The Lowland League was formed for the 2013/14 season to give senior football at tier five for ambitious clubs in the south of Scotland. Spartans were the inaugural champions and this season the constitution was expanded to fourteen clubs with an end of season play-off against the Highland League champions. The winner of the play-off will then contest a further play-off against the bottom side in the Scottish League Division Two. This finally gives a route to Scottish League football for progressive senior clubs.

East Kilbride 1 Whitehill Welfare 0 (Attendance 491)

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A relatively modern club East Kilbride were formed in May 2010 by the formal merger of Stewartfield and Jackton Boys Club. The club was the vision of two South Lanarkshire men, James Kean and Iain King, who had supported the town’s junior club, East Kilbride Thistle, for many years and had strived to see them turn senior. Having set up a plethora of youth teams for Thistle the two men finally gave up on Thistle and decided to form their own club. Ex Celtic player John Hartson was appointed honorary president and the new club sought to raise set up funds.

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The club applied to the South of Scotland League for the 2013/14 and were elected in May 2013. Less than a month later the new club were drafted into the membership of the  new Lowland League. A successful first season saw East Kilbride win the South of Scotland Challenge Cup, defeating Dalbeattie Star 2-0 at Palmerston Park.

East Kilbride currently play at the K Park training facility, opened in 2011, which has a restricted capacity of 500. The facility is located within the Calderglen Country Park. The plan is to find a location suitable for a new stadium for the new town’s new club. The Junior club, Thistle, continue to play The Showpark in Maxwell Drive.

The small and ultra modern venue is rammed tonight and the low slung stand is standing room only. An evenly contested match sees East Kilbride secure the points with a goal twenty minutes from time.

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Vale of Leithen 0 Preston Athletic 2 (Attendance 312)

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The club from Innerleithen were formed in 1891 initially as Leithen Vale FC. Vale of Leithen joined the SFA in 1897 and have been members ever since save for a brief spell in the Juniors in the 1920’s.

The clubs first ground was at Caddon Park opposite a slaughterhouse. In1922 Vale moved to their present ground at Victoria Park, bringing the wooden pavilion and dressing rooms across town with them. The pavilion gave sterling service at its new home until destroyed by fire in 1974 which sadly saw the club lose its historic records. Victoria Park also originally had two stands, and the one that remains, with a more modern re-clad roof, sits in the middle of some extensive terracing.

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The club’s impressive crest depicts St.Ronan patron saint of Innerleithen and a folkloric figure in the Borders. Vale spent many years in the East of Scotland League being champions on four occasions, most recently in 1986/87.

This morning’s encounter sees Vale hosting Preston Athletic who lie second from bottom in the table with just two wins all season. However, it is the visitors that dominate the game throughout and run out comfortable winners by two goals to nil.

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Selkirk 1 Spartans 1 (Attendance: 281)

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Formed in 1880, Selkirk are the oldest established football club in the Borders region. Despite their long and successful history they are invariably linked with a day in December 1984 when a Scottish Cup tie with Stirling Albion resulted in the biggest margin of victory in a British senior football match in the 20th century. Selkirk were five down at halftime at Annfield before their young keeper, Richard Taylor, conceded another fifteen in the second period. To compound the infamy the whole sorry match was recorded in full by the BBC for a documentary on the Scottish Cup. In truth the club were treading water at the time, they had dropped out of the East of Scotland League temporarily and had to field a makeshift side in the Scottish Cup in order to maintain their qualification for the competition.

Prior to that crushing day Selkirk had enjoyed better times including winning a hat-trick of East of Scotland League titles between 1975 and 1977 and even hosted the French national team in a warm up game for the 1966 World Cup.

In their formative years the Souters had a fairly nomadic existence playing at the Cricket Field, Angle Field, Linglie Field and Raeburn Meadow before acquiring the site that became Ettrick Park, their home between 1906 and 2000. Initially the facilities were poor, the original pavilion was described as windowless and bathing was provided by a bucket of water drawn from the nearby River Ettrick! A proper pavilion was opened in 1937 and the East of Scotland successes of the 1970’s bought further improvements to the venue.

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In February 2000 Selkirk moved to Yarrow Park adjacent to the impressive Philiphaugh, home of Selkirk RFC. For many years the new venue was relatively undeveloped, the turnstiles, stand and terracing are as recently built as 2013.

Today’s game sees the visit of defending champions Spartans to Yarrow Park and a keenly contested encounter sees a share of spoils in a 1-1 draw. Selkirk are very welcoming and seemed to enjoy their afternoon as much as their guests.

