On the Sunderland History Trail

It is always pleasing to see a club treating its history and heritage with the reverence it deserves. Few clubs do it better than Sunderland, who have a dedicated fans museum on North Bridge Street, in the former Monkwearmouth railway station building, which houses a plethora of memorabilia.

Furthermore, there are other reminders of their 142 years of history are dotted all over the city, both north and south of the Wear. Each of Sunderland’s seven former home grounds are commemorated with a blue plaque, as is the building where the club was formed in October 1879. This is now the Norfolk Hotel on Norfolk Street, but back then the building served as a boarding school known as The British Day School. The leading light was schoolmaster James Allan and the meeting passed that a new club would be formed, under its original name of Sunderland and District Teachers AFC.

The new clubs’ initial games were played at the Blue House Field in Hendon, adjacent to the public house of the same name, which is still open to this day. Annual rent of £10 was agreed and In October 1880 the club became Sunderland AFC, to open up membership to more than just fellow teachers. The club remained at Blue House Field until 1881. Much of the four field site that made up the Blue House sports area is now covered by the Raich Carter Sports Centre which was opened in 2001. The Blue House Field plaque is sited on the pillar of a wall in Commercial Street close to the junction with Promenade.

After a somewhat hasty departure from the Blue House Field, temporary refuge was sought at The Cedars where four games were played in 1881. The plaque is sited on the wall of 25 Manilla Street, close to the Victoria Gardens public house.

Sunderland’s third ground at The Grove in Ashbrooke, is the only one of their former grounds still in use as a sports venue. The first recorded match at The Grove was a friendly against North Eastern on November 4th 1882, although the match was abandoned following a disagreement between umpires, with Sunderland winning 2-0. The club remained there for the rest of that season and, significantly, it was to be their last ground on the south side of the river. In May 1887, The Grove was renamed as the Ashbrooke Ground, and remains as the home to Sunderland Cricket Club and Sunderland Rugby Club. The magnificent James Henderson designed pavilion was opened in May 1899 at a cost of £600. The Grove’s blue plaque is not easy to spot, being tucked away in a corner of an external wall of the cricket clubhouse.

Sunderland’s first season playing north of the Wear was in 1883/84 when they played for a season at the Dolly Field in Roker. Players would change in the still existing The Wolsey and walk down to the ground in Horatio Street. The field was not popular with the players as it was always heavy and was referred to a “clay-dolly field”. The Dolly Field plaque is sited on 39 Givens Street at the junction with Appley Terrace.

After just a season at the Dolly Field, Sunderland moved to the nearby Abbs Field in Fulwell, where they spent the next two seasons. Annual rent was initially only £2 10s per annum but rose to £15 for the following season. Abbs Field was also their first ground that was properly enclosed, allowing for admission to be charged for the first time. The plaque is situated on the front garden wall of 33 Prengarth Avenue.

After five grounds in their first seven years of existence, their next move was to the already existent Newcastle Road enclosure which would be their first ground of real tenure and substance. The ground would eventually hold over 20,000 people. The ground was owned by the Thompson sisters who had considerable family wealth from the J.L. Thompson Shipyard in North Sands. The move to Newcastle Road would also see the club achieve a sustained period of success. Sunderland’s first recorded match at Newcastle Road was against Darlington and took place on April 3rd 1886. The ground had a grandstand holding 1,000 people and substantial terracing was laid around the remaining three sides, giving a capacity of 15,000. In May 1888, the now long defunct Sunderland Albion were formed by Sunderland members, including founder James Allan, who had become disgruntled with the clubs’ commercial direction. Albion played their first ever game at Newcastle Road, defeating Shankhouse Blackwatch, but would subsequently play home games at Blue House Field. Such was the clamour locally for a match between the two clubs, a friendly was arranged in December 1888. A staggering 18,000 crammed into Newcastle Road to witness a 2-0 win for Sunderland. It was to prove a bitter, but short lived rivalry, after Sunderland’s first League title success in 1892, Albion threw the towel in and went into voluntary liquidation.

Sunderland’s first match as a Football League club, they had gained election in place of founding member Stoke, had taken place at Newcastle Road on September 13th 1890 against Burnley. Later that season on March 7th 1891, the ground staged and England international match against Wales. Sunderland won their first League championship in 1891/92, only their second campaign as a Football League club, finishing five points clear of Preston North End. They would win it again in 1892/93 and for a third time in 1894/95 as well as being runners up to Aston Villa in 1893/94. Under the guidance of manager Tom Watson, the Sunderland team became known as “The Team of All the Talents”, the 1892/93 title win saw the club score an incredible 100 goals in only 30 League matches.

