Saturday, 12 September 2009

Grounds Without Games: Inverness

A twenty-minute walk from the nearest pub, or a Rory Delap throw-in's distance from either the Moray Firth or the main road north, the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium is a neat and tidy ground built with all the loving care of an edge-of-town outlet shopping centre. The main stand has its back to the water, the clubshop is a portakabin, and the nearest buildings of any note are a scrapyard and a bathroom tile warehouse.

On the plus side, Terry Butcher was nowhere to be seen.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Ground 112: Kalevi staadionil

The crowd had built up to four or five dozen by the time I got to Kalevi Stadium. What passed for a ticket office was at the back of the single stand, one man with a purse and a table. He spoke no English so I handed over fifty crowns and waited for some change that never came. It's clearly an expensive division, the Estonian Esiliiga.

At kick-off the home team, Parnu JK Vaprus, were in third place, having won four, drawn two and lost three of their first nine games. Their opponents Valga FC Warrior, who represent a city on the Estonian-Latvian border but play all of their home games in Tallinn, were two places and two points behind. From the outset it was clear that Valga were by far the better team, with two pacy wingers stretching the cumbersome home defence. They took the lead after ten minutes, doubled it thirty seconds after the restart, then sat back and let Parnu hoof the ball aimlessly towards their corner flags, much to the disgust of the home support (though the two away fans seemed fairly happy about it all).

Date: May 10th 2009
Admission: 50 EEK

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Ground 111: Arkādija, Riga

I only realised FS Metta and Valmiera were playing ten minutes before kick-off, and by the time I reached the stadium the visitors were one-nil up. There was an electronic scoreboard tacked to the fence on the far side of the pitch and the hundred or so spectators were all down one side, squinting into the sun from folding plastic seats. Directly across the road, Riga's Russian-speakers were commemorating the end of World War Two at the Victory Monument, the music almost but not quite drowning out the ten-year-old kid in front of me who insisted on banging on a drum and chanting "No! No! No!" whenever Valmiera attacked. Thankfully, that wasn't often.

Hoof it, hack it, head it seemed to be the limit of both teams' ability. What little skill there was came from Metta's left-winger, who looked like an 18-year-old Chris Waddle but had the pace of an 80-year-old Peter Beardsley. Nonetheless, he slammed home the equalising goal halfway through the second half, stumbling through a block challenege as the other visiting defenders helpfully cleared the area.

In the end a draw was a fair result.

Date: May 9th 2009
Admission: Free

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Riga's Other Stadiums

A twenty-minute walk from the railway station in one of Riga's dodgier neighbourhoods, Daugavas Stadions, the sometime home of Daugava Riga and Latvia's youth international teams, is exactly what you always imagined Eastern European football grounds to be: triangular floodlights like microphones on a 1940s radio show, a running track and roofless stand, and a monolithic scoreboard behind one goal.

Across town at the far end of Barona iela, LU Stadions used to be the home of FK Riga before they went belly-up at the start of the year. Squeezed between two of the city's busiest streets, it's the kind of place a skint English non-league team might share with the local cricket club. The grass was just a little too long, the fences beginning to rust, a few old men were hammering down nails in the main stand, and the signs outside were still advertising the start of the 2007 season.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Ground 110: Skonto Stadions, Riga

"Football here's like Celtic - Rangers," the Manchester United fan I work with once told me. "The Latvians had FK Riga until they went bust, the Russians have Skonto." Champions thirteen seasons in a row, nowadays Skonto are definitely the third force in Latvian football, their crowds usually no higher than three or four hundred. They had started well, quickly equalising an opening goal from Ventspils's Georgian winger Zurabs Mentešašvili, before running out of ideas in the second half. Now they found themselves two goals down.

To my left the fifty or so ultras, or the Ghosts as they like to call themselves, were still beating drums and chanting something about Skonto in Russian. On the other side of the stand (there was only one open) Ventspils fans were letting off flares to celebrate their side's third goal. Paul Ashworth, Skonto's English manager, had his hands in his suit pockets, shaking his head like an angry Roy Keane. Looking up to make a forward pass, Skonto's Brazilian left-back trod on the ball. The laughter from the man next to me could be heard clear across the pitch.

Tickets: 3 lats.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Ground 109: Daugavas Stadions, Liepaja

Deciding not to brave the icy Baltic wind, blowing white-sand straight in from the beach less than a hundred metres away, we watched Liepaja's four-nil tonking of Skonto Riga the civilised way: through the glass window of the stadium bar, at the top of the main stand. There were nine hundred fans in attendance for Latvia's game of the day, including a few dozen who, like us, had made the three and a half hour trip from the capital. Skonto's keeper looked like a very young Pavel Srnicek. Unfortunately, he played like one too, and was at fault for at least two of the goals. In the middle of the pitch, Liepaja's Maksims Rafalskis ran the game, smacking the final goal straight through the goalkeeper's half-hearted tumble from twenty-five yards. Skonto responded with a long punt to no-one. It was that kind of day.

