Triumph and Tragedy (Bucharest Groundhop 2016)

So after much hard work and promotion by organiser Andrei Otineanu, an ensemble of groundhoppers (11 English, 1 Scottish, 1 German and 1 Dane) flew into Bucharest from all points to gather for this much anticipated event.

After careful planning by our host, the itinerary was to take in seven matches over Friday to Sunday with a decent mix of three top flight games and four lower level matches. Well that was the plan but events would see the schedule torn up and thrown in the bin!

We gathered excitedly at the Ibis hotel adjacent to the preposterously enormous Palatul Parlamentului building. Our welcome packs of English language programmes and pin badges were handed out as we headed of to the first of two Friday evening games.

AS Olimpic Bucharest play at the Energoutilaj Ground in Drumul Bercenarului and currently play in the Fifth League (Bucharest). The ground is located near to Gara Progresul in the southern suburbs of the city. The modest ground lies in the shadow of the huge Statie de Betoane cement factory. The eye-catching stand is the on the right as you enter and is a decent size if a little difficult to ascend into! The pitch is noticeably poor, rutted and grassless in places and patches of mushrooms proliferate on the surface.

As an amateur ground it has everything and we witness a surprisingly skilful game given the awful playing surface. The visitors were 3-2 ahead when, having used all their substitutes at half time, three outfield players had to leave the game with various injuries leaving them reduced to just eight players. Weight of numbers told and Olimpic took full advantage scoring two late goals to seal the victory.

Friday May 6th 2016, 17.00 pm – Bucharest 5th League

AS Olimpic Bucharest 4 (Buscó 40, Cristeo 56, Mihacoche 82, Calin 84)
Benfica Noua Generatie 3 (Smarande 26, 63, Stoianis 54)

Att: 44 (at Energoutilaj Ground)

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After a hasty but excellent kebab from Calif, it is time for the second game of the evening and it’s the 20.30pm kick off for the top division play-off match between FC Dinamo and FC Viitorul Constanta. The match resulted in the tragic death of Dinamo midfielder Patrick Ekeng from a cardiac arrest, more of which can be read here: https://peterrmiles.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/when-football-cries-again-fc-dinamo-bucharest/

The morning saw the party gather in the reception of the hotel as we desperately waited for news of the fate of the weekend’s planned matches. A distraught Andrei continuously punched refresh on his phone internet browser as the very real prospect of a blanket cancellation of all matches loomed. Plans were hatched to, if necessary, dash over the border with Bulgaria to potentially take in matches in the border towns of Ruse and Svishtov. However, the consensus, in the absence of any news, was to head over to the National Stadium for some photos while a decision was made. En route the news came through that the National Leagues matches were cancelled as a mark of respect which meant we would not be visiting Concordia Chiajna and FC Voluntari. A great shame but the good news was that the lower leagues were allowed to make their own decision on cancellations and thankfully the Bucharest FA agreed games should proceed but with a minutes silence as a mark of respect to the fallen player.

While we were not allowed access to the National Stadium despite an open gate we enjoyed catching half an hour or so of a youth team match on the quirky Electroaparataj Ground between CS6 and Automatica.

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We then had time to look at the photogenic stepped street of Strada Xenofon before heading to the first match of the day at Progresul.

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Progresul Bucharest were formed in 1944 as BNR Bucharest a team from the banking industry. This gives rise to one of their nicknames of the “Bankers” but I have to say I prefer “Cavalerii frunzei de platan” which translates as “The Knights of the Sycamore Leaf”! Their history is steeped in success including 32 seasons of top flight football. However in 2009 it all came crashing down as the club went into financial meltdown and were evicted from their Cotroceni Stadium home due to unpaid rent. Worse was to follow as they were forcibly relegated to the fourth level by the Romanian FA.

Normally the club play at spartan Viitorul Ground in the shadow of the National Stadium but as May 10th marks the club formation date they have hired the superior Electromagnetica Ground normally used by the reserve side of Rapid Bucharest. It is a quite magnificent venue with a stylish concrete stand painted in a dusty pink colour. There is an enormous and very retro blue wooden scoreboard in one corner, and adjacent to this the venue has its own chicken coop. Well why wouldn’t it! Since their enforced demotion Progresul have become something of hipster club and attract a modest band of ultras who back the team for the whole game and periodically release blue smoke bombs and flares. It’s a great atmosphere for such a modest level and the home team do their bit by easing to a comfortable 2-0 success against AS Termo.

Saturday May 7th 2016, 13.00 pm – Bucharest 4th League

FC Progresul 2 (Sidek pen 45, Nias 61)
AS Termo 0

Att: 132 (at Electromagnetica Ground)

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A hearty late lunch of chicken soup and mititei was enjoyed with some tasty unfiltered local brews at the excellent Nenea Ianca restaurant in Strada Covaci.

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The next stop is at Stadionul Biruinta, home of Venus Bucharest, a 2014 reformation of a famous name in Romanian football. The original club we formed in 1914 and were known as Negrii (The Blacks) because of their distinctive all black kit which featured a white eight pointed star as a badge. Venus were the most successful club in Romania winning eight championships before being dissolved by the Communist government in 1949. They played at the legendary Venus Stadium between 1931 and the clubs dissolution. The stadium was demolished in 1953. A bunch of enthusiasts wanted to bring football back to the district of Venus and the only pitch in the area was the former training ground of Juventus Bucharest. This was spruced up with a new clubhouse which is now festooned with a myriad of scarves and pennants from clubs across the world. The players change in a small building in the far corner of the ground adjacent to an indoor tennis centre. The Biruinta ground has three metal bleacher style stands on one side which unfortunately have no roofs.

The visitors for this Fourth League encounter rejoice in the name ACS Lucky Sport Management, but there it nothing fortunate about their victory as they easily dismantle the hosts on another very suspect pitch.

Saturday May 7th 2016, 18.00 pm – Bucharest 4th League

FC Venus Bucharest 0
ACS Lucky Sports Management 3 (Gheorghe 21, Militaru pen 37, C.Achim 60)

Att: 38 (at Stadionul Biruinta)

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Our evening meal is at a traditional Romanian eatery of Pub Horezu in Bulevardul Pache Protopopescu. The food is just superb, especially the creamy doughnut dessert.

