Category Archives: Football
After the first game of the season I boldly proclaimed that Melbourne Victory would not just win the league but the whole damn thing. That was on October 10th. The final was 1st vs 2nd, and as the larger Etihad Stadium was pre-booked (can you believe it?) AAMI Park’s 30,000 capacity guaranteed sell-out and an hour before kick-off the scalpers were taking $ 300+ a ticket. It was a glorious Autumnal day, touching 23 degrees without a cloud in the sky. The atmosphere was building and the Victory fans made their procession from a local pub to to the ground en masse. This created quite a media stir too, who just love to blow football crowds out of all proportions.
The Victory’s recruitment in the off-season was unparalleled in Australian domestic history, but Kevin Muscat (the world’s dirtiest player) was still at the helm. They signed Albanian goal poacher Besart Berisha from Brisbane Roar, former French U/21 captain Matthieu DelPierre, veteran Socceroo Carl Valeri, Macedonian International Daniel Georgievski AND €5 million man, Tunisian captain Fahid Ben Khalfallah. In the end Muscat’s influence would count for little. The players won this Championship as in 29 games, I still can’t recall a game where Muscat had any direct influence on, or during a game.
What struck me during this game was the atmosphere. One thing about having the biggest game of the season at the smaller, rectangular venue is that the crowd’s noise will fill and bounce round the stadium. The noise was continuous too, right from when the players walked on to the field, right until they finally left it, half an hour after the game ended. The Sydney fans were a credit too. Even though they had little to shout about they were non-stop for 90+ minutes. There was a time midway through the second half where for 10-15 seconds the Sydney fans could be heard loud and proud. Within seconds, three and a half sides of the stadium sang as one and near enough blasted the roof off. Truly phenomenal. It is an atmosphere that the AFL just cannot recreate.
Sydney were the form team over the last 2 months of the season, in fact they hadn’t lost away from home all year, but from the kick off their game plan was clear. A clattering foul in the first 5 seconds set the tone for the first 15 minutes. Sydney were intent to disrupt by any means possible, but that proved detrimental in as much as they forgot about any possession and allowed Melbourne to dictate. When Jacques “Lip Up” Faty injured himself after only 17 minutes, he really wasn’t adequately replaced which allowed Victory captain Milligan to run the game unchallenged. The breakthrough came through a familiar source, but in a very non-A-League manner. Absolute quality from the Albanian;
Sydney mustered only one shot in the half and that was literally with the last kick. Victory were in total control. The second half started and panned out as the first finished. Barbarouses could and should have made it 2-0 within only 60 seconds of the restart. Melbourne asserted their dominance for the next 40 minutes without really being challenged at the other end. On the 75 minute mark Janko had a header well saved, which accounted for Sydney’s second and final shot on goal. Graham Arnold and the Sky Blues had no answers and in the last 8 minutes of the match the final nails in the coffin were hammered home.
Barbarouses has been outstanding all season, only really outshone by Khalfallah, and deserved a goal in the big one. Broxham is at best a bit-part player who is lucky to be on an A-League roster. He is incredibly limited in ability but is versatile and every now and again makes you
drop your jaw eat your words by doing something that he really shouldn’t be capable of! 3-0 was a fair result in the end and to win both of their finals’ games by the same scoreline truly reflects how dominant Melbourne really were in the competition.
The Victory take home the Golden Toilet Seat for the third time. And the excitement wasn’t finished or even confined to the match itself. The trophy presentation proved even more entertaining:
Luckily his wallet broke his fall!!!! Frank Lowy is 85, chairman of the Hyundai A-League and is Mr. Westfield, amongst other companies. It could have been so much worse and I’m glad it wasn’t. Lowy has saved and re-built football in Australia near enough single-handedly. Moral to the story being – don’t build fancy presentation stages with dodgy curved steps!
Kevin Muscat will be lauded until he fails which could be a few years yet. Money coupled with reputation will attract very good players. Players will win the majority of games for your club. The A-League is not that strong a competition and it has proved to be firepower that has been the deciding factor over the years. Berisha is a proven Championship winner. However, the Victory have unearthed quite possibly the most valuable player to play in the A-League’s history. French central defender Mathieu DelPierre is absolute quality, in fact he’s a different class. I am positive that his performances will provide the blueprint for teams in the league to build their teams around in the future.
