Standard Liege 2 Bruges 0 (13th Dec 2015)
I wouldn’t quite say it was the highlight of my trip, but being sat one block away from a group of about 30 nuns at a football match was certainly strange. But when they take it upon themselves to try starting a Mexican wave, it takes bizarre up a notch or two. Yet I very nearly missed it entirely.
I’d booked this trip before I knew exact fixture dates, but when the fixtures did finally get confirmed, Sunday was looking very difficult. All of the German games I fancied going to were either to far away or places I’d been before, or places that I really didn’t fancy going to that much. There were a few Dutch games, but they were all too far away too. One Belgian option I saw, which looked good, was Standard Liege v Bruges.
Sadly the Standard Liege website’s ticket information page was terrible. This is a club that still accepts ticket request by fax, so the idea that tickets could potentially be bought online would have blown their mind. So, with no useful ticket information available I looked at other options, and the best bet was to forget football for a day, and go to an ice hockey game in Cologne. I used to go fairly regularly in England, but it’s different in Germany, and in Cologne in particular, where the local team play in Europe’s biggest arena, and get crowds into five figures. They even have terracing behind both goals. I looked set to go to that, and was quite looking forward to it. Then I checked the Standard website again, just in case, a few days before setting off.
There was more information now. OK, some was pretty useless, telling me that I could no longer buy tickets by email, but it did imply that tickets would be available on the day. I fired off an email to their ticket office, not sure what sort of reply I’d get writing in English, and got told tickets would be available on the day.
Had I gone with the ice hockey option, due to the evening start there, I’d have spent the day sightseeing. It wasn’t really sightseeing weather though. The sky was a heavy grey, giving way to low-hanging patches of mist as the train sped through the fields of the Germany-Belgium border.
I didn’t have high expectations for Liege as a city. I knew it was industrial to say the least. I also remember it for being the setting of one film during an early 1990s BBC2 season of French/Belgian new wave cinema, where updated continental versions of kitchen sink dramas. They’d invariably be tales featuring young women having disappointing sex, and smoking a Gitanes while looking aimlessly through a rain-streaked window, contemplating their disillusionment with adult life. One of these films had a short melancholy scene showing a young lad sat bored-looking on the terraces of an empty Sclessin, the home of Standard Liege.
That terrace was the exact end I’d be in, albeit completely rebuilt since, and although I wouldn’t be having a Gitanes, nor having sex, disappointing or otherwise, during my short trip, the gloomy weather for once pleased me. It fitted my view of what Liege should look like perfectly.
What was troubling, however, was arriving at Liege’s quite stunning futuristic main railway station, and finding nobody about. It was less than two hours until kick-off. I was expecting to see fans milling about, and football buses taking them the 2.5 miles to the ground. Instead there was virtually nobody, and I was hit by a horrible feeling – the game was off. Either it had been postponed after too much rain, or maybe moved at short notice for tv.
Not fancying the walk, especially if the game might be off, I found a taxi, and asked for Standard Liege. He parroted back “Standard Liege” in a way that made it almost sound like a question rather than a confirmation, as if his mind was weighing up telling me the game was off, against the fact that he’d get a double fare of there and back if he didn’t tell me. In fact we probably got to within a kilometre of the ground before I saw the welcome sight of fans in football colours parking up.
The taxi dropped me off on a side street next to the stadium, on the west side. There was a ticket office there, where I got my ticket, and various food stalls and a pub. I did check out the pub, but it was rammed and playing music so loud that you assumed it was a service to the deaf community to allow them to hear it, as well as boosting their numbers too.
Another pub, on the next corner, looked rammed too, but at least wasn’t making anyone’s ears bleed with its music. Pubs aside, Liege isn’t a pretty town, and this definitely wasn’t the prettiest corner of Liege, even if the steelworks directly south across the river did add a kind of grim industrial beauty. The slag heap directly north didn’t though, even if it was about the only greenery in sight.
