Tuesday, 13 June 2017

France v England. 13/06/17

"Why would a suicide bomber blow himself up here? You won't find anywhere cheaper for a baguette and a Kronenbourg in Paris."


France 3-2 England. Stade de France.
Tuesday 13/06/17.
Think of your mothers birthday and what images come to mind? A nice bunch of flowers? A box of chocolates? Maybe even a good bottle of wine? My mother received none of those things this year. Her combined Mothers Day and birthday present was in fact a trip to the Stade de France to watch France v England in an international friendly.

This may seem odd. Plenty of people have been put off traveling to Paris due to the spate of terrorism attacks, one of which occured when a suicide bomber blew himself up metres from the turnstiles of Stade de France less than two years ago. And while plenty of mothers would've preferred those flowers or chocolates, Alison McCarthy wanted to witness Kieran Trippier's England debut. France away it was.

Brighton on Tour
Alison's one previous experience of traveling away with England had come a year ago in the Euros. She sure knows how to pick her games, as on that occasion it was down in Marseille against Russia, an occasion played out to running battles throughout the city with locals and MMA trained Russians. Avoiding ISIS would be a walk in the park in comparison.

That Marseille trip had begun and ended in Paris, which meant that most of what there is to see had been seen. I'd returned a further two times to the city over the course of England's disastrous Euro 2016 campaign. I'd watched a game on the big screen in front of the Eifell Tower. Avoided being pick pocketed at the Louvre. Got a bad back at Notre Dame. Walked (illegally) thought the tunnel where Princess Diana died. Spent an evening drinking with two lovely ladies next to Moulin Rouge. Nearly been mown down on the Champs Elysee. Paris was, as they say, completed.

Arc de Triomphe constituted the days sightseeing

That meant it was just a quick trip for the final England game of the season. Arrive at Charles De Gaule at 10am on game day, leave at 8pm the following day. A straight forward plan in which nothing could go wrong, surely? 

We had only been in the country for 10 minutes when the heightened security bought about after several years of terrorist attacks introduced itself as, for reasons that nobody still understands, the entire station at the airport was evacuated. This led to utter confusion as people just milled around outside with plenty of station officials doing that most French of things, the Gallic shoulder shrug. This was an ominous start to proceedings but after 10 minutes whatever the emergency situation was was over and it was off to the city centre via the Arc De Triomphe where we would collect our tickets.

This was the one sight Alison hadn't seen on our last visit and so she was probably the only England fan happy with the location of the collection point, given that the poor man's Marble Arch is miles out of the centre and most supporters passed through Gare Du Nord on arrival. Stick the ticket collection point at the cities main station? Don't be silly! If the FA had any common sense, they could be dangerous.

A rare luxury - a hotel near Notre Dame


Alison's mood at seeing Arc De Triomphe improved even further with our accommodation near Notre Dame. Regular readers will know that being the tightest man on the planet, I always try and skimp on accommodation costs by staying in multiman hostel rooms, traveling on overnight transport or in some cases just sleeping rough.

On Alison's previous trip I had relented slightly and booked a hotel, albeit the cheapest one I could find. This turned out to be in one of Paris' red light districts which is the last place you want to be staying with your mother. There was relief all round then when an actual, proper hotel not surrounded by sex shops was our base for the trip.

Thankfully, I am blessed with a mother who likes her beer and so we were soon off to meet up with the rest of the Brighton contingent of Dean, Lewis, Ciaran and Mark. They had had an unsavoury incident with a large gang of pickpockets at Gare De Nord earlier in the day. Fortunately they had got out of it unscathed but after such events the only way to get over then is with several drinks and Alison and myself were only to happy to help in that regard.

The queues build at the Stade de France security checks
With security said to be tight, we headed off to Saint Denis two hours before kick off. There were plenty of outside units selling alcohol around the stadium which vindicated the early arrival although one portaloo for 60,000 odd fans alighting at the station seemed wildly ambitious.

 There were three security checks to get in and, in typical French style, it was absolute bloody chaos at all of them. The first was prior to the away turnstiles with fans being funnelled into a small gap tighter than nun. A cursory glance at any sort of paper that could resemble a ticket was all it took to pass that. After the stress of being crushed there, we had more beer from one bar directly outside the away turnstiles, Les Rendezvous.

