Notes From A Small Island 5 – Isle of Wight

Football came relatively early to the Isle of Wight and, undoubtedly, Cowes were one of the first organised clubs on the island, being formed in 1881. However, the club failed to complete the 1899/1900 Southern League season, disbanding after a home League game against Tottenham Hotspur, which Cowes lost 6-1. The club was resurrected as the existing Cowes White Star club took over the Cowes name in 1903 and bought football back to the Brooklyn Ground in Park Road which boasted a stand to house 700 people. The pitch had a notorious slope but this had been levelled in 1898. Sadly, by 1912 the landlord wanted to build houses at Brooklyn so the club had to look for a new site in the Northwood Park area of the town. The resulting move to their current ground at Westwood Park in 1912 proved hugely beneficial and Cowes saw crowds regularly surpass four figures for Hampshire County Division matches. In 1917 Westwood hosted a match between Cowes and a Portsmouth ladies team, it was agreed the men’s team would play the match with their hands clasped behind their backs!

The current stand at Westwood Park was built in the mid 1920’s, apparently by local shipbuilders who who had been given 24 hours notice to erect it ahead of a match against Newport. Prior to then, a small stand with bench seating had been erected on the opposite side. It is recorded that the 1926 Good Friday match at Westwood against Ryde, attracted 3,400 people. In a smart move Cowes purchased the freehold of Westwood Park in 1945 for £665. In the 1980’s Cowes merged with Whites Sports to become Cowes Sports.

Cowes Sports

Newport were relatively late to the burgeoning growth of football on the island. The first mention of the club comes in January 1888 when they lost a game against Lugley House School. Newport moved to Church Litten, then called Well’s Field, around 1898 and erected a grandstand in 1920. The club bought the ground from Winchester College for £3,000 in 1924. Football was proving so popular the stand had to be extended further in 1928. The ground was big enough to allow 6,000 people to gather for the visit of Watford in the FA Cup in 1956. The pitch was eventually turned around ninety degrees meaning the main stand was behind the goal. By 1988 the club had accepted £2.5 million for the land which became a Morrisons supermarket, and a purpose built ground at St George’s Park. In a remarkable parallel to their Church Litten departure, the St George’s Park ground had only just had it’s 30th birthday, when the club were ousted from it at the end of the 2018/2019 campaign.

St.George’s Park, former home of Newport

The club were promised a new ground by the developers and entered into a temporary groundshare at East Cowes Victoria Athletic. Newport’s new ground, to be called WhiteFibre Park, is to be built near the Racecourse Roundabout between Newport and Wootton Bridge but the start has been delayed due to the global pandemic. The St.George’s Park Stadium lies derelict, a new Asda Superstore has been built next door and McDonald’s and Wickes have stated their intention to open units on the site of the old ground.

East Cowes Victoria Athletic were formed in 1885, and originally played at the Recreation Ground in York Avenue and then at the field near Norris Castle. Similar to Cowes they lost the use of their ground in 1912 and after considering a return to York Avenue they nearly moved to the Tower Road Recreation Ground but objections were raised by the neighbouring hospital. They then secured land at Beatrice Avenue and built a wooden grandstand which was replaced until the current stand in the mid 1990’s.

Newport playing a home game at East Cowes Victoria Athletic’s Beatrice Avenue ground

For clubs that don’t play in mainland leagues, the Isle of Wight league was formed in September 1898 with East Cowes Victoria Athletic being crowned inaugural champions. At that time Cowes, Ryde and Sandown Bay were competing on the mainland as members were of the Southern League. There had been organised football on the island before this with ad hoc leagues operating in both Cowes and Ryde featuring long lost teams such as Osborne Corinthians, Cowes St Mary’s Guild, Newport Excelsiors and St Helen’s Blue Star. It is perhaps also worth noting, as it was reported in the County Press newspaper, that at Christmas 1892 a match had taken place at Appuldurcombe between the Total Abstainers and the Moderate Drinkers!

The Isle of Wight league started with seventeen teams, of which founding members Brading Town, Bembridge and Ventnor still compete in the competition while fellow founders, East Cowes Victoria Athletic and Newport have competed in mainland leagues for many years.

One of the enduring memories of the Isle of Wight League came from Professor Barnes Wallis, inventor of the “Dambuster” bouncing bomb which had such a pivotal impact on World War II. As a young man in the 1920’s he worked for the aircraft manufacturer Saunders-Roe and latter in life he recalled a game involving the works team being played in torrential rain, possibly at Wroxall (his recall wasn’t clear and alas there was no record of whether he played in the game or was a spectator, although island folklore says he definitely played island football in his younger days). During the game the already heavy leather ball had become waterlogged and the pitch so awash with water a hefty clearance saw the ball bounce continuously across the surface of the water. He said the memory stayed with him and recalled how a heavy spherical object had its path controlled by repeatedly striking water was the inspiration for his bouncing bomb.

The league membership has fluctuated greatly over the years with in excess of 500 teams having participated in the competition. Sides like Long Common,Totland Bay, Ryde St John’s, Shanklin Rangers, Royal Ulster Rifles, Saro Sports, Cowes Denmark Road Old Boys and works teams like Plessey (electronics), J.Arthur Dixon (greetings cards), Ratseys (sailmakers) and the British Hovercraft Corporation have come and gone.

Currently the Isle of Wight League consists of two divisions of 23 clubs plus the reserves of Cowes Sports and the “A” team of Newport. Then there are two further Combination Leagues for the reserve and “A” teams of Isle of Wight League teams. Whilst many member clubs play on public parks with spartan facilities in this article I will highlight some of the more interesting grounds from the Isle of Wight League.

