Big Match On A Small Island (Muratti Vase 2018)

The Muratti Vase is an annual event on the Channel Islands and has been contested since 1905. As football matches go the final is a really big deal attracting sizeable crowds. The smallest competing island, Alderney, contest a semi-final usually against the island not hosting the final. Alderney have one vase win to their credit way back in 1920 when they secured 1-0 wins against Jersey in the semi-final and Guernsey in the Final. They haven’t been in a final since 1938, and in 1994 lost their semi final to Jersey by 18-0! Alderney, though, have improved massively since 2016 by competing as Alderney FC in Guernsey’s domestic Priaulx League.

Muratti is cigarette brand by the Philip Morris company but escaped the change in advertising laws regarding tobacco as it was not sold in the Channel Islands. After using several venues for matches including Belgrave Wanderers’ magnificent The Track in Guernsey and Westmount in Jersey, the finals are played alternately at Footes Lane, the ground used in the Bostik League by Guernsey FC, and Springfield Stadium in St.Helier. Alderney always have home advantage in the semi final and these games are contested at The Arsenal Ground in Mount Hale.

This year’s tournament is the 102nd competition and started with Guernsey defeating Alderney 2-0 in the semi final in March. It’s the turn of Springfield Stadium to host the final two years after the final was marred by crowd trouble. Tensions clearly run high during this annual clash as the Jersey Museum has a small feature on Muratti finals which says the 1983 final in Guernsey was also blighted by rival fans fighting each other. The security at the stadium is heavy following posts on social media that Guernsey fans planned to “paint Jersey green” with smoke bombs. None were let off during the game so the rigorous bag searches either saw them confiscated or it was something of a wind-up ahead of the final.

Springfield Stadium was opened as a showground in 1885 and hosted the first Muratti final on the 27th April 1905. The record attendance came in 1971 when the visit of Manchester United attracted an incredible 11,100 people to the arena. The current grandstand was opened in 1997 and seats 960 people. In 2015 a state of the art artificial surface was laid ahead of the hosting of the Island Games. It has to be said that the metal cage fencing not only blocks the view of many of the seats in the stand but for your £10 standing ticket for the Muratti final you get to look in through the cage from the park effectively outside the ground. I am not sure the redevelopment has worked from a spectators’ perspective.

This years final is a tight affair, Jersey’s side comprising mainly of players from reigning league champions, St.Paul’s while Guernsey’s team was made up of players that either play or have played for Guernsey FC in the Bostik League. The manager and goalkeeper for Guernsey is ex-Football League player Chris Tardif.

It is the 39 year old ex Pompey custodian that decides the match when he upended Jersey’s Calvin Weir and Jack Cannon coolly dispatched the spot kick. Jersey remained the better side throughout the game and it was the right result at the end of ninety minutes. One further moment of note was when Jersey substitute Jay Reid came on from the closing minutes, promptly kicked Charlton Gauvain up in the air from behind and walked off the pitch with a red card waving in his direction.

With flights from Gatwick there and back in a day this proved to be interesting day out at a big match on a small island.

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Saturday May 12th 2018 – Muratti Vase Final

Jersey FA 1 (Cannon pen 14)
Guernsey FA 0

Att:1,800 Entry £10 Programme £3

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Baltic State

Having enjoyed a football weekend in the Estonian capital of Tallinn a few years ago I decided it was high time I ticked off the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania.

Arriving in Rīga on Ryan Air’s joy filled red eye flight from Stansted the Latvian capital soon wins you over with its imminent walkability and stunning architecture including several Art Nouveau structures. But before you even think about your transfer from the airport to the city you must take a look at the stunning Military Aircraft Museum next to the terminal and opposite car park P3. Once you have satisfied your Cold War intrigue a transfer to the heart of Rīga takes twenty minutes. It is worth stating that car hire is very good value and you can take the vehicle you hire into either of the other Baltic nations without any extra charge or additional insurance.

Football in Latvia is beset by money problems and poor support. Since independence in 1991 Skonto Rīga was always the biggest club in Latvia, winning 14 league titles in a row before Liepajas Metalurgs ended their monopoly in 2005. Skonto would only win one more championship before suffering a calamitous and fatal bankruptcy in December 2016. The Skonto Stadions is a very decent stadium, albeit three sided, and is now used by FC Rīga.

The SynotTip Virsliga (Higher League) operates with just eight clubs, six of which have only been formed since the turn of the 21st century. My first taste of Latvian football comes at Rīgas Futbola Skola. The RTU (Rīgas Tehniskās universitātes) Stadions has a large temporary looking bleacher style stand on the near side with in excess of 200 seats. On the opposite side there are two small terracing units one labelled for the away side and one for the home team “ultras”. Less than ten away fans from reigning Higher League champions Spartaks Jūrmala.

