Würzburg 0 Fortuna Düsseldorf 0

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Würzburg Kickers 0 Fortuna Düsseldorf 0 (4th Dec 2016)

The last leg of my German weekend saw me dip in Northern Bavaria, setting off early to be able to have a few hours wandering around the centre of Würzburg, of which just enough survived WWII bombing raids and 60s town planners to have a little charm. It seemed quite friendly little place, which was just as well, as you’d take warmth from any quarter on such a crisp winter morning.

I’d arrived in the centre just as the near obligatory Christmas Market was opening up, and marvelled at how charming and tempting all the German stalls are. I know we try them in England, but putting a bit of tinsel over a market stall and still selling the same socket sets, knock-off DVDs and phone covers as any other month of the year doesn’t really have the same atmosphere.

To my regret, I didn’t go for any of the snacks on offer, mainly because after walking round for a couple of hours, I wanted to have lunch somewhere where I could have a beer and a sit down for a while. My dysfunctional good cafe radar failed again, allowing me to go on a whole fruitless circuit of the central square and sidestreets before finding somewhere 20 yards from where I’d started looking.

I had hoped to nip into the tourist office to find out about tram routes to the stadium, but it was shut, with a helpful notice taped to the window. Helpful, that is, for people who can actually read German beyond “the train from Hamburg to Berlin is on platform twelve” level. As it happened I found the exact stop I needed by luck, not far from the main square. A group fans, some home, some away, were already there, drinking away and generally shuffling along to the sound of clinking brown bottles, as is often the way in Germany.

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After a while of bouncing around on the tram, singing about the general scheisse-ness of Würzburg and its Kickers team, the Fortuna fans broke off to sing “Last Christmas” by Wham, which was a nice seasonal touch. It seemed to entertain them, which is just as well as they weren’t going to have too many brilliant memories of the game due to start just over an hour later.

With hindsight, I’d have done a few things differently on my trip to Würzburg. For a start, I’d have bought a ticket for a less popular part of the ground, just to have had a few more options about viewing points. Secondly, when I went into the club bar behind the goal, I wouldn’t have said OK to buying an alcohol free beer. Now, alcohol free beer has come a long way. Beck’s Blue tastes better than some normal beers, so the Germans can do a good 0% beer. The Würzburg club bar though sold something called “Würzburger Hofbräu”. Now I’m sure their normal varieties are fine. The alcohol free version…well, let’s just say its a work in progress.

The bar was warm though, which meant I stayed in it longer than I should have done, which was also a mistake. The home end isn’t that big, having just 13 steps of steep chunky terracing. It also has fences at the front – big ugly view-obscuring fences, through which the view is so bad that nobody at all stood in the first four rows. This meant that rather than choosing where I’d stand, as I’d hoped, it was more a case of trying to find somewhere that offered a decent view. There weren’t many options left with 10-15 minutes until kick off.

Würzburg’s Flyeralarm Arena is one of the more basic grounds at Bundesliga 2 level, with three sides of open terracing, but that’s hardly surprising. The club has spent all of its existence bumbling round the regional leagues. Indeed, it was in the 6th tier in 2012, and in the 7th tier in 2004. Three promotions in five seasons (including being able to skip the 5th tier entirely) have propelled the club to a height never seen before. In 2014, in the 4th tier regional leagues, they were pulling an average of just 854. Two consecutive promotion seasons saw crowds rise to 2482 and 5263, while their debut Bundesliga 2 season has them averaging just over 11,000 in their 13000 capacity ground – the smallest in the division.

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The ground may be small, almost unusable in parts, and make you wish the sky was always as blue and clear as the day I was there, but it does have a certain cosiness to it, especially with a healthy 10000+ crowd in attendance. A bit of cover and it could be a crackling little ground. Mind you, that cosiness, especially when Herr Too-many-bratwursts squeezes alongside you, makes it a rather less than ideal place to take photos from, so it was a case of pretty much putting the camera away and truly enjoying the game properly, which isn’t a hardship.

