the rain only threatened to pour, without really do so. I even managed to keep my programme dry by putting it inside a Fiorentina-themed issue of The Metro freesheet newspaper that I’d been handed outside. With the crowd taking its time to come in, and this end being, by some way, the less popular of the two ends, it didn’t make it the most vibrant build up possible. The only noise at this stage was being made by the few hundred Atalanta fans to my right, who’d made the trip down from Bergamo. They were in their own almost quarantined section, where even having non-opaque fences between them and the home fans was considered a threat to life and limb. Maybe with them setting off flares and the odd thunderflash, the police might have had a point.

By now I was settled into the rhythm of my Italian games being low scoring games (both games on a previous trip to Italy had also ended 1-0), so it was quite a relief for the deadlock to be broken early in this one. Fiorentina’s striker Federico Chiesa took down a flicked on ball from a long pass forward and fired in one of those wild back of the net/back of the stands shots from the edge of the area. On this occasion he caught it perfectly, and the keeper had no chance as it blasted into the back of the net.

Having seen Atalanta at Chievo, I knew they were dangerous up front, but a little wasteful. It wasn’t long before they were showing both traits, coming close to getting a quick equaliser. Working the ball into a scoring position, they firing a shot from close range right at the goalkeeper’s chest, as if they thought it possible to score by hitting a shot through the middle of his ribcage.

While it would be wrong to suggest Fiorentina stopped playing once they scored, they certainly didn’t create too many more clear chances in the game. Whether this was absurd overconfidence in their slender lead, or just Atalanta playing better, I’m not sure, but most of the better action was taking place in the Fiorentina box.

In the 2nd half, at least this meant it was happening in the goal nearest to me. It looked like Atalanta had got a well-deserved way back into the game about halfway through the half, from the penalty spot. The kick was certainly hit low and hard enough, but about a metre from the post. It still took a good save to keep it out, but well-saved it was, and the home fans again were able to find their voice.

Atalanta kept attacking, and the travelling fans kept singing, but there was definitely now a sense of desperation in their play. Shots were being snatched at, and despite a few nervy moments, it did look like Fiorentina’s cautious approach might get them the victory.

With the home fans in the far distance raising scarves and flags to see in the win, Fiorentina should have made it 2-0. A one on one break through a high Atalanta back line looked like it was going to be the clincher, but a heavy touch saw the ball claimed by a grateful keeper.

Already deep into stoppage time, surely that should be enough though, as the home fans began to edge towards the exits. In the fourth minute of four added minutes, Atalanta, in desperation “went English” hitting a long ball forward from their own half. A headed knock down from the edge of the box found Atalanta’s Swiss international Remo Freuler, completely unmarked. From the edge of the “D” he smacked in a shot low and hard. This one was right in the corner, and the odd gasp of horror escaped the lips of fans seeing the keeper hadn’t got there, and Fiorentina had blown it right at the death.

More flares and fireworks from the Atalanta enclosure, as the jubilant players ran towards them. In contrast the home sections were a sea of wearing, pointing fingers and gestures, and people angrily kicking cups and other litter on the floor in frustration. Atalanta might have fully deserved a draw on their play, but this was still two points thrown away.

The referee’s final whistle went very shortly after, but as the smoke from the Atalanta flares drifted across the stadium, whistles of another kind, those of fans voicing their displeasure, filled the air. I may have been disappointed that my six game tour had yielded a mere eight goals, but the home fans, who were rather more unhappy, would have liked there to have been one less.

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Perugia 1 Frosinone 0

Perugia 1 Frosinone 0 (23rd September 2017)

One of the difficulties of arranging this trip was the extraordinary amount of time it takes for the football authorities in Italy to release the fixtures. In England, not far after the middle of June, the fixtures all come out, for pretty much all leagues, nearly two months ahead of the season.

Not so in Italy, where Serie A fixtures only get released four weeks before the games start. For Serie B, it’s just three weeks. Serie A & B were most critical for me, allowing me to schedule a trip bookended with weekends around Venezia and Fiorentina home games, but had I wanted to see a Serie C game, I’d have had to have waited another week before booking up.

Nor do the fixtures get released instantly online at about 10 am, like in England. Oh no. what they do is have a whole evening TV show dedicated to it, releasing the fixtures round by round, with interviews with players, managers, chairmen etc, of the clubs. Quite what they find to discuss, bearing in mind it’s 100% certain everyone will play everyone else at some stage, I don’t know. I imagine it being…

“So, Robeto Donadoni, your Bologna team will take on Inter in Round 5. Your thoughts?”
“I’m shocked. I was expecting them maybe in Round 12 or after that. Who’d have thought we’d play them in Round 5?”
“Indeed. The stats say Bologna have only played Inter as early as Round 5 nine times since 1937, so a real turn up for the books there.”

It sounds a cracking night’s entertainment.

With me booked for four days in Florence, and the Fiorentina game being late on Sunday evening, the prospect of an additional game was very high. I actually wanted to see Pisa, but they were away, so I turned my attention to Siena. A bit of a crappy ground, but a lovely city, and they were at home. Sadly, the Serie C fixure list had all the games being played that day late on Sunday the afternoon. Seeing a game there and getting back in time for the Fiorentina match wasn’t possible, so that was out too.

That left two viable options. Empoli, only half an hour away by train, but another pretty crappy ground, but without much of a city to make up for it. The other was Perugia, much further away, and about two hours by train, but the ground and city looked decent, so that was my option.

