Ho Chi Minh City 1 Can Tho 0

Ho Chi Minh City 1 Can Tho 0 (25th Feb 2017)

Saigon is the kind of city that slaps you round the head with its noise, traffic and sheer chaos, lets you know it’s more business-like than beautiful, but like Vietnam in general, seduces you with unexpected charm.

It has the angriest traffic and probably the friendliest people around. It’s one of the few countries in the region to use an alphabet recognisable to westerners, then splats an array of accents and squiggles all over it, sometimes two to a letter, to make it incomprehensible, to cope with Vietnam’s tonal language.

It has an exchange rate which makes seven-figure bar bills possible, and a late night scene which means as a foreign tourist you can be approached by a girl on a motorbike offering “boom boom”, while you are appropriately, by coincidence, stood outside the “Phuc Long” coffee house chain. Vietnam also has the most fantastic coffee, even if a white coffee will be no more white than plain chocolate.

It’s officially a Marxist-Leninist Communist country, yes espouses a free-market capitalist economy that makes you wonder why a nation of 93 million hasn’t traded its way to more wealth yet. At times it’s an almost impossibly bonkers place, but it’s great.

Other impossible things over there include trying to explain to a Vietnamese barmaid in the fine, fun and friendly “Number Five Bar” the humour in the often repeated genuine Irish newspaper headline “Cork Man Drowns” (mentioning that he was called “Bob” really was a step too far), and trying to comprehend bus timetables to take me to and from Ho Chi Minh City FC’s Thong Nhat Stadium, a good three miles from the city centre. I had a go at both, but gave up.

Handily, Saigon’s taxis are cheap, and also haven’t yet managed to develop the fault which affects so many in nearby Thailand, where the meters seem to break every time a foreigner flags a taxi down. Unlike the bus, the taxi also deposited me right by the ground. I’d not even got out of the taxi before an old woman bearing a ticket strode purposefully to the door and suggested through the power of mime that I buy off her.

Seeing the price as 70,000 Dong (about £2.50) I took out a 100,000 dong note to pay, expecting change. The old woman clearly saw the language barrier as a great opportunity, and proceeded to thank me for my “generosity” in apparently not wanting any change. I could have pursued it, but it could have been undignified, and on balance, she needed that extra 30,000 dong much more than I did.

I spend 30,000 anyway on a couple of coffees over the road, now a dab hand at the Saigon road-crossing technique of walking out into the never-stopping traffic and having blind faith that bikes will swerve around you.

Unlike in Da Nang, there was an obvious sense of activity, and a game was clearly taking place tonight. Being a foreigner, and clearly not looking a threat, I was waved through the security checkpoints, with the chance to put my guesses of the block/row/seat info on my ticket to use, as the little Vietnamese I’d learned wouldn’t be of much use. A barmaid, the same one I’d baffled with “Cork Man Drowns”, had taught me (phonetically) “Mo Hai Ba Yo!” which is “1…2..3…cheers!” but I couldn’t really see it coming in handy.

70,000 dong had got me into the luxury of the main covered stand, and clearly fans in Saigon like a little luxury, as this was clearly the most popular part of the ground. The next most popular part was the uncovered opposite side, where large steps of concrete acted nominally as seats. In the distance, Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, with a helipad jutting out from the side like the bottom lip of one of Sting’s Brazilian rainforest buddies, could be seen in the distance.

Hardly anyone went in either end. Both were beyond an already distant running track and deeply unpopular. About 100 Can Tho fans, who’d made the 100 mile trip up from the heart of the Mekong Delta for this game, sat in green isolation in the corner of one end. At the other corner of this end was another green invasion, with a large tree’s branches hanging over into the stadium, as if trying to climb in without paying.

It hit 33C (91F) on this day, and given the evening humidity, it must rank as one of the hottest, or at least sweatiest, games I’ve been to. I find walking up the stairs hard-going, so heaven knows what it must be like to play in. Maybe the heat led to the slack marking for the opening (and only) goal after seven minutes, where nobody bothered to mark an attacker in the middle of the penalty box, and he headed a cross in with ease.