Brading Town have played at Vicarage Lane since their formation in 1871 although in the early days they also used a pitch at Beech Grove. Life at Vicarage Lane wasn’t always easy, for season 1938/39 the club had decided to charge admission for the first time, to which the Archdeacon would only give his consent if the club erected a canvas screen to block visibility of the pitch from the graveyard. The club now boast one of the best facilities in the island league mainly due to their lengthy stint in Hampshire/Wessex Leagues between 1973 and 2012. The clubhouse was built in the 1980’s and around the same time the floodlights were acquired from Erith & Belvedere. In more recent years the ramshackle old wooden cover has been replaced with modern modular units on either side of the pitch. In 2008 Vicarage Lane was renamed The Peter Henry Ground following the passing of a club stalwart who had given 62 unbroken years of service to the club.

Brading Town

Ryde Saints are the current incumbents of the Smallbrook Stadium in Ryde, primarily a speedway venue used by the Wight Warriors team. The traditional Ryde team, Ryde Sports, were formed in 1888 and enjoyed lengthy spells in the Hampshire League and a single season, 1898/99, in the Southern League. The club’s demise was precipitated by a move from their traditional home at Partlands which was sold to developers in 1990. The Smallbrook Stadium is somewhat out of town and despite arranging high profile friendlies against the likes of Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton, the club struggled financially and failed to complete the 1997/98 season. They were briefly replaced by Ryde ‘98 but they too fell by the wayside. The stadium has one very long shallow stand more suited to watching speedway than football. Ryde Saints also struggle to attract support which must be a concern for of the island’s traditional footballing hotbeds.

Ryde Saints

Whitecroft & Barton Sports play at the Whitecroft Sports Ground and have won the last five completed Division One titles. Their ground, opened in 1904, is situated off Sandy Lane and boasts a sizeable clubhouse with a shallow seated stand attached to it. The ground has fine views of the listed clocktower of the former Whitecroft asylum.

Whitecroft & Barton Sports

Moving to the south of the island and the town of Ventnor provides stunning vistas of the English Channel. Ventnor FC play at the Watcombe Bottom Sports Centre which also provides facilities for Ventnor Rugby Club and Rew Valley Youth Football Club. Although Ventnor was used as a venue in the 1993 Island Games it wasn’t used during the 2011 Games, despite the football pitch having decent cover on the sizeable banking.

Ventnor

The best of the grounds to the east of the island is to be found in Seaview. The club are one of the oldest on the island with a history dating back to 1890 when they played on a field off Seagrove Manor Road before moving to Holgate Farm in 1935. The old wooden pavilion at the current ground, Seaview Park, was destroyed by fire in December 1974 and the current Seagrove Pavilion was opened the following year with the help of a fund-raising match against Portsmouth. It is a quite magnificent and well maintained structure, and the ground is augmented further by a large covered stand which replaced a smaller wooden stand. As if this venue couldn’t be any more perfect the far end provides stunning views of the English Channel.

Seaview

The western town of Freshwater has been represented by a number of clubs in the Isle of Wight League including Royal Garrison Artillery Freshwater and Freshwater Royal Artillery who were champions in 1906/07. However, the best known town team is West Wight who started life at Freshwater Comrades. In 1922 the club were asked by the Freshwater British Legion to drop the Comrades suffix as the Comrades of the Great War Society from where they had taken their name, had amalgamated with other associations to become the Royal British Legion. The club elected to change the name to West Wight Athletic. The Camp Road ground was railed off with a decent stand, largely due to a stint in the Hampshire League from the mid 1980’s. The old stand has since been replaced with a more modest structure, but one that will still keep spectators dry when needed.

West Wight

Other Isle of Wight League venues worthy of mention despite their lack of spectator accommodation are Shanklin’s County Ground, a substantial railed off venue which recently saw upgrading work being carried out to the clubhouse. Oakfield’s Recreation Ground is also a railed off pitch but has the added bonus of a dramatic backdrop of hillside houses. Sandown & Lake now use the Fairway Sports Complex having lost their traditional ground at Fairway Park which boasted a sizeable wooden grandstand.

Oakfield
Shanklin’s County Ground

While most other clubs play in public parks, the Clatterford Recreation Ground, home to Carisbrooke United, is no ordinary public park. While it is bereft of any football furniture of note it affords quite stunning views of the neighbouring castle parts of which date back to the twelfth century.

Carisbrooke United

A version of this article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Groundtastic Magazine (Issue No.103)

Treasures of Yerevan

There has been a football stadium in Yerevan’s Vardanants Street since 1935 when the old Dinamo Stadium was opened. In 1931 the city’s Dinamo Sports Club had asked the City Council of Armenian Commissars to provide a suitable site for a new football stadium for the city. A centrally located 16 hectare site was provided and after two years of construction, the new stadium was inaugurated with a match between Dinamo’s arch rivals Spartak Yerevan (later Ararat Yerevan) and KBKT Moscow.

Despite several renovations the elegant curves and classical pillars survive into the modern era, and provide Yerevan with a visually stunning national stadium. The first major renovation of the Dinamo Stadium came in 1953 under the auspices of architect Koryun Hakobyan who was also partly responsible for Yerevan’s much lauded concert and indoor sports venue called the Hamalir. The Dinamo Stadium gained its wonderfully ornate western facade during this initial refurbishment. However, by the end of the 20th century the stadium played very much second fiddle to its crosstown rival, the mighty Hrazdan Stadium. Opened in November 1970 it was also the work of Hakobyan, a former weightlifter, he was a favourite of the Soviet Union’s Politburo and became known as the “People’s Architect”.

Koryan Hakobyan

In 1999, with the help of a sizeable injection of funds from UEFA, a two year project of upgrading the Dinamo Stadium began, costing €3 million. The beautifully sympathetic modernisation turned the venue into a fully covered all seater stadium for the first time. The classical colonnades and Hakobyan’s facade, adorned with flag poles and bas-reliefs, were retained and the stadium’s extraordinary new roof turned the venue into a modern, but beautiful, international standard venue capable of holding 16,000 spectators.

