Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Abandoned: Strahov Stadium

6th August 2017

I'd like to apologise to my loyal readers (hi Mum) for the lack of activity over the last few weeks. I'm still getting into the swing of the new job and after watching Rovers slump to a disappointing 3-2 defeat at home to bottom of the league Oldham Athletic yesterday I decided I couldn't be arsed to go anywhere tonight. Until such a time as I manage to drag myself out of my sleep-deprived hovel, I hope to keep you occupied with the tale of how I dragged my whole family to look around an abandoned Soviet-era stadium on our summer holiday.

Actually to say Strahov is abandoned is somewhat disingenuous as it's currently the training ground of Czech First League side Sparta Prague. Although the vast majority of the stadium is pretty decrepit nowadays, boring twats like myself will appreciate the fact that it's still standing due to it's colourful history. Strahov first came into being in 1926 as a relatively modest wooden construction designed by Alois Dryák. The stands were made concrete in 1932 and the whole stadium was greatly expanded between the years of 1948 and 1975 into the 220,000 capacity behemoth we see today. If one were to be cynical, one might attribute the building of what remains to this day the largest stadium in the world (dwarfing the similarly ridiculous Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea) to the frantic desire of the newly-installed communist government to impress the rest of the world with it's willy-shrivelling massiveness.

The most alien aspect of the stadium to the Western European mind is the fact that it was built not to host sports of any kind. Instead Strahov was host to displays of mass synchronised gymnastics known as Sokol (or Spartakiad under Soviet rule) which played a massive part in the development of Czech nationalism and could apparently draw in huge crowds in those wild pre-television days. Another noteworthy use of the ground was an American Football match that was played on the 28th of September 1945 between two US army units that had helped liberate the country from the Nazis just months prior. This game was watched by 40,000 Praguers and ended with the 94th Infantry Division beating the XXII Corps 6-0, whatever that translates to in yank rugby.

The stadium has also played host to motor racing meets and large concerts in the more modern era but these days is totally dedicated to the training of Sparta Prague, one of the cities 'big two' clubs along with rivals Slavia Prague. This means that the absurdly huge turf has been split into 9 (nine) pitches of varying lengths, some of which I gather host youth and reserve fixtures from time to time. On the inside the pristine, modern training facilities look completely strange encased by the crumbling stands and terraces that tower over them in all directions and it's almost incomprehensible that they exist from the outside.

When you approach the ground from the outside it truly does look abandoned, despite it being obviously a very notable part of the cityscape. The rain-darkened brutalist lumps of stone that jut out into the surrounding streets are covered in graffiti in a lot of places and there are a lot of smashed windows, making it a favourite haunt for urban explorers. There are a few parts of the concourses that appear to have been recolonised by modern Prague, I saw a few gyms with Lycra-clad people going in and out. While I was leaving, a coachload of female athletes, possibly Sparta Women, arrived at the stadium to meet with waiting family members, which I took as my cue to leave.

A truly strange and unique mixture of forgotten relic from a long gone world and much-loved community asset, I would suggest taking a look at Strahov if you're in the area because who knows how long it'll be there. I also recommend checking out some of the awesome urban exploration reports online as I've really not done the place justice with my 20 minute wander.

Monday, 4 September 2017

#58 Valley Parade, Bradford City

Bradford City 3 Bristol Rovers 1
Saturday 2nd September 2017, League One

Everyone loves a lower league game being broadcast live on Sky. The chance for the famously appreciative Premier League fans to while away the international break by enjoying a match between two of the FL72 sides they spend the rest of the year ripping the piss out of for being tinpot. The only slight downside being that away fans of the match in question suddenly find themselves having to arrive at whichever far-flung town two and a half hours earlier than expected. Thus we were forced to begin the three and a half drive to Bradford at the merry old hour of 6am, with the only crumb of humanity from our TV scheduling overlords being a free SkyBet Brand Breakfast Baguette™ for those travelling on supporters club busses. For John, Jack, Terry and I however there was only the long, unseasonably misty, road ahead with only some irresponsibly early cans to tide us over.