While trophy success had dried up after Tom Watson had left to manage Liverpool, what had become patently obvious was the club had already outgrown the Newcastle Road ground. There was no further room to expand, the ground was hemmed in by Crozier Street to south, Eglinton Street North to the west and Newcastle Road to the east. The rabid demand by fans wanting to see home games left the club no choice but to look for a site with a much bigger capacity. The final game at Newcastle Road was held on April 23rd 1898 when Nottingham Forest were the final guests. The record attendance at the ground had been set earlier in that last season when 22,000 gathered for the visit of Aston Villa in October 1897. The blue plaque is on the wall of the Thompson Park Community Centre and is not easy to see as the centre has now closed down.

The site chosen by the board for the new ground was on farmland back in the Roker area, and Roker Park would become Sunderland’s home for the next 99 years. Initially Roker Park had wooden stands and terracing, but these were soon found to be inadequate, games often getting halted due to pitch invasions, primarily caused by overcrowding. Flush with money following further League championships in 1902 and 1913 the ground started to be rebuilt in concrete. By the mid 1930’s, under the auspices of Archibald Leitch, Roker Park had huge stands on all four sides, the Clock Stand in 1936 being the last to be constructed. Roker Park closed in 1997, following the opening of the Stadium of Light. Roker Park’s all time record gate being 75,118 for a Wednesday afternoon FA Cup replay against Derby County in 1933. A housing estate was built on the site with road names such as Midfield Drive, Promotion Close and Clockstand Close. The blue plaque is on 5 Roker Park Close.

The final Sunderland AFC related blue plaque is sited on the entrance to Silksworth Memorial Park, home of Silksworth Colliery Welfare. The plaque commemorates Bobby Gurney, born in Stewart Street, Silksworth, and the clubs’ all time record goalscorer with 288 goals.

It would be remiss not to mention other Sunderland AFC historical sights like the incredible murals of Frank Styles. The artist is crowdfunded by Sunderland supporters to paint murals of Sunderland legends. The first was Raich Carter on the wall of the Blue House pub in Hendon.

The walls of the Golden Fleece in New Silksworth have two stunning images of Bobby Gurney.

The Times Inn in Southwick, underneath the Queen Alexandra Bridge, has truly incredible murals of Jim Montgomery and Kevin Phillips.

The Stadium of Light was augmented in 2006 by the unveiling of Sean Hedges-Quinn’s bronze statue of legendary manager Bob Stokoe. The plinth is inscribed with his quote “I didn’t bring the magic. It’s always been here… I just came back to find it”.

Few clubs are as diligent with their heritage as Sunderland, I spent a fascinating time looking around it, and can heartily recommend it.

A version of this article first appeared in edition No.107 of the superb football grounds magazine, “Groundtastic”.

Setting Sons (Dumbarton)

Dumbarton were formed in 1872 making them the fourth oldest club in Scotland behind Queen’s Park, Kilmarnock and Stranraer. The club won the first two Scottish League championships, although the inaugural season the title was shared with Rangers after a deciding play-off was drawn 2-2 at Cathkin Park. Had the title been decided on goal difference, Dumbarton would have been outright champions.

The final table from that first season makes interesting reading with long lost clubs like 3rd Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers, Cambuslang, Cowlairs and Abercorn competing alongside contemporaries such as Celtic, St. Mirren and Hearts. Renton were expelled from the league and their record expunged for paying their players.

Dumbarton played at Meadow Park (1872-75), Broomfauld Park (1875-76), Lowmans Park (1876-77) and Townend (1877-79) before moving to Boghead Park for the 1879/80 season. Boghead would become their base for the next 121 years making it, at the time, Scotland’s oldest ground in continuous use for football.

In 1913 the pitch was re-orientated by ninety degrees and the club built a tiny stand with 80 seats which became known as the Postage Box. The club also experimented with greyhound racing in an attempt to make ends meet. The Clydebank Greyhound Racing Syndicate began running races at Boghead from October 1932. By the early 1940’s the racing had stopped but the small Bookmakers Stand remained next to the main stand as additional covered accommodation.

1957 was a big year for Boghead, firstly floodlights were erected, inaugurated in a game against Celtic, and then the club acquired the station canopy from Turnberry railway station. The South Ayrshire station had once served the famous golf course as part of the Maidens and Dunure Light Railway but this had closed in March 1942. The canopy was erected on the large previously open terrace at the Overwood Drive end. The all time record attendance at Boghead was also set in 1957 when 18,001 watched the Scottish Cup tie with Raith Rovers.

In 1979 the old Postage Box stand was replaced with a larger modern stand, although the new edifice still only had 303 seats. In 1980, then Sons’ manager, Sean Fallon, nearly convinced the legendary Johan Cruyff to join Dumbarton after an unhappy spell with Los Angeles Aztecs. However, the Dutchman who was 33 at the time, admitted that he almost signed but was put off by the bleak weather!

