Slough 3 Reading Yth 1

Slough Town 3 Reading Youth 1 (B&B Cup Final, 6th May 2019)

In footballing terms, this won’t go down as my most successful Bank Holiday weekend. I went to three games, and in those games the teams I wanted to win all failed to do so. In fact the best result was a draw in only one of the three, and even that was 0-0.

I saw Bracknell lose their play-off final on Saturday, watched Reading play out a 0-0 v Birmingham on Sunday, and saw a disappointing Berks & Bucks Cup Final defeat for Reading against Slough, also back at Bracknell.

The final was meant to be in Slough, but got moved, possibly because Slough were in it. Slough were not meant to be in the final, as they lost to Marlow in the semi-final, but Slough appealed over Marlow fielding a player who’d played in another county cup, and Marlow were thrown out. Several other clubs, including Slough and Reading, were said to have breached the rules of the cup too – in Reading’s case, fielding contracted professionals.

The problem is the rules seem unduly harsh – such as the “played in other county cups” rule, or not fit for purpose when the professional clubs of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire are being invited to take part. Potential further appeals meant it wasn’t even known if the result would stand, and it also seemed unclear what players exactly Reading could field without being in breach of the rules.

Possibly with this in mind, Reading fielded a very young team, and their inexperience told. Very early on it became clear that Slough would have the physical edge, and they quickly sussed out how to gain a tactical advantage too.

Reading’s youth games are more geared towards developing ability, encouraging players to express themselves and be comfortable on the ball, playing out from the back. In youth games, with little intensity, that’s fine. Against battle-hardened veterans it comes unstuck. The pretty triangles, stepovers, little flicks, and passing out of trouble, becomes a liability when faced with a team who’ll chase every player down.

It didn’t take long for the ball to get stuck in the Reading half, as Slough let Reading play square balls, then poised like lions waiting for that gazelle to stray, before going in for the kill. Reading’s half was littered with the bones of mauled attempts to move upfield, with the ball given away cheaply, either through tackles or interceptions, as the young players learned the hard way that the are certain things you can’t get away with in you own half.

It was no surprise Slough went in front, stabbing in a loose ball in the box, or that they got a second not long later, this time from the spot. More surprising was that going 0-2 down spurred Reading on to their best spell of the game. One thing Reading did have was pace, and when they ran at the Slough defence, they looked dangerous. It was once such pacey move that lead to Reading pulling one back before half time, even though in truth, it was Reading’s first good chance of the game.

The hopes were that Reading would carry on using that threat in the second half, but the hopes didn’t last long. It’s harsh to criticise young players too much, but after an initial bright spell, it was virtually 40 minutes of bad passing, bad decisions, and needless fouls.

With three minutes to go, Slough hit a fine shot across Reading’s keeper into the top corner to seal a well-deserved victory. And while the final whistle wouldn’t be greeted with the same kind of elation that the actual FA Cup Final would be, maybe it’s fitting that the trophy goes to a team for whom it’ll really mean something.

So Slough’s name goes on the trophy, although with all the threats of appeals still in the air, perhaps it’d be better if they only wrote in on with a pencil for now.

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Bracknell 0 Cheshunt 3

Bracknell Town 0 Cheshunt 3 (4th May 2019)

I should probably have stayed away. I have a terrible record in play-off finals, both with Reading, and as a neutral. I have an even worse record watching my home town club, Bracknell. I have seen them play 12 times, and only seen them win once, and this wasn’t it.

It’s even worse at home, where not only would this would be my 9th game without seeing them win, but only once in those 9 games have I seen them let in fewer than three goals.

I was feeling rather more confident this time though. Virtually all of the previous eight visits to Larges Lane have been during periods when the team has been, to put it bluntly, diabolical. This season they’ve spent most of the season in a two horse race for the Isthmian League South Central title, until Hayes & Yeading pulled away, and they were unbeaten at home in the league all season.

The club has certainly turned things around since a troubling start to the 21st century, which saw the club struggle for results and supporters year after year. Crowds comfortably below three figures were normal.

Part of the change has been the smartening up of Larges Lane. Once a tatty venue, without an ounce of verve or character, it now feels like a club geared towards progress. That said, they have hamstrung themselves slightly by selling off every possible inch of land on two sides, meaning spectator accommodation on three sides is little more than the narrowest of footpaths.

Normally that would be sufficient for this level, but with 1000+ at this game, including maybe 250 from Cheshunt, it would make for somewhat “cosy” viewing in parts.

On an afternoon that would alternate between sun and light showers, Cheshunt kicked off, and for the opening spell looked the better team. The certainly had more of the ball, and definitely settled first, although chances were at a premium. After 25 minutes Cheshunt looked to be going ahead when a header looped beyond the Bracknell keeper towards the goal. With fans already celebrating, it struck the post though, and was hacked away. It should have been a warning.

Bracknell were slowly getting more into the game, getting the ball down and playing it wide. They were just having trouble creating much. Through balls were continually intercepted, and when they weren’t Bracknell had a frustrating habit of straying offside.

As the half wore on, a pattern emerged of Bracknell going forward, but being thwarted time and time again by Cheshunt’s dogged defence. It was like Cheshunt had an extra three or four defenders at all times, and every time a Bracknell attacker thought he’d got through, a telescopic leg would reach out and poke the ball to safety.

It felt like Bracknell were well on top now, and surely the breakthrough had to come, but then…

Bracknell had a free kick out wide, but it was a poor one, cleared towards the wing. A tackle was then missed, and suddenly Cheshunt were away down the left. With Bracknell struggling to get back, the ball was crossed into the box towards Cheshunt’s Shane Cojocarel. In space with the Bracknell defence exposed, he controlled the ball and clipped it past the Bracknell keeper to give Cheshunt the lead just before half time, backflipping in celebration.

Bracknell came out for the second half looking fired up, but it didn’t take long for it all to start going horribly wrong. Bracknell hadn’t seen a single one of a multitude of loose balls in an around the Cheshunt box fall kindly, yet just three minutes into the second half, a loose ball in the Bracknell box fell invitingly for Cojocarel to prod home his and Cheshunt’s second.

