Saturday, 7 December 2013

On Seeing the 100% Perfect Goal

Everyone has their favourite type of goal, right?  For some it's a dipping pass met first time on the volley and angled past the unprepared goalkeeper.  For others only a solo effort will do, a lone player picking gaps through a defence before casually placing the ball in the net.  There are those who go for a curling free kick, others for diving headerslast-gasp winners,  long-range thunderbolts or this gloriously languorous chip.  Me? One beautiful April evening, exactly one hundred and seventeen minutes into the 1995-96 Premier League football season, I shared a crowded terrace with the back end of a supermarket and saw the 100% perfect goal.

It started with a goalkeeper. Bolton's Keith Branagan, who'd already let in three the previous Saturday and would concede a season average of almost two goals a game, punted a kick downfield, where Warren Barton, England's most expensive defender, outjumped the journeyman Dutch striker Fabian De Freitas, sending his header back over halfway.  Peter Beardsley cushioned the dropping ball to the feet of David Ginola, languidly advancing down the left wing.  As the opposing full-back, Scott Green, scurried back into position,  Ginola touched the ball forward with his right boot, shaping to cut inside and then arcing a left-footed cross from the just inches inside the touchline before the ambling Saša Ćurčić, more adept at chasing women than wingers, could make it back to help.


The dipping ball was perfectly placed, Les Ferdinand barely breaking stride as he rose between  Gudni Bergsson and Alan Stubbs, glancing a header down and away from Branagan's dive into the bottom corner of the net.   "That's a great cross, you know.  Ferdinand's in there....oh yes! It only took a touch, but it was a classy touch from Les Ferdinand," the commentator says appreciatively.   Beardsley, Robert Lee and Keith Gillespie embrace the beaming goalscorer. From start to end, it was a goal of almost effortless elan. 


Burnden Park had opened in 1895, hosted Nat Lofthouse and an FA Cup Final replay and had its hatted-and-suited crowds immortalised in LS Lowry's distinctive matchstick style. Two years later it was demolished and replaced by an Asda.  Gone too were Keegan's Entertainers, dismantled by the joyless Kenny Dalglish, whose New Model Army football saw Ginola's artistry replaced by Des Hamilton's arse and Ferdinand sold to Tottenham Hotspur after the purchase of a slight, nerve-stricken Dane.   "I can't play for that man," Ginola told a group of Newcastle fans in an unguarded moment at Nice Airport. In 1999, he won both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards.  Dalglish had already been sacked; Des Hamilton went on loan to Sheffield United and Huddersfield Town. 

Ferdinand left Tyneside after scoring fifty goals in just eighty-four games (you can see them all here). "The time I spent (at Newcastle) was the best period in my career," he later said.  It was a sentiment shared by most Newcastle supporters.  When the Magpies next travelled to face Bolton, the pitch was at an out-of-town arena by a motorway in Horwich, the only pub within walking distance refused to serve football fans, and Nathan Blake scored the only goal on a dispiritingly cold December night.

A sad story, don't you think? 

Sunday, 10 November 2013

A British History of South Korean Football

At the end of 1999, when I left behind a dull post-university job and my Newcastle United season ticket and moved to Daejeon, South Korea, to teach English as a Foreign Language, foreign supporters of K-League clubs were still thin enough on the ground to merit inclusion in the matchday programme. On the pitch, the imports came from other Asian countries,  Latin America, Africa or Eastern Europe: Daejeon had only the Senagalese defender Papa Oumar Coly until midway through the 2001 season, when an out-of-condition striker arrived from the Saudi club Al-Ittihad.  "You know At-kin-son?" a student asked, giving equal precedence to each of the three syllables.  "Aston Villa and Ipswich."   A striker once capable of doing this had just signed for a cash-strapped provincial South Korean football team.  It was all a bit like Kevin Keegan joining Newcastle United - except King Kev wasn't  stuck in communal accommodation, reduced to hiring 'Charlie's Angels' from his local video store in a vain bid to pass the time,or loaned out to Jeonbuk Motors after labouring his way through three largely forgettable games.  Aside from our shared knowledge of the city's less exciting suburbs and the fact that neither of us was in any fit shape to last a full 90 minutes, Dalian and I were both minor - in my case incredibly minor and consisting of once being mistaken for a player while out shopping in a Daejeon home shirt  - parts in a Korean-British footballing exchange that had lasted at least a hundred years...

Koreans had been kicking balls around for more than a thousand years before a team representing the southern part of the peninsula arrived in London for the 1948 Summer Olympic Games.  On August 2nd, in front of 6,500 fans at Dulwich Hamlet, a fledgling Republic of Korea team beat Mexico 5-3, advancing to a second-game rout at Selhurst Park in which eventual gold medallists Sweden scored twelve without reply in a one-sided quarter-final victory. Sixty-four years on, a crowd approximately ten times bigger than the one at Crystal Palace saw South Korea eliminate the host nation on penalty kicks in the 2012 Games.  Although Brazil cantered to a 3-0 victory in a semi-final played at Old Trafford, the Koreans deservedly took bronze by defeating Japan, Arsenal’s Park Chu-yeong hitting the first of his side's two goals.  “Korean football, which surprised the world…by reaching the semi-final of the 2002 World Cup, has opened a new chapter in its history by winning its first-ever Olympic medal,” reported the English edition of the Chosun Ilbo.

Depending on which version of the tale you believe, the modern game of association football was first played on the Korean peninsula in either 1882 or 1896.  What nobody disputes is that it was brought there by the British. In June 1882 the HMS Flying Fish docked at Incheon while Vice Admiral Willis, commanding officer of the China station, met representatives of King Gojong to conclude a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between the two nations.  The crew, under orders not to leave the ship, found the deck too narrow to play football on and so moved their game to a neighbouring pier, where a small crowd of children hesitantly gathered to watch.  When the Flying Fish sailed for China, two leather football footballs were left behind.  Their legacy, if true, proved more enduring than Willis’s treaty, which was re-negotiated, on much more favourable terms to the European power, the following year.

 The country's first officially documented kickabout was contested by Korean students at Seoul’s Royal English School in November 1896. “The boys go at it with…vim and earnestness,” reported a correspondent for the English-language newspaper The Independent, “chasing after the leather sphere…as if their lives depended on the game.”  Six months later, sailors from HMS Narcissis lost by a single goal to an RES team featuring a mix of Koreans and their British teachers. The match was “well fought”, The Independent noted, praising one of the home players for an exhibition of skill which “would not have disgraced an English public schoolboy”.  A rematch, held on December 16th 1897,  saw the hosts win 6-2 in front of a “considerable” crowd.  “The most prominent feature of the game,” thought The Independent, “was the plucky way in which the Koreans tackled their stronger and heavier opponents.”  