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Gala Fairydean Rovers 1 Stirling University 2 (Attendance 323)

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Gala Fairydean Rovers are the result of a 2013 merger between Gala Fairydean (themselves formed in 1894) and Gala Rovers (a 1947 reformation of what was originally Fairydean’s reserve team). It was something of a surprise merger, the senior and amateur clubs were historically at loggerheads with each other. The combined club have now adopted the motto “Unitas est Fortitude” (Unity is Strength). Fairydean were eight times East of Scotland League champions and unsuccessfully applied for Scottish Football League membership on four occasions, two being since the turn of the current century.

Fairydean played at Eastlands Park and Mossilee before moving into the new Netherdale enclosure in 1929. The complex also houses a rugby stadium used by Gala RFC and previously by the professional, but ill fated, Border Reivers side.

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The main stand at Netherdale’s football stadium is a remarkable structure, brutalist concrete abounds and 450 people can watch the match and admire the Eildon Hills from its elevated position. Opened in 1964 the stand was designed by renowned architect Peter Womersley and built by the Anglo-Dane, Sir Ove Arup. The magnificent edifice is now a Historic Scotland Category A listed structure. It was upgraded from B status in December 2013, Historic Scotland citing that the grandstand is “a significant work of late modernist architecture in Scotland”. It was only the second football stand in Scotland, after the Leitch stand at Ibrox, to be designated at architecturally important.

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At one point the grandstand was fitted with seats bought from Newcastle United, but these have subsequently been replaced by wooden benches. Netherdale has had a 3G pitch since 2011 and the club has done well to recover from a club room fire in December 2014 which saw the club lose some valuable memorabilia. Three local teenagers were arrested for wilful fireraising.

The stadium is busy with activity in all corners and as the turnstiles click constantly its great to see some good organisation and everything in place to cater for the descending hoards. Gala fancy their chances against the visiting student team but are ultimately undone with virtually the last kick of the match.

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Dalbeattie Star 2 Edinburgh City 1 (Attendance 400)

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The original Dalbeattie Star were formed in 1905 although some records trace the name back to 1900. Within in two years Star had turned senior and gained membership of the SFA. At the time the club played at Colliston Park and became highly successful, winning the Southern Counties League five times in a row between 1929 and 1934. In January 1934 Celtic visited Colliston Park for a Scottish Cup tie and 2,376 watch Star beaten by six goals to nil. After five title wins unbelievably the club folded for a season in 1934/5 as Colliston Park was unavailable. They returned the next season using Maidenholm Park where another Scottish Cup tie, against St.Mirren, saw an all time record home gate set of 3,160 spectators. Star lost by a goal to nil. They subsequently returned to Colliston Park and it was in 1948 after being subjected to a surprise SFA inspection the club found themselves ejected from the league when “no goalposts were found in place”. With no league to play in and mounting debts, Dalbeattie Star folded, seemingly for good.

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Fast forward to 1976 and a group of enthusiasts decided to revive the club and they quickly secured a tenancy at the Islecroft Stadium. The Stadium is  part of Colliston Park, the former home of the club, and had been opened in 1950. Fortunately the majestic wooden grandstand of Colliston Park had been re-erected at the new site, and although no records exist it is thought the stand dates from the 1930’s. The reformed club won the South of Scotland League and the Challenge Cup on five occasions before joining the Lowland League.

Islecroft Stadium has a capacity of 3,500 with the magnificent grandstand being able to seat 300 spectators. Dalbeattie Star secured a 99 year lease on Islecroft in 2008, and the venue remains one of the true gems of borders football.

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In today’s game the hosts are really up for a contest in front of a big crowd and after forming a guard of honour for the newly crowned champions the hosts promptly scored two minutes into the game. City did equalise on the stroke of half time but a penalty thirteen minutes from time inflicted the Champions first League defeat of the campaign.

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Threave Rovers 2 Edinburgh University 3 (Attendance 462)

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Threave Rovers play in the town of Castle Douglas not the small Ayrshire burgh of Threave near Maybole. The area around Castle Douglas has Threave House and Threave Castle (built in the 14th century by Archibald the Grim!) but the choice of club name was decided when the club was formed in 1953 during a meeting convened in the Threave tearooms in Castle Douglas.

The club joined the South of Scotland League in 1959 and remained there until a decision was taken to join the tougher East of Scotland League in 1998. The stint was short-lived as traveling costs proved challenging and Threave soon returned to the South of Scotland League. Prior to their admission to the Lowland League Threave had won twelve South of Scotland championships including two title hat-tricks between 1992 and 1995 and then again between 2008 and 2011.