If Can Tho were now losing on the pitch, their fans did their best to win the terrace battle, in terms of noise rather than violence. The home fans had been rather tame. Their attempt at “pyro” saw the setting off of one small firework, which could probably have been safely used indoors.

The support certainly reflected a cultural difference in the manner of encouraging a team. With many drums and cymbals, they sounded like every Chinese New Year parade you’ve ever heard, with little variety from the ubiquitous “clang-bang-clang…clang-bang-clang” percussion to spur their team on.

Can Tho were 2nd from last in the league, but while they didn’t look that bad, they always looked they had a mistake in them, and were always just 2nd best. The game wasn’t a classic, perhaps because of the heat, and they possibly only had two serious chances to equalise. The first brought about a diving save that looked rather more flamboyant than necessary, as it the keeper had heard scouts from richer leagues were in the stands. The 2nd was a free kick from outside the area, which went only just wide.

Ho Chi Minh city had two excellent chances to extent the lead, but somehow spurned them both, to the annoyance and amazement of the home crowd. The first was a blast at goal from eight yards, with the keeper stranded, which the home striker could somehow only blast into the back of a defender in front of him.

After that a shot was fired across goal. A touch would have been a certain goal, but it was left, as it rolled just wide of the post.

I should have gone the previous week, when a game v the bottom club, Long an, was much more eventful. It ended 5-2 to Ho Chi Minh City, but the last three of Ho Chi Minh City’s goals all came in injury time. Ho Chi Minh were awarded a late very dodgy penalty, and in a bizarre protest Long An refused compete for the rest of the game, including the spot-kick, with the keeper turning his back rather than try to save it. They then just let the home side walk in two more goals without any kind of challenge, and it ended 5-2.

Only only goal for me though, and I had to take solace with a quick taxi ride (well, quite slow really – it was in Saigon traffic after all) back across town to Number Five Bar where a friendly welcome was waiting. What more could I ask for in my last night in Vietnam? Another goal or two would have been good, I suppose, and surely somewhere I could have had the chance to use an Apocolypse Now reference, but football in a new country, and the chance of a night out with access to the computer picking songs from YouTube, and I was happy. I, for one, would never complain that “I’m still only in Saigon”.

…and finally, a clip I took of the Saigon traffic. This wasn’t the busiest junction I saw by a long shot, but it was a “suggested” pedestrian crossing!

 

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Da Nang Ground Pics

Sometimes things don’t work out quite as planned. For starters, my first day in Vietnam suffered an immediate blow which meant that while I was having breakfast in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang, my luggage was still 400 miles north in Hanoi, having not made it in time after a tight connection at Hanoi Airport.

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, this was meant to be a write up of that evening’s game between SHB Da Nang and FLC Thanh Hoa, taking place at Sân vận động Chi Lăng stadium, just a short 10 minute walk from my riverside hotel. I’d arrived an hour and a half early, anticipating getting a bite to eat before the game. It seemed a little quiet, but there were posters up mentioning the Sân vận động part of the stadium name that I recognised, so it all seemed set.

Unfortunately, my Vietnamese isn’t exactly fluent, to say the least, and it turns out that “Sân vận động” just means “stadium” and the notices were saying the game was now at a new stadium across town.

And the meal was pretty bad too.

As it turned out, things weren’t too bad. The game ended 0-0, so I didn’t miss much, and I spent the first of several evenings in the fine Bamboo 2 Bar, a short walk down the riverside from my hotel, and with half a dozen beers and food still leaving change from the equivalent of a tenner, and the friendly bar staff, that was a result in my book.