In the mid 1980’s the ground had suffered fire damage and the board of directors decided against repairing it. Their collective view was that the club would be better off looking for a new home, or redeveloping the existing stadium in it’s entirety to a 9,000 all seated venue. Their plans for the latter floundered and by the 1990’s the ground had become very run down, even given the additional income from Clydebank moving in between 1996 and 1999 having vacated New Kilbowie Park.

The last thing of note to happen at the old Boghead ground was assuming the role of the home ground for the fictional club Kilnockie FC for the film “A Shot at Glory” starring Robert Duvall and Ally McCoist. The plot of the film was Kilnockie’s epic run to the Scottish Cup Final.

Boghead further transferred to popular culture when the Glaswegian band The Supernaturals immortalised the old stadium with their song, “High Tension At Boghead”.

Boghead Park was demolished in December 2000 and made way for an extension to Miller Street. By this time Dumbarton had moved to a new stadium at the foot of the iconic Dumbarton Rock, a volcanic basalt plug with a history dating back to the Iron Age. The 18th century Georgian castle affords fantastic views not only of Dumbarton Stadium but also the Kilpatrick hills, the River Clyde, Loch Lomond and on to Argyll. The club’s unusual nickname derives from “Sons of The Rock”, the eponymic reference to someone from Dumbarton.

The Dumbarton Stadium was built on the derelict site of the William Denny and Brothers Shipyard which had closed in 1963. It has just one stand containing 2,020 seats, making it one of the smallest stadiums in the Scottish Professional League. The surrounding area around the stadium is being engulfed with new housing and the scope for extending the stadium is extremely limited. The club have looked into relocating to a new 4,000 capacity stadium at Young’s Farm on the west side of town but initial plans were rejected by the council. The record attendance at Dumbarton Stadium remains at 1,978 for the visit of Rangers when both clubs were in the Championship in 2015.

This afternoon’s game against league leaders Raith Rovers is a dour affair in freezing conditions and pouring rain. A couple of amusing stand offs between some boisterous visiting fans and the youthfully exuberant “Young Sons” actually provide some welcome distraction. A goalless draw looks almost inevitable until the Sons’ captain Stuart Carswell dramatically scored with virtually the last kick of the match.

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Saturday February 29th 2020 – Scottish League Division 1

Dumbarton 1 (Carswell 90+3)

Raith Rovers 0

Attendance: 804

Entry £16, programme £2.50

Gallery

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Fang Tales of Tran Sylvania (Football In Heaven 3)

After two highly successful organised “Football In Heaven” trips to his home province of Bucovina, Romanian journalist Emanuel Roșu decided to branch out a little further into central Romania for his third expedition. The destination captured the imagination of even more attendees this time, as a total of 37 people from serious photographers, to serious groundhoppers to serious beer drinkers all descended on Sibiu for the first ever organised groundhop in Transylvania!

To access the impact the previous trips have had you only have to take a look at the different nationalities turning up for this tour. As well as the usual healthy contingent of Brits, there were seven Norwegians, two Frenchmen, a Dane, a Belgian and a Pole, a united nations of enthusiasts in search of a healthy balance of football, culture and Dracula!

After arriving late the previous night what immediately strikes you about Sibiu, as dawn escapes through shutters and blinds, is that it really is an extremely pleasant city. Straddling the River Cibin, it has an obvious Germanic influence and is still referred to as Hermannstadt on occasion. Originally a Roman settlement, it was refounded in the 13th Century by Saxon settlers. Subsequently Sibiu fell into the hands of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. A tempestuous history has given way to a peaceful, clean and architecturally important cultural city.

Sibiu

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Normally there would be no games on a Thursday but with Emi’s negotiating skills the Sibiu County FA president, Traian Marcu, had a game moved to an early evening slot just for us.

AS Bradu play at the named Stadionul Central, a pretty basic venue in a glorious location surrounded by rolling pastures and bounded to the south by the Olt River and the glorious Făgăraș Mountains of the Southern Carpathians with their peaks still sporting their white winter caps. This evenings opponents are Interstar Sibiu primarily an under 21 team but with a veteran utility player, Vasile Armenean, who plays the full 90 minutes in a variety of positions at the incredible age of 59! It’s the younger team who beat the hosts comfortably by four unanswered goals.

Thursday March 21st 2019 – Romania IV Liga (Sibiu County)

AS Bradu 0

FC Interstar Sibiu 4 (Oprișor 33, Standima 65, Dancu 76,90)

Attendance: 48 (at Stadionul Central)

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The schedule for Friday was looking particularly memorable and was to conclude with another early evening game this time in neighbouring Braşov county, again moved for our convenience by the local FA man, Octavian Goga. Emi had already teased the group with pictures of a wonderfully decrepit looking old wooden stand so anticipation for the visit to ASC Olimpic Zărneşti was palpable.

