Sunday, October 30th, 2005: Skonto Riga, fourteen times champions of Latvia with all of those titles won consecutively from 1991-2004 in order to create a world record, have finally been deposed from their number one position. Their opponents on this day are Liepājas Metalurgs who, only the week before, clinched their maiden Latvian league title with four matches left to play such was their domination in that season. It was fitting that my first ever match on my first ever visit to the beautiful Baltic state of Latvia involved the two aforementioned teams and it was this match, a 1-1 draw with much attacking play, that developed my interest in the game in this part of the world. Many people in my home town of Liverpool (and, no doubt, beyond) think that I’m mad for following Latvian football, and Skonto Riga FC in particular, but it is footballing world far removed from the hype and money obsessed world of the English Premier League and it makes a refreshing change to see football so laid-back as it is there.
Following Metalurgs’ 2005 title success came three-in-a-row for FK Ventspils between 2006-08 and then Metalurgs won their second crown in 2009. It was a painful period for Skonto as they saw their two main rivals win most of the silverware but that was now all in the past as there was no doubting the fact that Skonto Riga were the best team in the LMT Virslīga in 2010. After a five year wait I was finally going to see Skonto FC play a match with the status as champions of Latvia and as I went to the stadium with just twenty minutes to go before kick-off I noticed a familiar face outside the ground. It was none other than Latvian football legend Vitālijs Astafjevs, Europe’s most capped international footballer with 165 appearances for his country to date, who will be known to fans of English club Bristol Rovers for whom he graced the club colours for three years before heading back eastwards. If I was surprised to see and be able to talk to Astafjevs then I was more surprised to meet the Skonto FC and Latvia national coach Aleksandrs Starkovs. For anyone without any knowledge of Starkovs he is a true legend of the game both as a player and a coach. His exploits in the latter category have seen him win twelve league titles and six national cups, all with Skonto, and in 2010, his first season back in charge of Latvia’s record champions, he managed to end Skonto’s six year trophy drought.
Before their final home match of the season Skonto FC had scored the most goals in the league (80) and conceded only sixteen goals, which was the second best record in the league. After clinching the title last week Skonto put on a champions performance against FK Jaunība, who were already as good as relegated before the game began. Yesterday’s game showed the gulf in class between the league’s best and worst sides as Skonto completed dominated possession and territory hardly allowing the visitors to leave their own half of the pitch. Despite Skonto’s dominance they went in at half-time with only a two goal lead, Alans Siņelņikovs opened the scoring in the 23rd minute with left foot thunderbolt in the top left corner and Brazilian Nathan Junior doubled the lead with a headed goal on the half-hour mark.
At the half-time break I met some guys from South London who were all Crystal Palace fans except for one whose allegiances lay firmly with Millwall. Not only did we agree in our assumptions about the cozyness and laid-back attitude of Latvian football (they were particulary impressed at having met two ex-Crystal Palace players – Andrejs Rubins and Aleksandrs Koļinko – at the game) but also a mutual loathing at how English football seems to have lost its soul in its dire pursuit of all things financial. We even spoke about the Bundesliga and I was surprised to find out that one of the Palace fans was also a huge Eintracht Frankfurt, a bit like yours truly, so for me it was a great experience talking to them although they had to miss the second half of the game so I’ll let them know that they missed a pretty good last 45 minutes of the Latvian season.
After the chat it was back to the footie and the second half continued in much the same vein as the first with chance after chance for Skonto. It didn’t take them too long to score goal number three, Nathan Junior again found the net to keep up his impressive goalscoring record for the season. Following that it took until the final ten minutes of the match for the game to truly come alive as Skonto scored three more times thanks to David Janelidze, Igors Tarasovs and another from Junior whose hat-trick came from the penalty spot. For the Brazilian the match topped off a perfect season in which he was the Virsliga’s joint top-scorer with eighteen goals along with Liepājas Metalurgs’ Deniss Rakels. At the final whistle the small but boistorious Skonto hardcore following “H-Side” gave the team a great send-off showing their appreciation by setting off flares into the Riga sky. This culminates a season in which Skonto won the league with 69 points from 27 matches, six ahead of second place FK Ventspils, and will see Latvia’s finest enter the UEFA Champions League at the 2nd qualifying round next season. For FK Jaunība it’s back down to the Pirma Līga after just one season in Latvia’s top flight.
Having lamented Liverpool’s woeful start to the 2010-11 Barclays Premier League season Stoppage Time – International Football Blog went back to Anfield yesterday for what proved to be a crucial three points won for the Reds.
