Saturday, 14 May 2022

The City of Riga, Football and So Much More!

On the face of it, Riga may not seem much of a footballing destination. But whilst in the capital of Latvia, I met many football fans whether it be Champions League followers in the bars of the Old Town or the international assortment of groundhoppers found amongst the small but loyal local fanbases of Latvia’s top-flight Virslīga. Of course, Riga has more to offer than just football, however, and the largest city in the Baltics is a fascinating haven of the historic and the modern with plenty of Soviet-era kitsch bridging the two.
Cheap Ryanair flights have brought people from all over Europe to this thriving metropolis and you can see why. Firstly, there’s the Old Town with its trendy restaurants, lively bars and upmarket retail shopping set amongst its historic architecture, informative museums, and free tours. Contrast that with the Mežaparks district and its captivating Soviet-era amphitheatre cum bandstand sat in the middle of a large forest which itself is situated next to the calming Ķīšezers lake. But don’t forget the eclectic mix of modern design and Soviet-era construction in between either. From the fashionable building of the Latvian National Library built just within the last decade to the hundreds of Soviet-era apartment blocks, this city definitely boasts an interesting mix of 21st-century innovation and communist block antiquity to go alongside that obvious historic charm also present.

For Soviet era, also see the old skool Shopping Centre “MInska” complete with indoor market stalls where your archetypal babushka will be found happily pottering about amongst the varying wares on offer. (in some sort of reciprocal arrangement there is apparently a Riga shopping centre in the Belorussian capital of Minsk) 

Amongst all that I don’t think I’ve mentioned the huge Riga Central Market either. Sat next to the Old Town, the market and bazaar is Europe’s largest and consists of five sizeable pavilions constructed between 1924 and 1930 by reusing old German Zeppelin hangars. Marinated herring from Silkites un Dillites fish bar which sits inside one of the market halls was a definite highlight of my visit. The mouth of the Daugava River that flows through the city meets the Gulf of Riga before it all ends up in the Baltic Sea so, unsurprisingly, seafood is popular amongst the locals.


I can honestly say that after three days in this city, where both Latvian and Russian are spoken in equal measure, I had become very fond of it. But as my time drew to a close there was one thing missing, I had not as yet seen any live football. Eventually, my inner groundhopper will always break loose and I’ll want a local footy adventure. On my final night, it was now time to take in a game having already gotten in the mood by visiting the city’s two main stadiums.

Skonto Satdions and the ever so slightly larger Daugava Stadions (capacity 10,461) are the city’s, and indeed the country’s, two largest stadiums with the former recently hosting national team matches whilst the latter was being renovated. Neither were massively far from the city centre with my apartment, which sat about a 45 minute walk from the Old Town, barely a five-minute stroll from Daugava Stadions. Both venues were open enough for a few photo opportunities and the Daugava I found complete with some mouthwatering x rated floodlight porn.

As for finding that live game, Latvia hosted quite a few top flight midweek matchups during my Monday to Friday visit but only one of which took place in Riga itself. A Thursday early evening affair that would nicely round off my trip. (I was told there would also be a couple of u18 league contests taking place in the city during my stay but declined on that front)


There are currently three permanently Riga based clubs in the Latvian top-flight, FK Metta, FK Rīgas Futbola Skola (RFS), and Riga FC, whilst Spartaks Jūrmala usually based in Jūrmala along the coast are temporarily playing their home games at RFS’ LNK Sporta Parks home whilst their own venue is being renovated. Also nearby are FK Auda who are based in Ķekava a short distance south of the city. Crowds are usually in the low to mid hundreds, however, with basketball and ice hockey seemingly far more popular than the local football although the English Premier League does have a significant TV following within the country. 


The lack of interest in football, and in particular the country’s own leagues, perhaps stems from the fact that during the Soviet era Latvia rarely featured in the top division of the Soviet Union. FC Daugava Riga were the country’s most successful side but only managed seven seasons in the top flight and the last of those came as far back as 1962 albeit with a few near misses on the promotion front in the 1980s. No other side from the country came close to making the top table. Unfortunately, Daugava Riga were dissolved in 1991. Also, the national side's remarkable qualification for Euro 2004 is the only time they’ve featured at a major tournament since their 1991 independence which doesn’t help.