Even though the stadium was owned by the City of Yerevan it was renamed the Republican Stadium (Hanrapetaken in Armenian). The closing year of the century was a pivotal one in the Pink City’s long history. On October 27th 1999, five masked gunmen lead by dissident Nairi Hunanyan broke into the Armenian Parliament and killed eight people including prime minister and national hero Vazgen Sargsyan and the President of the National Assembly, Karen Demirchyan. Sargsyan had risen to prominence as the commander of Armenian forces in the 1989-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War with Azerbaijan. He was appointed Defence Minister and had only become the eighth Prime Minister of Armenia in the June of the year of his assassination. As a remark of respect, the Republican Stadium became the Vazgen Sargsyan Republic Stadium and his image was incorporated into the entrance to the stadium.

The first game in the upgraded stadium came in October 2000 when Armenia took on Ukraine and raced into a two goal lead before the Ukrainians spoilt the occasion somewhat by rattling in three goals, two by Andrei Shevchenko, to take the points in a World Cup qualifying match.

The 16,000 capacity was reached in October 2003 when a European Championship qualifying match bought Spain to Yerevan. In 2008 the capacity was reduced to 14,403 when more VIP sections were installed by Israeli company Green Diversified.

Across town the Hrazdan Stadium and its iconic Soviet era floodlights dominate the city skyline. A proposal for a stadium in the gorge of the Hrazdan river was first muted in the 1950’s when Soviet First Deputy Chairman Anastas Mikoyan, a close ally of Stalin, visited the city and could see the natural amphitheatre of the gorge from where he was staying in the Presidential mansion.

However, work on the project did not start until 1969. Under the exacting eye of Koryun Hakobyan and fellow architect Gurgen Musheghyan, the work was remarkably completed in just eighteen months, no doubt more than a little pressure being exerted from Moscow to finish in 1970 to mark the 50th anniversary of the “Sovietisation” of Armenia.

The 75,000 capacity stadium cost five million roubles which included financial support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. It was officially opened in November 1970 in front of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, although the planned parade had to be put back 24 hours due to heavy snow.

The magnificent stadium became home to the city’s powerhouse club, Ararat Yerevan, regular challengers in the Soviet Top League. The first official football match at the Hrazdan took place in May 1971 when an all time record attendance of 78,000 was set for the visit of Kazakstan’s Kairat Almaty.

The mountainous stadium became a fortress for Ararat and in 1973 they won the Soviet Top League and Soviet Cup double. It was the third season running the League had been won by a non-Muscovite club after successes for Dynamo Kyiv in 1971 and Zarya Voroshilovgrad (now known as Luhansk) a year later. The legendary 1973 Ararat side was commemorated in 2016 by Tigran Barseghyan and Vladimir Antashyan’s quite extraordinary bronze statues of 19 Ararat players and coaches standing behind the vast Soviet Top League trophy. Sadly, it was reported in May 2020 that four of the bronze statues had been stolen from their lofty position overlooking their fortress.

The Soviet Union national team even held two international matches, against Finland and Greece, at the Hrazdan in 1978. The stadium was privatised in 2003 and the new owners, the Hrazdan Holding CJSC, set about modernising the stadium. It became all seater for the first time with a reduced capacity of 54,208. The renovation was completed in 2008 and held an international for the first time in eight years when Armenia took on Turkey. It was something of an ironic opening fixture as one of the best views of the stadium is afforded from the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide memorial, erected in 1967 to remember the 1915 genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

The owners of Hrazdan spent €6 million on the stadium in 2012 with the view to obtaining the grading to enable the hosting of UEFA finals. Now trading as Hrazdan Leasehold Venture CJSC the owners fell out with the Armenian Football Association and the mighty stadium was mothballed in 2016 and a year later even the pitch was dug up.

Meanwhile, Ararat, who had been continuous members of the Soviet Top League from 1965 to Armenia’s independence in 1991, had a huge fall from grace. They have only one Armenian title, in 1993, and fell some way below the new dominate Yerevan club, FC Pyunik. Pyunik’s ten consecutive Armenian championships between 2001 and 2010 have come under serious scrutiny with allegations of bribery and corruption. Match-fixing in general has caused seemingly irreparable damage to attendances in Armenian League matches and Ararat have been forced to play home games in modest venues like the Mika Stadium and the Yerevan Academy Stadium, with only the odd bigger match being held at the fabulous Republican Stadium.

The most recent Governmental talks surrounding the Hrazdan Stadium leave it’s future still somewhat in limbo. Armenian FA President Arthur Vanetsyan has lobbied Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for a new national stadium, calling Hrazdan “obsolete” for international competition. When pushed for a resolution with the impasse with the owners of Hrazdan, Vanetsyan stated negotiations were currently ongoing with a view to returning Armenian Championship football to this leviathan of a stadium. In many quarters, eyes would mist over at the prospect of Ararat, the mountain kings, returning to their spiritual home.

This article first appeared in the September 2020 edition of Groundtastic Magazine (No.102)

The Death Match

Should you ever go to the wonderful Valeriy Lobanovskyi Dynamo stadium in Kyiv, please take a moment to look at the small steel sculpture tucked behind the ticket office. The sculpture of four men gazing into a distant horizon is a memorial to the four former Dynamo players that lost their lives in as a result of the infamous “Death Match” in 1942.

The German army had invaded Ukraine in 1941, silencing the mighty roar of the Russian guns and forcing the population into a cruel level of starvation. During the German occupation of Ukraine, football was largely banned and Soviet clubs were dissolved. Dynamo, of course, were favoured by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), to the Nazi’s, therefore, the very embodiment of communism, and were immediately forced to disband. Many of the professional players in Kyiv joined the Red Army or the partisan resistance movement.