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Sunday has been reduced to just the 17.30pm match at ASF Fratia so there is plenty of free time in the morning and I opt to wander the streets of the old town area with Stephen and Andrew.

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Then the whole group gathers for a quick visit to the incredible Giulest-Valentin Stanescu Stadium, home of Rapid Bucharest.

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Nenea Ianca was the venue for lunch once again before we headed to Fratia.

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Ah Fratia, what can you say about this place? Located behind a disused factory the ground is epically rudimentary. It can really only be accessed by walking across a field of cabbages for around half a mile! The club are welcoming as any I have ever experienced. The concept of the club was to provide a home for players that could not get a game anywhere else. They are coached by a Congolese man, Aime Lema, and famously have a one armed goalkeeper, Tudorel Mihailescu, a life affirming character whose battle to live out his dream to play football has been featured in the New York Times.

Today is Tudorel’s 50th birthday and the venue is in celebratory mood. Herve Phanzu gives the hosts an early lead against Progresul Spartac but it is a close encounter and victory is not secured until skipper Daniel Sebanescu stabs in a second amid joyous scenes of celebration, so much so he actually injures himself and has to limp off!

The Fratia-Vulcan ground is just amazing, plastic bags and assorted underwear are used for corner flags, a massive scoreboard sits unloved in one corner and a multi coloured bleacher style stand creeks alarmingly under the weight of spectators. If you want to see the real Romania it is encapsulated in this one glorious place.

Sunday May 8th 2016, 17.30 pm – Bucharest 5th League

ASF Fratia 2 (Phanzu 23, Sebanescu 85)
Progesul Spartac 0

Att: 70 (at Fratia-Vulcan Ground)

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Another fabulous meal at Pub Horezu completes the day and as dawn breaks it is time to head off to Otopeni airport for the flight home.

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What an epic weekend organised so well by young Andrei who hopes to base his university thesis on this weekend, be sure to follow the Romanian Groudhopper and #BucharestGH across all forms of social media.

When Football Cries (Again) – (FC Dinamo Bucharest)

(In memory of Patrick Ekeng Ekeng)

FC Dinamo București were formed in May 1948 and have since become one of Romania’s most successful clubs winning 18 national titles and 13 Romanian cups. The formation was the result of a merger between Unirea Tricolor București and Ciocanul București, a merger coerced by the Interior Affairs Ministry.

The club moved to the present stadium in 1951 with the inaugural match taking place against Locomotiva Timișoara. While sporadic renovation has occurred invariably funding issues have seen few projects fully realised. Cosmetic improvements like new floodlights in 2001 and more recently a modern LED scoreboard have given the old ground a fresher feel although the capacity remains a modest 15,000. There are plans to rebuild it into a modern arena style stadium but as the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly several of the clubs’ bigger matches have been staged at the National Stadium. Since 2015 FC Voluntari have groundshared with Dinamo as they look to replace their ageing Stadionul Anghel Iordansecu in the north east of the city.

The Dinamo Stadium has the unfortunate nickname of Groapa which translates as “the Hole”, not a reflection of the facilities, but due to the fact that the ground was dug out to fit the stands into a bowl rather than raising the stands vertically.

Dinamo’s golden era was undoubtedly the 1970’s and 80’s when they annexed eight of their League titles and enjoyed considerable success in European competition. Their zenith in Europe came in the 1982/83 season when they defeated Kuusysi Lahti of Finland, Hamburg SV and Dinamo Minsk on the way to a semi-final defeat to eventual winners Liverpool.

Tonight’s game is one in a baffling series of play off matches for European places and sees Dinamo draw 3-3 with FC Viitorul Constanța.

The reason for the relatively short mention of the match is the result was very much immaterial because in the 70th minute of the match Dinamo’s Cameroonian international midfielder Patrick Ekeng Ekeng, who had been on the pitch barely seven minutes, keeled over backwards with nobody else near him. While concern was immediate amongst players action from medical staff was appallingly inept. There appeared to be two ambulances at the stadium and these were stationed at the north end of the stadium behind a gate that appeared to be locked. Vital time was lost as a steward battled to open the gate. Once the ambulance headed to the pitch a white suited doctor with a case ran on from the same end like some sort of keystone cop. The prone player was attended to for some minutes but I saw no defribulator engaged and not even heart massage appeared to be performed. Ekeng was rushed to Floreasca hospital which was just minutes away but was tragically pronounced dead some two hours later. Unbelievably the match continued to a conclusion with players from both teams visibly distraught with the severity of what they had seen.

A subsequent police inquest has already revealed inconsistencies in the stories of the ambulance doctor, Dinamo’s club doctor, the hospital spokesman and the official match observer, Vasele Marcel, who has astonishingly already stated he does not even know what a defribulator is. The truth must come out and those found criminally negligent must stand trial for their actions on this fateful night.

The private company contracted to provide ambulance and medical services to Dinamo have been suspended from trading and find them $6,000 after checks revealed their ambulances had defribulators with uncharged batteries and hopelessly out of date medical supplies. Ekeng’s agent Hasan Anil Eken is adamant he knows that none of the ambulances on duty at the stadium was equipped with a defribulator.

With sudden heart defects seemingly increasingly prevalent in young fit athletes there must be action taken. FIFPRO, the world union for professional players has openly criticised Romania for “skimping on medical care” for players in the past. Indeed Dinamo themselves have seen a similar tragedy as recently as 2000 when their captain, Cătălin Hîldan, collapsed and died of a heart attack at the age of 24 during a game against FC Oltenița. Only four years ago 21 year old Nigerian player Henry Chinonso Ihelewere, sufgered a similar fair when he died during a game between his side CS Delta Tulcea and FC Balotesti. The Romanian professional players union, AFAN, tried to get a deal passed where clubs would have state of the art medical resources at every game for as little as €400 per game but clubs evidently decided against the proposal.

In the light of this latest, and I am convinced utterly preventable tragedy, I believe it should be mandatory for the issue of any professional operating licence to a football club for them to prove that they have appropriate medical screening and emergency contingencies in place for all matches. I don’t ever want to witness this happening again and it’s time for football to stop crying about these tragic events and enforce measures to fix it. That’s the least this cash rich sport owes the likes of Patrick Ekeng Ekeng.