Tokyo's annexation of Korea in 1910, tacitly supported by the British as part of the earlier Anglo-Japanese Alliance,  signalled the ending of diplomatic ties until the eve of the Korean War in 1949.  It took another two decades before footballing links were similarly restored,  Middlesex Wanderers, founded to "promote good fellowship among football clubs and other sporting organisations throughout the world", and featuring amateur players from clubs such as St Albans and Oxford City, defeating the South Korean national side 2-1 at Seoul's Hochang Stadium.  It was the first of five visits by the touring club, culminating in a 6-1 defeat by the country's U23 team during the 1977 President's Cup.   Among the goalscorers in that last game was Cha Bum-kun,  Korean football's first export to European football when he moved to the Bundesliga the following year. His son, Cha Du-ri. would later forge a career of his own, going on to lift the Scottish Cup and Premier League during a two-season spell at Glasgow Celtic.


The arrival of the younger Cha and his title-winning compatriot Ki Sung-yeung at Parkhead was another link in a sporting exchange which began with Dundee United's journey to Seoul for a 1971 pre-season tour.  "It was regarded as missionary work (but)...they found the standard of football higher than had been anticipated", is the Scottish side's laconic assessment of a three-game tour which saw two single-goal victories and a 3-3 draw with the national team, who subsequently lost twice to Coventry City at Seoul's Dongdaemun Stadium the following year.  In 1976, League Cup holders Manchester City played in Busan and Daegu, winning both games by three goals to nil, while a Byun Byung-joo strike proved no more than a consolation in a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal at the 1990 Caltex Cup in Singapore.  Kilmarnock's 1995 visit was significantly more fruitful, the understrength Scottish side and their six travelling supporters going down 5-1 in what was their third Korea Cup game in just five days. 

The Ayshire side did only marginally worse than the experimental Scotland team Berti Vogts' sent out at Busan just two weeks before the 2002 World Cup finals.  On a sultry May evening, an "infinitely superior" South Korean eleven put four goals past Neil Sullivan in the Scottish goal.  Five days later, at Seogwipo's World Cup Stadium, future Manchester United and QPR player Park Ji-sung equalised Michael Owen's opener in what The Guardian derided as "a one-dimensional performance... of launch 'n' leap football" from Sven-Goran Erikkson's side.

Discounting friendlies and games involving members of the Royal Navy, Owen's 26th minute goal was the second scored by an English forward in South Korea.  The aforementioned Dalian Atkinson - recipient of Match of the Day's Goal of the Season award in 1992-93 - having scrambled in a single effort while sporting the redcurrant colours of Daejeon. "I've still got it and the more I play the better I will get," Atkinson had said on his arrival in the country, but he was overweight, depressed and hopelessly out-of-form.  After eight appearances for two clubs, he announced his retirement from football at the age of 33.

Ian Porterfield enjoyed an equally inauspicous arrival, the Scotsman turning to some familiar faces as he sought to rebuild an ailing Busan team which had won just six games and finished next to bottom of the 2002 K-League season.  Assisted first by former Aberdeen stalwart Drew Jarvie and later by ex-Swindon Town boss Tom Jones, Porterfield snapped up Jamie Cureton and Andy Cooke, the two Englishmen forming a short-lived striking partnership that ended when Cureton returned home after four goals in twenty-one games. "I wasn't happy in Korea," he explained. "Within the first month I realised I was not getting what I wanted out of football, with the language barrier to overcome and the fact the build up to games was so low-key. The crowds were small and there wasn't the same buzz you get over here".  Cooke stayed on, contributing thirteen goals and almost as many yellow cards as Busan finished ninth in 2003.   Porterfield added Chris Marsden, an FA Cup finalist with Southampton the previous year, in time for the 2004 season, but after two games and one goal the midfielder departed for Sheffield Wednesday.  That left only Cooke, whose six strikes helped the south coast team to a seventh-place finish and the Korean Cup. "With our budget that was like winning the Scottish Premier with Dunfermline Athletic," Porterfield said after his team beat Bucheon in a Christmas Day final.  Homesickness meant Cooke soon returned to Britain.  “The money was more than you could ever imagine getting here in England, but I just thought enough was enough and I wanted to get my family home. There are only so many shops and restaurants you can go around and in the evening, the highlight of our day, every day, was going for something to eat."   A fourth English striker, the nomadic ex-Newcastle United junior Richard Offiong, later wound up at Chunnam Dragons only to find the prospect of Saturday afternoons in Doncaster more enticing after just one game.  When Porterfield himself left in 2006 to take up an offer with the Armenian national side, British football's brush with East Asia's oldest professional league had come to an end.

Nonetheless, other contacts remain.  In 2005, Premier League champions Chelsea, sponsored by the Seoul-based conglomerate Samsung, became England's first top-flight visitors since Manchester City, beating Suwon Samsung Bluewings 1-0 on a pre-season tour.   Spurs, Bolton Wanderers, Reading and Sunderland all travelled to the peninsula to take part in the Unification Church-organised Peace Cup, forming or solidifying links that has seen the likes of Lee Young-pyo, Seoul Ki-Hyeon,  Lee Chung-yong and Ji Dong-won plying their trade in the Premier League.  Outside the top-flight the transfer process hasn't been entirely one-sided: Bucheon, beaten finalists when Ian Porterfield's Busan lifted the Korean FA Cup had temporarily vanished from the footballing map when their owners, SK Energy, decided to relocate the team to Seogwipo's underused stadium on a volcanic island three hundred miles south of their former home.  Inspired in part by the example of AFC Wimbledon, Bucheon's abandoned fans started their own club.  In 2009, over a century after the British first played in Korea, FC United of Manchester went down 3-0 in front of a crowd of 23,000 at Bucheon Sports Complex.  The wheel had come full circle. 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Football in the Vanished World: Bukovyna Chernivtsi

"English games are played, as out on the vast exercising ground we saw football in full swing, several games going on". 

"I also played a bit of football, near our house there was a football field; it was the town's football field, called Maccabi. We had a really good football team. Sports...were very popular among the Jewish organizations".

For almost two centuries the eastern gateway to the Habsburg Empire, Bukovina was ceded to Romania between the two world wars and is now one of the sleepiest parts of south-western Ukraine.  Two hundred kilometres south of Lviv, and a four-hour bus ride from Suceava across the EU border, Chernivtsi, the quirky, down-at-heel provincial capital,  was formerly known  as Little Vienna and Jerusalem on the Prut; the second city of Austrian Galicia, Czernowitz / Cernăuți was a cosmopolitan mélange of ethnicities, home to Romanian, German, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Polish speakers,  the birthplace of the poet Paul Celan, and one of the first places in modern day Ukraine to embrace the sport of football.