And I was definitely glad I did. I really underestimated just what a gorgeous city Perugia is. The historic old town of the city is perched 500m up at the top of a hill, with views for miles around from the top. All the little side alleys feel genuinely old too, like stepping into a Dickensian world, even if they are older than that. While I was hardly the only tourist there, it did surprise that I’d never heard Perugia mentioned as a tourist destination before. OK, it’s not easy to get to. The train from Florence takes over two hours, and the city’s airport can have as few as two flights per day. That’s not two per airline, just two in total, although one of those will be with Ryanair, but god knows what city it claims the airport in near.

Another thing Perugia handily has is a transport system it calls the “Mini Metro”. This is not the flimsy British Leyland car of the 1980s, but a small rail network of driverless trams, a bit like an upscaled version of the Heathrow Terminal 5 “pods”. Every minute or two a pod would turn up, and you’d hop in and trundle up or down the hill depending on you direction – and my word, you are glad, because you really wouldn’t want to have to walk up the hill to the old city.

Even more handy was that the other end of the line had two stops, both about 300m from Perugia’s Stadio Renato Curi, and I emerged from the final of these at just gone 2pm, about an hour before kick-off. I’d expected the pod/tram to be full, but only a few fans were on, and a similar experience was to be had in the small bar/shop complex at the tram exit. I’d have expected any bar this close to the ground to be heaving, especially with few obvious options nearby, but it was like a quiet Tuesday afternoon.

One drinking option would no doubt have been the club building on one side of the ground which looked more like a tourist restaurant, with terracotta roof tiles, and small castle-like turret poking above the roof, but it would hardly cope alone with the crowds for this top of the table (3rd v 1st) clash.

I’d actually bought my ticket earlier, nipping here on the “mini metro”, before going into the city. It looked a good judgement going by the ticket queues at the window now, knowing how long it takes to buy a ticket for Italian games. The ticket windows were oddly positioned meaning the only view I got of the woman selling me tickets was from the neck down. She was wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan “long nights, short clothes”, which doesn’t really make any sense, unless perhaps she’s from Newcastle and likes to prove how hardy she is in the winter. The ticket window meant that as well as being denied any glimpse of her head, I couldn’t see even as far down as her waist either, so the conundrum of the length of her clothes a day after the autumnal equinox went unanswered.

Due to the time, I decided to go straight in. One steward asked for my passport, and took great delight at reading my name. His ability to read English names didn’t match his enthusiasm though, but if he wanted to believe my surname rhymed with “langerie” I felt no need to correct him.

From the outside Perugia’s stadium could definitely be bracketed as “functional”. Not bad as such, but definitely “no frills”. One place that could have done with a frill or two were the toilets. Not recognising the words for male and female on the toilet doors, I waited, with a slight sense of urgency, for someone to go into one. A bloke went in the saloon doors, like a leftover prop from a Spaghetti Western, and proceeded to take a long piss in one toilet bowl, not bothering to close the door. Well at least I know which one the gents is now, I thought.

Now, this little section isn’t the most pleasant, so skip it if you wish, but I needed that toilet. Unfortunately Italian toilet bowls have a weird design, with the water being towards the front rather than directly below, so anything “falling” will have to slide down an angled ledge to hit the water. Or it won’t slide down, as sometimes happens, and you have to hope the flush will carry it away.

One “frill” that would certainly have been useful on this occasion would have been a flush that actually worked, rather than letting loose a pathetic trickle. The only hope was that I’d be able to escape without anyone noticing. Sadly, when I opened the door, hoping for an unobserved getaway, there was some outside. And it was a woman.

Thankfully I seemed more shocked by seeing her than she did by seeing a man coming out of the cubicle, so it seemed to be another one of the kind of toilets in Italy where they don’t seem too fussed if men or woman use the facilities. That sense of relief was short-lived, when I remembered the toilet bowl was hardly pristine in there now.

I managed to mime “no flush” to get the message across, to try to tell her not to go in, somehow also forming my body language to portray the idea of “you don’t want to see the state some other filthy bastard has left the toilet in”. Thankfully she bought it, as even though she did poke her head in for a check, the look she gave me afterwards was definitely a sympathetic “poor you having to put up with that”, rather than “you disgusting dirty git” that I’d certainly have got if she thought it was my fault.

I’d opted for a ticket in the Curva Nord, nominally with an allocated seat position, but it was clear that people were just sitting/standing wherever they wanted, which included the gangways and staircases. It was clear this end was by far the most popular part of the ground, probably having as many fans in it as the rest of the ground put together, making a sea of red.

The end was completely open, and the same design, a large slab of backless seats, as two of the other sides. Beyond the open side to my left, the old city of Perugia could be seen in the distance. The main stand was also a single tier stand of the same size, but with a very heavy-looking red roof. Two thick pillars would invariably create some very unpopular seats, although on this day at least, finding an alternative to move to wouldn’t be much of an issue.

One thing that was starting to become as issue was the sun. It was a gloriously sunny day, and while that was great for sightseeing around town, and good for photos of the ground, it was starting to get a tad warm. It did occur to me that if I didn’t seek a bit of shade at some stage, my face could be as red as the Perugia shirts, scarves and flags all around me.

Those scarves and flags were waved about as the teams took the field – plenty of healthy booing of the Frosinone team and the match officials – and some kind of club anthem played over the speakers. It could have been worse. The “Hala Madrid” song at the Bernabeu is dreadful, and a small piece of my soul shrivels every time I hear “Sweet Caroline”, but the best thing I can say about this one is that it was mercifully short.

Despite yet another very low scoreline, this was actually a decent game. Perugia had the better of the first half, playing with width and a bit of pace, and looked threatening. It was no surprise when Perugia went a goal up midway through the half, when a through ball was cut back to the penalty spot, where it was tucked away with ease across the exposed keeper.