It was a great day, and one which is probably the highlight of my first 10 years following this club.
MELBOURNE VICTORY 3 – 0 SYDNEY FC
It’s always a long off-season for the A-League. And what makes it even worse is that we have to wait nearly 2 months after the Europeans kick off and wait patiently for the more traditional “Aussie” sports to wrap up their playoff series before Round 1 can commence.
The Victory had recruited unbelievably well in the off-season, but it would remain to be seen what Kevin Muscat (the world’s dirtiest player) would do with his gameplan. Melbourne have played the past 2 years without a central striker, preferring 2 wingers instead (yes, still doesn’t make sense does it??) and have managed to pick up Albanian International Beshart Berisha from Brisbane Roar, who plays so central and direct that even German trains are jealous!
Add into the mix, towering centre half & former Stuttgart and French U/21 captain Matthieu DelPierre, Australian veteran International Carl Valeri, Macedonian International Daniel Georgievski and the €5 million Tunisian captain Fahid Ben Khalfallah – it will be interesting to see how the team will be set-up. It is also slightly curious as to how the Victory can fit all these “Internationals” under the stringent salary cap. Questions will be asked throughout the season – especially if they keep winning!!
A big crowd of 40,000+ had been touted in the lead-up to the glamour match-up between arguably the A-League’s two biggest clubs. Etihad Stadium, normally an AFL (or cricket) ground was in rectangular mode to give the place that real football feel. The Western Sydney Wanderers Red & Black Brigade were out in force after their Asian Champions League momentous win earlier in the week. Disappointingly though it was the home club’s support that was well down as in the end the attendance only just snuck over the 30,000 mark. The “North Terrace” were back after their strike action of last season – see, football does cross all boundaries!!!
The Victory team was announced and it had an eerie look about it. It looked as though Muscat had selected his best 11 players and built a formation to suit them. A genuine 4-3-3 was in place! It looked scary on paper, but in reality, after years of safety-first defensive focused set-ups this Keegan-esque mentality, where Muscat goads the opposition by daring them to try and score more goals than them. A refreshing change from the “as long as we don’t lose mindset” that has been prevalent over the past couple of seasons.
The Wanderers were missing a couple of key players through injury and Aussie duty, especially in defence; whereas only Milligan was missing for Melbourne. This proved critical early on when unbelievably the 6ft 3 DelPierre ghosted into the box unmarked from a Finkler free kick to volley home from 10 yards to make it 1-0 after only 8 minutes. The Wanderers were seriously under the cosh throughout and conceded a penalty which the other debutant Berisha converted. To seriously rub salt and acid into an already gaping wound, the league’s most average player “DJ BeatBrox” Leigh Broxham blasted home to make it three zip after only 29 minutes.
To be fair Melbourne looked like they were going to score every time they attacked and it was a bit of a shock when Mark Bridge nicked one back after a defensive mix-up just before the break. However, normal service was resumed early after the break when world record holder Archie Thompson slotted home a 1-on-1 to put four on the Wanderers for the very first time in their albeit short history.
The game lost its edge after that. The Wanderers tried hard but rarely threatened, and the Victory threw on players that needed a run. The RBB however maintained their fervour despite the poor showing – even at 4-1 down every man to a tee participated in the Poznan. No matter where you go and watch in the world, its always more fun to go away! The only problem with playing in the A-League is that the trip home is a bloody long way – especially after you’ve been hammered!
This game again proves my theory that every A-League game needs an early goal to be entertaining. The longer games in this competition go without a goal the interest level wanes significantly. Unfortunately the game is not strong enough in Australia to support good old fashioned dour dogfights. The floating fan or onlooker doesn’t understand them; the coaches unfortunately aren’t quite good enough to change things enough tactically (or take the risk) to up the ante; and the players in these situations are more often than not reliant on other’s team’s mistakes to create the chances they need.
The team Melbourne have put together are good enough to beat most of the other teams in the A-League despite the men that are there to manage them. Muscat’s influence will be less of an issue this season; not that his gameplans or tactics ever really do. The players will win this thing for the Victory – and I’m saying that after Round 1!
MELBOURNE VICTORY 4 – 1 WESTERN SYDNEY WANDERERS
The A-League finals have a “Superbowl” feel to them nowadays. The Champions have always been determined by a Grand Final, but in the past, the top two in the league have had second chances in the playoffs. The finals are now a sudden death affair, which doesn’t necessarily lead to great football as teams can sometimes be cagey instead of attacking, and whoever is left standing out of the final two, the highest placed get the right to host the Grand Final (to the league’s discretion of course!).