It still didn’t feel over. Bracknell continued to push up, but again and again, with the same outcome. An attack which scored 102 goals in the league was being comprehensively snuffed out. Five minutes later it was all over. A cross from the right was played into the Bracknell box, and again, the Bracknell’s defence looked stretched, and this chance was turned in to have the Cheshunt contingent thinking about promotion, and Bracknell thinking about miracles.

There was still well over half an hour left. In theory a comeback was possible, but it never remotely looked like happening. Cheshunt’s lock-tight defence repelled everything thrown at it, and Bracknell looked like they knew the game was up. Beyond a few half chances, the best being a header that was put over before the player really had time to aim, Bracknell were just crowded out every time by a defence that somehow seemed able to put two or three players on the man with possession at all times.

Tempers flared once or twice, almost as can be expected in these situations, where a team can see a year’s effort go up in smoke within sight of the finishing line, but the game was dead long before the final whistle blew.

I guess with my record I should have expected no better, but for the large number of Bracknell fans at the game, not to mention the players and officials of the club, it’s a hugely disappointing end to the season. Cheshunt take the glory and the promotion place, while Bracknell will now have to look towards next season, continuing the growth of the club, and hopefully not needing the extra two fixtures to achieve promotion next time round.

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Arminia Bielefeld 1 Ingolstadt 3

DSC Arminia Bielefeld 1 – 3 FC Ingolstadt 04 (21st April 2019)

It’s fair to say that not many tourists come to Bielefeld. In fact there’s a not entirely serious conspiracy theory in Germany that Bielefeld doesn’t actually exist, as nobody has ever been there, or even knows anyone who had been there.

If you do go there, it’s not a city that assaults you with its charms. There’s a medieval fort to the south of the centre, and you can eke out a small amount of joy from the few old buildings existing on the main square (if you can look past the construction work going on), but even the tourist office was shut on this Sunday. I guess it was pleasant enough, but the quietness of the place did make me wonder if the singer who declared “Münster…you are Rock & Roll” the previous day, had grown up in the town.

After a very hearty continental breakfast in a friendly cafe – a breakfast much bigger than the feeble efforts served in hotels, which make so many miss a good fry up – I was ready for the mile or so walk to the ground for this 1.30 kick off. I quite like an earlier kick-off, but I doubt the Ingolstadt supporters, who’d have to have left at about 6 am to make the game from way down in Bavaria, would have been so keen.

Arminia Bielefeld’s ground, now known as the Schüco Arena due to sponsorship by a local window and solar panel manufacturer, was traditionally known as “Bielefelder Alm”, with “alm” being a German word for a cow field, due to the undeveloped nature of the ground for many years. Even in the 70s, photographs show it as being open terracing on three sides, unusually for Germany, being raised on scaffolding and tight to the pitch, rather than the usual running track.

The “alm” became an “arena” in three stages. First one end and one side were rebuilt as functional single tiers of seats, looking like the intention was to carry the design round all four sides. Luckily someone had a change of idea, and the next stand (an end) to be built was a large end terrace, split into two tiers, with an awkward triangular section of terracing at one side, to avoid people in the seats in the corner having their view blocked.

Finally, in yet another different style, a new double-decker main stand was built, very modern, and adding a definite touch of style and class to the place. Why the club opted for  three different styles is a mystery to me, but the ground is all the better for it.

I’d be watching from the main stand’s top tier, purely because it makes taking pictures easier, but I wanted to have a closer look at the terrace. I was sorely tempted to buy a ticket for there, but suspected (correctly) that it would be fairly packed. The concourse itself was pretty busy with people having beers and bratwursts (as the sign on the tea bar said “you’ll never wurst alone”) and completely open to the elements, barring the overhang of the terracing above. Fine on a gorgeous day such as this, but possibly not so nice in the depths of winter.

The top tier of the main stand was not so packed. This was just as well as the front row seat I’d purchased left me with a view of the near goal that required viewing through a guard rail. I waited until just before kick off, then moved across into a mainly empty row in the next block along. The danger here, according to the state of the floor at least, was pigeons in the roof above. At least that was better than my previous seat, where a guy behind had carelessly, I hope, flicked cigarette ash onto me more than once.

On paper this was something of a home banker. Arminia Bielefeld were just in the top half, while Ingolstadt were bottom of the league, but things don’t always go to plan. Despite not having too much to play for, Bielefeld certainly looked the better team. With good backing from the nearly full south terrace behind the goal, they had much the better of the game, with Ingolstadt limited to the odd break.

Maybe the warm weather was having an impact though, as despite dominating the game, you didn’t really feel Arminia Bielefeld were going hell for leather for victory. You sort of felt they thought if they just keep pressing, eventually a goal will come. A little spell for Ingolstadt though punctured that complacency. A corner was swung in, and the keeper failed to collect under challenge. It just fell perfectly for an Ingolstadt player 10 yards out, and under no pressure he just passed it into the empty half of the net.

He ran off towards the 100 or so of Ingolstadt’s usual 9000 home support who’d made the 300 mile trip up, about the same as Southampton to Carlisle, enjoying the moment in a season that hadn’t offered too much to enjoy so far.

That happened just after half an hour, and it actually felt like it could help Bielefeld by making them see they need to step up a gear. The same theme continued at half time, and they certainly came out looking more determined. That said, even if you attack more, you still have to remember to defend. After 48 minutes a cross came in from the left, and completely unmarked, the ball was headed in to put Ingolstadt into a shock 2-0 lead.

Yet, despite the deficit, the dominance of Arminia Bielefeld still made it feel like if they could nick one, it would change everything, but somehow it just wasn’t clicking for them in the final third.

Just after the hour, Ingolstadt delivered a knockout blow. They went route one, and the long ball fell just outside the area. The defender, under pressure from Ingolstadt’s Thomas Pledl, failed to make a tackle, and half-stumbling Pledl found himself one on one with the advancing Bielefeld keeper. With little time to really think about hit, he just poked a toe out, and it was enough to dink it past the keeper, and rolling into the empty Bielefeld net.

The third really knocked the wind out of Arminia Bielefeld’s sails, and they were never the same after that. They still had the bulk of the play, but they no longer looked like they believed they were going to score. With a minute left they did get one back, when a 25 yard free kick was beautifully curled into the net. The crowd cheered, the goal music was played, and the scorer ran back to the centre circle with the ball under his arm, but few were in any doubt that it didn’t matter, especially in Germany, where referees seem to be more frugal with added time than in other nations.