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Banbury 2 Cambridge City 0

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Banbury United 2 Cambridge City 0 (5th February 2017)

Although it’s taken an awfully long time to get round to coming here, Banbury’s was one of the first non-league grounds I ever saw. I certainly would have seen Wokingham Town’s old ground earlier, being by the tracks on the way to Reading, but Banbury’s ground’s position, also near the town’s railways station, means I saw it regularly when I went to away days on the train towards Birmingham.

To be honest, only one feature stood out – the main stand, and that really only stood out for having a mural featuring spectators, covering the front, long before they had the idea for a much larger one at Highbury. Rather than hiding building work, it was there because the stand had been condemned. There’s no trace of it now, being just a flat patch of grass, although the breeze block shed that stood next to it is still there.

On the other side of the shed is the most surprising feature of the ground – the existence of quite a substantial portion of proper terracing, continuing round the corner and behind the goal. The end is covered at the rear, although a record-breaking attempt at a number of pillars, and the height (of lack of) of the roof at the back makes it a less than ideal enclosure. The rear six feet or so of roof is so low that anyone taller than Warwick Davis is risking a head injury by standing there.

At least the liberal use of red paint would act as a warning, even on the darkest of days. In fact, Banbury have splashed the red and yellow about so much that this must be one of the brightest non-league grounds around, and looks all the better for it. The paint used for the seats in the stand on the other side though is an odd textured gloss, which makes all the seats look like they are dripping wet.

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There’s not too much to the rest of the ground. A warm and welcoming clubhouse sits on one side. No terracing behind the other goal, but at least there’s a slope. Round the corner, leading to where the old stand used to be, things narrow to an almost ridiculous degree, which barely room for two people to pass each other. Clearly the wasteland on the other side of the fence is of high value to someone to begrudge the football ground another few feet of space.

Not too far across that wasteland is the idyllic looking River Cherwell, with a canal just beyond that. Naturally the route to the football ground take you via an industrial estate instead. At least those buildings provide a bit of a backdrop for game, and make the ground feel more enclosed than it really is.

As for the game, I usually nominally favour the home side anyway, but the programme seller calling me a young man is enough to ingratiate me into the home cause, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

I did, however, continue my run of neutral games that were characterised by effort rather than clear chances, but after an early good spell for the visitors, Banbury always had the edge.

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They took the lead after half an hour. A back header from a cross ball found its way to a Banbury player on the edge of the box. He took one touch before hammering the dropping ball past the keeper. More “expert” camera work meant that my shot of this goal missed both the scorer (off to the right of the shot) and the ball (billowing out of the net to right) from the shot. I have so many of these that I could release a football-rated coffee table book entitled “101 Great Goals Where You Can’t See the Ball”, available at all good bookshops, and in some naughty ones as well.

Banbury made it safe with just under 20 minutes left. A header from a corner was headed down, and the defender’s effort at clearing the ball saw it do no more than find the roof of the net. It might have been over the line anyway before then, but the defender looked personally defeated, probably because he knew that it meant his team were too.

In fairness, Cambridge City had a real go at Banbury for the last 10 minutes, but their shots looked more likely to break a window on a train shuttling from Reading to Birmingham on the tracks beyond than break the Banbury net, and the game petered out in the setting sun.

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Clitheroe 0 Kendal 0

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Clitheroe 0 Kendal Town 0 (21st January 2017)

It has to be said, there are times when I wonder if leaving the house at 8 am, to spend the best part of the next six hours trekking up to the wilds of northern Lancashire, is really a sensible thing to be doing, especially when my in-car thermometer was suggesting it was -6C outside.

I’d leaned towards Clitheroe because the ground looked decent, it was in the town centre, there was a chance of seeing some hills as a backdrop, and the clincher – there was a small castle nearby that overlooked the ground. The quality of the match I was likely to see didn’t feature that heavily, which is just as well really.

First up, I’ll say Clitheroe is a really nice little town. It’s full of attractive stone buildings, older pubs, and full of so many little independent shops that seeing a chain establishment like WH Smiths is almost a novelty. One such place, just up the road from Clitheroe’s ground was a shop specialising in hoodies. The name, “Hoody Marvellous” needs to be said in the local accent to make sense.