The semi finals not unexpectedly saw 1st v 4th (Brisbane v Melbourne) and 2nd v 3rd (Western Sydney v Central Coast). Western Sydney had already won their game and then had to wait 24 hours to see who they would be up against in the big one. If Melbourne Victory caused an upset then they would also get the “Home final”.
It’s not too often you get to travel 1000 miles to go to an away game, but I seem to do this one trip more and more. The worst thing is that the Victory never seem to get a result up in Brisbane either. On the plane up on Friday I wrote down what I thought Kevin Muscat (officially the dirtiest ever footballer) would choose as his starting XI. To be completely honest it wasn’t that hard – Muscat is unfortunately tactically inept and lacks any creativity when it comes to working out how to win games of football.
This season – Melbourne Victory finished 4th in a 10 team league. Their results included consecutive 5-0 hammerings to the teams that finished 9th & 6th respectively, followed up a few weeks later with a 4-0 thumping at the hands of cross town rivals, Melbourne Heart, who finished bottom!!! They also finished the season with a negative goal difference. So, in order to turn the tables on the Brisbane Roar, who incidentally won the league by a clear 10 points, Mr. Muscat chose this formation:
Note the lack of a striker and defensive variation of the world famous “Beefy Box Midfield”. I’d like you to think I am making this up, but I’m not. Muscat truly thought that the Melbourne Victory could beat Brisbane, on their own patch, in a one-legged tie, without a central striker and TWO defensive midfielders sitting just in front of the back 4. Now I am no Bill Shankly, Alex Ferguson or Len Ashurst but I do know that if you let decent teams come at you, then you are playing with fire – and Brisbane are a decent team – at this level.
You run the risk, whereb,y making a mistake could be very costly – and so it proved. Victory’s passing amongst their defenders went astray in the 58th minute and a quick through ball allowed Albanian striker Besart Berisha to dart into the box. He still had a lot to do, but jinked onto his left foot and fired home, beating Coe at his near post – another schoolboy error! Berisha has signed for Melbourne Victory for the 2014/15 season – wonder if he enjoys playing on the wing, as we haven’t seen a genuine centre forward now for quite some time?
Now, with 32 minutes to go, Melbourne had to score at least once to take the game into extra time. Anyone would expect the Victory to up the ante and push for that elusive goal. World record holder Archie Thompson pounced on a half chance to make ex-Victory keeper Theo work a little from 25 yards out, but that was about it. Muscat did eventually make a change – he brought on a defensive midfielder for a defensive midfielder in the 70th minute! With 7 minutes to go, and still at 1-0 down, he did withdraw a centre half for a left winger to try and create something, however in the short space of time that he had available, he couldn’t get up to speed quick enough to make a difference! Just after that, Berisha should have buried the game, but Coe made a wonder save to keep Melbourne alive.
It was at this point that Melbourne finally showed some urgency in their play. Up until this point (86th minute) there had been ZERO. Melbourne threw players forward, pumping balls into the box. It is fairly safe to say that if Melbourne had shown this application and desire for more than the 5 or so minutes than they actually did, they might have got a result. The fans looking back however, will only remember the Berisha goal and this run of play:
So, in the final 4 minutes, Archie Thompson has a point blank shot saved, and a header ricochet off the keeper straight to a defender on the line and back into the keeper’s hands and more criminally, and then a blatant penalty not awarded because the referee bottled it. The referee later admitted he would have only given a penalty unless he was 150% sure. I have no doubt that both the referee and the linesman (sorry, assistant referee) absolutely shat themselves in the heat of the moment in front of the home fans. I saw it from 100 metres away and I was 100% sure. Perhaps I should have been 150% sure???? Bearing in mind this was the same referee who did this to Melbourne Victory’s Nick Ansell earlier in the season:
Was he 150% sure of that one?????
So, another season is over for the Victory – they will be back next year. I will be back next year too!
The Roar will host the Grand Final – they will probably go on and win another Championship – their 3rd in 4 years. They have been the best team all year so they deserve it. No doubt the Grand Final will sell out too. It didn’t help that the first half was quite lacklustre which didn’t make the 28,000+ punters really get their teeth into this game – until the last 5 minutes! Western Sydney will bring 15,000 of their fanatical supporters to Brisbane. The atmosphere will be good; it will probably be bloody good, and a great advert for what the A-League could eventually become. You just have to get rid of negative coaches and dodgy referees…….