The most famous Latvian club, at least in recent times, however, are Skonto Riga who between 1991 and 2004 incredibly won a world record 14 consecutive league titles in a row. One final title would follow in 2010 before the club went bankrupt and out of existence six years later. A similar fate was suffered by FK Ventspils who withdrew from the league last year due to a lack of funding. This came after UEFA banned the club from European competition for the next seven years for violating UEFA regulations related to "fraud, bribery and/or corruption," I mention Ventspils as in 2006 they played my club Newcastle United in a UEFA Cup qualifying round tie. I remember the home leg most for the fact that Ventspils had only one supporter in attendance in the away end. This was true for the first half at least though a couple more fans seemed to appear from inside the concourse for the second period. But as far as I am concerned they will always be remembered as the away side who brought only one fan.


Ventspils were not based in Riga, however, and neither will FK Spartaks Jūrmala be for much longer. The two times Latvian champions who were formed as recently as 2007 and, as mentioned, are only using Riga as a temporary base hope to move back into their usual Slokas Stadions home before the end of the season with ongoing refurbishment soon to be completed. It was a Spartaks ‘home’ game with Valmiera FC, based just over 100km north east of Riga, that actually ended up being my aforementioned lone opportunity for live football when I visited the city, Only 100 supporters were present to watch a team that, so I am told, usually see between 300-400 fans turn up at their normal ground. However, sitting bottom of the league and playing over 30km from said home can perhaps explain this lower turnout.


LNK Sporta Parks where the game took place is a little way from the centre but accessible via public transport if you don’t fancy an extra long walk. The venue has two main pitches one of which has artificial turf where the game I witnessed took place. The pitch had uncovered seating along one side but facilities were sparse with a small coffee van and two portable toilets about all that was on offer for spectators.

Amongst the 100 in attendance were several foreign visitors and the first voice I heard upon arrival was that of a Welshman named Andy who like me also writes for Football Weekends magazine. Unbelievably a third Football Weekends contributor named Howard was also present with the three of us having arrived separately and with no prior notice. You couldn't make it up. The three of us got chatting to some German groundhoppers during the second half and I have now had an invite to Germany to come and watch their side Alemannia Aachen in action. Another groundhopper, this time of the Italian variety, also joined us and declared that there were too many groundhoppers per square metre. Towards the end of the game, there was one more lad we got chatting to and he was, I kid you not, a former Swedish international. Hans Eskilsson made 8 appearances for the Swedish national side and briefly played for SC Braga, Sporting Clube de Portugal, and Heart of Midlothian amongst other clubs. It was pointed out to him that out of all of us stood there chatting he was only to have his own Wikipedia page.

The match was an uneventful affair which ended in a 2-0 victory for the visitors who had a small contingent of away fans present. Those visiting supporters briefly came to life a couple of times with a few chants whilst there was one very vociferous home fan who rarely stopped shouting, but overall the crowd was not particularly lively. It was definitely a noisier affair in the Old Town’s Kiwi Bar for the Champions League offering on TV the previous night. Nonetheless, my Latvian football experience was still a very much enjoyable one and I met some cracking people, albeit none of them locals. It was one of the many highlights of my trip and certainly a match that I will always remember if only for the people I met.


Riga overall was an amazing experience and one I will never forget. For all the reasons already mentioned in this article and many more, I could not speak more highly of the city and I would recommend this fine Baltic capital to absolutely everyone.


Saturday, 16 April 2022

Five Massive Clubs Who Were Not Too Big To Go Down

With the possibility of Everton getting relegated from the Premier League this season a real threat despite 67 consecutive seasons of top flight football, it shows that no club is too big to go down. (personally, I think they'll stay up)


Of course, every football fan knows this as we've seen it before - so here are five famous clubs that were not too big to go down.


Manchester United 1973-74

In 1968 Manchester United won the European Cup, six years later they were relegated. 


A year after winning European football’s biggest prize, the late great Sir Matt Busby stood down as manager of Manchester United and retired from the game. In circumstances similar to the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson over 40 years later, a guy called Wilf McGuinness was given the unenviable task of taking over from the big man. As with David Moyes who replaced Sir Alex, things did not end well and McGuinness was out the door after a year and a half. Busby came back to steady the ship until the end of the season before Frank O’Farrell took the reigns. O’Farrell lasted 28 months before departing with the club third bottom of the First Division. Although his replacement Tommy Docherty managed to avoid the drop come the end of the season, next time out he would not be so lucky.


