Category Archives: Match Reports

Chester City – Back from the dead

“You let your club die”

So sing the Wrexham fans towards their hated rivals in the away end, as kickoff draws near in the first clash between these cross border rivals for several years. The two clubs have more similarities than they would care to admit, but there was no danger that this game would turn into a mutual love in.

Before the game had even begun, a banner was unfurled by the home fans reading “Two dead fans, one dead club”, a reference to two Chester fans who had died earlier in the year. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with the 900 or so travelling fans, with a small section of these fans breaking through police lines to throw ripped out seats in the direction of their tormentors.  A flare ignited in the Wrexham end, and is hurled in the direction of the away end.  Thankfully for the visitors, there was little chance of the culprit being called up to the Olympic javelin team as his effort fell well short and burnt out harmlessly in the segregation area.

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A flare burns out between the two sets of supporters

This followed a graffiti attack on the stadium earlier in the week, as a wall of bricks containing messages paid for by Wrexham fans had CFC painted over it. As it turns out, it would not be the last time that Chester fans would leave their mark at the home of their hated rivals. It should be pointed out that these incidents were performed by the minority, with most of the fans in attendance doing their club proud.

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Chester City graffiti left at the stadium earlier in the week

In addition to these pre-match festivities, simply walking around the town of Wrexham before the game had shown how intense this rivalry really is. Earlier in the year I attended the Milan derby, and there was genuinely a higher police presence for this game in the Skrill Conference than there had been for the Serie A encounter. Indeed, I had a more difficult time securing a ticket for the Racecourse than I had at the San Siro, with severe restrictions in place to try and limit the chance of any crowd trouble (that went well). Thankfully, a social media appeal a couple of days before the game ensured that I would be there.

If it had been a struggle for me to get to the game, it was nothing compared to the battle faced by both sides to even be around for it to take place. Wrexham had faced years of ownership problems, as chairman Alex Hamilton attempted to evict the club from the stadium so that it could be sold for development. Immediately after Hamilton took over the club, the ground was sold to a company which just so happened to belong to, surprise surprise, Alex Hamilton. What followed was years of debt, points deductions, administration and relegation, as the club sank from League One to the Conference at a fairly rapid pace. Worse still, there were times when it looked as if there would no longer be a Wrexham AFC, and the club was only saved in March 2011, when the Supporters Trust bid was accepted and the club became fan owned.

The story of the Dragons survival is an inspirational one, a rare victory in modern football for passion over profits. The club has flirted with promotion back to the Football League ever since, but has been defeated in the playoffs on every occasion. These defeats in the playoffs allowed Chester to catch up with their arch-rivals, after a fan-owned success story of their own, following a battle against Stephen Vaughan, a man intent on killing the club. The story was similar to that of Wrexham, but the battle they faced was even harder, and the financial problems even greater. As much as Wrexham fans (and undoubtedly others) taunt Chester about letting their club die, their stadium would probably be a WH Smiths right now if not for their boycotts and protests.

The financial situation at Chester City got so bad that a fixture against Gateshead was cancelled by the league, and the players refused to get off the team coach at an away game at Forest Green Rovers, having not been paid for many months. Eventually the matter came to a head in February of 2010, as the club were expelled from the league, and wound up a couple of weeks later. The end of the Chester City story? Not at all. In many ways, it was to be just the beginning.

A phoenix club was formed,  and Chester FC began life in the eighth tier of English football, the catchily named Northern Premier League Division One North. Despite playing in a level of football so low that many fans wouldn’t even know it existed, the Chester supporters got behind their team impressively, with volunteers helping to run every department of the club, and fans turning out in numbers at matches – breaking a number of attendance records along the way. So far, this reborn Chester has played three seasons, and won three titles. But it was this last promotion in 2012/13 which was the most meaningful, as, combined with Wrexham’s defeat to Newport at Wembley, it meant this derby would resume hostilities once more.

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Chester may have only known success in the last three years, but this had not been the case in the early stages of their first Conference campaign. Five games played, five losses, only two goals scored and 12 conceded. Wrexham had hardly got off to a flying start either, but were certainly strong favourites for this game,  But, if Chester did indeed die as a club three years ago, nobody thought to tell them, as they produced a magnificent performance both on the pitch and in the stands, in a result which will surely enter club folklore. Just under a thousand were there, but when the story of this game is told to grandchildren in sixty years time, every Chester fan in the world will surely claim they were there.

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The Chester fans as they take on the team they were told they’d never play again

From the very first whistle, Chester had more fight, passion and desire to win the game. At this level, and especially in a fixture of this nature, sometimes hard work is all it takes. Wrexham kicked off and immediately booted the ball out for a throw in, in a passage of play which was to sum up their day. Wrexham fans have done a superb job at running the club so far, and 11 of them plucked at random from the stands could probably have put in a better performance than the side managed here.

