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.

Jan 18 003.jpg

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.

IMG_3757

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.

IMG_3665.jpg

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.

IMG_3673.jpg

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.

IMG_3638.jpg

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.

IMG_3687.jpg

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.

IMG_3766

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.

iomindex

Advertisements

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)

IMG_0562IMG_0566IMG_0586Oct 2017 033

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)

IMG_0626IMG_0627IMG_0624Oct 2017 097

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

IMG_0693IMG_0692IMG_0690IMG_0691

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)

IMG_0717IMG_0742IMG_0741Oct 2017 152

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)

IMG_0751IMG_0763Oct 2017 159IMG_0750

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.

Touring Timişoara (Romanian Groundhop 3)

For the third Romanian Groundhop the fixture gods had been unkind in city of Timişoara itself so the ever resourceful Andrei Otineanu had to cast his net for suitable matches to the wider area of Timiş County. It would mean lower level matches but given our experiences in previous organised hops in Bucharest, there had to be some cracking grounds, right? A short list of about ten were identified and once kick off times and distance between grounds had been calculated a more than decent looking itinerary was established.

Saturday morning saw a reasonably early start for a slow winding trundle south west of Timişoara to the small town of Gătaia. Local fourth tier side CS Progresul Gătaia had an 11am kick off against AS Pobeda Dudeştii Vechi. We arrived in good time and after putting a voluntary donation in the wooden box at the entrance gate the band of hoppers were confronted with a decent size ground in a quite delightful state of dilapidation. On one side a sort of scaffold and wooden plank stand took a leap of faith to climb up into and take advantage of its vertiginous rake in a narrow confined area behind the dugouts. On the far side was a big covered stand painted in club colours but certainly had seen better days. An entertaining 1-1 draw was witnessed on a blisteringly warm morning.

Saturday September 23rd 2017 – Romania IV Liga (Timis)

CS Progresul Gătaia 1 (Pelg 71)
AS Pobeda Dudeștii Vechi 1 (Kalapis 35)

Att:119 (at Stadionul Progresul)

I was really looking forward to the afternoon game as I knew the ground of CSM Şcolar Reşiţa was very decent. Upon arrival we were all opened jawed at the Stadionul Mircea Chivu. This is an incredible stadium at the foot of a steep and heavily wooded valley. The near side has a smart open seated stand but opposite is an incredible feat of engineering, the valley slope and trees have been cleared and a stepped plateau of concrete laid out. Hundreds of plastic seats have been bolted on to form a quite unique stand. Both ends of the stadium have uncovered terracing too. It’s a real beauty to behold and many in attendance now had a new entry in their own “Top Ten Best Grounds ever” lists. After the glory of the stadium the third division match felt almost incidental as the hosts, champions of Romania in 1930/31, easily dealt with scant resistance from visitors CS Gloria Lunca Teuz Cermei. Their 2-0 win was watched by around 430 people, again with free entry, this included a small band of enthusiastic ultras.

Saturday September 23rd 2017 – Romania III Liga (Serie 4)

CSM Şcolar Reşiţa 2 (Costin 55,Beloescu 89)
CS Gloria Lunca Teuz Cermei 0

Att:430 (at Stadionul Mircea Chivu)

On the Sunday, Andrei and I played our trump card which we had held back from the rest of the party. In the whittling down the shortlist of matches it became clear that our only option for Sunday morning was watching the sixth tier game at the home of ASO Deta reserves! A quick Google of the ground found photos of a cracking ground however a cross check of the fixtures website found that disappointingly the reserves had their own basic ground in a village outside of Deta. Reluctant to pass up the opportunity of watching a game at their superb first team ground, I suggested Andrei should ring the club and ask if they would consider moving the match to the first team ground. After confirming that ten English people and two Germans were definitely coming and it wasn’t some sort of wind up, the club said they would be only too happy to move the game for us!

The Stadionul Arena Parc is set in a wooded park and is really delightful. The 1953 wooden stand looks far older and the club had already repaired the tiled roof after it had suffered some damage in storms that hit the region the previous weekend. It is clearly their pride and joy and built very much in the English style of grandstands. The little separate booths, like VIP seating, at the front of bench seating are truly magnificent. The hosts put on a great show by besting a hapless opposition, Vointa Ionel, by six goals to one. A smashing club, amazing ground and a morning to remember.