A season of mostly losses and draws saw United all but down until a late revival gave them hope. But an unbeaten run of four wins and two draws was in the end not enough to save their skin. Two games later a second defeat in a row saw them officially relegated with just one game remaining. The match in question was a home game against cross town rivals Manchester City in which ex United legend Dennis Law grabbed the winning goal with a stupendous backheel in a 1-0 win for the visitors - a goal which was followed by a pitch invasion that saw the game delayed. A 36 year unbroken run in the top flight had finally come to an end.


Docherty remained in charge for another three years and oversaw an immediate return to First Division football as Division Two champions the following season. United have yet to be relegated since and although a mixed 15+ years or so followed they were eventually back on top to dominate English football throughout much of the 90s and 00s. This saw United become the most successful side in the whole history of English football with a record 20 top flight league titles thanks to adding another 13 in the Premier League era.


Hamburger SV 2017-18

Prior to 2017-18, Hamburg had never been relegated from the Bundesliga. Considering they were the only club to have played in every single one of the league's 54 seasons of existence (Bayern did not join the party until it was a few years old) this was no mean feat. 2017-18 would obviously make it to 55 but unexpectedly they would not reach 56.


In 2001, to celebrate having never missed a Bundesliga season since its 1963 introduction, Hamburg installed at their Volksparkstadion home a digital clock showing the years, weeks, days, and hours they had spent in the division but eventually, the clock would stop. To be fair they did get a good 17 years out of it but I think they had been hoping for an awful lot more.


Hamburg won four and lost two of their last six games in 2017-18 and were only one extra win away from finishing one place higher in the relegation play-off spot but a long way from complete safety. Despite having started the season with two straight wins they won only twice more before those final six matches and at one point went 15 matches without a victory. Because of this, their late flourish was not enough, the damage was already done.


Hamburg, who won the European Cup in 1983, have failed to make it back to the Bundesliga despite a few near misses and, as things stand, this season look set to again miss out on a much coveted return to top flight football. They do still have an outside chance of going up so you never know, but although it’s a case of not quite yet impossible it is looking increasingly unlikely as the season draws to a close.


Club Atlético de Madrid 1999-00

In 1995-96 Atlético Madrid were crowned Spanish La Liga champions for the first time in 19 years, four years later they were relegated. 


Three times league champions in the 1970s and European Cup runners up for good measure, Atleti also had five earlier league triumphs to their name. Basically, despite not having quite had the successes of the country's big two FC Barcelona and Real Madrid they had nonetheless still been more successful than most. They had also been ever present in the top flight for longer than most cared to remember - 66 straight seasons to be precise. Relegation was not something you expected of the capital’s second club.


Atleti won their final game of the 1999-00 season but had been winless in their previous 15 league matches and because of this were already down. The club were relegated to the Segunda División in second from last position having finished thirteenth only a year earlier.


Despite an abysmal league campaign, however, Atleti still managed to reach the Copa del Rey final, where they lost to RCD Espanyol, and the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.


A rejuvenated Atlético Madrid side that included a young Fernando Torres just missed out on promotion the following season with a fourth placed finish but went up as league champions at the second attempt and have remained in the top flight ever since. Over this period they have twice won La Liga, won one Cop del Rey, managed three Europa League triumphs and twice finished beaten finalists in the Champions League. All of those successes, bar one Europa League accomplishment, have occurred within the last ten years.


Grasshopper Club Zürich 2018-19

Perhaps the 2018-19 relegation of Grasshoppers from the Swiss Super League (which I wrote about here) was to be expected. After all, having failed to win another league title since their last triumph in 2003 they had seemingly been on a downward spiral for a long while since. This had culminated in dismal finishes of third, then second bottom in the two seasons prior to that fateful campaign. (If the 2018-19 introduction of a relegation play-off for the second bottom club in the ten-team top-flight had have come in a year earlier then their demise potentially might have come sooner)


Nonetheless, come the end of the season when their relegation was finally confirmed it still sent shockwaves around the country. After all, with 27 league titles to their name Grasshoppers were the most successful side in Swiss football history and at 69 years straight they had featured continuously in the top division for just 14 years shy of the nation's average life expectancy and that according to the World Health Organisation was the second highest in the world.


Grasshoppers ended their 2018-19 campaign rock bottom of the table with just four wins to their name and the last of those had come at the end of November with some 21 games still to play! The eight draws that followed across the remainder of the season were not anywhere near enough to keep them up as they finished 12 points behind Neuchâtel Xamax in the play-off spot and some 18 behind FC Sion and complete safety. All those years of top-flight football had come to end with barely a whimper! 