The whistle blew, and the 100 or so in the Ingolstadt end, plus about a dozen in the block next to me, celebrated a victory which took them off the bottom of the table. No boos or outward signs of disappointment from the home faithful, surprisingly, who reacted to the defeat like they’d just seen a 0-0 draw. My mini-trip to Germany was over, but for Ingolstadt, embarking on a revival that might yet see them survive, their Bundesliga 2 journey might carry on a little while yet.

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Preußen Münster 1 Sonnenhof Großaspach 0

SC Preußen Münster 1 Sonnenhof Großaspach 0 (20th April 2019)

I wasn’t planning on being in Germany over Easter, but a lack of value on flights to alternative places didn’t give me many options. Even my options within Germany itself were limited, but beyond the odd stag party, it doesn’t seem many seek out Westphalia as a weekend getaway.

Two of the great things about a German trip are that the kick off times are confirmed a long time in advance, and that there is normally plenty of choice for games, especially in this part of the country. When you’ve had a many football trips to Germany as I’ve had though (13 now), and been to as many grounds (33), even here, choices start to get limited.

I was lucky, therefore, to find two options a mere 90 minutes away on the train from where I was staying, in Münster and Bielefeld. Münster in particular also offered a bit of a decent old centre to look round for a couple of hours before the game, as well as a survivor of the once popular Germany style of a ground, with three sides of terracing banked in an oval at the ends. They certainly aren’t ideal for viewing, especially when the advertising boards are pushed up so that they obscure he goal line, and I’ve no doubt that before too long it’ll be redeveloped into a modern venue, but until then it’ll be a relic of how the game used to be.

Preußen Münster’s Preußenstadion is a good couple of miles south of the centre, but as is often the way in Germany, free buses to the game are laid on to the ground, stopping at the car park next door. A one-minute walk has you at an open courtyard with ticket booths and a small beer stall. Across the street was a sex shop, more of a sex warehouse, in truth, judging my the size of the place, but not wanting a dildo or a selection of porn DVDs, I just went and bought my ticket instead.

Walking past the shopping trolley slowly filling with empty beer bottles – a common sight outside many Germany grounds as arriving fans deposit their empties – I picked up a terrace ticket for €13 for this Bundesliga 3 fixture.

Through the turnstiles, the ground sloped gently up towards the back of the terrace beyond, with the slightly irregular bowl shape coming into view. The home end was considerably bigger than the away end, and that’s before half of that end had been seemingly declared out of bounds. Not that the visitors would need the space. Sonnenhof Großaspach play in the tiny town of Aspach (pop. 8000) nearly 300 miles to the south, and a head count suggested only 33 of their citizens made the trip up.

The closed section of the away end had the club badge painted onto the terrace, whereas the rest of the ground was decked out in green and white hoops, both seats and terracing. Arriving there slightly easier and earlier than planned, all I could do was buy myself a German beer and find one of the better sports on the terracing. It was a good plan until about 20 minutes from kick-off, when I needed to visit the shipping container that was the toilets, only to return to find some git just settling into my vacated spot.

Fortunately, for me, if not for the home fans, Preußen Münster’s season was petering out into mid-table mediocrity, and the crowd of a little under 6000 would be below average, so finding another spot wouldn’t be too difficult.

I had hoped that fans would be free to walk all around the ground, but I was limited to two thirds of one end. In itself, that wasn’t too bad as I didn’t need the roof on this gloriously sunny afternoon, although I did begin to question the wisdom of wearing a thick black shirt in this sunshine though. Luckily there was just enough of a breeze to keep me cool, although the “fragrant” aroma on the bus back to town afterwards suggested some weren’t so lucky. A group of ultras, who arrived en-masse about 15 minutes before kick-off, avoided sweaty clothes by removing their shirts and singing away bare-chested for 90 minutes. I’ve never quite understood the fascination some male fans have for bare torsos, but each to their own, I guess.

Many clubs have a club song. Preußen Münster, pronounced “Proyson Moonster (nothing to do with Fred Gwynne and his spooky 1960s black & white family) seemed to have several. One, a heavy rock type effort, was going on about the greatness of the city of Münster, although the last line of the chorus “Münster…Du bist (*you are) Rock & Roll” either implied there was an edgy side to the city I hadn’t witnessed while having a look round earlier, or the singer had led a very sheltered upbringing.

Some games have an ebb and flow about them. The story of the game unfolds, as one side, then the other, gain ascendancy and impetus. Not this one. Preußen Münster were by far the better team throughout, and the away side only approached the Preußen Münster box with a trepidation that made you wonder if they feared bears lived there.

The big problem was that despite Preußen Münster dominance, tempered only by a shade of warm end-of-season lethargy, was that they were hopeless up front. They were confident, I’ll give them that, but only in the way that a drunk 45 year old sales rep is at a works Christmas party when chatting up the younger female staff, and with about the same chance of scoring.

I’d noticed a distinct lack of accuracy in shooting during the warm-up, but dismissed the observation on the grounds that I’d made a similar observation at Xativa in Spain, about six months earlier, and the home side scored four that day.

That said, the game certainly didn’t have the feel of a 0-0, and shortly after half time those fears were ended. This time, rather than the usual wild shot, as if the player’s feet were strapped to a jet-pack, a calm measured effort was stroked in at the near post for what would eventually be the winning goal. The scorer, and other players, ran towards the corner where the bare-chested ultras has been doing their best to generate an atmosphere in this low-key third division fixture, and they showed their appreciation.

Other than several shots for the home side that didn’t go in, the biggest talking points in the rest of the game were two injuries. One for the away side, which looked quite nasty, and resulted in their guy being carried off on a stretcher. Then, just a few minutes later, a Preußen Münster one. A contested ball between keeper and attacker outside the box, down by the goal-line, saw the Preußen Münster player take a hefty kick. Had it been an outfield player, it would probably have been a red, but he got off with a yellow.

As befitting a leisurely sunny afternoon, the away side looked like they’d more or less given up, and the only tension was whether Preußen Münster would get the second their overall play (if not their finishing) deserved. One last spurned opportunity saw the ref blow the whistle for full time, and the fans could turn and stroll off happy into the afternoon sun. I wouldn’t say it was a great game, but overall it was a good experience, and a very pleasant afternoon out. The thirty three from Aspach, facing a 5-6 hour trip home, might have had a rather different opinion.