Frosinone, despite not having as much of the play, were still creating chances of their own though. Their best was probably after a shot ricocheted through a crowd of players, before falling to another Frosinone player 15 yards out, centre of the box, with just the keeper to beat. It looked like he wasn’t a natural left footer though, as his left-footed attempt to sweep the ball past the keeper was far too tame, and easily saved.

Half time came. I dashed off for some refreshment, then sought out a place on the other side of the curva, when the main stand rood was offering some shade. The seats looked taken, but quite a few were just sitting in the gangway at the edge. When in Rome…or in Perugia in this case, do as the Perugians do, and I took my shaded “seat” just early enough to mean my face wouldn’t turn into crackling for the next week.

Into the 2nd half, and yet again I saw the Italian tactic of a winning team deciding, despite being at home, that playing on the break would be fine. With 2nd place Empoli losing at home, if Perugia did hold out, they’d go top of Serie B, but playing the top side, it was a bit of a risk.

The gamble paid off, just. Frosinone, from 150 miles south between Rome and Naples, were getting decent backing from the few hundred who’d made the trip up, and had a few chances to spoil the party. Each time though, their shooting just wasn’t quite accurate enough, pulling shots wide. The puffed out cheeks of fans as they exhaled after each shot went wide told the story of the fine margins being played out.

Perugia’s best chance of the half was to force a fine save from the Frosinone keeper, who tipped a close range header over the bar. The home side though, were just content to hold out, and hold out they did. The final minutes were played out to an excitable set of home fans, appearing to get ready to celebrate as if going top of the league in September was as good as getting promoted to Serie A itself. Maybe if they can keep the start going, they can have an actual promotion party for real.

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Genoa 1 Chievo 1

Genoa 1 Chievo Verona 1 (20th September 2017)

The award for the world’s least busy metro system, surely, must go to Genoa’s. It doesn’t matter what time of day you use it, if there are more than five people on a platform, it counts as “packed”. It was handy for me though, with a stop near my hotel, and also near both major train stations, one of which was about a 10 minute walk away from the Luigi Ferraris Stadium, home to both Genoa and Sampdoria.

From the station, it was an easy stroll alongside a wide and rather ugly concrete riverbed, virtually dried up and thriving with vegetation. I’d read that you shouldn’t even think about trying to walk up and over the hill that separates the stadium from the city centre, despite it looking on a map the more obvious route. Seeing that hillside now, like a small mountain ridge, I can see why.

I’d bought my ticket from the Genoa shop/museum down by the harbour earlier in the day, but I wanted to have a quick walk round the stadium. I was forced to re-evalute my idea of ‘quick’ though, as an over the top security operation saw all the roads adjacent to the stadium closed off, turning that “quick walk round” into a near half hour detour. I’m not sure if it was better or worse that I realised the gate I needed to get into the ground was right where I’d started from.

When I was to eventually go beyond the security iron curtain – all this for the visit of Chievo, who’d have less than 100 fans there – I found another bar, and incongruously, a branch of Lidl. It can’t really have helped trade much.

It was a little early to go in, so after a quick look at a shop selling souvenirs, and it seemed, ladies underwear, I found a cafe/bar and went in for a beer and a bite to eat. The place had an ever so slightly rough edge to it, possibly due to the bar being the sort of place that sold Tennants Super on tap, at 9% proof. Not being a tramp, I opted for a Moretti instead. I asked for a pint, but was given a bottle. This, it turned out, wasn’t the usual Moretti sold in pubs over here. It weighed it at a daft 7.2% itself, even if that would get me labelled as the Italian equivalent of a “soft shandy-drinker” by the Tennants Super crowd. To the bar’s credit, it not only seemed friendly enough, the guy behind the bar didn’t go by the “five second rule” when he dropped my ham & cheese focaccia on the floor, making another one instead.

The Luigi Ferraris Stadium really looks stunning from the outside and in photos. On TV, it looks brilliant inside too. Four stands, all close to the pitch, fully covered, it seems almost the ideal stadium. Up close and personal though…thing were a little different. Let’s just say it was exhibiting what does often seem the typical Italian approach to building maintenance, namely; build something, let it deteriorate for a few decades, enjoy!

Some of the seats were starting to fade, and most were pretty grubby. No doubt there are footprints on some celebrating their silver jubilee. Down at the front there weren’t even actual seats, just concrete benches of the type last seen in the UK at Stamford Bridge’s terrible old West Stand. Toilets in the top tier had no lock on the door, no toilet paper, no proper toilet (a hole and the “spaceman’s footprints” either side) and the sinks had no running water at all. The tea bar also sold me a dreadful beer (Ceres), but to be fair, I can’t blame to club for that one.

That said, if you can pretend all that doesn’t exist, it does look a magnificent stadium. The view is excellent, at least from the back of the top tier behind the goal, especially when sat opposite the Genoa ultras, who, even for a low key game such as this one, create quite a sight. Less good were the people who decided to stand, for the whole game, at the front barrier of the upper tier, completely wiping out about a dozen rows of seats as a viewing possibility.

If you are wondering why the stewards didn’t move them on, then you obviously haven’t been to an Italian football match. Italian stewards seem to like to do the bare minimum, if not less if they can get away with it. Climbing the stairs to the top tier would be far too much effort. Even the stewards who do the security pat-down of fans entering the stadium seem to regard it as little more than a gesture, given the bulky items in pockets I’ve had that didn’t raise a single question. I think you could go in with a harpoon gun, nunchukas and a cricket bat, and they’d still wave you through.

