Sunday, 9 August 2020

When Belfast Minnows Glentoran Faced the Might of Benfica and Eusébio and Almost Came Out on Top

The official attendance was a little over 24,000 but many claim that in reality there were as many as 40,000 present. A Benfica side that included the late great Eusébio, Portuguese star at the World Cup in England a year earlier, were big name opposition for the part-timers of Glentoran and seemingly much of Ireland were out in force to witness this historic occasion.

Each year the Champions League usually starts way back in mid-June whilst most of Europe's elite are barely getting their pre-season underway. With numerous qualifying rounds to navigate before the big guns enter, the competition starts with part-time minnows from Europe's smaller nations facing off against each other knowing they will probably get nowhere near Europe's elite. Once upon a time, however, European football for these club's was a very different kettle of fish. Played solely as a knockout competition, the old European Cup placed all clubs as equals and starting in round one club's from Europe's footballing backwaters could be drawn against the continent's superpowers right from the off. With the gulf in class often huge and the matches involving two legs as opposed to one-off ties the big boys almost always won. Unlike domestic competitions such as the FA Cup or the Coupe de France, both famed for their upsets, David defeating Goliath in the European Cup was very rare. Ties ending with double digit margins were commonplace. The 1969-70 competition, for example, saw first round aggregate scorelines of 10-1, 12-2, 14-1, 16-2, and 16-0. That season was perhaps the extreme end of the stick but nonetheless the minnows never seemed to win. One team who did come very close to upsetting the odds, however, were Northern Irish side Glentoran in 1967.

East Belfast side Glentoran entered the 1967-68 European Cup fresh from winning a twelfth league championship in their history and their second of the decade. The club were one of the bigger names in Northern Irish football but on the European scene they were part-time nobodies who were expected to bow out UEFA's most prestigious competition early on. Glentoran had just come back from a pre-season tour in the United States when the 1967-68 season got underway. The club had participated in a new professional competition that saw them represent the city of Detriot against in many cases bigger names in the world of football, albeit with little success. In the US Glentoran played 12 games but won just two with victories against sides represented by Shamrock Rovers and Dundee United respectively. It was, nonetheless, a thrilling summer for the part-timers and something they would not experience again. But Glentoran's squad arrived home in Belfast knowing they had been drawn against Benfica, one of the continents biggest names, in the European Cup and if anything was worth coming home for then this was it.

The contrast between Glentoran and their European Cup opponents Benfica was stark. Twice European Cup winners earlier in the decade, Benfica had a squad full of Portguese internationals, many of whom had helped their country to the semi finals of the previous year's World Cup. This list of World Cup stars included Jaime Graça, José Torres, José Augusto, Mario Coluna, and of course the star of the show 1965 European Footballer of the Year Eusébio. Okay, there were a handful of names in the Glentoran squad who had or would play professional football across the Irish Sea in Britain, for example, but not many. Midfielder Tommy Jackson would move to England in 1968 and have a successful career with Everton, Nottingham Forest, and Manchester United, whilst wing back Arthur Stewart would have a short spell with Derby County and Johnny Johnston was to play for several English clubs, mostly in the lower echelons of the Football League. Player-manager and forward John Colrain had previously made appearances for Celtic and Clyde in Scotland, and Ipswich Town in England, whilst Billy Sinclair, another midfielder, had a brief spell with Scottish side Kilmarnock. The rest, however, spent their whole careers playing part-time football in Northern Ireland and many were one club men never leaving Glentoran.

Glentoran's Oval ground is a real gem of a stadium and today sits in the east of city looking like little has changed since 1967. I'm sure one day it will get replaced by something more modern but probably something a bit soulless and lacking the charm of the current venue. Playing host to part-time football, this stadium that could once officially hold over 25,000 and seemingly on the night Benfica came to town a considerable lot more, these days rarely sees anywhere near a full house present. This is surely for the best as due to modern day health safety rules a full house would probably mean not much more than 5,000 attending if Benfica were to ever visit again.

With those reportedly 40,000 spectators from all over Ireland cheering Gelntoran on, Albert Finlay saved a penalty for the hosts early on and before long they took the lead through a penalty of their own. Tommy Morrow was fouled in the penalty area and Glentoran had the chance to take the lead against one of the best club sides in the world. Discussions over who should take said penalty eventually saw John Colrain step up. Colrain beat the keeper and the crowd went wild - little Glentoran were in front against Benfica. Eusébio was expected to the be the star of the show but for large parts of the game he never got a look in as Tommy Jackson was seemingly marking him out of the game. Five minutes from time, however, Eusébio did have his moment when he struck a superb equaliser. Torres controlled the ball down towards Jose Augusto who knocked it on to Eusébio and his shot, according to Malcolm Brodie of the Belfast Telegraph, 'hit the net like a rocket leaving the launching pad'. An away goal that in the end would prove vital.

The players were given a rapturous round of applause as they left the field at full-time after what was a famous draw but for the second leg in Lisbon, it was a far more hostile atmosphere. Around 60,000 were in attendance at Benfica's Estadio da Luz. Glentoran needed a goal but one did not come, they arguably should have had a penalty at one point but the referee was not interested. The hosts did not fare any better in front of goal, however, as this time Glentoran did keep Eusébio at bay but unfortunately, a 0-0 full-time scoreline saw the home side through on the away goals rule and the Belfast minnows crashing out. Interestingly, Benfica would go on to lose to Manchester United and Belfast legend George Best in the final at Wembley Stadium.

After that historic meeting with Portugal's finest Glentoran would be crowned league champions again that season but manager Colrain would soon be out the door after failing to agree a new contract. The failure by the club to keep hold of him was by many seen as rather short sighted and Glentoran promptly missed out on a third championship in a row. They have sporadically won league championship's in the years since. 

Those two tussles with Benfica would go down in East Belfast folklore and were night's the like of which Northern Irish football would never see again. The occasions when opposition of anywhere near such prestige have visited the country in the years that have followed the games have usually been predictably one sided. The few exceptions generally being second leg matches where the tie has been already all but over. Those sort of matches are all way back in the past now, anyway, and in the modern day Champions League era with seeded qualifying rounds the idea such ties is all but impossible. In some ways this is a shame but in a world where money rules the roost very little thought is given to the Glentoran's of this world.

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Sunday, 2 August 2020

Entering the Football League for the Very First Time: The Story of Harrogate Town and Their Historic Rise to England's Fourth Tier That Was Sealed With a Wembley Win Today


The town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire is famous for, aside from being close to the city of York, two things: Its spa water and Betty's Tea Rooms. Both are famous throughout the country something the town's football team is not, perhaps until now that is. There were wild celebrations and a good old sing song with Sweet Caroline blasting from PA at Wembley Stadium this afternoon as Harrogate Town Football Club defeated Notts County to claim a place in the Football League for the first time in the club's history. 