Charged with instilling a pacification process in the city, Lieutenant General Friedrich Georg Eberhardt suggested football matches be arranged between the local population and the occupying forces teams.

It was therefore, unwittingly, permitted that eight Dynamo players and three from Lokomotyv, who had remained in Kyiv and were now consigned to working in the Kyiv Bread Factory No.1 owned by a Dynamo supporter, could form a team called FC Start and play exhibition matches promoted as the “City of Kyiv All-Stars”.

Under the impression they were facing a team of bakers and blissfully unaware they had all been professional players, the first matches organised against Start were against a team of the Wermacht’s Hungarian and Romanian regiments. The match against the Hungarian regiment saw Start win easily by 6-2. They then defeated the Romanian regiment 11-0. It was reported that Start player Ivan Kuzmenko trained with a ball three times heavier than a standard ball so his shots were so hard the Romanian keeper would duck out of the way to prevent injury! Then a German army team were beaten 6-0.

The Germans then sent the stronger Hungarian team MSG Wal to play Start twice in a few days. Wal were beaten 5-1 and then again 3-2. The Germans by now trying to save face then sent their crack undefeated “all Ayrian” Luftwaffe side known as Flakelf to play Start, who defiantly wore red shirts, but they were humiliated 5-1. A rematch was ordered and despite commands for Start to “ease up”, the Kyiv side won yet again 5-3. Flakelf’s second and third goals had come in quick succession, after the Start goalkeeper had deliberately been knocked unconscious by some rough play by the Germans, and had pulled the score back to 3-3. He then came to his senses and Start roared back to claim yet another victory.

It was the last straw for the Germans. According to the Russian version of events, five Start players were arrested and tortured, Nikolai Korotkykh died during the torture and Olexander Tkachenko was never seen again. The other three players were sent to the labour camp at Syrets. During their internment there was an uprising against the camp’s administration and the remaining Start players Ivan Kuzmenko, Oleksey Klymenko and goalkeeper Nikolai Trusevich were singled out and executed by firing squad. Their bodies were tossed into the mass graves in the ravine at Babi Yar alongside nearly 34,000 bodies of Kyiv’s Jewish population, massacred in September 1941.

There has always been a historical dispute over the version of events surrounding the death of the Start players, the official German report into the atrocity cited the reason for the arrest of the Start players was not due to the Flakelf result at all and, indeed, the game had been played in good spirits in an unguarded stadium. According to the Germans, some days after the 5-3 game Start played another Ukrainian side, Rukh, and had soundly beaten them 8-0. Rukh’s trainer, Georgi Shvetsov, was said to be so incensed at the result that he told the Gestapo that certain Start players were working for the NKVD and it was for that reason, say the Germans, the five players were arrested.

The 5-3 match was played on August 9th 1942 at the Zenit Stadium in front of 2,000 spectators paying an entry fee of five rubles. This would have been considered prohibitively expensive at the time and was designed to deliberately keep the crowd small in case of further embarrassment to the Wermacht. They had also banned a lot of the local press from attending.

The Zenit Stadium was renamed the Start Stadium, and still stands in a very run down form in Sholudenka Street, a ten minute walk from the main train and metro station, Vokzalna. The entrance remains impressive with the name Start still proudly displayed in Cyrillic. The stadium appears to be no longer used for football, the remaining small stand is strewn with graffiti and the extensive wooden bench seating has been either vandalised or appears to be suffering from subsidence. The pitch is badly rutted and uncared for. Local children run around the wrecked turf, while parents sit smoking on the few serviceable benches left intact.

Also inside the dilapidated stadium, and notably having avoided the attention of the local vandals, is Anatoly Kharechko’s Death Match memorial sculpture. Unveiled in 1981, and cast in bronze, it depicts a naked athlete trying to kick a ball but being attacked by ungodly creatures. While the scene of this tragic episode in World War II may be crumbling into oblivion, the two memorials at both stadiums remain poignant reminders of this sombre time in Kyiv’s footballing history.

This article first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Groundtastic Magazine (No.100)

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.

 Dumbarton badge

Saturday February 29th 2020 – Scottish League Division 1

Dumbarton 1 (Carswell 90+3)

Raith Rovers 0

Attendance: 804

Entry £16, programme £2.50

Gallery

Dumbarton (4)Dumbarton (3)Dumbarton (6)Dumbarton (7)Dumbarton (8)Dumbarton (1)Dumbarton (2)Dumbarton (5)DumbartonDumbarton (9)Dumbarton programme

 

 

Israeli Gears

Israel really needs no introduction, a wonderful melting point with a history almost as ancient as time itself.

It’s modern skyscraper beach side city of Tel Aviv is as cosmopolitan and bustling as any major city you could care to name and features some truly outstanding Bauhaus architecture. The high rise modernity of Tel Aviv gives way almost imperceptibly to the ancient port town of Jaffa which can boast a history dating back to 1,800 BC.

Jaffa is just stunning, beautiful old buildings and stunning vistas there is a photo opportunity around every corner. The scenery is delightfully complimented with a relaxed chilled out vibe.

The first game of the weekend is at nearby Petah Tivka, their HaMoshava Stadium is not only home to the two local second division (Liga Leumit) sides, Maccabi and Hapoel, it is also hosting the games of Ligat ha’Al (Israeli Premier League) sides Hapoel Kfar Saba, Hapoel Ra’anana and Sektzia Nes Tziona. This is because these three clubs’ traditional home grounds of the Levita Stadium, Karnei Oren Memorial Field and Ness Ziona Stadium respectively, are deemed to be inadequate for top level matches. Convenient ground sharing is a way of life in Israeli football. The ha’Al league currently has 14 clubs sharing just eight stadiums between them.