A third placed finish in 2019-20 saw Grasshoppers miss out on an immediate return to the top flight but 2020-21 saw them promoted as champions.


Club Atlético River Plate 2010-11

River Plate are the most successful club in Argentinian football history, just eclipsing arch rivals Boca Juniors, and prior to the 2010-11 season, they had never before been relegated. 


For River, the 2010-11 season was a fairly average one but it was far from terrible and you would certainly have thought they had amassed enough points to avoid relegation. Argentina has a unique relegation system, however, which is based on an average number of points earned over the last three seasons including the one just played (or the number of seasons played since promotion if less than three) and this helped send River down. 


For River, finishing bottom of the Torneo Apertura in the 2008-09 Primera División was partly their undoing. The Torneo Apertura is the opening championship which is followed by the closing championship known as the Torneo Clausura. This means that one champion is crowned midway through the season and potentially a different second champion crowned at the end of the season. 


Regardless of how they crown their champions and how they deal with relegation, however, River Plate came nowhere near winning a title over those three years and come the end of them were in a relegation play-off spot in that averages table.


To save themselves from relegation River would have to beat second tier side Club Atlético Belgrano in a two legged play-off match. This proved beyond RIver Plate, however, when after a 2-0 first leg loss away from home they could only manage a 1-1 draw on their own patch bringing angry scenes both in and outside the stadium.


Still to this day arch rivals Boca Juniors sing about the shame of River getting relegated, something they have never experienced themselves. But River arguably had the last laugh as promoted at the first attempt they later went on to beat their rivals in the final of the Copa Libertadores in 2018. The Libertadores is the South American continent's premier club competition and the story of River’s 2018 triumph over Boca could fill a whole book on its own and that’s just the events off the pitch! We’ll leave that for another day, however.

 

Monday, 14 March 2022

How As a Teenager I became Intrigued by Major League Soccer Without Realising It Was Almost Ready To Fold

I’ve wanted to write about American Soccer on this blog for a while as, after all, it has a rather interesting history. Well, by that I mean there are a few key periods and events which certainly fascinate. Despite this, I’ve never really found the right place to start. Some stories I’ve left alone as they have already been extensively covered elsewhere such as the NASL, whilst with other tales rarely voiced it has been a case of difficulties in research that has stopped me from telling the story I want. This even with the sadly now deceased David Wangerin’s excellent written history of American soccer to hand. There was also one event that I did not fancy covering due to the involvement of humiliation for my home country.

Even with my travel writing when in America I have drawn a blank. Whilst I‘ve visited the country several times now I’ve never managed to attend a game so have not been able to write any football based travel stuff for the excellent Football Weekends magazine that features me from time to time (I did see a basketball match in Phoenix the other year but alas no footy). 


Although I have so far been unable to write about any parts of it in detail, American soccer, as I have already said, does have a rather fascinating history. It started when the American Soccer League briefly captured the imagination in the late 1920s and early 30s, with a team called the Fall River Marksmen the stars of the show. Although it was never gonna compete with baseball in terms of popularity it did for a short while draw impressive crowds and attract a few decent players from the Football League here in England. Albeit it far too briefly, it certainly found a place of note in America's sporting landscape, perhaps helped by the fact that other sports such as American football and basketball had not yet gained the momentum that made them into the powerhouses they are today. 


After that brief flirtation with the sport the rest of us correctly call football, the domestic game in the US went into complete obscurity until the NASL took off in the 1970s, In the intervening years there was at the 1950 World Cup, however, a famous shock win for the men’s national team, or USMNT as they are known over there, when they defeated the might of England despite being huge underdogs. In the days before live matches on television, certainly not from overseas at least, it was a result that most back in the UK thought they’d misheard when it was announced on BBC radio. As a proud Englishman, however, I will quickly gloss over this event and move on. if anyone is interested, however, look up a man called Joe Gaetjens.


Next as mentioned came the NASL. Those in the States went mad for soccer in the 1970s when the brash, loud, very uncle Sam, North American Soccer League (NASL) took off with Brazillian legend Pele the star of the show and his New York Cosmos the talk of the town. Again that was all short-lived and the league folded in the early 80s.