Sleep well Indomitable Lion Ekeng.

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Friday May 6th 2016 – Romanian First League Play-Off

Dinamo Bucharest (1) 3 (Gnohere 8, pen 49, Rotariu 55)
FC Viitorul Constanța (2) 3 (Marin 10, Tanese pen 34, Matan pen 84)

Attendance: 2,881 (at Dinamo Stadium)

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Dinamo ticket

Tributes to Patrick Ekeng
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Postcards from Belgrade (Serbian Groundhop 2016)

The first organised groundhop in Serbia got underway with an unexpected bonus match with the fixture gods having a Friday match as Radnički Niš against Novi Pazar was being broadcast by one of Serbia’s pay per view channels. An extra day of mini bus use was hastily arranged and the group headed south on the two and a half hour drive to Niš.

 
Niš is the third largest city in Serbia after Novi Sad and the capital Belgrade and the club was formed in 1923. Radnički translates as “Workers”. The club were always a consistent member of the top division of the old Yugoslavian League and in 1981/2 they reached the semi final of the UEFA Cup having eliminated Napoli, Grasshoppers, Feyenoord and Dundee United. They were drawn against Hamburg SV and Radnički won the first leg 2-1 in Niš. The second leg at the Volksparkstadion saw the Serbs collapse to a 5-1 defeat. Legend has it that the club accepted a bribe of a set of floodlights from the Hamburg chairman to throw the second leg.

 
A shock relegation in 1985 bought an end to a golden era for the club. Serbia’s independence following the Balkan War saw the club in the top division of the new league but by 2008 they dropped into the third tier regional Srpska Liga East. Happily by 2011/12 they were back in the top flight and this coincided with a return to the home stadium Čair, their home since 1963, which had undergone an €11 million revamp.

 
Tonight’s match against Novi Pazar sees the hosts in fifth place in the Jelen Super Liga while their guests occupied twelfth spot. What followed were two teams completely cancelling each other out and the 0-0 result was somewhat inevitable. Some local fans who were surprised by the English presence in their stadium told us they suspected the result had been agreed in advance between the two clubs and they feared this was common place among the smaller clubs in Serbia.

Friday 18th March 2016 – Jelen Super Liga

 

FC Radnički Niš 0

Novi Pazar 0

 
Att: 2,000 (at Gradski Stadion Čair)


The evening was concluded with a quick stroll around Niš Fortress before getting sustenance in the lively bohemian quarter of the city. As JJ Burnel once (nearly) sung it really was “So nice in Niš”. The party then headed back to our headquarters in Belgrade’s Slavija Square.

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Saturday’s busy schedule started early with a 10 am kick of at third division BASK (Beogradski Akademski Sportski Klub). The club were formed in April 1903 SK Soko as a football wing of a long established gymnastics club. That formation date means BASK are the oldest club in the kingdom of Serbia.
Initially the club used a tight field on Jugovićeva Street but this was too confined so they moved to a new field known as Bara Venecija but after a few years of use this was completely destroyed when the mighty River Sava burst its’ banks. SK Soko then moved to a new ground in Topčider but after 27 years this was lost to railway expansion. Having changed their name to BASK in 1933 the club moved to yet another new venue behind an electrical plant in Novi Beograd. Ironically after World War II this venue became home to today’s opponents, Radnički Novi Beograd.

 
In the early post War years BASK merged with Senjak and gained use of the current stadium in Topčider Park close to the former home of SK Soko. The club has enjoyed great success at the Stadion Careva Ćuprija and as recently as 2009/10 and 2010/11 they achieved a double promotion from third tier to the Super Liga. However the BASK board decided the top flight would be too much of a financial risk for the club and they sold their place in the Super Liga to FK Novi Pazar.

 
The black and whites are now back in the third tier and their stadium now boasts a 3G surface and a large pitch length stand down one side and a more modest cover behind one goal. The adjacent hotel houses player from Super Liga club Spartak Subotica, in town for the match against Red Star, and a few of them drift in to watch the game. The hosts grab an early lead with a deft left footed drive from Dejan Pajović. The visitors from Novi Beograd, in second place in the table, spend most of the game trying to score but just as they appeared to have given up they snatch the points with two very late goals.

 
Saturday March 19th 2016 – Srpska Liga Beograd
 

BASK 1 (Pajović 11)

Radnički Novi Beograd 2 (Stajić 89, Dalifi 90)

 
Att: 161 (at Stadion Careva Ćuprija)

We then head over to the suburb of Karaburma and next up is the 2pm kick off at the once mighty Stadion Omladinski, home of OFK Beograd. Omladinski Fudbalski Klub Beograd were formed as Beogradski Sport Klub in 1911 and won five national championships before World War II. The club became Metalac in 1945 before reverting five years later to BSK. In 1957 the club became OFK with Omladinski translating as “Youth”. The club won the Yugoslav Cup four times in the 1950’s and 60’s and were rarely out of the top six in the league. They were regulars in European competition until the mid 1970’s and hold victories over the likes of Napoli, Juventus, Feyenoord and Panathinaikos. In 1962/3 they reached the semi-final of the Cup Winners Cup but fell to Tottenham Hotspur.

 
Then almost without warning the Romantičari fell from grace and spent two decades flitting between the first and second levels. Only in the 2000’s did European competition return to the Omladinski. The club has always struggled for support living in the shadow of Red Star and Partizan, but in 2016 it finds itself in dire straits. The stadium looks much older than it’s’ 58 years and its poor state of repair and lack of investment is evident for all to see. The club has been toward the bottom of the table all season and with relegation a real possibility what support they had has all but deserted the club amid stories of current players deliberately losing matches.

 
Only 300 people gather for this match with Vojvodina from Novi Sad and only one side of the stadium is open. A bulldozer sits on top of a terrace and is working on footing for floodlights, a luxury the stadium has never sported previously. Hopefully this will mark some much needed refurbishment at stadium that can hold some 20,000 people.

 
If OFK players are deliberately losing matches this season then they disguise it well today as they work extremely hard against a compact and tidy visiting team. A sustained spell of OFK pressure in the second half produces a towering header from Vuk Martinović to secure three much needed points for the hosts.