It is €5 entry on the day although e-tickets can be bought in advance for €3. Just before kick off the RFS “ultras” arrive bedecked in shirts and scarves and banging drums. Despite their fervour the home side barely muster a shot on goal and Spartaks coast to a 2-0 win. The official attendance was 330 although my head count made it considerably less.

Saturday April 28th 2018 – Latvian SYNOTtip Virsliga

FK Rīgas Futbola Skola 0
FK Spartaks Jūrmala 2 (Svārups 34, Dmitriev 77)

Att:330 Entry €5

Luckily the game did not overrun so the ten minute dash back across the river was made in time to see the 3pm kick off between Metta/Latvijas Universitāte and Valmiera Glass VIA get underway. Metta play at another very basic ground called the Rīgas Hanzas Vidusskolas laukums just a few minutes from the Skonto Stadions. It is €4 entry and there is again a long bleacher style seated stand down one side. This was a real slow boiler of a game, after an hour of mind numbingly tedious tiki-taka passing the two sides shared four goals in the closing stages including a couple of superb strikes.

Saturday April 28th 2018 – Latvian SYNOTtip Virsliga

FK Metta/Latvijas Universitāte 2 (Dzhamalutdinov pen 77,87)

FK Valmiera Glass Via 2 (V.Jaunzems 62, Cipe 83)

Att:250 Entry €4

An evening in old town Rīga capped a fine day out with a cross border trip to Lithuania to look forward to in the morning. It is worth mentioning here that there seems to be an issue with Lithuanian top flight where matches can change location at quite short notice. Thankfully the Lithuania FA website (lff.lt) is just as accurate and informative as its Latvian equivalent. My planned double was the 1pm kick off between Kauno Zalgiris and FK Atlantas, which had already been moved to the Nacionalinė Futbolo Akademija, and then the 6pm match between FK Stumbras and FK Trakai at the S.Dariaus ir S.Gireno Stadionas.

However, a quick check up before the three hour drive south from Riga to Kaunas showed that the Stumbras game had also been moved to the Nacionalinė Futbolo Akademija, which left the obvious dilemma of waiting around for a few hours for a match at the same venue or find an alternative match. I quickly found a 4pm kick off in the Lithuanian Cup at Šiauliai but it would be impossible to make kick off in time. A quick look into the murky depths of the Pirmā Liga, the Latvian second tier found a very handy 7pm match in Olaine for the intriguingly named FK Super Nova.

The Lithuanian top flight game was interesting, a more pacy English style of match instead of the short passing games witnessed north of the border. It was to prove a very entertaining match in a very basic venue normally used by Zalgiris’ and Stumbras’ second teams. The game ended 2-3 to the visitors who thoroughly deserved their win although the hosts nearly levelled in injury time.

Sunday April 2018 – Lithuanian A Lyga

FK Kauno Žalgiris 2 (Kloniūnas 13, Joan Figuereido 87)
FK Atlantas 3 (Baniulis 7,54, Šinkus 85)

Att:155 Entry €3

The gap between matches meant a comfortable drive back to Olaine which lies around 15 miles south of the capital. FK Super Nova were formed as recently as 2000 and previously played at the Ostvalda Vidusskola Stadions some twelve miles away in Imanta. They seemingly have quite good support and totally unexpectedly a modest but colourful programme was handed out free of charge. The Olaines Stadions turned out to be the best one of the weekend, a large back of seats with the central section covered with a roof. Opposite this a church and railway track provides a scenic backdrop. Super Nova now share this ground with local side, AFA Olaine.

The standard of football was pretty poor with a seeming inability to stop giving the ball away at every opportunity. The game was won by the hosts when a rare half decent cross was knocked into the net to the evident delight of the home fans. It seemed to me that the match was more a social event for families with the actual match being a secondary concern. The club are clearly trying to generate a family atmosphere and have an angry looking star as a mascot!

Sunday April 29th 2018 – Latvian Komanda Pirmā Liga

SK Super Nova 1 (Strautiņš 77)
FK Smiltene/BJSS 0

Att:228 Free entry, free programme

It proved an interesting break in two of European football’s backwaters.

An expanded version of this review will appear in a future issue of Football Weekends Magazine.

Postcards From Belgrade (Serbian Groundhop 4)

The fourth organised Serbian Groundhop took place across a balmy weekend in April with an ambitious but exciting looking eight game extravaganza in and around the Belgrade area.

One of the six Super Liga grounds in Belgrade that sparks a lot of interest and wonder is that of FK Voždovac but somehow they had always seemed to be away from home when we had selected a date for our weekends. Until 2011 the club played at the crumbling Bojan Majić Stadium when they received a most unusual offer. A developer offered to place a new stadium on top of their proposed six story shopping centre in the heart of the Voždovac district. Initially the plan was to have a stadium with two sides and no end stands, however, this was changed at a late stage to a four sided fully UEFA compliant stadium.