This I discovered afterwards was basically the exact spot where one of the suicide bombers detonated his belt on that fateful evening in November 2015. If anything rams home how mad these people are, it's that he chose to blew himself when he could've paid £5 for a pint of Kronenbourg and a ham and cheese baguette. Practically giving it away by Paris' standards.

A giant England flag in the home end to show 'solidarity' after
the Manchester and London Bridge attacks
National Anthem time in the Stade de France
Of course there have been plenty more terrorist attacks since then, two of them recently in Manchester and London. Before this game, I was becoming extremely weary of what feels like the sense that every single international game these days has to mourn something or other just for the sake of mourning. Its become almost as if football associations and clubs are putting on these shows purely to say "Look at us and how caring we are". We had had a minutes silence three days previously at Hampden Park when playing Scotland away. Why did we need another one here, let alone French fans making a giant England flag or joining in with God Save The Queen or an Oasis sing-along befire kick off? Well, I take it back as it actually ended up being pretty moving stuff and it definitely helped the atmosphere inside the stadium for what was essentially a nothing friendly.

The Stade de France itself was excellent, three tiers and a sea of red, white and blue thanks to virtually every home supporter in the ground waving a tricolour around. The French were in fine voice and so were the English, penned in one lower tier corner. The huge gaps between the roof and the back of the stands in some grounds would mean a lot of the noise escaping but not here. Those gaps also allowed for a brilliant view of a quite beautiful sunset.

Le Tricolore - the worlds best flag?


A full away end at Stade de France
History was made for several reasons during the game itself. One being that this wasn't the normal sluggish and turgid encounter that friendlies tend to be. Second was Theresa May becoming the first Prime Minister in history to join in with a Mexican Wave. It was much reported that she was also the only English supporter in the ground to join in given the Three Lions support much heralded hatred of them but I am ashamed to admit this is actually fake news - Alison McCarthy herself joined in. She does have much to learn about England away yet.

Third was that we got to witness the first ever red card by video assistant referee. Raphael Varane was the man, sent from the field of play for bringing down Dele Alli in the box a few minutes into the second half after the referee consulted another official who had the benefit of television replays. There was a lot of confussion inside the stadium as nobody actually realised what was going on. It seemed to take forever from the awarding of the penalty to Varane being flashed the red card and it wasn't until reading reports afterwards that we knew we'd witnessed a piece of history. Clearly, communication to the crowd needs to be improved as does how quickly a decision can be made. Early days, but those who said video referees wouldn't affect the flow of the game may have to reconsider.
France 3-2 England

That penalty allowed captain Harry Kane to equalise for England. He had put them 1-0 up in the first half, only for Samuel Umtiti and Djibril Sidibe to put Les Bleus ahead at the break. France were not all full strength but they still looked far better than England with the Three Lions relying on Tom Heaton and then Jack Butland to prevent the game running away from them. Ousmane Dembele scored France's winner and despite playing against 10 men, England couldn't find a way through. 3-2 it finished, a far cry from the snoozefest against Scotland three days earlier.

After the game we returned to the Jihadi Bar for more Kronenbourg and to let the crowds die down. It was all very relaxed as French and English supporters swapped flags and stories. Remarkably, we found something to do on the Wednesday before the fight home with a visit to Parc Des Princes to have a snoop around the home of Paris Saint Germain.

Parc des Princes - home of Paris Saint Germain

The quite brilliant Stade Jean-Bouin, home to Stade Francais
PSG are excellently located in what must be one of the finest sporting quarters of any city in Europe given that Rugby union side Stade Francais have their stadium next door and Roland Garos is just across the road. Three sporting venues ticked off in 30 minutes - and there was me saying there was nothing left to do in Paris.

Steak and beer in the Chatelet area of the city wrapped up Alison's birthday treat. "What might you want next year then?" I asked her as we headed back to Charles De Gaule afterwards for the short hop back to Gatwick. A ticket to England's first group game of the World Cup in Russia was her reply. Yeah, we might need to take a rain check on that one.







France: Hugo Lloris, Djibril Sidibe 1 (Christophe Jallet), Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti 1, Benjamin Mendy (Lucas Digne), Ousmane Dembele 1, Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante, Thomas Lemar, Olivier Giroud (Laurent Koscielny), Kylian Mbappe.