 
Saturday March 19th 2016 -Jelen Super Liga

 
OFK Belgrade 1 (Martinović 71)

FK Vojvodina 0

 
Att: 300 (at Stadion Omladinski)


A pleasant interlude was then spent at a restaurant on the Danube where fish soup and cevapcici was eaten before the main event at the Marakana, home of the famous Red Star Belgrade. It was also great to catch up with legendary Zvezda fan Nenad Mijaljević who many of you will know as the editor of match programmes for Seaham Red Star, Jarrow Roofing and South Shields.

 
I had been to the Marakana (or Stadion Crvena Zvezda or Stadion Rajko Mitić, take your pick) before for the legendary Eternal Derby against Partizan so I was more than interested to see what support, particularly that from the ultras “Delije”, for an ordinary league game when the hosts have a 30 point lead at the top of the table. The crowd might have been a quarter of the gathering for a derby match but the noise and support from the north stand was loud and relentless and carried on long after Zvezda cruised to a 4-0 win against Spartak Subotica. Of course there was pyro galore illuminating the night sky at regular intervals.

 
Red Star, and indeed Partizan, were formed in 1945 when several existing clubs were dissolved by Marshal Tito as they had played matches during the war without permission. One such club was SK Jugoslavija who had played on the site of the current stadium since 1927. The new club, Crvena Zvezda, were given the stadium of the old Jugoslavija while the club formed by the Yugoslav People’s Army (the JNA) were appeased with a piece of land not half a mile away which would in 1951 be ready for use and is still the stadium FK Partizan use today.

 
The old Jugoslavija Stadium held 20,000 and after Red Star’s ill fated match against Manchester United in 1958 had to be moved to Partizan’s ground to cope with demand, it became clear to the board the popularity of the “people’s club” meant a much bigger stadium was needed. The old Jugoslavija Stadium was razed to the ground and Zvezda decamped to Partizan’s ground for a few seasons.

 
By the time the stadium was ready for inauguration in September 1963, people eagerly clambered the vomitories to see the vast new bowl which could hold 110,000 people on its terraces. The locals at once declared “It looks like the Maracana” after Rio’s famous amphitheatre and so the nickname was created. It’s all time record attendance was set in 1975 when 117,000 people watched a match against the Hungarian club Ferencvaros. Nowadays its all seater, though seats are removed from the away end for derby matches, and has a more manageable capacity of 55,000.  To date Zvezda have won 26 championships and, of course, were crowned European champions when that magical side which included Dejan Savećević, Darko Pancev, Robert Prosinecki, and Vladimir Jugović defeated Marseille on penalties.

 
It is great to see this famous club back on top of the table and in the Marakana they still have one of Europe’s most iconic stadiums. In the Delije they have some of the best ultras in the world.
Saturday March 19th 2016 – Jelen Super Liga

 
Crvena Zvezda 4 (Ibanez pen 45, pen 65, Ristić 47, Oliveira 59)

Spartak Subotica 0

 
Att: 12,173 (at Stadion Crvena Zvezda “Marakana”)


The evening is wound down with a night in a typical Serbian kafana, Restoran Klopka on Stanislava Sremčevića, where quite frankly preposterous amounts of meat were consumed.

 
With many of the party still a little listless from the previous nights gastronomic excesses most a grateful for a slightly later 11 am kick off for a third tier game at FK Dorćol. Their ground is down on the banks of the Danube and the first surprise is that they now only use their own pitch, replete with an ornate stand, for training and now share the pitch of their immediately adjacent neighbours GPS Polet.

 
The ground is fairly unremarkable except that it is back dropped by the vast Kalemegden fortress which is bathed in beautiful hazy morning sun.
FK Dorćol were formed in 1952 and as recently as 2002 had a one season spell in the second tier.

 
Today’s match sees them take on FK Brodarac 1947 and the unseasonably warm weather sees both sides having to work hard to create chances on what is a pretty poor and heavily rutted pitch. It’s no surprise that the game is decided by a penalty in the visitors’ favour which is converted by their goalkeeper, Milos Lazarević.

 
In a special treat for us we are hen introduced to Ljupko Petrović, legendary coach of Red Star’s 1991 European Cup winning side. The veteran coach was more than happy to pose for photos.

 
Sunday March 20th 2016 – Srpska Liga Beograd

 
FK Dorcól 0

FK Brodarac 1 (Lazarević pen 59)

 
Att: 179 (at Stadion Polet)


A brief spell is spent wandering around Kalemegden fortress and the Pobednik statue which regally overlooks the beguiling confluence of the two great Serbian rivers of the Sava and the Daunav (Danube). It is ridiculously warm and shirt sleeves and ice cream are the order of the hour.

 
Next we travel half an hour south of Belgrade to a small Vrčín, this is co-organiser Aleks’ secret ground. We are warmly welcomed by the club president into what can only be described as a delightfully ramshackle ground. The clubhouse has a viewing gallery where a bunch of real characters sit to cheer on the team/harangue the referee (delete as applicable), some of our party who will remain nameless join them an get rather pickle on some indeterminate local poteen.

 
On the far side of the pitch is the concrete carcass of a large stand started in 1993 when Vrčín were in the third tier of the old Yugoslav third tier. The municipality then pulled the funding for it and now it has a couple of hundred plastic seats acquired from FK Partizan bolted to it.

 
Vrčín have had an awful season with just eight points gained from 15 matches and they sit bottom of the table with the visitors, PKB Padinska Skela, in tenth. A healthy crowd gathers to cheer on the team (or look at the strange group of British interlopers) in what is a must win game for the club.

 
Luckily for us we catch Vrčín on a good day and the hard working giant of a centre forward, Vanja Savić nets a well deserved brace of goals to lift this super friendly club off the bottom of the table.

 
Sunday March 20th 2016 – Beogradska Zone

 
FK Vrčín 2 (Savić 53, 73)

PKB Padinska Skela 0

 
Att: 154 (at Stadion Želežnički)


The tours final match is another Super Liga encounter between “the Hillmen” of FK Čukarički and FK Partizan. The hosts were formed in 1926 and spent many years in the amateur ranks. By 1971 they had reached the Yugoslav Second Division and twelve years later they climbed into the top division for the first time.