Admission: 2 lats.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Ground 108: Jurmalas Stadions, Sloka

The pitch looked more suitable for growing vegetables than playing football, which was just as well given Jurmala's up-and-under style of play extended even to the rare occasions when they found themselves within shooting distance of the Ventspils goal. Their Tevez-lookalike Argentinian, Kristian Torres, ran around aimlessly in midfield, waving his arms and being eased off the ball by Ventspils's slow-moving centre-halves. "Yellow and blue, stronger," sang the fifty or so away fans in Russian.

We sat in the only stand, swigging beer we'd smuggled in past the black-suited nightclub bouncers on the turnstiles. The crowd was no more than three hundred, plus about half as many again peering through the wire fence behind one goal. Jurmala played like a Sunday league team; Ventspils at least made a pretence of passing the ball, winning easily by three goals to nil. Other than the flares which greeted each goal, the best you could say about the game is that the sun stayed out until the final whistle.

Tickets: 2 lats.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Grounds Without Games: FK Ventspils

Ventspils Stadions, as I found out later, is the ground where Newcastle didn't play (their UEFA Cup tie was switched to Skonto Stadions in Riga, no doubt due to the fact that Ventspils has more trees around the pitch than stands). A short walk south of the bus station, it's apparently one of the "most famous football stadia in the Latvia". Access on non-match days is by hop over the turnstiles.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Latvian Football

The 2009 Vrsliga season kicks-off a month earlier than usual, in the middle of March. In Riga, this means the first two weeks need to be played indoors at the Olympic Sports Centre, starting with next Saturday's double header between SK Blāzma and Skonto Riga (2pm) and Olimpics Riga against SK Liepājas Metalurgs (6pm). The following day, champions Ventspils begin their title defence against FK Daugava Riga at the same venue (2pm).

With one thing and another, I won't get to see a game at Skonto Stadions until the back end of April.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Grounds Without Games: Stirling Albion

"So it was with great pride that Stirling Albion moved into their brand new stadium - one of the most modern stadiums in Scotland".
A decade and a half on, Forthbank no longer looks quite so cutting edge. One of a rash of new stadiums handily sited on the arse end of nowhere (think Bolton or Middlesbrough), it's hemmed in by retail units, miles from the town centre but just a left turn away from a Morrisons and a Pizza Hut.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Ground 107: Olympic Sports Centre, Riga

An unexpected bit of Baltic football - and free too. Coughed and spluttered on by a crowd of around fifty, Latvia's Under-19s beat their Lithuanian counterparts one-nil thanks to some comedy defending midway through the second half. There wasn't much to interest Dennis Wise: Lithuania had a couple of mildly inventive forwards while the home side were uniformally awful. If this is the best of Latvia's young talent, the chances of them repeating their Euro 2004 qualification are about as good as Newcastle winning the Champions League.

Date: February 15th 2009
Entrance: Free

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Grounds Without Games: Viktoria Plzeň

I snuck in to the Struncovy Sady Stadion in February 2007, on my way to visit the Pilsner Urquell Brewery (virtually next door and much more appealing). It's one of those awful municipal stadiums built to accommodate as many sports as possible without suiting any of them. The capacity is seven and a half thousand, with the obligatory running track spoiling the view of the pitch and three out of the four stands open to the elements.

When you're a fan of a team as bad as Plzeň, the least you could expect is a little bit of comfort.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Skonto Stadions

The pitch at Skonto Stadions, arctic home of ex-champs Skonto Riga and the Latvian national team. So that's why there's no winter football in the Baltics.

The ground's just outside central Riga, was built nine years ago, has three permanent stands and holds just under ten thousand spectators - more than enough for the kind of crowds domestic football currently attracts.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

St James' Park Gallery

On the pitch at last. The Gallowgate End, where I first watched football and had my last season ticket.

In the changing rooms. Every team has a weak link - ours more than most.

The view from the East Stand posh seats. Newcastle United versus Coventry City, FA Cup, 2005.

My last visit to St James', a two-all draw with Derby County in the dying days of Fat Sam. The skyline was infinitely more entertaining than the pitch. For all his attempts at revisionism, watching Newcastle under Allardyce was more punishment than pleasure.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Places I Have Been: Liberec

The choice was much easier when I lived in the Czech Republic. My flat was in Liberec, my job was in Liberec, even my school was called Liberec. It didn't take long to get the hint. Fortunately, Slovan Liberec were even quite good, just not so much while I was there.

My first game was a two-nil win against Sparta Prague. "Don't start thinking it's like this every week," the bloke next to me warned.

It wasn't.

Football in Latvia

I live in Latvia, a country where the football season runs from early April to October. Marooned without a game, I've been concentrating on the tricky matter of which local team to support. Obviously, and despite their recent crap form, Skonto are out. Ventspils is too far away, Jurmala too posh. Which leaves a straight choice between the two other Riga clubs, Olymps (who play in red) and FK (who don't).

In the meantime I'm making do with ice hockey.