England: Tom Heaton (Jack Butland), Phil Jones (Aaron Cresswell), John Stones, Gary Cahill, Kieran Trippier (Adam Lallana), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Eric Dier, Ryan Bertrand (Kyle Walker), Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Harry Kane 2.

Attendance: 75,000.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Scotland v England. 10/06/17

"I assumed you were joking when you said you were bringing us a pack of beer up because the pubs here aren't allowed to open until 11am."

Scotland 2-2 England. Hampden Park.
Saturday 10/06/17
England v Scotland games are like the proverbial London Bus. You wait 14 years for one to come along, and then you end up with four in three years. Not that any supporters of the two nations would've complaining.

No, the only murmurs of discontent predictably came from the police and the British press. The police had firstly wanted this game to be a midday kick off and then when that request was quite rightly denied, they decided to put in place a ban on any street drinking across the weekend. Spoilsports.

"Us v them"
As for the press, well the way they carried on in the run up to the game you could've been forgiven for expecting World War III to break out on the streets of Glasgow. One respected national journalist even went so far as to suggest a return to "The dark days of 1980s hooliganism" was on the cards, based on two idiots pulling Hitler salutes at the Germany away game back in March.

In completely surprising news, this full blown campaign of bed wetting hysteria turned out to be absolute nonsense. Both sets of supporters were passionate but it was never anything more than that. There was even the surreal sight of Scotland and England fans clapping each other as the Scots exited Hampden Park while the visitors were locked in for 30 minutes after the final whistle. Needless to say, that show of mutual respect didn't make any of the papers the next day.

This was effectively a day trip for me thanks to that old favourite, the National Express overnight coach. A 10.15pm departure from London Victoria on Friday night saw a 7.15am arrival in Glasgow Saturday morning while going back the other way it was a 10.15 departure Saturday evening, arriving back in London at 6.40am. Travel and accommodation rolled into one and for less than £30. Which was just as well as the match ticket was a stonking £55.

No pubs opening until 11am forced us into
the "Kronenbourg in hotel room while watching
Coronation Street omnibus" approach
Now if Scotland were a modern, civilised country then a 7.15am arrival would've been no problem at all. A quick visit to Wetherspoons for a fry up and a pint would've got the day off to an excellent start. Scotland is however still living in the 1990s, with draconian drinking laws that mean pubs can only serve alcohol between the hours of 11am and midnight. This makes somewhat of a mockery out of the claim that it is a nation of drinkers, when you can in fact only drink in the prescribed hours laid down by Nicola Sturgeon.

Miss Sturgeon had burned me in this way on England's last game in Scotland at Celtic Park in November 2014 and, much like the Scottish electorate in the general election 48 hours previously, I wasn't going to be fooled by her a second time around. Before leaving London four cans of Kronenbourg were purchased and so I trotted off to meet my fellow Brighton supporter Lewis in his hotel room, where we enjoyed a morning beer and Coronation Street omnibus. If watching Bethany Platt attempting to run away with a bloke old enough to be her father doesn't get you up for one of the most historic rivalries in international football, nothing will.

11am - finally, a beer!
Happy campers as we finally get a pub drink in the Bon Accord
The very aptly named "The State"
By 11am and opening time, a gabble of Brighton supporters had gathered at Bon Accord for a pub crawl leading from the Charring Cross area of Glasgow right back to Central Station. As well as the Bon Accord, the crawl took in The Henglers Circus, a pub very aptly named The State, The Hippo Tap Room and The Pot Still. It proved to be well worth the four hours wait between my arrival and opening time as the pubs were excellent, as was the whiskey which ended up being a pretty unnecessary accompaniment to each Tennants. The Scottish theme didn't stop there either as haggis was taken on board for lunch. Thankfully, I managed to escape having a haggis bomb, which is seemingly a Jaegerbomb with the Red Bull substituted for Irn Bru. Lewis had the misfortune to have one after the game at approximately 2am in Popworld and reported back that they are every bit as horrible as you would imagine.

Haggish, mash, swede - food of champions
Hampden Park is around a 15 minute train ride from Glasgow Central, in the suburb of Mount Florida. Naturally, England and Scotland fans couldn't be trusted to travel together to the stadium and so we had completely separate trains that went to completely separate stations. The English station for the day was Kings Park which led to a merry dance around a housing estate to reach the stadium.