 
Since 2012 Čukarički have been owned by Dragan Obradović, a construction magnate, and heavy investment saw the club finish third last season and gain a Europa League place. They beat Slovenian side NK Domžale in the first qualifying round but then succumbed to the Azerbaijani side SC Gabala.
Stadion Čukarički was opened in 1969 and is also known as the Stadion na Banovom Brdu. It has undergone massive improve in recent seasons but is still a relatively small two sided venue.

 
The hosts take a shock lead after 47 seconds when Bandalovski turns a cross into his own net and Partizan’s poor season looks set to continue. However, urged on by their flare wielding, tribal drumming ultras, the Grobari, Partizan turn it around with the winning goal being scored by the ex Manchester City and Bulgaria striker Valeri Bojinov, who looks to be carrying a fair amount of weight these days.

 
Saturday March 20th 2016 -Jelen Super Liga

 
FK Čukarički 1 (Bandalovski og 1)

FK Partizan 2 (M.Stevanović 49, Bojinov 67)

 
Att: 1,500 (at Stadion Čukarički)


The evening is spent in the bohemian quarter of Belgrade called Skadarlija in the upmarket restaurant Tri Sesira where the food is once again top notch.

 

 

Tastes of Belgrade

 

Sights of Belgrade


So there it was the first ever Serbian groundhop superbly hosted by our good friends Aleks Peković and Bogdan Mitrović. After such an excellent time few would bet against a second groundhop occurring in 2017!

 

 

A Tale Of The Unexpected (Lowland League Groundhop 2016)

The second Scottish Lowland League groundhop got underway at Raydale Park home of phoenix club Gretna 2008. The old club spectacularly imploded when owner Brooks Mileson’s money stopped funding the clubs’ meteoric rise to the Scottish Premier League. While the “Boy’s Own” goalscoring exploits of Doctor Kenny Deuchar and his teammates are just a fading memory, the current club have manfully persisted in trying to maintain a football presence in the border town.

Raydale Park had been opened in 1946 and was only a modest ground when Gretna played in the English non-league pyramid. English businessman Brooks Mileson took over the club in 2002 after it had been elected into the Scottish Football League in place of Airdrie. Mileson had made a fortune from both construction and insurance and he pumped large sums of money into his new project. Raydale Park could not keep up with the teams’ progress and a plan to move to an “eco stadium” in neighbouring Gretna Green came to nothing. Gretna played their last season,2007/08, at Motherwell’s Fir Park before Mileson fell ill and the club went out of business.

Gretna 2008 rose from the ashes and initially played at Everholm before gaining security of tenure at Raydale when it was sold to the Raydale Community Partnership. The ground has not aged particularly well with the pitch length cover on the far side now roofless. The main feature is the stand behind the goal, a large modern cover build over temporary bleacher style seating. The main stand and dressing rooms remain on the near side.

Tonight’s game against near neighbours Dalbeattie Star is an attritional affair with two very evenly matched teams bludgeoning each other into submission, two fine displays of goalkeeping ensured the scorers were not troubled in this game.

Friday March 11th 2016 – Scottish Lowland League 

Gretna (2008) 0

Dalbeattie Star 0

Att: 366 (at Raydale Park)

The hop moved east for days two and three to the fine city of Edinburgh and its surrounding area.

Whitehill Welfare’s Ferguson Park got the day underway with Gala Fairydean Rovers providing the opposition. The hosts were formed in 1953 and went on to dominate the East of Scotland League with a record 16 championship wins, the club also being more than a match for Scottish League opposition in the Scottish Cup. The club is based in the small Midlothian village of Rosewell and were formed by staff of the Whitehill Colliery which was closed only eight years after the clubs formation.

The village originally had two clubs, junior outfit Rosewell Rosedale played on a field in the centre of town which was eventually swallowed up for housing. Both clubs needed a new home and Ferguson Park was opened having been named after the farmer who supplied the turf for the new ground. The Rosedale club folded in 1957 leaving Whitehill Welfare as the sole occupants. The ground has undergone extensive modernisation since the old pavilion was demolished in 1997 and is now a very well presented ground with a sizeable seated stand.

The game is a one sided affair with three very high quality goals from the hosts being punctuated by our very own “Rosewell Incident” when Gala’s captain, Jamie Gibson, reacted to a heavy challenge by punching the aggressor and earning himself a straight red card. Not a good day for the men from the “San Siro”.

Saturday March 12th 2016 – Scottish Lowland League

Whitehill Welfare 3 (Connolly 17, Muir 29, Devlin 76)

Gala Fairydean Rovers 0

Att: 324 (at Ferguson Park)

The hop then moved east to Prestonpans where things to a decidedly unexpected turn. Upon arrival at Pennypit Park visibly distraught club officials greeted us with the terrible news that the referee had called the game off due to a small area of “soft” turf near the halfway line that he deemed was unsafe. Despite appeals to reconsider the man was not for turning and months of planning and not inconsiderable financial outlay were cast asunder by one over zealous official.

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After heartfelt commiserations were extended attention turned to an alternative fixture for the afternoon slot. Broxburn, Bonnyrigg Rose, Dalkeith Thistle, Linlithgow Rose and Civil Service Strollers were the choice of some but I opted for nearby Tranent of the East Region Juniors.

Forrester’s Park has a smart new pavilion and 3G facilities next to the old ground which has a large cover on one side of the venue. A healthy crowd gather and the pitch is immaculate, being barely three miles away from poor old Preston Athletic. Crucially, of course, Tranent is on higher ground than its coastal neighbour.

The hosts are top of the table and give their toothless opponents a real mauling, scoring some terrifically well worked goals. An enjoyable if somewhat unexpected digression.

Saturday March 12th 2016 – East Region (South)

Tranent Juniors 6 (Fisher 5, McMillan 10,23,37, Manion 72,90)

Easthouses Lily MW 0

Att:185 (at Forrester’s Park)

Back in the heart of the city for the 5pm kick off at Ainslie Park a massive modern sports complex and home to inaugural Lowland League champions The Spartans.

