Friday, 21 October 2016

Excelsior v PEC Zwolle. 21/10/16

"You've come all the way here from Brighton? Bloody hell."

Excelsior 0-2 PEC Zwolle. Stadion Woudestein. Friday 21/11/16
Looking for Eric has to be one of the most preposterous ideas for a film ever with the possible exception of Snakes on a Plane. For those who have never heard of it, it goes something like this:

Man's life is falling apart. Man considers suicide. Man smokes marijuana. Man has vision of Eric Cantona. Eric Cantona guides man through the rest of the film to a happy ending. Day two of our Rotterdam trip could have been the sequel to this - Looking for Danny.

The Danny in question was Dutch midfielder Danny Holla and although there was no suicide, midlife crisis or weed involved, we were on a mission to find him. Why Danny Holla? Because he’d spent two years at Brighton and Hove Albion. Until the last five years or so, Brighton were pretty rubbish and so it was rare for a player to leave the Albion and head for foreign lands. They were more likely to be heading for non league. We’re still not used to this whole supporting a good team thing and so once Holla was released and we got wind of the fact he had signed for PEC Zwolle, taking in their Eredivisie visit to Excelsior was a no-brainer.

The International Criminal Court - about as far as sightseeing in The Hague went
But before the Friday evening game at Stadion Woudestein, there was another Danny Holla related part of the trip to get through. Holla had signed for Brighton from ADO Den Haag and, the Netherlands being a small country with impeccable public transport links, we decided to spend the afternoon in Den Haag, or The Hague as it is known to us English. The Hague was a brisk 20 minute train ride from Rotterdam and once there we were able to do some actual “sightseeing” which for once didn't consist of the inside of a pub. The city is home to the Dutch government, parliament and Supreme Court despite the fact that the capital is Amsterdam. It is also home to the International Criminal Court which is where we were headed for a look around.

Beer in The Hague
With a disappointing lack of ongoing war crime trials, we spent just 30 minutes at he ICC, after which it was back to the city centre where we belatedly discovered a square with lots of outdoor drinking facilities. That was the end of any plans to go and visit Kyocera Stadion, home of ADO Den Haag as we were unable to leave the hospitality of the square and it's beers before journeying back to Rotterdam.

 Although sad not to have made it to one of the grounds where Holla used to play his trade, there were two positives to this. One was that Den Haag wear an absolutely brilliant combination of yellow and green stripes as a home kit, which would almost certainly have led to an obscene an amount of money being spent on merchandise. The second was that by not visiting, we have full justification to go back for a Den Haag game at some point in the future.

Back in Rotterdam, we decided to chance the 30 minute walk from the centre to Stadion Woudestein which meant that the walk soon turned into a near two hour trek as we decided to stop at five different bars along the way. The best of these was Cafe Hoekzight, a bar with lots (about eight) of supporters heading to the evening's big game as well as a huge poster of a naked lady inside the gents toilets. Only in the Netherlands.

Stadion Woudestein
More Rotterdam floodlight porn
On arrival at Stadion Woudestein it became evident that the floodlight porn experienced at De Kuip for Feyenoord v Zorya Luhansk the previous day wasn't just restricted to the cities biggest team. Even Excelsior had pylons to get you aroused, a particularly impressive feat for one of the smallest professional grounds in the country that holds less than 5,000 people. Rotterdam truly is the European capital of fantastic floodlights.

It turned out that it wasn't just Danny Holla we would be paying homage to on this trip either. Excelsior was the club that produced Robin van Persie and to say they are proud of it is something of an understatement. We would be positioned for the evening behind the goal in the RVP Stand and in the supporters bar there was an entire wall dedicated to the former Arsenal and Manchester United man.

The Robin van Persie tribute wall in the Excelsior supporters bar
Just in case you didn't realise Robin van Persie was a product of
Excelsior's youth system... 
Don't fancy leaving the bar? Just stand on the porch at the front of it to watch the game
One thing that makes trips to these smaller clubs enjoyable is the supporters bar and Excelsior has one to rival the best of them. Cheap, cheerful and housing a cupboard which doubles as the club shop, the best bit about it is it features a porch that directly overlooks the pitch and you can take beer from the bar straight to your seat. One bloke didn't even bother to leave the bar - we discovered him at half time in exactly the same position watching the television as we had left him in as the teams appeared for kick off.