The Scottish FA are considering leaving Hampden Park when their tenancy agreement is up in the next few years and it isn't hard to see why. It just doesn't work as a football ground. The bowl shape means that the areas behind the goals are miles back from the pitch for seemingly no reason as there isn't even a running track. England were housed behind one of those goals and I was lucky enough to grab a spot in the back row. Even halfway down the stand the view becomes impaired and if you are at the front then the technical term for what you can see is better known as bugger all.

Hampden Park
Pre game display from the Scotland support
Scotland's poor performances over the last decade mean they also struggle to fill it apart from for the really big games. Taking the national team on the road and using Celtic Park and Ibrox when the crowd size demands it seems a much better option than another long agreement to rent Hampden from where I am standing.

Rousing renditions of both national anthems gave away to a pretty disappointing atmosphere in terms of what you would expect from the occasions. That probably wasn't helped by both sides looking very much like 22 players who hadn't played a competitive game for three weeks; the game being desperately poor for 70 minutes with man along the row from me being rumoured to have slipped into a coma through sheer boredom.

The England masses seperated from the Scotland hoardes
Full time. 2-2
And then the last 20 minutes happened. Thank Christ there were two clowns in either goal as both goalkeepers belatedly decided to make things entertaining. Craig Gordon firstly made a total mess out of Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain's shot to hand England the lead. The visiting support were crowing, the sound of "You're just a shit San Marino" bellowing around the ground. Scotland supporters could only offer a pretty feeble Icelandic Clap in response. Hey, at least we made a major tournament in 2016. And 2014. And 2012. And 2010. And 2006. And 2004. And 2002. And 2000.

That looked like game over but Leigh Griffiths and Joe Hart clearly had other ideas. Hart had already offered the only entertainment of the first half by wearing a baseball cap rarely seen outside of the school playground or in any game involving Chris Kirkland. Did the hat have magic powers? Possibly as without it, he was beaten by two virtually indentical Griffiths free kicks in the space of two minutes to turn the game on its head.

England scrape a draw with "a shit San Marino"
The roar that greeted the second could probably be heard on one of the moons of Jupiter as bodies went flying in the home sections and general bedlam broke out. I've never seen a goal celebrated so wildly and a special mention must go to the three disabled supporters at the front of the Scotland sector to England's right. They took the time in amongst the jubilation to wheel over to the away fans and celebrate in front of them with some standard middle fingers thrown in for good measure.

Glasgow looked set for a big Saturday night party until Harry Kane saved England's blushes in the 93rd minute with an equaliser that prompted hysteria of a different kind. If Griffith's ssecond gave Scotland unbridled joy, then Captain Kane's goal was an outpouring of sheer relieve. Thank Christ we didn't lose to them.

Hampden empties but the English fans are kept in
The final whistle blew at 2-2 with the unreported appreciation from both sets of supporters towards to each other. By the time we were finally allowed out of Hampden, there was only time for a couple of beers before I had to board the coach home while the others headed out for a night on the town and haggis bombs in the aforementioned Pop World.

Although when you think about it, there was only 105 minutes of pub time left between my departure for London and the calling of last orders anyway given midnight was approaching. Those beer laws really do need looking at ASAP. Sort them out, don't play at Hampden Park and then Scotland away might finally live up to the hype.




Scotland: Craig Gordon, Christophe Berra, Charlie Mulgrew, Kieran Tierny, Ikechi Anya (Chris Martin), James Morrison (James McArthur), Scott Brown, Andrew Robertson, Robert Snodgrass (Ryan Fraser), Stuart Armstrong, Leigh Griffiths 2.

England: Joe Hart, Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill, Ryan Bertrand, Jake Livermore (Jermaine Defoe), Eric Dier, Marcus Rashford (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 1), Deli Alli (Raheem Sterling), Adam Lallana, Harry Kane 1.

Attendance: 48,520

Sunday, 23 April 2017

CSKA Sofia v Ludogorets. 23/04/17

"This chap has just said he wants to kill terrorists and journalists. I'd keep your occupation to yourself."