BRISBANE ROAR 1 – 0 MELBOURNE VICTORY
I grew up with Boxing Day football. It’s a tradition that is a little different in Australia though. It used to be 3 or 4 degrees, with snow lashed pitches and cups of Bovril or Oxtail soup just to keep warm. The A-League has games in bright sunshine on picture perfect pitches and the fans are able to guzzle litres of beer (and now even cider and wine) whilst watching the game – a concept that is now so far gone at home, its like seeing someone smoking indoors!!!! So, what better way to celebrate the festive season than a top of the table clash? It was 2nd vs 3rd and the teams are their respective flag bearers for football in the two biggest cities in Australia.
The Wanderers have become a “heavyweight” in only their second season in the A-League, in the KPI’s that really matter – results and supporter numbers – both are good which usually means that the club is turning a profit. The impact the club has made since their inception has breathed life into a competition that nobody could have ever dreamed of.
So the scene was set. What seemed like a decent sized crowd outside the ground transpired into a seemingly average one inside! The authorities were expecting a sell out, and all tickets were probably accounted for, but due to a breakdown in relations between one of the largers supporters’ group collective and the Melbourne Victory’s management, an amazing 5,000+ season ticket holders (club members, if you speak Australian) did not attend. Unfortunately this robbed the game of the home vocal support needed to out-sing and out-chant the traveling hordes of Wanderers supporters. But when you start thinking about it, ultimately, what does this behaviour do? Yes, it makes a statement, but the stupid thing is that the club already has your money!!! The club will always play games, and more often than not, they will always win in disputes like this. And they stupidest thing is that they already have their money anyway!!! Supporters end up coming back, if they really love their football.
For so long, the Melbourne Victory has been the benchmark in putting bums on seats. The Wanderers have now eclipsed this. The away section was jam-packed and I have to be honest and say that they were the most enthusiastic and most full-on support I have ever been a part of – I’ve been part of crowds that are sporadically intense throughout games, but not for the full 90 minutes. They sang non stop from before the game to well after the final whistle, with only a break for half time, just to catch their breath and regroup for another 45 minute onslaught! Only at the end did they end up repeating their chants. It was truly a phenomenal effort and you have to say that if all of the A-League was like this, you wouldn’t be able to get a ticket for love nor money. The atmosphere was electric and infectious. It became a bit too infectious when the flares and firecrackers went off though. This is perhaps one aspect of European and South American football culture we can do without!!! It only takes one idiot to do something catastrophic – why put ourselves in that position?
The Victory “South End” (the ones that actually did show up) did their best, but struggled to make a dent in the noise generated by the RBB (Red & Black Bloc). The A-League is a far from perfect beast for away support. The sheer distance and expense it takes to travel make it difficult to generate decent atmospheres. So to turn up in numbers and participate en masse is true support.
On the field, the Wanderers were missing 3 or 4 regular starters as well as their Japanese superstar Shinji Ono – whilst the Victory kept faith with their strikerless formation – yes, you read that right; 4-4-2 without a striker!!!! 2 wingers; no striker…… I’m just going to repeat that in case you missed it. Flat back four; “Beefy’s Box Midfield©”; and 2 wingers. It’s not even close to a 4-2-4 either – and they play this every week. However confusing it may be for all and sundry, they actually dominated the early proceedings and should have been one up early on, when this happened:
Put beautifully by the mate I was with, “All he had to do was anything but what he actually did!” The passage of play beforehand and the final ball after belied the standard of the A-League, although the attempted finish more than made up for it! For all the Del Pierro’s, Heskeys, Gallas’s, Kewells and Onos, there are the Leigh Broxhams, Tarek Elrichs and Isaka Cernaks at the deepest depths of the bell curve – those guys that continually amaze you that they make the starting XI week in week out, even though they make the same basic mistakes time after time.