Thanks to COVID-19 the National League season ended early. Whereas the Premier League and Championship did eventually play out their remaining fixtures other leagues in England didn't follow suit. The National League did not completely null and void things, however, with the league table settled based on points per game (PPG) pre lockdown, promotion and relegation kept in place, and play-off games to be staged. This culminated in Harrogate Town's big day out at Wembley which sadly for their fans, as you'd expect, was being played behind closed doors. Nonetheless, televised by BT Sport, it was still a joyous occasion for the town and its team.

Having finished as high as sixth last time out in their first National League campaign, recently turned professional Harrogate Town started the 2019-20 season hoping for more of the same. The club, it's fair to say, were feeling rather ambitious. Formed in 1914, Harrogate Town have had a mostly uneventful history that has seen them go largely unnoticed in the backwaters of non-league football, indeed they did not reach the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time until 2002 when they featured alongside near neighbours Harrogate Railway Athletic. In recent years, however, the club have been transformed.

When Simon Weaver was appointed player-manager of the club, aged 31, in 2009 little did he know that three years later his own father would become owner of the club. In 2012 chairman Bill Fotherby handed control to businessman Irving Weaver and the club have never looked back! Irving made his fortune in housebuilding and has on several occasions featured in the Sunday Times Rich List. In the first five seasons of the new father-son duo the club three times finished in the top ten of National League North including a semi-final play-off defeat and reached the second round of the FA Cup for the first time in their history. 

The pair's sixth season in charge, however, was to be the most successful in the club's history to date as they finished second and gained promotion to the National League via the play-offs. The club had turned professional at the start of that season wanting to be more than also rans in the division and it paid off. As well as paying their player's full-time wages there has also been money spent off the pitch with ground improvements needed to match the club's ambition. At the club's Wetherby Road home, currently known as the CNG Stadium for sponsorship reasons, developments have included replacing a 350 seat stand with a larger covered structure that can seat 880. This will help the club meet League Two criteria should another promotion happen. Four years ago a state of the art 3G pitch was also installed, although with such pitches not allowed in the football league it will now have to be replaced by a grass one.

Last season Harrogate lost 3-1 to AFC Fylde in a play-off eliminator and as this season got underway they were looking towards another strong finish. Town did not get off to the best of starts, however, losing five of their opening ten matches, but a nine match unbeaten run that included six wins saw them climb the table. Only four defeats followed in the club's remaining matches pre lockdown which saw ten wins and four draws. From these matches, there were just two defeats and one draw after Christmas as an impressive start to the second-half of the season saw them in second place when COVID-19 brought the league to a halt. The club also reached the semi finals of the FA Trophy for the first time but COVID also put that competition on hold as well, indefinitely, and it has yet to resume. Their semi final opponents were due to be none other than Notts County.

Manager Weaver, who describes his side as "fast moving" and a "good passing team", can be pleased with his team's performance this season and has himself been rewarded with Manager of the Month awards in October and February. 30-year-old right-back Warren Burrell, meanwhile, was named the leagues Player of the Month for February. Burrell who has made over 200 appearances for club scored a hat-trick in a match against Aldershot Town in December 2018, rather unusual for a defender. Football is a team sport, however, and the whole squad has played their part in the club's success from goalkeeper James Belshaw who has kept 14 clean sheets in the league this season to centre forward Jack Muldoon who has 13 league goals to his name this term. Jon Stead a man who made his name at Blackburn Rovers and numerous other league clubs has this season also been playing for the club after joining last year from non other than Sunday's opponents Notts County. Stead is a famous name for a club like Harrogate but has only found the net 7 times this season, however, having featured only semi-regularly. That is something which shows just how strong the side has been. 

In the week prior to last Saturday's play-off semi finals the players at Harrogate Town had a rather famous visitor from the footballing world. England manager Gareth Southgate has lived in the town for many years now and made a surprise visit to the club ahead of their big semi final game against Boreham Wood. Harrogate won the match 1-0 and a talk from the Three Lions boss had evidently contributed towards their victory: "He gave us some tips on set-pieces, and we scored the goal that won the game from a corner, so there you go," revealed goalkeeper Belshaw. 

It was Muldoon who headed home to secure Harrogate the win with his 65th minute goal being probably the biggest in the club's history. But of course, the fairytale was not complete yet. There was the small matter of a date at the home of English football in the play-off final. 

Notts County would be the opposition in the final and contrasting histories of the two club's was stark. Notts County are the oldest professional football club in the world and a founding member of the Football League who last season were relegated from the league for the first time in their history. This is a history Harrogate Town can only dream of.

At Wembley, it was a dream start for Harrogate who were in front after just five minutes when Ryan Fallowfield teed up George Thomson who was able to turn the ball home. Harrogate dominated the first-half but only went in 2-0 up at the break when perhaps they should have had 4 or 5. Connor Hall tapped the bell into the net to double Harrigate's lead but a panicky start to the second half saw Notts County find a way back into the match. A superb free-kick from Callum Roberts found the net and it was game on. That Harrogate held onto their lead was a miracle in itself as County began to completely dominate and were soon looking rampant. But whilst Harrogate had missed several gilt edged chances in the first-half it was County who were missing the chances in the second. In the end, County would definitely rue those missed chances as Jack Diamond sealed Harrogate's place in League Two by smashing the ball home Jack Muldoon's cross with 20 minutes left.
It had taken 106 years but when the final whistle blew at Wembley just before five o'clock this afternoon Harrogate Town had achieved something improbable and for many unexpected - They had reached the Football League for the very first time. It was the club's second promotion in three seasons and brings the prospect of playing inside England's top four divisions for the first time in their history after what was definitely an afternoon to remember for the club and all associated with it. Now to tear up that synthetic pitch!

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Notts County v Harrogate Town: Two Sides With Very Much Contrasting Histories Set to Face Off for a Place in the Football League

Notts County are the oldest professional football club in the world and a founding member of the Football League who last season were relegated from the league for the first time in their history. Harrogate Town, meanwhile, only turned professional for the first time three years ago and having never played in England's top four divisions reached the fifth tier for the first time only two years back. These two teams meet this weekend in the Vanarama National League Play-Off final with a place in the Football League at stake and the contrasting histories of both sides could not be starker. But all that goes out the window when the pair enter the pitch on Sunday afternoon to fight it out for a place in League Two. History counts for nothing on the day.