Some atrocious defending from Wrexham almost saw them punished within the opening two minutes, and they failed to learn this lesson as Chester took the lead in the fifth minute. The Dragons defenders completely failed to pick up their men, allowing defender Linwood (a former Wrexham player) to head the ball into the net, despite a touch from the goalkeeper. The players celebrated as one behind the goal, showing a unity and team spirit which can make such a difference in derby fixtures. Down at the other end of the stadium, madness was unfolding in the Chester end. I firmly believe that there is no better sight in football than an away end going bonkers, and this Chester end was up there with anything I’ve seen in British football. In addition to sore heads the day after, quite a few in blue and white will have woken up with bruised shins and various other injuries, as several noticeably took a tumble to the ground as celebrations got a little out of hand.

I expected this goal to give Wrexham the kick-start they needed to start performing and to go on and win the game, but it simply was not to be. Chester named two identical twins in their starting XI, but they played as though the entire team was a band of brothers. After 15 minutes, it was 2 – 0. Nathan Turner supplied brother Lewis with the ball, and he made no mistake as he swept it into the net with ease, again almost unchallenged in the penalty area. If the away fans had gone mental before, it looked as if the NHS would have to move in and start sectioning people this time.

It was all too much for a handful of Wrexham fans, as a handful broke on to the pitch and headed in the direction of the away end before getting arrested. I’ve always thought that lone pitch invaders at local derbies who run towards the opposition supporters should just be left to it, without giving them the ‘glory’ and 15 seconds of fame that being dragged away in handcuffs brings. Wrexham fans continued to back their team, but the majority of the noise was understandably coming from the away section, with “2 – 0 to the part-timers” perhaps my favourite of their songbook. This was a reference to the fact that Wrexham are a professional club, while Chester have maintained their semi-pro status despite their string of promotions.

As time ticked on and on, Wrexham only seemed to get worse, with simply completing a pass proving to be an almost impossible task. Chester did not look as dangerous as they had done, but they didn’t need to. The hard work had been done, and they were now in a position where they could afford to sit back and defend their lead, something they did with much enthusiasm, the players throwing themselves into tackles as if their lives depended on it. If this had been a Premier League game, the visitors would probably have been down to nine men by half time. Thankfully a quick glance around the stadium showed that nobody was filming the match on an iPad with a camera round their neck, meaning it couldn’t be a Premier League match.

It felt as though Wrexham had expected to just turn up and win, while the Chester fans were expecting another defeat. As it became clear this was not the case, the Chester end increased in noise and belief, while frustration from the home fans grew. The Dragons were booed off at half time by a sizable portion of the crowd, and they could not have complained about it when taking into account the lack of effort shown.

Fast forward to the 80th minute, and not much had changed. Chester remained well on top, and despite Wrexham making all three of their substitutions, it was having little impact on the game. They had produced one moment of excellence, where a red shirted player went on a great run, taking the ball past a number of defenders, worked his way into the box, drew his foot back to smash the ball past the keeper and into the net…only to miss it completely and fall over. The Wrexham fans could probably have gone home early at this stage, like the Chester player Ashley Williams who was sent off in the 83rd minute for punching  Joe Clarke in the face. Well I suppose if you can’t score a goal in a derby, assaulting the opposition is the other way you can make yourself a hero.

Wrexham had seven minutes of normal time plus a considerable amount added on for injuries and various stoppages to try to make use of the man advantage, but it was a lost cause. The final whistle blew, and boos from the home support rang out as blue flares erupted in the away section. The Chester players clearly have the club very close to their hearts, as they celebrated with the traveling faithful for some time after the final whistle.

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A Wrexham fan looks on forlornly…

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While Chester celebrate

As I walked away from the ground I heard two Wrexham fans discussing the match. “That was the worst I have ever seen us play in fifty years” said one. The cutting response -“As good as that?”.

This was unquestionably Chester’s day, and their fans could be heard across the town singing their songs of victory long after the final whistle. Instead of watching their club die, the Chester supporters had just experienced a day that they would never forget for the rest of their lives. This was a victory not only for the club, but fan power everywhere.

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Austria Salzburg 5 – Eugendorf 2 – Passion over Glory

In the 2012/13 season I attended a number of high profile fixtures around Europe. A Champions League Quarter-Final, fixtures in the Bundesliga, Premier League and Eredivise, as well as the small matter of the Milan derby. With that in mind, the Austrian Third Division may not seem like the obvious place for me to begin 2013/14. However, the supporters of Austria Salzburg understand better than most how it feels to have everything that you love about your club taken away. Just as Cardiff City lost all meaning to me in July 2012, these fans had their club stolen by the growing disease that is Red Bull in football.