The RVP Stand was raised above the pitch and was a curious mixture of seats with a block of terracing in the middle. At the other end the PEC Zwolle fans had gathered, a remarkably large number for a Friday night round trip which at 180 miles is one of the longest in the Eredivisie given they came into the game bottom of the table. The Holla effect perhaps?

The RVP Stand
Stadion Woudestein
What a fantastic little venue for a game of football 
The match itself wasn't too entertaining with the first half in particular a complete non event. Half the Excelsior fans were still refuelling in the bar or taking advantage of the crepe stand (crepes at football - take note English clubs) when Zwolle took the lead through Ajax loanee Queensy Menig with the second half just three minutes old.

Crepes in a football ground is the best idea so far in the 21st century
Excelsior pushed forward in search of an equaliser after that but Zwolle kept them at bay, adding a second on the counter with two minutes left to play through Django Warmerdam - another player on loan from Ajax. Excelsior 0-2 Ajax some might say. While the majority of Excelsior supporters slunk off back to the city, a fair few which included us returned to the warmth of the bar. Those downing the Jupiler included a large number of fathers and we soon discovered why when peering out of the window to see lots of kids having an impromptu kick about on the pitch. Tempted as we were to go and join them - who doesn't want to tell their Grandkids about the time they scored at Stadion Woudestein? - they looked quite good and, after Euro 2016, English football is far enough in the doldrums as it is without two pissed up blokes being given the run around by a load of Dutch under 10s.

Some kids have a kick about on the pitch - you don't get that post game at Old Trafford
So we stayed in the bar which was a wise move. Not content with serving great beer, around 30 minutes after the full time whistle any food that had been cooked but not eaten was offered around for free. Eating a complimentary meat thing that looked suspiciously like a sausage yet wasn't while looking at a wall decorated with Robin van Persie’s face. Does life get any better?

Free food...but what is it?
It does actually. Up pulled the PEC Zwolle coach and from the sanctuary of the Main Stand the visiting players began to board. Beer necked, sausage that wasn't sausage eaten, we headed outside and five minutes later found ourselves being greeted by the very man we had come to see.

 “You've come from Brighton?” Mr Holla expressed with a look and tone of bewilderment, clearly torn between admiration for the cause and concern that we should be in a secure mental facility somewhere. He was kind enough to chew the fat for five minutes, expressing disbelief that Brighton didn't win promotion to the Premier League last season (we missed out by two goals) and that he hoped it happened this time around. The feeling was mutual, we told Danny - we hope you and Zwolle can stay up.

The trip is justified as we succeed in meeting Danny Holla
They are making a good fist of doing that as well, having moved from the bottom of the table position they occupied before the Excelsior game up to the dizzy heights of 11th at the time of writing.

As for us, we headed back to the Excelsior fan bar until we were eventually kicked out, catching a tram back to the city centres Cool District to party the night away. The next morning it was a 9am flight from Rotterdam to Manchester and onwards to Wigan, where Brighton picked up a 1-0 win to go second in the Championship.

 Looks like both Zwolle and Brighton could get what we hope for by the end of the season. In which case, keep your eyes peeled for Looking for Danny Part 2 next season.

Excelsior: Tom Muyters, Henrico Drost, Jurgen Mattheij, Khalid Karami, Leeroy Owusu, Kevin Vermeulen (Danilo Pantic), Luigi Bruins, Ryan Koolwijk (Nigel Hasselbaink), Alfredo Kulembe Ribeiro, Mike van Duinen, Stanley Elbers (Anouar Hadouir). 

PEC Zwolle: Mickey van der Hart, Bart Schenkeveld, Bram van Polen, Calvin Verdonk, Django Warmerdam 1, Ted Van De Pavert, Danny Holla, Mustafa Saymak(Ryan Jared Thomas), Kingsley Ehizibue, Queensy Menig 1 (Annas Achahbar), Youness Mokhtar (Thanasis Karagounis). 