I wrote a report for this section of the blog towards the end of last season regarding Liverpool’s UEFA Europa League quarter-final, 2nd leg against Lille OSC. The situation at that time seemed to most Liverpool fans like a desperate one: sixth in the league, fighting for a ‘mere’ UEFA Europa League place rather than the UEFA Champions League spot they’d grown accustomed to in recent years and out of both domestic cup competitions by January. With the ending of the Rafael Benítez era at the end of last season came the reality that the club were in transition and that the successes of previous years were becoming a distant memory after a fourth trophyless season. Roy Hodgson has since taken over the club and has hardly endeared himself to his new club’s supporters in recent weeks. After a start to the season which saw only one win (1-0 against West Bromwich Albion) in the first eight league games, the club lying in the bottom three and already knocked out of the League Cup against 4th tier side Northampton Town, the time had come for Liverpool to stand up and be counted.
Thankfully the recent ownership issue, in which Liverpool fans had set out to rid the club of their previous owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, had finally passed and yesterday was the first home match under new owners. New England Sports Ventures had taken control prior to last weekend’s Merseyside derby defeat away to Everton and were hopeful that their first home game would bring about the win needed to start things afresh. Before the game there was a surprise live performance of the club’s anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by the one and only Gerry Marsden, the only sad thing for me personally was that the backing track over which Marsden sang sounded like a home karaoke system. Nonetheless the great man was still able to do the song justice and its conclusion signalled the beginning of the game.
The first half saw Liverpool create numerous chances but Blackburn’s goalkeeper Paul Robinson was showing some of the form which once made him England’s number one. Having gone in at half-time with the game goalless Rovers would’ve been satisfied that their game plan of trying to frustrate the home side seemed to be working. However it only took two minutes after the interval for the deadlock to be broken when Sotirios Kyrgiakos scored his second goal of the season getting on the end of a Steven Gerrard corner. The big Greek has started to chip in with the odd goal just like the club’s former centre-half Sami Hyypiä used to do and his personal performances have looked more consistent in recent weeks. Unfortunately for Liverpool they let the lead slip just a couple of minutes later when former player El-Hadji Diouf, not the most popular person at Anfield yesterday and constantly booed whenever he touched the ball, did his bit to silence the home fans after his shot was deflected in by Jamie Carragher. It seemed yet another ominous sign that Liverpool would prove to be their own worst enemies when faced with pressure but this time, rather than let their heads drop, they went up the other end and scored once more in the 53rd minute. Fernando Torres, whose only other league goal this season came in Liverpool’s previous win against West Brom, would score the winning goal against Blackburn and the relief in the crowd was huge, not only because Liverpool had re-taken the lead but because the popular Spanish striker was once again on the score sheet after a recent loss of form.
There were no further goals and it was surprising that Blackburn Rovers hadn’t taken the game more to their opponents especially as they had the comfort of knowing that a Liverpool victory still wouldn’t see the Reds climb above Rovers in the table just yet. Liverpool now have nine points after nine games, the same as Blackburn, but Rovers remain in 17th position (one above Liverpool) due to a better goal difference. Nonetheless for Liverpool yesterday it was about getting back on track and it seemed that Anfield was a happy place to be once more.
Stoppage Time – International Football Blog has made the relatively short trip to the North Wales town of Prestatyn to take in a game from the Welsh Premier League.
Bastion Gardens, the home of Prestatyn Town Football Club, is a long way away from the great stadiums of the world but then the Welsh Premier League is one of world football’s more modest championships. Initially I was going to go further along the north Wales coast to see Bangor City v Airbus UK Broughton in the Friday night match, a game which featured the top two sides in the league going into Matchday 5, but timing issues and prior commitments forced me to miss that particular contest. Nonetheless as I boarded the train going from Liverpool Lime Street to Chester, where I would change for Prestatyn, on Saturday I looked forward to some alternative viewing especially as Lee Trundle, one of my fellow ‘compatriots’ from Liverpool and the league’s marquee player, was expected to star for the visiting team who had some title ambitions of their own after a promising start to the season.
The day began with the traditional pre-match pint at the nearby Royal Victoria pub, just across the road from the train station, where a number of people had gathered to watch the early English Premier League game between Everton and Manchester United. Amongst the crowd was a guy called Paul, a West Bromwich Albion supporter and Groundhopper extraordinaire who was fanatical about travelling across the country to watch lower and non-league football. He had arrived a little late so wanted to know how the Everton game had finished before telling me he was ticking off Bastion Gardens from his footballing to-do list. So it was that we took the short walk from the pub to the tiny stadium which, on a good day, can squeeze as many as 2,500 but there was no danger of that as me, Paul and another 218 (yes, that’s two hundred and eighteen) hardy souls took our places to watch the match. Also present were the commentary team from the Welsh language television channel Sianel Pedwar Cymru, better known to British readers as S4C, amongst them was the former Arsenal, Glasgow Celtic and Wales forward John Hartson who stood only metres from where we gathered behind one of the goals and who was providing expert analysis for the Welsh channel’s live match coverage for the Sgorio football show.