Melbourne Victory have recently appointed “football’s dirtiest player” as their manager. Kevin Muscat has been around football for a long time, and I’m not saying that he is few fries short of a happy meal, but halfway through the second half, Muscat replaces a centre back with a right back. Nothing much in that you say, but to compensate he moves his 5ft 8 defensive midfielder back to centre back, plays a young right back in defensive midfield and leaves the 6ft 4 right back at right back, only to substitute him off with a midfielder after conceding the opening goal (from a mistake in midfield!) just 15 minutes later. He then pushes the young right back into right back – does that make any sense? I’m all for trying things, but he drives me mad with his like for like changes and lack of any Plan B whatsoever!
The game itself was incredibly even. There was very little between the two sides. Both sides had their opportunities to take the lead, but lacked that killer instinct to do so.It was end to end stuff and only a world class save from Melbourne’s Coe kept it all-square. However with 20 minutes to go, a typical A-League midfield turnover saw the Wanderers capitalise and slot home with 20 minutes to go. to go 1 up. A few minutes later they really should have had a penalty when former Fulham player Adrian “Princess” Leijer made a flying tackle with his hands which was somehow overlooked by the referee! The Victory pressed forward but with little success. I’ll let the video do the talking from here;
Never has a 1-1 draw felt so like a win. You really can’t accurately describe the feeling when your team misses chance after chance only to concede a sloppy goal and then literally with the last kick of the game, rifle a free kick into the top corner from 25 yards, sending the home crowd into rapture and silencing the hordes of away fans to scrape a draw at home! I guess that meant everyone went home not unhappy! It takes quite a bit of time to sink in that you realise you only managed to get a point at home!
This game was shown live in the UK and I dare say it provided some level of entertainment on a Saturday morning – and it was one of the better games to watch. However, even I would struggle to make a point of setting my alarm to watch it! It’s always better when you’re there anyway….. isn’t it? Well, not if you were one of the 5,000 that didn’t bother……..
MELBOURNE VICTORY 1 – 1 WESTERN SYDNEY WANDERERS
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.
It 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:
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
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.
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.
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.
FC BARCELONA 2 – 1 REAL MADRID
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.
“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!
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?
“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
On paper it seems like a good idea to open the season with a derby match – it is the biggest game on the Australian domestic calendar (for now anyway). In reality there is not a single major football league in the world that does it. There are a few reasons for this, namely that the games are feisty but offer very little in the way of decent football and are desperate not to lose. This also becomes magnified when both teams have played no competitive games since March. The A-League starts late and finishes early, leaving it with the longest pre-season on the planet! The Victory had a gentle pre-season run-around against Liverpool in late July, but to say that was competitive is to call a Maltese-Shitzu a wolf.
Don’t get me wrong, the A-League needs blockbuster games to justify the hype. It is just too early in the season to wish for a miracle and pull a solid gold rabbit out of the hat. The 2011 season kicked off in front of 40,000 when Victory whimpered to a 0-0 against Sydney FC. Two weeks later in front of another 40,000 strong crowd, another toothless performance in the Derby, saw another 0-0 and the second chance that the wannabe supporters put out there was thrown back in their face, like that home knitted jumper your mum got you for Christmas, when you asked for an X-Box. Crowds dropped significantly after that not surprisingly and didn’t really return. Last season’s opener was again the Derby match and at least we saw some goals in a drab affair. The Heart snatched a 2-1 win in front of 42,000+, but the crowds fell quicker than an Italian winger, to less than half of that and again, didn’t recover.
Freezing in front of big crowds is nothing new for the Victory faithful. Way back in their second season Sydney FC came to town and over 50,000 packed into Etihad Stadium to witness quite possibly one of the worst games of football that you could imagine. Another 0-0 on that occasion gave the AFL supporters every bit of ammunition they needed to stay away for ever more. Seven years on and to them it seems not much has changed!!!!
The one thing that normally stands out is the atmosphere that the Melbourne Victory supporters generate. Even that has now been compromised with a split in the biggest supporter group. The once all encompassing Blue & White Brigade, has split into the Northern Terrace, Horda and the remaining Blue & White Brigaders. All these groups seemed to be chanting over each other and nothing really ever got going. The South End were alarmingly well behaved and subdued, where the Melbourne Heart fans were simply being themselves and offering little in the way of “value adding” to the event. I guess this was the most disappointing aspect of the game – the crowd just didn’t, and for the most part, couldn’t, rise to the occasion – mainly through the fare that was being served up not giving them any reason to.