America’s next big foray into the world of soccer came when they hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994 and this was followed two years later by the formation of the country’s next big professional league in Major League Soccer (MLS). MLS hit the headlines in 2007 when Los Angeles Galaxy signed superstar David Beckham at the time perhaps the most famous sportsman in the world. Since then soccer has continued to grow in popularity in the states and MLS has become a stable entity which, although might not quite have the popularity of some of the more traditional American sports leagues, is seemingly here to stay having lasted far far longer than any of its predecessors did. Another competition I have yet to mention is the US Open Cup which has been running since 1914 and is basically an American version of the FA Cup, Coupe de France, DFB-Pokal, or one of the many other major domestic cup competitions across Europe, some of which I’ve written about in the past. That covers nicely soccer in America.

 

I’m not finished yet, however, as there is another story which until recently I had missed that I can now discuss in more detail. It is the story of how MLS nearly folded after the 2001 season. But first of all, I must confess that I lie as I have actually written about American soccer before. That, however, was for a school English exam paper about 20ish years ago in a piece that is long lost to the world. Remembering reports from Paul Gardner (US based British journalist now aged 91) in the excellent World Soccer magazine I was able to write about the league’s struggles to remain relevant. But little did I know was just how serious its struggles were. 


As well reading about US soccer in magazines (I still have all my old copies of World Soccer, the hoarder that I am), I would also on occasion record late night replays of MLS matches on Channel 5 to watch the next day the likes of Chicago Fire, DC United, and San Jose Earthquakes. My interest in Major League Soccer was perhaps unusual in the UK where very little attention was paid to it in the pre-Beckham era (hence the late night viewing on a fledgling channel half the country supposedly did not receive). But World Soccer, of which I was an avid reader, had always seen football as a global game and not just looked at it through British-centric eyes. It, therefore, made me more aware of the sport in other parts of the world with the kind of coverage that you generally did not get from the mainstream media, at least not to anywhere near the same levels you do today (aside from, of course, a weekly dose of Serie A on Channel 4 which was compulsory viewing back then). Plus, having an interest in American soccer made perfect sense. Firstly, there was Hollywood. Hollywood glamourised the land of the free and home of the brave whilst the rest of the world, Britain very much included, gulped it all up in huge doses. Therefore, for much of my childhood I was very much intrigued by America, a country I would not manage to visit until I entered my third decade of living. Secondly, if I was fascinated by America it was therefore obvious to combine that interest with my obsession with football. After all, like most boys growing up in North East England, I was football mad.


Whilst my reading, writing, and general interest in the subject shows I was well aware of the difficulties that faced the beautiful game across the Atlantic in the early noughties. What I do not remember, however, was just how perilous the league’s predicament actually was and exactly how close it came to folding (very apparently).


It was in the lead up to the 2002 season that Major League Soccer nearly died. Youtuber DannyTRadio covers this in a recent video about that season and having become in recent times more aware of how bad MLS’s struggles around this period were as well as, of course, coming across said video, I have now been convinced to write about the subject and provide another bit of insight.


Perhaps I was unaware of just how bad the plight of MLS was at the end of the 2001 season simply because even as late as 2016 it was a bit of a revelation. Back in 2016, Dan Hunt, co-owner and president of FC Dallas told ESPN’s Soccer Today that at the end of that ‘01 season, with financial troubles getting too much, the clubs themselves agreed to fold the league only for his dad Lamar to intervene and save professional soccer in America. This was a big revelation and the Washington Post even ran with the headline: “MLS folded for a few days in 2001 and somehow kept it a secret until now.”


“It went out of business, they were preparing the documents and that was it,” Hunt junior told ESPN, but Hunt senior, then FC Dallas owner (at the time known as Dallas Burn), had different ideas and convinced everyone to continue for one more year at least. Within 48 hours the league was saved. What actually happened, as stated by DannyTRadio in his video, was that Lamar Hunt along with businessmen Philip Anschutz and Robert Kraft took control of all the league's teams. 


One club that had been struggling was New York/New Jersey Metrostars, these days known as New York Red Bulls, and Anschutz, as reported in the January 2002 issue of World Soccer, took control of the team meaning his AEG group now owned five of the then 12 teams. With almost half the league's teams to his name, this made Anschutz and AEG group in the words of Gardner “the controlling force in the league.” That almost half would become exactly half when shortly afterwards in the lead up to the 2002 season the league trimmed itself from 12 teams to 10.