The first organised team Turn-und Sportverein Czernowitz, was founded by German students in the autumn of 1903,  the black and whites outlasting several name changes and two  losing appearances in the semi-final of the Romanian Cup until they were finally broken up in 1940, when the entire German-speaking population, including the playing staff and officials of  Fußballsektion Jahn Czernowitz, was forcibly transported out of Bukovina in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet pact.  Many Bukovinan Germans settled in or around Stuttgart, their sporting legacy surviving with TSV Jahn Büsnau, who currently play in a district league at the twelth level of the German football league.

  
A Polish team, Polonia Cernăuţi, was established after the German club splintered in 1912, and went on to become the region's dominant force during its twenty-two years in the Kingdom of Romania.  Despite rarely owning a stadium of its own, Polonia spent three seasons in Divizia A, won the Bukovinan regional championships and held the Romanian national side to a 1-1 draw in front of 12,000 spectators in September 1922 before they too were dissolved in 1940. Fotbal Club Dragoş Vodă Cernăuţi, the favoured team of the city's Romanian speakers, won the Bukovina championship four times between 1925 and 1933 but managed only a single season in the national top-flight, during which they won four out of eighteen games.  They did, though, share briefly in the development of Cernăuţi's most famous footballing son, Alfred Eisenbeisser transferring from Jahn shortly before representing Romania at football at the 1930 World Cup .  Appearing against Peru and Uruguay,  Eisenbeisser contracted pneumonia on the return journey and was forced to stay behind when the ship docked at Genoa.  Rumours of his death spread through Bukovina; when he finally reached home, he found his mother busy preparing the funeral arrangements.  Eisenbeisser recovered sufficiently  to place thirteenth in the figure skating championships at the 1936 Winter Olympics, win another seven caps, and turn out over 140 times in the colours of Venus București.  Venus, like Dragos, were wound up in the late-1940s, having won eight national championships before Romania entered the war.


In 1919, when the region was annexed to the Kingdom of Romania,  Czernowitz's Jewish population  had reached almost 30,000 people - or a third of the entire town.  The city twice elected Jewish mayors, streets were named after Jewish authors, rabbis and prominent city councillors, the first ever Yiddish was hosted there in 1908, and the community's two club sides,  Maccabi and Hakoah Cernăuţi, enjoyed regular success in regional competitions. Maccabi, the oldest, had first taken to the field in 1909-1910, and would later supply a Romanian international of their own when Isidor Gansl, formerly of Fernencvaros and Hakoah Vienna, was capped against Turkey in 1923.  Hakoah played their first competitive game in 1920, and reached Divizia A and the Romanian Cup quarter-finals before they were subsumed by Maccabi eleven years later.  In 1932, a victory over Jahn resulted in a pitch invasion during which Maccabi players were attacked by supporters carrying revolvers shouting "Jews go to Palestine!"  By 1941, the team had been disbanded and many of its players transported to camps.  When the Soviets rolled back three years later, almost 50,000 Bukovina Jews had perished, either shot out of hand or loaded in to cattle trucks.  Jewish Czernowitz vanished in all but memory, its synagogue turned into a cinema six years after Celan published 'Todesfuge' (Death Fugue):  Death is a gang boss...his eyes are blue. He shoots you with leaded bullets, his aim is true. 


Eight years after the traumatised city was incorporated into the newly-expaned Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Bukovya Chernivtsi emerged.  In 1958, a team including veteran inside-right Evgeny Archangelskiy, scorer of four goals during Dynamo Moscow's 1945 tour of England, made its first appearances in the Soviet League.  Three decades later, with the Soviet Union on the verge of dissolution, Chernivtsi finally made their mark on the national stage, finishing in fifth place in the 1991 First League, a division which included Rotor Volgograd, Kuban Krasnodar, Zenit St Petersburg and Tavria Simferopol, the surprise first champions of independent Ukraine.  Present in the top-flight of Ukrainian football for three seasons, the yellow and blacks were relegated along with Metalist Kharkiv in 1993-94 and have since spent eleven seasons in the second tier and the same number in the third.  Narrowly surviving extinction this summer, survival is an achievement in itself in a country where four of the original twenty top-flight clubs no longer exist in any form whatsoever. 

Chernivtsi has recently spruced itself up, with its red-brick university added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2011 and both Central Square and the nearby Olga Kobylianska Street repaved and pedestrianised. The football stadium is just off Holovna, a ten-minute walk from the centre on the other side of Shevchenko Park.  The Bukovyna, the city's fanciest hotel, is directly opposite, the bus station another ten minutes up the road.  When I went there, the stadium was empty except for a small group of workmen repairing seats and three sprinters practising their starts.  On a dirt pitch next to the ground, a shirts against skins game had just got underway.  I watched from the top of the uncovered stand, dust and sunflower shells blowing across my feet.
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16961#sthash.lZBtFxS3.dpuf
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16961#sthash.lZBtFxS3.dpufnewly-expanded Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, it was another eight years until Bukovina Chernivtsi emerged

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/12/22/3147883/journey-through-time-in-ukraines.html#storylink=cp. Three unsuccessful seasons in the Ukrainian top flight  followed before the club was relegated alongside Metalist Kharkiv at the end of 1993-9

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ground 225: Central Stadium, Mykolaiv

If you're lucky, the bus ride along the single lane highway connecting the cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv takes a shade over two and a half hours.  Tell an Odessan that you're making the trip and they'll assume you're going to the zoo, the fourth oldest in the Russian Empire and still the most famous in Ukraine.  Say the same to someone from Mykolaiv and they'll answer with a look mingling equal parts incomprehension and pity. "Why?" one asked.  "Everything's so dirty."  "There's football," I countered.  "Is there?"  He paused for a second: "The stadium's so small."


"The juggernaut of the Soviet shipbuilding industry"; "Ukraine's hard drug capital (and) the official entry point of AIDS into the country"; "The best part of Mykolaiv is actually leaving."  While the guidebooks aren't exactly complimentary, my last visit to the city left more positive memories: its pedestrianised main street - a mini version of Odessa's Deribasovskaya without the cobbles or fancy prices - monuments to Lenin, shipyard workers and the Red Army, and a billboard for an international marriage agency which read 'A Slav Girl! We are born to make you happy!'  (When I posted the picture online, someone immediately replied with: "Do you think they've forgotten the 'e'?"). Back then I also joined a stray dog and a crack team of groundskeepers when I snuck in to Central Stadium, home to Mykolaiv's two football teams - third division Enerhiya and MFC (Municipal Football Club), at 93 years old the country's longest surviving club side.


