Sunday 31 January 2016

TLFG: 1-7 February 2016

At long last I've had a busy week in the footballing sense.

It started on Tuesday with a meeting with a member of the FA marketing team as they build towards the first ever non-league finals day at Wembley on Sunday 22 May.

For several decades, teams outside the Football League have competed for the FA Trophy and FA Vase with the respective finals held at the national stadium.

With attendances never getting anywhere near capacity, ideas have been sought to try and sell more tickets.

One that has been suggested many times is to have both finals played on the same day but internal politics and tradition has always got in the way.

This season they're going to give it a go so you'll get a whole day out at Wembley and two matches for one great price (I've seen the proposed prices which will be released shortly and have to say they're pretty fair).

On Wednesday I travelled to Nijmegen to watch my first Eredivisie match
Without going into the details I was also made aware of a number of other things which left me feeling a whole lot more positive than I did at this stage last season when originally asked to get involved.

Watch this space for more information and put the date in your diary.

The following day I headed over to the Netherlands to watch my first Eredivisie game.

Leaving St Pancras on the Eurostar at 0650, I enjoyed a very smooth journey, via Brussels, to the south-eastern city of Nijmegen which took less than six hours.

I met up with my host Paul (author of MatchDays) who took me and another friend Ashley (author of The Long Way) to watch NEC v FC Twente.

Probably the main reason I haven't explored Dutch football very much before is that tickets are so tightly restricted because of hooliganism problems. You have to be a club member or have to buy overpriced tourist tickets from one of the big three clubs - with Paul being a local, getting tickets wasn't a problem.

With this in mind, the weather poor, the opposition poor and the game kicking off at the inexplicably early time of 630pm, I wasn't sure what to expect.

The first thing to hit you is the price. If you can get hold of a ticket, a decent one at a club like this will only cost around 20 euro (£15). Not only this but they give away the match programmes for free via small boys outside the stadium (i.e. you don't even need a ticket to get one).

On entering the ground, the body search I received was thorough to say the least but I was heartily encouraged in English to 'enjoy the game' by the beaming steward once he'd finished getting a good idea of my tailoring requirements!

Once inside, you notice that there is a dry moat between the stands and the raised pitch and down within it are the refreshment kiosks. To speed up service at the tills, you are first asked to put some money on a cash card at a separate hut which is then debited when you order. Anything left over is then paid back to you after the game - bit of a palaver if you ask me. I didn't partake but the others did and the prices looked pretty reasonable.

We took our seats towards the front of the stand but quickly realised that we'd get pretty wet if we remained there for the whole game so elected to move to the back where there was a standing area. I don't know how official it was as there were still seats there but the two or three rows of people standing were left unbothered by the stewards and didn't interfere with anyone else.

On the playing side of things, the two most notable names in the hosts' line-up from an English point of view were former Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Jones who had just joined the club and Chelsea youngster Todd Kane who played at right-back.

If like me you're not an expert on Dutch football, NEC are in many ways quite similar in standing to QPR - a bit of yo-yo team between the top two divisions who never really win any major trophies and play in a small ground (12,000) but have quite a cool kit (in my opinion, very cool in NEC's case). The fanbase are very local and asked several times why I'd bothered to come all the way from England to watch them. 

NEC celebrate after taking the lead
FC Twente, on the other hand, famously won the title for the only time in their history back in 2010 when Steve McClaren moved there to rebuild his career after a disastrous spell as England manager. These days they are very much on their uppers with all kinds of off-field problems contributing to a very poor showing in the league so a home win was expected.

The game itself, played in wind and swirling rain, wasn't a classic but provided plenty of opportunities (20 shots on target) and looked all set to become a 'good 0-0' when Belgian midfielder Anthony Limbombe lobbed the keeper with 15 minutes to go. The coup-de-grace was added by star striker Christian Santos just before the end to leave the majority of the 11,000 crowd in jubilant spirits as their side climbed to fourth in the table.

Overall my first experience of Dutch football was a good one - the prices and facilities were decent and the atmosphere was good. People often say that with many Dutch stars playing abroad, the quality of the league suffers and it probably does but live football is live football and if chances are being created, as was the case here, then as a neutral I don't think you can have too many complaints. When I contrast this to my last European adventure to Florence where I watched Fiorentina grind out a 0-0 draw against Juventus (two teams packed with stars) while getting soaked in an uncovered stand where someone else had nicked my seat which had cost 90 euro (face value) and I had to sit on the steps for the whole game, I know which one I'd be more likely to repeat.

One thing letting the Eredivisie down is the whole ticketing/security issue. The Netherlands is brilliantly set up for groundhopping with lots of teams in close proximity to each other and very close to the UK but the ticketing system in place is off-putting. On Wednesday, to my knowledge, there wasn't a whiff of trouble (although there was more than a whiff of some other stuff that's not strictly legal here) with groups of friends and family all heading out to enjoy the football. 