But first we had a morning to fill and when you are in Transylvania it is almost unthinkable not to visit Bran Castle, legendary “home” of Vlad III Dracula, better known as Vlad the Impaler, who was the ruler of Wallachia, and said to be the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s world famous novel Dracula. It is a stunning castle in its own right, overlooking the Bran Gorge. For a few additional Lei you can gain access to Vlad’s torture chamber including replicas of his favoured method of sending a message to invading Ottoman forces, the impaling pole.

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We headed to Zărneşti which was primarily an industrial town with the Celuloza paper manufacturing plant opening in the mid 1850’s and a weapons plant “6 Martie” in 1936. In 1939 the paper factory had a leak of chlorine gas which killed 60 inhabitants. The heavy industry closed down after the downfall of Nicolae Ceaușescu and left mass unemployment until tourism kicked in. However, Celuloza left the town a really magnificent football ground, photogenic from all parts. A bright red dressing room building, the crumbling 80 odd year old wooden stand and rickety bleacher style seating on the opposite side make for a classic ground in a stunning mountain setting. There is a very decent gathering of locals for this game against ACSM Codlea, and there is even merchandise for sale in the form of scarves and pennants. Our Norwegian contingent clear the local bar of bottled beer as we watch the game in early evening sunshine. The home side rise to the occasion and win 4-0, and we all feel a sense of immense privilege of being able to have seen a match in this quite breathtaking place.

Friday March 22nd 2019 – Romanian IV Liga (Braşov County)

ASC Olimpic Zărneşti 4 (Berloiu 26, Dascâlu 39, Mielusolu 51, Simon 56)

ACSM Codlea 0

Attendance: 256 (at Stadionul Celuloza Zărneşti)

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Saturday morning arrived and we have a trip south west of Sibiu to FC Cisnădie. I was aware the stadium in Cisnădie was a lot bigger than the little village grounds we had been to so far but was taken aback by the sheer beauty of their Stadionul Textila. Sited next to a carpet factory, the ground has a large concrete stand with a wooden pitched roof. On the opposite side there is a raised bank of uncovered seating with approximately 2,500 seats. Throw in the obligatory mountain back drop, church spires and a cemetery and we have another photographic bobby dazzler on our hands. Today’s opponents are the army reservists of AS Armata Sibiu. They lack fitness and skill and hold out for barely four minutes before they concede the first of 13 goals to a rampant host team. To their credit Armata score two cracking goals themselves before the referee puts them out of their misery by not playing any additional time at all. Cisnădie are wonderful hosts and supply us all with free half time beer, most welcome on a warm day.

Saturday March 23rd 2019 – Romanian IV Liga (Sibiu County)

FC Cisnădie 13 (Cotofan 4,72, Dragomir 23, Cocos 33, Coman 36,42, Bratima pen 48,87, Andrei 66, Rodean 76,86,89, Anghel 80)

AS Armata Sibiu 2 (Trasca 12, Raulea 45)

Attendance: 84 (at Stadionul Textila)

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We then travelled north west to the incredible mountain ground of AS Cindrelul Gura Râului who were hosting a Romanian Cup third round game against the team from the neighbouring village, AS Silvatex Orlat. Once again the ground itself is nothing special, a caged 3G pitch with one stand of wooden bleacher style seating. Behind the stand was an almost vertical cliff face, which of course didn’t some some scallywags (and Norwegians) climbing up for a loftier vantage point. The rest of the ground is surrounded by a lunar looking mountain landscape. I have never been to a place quite like Gura Râului. On the field the two fifth level sides bludgeon each other and all three goals came in a crazy three minute spell early in the first half. The winner for the hosts coming from a comical own goal, a Silvertex defender completing an fantastic goal line clearance only for the ball to hit a team mate on the backside and cannon into the corner of the net.

Saturday March 23rd 2019 – Cupa Romaniei (Faza 3)

AS Cindrelul Gura Râului 2 (Ruse 16, Damaschin og 19)

AS Silvatex Orlat 1 (Topîrcean 17)

Attendance: 198 (at Stadionul Comunal)

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We had the option of basketball at the Sala Transylvania on Saturday night as local side CSM Sibiu had a game against CSM Oradea, a team from near the Hungarian border. Some of the party are keen to go especially as its only 15 lei (£3) to get in. It turned out to be a really thrilling game with the home side come from a sizeable deficit to almost snatching victory with one second on the clock remaining.

For the Sunday we had two games planned and the first was at Unirea Miercurea-Sibiului with attractive opposition in the shape of LSS Voința Sibiu. This is a fan owned club arisen from the ashes of the bankrupt Liga I side CSU Voința Sibiu. Unirea have decent ground just off the main square, with a stand with uncovered seating and around 30 away fans who sung, waved flags and let off firecrackers throughout the 90 minutes. Unfortunately for Voința, the home side didn’t read the script and eased to a 3-0 win. The away fans were exceedingly friendly and explained that want to perpetuate the legend of Sibiu’s historic club, Șoimii Sibiu, who folded in 2001.