“MLS, with the stroke of a pen, had abandoned the sunshine state of Florida,” stated Paul Gardner in March 2002. Apparently, there had been talk of downsizing in Major League Baseball and MLS decided they would get into the act too with the league’s two Flordia based teams being culled. Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny were the two unfortunates and this was seen as a surprise to Gardner. Florida had, Gardner claimed, been considered a soccer hotbed in the 1970s when the old NASL league of Pele and the Cosmos was in its prime. He also stated that yes Florida had changed a lot since then but it now had a large Hispanic population and the Hispanics were often big soccer fans. Not only this but last time out Miami had had the best regular season record in the whole league. Nonetheless, the two were gone in what was no doubt a financial decision. Tampa didn’t even have a proper owner and had been run by the league which didn’t help. Also with towns such as Dallas building new soccer stadiums in the well to do suburbs, it looked as if soccer could be alienating potential, often working class, Hispanic fans anyway.


From what I remember Gardner used to talk a lot about the Hispanic market. I would not claim to know a lot about US demographics and the popularity of soccer amongst certain groups in the country. However, I do know that MLS in 2004 did introduce an LA based team aimed at Hispanics called Chivas USA but they folded ten years later.


Losing two teams in Florida like that, however, was something I could not really get my round at the time, but then I’m not American. As I am now well aware, however, this kinda thing is common on that side of the North Atlantic. In American sports, teams come and go and move about all the time without consideration for their loyal supporters whereas in the UK this is not the case. 2002 was the year Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes and we all remember the furore that caused but in contrast Oakland, San Diego, and St Louis have all in recent years lost beloved NFL teams to other cities with barely a shrug of the shoulder. Whatever the reasoning, at the time, the idea of teams being cancelled just like that or upping sticks and moving town all of a sudden, like my favoured MLS team during this era San Jose Earthquakes did three years later, was all very alien to me. (the Earthquakes returned to MLS after a two year hiatus, however, and nowadays my team of choice in MLS are Portland Timbers)


With a new slimline 10 team league, MLS could now look towards the future and it was said that MLS had several key aims to help secure their long term existence. One of these was the building of soccer-specific stadiums for which, as mentioned, Dallas were leading the way. Interestingly, Gardner felt Anschutz had more reason than most to want to build new stadiums. Anschutz’s AEG group (Anschutz Entertainment Group) included under their wings several pop stars, and stadiums, even small to medium sized ones, were great venues for pop concerts.


There were of course also soccer based reasons for building new stadiums as had also been noted by Gardner in World Soccer too. Several months earlier Gardner had lamented in his article entitled “Soccer still only second best” that the climax of MLS league season took place as the NFL American football season was getting underway and too many of the MLS teams were secondary tenants in NFL stadiums. That meant MLS play-off schedules often were effectively dictated by NFL teams.


Also mentioned at the time of the two Florida teams folding was Anschutz striking a TV deal with ABC, one of America’s major TV networks, after he himself had purchased the TV rights. From what I remember ESPN were also showing games around this time and correct me if I’m wrong but MLS bought the rights to the 2002 World Cup and sold them to ESPN on the provision that they would continue to air MLS games, something they had apparently been reluctant to do.


20 years ago is, well, a long time ago and Major League Soccer currently has 28 teams to its name with its troubles far back in the past. It has been a slow progression for MLS to get to where it is today, however, with the league not wanting to make the mistakes of US soccer leagues of the past. Those in charge, and none more so than league commissioner Don Garber, did not want MLS to get too big too soon and fold with mountains of debt as had been the case with the leagues of yesteryear. Yes, it may have been slow going but Soccer in the US has clearly continued to grow in popularity and still is, even with the USA failing to qualify for the last men’s World Cup. Although ‘soccer’ has yet to overtake in popularity the traditional American sports such as American football, baseball, and basketball, and for all I know may never do so, it has certainly found its place in America’s sporting landscape and I am sure it is here to stay. 


Back in 2002, however, the future was far less certain as I followed from afar the sport I loved being played in a foreign land where all the teams had fancy names that seemed more akin to rugby league than football and a penalty was called a PK. This, however, was, of course, a land where it struggled to generate interest from a populous who did not in the slightest have the same love affair with the game as we do here in Britain and indeed most of Europe. (Unless, of course, you are DannyTRadio, he seems to have always been a big soccer fan)


Friday, 11 February 2022

Vive La Coupe de France (again)

You may have noticed that two teams you'd (probably) never heard of faced each other in the quarter finals of the Coupe de France through the week. Versailles from the regionalised fourth tier National 2 faced fellow fourth tier side Bergerac away from home and defeated them 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw. 