When the big clubs play it might be different but then such fixtures should be handled in a different way as they are here.

The other thing I've noticed more generally when talking to Dutch people about football is that almost all of them when asked say they support Ajax. Paul and others in Nijmegen I asked all said the big boys from Amsterdam were their primary Dutch club of choice (although he seemed to rekindle a love for NEC as those goals were going in) which seems a bit of a shame. As you know, I'm very much one for encouraging support of local clubs so it was good to see an English banner at the Goffert Stadion saying 'Support Your Local Football Team' - it's one of the only ways smaller clubs will have a chance of remaining competitive in the modern age.

If you're tempted by a trip to watch NEC I'm sure Paul will be more than happy to hear from you and I'd also like to recommend the Hotel Prikkels where I stayed - very informal, centrally located and great value at £50 (70 euro) a night for a queen room with breakfast and WiFi included. The woman running it used to be a sports reporter too - loved it!


Please follow this link or click on the tab at the top of the page for all the information you need about how to get a ticket, what's currently available to non-members at London's biggest clubs and any other special offers or promotions which might be running.

There are over 80 matches in the London area over the next seven days so there's plenty to choose from whatever your budget.

However, please make sure you check with clubs before you travel just in case a game has been called off or venue has been changed. Also, please let me know if anything is wrong or missing.

Details on all of this week's games can be found on the following match maps. If you've never used them before, please note that when there is more than one match at a specific ground you'll only be able to see individual match pins if you zoom right in. If you don't, the pins obscure each other and you might miss them. To avoid this, you can also scroll down the list of games on the drop down menu at the top of the map page to make sure you get all the information. Games are listed from top to bottom in date order so Monday's games (yellow pin) will appear first and Sunday's (white pin) last. Games are also ranked in terms of status so the higher the division, the higher up the list they will appear on each day.

Also if you're unfamiliar with the English league structure I indicate the level at which an individual league sits in the national 'pyramid' with the Premier League at the top (Level 1) and various minor leagues at the bottom (Level 10). Typically a top level game will see crowds of anywhere between 20,000-60,000. These figures will gradually decline as you go down the leagues until you get to Levels 8-10 where attendances of 150 or less are most common.

It should also be noted that the top four levels are for fully professional teams. Level 5 has a mixture of professional and semi-professional teams, while Levels 6-10 will see most players paid but it will vary from no more than travel expenses at the bottom, right up to several hundred pounds a week at the top (e.g. clubs in the Conference South).

Yellow pin - Monday fixtures
Green pin - Tuesday fixtures
Red pin - Wednesday fixtures
Black pin - Friday fixtures

Blue pin - Saturday fixtures

Next up is this week's TLFG match recommendations where I list a few games which I think could be worth a watch. If I miss one that you think should get a mention then add your own in the comments section below.


1. Chelsea v Manchester United - when you look at this fixture you immediately think 'game of the week' but when you check the league table and then the stats, you're not quite so sure. Usually this game between two of titans of the English game would go some way towards deciding the title but this year they're both also-rans. Chelsea were flirting so badly with the bottom three that they sacked Jose Mourinho and Man Utd are churning out such bad football that their fans are booing them off. When they met a month ago the sides, both led by hugely successful Dutch managers, produced a 0-0 draw and I can't see it being much different this time round. If I had to pick a winner it would be the Blues. (Premier League, Sunday 7 February, 4pm. Ticket info)

2. Arsenal v Southampton - the race for the Premier League title is the tightest it's been for years with the top four all within five points of each other. The Gunners were starting to convince a few that this could finally be their year but 2016 has not begun well and only two points have been gleaned from matches against Liverpool, Stoke and Chelsea. On Saturday they scraped past Championship side Burnley in the FA Cup and next face the in-form Saints at the Emirates. An iffy period in November and December caused a few worries at the Hampshire club but three wins on the trot without conceding a goal have put them right back in the hunt for a Europa League spot. With new signing Charlie Austin vanquishing Manchester United at Old Trafford on his debut last time out, Ronald Koeman's side pose a real threat here. (Premier League, Tuesday 2 February, 745pm. Ticket info)

3. Tottenham Hotspur v Watford - if Arsenal do slip up, fierce north London rivals Spurs are also nicely poised to mount a title challenge. Most neutrals are praying that Leicester win the league this year but if they don't then Tottenham would be a very acceptable alternative. Although one of the biggest names in English football, the club from N17 haven't won the title since 1961 so it's long overdue. Mauricio Pochettino has steadily built a very competent side over the last 18 months which finds itself firmly challenging for three trophies as we move into the latter half of the season. The match against local rivals Watford won't be a cakewalk by any means. Although suffering a poor run around the turn of the year, they have also now managed three consecutive wins in the league and FA Cup and should be well motivated for this derby. (Premier League, Saturday 6 February, 3pm. Ticket info)