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The club play at Meadow Park which has a licensed capacity of 1,763 with seating for 100 spectators. The ground looked majestic and everything is superbly organised for the big day, a real feel-good vibe enveloped the arena. Today’s game sees the hosts pitted against a young looking Edinburgh University team in what has been a tough season for Threave. What transpired was arguably the game of the weekend which was won by the students by the odd goal in five.March 2015 211

It was a fitting end to a great weekend of Lowland League football, a credit to this new League and all involved. As people streamed out of Meadow Park for lengthy journeys home, one burning question remained however… why has it taken so long to set up a hop in this historic and beautiful land?

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The formation of Heracles Almelo dates to 1902 when a club called Hollandia came into being. The club rented Kortenvoort’s Meadow on the condition that the owner’s son would be picked for the team! At the turn of the century Almelo already had a professional football team called Oranje Nassau, a club with exclusive membership to the bourgeois classes. They played on a ground in Wierdensche Straatweg and it was on this ground that Hollandia played their first ever match. The result against the professional team was unsurprisingly 23-0! It also transpired the dimensions of Kortenvoort’s Meadow was almost half the size of Oranje’s full size pitch. This was soon extended and because of it’s location on a hiking trail began to attract sizeable crowds. In May 1903 a meeting was staged at the Hotel Schreuder between the committees of Hollandia and another team, Inartie. The result was a merger and the birth of Heracles FC.

Heracles moved to a ground called Bonthuis for the 1909-10 season and soon became Almelo’s premier team. Heracles even beat old foes Oranje Nassau 13-0 in that first season at Bonthuis. In 1910 the club adopted the present black and white striped shirts having previously sported black and green shirts. In 1913 the club were on the move again this time to Bornsestraat and the venue that was to become their home for the next 85 years.

In July 1974 a decision was taken to separate the professional and amateur teams of the club in order to protect the finances of both entities and the professional wing was renamed SC Heracles ’74. The present name was adopted in 1998. The club has enjoyed sporadic periods of success including being crowed Dutch National Champions in 1927 and 1941, the competition has been known as the Eredivisie since the advent of professionalism in 1955. Having won the second tier Eerste Divisie in 2004/05, this modest club from eastern Netherlands have commendably spent ten straight seasons in the top flight. Their best performance in their current spell in the top flight has been a sixth place finish in 2009-10. Another memorable season came in 2011-12 when Heracles enjoyed a run to the KNVB Cup Final defeating VV Berkum, De Graafschap, RKC Waalwijk and AZ Alkmaar before succumbing to PSV Eindhoven by three goals to nil in the final in Rotterdam.

Interestingly Heracles have a long history of employing English managers and to date seven Englishmen have led the team. Horace Colclough spent twelve years at Almelo between 1920 and 1932 and he was succeeded by Robert Roxburgh (1932-35). Then came Leslie Lievesley who coached Heracles in the 1946-47 season before joining Torino. Lievesley was subsequently killed in the fateful Superga air crash. Then came Michael Keeping who had been a coach at Real Madrid but was managing Poole Town when Heracles acquired his services for the 1960-61 campaign. Keith Spurgeon coached the club in 1963-64 and subsequently coached in the USA, Libya, Sweden and Cyprus. Les Talbot coached in the Netherlands between 1949 and 1972 and was at the helm of Heracles for the 1966-67 season before joining AZ Alkmaar. The final English coach of Heracles was Ron Dellow who similarly to Talbot spent 25 years in the Netherlands, three of which were at Heracles between 1972 and 1975, Dellow died in Almelo at the grand age of 99.

In June 1999 the club moved to the new Polman Stadion on the outskirts of the town. The old ground in Bornsestraat was largely demolished but thankfully the 1924 wooden grandstand, affectionately known as the “English Stand” was preserved and became part of the facility used by the amateur wing of the Heracles club, AVC Heracles. On July 14th 2011 the magnificent old stand was declared a national monument and as such cannot be demolished. Initially the new stadium had a modest capacity of 6,500 but due to promotion to the top flight at the end of the 2004/05 season this was increased by 2,000. It remains one of the smallest stadiums in the Eredivisie and the club are actively looking at plans to increase the capacity to 12,500.

Tonight’s game sees Heracles once again perilously close to the relegation places with only NAC Breda and Dordrecht below them in the table. Visitors FC Utrecht are twelfth and only seven points ahead of their hosts. A win could prove vital for Heracles in their survival bid. The game starts to a fantastic ticker tape display and some pyro from the small centre section of terracing behind the goal. The first half is low in quality with endless passing between the two teams seeming frightened to make a mistake. The game change with the introduction of  the Swede Denni Advić. Within three minutes of his arrival he had scored and Heracles were in front much to the delight of the home crowd. However, this prompted Utrecht out of their shell and shortly after their French striker Sébastien Haller levelled the scores which in truth was a fair result with neither side doing enough to merit the victory.