Plucked from the West Division of the Soviet Second League - where they'd been up against the continental might of Dynamo Brest, Zaria Balti, Goyazan Kazakh, Torpedo Taganrog and Qarabağ Ağdam - in 1991, Mykolaiv's top team briefly went head to head with the giants of Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk before sinking into obscurity at the end of the decade, five years after Bukovyna Chernivtsi had taken their own last bow from the Ukrainian Premier League.  The clubs' most notable recent achievement has been to survive at all - shorn of finance, they sit twelfth and thirteenth in the sixteen team Druha Liga, just a single point above relegation.


I jump off the bus at Radyanska, which has a McDonald's at one end, Lenin at the other and most of the city's best places to eat somewhere in between.  The football ground's another twenty minutes away at the very end of Lenina Prospekt, its entrance flanked by a pair of anchors and an outdoor market.  Mykolaiv scarves and badges are spread across the pavement but the only things changing hands are fliers for trips to Chernomorets Odessa or Shakhtar Donetsk.  A mural shows two Mykolaiv fans clad in Fred Perry and Adidas stamping on an opposition supporter's face, 'Stay True' written along the top.  Inside, the stands are sparsely populated.  "Mykolaiv," chorus a bunch of 50 or so flag-waving ultras at one end of the pitch.  "Mykolaiv," reply a dozen at the other.


The home centre-forward skies ten metres over from five metres out. Bukovyna have a free kick that the goalkeeper flaps back towards the wall.  One of the ultras goes topless, his face covered by a scarf and Guy Fawkes mask. There are lots of sliding tackles and my ears get a bit cold.  And then the referee blows for half-time.  You can almost hear the relief.

The second period starts very much like the first. Mykolaiv's number nine hits his own player with one shot and gets closer to a steeplechase hurdle than goal with a second.  Moments later, Bukovyna break down the right and hammer a cross into the centre that Vasyl Palagnyuk prods home.  With just over an hour played, Chernivtsi score again, Polish midfielder Oleksandr Temeriwskyj firing a daisycutter under the goalkeeper's late dive.  "Are you from Finland?" a passing drunk asks.  "We used to have a real team.  Can you believe it?"


There are fifteen minutes left when Mykolaiv finally hit the target, Aleksandr Kablash, chesting down a pass and volleying past the keeper.  The home side threaten intermittently, the ultras sing to the very end, but most of the few thousand fans shuffle silently home.  It's an hour's walk to the bus station,  past a sword-wielding statue and a T34 tank, then another 100 metres from the entrance to the zoo.  "Odessa, Odessa," the bus driver shouts.  I text someone for the Newcastle score. "2-1," he replies, "Pardew's job safe for another week."

Admission: Free
Date:  October 5th 2013

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Ground 224: Krystal Stadium, Kherson

"Ooh, heaven is a place on earth," pumps tinnily through the marshrutka's speaker system as the bus grinds, bumps, clunks and clatters its way through the outskirts of Odessa. "What are the chances of getting any sleep?" Richard, visiting from England, mutters, his backpack lodged between knees, nose and the perma-reclined seat in front.  "What do you reckon?" I laugh.  Two and a half hours later I wake up next to a T34 tank in Mykolaiv, having dozed my way through three quarters of the trip.  Richard looks genuinely pained.


"You're going where?" the staffroom had spluttered when I told them I was off to Kherson. "There's nothing there except mail-order brides and watermelons."  A student added "catfish kebabs."  Another just shrugged: "It's not Odessa." The first thing we spot as we enter the city is a MiG on a plinth.  The second's the Sovietski bus station, the third a car crash and the fourth a dead dog.  "The air's a bit chewy," says Richard as I try to navigate to the centre using a pen-drawn map and what I remember from a couple of minutes research on Google.  The fifth, after we drop our bags at the hotel and take a short cut through Lenin Park, are the hulking, rust-flecked floodlights at the Stadion Krytal.  "How much do you think it'll be?" Richard asks.  "10 hryvnia (75p)?!" stammers an old bloke at the turnstile. "Forget it!"


The ground's a concrete bowl with paving stone over the running track, a grassed-over long jump pit and shiny new plastic seats bolted over the terraces on one side.   Kherson kick off, booting a crossfield pass back off the mound of loose rock that runs along the entire length of the far touchline.  A chant of "Krystal Kherson" goes up from somewhere behind, a handful of people clapping along while the rest of the crowd just turn around and laugh.  After the inauspicious opening, Krystal actually play some decent one-touch football, their number nine doing a passable Robin van Persie impression against the four-man Shakhtar Sverdlovsk defence. When Vadym Kucherevskiy nods them ahead from a corner, we're treated to an ear-splitting rendition of 'Ole, ole, ole, ole, Kherson, Kherson' from the speaker stack behind the dugouts and some barking from the fans at the back.  The rest of the half plays out at a languid pace, Kherson doubling their lead from the penalty spot only moments before the break - "The scorer's Roman Lensky, thank you for the goal" says the stadium announcer - before the visitors have a player sent-off, to general bemusement, for a trip midway inside his own half. Happy 235th birthday, Kherson.


Shakhtar make two changes at the interval, come out five minutes early and take another quarter of an hour to reduce the deficit with everyone but Vadym Salatin distracted by a home substitution.  With just over ten minutes left Anton Sharko levels with an over-the-shoulder dink, and in the reshuffle that follows Kherson's centre forward ends up dumped at left back while a centre half is dragged off the pitch and given a public bollocking by the irate coach.  The game ends with a panicky Krystal eleven stringing eight across the back, evacuating midfield and misfiring passes out for goalkicks at the other end of the pitch.  Even all the way out here, where the Dnieper empties into the Black Sea on the edge of the Ukrainian steppe, it's just like watching Newcastle United.


At the final whistle we head back to Ushakova and the John Howard Pub, where Richard orders 'Jerked-off horse meat' and a massive screen shows Shakhtar Donetsk giving Poltava the runaround.  Metres away, Lenin faces the setting sun, pigeon on his head, back turned to a Renault sign, staring past a branch of Privat Bank.


Admission: 10 hr (75p)
Date: Saturday 21st September

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Ground 223: Action Park, Shankhouse FC

December 17th 1887 was a pivotal day in the history of three of England's biggest clubs.  At St James' Park, home gound of Newcastle West End, Shankhouse Black Watch's amateur footballers went down 9-0 to holders Aston Villa in the fourth round of the FA Cup.  The losing team were amply compensated, the £100 gate receipts - a new record for football in Northumberland - double what Villa had offered to switch the tie to Birmingham, but there was a more enduring financial legacy for their temporary hosts, West End's secretary Tom Watson later resigning his position partly due to criticism of his handling of the 7,000 crowd.  Watson had secured the lease on St James' Park and helped make West End the city's pre-eminent team; his departure contributed towards a decline which saw the club subsumed by Newcastle East End five years later.  East End's return to prominence began with Watson's arrival in 1888, though the ambitious Tynesider - "the first truly great manager in English football history" - soon moved on to Wearside, building a Sunderland team which won three out of four Football League championships between 1892 - the year his former clubs came together as Newcastle United - and 1895.  Lured to second division Liverpool by a salary of £300 per year, Watson masterminded the club's first two league titles and remained in the post until his death from pneumonia in 1915, making him Anfield's longest serving manager.