Sunday March 24th 2019 – Romanian IV Liga (Sibiu County)

ACS Unirea Miercurea-Sibiului 3 (Roman 36,71, Albean 62)

AS LSS Voința Sibiu 0

Attendance: 155 (at Stadionul Orăşenesc-Miercurea)

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March 2019 206

Our sixth and final game of the tour promised to be really interesting and a total antithesis of the scenic mountain and sleepy village grounds we had visited so far. We were heading to the tragic town of Copșa Mică. Before Chernobyl this town was the most polluted town in all of Europe, thanks to years of unregulated industrial emissions. Most guilty of polluting Copșa Mică were Carbosin, who produced a black powder dye used in the rubber industry and Sometra who processed non-ferrous metals in huge smelters. To this day a nasty black sludge can be seen on the terracotta roof tiles of the towns’ houses. Lead emissions were 1,000 times over agreed international limits, and the factories belched 10 tons of carbon soot into the air on a daily basis.

The ground is surrounded by old industrial chimneys and the pitch is more like straw than grass. The visitors are ACS Păltiniş Raşinari who are riding high in the table but it’s the hosts that take a shock second minute lead. It doesn’t last though and the visitors score four times leaving this sorry, dirty old town with all three points.

Sunday March 24th 2019 – Romanian IV Liga (Sibiu County)

AS Copșa Mică 1 (Getner 2)

ACS Paltinis Răşinari 4 (Nasta 37,45, Chirila 40, Ganea 73)

Att:Attendance: 116 (at Stadionul Orăşenesc)

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We had left our base in Sibiu on Sunday morning with our bags ready to spend the night in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Sighişoara. En route we have a pit stop at the delightful town of Biertan and its famous Lutherian fortified church. It’s dark when we get to the superb Mercure Hotel in Sighişoara but you can see this is a really special place.

Biertan

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We have the morning to mooch about the cobbled streets. The 13th century clock tower is just stunning and the old citadel is dominated by the Church on the Hill. It’s a fitting end to a superb tour and we are whisked off on the fifty mile trip back to Sibiu airport for our flights back to normality. I have said it before and I will say it again, Romania is a vast untouched beauty. Do yourself a favour and visit Romania at least once in your lifetime.

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March 2019 252

A greatly expanded version of this review can be found in the June 2019 edition of Football Weekends magazine

 

Fearless (Atromitos)

Atromitos (meaning “Fearless”) were formed in 1923 and initially played at Aris Park, the home of both Panathinaikos and Panellinios. Within five years Atromitos had won the Athens League. 1928 was the first time the Greek season ended with a Pan Hellenic Championship to decide the overall national champions. Atromitos could only finish third behind champions Aris Thessaloniki and Ethnikos, however, it was a promising start for a fledgling club.

The club quickly found themselves in the shadow of Panathinaikos and were struggling to attract support. In 1932 the decision was made to move to Peristeri and merge with local side Astir Peristeriou. Astir or “Star” is where the prominent blue stat comes from on the club crest.

The club spent much of its time in the second tier but enjoyed a golden period in the 1970’s when they were regulars in the top division. They have spent much of the 21st century in the Super League and had some really impressive seasons in recent years finishing third in 2012-13 and had fourth place finishes in 2011-12, 2013-14 and 2014-15. They were also Greek Cup runners up in 2010-11 and 2011-12 losing to AEK and Olympicos respectively.

When Atromitos first moved to Peristeri in 1932 the played at a modest ground called Gennaiótita which was located beyond the boundary of a shanty town known as Evangelistria. In 1947 they moved to the the present stadium although this was not properly finished until 1953.

My €10 ticket is for the uncovered side opposite the main stand. This side has a sector fenced off for their ultras group which is called called Fentagin.

Tonight’s game is against a woeful Levadiakos side and plays out for a predictable home win with a fine goal by Congolese striker Clarck N’Sikulu, settling the game with the opposition barely mustering a chance worthy of the name. All the graffiti in and around the stadium promotes an anti fascist message, so it is almost beyond belief that Levadiakos’ black players, Souleymane Sawadogo and Tackey Diogo were subjected to repeated monkey chants.

That unsavoury aspect aside it’s a great ground to visit and good to see a smaller club trying to become a force in a league that has traditionally been dominated by just a few clubs.