For us, as luck would have it, the proposed Arena Sport televising of the Vojvodina v Spartak game was switched at short notice to the relegation group battle between Voždovac and Napredak. This meant the assembled group had a Friday evening game a short taxi ride away from our base at Belgrade’s equivalent of Fawlty Towers, the very cheap and sometimes cheerful Hotel Slavija.

On arrival at the “Stadium Shopping Center” in Zaplanjska Street you can’t help but look up and see the roofs of the stands protruding outwards and up from a run of the mill shopping centre.

It was a pretty lifeless encounter won by the hosts with an early goal. With the lack of excitement on the pitch you tend to lose the sense of location except for the occasional glance to a corner, where netting is in place to stop the obvious threat of wayward balls, and you glimpse Belgrade suburbia from your lofty perch.

You also notice the poor construction of the stadium despite it ticking all the UEFA requirement boxes. The rake of the steps is vertiginous but the steps are very narrow with no handrails for descending. The vast majority of the seats in the main West Stand will be obscured by the media centre, VIP area or camera gantries. Tickets are purchased at a desk inside the shopping centre and there is also a small merchandise shop within a newsagents on the same level.

Friday April 20th 2018 – Serbian Super Liga

FK Voždovac 1 (Stuparević 7)
FK Napredak 0

Att:439 Entry 200 RSD (£1.50)

After some Friday evening free time in Belgrade, we reconvened at the Slavija ahead of a morning fixture at Brodarac to see their highly successful under 19 side. On the second Serbian Groundhop we saw Brodarac thrash their counterparts from Partizan on their way to winning the Serbian under 19 league. This meant Brodarac qualified for this season’s UEFA Youth League. They were drawn at home in the qualifying play-off against Manchester United. The match was moved to Voždovac and the home side put up a brave fight before going down 2-0. The Brodarac first team are currently in the fourth tier, Belgrade Zona Liga, so their youth and academy success is truly admirable. Brodarac translates as “winners”.

Their stadium lies under the Stari Savski Most one of the oldest bridges across the River Sava and initially is most notable for the large JAT advert on the roof of its indoor facility. JAT was Jugoslovenski Aerotransport, the old state owned airline long replaced by Air Serbia. As you look around the immediate vicinity of the stadium you become aware of the history around it. The ground is built on the site of the notorious Staro Sajmište World War II concentration camp. The under 19s are taking on their equivalents from Voždovac and again play an exciting and energetic attacking game and win far more easily than the 2-1 score suggested.

Saturday April 20th 2018 – Serbian Under 19 Liga

FK Brodarac U19s 2 (L.Jovanović 69, D.Jovanović 73)
FK Vojvodina U19s 1 (Mrdja 90)

Att:112

Our next port of call was completely diametrically opposed to the sobering location of our morning match. Ada Ciganliga is an island in the Sava that has been artificially turned in to a peninsular with a lake and beach (part of which is nudist if you’re into that sort of thing) where locals flock in their thousands to relax, sunbathe and play sport. It is also a area for artwork, light displays and nightlife. There is a toll to come onto the island payable in kiosks at the barrier on the approach road.

The island is also home to the Belgrade FA stadium which has two artificial pitches one boasting a large pitch length stand. These are used to stage numerous matches in the lower reaches of the Belgrade leagues and as the main stadium has lights as many as six or seven matches a day take place at the weekends.

FK Dedinje are a 2014 reformation of a pre-WWII Belgrade club that played close to the site of Red Star’s Marakana stadium. Dedinje do not have a home ground of their own so have shared at Grafičar and Brodarac before using Ada Ciganliga. The club are nicknamed the “Millioneri” due to its historic location in one of Belgrade’s most exclusive areas. Somewhat annoyingly their pre-match huddle ends with a group shout of “Who is Belgrade’s richest club….Dedinje”. After that initial bluster they turn in a poor performance in unrelenting heat and opponents FK 011 (named after the dial code for Belgrade) canter to a 2-0 win.

Saturday April 20th 2018 – Meduopštinska Liga (Grupa A)

FK Dedinje 0
FK 011 Beograd 2 (Andrić 62, Jovanović pen 90)

Att:58

We then travel outside the city to Obrenobac where the local regional league has 5pm kick offs on a Saturday afternoon. We arrive at FK Rojkovac only to find that their opponents, FK Ljubinić have failed to show up and have forfeited the game. Very kindly a local man offers to guide us to another ground in the next village of Rvati, just as well as its remote location down unmade paths would have been very difficult to locate. The locals are truly astonished when their unexpected foreign guests arrive a few minutes after kick off.