HaMoshava is a two sided stadium holding 11,500 people and is a carbon copy of the stadium in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. There is plenty of parking space, although a total absence of stewarding means it’s a real log jam to leave after the game. Tickets are available at a dedicated ticket office at one end of the stadium. For this afternoons game a ticket costs 50 shekels (£11).

It is Hapoel Kfar Saba that are the host club and their are entertaining one of Israel’s traditional football powerhouses, 13 time champions, Hapoel Tel Aviv. The visiting fans are out in force, so much so that they overfill one side of the ground so there are people standing in gangways and on stairs. Eventually they allow Hapoel Tel Aviv fans into one sector of the stand housing the home support. The away support is noisy and passionate and easily drown out the attempts of the home side’s support to make themselves heard.

It’s a hugely entertaining game with a surprisingly good pace to it. The referee has his work cut out with two Tel Aviv goals ruled out by VAR, a plethora of yellow cards, and Kfar Saba being reduced to nine men in quick succession during the first half. The first player was shown a straight red for a horrendously late tackle and moments later another player joined him in the dressing room for two yellows in the same incident, one for the foul and a second for dissent.

Given the league table the hosts took a surprise early lead but were soon pegged back by the visitors. Tel Aviv enjoyed almost total domination especially with their numerical advantage. They squandered a hatful of chances before a bleached haired substitute finally got them a decisive lead. There was still time for Tel Aviv to have the “excitement” of another goal ruled by VAR out before the referee called an end to proceedings.

kfar

Saturday January 25th 2020 (3pm) – Israeli Ligat ha’Al

Hapoel Kfer Saba 1 (Reichert 8)
Hapoel Tel Aviv 2 (Barshazki 16, Buzaglo 61)

Att: c.7,000 (at HaMoshava Stadium, Petah Tivka)

IMG_7231IMG_7232IMG_7233IMG_7234

There seemed to be plenty of time to drive back to Tel Aviv in time for the 19.50pm kick off between the legendary Maccabi Tel Aviv and Ashdod. In reality, with parking not allowed near the stadium, a lot of time was spent trying to find somewhere to park which wouldn’t get you fined, clamped or towed away! Finally parked up in a side street it was time to locate the ticket booth and the newly rebuilt Bloomfield Stadium. The ticket office is by Gate 10 and there is a range of tickets priced from 70 to 110 shekels.

The rebuild has resulted in a much improved facility, although with only the central sections of both sides being under cover, its not a particularly great design for wet weather. That said it’s and eye-catching edifice and the two shallower ends afford nice city views from the more elevated sides. Bloomfield is shared not only between eternal rivals, Maccabi and Hapoel, a third top level club, Bnei Yehuda, also play their home games here.

Tonight it’s the reigning and 22 time champions of Israel, Maccabi Tel Aviv that are at home and the league leaders are facing mid table FC Ashdod. For those wondering why so many Israeli clubs are prefixed with Maccabi and Hapoel, Hapoel tends to be used by clubs of the “workers” aligned to the Histadrut Labor Federation, while Maccabi clubs traditionally draw support from various Zionist sports clubs. The Maccabees was originally a Jewish liberation movement, and Maccabi Sports Clubs were originally formed for Jews who had been banned from joining other sports clubs.

It’s a much poorer game than this afternoon’s effort, with Ashdod offering very little in the way of attacking prowess. Maccabi lead at half time and the only real surprise is that it takes them until the 78th minute to register a second goal. It comes by way of a blatant penalty when Ashdod’s goalkeeper took out an attacker and then feigned a serious leg injury to try and delay the taking of the spot kick.

Maccabi’s support only half fills the Bloomfield Stadium tonight and their ultras gather at one end. Some of the younger element go bare chested down the front of the stand in scenes reminiscent of a mosh pit at a thrash metal concert, there was even crowd surfing at one point!

MTA

Saturday January 25th 2020 (7.50pm) – Israeli Ligat ha’Al

Maccabi Tel Aviv 2 (Atzili 34, Cohen pen 78)
Ashdod 0

Att: c.15,000 (at Bloomfield Stadium)

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Many football fans will either have seen or at least know about Maya Zinshtein’s incendiary 2017 documentary “Forever Pure” about Beitar Jerusalem’s fans reaction to signing two muslim players from Chechnya in 2013. Beitar had already courted controversy being the only Israeli top flight club to have never signed an Arab player. “Death to all Arabs” would be sung from the stands and it was well know the club had an unofficial allegiance to the Zionist movement and the right wing political party Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, a high profile Beitar supporter.

The film took its name from a banner displayed by Beitar’s ultras group “La Familia” in protest of the club signing Chechan players Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev from Terek Grozny. Despite having previously fielded Tajik, Albanian and African muslims the Chechens were subjected to concerted and abhorrent campaign of racism which saw them hounded out of the club. The film projects “La Familia” as “the most racist fans in the world”. It is harrowing viewing.

The club has been repeatedly punished for the behaviour of its fans and as recently as June 2019 La Familia issued a statement that a christian player from Niger, Ali Mohammed Al Faz should be made to change his name as “it sounds too Arab”. However, after a period of zero tolerance, Beitar announced that there had been no reported racist acts from the stands in the whole of 2019. Beitar had been formed in 1936 and was very much been regarded as a terrorist organisation in its formative years.

With all this in mind it was something of an ethical dilemma to attend Beitar’s game with rock bottom of the table Sektzia Nes Tziona in favour of a game at Maccabi Netanya. I was too intrigued with finding out whether the film had been overblown sensationalism or whether the club had genuinely fixed what was a dreadful problem for them. Although I don’t know any Hebrew, I am pleased to say I did not witness any racist chanting or any form of unnerving behaviour. What I did witness was unrelenting, passionate and noisy support for their team which was duly rewarded with a single goal victory in a pretty drab encounter.