Or it wouldn’t have been had it not been one of those games where you get that nagging “this is going to be 0-0” feelings after about 20 minutes. I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy the game. I’m just saying I’d have enjoyed it more had Fortuna Düsseldorf not settled for 0-0 on the bus on the way to the game, and had the Würzburg forwards not been so keen to show why, despite being in the top half of the table, they’d only hit 19 goals in 15 games.

They had chances. A couple of free kicks in the first half went only just over, a and shot out of the blue surprised everyone, but came back off the post. There was also a lot of effort, and even if it wasn’t quite end-to-end stuff, more edge-of-the-box to edge-of-the-box, there was always a hint that something might happen. It just seldom did.

I think the game could probably be summed up by a moment with about four minutes to go. A good Würzburg move down the right, cutting into the box, saw the ball cut back square across the six yard box. A Würzburg attacker slid in, knowing any contact would surely result in a goal. Only it didn’t. Instead he managed to somehow trap the ball, killing almost all of the pace. It rolled out of reach of his outstretched foot, towards the goal, at energetic tortoise pace, but before it could cover the three yards to the line the Düsseldorf keep was able to get up and dive on the ball. To be honest, he could probably have crawled on his hands and knees and taken a swig from his water bottle, and he’d still have had time to stop it.

So I’d seen my first non-domestic 0-0 for 3 and half years, a run of 42 games. My next foreign game could possibly be, fixtures permitting, in Vietnam in February. I can’t guarantee goals, but it’s pretty safe to say that compared to a Bavaria winter, it’ll at least be a damn sight warmer.

 

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Hoffenheim 4 FC Köln 0

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TSG 1899 Hoffenheim 4 FC Köln 0 (3rd Dec 2016)

I’ve seen a fair few football grounds from the window of a plane, but Hoffenheim’s is the first I’ve seen from the windows of Concorde. True, Concorde wasn’t actually flying at the time, being perched on the roof (alongside the ill-fated Tupolev 144 “Concordski”, among others) of the Sinsheim Auto & Technical museum, just a five-minute walk from Hoffenheim’s Rhein-Neckar Arena.

It is a fine museum, even if the choice of location, in the small out-of-the-way town of Sinsheim is a little surprising. Even more surprising, to anyone who doesn’t know the background story, is that the area is also host to a team from a small village a few miles up the road, who were in the 8th tier in the 90s, and the 5th at the start of the millennium, who now play in a 30000 seat stadium in the Bundesliga.

In the 1970s, Dietmar Hopp, a former youth player of the Hoffenheim village team, decided to opt for a career in software instead. He’s now a billionaire, and his company, SAP, are apparently the 4th largest software company in the world. Around the year 2000, he decided to back his former club financially, aiding their rise up the leagues.

Hoffenheim’s hill-top ground got an upgrade, and by the mid 2000s was smart little 6500 capacity place. It would be the envy of most 5th tier English clubs, and many League Two ones as well, almost ideal for the third tier football they found themselves in. Hopp had bigger ambitions though, and wanted to build a team for the whole region – a sizeable catchment area with the nearest club of note (Karlsruher) being 40 miles away, and the nearest bigger clubs, Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern, more like 60.

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With plans to merge clubs and play in Heidelberg thwarted, he opted to build a new ground in Sinsheim, a few miles down the road from Hoffenheim, instead. While some might applaud such generosity, it definitely got under the skin of many fans in Germany, where clubs are typically fan-owned member clubs, rather than the toys of rich men. Going from the 3rd tier to the 1st in straight seasons caused the resentment to grow, and referring to them as TSG €18.99 Hoffenheim became common.

While it’s easy to see why fans of established clubs having to live within their means would feel Hoffenheim’s rise is unfair, there’s no doubt that so far they have succeeded in creating a team for the region.