Stadion Rvati is a run down gem of a ground, similar to the village ground of FK Vrčín on the inaugural hop. The football is not of the highest standard but the hosts turn on the jet packs and coast to a memorable 8-3 victory. There is something to be said for visiting these of the beaten track, ramshackle old grounds to gain a true perception of football outside the glamour of Super Liga and the like.

Saturday April 20th 2018 – Opštinska Liga Obrenovac

OFK Rvati 8 (Joksić 17,51,73, Nedeljković 29, Vučićević 33,81, Jakovljević pen 65, Petrović 77)

FK Sloga Ratari 3 (Kozlica 42, pen 45, Jovičić 78)

Att:60

We feasted on traditional Serbian meat platters at a roadside restaurant called Mali Raj on Kralja Aleksandra in Obrenovac. Bellies full and thirst satiated we headed back to the city for something completely different. One time Aston Villa striker Savo Milošević is now Vice President of the Serbian Football Association, heading up their anti-corruption purge, he is also a part time actor and tonight is in a theatrical performance at Akademija 28. The audience appears to be almost entirely female and pleasingly Savo appears as promised after the show. After a somewhat turbulent post playing career including alcohol problems following his father being shot dead by his grandfather, he looks fit and well and seemingly still very much a heartthrob as he was during his playing days which saw him win 102 international caps. He seems happy to talk to English football fans about his time at Villa and comes across as an extremely nice guy.

Sunday’s itinerary began with an early morning kick off at FK Žarkovo located on the north side of Danube in Novi Beograd The club are flying high at the top of the Belgrade region third tier Srpske Liga. The ground has a new stand and restaurant in order to cope with Prva Liga football. Joining our party for this game was Nenad Mijaljević, well known in England for producing top notch programmes for non-league clubs like South Shields, Jarrow Roofing and Seaham Red Star. A huge Red Star fanatic he tells me he has recently taken up groundhopping and now “gets” why people do it. It’s a competitive game with opponents FK IMT extremely unlucky not to get at least a point from the match. It’s the runaway league leaders that come out on top in a 2-1 in front of a decent crowd.

Sunday April 22nd 2018 – Srpske Liga Beograd

FK Žarkovo 2 (Rajić 15, Garić pen 19)
FK IMT 1 (Šarić 25)

Att:240 Entry 200 RSD (£1.50)

We have a leisurely lunch at one of our usual haunts, Konoba, under the Pančevo bridge. We have a riverside table set aside and enjoy their signature fish stew followed by yet more meat! A surprisingly swollen Danube laps gently against the terrace.

At the risk of sounding like “Savo stalkers” we bump into him again at Prva Liga club FK Bežanija, he is there with his family watching his eldest son Nikola play and score twice for the home side against FK Budućnost. It’s a blisteringly hot afternoon and an enterprising nut seller augmented the usual “kikiriki and semenke” (peanuts and seeds) with skewers of strawberries.

The stadium in Bežanija is set in an old quarry and at one end steep quarry walls afford an amazing view of the city. Behind the opposite goal is the beautiful Crkva Svetog Đorđa (Church of St George). Some people say football is a religion, well the priest from the church joined the crowd for the last twenty minutes of this game but the home side needed no divine intervention as Milošević’s brace was enough to secure the points.

Sunday April 22nd 2018 – Serbian Prva Liga

FK Bežanija 2 (Milošević 6,29)
FK Budućnost Dobanovci 0

Att:233 Entry 200 RSD (£1.50)

The Sunday evening game was a revisit for most of us as Partizan took on cross city opposition in Čukarički. The Partizan stadium always seems to have an intimidating atmosphere even when sparsely attended. The ultra group Grobari has warring factions resulting in the three factions being segregated into different parts of the stadium. Heeding the advice of co-organiser Aleks we all opt for tickets in the “posh” west stand (Zapad) for the princely sum of 450 dinar (£3.30). Partizan unsurprisingly take the points when the impressive Zoran Tošić nets his second goal of the game towards the end.

Sunday April 22nd 2018 – Serbian Super LigaFK Partizan 2 (Tošić 18,81)
FK Čukarički 1 (Belaković 46)

Att: 2,500 Entry 450 RSD (£3.30)

Some of the party have opted to return to the UK (and Germany and Denmark!) on the Monday so its a smaller bunch that head back to the island paradise of Ada Ciganliga for an under 18 match between FK 011 and Voždovac.