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Saturday February 21st 2015 – Eredivisie

Heracles Almelo (0) 1 (Advić 76)

FC Utrecht (0) 1 (Haller 80)

Attendance: 8,197 (at Polman Stadion)

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Sportclub Westfalia 04 e.V. Herne was formed in June 1904 by local factory worker Willi Stens who had been playing for the BV Steele club. He was elected as president and looked to friends from the area around the well to do neighbourhood of Schloss Strünkede to become the first team. The original Strünkede Castle was built in 1243 by the Lords of Strünkede who had been nobility since 1142. The current castle was completed in 1664 and provides a serene and stately backdrop to the huge open terrace opposite the grandstand. Westfalia Herne originally chose red and white stripes as their kit although this would be replaced by today’s strip of blue and white stripes in 1914. The industrial city of Herne soon became well served with competitive teams with Germania Herne being formed in 1909 and SV Sodingen some three years after that. This led to a number of well attended local derbies in the first few decades of the twentieth century. However disaster struck in 1923 with much of the Ruhr still being occupied buy the French, Westfalia Herne were officially dissolved. However, unknown to the occupying authorities the club carried on playing and in 1925 merged with Fortuna Herne and began “officially” competing again. The merger made the club very powerful and two straight promotions in 1929 and 1930 saw Herne rise to the top flight.

In 1933 the club were placed in the Gauliga Westfalia as German football fell under the administration of the Third Reich. It soon became apparent that the meadow rented by Willi Stens had served its purpose and Westfalia Herne needed a home more suitable to their burgeoning support and status. The club opened their new stadium next to the Schloss Strünkede in 1934. Built on an audacious scale boasting a 40,000 capacity the new ground would welcome the likes of Schalke 04, Borussia Dortmund and VfB Bochum on a regular basis. The Second World War became problematic for Westfalia Herne as the British commander in the Ruhr locked the club out of the stadium. Club President Hermann Kracht held conservative views and after negotiations with the military a friendly between Westfalia Herne and the British troops saw the club allowed back into the stadium for good.

The 1940’s and 1950’s were a golden era for football in Herne with both Westfalia and SV Sodingen competing in the top flight for many seasons, unheard of outside of the major metropolises like Berlin, Munich and Hamburg. To celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in 1954 Westfalia Herne opened the newly built grandstand increasing the seated capacity at the Schloss Strünkede. In 1958 three Westfalia Herne players, Hans Tilkowski, Helmut Benthaus and Alfred Pyka played together in the same German national team. A year later under the guidance of Fritz Langner, Westfalia Herne became champions of the top flight Oberliga West. In May 1960 a crucial match against Hamburger SV saw an all time record 35,000 pack into the Herne stadium. Westfalia were runners up in the league the following season and despite consistent league performances the club missed out on election to the new Bundesliga in 1963.

The advent of the new national league really spelt the end of the glory years for Herne football, Westfalia were relegated to the third tier and SV Sodingen slumped even further and currently play in the seventh tier Landesliga. The 1970’s saw the club sponsored by the petroleum company Goldin, the stadium was renovated and Westfalia competed in the 2.Bundesliga-Nord. Four great years followed with well known players like Lutz Gerresheim, Jochen Abel or Sören Busk played for Herne. A famous 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund was witnessed by 27,000 at the Schloss Strünkede.  However disaster struck the club once again when the sponsor went bust and Herne pulled out of the league after just one game of the 1979/80 campaign. The club handed their professional licence back to the DFB and regrouped in the Amateur Westfalen Oberliga.

Also in 1980 the club played a central part of the film “Theo Gegen den Rest Der Welt” where the lead character has a ticket for the (fictitious) DFB Pokal match between SC Westfalia Herne against Schalke 04 but has to miss the big game when his truck is stolen.

This season has been a real struggle for this once mighty club. Competing in the fifth tier Oberliga Westfalia Herne have won just one of their fifteen league games and sit rock bottom of the table with just six points. Today’s visitors VfB Hüls are thirteenth in the 18 team division and Herne’s hopes of victory take a dramatic early blow. In just the third minute defender Yusuf Kilic handled a goal bound shot and despite him protesting his innocence he was shown a red card and Marko Onucka clinically despatched the penalty kick. Hüls doubled their lead before the break and despite Herne pulling one back after the restart with a penalty of their own in truth Herne were second best from start to finish. Today the magnificent Stadion am Schloss Strünkede echoed eerily with a crowd of around 400 (officially stated as 250) and the sixth tier trapdoor is well and truly open for this great club.