 

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Dorking Wanderers 3 Worthing 0

Dorking Wanderers 3 Worthing 0 (6th April 2019)

Two tips if you ever go to watch Dorking Wanderers. Firstly, don’t try to get into the car park near the ground unless you get there very early. You’ll just join a snake of cars all looking for an elusive parking spot, and it’ll take about 20 minutes to get out. Secondly, also don’t get there late if there’s a crowd over 1000 expected, as finding a decent spot to view the game from isn’t easy. I overheard a fan saying there were plans to put 5000 seats in upon promotion, which sounded a tad optimistic, but for now it’s mainly hard standing on three sides.

Other than that, it was not a bad day out on what turned out to be a historic day for Dorking, clinching the title and winning promotion to the National South.

It was that prospect that swelled the crowd, as well as the hundreds who travelled up from Worthing. Other than the friendly vibe around the ground, and one or two rather fetching young women behind the club bar, the Worthing fans wouldn’t have returned home with too many happy memories of the day.

Worthing, who have promotion aspirations of their own, started well enough, and the game started in what some might call a chess-like tactical battle, where both teams tried, with a degree of caution, to break down the other’s defence. Others might call such a cagey opening, “a bit dull”, but there was a lot at stake for both sides.

Gradually Dorking started to get the upper hand, clipping a shot from close range over the bar, but the game really needed a goal. There looked a fine chance of one late in the half. Dorking were getting more and more success down the left wing, and cross was put in that looked perfect for the striker in the six yard box to head in. The header though went backwards, away from the goal, mainly because he’d been fouled, which would be hard for the ref to miss.

The resulting penalty wasn’t missed either, and Wanderers, who were relying on other results going their way to win the league, were on their way to keeping their part of the bargain.

After a swift pint in the club bar, I watched most of the second half in the half where Worthing fans were mainly located, mainly because I could see the pitch from there. It’s safe to say they weren’t too happy with their day so far, and it only got worse. A deflected shot put Dorking 2-0 up, and everything seemed to be going against them. The referee even managed to block a promising attack by getting in the way of a pass, getting the Worthing fans even more annoyed. I’ll blame youthful exuberance, but it’s not rare for fans of well-supported non-league clubs to have a sense of entitlement, and the comments as I walked past them reflected that. It was just frustration, but the truth was Worthing were just being beaten by a considerably better team on the day.

To rub it in, a few minutes later Wanderers added a third, when a set-piece couldn’t be cleared, and the ball was simply nodded into the gaping goal to wrap up the win.

Wanting a change from the floor-level vantage point, I made my way to the main stand, where I managed to find an empty seat that didn’t have a season-ticket holder’s name on it, sat up at the back. Sitting down, I realised possibly why it was empty. The view of the goal to my left was obscured by the glass screen ends. They were lovely and clean – a rarity at non-league grounds – but made from a kind of glass with enough distorting ripples to make it not exactly ideal. I was also near two radio reporters, both chattering away in that weird radio-reporter intonation that makes it sound like their every thought is being read from a piece of paper that’s just been handed to them.

With the game as good as over, both sides were going through the motions to a degree now. For Wanderers players and fans, thoughts would no doubt be turning to other scores. The hope was that Haringey Borough would drop points at Hornchurch, but they were 2-1 up, meaning the final whistle was a slight anti-climax. Nearly there, but not quite. The guy on the PA starting talking about having to wait until next week. I also thought it oddly fitting, as I feel promotions should be secured on sunny days, not the gloomy light rain of the day.

The crowd started to shuffle out, when there was a cheer from the corner terrace. It spread like a wave around the ground, and to the players, who knew it meant the score at Hornchurch was 2-2, so promotion, and the title, was theirs.

A small and incredibly youthful pitch invasion followed, while the squad celebrated, dancing and singing away. While celebrations at this level, due to the lower crowds, lack the spectacle of thousands celebrating at a league game equivalent, you do get a more personal feel to things. So many of the plays and staff, volunteers mainly, and even the fans, will know each other. The sense of it being a club, in the true sense, rather than a corporation, is so much stronger.

So what if, as the exasperated Worthing fans sang “you’re just a shit Billericay”? If money is spent wisely, and a legacy is created, that has to be a good thing. Fans from Dorking, seeing a club from the town promoted to its highest ever level, won’t be worrying too much. Now, if they could only sort out that car park…

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PTT Rayong 2 Samut Prakan 1

PTT Rayong 2 Samut Prakan City 1 (10th March 2019)

Last year I claimed, with a just about reasonable degree of plausibility, that I opted for a few days in Thailand’s “lively” resort of Pattaya as it offered the prospect of a match at either Pattaya United or PTT Rayong. Last year the gamble didn’t pay off, with neither at home, so I opted to do the same this year, as part of a three week Cambodia/Vietnam/Thailand trip.

My odds of success lengthened when I heard Pattaya United had been moved to different part of the country, but my luck was in. Not only were PTT Rayong at home, but they were at home on the Sunday, whereas a Saturday game might have made it very tight to get there after my flight in to Bangkok earlier in the afternoon.

I won’t pretend I dislike Pattaya. If nothing else, compared to most other Brits here, even at 49 I get to feel young and attractive in comparison, and you’ll never be short of a bar to go to. One other thing a tourist town has is plenty of tourist services, such as taxis, and that was the very thing I’d needed to get to Rayong (and back) on the Sunday. I booked in a small stall near my hotel, and the woman running it said the driver would be her husband. She did worrying say his English was limited to “Yes, no and OK”, which did make me wonder what exactly he thought he was answering yes, no or OK, to, but he thankfully did have a slightly better grasp of English than that. Certainly better and much more useful than my Thai vocabulary, which might stretch to 20 words at a push.

I might have felt more confident of finding a taxi back on my own had PTT Rayong’s ground actually been in Rayong, rather the in the middle of nowhere, around 12 miles north-west of the town. The location makes a little more sense when you realise PTT is a Thai equivalent of Esso or Shell, and the ground is over the road from one of their refineries, albeit incongruously hidden behind a botanical garden.

The walk to the ground from the grassed overspill car-park weaved along pathways showing you the back of buildings of unknown purpose, before the ground emerged out of the trees. A sign along the back of the stand announced “PTT Stadiums” (in English), as if they had some kind of stadium building franchise. To my knowledge, this is the only one.