Sunday September 24th 2017 – Romanian VI Liga (Timis,Serie 2)

ASO Deta II 6 (Mihalache 11, Toader 21, Ruyan 52, Minea 59, Radu 68,86)
Vointa Ionel 1 (Valcan 41)

Att:52 (at Stadionul Arena Parc)


The final port of call on our groundhopping extravaganza was at FC Unirea Tomnatic who hold the distinction of being the first village club to make the second tier of Romanian football. Those heady days are long behind them though as they had slumped down to the fifth tier before winning the division last season. The Stadionul Fenşi Petre more than lived up to standard of stadiums set in the weekend so far. An eye catching red and white pitch length stand replete with billowing flags stood regally on the far side. The dressing room side of the ground had two smaller covered stands as well. It really is a very pretty ground indeed.

Sunday September 24th 2017 – Romanian IV Liga (Timiş)

FC Unirea Tomnatic 3 (Antemie 19, Hota 82, Vladuti 84)
AS Seceani 4 (Berar 57, Ramneantu 61, Plopeanu 74, Maranescu 80)

Att:125 (at Stadionul Fenşi Petre)

If you would like to join Andrei Otineanu on his next adventure promoting the weird and wonderful grounds of Romania, please connect with him across all forms of social media and his website RomanianGroundhopper.com and Facebook page.

An extended version of this article will appear in a future edition of “Football Weekends” magazine.

Kings Of A Wild Frontier (Royal Excel Mouscron)

The original Royal Excelsior Mouscron were formed in 1922 as Stade Mouscronnais. They adopted their current name in 1964 when Stade merged with rival town team ARA Mouscron. Mouscron is a French speaking city with the border separating it from the French town of Tourcoing. Mouscron (the “s” isn’t actually pronounced) itself was a French town until the 19th century.

The clubs’ greatest achievement was in 1993-94 when the finished as runners up to Sint-Truiden in the Belgian Second Division. The club were also Belgian Cup finalists in 2002 and 2006 losing to Club Brugge and Zulte-Waregem on each occasion. 

In 1990 Excelsior merged with Rapid Club Luingnois. The club qualified for the UEFA Cup on two occassions, the first was in 1997-98. The “Frontaliers” defeated Cypriot side Apollon Limassol before losing 6-1 on aggregate to FC Metz. The second occasion was 2002/03 when Icelandic side Fylkir were beaten before Excel lost heavily again in the next round, this time 7-3 on aggregate to Slavia Prague.

Just a year or so after their European adventures, Excel hit severe financial problems in 2004 and were forced into a fire sale of their best players in order to survive. It should have served as a warning to the club but in 2009, when the side was managed by former national team hero, Enzo Scifo, the club collapsed. Manchester City offered to by the ailing club as a nursery club but the offer fell through and Excel were forced into liquidation.

In order to preserve professional football in Mouscron and at the Stade du Canonnier, home to Excel since 1930, talks were entered into with nearby club RRC Péruwelz, who themselves had been formed in 1921. Talks were successful and Royal Mouscron-Péruwelz were formed taking the the latter’s matricule of 216. In the time honoured tradition the failing club had their matricule, in Mouscron’s case 224, removed by the Belgian FA.

Some supporters of RRC Péruwelz were unhappy at leaving their own Stade de la Verte Chasse, and formed their own amateur club Péruwelz FC. 

2012 was a great year for the new club, they became champions of the third division and also won the historic Trophée Jules Pappaert. The following season the club were promoted to the too flight having finished as runners-up to KV Oostende. 

In something of a surprise move this season the club has reverted back to the name Royal Excel Mouscron and have dropped the Péruwelz reference despite retaining Péruwelz’s matricule.

Mouscron’s traditional home, the Stade du Canonnier, was most recently renovated in 1999 when a new main stand was opened. The club also own a huge training complex called Futurosport which covers 23 hectares and itself has a show pitch with a seated stand for 1,000 people. Due to its hemmed in location amongst residential streets the Canonnier will never be able to be expanded much beyond its current 11,000 capacity and the clubs’ owners have earmarked the potential development of a new stadium at the Futurosport site in the not to distant future.