A little walk through the centre will find you at the tiny Clitheroe Castle, where you can walk up to the keep, with its fine view, for free. As well as being able to see across the town, and the football grounds, there’s also a view of the hills rising up on either side the Ribble Valley. Rising up to the east is Pendle Hill, famous for its witch trials in 1612, and also more bizarrely, for a string of UFO sightings over the years. In fact it seems there have been so many that Steven Spielberg could film a remake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the Ribble Valley, albeit one starring Jane Horrocks and the shouty man from the SafeStyle double glazing adverts.

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The top of Pendle Hill was being scraped by low cloud, so no chance of seeing any witches or UFOs on this day, or goals as it would turn out. Just as well that Clitheroe’s Shawbridge Street ground was interesting enough to feel that wiping out an entire Saturday to watch a 0-0 was almost worth it.

For a start, one side featured one of the smallest stands I’ve ever seen, probably only about ten yards long, with four rows of wooden benches. The back row is partitioned into three sections with a mesh that almost makes each end seat look like a priest’s confessional, if only they had a curtain at the front. With the tiny roof needing four pillars to hold it up, and people standing in front of it, the curtain wouldn’t make the view from the stand much worse any way.

Also on this side is a better and larger main stand which somehow looks much older than it probably is. It has the look of a structure that should only be seen in sepia photographs, and frequented by men in hats and stiff collars, and works well with the grey stone buildings that can be seen behind.

The ground also has a sloping pitch, most marked in the north-east corner, which must be a good three or four feet higher than the goal at that end. I can only think of Wycombe’s Loakes Park that sloped as steeply in all the grounds I’ve been to. Surprisingly Clitheroe didn’t seem to now how to play on the slope to their advantage, but then again their wing play on the flatter parts of the pitch was no better either, as both teams played a game that implied they believed the pitch narrowed to about 40 yards wide at either end.

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I think there comes a point about 30-35 minutes in to many goalless games, where it strikes you that both teams seem to be forgetting how to set up a shot at goal. There was plenty of attacking intent, but little idea behind it. There was almost a reliance on mistakes to present chances. The Kendal keeper didn’t look the safest pair of gloves about when trying to claim high balls, especially when he tried punching away, but he did prove to be a decent shot-stopper in the 2nd half when Clitheroe tried a few edge-of-the-area efforts. Threading the ball through seemed beyond them.

Kendal had the best chance of the game right at the end of the first half. A penalty decision, which seemed about as believable as many of those nearby UFO sightings, went Kendal’s way, but the kick was easily saved by the Clitheroe keeper. It fitted the tone of the game so far, which had seen a stream of “comments” about the officials and their competence, come from the terraces.

The 2nd half was a phrase which the phrase “less haste, more speed” could have been invented for. Clitheroe had actually had a shot and a header hit the Kendal bar in the first half, so they did have chances, but the 2nd just saw them get more and more frustrated as time went by. Try a quick ball, and it would invariably be block or flagged offside. Be patient, and a bad pass or miscontrol would see the chance wasted.

This frustration probably contributed to the games last notable moment, when a Clitheroe sub went in hard for loose ball and connected with a Kendal player instead. The straight red and resigned trudge off down the tunnel matched the home side’s mood.

Kendal went for the last-gasp winner they really wouldn’t have deserved, but luckily Kendal’s attacking ideas were just as lacking as Clitheroes’s had become. Lucky, that is, for Clitheroe. Any neutrals facing a 5 hour journey home after a goal-starved afternoon, I suggest, might disagree.

 

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Bognor Regis 1 Enfield 1

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Bognor Regis Town 1 Enfield 1 (14th Jan 2017)

I’ve had better organised football trips. I was planning to go to Brackley v Stockport, until a Saturday morning check of the state of their pitch revealed the fixtures site I’d got the info from had bodged up, and that game had been cancelled as they were away in the FA Trophy that day, funnily enough, at Stockport.