Thanks to COVID-19 the National League season ended early. Whereas the Premier League and Championship did eventually play out their remaining fixtures other leagues in England didn't follow suit. The National League did not completely null and void things, however, with the league table settled based on points per game (PPG) pre lockdown, promotion and relegation kept in place, and play-off games to be staged. This has culminated in Sunday's match between these two contrasting sides which sadly for fans, as you'd expect, is being played behind closed doors. Nonetheless, televised by BT Sport, it should still be a fascinating match to watch.

Having finished as high as sixth last time out in their first National League campaign, recently turned professional Harrogate Town started the 2019-20 season hoping for more of the same. The club, it's fair to say, were feeling rather ambitious. Formed in 1914, Harrogate Town have had a mostly uneventful history that has seen them go largely unnoticed in the backwaters of non-league football, indeed they did not reach the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time until 2002 when they featured alongside near neighbours Harrogate Railway Athletic. In recent years, however, the club have been transformed.

When Simon Weaver was appointed player-manager of the club, aged 31, in 2009 little did he know that three years later his own father would become owner of the club. In 2012 chairman Bill Fotherby handed control to businessman Irving Weaver and the club have never looked back! Irving made his fortune in housebuilding and has on several occasions featured in the Sunday Times Rich List. In the first five seasons of the new father-son duo the club three times finished in the top ten of National League North including a semi-final play-off defeat and reached the second round of the FA Cup for the first time in their history. 

The pair's sixth season in charge, however, was to be the most successful in the club's history to date as they finished second and gained promotion to the National League via the play-offs. The club had turned professional at the start of that season wanting to be more than also rans in the division and it paid off. As well as paying their player's full-time wages there has also been money spent off the pitch with ground improvements needed to match the club's ambition. At the club's Wetherby Road home, currently known as the CNG Stadium for sponsorship reasons, developments have included replacing a 350 seat stand with a larger covered structure that can seat 880. This will help the club meet League Two criteria should another promotion happen. Four years ago a state of the art 3G pitch was also installed.

Last season Harrogate lost 3-1 to AFC Fylde in a play-off eliminator and as this season got underway they were looking towards another strong finish. Town did not get off to the best of starts, however, losing five of their opening ten matches, but a nine match unbeaten run that included six wins saw them climb the table. Only four defeats followed in the club's remaining matches pre lockdown which saw ten wins and four draws. From these matches, there were just two defeats and one draw after Christmas as an impressive start to the second-half of the season saw them in second place when COVID-19 brought the league to a halt. The club also reached the semi finals of the FA Trophy for the first time but COVID also put that competition on hold as well, indefinitely, and it has yet to resume. Their semi final opponents were due to be none other than Notts County.

Manager Weaver, who describes his side as "fast moving" and a "good passing team", can be pleased with his team's performance this season and has himself been rewarded with Manager of the Month awards in October and February. 30-year-old right-back Warren Burrell, meanwhile, was named the leagues Player of the Month for February. Burrell who has made over 200 appearances for club scored a hat-trick in a match against Aldershot Town in December 2018, rather unusual for a defender. Football is a team sport, however, and the whole squad has played their part in the club's success from goalkeeper James Belshaw who has kept 14 clean sheets in the league this season to centre forward Jack Muldoon who has 13 league goals to his name this term. Jon Stead a man who made his name at Blackburn Rovers and numerous other league clubs has this season also been playing for the club after joining last year from non other than Sunday's opponents Notts County. Stead is a famous name for a club like Harrogate but has only found the net 7 times this season, however, having featured only semi-regularly. That is something which shows just how strong the side has been. 

Roughly 85 miles south of Harrogate it has also been a fairly successful season for Notts County but for this newly relegated side they probably demanded nothing less. The contrast in stature between themselves and Harrogate is crystal clear. As founding members of the Football League, Notts County, formed in 1862 and the world's oldest professional club, were old First Division regulars for much of the leagues earlier years but have spent most of their history since in the second, third, and fourth tiers. The club last made it to the top flight in 1991 but lasted just one season with relegation seeing them miss out on a place in the newly formed Premier League. Although County are hardly one of England's biggest names when compared the giants of the Premier League, indeed their only major silverware came in the form an FA Cup final victory in 1894, the club spent 131 straight years in the Football League before relegation from England's top four divisions last season. That is a history Harrogate Town can only dream of. 

In 2018-19 the club got through three managers en route to their relegation in what was an arduous season for all involved not just on the field but also off it. The club were suffering from financial troubles and towards the end of the season players and staff went unpaid. County's parent company Paragon Leisure Group owed just under £7.3m to Paragon Interiors which was a loan used by owner Alan Hardy to purchase the club in January 2017. Things were not looking good. 

A week before the new season started, however, Hardy, disliked by many supporters, sold the club to two Danish brothers who run a football analysis company. This was welcome news for all and secured the club's long term future.

This season under the stewardship of manager Neal Ardley Notts County started off in very much indifferent form but eventually began to steadily rise up the table before finally reaching third position in their penultimate match pre lockdown. This was a position they remained in when the final PPG table was calculated. Playing a style of football pleasing on the eye, key to the club's steady rise up the table has been their strike force. Regularly playing up front alongside either Kristian Dennis or Wes Thomas, Kyle Wootton has netted 13 times in the division whilst Dennis and Thomas have 12 and 10 league goals respectively.

County are nicknamed the Magpies and play in black and white a colour adopted by Italian giants Juventus in 1903 when an English club member named John Savage was asking around for spare shirts and ended up at Notts County. Juventus invited County to face them in the opening match at their new stadium in 2011 and more recently even offered to help the club out during their financial troubles. County's famous friends finally offered to reciprocate that football strips gesture after a local MP wrote to them for help but County could not get out of a pre existing contract with kit supplier Puma.

In the week prior to last Saturday's play-off semi finals the players at Harrogate Town had a rather famous visitor from the footballing world. England manager Gareth Southgate has lived in the town for many years now and made a surprise visit to the club ahead of their big semi final game against Boreham Wood. Harrogate won the match 1-0 and a talk from the Three Lions boss had evidently contributed towards their victory: "He gave us some tips on set-pieces, and we scored the goal that won the game from a corner, so there you go," revealed goalkeeper Belshaw. 

It was Muldoon who headed home to secure Harrogate the win with his 65th minute goal being probably the biggest in the club's history. But of course, the fairytale is not complete yet. 

With Harrogate having secured their place at Wembley attention turned to Meadow Lane home of Notts County for the second of the two semi-finals as the hosts faced Barent. A goal from Dennis eight minutes before half-time gave the hosts the lead whilst ex Newcastle United youngster Callum Roberts doubled County's lead 14 minutes into the second-half as County won 2-0. Dennis headed home from six yards out following a great run and cross by Jim O'Brien before Roberts side-footed into the bottom corner at close range having first beaten two defenders.