CSKA Sofia 1-1 Ludogorets. Balgarska Armia Stadium.
Sunday 23/04/17
Never before had I left a game of football early due to the temperature. Not at Torquay United on New Years Day 1997 when half the Brighton support took to running laps of a car park behind the goal in an attempt to warm up. Not even at Boothferry Park, Hull on a Tuesday January evening in 1996 for a 0-0 draw. Although my mother would not have been too impressed had we have missed any of that game given she got in trouble for my truancy from school. I mean, what eight year old doesn't want to go to Hull away?

Take a bow then CSKA Sofia. Only an hour of their First Professional Football League - or Bulgarian top flight to you and me - game versus Ludogorets had passed when we decided enough was enough. The game was 0-0, neither side had done anything noteworthy in an attacking sense and Balgarska Armia Stadium was easily the coldest place on Earth at that point in time with the possible exception of the North Pole. Please note the term possible. Back to the pub it was.

Sofia sightseeing - one head...
and one church
This was our last night of three in Sofia on a stag do. It had been full of the normal sort of Eastern European stag do occurrences - lost wallets, blocked toilets and plenty of sick from the stag. They'd even been some sightseeing carried out which lasted all of about an hour. Even this was remarkable from my point of view given that I'd done virtually everything there was to do in Sofia when England visited in 2011. Which amounts to not very much.

My memories of the city from that 3-0 win under Fabio Capello largely consisted of cheap yet horrible beer, spending four days in 30 degree heat wearing jeans as I had neglected to consult a weather forecast and a distinct lack of places to drink, to the point where we had to resort to getting a beer in a fetish club run by a Janet Street Porter look-a-like.

Oli liked his Kamenitza
Scott struggled with his
Either we had not really done a very good job in exploring last time or Sofia has markedly improved in the intervening five and a half years. Central to this weekend of drinking was bul Vitosha, a long street stretching from the Sveta Nedelya cathedral towards the mountains in the distance. On this street were a plethora of bars which we were only happy to give around £1.30 for a pint to. 

One of the best pubs we found broke one of the golden of holidaying - never go to an Irish bar unless you are in Ireland. The Irish Harp was however excellent with good food, local beer and an extremely amenable barman named Boris. Boris gained instant hero status on the Friday night when he put Brighton's game at Norwich on the big screens and he came to be an extremely useful guy to talk to about Sofia. 

His strongest piece of advice came when we asked him what a game at CSKA would be like. The original plan had been for all the stag party to head to the football as a way of saying we had actually done some sort of activity rather than significantly boosting Bulgaria's GDP through sales of Zagorka. Boris was extremely unphlegmatic in his response. "CSKA are mad. If you go and watch them you will get f**king killed."

Floodlight porn at the Vasil Levski Stadium
This, along with an 8pm kick off on a rather chilly Sunday, was enough to put off eight of the party, meaning just two made it to the Buglarian Army Stadium- Oli and myself. So saying our farewells to the group - possibly for the last time if Boris was correct - we headed off.

The stadium is situated just behind the much larger Vasil Levski National Stadium in Borisova gradina, a large park about a 15 minute walk from the centre. It was simply a case of rock up, buy a ticket from a little both for £2 and drink some cans of beer with the locals outside.

Oli parts with £2 for his ticket from this excellent ticket facility

The entrance to the Bulgarian Army Stadium
Security was tight to get in. Riot police were everywhere and there were two thorough searches, one outside the turnstile and one once in the ground. If we were going to die, we wanted to do it in style and so we joined the hardcore CSKA support on the terrace behind the goal. There was no food or beer inside this section of the ground which was a shame as after climbing the steep and crumbling steps to the top of the stand it became very apparent very quickly that a beer coat would be needed given the falling temperature. 

The Bulgarian Army Stadium was the definition of typical Eastern European Stadium. Fantastic floodlights reaching high into the sky, a single tiered bowl and a running track separating pitch and supporters. It holds 22,995 supporters yet the dwindling appeal of Bulgarian football was evidence as the place was largely empty, a crowd of 4,200 being recorded officially and even this looked to be an Arsenal style fabricated attendance. Both ends were terraced with less than 100 Ludogorets fans stationed in a penned off corner at the opposite side. The main stand had the luxury of a small central roof and perhaps best of all, the teams had separate tunnels from which they entered from. That put the Army Stadium in credit even before you filtered in the quite beautiful mountain back drop.