The match itself turned out to be a classic “game of two halves” and, with the wind playing its part, Prestatyn Town dominated proceedings in the first half and should’ve scored more than the sixth minute strike which put the hosts ahead. After the Neath keeper Craig Morris had collided with Town’s Steve Rogers both of whom chasing a long ball forward, Lee Hunt was there to turn the ball home from outside the box much to the pleasure of the loyal Town fans present. The hosts had many opportunities including a shot that hit the crossbar and it seemed that Neath, Trundle et al, hadn’t shown up such was their anonymity. Prestatyn Town’s first half performance was in stark contrast with their previous league match against Aberystwyth Town – not that I was present at that game to see it but a certain Groundhopper next to me was – and with the score 1-0 at the break the home side must’ve fancied their chances of an unexpected win.
But Neath finally woke up in the second half, although Lee Trundle was personally not having his best day at the office, and they got a deserved equalizer in the 73rd minute when Chris Jones’ long-range strike was too hot to handle for Town keeper Jon Hill-Dunt who could only despair as his attempts at keeping the ball out were in vain. From then on both teams had their chances to win the game and, with just minutes to go, Prestatyn thought they should’ve had a penalty but referee Kevin Parry looked like he was never going to give any major decisions in this game. After stoppage time was played the final whistle blew and the final score, as some S4C viewers may have heard it, was “Prestatyn Town Un, Castell-Nedd Un” which, to me and Groundhopper Paul, seemed a pretty fair result.
Having learnt earlier in the day that Bangor City had beaten Airbus UK Broughton in Friday night’s game by five goals to one the Welsh Premier League table was starting to take shape. Bangor City still has a 100% record and leads the way with a six point gap from defending champions The New Saints who beat Carmarthen Town 7-0 yesterday and have a game in hand. After this game Neath Athletic are in sixth place with seven points but have also, like TNS, played four games whilst Prestatyn Town look like they could be facing a difficult season at the wrong end of the table as they have four points from five games and currently lie in ninth place in the twelve team league.
“Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” reports on the 2009-10 Latvian Cup final between FK Jelgava and FK Jūrmala-VV:
Having been in Glasgow for the Scottish Cup final over the weekend I was very much looking forward to going back to a favourite country of mine to watch another surprise domestic cup final. However it seemed that my Monday afternoon flight to Riga would be cancelled after further disruption caused by the now (in)famous Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Thankfully the Gods had decided that I was to be one of the lucky ones to get away and, after arriving as scheduled on Monday evening, it was with great excitement that I went to Wednesday evening’s footballing showpiece in the Latvian capital.
Post-independence Latvian football has been dominated by three teams since the national league began in 1992; Skonto Riga, Liepājas Metalurgs and FK Ventspils. The domestic cup, known locally as Latvijas Kauss, has produced a little unpredictability from time to time. FK Jelgava, situated 45 kilometres away from Riga, had previously tasted success in this competition three times before under their previous guise of RAF Jelgava. FK Jurmala, based in a seaside resort just 25 kilometres away from Riga, had never reached this stage of the national cup before but, despite the history, were still minor favourites to win their first domestic honour. In any case it would be intriging to see who would etch their name into the trophy and follow another surprise winner, FC Daugava from Latvia’s second city of Daugavpils, who won the cup in 2008.
Before the game kicked off I had my traditional pre-match pint in the Calcio Bar which is a part of Skonto stadium. Suddenly a familiar face appeared in the distance and as he walked towards me I said to him “it’s Guntis Indriksons, isn’t it?” to which the bemused man shook his head and said no. I thought for a moment why I had got it wrong but it turned out that I had mistaken the General Secretary of the Latvian Football Federation with the President of the same organization. Some seconds later, having identified the man by his actual name of Jānis Mežeckis, I apologized for my mistake and he was kind enough to take a couple of minutes out from his pre-match schedule to talk to me about Latvian football and pose for a photo (see top). After shaking hands and wishing him well I entered the stadium to see a decent crowd building up for the game. Bearing in mind that the average attendance of the domestic league in 2009 was a mere 448, the crowd for Wednesday’s final was nearly ten times that so it was a good number by Latvian standards especially in a game not involving any of the big three.
The two teams came out at approximately 19:35 local time ahead of kick-off with everybody in the crowd rising for the national anthem before the action got under way. In a tight first half FK Jūrmala-VV, playing in a dark blue kit, just about got the better of the exchanges with a beautifully taken goal from Dmitrijs Paplavskis, turning with his back to goal to guide a right-footed shot home, giving the seasiders a 1-0 lead at the break. It was in the second half that the action really started to get exciting and, just ten minutes after the re-start, Igors Lapkovskis restored parity for FK Jelgava with a well-taken volley from the edge of the penalty area. As the second half went on the quality of the game dipped slightly but this was more than compensated for by the effort and spirit both teams were putting into the game, both believing that their name was on the trophy. With just fifteen minutes to go FK Jūrmala-VV had the advantage once more when Valērijs Čistjakovs scored from close range after the FK Jelgava goalkeeper Marks Bogdanovs could only parry Romāns Bessakovs’ shot into his path. But if there’s one thing you could count on in this year’s Latvian Cup it’s that FK Jelgava wouldn’t give up and, after their heroic comebacks against Liepājas Metalurgs and Skonto Riga in the two previous rounds, they managed to equalize for a second time when Oļegs Malašenoks was brought down in the box with Valērijs Redjko on hand to slot home the resulting spot kick.