The changes inflicted on the club by their new owners were so dramatic that it was clear the team they loved would never return. Rather than simply accept this or walk away from the club, they took positive action and formed their own side, playing in their own violet and white colours as Austria Salzburg. Red Bull Salzburg may enjoy a great deal of success within Austria, but in the city of Salzburg one team is king. After arriving at the train station, I showed a taxi driver the address of the stadium. He spent the journey over thanking us for coming to visit “the true team of Salzburg”, as well as singing “SCHEISS RED BULL” as he ploughed through red traffic lights and charged us €3 for a journey which would surely usually be closer to €20. The people of Salzburg are fiercely proud of their defiant spirit and Red Bull rebellion, and show superb hospitality to anyone who comes to see their story for themselves. As well as numerous offers from Twitter to meet up and show me around the stadium, it was difficult to walk past a Salzburg fan without them handing you a beer and thanking you for making the trip over. In truth, it was me who should have been thanking them, as their proud football club was about to provide me with a footballing experience never to be forgotten.

In England, we are used to football grounds being located in industrial parks, amid a backdrop of McDonalds, KFC and Greggs. Not so in Salzburg, with what must be one of the most stunningly beautiful locations for a football club imaginable, surrounded by some of the towering mountains which have made Austria so popular with lovers of extreme sports. The ground was also a short walk away from a gigantic brewery which sold freshly brewed beers at dangerously cheap prices, no chance of being asked for £4.50 for a warm Carling in a plastic cup here.

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Location of Austria Salzburg’s ground – definitely prettier than Turf Moor.

As with most European football clubs, the outside of the stadium is decorated with various graffiti. This ranged from Union Ultras, numerous anti-Red Bull slogans and less imaginatively, the word ‘PENIS’ in six foot high letters above the car park. Never did get an explanation for that one.

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The Union Ultras make their mark 

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‘Tough Guys’ sticker. Several fans should also really have had one reading ‘Drunk Guys’ 

I had purchased my ticket (a bargain at £7.50) in the ‘Fansektor’, home of the ultras and the loudest part of the ground by some distance. The singing begun around 30 minutes before the game and never once stopped from that point, while the drinking from many of the fans looked to have begun considerably earlier than that. Flags were handed out by members of the Union Ultras as kickoff approached, helping to transform the stand into a sea of colour. It may only be a small ground, but these rebellious fans can make more noise than a crowd ten times the size.

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This was just the second match of the season for Austria, and there were some signs of early season rust as the game got underway. Visiting Eugendorf were a newly promoted side and should really have been swept away as they took on the biggest side in the league, but they played without fear and were able to match their more prestigious opponents in the early stages. There were no signs of discontent from the Salzburg fans at the lack of a footballing massacre, as they instead urged their side on through an impressively varied array of chants. While the support was not completely lead by the ultras, the majority of chants were influenced by a fan at the front of the stand with a megaphone and his own platform.

The support definitely had an influence on the game, Eugendorf did not seem to have a single away fan and the players were clearly not used to playing in front of such a crowd. Not only was the one main stand full, but fans were also dotted around the field and plans are in place for Austria to have a considerably larger home in the future. I noticed the Eugendorf players looking over at the supporters with a mixture of anxiety and awe, and it was perhaps no surprise that their resistance ended after around 20 minutes of the match.

There was nothing particularly spectacular about the goal, with one attacker drawing the keeper out of his goal before passing to the other to stroke it in to the open net in a manner which will be extremely familiar to anybody who plays football games on the Xbox. What was memorably, however, was the way in which the goal was celebrated. Fans leaped up and down, waved flags and numerous purple smokebombs were ignited.

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While crazy celebrations and pyro being set off after goals is almost universal within the European football stadiums I have attended recently, there was one completely new feature to be found at Austria Salzburg, a member of staff employed to hose down the fans after a goal. This was presumably to ensure the supporters stayed cool in the searing heat, and not an attempt to quench any flares which had been set off.

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I hoped that this goal may settle the nerves and the home team may go on to achieve a cricket score (a large one, rather than an Australian one), but the visitors spirit was by no means broken by the opener. It took just five minutes for the equalising goal to arrive, the green shirted players celebrating wildly to make up for the lack of away fans. Sensing their team was going to need their help to come away with the three points, the Salzburg fans cranked the atmosphere up a notch, moving away from negative Red Bull songs to positive ones in support of their side.

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Sure enough, the increased noise levels paid off just before half time, as Austria ensured they would go into the break in the lead, despite the fact the performance had not been their best. The ball ended up in the net once more, and off went the smokebombs and resulting hose, with the goal again looking decidedly preventable. It was a rough day for the man in goal for Eugendorf, I don’t know what the German is for ‘dodgy keeper’, but he was certainly worthy of a couple of renditions in a city more famous for the music of Mozart.

The superb levels of support continued throughout the second half, with the Salzburg players searching for the additional goals their fans deserved. Once again however, Eugendorf were able to draw level despite their limitations as a side. I have been something of a jinx for many home sides on my travels, with almost all of them failing to win whenever I attend. I feared that I was to be going one step closer to the football fans of Europe teaming together to ensure that my passport is confiscated, when a late surge from Salzburg ensured that the outcome on the field would be just as positive as my experience off of it.