Here are the highlights. There were FOUR shots on goal during the game and two of those were tame, slow rollers straight at the keeper! That’s it I’m afraid – there was not much else to report! Were both teams afraid to lose? Or did the Heart just nullify the Victory’s quick passing game and shut down their offensive weapons? Was it simply that the Victory had no Plan B after Plan A didn’t create anything. Was it a case of rustiness or just one of those lacklustre games you get every now and then? The Heart showed nothing but gave nothing away. Their lone striker was isolated and their midfield played very deep.
The two stand-out players for me were the two new centre backs for each team. 67 times capped Chilean, Pablo Contreras oozed composure and will be just that little bit classier and experienced than the A-League standard – it seemed strange that the Victory went for a defender as their marquee player, but after 90 minutes, I can now see why. Australian Patrick Kisnorbo, who has spent the past 10 years in the UK was also a controlling presence at the back for the Heart. Perhaps this better explains the 0-0 scoreline! Although the fact that Victory continue to play without a striker also adds to this. Imagine playing AFL without a full-forward, or netball without a goal-shooter and expecting your midfielders to rush forward to fill that space, time and time again. If that system is not working early doors, then it has to be changed. Change is a totally foreign concept to most Australian coaches so more often than not games peter out into neutrality.
Harry Kewell returned from the wilderness to play for the Heart against his former club. Harry’s sole raison d’etre for this season is to do just enough to squeeze into the Australian 23 man squad for the World Cup in Brazil next year. If he does or doesn’t make it, I can categorically say that 2014-15 A-League (and all other football) will be Kewell-less. This season is all about Harry – mind you, when has it ever been about anything or anyone else? It was almost all over for him after just 25 minutes too when he went up for a header and got clouted just above the left eye, resulting in him needing stitches. The word is that he nearly passed out as he received them on the sideline and later on in the game, he was substituted with a sore headband.
After only one game of the new season, there are already floating fans that will not return, and die-hards that are completely underwhelmed. Neither side deserved three points. To be completely fair, neither side deserved any points. I have been saying this for a number of years – it is time to consider 0-0 draws not getting any points. That way, you know if you do not score, you do not get rewarded. In fledgling leagues that compete for airtime against other free scoring sports, it should make for some more attacking games……… Just a though to ponder. Remember we might have another 26 weeks of this…….
MELBOURNE VICTORY 0 – 0 MELBOURNE HEART
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It was simply a pre-season friendly. 95,446 people turned up to watch two teams, have a nice little run-around and do their best not to get injured!!!! Yes, you read that right – 95,446 filled the iconic cricket ground. It was the biggest crowd Liverpool had EVER played in front of, and the all time biggest stand-alone football attendance in Australia – only the 2000 Olympics Final between Cameroon and Spain has attracted more spectators.
Growing up, my hero ended up playing for Liverpool. Before I truly discovered the magnificence that is Newport County, the likes of John Toshack, Emlyn Hughes, Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush were the players I admired most. When John Aldridge signed for Liverpool from Oxford, after making his name playing for the County, we were just months away from dropping out of league football. As Newport County were left without life support in 1987, Aldo single handedly re-invigorated any pulse of interest I had in those blokes from Anfield. Even though he was from Liverpool and was a red born and bred, he was, and always will be one of us.
A mate of mine always tells the story about a night out in Caerleon, a village full of pubs just outside of Newport. When celebrating a County win, he was looking for a taxi, when one pulled up right in front of him. Out jumped/tripped/fell John Aldridge, a bit worse for wear, who proceeded to throw up all over him. Aldo apologised profusely and told him he would buy him some new clothes. My mate promptly replied “Are you fucking kidding? I’m never washing this shirt again!” John Aldridge is still my, and 10,000 other middle aged Newportonian’s, hero and always will be.
Anyway – I digress. My interest with Liverpool (and the big clubs of the English Leagues) waned quickly after Aldo was sold to a Spanish club in 1989 which coincided with the re-birth of Newport (County) AFC. I never looked back. However, I do still watch and enjoy Premier League football. The atmosphere and history of the game is second to none. Liverpool are still a household name throughout the world, in fact, even though they haven’t won much for nearly 10 years, they are still the 9th biggest sporting brand on the planet. There are a few reasons for this – 14 major trophies during the 1980s and a fanatical following that produces moments like this:
There have only been a few moments in sport where I have been absolutely gobsmacked, like I was during this rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. The MCG was a sea of red, scarves held high as the 95,000 strong choir belted it out. As orchestrated as it was, there was still tears flowing all around me in the crowd. Yes, 95,446 people, for a pre-season football match – in Australia! It still amazes me. If I then also said that the cheapest ticket was $AUS 60 (£ 40), then you get my continued incredulity.