As for who will win at Wembley on Sunday, well, because of the league finishing early and that FA Trophy tie seemingly postponed indefinitely Harrogate Town and Notts County have only met once this season and it was County who came out on top. County's 2-0 away win took place way back in August last year and probably gives little indication as to what might happen on Sunday. Also, despite that defeat, Harrogate actually ended up finishing their league campaign three points ahead of County with a game in hand which also put them comfortably ahead of their opponents in the PPG table. Based on all the above one would suggest we could be in for a close affair. 

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Sunday, 26 July 2020

It's happened before: After Başakşehir's Süper Lig Triumph Last Weekend How About the Last Time Someone Toppled Turkey's Big Three?


When the full-time whistle blew in Trabzon last Sunday night defeat for the home side had secured İstanbul Başakşehir their first ever Süper Lig title. Still out on the pitch playing in their own match, delayed due to a power cut, Başakşehir had become only the second side from outside Istanbul's big three to win the Süper Lig since 1984. In the 36 years between Trabzonspor's 1983-84 triumph and Başakşehir's 2019-20 win, only Bursaspor in 2009-10 have managed to stop all three of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray from winning the league championship. Some ten years before newly crowned champions Başakşehir lifted their trophy this club based due south of Istanbul defied all the odds to also knock the big three off their perch. It was Sunday 16 May 2010, the day that the unthinkable became reality.

Now just a two hour journey from Istanbul by car if you head south west and across the Osman Gazi Bridge, which opened in 2016 is the sixth longest suspension bridge in the world, the city of Bursa is also accessible via a ferry ride across the Sea of Marmara. Nicknamed the Green crocodiles, Bursa's football club Bursaspor currently play at the Bursa Büyükşehir Belediye Stadyumu otherwise known as the Timsah Arena which literally means Crocodile Arena. The scene of their climactic final day title win in 2010, however, took place at their former Bursa Atatürk Stadyumu home with a full house of over 25,000 present.

Although for Bursaspor a sixth placed finish in 2008-09 was a clear improvement on the previous season's 13th place it gave no indication of any sort of a title challenge as the following 2009-10 season got underway. Another sixth place finish for a side who only four years earlier had been in the second tier would have by them been gladly accepted, after all, this was not a big name club. Formed in 1963, although they'd spent more seasons in the Süper Lig than out of it one lone fourth placed finish in 1979-80 was the highest Bursaspor had ever managed with their only major success being a singleTürkiye Kupası (Turkish Cup) triumph in 1986.

A poor start to the season was very soon overcome and although Bursapsor lost four times in the first-half of the season they lost only once in the second and went into the final day just one point behind league leaders Fenerbahçe with one of the two set to be crowned champions. For Bursaspor, they needed Fenerbahçe to drop points. A better goal difference meant even just a draw could guarantee them the championship if Fenerbahçe lost but a draw for the Istanbul giants meant Bursaspor would need a win. If the unthinkable happened, however, and Fener took all three points from their match then it was they who would be champions no matter what Bursaspor did.

Fenerbahçe, at home to Trabzonspor, took the lead after 14 minutes and helpless Bursaspor, still level at 0-0 in their match, could see the title slipping away from them. It was early days, however, so all was not completely lost yet. Bursaspor had come from 2-0 down to win 3-2 away at Fenerbahçe in February but now almost three months on they needed Trabzonspor to come from behind away at that same side, albeit from only one down. Luckily for Bursaspor that is exactly what happened. Trabzonspor drew level on 23 minutes. Game on and it would soon get even better for Bursaspor this time thanks to a goal of their own making. 

On 32 minutes goalkeeper Rüştü Reçber ran out to the edge of the box but was too late to grab the ball and it was hit across to Pablo Batalla who with an open goal did not miss. Argentinian Batalla had been signed the previous summer by head coach Ertuğrul Sağlam who was enjoying his first full season in charge. Ivan Ergić and Hüseyin Çimşir, both also signed the previous summer, played alongside Batalla in the centre of midfield as part of a 4-5-1 formation favoured by their manager. All three had played a key role in this season's unexpected rise and now one of them was scoring what could to turn out be the clubs most important goal in the club's history. 

Just before half-time İbrahim Toraman of Beşiktaş put the ball through his own net to help Bursaspor to a two goal lead. As it stood Bursaspor were champions but there was still 45 minutes to go. A cagey second-half saw few chances but centre forward Turgay Bahadir almost put the hosts 3-0 up with a free-kick that sailed just over. That could have been Bahadir's eighth league goal of the season and would have surprisingly put him joint top of the club's goalscoring charts alongside left winger Ozan İpek. A third never came though. Bursa held on to a 2-0 lead until four minutes from time when Beşiktaş pulled one back. Could Bursa hold on for the win? It was a tense finish but hold on they did. Now over to Istanbul...

As Fenerbahçe's match drew to a close with the match still tied at 1-1 news filtered through of what had happened in Bursa. Problem was, though, the story told to those in Istanbul was different from reality. With just minutes left to play it was incorrectly announced that Beşiktaş had equalised cue wild scenes in the stands and fans running onto the pitch as soon as the full-time whilst blew. Fenerbahçe had managed only a point but everyone in their Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadyumu had been lead to believe it was enough. Fans going berserk, however, soon turned to tears and despair and some cases violence as the Fenerbahçe faithful realised what had actually happened. It was Bursaspor who had won the title.

Defender and team captain Ömer Erdoğan lifted the Süper Lig trophy for Bursaspor and the celebrations lasted long into the night. Bursaspor had become the first club outside of Istanbul's big three to win the title since 1984 and prior to last weekend when, of course, İstanbul Başakşehir lifted the trophy they were the only team to do so. But with Başakşehir, like the country's traditional big three, hailing from Turkey's biggest metropolis Bursaspor still remain the only club from outside Istanbul to have won the title in the last 36 years.

Bursaspor's triumph, however, was, unfortunately, a flash in the pan. The club now play in the second tier after relegation just over a year ago. The season after their league triumph they finished third, some 21 behind champions Fenerbahçe who pipped Trabzonspor to the title on goal difference, whilst a season later they ended up in eighth. Playing in the Champions League the season after their league triumph they finished rock bottom of their group with just one solitary point to their name after suffering defeats of 4-0 and 6-1 against Valencia, and 3-0 to Manchester United.  

Yes, like Busraspor in 2009-10, İstanbul Başakşehir may have this season broken the dominance of the Istanbul big three but will we see a team from outside Turkey's largest city win the title again any time soon? Possibly not.