Outside I was approached by a German fan asking me where the ticket office was. It turned out he lived in the area, but had never been before. Usually I have a fine talent for going all round the ground in the wrong direction before finding the ticket office, but here it was pretty much straight ahead. A ticket for 120 Baht, nearly £3 a today’s exchange rate (oh for the days of 65 Baht to the Pound when I first went 11 years ago) was purchased, which got me a seat in the main stand.

I spent about half that amount again on snacks before going in. One item was sort of fat crisps on a skewer, covered in a cheesy powder. They were edible, but if I was to say I enjoyed them, it would be a lie that even Donald Trump would be ashamed of. The other was a kind of fried fish in breadcrumbs, chopped up, and put into a paper cup. That could actually have been decent, but they poured a sauce on before giving them to me. I have no idea what that sauce was, but it was utterly foul. I took one bite and realised I’d be having no more, and also realised I’d be tasting that sauce for hours to come.

I also came close to an impulse purchase in the club shop, seeing that shirts were only £20. As much a bargain as that seemed compared to shirts here, I also realised I’d probably never wear it again, so a bit of a waste. A polo shirt, on the other hand, was probably much more like it. Sadly it had no price tag, but I also realised that I’d have to wear it over the t-shirt I was already wearing, and on a night where it was warm enough to make me sweat at even he mildest of exertions, that probably wasn’t a good idea. Instead, I made my way in.

While clearly built to a budget, there are 12,000 capacity stadiums I like less than PTT Rayong’s place. For a start, it’s fully covered, but the roofs, propped up by roof supports, give the ground a slight “old time” feel. It’s certainly no Shrewsbury/Colchester concrete box. In fact there was very little concrete anywhere. It did look slightly like it had been built from a giant Meccano set, but that just gave it character.

The pillars gave it a bit of character too, but what they didn’t give it, if you got there a bit late like I did and had to take a seat towards the back, was a great view. I did find a seat that didn’t have a pillar obstructing either goal, but it was not exactly perfect. The presence of a tv gantry, itself requiring another couple of pillars, didn’t help, but all things being equal, I was glad to be here at last. Although Pattaya United’s Nong Prue Stadium would have been a much easier venue to go to, this was my preferred ground of the two.

Had Pattaya United not moved, then this game would have had the added spice of being a local derby between the two, being a little under 30 miles apart, because today’s visitors, Samut Prakan, were indeed the club that took over from Pattaya.

Samut Prakan, about three quarters of the way from Pattaya to Bangkok, used to have their own team a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, “Super Power Samut Prakan”, as they were known, were neither super, nor a power, finishing the season with only six points, and a goal difference of -97. The team folded at the end of the season, but Pattaya United’s owners decided to move the club to Samut Prakan, for reasons best known to them.

Samut Prakan City, whose ground’s location is not much more of a city than the old team was a super power, arrived in 2nd place in the league, with PTT Rayong still searching for their first point of the season after two defeats. It quickly became clear that the visitors were not going to have the easy afternoon they might have expected. The odd early flurry aside, PTT Rayong got stronger as the half progressed, backed by enthusiastic knots of supporters at both ends.

Up front for PTT Rayong was Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, once of Arsenal, whose career had meandered and taken him to Thailand at 28. He may not have shown the skills that his early career hinted at, but at 6’3″ he was a major headache for Samut Prakan’s backline, and would have a big influence on how the game turned out.

His first big contribution was after 27 minutes. A free kick about 40 yards from goal was chipped into the area. Jay rose to meet it, nobody else had much chance, and he headed it up and back towards the goal. I could be doing him a disservice, as it did look like a flick-on, but whatever it was, it was perfect to wrong-foot the keeper and drop into the net, to give PTT Rayong their first lead, and indeed first goal, of the season. The visitors caused a few scares, but PTT deserved the half-time lead.

Deciding I’d rather not spend the second half peering through the pillars, I made my way round the corner to watch from an underpopulated end instead. The stewards who scrupulously checked tickets pre-match were now handily waving anyone through the gate without a care, and I made my way into what a banner called the “Hardcore Zone”. It was only afterwards that I realised how strange it was that every single banner was in English, in a country where English speaking (and certain reading/writing) is a long way from being universal.

There was little evidence of anything hardcore at half time, when most just sat sedately chatting and eating (if there’s one thing Thais never stop doing, it’s eating), but come the restart there were a couple of guys with megaphones getting the fans there to sing and dance away.

They had a lot more to sing and dance about in the 58th minute. Possession was conceded cheaply in the Samut Prakan half, and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas picked the ball up on the right, and headed towards goal. He lumbered forward, before eventually having his progress halted by defensive numbers. This allowed him to roll the ball across the “D” of the box though, and a teammate banged in a first time shot to give the hosts a 2-0 lead they never looked like giving up.

Given that I was keen to make a quick getaway, and not be stuck in the car park, I nipped round and watched the last five minutes from the corner of the ground nearest the car park. I got there just in time to see Emmanuel-Thomas miss a good chance to put the game to bed. Within a minute the lead had been halved, when a shot from fully 25 yards beat the home keeper, to give the visitors a glimmer of hope, just going into stoppage time.

One tame effort aside though, PTT Rayong saw the game out with ease to claim their first three points of the season, to the delight of the home fans as they streamed out though the botanical gardens. I was pleased too. I wanted to see PTT Rayong win, and even if this happy ending wasn’t the sort that most foreign visitors to this part of the world seek out, it would do for me.

 

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Da Nang 2 Quang Nam 2

SHB Đà Nẵng 2 Quảng Nam 2 (7th March 2019)

Two years ago I made my first visit to Da Nang, arriving with my luggage still in Hanoi, and finding out to my disappointment that the Da Nang match I’d gone to see at the stadium a handy 10 minute walk from my hotel, was actually being played about 5 miles away. I’d found solace that evening in Bamboo 2 Bar by the riverfront, which perked me up no end, being the kind of bar that has random stuff on the walls and ceiling, making it hipster kryptonite, and playing music I can recognise and enjoy, rather than ear-damaging clubby stuff that I can’t even categorise. Friendly bar staff (not that friendly – it’s Vietnam, not Thailand) helped too.