The pitch us state of the art 3G and is accompanied by a sizeable stand and impressive clubhouse with an elevated viewing veranda. The homogeny of it all coupled with some petty and over officious stewarding make this a slightly sterile experience. It is a certainly a far cry from the homely City Park which I visited in 1998 and had been Spartans home ground between 1976 and 2009. Strangely Spartans’ record gate at City Park came just three years before its demise when 3,346 watched a Scottish Cup tie against St.Mirren.

In 2008 with Ainslie Park still a year away from inauguration Spartans applied to take the place of the ill-fated Gretna in the Scottish Football League. Unsurprisingly given the ageing facilities at City Park, Spartans were overlooked in favour of electing Annan Athletic.

Similar to the Gretna match the previous night the hosts and visitors Stirling University pretty much cancelled each other out until Keith Murray scored a sucker punch winner on the stroke of full time.

Saturday March 12th 2016 – Scottish Lowland League

Spartans 1 (Murray 90)

Stirling University 0

Att:435 (at Ainslie Park)

The final match of a gruelling day came at the magnificently fading splendour of the Meadowbank Stadium. Built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games it is a concrete lovers paradise. Despite renovations in the mid and late 1990’s this beast of stadium (capacity 16,500 with 7,500 seats) looks like it has suffered from a lack of investment. The erstwhile home of Ferranti and Meadowbank Thistle has been earmarked for demolition or redevelopment since 2006, however the favoured Sighthill Stadium project ran into problems and the council are currently reconsidering options for this under occupied venue.

The current club are a 1986 reformation of a club original formed in 1928. The old club had a dismal spell in the Scottish Football League before the war after they had beaten Nithsdale Wanderers in a ballot to replace Clydebank in the Scottish League in 1931.

The club played at City Park but in 1955 were refused a new lease and went in immediate abeyance. Eleven years later a club called Postal United were formed and in 1986 they successfully applied to use the long lost name of Edinburgh City. The club has twice unsuccessfully applied for Scottish Football League status in 2002 and 2008 following the liquidation of Airdrieonians and Gretna. However, with a promotion route now available to the Scottish Football League, via a Highland and Lowland League play off process, the club must have a very good chance of returning Scottish League football to this ailing leviathan of a venue.

Saturday March 12th 2016 – Scottish Lowland League

Edinburgh City 1 (Paterson 67)

East Kilbride 1 (Hastings 24)

Att: 418 (at Meadowbank Stadium)

I was taken by Meadowbank’s fading star that I went back the following morning for some daylight shots.

Sunday bought just the one game in the delightful surroundings of Peffermill, the home since 1978 of Edinburgh University. The football club has been sectioned off from an impressive looking hockey venue and is now called East Peffermill. Behind the modern modular seating unit is the brooding south side of Arthur’s Seat while to the south were stunning views of the Pentland Hills on what was a pleasantly mild morning. The club are most welcoming and friendly and a perfect remedy to yesterday’s trials and tribulations.

The University formed its football section in 1878 and the club is steeped in history and success, being the most successful University side in Scotland. They played at Corstorphine, Craiglockhart and Canal Field before acquiring the land which became Peffermill Playing Field. Initially it was little more than a field with changing rooms but recent investment has given the club a most acceptable venue with a 3G training pitch as well.

The hosts race into an early two goal lead with great finishes from Nathan Evans and the impressive Jack Guthrie. A wonder strike from Selkirk’s Ross King then reduced the arrears before half time. The visitors have the hugely experienced former Hibs, Birmingham City, Lokomotiv Moscow and Tom Tomsk striker Garry O’Connor in their team and despite being a little on the heavy side, his endeavour bought a well deserved equaliser four minutes from time. The home side pressed for a winner and when the visiting goalkeeper dropped a routine cross at the feet of Ross Patterson the winger didn’t need to be asked twice to notch the winning goal.

Sunday March 13th 2016 – Scottish Lowland League

Edinburgh University 3 (Evans 7, Guthrie 14, Patterson 88)

Selkirk 2 (King 19, O’Connor 86)

Att: 294 (at East Peffermill)

 

Notes From A Small Island (Malta)

Maltese domestic football is a quite wonderful thing for groundhoppers. While the football may not be of the highest standard the sheer enthusiasm and history of football on this tiny Mediterranean island means the number of clubs at senior level far outweighs the number of grounds of any decent standard. This means many of the top clubs play “home” games at various grounds around the islands with a select few having the luxury of their own home venue which is also made available to stage other fixtures. All in all this means multiple fixtures at multiple grounds in any given weekend which of course is manna from heaven for the hopperati.

My first game this weekend was a Premier League fixture between St Andrews and Hibernians. The match was played at the Victor Tedesco Stadium, the home of Hamrun Spartans. The stadium was inaugurated in 1996 and commemorates a former Hamrun president who had overseen the home clubs renaissance period in the 1980’s and early 90’s. All facilities are on one side of the ground as the pitch is hemmed in by urban sprawl on all three remaining sides. Today’s game sees second placed Hibernians, one of the island’s traditional powerhouses, against bottom placed St.Andrews for home this is nominally a home game. €7 gets you a double header ticket which means you can stay on for the Quormi v Naxxar Lions if you wish. The first half is a drab affair with very few chances created. The second half sees Hibernians well on top and they take the lead with a penalty from Clayton Failla. Almost immediately St.Andrews get a penalty themselves which is converted by Joe Farrugia. Hibs look to have gained the expected victory when Gilmar scored in the 90th however Farrugia netted again for St.Andrews in the second minute of injury time.

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St.Andrews 2 (J.Farrugia pen 57, 90)
Hibernians 2 (Failla pen 55, Gilmar 90)

Att: c.300 (at Victor Tedesco Stadium)

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Next up is San Gwann against Hamrun Spartans played at the Centenary Stadium. This stadium is adjacent to the Ta’Qali National Stadium and is owned and run by the Maltese FA. Opened in 1980 to mark the 100th year of the MFA all the facilities, including a big stand seating 2,500, are housed on one side of the ground. This includes a recently opened headquarters for the Malta Youth FA. The pitch is 3G and hosts huge amounts of games especially in the lower rungs of the League of Malta. Banger racing behind the far side punctuates the moans of the Spartans fans who object to many of the referees decisions, to be fair he did not have the best of games. Despite this Spartans grab the games only goal when Haruna Garba scrambled in from a set piece. Bizarrely immediately after the goal was awarded Spartans’ Martin Hrubsa was shown a straight red card after what I can only assume was an elbow, or similar, during the goal celebrations. What was noticeable from this second tier match was the drop in quality of player and fitness levels.