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Sunday, 19 July 2020

Breaking the Big Three's Dominance? İstanbul Başakşehir Win Their First Ever Süper Lig Title and It Might Not Be a Flash in the Pan!


Winning 1-0, İstanbul Başakşehir were 30 minutes away from their first ever Süper Lig title when the lights went out. A power cut was seemingly putting their celebrations on hold. They need not have worried, however, as it would not take at all long for the championship to be theirs. Not long after the match had restarted following a 15 minute delay then news filtered through about results elsewhere and Başakşehir were suddenly champions. Thinking they would need a win, defeat for their nearest challengers had secured them the crown regardless. The players on the pitch for Başakşehir could now play on safe in the knowledge that win, lose, or draw, the title would still be theirs.

Home to Istanbul's newest champions, with a population currently estimated at over 450,000, the ever growing but surprisingly leafy district of Başakşehir is an area within greater Istanbul that sits on the European side of this bustling ancient metropolis. Başakşehir is home to the Atatürk Olimpiyat Stadı where Liverpool famously came from 3-0 down to defeat AC Milan on penalties in the 2005 Champions League final. The stadium is also where İstanbul Başakşehir's predecessors İstanbul BB played their home matches with the unusual spectacle of sub 4,000 crowds watching them in a ginormous 76,000 capacity stadium. A new more modest stadium was built in the area for the team but was not completed until 2014 just after the club had been disbanded and replaced by the new İstanbul Başakşehir side who moved into the venue instead. Named the Başakşehir Fatih Terim Stadyumu after former Turkish footballing legend and current Galatasaray manager Fatih Terim it has a much smaller capacity of just over 17,000. Although, with some of the lowest attendances in the league the stadium's capacity is still well above what İstanbul Başakşehir average as they struggle to compete for support with the city's well established traditional big three of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray. 

İstanbul Başakşehir FK, currently known as Medipol Başakşehir FK for sponsorship reasons, are a rather recent addition to the Istanbul footballing landscape having been founded only six years ago. The club was formed by locals in 2014 to replace the footballing section of the municipality owned İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi (BB) sports club which had been closed down by the local government. İstanbul BB had been created in 1990 and their football side made their first top flight appearance in 2007-08 where they remained until 2012-13. Relegation that season saw instant promotion back at the first attempt but as that campaign ended with the club being dissolved it was the new Başakşehir club who took their seat at the top table instead. 

Who actually runs the current club is a question for which the answer seems a little complex although links to the current government do seem rather evident. In terms of names, all directors in the eight-strong board are listed on the official website where the club are described as a 'company'. Elsewhere, however, the club are listed as being owned by the Ministry of Youth and Sports whilst turkeyfromtheterraces.com describes the club as being owned by 'Eight shareholders, mostly representing big companies close to the government'. But whilst the exact nature of the club's links to the government may be unclear when looking in from afar, club chairman Goksel Gumusdag's links to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are very clear - he is married to the president's niece! It is also worth pointing out that when the newly created İstanbul Başakşehir moved into their new stadium shortly after formation Erdoğan played on the pitch for the club in the opening match and had a shirt number retired in his honour.

It's fair to say that since İstanbul Başakşehir came about in 2014 they have certainly been making waves on the pitch. Başakşehir have yet to finish outside the top four of the Turkish Süper Lig in their six years of existence. Finishes of fourth, fourth, second, third, and second preceded this current campaign for the new kids on the block as they looked to challenge the monopoly that the city's big three have on the Turkish game. Between them, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray have prior to this term been crowned champions in every single season bar one since 1984.

Until the end of last season Abdullah Avcı had been head coach at the club but Avcı, who had previously had a short-lived spell as head coach of the Turkish national team, left to join Beşiktaş for whom he has since been sacked. Often using the classic 4-3-3 cum 4-5-1 formation, under Avcı Başakşehir did not always play the most attractive style of football and were certainly not a high scoring team but a solid defence was the key to their five top four finishes in a row. Replacing Avci was Okan Buruk who is married to a former Miss Turkey model. Under Buruk, an ex Galatasaray and Internazionale star who finished his playing career at İstanbul BB, the team have played a more attacking style of football often playing out from the back with a slow tempo, albeit usually still with just one up front.

Under both coaches, it's fair to say İstanbul Başakşehir have had some star studded names by Turkish standards in their line up, most of whom still remain at the club. There are nowadays numerous players in Turkey's Süper Lig that fans of Europe's big four leagues would recognise, but nowhere is this more prevalent than at İstanbul Başakşehir. Current star left-back Gaël Clichy, also formerly of Arsenal, joined in 2017 on a free transfer from Premier League side Manchester City whilst around the same time former Udinese and Napoli star Gökhan Inler joined from Beşiktaş also on a free transfer. He also still remains in town. Last summer another ex-Man City star, also formerly of Real Madrid, joined the club in the form of Robinho who cost €2m after a season at Sivasspor. Also last summer, ex Hoffenheim, West Ham, Newcastle United, and Chelsea star Demba Ba joined the club arriving on a free transfer from Shànghǎi Lǜdì Shēnhuā whilst another arrival on a free was ex Liverpool centre back Martin Skrtel who joined from Atalanta. Ex-Arsenal, Man City, and Spurs player Emmanuel Adebayor, however, was the first big star to join the club when he signed in 2017 before leaving two season's later.

Alongside these experienced famous names are players not so well known outside of Turkey, some of whom have been key to the team's current successful campaign. Goalkeeper Mert Günok signed from Bursaspor in 2017 and has conceded less than a goal a game this season whilst Bosnian Edin Višća, who has been with the Başakşehir/İstanbul BB since 2011, has been top scorer this season with 18 goals. Višća who plays right wing has scored four more than centre forward Ba who plays as a lone forward. Enzo Crivelli, who plays on the left, has also had a share of the goals with the Frenchman who signed from SM Caen in his homeland last year having also netted 14 times. There is also more experience with the likes of centre back Mahmut Tekdemir who has been with the club and its predecessor for his whole career which dates back to 2006.

İstanbul Başakşehir would not have been favourites for the title at the start of this season and that was before they lost their opening two matches against Yeni Malatyaspor and Fenerbahçe. Thankfully for Başakşehir, though, they did not lose again until January. By that point, the club had propelled themselves into second place and despite moving into pole position in February by the time COVID-19 brought proceedings to a halt they had dropped back into the runner up position. After the restart, however, four wins and a draw saw them in first place some four points ahead of their nearest challengers Trabzonspor with three to play. Whilst their rivals had faltered, Başakşehir did not. Only Trabzonspor had managed to just about keep in touch with Başakşehir as Galatasaray and Sivasspor, two title challengers when the league restarted, completely dropped out of the race.