Attendance: 3,640

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Feyenoord v Zorya Luhansk. 20/10/16

"If more clubs played Gloria Gaynor at full time I'd be inclined to stay until full time rather than leaving five minutes early to get back to the pub."

Feyenoord 1-0 Zorya Luhansk. De Kuip.
Thursday 20/10/16
Dutch football is bloody fantastic. Yet for some reason it has never become a fashionable destination like its German counterpart. 

While supporters from across Europe flock to venues such as Signal Iduna Park to watch Borussia Dortmundtourist - been there, done that, got the t-shirt twice - nobody seems to take much interest in what is going on across the border in the Netherlands.

Perhaps it is Dutch clubs reputation for stringent membership schemes. Or the banning of away supporters for high profile matches. Or the threat of hooliganism. Or the vicious rumour that it is nigh-on impossible to get tickets for games.

Well it wasn't impossible for our Dutch Double Header. A quick e-mail to two of Rotterdam's finest in the form of Feyenoord and Excelsior and we were on our way to the city that made The Beautiful South famous. This could be Rotterdam or anywhere... 

An interesting design for Rotterdam Central Station
Our request for tickets for Feyenoord might have been helped by the fact we mentioned we were Brighton and Hove Albion fans. Last summer, Brighton parted with £1.5m for Feyenoord striker Elvis Manu who has turned out to be, for want of a better word, crap. You can imagine the scenes in the ticket office now as the e-mail came in. “Oh God, two Brighton fans want to come and watch us play. I suppose it’s the least we can do seeing as we mugged their club off for over a million quid for a player who doesn’t know the offside rule.” 

Taking in two games at a time on these trips always seem like a good idea on paper. But paper doesn't have to deal with two days of solid alcohol consumption. Which is followed by an 8am Saturday morning flight from Rotterdam Airport to Manchester. On a propeller powered plane. Throughout which you are desperately trying not to add "above the North Sea" to the list of places you've been sick. 

Statue of a giant gnome pleasuring itself - tick
Why were we flying into Manchester airport? Ah, well just to add to the weekend of football, Andy decided in his wisdom we could go and watch Wigan v Brighton as it was "on the way home". It did actually prove to be a prudent move given the Albion won 1-0 to go second in the Championship which was remarkable as, as we wobbled dangerously somewhere over Yorkshire, it seemed at the time to be as good a decision as when Mr and Mrs Hitler got a bit randy and headed to the bedroom.

But I digress. Back to Dutch football. Which is bloody brilliant. Our chosen game at the fabulous De Kuip was Feyenoord taking on Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk. A couple of weeks before our visit, Zorya had travelled to Old Trafford to take on the not-so-mighty-anymore Manchester United. They had, according to The Times, taken a grand total of five supporters with them owing to the troubles in war torn Eastern Ukraine where they are based (although they now play "home" games in Zaporhizia, a mere 236 miles away). 

In honour of the dedication of the fantastic five, we had decided to secretly give our backing to Zorya despite being in among the home supporters. That was until we headed out into Rotterdam and were blown away by the cities passion for football which instead saw us pinning our colours firmly to the Feyenoord mast. Across our travels we met not just Feyenoord and Excelsior supporters but Sparta Rotterdam and bizarrely a Dutch Bradford City supporter. It takes all sorts I suppose. 

Heineken... a Sparta Rotterdam bar
Central to these meetings were the plethora of bars we came across in an area of the city which was named 'Cool District'. Our decision to hang around here and not venture too fat away in the hope of finding a 'Groovy Borough" or a 'Wicked Boulevard' was vindicated as we ticked off no less than nine pubs. Easily the best of these was Café Visser, which featured a scary Santa Claus doll just the two months before Christmas, some weird porcelain dog figure with a set of flowers coming out of its head and a large poster of George Best. Football mad and probably genuinely mad.

Scary Santa Claus - in October
George Best poster
Our hotel for the two nights was also handily located in Cool District. This was the first time I had stayed in an Easyhotel and it was everything you would imagine a hotel run by Sir Stelios would be. Check in on line, the most budget of budget rooms, extra charge for tea and coffee. The only disappointment was there was no speedy boarding for the shower and no option to pay extra to reserve a chosen bed.