While Watson - at one point the highest paid secretary in England - seized on football's increasing professionalism, Shankhouse's time as one of the dominant forces in north-east football was drawing to a close.  Northumberland's first clubs, Tyne and Newcastle Rangers, started as leisure pursuits for the middle classes, their playing staff drawn from university students and schoolmasters, but the founding of Shankhouse by members of the local Primitive Methodist Chapel bible class in 1883 - after a team of pit workers from the village took on soldiers from the Black Watch camped at Cramlington - marked football's transition into a pastime for the region's industrial working classes.  Within a year there were seventeen teams in Shankhouse - population 1,000 - alone, although only two, Black Watch and Red Caps, lasted more than a single season.  Not everyone was happy with the changing demographics - an early visit to Newcastle left the city council complaining about "the foul language used by supporters of the Shankhouse club", while Tyneside newspapers later sniffily reported the dismissal of two Black Watch players for "roughness" and "kicking opponents in a most malicious manner."


Northumberland Challenge Cup winners in 1887, thrashing Newcastle West End 5-1 in front of 5,000 spectators at Chillingham Road,  Shankhouse's miners played on land rented from a local farmer but were talented enough to win six of the first eleven Northumberland Senior Cups, including three in a row starting in 1893, when they were also champions of the Northern Football Alliance and played Notts County in the first round of the FA Cup. Prominent Black Watch players included goalkeeper Jack MilburnRobert Willis and Willie Thompson, scorer of Newcastle United's first Football League hat-trick. Another future Magpie,  Bob Benson, was renowned as "a terror to opposing forwards" during spells with Southampton, Sheffield United, Woolwich Arsenal and England.  Shankhouse moved to a custom built ground at Arcot Park in 1896 but declining attendances and the money needed to pay players eventually took their toll. In 1905 a public meeting raised enough cash to stop the club from folding, but the following year the team finished bottom of twelve in the Alliance and were only able to stave off extinction by merging with Shankhouse Albion and dropping into the Blyth and District League.


It took 122 years for Shankhouse to win a second Alliance title, Gary Kirkup's side beating Ryton and Team Northumbria - both now in the Northern League - to top spot in 2005.  After fifteen years in the job, Kirkup stepped down this summer, replaced by his long-serving assistant Johnny Wilson.  Jarrow Roofing, founded around the same time as Shankhouse re-entered the Alliance in the late-1980s, also changed bosses in the close season, Paul Bennett joining from Hebburn Town to take charge of the team alongside the indomitable Richie McLoughlin. Roofing's new additions - including several of Bennett's old Hebburn Town squad - make them promotion favourites -  "a first division team in second division colours" reckon the nonleaguezone hoi-polloi.


It  looks a fair enough assessment after 37 seconds, the visitors' first attack ending with Paul Gardiner tapping in.  Shankhouse reply with a one-on-one that the excellent Dan Regan tips away and a free kick that heads over the perimeter fence and into the scrubland separating the pitch from the East Coast mainline.  All Roofing get out of two penalty appeals are bruised shins and a drop ball.  "The most stonewall pen you'll ever see, that," says one of the crowd.  Ten minutes into the second half, Shankhouse get the leveller their effort deserves, prompting a flurry in which Roofing clang the post and the crossbar before Andy Appleby strolls the ball across the line with the home defence waiting for offside.  "Can't be off, lads," the linesman tuts.  "He was level."  Stephen Young smacks a third,  Shankhouse score a consolation and Appleby rolls home a fourth - his ninth in six pre-season games.  "Tired legs," Wilson says, "but you've done well."

Admission:  Free
Date: August 6th 2013

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Football Art: Ted Bates

"The most legendary and influential figure in Southampton's history," the Daily Echo said of Ted Bates.  "The very soul of Southampton Football Club," thought his obituarist in The Guardian.  "An emblem of loyalty and devotion," wrote the Daily Mail. Arriving on the south coast as a promising inside-forward, Bates was a fixture at Southampton for the next sixty-six years, making over 200 first-team appearances, steering the Saints from the middle of the third-tier to the top seven of the First Division, European football and an FA Cup semi-final, and later serving as assistant manager, club director and president.


Signed from Norwich City on his nineteenth birthday,  Bates' war-interrupted playing career peaked when he forged a prolific partnership with Charlie Wayman, the duo scoring 70 goals as the Saints narrowly missed out on promotion from Division Two in successive seasons at the end of the 1940s. Retiring as a player in 1953, Bates was working as reserve team manager when, with the club struggling in Division Three South,  the board of directors forced George Roughton out in September 1955 and handed control of the first eleven to the man who would eventually become known as 'Mr Southampton'.


Third Division champions in 1959-60, it took Bates another six seasons to finally attain the First Division status he'd been denied as a player, his free-scoring Saints side averaging over two goals a game as they clinched the runners-up spot behind Manchester City.  "Getting promotion to the First Division was obviously the high point for me,"  Bates remembered in a local newspaper interview.  "And once we got there, it wasn't the end of it. It was a struggle to stay up at first. We really had to dig in and keep improving the side. You can never stand still in this game."


Bates built Southampton just as Shankly made the modern Liverpool or Busby Manchester United, unearthing future England internationals Terry Paine, Mick Channon and Martin Chivers as the Saints reached the 1963 FA Cup semi-final, twice finished seventh in the First Division,  and played two seasons in Europe, beating Rosenborg and Vitória de Guimarães in the Fairs Cup of 1969-70 before losing on away goals to Newcastle United, then bowing out at the first round stage of the 1971-72 UEFA Cup  3-2 on aggregate to Athletic Bilbao.

After nearly two decades as manager, Bates stepped down in 1973, remaining on the staff as chief executive and assistant to Lawrie McMenemy as Southampton defeated Manchester United 1-0 in the 1976 FA Cup Final. "It didn't come any better than winning the FA Cup at Wembley, " he said. "It was our first trip to Wembley, the first time we'd won the cup...I don't think anyone involved with the club will forget it."


