Monthly Archives: November 2013

FOOTBALL – Oct 23rd – UEFA Champions League – Bayer Leverkusen vs Shakhtar Donetsk

I was scheduled to be in Cologne for a trade fair (the only reason Cologne exists I think), so when casually looking through one of the UK papers on the plane over, the Champions League fixtures caught my eye. I saw that Bayer Leverkusen were at home and seemed to recall that Leverkusen was vaguely close to Cologne – well, close enough to investigate the possibility of getting to the game anyway. As it turns out, the Leverkusen ground is by far easier and quicker to get to, than FC Koln’s stadium is in Cologne itself!!!!

Shakhtar, being from the Ukraine aren’t the most fashionable of European teams, so there wasn’t going to be an issue with tickets. It was a pity that it wasn’t either of the other two teams in this group, as that would have been an infinitely more attractive spectacle, being Manchester United or Real Sociedad – mind you tickets may have been a tad harder to come by in those instances.

Walking to the stadium from the station is quite surreal and unbelievably foreign to someone that has followed British football for so long. You have to walk to the stadium through a park full of trees and very limited lights. I’m sure it may have been wildly different if it was a local derby or possibly a visit from a British team, as there was little police presence in the dark reaches of the park. It definitely would never happen in the English leagues (even down in League 2!), it would be far too dangerous!But with the visit of only a few wealthy (former) Russians, I guess they weren’t expecting too much trouble.

The Germans obviously can’t go to a football match without having a few drinks on the way. As well as drinking in the station, the fans then down a couple on the train, and just to make sure you don’t miss out, there were also numerous entrepreneurial types selling cans of beer along the way. As the BayArena came into view it is an impressive sight. It has a hotel inside the ground, and some of the rooms overlook the ground. It allegedly has a “world class” restaurant there  too, but I failed to spot the Michelin stars from my corner of the stand.

IMAG1922BayArenaIt has a more than interesting recent history. The stadium was supposed to be upgraded to the minimum 40,000 seats for the 2006 World Cup, but a combination of the club, the city and the World Cup organising committee decided it wasn’t a worthwhile exercise. Instead they decided that the German National team would be based there, until  coach Jurgen Klinsmann felt it would be better to be based in Berlin instead. As compensation for this change of heart, Germany were supposed to play a couple of International friendlies there, which to this date haven’t quite happened. In the end, it was used four times during the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

So, a German team coached by a Finn, playing against a Ukrainian team coached by a Romanian. Looking at the team sheets, I still don’t understand how it is possible that a Ukrainian team can have 7 (yes, SEVEN) Brazilians in their matchday squad PLUS an Argentinian AND on top of that a Brazilian that now plays for Croatia! Amazing… I’m not 100% sure that it is doing their National team any good at all, but I guess that gets said about near enough every team that makes it to the Group stages of the Champions League.

Leverkusen seemed to be doing their fans a favour by saving them money on the replica shirt names, as their strikeforce contained Sam, Can and Son! Leverkusen have been accused of having a “plastic” fan base and German fans have nicknamed them Neverkusen as they have never won the Bundesliga in their 109 year history. If you witnessed the passion and atmosphere the Leverkusen fans generated, there is no way on Earth you could ever accuse them of being plastic. I have to say that in all my years of watching football all over the world, these fans were up there with the best of them. The Champions League is sometimes bereft of atmosphere due to the limited away support, but fair credit to the home fans, they never stopped, before, during and after the game!

Loved the great use of Status Quo in their goal celebrations too. The Germans still continue their love affair with cheesy 80s rock!!! In the goal celebrations the ground announcer had a routine where the fans played their part, but did you notice at the end of it, the announcer thanked the fans and the fans thank him back!!! Brilliant.

The game itself was as one sided as the score suggests. Shakhtar tried hard, but ultimately didn’t create anything of note. What astounded me most was that the overlapping right wing back, put in cross after cross without the ball ever leaving the floor. Unbelievable at that level. I cannot imagine that he genuinely thought he could get the ball into the box through a sea of legs. Leverkusen though, being German, were typically efficient, and took their chances when they came. When Stefan Kiessling scored in the 22nd minute it was the beginning of the end for the Ukrainians.  Although, looking at the official stats, there seems to be a certain anomaly that you notice straight away:

Lverkusen stats How can you score 4 goals with only 2 shots on target????? There seems to be 2 “immaculately conceived” goals there.

