Sunday, 13 September 2015

#11 Viktoria Stadion, FK Viktoria Žižkov

Viktoria Žižkov 0 Loko Vltavín 0 (Vltavín win 4-5 on penalties, apparently)
Wednesday 2nd September 2015, Bohemian Football League

This was an unexpected treat. Becky and I were spending our first full day in the Czech Republic having arrived in the country the day before from Amsterdam on part two our of honeymoon. We only spent a couple of days in the Netherlands so I didn't entertain the idea of catching any football there and really I'd put out of my head the idea of getting to any matches on the continent at all. Becky doesn't like football and I wasn't about to waste an afternoon of our first trip abroad alone together just for this poxy blog. Maybe if I could find something else to occupy her while I slunk off for a few hours... I pitched this idea to her and was flabbergasted and slightly horrified when she came back with "nah, I'll come with you." 

The international break meant that Prague's first league teams Sparta, Slavia, Dukla and Bohemians 1905 were taking the week off. I appealed to twitter to help find me a nearby game and received suggestions from a certain Terry Nutkin to check out some regional league teams just outside the city but I'd set my heart on Viktoria Žižkov due to proximity and the fact that their name was amazingly fun to say. The thought of dragging my beloved to a Czech third division match on our honeymoon when she doesn't even like football was not an appealing one. 

"Becky, it's going to be really, really shit. Seriously. Like way worse than Rovers. Are you sure you don't want to find something to do while I'm there?"

"It's fine babe. It's an experience isn't it? Besides if I let you wander off in Žižkov on your own you'll never make it back to the hotel."

She had a point.

Mean streets of Žižkov
A little about Viktoria Žižkov. Founded in 1903 before Žižkov the town had become incorporated into the city of Prague, the club enjoyed their golden era between the world wars winning the Czechoslovak Cup 7 (seven) times and the first league once in 1928. During the ČSR years the club slipped to the lower leagues but were gifted a return to the top tier in 1993 on account of the dissolution of the USSR, which prompted the Slovakian teams to go and form their own league. Another period of prosperity followed as the club won their 8th national knock-out cup in 1994. British fans may recall Žižkov knocking Rangers out of the UEFA cup in 2002.

The good times were unfortunately to end. In 2004 the club were heavily involved in a wave of corruption that swept the new Czech league and were implicated in bribery and match-fixing scandals. They were relegated and despite bouncing back to the first league on two occasions, their crowds began to evaporate and financial difficulties lead to them being denied a professional licence for 2015-16 thus forcing them back into the third tier of Czech football, the Bohemian League. 

Theatre of dreams
A sign of just how much esteem the club had lost in the eyes of the Czech was the response of the hotel manager when I asked him about attending a game:

"Um, do you know anything about the team?"

"Well no not really..."

"They're bankrupt. There will be 30 people. Tops."

"Oh right. Do you think I'll be able to pay on the gate then?"


With that sorted we took a tram out of the city centre and headed towards the stadium. Žižkov the suburb, as I gathered from scouring the net, retained much of it's independent spirit from being a separate town and liked to refer to itself as "The free republic of Žižkov". Another nickname was "Red Žižkov" due to it's record of voting for left-wing parties. A habit the Soviet Union decided to reward by building the freakish Žižkov Television Tower, which is visible from basically every hill in north Prague. Rumours abound that the tower, which looks like a cross between Thunderbird 1 and an egg whisk, was constructed to jam radio signals from western stations such as Radio Free Europe. Hilarious if true when you consider the structure was completed in 1992, a year after the dissolution of the USSR.

Sup proles?
It became known as something of a rough area and was noticeably more down-to-earth than the picturesque, tourist-trap littered Prague we'd seen the previous day. Which was a nice change. It kind of reminded me of Bristol's very own Easton, a little run down but with a pleasing bohemian vibe, populated mostly by immigrants, hipsters, young families and drunks. With hours to go before kick-off, we dove into a cocktail bar to make the most of the Czech Republic's ludicrously cheap drink prices.