As it is, their lowest average in their nine Bundesliga seasons so far has been 26000, yet with a total population of just 16000 between them, the towns of Hoffenheim and Sinsheim alone would only just half-fill the Rhein-Neckar Arena. Given that their highest average two years earlier in the third tier was 3000, it would be easy to ask which clubs all those fans were supporting back then, as they clearly weren’t trekking up the hill to the Dietmar Hopp Stadion in Hoffenheim. That they are now wearing the blue of Hoffenheim now though is, to me at least, more important.

While Germany has sadly caught the bug for new more-or-less single tier bowl stadiums, they have at least managed to inject a little style to shake off the bland uniformity that makes English equivalents so dull. OK, maybe going a bright sunny day helped, but the Rhein-Neckar Arena, with a lightness an intricacy with the roof, and a style to the double-tier executive boxes of the main stand, meant details draw you attention away from the samey-ness of the seats on three sides. It also helps that the away corner and the home end are “safe standing” areas, effectively adding a terrace look to an all-seated ground.

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Hoffenheim were also in my good books for refunding a ticket I bought by mistake online, somehow purchasing a ticket for a game for week earlier than planned. Maybe they were generous because I’d purchased (for this intended game) one of the worst seats in the house, being right next to a tv gantry, blocking the view of a quarter of a pitch. Luckily, being in the least popular end of the ground, I could just move along a find a better seat – one that didn’t provide me with a view of concrete to my right. In fairness, the edge of the tv gantry to make a good makeshift table for my beer and currywurst & chips pre-game meal, but I still prefer to see all of the pitch.

One of the things surprising about German football is the complete lack of restriction over who buys a ticket, and where. One consequence of this is that if the away team has more fans than the official designated away section holds, they just buy tickets for the surrounding home blocks, en masse, and nobody seems remotely bothered. The section to my left should have been for Hoffenheim fans, but when the Köln fans rose, scarves aloft, to sing their traditional fan hymn, it was clear the whole corner section was a sea of red. Rather than being annoyed, many of the home fans chose to film it instead on their phones. To be fair, it is quite a good song.

Köln’s fans would go on to win the singing battle all game against the disappointingly subdued home support, who only got going in fleeting moments, but that was about the only thing that went right for them all afternoon.

Both teams are having decent seasons in the top half of the Bundesliga. In fact, Hoffenheim are still unbeaten, and although neither team quite lived-up to their top-half billing, Köln were considerably more off the pace. Hoffenheim got off to a great start, going ahead after just eight minutes. A back post header from a corner was tipped onto the crossbar, but the Köln defenders stood and watched as Sandro Wagner nipped in to tuck in the rebound from three yards.

From there, Köln probably had their best spell of the game. Ex-Hoffenheim striker, Anthony Modeste, chipped a good chance over the bar, before another good chance was wasted, with a shot being stroked the wrong side of a gaping near post. A third good chance, this time a crossed ball was side-footed wide at the back post, to complete a hat-trick of missed equalisers.

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If Köln fans were beginning to think it wasn’t their day, the point was hammered home shortly after. A defence splitting pass put Hoffenheim in behind the defence, and the ball was slid past the keeper for 2-0 after 39 minutes.

In truth, the only big difference between the two teams in the first half was finishing, but it was as if Köln took the field for the 2nd half looking to make their performance match their deficit. It’s not that they gave up. It was more that they seemed to content to sit on a 0-2 scoreline. Any hopes of doing even that were dashed when Wagner headed his second of the game, heading a set piece back across the keep for 3-0.

The Köln fans sung loudly in defiance, knowing the game was over. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite completely over. With the Köln team seemingly already mentally back in the dressing room, thinking about the bollocking they were going to get for this heavy defeat, a nicely worked move pushed the ball out wide, and when it was crossed in low to the near post, it was no surprise a Hoffenheim boot got their first. 4-0 in the last minute, which really was the last minute, with the ref seemingly deciding that injury time would be pointless, a blowing as soon as he could.