Beitar’s Teddy Stadium is a bit of a cracker although it is still undergoing extensive renovations. It is named after Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem during its construction. Opened in 1991 it holds just shy of 32,000 people and tickets ranged between 50 and 60 shekels, the latter being in the covered upper tier. Previously the city only had one sports stadium, the YMCA Stadium, which was Beitar’s home before the move to Malha. The YMCA Stadium made way for a housing development in 2006.

The north stand has visually stunning multi coloured seats and the recent refurbishment has seen the south stand roofed for the first time to bring it in line with the rest of the arena. It is a stunning piece of architecture. As with Bloomfield, parking around the stadium is very limited.

Beitar

Sunday January 25th 2020 – Israeli Ligat ha’Al

Beitar Jerusalem 1 (Kriaf 6)
Sektzia Nes Tziona 0

Att: c.8,000 (at Teddy Stadium)

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I had hoped to take in a match in the Palestinian West Bank League and the game at the Faisal Al-Husseini International Stadium between Jabal Al Mukaber and Shabab Al Am’ari on the Saturday at 12pm seemed to fit the bill as it would allow time to get back to Tel Aviv for the Maccabi game. However, it proved problematic when the hire car company said that their cars are fitted with trackers and taking vehicles into the occupied territories is not permitted. I then found an option to get a Line 59 bus operated by Eggd from the Bar Ilan/Rabenu Gershom station in Jerusalem to Neve Ya’akov Boulevard. This would leave a ten minute walk to the stadium. At £3 each way and buses scheduled every fifteen minutes I thought I cracked it. However, the game of course was taking place slap bang in the middle of the sabbath and everything stops in Jerusalem. There would be no buses running until well after the match had finished. It would appear the only way of doing a game in the West Bank League during the sabbath is to risk uninsured driving and a potential penalty from the hire car company or pre-book an Arab driver to meet you at the border. I opted to invoke plan B and take in the game at Petah Tivka instead.

Israel is a fine country, steeped in history and offering so much to a visitor. Winter sun, great food and football, really what more would you want?

kfar ticket

mta ticket

Beitar ticket

Late December Back In ’59 (ETB Schwarz-Weiß Essen)

Essener Turnerbund (ETB) was a gymnastics club formed in 1881 although the football wing, ETB Schwarz-Weiß Essen, wasn’t formalised until 1900. As with many embryonic German clubs finding a suitable place to stage games wasn’t easy and initially the members fashioned a playable surface from a disused brick field at the Ernestine colliery in Essen-Stoppenberg.

In 1903 the club moved to a field in Kruppstraße and ten years later to an existing site in Meisenburgstraße which was home to Fortuna Bredeney. Schwarz-Weiß invested 50,000 Deutschmarks in the facility, capital raised from a share issue and generous donations. By 1914 Meisenburgstraße was good enough to host an international match between Germany and the Netherlands.

The club grew rapidly and had great success in the Ruhrgau championship. In 1922 the club made a momentous decision to construct its own stadium as Meisenburgstraße would only ever be leased to them. Despite the City of Essen failing to deliver money promised to the club for the new stadium, the 3,500 members at the time raised an astonishing 750,000 DM in order to purchase a large area of land which became the Uhlenkrugstadion. In a time when wood was king grandstand construction Schwarz-Weiß lavishly invested in a large stand built from iron. It was the most modern stadium in all of Germany and the club became a household name, attracting a visit from MTK Budapest in 1925 and competing in a high profile tournament in Paris in 1932 that featured Red Star and Kispest Budapest (Honvéd).

Schwarz-Weiß were assigned to the Gauliga Niederrhein when German football was reorganised by the Third Reich and were unlucky to finish runners up to Fortuna Düsseldorf for three consecutive seasons from 1938 to 1940. The stadium capacity was expanded further in the war years and in 1951 held 45,000 people as Germany took on Luxembourg.

The 1950’s were a purple patch for the club which culminated in the greatest achievement to date, winning the DFB Pokal in 1959. ETB beat Westfalia Herne, Hertha BSC and Hamburger SV before beating Borussia Neunkirchen 5-2 in the final, staged in front of 20,000 people at the Auestadion in Kassel. With neighbours Rot-Weiß Essen having won the DFB Pokal six years early it meant that Essen became only the second German city to provide two Pokal winners, Munich being the other (Bayern 19 wins and 1860 twice)

The advent of the Bundesliga in 1963 saw ETB excluded from the new set up and consigned to the Regionalliga West. It was the period which saw city rivals Rot-Weiß Essen overtook them as the city’s senior club. ETB would run into serious financial problems in the early 1970’s and were forced to sell the stadium to the City of Essen to survive. The stadium had deteriorated so badly the the DFB decreed it wasn’t fit for second tier games and for a while ETB played home games at the Essen Grugastadion.

Fortunately the City of Essen funded renovations and the Uhlenkrugstadion was soon hosting football again. ETB were last in the 2.Bundesliga in 1978 and nowadays lurk in the fifth tier Oberliga Niederrhein. The Uhlenkrugstadion still has delicious swathes of open terracing but the City have once again announced plans to upgrade the stadium with a new grandstand. In many ways it will be a shame as the old stand is not in bad condition and is rather unusual. It also has a secret under stand drinking den at the far end.

Today’s game has a rather end of season feel to it with the hosts rarely getting out of first gear. Visitors, TuRU Düsseldorf, canter to an easy win including a quite sumptuous free kick towards the end.