Despite their on field woes Herne still have their truly incredible ground, for me it’s a set of floodlights away from being the best ground I have ever visited. Just go there, they really do need the support.

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Sunday February 22nd 2015 – Oberliga Westfalen

Westfalia Herne (0) 1 (Mützel pen 49)

VfB Hüls (2) 2 (Onucka pen 4, Schröter  37)

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Sportsclub Preußen 1906 e.V. Münster started life in 1906 as FC Preußen, adopting the current name in 1921. The sports club which also fields teams in handball, tennis, athletics and fistball and was initially born in the Johann-Conrad-Schlaun Grammar School. The club moved into the Preußenstadion in June 1926 and their new home initially boasted a capacity of 45,000. The record gate at the stadium however is put at 40,000 for a 1975/76 2.Bundesliga match against Borussia Dortmund which Münster won 4-1. Nowadays, with modernisation to the main stand and limits placed on the terracing, the Preußenstadion now has a listed capacity of 15,050 of which 2,931 are seated accommodation. There were plans in recent years for a new stadium, dubbed the Preußen Park Arena, but instead the club has begun modernising the existing venue, new seats in the grandstand and roofs for the two terraces opposite.

In 1933 when the Third Reich reorganised German regional football Preußen were placed in the Gauliga Westfalen but then suffered a period in the doldrums. The immediate post World War II proved to be a golden era for the club with the team returning to the top flight Oberliga West for 1948/49. The team boasted a front line known as the “Hundred-Thousand Mark Line” and featured the attacking quintet of Siegfried Rachuba, Adolf Preissler, Rudolf Schulz, Felix Gerritzen and Josef Lammers. Gerritzen in particular was an idol of the Preußen fans and the curva where today’s ultras groups, the Deviants, gather is named in his honour. Gerritzen also played for VfB Oldenburg and Saxonia Münster and won four caps for the Nationalmannschaft. The team reached its peak in 1951 when Preußen reached the national championship final but lost 2-1 to Kaiserslautern in front of 107,000 people in the Berlin Olympiastadion.

Their steady performances in the highly ranked Oberliga West saw them elected to the newly created Bundesliga in 1963. However, despite spending big, the club were relegated at the end of the new competitions inaugural season and as yet they have never returned to the top flight. In truth the Bundesliga season led Preußen into two decades of financial trouble, tax fraud issues and a steady decline into the amateur Oberliga Westfalen III by 1981. Apart from two seasons in the 2.Bundesliga in the early 1990’s the club have mainly competed at the third tier. After relegation to the Oberliga Westfalen in 2006 the club again spent big to try and regain third tier status but the plan failed. The following season youngsters replaced the highly paid veterans and Preußen stormed to the Oberliga title.

This season has so far proven to be Preußen’s most successful in some time, the club going into today’s game sitting in second place, four points behind one of their biggest rivals, Arminia Bielefeld. Today’s visitors, Holstein Kiel, are also in contention for promotion five points behind Preußen in sixth place. The form table initially went to plan when Preußen’s Turkish striker Mehmet Kara sent the ultras into frenzy with the opening goal in the 35th minute. However, Kiel had not read the script and a two goal salvo just before the break proved decisive. A second goal for Kiel’s Rafael Kiazor midway through the second half was the coup-de-grace and the green and black clad home fans soon headed for an early exit. Until the third goal went in the support of the ultras in the Gerritzen end was superb. Noisy, colourful and relentless they certainly made my trip to the excellent Preußenstadion a visit to remember.

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Saturday February 21st 2015 (14.00pm) – 3.Liga

SC Preußen Münster (1) 1 (Kara 35)

Kieler SV Holstein (2) 3 (Lindner 39, Kazior 42,69)

Att: 8,672 (at Preußenstadion)

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The roots of Olympic Club de Safi date to 1918 Union Sportive de Safi were formed, making them one of the oldest clubs in Morocco. Organised football had only been introduced to Morocco by the French at the commencement of the protectorate state in 1912. In 1956 following Morocco’s independence, the club changed its name to Ittihad (Arab Union) Club Safi. Thirty years later the present name was adopted following a long term sponsorship deal with Office Cherifian Phosphate which should see sporting facilities dramatically improved in this coastal town famous for its pottery and ceramics.