With 20 minutes to go, Katnik scored his first of the game, powering the ball past the goalkeeper who could not be blamed on this occasion for failing to prevent Salzburg taking the lead. Katnik is a former  Red Bull player, however his performance in the latter stages of this game will have gone some way to redeeming this transgression to the fans. With the match still in the balance heading into injury time, Katnik would strike twice more in the 96th and 97th minutes, ensuring that the scoreline would finishing a convincing 5 – 2 and completing his swift hat-trick.

In truth, what is brilliant about Austria Salzburg is not what happens on the field, but the story of the club and how the supporters came together to resist corporate football. I was incredibly jealous that these fans had been able to organise a new club after having their own torn away from them. On several occasions I looked around at the passionate supporters bouncing up and down and roaring the team on to victory and thought “you lucky bastards”. They are still at the early stage of their journey back to the top of Austrian football, but the passion and the ambition is there for the violet and whites to retake their rightful place. Yet another sticker I saw on the way out of the ground depicted an Austria fan climbing a ladder, with the Champions League at the very top rung. This is a club a world away from such heights at the moment, but as my newly purchased t-shirt displaying the club motto says, these fans never changed passion for glory.

The evils of modern football can be fought against, and the sport doesn’t have to all be about money. Tucked away in the mountains of Austria, a side in the third division are showing the rest of the world the way forward. You may not have heard of Austria Salzburg yet, but you will have soon.

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Hednesford Town vs. FC United of Manchester

The 2012/13 season has been both the best and the worst season of my life, starting with having my beloved local club torn away from me by a Malaysian marketing exercise, but opening the door for me to have some of the very best experiences it is possible to have in this wonderful sport of ours. From the mayhem of the Milan derby to the beauty of the Sudtribune at Dortmund, it’s been an incredible personal journey for me. My disillusionment with British football meant that I hadn’t been to an English game in 2013 before this Northern Premier League playoff final between Hednesford and FC United of Manchester, but this was no ordinary game.

FC United are the embodiment of the ‘Supporters Not Customers’ idea, founding their own club in protest at the Glazer family, Sky Sports and the general state of the game. I can think of nothing worse than attending a game at Old Trafford, but I had been toying with the idea of an FCUM game for some time. I had been hoping to attend the Italian cup final between Roma and Lazio for my last game of the season, but the trip fell through, meaning my 2012/13 was to end at Keys Park instead of the Stadio Olympico.

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So on the day half of Manchester headed to Wembley for a cup final, I was heading to a final of my own, with a place in the Conference North on the line. Any fears I had about the game being boring compared to my European adventures were quickly dispelled, the first two people I saw were a drunk man waving a pirate flag and a pensioner wearing a cowboy hat.

Despite Hednesford having home advantage for this season deciding game, the ground was divided equally, with a large terrace running along the side of the pitch attracting the most vocal of the visiting fans.

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The home of the most vocal FCUM fans, not to be empty for long…

I was surprised how empty the stands were when I arrived, before realising that there were about a thousand people in the queue for the bar. The Manchester side had lost the playoff final for the past two seasons, and it was quickly apparent that the prospect of losing yet another final had turned the travelling fans to drink some time ago.

The stands began to fill up with around 40 minutes to go before kickoff, and just as I have witnessed in Germany and Italy, the songs of support for the team began long before the players had even appeared on the pitch. It soon became clear that despite the fact FC United had around 50 per cent of the ground, it was not going to be enough. A lone Hednesford steward did his best to close the terrace, but he was fighting a losing battle. Fans walked across the pitch to join the extremely loud singing section, and I saw at least three fans climbing over a wall, clearly either locked out of the ground or they didn’t fancy paying the £9 for entry.

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Fans on the pitch before the game

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We can see you sneaking in…

Eventually the orange segregation netting pictured earlier was torn down, and the travelling masses were able to fit in the stand comfortably enough. The Hednesford Town fans behind the goal at the other side of the ground had also packed out the stand, and there was an incredible atmosphere, especially for a match so far down the football pyramid. The official attendance was given as around 4,500, but it certainly looked as if there were considerably more than that present.

The Hednesford Town players were out on the pitch early, around ten minutes before kick off. While they waited for their team to join them and the action to get underway, the FC United fans put on a hugely impressive show of support, singing “BRING ON UNITED” without stopping, with flags waving and red smokebombs both in the stands and finding their way on to the pitch. The noise levels rose yet further as the team made their way out, with scarves waving and yet more pyro being set off both from the away end and the home sections. Aside from Inter vs. Milan, it was the largest use of smoke I have seen this season, with the driving Birmingham rain doing nothing to take away from the impressive visual spectacle.