This evening’s visitors are mighty Club Brugge sitting on top of the Jupiler Pro League with maximum points from the opening five rounds of games. However, Excel have also made a useful start to the campaign but its Club that attack from the offset of this match. Somewhat against the run of play the hosts were awarded a penalty which pacy frontman Jonathan Bolingi gratefully converted. The lead lasted barely eight minutes when a sweeping Brugge move saw Stefano Denswil drill home an equaliser. However, the 14 time Belgian champions were stung again just before half time when Excel scored again with a towering header from Bolingi. The visitors dominated the second half but could not find a way through a well drilled Mouscron defence. The hosts survived five minutes of stoppage time to record a famous victory.

images

Sunday September 9th 2017 – Jupiler Pro League 

Royal Excel Mouscron 2 (Bolingi pen 18,40)

Club Brugge KV 1 (Denswil 26)

Att:9,579 

Admission €12, free teamsheet given away in supporters bar.

Gallery

IMG_8343Sept 2017 004IMG_8341IMG_8342IMG_8346IMG_8339Sept 2017 021Sept 2017 022IMG_8323IMG_8328Sept 2017 035Sept 2017 031

Phoenix (FC Pyunik)

FC Pyunik have achieved so much in a relatively short period of time having been formed as recently as 1992. Initially they were called Homenetmen Yerevan and in their first season they shared the first Armenian Premier League title with Shirak Gyumri 

In 1995 Homenetmen rebranded as Pyunik which is the Armenian word for Phoenix. However, the club ran into problems and did not compete in the 1999 and 2000 seasons. The club were reborn in 2001 with a new owner, Ruben Hayrapetyan. Rather than rejoin the League in the second tier Pyunik absorbed First League champions FC Armenicum so they were restored to the Premier League. Pyunik immediately won their fourth league title finishing well clear of runners up Zvartnots-AAL. 

It was the start of huge success for Pyunik, the club’s ethos of signing the best Armenian players from other clubs as well as quality players from West Africa. They would win ten straight league titles between 2001 and 2010. They have only won one championship since, in 2014/15, but to highlight their domestic dominance their 14 titles is ten more than the next nearest challenger, Shirak Gyumri. Pyunik have also won eight Armenian Cups and nine Super Cups.

Their academy system produced Manchester United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He joined the the club aged 6 in 1995 and made his professional debut at 17 in 2006. He would join FC Metalurh Donetsk in 2009. 

The club played at the massive Hrazdan Stadium until 1999 when they moved to the Republican Stadium. When the Republican was being redeveloped Pyunik used their own stadium, a 770 seater stadium which was built in 2004 after they acquired the former Kilikia Sports Complex. Since 2013 their first team games have been played at the Yerevan Football Academy Centre on the outskirts of the city. 

The clubs’ reserve side, Pyunik-2, have won the Armenian First League four times although not since 2007. They play their home games at the eye catchingly quirky Pyunik Stadium and it is here that we watch them take on Armenian First league leaders, FC Banants-2. The First League is made up entirely of reserve teams other than Erebuni who prop up the table. Banants were eight points clear of second place Pyunik at the start of play and tear into the hosts from the off. A hugely entertaining game ensues but the hosts are never really in the contest. Over 100 people watch the game, the ground has a pitch length seated stand with a media stand in the centre. It’s a decent facility and well worth a visit for a second tier game. 

untitled-1_162

Armenian First League (22/05/2017)

FC Pyunik II  2 (Khatuev 17, Hovhannisyan 89)

FC Banants II 4 (Hambardzumyan 8, 20, Melqonyan 81, Safaryan 84)

Att:119 (at Pyunik Stadium) 

Gallery

IMG_4358May 2017 043IMG_4217IMG_4360IMG_4367IMG_4371IMG_4383IMG_4372May 2017 419IMG_4374

Power and Motion (FC Dinamo Tbilisi)

When I was a kid, Dinamo Tbilisi were a real European powerhouse, state sponsored by the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs they had some magical players that formed the back bone of the Soviet national team. The likes of Aleksandre Chivadze, David Kipiani, Vitaly Dareselia, Tengiz Sulakveledze and Ramaz Shengelia won many Soviet caps between them and four of them would win Soviet Union Footballer of the year award between 1977 and 1981. Their zenith in European competition was their 1981 Cup Winners Cup Final win over East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. Under respected coach Nodar Akhalkatsi Dinamo had dispatched the likes of Kastoria, Waterford United, West Ham United and Feyenoord before goals from Dareselia and Vladimir Gutsaev saw them triumph, 2-1, in front of a meagre crowd of 4,750 people in Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadion.