4-0. A great day for those in blue, but not such a great one for those in red, drifting away from the Rhein-Neckar Arena, with the moon and Venus shining away in the cloudless night sky above, shuffling past the museum towards the S-Bahn. I’ve seen Köln play twice now, and both games have ended in 4-0 home wins. They’d no doubt hope that if I see them again, it’ll be back at the RheinEnergie rather than the Rhein-Neckar stadium next time.

As for Hoffenheim, I know they are one of those clubs that “proper” fans are supposed to dislike, but everything about them, the surprisingly decent stadium, the way they play, the way they’ve opened up support for a whole region, being a friendly place, and not least some interesting surrounds for once for a new ground, make me view them sympathetically. If others choose to disagree, that’s up to them.

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Karlsruher 1 Greuther Fürth 2

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Karlsruher SC 1 SpVgg Greuther Fürth 2 (2nd Dec 2016)

There was a time when most German grounds seemed to be like Karlsruher’s Wildparkstadion. I remember buying Simon Inglis’ Football Grounds of Europe book circa 1990, as seeing how most in the West Germany section played in ovals round a running track, with open ends and, if the fans were lucky, covered stands on both sides.

While there might still be tracks surviving in Berlin and Nuremburg, they are very different grounds, fully covered, and with Saarbrücken’s similar Ludwigsparkstadion now a victim of the bulldozers, the Wildparkstadion is the last of the sizeable classic old style German grounds left.

That was enough to make me change my original plan to go to the easier but less attractive option of Mannheim, to opt for a near 100 mile trip from my base in Frankfurt instead. The advance fares were a reasonable €38 return, but did limit me to specific trains. Making that 9.01 pm train (for a game starting at 6.30) did rely on me being able to make it to a mile-off tram stop by 8.37, so my pre-match meal had me looking for somewhere very near that stop, so I could see just how long the walk would take.

I found a pub round the corner called the Oxford Pub, and had a delightful burger served by a tight-jeaned girl with an even more delightful bottom. The pub was about 50m along the road from a street containing what seemed to be a very short red-light district. Either there’s not much call for that sort of thing in this part of Baden-Württemberg, or the people of Karlsruhe aren’t very choosy.

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I, on the other hand, decided to be choosy when presented with a stall selling scarves next to the tram stop I’d be rushing back to, partly because the selection wasn’t that great, but also because with my scarves now numbering 60, I don’t really have any space left to hang them any more.

Fifteen minutes of brisk walking were enough to find me at the gates of the Wildparkstadion, making it clear I’d be fine if the ref took the typical German approach to injury time, and hardly played any. That was good, but even better was the walk up itself, just because as it’s an old style ground with floodlight pylons, you get to see the pulse-quickening glow of the floodlights from about half a mile out. It’s as classic football as the smell of burgers and onions, and the sound of distant tinny music through an outdated PA system.

Going into the ground, it became obvious that it was built originally as the most basic of ovals, with my stand for the evening atop the earth banking that enclosed the whole stadium. Squeezed between the rear base of the banking and the entrance gates were a collection of portakabin type structures for the tea bars, club shop, toilets, and bars – most importantly in this part of the world – for the beer. Good stuff it is too. Around these, fans milled about chatting, smoking, drinking, generally passing the time before kick-off, in the way it used to be before clubs employed DJs to kill any natural atmosphere.

Nearly sixty years ago 58,000 crammed onto the slopes of the Wildparkstadion for an Oberliga game against Nürnberg. The crowd today wouldn’t be much over a sixth of that figure, in a ground with a capacity reduced to 27000. Anyone who can remember going to places like St Andrews and Bramall Lane in the 1980s would recognise the feeling of faded glory of a team playing a in ground built for a different era, with different standards.

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The place does have charm, and I’d love to have come here for one of the rare days when capacity is approached, but it’s also not difficult to see why Karlsruher too have decided their historic old ground needs to be rebuilt. Even the running track, the only real reason to have the oval shape in the first place, has long gone.