When I’d bought by ticket in the Genoa shop I’d said to the guy that I’d seen Chievo play on the Sunday, and as they weren’t hugely impressive, Genoa had a good chance of winning. He acknowledged this gem of information with a smile and a shrug, with more than a hint of “Why are you still bothering me, you tourist idiot?” in his body language.

Or maybe he’d just seen Genoa play more than I had, because while Chievo weren’t impressive, nor were Genoa. Oddly, in the first half it was nearly all Genoa. They just weren’t very good. It was as if Chievo’s tactics were to let Genoa have a completely free run, and just wait until Genoa’s own incompetence made them give up the will to live.

With the impressive ultras singing away, it was a good backdrop to a game that was struggling to happen, but to was one of those occasions where the ultra style singing just feels too one-paced, and didn’t fit the rhythm of the game at all – although considering how Genoa were playing, that might not have been a bad thing. Genoa mustered a few wayward efforts, and Chievo had the odd chance, hinting at what they could do if the Genoa team got fed up of trying. At half time though, I was staring at my 3rd goalless first half in four games.

While teams usually come out to great fanfare before the game, in Italy they seem to come out for the second half to almost total apathy. If anything though, Genoa played better. They came very close to scoring in early stages, when a ball in the six yard box was clipped across the keeper. It looked a goal all the way, except that it just kept rolling, rolling past the far post. Another shot from the edge of the box went flying just past the post with the keeper beaten.

The breakthough came in the 62nd minute. A punched clearance got no further than the edge of the box and was fired back in. It went straight in past the fumbling keeper, possibly with the aid of a deflection, to put Genoa 1-0 up, and possibly on their way to their first win of the season.

Unfortunately, rather than trying to go on and make the game safe, Genoa took this as an opportunity to throw down a “now see if you can score!” challenge to Chievo. It took about 10 minutes. A nice diagonal ball into the box was picked up by a Chievo player that the Genoa defenders seemed to decide just wasn’t worth marking, and he clipped the ball past the onrushing Genoa keeper to level the scores. The travelling dozens from Verona in the stand to my left went wild, and whistles of derision rained down from the rest of the ground.

While Genoa did manage another pretty good shot from distance, there was a definite feeling that the home side had resigned themselves to the draw, as it somehow they could treat this as a moral victory, even if it wasn’t an actual one. When the final whistle blew though, the home fans let the team know in no uncertain terms what they thought of such an attitude. I began to suspect that most of the damaged seats in the stadium had had their backs snapped off after similar performances. Or maybe they just knew this south end was normally the Sampdoria home end, and took delight in buggering up their rival’s facilities.

There is a strange fascination in watching the fans after such an annoying display. The same gestures, the same tone of exasperation is so familiar, even if in a foreign language. On the bus back to the city centre, one older fan had a full on rant, perhaps to friends, perhaps to strangers, who knows? But what it did know, without actually speaking Italian, was exactly what he was saying. Every fan knows that “things have got to change/why do they keep doing x, y & x?/why can’t they do a, b & c?/how long has this been going on for now?” rant that always seems to take over one person on public transport after a game, like a kind of football fan demonic possession. In a foreign country I may have been, but it made me feel at home.

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Spezia 1 Novara 0

Spezia 1 Novara 0 (19th September 2017)

It was something of a first, being wished “Happy Birthday” by the young woman in the Spezia ticket booth, as she entered my passport details onto my ticket for the game. There can’t be many people who regard a night out at a Serie B as a birthday treat, but had I been at home I’d have spent the night watching a miserable 0-2 defeat to Swansea in the League Cup, so this was definitely a step up.

Nor would a night out in Genoa, where I was now staying, been much of an alternative. Most bars looked either like crushingly “cool” places, where the hipster-bearded barman would never smile towards his one customer for fear of not looking serious and moody for a second, or places where the aged customers would be having heated conversations about the crapness of something to the barman, who’d be wishing he was somewhere else.

My alternative had been a British style pub in Genoa, which certainly looked the part, but was cursed by a barman/owner playing terrible music, from experimental prog rock to songs of the 50s, or earlier. I’m not saying that playing Ella Fitzgerald or stuff that a 70s Rick Wakeman would have dismissed as pretentious was the reason the pub was always so dead, but it can’t have helped.

Spezia play in the town of La Spezia, 60 miles down the coast from Genoa, and only used by tourists using it as a base for visiting the “Cinque Terre” set of five heavily touristed picturesque coastal villages just west of the town. Although I would also visit four of the five Cinque Terre towns, my experience of La Spezia itself was limited by my train from Genoa arriving 45 minutes late. This allowed me to do no more than go straight to the ground, about a mile from the station, and straight back again afterwards, due to having to catch the last sensible train back. I did not want to be on the later 2.5 hour stopper service.

The train from Genoa had left in glorious early-evening sunshine, but halfway down had slipped under the edges of a dark storm just out to sea, with forked lightning and monumental rainfall turning the sky charcoal grey a short distance away. With Lightning flashes illuminating the hills to the north of the ground as I approached, I erred on the side of caution and opted for the €25 seats at the side rather than the uncovered “curva” end – for once an actual curve – behind the north goal.

I really liked Spezia’s ground. OK, I’d draw a veil over the temporary seats which formed the away end, where a small knot of Novara fans were watched over by an unnecessary line of stewards. The megaphone held by the “capo” the cheer starter for Novara, seemed even more unnecessary with such small numbers. He could have just told them all individually.