I had actually seen Sclessin before, albeit from 30,000 ft while flying over the area one day, where the ground’s distinctive red roof and riverside location made it stand out. The red roof was part of the major rebuild of the stadium for the Euro 2000 tournament, but despite the relative newness, bits of the ground were starting to show a bit of age, and also indicate the place maybe didn’t have the budget that other grounds did.
My seat for example, was in top tier behind the southern goal. You would think that the minimum requirement for any new stand, especially at a major venue, would be a clear view of both goals. Not at Sclessin though, where, despite there being plenty on room on all four sides, viewing the near goal necessitated a view through the fence at the front of the stand. And also past the stewards who naturally thought that fence would be the ideal place to stand. At least I wasn’t in a block on the other side, where somebody had “considerately” draped a banner on this fence. At least, with it not quite being a sell out, there were a few empty seats to move into.
The top tier formed a U shape on three sides of the ground, going from the stand I was in, across the back of the original main stand, before finishing above a stand identical to the one I was in. Like the main stand, now three-tiered thanks to its newer addition, both ends were also three tiers. The lower two tiers though looked slightly separate to the tier above, almost like an afterthought, and also left awkward gaps in the corners with the old main stand, which managed to curve just halfway round the corner at either end.
On the other side, possibly a slightly earlier construction, sat the kind of two tiered main stand with executive boxes in the middle that looked sleek and modern in the 80s, when being built at Forest, Wolves and Spurs. Through the gap in one corner here could be seen more of the industrial landscape that characterised the area.
At the far end of the stand I was in was the away supporters section, with the Bruges fans setting off flares as the teams emerged. Rather more sedate, to my left, were a group of nuns enjoying a day out. I’d seen them lined up in twos earlier outside, like 10 year olds on a school trip.
I may not have been to kind to Liege, the city, but I can have nothing but praise for Standard’s supporters. They were a noisy and intensely passionate bunch on all sides of the ground. Even the nuns got worked up at times, and the roars that greeted each surge forward from all of the stands made me wonder what they put in the beer in these parts.
Both teams responded to the occasion too, with a flowing open game with many chances. Standard, despite enduring a very mediocre season, were the better team, and would have been a bit disappointed that they didn’t go in at half time leading, but they didn’t have long to wait in the second before doing so, in a very eventful start to the 2nd half.
Ninety seconds into the half Standard thought they’d opened the scoring. A deflected shot was saved by the keeper, and when the rebound was knocked back towards goal, he had to dive full-stretch to claw it off the line. He didn’t get a firm grasp though, and that was enough for a home player to poke it out from under him, and stab it into the net. His run of celebration was cut short by the ref indicating a foul on the keeper though.
Two minutes later and the Bruges left back was forced to grab hold of a Standard winger to stop a break into the box. Perhaps not the wisest move when you are already on a yellow card, and the 2nd yellow was inevitable, even if the ref did seem to produce it with a barely disguised relish.
From the free kick Standard scored, or at least thought they had. The free kick swung in, eluding everyone until Belgian international Jelle Van Damme ran in to tap in from two yards. Given that he was several yards clear of any defender, arms immediately went up to appeal for offside, and the ref, for the 2nd time in three minutes, disallowed a Standard Liege goal.
But then he went over to speak with his linesman. It seemed he’d given offside because of a flick-on, but the ref, who was nearer, saw there was no contact before Van Damme knocked the ball in. He pointed to the centre. 1-0 to Standard!
Bruges, a goal and a man down, had to push forward and take risks. There are places to take risks though, and a crossfield ball was intercepted 40 yards out. Matthieu Dossevi took the ball forward past an exposed back four, and hit a low shot inside the near post to double the lead after 65 minutes.
It could, and probably should have been more. Standard even had another goal disallowed, but it was a great game, great atmosphere, and clearly a very popular win with the home fans. And it also featured dancing nuns. What’s not to like? A great day out in Liege, and a match that was anything but standard.