The lovely mountain backdrop of the Army Stadium
In with the CSKA support
Bulgarian Army Stadium
We soon made friends with one CSKA fan who, on first impressions, would definitely have been considered a man who could easily have organised our Bosman free transfer to the grave. Some of his opening lines included "I am a Nazi", "Not being able to get a beer is worse than the Holocaust" and "I hate terrorists and journalists". Don't tell him your job, Scott. 

Krazovir as we Christined him was actually extremely friendly if you ignored the fact that he was clearly a raging racist and quite possibly mentally unstable. He had even heard of "Brighton Albion" and took a keen interest in the fact we had been promoted to the Premier League. He introduced us to several of his friends, taught us a number of Bulgarian phrases to hurl at the opposition and officials and even invited us for a beer "and some drugs" after. By this point 40 minutes of mind numbingly boring football had elapsed and the early signs of frostbite were already starting to show, so we politely declined and said we were thinking of leaving at half time. 
Two players tunnels = big plus marks
Bulgarian Army Stadium under lights
Krazovir understood this approach by agreeing that "Bulgarian football is s**t". His advice however was to stay until just before the hour mark, when the CSKA support would unleash their flares, fireworks and "home made bombs". You had us at flares Krazovir, let alone home made bombs.

That did however mean staying another 15 minutes in which nothing of any note occured. We hadn't gone expecting to be wildly entertained but given that Ludogorets have won the previous six titles in a row and CSKA are the most successful side in Bulgarian history, we kind of expected at least something to happen. The Bulgarian League splits in two for the final quarter of the season, with the top six playing off for the title and the bottom six battling to avoid relegation. If this was the standard of the Championship Round - and the two sides who finished third and top in the the regular camapign, no less - then Christ knows how bad the Relegation Round must be. *Adds to list for next season* 

Things did seemingly get better once we'd left if Soccerbase is anything to go by. Predictably, CSKA took the lead a matter of minutes after we'd departed through a Petrus Boumal penalty. That was cancelled out by Marcelinho's 75th minute equaliser as nothing could seperate the play off leagues top two.

The black banners signal the flares are on their way...
Imagine how warm it must've been in the middle of that...not jealous
We moved to the other side of the terrace at the start of the second half, partly to get a better look at the display and partly in the hope that the main stand may provide a wind break and with it a little less cold (it didn't). 60 minutes of play finally elapsed and right on cue, the CSKA support unfurled a huge black banner. That was followed by the terrace being turned into a wall of fire - a mightily impressive display and, if I'm honest, a pang of jealousy that we weren't in the middle of it if only for heat purposes.

Disappointingly, the home made bombs were seemingly not actual bombs
As their flares expired, the CSKA support threw them onto the running track where they smouldered and the smell of smoke filled the stadium. Krazovir was right, it had proved to be well worth staying for but finally, cold won the battle and we were retreating back to The Irish Harp.

Boris seemed genuinely surprised when we arrived back at The Irish Harp via our own two feet rather than a hearse. He wasn't surprised to hear the game had been terrible and with El Classico now on the big screens, told us we could watch some real football now. 

But give me Krazovir, pyrotechnics and CSKA Sofia over a game on television any day. The real football was at Balgarska Armia Stadium. The only thing El Classico has over it is that presumably it wasn't -30 in Madrid. So just next time we at a game in Sofia, can we have some Spanish weather please? 





CSKA Sofia: Georgi Kitanov, Stanislav Manolev, Nikolay Bodurov, Anton Nedyalkov, Bozhidar Chorbadzhiyski, Ruben Pinto, Petrus Boumal 1 (Kristiyan Malinov), Arsenio, Gustavo Culma (Kevin Koubemba), Fernando Karanga (Kevin Mercado), Kiril Despodov.

Ludogorets: Renan, Cosmin Moti, Cicinho, Jose Luis Palomino, Gustavo Campanharo, Anicet Andrianantenaina (Juninho Quixada), Wanderson (Lucas Sasha), Nathanael Pimienta, Marcelhino 1, Jonathan Cafu, Virgil Misidjan (Claudiu Keseru).

Attendance: 4,200