As the game kicked off, FC United immediately gave the ball away to a Hednesford midfielder, causing the FCUM next to me to scream “COME ON REDS, WE NEED A GOOD START HERE!”. Ten seconds after these words had left his mouth, Hednesford had scored. A mistake from Lee Neville allowed the Pitmen to get the perfect start to the game, scoring in just over a minute. The defending for the goal was so poor it would have provided Gary Neville with months worth of analysis for Sky Sports, with two disastrous errors allowing the ball to be swept in from close range with little opposition.

Hednesford did not sit back after making this superb start, and it looked as if the red rebels could be out of the game within the first couple of minutes. The home side could best be described as being similar to a Daft Punk song, better, faster and stronger than Utd. Despite their side taking a bit of a battering on the field in these early stages, the fans continued to make a remarkable amount of noise. The songs were largely original, with very few directly copied from the Glazer owned version of the club. Instead of singing about Manchester City or Leeds, songs were directed at Flixton and Maine Road.

With the fans right behind them, you felt as though FC United would surely get a grip of the game at some point. However, the Hednesford players were not intimidated by the huge crowd, and would add to their lead on the 30 minute mark. Slack defending once again from the reds saw the ball fail to be cleared, with the Hednesford player able to slide tackle the ball past the keeper. 2 – 0 to the Pitmen, and things were looking bleak for FC United. Not that you would have known it from the supporters, who simply raised their level of noise once more in an attempt to inspire their side to finally do something.

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FCUM fans get behind their team at 2 – 0 down

The men from Manchester did improve slightly for the last part of the first half, getting the ball forward and putting pressure on the Pitmen goal at last. They should have had a goal back, with a glorious chance put over the bar and some reluctance to shoot when in a good position. Hednesford certainly deserved their lead at the break, but 2 – 1 would perhaps have been a fairer reflection of the game. Still, the home side had clearly been the better team and it would be a long road for FCUM to avoid triple playoff despair.

Half time – Hednesford Town 2 – FC United of Manchester 0

A double substitution for FC United saw the visitors adopt a more attacking strategy, and it paid off within a couple of minutes of the restart. The reds forced a string of corners and for the first time they were really on top of the game. A couple of chances came to nothing, but they were not to be denied for long. With 55 minutes on the clock, Mike Norton (who is probably the only footballer ever to have a chant about not being from Gorton) powered a header into the goal virtually unchallenged. The travelling fans went absolutely wild, with the terrace transforming into a mosh pit and people falling all over the place. It was so packed that people were falling over with nowhere to go, leading to the sight of a pair of legs stuck up in the air waving about with glee. The smokebombs were also brought back out, with a flare also on show this time.

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A flare greets the FCUM goal

The goal totally changed the game, and now the comeback which looked impossible after 30 minutes was on the cards. Within the next ten minutes they had two glorious chances to score an equaliser, first hitting the post and then driving another shot just wide from a free kick, when the ball appeared to be sneaking in. The supporters really believed for the first time that they could at least take the game to extra time, and the pressure at this stage was unrelenting. United were on top, but the clock was against them and time was rapidly running out.

With 15 minutes to go, it appeared as if United would have the perfect chance to draw level. Goalscorer Norton was about to unleash a shot in the area, when he was clearly pushed in the back. One of the enjoyable things about non-league football is the increased physicality, but this looked more like a wrestling move than something which belonged on a football pitch. I haven’t seen a replay, but it was either an assault or a contender for the most realistic dive in history. With the United players still complaining about their perceived injustice, Hednesford broke away and almost ended the game with a third goal, the ball crashing off the post instead.

A couple of minutes later the away fans were again appealing for a penalty, shouting for handball after a shot was blocked in the area. This one appeared less clear, but to quote many a television pundit – “you’ve seen them given.” Having put so much pressure on Hednesford for a long spell of the second half, I really expected to see the men from Manchester push on again as the match reached the closing stages. The home fans clearly did not feel the same way, with a full blown party behind the goal from around the 85th minute onwards, with the Pitmen preparing for a pitch invasion and setting off smokebombs.

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The game is briefly delayed by Hednesford pyro

The expected FCUM surge never came however, with Hednesford remembering what got them into a winning position and using their physical advantage to keep hold of the ball and retain possession deep into Utd territory. FC United were formed by fans willing to fight against impossible odds, but on this occasion the team did not quite have enough fight in them to match their superb fans. Manchester United may have 20 titles and enough fans to fill their own continent, but why would you ever support them when you can have a team like this? A club for the fans, by the fans with affordable tickets, terracing and kickoff times at 3pm on a Saturday. With the Hednesford fans flooding on to the pitch to celebrate their promotion to the Conference North, the FCUM fans also jumped the fence on to the pitch to salute their players.