With no further scoring in normal or extra-time the game went to a penalty shoot-out. The fans of FK Jelgava, amongst whose supporters I had sat alongside all evening, now firmly believed that their name was on the cup given what had happened in previous rounds. However, after both teams had scored with their first attempts in the penalty shoot-out, FK Jelgava were the first team to miss one when their second attempt was saved by Jūrmala keeper Artūrs Biezais. Further penalties were scored by both sides to make the score 4-3 to FK Jūrmala-VV with one spot kick left each. After FK Jelgava converted their final kick it was up to Romans Nagumānovs to score for Jūrmala. But, instead of celebrating a famous win, he struck his shot against the crossbar sending the penalty shoot-out into sudden death with a 4-4 scoreline after their designated five penalties. After trading a further successful spot kick each it was FK Jelgava who gained the initiative going ahead 6-5 with FK Jūrmala-VV needing to take at least one more kick. Unfortunately for FK Jūrmala-VV it proved to be the final kick of the evening when Gatis Kalniņš’ soft effort down the middle saved by Bogdanovs with his legs to spark scenes of ecstasy in the FK Jelgava section of the stadium where flares were lit to signal a colourful conclusion to the night’s showpiece. All that remained was for LFF General Secretary Mažeckis to hand over the trophy to jubilant FK Jelgava captain Valērijs Redjko who, along with his team-mates, will enter the 2010-11 UEFA Europa League at the second qualifying round.
Watch Match Highlights HERE:
“Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” has been on a journey to Glasgow to watch the final of the 125th Scottish Cup take place at Hampden Park between Scottish Premier League (SPL) club Dundee United and Scottish First Division (second tier) minnows Ross County, the first club from the Highlands of Scotland to reach this showpiece occasion in the competition’s history.
Three friends and myself went to Scotland’s national stadium on Saturday afternoon having had a drunken introduction to Glaswegian nightlife the previous evening only hours after arriving from a four hour drive from Liverpool. On the occasions that conversation with the locals turned to football most people’s reaction was the same; “So you’re going [to] the game? Who do you support?” Within moments of realizing that we were neutrals, two of whom from Scouseland and the other two from Germany, natural surprise would set in; “What do you want to watch that for? Unbelieveable!” But then maybe this reaction is natural from people in a city whose natives are so used to having either one or the other, if not both, of its two giant football clubs Celtic or Rangers play in the final every year. More surprising was that we had tickets for the Ross County section of the ground which was deliberate on our part because it was a truly historic occasion for the club from the small Highland village of Dingwall (population 6,000) whose team were in its first ever major cup final. Their opponents Dundee United had only ever savoured cup final success on one occasion in 1994 when the Terrors defeated Glasgow Rangers 1-0 thanks to a goal from Craig Brewster who, ironically, would be sitting on the bench for Ross County at Hampden Park as County’s assistant to manager Derek Adams.
So as we set off for the stadium it was obvious to all concerned that we should have a pre-match pint but all of the pubs in the vicinity had queues which stretched for what seemed like miles. Having finally managed to squeeze a couple of beers before the game the time was nigh to take the road to Hampden which was considerably shorter for us then it was for the two clubs who had both claimed some big scalps in the tournament before reaching the final. Dundee United had prevented Glasgow Rangers’ quest for the domestic Treble at the quarter-final stage when, in a replayed game, David Robertson claimed a dramatic last-gasp winner for the Tangerines whilst Ross County’s exploits were even more incredible, defeating Hibernian 2-1 in their replayed quarter-final before disposing of cup favourites Glasgow Celtic in the semi-finals thanks to goals from Steven Craig and Martin Scott. But could the Staggies claim a third big scalp or would this be a hurdle too far for the minnows?
The first half of the game, played in front of a crowd of 47,122 which was much larger than anticpated, was light on real goalmouth chances but Dundee United were usually the team that looked more likely to make a breakthrough at some point as they ran the Ross County defence ragged attimes in the first 45 minutes. The best chance of the half came with ten minutes remaining when County’s Alex Keddie came from seemingly nowhere to block a clear opportunity for Danny Swanson who was through on goal after playing a one-two with David Goodwillie. With the game goalless at the break many County were crossing their fingers that they could strike early in the second half and put the pressure on Dundee United but, when the whistle re-started the game, the Tangerines were the only team who looked like they could win the game having a few decent chances before the deadlock was finally broken with an hour of the match gone. County ‘keeper Michael McGovern, who had at times looked indecisive in his penalty box, came out to try and clear the ball only for it to fall to Goodwillie whose impressive lob sent the hoardes of Dundonians in the stadium wild. Craig Conway would go on to complete the scoring for United in the 75th and 86th minutes with two nicely taken goals to give Peter Houston his first silverware as coach after he took over from Craig Levein earlier in the season.