Monday April 23rd 2018 – Serbian U18 League

FK 011 Beograd U18s 0
FK Voždovac U18s 2 (Nadj 21, Mijailović 37)

Att:23

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We then head north out of Belgrade for the 4pm Prva match at FK Inđija. En route we stop at the Serbian FA headquarters in Stara Pazova. A centre of excellence like St.Georges Park, this UEFA funded facility has six pitches two of which have spectator accommodation.

The Gradski Stadion in Inđija is top notch with some old stands on one side and a newer big uncovered stand on the opposite a left over from the clubs’ brief Super Liga stint in 2010/11. The stadium is right next the railway with passenger and freight trains rattling past regularly. This harks back to the clubs origins as Železničar Inđija, with the prefix being attached to railroad workers. Also at this end a towering factory belches and crackles constantly. A decent crowd gathers for the match against Novi Pazar, but the visitors miss a penalty and don’t really trouble the hosts as they ease to a 2-0 win.

Monday April 23rd 2018 – Serbian Prva Liga

FK Inđija 2 (Kovačevic 22, Gajić 45)
FK Novi Pazar 0

Att:310 Entry 100 RSD (70p)

It’s a great coda to another sublime weekend in the company of Groundhopping Serbia (Aleks Peković, Bogdan Mitrović and Teodora Rebić) and we end the day enjoying some of the Hotel Moscow’s world renowned cake, Moskva šnit. It also dawns on us that our nine matches have cost us a little over £8 in entrance money! We hope to run a fifth Groundhop early in the new season taking in the delights of Southern Serbia this time and maybe also a game in the Srpske Republic enclave in Bosnia. To join us or just keep up to date with our plans please follow me and the lads on Twitter (@PeterRMiles and @GroundhopSerbia), or Facebook at Serbian Groundhop Weekends.
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A much expanded version of this article will appear in a future edition of Football Weekends magazine.

Border Crossing (Gençlík Gücü TSK)

On the 20th of July 1974 Turkey launched Operation Attila, a military invasion of the island of Cyprus. After a month of hostilities the military junta running Cyprus had collapsed and Turkey had captured some 40% of the island. Around 150,000 Greek Cypriots were expelled from the captured northern part of the island this was approximately a quarter of the entire population of the island found itself displaced. A year or so later around 60,000 Turkish Cypriots were similarly expelled to the occupied North.

A still existent “Green Line” was established and monitored by by the United Nations and in 1983 the occupied area was declared independent as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In the intervening years only Turkey has recognised the independence, to the UN the area very much remains a disputed territory.

Since April 2003, however, relations thawed sufficiently for border crossings to be opened between the north and south. There are five principle crossings the main one is called Agios Dometios (also signposted Metehan or Kermiya) and is in the west of Nicosia close to the racecourse. The other crossing points where you can cross with a vehicle, bicycle or by foot are at Dhekelia (also known as Beyarmudu, Pergamos or Pile), Akyar (also called Strovilia or Azios Nikolaos) in the British Eastern Sovereign Base Area on the Larnaca to Famagusta road and also Yesilirmak (also known as Limnitis) near Guzelyurt (Morpho). There is another crossing near the Ledra Palace in central Nicosia but is only open to pedestrians, cyclists and diplomatic vehicles only.

The catch with vehicle access in a hire car is insurance. Neither areas recognise each others insurance and while you can buy additional insurance at Agios Dometios hire car companies in the south strongly advise you park at the border and cross on foot. Their insurance states you will be fully liable for the cost of the entire car if it is damage or held in Northern Cyprus for any reason.

However, crossing on foot is simple enough, a cursory glance of your passport and your in, no visa required. There are taxis available on the Turkish side and after a short wait one dropped us at the Lefkoşa Atatürk Stadium. The taxis will also accept euros. Lefkoşa is the Turkish name for Nicosia which is also known as “The City that Smells of Jasmine”.

The KTFF (Kibris Türk Futbol Federasyonu) operates two 16 club divisions called the SüperLig and 1.Lig. Today’s game at the Atatürk Stadium is a SüperLig clash between Gençlík Gücü and Ozanköy who are third bottom and bottom of the table respectively. The stadium also hosts the home games of Çetinkaya and Yenicami so plenty of options for matches here.

The stadium looks older but was opened as recently as 1990 and features epic terracing and old school floodlight pylons. The most noticeable feature however is the huge Turkish Northern Cyprus flag gauged into the Pentadactilos mountain range.

The Atatürk Stadium has a capacity of 24,000 but only the inauguration match, between Istanbul giants Fenerbaçhe and Sarıyer, attracted a crowd anywhere near that capacity. Today’s game cost 20 Turkish lira (around £4) to get into. Despite both clubs struggling in the league the football is a very decent standard and there is a good vibe among the small crowd. A wide range of snacks and drinks are available in a pop up kantina. A pot of sweetcorn with grated cheese seems very popular at 10 lira. A really entertaining encounter sees the hosts win 4-2.