Today’s match sees the hosts in eleventh place of the sixteen team Botola Pro League, while the visitors from Chabab Rif Al Hoceima are thirteenth. The sheer size of Morocco comes in to focus when the away team have endured a nine hour, 500 mile journey from the town of Al Hoceima on the Mediterranean coast. Safi itself is lies less than half way down the country in the province of Doukkala-Abda. The visitors have played in the top flight for the last six seasons while Olympic Safi won the Second Division in 2003/04 and have remained in the top flight ever since. Prior to this the only silverware won by Safi was a Coupe du Trône success in 1956/57. Their best performance so far in the Botola Pro League has been a fourth place finish in their first season of 2004/05 which was sufficient to see them compete in the intercontinental Arab Club Championship for the first time in their history.

Olympic Safi play at the Stade El Massira which is located on the outskirts of the town on the road to Marrakech. The stadium has also been known by its French name of the Stade de la Marche Verte, a reference to the 1975 government co-ordinated protests against Spain and their ownership of the disputed Southern Sahara region. The stadium is a simple affair a small covered stands houses the press and dignitaries seating where and the rest of the stadium is blue and red stone steps which can either be sat on, preferably with some form of cushioning, or stood on as the majority of the home support preferred to do. Opposite the main stand and bisecting the old tribune is the skeleton of a new stand, grey concrete for now but could look impressive once finished. The club experimented with a 3G pitch in 2011 but the current surface is natural grass. The capacity of the El Massira, built during the French Protectorate period, is variously listed as 15,000 to 20,000, although I doubt it has ever been truly tested or measured.

The boisterous contingent of the Safi support was located in the curved south section of standing to the right of the main stand. Four alternate sections were clad in blue and red for a great visual effect, this was the “Shark Family”, an ultras group formed in 2006. Their support was magnificent, a tifo at kick off saw them looking through what appeared to be televisions. The ultras were loud, colourful, well organised and made compelling viewing. The south corner of the pitch was regularly adorned with ticker tape and late in the second half around a dozen flares, despite stringent searches on entering, were lit and most of them were hurled onto the pitch. There was also a smaller section of younger ultras, the “Re Del Mare” located in the Curva Tornado. The majority of the rest of the support was from an older generation and used the half time break for a communal prayer session.

The match itself was a tame affair on a decidedly bobbly pitch. The hosts were clearly the superior side and took the lead on sixteen minutes when a generous looking penalty was awarded. Abdelghani Mouaoui converted comfortably for an early breakthrough. I understand that Al Hoceima were so incensed by the penalty awarded by referee Mounir Mabrouk that they have subsequently submitted a formal written complaint to the Royal Moroccan Football Federation to register their dissatisfaction. However, it should be said that overall the visitors were poor and reflected their lowly league position. They barely mustered a shot in anger with only Abdelkarim Benhania providing any threat in the final third. The hosts plugged away for a second goal but it never came but at least the superb ultras got the result their unrelenting support deserved.

In truth the Botola Pro League table doesn’t lie, the big clubs like Moghreb Tétouan, Raja and Wydad Casablanca are perennially at the top with provincial sides like Safi and Al Hoceima seeing mid table as a decent season. The quality of play was hindered by a poor pitch and as we know any truly talented Moroccan players are spirited to Europe as soon as possible. All said and done, however, my trip to Safi was truly memorable for fantastic, noisy support and a decent stadium painted liberally to give a real sense of identity and home.

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Botola Pro League – Saturday January 24th 2015

Olympic Club de Safi (1) 1 (Mouaoui pen 16)

Chabab Rif Al Hoceima (o) o

Att: c.8,000

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Until the opening of the Grande Stade de Marrakech in 2012, the Stade El Harti was the biggest football ground in this great city. Built in the period of the French protectorate it would still easily hold 10,000 spectators. Situated just outside the old city walls in the Avenue du President Kennedy, the old stadium is the very definition of fading elegance.

Since Marrakech’s biggest club, Kawkab Athletic Club, moved into the new Gregotti Associates designed arena, which is situated some way out of town in Ouahat Sidi Brahim, the El Harti has been reduced to hosting games for Marrakech’s clubs that currently compete in the third and fourth tier competition, the Moroccan Amateur League. Of the tenant clubs, Olympique Marrakech are best placed to bring Botola Pro football back to the El Harti. In fact they only dropped out of the Pro League Second Division at the end of the 2012/13 season when they finished bottom of the table ten points adrift of safety. It was a year that saw Kawkab win the Second Division to return to the top flight. Olympique were formed in 2001 by the owner of the famous Marrakechi restaurant Chez Ali, and currently stand in a promotion place for a return to the Pro League. The city’s other third tier club Najm Marrakech still play at the Stade 20th August which is in Avenue Oued Lmakhazine in the suburb of Menara.