For Ross County the dream was finally over but their 15,000 strong contingent, including two Scousers and two Germans, gave the side the rapturous send-off the team deserved for what was a fantastic cup run for the Highland club and their followers will hope that they don’t have to wait another 125 years to make a second appearance in Scotland’s showpiece cup final. Dundee United, on the other hand, were celebrating their second ever Scottish Cup success and the party was only just beginning.
Strictly speaking this isn’t really an away day for me at all. Anfield is a stadium that I’ve visited on many occasions as for many years I used to live in the Liverpool district of the same name. Admittedly the hallowed turf of Anfield has been a less familiar place for me in recent years as I have indulged in other passions, such as travel, and have begun to follow other teams too. I make no secret of a passion for German club Eintracht Frankfurt and Latvian record champions Skonto Riga having made many visits to both clubs since 2005. However it is still imperative that I can get to see The Reds on that all too rare occasion that the ground doesn’t actually sell out and the UEFA Europa League Round of 16, 2nd leg tie with French side Lille OSC Métropole provided me with the perfect opportunity.
There are many pubs where fans could possibly meet up ahead of a game at Anfield but I tend to choose The Arkles, a pub just on the corner of Anfield Road where Liverpool FC paraphernalia adourns the walls especially that regarding the club’s recent great European nights such as the 2005 UEFA Champions League in Istanbul. However, on this occasion, I couldn’t help but think that I’d taken a wrong turning and somehow ended up in Northern France as this traditional watering-hole for Liverpool supporters had been taken over by fans of Lille OSC. It was a struggle to get to and from the bar as this pub can get packed with supporters before a game but it made a change, admittedly a strangely nice one, to be saying “excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît” rather than “can I get past there, mate” as I tried to find space to stand ahead of a meeting with my good friend Jörg, with whom I was going to enjoy this European encounter. After our first pint things began to get a little too rowdy amongst the Lille fans, many of whom acted like they were in a mosh pit in the middle of the pub, therefore we decided to leave and make our way to the stadium.
Having taken our seats in the world famous Spion Kop section of the stadium our thoughts began to focus on the game ahead. In the first leg of this tie seven days previously the French side, known as Les Douges (The Mastiffs), had secured a 1-0 victory late in the game thanks to an Eden Hazard free-kick which was taken from the left-side touchline and crept into Liverpool’s goal at the far post having avoided a mass of bodies in the penalty area. Things could’ve been worse as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struck a shot against a post just moments after the goal and Liverpool were relieved to see out the first leg with just a one goal reverse. Therefore we were optimistic that if Liverpool scored first in the tie then we would be able to finish the French side off and progress to the quarter-finals. Before the game news was announced that Fulham FC, the other English team left in the UEFA Europa League, had beaten Italian giants Juventus FC 4-1 in their match, thus securing a 5-4 aggregate victory and a cheer from the Liverpool fans in the process. After the traditional rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone the teams came out to the comparable strains of the official UEFA Europa League anthem which, try as it might, doesn’t give that sense of importance as the UEFA Champions League anthem does. Nonetheless there was a game to be played and at 20:05 it kicked off in earnest.
Liverpool started the game in a lively fashion, no doubt spurred on by the 4-1 defeat of Portsmouth FC in the English Premier League three days earlier, and it was after just seven minutes that the game’s first major incident occurred. Brazilian midfielder Lucas Leiva, a player who splits opinion amongst Liverpool supporters, won a penalty after being fouled in the box by Lille defender Adil Rami and talismanic captain Steven Gerrard disposed the penalty with great aplomb, leaving Lille keeper Mickaël Landreau no chance. Liverpool had levelled the tie early and were in the mood to attack further. Despite further chances in the first half from Fernando Torres, Glen Johnson and Daniel Agger Liverpool were unable to score any further goals in the first 45 minutes and were, ultimately, grateful at half-time to goalkeeper Pepe Reina who kept out a shot from Eden Hazrd who had burst his way through the middle of Liverpool’s defence late in the half.
After the break Liverpool began the second half as much as they did the first by looking for a goal and this they duly did just four minutes after the restart. A hopeful punt upfield from Ryan Babel reached Fernando Torres who, with a typically cool head, ran at Landreau before slightly lifting the ball over him into the bottom corner to give The Reds a 2-0 lead on the night, 2-1 on aggregate. From then, rather than attack further, Liverpool seemed to switch off and allowed Lille OSC the opportunity to gradually build up pressure especially during the last twenty minutes of the game. The French went close in the 73rd minute when Ludovic Obraniak’s free-kick found Aubameyang who had a great chance to score in front of the Kop but his shot hit the ground and bounced over the bar. With Liverpool fans starting to get anxious Dirk Kuijt finally reminded everybody that he was on the pitch as he made two hopeful attempts at goal from distance late on. Finally, on 88 minutes, the third goal came thanks to Fernando Torres shooting home from close range after Steven Gerrard’s initial shot had been parried out by Landreau.