Joining the board in 1978, Bates was made an MBE and awarded the freedom of the city in 2001, two years before his death at the age of 85.  Four years later a £112,000 bronze statue, funded by the Ted Bates Trust, was unveiled outside St Mary's Stadium, only to be taken down within a week.  Widely derided for resembling Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric shrunk to Jimmy Krankie proportions, the sculpture was called "an absolute abomination", "His head is too big, his arms too big, his legs too small," just one of the many criticisms.  "It was an embarrassing episode, mistakes happened, it wasn't very good and something had to be done," Southampton chairman Leon Crouch admitted as he revealed a £120,000 replacement. "Ted was - and in many ways still is - Southampton Football Club and we owe it to him to build a fitting statue."  The new work - by Sean Hedges-Quinn, who also sculpted Sir Bobby Robson and Bob Stokoe - stands outside the main entrance to the ground, showing Bates dressed formally in a suit and tie, waving towards the River Itchen. "Ted Bates MBE Mr Southampton," reads the inscription on the plinth.  "This statue has been erected by fans, friends and colleagues in recognition of Ted's 66 years of loyal service to our great club."  A fitting tribute to the man who did as much as anyone to build Southampton FC.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Ground 222: Wingate Welfare Park, Wingate FC

"Now a village with a team," begins Wingate FC's Twitter profile.  A 19th century mining community whose pit closed as long ago as 1962, Wingate's 3,000 residents have been without a Saturday afternoon football side since 1995, when a club which had twice won the Monkwearmouth Cup dropped out of the Wearside League altogether after almost a decade spent in the lower reaches of Division Two.


It was an inglorious end to nearly a century of football. Wingate Albion, champions of the Wearside League in 1908-09,  had also been the first club of goalkeeper Ronnie Sewell, who went on to an FA Cup victory with Burnley and an England cap while at neighbours Blackburn Rovers, where he made over 200 league appearances.  Alf Young, another who started out at Albion, played almost  300 times for Hartlepool, Lincoln City and Gillingham, while Robert Thompson left for Preston North End and later became the first Leeds United player to score a hat-trick in the Football League.  Two other clubs, Wingate Colliery Welfare and Wingate FC, almost repeated Albion's title success, finishing runners-up in the Wearside League three decades apart.  In 1978, Norman Corner, who'd returned to the Durham coalfield after playing professionally for Hull, Lincoln and Bradford City, managed Wingate to second place in the league and a Monkwearmouth Cup victory.   It wasn't quite a last hurrah - there was a second Monkwearmouth win six years later and both Workington and Shotton Comrades were seen off on the way to the third qualifying round of the 1985-86 FA Cup - but local football, like much else in East Durham, was beginning a near-terminal decline.


Enter Steve Cook.  "Chairman, manager, coach, mug," is his self-deprecating description of the role he plays at a club he founded almost single-handedly. Cook, a UEFA-qualified coach formerly of Hartlepool United and with plenty of Northern League experience at Brandon United, Seaham Red Star and Esh Winning, launched Project Wingate on Twitter at the end of February. In March, the yellow-and-blue home colours were chosen by the club's Twitter followers, with one of the winning voters selected as honorary president. By June Wingate had applied for and been accepted into the Durham Alliance, one step below the Wearside and eight promotions away from League Two, where they join the likes of Brandon British Legion, Darlington Rugby Club, Dunston Holmside Amateurs and Spennymoor Town Reserves.  Twenty-five players attended training in the first week of July. "During the course of our first season we will create and train new coaches selected from the playing squad," Cook says on the club's website.  It's a self-sustaining model, all fees covered in exchange for training the next generation of Wingate players at open entry sessions.


There are just over a dozen spectators at Wingate's first home friendly, including four seated on top of the dugouts and another two on the changing block roof.  Wingate Welfare Park, laid out in 1930 as a miners' recreation ground, is fitted with floodlights and four steps of terracing, though the lack of pitchside railings, seats or paved standing around the touchline means there is a lot of work to be done before the club can begin to think of promotion.  Substitutes sit on collapsible camping seats or kick balls against the perimeter fence as Cook and his opposite number, Billingham Town Intermediates' coach John Swanson, shout out instructions to their teams.

The home team fall behind after just twelve minutes, an underhit backpass finding a Billingham trialist, who controls and fires high past the onrushing goalkeeper.  Despite the bone-dry pitch, both sides keep the ball down, passes bobbling from boot to boot.  Wingate's Philly Hickman flicks a header against the base of the post with half an hour played, then calmly levels from the penalty spot from his team's next attack.  "Think about the shape, blues.  Settle it down," yells Swanson. Ian Cookland sidefoots a second for Billingham, but two goals in a minute from Haydn Price and Hickman put Wingate ahead for the first time in the match.  "We've fallen asleep here," Swanson laments.


Wingate clatter the crossbar twice before the visitors equalise, Cookland rounding Russ Blenkinsop, falling over and then dispatching the ball with the front of his boot.  Both sides are now using rolling substitutes.  A few more supporters wander in with pushchairs and some children start a kickabout on the second pitch.  If Cook has his way, they'll be the next generation of Wingate's community football club.

With Peterlee Town the latest victims of the East Durham triangle, you can only wish him well.

Date:27th July 2013
Admission: Free

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Ground 221: Chernomorets Stadium, Odessa

The last time I was in Odessa, in early 2010, the city's football club were playing in front of a few thousand fans at a two-sided, open-air stadium with an asphalt running track and a view of the Comedy Theatre.  We could have done with some laughs. At the end of the season, after failing to win any of their last eleven games, Chernomorets were relegated for the third time in fourteeen years.  "It's the indifference that gets me," grumbled a supporter as we filed out towards the train station. "They'll be lucky to get cockroaches here next season."


What they got instead was Roman Grigorchuk.  A three-time title winner in Latvia with FK Ventspils, Grigorchuk arrived at the quarter point of the season with the club floundering in midtable, managed promotion in his first year, survival in his second and briefly threatened the top four last winter, eventually making do with sixth and a Europa League place after a 3-0 shellacking by Shakhtar in the Ukrainian Cup Final.  Somewhere in the middle of all that, almost a year to the day since Grigorchuk replaced Igor Nakonechny as head coach, the redeveloped Chernomorets Stadium finally opened in November 2011 after three years of delays, squabbling and escalating costs.  The new stadium was built on the site of the club's original home, the Soviet Central Stadium of the Black Sea Shipping Company, a classic roofless-bowl-with-running-track design constructed on land the city authorities had just flattened for a boating lake before realising they'd run out of cash.


Baboushkas line the approaches to the ground flogging bits of dried fish and sunflower seeds out of carrier bags and plastic water bottles with the tops cut off.  Fans sit on the base of the Taras Shevchenko statue to smoke cigarettes, or wander along broken-up paths to slug back beer and piss against tree trunks. The outside of the stadium looks like a cross between a shopping mall and a Habsburg railway station, queues building on the staircases while stewards punch holes in tickets.  Inside, the Chernomorets anthem meanders along like a losing semi-finalist in the Eurovision Song Contest.  My seat's behind the goal the home side are attacking, directly opposite the few hundred Odessa ultras, with the nineteen Arsenal Kyiv fans up and to my left glowering behind their flags.