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Sunday May 19th 2019 – Oberliga Niederrhein

ETB Schwarz-Weiß Essen 0
TuRU Düsseldorf 2 (Ucar 76, Munoz-Bonilla 84)

Att:258 (at Uhlenkrugstadion)

Entry €8, no programme

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Postcards From Belgrade (Serbian Groundhop 6)

The sixth Serbian groundhop weekend in May 2019 kicked off on the Friday evening with an enticing looking derby in the fourth level Zonska Liga Beograd. Home side TEK Sloga from the town of Veliki Crljeni were second in the table on goal difference to FK Sremčica from the neighbouring town. OFK Mladenovac were also on the same number of points in third place. Veliki Crljeni is an industrial town fifty minutes south west of the capital.

Due to heavy traffic in Belgrade, we arrived close to kick off and it was immediately obvious this was a big deal locally with a large crowd gathering. TEK stands for Thermoelectric Kolubara and Stadion TEK is adjacent to the huge power plant fired by clunking hoppers of lignite, mined in the surrounding coal basin, continuously dumping their contents into the generator. This serious piece of heavy metal provides and incredible backdrop to the small stadium which has an uncovered stand down one side of it with a sector fenced off for away fans. There are over 600 people present with around 80 in the away sector and RSD200 (£1.50) gets us into the ground for this battle for promotion to the national leagues. The home side dominate the proceedings going 2-0 up in the first half. As with a lot of games in Serbia they choose to defend their lead in the second half rather than go for more goals and nearly came a cropper when Sremčica were awarded, and scored, a very soft penalty in the final minute of normal time.

TEK Sloga

The Super Liga and Prva Liga fixtures had only been confirmed on the Tuesday before we left London but sadly all games had been fixed for 4pm on Saturday which clashed with our plans for a game in the Srpske Republic. As many of the tour party wanted to “tick” a new country with the game in Bosnia we plumped for the game at Radnik Bijeljina as they were entertaining one of Bosnia’s traditional powerhouses, FK Željezničar from Sarajevo.

With the game in Bosnia not kicking off until 5pm we had plenty of time for a morning game in Belgrade and chose the third tier Srpske Liga game between FK Grafičar and FK Brodarac. The game wasn’t being played at Grafičar’s own ground in Senjak but at the second pitch at Red Star’s Stadion Ratko Mitić. The complex behind the south stand has been significantly upgraded for Zvezda’s youth level teams and has two 3G pitches, one with a seated stand for 500 and a grass pitch with a similar stand. Grafičar have a link up with Zvezda and many young Red Star players are on loan to them so maybe that was the explanation for the change of venue. It was RSD200 admission and a Grafičar, rather than a Red Star ticket, that was issued upon entry. We were grateful for the shade provided by the new stand as the sun beat down relentlessly. Grafičar treated us to a masterclass of attacking football and dominated the game from start to finish netting five times without reply.

Graficar v Brodarac

After some electrical problems with the bus the previous day we were all relieved that we had a large and small mini bus turn up for our Trans Balkan express to Bosnia. We followed the E-70 west of the capital which basically follows the route of the mighty River Sava which after dropping south on the M18 its the river which forms the border between the two countries with border control and customs on either side. The crossing was fairly time consuming and we arrived at the Gradski Stadion in Bijeljina about twenty minutes before kick off. Our buses were ushered into a parking area beyond the grandstand and we were told by a club official we were guests of the president and didn’t need to pay. With the Bosnian Cup Final being contested between the top two clubs in the league FK Sarajevo and Široki Brijeg our game had a potential additional Europa League place at stake with the fifth place hosts taking on fourth place FK Željezničar. The club from Sarajevo are one of the powerhouse clubs from Bosnia and are followed by feared ultras group Manijaci (Maniacs). There were two reasons why we chose this game over an above a similar distance game at Zvijezda, the first was Zvijezda weren’t using their own ground and the second was the anticipation of Željezničar bringing a decent following with them. It was therefore a little disappointing that only a handful of away fans were evident and the reason for this quickly became apparent when social media quickly showed an astounding video of a Željezničar coach been ambushed and attacked by fans of their arch rivals FK Sarajevo. The match was also a bit of a damp squib with the away side scored early then easily defended their lead.

Radnik

Several years ago on a Belgrade derby weekend, I had done a game at the cracking ground of FK Hajduk Lionu, set in amid the urban sprawl of south east Belgrade. I took a few pictures at that game and in one of the shots was Aleks Peković and Stephen Carpenter, both unknown to me at the time. The roots of our Serbian Groundhop weekends lie in that chance meeting of strangers that morning. It was therefore a feeling of going full circle for the three of us to bring the hoppers to this most interesting of venues.

It’s essentially a two sided ground with flats and a restaurant tightly packed against both ends of the ground. On the nearside is a large scaffold and board stand and on the far side is steep open terracing. Sadly Hajduk legend Bogić “Bobi” Popović, who we had met at the original match, was in Germany for this weekend. He was a centre forward and is still the third top scorer in Serbian League history, his proud father is Hajduk president. Sadly Hajduk’s glory days have passed them by and they languish well adrift at the bottom of the fourth tier Zonska Liga Beograd. Today’s opponents, BSK 1926 Baćevac, put three past a hapless Hajduk who miss so many chances to score it beggared belief, where was Bobi when they needed him?Hajduk 2

After leaving Hajduk we head north-east to Kikinda for the city derby at Stadion ŽAK between ŽAK and OFK and RSD100 (75p) gets us into their stadium, which itself is a bit of a bobby dazzler as well. It boasts a more modern version of the magnificent and protected stand at OFK, and the perimeter wall is bizarrely made up of thousands of terracotta roof slates stood up side by side. It would have taken weeks and weeks to build it. It’s the railway workers (“Željeznički Athletic Klub”) that race into the lead finding the net after just 36 seconds. OFK, though roar back and win a hugely entertaining game by four goals to two in front of nearly 600 people.