The final whistle blew and Liverpool had won 3-0. This game may not have been as legendary as previous Liverpool victories in European competition but it was just as important in the context of the season as a whole. The team seems to be saving its better performances for European competition and the UEFA Europa League does provide a final attempt to salvage something from what’s been a frankly disappointing season. If Liverpool can reach the final in Hamburg on Wednesday, May 12 then some respect will have been brought back to the club but there is still a long way to go in the competition and the quarter-final draw will make interesting viewing.
“Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” is back after a weekend trip to the beautiful Polish town of Wrocław. Whilst there I took in a match from the Polish Ekstraklasa. Here is my report:
It is nearly three years ago that me and three friends, two German and one English, set out on a road trip from Frankfurt to Riga. During the trip, which took in fourteen cities in five countries in just 18 days, we visited two towns in Poland of such contrasting features. Wrocław is a beautiful university town in the Lower Silesia region of Poland and has been restored to former glories after suffering damage during the Second World War, with the old town central to the city’s image. Białystok, on the other hand, appeared rather grey and isolated, its only convenience seeming to be that of a big city on the way to Lithuania. Despite the negative picture that I may have conjured up in that description Białystok, like everywhere I visited on the trip, holds special memories. Therefore I was rather keen to get some of the spirit of that holiday back when I made the decision to visit Wrocław to watch my very own “Road Trip Derby” (it’s hardly a ‘derby’ in the real sense of the word as the two towns are 530km apart!)
Before the game kicked off on Saturday one look at the table would have had you believe that Śląsk Wrocław (pronounced Schlonsk Vrots-Wahf) were the superior side as they had an eight point lead going in to the contest with Jagiellonia. However the side from Białystok (pronounced Beer-Wiss-Stock) had ten points deducted earlier in the season after their involvement in a corruption scandal during the 2004-05 season came to light, therefore I didn’t read anything into the table before the game commenced. I arrived at the stadium some two hours before the 14:45 kick-off time hoping to sample some of the local Piast beer in a nearby bar. Sadly, for those of us who love combining the Beautiful Game with a pint or two, not only were there no bars in the area surrounding the stadium but they didn’t sell any beer inside the stadium itself (this despite the club being sponsored by the local Piast brew!) In a way this could have been a blessing in disguise as the freezing cold temperatures made it more appropriate to go for a nice, hot coffee instead.
I took my seat in sector C, Row II, seat 16 of the Trybuna Kryta, the only stand with a roof in the stadium, and for anybody watching this game with no prior knowledge of Polish football you’d be forgiven at times for thinking that you were witnessing a game involving Lechia Gdańsk or Wisła Krakow as the two ‘friendship’ clubs of Śląsk regularly chant each other’s names in each other’s stadiums. I had already noticed when outside the stadium that fans were wearing Lechia or Wisła merchandise and it made me think that it is unusual to have domestic rivals sporting each other’s colours like this within a domestic league. Fans of teams from differing countries usually have friendships (e.g. Glasgow Celtic & St. Pauli; Atlético de Madrid & Ruch Chorzów) but it’s seldom the case that any two teams from the same domestic league would wear each other’s colours, never mind three teams.
At 14:45 the game got under way and Jagiellonia were certainly the best team in the first half. After having a goal ruled out for offside after five minutes Jagiellonia, wearing bright yellow and red hooped shirts, took the game to their hosts with many chances being carved out against a Śląsk rearguard that had more holes than the proverbial collander. The man who did more damage than anybody for Jagiellonia was Jarosław Lato, whose pace and crossing ability down the left-hand side gave the home side many a headache throughout the afternoon. When given the chance Lato also showed that he has a good shot on him too as it was he who gave the visitors a deserved lead on the 33rd minute when hitting an indirect free-kick hard and low into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
The couple of hundred or so travelling supporters were ecstatic at half time and their joy was to be increased five minutes into the second half. Jagiellonia’s Remigiusz Jezierski let fly from just outside the box after a poorly cleared corner ended up in his path and his sweet left-footed volley flew into the top right-hand corner. At this stage the home side had barely had an shot at goal, save for two weak efforts towards the end of the first half. Jagiellonia tried to keep possession and took every opportunity to waste time during the last thirty minutes of the game and they were coasting until a corner in the 77th minute gave Śląsk a lifeline they’d hardly deserved. Piotr Celeban got his head on to a near post corner and diverted the ball towards the far post where the ball went in the top left corner to halve the deficit. Sadly for Wrocław they were unable to get a second even though they had five minutes of stoppage time to try. If anything Jagiellonia should’ve put the game to bed when Kamil Grosicki’s attempt at rounding the Śląsk keeper were thwarted but the damage was already done. Jagiellonia celebrate three points which took them up to 11th in the table just five points behind Śląsk who lie in eighth spot.