 After a winter run of nine wins and a draw, Chernomorets have faded since the season resumed  in March, winning just one of their last eleven league games.  Their problems in attack - their top scorers, the Albanian international Elis Bakaj and Lucian Burdujan, a Romanian U21 cap and cup winner with Rapid Bucharest, have just five goals each all season - are evident early in the half.  Leo Matos, FIFA U17 World Cup winner in 2003 before his talent burned briefly at Marseille and Flamengo, crosses, Bakaj plants his feet, screws his eyes closed and....BANG! Folds up like an ironing board, the ball ricocheting downwards off his head and harmlessly bouncing off a hoarding.  When the home side do threaten its down to the fleet-footed Matos on the right of midfield. Mainly they don't, the well-organised visitors keeping Vladimir Gomenyuk up top for nuisance value, Allardycing the midfield and allowing all the opportunities Matos wants to overhit crosses from the flank.  Just before the break, Arsenal almost manage to force the ball over the line three times in the messy goalmouth scramble that follows an uncleared corner kick.  The referee's whistle brings a faint smattering of applause and a couple of boos with most of the crowd already running for a beer.


Arsenal come out all guns blazing...over the crossbar.  With the home fans losing interest, a steward swoops on a sunburnt teenager in a trilby hat who refuses to stub out his cigarette, the argument brought to a sudden end when a Gomenyuk shot bounces over their heads.  By now, things are dire enough on the pitch to prompt the first Mexican Wave.  In response, a plastic bottle is thrown against the frame of the goal.  "Odessa, Odessa," rolls down from the stands as Sito Riera - whose more talented brother Albert played for Liverpool, Manchester City and Spain - comes on for Anatoliy Didenko, a kind of Emile Heskey mixed with Peter Crouch.

With eight minutes left  Bakaj runs unchallenged across the edge of the area. "Shoot!" yell the crowd. Gently, he passes the ball sideways into completely empty space.

That's the kind of game it was.


Date: May 26th 2013
Admission:  Free with a season ticket from a student. 

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Ground 220: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stadium

Think Istanbul and you think 2,700 years of Greeks, Byzantines and Ottomans, minarets, murder on the Orient Express, the Grand Bazaar and the Golden Horn.  And football.  With five top-flight clubs, three stadiums of 50,000 plus capacities and some of the most fanatical supporters in Europe, Turkey's biggest city is one of the continent's great weekend awaydays.


While Besiktas is the country's oldest club and Galatasaray and Fenerbahce the most consistently lauded, it's the government-backed top-flight arrivestes Kasımpaşa Spor Kulübü whose fixture catches my eye.  Fourth and fifth in the Super Lig behind Istanbul's big three, between them Kasımpaşa and Bursaspor - national champions as recently as 2009-10 - have Premier League legends like, erm, Tuncay Sanli, Andreas Isaakson, Scott Carson, Anton Ferdinand and Maurice Edu in their ranks.  That, an afternoon kick off, and the fact that I didn't have to deal with Ticketmaster's Turkish subsidiary - what could possibly go wrong? 


Just five minutes on foot from İstiklal Avenue, the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stadium is separated from the Pera Palace Hotel by one main road, a line of police and the steep bank overlooking the squat, tightly-packed quarter where the Turkish prime minister was born and raised. Erodgan played in Kasımpaşa's youth teams before transferring to politics, calls himself a "Kasımpaşa man" and regularly intervenes to help his old club in ways you can't imagine David Cameron ever quite pulling off for Aston Villa.  Now managed by former Rangers and Ajax forward Shota Arveladze, who took the job after Roy Keane turned down an earlier approach (you can only imagine what carnage his combustible personality might have wrecked on a footballing culture as volatile as Istanbul's), the newly promoted club are on the brink of their most successful season ever, having played only five seasons in Turkey's top league before 2007.  A bigger than expected crowd and my woefully misguided decision to remain on the top-deck of a Bosphorus tour boat for ninety minutes without a hat or suncream means that by the time I get to the ground there's smoke wafting everywhere, fans thronging the narrow streets and the ticket office shutters are being pulled down.  I barely have time to utter a "Bollocks!" when a voice mutters "You want ticket?" "Sorry, no English," he says, signalling the price with two fingers as he slides a complimentary ticket out of an inner pocket.  Twenty Turkish lira and some faffing around with a barcode later, I'm through the turnstiles in time to hear the opening bars of the national anthem, both sets of fans holding flags and scarves aloft as they bellow out the words.  


The cacophonous din is kept up throughout the whole of the first half, the two sides playing tippy-tappy in midfield while the fans behind the far goal keep up a competing barrage of noise.  With Carson not in the squad and Ferdinand left on the bench, Tuncay, Isaakson - whose final game in England saw him concede eight goals at Middlesbrough - and Kasımpaşa's German captain Fabian Ernst are the most recognisable faces in the middle. Bursa start pacier and more inventive than the home team, but struggle to find a way through, round or over Yalcin Ayhan and Baris Basdas.  It takes twenty-six minutes for the home side to mount a serious attack, a cross from the right eluding everyone but Bosnian Senijad Ibričić, who heads back across the goalkeeper and into the corner of the net.  Tuncay misses a one-on-one moments later, beating his fists on the grass in frustration, and Bursa's threat gradually begins to fade.  The second goal comes in what turns out to be the game's final minute, Kalu Uche stumbling onto a clearance after the ball takes three deflections.  The Nigerian international shows more movement in celebrating than he's previously managed all game while a home fan vaults a hoarding only to be repeatedly smacked about the head by the Bursaspor keeper, understandably irate at losing a goal to a forward so horrifically ineffective his club tried to sign Carlton Cole. As the police rush to one end of the pitch, the Kasımpaşa fans at the opposite end make a half-hearted charge towards the away supporters.  Flag poles begin flying, the home players start tearing their shirts off and somewhere in the melee the referee blows for full-time.  "Fabian Ernst's brother?" a home fan asks, swaying drunkenly and pointing to my bald, sunburnt head.  "Why?" I ask, gesturing towards the scuffle on the pitch. "Discipline!" he smiles, smashing a fist into the palm of one hand. 

I bet Roy Keane would have absolutely loved him.

Admission:  20 Tl (£7)
Date: Sunday March 31st. 

Before...

During... 

And after.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

İnönü Stadium, Istanbul

A ten-minute walk from Taksim Square on the European side of the Bosphorus, the İnönü Stadium is home to the black and whites of Beşiktaş, Turkey's oldest football club. War-interrupted building work started in May 1939 and took eight years to complete, the pitch officially christened with a November 1947 friendly against AIK Stockholm. The only football stadium to overlook two continents, Pele once claimed it had the most beautiful view of any ground in the world. "I have never seen anything like it. The stadium was a pressure cooker and the people were possessed,”  Lisandro Lopez, Lyon's Argentinean forward, said after he played there for Porto.