Two years later, I’m on my third trip to Da Nang, and I’ve obviously found solace in Bamboo 2 Bar often enough that the manager wandered over and said “Ah, you’ve come back. Have you lost weight?” One of the waitresses came over, almost annoyed I’d not said hello earlier – and this was someone who wasn’t even working during my prior visit, so she was remembering me from two years ago. She was a pleasantly perky young woman, and for some reason I can recall giving her a plastic £5 note, which made her dance a little jig of joy.

Also, on this trip, I found out that by sheer luck, Da Nang would have a home fixture during this visit too. It may have been five miles away across town, but this time I wasn’t going to miss out, getting a taxi to take me to the game. The driver did suggest waiting for me until after the game, but I gambled on being able to find a taxi back, somehow.

I exited the taxi at a classic edge of town stadium, in a part of the world where towns’ edges are rather more abrupt that in England. No landscaping here. From certain angles, the stadium did just look like it had been plonked down in scrubby countryside. A few food and drink sellers littered a busy crossroads that marked the stadium entrance, and I was immediately approached by a woman offering to sell me one of her wodge of tickets. She wanted 40,000 dong (about £1.30) for a main stand ticket, but said I should pay 50,000 for it. Whether this was a blatant foreigner mark-up, or just some kind of standard commission for not having to make the effort to walk 20 yards to some other women selling tickets from plastic tables, I don’t know, but for such a small price, it didn’t seem worth the effort to argue.

A short walk allowed me to see the main stand from a front angle, and also hear a lot of instructions barked in machine-gun Vietnamese to people parking motorbikes, but I realised I might as well go in.

The main stand was impressively modern, with a plaza in front of the steps that led to the entrances. This impressive frontage, however, faced precisely nobody, with nearly a km of scrubland between it and the next buildings in its path. Just off the plaza was a large tree, where several male fans used its trunk to relieve themselves against, with the stand’s toilets clearly too far away.

I’d bought a bottle of water outside, but it seemed bottles were banned in the stadium. I was deciding whether to neck it or bin it, when the steward showed me the Vietnamese solution instead. My water was put into a plastic bag, a straw shoved it, and the bag tied at the top. It’s a good solution, but it did leave me walking round with a clear water filled bag, looking like the goldfish I’d won at a funfair had escaped.

The stadium itself looked surprising like a copy of their old ground, albeit with the cheap seats closer to the touchline. One bonus of the new place though was the view of the Marble Mountains, beyond the stand opposite, like a mini Ha Long Bay stranded inland.

One end of the ground was designated the away end, with a smattering of a few hundred fans in dark blue, who’d made the 40 mile trip up from Quang Nam, to the south. If kick-off for this midweek fixture had been later than 5 pm it might have helped get more in, but even so, a decent crowd were getting ready for the game.

Da Nang’s support was “interesting” to say the least. Not much in the way of chanting, but an energetic band played away through much of the game. Many clubs have a band, but the Da Nang band playing a variety of “rousing” tunes, with their distinctive sound being sort of “rejected ITV sports show themes from the 1970s, played in the style of the theme to Van Der Valk”. I’m not saying it’s wrong, just different.

Either way, it seemed to do the trick early on. A cross from the left was spilled by the Quang Nam keeper, right onto the foot of a Da Nang forward, who could hardly miss from a yard out.

Quang Nam got their moment of good fortune a short while later though, with a free kick going in after deflecting off the wall. With both team’s defences looking as gloriously incapable as in Nha Trang a couple of days earlier, and with it being 1-1 after 10 minutes, another goal feast looked on the cards.

Unfortunately the talent in both teams’ attack went on strike in sympathy with the defences after that, and I began to wonder if I’d see another goal. The best chance fell to Da Nang not long after the break. A cross couldn’t be cleared, and the loose ball was smashed towards goal with power. Sadly, this power wasn’t matched by accuracy, and it fired back off the crossbar, to safety.

As the sky darkened, Quang Nam did get a goal that looked to be the winner. A cross flicked up after hitting the fullback, and as the high ball dropped it was headed towards goal from about 12 yards out, and beat the keeper who really ought to have done better.

The away fans lit their fireworks, and ran about the terraces carrying Quang Nam flags, confident of victory, as the seconds ticked down. In the fifth minute of five added minutes, with the home fans streaming out, one last deep cross was curled in, and from the edge of the area this was headed towards goal. It was a perfect header, aided maybe by another bit of less than convincing goalkeeping, and it found the corner of the net to give Da Nang a point. Da Nang fireworks now, and some more 1970s ITV sports show tunes (probably) belted out by the band, as the home fans celebrated as if they’d won.

My victory was not only getting to a Da Nang game at last, but also managing to see that late goal go in through the people filing down the steps past my seat. Now, all I had to do, among the blaring horns and fans singing away in the back of pick-ups, was find a taxi. Job done, and Bamboo Bar awaited, again.

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Ton Pentre 3 Undy 3

Ton Pentre 3 Undy Athletic 3 (23rd March 2019)

As I sat in the fine Ton Pentre clubhouse, drinking a pint of Guinness and eating a chicken & chips from South Wales’ finest named chippy – A Fish Called Rhondda – I had to reflect that exactly a week earlier I’d been in a bar in Bangkok, and I pondered the relative merits of the two. One big advantage for Ton Pentre, talking about that exact time period, was that exactly a week earlier, Thailand had been three hours into a 24 hour complete alcohol ban, due to elections, and nearly every bar was shut.

Another was the scenery of Ton Pentre. Sitting at the front of a Soi Nana bar can be quite a visual spectacle, but Ton Pentre’s ground must be one of the best located grounds in the country for scenery, with hills rising up high on all sides of the ground. From every angle, you had a stunning backdrop.

It was a friendly place too (as Soi Nana can be, but that’s a different story), although when times are hard, and Ton Pentre have had two very hard seasons in a row, anyone putting money into the club’s coffers will be welcome. Saying that, you felt you’d be made as equally welcome in better times too. Any club where cups of tea and coffee are served in proper china mugs has a soul that you’ll never get at a ground where you are just a customer.

The ground itself had character too. The covered terrace at one end was the main feature, but even the extended stand at one side, needed to meet typically over-zealous ground regulations, avoided the soul-sapping Atcost seating unit look. The clubhouse and changing rooms, in a block down a third of one side, could have been ugly, but even the brickwork seemed sympathetic, and fitted in. Perhaps uniquely, the changing rooms were on the upper floor, with players having to come down a set of steps to reach the field.