Where's me bloody bap Sky?

Rovers were on a decent run of form going into today's game with wins against Bury, Fleetwood and Fulham, not to mention a decent show from the youngsters in the Checkatrade who overcame Wycombe 5-1 at Adam's Park. Bradford were strong favourites for promotion this season having narrowly missed out after losing 1-0 to Millwall at Wembley last season. We arrived in the West Yorkshire city about an hour and a half prior to kick-off and parked up about five minutes from the ground. Having heard a lot of horrible things about Bradford in the past I was pleasantly surprised by the surroundings; rolling green valleys and old sandstone buildings surround the stadium which has been built into the hillside and overhangs the streets below in several places.

Going away with a football team is an excellent way to get to know one particular road and one particular dingy pub in all the great cities of the UK and today we would be getting to know the Bradford Arms. Decorated like the set of a 1960s kitchen sink drama and somewhat sparse on the beer selection front but run by a very friendly pair of ladies and full of Gasheads. Studying the teamsheet, it seemed Darrell Clarke had done the obvious thing and chosen Tom Broadbent and Johnny Burn to fill the Lockyer and Sweeney shaped holes in central defence rather than try anything unorthodox. Sercombe, Clarke and Lines were the three in midfield, Harrison, Bodin and Moore in an increasingly familiar attacking triangle and Slocombe in goal. Notable by his absence from the starting line up was Joe Partington, dropped to the bench after a very convincing performance against Fleetwood, which raised a few eyebrows around the room.

Entering the away stand you get a good idea of how elevated the ground is as you have to ascend a massive flight of ancient-looking stairs to the TJ Dallas Stand where we were to be housed today. It's a funny little stand which shrivels in terms of size compared to the rest of the ground despite being two tiered. Seating around 1,840 supporters half on the floor and half in the stand itself. It feels quite tight in some parts of the bottom section, so much so that I wonder if a particularly tall person might even whack their head on the ceiling if they celebrated a goal too hard. The much better views are afforded on the top tier where we were sat, with only six thin pillars spread over the whole stand to contend with.

What instantly hit me when looking out of the rest of the stadium was the colour scheme. It's pretty common for a stadium to have at least the seats the same colour as the club's traditional attire but Valley Parade's fondness for florescent yellow is really something else. Most of the supports, rafters and handrails are painted this colour, with the more restrained burgundy saved for the external supports, possibly to respect local light pollution laws. Fortunately half the seats inside are also burgundy so it's not too overpowering.

The home stands at Valley Parade much like the TJ Dallas Stand are strange customers. The main and cop stands are huge and two tiered, connected by a curve of seats in the west corner. These two stands look like they could've been carved from any modern all-seater bowl, save for two low sections of seating that jut out of the bottom of each corner which I shall henceforth refer to as the 'flaps'. Next to the leftmost flap (relative looking out from the away stand) you can clearly see parts of the original terracing from the old wooden main stand which was destroyed in the infamous 1985 stadium fire, claiming the lives of 56 Bradford fans in the process. The main stand only runs about three-quarters of the pitch, with the remaining space taken up by a small red brick building which contains the team's changing rooms. Weirdly, Valley Parade houses it's own dental surgery.

The remaining stand, the Midland Road Stand, sits opposite the main stand and is the only single tier stand in the stadium. It's fairly unremarkable other than it's small size in comparison to it's brethren. All the stadiums seats are coloured in equally sized blocks of gold and burgundy which makes them look a bit like football scarves. All-in-all Valley Parade is quite a higgledy-piggledy stadium, understandably so considering the massive rebuild demanded by the fire but it's got a lot of charm and stands out from some of the more identikit league grounds. My favourite part by far is some of the views of the valleys you're afforded if you can glance through the gaps in the stands or out from the top of the big steps to the away stand.