A quick check for alternatives suggested this game or one at Worthing, and naturally I opted for the one with fewer goals (Worthing and Sutton played out a 2-2 draw).

I then arrived at the ground at about 2.20, and was walking to the turnstiles when I realised I had about £3.50 on me, and had to turn around and get back in my car, and find a cashpoint somewhere in the town. By the time I’d done that, it was too late to have a pre-match beer, and all the programmes had sold out. I thought I’d have to do without the tea bar’s tempting bacon & egg roll too, as somehow “doing an egg” was a task balanced right on a knife edge of impossibility, but at least that went right, even if most of the yolk did leak out.

Bognor’s ground is one I’ve fancied going to for a while. There’s nothing amazing about it, but it does have a decent amount of cover, and old main stand for a bit of character, and a liberal application of dark green paint, which somehow gives smaller old grounds a feeling of cosiness and old world charm.

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The far corner had, rare for this level, an electronic scoreboard. My guess is that it’s the one that used to be on the away end at Loftus Road. That was my first thought when I saw it, and having checked since, the layout of the time and score matches exactly. I’m not exactly an “80s scoreboard aficionado”, so I’ve no idea why I recognised it though. And I could be wrong.

Bognor also featured in the very first Reading game I saw on television. A good couple of years before I saw them play in person, a 2nd round FA Cup tie at Elm Park saw a rare visit from the TVS cameras, and a 6-2 win for Reading. Looking back, the cameras were there for Bognor, not Reading, as TVS’ sport coverage back then regarded anything more than five miles from the south coast as some kind of mystical hinterland where dragons roamed.

Sadly, even with Bognor Regis being top of the league, seeing eight goals here didn’t seem likely. Enfield struck early, when a corner was flicked on and nudged in a the far post, and that seem to throw promotion-chasing Bognor off their stride for the whole first half. Bognor did most of the attacking, but struggled to get any meaningful shots away. If anyone looked like adding a second, purple-clad Enfield looked more likely. I actually like purple as a colour, but Enfield are just one of a long line of football clubs who’ve made it look nasty. You probably have to go back to a Roberto Baggio era Fiorentina to find the last time it’s not looked “wrong” as a kit.

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Enfield’s best chance to take a commanding lead came very early in the second half. A through ball put an Enfield striker clean through, but his attempt to go round the keeper went wrong, and he was forced wide, and the chance was gone. Within a few minutes Bognor would make them pay for that miss. Fulham loanee Elijah Adebayo marked his debut by nicking the ball past the Enfield keeper from near the penalty spot. He ran to celebrate with the fans in green behind the goal, possibly hoping it would make up for the hat-trick he scored against them three months ago while on loan at Slough.

That end was clearly the most popular part of the ground. Not only did it have a decent amount of terracing, but it was right in front of the club bar, and ground rules here are sensible enough to allow people to take beers out onto the terrace. I’ve never quite got how people can hold cold beers outdoors on a cold days though. They must have fingers like frozen sausages after about 10 minutes.

Despite Bognor having control of the 2nd half, Enfield were still a threat, and probably came closest to scoring, with an effort that hit the bar with the keeper beaten. Bognor looked most likely to get that winner though, but despite a few decent changes, it didn’t come. Time to go back into the bar, defrost, and discuss what might have been.

 

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Altrincham 0 Gloucester 1

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Altrincham 0 Gloucester City 1 (7th Jan 2017)

It may sound weird to say it, but it wasn’t really the lure of watching a cup tie at Old Trafford that tempted me to venture up to Greater Manchester. It was the fact that with a speedy exit from Old Trafford, I could dash down to the tram stop and catch a tram to Altrincham, to Moss Lane, home of Altrincham FC.

And I wasn’t the only one either. Crowded onto the tram, I couldn’t help but notice a German fan nearby putting “Altrincham FC” into German Google on his phone, and checking the route.