The other side was just a narrow strip, but once housed a stand, before it had to removed for safety reasons. The other end looks to be a (very) overgrown terrace, now just a grass bank, but offering a good view from top, between the foliage.

Ton Pentre are not having a good season, taking the field in last place, having lost every game but one since Christmas. That one game though was against today’s opponents Undy Athletic, who have had a rapid rise up the Welsh pyramid, and furthermore, it was a 3-2 victory.

Undy, four places above Ton Pentre in the table, started as clear favourites against a home side with only four wins and a -36 goal difference, but they hardly impressed. They had a fair bit of the ball in the opening stages, but didn’t really have a clue what to do in the final third. If anything, this seemed to be giving Ton Pentre a bit of a boost, and they started to look a little more up for it than the visitors.

After 10 minutes they duly took the lead too. A corner wasn’t cleared, and the ball was poked in, to give the home side that all too rare feeling of being in front. It got better too, as another spell of pressure resulted in a shot that was cleared off the line. Handball was called, and the penalty was tucked away to give Ton Pentre a 2-0 lead that they deserved for their efforts.

It was all going so well until right before the end of the half, when Undy, who’d done almost nothing in the final third, got a penalty of their own. This was also calmly tucked away, changing the mood of the game. From looking good at 2-0, confidence flipped from one team to the other.

Undy came out for the second half with a renewed vigour, and it was disappointing, but not unexpected, that it didn’t take too long for them to draw level. A corner was cleared to the edge of the box, but it was thumped back in on the half volley, a home defender on the line unable to get up to head away the perfectly placed shot.

Surprising, this seemed to spur on the home side more than the visitors, and Ton Pentre again battled to gain the upper hand. They got their reward in the 69th minute, when a quick free kick put Ton Pentre through, and a fine shot was fired across the keeper into the far corner. It was a goal that deserved to win the game, but sadly didn’t.

With just six minutes left, and Ton Pentre allowing themselves to be pushed back deeper and deeper, a cross to the back post wasn’t dealt with. It was nodded back, past the keeper, and past the outstretched leg of a defender on the line, to drop into the net with a morale-sapping thud. After leading twice, it felt harsh on the home team.

Tempers frayed towards the end, with a Ton Pentre player sent off for pushing an Undy player to the ground. Unusually he appeared to receive two yellows – in a row – before the red appeared, as if he was booked twice for one incident. Several others were booked in a melee which came close to boiling over.

A few “unhelpful” comments from some members of the Undy staff on the touchline didn’t help things in the closing stages, but come the final whistle it was over, and it was handshakes all round.

Given how the game went, Undy would settle for the point. Pre match, Ton Pentre would probably have been happy with a 3-3 too. As a neutral, who tends to want to see as many goals as possible, I’d certainly have been delighted with a 3-3 as well. On this occasion though, I’d have preferred one less. The Ton Pentre team deserved to have won on the day, and this friendly club, having a hard time on and off the pitch, certainly would have deserved it too.

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Sanna Khanh Hoa 3 Hai Phong 4

Sanna Khánh Hòa BVN 3 Hải Phòng 4 (5th March 2019)

Booking a trip to Southeast Asia in November, way before the fixtures for the new season were out, meant any football opportunities would be very much a happy coincidence. In fact the Vietnam league fixtures were still up in the air just a week of so before I departed. In any case, my three days in Nha Trang didn’t even seem to be an option. Not only were they midweek, but as far as I could tell, the town of Nha Trang didn’t even have a football team.

It was only when I was perusing Google maps while planning my time that I noticed a stadium, which Google then informed me was the home of Sanna Khanh Hoa, who by fluke appeared to be at home on the evening of last of three days that I’d be there.

It would be good to have something to do in the evening too, as Nha Trang doesn’t seem to be Vietnam’s party capital. I’d spent one evening in the “Crazy Kim” bar, where the noticeable lack of craziness of any description made wonder if it was Kim’s night off.

I’d had a better evening the following night in a strange vaguely pirate-themed bar. It was the sort of place where the toilet was decorated by having a plethora of human body x-rays hanging from the ceiling, and where they played Prodigy songs all night, in honour of Keith Flint, who died that day. The clientele were all Russian, as is the case in much of Nha Trang, due to cheap flights from Russia. As one guy put it “In Siberia, all we have is cold, snow, and bears, so I come here”. Another guy spent part of the evening chopping a copious amount of weed on a pizza board. “Do you smoke?” he asked me. On hearing I didn’t, “Why not?” was his puzzled reply. It was a decent night, but on the way out I rather badly scratched somebody’s motorbike with the heavy metal door. The guy said not to mind, but he hadn’t seen the scratch as clearly as I had, and I thought better of going back.

Happily I had my first of the Vietnamese games from the “Wake Up 247” V. League Division 1 to go to. Like many things in Vietnam, football is not an expensive option. Even the 90,000 dong tickets (about £3) seemed to be pretty popular, with the cheap seats, at 30,000 dong, perhaps not be favoured for being in the sun. Either way, ticket buying was a low-key business, with tickets being sold by a couple of women sat on small plastic chairs around a small plastic table. Whoever owns the franchise for plastic furniture in east Asia must have a mansion that uses diamonds for a gravel driveway, so ubiquitous are those chairs.

Khanh Hoa, as it turns out, is the name of the district of which Nha Trang is the capital, while Sanna is a local bottled water company. The distinctly low-key merchandise outside the main stand had a distinctly Sanna-related feel. Anyone in the 90,000 dong posh seats would have felt a little ripped off if they’d bought any water though, as female helpers in national costume handed everyone a free bottle of water. It might seem a small gesture, but with it being over 30 C, and with the humidity rising, it was a very welcome one.

A rather laid back feel to the fixture was enhanced when, after collecting my free water, I realised the entrance I was using also clearly doubled as the players’ tunnel, and sure enough, both changing rooms could clearly be seen, and seen into through glass windows.

Among what I’d assumed to be a home area were a number of supporters from Hai Phong, who I assume were people who lived locally. Hai Phong, up north near Ha Long Bay, is 850 miles away, like London to Genoa, and would take a full 24 hours by Vietnamese roads. I also assumed a couple of them had really strange haircuts, until I realised they were wearing comedy wigs.