De Kuip. Look at those floodlights

From Cool District it was a 10-15 minute tram ride over the river to the Feyenoord area of the city. The first thing you notice about De Kuip are its floodlight pylons. With the ushering in of modern, all seater stadiums proper floodlights you can see for miles away have all but disappeared in favour of boring lights strung along a roof. But not in Rotterdam. De Kuip features four beautiful pylons reaching high into the sky. Floodlight porn, some might say. 

Once inside the stadium, the lights peer down over the roof illuminating the pitch below. Two tiered all the way around and in a bowl shape with a low hanging roof, it ticked every box that features on the excellent stadium checklist. The floodlights, well you are probably bored about hearing about those gorgeous metal creatures by now. The player’s tunnel was the opposite side of the stadium to the dugouts which led to a fantastic procession of coaching staff, medical teams and substitutes at the start and end of each half. And then we come to the atmosphere.

De Kuip complete with the lower half of the bottom tier covered up
De Kuip
De Kuip was partially shut this fine Thursday evening. UEFA had dished out a suspended sentence punishment of a future game behind closed doors after crowd trouble in a Europa League game there last season against Roma. As a result, Feyenoord took it upon themselves to close the front half of the lower tier in a bid to prevent a repeat. Preventative action if you will. This meant around 16,000 seats in the 51,000 capacity stadium were covered up which you would expect to impact on the atmosphere somewhat.

Not a chance. The place was raucous throughout, none more so than when Nicolai Jorgensen scored the only goal of the game. There was even a green flare let off in celebration. If it could be that loud in a game which did nothing to excite with a third of the ground shut, imagine what it would be like when Ajax come to town. Add that one to the bucket list. 

Feyenoord score, the boredom is shattered with a flare
One of the loudest songs of the night was "Don't take me home" which seems to have caught on since it was sung relentlessly by England supporters at Euro 2016. This is a real bugbear of mine as it should surely only be sung when you are away? You can't be taken home if you are already at home, can you? England fans who persist on singing it at Wembley, take note.

Zorya are in the Feyenoord half. Quick, take a photo
That wasn't the only English thing about the evening either as the football was reminiscent of the on-the-pitch-tripe served up by England in their last four games. There were just four shots on target, all from Feyenoord. Brad Jones of Liverpool and Middlesbrough fame cold have bought out a chair and a book he was so underemployed in the Feyenoord goal. Perhaps this is the reason people don't flock to Dutch games. Certainly not those against limited Ukrainian opposition on a Thursday night.

There was one last treat at the end to make up for the mind numbing boringness of the 90 minutes. Plenty of clubs have a song that they play on the full time whistle. But none are as good as Feyenoord pumping out Gloria Gaynor and I Will Survive, complete with supporters joining in as they file out of the magnificent De Kuip.

Dutch football. Bloody brilliant.

Feyenoord: Brad Jones, Rick Karsdorp, Eric Botteghin, Jan-Arie van der Heijden, Terrence Kongolo, Karim El Ahmadi, Renato Tapia, Tonny Vilhena, Jens Toornstra, Nicolai Jorgenstern 1 (Michiel Kramer), Bilal Bascikoglu.

Zorya Luhansk: Oleksiy Shevchenko, Mykyta Kamenyuka, Mikhail Sivakov, Rafael Forster, Eduard Sobol, Olexandr Karavayev, Artem Gordienko (Igor Kharatin), Dmytro Grechyshkin, Ivan Petryak (Paulo Victor de Menezes Melo), Jaba Lipartia, Vladyslav Kulach (Zeljko Ljubenovic).

Attendance: 35,000.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Slovenia v England. 11/10/16

"When I said I was going to have a little nap, the general idea was to wake me up when the second half kicked off. Not leave me asleep for another 20 minutes."

Slovenia 0-0 England. Stozice Stadium.
Insomniacs, your days of sleepless nights are over. For I, Scott McCarthy, have come up with a cure that will send any man, woman or child into the land of nod at the drop of a hat.