The stand I was in was a single-tier stand of about 3000 orange seats – I can only imagine orange ones were cheaper, as Spezia play in black & white. The head of an eagle was painted on the back of the stand, along with “Spezia Calcio” enlivening what (if seen on Google streetview) used to be pretty dreary frontage for the club. Underneath, the club shop remained shuttered and closed, because obviously on a matchday they’d be absolutely no demand whatsoever for club merchandise.

Opposite was a smaller old stand, holding about 1000, that looked straight out of the English lower divisions. With it’s propped roof and pillars, it looks like one of those historic non-league “gems” that would have groundhoppers cooing about character and tradition, as they tick off a ground they’ve been meaning to do for a while.

The end curva was a substantial terrace which reminded by, if you discount the curve, of the Tilehurst End at Reading’s old Elm Park ground. Nominally it was actually a seated stand, but the “seats” were just numbers painted onto concrete blocks, and everyone stood.

I liked Spezia as a team too. Despite their rather cautious approach to the game in Venice, here, at home, they seemed quite a gutsy enthusiastic team, full of energy and running. They also had the good nature to score an early goal too, tapping in after a corner was flicked on. From there they always had a threat, and looked like they could have put the game to be by half time, if only their shooting had matched their enthusiasm.

In the 2nd half, the Italian curse of being over-cautious crept in, or maybe Novara just had “a little bit of a talking to” by their manager at half time, as they were much more involved. Regardless, the Spezia fans behind the goal kept singing away, and even some of the fans in my side stand had a go at times too. It was only half full, but you could tell it’s be a great place to be with a full house.

Novara did what they could to spur their team on too, but with such small numbers it’d didn’t amount to too much. Novara definitely had the best chance of the 2nd half too. A flicked on corner wasn’t dealt with well by the Spezia keeper, who could only parry it out to a Novara player inside the six yard box, at the back post. He was able to scramble and save the resulting shot though, and even when it bounced straight back and another shot came in, he got enough of his body in the way to make it roll across goal, where a defender was able to hook it away.

One thing I’d not managed to do was get a programme, partly due to my rush to get in, and partly due to just forgetting for look for one. It looked quite a nice glossy effort too. OK, I wouldn’t be able to actually read it, but that’s not the point. With about 15 minutes to go though, a guy at the end of my block got up and walked out. I couldn’t tell if he’d just gone out the back for a smoke (probably not, as the stewards would happy stand there smoking) or had left. What he had done is left a programme on his seat. I’ll nab that on the way out, I thought. Unfortunately, about a minute before I left, I turned and saw it was gone. Some evil git in the seat behind, who had three of the buggers in his hands as far as I could tell, was the most obvious culprit.

Despite it being a good game, and still poised at 1-0, with that train I had to catch, I had no option but to leave with it just ticking to 90 minutes. I don’t like leaving such games early, but you just hope nothing happens in those few minutes I missed. No sooner had I got through the gate than I heard a series of cheers. It didn’t seem quite loud enough for a goal, but something clearly was happening. As I made my way away from the glow of the floodlights, I just had no idea what.

And I’ll never know either. I know it wasn’t for a goal, as the game definitely ended 1-0. It did strike me that after my third low-scoring game in a row, a worrying trend was starting to appear, but this was a good game, and if the remaining games were as good as this, but all ended 1-0 I wouldn’t mind. Well, not too much anyway.

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Chievo 1 Atalanta 1

Chievo Verona 1 Atalanta 1 (17th September 2017)

I hadn’t planned on going to Verona. My intention was to go to the city of Ferrara and see SPAL v Cagliari. SPAL’s ground is quite small though, and a total absence of ticket information on the SPAL website made going there without a ticket something of a risk, so a late change of plan saw me opt for a trip to Verona instead.

I was glad I did. Verona is a really nice city chock full of old buildings – including some really old ones such as the 2000 year old arena – and was much more busy with tourists than I expected. One of the most crowded places was a small courtyard just a short way from the Piazza delle Erbe, one of Verona’s historic squares, where you find, jutting out from a 1st floor window, Juliet’s balcony where she was courted by Romeo. Of course, Romeo & Juliet is entirely fictional, so it has about as much claim to be Juliet’s balcony as the drive-thru window at a McDonalds in Walsall, but people flock to it anyway.

Unlike at SPAL, getting a ticket for a Chievo game was never going to be a problem, with Chievo’s games normally taking up just over a quarter of the Stadio Bentegodi’s 39,000 seats. In fact the only problem was finding where exactly to buy a ticket from. With unfailing ability, I yet again managed to do almost a full circuit of the stadium before finding the small hut which was the Chievo matchday ticket office. Italy has lifted some of the restriction on ticket purchases for non-Italians, meaning you only have to bring along your passport, but then your passport details have to be copied onto the ticket, and the whole process is deathly slow.

Perhaps even slower is the work of the Stadio Bentegodi maintenance crew, who haven’t yet got round to taking down some of the Italia ’90 signage that still adorns a few walls outside. It’s only been 27 years – what’s the rush?

Maybe they are just proud of their stadium’s part in the tournament. Previously it was an uncovered three-tier oval. For the world cup the third tier was doubled in size and roofed as well, although on a gloriously sunny day, the roof would be there to keep the sun off, not the rain today.