The game itself was nothing more than an exhibition. The biggest cheers of the night were when the man nearly everyone came to see, Steve Gerrard (he’s big and he’s f**king hard) jogged over to take the corner kicks. Each section of the crowd erupted as the “World’s Strongest Man” was in their vicinity. [In-house joke – Steve Gerrard has been carrying 10 other blokes for the best part of 15 years!] After half an hour of quite a lacklustre affair, as if it couldn’t have been scripted any better, this happened:
The proverbial roof was lifted off the stadium. The 95,000 could go home happy no matter what the result. Kids will be telling their grandchildren in years to come that they saw Steve Gerrard score at the MCG…. will they? I bloody hope not! But, like John Aldridge is to me, Steve Gerrard is the one shining light in Liverpool colours. Scousers from all walks of life worship the lad. He’s the man that brings hope to the Anfield faithful year after year. And year after year, they are continually disappointed.
The game lacked intensity of any description. The first foul was only committed just short of an hour in. Fair credit to Liverpool who could have been forgiven for not playing their stars, they put out close to their “first” XI. Gerrard was substituted after an hour to rapturous applause. Ten minutes later, the rest of the starting XI were replaced en masse. Suarez managed not to bite anyone in the short time he was on the field, magically created a second goal with the last kick of the game to give Liverpool a 2-0 win. It was what they deserved and what the majority of the crowd wanted to see. No doubt they went home happy.
In his post match interview, Gerrard was asked if the amount of support on the other side of the world surprised him; to which he casually responded with “No, not really, it’s a massive club!” Brilliant. I also found this punter walking around – wonder if he actually knows……..
Liverpool had never been to Australia before. Over 20,000 people turned up for the training session the night before the game. It was reported that the club sold more shirts over the two days the team were in Melbourne, than any other two consecutive days EVER! No doubt, if the American owners have their way, they will be back rather quickly! When 95,000+ turn up to watch a fairly unsuccessful team play against a glorified semi-pro team, on the other side of the world, you have to wonder what would happen if they actually started winning titles and trophies again……. I don’t think I could bear it!!!!
With all the hype surrounding the Liverpool support and the event, I think I may have forgotten to mention that Melbourne Victory also played a minor role in the game!
MELBOURNE VICTORY 0 – 2 LIVERPOOL
I live in Melbourne, some 10,500 miles away from Newport/London. When Newport County made the final of the FA Trophy last year I told my family that it was a once in a lifetime chance to see Newport at Wembley, seeing as we’d been rubbish for the best part of a 100 years. Less than a year on, I found myself having to justify what was a once in a lifetime experience, was now becoming an annual event! If it happens again next year, god knows what will happen…..
Anyhow, I left on Friday afternoon, arrived in London on Saturday morning and then left the UK on Monday evening. I travelled 21,000 miles for 2 ½ days in London – was it worth it? You bet it was! However, I’m not sure I am entirely the right person to write an objective report on this one, but I will try to get across some of the emotion from the day.
I remarked to a number of my friends and accomplices after the game that this was one of the best days of my life. Most of us had endured the majority of the non-league days through thick and thin and to be at the hallowed turf of Wembley for a chance to become a league club, 25 years after losing that status was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. The fact that our opponents were also a Welsh club making it the first ever all-Welsh final to be played made it even more encapsulating.
Newport County play in the 5th tier of English football and their average attendances over the past 3 years have gone from 1600 to 2400. We are a pretty small time club. In the 3 years that Newport and Wrexham had been in the Conference together, Newport had never beaten them. Even with that statistic in mind, I was confident that we could do it. And not just a quiet, subliminal confidence either. I even had a £20 bet at 10/1 that we would win 2-0!!!!
Wembley Stadium holds 90,000 people. It is a very impressive sight, but with only 16,000 people inside, it is a pretty vacuous place, although both sets of fans sang and chanted constantly throughout the game willing their teams on.