All in all it was a great night. The impromptu nights out always seem to be the ones that give you the most enjoyment. Possibly because you don’t have too many high expectations, and anything decent is always a bonus! We walked back to the station with the Leverkusen faithful through the dimly lit trees, passing even more ad hoc beer vendors, sharing the trip back to Cologne with a very happy bunch of fans. Not sure whether local beer sales improve with a win, or they just stay the same. I wonder if the only improve when they lose and the locals drown their sorrows! You can never quite tell with the Germans!

UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUP A

BAYER LEVERKUSEN 4 – 0 SHAKHTAR DONETSK

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MUSIC – October 16th – IMAGINE DRAGONS @ Palace Theatre, Melbourne

When is a sold out gig a sold out gig? Imagine Dragons came all the way to Australia to play all of 2 shows, one in Sydney and this one in Melbourne. It was the first time they had ever been down under, and as they are one of the hottest bands around, it was no surprise that both shows sold out in the space of an hour or so. Ebay tickets were going for 4 times their face value in the days leading up to the show. The Palace Theatre is a fairly small mid-size venue (does that make it a large small venue?) so tickets were as scarce as local cab drivers. So, when you turn up and they are selling tickets on the door (cash only!!!!), you just have to ask WTF????

The Palace was as packed as I have ever seen it. Imagine Dragons’ music does seem to cross a lot of genres and has a wide appeal, so it really wasn’t surprising. Their songs have featured prominently outside of radio play which always helps popularity. On Top of the World is featured in the Samsung Galaxy Note ad, as well as in the video game FIFA 13!!! That’s generally where I always get my music fix – playing FIFA!!!! Radioactive, as well as being rammed down our throats by commercial radio at every opportunity over the past few months, has been used in the Beats by Dr. Dre ads and in numerous sporting contexts across the board recently. I’ll be honest and say straight out that I truly detest this song and cannot fathom why it has received so much airplay. Someone pointed out to me that it is just one of those viral tunes that sticks in your head and no matter how hard you try, it’s always there in the back of your mind. I guess that’s the secret to success – get something that just gnaws away at your sanity until you give in!!!

Its Time was featured on Glee and subsequently used on National Geographic ads, but the crowning glory was when it was used by Sky Sports in their end of season montage to celebrate England & Wales winning the 2013 Ashes series!!! Football AND Cricket – what’s next for this band?????

The first thing you notice about the stage is that it is filled with drums, including a huge one front and centre. The band enter the stage 10 minutes early to rapturous screams and cheers. The reception is nearly as ear deafening as the drum intro to Round and Round that gets smashed out. I use the verb smashed carefully, as within a minute of the gig starting the lead singer put his drumstick through the skin of the huge drum. It’s lucky drums have two sides……

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Imagine Dragons do have a great sound and it’s difficult to pigeonhole them into a specific genre. There’s definite indie influences of The Killers, Coldplay and Arcade Fire, but there’s a Paul Simon and Mumford & Sons feel to their music too. They do like to bang out some rhythms though. Every band member has access to a drum kit and regularly join in on the skins – but not as much as the lead singer though, who quite clearly didn’t see himself as the Don Henley or Phil Collins of the band, but didn’t want to let his drumming talents go to waste.

I did feel sorry for the roadie who had to chase flying drumsticks about the stage during nearly every tune, when our front man decided to throw them on the floor when he had finished his bit. The drum rhythms really made the music stand out in a live environment. They probably wouldn’t come across as well on radio, but live, they just suck you in. Not that the band needed any help doing that.The crowd interaction was just about spot on. There was enough sing-a-longs for everyone, there was a bit of banter between songs and there was a genuine humbleness shown by the band in appreciation of where they were, who they were playing in front of, and their meteoric rise to where they are now.

Fair credit to our front man Dan, he knew how to pronounce Mel-burn too, as most Americans do pronounce it as it’s spelt – Mel-born! I liked the way he fronts the band. He has quite a presence up front and does command the stage – even when he plays any of the four of five drum kits in stage, he does it with quite a verve!