I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. Even during Italia ’90, the Bentegodi was one of the least impressive venues, and it always looked a bit grim on TV in later years. The green seats had faded badly, and it just always looked a bit of a run-down, slightly depressing venue. Even with my low expectations, I was surprisingly impressed with the place. True, the seats were still mainly faded and dirty, but the place just feels so much bigger in person, big enough to make you feel you are in a “stadium” rather than just a “ground”. If they could replace the seats it could be quite an impressive place. If they did (and I admit there is a 0% chance of them doing so because I’d like them to) I’d hope they’d break with convention and go for tip-up seats rather than the fixed seats found everywhere in Italy. Fixed seats might be harder to break, but tip-up seats don’t tend to have 20 years of accumulated filth covering them from where people have used them as stepping stones to get from row to row in the stands.

The stadium does also have an awkward lower tier, known as the parterre, which used to be terracing, but now serves as budget seating for those who don’t mind the awful view. For Chievo games, only a small section of the parterre was in use, although to be honest, large chunks of the rest of the stadium were closed off too. The Atalanta fans might have had a whole end to themselves, but were still forced to sit right up in the upper tier extension.

I was in the €35 middle tier seats, recommended to me by the ticket office assistant as “good seats”, and they certainly were, even allowing for the view across the faded blue running track. Handily all the ticket booth personnel I’d come across spoke English on this trip, although I wasn’t so lucky when trying to ask a couple of a guys about where they got their programme from. When the language barrier went up, I tried to point to the programme one had in his hand, which caused him to clutch it to his chest, almost in fear, as if I was about to steal it off him. Luckily the other guy understood my intentions, and pointed downstairs, where they were just lying around in boxes – 24 pages and free.

While Chievo’s support understandable failed to fill their northern end of the stadium, they did their best and produced a decent amount of noise given their numbers. It’s hardly surprising their support isn’t that great. Chievo itself is a village of just 5000 people on the outskirts of Verona, and until promotion to Serie C2 (Italy’s regional 4th tier) Chievo played at a ground that would have been at home in England’s Hellenic League, with a very basic facilities. Even in the season they won promotion to Serie A for the first time, crowds struggled to average much more than 5000.

Atalanta’s decent support, on the other hand, were putting on a show of noise and colour, although with them stuck up in the clouds at the top of their end, what you could actually hear was more muted.

It was a game, as post-match summarisers would put it, “that was full of talking points”. The first was around a penalty decision. Atalanta had been taking the game to the home side, looking useful, and probably should have already been leading before being awarded a penalty for a poor-looking tackle. After an age of arguing and complaining, where the ref had seemed to be waving the players away, he suddenly changed his mind and awarded a free kick to Verona instead.

Not too long later came an even stranger call. A half-cleared ball dropped to an Atalanta forward in the area, and he fired a low shot across the keeper to put Atalanta a goal a ahead. The players celebrated, the scoreboard ticked over to “Chievo 0 Atalanta 1”, and the players lined up for the restart, only for the ref the change his mind again, yet again to big cheers, and award Chievo a free kick in the box. I was completely baffled, and no doubt I’d have been learning the Italian for “this ref is a bit of a homer, isn’t he?” if I’d been in the Atalanta end, plus a few other choice phrases of Italian, no doubt.

In the 2nd half Chievo began to impose themselves a bit more, and took the lead with a fine low strike from the edge of the box, just avoiding the Atalanta keeper at full stretch trying to keep it out. A goal up though, Chievo would slip into the mad, and maddening, tactic of sitting on the lead, rather than try to press home the advantage. Against Atalanta’s lively, if admittedly not always accurate, forward line, that would always be risky.

Then came the third “talking point” of the game. Chievo had survived a penalty shout, and had cleared the ball, and were making progress over the halfway line, when the ref suddenly blew his whistle. There was no hint of a challenge, let alone a foul, so yet again I was baffled.

Then, the guy next to me just started saying “Oh dear! Oh dear!” (in English) and the referee ran off the side of the pitch. What he was doing was looking at a TV monitor, and after watching for a few seconds, he pointed towards the Chievo end. Big cheers from the Atalanta fans – this wasn’t just a free kick – it was a penalty. That explained the two very late calls against Atalanta in the first half – Serie A has tv replays. No doubt the Italian equivalent of Dave from Dorking would be ringing up a football phone-in show to complain “TV replays are ruining football, and bad decisions are part of the game” afterwards, but all that mattered now was the penalty duly dispatched by Atalanta’s Argentine international Alejandro Gómez, to level the scores with five minutes left.

Atalanta looked the most likely winners after that, but overall were probably happy with a point. I was just happy to have come to Verona, and after the really poor game in Venice a couple of days earlier, was happy to have seen a decent one today.

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Venezia 0 Spezia 0

Venezia 0 Spezia 0 (15th September 2017)

I really thought I’d love Venice. It always looked such a beautiful place in photographs, full of charm and history. Unfortunately I visited a Venice under near permanent grey skies, with bursts of rain now and then, which showed up its flaws more than its good points. I still enjoyed the place, but the city I thought would probably be the highlight of my trip left me with a bit of a feeling of disappointment.

It was sort of the same with Venezia’s football club. I have a kind of soft spot for the club after “managing” them for a few seasons on the game Football Manager, many years ago. I kept them up in Serie A in 2002, and thrived with them for a year or two after, which was a big improvement on Venezia’s real Serie A season of 2001/2, where they sunk without trace, gaining just 3 wins, and finishing 22 points adrift of safety.

It was due to that that I had a good element of anticipation, heading to the far end of the island that makes up the famous part of Venice, almost immediately after checking into my hotel. I’d come prepared. Venice has no streets as such, just footpaths, and even those require some careful navigation due to the limited number of crossing points of the canals that crisscross the city. The only way to move even moderately quickly is on the vaporetto, the small ferries that take passengers on routes around the Grand Canal and the other islands. As luck would have it, Line 1 of the vaporetto had a stop just a minute away from my hotel, and would take me within a quarter of a mile of the stadium, at the St. Elena stop, at the far end of the island.