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Sunday February 10th 2019 – Greek Super League

Atromitos 1 (N’Sikulu 16)
Levadiakos 0

Att:435 (at Stádio Peristeri)

Entry €10, free programme

Gallery

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Atromitos prog

They Might Be Giants (AEK Athens)

AEK stands for the Athletic Union of Constantinople, with the founding members being Greek refugees displaced from Constantinople and Anatolia after the Greco-Turkish War. Prior to the war Constantinople had two dominant Greek clubs, Énosis Tatávlon and Ermís and it was former members of these clubs who met in a Athens sports shop in 1924 to form AEK.

Domestically AEK are the third most successful Greek side behind Olympiacos and Panathinaikos with 12 championship wins and 15 Greek Cup triumphs.

In the post WWII period AEK had some success under English coach Jack Beby who had a modest career in England with the likes of Darlington, Bristol Rovers, Gillingham and Leicester City. Under Beby AEK won two Greek cups and the Athens regional championship, although sadly the Pan Hellenic Championship to decide the overall champion wasn’t played that season.

AEK have a proud record in European competition with their best performance in the European Cup being quarter-finalists in 1968-69 when they were beaten by Spartak Trnava of Slovakia having eliminated Jeunesse Esch and AB Gladsaxe. In the UEFA Cup of 1976-77 they beat Dynamo Moscow, Derby County, Red Star Belgrade and Queens Park Rangers before a semi-final defeat to eventual winners Juventus.

AEK’s traditional home, since inauguration in 1930, was the Nikos Goumas Stadium in Nea Filadelfeia. Sadly the stadium had to be demolished in 2003 following damage sustained in the terrible earthquake of 1999. The club do have a new stadium, Agia Sophia Stadium, under construction in their traditional heartland of Nea Filadelfeia. After years of political wrangling permission was formally granted in July 2017. Until it is ready, AEK have somewhat reluctantly shared the Olympic stadium with Panathinaikos, although Pana occasionally return for spells at their own ground, the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium.

Today’s game sees the visit of lowly OFI Crete to the Olympic Stadium. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty poor game, OFI offering scant resistance and the hosts win by a single goal scored by the fans favourite, the Croatian striker Marko Livaja. There is an ultras section of around 800 of AEK’s Original 21 ultras, lead by a capo of colossal proportions who is stood bouncing on a very rickety looking tower. They belt out a relentless catalogue of chants. The ultras are profoundly left wing and have a “triangle of brotherhood” with Livorno and Marseille as well as friendships with St Pauli and Fenerbahçe. It was all rather impressive and made up for the turgid game and some of the worst sight lines at a modern football stadium I can ever remember.

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Sunday February 10th 2019 – Greek Super League

AEK Athens 1 (Livaja 37)
OFI Crete 0

Att: 7,580 (at Olympiakó Stádio Spiros Louis)

Entry €10, no programme

Gallery

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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.

Just Like Paradise (Football In Heaven 2017)

Well isn’t that just typical you wait ages for someone to organise a groundhop in Romania and then two come along within a few weeks of each other. This one was to be in the stunning Bucovina region in the north east of the country close to the borders of the Ukraine to the north and Moldova to the east. The event was publicised as “Football In Heaven”.

Organising this adventure into the Carpathian mountains and sharing with us his stunning home province was Emanuel Rosu, World Soccer’s Romanian correspondent (@Emishor on Twitter). Emi had combined with the regions Football Association president, Ciprian Anton, to open up the region to groundhoppers. Very kindly this extended to providing a minibus free of charge for the weekend and Emi, Ciprian and the bus were duly waiting to collect 11 hoppers at a slightly chilly Suceava airport, early on the Friday afternoon. We were also joined by local journalist Chidoveţ Dănuţ and film maker Daniel Vatamanu.

We arrived a little late at the Stadionul Vasilica Onofrei home of fifth tier Viitorul Adâncata, but when you have “El Presidente” of the local FA on board your bus the game waits for you and duly kicked off some 25 minutes late! Now ok this wasn’t much of a ground, a few benches to the right hand side and a cabbage patch of a pitch but we witnessed a decent 90 minutes which saw the hosts win 4-2 in an entertaining encounter with local rivals Voinţa Zvoriştea.

Now what happened after the game, as darkness enveloped the ground rapidly, is the sort of heart warming thing you find on these trips to remote and far flung places. Behind one goal was a raised covered platform and this was covered with trestle tables laden with food. A woman laboured over hot pots and pans to produce some delicious sarmale (pork, rice and cabbage parcels), platters of cold meats, bread and drink (including whiskey and brandy) are provided free of charge for everyone in attendance. It wasn’t a one off for the president and some strange foreign guests either, it’s done at every home game, such is the milk of human kindness at a small village club like Adâncata.