On this exciting trip I found the people of North Nicosia friendly and welcoming and highly recommend a detour to this overlooked part of this wonderful island.

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February 24th 2018 – KTFF K-Pet SüperLig

Gençlík Gücü TSK 4 (Karacanoglu 19, Museci 28,31, Ogurseye 53)

Ozanköy SK 2 (Kibar 20, El Abia 40)

Att:182 Entry 20 Lira (£4)

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The Struggle Within (Fort William F.C.)

Football in Fort William arrived late as the Western Highlands region is much more interested in shinty, a traditional Scottish Gaelic game played with wooden sticks. Comann Camanachd A’ Ghearasdain (Fort William Shinty Club) date from 1893 and Kilmallie Shinty Club from 1929 so their long standing foothold in the town meant that the town did not have a football club until 1974.The club has always played at Claggan Park, an enclosed pasture in the foothills of the Ben Nevis mountain range. The stunning backdrop is rightly lauded as one of the best in Europe but the peak is not actually Ben Nevis itself, but a hill called Meall an t-Suidhe. The venue itself has a decrepit covered stand on one side of the pitch but this is now fenced off and condemned. There are now two identical modular Arena Seating units with around 70 seats each on the opposite side. The pitch is close to the River Nevis and is prone to waterlogging. In an attempt to help the pitch recover from the shocking winter the club turned the pitch ninety degrees in December which has left the playing surface decidedly narrow and the stands now behind either goal. Fort William FC initially contested friendlies and entered cup competitions such as the Scottish Qualifying Cup, the Inverness Cup and the North of Scotland Club. The clubs’ remote location meant there was no obvious league competition for the fledgling club to join. The club eventually joined the North Caledonian League for the 1983/84 season and finished runners-up to Muir of Ord before winning the title the following season. The club were in the ascendancy and joined the Highland League for 1985/86. It’s been another tough season on the field for The Fort, with five games left they have already conceded 156 goals including a 2-12 loss at home to Cove Rangers, a 0-10 at home to Fraserburgh. However, the nadir came when they visited reigning champions, Brora Rangers, at Dudgeon Park. The 16-0 thumping was just one goal away from Fort’s record defeat of 17-0 against Peterhead in 1998.Assuming Fort do finish bottom of the table this season it will mean they have been wooden spoonists 16 times in the 33 seasons they have been in the Highland League. This includes a run of four seasons finishing in last place, the fourth of which, 2008/09, saw them secure just one point all season in a 1-1 draw with Wick Academy. The size of their problem can be measured by looking between 1996/97 and 2013/14 when in those 18 seasons the club were bottom of the table 14 times.Their on field struggles have been well documented, but its immediate future lies off the field as all six board members announced in January that they will be stepping down at the end of the current campaign. This includes primary benefactors Stewart Maclean and Gerald McIntyre whose cash injections have kept the club afloat and funded the tortuous road trips needed in the Highland League. Despite a thriving academy set up the Forts have always struggled to attract players of sufficient quality often resorting to shipping in players from Glasgow and Inverness. Their traditional dragnet for local talent is from the surrounding areas of Lochaber, Oban and Speyside as well as the Isle of Skye. However, this flow of talent has dwindled since the closure of the Lochaber Welfare League, a summer competition, in 2016. Fort William has produced players of a very decent standing, Bolton Wanderers legend, John McGinlay, started his career at Claggan Park, while ex Chelsea and Swindon forward Duncan Shearer was also born in the town.The club have notified the Highland League that they are likely to resign from the competition at the end of the current campaign. The club have an EGM this week to decide whether the club will join either the Scottish Amateur set up or rejoin the North Caledonian League. Another option, should there be no offers of new blood and financing, would be to fold the club altogether.If the club rejoin the North Caledonian League for the new season their nearest opposition would be Inverness Athletic who are located in Muir of Ord. The away trip to Thurso would take over four hours each way on the 173 mile journey.It would be a real tragedy if this doughty but luckless club call it a day. Claggan Park is an iconic British football ground but undoubtedly these are troubled times at this remote outpost of the beautiful game.indexSaturday April 14th 2018 – Highland LeagueFort William (0) 0Formartine United (3) 6 (Barbour 22,35,51, Rodger 38, Gethins pen 59, Crawford 65)Attendance: 94   Admission £7, free teamsheetGalleryIMG_7411IMG_7409IMG_7342IMG_7408IMG_7381Fort William 140418 028IMG_7355Fort William 140418 018_edited-1ticket

Through Cyprus Hills

The Cyprus Football League consists of a three division national league system called Divisions 1, 2 and 3 with 14, 14 and 16 clubs in respectively. The top level splits into a championship and relegation pool at the end of February after a 26 round regular season.