The El Harti’s other occupant is today’s host club MCM Mouloudia Marrakech who play in the fourth tier of Moroccan football, the Amateur League Second Division. It’s been a sharp decline for Mouloudia who spent a single season in the Moroccan top flight in 1980/81 but finished next to bottom of the eighteen team league. The club were formed in 1948 as Alioria Marrakech with most of the team coming from the Bab Doukkala district of the old medina. They initially played at the old Terrain Akecich before sharing the Stade 20th August with Najm Marrakech. All their first team games these days are played on the 3G surface of the El Harti. The Mouloudia club have a currently much more successful handball team.

The Stade El Harti is built from the distinctive terracotta coloured stone associated with Morocco and has an impressive main stand with a roof supported by some seriously reinforced concrete. The stadium in its heyday would have looked great, the external stairways are artistically decorated and the entrance to the stadium is a real masterpiece. Today the fascia of the stadium bearing its name has been smashed and a chunk of masonry has fallen off the stunning arch. It’s a shame big crowds no longer gather here and little maintenance, save for the installation of an artificial pitch, has taken place in recent years. The rest of stadium is made up of two end curves of open terracing and a terrace opposite the main stand which is partially covered to provide some shade from the unrelenting Maghreb sun.

Today’s game sees Hilal Tarrast make the long four hour trip from Agadir for this fixture. No admission is charged and no information is available as to who is playing for either team. There was a goalless first half which was held up for seven minutes when the manager of the visitors was asked to leave the technical area and refused to do so, encouraging his team to leave the pitch instead. Order was eventually restored and the coach cut a solitary figure sat alone in the covered terrace for the remainder of the game. It was the hosts that took the lead after 67 minutes when their captain nodded in a dangerous corner. It looked like that would be the winner until four minutes from time when the opposition’s centre forward, who had spent the entire game play acting and diving, gleefully lashed home a loose ball which really should have been cleared. It was a poor quality game on an artificial surface that has not been maintained well and had some disarming bounce to it.

Should Olympique successfully return to the Pro League it would be nice to think some money could be lavished on the old El Harti in its dotage.

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Moroccan Amateur League Deuxiéme Division – Sunday January 18th 2015 

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Hilel Tarrast Agadir (0) 1

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There has been a football ground at the site of Kantrida since 1911 when HŠK Victoria played their first match there against HŠK Građanski Zagreb. The football field was laid out in the bottom of a former stone quarry on the banks of the Adriatic Sea, giving the Kantrida its iconic and distinctive cliff side location. Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Rijeka became part of Italy while Sušak, then a separate town, where the Kantrida is situated, remained part of Yugoslavia. This meant HŠK Victoria could no longer use their own stadium and the Kantrida was occupied by Unione Sportiva Fiumana, a club competing in the Italian league system. Fiumana played at the stadium between 1926 and their dissolution in 1945. During their stay the Kantrida was renamed Stadio Comunale del Littorio, but was also called Borgomarina, the Italian name for the area of Sušak. Following World War II, Rijeka was returned to Yugoslavia and both Fiumana and Victoria were disbanded. A new town club, NK Kvarner were formed and in 1954 they changed their name to NK Rijeka.

Rijeka never won the Yugoslav League and indeed have never won the Croatian League since it’s inception in 1992. The club have been runners up on three occasions but just seem unable to break Dinamo Zagreb’s stranglehold on the domestic championship. Out of the 23 seasons of the Prva Liga, Dinamo have won sixteen of the championships (five as Croatia Zagreb) while Hajduk Split (six) and NK Zagreb account for the remaining seven successes. The Whites of Rijeka, however, have won the Croatian Cup three times and also took two successive Yugoslavian Cups in 1978 and 1979. To their credit Rijeka have qualified for the group stages of the Europa League for the last two seasons. Prior to this their greatest success in Europe was a Cup-Winners-Cup quarter final place against Juventus although they went out 2-0 on aggregate with goals coming from Juve legends Franco Causio and Roberto Bettega.

During the 1950’s the Kantrida underwent extensive renovation and had a new capacity of 25,000. However, UEFA safety standards saw this capacity slashed by half in recent years. This did not stop the May 1999 Prva Liga clash with NK Osijek attracting an all time record 25,000 spectators to the stadium. The Kantrida gained its unique double gantry floodlight pylons in 1975. The two pylons on the sea side of the ground were designed to replicate ships masts while the two on the top of the cliff are mounted at street level. For cars passing on the Istarstka Ulica it must be a truly bizarre spectacle.