Friday October 27th 2017 – Romania Liga V

AS Viitorul Adâncata 4 (Bilţ 15, Ujeniuc 19, Munteanu og 45, Atomei 49)

Voinţa Zvoriştea 2 (Munteanu 20, Bejinariu pen 90)

Att:107 (at Stadionul Vasilica Onofrei)

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After a pretty decent breakfast at the Hotel Continental in Suceava, we ambled down to the Stadionul Areni home of second division Foresta Suceava Friday for an 11am kick off against UTA Arad . The visitors had endured a hellish nine hour 350 mile journey from western Romania to fulfil this fixture. Tickets costing 10 Romanian Lei (£1.90) were purchased from kiosks outside the ground. The ground is a typical 1960’s concrete and breeze block affair with more recent touches of an electronic scoreboard and some plastic seating being the only concessions to modernity. Someone however has taken the time and trouble to liberally paint the concrete in the clubs’ colours of yellow and green the result is a fine looking venue. Foresta have been battling hard with financial woes of late a desperately need a win. The hosts duly go in front of around 700 spectators before UTA fire a double quick salvo before halftime, the second a quite monumental header from the centre back. Foresta work hard in the second half and manage to find an equaliser and it looks like a share of the spoils until UTA, cruelly, score again with virtually the last kick of the match.

Saturday October 28th 2017 – Romanian Liga II (11am kick off)

Foresta Suceava 2 (Renquin 29, Acolatse 84)
UTA Arad 3 (Hlistei 35, Ciucă 37, Păcurar 90)

Att:678 (at Stadionul Areni) Admission 10 Lei (£1.90)

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The bus then whisks us up into the foothills of the Carpathians as we head for a fourth tier match between Victoria Vatra Moldoviței and Foresta’s reserve team. Well what can you say about this ground? Set in a hollow surrounded by tall forest where bear sightings are not uncommon. Behind one goal there are stunning mountain vistas. The pitch is noticeably wet and had standing water on the dressing room side. Of course this not being England, there is no doubt the game will take place and a small crowd gathers in the spectator accommodation. This consists of a long row of bench seating at the top of the bank the seating is just inside the crash barrier of the D17 highway. Cars whizz by and lorries trundle by some slowing down for a sneaky look at the game. It gives you a great vantage point for the game but this is a seriously dangerous place to be a spectator! If the location isn’t memorable enough about fifteen minutes into the game a pick up truck screeches into the small clearing on the other side of the road and a bearded man with leathery skin and welly boots leaps out and marches down the road banging an enormous drum. He certainly livens up what is a poor quality encounter which went the way of the hosts with a solitary goal in the second half.

Saturday October 28th 2017 – Romanian Liga IV (4pm kick off)

Victoria Vatra Moldoviței 1 (Pelinar 59)
ACS Foresta Suceava II 0

Att:63

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Overnighting in the mountain town of Vatra Dornei, we arrive at the ground of fifth division Vânătorul Dorna Candrenilor in rain and morning temperatures of -2 but the welcome is warm and a buffet of food and some scarily strong firewater fortify us for the trek to the stand. It’s an excellent stand for the level and was built two years ago. Vânătorul are top of the league and race into a two goal against Sporting Poieni Solca. There is a flurry of late goals and the result of 3-2 suggests it was closer than it actually was.

Sunday October 29th 2017 – Liga V (11am kick off)

Vânătorul Dorna Candrenilor 3 (Clanetariu 18,30, Iosub 80)
Sporting Poieni Solca 2 (Hamcescu 70, Martolea 85)

Att:76 (at Stadionul Dorna Candrenilor)

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Everyone races back to the bus to warm up and we head back down the mountains to Pojorâta. The local side, Bucovina Pojorita have suffered a couple of bankruptcies in recent seasons and are now in the fourth tier. The main stand sits at the foot of a contoured hill dotted with shepherd’s huts, heavy forestation sweeps up almost as high as the eye can trace. It really is like watching a football match on a “Lord of the Rings” film set. To heighten the state of frenzy of the hoppers further the club have also produced a programme albeit a modest four pager. The hosts win at a canter by two goals to nil.

Sunday October 29th 2017 – Liga IV (3pm kick off)

ACS Bucovina Pojorita 2 (Tomco 23, Timpau 71)
ACS Şomuzul Preuteşti 0

Att:87 (at Stadionul Pojorita)

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Our hosts were magnificent and as for the scenery, well sometimes words just fail to come out when you try to speak. There is already talk of a “Football In Heaven 2” next year, do yourself a favour and move heaven and earth to get yourself on it, you won’t regret it.

Some years ago an ageing long haired American rocker sang “This could be just like living in paradise” spending a few days in this astonishing place he could well have been talking about beautiful Bucovina! The second line of that chorus certainly hit home waiting in the departure lounge as David Lee Roth sings “and I don’t want to go home”.

A much expanded version of this article will appear in a future edition of “Football Weekends” magazine.