After Cardiff lost the playoff final to Blackpool I was gutted for weeks, but look around the faces of the United fans at full time and you wouldn’t know that they had just been beaten. They have a club to be proud of, fighting back against the money obsessed culture of modern football and choosing passion over glory. When you can look at your club and be truly proud of who you support and feel as if you are truly an important part of the club, does the score really matter? FC United of Manchester clearly don’t think so.

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FCUM fans celebrate their club at full time after a 2 – 1 defeat

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One day, the Sky Sports and Premier League money train will derail, leaving many clubs to be reformed and built from the ground up. When this happens, the likes of FC United of Manchester, Chester, Darlington, Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon will pave the way. The future of football is fan owned, and England is starting to realise it.

Double Dutch – Exploring the Eredivisie

While there has been some excellent football played in the 2012/13 season, finding a close title race in Europe’s top leagues has been a more difficult task than that of Luis Suarez’s PR officer. Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus have run away with their domestic leagues, with the destination of these trophies decided long before May. In addition to this, three of the four Champions League semi-finalists are the same as they were last season, with only Borussia Dortmund to shake things up a bit.

However, there is a competition that has been extremely exciting and unpredictable, with no less than four teams competing for the title. With three games remaining in Holland, Vitesse Arnhem, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven and Ajax can all still lift the trophy. A run of six wins in a row has seen Ajax move into pole position to take the title for the third year in a row, but the slightest slip up could see them not only lose the title, but drop out of the Champions League altogether.

Having already explored some of the best that German and Italian football has to offer this season, I decided it was time to branch out into the Netherlands. The way fixtures are scheduled makes it possible to take in more than one game in a weekend. Tickets were secured for Ajax vs. Heerenveen fairly easily (for 12 Euros!), but Feyenoord vs. Vitesse Arnhem selling out within five minutes of going on sale left me looking for an alternative. An invite from the official Twitter account of VVV Venlo was enough to convince me that they should be my adopted side for the weekend, with the extremely helpful staff at the club assisting with not only a ticket for the game again FC Twente, but throwing in a black and yellow scarf for good measure. The trip confirmed, it was time to begin the Eredivisie adventure.

Ajax 1 – Hereenveen 1

Football may not be the first thing on the mind for everyone on a Friday night in Amsterdam, but this didn’t stop over 51,000 people packing in to the highly impressive Amsterdam ArenA. With the Dutch traditionally loving football and Ajax one of the biggest teams in Europe, I did not anticipate a problem when booking a taxi from the hotel to the ground, a distance of just over a mile. However, the man who turned up to transport us to the stadium not only had no idea where the stadium was, but had to ring his brother to confirm that a team called Ajax even existed. After these crisis talks, we finally arrived at the ground and sent the worlds worst taxi driver on his way.

The Amsterdam ArenA opened in 1996, and is considerably different in design to the majority of modern stadiums. The different coloured seats are presumably meant to represent something, but instead looks more like the construction team ran out of red chairs and had to finish off the design from eBay. The proud history of Ajax is reflected throughout the stadium, none more imposing for an away side than the numerous flags which hang from the roof, each one representing one of the many trophies won by the most successful Dutch team. This is a club which is used to winning, and the fans were in the mood for a party here. A win would send them 8 points clear with just 9 left to play for, all but securing the title for another season. “Stand up for the champions” was the most common chant in the build up to the game, which was topped off by a highly impressive flag and pyro display as the sides prepared for kick off.

In my many adventures around Europe I have seen many big flags and countless flares, but this was the first time I had seen a flag with a flare on.

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We were located in what is usually the away section of the stadium, reduced due to the small number of travelling support. It was fairly clear that the away end had previously been home to some rather shady characters, demonstrated by the wall separating the sets of supporters, best described as ‘spiky’. Quite how many people would choose to jump thirty feet or so on to the home fans wasn’t clear, but clearly nothing was being left to chance.

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The game got off to a fast start, with both sides more than willing to get forward and attack. Ajax took four points from Premier League winners Manchester City this season, and it was easy to see why. All that was missing was the finish, as the home side looked to get the title celebrations into full swing. A number of Ajax players have been linked to English clubs in the upcoming transfer window, with Viktor Fischer and Christian Eriksen showing signs of why they are so sought after. Meanwhile, Finnbogason of Heerenveen was one of the best players I have seen play all season, with the Icelandic forward having scored 27 times in 29 matches coming in to this game. Just as the tactics for the Welsh team involve ten large arrows pointing at Gareth Bale, this certainly seemed to be the plan for Heerenveen with Finnbogason.

Despite Heerenveen showing some impressive moments of class, it was not long until Ajax took the lead. The pace of the wingers was too much for the visitors to deal with at times, with a cross from the right side being headed into the net from close distance by the impressive Fischer. The atmosphere had been impressive up to this point, especially from the corners of the ground where the Dutch equivalent of Ultras were located, but it was about to go into overdrive. The stadium was actually shaking such were the celebrations from the Ajax fans, clearly expecting to go on to claim the victory they needed to virtually guarantee the title.