I have to say that the atmosphere generated in the Newport end was phenomenal. What is a somewhat new tradition, mainly due to the Welsh clubs being as far from the pinnacle of English football as you could get until a few years ago, when a Welsh club plays ay Wembley, the Welsh National Anthem is sung before the game. With both teams being Welsh, this was a truly magical feeling hearing Land of My Fathers being belted out. I missed the 1999 rugby season when Wales played their home games at Wembley when the Millennium Stadium was being built, and I can only imagine the sound 4 times as many Welshmen would have made back then.
We then had to sit through the British (English) National Anthem too which seemed a tad pointless given it was two Welsh teams, but there you go.
Let me put some value to the pressure of this game in terms of reward. This is the proverbial million pound game. Tier 4 clubs (League 2) get £700,000 in television money during the season. The Tier 5 clubs (Conference) only get £65,000. Tier 4 clubs receive dramatically improved TV coverage which ultimately leads to increased sponsorship and advertising revenue. League 2 gates are on average two and half times more across the board than in the Conference. Gateshead for one game this season got less than 250 – there were some unfortunate circumstances behind that, but all the same it’s cringeworthy to say the least. The financial rewards alone make such a significant difference to the long term survival of small time clubs.
Wembley basically gets split across the middle for these kind of games. The blocks of fans dressed in the red of Wrexham and the amber of Newport stand out a mile. The game itself was quite nervy for the first half hour and Wrexham had the better chances but Newport’s defence was firm. The last 15 minutes of the first half was all Newport and we were unlucky not to go into half time one goal up when a clever free kick was volleyed into the Wrexham’s goalkeeper’s midrift when a yard either side of him would have been a goal.
Midway through the second half Wrexham besieged the Newport goal and missed a golden opportunity to take the lead, but former Premier Leaguer Ormerod missed the target when it was probably easier to score. Five minutes later came the turning point when Wrexham subbed off their best player – Dean Keates. It is alleged that Keates had received 54 pain killing injections in the past month and 17 in the week leading up to the game, just to be able to play. This really tells you how much these guys want to win this game. He obviously couldn’t take the pain any more, as Keates was by far one of the most influential on the ground. As he trudged off the field, in my mind right then, I knew any edge they may have had, was gone.
Newport had brought on subs of their own. Top Scorer Aaron O’Connor came on as well as Scott Donelly. Donelly hasn’t had much of a run in the team over the past month so it was a little surprising to see him come on. It proved to be a masterstroke as everything that Newport did for the rest of the game came through him and ultimately prove to be the winning touch. Late on Newport broke the deadlock when a long through ball beat the tiring legs of the aging defender and whippet Christian Jolley pounced and chipped home 4 minutes from time. In the 4th minute of injury time O’Connor rifled home to seal promotion and send the North Walians home empty handed again.
The celebrations were an amazing feeling. I saw people crying, I saw grown men hugging, I saw the people of Newport rejoicing in a club that had largely been forgotten by its public. The 25 year journey that was christened “Football with a Future” in 1989 had finally realized its original goal and brought league football back to the town (now a city).
Someone had to lose this game and suffer another season in the non-league wilderness – now I’m just thankful it was them and not us. The celebrations shown by the players, the management and most of all, the supporters showed what it meant. The Newport manager, Justin Edinburgh who won the FA Cup and League Cup (at Wembley) with Tottenham as a player hailed this as his greatest achievement in football.
There’s something about this club that people fall in love with. It’s easy to say that about most football clubs in Britain, but ask any player or former player and they will tell you that it is the best club they have ever been involved with – it’s just uncanny. The celebrations went long into the night and the thoughts of the 2013/14 season germinate in your mind. I never thought I would see this day, and to be honest nor did the majority of folk that follow the club. Many an alcoholic beverage was sunk in honour of the Men of Gwent/Amber Army and the joy they brought. I’m still in a state of disbelief really, and I doubt it will fully sink in until early August when we play our first game back in “The League”.
Next year we can look forward to playing Portsmouth who’s spectacular fall from grace from Premier League to League 2 in 3 years, perfectly mirrors the demise of Newport County in the late 80s. Let’s hope both clubs can stabilize in 2013/14. Let’s also hope that I might have something to travel back to again next season…. fingers crossed!
Here’s some of the fans reactions. A good mate of mine comes on at 20 seconds and gives an interview that may well come back to haunt him in years to come!!!
CONFERENCE PROMOTION PLAY-OFF FINAL
NEWPORT COUNTY 2 – 0 WREXHAM
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