BOV Maltese First Division – Saturday January 30th 2016

San Gwann 0
Hamrun Spartans 1 (Garba 73)

Att: c.200 (at Centenary Stadium)

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Sunday’s first game was a Premier League clash between Pembroke Athleta and reigning champions Valletta. This was played at Hibernians’ ground in Paola. Opened in November 1986 Hibernians became the first Maltese club with their own stadium. The ground now holds 4,000 which was ample enough to host an Intertoto Cup match against Uralmash Ekaterinburg in 1996. Pembroke do have their own ground, the Luxol Stadium, which is right on the coast but as they are now a Premier League club the match against Valletta is moved to a bigger ground. Police are out in force as Valetta bring a sizeable amount of fans to Paola. Pembroke start brightly but look a little surprised to take the lead when Arab’s tame looking header managed to beat the outstretched arm of Henry Bonello in Valletta’s goal. The order of things is restored when the champions score through Romao’s powerful header. Remarkably Pembroke took the lead again through Villabolos before Briffa restored parity. It is left to the wily veteran, Michael Mifsud, to settle the game. Arguably Malta’s most famous player Mifsud has had an extensive career around Europe including spells with Coventry City and Barnsley, as well as gaining 113 caps for his country. His clever finish gave Valletta the points and returns them to the top of the table. Pembroke’s Paltemio Barbetti was then sent off for a challenge on Mifsud. Hibernians ground is a lovely ground, has real attention to detail such as memorials and planted shrubs, it also has a grass pitch. The backdrop of clanking cranes of Paola harbour and the mass of flats and church domes rising to the distance makes it a very nice place to watch a match.

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Pembroke Athleta 2 (Arab 5,Villabolos 53)
Valletta 3 (Romao 14,Briffa 60,Mifsud 76)

Att: c.300 (at Hibernians FC)

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The final match of the weekend was a heavyweight clash between two of Malta’s best known clubs, Birkirkara and Floriana. The match is at the National Stadium in Ta’Qali which was opened in 1981 and lead to the mothballing of the iconic Empire Stadium in Gzira, the island’s pre-eminent stadium until that point. The National Stadium now holds 17,700 people having had a new East Stand, the Millennium, stand opened in 2000 providing the MFA with luxurious new headquarters. All fans are housed in the West stand with the VIP section separating the flag waving Birkirkara fans and the Floriana fans. What followed was 90 minutes of two teams completely cancelling each other out with barely any shots on goal registered. A goalless draw was pretty much inevitable and you had to feel sorry for those who had watched the game immediately before this one which was also a goalless draw between Mosta and Tarxien Rainbows!

BOV Maltese Premier League – Sunday January 31st 2016

Birkirkara 0 Floriana 0

Att: c.600 (at Ta’Qali National Stadium)

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A decent weekend in good weather, nice grounds and as long as your expectations aren’t too high for the standard of football then Malta has a lot going for it. Finally it is worth mentioning that the legendary Empire Stadium is still rotting away in the back streets of Gzira. A real relic of the past when sand pitches were the norm. Seems incredible that in February 1971, England played in front of 30,000 people in this long abandoned playground.

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The Path of a Lightning Bolt (Rayo Vallecano)

Ah Rayo Vallecano, red sashes (“Los Franjirrojos”, what a nickname!) on their white kit, a great three-sided stadium shoehorned into the urban sprawl of Vallecas and fantastic ultras in the Bukaneros, what’s not to love about Madrid’s very own “cult” club?

Well following a very public fall out between Rayo owner Rául Martin Presa and the Bukaneros and a wily manager in Paco Jémez who is constantly forced into sell his key players then you have a club lurching headlong into crisis.

According to posters around the ground the Bukaneros had called for a boycott of the match and forthcoming matches for a number of reasons. High on the list of complaints against Presa were the ban on materials used for the ultras famous animations (police recently raided the Bukaneros HQ and confiscated 400 flares) and alleged “discrimination” against anyone sporting any form of Bukaneros imagery. The ultras are also up in arms over the investment in Rayo OKC a new club based in Oklahoma City owned by Presa and licensed to compete in the NASL.

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The fans argue that their own club needs investment with the likes of Léo Baptistão (Atlético Madrid), Michu (Swansea City) and Borja López (AS Monaco) and several other quality players being sold in recent seasons to balance the books.

The story of Rayo Vallecano starts back in 1924 with the formation of Agrupación Deportiva El Rayo. They played in local leagues at a ground called Campo de la Calle de las Erillas which was very close to the current stadium. This was home until 1940 when it was required for urban expansion, and the club relocated to the Campo de El Rodival. The immediate post war years were pivotal for the club, they were now called AD Rayo Vallecano and had become effectively a subsidiary of Atlético Madrid. In 1949 the Rovidal was used by River Plate of Buenos Aires as a training facility ahead of a prestigious friendly against Real Madrid. To thank Rayo for their hospitality the Argentinians donated a full set of their kit to the club which created the long association with the iconic red sashed shirts.

In 1957 Rayo moved into the renovated Campo de Vallecas, a former home venue of Atlético. This remained home until the current venue was built between 1972 and 1976 which meant Rayo spent three seasons at the Campo de Vallehermoso in Chamberí.

During this period the club had bounced in between the Tercera and Segunda Divisions but after a record breaking unbeaten season in 1964/65 secured a return to the Segunda Rayo became a force to be reckoned with. Their return to the Nuevo Campo de Vallecas for the 1976/77 was topped off with a first ever promotion to La Primera.

The club continued to climb and enjoyed a first season in European competition in 2000/01 when wins against Constelació Esportiva, Molde, Viborg, Lokomotiv Moscow and Bordeaux saw Rayo in the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Cup. Paired against compatriots Deportivo Alavés. In a memorable pairing it was the Basques who won 4-2 on aggregate.