There may have been 75,000 fewer fans at Moss Lane, and no half ‘n’ half scarves commemorating this historic Vanarama North clash, but it’s the sort of “proper” old-style game I like going to when I travel away in England these days. No tourists – well, I guess you could count me… and the German guy – and no airs and graces to the surroundings. A good honest club where the red and white on show seemed to be exclusively for “Alty”, rather than that other club a few miles up the road.

Moss Lane is one of those quirky grounds, every side different, that has buckets of character. A decent home end with a low roof is full of dark corners, and is easy to imagine being a fun place in Altrincham’s better years, although understandably a little emptier and quieter during the club’s current troubles.

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Down the side, mainly covered, you can’t fail to notice the average age of the terrace regular has leaped up by about 20 years. It would definitely be a place to hear a few grumbles and the odd less than polite pithy comment to opposition players. In the middle section of this terrace is a tv gantry, held up by a forest of scaffolding poles, rendering the whole area unusable.

While awkward, that shouldn’t be an issue, with a fair-sized open terrace behind the far goal providing a fine view of the ground. What it doesn’t do though is provide any cover, which is a slight problem on a typically Manchester-like drizzly afternoon, but not enough to deter many hardy folk from using it as a vantage point.

The other side contains the fairly well proportioned main stand, flanked by a small stand on one side and a clubhouse on the other. Shutters cover the clubhouse windows during the game, making it look like a closed retail unit – all thanks to the stupid rule, devoid of any common sense, that says people aren’t allowed to have a beer within sight of the pitch.

Some might unkindly suggest that in the clubhouse with the shutters down would be the best place to watch Altrincham this season, as they are having something of a nightmare. At the end of this, their 23rd games of the season, they’d still only have 8 points. Their one solitary win was away at Stalybridge Celtic three months ago. Their twelve home games have yielded just two points, the last of which was way back on the 6th of September. This would be their 7th consecutive home league defeat.

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Yet, on Saturday’s showing, they didn’t actually look too bad. They weren’t fantastic, but they certainly didn’t look a team 16 points from safety already. In fact I’d say they had most of the play and for much of the game looked the more likely team to score. Scoring has been something of an issue though, and few of the shots they did have were too convincing.

Whatever problems have befallen the club to cause this slide – they were in the Vanarama National last season after all – the fans seemed to be either loyally supportive or just resigned to their fate. Grumbles yes, but no anger. They certainly could fault the team for effort.

Gloucester had gone ahead after half an hour, the scorer knee-sliding away to celebrate, but had annoyed many with a range of time-wasting antics in the 2nd half. They allowed their hosts extra impetus late on with a player getting a 2nd booking and the subsequent red card, but although Altrincham threw everything they could at the Gloucester goal, they weren’t throwing it with much accuracy. Altrincham’s football was the play of a team desperately wanting to score, but not really having the belief they were going to do so.

It finished, frustratingly, with Altrincham struggling to even get the ball out of their own half for much of the closing stages, before the whistle signalled home defeat number ten. Arrangements were made for meeting in pubs later and/or seeing people back here next week, before trudging off into the dark evening gloom. Moss Lane might not have the glamour of a day at Old Trafford, but is has heart, and that counts for a lot.

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Manchester United 4 Reading 0

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Manchester United 4 Reading 0 (7th Jan 2017)

Queuing up outside the turnstiles, a steward who’d just commented to me about people walking through the queues rather than walking round, was approached be woman. “Have you got the time?” she asked. “Yes, love, but I don’t have the energy” came the quip back. It sort of went downhill from there.

Not being able to face the prospect of having to get up at half six on a Saturday morning for the three and a half hour drive up, I’d stayed overnight in Altrincham, with the plan also being to dash back to watch Altrincham v Gloucester after the Reading game. I did consider having a bit of a night out in Altrincham, but Altrincham appeared to be shut, so I took the metro into Manchester instead. The metro tram, whose stops are announced by the most bored sounding woman in Greater Manchester, dropped me off very near a lively nightlife district. Sadly, I went looking in a different direction, and it took me ages to find a reasonable pub that was still doing food. I sat there, looking at the dark gloomy Manchester drizzle out of the window, with “Club Tropicana” playing out of the pub’s speakers.