There’s always a slight satisfied moment in any foreign city, when you feel like you’ve mastered the local transport network. I was just getting that as the vaporetto pulled away from the Giardini stop, one before St. Elena. I’ve got the hang of this, I thought, as St Elena came into view. I’m using this service like a local now. Any smugness didn’t last too long though as the vaporetto powered away, clearly making no effort to slow for my desired stop. I watched the stop drift away 100 metres away to my left. It could have been worse. The next stop was about a mile away, on a different island, but was the last stop on the line, so I just waiting for the thing to turn round, and I’d have to walk to the ground from Giardini.

I had hoped to buy myself a green and black Venezia scarf outside the ground, but there looked to be nothing in the way of merchandising, official or otherwise outside. Inside, the ultras were selling t-shirts, but they weren’t really to my taste.

While the main island of Venice has some quite beautiful architecture throughout, it’s not an accident that the football ground doesn’t appear in any tourist brochures. It is right next to a canal, but there are no gondolas in this neck of town, and no tourists either. The exterior of the ground might be old, but UNESCO are unlikely to slap world heritage status on it any day soon. From the outside, the main stand did look a little neglected to say the least.

From the inside it wasn’t quite so bad. It’s an old stand, but the addition of a press box on the roof makes it look a little more substantial than it really is. Multiple roof columns at the front are part of the reason that those who opt for the main stand are really looking for shelter rather than comfort. I’d purchased my ticket, rather unnecessarily online, for the open home end a week or so before. The edges of the main stand curve round slightly, as if there were plans to continue the stand round the stadium at one stage. It’s easy to get the impression that hasn’t been an overall plan since then.

Sections of the ground were damaged when it was hit by a tornado in 1970, but even then, photos suggest damage was to temporary structures plus the odd wall. Indeed, from inside the ground you can see what looks to have been the rear walls of old stands once upon a time. The three other sides now just have temporary uncovered seating, not even running the full width on two of the sides. Photos show that these temporary stands used to be much larger at the turn of the millennium. The ends used to be quite scarily high and steep, for certain, probably at least double their current height.

A quick search online suggests the club owner got frustrated with the lack of progress in building a new stadium around then, and it’s not difficult to see why. Relegation, bankruptcy, and a much reduced capacity followed, although the club is back in Serie B at least, backed by a very ambitious American owner. He sees the club as having a huge marketing potential due to the city it’s in, and hopes to attract some of the 30 million visitors a year the city to gets to watch a game of football as well.

Sadly the stadium doesn’t really rival the majesty of strolling through the Piazza San Marco, and if Venezia’s matches get a reputation for being as bad at the one I had to watch, it’ll be a while before the Stadio Pierluigi Penzo gets added to Venice’s “must see” list.

I thought at first that the visitors, Spezia, were being rather negative, but the home side, despite some colourful support, didn’t really have much of a plan to break them down. Maybe with two promotions in two seasons a degree of pragmatism was in evidence. This would be Venezia’s fourth game of the season, and three of those were to end 0-0.

It’s hard to really review a game where so little was happening. All I know is that a disappointing evening got a bit worse in the second half when the rain started coming down, and I began weighing up which I would prefer most – a goal or for the rain to stop.

Luckily I got my wish for one of those two, with the rain ceasing with about 20 minutes left. Spezia also came out of their shell in the last 10 minutes too, after the home side were reduced to 10 men after a home player saw a second yellow. Even though I wanted to see Venezia win, it had got to the stage when either side scoring would be merciful, but neither could manage it. Indeed, I can’t recall a single good chance all evening, although there no doubt were one or two.

The final whistle heralded the dampest of squibs. The home fans stayed behind the goal to sing their appreciation of the team, and they certainly must be a very appreciative bunch. And I counted my blessings. I’d chalked up another ground, got a programme, and the rain had stopped before I got properly wet. And it has to be said, it is a heck of a public transport journey back. Passing St Mark’s Square and stopping off at the Rialto Bridge for a beer is, after all, a little bit different to taking a football bus back to a park & ride. The new American owner might just have the right idea after all.

 

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Lincoln 4 Carlisle 1

Lincoln City 4 Carlisle United 1 (26th August 2017)

After a very long trip to Lancaster the previous weekend, the temptation to have a Saturday “off” was quite strong. However, the forecast for good weather made me fancy a proper day out, and Lincoln, with its historic city centre – and obviously a football ground I’d not yet been to – made it a good choice.

It also had the plus of having a big chunk of the journey along the underused A46, which at times looks like those old photographs of motorways in the 1960s. True, there were road signs warning “gap”, as if I’d have to drive my C3 over small rivers using a ramp, Dukes of Hazzard style, and warnings of “Missing Cats Eyes” had me thinking of those sad forlorn posters taped to lampposts, of missing cats, but apart from a bit of heavy traffic at the end, it was almost a pleasure.

Arriving just before midday, I walked into Lincoln’s attractive centre, and realised the probable cause of the heavy traffic. The place was rammed with tourists, but not just usual tourists. It turnout that for the bank holiday weekend Lincoln was hosting the Europe’s biggest “Steampunk” festival where thousands, literally thousands, would take over the city centre for three days. You’ve never seen so much black lace, purple velvet and spurious metal appendages on clothing. You’ll also seldom see so many pushed-up cleavages, due to the bodices of the Victorian era the fashion takes its inspiration from, although I have to say, I couldn’t help but notice that the women of Lincolnshire didn’t seem to be needing of any help in this department – they must put something in the water in these parts.