Monday 13th July saw both İstanbul Başakşehir and Trabzonspor in action on a night that the title could have potentially been wrapped up for Başakşehir. Victory for Başakşehir at Konyaspor combined with defeat for Trabzonspor at Denizlispor would have secured the club their first ever Süper Lig championship. Taking a 1-0 lead through Višća from the penalty spot after just two minutes was the perfect start for Başakşehir but unbelievably they found themselves 3-1 down at the break. With Trabzonspor at the same time winning this was disastrous. Başakşehir came back to life in the second-half, however, and goals from Ba and Eljero Elia saw the match tied a 3-3 and the visitors looking in total control. Astonishingly though when a seventh goal of the match was scored it came from the hosts and Başakşehir were behind again. Almost as dramatic mind were the scenes in Denizli where Denizlispor had come from behind to take a 2-1 lead over Trabzonspor. If that news gave Başakşehir impetus they failed to take advantage and both matches ended up in victory for the home sides as Turkey's top two were both beaten on what had been a night exciting high drama. Despite defeat, Başakşehir retained their four point lead at the top and with only two rounds of fixtures left to play the title was still well and truly in their sights.

A week later, this evening, 19th July, both teams were in action again. Trabzonspor would blow a 3-1 lead and lose but for İstanbul Başakşehir that result would have mattered not. In what ended up being a rather strange night for Başakşehir their eventual win meant they would have been crowned champions regardless. At half-time they had one hand on the trophy thanks to a goal from Tekdemir but they could have had a second had Višća not missed a penalty. It wasn't the most thrilling of games but there was drama in the second period when powercuts twice put proceedings on hold. The first one lasted for some 15 minutes and when the match did resume Trabzonspor were busy messing things up in their match to hand Başakşehir the title just before the second power cut happened. With 10 minutes to go there were celebrations on the bench when news filtered through of events in Trabzon. There may have been no supporters present for obvious COVID-19 reasons but those associated with the club who were inside the stadium made plenty of noise themselves as unbridled joy set in. Celebrations on the touchline did not last long, however, before a second power cut delayed the match again. But after a much shorter delay second time around the players were able to finish the match with no further goals. Following a rather unusual night İstanbul Başakşehir had won their first ever Süper Lig title.

A well deserved title for not just the players but also for manager Okan Buruk. Having won seven league titles as a player, Buruk has become only the fifth man in the history of Turkish football to have won the Süper Lig as both a player and a manager. Buruk joins a list that includes Şenol Güneş, Ertuğrul Sağlam, Aykut Kocaman, and Hamza Hamzaoğlu. A great honour for Başakşehir's head coach.

The celebrations will no doubt continue in the days to come but Başakşehir still have one final league game left to play and then an ongoing European campaign to finish before plans for next season and a stab at the Champions League will no doubt quickly get underway.

Winning the Süper Lig has guaranteed İstanbul Başakşehir a place in the Champions League group stage next season something they have never achieved before. Previous Champions League campaigns have fallen apart in the qualifying rounds although the club have twice reached the group stages of the Europa League. The second of those group stage appearances came this season and saw for the first time progression to the knock out rounds after finishing top of a group that included AS Roma and Borussia Mönchengladbach. This season's European campaign has not yet come to an end and Başakşehir currently have a 1-0 first leg lead in the last 16 to defend when the competition restarts next month. Wednesday 5th August sees Başakşehir travel to Copenhagen to finish off their tie with FC København.

İstanbul Başakşehir may not be favourites to win the Europa League but nonetheless a chance of more silverware next month is still entirely possible and win or lose in Europe the club will be back next season for a crack at the Champions League. A second successive league title will be another aim and why not? FIve top four finishes in a row prior to the current campaign suggest that this season's title win is not a flash in the pan. Not only that but, despite having an ageing squad, losing only twice more after those opening defeats make it difficult to imagine them not being a force to be reckoned with again next season, especially with a few more excellent moves in the transfer market. For İstanbul Başakşehir this season's Süper Lig triumph may be only the beginning! 

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Saturday, 11 July 2020

Looking Back 26 Years: Remembering the Last Time Newly Relegated Espanyol Played in Spain's Segunda División


May 1994, three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna was killed in an accident during the San Marino Grand Prix, the Channel Tunnel linking England and France was opened for the very first time seven years after construction on it had originally begun, and Nelson Mandella was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president. Amongst these major global historical events, however, there was another far less noteworthy event that took place that month. 15 May 1994 RCD Espanyol travelled to Seville for the last match of their Segunda División campaign and lost a 2-1 to Real Betis having already secured promotion back to the top flight as league champions. Fast forward 26 uninterrupted years of playing football at Spain's top table and Espanyol are suddenly facing up to the fact that for the first time since that May afternoon in the Andalucían capital they will be playing second tier football once again next season.

2019-20 has been a very difficult season for those connected with Barcelona's second club. Having now played all bar three of their 38 matches they have only five wins to their name and sit rock bottom of La Liga Santander five points adrift from the side directly above them. Defeat away at their city neighbours FC Barcelona just a few days ago confirmed what had looked a foregone conclusion for some time and Espanyol were relegated from the Primera División. 11 top flight finishes, 2 Copa del Rey triumphs, and one UEFA Cup final defeat later, Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol have finally dropped out of Spain's top flight. 

But what of the last time Espanyol played outside Spain's top flight? Let's take a trip back in time to the 1993-94 season and see how they coped in the second division of Spanish football. 

Back in 1993 the club still used the Spanish spelling of their name and were known as Español (in 1995 they reverted to the Catalan spelling they currently use) and that 'Español' side finished third bottom of the Primera División. A relegation play-off defeat to Racing de Santander followed and the club were relegated from the top flight. The club had lasted just three seasons in La Liga having been promoted to the top tier in 1990 after a lone season in the second tier and were hoping this latest foray into the Segunda División would be just as short. Prior to that last Segunda División campaign, they had spent 19 straight years in the top flight and hadn't expected their latest spell to be as short as it had. But here they were back in the Segunda División for the 1993-94 season.

In preparation for the 1993-94 Segunda División campaign, a fresh faced man called José Antonio Camacho was appointed as head coach. New to the managerial game, José Camacho moved to Espanyol after just one lone season at second tier Rayo Vallecano under his belt. Camacho, who became known as a motivator whilst also a disciplinarian and a man with a big mouth, would spend four years managing the club over two spells before going on to manage Real Madrid and the Spanish national team amongst others.