For the big occasion the home side used a larger venue elsewhere in the region much like Versailles now plan to do for their semi final tie. In shades of Calais in 2000, Versailles now face Ligue Un side OGC Nice and are reportedly requesting permission to play the match at the Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint-Germain.

I myself firmly believe that the Coupe de France is the greatest domestic knock-out cup competition in the world and wrote as much on this very blog a few years back. (although the likes of the FA Cup and the DFB-Pokal are, for differing reasons, not far behind) If you want to know what makes the Coupe de France so special you can read my piece entitled Vive La Coupe de France - The Story of knockout football across the channel (and beyond) which got a very positive reception at the time. If you've already read it you might enjoy even more a second time. 

I hope you appreciate it.

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

The Third Division Is No More! The Demise of Scottish League Football's Original Third Tier Which Folded After Less Than Three Full Seasons

“It’s time the third division of the league was dead. It does not deserve to be alive,” proclaimed the Sunday Post and within a month they would have their wish. 

Whilst third division football thrived after it was introduced south of the border in 1920, up in Scotland this was not the case. The Scottish League’s original third tier introduced three years after its English equivalent lasted only lasted three seasons before folding amid financial troubles amongst a large number of its clubs.

Discussed at the league’s AGM on 17 May 1923, the decision to introduce a third division to the Scottish Football League (SFL) was ratified at the end of the following month on 28 June. 15 new members were elected to the league and joined East Stirlingshire, last season’s bottom club in Division Two, to form the new Scottish League Division Three in the biggest expansion the league had ever seen.

Arthurlie, Beith, Brechin City, Clackmannan, Dumbarton Harp, Dykehead, Galston, Helensburgh, Mid-Annandale, Montrose, Nithsdale Wanderers, Peebles Rovers, Queen of the South, Royal Albert, and Solway Star. Some of them familiar names to the modern-day football fan, some of them anything but - these were the 15 new members of the SFL. The new clubs were given associate members status which gave them no voting rights but, nonetheless, they had all officially joined the Scottish Football League.

Arthurlie and East Stirlingshire gained promotion in the first season of the league meaning top scorers Queen of the South finished third and missed out. Vale of Leven and Lochelly United were relegated from Division Two. Leith Athletic would also join the SFL to take the league up to an uneven 17 teams for the 1924-25 season and the first in which the cracks started to appear. 

Whilst the 24-25 season started with 17 teams it ended with 16 as in February 1925 Dumbarton Harp resigned from the league, had their record expunged, and promptly disbanded. With a population of around 22,000 in the 1920s, not too dissimilar to the town’s population today, It is hard to believe that a town as small as Dumbarton could ever have hosted two league clubs but for the brief period that Harp spent in the league the town did just that. But whilst at the time Second Division Dumbarton FC were attracting crowds of up to 2,000+ Harp were more likely to attract just a couple of hundred to their home games. The problem for Harp, and what would become a common theme for many clubs in the division, was that their gate receipts did not cover increased running and travel costs with one home game netting them just £7 in revenue. This was a little over £450 in today’s money and less than the £15 match guarantee that league rules stipulated should be awarded to the away side. In short, they did not have enough supporters.

All parties concerned were keen for Harp to finish the season but financially it just wasn’t viable and the idea of the SFL subsiding their remaining fixtures, having been contemplated, was considered far too dangerous a precedent to set. 

It wasn’t just Harp who had been in financial trouble either with other clubs in similar situations having also considered resigning from the league but these clubs would survive for now at least. In the case of Montrose, a money-spinning cup tie at home to Glasgow Rangers helped keep them afloat.

Despite the troubles many clubs were facing, the 1925-26 season kicked off as usual. Nithsdale Wanderers and Queen of the South had been promoted at the end of the previous season with relegated Johnstone and Forfar Athletic replacing them. The financial woes of many did not get any better, however, and by the time winter set in they were getting worse. In January 1926 Galston became the second Third Division team to fold in less than two full seasons. Having, like many, coped perfectly well playing regional football the increased travel of a national division was too much for them. With the town of Galston having a population of just 5,000 in their case they could not draw large enough crowds to cover these extra financial costs of Third Division football - Like Dumbarton Harp, they did not have enough supporters and it was a similar story across much of the league.