The match that we'd travelled so far to see turned out to be a bad day at the office for Rovers. Not the worse I'd even seen them play away, that honour goes to Walsall 2017 or Accrington 2016 but without our regular central defensive pairing we struggled against a clinical Bradford side. The first goal came after just thirteen minutes when Leadbitter failed to prevent Romain Vincelot heading a corner down for a spuriously marked Charlie Wyke to tuck between Slocombe's flailing legs. As we anticipated, the stadium's massive half-bowled design lead to the home fan's celebrations being channelled into an almighty roar. The jubilant pricks. Byron Moore had the best chance of the half for Rovers, heading a ball that Ellis Harrison had just about managed to cross before it went out downwards towards goal but Doyle was able to make a good reaction save with his foot after returning to the centre of his goal in the nick of time.

Back out in the second half Rovers were undone by yet another corner in the 62nd minute, again a Charlie Wyke header which was so similar to the first I can't even be bothered to describe it. If I sound salty it's because I am. A mere eleven minutes later the young Smoggie upstart completed his hat-trick when Jake Reeves outwitted Sercombe and Leadbitter to stick in a cross right to the far post for Wyke to HEAD INTO THE NET ONCE AGAIN. A brilliant afternoon for Wyke but a toothless display from our defence. The travelling Gashead's respite only arrived nine minutes from full-time as Tom Nichols received the ball on the wing, turned and squeezed past two Bradford players and ran to the outside line of the box. His curved attempt hit the post but Bodin was there to tap in the rebound while Doyle was still on the floor.

To be fair Bradford had only had one defeat in 33 games at home so it was an understandable scoreline. It was just a shame to travel so far to witness such a timid performance from the team that had beaten Fulham away a mere week before but I suppose these are the risks we take. I try not to let the games I see colour my feelings towards a ground but considering the four hour trek home I don't think I'll be in a hurry to revisit Valley Parade, a decent one to tick off all the same.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

#57 Aitchison Playing Field, Oldland Abbotonians

Oldland Abbotonians 1 Ashton and Backwell United 1
Wednesday 30th August 2017, Western League Division One

Having just started a new job this morning, I really wasn't looking to go to a match tonight. However since foolheartedly challenging my friend and colleague Daz Knapton to a who can get the most new grounds in a season contest a few months back, I had allowed myself to get left behind. So far behind in fact that he had chalked up a whopping 11 (eleven) new visits compared to my paltry five, actually one down on where I was this time last season. Daz has never been one to pull his punches. Although it looks bad now, as a theatre technician Daz will be pretty busy over the Christmas period so as long as I can get within touching distance of his total I can hopefully pull it back then. Hopefully. With that in mind I was on the lookout for an easy excursion and Oldland Abbotonians fit the bill. Hailing from Oldland Common, South Gloucestershire, the O's Aitchison Playing Field is a mere 20 mile drive from my flat making them the best option on this balmy Wednesday evening. 

The club was formed in 1910 as St. Annes (Oldland) before changing their name to Oldland Decora in 1986 then taking their current incarnation in 1998 after a merger with Longwell Green Abbotonians. They took the latter's place in the Somerset County League and eventually won promotion to the Western League in 2007. Since then they've pootled along with no cup runs of note that I can find but they did finish as runners-up in the First Division for the 2010/11 season. Oldland's most famous son in a roundabout way is Ian Holloway, who is the son of former chairman Bill Holloway. After my first two competitive fixtures of the season, Bohemians 1905 vs. MFK Karviná and Fulham vs. Bristol Rovers, I was very much looking forward to a serene, no-frills Western League encounter and cracking on with my side-quest to complete the league. 

I arrived at the ground just as the players were coming out of the clubhouse and felt pretty pleased with myself for nabbing the last space in the car park. This uncharacteristic bout of competence proved to be short-lived when I went on to annoy the gate man by handing him a £20 note for my entry fee as it was all I had. This forced him to go along the queue that I had created bartering for smaller currency. Good to be back. As I walked around taking my pictures, a heavy drizzle descended on the ground and I sought shelter in the nearest stand. Upon reaching the small stand situated to the side of the team benches I discovered that it was not only locked but completely covered in fencing with chicken wire sized gaps, making it look like some kind of holding pen. 