Tonight’s match against Lokomotiva Zagreb is televised and feels like a really big deal. The crowd is excited from the start and the support from Rijeka’s ultras group Armada is boisterous and unrelenting. The ultras group were formed in 1987 and have their biggest rivalries with Tordica (Hajduk Split), Bad Blue Boys (Dinamo Zagreb) and Kohorta (Osijek). Armada’s murals around the Kantrida are really stunning. The match itself panned out to about one man, the Rijeka striker Andrej Kramarić. He scored five goals in a truly stellar display of the art of the centre forward play. His clinical finishing had the result of the match out of sight by half time, the pick of his strikes being a superb volley for his fourth goal.

Kramarić started his career at Dinamo Zagreb and scored in excess of 450 goals at youth level before turning professional. His career started well but he fell out of favour with manager Vahid Halilhodžić and was loaned to Lokomotiva for a season and half. His fall out with Dinamo turned into Rijeka’s advantage when he joined the Whites in August 2013. He currently has 21 goals this season and to put that in perspective the Prva Liga’s next highest scorer is Dinamo’s Duje Čop with nine! In 58 appearances for Rijeka he now has 54 goals. What is equally baffling is his haul of just three caps for Croatia, while seven of his Rijeka team mates were involved in Croatia’s international against Argentina at Upton Park, 23 year old Kramarić was left at home. He is definitely one to watch for the future. After Kramarić left the field to a standing ovation from the Rijeka fans his replacement Josip Ivančić scored the sixth goal of the night with his first touch. A truly impressive display from Rijeka and so fitting to see such a great home performance in this most wonderful of venues.

The last game to be played at the Kantrida in its present from is currently scheduled to be a Prva Liga game against Osijek on November 30th. This means there are just two games left at this amazing venue. From the resumption of the Croatian League season after its winter break Rijeka will play at a newly built temporary ground called the Rujevica Stadion. This will be a 6,000 all seated stadium on Ulica Hosti. The Rujevica will be home until the new Kantrida Stadion is completed which is scheduled to be June 2016. The new Kantrida will be a fully covered arena style stadium, its architect Gino Zavanella was one of the architects of the Juventus Arena. The new stadium will have seats for 14,438 people and will comply with UEFA’s category 4 status. The cost of the stadium has been privately funded and has a budget of €22 million.

Of course much of the natural beauty of the Kantrida will be lost with the redevelopment, beauty that saw Eurosport name the stadium as one of the Top 20 most beautiful sports venues in the world in April 2014. The need for the club to push on and try and challenge Dinamo’s domestic dominance is clear but what a cost they will have to bear to achieve this. I feel so eternally thankful to have been able to visit beautiful, beautiful Kantrida.

rijekalogo

Sunday November 9th 2014 – MaxTV Prva Liga

HNK Rijeka (3) 6 (Kramarić 21, 22, 38,49, 62, Ivančić 84)
Lokomotiva Zagreb (0) 0

Attendance: 6,000 (at Stadion Kantrida)

Rijeka:

25. Ivan Vargić, 8. Mato Jajalo, 10. Anas Sharbini ©, 11. Ivan Tomečak, 13. Marko Lešković, 15. Matej Mitrović, 16. Ivan Močinić, 20. Zoran Kvržić, 22. Marin Leovac, 88. Moisés Lima Magalhães, 91. Andrej Kramarić.

Subs: 32. Andrej Prskalo, 14. Goran Cvijanović (for 16, 74 mins), 19. Miral Samardžic, 28. Josip Ivančić (for 91, 84 mins), 29. Marko Vešović (for 20, 79 mins), 89. Vedran Jugović, 99. Ivan Krstanović.

Lokomotiva:

12.Simon Sluga, 3. Mario Musa ©, 5. Tomislav Mrčela, 6. Josip Ćalušić, 7. Damir Šovšić, 9. Ante Rukavina, 10. Domagoj Pavičić, 11. Karlo Bručić, 16. Jerko Leko, 19. Herdi Prenga, 21. Mirko Marić.

Subs: 1. Oliver Zelenika, 4. Jakov Biljan, 8. Luka Begonja (for 21, 28 mins), 13. Filip Mrzljak, 20. Petar Mišić (for 10, 65 mins), 22. Marko Kolar, 25. Jan Doležal (for 19, 81 mins).

Yellow Cards: Kvržić, Tomecak (Rijeka); Begonja (Lokomotiva).

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