In the second of an irregular series, “Away Days” looks at my trip last weekend to follow the ‘Adler’ (Eagles) of Eintracht Frankfurt on Matchday 19 of the German Bundesliga against 1.FC Nürnberg:
I arrived on Friday afternoon in Frankfurt am Main, a city which is gradually becoming a second home to me, and after being welcomed into the home of my good friend Christian we went to the “Elfer”, a pub whose mix of people watching football on the TV and of those more interested in playing the table version of the game very much gives the impression that the sport is quite important in this favoured watering-hole. I was here to meet four members of the “EFC 11-er Freunde” – the pub’s own Eintracht Frankfurt supporters’ club – with whom I would embark on an away trip to the Franconian city of Nuremberg the following morning. Following many introductory beers we met up on the Saturday morning with perhaps yours truly being the only person suffering from the previous night’s alcoholic excesses. Thankfully, though, the bus turned up in the famously rowdy Sachsenhausen area at 9:30am which signalled the time when I could sample a “Katerfrühstück” (lit. ‘hangover breakfast’) in the form of a bottle of Beck’s and that was to signal the beginning of the four hour trip to our destination.
The bus comprised members of various other Eintracht fan clubs whose numbers seemed to be larger than our own small but no less passionate quintet of travellers. Fan club chairman Martin, his brother Robert and fellow ‘Adler’ Daniel were all as keen as everybody else who I spoke to that day as to why someone from Liverpool has chosen to follow their beloved Eintracht. For the record I saw my first game in Waldstadion in 2006 (Eintracht 1:1 VfL Wolfsburg) and since then I’ve tried to get back whenever possible. Perhaps the main highlight before this weekend was at my first Eintracht away day in February 2008 in Berlin, a match notable by Martin Fenin’s hat-trick, only the fourth such “Dreierpack” by a player making his debut in the Bundesliga since the league began in 1963. We were hoping that something just as exciting would happen in Nuremberg and, more importantly, that the unbeaten record I had when watching Eintracht live in the stadium would continue. After a booze-fuelled, classic sing-a-long, away trip we arrived at the Easy-Credit-Stadion (perhaps the worst name for a stadium I’ve ever encountered) with all Eintracht fans in good voice as we proudly announced to the world that “die Frankfodder sind da” before proceeding to the odd-shaped concrete stadium we were about to enter.
Inside the ground me and the Elfer lads were joined by around 3,000 travelling ‘Adler’, some of whom at the front provided the colour as the teams walked out on to the field with the smoke of flares drifting in the air. Following this the singing began and was not exactly going to stop with two megaphone-carrying fanatics making sure that the Eintracht faithful kept their lungs busy with songs of gusto. Less than a minute into the game we nearly had an early goal to cheer but, alas, Patrick Ochs shot over the bar with the first chance of the game. After that though the game turned into a laboured midfield battle for both teams as they struggled to break each other down so I guess it was no surprise that the deadlock was broken thanks to a set-piece. After a foul on Charisteas in the Eintracht half a free-kick from Pascal Bieler flew towards a crowd of players in the penalty box and it was Christian Eigler who rose highest to put the hosts in front on 27 minutes, much to the annoyance of our end who thought it was an undeserving way to take the lead. It was to prove the only time we would ever hear the 1.FC Nürnberg supporters all afternoon but one can only guess that Eintracht’s equalizing goal five minutes before half-time had taken the wind out of their sails. A cross from the ever reliable Patrick Ochs on the right-hand side was headed at the far post by Benjamin Köhler before an oncoming Dennis Diekmeier could do anything about it. Our end went berserk and the hoardes of Eintracht fans were happy that the score was level at the half-time break.
Sadly the second half carried on in much the same vein as the first 45 minutes with limited scoring chances and, as a spectacle, was far from a classic. Indeed the rest of the lads from the Elfer fan group were more pre-occupied by the apparent lack of safety being shown by the upper tier above our heads which seemed to move more and more menacingly as the fans above bounced up and down. However this worried us little as the game drew to a close with both sides having at least one good chance each to seal the deal with Illay Gündoğan and Alex Meier missing late chances towards the end for 1.FCN and Eintracht respectively. Nonetheless a 1-1 draw was, on reflection, a fair result and it meant that my unbeaten record when watching Eintracht live was preserved. Both teams were satisfied with the point, Eintracht because it took them to the same number of points as Werder Bremen in sixth place whilst 1.FC Nürnberg ended a run of five consecutive defeats. At the end of the game the Eintracht players saluted the loyal ‘Adler’ with Christoph Preuß leading the singing on one of the megaphones provided by the fanatics. After the match we were back on the road to Frankfurt enjoying the same ritual of songs and beer until we arrived back around 22:00 ready to enjoy the rest of the night in “Klapper 33”, a well-known hangout for Eintracht supporters in the Sachsenhausen district.