That's impressive
Sleepy Žižkov fan
Three cocktails with aggressively sexual names later we headed to the ground to find the turnstile gates deserted but the main gate open with men in high-vis jackets stood around and cars pulling in. We slowly approached and walked past everyone with no issues and entered the club shop. It was a nice little building which looked like the only thing inside the ground that had been built this century. When we arrived in the deserted shop, there was an elderly chap at the desk chomping on a whole cucumber like it was an apple. Then a lady of a similar age (I presume his wife) appeared behind him and whipped his juicy vitamin rich treat out of his hands and greeted us. Needn't have deprived him on our account madam. I brought the biggest scarf I could find and asked the lady where we could get our grubby mitts on some tickets.

Becky doing a football
"You no have tickets?" she said, shocked "Surprised you are let in." 

Far be it from me to doubt their crack team of match day security guards but it wasn't difficult. Not wanting to freeload we went back to saunter around the turnstile gates that were eventually opened with 15 minutes to spare by a lady with spiky purple hair and some intricate facial piercings. We paid 110 koruna for two tickets and a programme, roughly £3. I mean what the fuck right? I pay £6 to see Bristol Manor Bloody Farm without a programme (which admittedly I couldn't read but nevermind). 

One thing that we did get from the programme however was that the kick-off was to be an hour later than we thought. Screw you Soccerway. I was all good with this because a pint cost 81p. Unfortunately Becky doesn't like beer, we asked for anything apart from beer and they gave us a luminous pink liquid that tasted like unset jelly. Not entirely unpleasant. We sat and watched old boys with mullets and kuttes chat outside the clubhouse bar, whilst others set up tables selling plentiful varieties of indescribable local delicacies and enormous sausages. Becky fawned over a Chihuahua puppy that was being picked up and thrown about like a baby by its owner. Nice to know that semi-pro crowds are just as inexplicable wherever you go.

It hadn't occurred to me before we flew out that the nation's top teams would be on international break. A shame as I was looking forward to immersing myself in the world of flares, tifos and noise that continental football promised.

However the sheer old-skoolitude/ramshackleness of Viktoria Stadion instantly won me over. I'd be very surprised if it had changed much in the last 50 years. As you've probably gathered from reading this blog this kind of stuff gets me rock hard and I was skipping round the ground like a kid in a sweet shop (much to Becky's confusion). Rather than try and paint a picture with words, which in my case is always a finger painting at best, I will now proceed to overdo it on the snapshots.

Ultras stickers on bar window. Boner.
Ramshackle stand with seats concreted to the steps that spell the club's name. Boner. 
Dilapidated scoreboard surrounded by shrubbery. Boner. 
Dozens of tiny round floodlights on a pole. Boner.
Ancient peeling football-related billboard with ultras graffiti. Boner.
Becky swears the step started crumbling beneath her. Not so boner.
Where the loud kiddies were (all twelve of them).
Picture of the main stand for good measure. Red building on the right is the club shop.
Once I'd calmed down I grabbed another drink from the bar lady, who was getting increasingly irritated with my gesturing and lack of Czech. We then took our seats as a happy hardcore version of Bonnie Tyler's I Need A Hero blasted out over the tannoy. Magic. Game time at long last.

Viktoria's opponents for the afternoon were Loko Vltavín from the suburb of Holešovice, Prague 7. They had the worst away kit I have ever seen.

I regret to say that I don't really recall the game. Both teams were fairly woeful and really struggled when it came to passing, with everyone giving it far too much power allowing the ball to bounce clean off the knee/shin/face of whichever team-mate the pass was meant for and out of play.

I would say the home team narrowly had the better of the first half, with most of the possession being retained (albeit briefly) by the boys in red and most of the attacking action taking place in Loko's half. A Loko striker did manage to get free just the once as a result of a defensive mistake but missed the shot completely. 