Of the 78 League championships contested to date, three clubs have dominated the league. APOEL Nicosia (26), Omonia Nicosia (20) and Anorthosis Famagusta (13) account for 59 of the league titles between them.

The first game of my trip was the Friday evening game in Division 2 between AO Ayia Napa and EN THON Lakatamias, somewhat surprisingly being televised. When Ayia Napa played in the top division their home ground was considered unsuitable for top flight football and games were played at the 5,800 capacity Tasos Markou Stadium in Paralimni. After relegation the club has returned to the Dimotiko (Municipal) Stadium which has a nominal capacity of 2,000.

A ticket costing €10 is available at the north end of the ground. The spectator facilities are all on one side of the ground, an uncovered pitch length run of wooden bench seating provides the only accommodation. The excellent kantina sells a good variety of snacks including fresh koupes (also known as kibbeh) a snack made of bulgar wheat and minced meat, really popular in the whole Levantine region.

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The far side of the ground has changing rooms and offices while the south end of the ground is used for the storage of small boats and sun loungers! The north end of the ground has a super mural of a former captain and the name “Kastros”.

Based on the league table, the hosts in fourth place should have had a comfortable time of things against Lakatamias who were hovering just one place above the relegation zone. It wasn’t a game of the highest technical ability but a goal either side of half time for the visitors meant a fair result as the hosts barely mustered a shot on target.

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Friday February 23rd 2018 – Cyprus League Division 2

AO Ayia Napa 0

EN THOI Lakatamias 2 (Pechlivanopoulos 42, Siapanis 47)

Att:116  Entry €10

The next Cypriot League game of the weekend was in the capital, Nicosia for a derby match between Olympiakos and APOEL who have won the last five Cypriot League titles. Olympiakos are one of the smaller clubs in the capital although they had a bit of a purple patch in the late sixties winning all three of their league titles between 1967 and 1971. The two big Nicosia clubs, APOEL and Omonia, have played at the modern national stadium which opened in 1999. Known as the GSP (Pancyprian Gymnastic Association) Stadium it is situated south of the city in Strovolos. Prior to this they both played at tonight’s venue, the ageing Makario Stadium in Makedonitissa.

Olympiakos, fellow top flight club Doxa Katokopias and third tier Digenis Akritas Morphou, all currently have to share this stadium. The over use of the ground leads to a convenient late kick off for another televised game. A turgid and forgettable first half, notable only for a low flying drone dangling a message, gave way to a highly entertaining second period where Olympiakos belie their lowly league position and give the reigning champions a real fright. This culminated in a 94th minute equaliser for the hosts with an stunning overhead kick from Portuguese striker Romeu Torres. Quite unbelievably though APOEL snatched the points with a last kick of the match goal from Nicolas Ioannou. With the three points secured APOEL retook the lead in the championship ahead of Apollon Limassol.

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Saturday February 24th 2018 – Cyprus League Division 1

Olympiakos Nicosia 2 (Sotiriou 50, Torres 90+4)

APOEL Nicosia 3 (Sallai 33, Dellatorre 78, Ioannou 90+6)

Attendance: 2,200 (my estimate was c.1,200)  Entry €15

The final game of the weekend was at the western tip of the island in the holiday resort of Pafos. Yet another televised game saw a 6pm kick off under the lights of the Stelios Kyriakides Stadium (previously known as the Pafiako Stadium).

Pafos FC were only formed as recently as 2014 following a merger of AEP Paphos and AEK Kouklia. It was a marriage borne out of mutual convenience. AEP, themselves a result of a merger of APOP Paphos and Evagoras in 2000, were in severe financial trouble in the second tier while Kouklia had just been relegated from the top flight. The aim was to form a more financially stable club competing regularly in the top division. The club were promoted into the First Division in 2016/17 as runners up to champions Alki Oronklini.

Pafos have made a reasonable go of their inaugural top flight season although they will compete in the relegation pool for the closing stages of the season. The hosts have recently appointed a Scottish coaching team led by former Falkirk, Coventry City and Fleetwood Town manager Steven Pressley.

The stadium was built in 1985 and currently holds just over 9,000 people. A renovation in 2003 saw plastic seating installed in what is essentially a two sided ground. The rake of the main stand means you can see the sea from the upper rows of seats. In May 2017, K.O.A (Cyprus Athletic Association) decided to rename the Pafiako Stadium after Stelios Kyriakides, an athlete who won the 1946 Boston marathon. He came from the nearby village of Statos-Agios Fotios.