The Reg Hamblin Stand for Wayward Boys 
Aside from this funny little stand Aitchison also has the Alan Bush Stand which is the main stand in the ground, quite a long, boxed-in covered brick structure which runs along the opposite side of the pitch. The stand contains a good amount of seats attached to rows of raised stone that run along the floor. Weirdly it actually has full-on fenced segregation which, considering the mini prison stand opposite, leads me to wonder what on earth went down at Oldland to warrant such measures. The segregated part of the stand was closed today and the Ashton and Backwell fans mingled happily with their opponents, as it should be in non-league. 

I found a seat in the main stand and was instantly made to feel at home by some of the familiar trappings of the Western League. Namely an old boy tuning into a random horse race on a portable radio and blaring it out for the whole stand to hear and another bloke who had brought along a small sausage dog wearing a blue scarf adorned with little footballs. The latter chap later asked me to take a picture on his phone for Non-League Dogs who seem to have become a bit of an institution. If I had to make one negative observation it would be that the view sat in the stand is a little restricted by the many pillars and high wall. Preferable in many ways to a ball in the face though.

Listening to the shouts from the crowd during play it seemed to me that Ashton had more fans in attendance than Oldland and to be fair it was the away side that played with the most organisation and attacking threat in the opening exchanges. Having said that Ashton's goalkeeper, who's kit bore a striking resemblance to Peter Parker's prototype Spiderman costume from the first Sam Raimi movie, made a couple of good saves from Oldland attempts against the run of play. There was a fair amount of action in the middle of the park and more than a few clatterings that are the hallmarks of a tight Toolstation League encounter. Early on Ashton and Backwell are kept out at close range twice in quick succession which is the best chance of the half. Oldland are slightly more hapless going forward, as evidenced by them trying to take a free kick from an attacking position quickly but playing themselves offside in the process.

There was a particularly enjoyable moment right out the blocks in the second half; the Oldland captain was doing the normal thing of stalking about the pitch, clapping, shouting and generally psyching his teammates up for the upcoming 45 minutes. This clearly worked a little too well on the forward charged with taking the first kick as he, much to the annoyance of his captain, booted the ball straight off the far side of the pitch for a goal kick. With that little hiccup out of the way, Oldland manage to get a few decent attempts in, including one involving a beautiful back heel pass that was disappointingly shot wide. For the away team's part, their best chance came when a player got into a one-on-one with the Oldland keeper with an option to pass to his side but in the end all he could muster was the tamest grass cutter I've ever seen which was off target anyway. A bore draw looked to be a distinct possibility. 

Spiderman, Spiderman, portly goalkeeping Spiderman.
Oldland nearly get the first goal with a chipped ball from a crazy angle that didn't at first look at all threatening but dipped towards goal, meaning Spiderman had to leap to tip it over the crossbar. However the resulting Oldland corner was met with a bullet header from Scott Gregory into the net for the opener. Soon after, Ashton and Backwell get another free-kick in an inviting part of the opposition area and this time manage a shot on goal but it's caught in the corner of the net. Soon after this play is halted as it appears that after losing five of them over the hedge during the match, the home team were out of balls. There was a good five minute break in play as various people, including myself, began checking the next field and the car park for precious wayward spheres. A couple of people were less patient, suggesting jokingly that the game be called off and Ashton awarded all three points. Just as I was about to suggest that they use the old football that I'd seen sat in a trophy behind the bar, a couple of subs produced a fresh bag from the clubhouse and the game could continue.