This is where things get weird. I know I was drunk but I clearly saw Žižkov score in the first half. I heard their small gaggle of ultras celebrate. I didn't hear any booing or see any angry players to suggest the goal had been disallowed. But the scoreboard remained at 0-0, which we put down to tinpottery at the time. The game ended without another goal and we headed out straight away as we had dinner reservations. As we headed down the steps I noticed the teams were lining up for a penalty shoot out but that half of the players were sat casually in their lines, legs outstretched. "Must be a bit of fun, give the punters a show. That's cool." I thought as I watched Žižkov sky their first and Loko sink theirs. 

However once I woke up the next morning and checked Žižkov's facebook, I was stunned to discover that the game had ended 0-0 with Loko winning 4-5 on penalties. What? 

For one thing there was nothing wrong with Žižkov's goal but that's unprovable now. The main headfuck was the shoot-out. I looked around the net for an explanation and apparently in the Czech 3rd tier draws are settled by a penalty shoot-out with the single point being awarded to the victor. What a country!

Confusion aside, I had a lovely time at Viktoria Stadion. This club were clearly on their arse. Wrecked by years of financial bullshit, in a city with bigger clubs and playing in a stadium that was crumbling around them. Gee, I wonder why that resonates with me? Unlike Rovers though, Viki Žiž have sadly not been able to hang onto the bulk of their fan-base, which will be a worry for them going forward. However without exaggeration those 50-60 that turned up today were world class. Making a commendable amount of noise in the empty ground.

So even though I'll be saying "It could be worse, we could be Viktoria Žižkov" from now on when things look bleak for us, I can't honestly say that I wouldn't be back next week if I lived in Prague. I mean it's a pound to get in.

Dopředu Žižkov!

Clubhouse toilets. Where is your God now?
Hospitality suite?
Token match shot
Hooooooly shit why
Wonder if this lad is an ex-player?
God love her

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

#10 Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wolverhampton Wanders 2 Charlton Athletic 1
Sat 29th August 2015, Sky Bet Championship.

It was the final Saturday of the first month of a new season, the sun was shining and I was on my way to Stafford. My wife Becky and her friend Lisa were off to the wedding of their mutual workmate in Stoke that day, the third wedding in as many weeks for Becky. I was getting off the hook this time though and linking up with my old uni pal Holly to accompany her to Wolverhampton, following Charlton (her favourite team).

Holly is a Greenwich exile in Stafford making this one of the few games she can easily get to and knowing well the pain of really wanting to go to an away game but having no one to go with, I stepped up. Also having never been to a match higher than league two before I thought this would be a good chance to check out how the other half lived.

Partizan Stafford

Exterior of dreams.
The bank holiday of course meant the commencement of mass rail replacement services up and down the country, so we were bundled into a coach headed for the world's fifth worst city*.

Wolves have had a roller-coaster of a five years that has seen them in the premier league, championship and league one. Knowing so many Wolves fans from my time in Stoke was the source of much enjoyment to me and watching them bounce around from defiant pride to gloomy resignation to false hope and finally unyielding depression helped take my mind off the steady downfall of my beloved Bristol Rovers on many occasions. Also their logo makes them look like a hockey team.

One thing I never knew about the Wanderers was just how much support they pulled from the town of Stafford. I spotted dozens of merry orange-clad residents foregoing the glamour of the now premier league mainstays Stoke City or the convenience of the mighty Stafford Rangers. The attendance for a club at the level Wolves are at (championship but capable of the odd flurry into the top tier) was a massive culture shock to little old me. It was amazing to see the roads and pubs surrounding the stadium thick with home supporters from a mile out, with merchandise stands on every corner. This I suppose would be the advantage of a town only having the one professional team. Though Wolverhampton is much smaller than Bristol, Rovers and City don't even beat today's attendance with their average attendances from last season, two of the most successful in recent years, combined (12,247 + 6,793 = 19,040 vs. 19,853). Add to that the Charlton following couldn't have been more than 500 and you can colour me fairly impressed. 

Token match shot.
Keep furries out of football.
Modern stadiums mean modern facilities which would ultimately bring culture shock #2 for old Tom. First up was the fact that I received a full pat down from a security guard on my way to the turnstile but the actual act of ticketing me was handled by an angry looking red laser in a box. As someone who is used to a cheerful old person sat in a portaloo ripping my ticket manually (and in all honesty occasionally says thank you to supermarket self check-out machines) this was all a bit too much. 