The stand I’d bought a ticket for had done well to survive to this age, looking, as it does, like something which should only exist in nostalgic black & white photographs. Around 2000 bench seats were perched high up above the original terracing, buckets seats directly below, and a pitched roof generously stretching over the paddock below, where most of Karlsruher’s noisier fans stood. Wooden floorboards added to the old-time feel, while a flat space, like a wide corridor, greeted anyone making the climb up the steps beyond the back row. It served no obvious function, as the area had no facilities or exits, but it was the place of choice for milling about for several fans, probably among those looking for a free place among the seats whose view was obstructed by the pillars at the front of the stand.

As old as it looked, old photos make it clear that it wasn’t there in the mid 1950s, so it is a more recent addition that it otherwise seems. Clearly much newer was the stand opposite. On a similar scale, but a much more modern design, it just about manages to avoid being jarring, although the seats were clearly chosen by a man you definitely wouldn’t want doing the decor of your house. Of all the possible colours to choose from, the predominant one picked was a shade of browny-green that suggested he got his inspiration while changing his new-born’s nappy.

The terracing curving round both ends was rudely halted by the addition of seats in the central sections behind each goal. The picking out of Karlsruher’s name in black on white made them look less dreary, but they were clearly the least popular vantage point in the ground. Behind one was the scoreboard, whose delights would include an animation of a wheely-bin that announced each yellow card of the game.

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Karlsruher’s Bundesliga 2 season hadn’t been going well, and they were looking nervously over their shoulder at the relegation zone right behind them. With just two wins all season they’d have been hoping for a good start to kick-start their season. It’s fair to say things didn’t go to plan.

The opening play from them was quite bright, but the visitors scored with pretty much their first foray forward, hammering a cross high into the roof of the net after just six minutes. Undeterred, they again pressed in the Greuther Fürth half, but their front players were displaying an uncanny knack of being in exactly the wrong place to either receive the ball or do anything useful with it.

Twenty four minutes in, it got even worse. Played in, an away striker hit a shot across the keeper for 2-0. The cheers from the small travelling support were drowned out by chants from the home fans. My comprehension of German may be rather limited, but the tone of them did very definitely come across as being in the “sack the manager/board” variety than support for the team.

Karlsruher spent much of the rest of the game continuing to attack, and continuing to look hopeless. I was expecting the next goal to be for the away team, but despite hitting the post in the second half, a third for them surprisingly never came.

Instead, with 10 minutes left, they got a lifeline with the awarding of a penalty. It was tucked away, and retrieved from the net by the goalscorer in customary “Come on lads! We can still do this!” fashion.

With time ticking by, another clumsy challenge in the box. Could it be another penalty? No. It was waved away to whistles and derision. Then, yet another tumble, this time on a cross. And this time he does award the 2nd penalty.

For the previous penalty, Karlsruhe’s Greek attacker Dimitrios Diamantikos had hit it low to the keeper’s right, and even though the keeper had guessed right, he couldn’t get to it. In injury time now, he chose the same option, the keeper guessed correctly again, but this time got a hand to it to turn it wide. A scramble at his near post nearly saw it turned back in, but it went for a corner and was wasted. The chance of a point was gone. The whistle went and the angry protest chants resumed, while others drifted off into the night, away from the glow of the floodlights, and into the gloom that no doubt matched their mood.

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Carshalton 1 Ramsgate 1

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Carshalton Athletic 1 Ramsgate 1 (22nd October 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eastern 2 Rangers 1

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Eastern 2 Rangers 1 (25th September 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pegasus 2 Yuen Long 2

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Pegasus 2 Yuen Long 2 (24th September 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hong Kong 0 Kitchee 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Weymouth 2 Dorchester 1

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Weymouth 2 Dorchester Town 1 (29th August 2016)

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ireland 1 Italy 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Czech Republic 0 Turkey 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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