The following day I signed a form provided to me by Martin to become an official member of the “EFC 11-er Freunde” (subject to a medical, of course 🙂 whilst aboard the “Ebbelwoi Express”, a tram which takes in all the sights of the city whilst the passengers indulge in the Frankfurt speciality of Apple Wine. It was a fitting way to conclude the weekend as it signified on paper as well as in spirit that I am well and truly “Eintracht für immer” (always Eintracht). Therefore I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody involved for a fantastic trip. Freundschaft!
Anybody familiar with the German football magazine “11 Freunde” will have noticed a monthly section called “Auswärtsspiel” (lit. “away game”) whereby various reporters and contributors will report on random matches, anywhere in the world, which they have been to in a particular month. Whether it be a high pressure, top quality English Premier League match, a bottom of the table six-pointer in the South Korean second division or a fifth-league mid-table clash in Peru, football has the unique ability to be so universal and yet project different cultures and atmospheres to the wider world. “Stoppage Time” has, shamelessly, copied this idea and is hoping that our readers can enjoy a similar experience to which German readers are accustomed. In the first of an irregular series, “Away Days” focuses on the FA Cup, third round match played between Tranmere Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday, January 3rd:
I arrived in O’Neill’s Irish Bar in Liverpool just before midday ready to sample two interesting matches on television. The Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers kicked-off at 12:30 followed by the Manchester United v Leeds United match at 12:45. Me and my four German friends Jörg, Simon, Markus and Matthias, all of whom taking the opportunity to indulge in a bit of Groundhopping during the Bundesliga winter break having been to Everton’s Goodison Park stadium the day before, had already sampled many beers before the shock at the events at Old Trafford were confirmed before our soon to be blurry eyes; a 1-0 victory for Leeds United. The locals were buzzing with the result as, in theory, the chances of local giants Liverpool and Everton going to Wembley had increased slightly thanks to their near neighbours misfortune. It was on the back of this result that we got into a taxi to go ‘over the water’ (i.e. ‘across the river’ in local parlance) and to get ready for a less glamourous, but no less important, cup match taking place at Prenton Park (pictured).
Tranmere Rovers are very much the third force in Merseyside football currently residing in England’s Coca-Cola League One (i.e. third league). The glory days of the mid-1990’s and early 2000’s when Tranmere rose from from the then Third Division to the second tier of English football as well as playing in a string of Wembley Play-Off and cup finals (most famously the 2000 League Cup final which they lost 2-1 to Leicester City), are increasingly a distant memory. Since then the club have suffered demotion back to the third tier and, like many clubs in England, are facing great financial difficulty. Having sacked their previous coach John Barnes after only four months in charge, former club physio Les Parry has slowly got the team playing as a unit and have risen from bottom of the table to third bottom, just four points from the safety zone. Their opponents Wolverhampton Wanderers are experiencing something of a renaissance since their promotion back to the Premier League in 2008-09. Under the leadership of Mick McCarthy “Wolves” have steadily built into a team that are finding their feet in the top flight again (they currently lie 15th in the Premier League) and recently faced criticism for playing a severely weakened side in a league game against Manchester United, choosing to save the bulk of the players for other games they thought it easier to win. Despite this McCarthy has been pragmatic in his approach and he still has the fans on his side after what has been, thus far, a difficult season.
Another friend of ours, Liam, belatedly joined us in the Prenton Park pub just outside the stadium before the game kicked-off. After another couple of beers were enjoyed the six of us set out to take our seats in the Johnny King Stand (named after Tranmere’s most successful coach) and, on a bitterly cold evening, the last game of the FA Cup third round got under way. After what was a largely uneventful first twenty minutes news came through the stadium that the draw for the fourth round had just been made. A voice some rows behind me shouted “Crystal Palace at home, next round”. Maybe one of the players close to the touchline heard the news as it was from this point that the game began to improve with a few half chances, Wolves’ Sylvain Ebanks-Blake having the best opportunity after his close range header was stopped by Rovers’ keeper Luke Daniels. The second half started at a good old pace and it was the home side who looked the most dangerous. The best chance fell to Tranmere striker Terry Gornell who, after he’d beaten Wolves ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey to the ball in the eighteen yard box, stabbed his effort just wide and it was from then that things looked like they wouldn’t go for Tranmere. This was to be proved in the 78th minute after a killer through ball from Wolves’ midfielder Nenad Milijas was driven home from just outside the penalty area by Matt Jarvis. This was particulary harsh on Tranmere who had put a lot of effort into a game which, according to a steward at half-time, might not have gone ahead due to the extreme temperatures making the pitch very tough. Despite this though the crowd of 7,500 gave both teams a standing ovation in what was a competitive game played in a good spirit. Wolves may have won but they were certainly made to work for it from a club who are two divisions down the English football ladder.
From there it was back to the Prenton Park pub for a couple more beers to round off what had been a good day. Now I can look forward to my next away day: 1. FC Nürnberg v Eintracht Frankfurt on January 23rd. Until then, and to my Groundhopping friends from Germany, “auf wiedersehen!”