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He possesses a decent voice too, which will only get stronger with more and more live performances like this one! I have to say that he is by far the good looking one out of the band – the others are questionable at best. The lead guitarist could quite conceivably be a Hanson reject and we can all stop looking now, because we have managed to find the whereabouts of Zed from Police Academy. All along he had been hiding all this time behind the 4 stringer in the Dragons:

imagine dragons zed

This is a great tune and one of my favourites, only made better with the crowd participation. Other highlights include the dancey, upbeat, synth-poppy Underdog, complete with tens of larger than life balloons descending on the crowd, that when burst showered everyone with confetti, the seemingly impromptu Stand By Me cover (it wasn’t, it was always meant to be there – I don’t think impromptu is quite their thing yet!), and the anthemic rock of Bleeding Out, where the crowd really belted out the chorus – all memorable stuff.

The show was a quality night. The blend of inoffensive indie-pop coupled with banging drum solos and rhythms even made an 8 minute version of Radioactive to end the show palatable!!!

They did come back on stage to finish off with the more than apt, Nothing Left to Say as their encore – in my opinion a much better show stopper than Radioactive. They started 10 minutes early and they finished 10 minutes early – which tells you they keep a pretty tight ship with their set lists. The fans bought in to the show completely and would have gone home very happy! I have no doubt that we will see a lot more of Imagine Dragons both in Australia and in the charts. And when they come back, I am more than happy to say that I will definitely go and see them again – mind you, I doubt that it will be at the good old Palace Theatre next time!

 

FOOTBALL – Oct 26th – La Liga – El Clasico – Barcelona v Real Madrid

This year has been a stellar year in terms of sporting events for me. I have been able to tick off a few bucket list items and when the opportunity arose to go and see “El Clasico”, the Barcelona vs Real Madrid showdown at the Camp Nou, well not even an outbreak of Ebola could keep me away. This is the now probably the most anticipated domestic fixture in world football.

A few days out from the game however, I still had not secured a ticket and this was becoming extremely worrying, not to me personally, but essentially to my wallet! This game is the one the local fans look forward to every year. Tickets for this game are as rare as a stylish mullet. The normal touting sites had their cheapest tickets starting around € 350 (plus booking, convenience & delivery fees!) for seats in the top of the stadium. And when you have a stadium that holds nearly 100,000, then you can be pretty sure that those ones are going to be quite a way away. In the lead up to the game I had contacted the Barcelona club about tickets, trying to play the Australian card, but to no avail. The very nice senora in the club had tried to sell me hospitality packages ranging from € 1,150  right up to € 2,950. I’d want a spot on the bench for that sort of money! So it was back to the black market or just leave it to try my luck outside the ground. That’s not the best option when you have travelled half way around the world via the UK and Germany!

I was in Cologne (on business) on Thursday morning and logged on to my computer and thought I would try the Barca site again (bear in mind I had tried 4 or 5 times a day for the past few weeks!) and there it was. They were selling tickets – it’s not often I get a cold sweat when on the internet – well not usually at that time of the morning, and especially with my boss sleeping in the next bed to me. I could see the seats available. I could select the available seats. I could get to the payment page, but could I buy them???? Could I hell. I tried time and time again, but no. I contacted my new best friend at Barcelona and she told me to go through the Spanish Ticketmaster site. So I did. Again, the seats were there to be bought, but could I make a purchase? Could I hell.

So I decided I should ring Ticketmaster in Spain, from my Australian mobile, in Germany. I spoke to a very nice man whose English was better than mine, who happily told me I had rung the wrong number – now that’s an interesting conversation to say the least!!!! So I tried again and got through to someone else who didn’t speak English, so I asked – in my broken Spanish that I hadn’t used since 1990 – to speak to someone who “habla ingles” who could help me and eventually I was put through to another beautifully sounding senorita, who proceeded to tell me that Ticketmaster were not actually selling tickets over the phone or online, and the only way I could buy them through the Barcelona website… Aaaaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhhhh !!!!

Time was being eaten away and tickets were diminishing by the second. So I logged in again and I managed to secure what looked like the very last two seats in the stadium. Instead of contributing € 700+ to the black market economy, I managed to save myself and my grateful boss well over € 500 – that’s a lot of tapas and San Miguels. Thank the Lord!!!