Turkey's first modern stadium was extensively renovated in 2004, when the running track was removed and the capactity increased to 32,000.  Even so, with two of the İnönü's former tenants, Galatasaray and  Fenerbahçe, now attracting crowds of over fifty thousand at newly developed arenas, Beşiktaş have long been looking to  upgrade their own facilties. At the end of the current season, the club will groundshare while a 42,000 capacity stadium, modelled in part on Hamburg's Imtech Arena, is constructed on the site of the İnönü. As part of the €120 million project, the pitch will be lowered another nine metres, while the Eski Açık tribune, a protected national monument, will be covered in glass and preserved.


The ground, which was built on the stables of Dolmabahçe Palace, is easily reached on foot from Taksim or by a short uphill climb from the ferry landing and tram stop at Kabataş.  Alternatively, you can see its floodlights behind the minarets of Dolmabahçe from the deck of a tour boat:


Or the downhill, cross-continental view over the Bosphorus to Asia:

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Ground 219: Sheriff Sports Complex, Tiraspol

Nine dollars and two and a half hours is all it takes for the train ride to Transnistria, a self-proclaimed sliver of a state between the western border of Ukraine and the rest of what once made up the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Only officially recognised by its three fellow breakaway republics of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria effectively won its independence in July 1992 when the Russian 14th Army's artillery backed by high-level political pressure from Moscow forced the Moldovans to sign a ceasefire agreement. More than two decades later, Lenin statues, Russian soldiers and Soviet paraphenalia still abound in Tiraspol, capital city of a country reputed to have the biggest stockpile of illegal weapons anywhere in Europe and which attracts fewer Western visitors than even North Korea. "Two things are responsible for the creation of Transnistria: the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the script of Apocalypse Now," explains the Russian writer Vladimir Kaminer.


 It's a reputation which explains why I'm travelling in a carriage with only two other passengers as the Odessa to Chisinau service trundles out of Ukraine.  "Passport?" the conductor asks in gravelly Russian. "Looks Irish," he mumbles, turning it over in his hand before returning with an English-language immigration form. Ukrainian border guards stamp us out of the country while Transnistrian police officers and Alsatian sniffer dogs watch in the background.   After a twenty-minute wait the train starts moving.  Half an hour later I'm climbing down the metal steps at Tiraspol to find locked or deserted rooms and two taxi drivers who shrug their shoulders when I show them the address of my hotel.  I set off down Lenin Street, take a left at a decrepit stadium where FC Tiraspol's team coach is parked and finally get lost on an unlit backstreet near Victory Park. A woman with machine-gun Russian and two shopping bags shows me the rest of the way. "It's no problem. Sorry it took so long," she says, disappearing into the night.


Tiraspol by daylight is only marginally more exciting. City of a thousand black Mercedes, its few sights are spread along October 25th Street: the spired, white-columned Palace of the Soviets has a bust of Lenin outside, the parliament building built in 1960s office block style has a statue of Lenin on its front steps, a T-34 tank, several war memorials, a few dozen metres of sand by a concrete bridge and an equestrian statue to Alexander Suvorov, 18th-century Muscovite general and founder of the city.  An old crone on a collapsible seat tends four goats in the grounds of an abandoned factory building and barrel-chested pensioners sell bags of onions and potatoes near the open-air market.  Outside the $200 million Sheriff Arena Complex are a pair of Sheriff Petrol Stations and signs still adorned with hammers and sickles and CCCP. "Sorry for question, aren't you from Deutschland?" queries the waiter, ungrammatically, at a nearby branch of Andy's Pizza. "Good luck," he smiles as I finish up my Chisinau Draught and head towards the ground.


Back in the communist-era, Zimbru Chisinau (Nistru Kishinev) and Tiligul Tiraspol were Moldova's big two football clubs. Zimbru, Soviet Cup quarter-finalists in 1963, spent eleven seasons in the Soviet Top League. Tiligul, First League runners-up in 1991, were denied promotion due to the break up of the Soviet Union, but won three Moldovan Cups as Zimbru picked up eight of the first nine national championships. Neither will figure in this year's title race: Tiligul folded in 2009 and Zimbru haven't won a trophy in almost six years.  Viktor Gushan is the reason why.


In 1997 Gushan, ex-KGB officer and founder of Transnistria's monolithic Sheriff Corporation, added a football club to a list of assets which include bakeries, supermarkets, a distillery, petrol and TV stations, a mobile phone network and Mercedes-Benz dealerships. Sheriff finished their first season fourteen points clear at the top of the second-tier Divizia A, won the Moldovan Cup in their second and a league and cup double in their fourth. Since then, Gushan's side have won eleven of twelve Moldovan championships, six domestic cups and have beaten the likes of Dynamo Kyiv, FC Twente, Dinamo Zagreb and Slavia Prague in European competition.


Actually, make that twelve of thirteen.  With a dozen rounds of the season remaining, Dacia Chisinau, title-winners in 2011, trail the defending champions by twelve points.  "Anything can happen," says Dacia manager Igor Dobrovolski, but the Chisinau side lost two players to third-placed FC Tiraspol during the winter break and were held 1-1 by city rivals Academica on their first weekend back.  Despite the temperature -  seven degrees above zero in Tiraspol - the meeting of Moldova's two best sides is played indoors, the 2,500 crowd including a raucous contingent of approximately thirty fans who've crossed an unrecognised border to see their team play. 


While the Dacia Ultras jump, twirl scarves and bang continually on a drum, the home support is surprisingly sedate apart from some high-pitched choruses of Sheriff and a discordant, mournful-sounding horn. The non-playing members of the home squad take up their places in the row behind mine, shaking their heads at each misplaced pass and sending their girlfriends for mineral water and packets of smoky bacon crisps at the end of a dull first half.  The only chance Sheriff are able to create falls to Marko Stanojevic, but the former Red Star Belgrade player hits Sektor 6 instead of the target after stumbling through a tackle on the edge of the box. Dacia's forwards huff and puff but get never remotely look like breaching a defence marshalled by skipper Miral Samardžić and Benjamin Balima, part of the Burkina Faso squad that lost out in the final of the African Nations Cup to Nigeria.  The second half is even less exciting - the only surprise that the official match report makes it into a second paragraph. With five minutes left, Stanojevic jinks round three players before miscontrolling and toeing the ball wide.  The crowd file out through the pitch-black stadium complex into unlit streets. Dogs bark, Belarussian-made trolley buses pass by on their way out of town. Somehow, it all seems very fitting.

Date: Saturday March 9th
Admission:  10 Transnistrian roubles (about 70p)