You won't find this treatment on the NHS. If you went private, it would probably cost you hundreds of pounds. But, being the kind and considerate member of the human race that I am, I'm giving it to you for free.

Firstly, you want to book yourself a cheap flight to Munich. There, visit six or seven of this great cities finest beer halls. At 3.30am, board a bus to Ljubljana. Five hours later you will arrive in Slovenia's capital city. Have some breakfast. At 10am, recommence drinking for the next eight or so hours. At 9pm, attend Slovenia v England at Stozice Stadium. By 10pm, you will be out for the count.

In typical Bavarian style, a group of around 20 elderly ladies come
and join me for dinner
If you forget the turgid 90 minutes Gareth Southgate's England side served up in Slovenia - which it is bloody easy to do given sod all happened - this was another excellent trip. Munich remains one of my favourite cities in Europe. It has the perfect mix of beer, sausage and history, which made it the ideal starting and finishing point.

So, what does one do on a Monday night in Munich when one has to wait around until 3am for a bus? Augustine Klosterwirt, Ratskeller, Hofbrauhaus, Augustiner am Platz, Weisses Brauhaus, Palais Bar. In that order.

Pint of Hofbrau please bar keep
One of the many cost cutting measures you can take on these sorts of trips is overnight travel. It means you don't have to pay for accommodation and your time sleeping is put to good use getting from A to B, leaving more time to explore wherever you happen to end up.

This is all well and good in theory until the bus driver decides somewhere up in the Alps at 6am to whack the air conditioning on full blast, ruling out any more sleep. Cheers mate. There is of course also the washing situation. If you are sleeping on a coach for two consecutive nights, showering becomes a problem. Thankfully, I had my friends Lewis and Mark to sort me out in this regard with the use of the facilities in their splendid apartment in Ljubljana.

Ljubljana drinking at 10am with complimentary blankets
The best way to say thank you to Lewis and Mark was clearly to drag them to the pub for 10am and get the beers in, after which we could explore Ljubljana. There have been plenty of beautiful places on these footballing trips and Ljubljana ranks up there with the best of them.

The tiny Ljubljanica River meanders its way through the middle of the city with a plethora of charming bridges connecting the cobbled streets on either side. High above the city rises the castle, keeping an eye on everything going on below. A cable car takes people up to the top, from where stunning views of this quaint corner of Europe can be had.

Beautiful Ljubljana
Drinking on the banks of the Ljubljanica
Unfortunately, I never made it onto the cable car, instead preferring to try out a number of the bars situated along the banks of the river. In the height of summer, you can imagine the throng of people drinking outside these places as the sun beats down. It wasn't quite that pleasant on a cold October day with intermittent showers but, thanks to the Slovenian penchant for blankets we had a real good go at remaining outside while pursuing a range of local beers.

Monk Lewis is all wrapped up for our boat trip
It wasn't all drinking, mind you. There was some culture involved as Lewis, Mark, the recently arrived Ciaran and myself decided to take a cruise down the Ljubljanica. This featured a complimentary beer when boarding the boat and lasted for approximately an hour. I slept through approximately 45 of this which was a sign of things to come. At this juncture, I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise to any of my fellow boat passengers who may be reading this and who, in their attempts to take photos of the scenery around us, will probably have a Seth Rogen look-a-like ruining every one given my prime position at the back of the boat. Sorry.

Boat trip over, we were soon trying to make our way to the ground. On route, we passed a hotel with a coach outside and a mass of people. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but here it allowed us to see the England team boarding their transportation to the stadium. Wayne Rooney got the biggest cheer from the crowd, a far cry from those who shamefully booed him at Wembley three days previously. There was also a high five from Southgate who thanked us all for coming. With the benefit of hindsight with regards to his sides eventual contribution, I could've returned the favour and thanked him for aiding my pioneering work into insomnia.

Stozice Stadium
The birthplace of the cure to insomnia
Stozice Stadium was a 20 minute cab ride outside the city and at first glance appeared to be tiny. Only upon entry did it turn out that the entire place was sunk into the ground, so that you entered at the very top of the stadium with the pitch below you. It was a smart little place although on this occasion relatively empty.  A combination of the fact that England had played there less than 18 months previously and a disastrous Euros meant that the away end wasn't sold out. It was even less full by the end as supporters began streaming out from as early as the 15 minute mark in favour of the warmth offered by the city centres many great bars.