Many clubs were still not getting anywhere near enough in gate receipts and Dykehead, for example, could only muster takings of £4 for one match against Montrose. In this instance when Dykehead could not pay their visitors the stipulated £15 share they were reported to the SFL who forced them to pay up. It was not only visiting clubs who had trouble getting paid, however, as the players were struggling too and a revolt over unpaid wages at Vale of Leven was amongst the many other financial issues affecting clubs. These issues of course included clubs not having enough money to cover travel costs which made several clubs, notably including Clackmannan and Beith, unable to fulfil certain fixtures in the latter part of that third season. Very quickly things would come to a head.

On 12 April The Scotsman reported that “The affairs of the Third Division of the League appear to be in a serious condition” and with the financial woes of many only getting worse, the chairman of Helensburgh called for an emergency meeting to discuss how the monetary situation could be resolved. When the meeting took place many suggestions were put forward but the most prominent as reported in the press was to merge the second and third divisions into one second tier split into two regional divisions in the same way that in England they had a Third Division North and a Third Division South.

Despite some positive suggestions, however, things still looked grim. “Third Division S.O.S” was a headline in the Sunday Post on 18 April whilst the following week they ran with the headline “Last Days of the Third Division” and in its pages seriously questioned if the division had a viable future. 

When several club representatives met representatives of the league in Glasgow later that month that future was still in doubt with the clubs reminded that the regional proposals mentioned earlier would need the support of the Second Division sides to go through. Assurances of promotion at the end of the season were also sought but could not be met. 

That latter issue above would soon be for many unsatisfactory resolved at the league’s AGM when it was agreed that there would be no relegation and promotion to and from the Third Division that season. With many fixtures still unfulfilled and full completion of the Third Division season increasingly unlikely it was, however, difficult to see how they could find a champion and runner up to promote anyway.

“In their great effort to gain promotion to the Second Division of the Scottish League, Leith Athletic are doomed to disappointment” duly reported the Brechin Advertiser at the beginning of May. With the above coming under the headline “Third Division to Go”, however, it was clear that not only could the current Third Division season not be finished, but the division also would not be able to restart next season either.

As it turned out, discussions at the AGM had gone beyond promotion and relegation and the whole future of the Third Division, or lack of, had actually been discussed and resolved too. This saw the Third Division completely disbanded with the clubs agreeing to join an expanded Scottish Alliance league complete with regionalised divisions to basically take the clubs back into non-league football.

There was one more issue to resolve, however. With no promotion or relegation, it was decided that the bottom two Second Division sides Bathgate and Broxburn United would have to apply for re-election to the league and four ex Third Division sides applied to take their places. In the most up to date league table, Helensburgh were sat atop the Third Division ahead of Leith Athletic in second but if the season had have been completed then third-placed Forfar Athletic would have been likely champions due to a large number of games in hand. This made Forfar more appealing in the re-election process. And so it was, with Bathgate successful in their re-election bid, Forfar, taking the place of Broxburn who would fold six years later, became the only Third Division team to keep their place in SFL for the following season, one which they still hold today.

That with little more than a whimper brought to an end Scottish League Division Three. A third tier would be revived for a short while after the war but this consisted mostly of the reserve sides of First Division clubs and a proper Third Division would not see the light of day again until 1975. That came about mainly due to the shrinking in size of the top two tiers of the SFL, however, rather than adding a load of new clubs. 

As for all the clubs that the old Third Division left behind, Brechin City, Leith Athletic, and Montrose would all be re-elected to the league within a few seasons but the rest would never return. Mid-Annandale, Peebles Rovers, Royal Albert, and Vale of Leven still exist outside the modern SPFL today but the rest are long gone. Leith only lasted as a league club until 1953 and folded two years later reforming in 1996. Brechin on the other hand hung about until just last year when they became the third team after East Stirlingshire and Berwick Rangers to be relegated via the new League Two promotion/relegation play-off system involving the winners of the Highland and Lowland Leagues that was introduced in 2015. Montrose are still in the SPFL having never left.

Finally, of the original 15 clubs who in 1923 joined the SFL and the new third tier that just leaves the fate of the three sides who along with existing members East Stirlingshire gained promotion from the division in its two fully completed seasons. Nithsdale Wanderers failed in a 1927 re-election attempt but lasted outside the league until eventually folding in 1964. 37 years later, however, the club actually reformed. Arthurlie resigned from the SFL in 1929 but continue to this day outside of it, whilst Queen of the South remain a league club to this day and currently play in the second tier Scottish Championship.