It looked like Pafos, featuring Diego Poyet in their starting eleven, would win the match after French striker Kévin Bérigaud scored for the hosts after 73 minutes. However, AEK Larnaca were awarded a free kick in the 94th minute and one of eight Spaniards in their match-day squad, Jorge Larena, beat the wall and found the corner of the net. The game didn’t even restart as the referee blew for full time, much to the disappointment of the home fans. Again the official attendance appeared to be grossly exaggerated as I estimated no more than 800 were present for the match.

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February 25th 2018 – Cyprus League Division 1

Pafos FC 1 (Béricaud 73)

AEK Larnaca 1 (Jorge Larena 90)

Attendance:2,500 (my estimate was c.800)  Entry €15

Even though Cyprus is a four hour plus flight from England, and given that standard is not the highest you will ever see, I would still recommend Cyprus for a winter break for guaranteed football in pleasant warm temperatures surrounded by beguiling coastal and mountain scenery.

Manx Tales

I am not sure why it has taken me so long to visit the Isle of Man (or Ellan Vannin in the historical Manx language). A crown dependency in the middle of the Irish Sea it’s easy enough to get to, ferry from Heysham or a short flight from Birmingham. The latter sets you down at the Ronaldsway airport in good time for a scoot around the island to check out some of the island’s football grounds with the plan being a 2pm kick off at Castletown Metropolitan followed by the under 18 representative match at The Bowl in Douglas.

With the weather less than obliging it was prudent to check out Castletown ahead of their top of the table clash with rivals Pulrose United. Chairman Patty Quinney was at the Malew Road ground and confirmed the pitch would be no problem despite the weather. A nice little ground, dating from the 1950’s, boasting a small stand and a bit of cover the encounter with Pulrose had a bit of needle as both clubs are striving for promotion. The Isle of Man has a First and Second Division and then two Combination Leagues for second teams.

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Castletown Metropolitan AFC – Malew Street

Our scoot around the island started at Peel’s superb Douglas Road ground which has recently benefited from a new pitch (after sand containing glass was accidentally spread on the pitch last season!) and a make over of the stand with new plastic seats and a liberal lick of red paint around the place. The ground also boasts an indoor 3G surface.

A very pleasant drive up the west coast road found us in Ramsey, their own game had been called off earlier in the week as several of their players were selected for the representative game against Norfolk. What a fantastic ground Ballacloan Stadium is, named after the large house behind the far goal this end of the ground has quite scarily vertiginous stone terracing which sadly has out of bounds signs on it these days. A great shame must have been incredible to stand on these steep but shallow steps. There is also a decent stand with substantial terracing either side. The stadium sits in between a boating lake on North Shore Road and Mooragh Park and is particularly scenic.

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Ramsey AFC – Ballacloan Stadium

Laxey AFC were formed in 1910 and play at the Henry Bloom Moore Recreation Ground on Glen Road near the picturesque harbour. A substantial stretch of terracing is set off by a footpath that disappears up the cliff to higher ground.

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Laxey AFC – Henry Bloom Moore Recreation Ground

Next was the Isle of Man’s equivalent to Cowdenbeath’s Central Park in as much that Onchan Raceway is primarily a motor sport venue with a football pitch in the middle. Home to Onchan AFC it was securely locked on this visit which was a shame as it looked to have a couple of stylish concrete stands.

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Onchan AFC – Onchan Raceway

By now Patty from Castletown had contacted us to say that their game had sadly bitten the dust, not due to a waterlogged pitch but for the fact that the pitch markings had completely washed away despite his best attempts to renew them! A quick decision was made to return to Peel and watch their Combination side take on their counterparts from Colby. A tight first half was succeeded by an avalanche of Peel goals in the second half. The game finished 8-1 with the impressive Shaun Kelly netting a double hat-trick. A very friendly club in a truly wonderful setting.

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Peel AFC – Douglas Road Ground

A quick dash to the island’s capital Douglas saw us in the Isle of Man FA Ground at The Bowl in good time for the 5pm kick off. This was a quarter-final in the FA County Youth Cup and a decent crowd of 279 turned out on a very soggy evening. The stadium was substantially renovated in 2011, and has an artificial surface. There is seating for 3,000 with one side covered with a tented style roof. A well contested game saw the visitors from Norfolk win 2-1 in extra time.

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The Bowl Stadium

Heading back to the airport on the Sunday morning afforded the opportunity to visit one final ground right on the southern tip of the island in Port Erin. Croit Lowey is the home of Rushen United and has a clubhouse on an elevated platform above the pitch and this has a substantial section of cover running the length of the building.

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Rushen United – Croit Lowey

Despite the poor weather it was a memorable trip to this scandalously overlooked island. One can’t help thinking how ideal Isle of Man football would be for an organised groundhop. Decent facilities, friendly folk and a real tradition in football and nowhere particularly far from anywhere else it is tailor made for a groundhopping extravaganza.

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