Reading’s previous game had been abandoned due to fog, so it was a little troubling to wake and see thick fog everywhere. Coming in on the tram, I’d planned to have a look at Old Trafford Cricket Ground first. The tram stop is right next to the cricket ground, and although I could get inside easy enough, seeing the far side clearly was much trickier.

There aren’t many other sights in the immediate vicinity, with Old Trafford (the football ground) being in the middle of the biggest industrial estate in Europe. The only cobbles and “Coronation Street houses” you’ll find round this way are, funnily enough, the cobbles on Coronation Street itself, with the set being about a mile up the road at the ITV studios, sat directly across the canal from the new BBC Centre.

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By the time I’d returned from a trendy-looking pub next to the BBC, the fog was lifting, although not quite gone. There was no hint of it once inside Old Trafford though.

It wasn’t my first visit to Old Trafford. My only other visit though, way back in 1989, was so long ago that I stood on wooden terracing, in the corner between the Stretford End and the main stand. Now, the ground has completely changed, the biggest club ground in the country, yet oddly, it didn’t look that big.

It certainly looked big, but it’s not really a venue that looks like it holds nearly 76,000. Maybe it’s the fact that the low roof restricts the view of much of the ground, or maybe it’s because it’s been so so often on TV, that there’s nothing of a surprise about it, but it’s not one that makes you go “wow” when you walk through the tunnel. The millions of Manchester United fans worldwide might have a different opinion.

Perhaps a clue as to why it doesn’t look as big as you’d think a 76,000 stadium should look came where I got to my seat, and realised the stand appeared to have been designed for people who had the build of Charles Hawtrey. It was “cosy” to say the least.

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I was sat – or stood to be exact, as the whole end stood for the entire game – to a guy who knew me from the days when I was an away regular. Embarrassingly I couldn’t quite place him, but people do change a bit in 25 years. I was also in the row behind a contender for Reading’s angriest fan, and to be fair, he did have quite a bit to be angry about.

I fully expected Reading to lose by three or four goals anyway, as even with the changes Mourinho made to his United line-up, the team was far superior to anything Reading face in The Championship. Saying that though, I still expected them to have to work for their goals. Instead, it was 20 minutes of “rabbit in the headlights” football, with Reading doing almost nothing to stem wave after wave of red-shirted attacks. 0-2 after 15 minutes, I was hoping that fog would descend after all. My Angry-and-shouty in front wasn’t having his favourite afternoon.

Reading did eventually turn up, aided no doubt by Manchester United easing up with the job effectively being done already. Reading managed to get their passing game going to the extent that they “won” possession 55-45, but while possession might be nine tenths of the law, it’s only one tenth of football, and United were able to add two more goals to give the scoreline a fairer indication of the difference in ability. True, one was an absolute gift by keeper Ali Al-Habsi, which effectively ended any fears that he’d be poached away in the January transfer window, but they also missed some very good chances.

It could have been better, but I suppose it could have been a lot worse. All that was left was for me to depart a minute into the sympathetic two minutes of added time, to catch that tram to Altrincham. At least there, I wouldn’t worry about four goals or more going into either net.

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Highmoor IBIS 0 Bracknell 6

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Highmoor IBIS 0 Bracknell Town 6 (31st Dec 2016)

One of the thoughts I’ve had from time to time is to wonder what I’d do if Reading went bust. And by bust I mean properly bust, with the club wound up and the Madejski Stadium being flattened to make way for an extension of the retail park, and future generations of Reading dad’s taking their kids round Wickes or Tesco Extra, saying “You know, I think the penalty spot used to be around here, son”.