I think if anyone was asked to imagine a communist municipal stadium for a moderately sized club/city, it wouldn’t be much different to Sanna Khanh Hoa’s Sân vận động 19 tháng 8 ground (or 19th of August Stadium), with one covered stand, and three open sides curving round a barely used running track. Two unfinished skyscrapers bookend the ground at each corner, but otherwise you feel this could have been straight off the blueprint of Uncle Ho’s stadium for the proletariat masses, with no bourgeoisie frippery.

The game itself started in slightly troubling fashion, as it dawned on me that I didn’t know which team was which. Sanna Khanh Hoa, I believed, played in light blue. All their fans were in light blue, yet the two teams were in yellow and red.

After a quarter of an hour of football that I’d describe as “enthusiastic”, I found out, as the team in red scored, and the Hai Phong fans to my right screamed in delight. A few minutes later they had even more reason to be happy. For no obvious reason, a Khanh Hoa midfielder decided to hit a backpass to his keeper from the halfway line. The keeper, out of his box, was in no way ready for it, and his chest away was picked up by Hai Phong’s Jamaican striker Jeremie Lynch, who’d have quite an eventful evening. The home keeper did fairly well to push him wide, and almost get back in position, but Lynch was still able to curl it round him and double Hai Phong’s lead.

Khanh Hoa pulled one back shortly before halftime, but a second from Lynch on 69 minutes looked to have put the game beyond the home side, who looked to be heading for their third defeat in three games so far.

The home side had other ideas though, and two quick goals from their bald-headed foreign defender, the sort of player who looked like he’d opted for a stint here as a better alternative than a season or two at Bishop’s Stortford, turned the game on its head. Fireworks on the pitch, and fireworks, literally, off it too, greeting each home goal in the stands.

Could Khanh Hoa go on to complete the miracle? Could they go on to win now?

No.

With five minutes left, that man Lynch was there again to complete his hat-trick, poking home a loose ball from close range, breaking the home fans hearts, and also making a few away fans in silly wigs rather happy.

Khank Hoa pushed in the closing stages, helped by Lynch tarnishing his evening with a second yellow, but it was not to be, and they were left to reflect on what might have been. The home fans spilled out into the humid sweaty darkness of the night, into the bustle of Nha Trang city, probably not knowing whether it was a blessing of a curse that it’d be a full month until their next league game. I, at least, would have a rather shorter wait.

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Goole 2 Barton 1

Goole AFC 2 Barton Town 1 (16th February 2019)

When I was young and completely ignorant of football outside of the Football League, I used to watch the scores come through on Grandstand or World of Sport, and when it got to those non-league clubs who’d often grace the lower part of the football pools coupon I’d be struck with a kind of wonder. Just what were these clubs like? It felt a different world, somehow in my mind’s eye, in perpetual darkness, as I’d hear these names…Worksop, Oswestry Town, Gainsborough, Marine…  Where were these places? What were they? What would a match there be like?

I wouldn’t say they appealed as such. In fact they were the antithesis of exotic. Of all of those mysterious names, I think no name felt more un-exotic than Goole. If felt like the one-syllable name had been dropped into a bucket of grimness, where all joy would be sucked away like light entering a black hole.

Spin on 30 years or so, and I’m in a car on a bright sunny day heading in the direction of Goole, and pleased to be going there. In truth, the place isn’t in any way exotic. The 100m street which appeared to be the town centre was an array of charity shops, tattoo parlours, vaping shops and bookmakers. A curious number of cars around the ground also seemed to be missing sections of bodywork, but on the plus side, the town centre pub we found, The Old George, was cheap and friendly, and places do always look a lot more positive in sunshine.

The club was welcoming too, not least because on this day Goole were doing a £10 deal which got you admission, a programme, a £3 drink voucher, and a £3 food voucher. The chatty staff seemed pleased that people had turned up, and the offer no doubt helped swell the crowd to 50% higher than normal.

Sadly, they need it. Being at Goole might not be the grim dark experience by 1980s mind imagined, but the club wasn’t enjoying its happiest days. Goole AFC was formed in 1997 after the original Goole Town, stalwarts of the Northern Premier League, folded. The reformed club battled up through the divisions to Step Four in the Northern Premier League Division One, but was now heading for what looks likely to be a 2nd consecutive relegation. I arrived to see a club that with only one home win all season, having lost twelve of the other fourteen games.

The previous week had seen me at a game in Runcorn, where the hosts conceded an early goal and looked likely to be heading for a heavy home defeat, until two quick goals out of the blue midway though the half turned the match on its head, and the previously dominant away team could quite ever get back into their rhythm again.

This game was almost a carbon copy, albeit without a sending off. Visiting Barton Town, from 25 miles away at the southern exit of the Humber Bridge, arrived with a pretty modest record, but were well on top from the off, completely overpowering the red & black shirted hosts. When they took the lead, bundling in corner on 14 minutes, the only surprise was that it had taken than long. Goole hadn’t really done anything, and you couldn’t see anything other than an away win.

Eight minutes later though, things started to change. On what my not entirely reliable memory records as Goole’s first proper attack of the match, an attempted clearance was blocked, or maybe just hit against, a Goole player. This caused the ball to deflect sideways, absolutely perfectly for a loitering player in red & black to tap in beyond the exposed Barton keeper.

Five minutes later, a 40 yard effort was lobbed towards the Barton goal. The Barton keeper was again not where he’d have liked to be, and the ball dropped in to give Goole the lead, to the astonishment of almost everyone in the ground.

From there the game settled into a pattern of Barton controlling the game, but being too rushed in everything they did, and not creating the clear chances they ought to have done, while Goole played mainly on the break. Backed by a youthful “shed army”, and fans on the other side under the bigger roof, Goole hung onto their rare lead. “We are staying up!” sang the youths, as these three points did put them within touching distance of the two teams above them.

The travelling Barton contingent were less impressed. One older guy went past muttering that he’d had enough of going away and watching his team, albeit said with rather earthier phrasing. Seconds later, the final whistle was greeted with a cheer far bigger than one you’d expect from 208 people, and the Goole players went over to applaud their fans in the setting sun. Whether this will be a rare moment of joy, or whether they can push on and get the points to survive come May, remains to be seen.