The red and whites would go on to waste several chances to extend their lead as half time approached, it certainly seemed at this point that the home side would take a fairly conclusive victory. However despite a strong performance on the pitch and a party atmosphere in the stands, the score remained just 1 – 0 as the referee blew his whistle for half time.

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If the Amsterdam locals expected the second half to follow the same title party trend, they had reckoned without the efforts of the determined visitors. Heerenveen may not be in the title picture, but European qualification is up for grabs and this was far from a meaningless fixture for them. The second half would be a very different story, as the side nicknamed De Superfriezen came out with a greatly improved attacking mentality. As with many German sides I have watched, a selection of Heerenveen songs were sung in English, including “Blue and White army” on repeat for much of the second period.

It was just eight minutes after the restart that the visitors found their equaliser, with star man Finnbogason finding the net once more. The ArenA fell silent, apart from the small corner of away fans who were celebrating wildly. This hadn’t been in the script for the home support, who were serenaded with “Always look on the bright side of life” by the travelling faithful. Perhaps content with a draw (why wouldn’t they be?) Heerenveen sat back and frustrated Ajax, who were now faced by the prospect of allowing their rivals right back into the title hunt.

As much as Ajax pressed, they could not find a way through the wall of defenders, with shots rebounding off the post and several superb saves, as well as some intricate passing which just couldn’t find a finish. At times Ajax passed the ball like Barcelona but shot like Barnet, One move in particular saw five or six beautifully flowing passes, with the ball setting up perfectly for a volley which would have been one of the goals of the season, instead, Hereenveen got a throw in. Ajax showed plenty of the class which has seen them produce a frankly ridiculous number of world-class players, but tonight at least the final touch wasn’t quite there.

Hereenveen almost won the game in the closing moments, as the pace of Finnbogason undid the Ajax defence once more. The crowd had recovered from the shock of the goal and was fully behind the team now, desperate to find a goal that would allow them to have their party after all, but it was not to be and the game came to a close at 1  – 1. The Heerenveen players saluted the away fans with cheers and fist pumps, while the disconsolate Ajax players trudged around the stadium to thank the fans for their support. It was clear which side was happier with the outcome, and the Eredivisie title race had just got exciting again.

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Unknown Yellow Team 7 – Unknown White Team 0

On the way to Venlo we happened to pass a match in what we would discover was around the ninth tier of Dutch football. Our presence increased the attendance at the game by 25% (there were two of us), with the players somewhat bemused by my lone support of the team in yellow. One of the linesmen was the father of a player involved in the game, with any idea neutrality blown out of the window when he celebrated a goal.

To be honest, I’ve mainly included this game in the report as an excuse to post this picture of me forming the one man Yellow Ultras.

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The game finished at least 7 – 0, with a player on the white team sent off for attempting to headbutt the referee. Even in the 9th tier, that is rarely a good idea. An unexpected extra match on the trip, it was soon time for a return to the top division.

VVV Venlo 2 – FC Twente 2

VVV Venlo have a highly unusual stadium unlike any I have visited before or any I am likely to visit again. Locals have nicknamed the ground ‘The Pit’, due to the fact that you must go down several stairs to reach the ground. It was a welcome departure from my trip to the Milan Derby, with the San Siro requiring more stairs to be covered than a Slinky convention. We made it to the ground a little later than intended, the small nature of the ground confusing the Sat Nav into thinking that Venlo played their games in a large forest. This is where we ended up having followed the instructions given by the voice of a robotic Dutch woman:

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A nice forest, but certainly not the home of VVV Venlo

Fortunately, some passing hikers were able to point us in the correct direction and we soon arrived at the home of the Venlose trots. While the Dutch supporters enjoy considerably more freedoms than fans in the Premier League, there is still a strong Against Modern Football feeling in the Netherlands. Numerous examples of this could be found, from stickers around the town of Venlo itself, to a banner in away end protesting the early kick off.

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A selection of Against Modern Football stickers from Venlo

I have seen football at Westfalenstadion, the San Siro, Amsterdam ArenA and the Nou Camp on my travels to Europe, stadiums famous around the world and on the wish list to attend for many lovers of the game. De Koel of VVV Venlo is unlikely to be on many bucket lists, but is certainly one of the most enjoyable places I have ever watched a football match. This almost certainly would not have been true if I was in the away end, with the visiting supporters looking more like prisoners, housed in a giant cage which took up about half of the stand behind the goal.

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The FC Twente fans in the away cage before kick off

The tickets given to us by the club were for the main stand, but we decided to walk around the ground to stand on the large terrace which ran across the entire length of the opposite side of the pitch. With Venlo in dire trouble at the bottom of the table, a loss in this game would cement their place in the bottom three. Unlike many leagues around Europe, there is only one automatic relegation spot in the Eredivisie, with the other two sides finishing in the bottom three forced to content relegation/promotion playoffs with the division below. The black and yellows would not be directly relegated if they failed to pick up three points against Twente, but it would extinguish any hope of avoiding these intense playoff games.