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Usually the Monday throws up a televised Prva Liga fixture we can go to but with the play offs and play outs in full swing the fixture gods were somewhat unkind to us this time. What we did find was a relegation play off in the top division in Bulgaria between Vitisha Bistritsa and Dunav Ruse. Bistritsa is on the outskirts of Sofia so not too far from the southern Serbian border. The bulk of the route is on the excellent and cheap A1 toll highway albeit best part of a five hour journey. We also found an under 17 game taking place at 1pm in Niš to break up the long journey south.

We duly arrive at Stadion na Bubnju, home of third tier FK Car Konstantin and its a really unusual ground with plenty of character. On the dressing room side there is a tiny elevated stand and opposite a large grass bank and stepped terracing which actually sits outside the ground. Car Konstantin are name after the Roman Emperor Konstantin who was born in Niš when it was known as Naisus. Today we are watching FC Real Niš a specialist youth development club whose under 17 team compete in the highest level division for their age group, the Kadetska Liga Srbije, against all the big name clubs like Red Star, Partizan and today’s opponents FK Čukarički, who have Lazar Kežman, son of the former Chelsea forward, in their team. The game is relatively unexciting on a poor, rutted pitch but we are treated to three goals in the last ten minutes with the visitors from Belgrade coming out on top. It’s certainly a worthy stopover on the way to the day’s main game.

Grandstand Car Konstantin

Vitosha Bistritsa’s stadium is located up a windy road from the Sofia bypass. Bistritsa itself is a modest village sited high up in foothills of Mount Vitosha, a dome shaped peak some 2,290 metres tall. The stadium is a modest two sided affair with about 20 Dunav fans behind the goal having made an equally torturous 5 hour journey from Ruse this on the northern border with Bulgaria. The first leg of the relegation play off ended goalless in Ruse but Dunav score early and then successfully defend their lead against a totally disinterested looking Vitosha side.

Vitosha

It’s a satisfactory end to the tour and we cross back into Serbia with no issues or delays at the borders despite seeing huge queues of lorries waiting to get through. Mainly for the benefit of our two drivers we stop at a roadside kafana for sustenance and despite it being after their closing of midnight they rustle up some cevapi, beer and coffee for a weary band of travellers.

It’s been over 3,000 miles travelled since we left Luton airport and just short of a 1,000 of those spent on the roads of Serbia, Bosnia and Bulgaria in the fantastic company of Aleks and Bogdan from Groundhopping Serbia. You couldn’t wish to meet two finer friends on the road than these two.

TEK Sloga ticketGraficar ticketRadnikHajdukZAK ticketVitosha

 

A much extended version of this review features in Issue 49 of Football Weekends Magazine. For news of future Serbian Groundhopping Weekends please follow @GroundhopSerbia on Twitter

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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Exodus (Panionios GSS)

Panionios are the oldest Greek club and have an interesting history dating back to 1890 when they were formed as Orpheus Music and Sport Club. The club was originally based in Smyrna (modern day Izmir in Turkey) but as the Greeks lost the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war the club found themselves part of the mass population exchange, when Greeks were banished from what was then Asia Minor. Panionios were relocated to Athens and then to a new suburb called Nea Smyrni.

Panionios have spent nearly all its time in the top tier of Greek football missing only two seasons of the competition as it morphed from the Pan-Hellenic Championship to the Alpha Ethniki and into the current Super League format of sixteen clubs. They have never won the league but were runners up to Olympiacos and AEK in 1950-51 and 1970-71 respectively. Panionios have won the Greek Cup twice most recently in 1997-98 when they beat Panathinaikos 1-0 in the final.

The cup triumph meant they qualified for the UEFA Cup Winners Cup for 1998-99, the last season before its merger with the UEFA Cup. Panionios performed well defeating Valkeakosken Haka of Finland (5-1 on aggregate) and Apollon Limassol of Cyprus (4-2) before going out in the quarter finals, losing 7-0 on aggregate to eventual winners, Lazio. They were coached during this run by former Liverpool stalwart, Ronnie Whelan, and I had a conversation with the club shop manager discussing Whelan’s managerial prowess as he had been sacked by my club, Southend United, that summer after a terrible spell in charge at Roots Hall.

The club has always been a multi sport organisation and have been recognised for bringing basketball and volleyball to Greece. They remain the only sports club to be awarded the Golden Cross from the Athens Academy for their past and continued enrichment of Greek culture and society.

Panionios play in an eye catching blue and red kit, reputedly chosen to represent the blue of Greece and red for the blood of Greeks persecuted throughout history. The club also has one of the oldest ultras groups in Greece with “The Panthers” being formed in 1983.

Panionios play at the impressive looking Nea Smyrni Stadium which looks bigger than its’ current capacity of 11,700. Built in 1939, the record attendance was set against Panathinaikos in 1974 when 20,950 packed into the stadium before it became mainly all seater. It is said that the record attendance was actually set by US thrash gods Metallica, in what was there first ever concert in Greece in 1993.

Tonight, mid table Panionios take on rock bottom Apollon Smyrnis. Apollon were founded in 1891 by former members of Orpheus, and found themselves in an identical position to their old rivals following the military defeat and were also relocated to Athens. It’s €10 for a ticket in the uncovered side.

Given Apollon’s perilous league position and the clubs’ historical relationship it would be hard not to look on this ninety minutes with a degree of suspicion, such was the lack of effort from the home team. They scarcely mustered a shot on goal in the entire game and lost to an Apollon goal midway through the second half.

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Saturday February 9th 2019 – Greek Super League

Panionios GSS 0
Apollon Smyrnis 1 (Vafeas 73)

Att: 1,126 (at Stadió Néas Smírnis)

Entry €10, no programme

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