Unfazed by this nonsense, Ashton and Backwell charge forward and get into a position where the only recourse for the Oldland keeper is to leave his goal and attempt a tackle, which is a good one but left himself and the attacking player in a heap on the ground. The Ashton player (Sam Skidmore) got to his feet first and shot into the open net before a defender could get in a position to do anything about it. The keeper remained on the floor for a minute or two, clearly in pain so he could be forgiven for being beaten this time. 

A draw felt like a fair scoreline for this match but it wasn't over yet. A rebound off an Ashton defender came out just past the D and was met with a surprisingly balletic turn from an Oldland player who unleashed a screamer towards goal that was saved by the increasingly impressive Spiderman, who made a very good block but was unable to catch the ball leaving it to roll menacingly towards the bottom corner. This unexpected chance was dealt with in the nick of time by an Ashton defender with a sliding clearance. This was to be the best chance at nicking the game either team would get despite an end-to-end last ten minutes with Oldland looking a lot more composed than they had done in the first half. Eventually there was a typically tenth tier attempt at handbags between two players which kind of killed the momentum and the game would finish a very fair 1-1 draw. 

A good trip out to shake off those Western League cobwebs and complete my fifteenth current ground in the league. Still a long way to go on that particular quest.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

#56 Craven Cottage, Fulham

Fulham 0 Bristol Rovers 1
Tuesday 22nd August 2017, Football League Cup

Ah the Football League Cup. An annual opportunity for lower league clubs to book a tie at one of the more festooned stadiums of the 92. Also an opportunity for fans of the aforementioned festooned clubs to stay at home rearranging their sock drawer. Still, having enjoyed last season's high-profile trip to affluent West London powerhouse Chelsea, I thought it prudent to get involved in this season's second round away trip to affluent West London powerhouse: Fulham. Rovers qualified for this match in notably less dramatic fashion than the previous year's hard-fought 1-0 victory over Cardiff at the Mem, via a consummate 4-1 dismantling of Cambridge United, again at the Mem. The Cottagers *snort* are a team that the Gas have decent form in beating in recent cup history, emerging victorious over two legs after drawing 2-2 at Craven Cottage before a bore draw back in Bristol resulted in penalties which we won 5-3.

I decided to do my civic duty and drive to the game with Jack, Duke and Briony in tow, stopping only to apply parcel tape to the rear of my car as a piece of the bodywork began flapping about in the breeze due to my wife reversing into her brother's van the previous Saturday and failing to notify me. I'm glad I had friends along with me as slave to the sat nav that I am, I would have dutifully followed a strange one hour M3 detour via Staines that it barked at me as we neared the capital. Thankfully Jack was there to reprimand the wayward technology and we arrived in not-too-bad time. The route to the ground would give us an idea of the kind of club we were up against as we passed by a number of rubgy grounds including Chiswick, Harlequins and the national stadium, Twickenham Park. If Chelsea had been an example of voguish urban opulence, Fulham was very much it's sequestered leafy cousin, with fancy frieze-adorned townhouses as far as the eye could see.

Briony had pulled an absolute blinder by scouting out a place off Fulham Palace Road for us to park within walking distance from the stadium and so we did with just under an hour to spare. We were greeted into London in typical fashion by a van driver who, upon spotting us trying to work out which direction Craven Cottage was in shouted: "You've lost the ground have you?" to which we replied the affirmative, foolishly thinking friendly directions would be forthcoming but the driver just said "Oh" and drove off. After reorienting ourselves we set off down the suburban streets towards the ground which were without a shadow of a doubt the most peaceful I've ever seen around a football stadium. It was like Westbury-on-Trym had a Premier League/Championship yo-yo club.

We arrived at the turnstiles and I had to admire the very traditional exterior of the ground which was a large part of the reason I wanted to attend today. Obviously the first very noticeable thing is the cottage itself, a red-brick, black-roofed Victorian cottage with The Fulham Football Club painted on the side roof in big white letters. The whole exterior wall follows the theme of the cottage with it's red brick and occasional crowned point, punctuated by the same thin, black turnstile doors from the beginning of last century. This whole facade is one of the remaining examples of the work of influential Scottish stadium architect Archibald Leitch, who interestingly only built the cottage in the first place because he forgot to incorporate changing rooms into his original design. Adding even more to the blue-blooded nature of the club, the site of the stadium was once the personal hunting grounds of Anne Boleyn before becoming the home of author Edward Bulwer-Lytton who took up residency in the original cottage which legend has it was located on the centre circle of the pitch. The cottage pavilion is these days reserved for the family members of players.