The club was run in these times by Teresa Rivero a President who failed to endear herself to the Vallecans by renaming the stadium after…herself! She also presided over the double relegations of 2002/03 and 2003/04. By 2011 Rivera was finally gone, the stadium name restored to Campo de Vallecas and better still the club had won promotion back to La Primera. The only downside was debts amounting to €22 million which has prompted the cautious housekeeping of recent years.

Today’s game sees both hosts and vistors, Málaga, perilously close to the drop zone and while there is still colour and noise from the home support the Fondo occupied by the Bukaneros is somewhat sparsely populated and palpably subdued. Rayo fielded Bebé and Manucho both remembered in England for their comically short careers at Manchester United. Bebé threatened at times but looked heavy and was outshone on the opposite wing by Lass Bangoura whose trickery produced the opening goal early on for the impressive Javi Guerra. However, the hosts failed to capitalise on their lead and Málaga deservedly secured the points with a winner late on in the match from the Croatian striker Duje Čop.

Rayo Vallecano is a club with a heart and a conscience in an increasingly murky sport. This is the club whose away kit and third kit are sold to support anti racism/homophobia charities and breast cancer awareness respectively. This is a club whose players agree to come to work on the metro to reduce their carbon footprint. This is a club who declared their support to the 2012 General Strike in Spain as a show of solidarity with its working class ethos. This a club whose coaching staff and players pay the rental costs for life on an apartment for 85 year old Vallecan resident Carmen Martínez Ayudo who was unceremoniously evicted after her son defaulted on loan secured on her property without her knowledge. This is a club who knows football without fans is nothing, a well used strap line President Presa would do well to remember.

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Sunday December 13th 2015 – La Liga Primera Division

Rayo Vallecano 1 (Javi Guerra 7)
Málaga CF 2 (Charles 59, Čop 87)

Att: 9,423 (at Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas)

Admission: €30 Programme: Free

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Deep Blue Something (Getafe CF)

The original Getafe club were formed in 1924 but were disbanded after just nine seasons. After the Spanish Civil War, to bring senior football back to the southern Madrid suburb, a meeting was held in a bar called La Marquesina, and Club Getafe Deportivo were born. A board was elected consisting of local men Enrique Condes García, Aurelio Miranda Olavaria, Antonio Corridor Lozano, Manuel Serrano Vergara and Miguel Cubero Francés, and a lease on a pitch was organised. The ground, known as Campo del Regimiento de Artillería, was rudimentary to say the least and even initially lacked goalposts! The ground proved so inadequate the club soon moved to another ground called Calle Vinagre.

As the club looked to progress they moved yet again, this time to an enclosed facility at Polideportivo Municipal San Isidro. Within five seasons the club had climbed into the then third tier Tercera Division for 1957/58. Remarkably they won the league at the first attempt but succumbed to Almeria in the promotion play-offs to the Segunda.

Getafe’s nomadic existence continued and in 1970 they moved to the newly built Campo Municipal de Las Margaritas. Six years later a first promotion to the second tier was finally secured. However, that was the zenith of their achievements, huge debts and unpaid wages saw the club demoted to the Tercera at the end of the 1981/82 season. A season later, having failed to win promotion, the board threw in the towel and the club officially folded.

Today’s club, Getafe Club de Fútbol, were formed as an immediate replacement and were officially a fusion of Getafe Deportivo Promesas (the old club’s reserve team) and Club Peña Getafe, who themselves were originally a team formed by the Getafe branch of the Real Madrid supporters club!

The club hovered around the nether reaches of the new third tier, Segunda B, on one occasion surviving the drop on an FA reprieve. At the end of the 1995/96 season their luck run out and relegation coincided with the final season at Las Margaritas which had been claimed for urban redevelopment.

After two seasons at the municipal stadium, Estadio de Juan de la Cierva which was almost adjacent to the old ground, Los Azulones (the Deep Blues) moved to the newly built Coliseum Alfonso Pérez. Named after a player that never actually played for his hometown club, Pérez played for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Betis and won 38 caps for Spain also winning a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics. A bust of Pérez is sited in a somewhat solitary position on the other side of the car park to the stadium.

By 2003 the club had been taken over by Ángel Torres Sánchez and the influx of new money had an immediate impact, Getafe reaching La Primera with a play off win over Tenerife. Having finished eleventh in the first ever season at the top flight the club expanded the still relatively new stadium. The fondos at either end were enlarged and the original roof on the west side was replaced by the much superior current arched cover. To their immense credit Getafe have remained a top tier club ever since.

The club thrived in their new surroundings and two losing Copa del Rey finals in 2007 and 2008 saw the club compete in Europe for the first time. In 2007/08 the club enjoyed a fantastic run in the UEFA Cup beating FC Twente, Tottenham, Anderlecht, AEK Athens and Benfica before bowing out to Bayern Munich in the quarter finals on the away goals rule.

Tonight’s match sees both Getafe and visitors Real Sociedad struggling at the wrong end of the table. The visitors, still reeling from the disastrous tenure of David Moyes, look the better side in the first half and lively winger Bruma really catches the eye in a pretty turgid opening period.

The second half sees the hosts up the tempo from the off and they score immediately when Pablo Sarabia’s header loops into the net. Sociedad though have some seasoned pros, Asier Illarramendi, Carlos Vela and Esteban Granero, and the class showed in the equaliser. A training ground free kick routine worked perfectly and front man Imanol Agirretxe tapped in unmarked at the far post right in front of the 300 or so travelling supporters. The match petered out into a draw which did not really help either side in their quests to stay in the top flight.

Much has been chronicled about the soulless nature of the Alfonso Pérez and the lack of atmosphere at the stadium, but I liked the stadium and two small pockets of noisy fans in the end I was sitting in tried to make some noise in what was a very poor crowd. Sociedad have a long standing reputation for travelling to away games in reasonable numbers and they also added to the spectacle.

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Friday December 11th 2015 – La Liga Primera Division

Getafe CF 1 (Sarabia 46)
Real Sociedad 1 (Agirretxe 68)

Att: 5,567 (at Coliseum Alfonso Pérez)

Admission: €30 Programme: Free

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