FC Twente were champions of the Netherlands a few years ago, considerably ahead of Venlo in the table and currently taking up 5th place, enough to gain them entry in to the playoffs at the top half of the table, with victory in these playoffs rewarded by a place in the Europa League. This meant it was an extremely important game for both sides, with Twente overwhelming favourites to take victory. However, just as Hereenveen had gone against the script against Ajax, so did Venlo here. A large banner running across the entire length of the stand behind the goal read in English “Our hope and our love will last forever”, and their were quickly a number of reasons for the home side to be hopeful.

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A banner from the FC Twente fans protests the early kick off time

A sustained spell of pressure after 15 minutes forced a corner on the right hand side, with a smart header by Nils Röseler ending up in the back of the net. An awkward moment for Röseler, who is currently on loan at Venlo from, you guessed it, FC Twente. To make matters worse, the opening goal against his own side was the first goal of the 21-year-old’s career. The Venlo fans were daring to dream, and celebrated the goal wildly. It would take a miracle for them to be lifted out of the bottom three by the end of the season, but just like the Hot Chocolate song, they believed in miracles.

Things were to get even better just two minutes later, as striker Uche Nwofor scored a goal which was half sublime, half ridiculous. The powerful number 9 went on a run, beating several players and working his way in to a good position just outside of the box. He had shown excellent skill to get into the position, but produced a poor shot. It rolled along the floor and looked as if the Twente goalkeeper could have gone to the bar for a pint and still got back in time to save it, but somehow he allowed the ball to trickle past him and in to the goal. You know a goalkeeper is embarrassed when he pretends to be injured after a goal, and this was the case here as the jubilant Venlo players celebrated their 2 – 0 lead with just twenty minutes on the clock.

At this stage it looked as if a rare and memorable victory could be on the cards for the relegation-troubled hosts, but all the quick flurry of goals did was give Twente the wakeup call they needed. They began to pass the ball well, breaking down Venlo several times and only denied by a combination of good goalkeeping and poor finishing. Somehow, Venlo held on until half time with the 2 – 0 lead still in place, but there were a number of worried faces around the stadium as half time pints and strange smelling cigarettes were enjoyed by the home crowd.

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The FC Twente manager was one of the angriest men in the world, and it was no surprise that his side upped their game further still after the break. The young Venlo side did their best to hang on, but it was only a matter of time until the stronger and more experienced visitors scored. With around half an hour to go, you could almost sense that the Venlo fans would settle for a draw at this stage, despite holding a 2 – 0 lead.

The breakthrough finally came for Twente, with Rasmus Bengtsson finding the net after some poor defending. The goal caused Venlo to fall apart, with Luc Castaignos scoring a second goal for Twente less than thirty seconds after the match restarted. The Twente fans no longer seemed to mind they were in a giant cage, celebrating the equaliser wildly. One of the ultras even managed to climb to the very top of the stand to celebrate, before eventually leaping from the top of the fence back into the away supporters. Luckily one of them was able to catch him, otherwise he would have required a trip to hospital rather than a prison.

At this point it looked as if Twente would go on to win the game quite comfortably, piling on the pressure and testing the goalkeeper on a number of occasions. To their credit, Venlo recovered sufficiently to take a point, but the result means their survival will be in doubt until the very last game of the season. With three matches remaining, they are three points ahead of the side in last place. They must avoid finishing below Willem II to give themselves another chance to survive, with the high drama that any form of playoffs bring.

I greatly enjoyed the visit to Venlo and sincerely hope they can survive for another season in the top division. Watching football in a pit surrounded by trees is a unique experience, and lovers of old school floodlights would certainly enjoy joining the 7,000 or so fans who call the club their own. While on the whole I have had more spectacular trips than this when visiting Germany, I will certainly be keeping a close eye on the Eredivisie from now on. With a number of strong sides competing for the title, and playoffs for both relegation and European qualification, there is always something on the line come the end of the season. The attraction of playoffs for European football is certainly an appealing one, Tottenham and Arsenal facing each other over two legs would be an incredible spectacle and something I am surprised Sky Sports has not already thought of. Unlike their German neighbours, it has been a while since Dutch teams were able to compete in the latter rounds of European competition. However, there are certainly lessons that can be learnt from this league and is yet more evidence of the shoddy way that English football is run and the way supporters are treated.

It appears that more and more English supporters are starting to sit up and take not that things do not have to be the way they are, and that fans in other countries manage to support highly competitive teams without having to sacrifice an enjoyable matchday experience with realistic prices and excellent atmospheres. English football cannot go on this way without ruining the game for fans forever, the only question is whether or not those in charge of the game in this country realise this before it is too late. For now, we will continue to have to view such leagues as the Bundesliga and the Eredivisie with envy.