Inside the ground feels vast with it's 25,700 capacity but much like it's West London cousin Stamford Bridge somehow you never feel too far removed from the action. Much of the interior is very modern now but the original 1905 barnlike design of the Johnny Haynes Stand is still standing proud as the oldest stand in the Football League and like the cottage is a Grade II listed building. The upper echelons of this stand still contain the original wooden seating alongside a montage of the career of club legend Johnny Haynes. I would go as far as to say Craven Cottage is my favourite league ground that I've visited so far. It's just littered with nice touches and history, like the flag that hangs from the cottage pavilion which reads "Still Believe", a reference to the 2009/10 Europa League semi-final when the fans, facing defeat at the hands of Hamburg SV rose as one to chants of "stand up if you still believe" before going on to win the game 2-1.

Many of the quirkier features are sadly no more, such as the tradition of hanging a flag representing the nationality of each squad member on the Putney End (replaced by a digital scoreboard) or the infamous statue of Michael Jackson, requested by his personal friend the eccentric former Fulham chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed. The statue was met with many a raised eyebrow as Jackson was neither a Fulham fan nor a football fan but did say of the club when he visited "Fulham fans were like people at my concerts. I wanted to jump up and start dancing." This wasn't enough to appease the fans however and Al-Fayed removed the statue in 2013 many years after the singer's untimely death. However the club does still feature the only remaining living tree inside a senior British football ground and the option to watch people rowing along the River Thames which runs directly behind the stadium should you get bored.

As we loitered around the away stand saying our hellos to the familiar travelling faces, it became clear that we weren't in for a repeat of the famous 7200 away following of the aforementioned FA cup match of yore. I'd put today's attendance at closer to 800. Our seats were located near the front of the stand but most of the singing was taking place in the upper echelons so we opted to make our way up there. Just before this decision I'd taken a misplaced warm-up shot to the arse whilst turning round to shake someone's hand so I was quite keen to get away from all the laughter anyway. A mere thirteen minutes had passed before Rovers had stunned the home side as Liam Sercombe played Ellis Harrison into a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper on the right wing. With the last defender in hot pursuit, Ellis calmly took the ball round the Fulham keeper and slotted the ball into the net with the side of his foot just before Tayo Edun finally caught up to him and put in a futile slide tackle. A wonderfully composed goal that'll do wonders for the confidence of occasionally-maligned Harrison.

Rovers narrowly had the best of a tight first half which could have resulted in us doubling our lead through Billy Bodin, who poked a defensive header from a Fulham player past his marker and ran onto the ball in a tempting center of goal position but shot well wide. Not to mention a Rovers free-kick in an attacking position that fell to Tom Lockyer just outside the 6-yard box. His angled effort was parried away by Bettinelli but only as far as Byron Moore who was denied a tap-in by some incredibly quick reactions from Ryan Sessegnon, who eventually wrestled the ball away and out of danger. We entered the second half hoping we wouldn't rue those missed chances as Fulham began to turn the screws and a tired looking Rovers sat back relied on punting the ball long whenever they took possession. In the end we were very lucky that all of these chances we were inviting were blasted over the bar by a Fulham side that looked pretty weak in front of goal all told. Fulham's closest effort was in the second minute of extra time as Aboubakar Kamara headed just wide of goal from a worrying Fulham break. After what felt like an eternity of nervous chin-holding the referee blew the whistle for full time and Rovers recorded another unexpected victory over Fulham. Just the tonic for a rather disappointing few months for us on and off the pitch.