Several players were shown the door after relegation whilst new arrivals were brought in to equip the side the for a long season in the second tier. A key signing, at least in the short term, was Bulgarian Velko Yotov who arrived from Leviski Sofia. Yotov would barely last beyond the season but was the club's top goalscorer in the Segunda División scoring 13 goals. Alongside him upfront was youngster Jordi Lardín who would net 9 times that league campaign. The 20-year-old had joined a year earlier having previously played local youth football and would make 163 appearances for the club over a five year period. Another new recruit Toni Jiménez started every single match in goal that season whilst another important signing was left back Víctor Torres Mestre who would end up spending five years at the club. Those two along with longstanding centre backs Mino and Albert Albesa, and right back Dmitri Kuznetsov, gave the club a solid defence that became the meanest in the league. That season Espanyol conceded just 25 goals in 38 games, seven fewer than the next best defence. The side also had experience in midfield which was complimented by new recruit Arteaga, aged 24, who would remain at the club until 2001.

Espanyol did not get off to the best of starts winning just two of their opening seven league matches and losing just as many with a 3-0 defeat away at SD Compostela being a particular low point. Things quickly improved, however, and the club went on a 22 game unbeaten league run. Included in that unbeaten run was a 3-0 win away at Real Madrid's B team on January 8 that saw Espanyol move into pole position in the league table for the first time and they never looked back. Espanyol would remain in first place 'til the bitter end.  

Compostela and RCD Mallorca had been Espanyol's nearest challengers but both began to drop points. Espanyol defeated Compostela 2-0 at home in February to earn themselves revenge for that defeat to them earlier in the campaign whilst a 1-1 draw with Mallorca followed in the next match. Around this time Real Betis went on an excellent winning run that saw them rise to second place but despite Espanyol losing to Athletic Club B in March and then drawing several matches in the weeks that followed no one could catch them. Espanyol had already amassed a significant lead at the top having lost only once since those two early season defeats and prior to that Athletic Club match had conceded just twice in their previous nine league outings. 

On 17 April Espanyol went to CD Castellón and hammered them in 5-0 in what would be their biggest victory of the season. Two goals for forward Igor Korneev, in for an injured Yotov, two for midfielder Roberto Fresnedoso, and one for Lardin, secured an emphatic win and put the club within touching distance of not only promotion but the league title.

When Espanyol faced Cádiz CF at home six days after that win in Castellón de la Plana there was an almost full house of over 39,000 present which was the highest attendance of the season at their then Estadi de Sarrià home. A win would confirm promotion and seal the title. Waving free blue and white flags that had been handed out, the supporters were expectant and the players did not disappoint. 

The home side were 2-0 up after just nine minutes thanks to two goals from Lardin. He slotted home from an acute angle after a quick break forward to give his side the lead and grabbed a second when he nipped into to get hold of the ball from a long pass forward and slotted past the goalkeeper who'd come forward to out of his area. There were joyous scenes in the stands and for those watching on tv well it doesn't take much to get a Spanish commentator excited... 2-0 became 3-0 22 minutes later when a long ball into the corner was hit towards Korneev who controlled the ball with an outstretched foot, dummied it past a defender, then slotted home. A piece of sheer beauty and the hosts had one hand on the championship trophy.

In the second-half Gregorio Fonseca, on as a substitute, made it 4-0 on 74 minutes. Just as a Mexican wave was going around the stadium, a long ball forward was crossed into the box and he headed home. The final result was 4-0 and there were jubilant scenes all around Estadi de Sarrià after what had been a perfect afternoon. Espanyol were champions, manager Camacho had taken them back to the Primera División at the first attempt. The club would lose their final three matches but would still win the league by a point.

"May the Segunda División never be spoken of here again," said then club president Francesc Perelló after the Cádiz win and until now it never was. But now, 26 years on, RCD Espanyol's quarter of a century long spell in the top flight has sadly come to an end. Back on the menu, the Segunda División, or La Liga Smartbank as it is for sponsorship reasons these days known, is once again being talked about. Supporters of Barcelona's second club, however, will be desperate for an immediate return to La Liga Santander just like last time. Can it be done? We shall see...

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Monday, 6 July 2020

From the Amateur League's to 90 Minutes from the Bundesliga - Top Flight Football May Be on Hold For Now at Least but Heidenheim's Remarkable Rise Is Still a Story Worth Telling

When I started writing this piece after a 0-0 first leg in Bremen I was kinda hoping FC Heidenheim would pull off a famous victory in the second leg of their relegation/promotion play-off tie. Sadly, though, despite some late drama it wasn't to be. Seventeen years ago Heidenheim were playing in what is now the sixth tier of German football and tonight four promotions in that period could have became five and the club could have made it to the Bundesliga for the very first time in their history. And what has made the club's meteoric rise so remarkable is that, unlike teams such as Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, their rise has come without huge financial investment.

Heidenheim an der Brenz, to give its full name, is a small, perhaps unremarkable, town that sits in Baden-Württemberg in the south of the country on the border with Bavaria. This town of almost 50,000 inhabitants is famous for Opernfestspiele an opera festival held there every summer that draws visitors from all over Europe. It is, however, famous for little else and is hardly the home of a footballing megapower - in fact, it is anything but! 

The town's 15,000 capacity Voith-Arena where FC Heidenheim plays would have been the smallest stadium in the Bundesliga and may well be in the future if they do eventually go up. SC Paderborn have a stadium of pretty much the same size but they have just been relegated from the top flight. To emphasise the cramped demeanour of a venue that many may have considered not quite top flight standard, you only have to look at this season's Bundesliga runners up Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park home can at one end of the ground alone fit almost 25,000 into its famous südtribüne otherwise known as the yellow wall. With this season's average attendance of just 11.835 pre covid behind closed doors football, however, when fans do return Heidenheim will hardly need an 81,365 capacity stadium like the one Dortmund have any time soon whatever division they are playing in. But for a team that just 15 years ago were struggling to break into four figures in terms of matchday crowds, this is as good as it has ever been. 

Football in Heidenheim has over the years seen several clubs under several names but the current club, 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 as they are known in their current guise came about in 2007 when it split from a larger sports club. That club had been formed thanks to the 1972 merger of TSB Heidenheim and VfL Heidenheim. 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 as the name suggests, however, can loosely trace its history back to 1846 when a gymnastics club was founded in the town.

As small a time club, until their more recent accomplishments of the past decade and a quarter or so, Heidenheims's most successful period had come in the late 70s and early 80s. For short time the club played third tier football whilst several Verbandspokal (regional cup) wins saw qualification to the DFB-Pokal, the country's major cup competition. By the turn of the century, however, the club were plying their trade in what is now the sixth tier of German football.