I must reiterate that the only ground bigger than the Memorial Stadium I'd been to previously at this point was Wembley Stadium. I'm aware that the Mem is, if not in capacity then in facilities, probably on a par with the more salubrious conference grounds so I was expecting something in-between massive concourses like the ones at Wembley and the ramshackle north terrace bar. Whilst it definitely swayed more towards the former, with efficient and plentiful food and beer serving windows, the seating was pretty limited. Unlike at the Mem where you can sit down with twelve of your mates at a massive plastering table on chairs that look like they've been nicked from a church hall and enjoy your pint as you watch Jeff Stelling. Also I couldn't find any pasties. Shit ground really.

'Sexy pies'. You know when you're in the Midlands. 
After we'd had a pint and unsuccessfully chased Holly's secondary school history teacher around the ground, we made our way to our seats ready for kick-off. 

The Charlton massive were seated in the Steve Bull stand along the north side of the pitch in the bottom of two tiers of seating underneath a top tier full of home supporters. Must have been fun in the 70s. Whilst I was looking around I noticed that there was a massive gap between the front row of seats and the pitch. Holly explained that during redevelopment the entire pitch and three of the stands were moved slightly but the club ran out of money to move the final one so they just filled in the gap with astroturf and hoped no one would notice. Brilliant. It's nice to know that clubs at every level suffer howlers like this. 

A stand of loud people.
Nevertheless I liked the Molineux. The atmosphere was decent in patches and the view from where we were was fantastic. I could grow to grudgingly accept an all seater stadium. 

During the first half Charlton were retaining the ball well and had little to defend but couldn't get anything past the much taller and more powerful Wolves defence. I thought Ethan Ebanks-Landell in particular had a great game chasing every Charlton chance down and snuffing it out elegantly. I opined at the time that Charlton would either have to out-pass them or pounce on a mistake and at half-time I was seriously considering putting a bet on a goalless draw.

Back out on the concourse Holly got a steak and ale pie which looked amazing and I got a cheeseburger which tasted like roadkill. The Charlton supporters finally piped up while queuing for their chips with some mean songs about Millwall. Must be nice being Millwall's rivals, you'd get a lot of goodwill. The sudden willingness to sing without an audience enraged a man who had been acting as capo throughout the half and was now purple in the face screaming "DO IT OUT THERE WHERE IT FUCKING MATTERS" over the jubilant chorus. 

Mr Angry gets told off.
Hello ladies.
As I suspected, it was a deft piece of passing that allowed Berg Gudmundsson to score the opener for Charlton in the 55rd minute. It was party central on the Steve Bull stand and I was treated to a round of Charlton's charming club song Valley Floyd Road.

I call this portrait: Study of young woman with pie.
Perhaps going unbeaten in the first four games had lulled Charlton into a false sense of security but they really took their foot off the gas after the goal. The competent defence melted away before our eyes and a spectacular lack of organization in the final third allowed Edwards an easy equaliser ten minutes later. (40 seconds in.) We could all sense the way the tide was turning after that as Wolves savaged the Charlton end with attempts. Eventually an unmarked Benik Afobe found Adam le Fondre in the middle of the box and he poked in the cross like a plastic fork through yesterday's Evening Standard in a South London chippy and that, as they say, was that.

As dejected as Holly was it was difficult to argue that Charlton deserved anything from the game. They weren't the same team that had the edge on Wolves during the first half after their goal. A real shame as they had to work very hard to grind the home team down. The town being thick with Wolves fans, my companion took me to an out of the way pub called the Gifford Arms to drown her sorrows. This was one of those places where they play Motörhead full blast at all hours of the day and everyone owns a denim jacket.

We met some Wolves fans who were very friendly and great sports even if I couldn't really understand what they were saying. Also I got to enjoy the spectacle of a 50 year old drunk man trying to chat up Holly by comparing her to a girl he'd met at a The Damned concert 20 years ago. Everything you want from an away day really.

*You alright there Mikey? ;)