Now, my boss is a Real Madrid fan. I had bought the only tickets I could and they were in amongst the Home fans. I feared the worst. I sensed that I would have to play the Australian card on a number of occasions on game day just to survive. This was made even more difficult when my boss presented me with a brand new Adidas “1977-82 Newport County” amber edition of the Real Madrid shirt, complete with BALE 11 on the back.

aldridge baleAnd he wondered why I only wanted the Amber version…….

As it turned out there was more good news as it was announced that the world’s most expensive player, the £ 86 million Welshman, Gareth Bale, would be making his first start for Real Madrid. We decided that as we had nothing better to do, that we would walk from Las Ramblas to the stadium which was a good hour’s amble, punctuated nicely with a few stops for sustenance along the way. As we walked, we received numerous second glances from the locals, but ignorance in this case, was definitely bliss.

After a couple of stops and some “friendly” goading from some Barca fans along the way, to which I just turned round and pointed to the BALE on the shirt which received the genuine pantomime response of “woooooooooohhhhh” showing complete disdain for the world’s most expensive player!! It was quite comical really. Right around the corner from the ground we were pulled up by some locals who were having a couple of pre-match drinks, who showed genuine concern that we were walking into the heart of the Barca fans. They were from Madrid, so we joined them for a few beverages. They spoke very good English, but the more we had to drink the more “naughty” Spanish phrases they taught us, just in case we got collared!! I’m not sure it would have worked – “No comprende cipote” and “no habla espanol pichacorta” !!! In fairness, they basically warned us not to dwell in certain areas and not to make too much eye contact! It was good advice, as right round the corner there were bars and restaurants full of boozed up Barca fans. I’m still not sure if it was brave or incredibly stupid what we were doing, but we got a fair few dirty looks as we made our way to the ground.

At this stage we still weren’t in possession of any tickets, and after wading our way through the crowds we found the old, decrepit ticket booths. To my eternal surprise, we collected the tickets without any issue, but when walking away, it was like being in a Bollywood movie, when we were swamped with touts chasing us for spares. We moved into the grounds and the first thing you notice is how old everything is. The stadium opened in 1957 and I think that not much has been done to it since! The long trek up to our seats saw us climb 18 sets of steps. I was genuinely glad to get to my seat – after 12 beers and a load of tapas, I was so buggered I was able to ignore the 10,000 sets of eyes that instantly homed in on the enemy that was invading their territory.

Inside the ground is amazing. The size of the bowl is quite phenomenal. It was an amazing site to see the fans in the stadium donning the stripes before the game. We were a long way up, but you were still “on top” of the field. The roar when the game kicked off was ear busting.

What interested me was the prominence of the yellow and red striped Barca shirt instead of the traditional red and blue. It was everywhere. During the first half there was the display of the Catalan flag and banner flown that exclaimed “It is normal to want a normal country”. The push towards independence for Catalunya is gathering pace and using this game as a platform for political posturing is now the norm. Although the girl I was sitting next to explained to me that the King will never let it happen.

barca flag banner

The game itself was a feeling out process. Bale started as a central striker which surprised everyone, although he swapped with Ronaldo and Di Maria regularly, but this meant that Real Madrid kept losing their shape. It was an opportunist strike, as well as some very lax defending, from Neymar that opened the scoring less than 20 minutes in. That goal kind of steered the tempo of the game. Chances were few and far between, and Victor Valdes made a string of decent saves to roars of the Barca fans. It says a lot about a keeper when 100,000 fans chant “VICTOR, VICTOR” every time you make a save!!! However, the turning point came around the 70 minute mark, when in the space of 45 seconds, Ronaldo was bundled over in the box for a clear penalty that wasn’t given and then a Benzema thunderbolt from 25 yards rocketed into the bar.

Minutes later, this happened:

An absolute quality finish that killed the game off to the delight of the home fans. It said much about the game that Messi was never a factor and overshadowed by Neymar. When Ronaldo was bundled over in the box and not given a penalty, he basically sulked for the rest of the match. Bale was lost as a striker. Jesse scored a consolation goal in injury time for Real, that somewhat appeased my boss!!! In fairness, Barcelona deserved the points, whilst Madrid missed the composure of Alonso in midfield.