4. Charlton Athletic v Bristol City - in the Championship we have a game for more niche tastes as two clubs in trouble scrap to fight against relegation. Both are in the bottom three after some fairly hideous results but neither have as yet been cut adrift from the rest of the pack. A win for either will elevate them out of the drop zone and give a great boost to morale which could help them in the following weeks. Charlton were a proud and well run Premier League side until 2006 but since then it's gone a bit awry. There have been relegations and promotions since then but the current set-up is causing real concern as the club's Belgian owner has hired and fired a string of unsuccessful managers as results have nosedived. Fans have been out in protest as they've demanded change. Things could be turning a corner though as the team are unbeaten in two and even thrashed relegation rivals Rotherham 4-1 on Saturday. Here's to a brighter future for the Addicks. (Championship, Saturday 6 February, 3pm. Ticket info)

5. Fulham v Derby County - elsewhere in the second tier we have game of significance at either end of the table. Like Charlton, Fulham have struggled since leaving the Premier League and are once again entrenched in a relegation dogfight having won only one of their last 14 games. The Rams head to Craven Cottage with their perennial promotion push on the verge of collapse again. It must be heartbreaking being a Derby fan - two years ago they lost to a last-minute goal in the play-off final after completely outplaying QPR and last season they looked certs for the title only to blow-up completely and not even make the play-offs. This season is starting to look doomed as well. Up in the top two for a while, County are now winless in five and down to fifth with several clubs ready to take their place. (Championship, Saturday 6 February, 3pm. Ticket info)

6. Welling United v Altrincham with all our local League One and Two teams on the road this week, we next focus on the National League where we have another relegation 'six-pointer' to enjoy. The Wings escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth last season and haven't found it any easier this time round. An 11-game winless run saw them part with manager Loui Fazakerley at the beginning of the week and install former coach Dean Frost who guided them to a draw at Halifax on Saturday. Alty sit just above the bottom four so must be beaten if Welling are to entertain any real hope of staying up. (National League, Saturday 6 February, 3pm. Ticket info)

7. Sutton United v Bognor Regis Town as someone now involved in the promotion of the FA Trophy I'm understandably quite excited about this tie. Sutton are the last remaining club in the London area and a win here against lower league opposition will put them into the quarter-finals. To my knowledge, the U's have never been to Wembley so I'm pretty confident they'd take a sizeable following to the national stadium if they made it. Although in fantastic form at the moment, they should find Isthmian League title chasers Bognor a tough proposition and complacency must be stamped out quickly or they could come unstuck. (FA Trophy Third Round, Saturday 6 February, 3pm. Ticket info)

8. Hampton & Richmond Borough v Leiston - if you thought the Premier League title race was tight then the one in the Isthmian League is even more open. At this stage one point separates the top three, the teams in fourth and fifth have games in hand on those above meaning they're all effectively within a couple of points of each other. Two of those sides meet in this game. Hampton were top with a game in hand a little over a week ago but only a point from the two games against fellow challengers Tonbridge and Bognor since then have reeled them back in. That tough run of games continues with this match against Leiston. The Suffolk club also had a spell at the top earlier in the season during which time they beat Hampton 3-1. It's a big game for both. (Isthmian League Premier Division, Saturday 6 February, 3pm. Club info)

9. Northwood v Royston Town the focus has been on Egham in this division in recent weeks but bad weather has held up their campaign as postponements have had to be made. However, they are not the only local side to be challenging as Northwood now find themselves just a point adrift of the play-off places. On Saturday they recorded a very impressive 3-0 win at title contenders Chalfont St Peter to give them real belief of being able to push on. This weekend they face Royston who sit just above them on level points, a side they beat back in August. Overshadowed by a number of bigger clubs, not least Watford, it would be great to see the local community really get behind the side in their 90th year. (Southern League Division 1 Central, Saturday 6 February, 3pm. Ticket info)

10. Barking v FC Romania - we're off to east London again for the game of the week in the ninth tier as third take on first in the Essex Senior League. The Blues mounted a spirited title challenge last season but were ultimately left in third as they trailed in the wake of a mighty Haringey side. Third again and with two games in hand on the leaders at the time of writing, they're in with a good chance again. FC Romania, formerly of TLFG's parish, now play in Cheshunt and have made steady progress since their formation in 2006. Unsurprisingly their squad is made up primarily of Romanian players who were technically very good on the one occasion I saw them. They've improved since then and are particularly dangerous going forward a point illustrated by the fact they've scored 16 in their last two and 88 in 25 overall. (Essex Senior League, Tuesday 2 February, 745pm. Club info)

If you're going to see a game, whether you're a local or a visitor, please let me know what you've been up to. If you're interested in reviewing a ground within the London area for this blog then get in touch. You might also want to have a go at writing a 'Top Ten' one week. I also very much welcome photos of your football travels.

Got any questions about visiting London? Don't hesitate to ask - be they football or more general travel/touristy queries.

You can contact TLFG through the comments section below or via FacebookTwitter or even by good old email.

1 comment:

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