In the Hall of the Mountain Kings (FC Ararat Yerevan)

As a boy some of the mystical names of Soviet football really fascinated me, exciting names like Zenit Leningrad, Torpedo Moscow, Dinamo Tbilisi and Ararat Yerevan seem so beguiling yet somehow impossibly distant. It comes with unbridled joy on my behalf to have visited two of those boyhood wonderments in one trip.

Ararat Yerevan were formed in 1935 as Spartak Yerevan and spent many seasons in the second tier of the Transcaucasian League where their main rivals were Dinamo Tbilisi. Yerevan made it to the Soviet Top League for the first time in 1949 but it was the 1960’s that was to prove the making of the club, a decade which also saw them change their name from Spartak to Ararat in homage to the mighty and iconic mountain peaks that backdrop the city of Yerevan like a shrouded pathway to another continuum.

Despite relegation in 1963 the “White Eagles” surged back to the top tier in 1966 and stayed there until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Winners of the Soviet Top League had been few and far between outside of the major cities of Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad. The turn of the decade, though, saw something stirring in the South Caucuses when Ararat finished as runners up in the Soviet League to Dynamo Kiev. Despite changing managers half way through the 1973 season new incumbent Nikita Simonyan oversaw a sensational league and cup double as Ararat won the league by three points ahead of Dynamo Kiev and also defeated Kiev in the Soviet Cup Final. The feat is immortalised by a huge statue of all the players and the trophy that looks out towards Ararat’s long time home, the gargantuan Hrazdan Stadium.

The Hrazdan Stadium and the statue commemorating Ararat Yerevan’s 1973 Soviet Union League and Cup double and 1975 Soviet Cup win.

The championship naturally meant competing in the European Cup for the first time an Ararat distinguished themselves by defeating Viking Stavanger and Cork Celtic before bowing out at the quarter-final stage to mighty Bayern Munich. Ararat won the Soviet Cup again in 1975 defeating Zorya Voroshilovgrad in the final but the following years runners up positions in both the League and the Cup signalled the end of a golden era for the “Wings of the Soviets”. Their second round defeat to West Ham United in the 1975/76 Cup Winners Cup tournament was their last foray into European competition for two decades and not before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a return to Armenian football.

The Armenian League started in 1992 and Ararat won the League and Cup double the following season. However, it has proven to be their last championship to date and despite four more Armenian Cup successes in 1994, 1995, 1997 and 2008 the league has been dominated by city rivals FC Pyunik who have won 14 of the 25 Armenian championships since independence. Ararat’s last sortie into European competition was in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup but they lost ignominiously to Swiss side Bellinzona, 4-1 over two legs, in the first qualifying round.

This season has been a real struggle for the once mighty White Eagles and they have propped up the six team league since the opening rounds. With such a small number of teams it means clubs play each other six times in a season and although they technically occupy a relegation spot the Armenian First League is made up almost entirely of reserve sides. Of the two first teams in the second tier, Erebuni will finish a distant last and the other side, Kotayk Abovian pulled out of the league and their results were expunged.

Between 1971 and 2015 Ararat played their home games at the incredible Hrazdan Stadium, hewn into a hillside its tiers lurch above the cityscape and its four iconic floodlight pylons can be seen for miles around. The ownership of the stadium fell into private hands and after a falling out between the owners and the Armenian FA over a proposed renovation programme to obtain a UEFA four star rating, no one has played there and, indeed, even the pitch was ripped up and not replaced. Since their eviction Ararat have played at the equally superb Republican Stadium but recently, due to poor results and lack of support, the more modest Ministry of Finance Stadium (also known as the Mika Stadium) has hosted their matches.

Despite free entry to the Mika there is scant interest in today’s game against FC Shirak from Gyumri. Officially 500 are in attendance although in reality less than half that figure was present, football fans in Armenia are apathetic due to constant allegations of bribery and corruption in the game. Seemingly more interest and excitement was obtained at the adjacent sports hall for an important Futsal match. Ararat look a poor side and the visitors, backed by a small band of supporters who have made the trip to the capital, soon rack up a three goal lead. Ararat did pull one back just before halftime but rarely threatened a comeback until an injury time goal made the final score seem closer than it actually was.

It is an enduring tragedy of Armenian football that its best loved and traditionally its best supported club languish so far away from their competitors. Sadly with finance a problem and a dispute between Ararat’s owners and the Armenian FA, it would seem that position is unlikely to change in the immediate future.

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Saturday May 20th 2017 – Armenian Premier League

FC Ararat Yerevan 2 (Safaryan 44, S.Mkrtchyan 90)

FC Shirak Gyumri 3 (Hovsepyan 7, Prljevic 36, Poghosyan 43)

Att: 217 (head count, officially 500 present, played at the MF Mika Stadium)

No admission charged, no programme

Gallery

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