We stuck it out. At half time, I informed Mark, Fiona, Kevin and Sara who I'd miraculously ended up with having lost them after our little boat voyage that I was going to take a nap. The intention here was to catch up on some sleep during the 15 minute break. Silly me presumed somebody would wake me up if I was still out when the second half kicked off. My associates decided that, rather than do that, they wouldinstead focused on taking a load of pictures of me fast asleep while the game was going on.

One of the photos my lovely friends took instead of waking me up...
Sleeping beauty
Eventually, I woke up  into the second half, in time to see an absolute wonder save from Joe Hart. Hart was the only player to emerge with any real credit on a dire evening of football and that save was about the only thing of note that actually happened. Without him, England could easily have lost the game. But then at least there would have been some goals. Every cloud and all that.

Still, that snorefest had set things up nicely fit the return journey to Munich, this time at the slightly earlier time of 2.30am. 2.30am duly rolled around at the fabulous facilities supplied by Ljubljana Coach Station (a street with some bus stops) and there was no sign of the bus. 3am rolled around and a bus turns up. Brilliant, Munich here we come. Except, this isn't the 2.30am bus. There is a two hour delay on the border with Croatia owing to passport checks due to the migrant crisis and this is the 12.30am bus. Eventually, the 2.30am bus makes an appearance at 4am and we are off and running. That sleep in the stadium isn't looking such a silly move now thanks to that lack of efficiency from those at the Croatia-Slovenia border.

One man who knew a thing or two about efficiency was Adolf Hitler and you can't really go to Munich and escape the cities links to the Nazi Party. One I'd finally arrived back in Bavaria, there were more beers to be had in amongst visiting several sights such as Odeonsplatz, where Hitler made several speeches and the Beer Hall Putsch came to its bloody conclusion and the Lowenbraukeller, one of the places frequented by Hitler and his henchman. Remarkably, I stumbled across some sort of rally going on in Marienplatz in front of the domineering Rathaus led by the far right Pegida party with plenty of anti-Muslim propaganda going on and a lot of people listening. Munich a hot bed of the far right? Things don’t change that much.

Nazi Congress Hall
Inside the Nazi Congress Hall, which would have held 50,000 if it
were completed
 A short 90 minute train journey from Munich is the city of Nuremberg, where the Nazi Parade Grounds are. This was where Thursday was spent, checking out the fascinating museum about the Nazi's rise and fall and standing on the balcony from where Hitler would inspect the troops. The whole place was fascinating, from the lake which was where the Nazi's had laid the foundations for a 400,000 capacity stadium (the Americans didn’t know what to do with it after the war, so just filled it up with water) to the Congress Hall, a 50,000 seater version of Rome's Coliseum which would have been where Hitler made grand speeches.

Nuremberg Parade Ground
Hitler's balcony
Nuremberg itself was a great little place, a smaller version of Munich with pubs and town squares galore. Having only half a day here was a travesty and a return visit to watch FC Nurnberg has to be on the cards. Their stadium? Part of the Parade Ground, of course. It would be nice to return to Ljubljana as well at some point. If the city was this great as Autumn kicks in, I can only imagine what it is like in the middle of summer.

Best do it soon as well. After all, thousands of people will be flocking there in the not too distant future to visit the city and see the spot where that great medical breakthrough happened. Ljubljana - where the cure for insomnia was discovered.

Slovenia: Jan Oblak, Aljaz Struna, Miral Samardzic, Bostjan Cesar (Miha Mevlja) Bojan Jokic, Rene Krhin (Nik Omladic), Benjamin Verbic, Valter Birsa (Rok Kronaveter), Jasmin Kurtic, Roman Bezjak, Josip Ilicic.

England: Joe Hart, Kyle Walker, Gary Cahill, John Stones, Danny Rose, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Theo Walcott (Andros Townsend), Deli Alli (Wayne Rooney), Jesse Lingard, Daniel Sturridge (Marcus Rashford).

Attendance: 13,274