From the formation of the Soviet Top League in 1936 to the break up of the Union in 1991, Dinamo were one of only three clubs never to be relegated from the top flight, the others being Dynamo Moscow and Dynamo Kiev. Dinamo Tbilisi’s undoubted star player in those early years was Boris Paichadze who scored over 100 goals for them and was voted Georgia’s greatest player of the 20th century. Dinamo’s home stadium is named after him and his statue stands outside the entrance gates. Incidentally Dinamo or Dynamo as a prefix for football clubs comes from a corruption of Greek (dynamis) and Latin (motio) words for “Power in Motion” and was first coined by the Belgian inventor of the electrical generator, Zenobe Gramme.

Since their 70’s heyday Dinamo continue to produce wonderfully talented players who progress to a bigger stage like Temuri Ketsbaia (Newcastle United), Shota Arvaladze (Rangers), Kaka Kaladze (AC Milan), Georgi Kinkladze (Manchester City) and Levan Kobiashvili who enjoyed an extensive career in the Bundesliga with Freiburg, Schalke and Hertha and is the only Georgian player to date to win 100 international caps.

The Georgian Premier League, now sponsored by Erovnuli, has changed to a spring to autumn season from this season after a mini transitional campaign in 2016. The transitional season reduced the number of clubs in the top tier from 12 to 10. It is interesting to note that during Soviet rule a number of the smaller Tbilisi clubs like Lokomotiv, Tolia, SKIF and the cities’ oldest club, Shevardeni, competed in a separate Georgian League.

We arrived in Tbilisi for the 13th round of games and an enticing looking game against defending champions FC Samtredia, the most westerly located club in the top division. On a rainy evening a small crowd gathers at this vast stadium which can hold 55,000 spectators. Originally Dinamo played at the old Central Stadium which could only accommodate 35,000 so with the club’s golden era of the 1970’s a bigger venue was needed. The Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Dinamo Stadium, built on the same site, was opened in 1976 and designed by architect Gia Kurdiani. It could hold 75,000 people and contemporary reports suggest an attendance of 110,000 watched Dinamo’s epic win over Liverpool in 1979. In 1995 the stadium was renamed in honour of Georgia’s greatest player Boris Paichadze and an international match against Germany that year also reputedly saw 110,000 gather.

In 2006 the stadium was turned into an all-seater arena style stadium with a drastically reduced capacity of 54,549. The stadium looks to have barely 600 people present (although the official gate says 1,200) all are housed in the main stand except for a small band of Dinamo ultras in the far corner who bang drums, light a flare or two and display banners supporting the disputed territory of Abkhazia. About fifteen minutes into the game and the police scurry towards one end of the stadium, suddenly around 50 fans from Samtredia arrive. Sadly a handful of them choose to display an “M13 Ultras” banner with a prominent swastika. Disappointingly there was also no attempt to remove it.

The hosts play with no little swagger in the first half and establish a comfortable looking two goal lead. However, the reigning champions come out for the second half in fighting mood and soon level the scores. However, their good work is undone when the best player on the pitch, Dinamo’s Bachana Arabuli scored in injury time with a truly monumental header. An exciting game in a magnificent stadium, it’s a shame so few pay the 65p required to watch this grand and historic club.

IMG_4113

Sunday May 21st 2017 – Georgia Erovnuli Liga 

Dinamo Tbilisi 3 (Arabuli 26, 90, Lochoshvili 37)

FC Samtredia 2 (Mtchelishvili 63, Datunaishvili 76)

Att: 1,200 (at Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena)

Admission: 2 Lei (65p), programme 1 Lei (32p)

Gallery

IMG_4302May 2017 260IMG_4304IMG_4321IMG_4322May 2017 304May 2017 280May 2017 294May 2017 283May 2017 313May 2017 285May 2017 335May 2017 338

IMG_4479

IMG_4433

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.

images

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

IMG_4231IMG_4271IMG_4237IMG_4270May 2017 130May 2017 112May 2017 132IMG_4272May 2017 129May 2017 151May 2017 136