It all meant that the time to head down to Sincil Bank came round sooner than I’d hoped, and I made the 15 minute walk from the centre to the ground, following the line of the water channel, Sincil Dyke, from where Sincil Bank takes its name, and also past a young lad doing parkour style backflips on a patch of grass. A passing Carlisle fan was hugely impressed by this, which was just as well, as he wouldn’t be seeing too much else to be impressed by later on.

One other impressive thing is the size of the crowds Lincoln have got since getting back into the league. OK, this was only their second home game, but both so far have pulled over 8000, which would be their highest average for over 40 years if they maintain it. PA announcements outside said the ground, in home areas, was nearing a sell-out. I guess I could have gone in the Carlisle end, but I was glad I’d bought a ticket online the night before. In fact most people queuing outside the mural-decorated walls of the stadium, were carrying an A4 home-printed e-ticket rather than the traditional ticket stub. Personally I’d stepped into the 21st century, and used a ticket stored on my phone for the first time. I’m not a Luddite. I just used to be on a pay-as-you-go deal, and objected to having to pay a £1 internet daily use fee just to scan a ticket.

Once inside it’s clear that Sincil Bank is one of those grounds that despite having been completely rebuilt since the Hillsborough era, it still maintains four distinct sides. Rather than any coherent overall plan for the ground, each stand is different, for better or worse.

First built was the main stand, an unusually tall and blocky structure that only fills about a third of the side. The front of the roof is strangely tall, as if they planned to carry a large advert or vast scoreboard at the front, but in reality does nothing beyond add weight to a roof that somehow requires four supporting pillars.

The ends came next. The northern end, named the Stacey West stand after two Lincoln fans who died at the Bradford fire in 1985, looks like its been stolen from Scunthorpe or Walsall. The once red seats have been bleached so thoroughly by the sun that they now look completely white, with just the vaguest hint of a bit of pink. 616 Carlisle fans would sit in there on this day, spending the afternoon trying to avoid burning out their retinas, looking into that same seat-bleaching sun for the entire game.

The other end is smaller, with just five rows in inexplicably green seats, with executive boxes behind. The roof over these five rows also somehow needs supporting pillars in the middle. Given that I’d bought my ticket for this end, I was pleased to find none of them blocked the view of the goal in any way. I’d picked this end because it looked the least interesting side of the ground, and also because it would offer a view of the cathedral poking over the far roof. That, and the online ticket page wasn’t offering any other stands.

The newest, and largest stand, is down the Sincil Dyke side. This used to be an open terrace, but now holds about 5700 people, giving it a bigger capacity than the rest of the ground put together.

What was nice was entering a ground of a team still bursting with optimism. After six years of non-league football, the fans clearly believe the club is on the up again, and there was a real buzz about the place. Most of the singing came from a group of fans in the end block of the “Co-op Stand” down the side, apparently calling themselves “617 Squadron” in honour of the RAF unit station at RAF Scampton, just north of Lincoln. That explains the playing of “The Dambusters” theme before the game, if nothing else. They sung away throughout in the continental “ultras” style, which I’m not usually wildly keen on, being a bit one-paced, but they were pretty good at it. They also, now and then, chucked in a few “we are red, we are white, we are fookin’ dynamite” era songs, to maybe please the old ‘uns.

Lincoln started the game without a win so far, but were still knocking the ball around nicely without threatening too much. Carlisle were getting a few corners, but also weren’t really testing the keeper either. It wasn’t dull by any means, but the opening goal, after half an hour, was possibly also the game’s first shot on target. Picking the ball up outside the area, Alex Woodyard decided to just have a crack from the edge of the box, and it flew in beyond the keeper’s dive. It would have made a perfect picture for me too, had some guy not decided to jump at in front of me at the crucial moment.

Halftime came with the score still at 1-0. On a warm day, refreshment was sought. After a quick trip to the gents toilet, which smelt strangely of seaweed, it was a case of joining the long queues for the tea bar. They may well have several serving staff, each in charge of either getting drinks, or pies, or other foodstuff, but they still only had two people taking orders, so it took ages. The guy in front of me turned to moan about how slow it was, and also enquire whether you could smoke outside at half time. He was the second person that day (after the Carlisle fan I saw walking from the station) who assumed I was a Lincoln local. I don’t know why – it’s not as if I have D-Cup breasts.

In the 2nd half Carlisle just wilted. Lincoln had gone close to going 2-0 up, hitting the post, before Woodyard against burst forward and tapped his shot past the keeper, and also just too firmly for a Carlisle defender trying to clear on the line. Five minutes later it was all over. A clumsy attempted tackle in the box by a player already on a yellow saw Carlisle reduced to 10 men, and a casually taken penalty putting them 0-3 down.

They never looked like coming back into it, although they did grab a consolation, somehow turning in a ball from a very tight angle when it looked like it was going out for a goal kick. From there the game seemed to be petering out a little. A low battery warning on my camera with three minutes left had me turning the camera off, to be got out again just for freekicks/corners etc. Naturally enough, within about 30 seconds, Lincoln, from open play obviously, scored the best goal of the game. From twenty yards the ball was curled across the keeper into the far top corner to give the score an emphatic, and well-deserved, look.

As well as being a new ground, this was also a game between the two established “traditional” league clubs I’ve seen least. I’ve not seen a game involving newcomers Accrington, Fleetwood or Morecambe, but I’d only seen Lincoln once, and I’d never seen Carlisle play at all. I’d suggest more cynical Carlisle supporters would argue, given their display today, I still haven’t.