If recent history is anything to go by, the club would reform – hopefully with a name more imaginative than AFC Reading – and would look for a new ground to start afresh. That would present something of a problem, as there’s only really one option, Scours Lane, currently home of Highmoor IBIS.

An estate agent could no doubt describe the place in glowing terms – set on the banks of The Thames, this West Reading location has potential for redevelopment – but the sad truth is that it has to be one of the ugliest and unloved grounds I’ve been to.

In fairness to Highmoor, it’s hardly their fault, as they only moved in at the start of the season, after previous residents, Reading Town, were wound up by their owners, Battersea & Wandsworth TUC. It seems the TUC, ironically, had very poor relations with their “workers” at the club and didn’t pay them, causing them to walk out. With the TUC not being willing to show solidarity with their “brothers” against themselves, they shut the club mid-season.

Scours Lane is also, despite its riverside location, not exactly the nicest part of Reading either, as the topping of all the club fences with razor-wire would hint at – coiled in copious amounts that would seem sufficient to deter a military assault, let alone local thieves.

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What struck me though was the mess and random items that seemed to be strewn about the place for no discernible reason. All of the club’s facilities were in a 40 yard wide strip to the east of the pitch. Alongside the bar and tea bar was, for some reason, a table-tennis table, slightly wonky, net hanging off, just plonked on the grass. Further along was a small beer tent, empty, and seemingly on the verge of collapse. Nearby were two sections of fencing stacked aimlessly against the bushes, along with a cheap white plastic chair.

Chairs were a feature on this side, with several plastic orange ones, of the variety you might get in a school or a cheap MOT/Exhaust centre, scattered about, some stacked, one or two upturned. Some presumably empty beer kegs were beside a few more chairs, next to a cheap and functional seating unit down the touchline.

The tea bar was mobile rather than a permanent fixture, offering “Real Fairground Food”, which is good to know, considering the amount of fake fairground food we are constantly bombarded with. I didn’t sample its wares though, and maybe the food there was excellent. I didn’t actually see a Michelin star, but there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.

The far side had a small cover, set way back beyond where anyone would want to stand. The river end had bushes obscuring any hope of seeing the river, while the covered end opposite, with a couple of rows of seats added in one corner, only offered a view beyond of the express trains thundering down the GWR main line, a few yards beyond the cratered car park behind.

The functional new seated stand might be dull, but it was at least an improvement made by Highmoor IBIS, and with the smart sports facilities of the IBIS club next door, maybe they’ll get round to tidying up the rest of the ground too.

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If there’s any cash spare, they could maybe give a thought to investing a little in the team too, as it doesn’t seem to be the best. I had a very poor record watching Bracknell, my home town club. In nine previous games I’d not only never seen them win, I’d only once seem them concede less than three goals. It was very definitely tenth time lucky, smashing the jinx completely with this away haul for Bracknell.

Down at this level, a full five promotions from League Two, mismatches are very common as club fortunes fluctuate violently between optimism and wrist-slashing despair. Highmoor IBIS aren’t the worst team in the division – that honour goes to 18th-placed Burnham (Highmoor are 14th) who, after just 23 games, have already conceded over a century of goals and have a GD of -77, but this result put Bracknell top, which is something of a turnaround for a club that’s spent much of the 21st century plunging the depths of incompetence.

It’s be easy to patronise Highmoor IBIS for pluckily carrying on, giving their all, against the odds, be the reality is that they got thrashed 0-6, at home.

On a bobbly pitch, the game had a pretty consistent pattern, namely Bracknell would attack, get the ball in the box, and the Highmoor defence would either somehow hack it away, or the Bracknell team would queue up to have a whack at the IBIS goal. It wasn’t one-way traffic, but the home side seemed equally inept up front as at the back, and the damage could have been even worse.

So after 10 games, my Bracknell record now reads W1 D3 L6. With my first visit being a good 25 years ago, if not more, that “W” has been a very very long time in coming.

 

 

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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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