In the end it was a fair result and it made our passage back to the hotel far more comfortable. As a neutral it was great to experience the occasion.

LA LIGA

FC BARCELONA 2 – 1 REAL MADRID

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FOOTBALL – Oct 22nd – Football League 2 – Plymouth Argyle v Newport County

When Shakespeare was a young cadet sports journalist, football headlines rolled off the tongue like “The Taming of the Shrew(sbury)”, “All’s Well that ends Well” and “The Comedy of Errors”. Shakespeare himself would have definitely ran with “Much Ado About Nothing-Nothing” for this one.

In the end it was a game where County were adequate enough not to lose and Argyle not quite good enough to go and win. So a scoreless draw, littered with a lack of intensity in difficult conditions, was a fair result. When the highlight of a game is a floodlight failure and the fans reaction to it, you know its been quite a dour affair.

IMG_2358BAD PLAY STOPPED LIGHT

“Argyle Fans using their mobile phones to try and add some light to the situation!”

Newport County have not lost to Plymouth Argyle for over 28 years. To be completely honest, if the next game was another 28 years away, no-one would really mind! But, since that game in 1985 the fortunes of both clubs have seen wildly different trajectories. Plymouth have been top of Tier 2 within the past 7-8 years, just one rung below the Premier League, playing at home to crowds of over 20,000. Newport have been as low as Tier 9, with home crowds barely touching the 300 mark! The fact that today’s match is exactly where these two clubs parted ways all those years ago, illustrates the stories of both their fluctuating fortunes.

Not even a half time appearance by dual-club legend Tommy Tynan could spark the game into life. I grew up idolising Tommy Tynan and John Aldridge and it was a sad day for me when County hit financial problems and he had to be sold to Plymouth, although my dad was unbelievably ecstatic as he was (and still is) an Argyle fan. Tynan is one of those figures you occasionally get in the lower leagues that is truly above cult status, totally revered by the fans. Someone that plays football for the love of the game, wears his heart on his sleeve and just happens to bang it in the net on a regular basis – Tynan scored 257 goals in his league career. He could have and should have played a much higher standard but didn’t. No doubt he should have made a lot more money out of football, but didn’t.

In 1991, when playing for Torquay, a bonding trip went awry when he was punched in the eye by his captain Wes Saunders. Tynan responded by hitting the skipper with a kettle! Tynan’s autobiography is titled “The Original Football Idol”.  The author Ryan Danes decided to write the book, only after meeting local cabbie Tynan, when he picked him up from a night out in Plymouth! Tynan is still a Plymouth cabbie!!!

Over 400 delusional souls made the 280 mile round trip to Home Park for a Tuesday night encounter that will live in the memory about as long as face yoga, Pogs or the Atkins Diet. Strangely enough, the 5,689 that were at Home Park tonight was the highest league crowd that County had played in front of this season!

argyle v county away fans2“The Away End”

With few highlights, you sometimes  feel sorry for journalists who had to make a decent story out of this one. My own personal memory was that the pub had Doom Bar on tap – a fantastic brew for a quality night out. If only they served it in the ground? They don’t – but they do serve “Pilgrim’s Pleasure” ice cream – match specific too. What more do you want when it’s 11 degrees and pissing it down?

PAFC v NCFC pint

“Doom Bar & Pilgrim’s Pleasure Ice Cream”

It was a strange feeling “going away” again. Some of the old instincts come flooding back! Finding a local pub and having to ask whether it was okay to drink in there. Ensuring that where you park is going to be safe and that your car will be in driveable condition after the game. Making sure that you’re not too far away from black and amber and not isolated amongst green. Newport County are a league club nowadays, and football is football and although isolated, there will always be some nutters about – The County have had their fair share over the years!

Plymouth Argyle compared to Newport County are a big club. For Newport to be happy to come to Home Park and do just enough to take a point back to Wales is a sign of where both teams are at. Not that long ago (only 4 seasons) there were 5 leagues between the two clubs, now Newport are the ones moving onwards and upwards. If Plymouth keep playing like they did tonight, then they are in danger of losing their League status for the first time since 1920! The County fans are only too familiar with that scenario!

SKYBET FOOTBALL LEAGUE 2

PLYMOUTH ARGYLE 0 – 0 NEWPORT COUNTY

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