Surely the biggest moment in Heidenheim's history, although they would not have known it at the time, came just after the aforementioned 2007 separation when Frank Schmidt took the over reigns as head coach at the club. Those at the club could not have realised the transformation their team would have with him at the helm. Having returned to finish his playing career at what was his hometown club, in 2004 as captain Schmidt helped guide Heidenheim to promotion to the Oberliga Baden-Württemberg, what is now the fifth tier of German football. But as coach, however, he would have an even greater impact - much greater. 

Schmidt's first season in charge as head coach saw promotion from the Oberliga and that was just the beginning. A second successive promotion followed as the club finished top of the Regionalliga Süd to find themselves in the 3. Liga, then recently created as a new nationwide division to sit in between the 2. Bundesliga and the Regionalliga. In five seasons of 3. Liga football the club never once finished outside the top half. The club finished sixth in its first season in the division then twice finished one point outside the promotion play-off spot before promotion as champions in 2013-14.

I first became aware of Frank Schmidt when watching the 2013 German documentary film Trainer! which follows the lives of three young coaches during 2012-13 season. Schmidt was one of the three coaches featured as his side narrowly missed out on a promotion play-off spot on the final day of the season. Whilst of the other two coaches one did not last the full season and the other was sacked at the end of it, Schmidt is still going strong at Heidenheim. Both considered shrewd tacticians, some have compared Schmidt to Jürgen Klopp. Now a Premier League winner with Liverpool, Klopp was one of several more established coaches who contributed to the documentary by giving their insight and expertise on football management. To be compared to such a man is surely a huge honour.

As well as rising up the divisions, there has also been cup success for Heidenheim under Schmidt. There have been five Verbandspokal triumphs in the WFV-Pokal since Schmidt took over which in his early years qualified the club for the main DFB-Pokal, a competition they have since 2014 automatically qualified for as a second tier side. Highlights of these DFB-Pokal appearances included defeating Bundesliga side SV Werder Bremen in round one in 2011-12 before then losing on penalties to another top flight side in Borussia Mönchengladbach after a 0-0 draw and reaching the quarter finals four years later, albeit without facing any top flight opposition. The clubs most memorable DFB-Pokal tie, however, undoubtedly came when they faced the country's number one side FC Bayern München in a quarter final tie last April.

Schmidt was no stranger to cup upsets and when his side travelled to the Allianz Arena his side were almost part of another very famous win. As well as that Werder Bremen victory in 2011 he had also as a player been part of an amateur TSV Vestenbergsgreuth side that knocked FC Bayern out of the cup in August 1994 and would have no doubt loved to have beaten them again. 1-0 down after 12 minutes his side led 2-1 at the break whilst in the second-half they came from 4-2 down to draw level only to lose 5-4 thanks to an 84th minute penalty.

One key player for Heidenheim before he moved to Cardiff City last year was Robert Glatzel who scored a hat-trick in that Bayern game but there have been plenty other players who have helped contribute to the team's success and none more so than club captain Marc Schnatterer. Having joined from Karlsruher in 2008, Schnatterer has been at the club almost as long as his manager and by some is considered Mr. Heidenheim, even more so than Schmidt himself. Schnatterer is a set piece specialist who has scored 122 goals in 407 appearances and reached doubled figures in seven of his 12 seasons at the club despite not really being considered an out and out striker. 

This season, however, it is Tim Kleindienst who has been the main man in the goalscoring department scoring 14 league goals compared to Schnatterer's 2. Kleindienst joined the club from SC Freiburg on a permanent deal at the start of the season having had a previous spell on loan at the club. Defensive Midfielder Niklas Dorsch who joined from Bayern's youth ranks in 2018 has also had another successful season this term after being named the fans player of the season in his first campaign. The clubs most important player in recent times, however, particularly this season, has arguably been goalkeeper Kevin Müller who joined the club in 2016. Müller has conceded just 36 league goals this term giving his club the second best defensive record in the league with only champions Arminia Bielefeld having conceded fewer (30). His success recently earned him a five year contract extension.

When Heidenheim moved up to the 2. Bundesliga they managed finishes of 8th, 11th, and 6th in their first three seasons in the division. Last season was campaign number five for them in the second tier and the club finished just two points off a promotion place despite having finished just two points above the relegation play-off spot the season prior.

Wanting to build on last seasons excellent campaign Heidenheim would have been disappointed with their poor start this time around but things quickly improved and some excellent form saw them three points behind third placed Hamburg when the league's COVID-19 shutdown began. With others also struggling, mixed results when the league restarted saw Heidenheim still keep in touch with the top three and it got better... Some disappointing results for third placed Hamburger SV in particular actually meant that when Heidenheim defeated them with a last gasp 95th minute goal in their penultimate game of the season they moved above them and into the promotion play-off spot. A 3-0 defeat against champions Arminia Bielefeld in Heidenheim's final match mattered not one jolt as a shock result in Hamburg saw their challengers lose 5-1 to SV Sandhausen and keep Heidenheim in the play-off spot just below VfB Stuttgart.

Heidenheim faced Werder Bremen who had finished third bottom of the Bundesliga in their play-off match and the first leg at Werder's Weserstadion finished in a goalless draw. This could have been considered a missed opportunity for the visitors against an out of sorts home side. In the second leg, Bremen took an early lead but excellent goalkeeping from Müller showed just why he was given that contract extension and kept his side in the tie. Heidenheim missed a couple of excellent chances early in the second half and will no doubt now rue those missed opportunities. Heidenheim did finally find the net four minutes from time through Kleindienst but the away goals rule meant they would need a second. Unfortunately for the home side, caught on the break in the 94th minute, they conceded a second. That was not the final goal of the match but scoring with the last kick of the game a penalty they were awarded several minutes later was not enough for the home side. 2-2 the final score and Bremen staying in the Bundesliga thanks to the away goals rule, Heidenheim stuck in the second tier for another season at least.

Tonight was a bitterly disappointing end to what has been another excellent season for 1. FC Heidenheim 1846. But having risen from what is now the sixth tier, where they played in front of sub 1,000 crowds at home, the club can nonetheless be proud of what they have achieved over the past seventeen years. Having narrowly missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga last season and came even closer this time around it will be interesting to see if Heidenheim can make it third time lucky. Certainly, no one would begrudge them a place at the top table if they do eventually make it!

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Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Seven of the Best... Matches at Munich's Olympiastadion

Since Munich's two main football clubs FC Bayern and 1860 left to play at the new Allianz Arena in 2005 there has been, a Women's Champions League final in 2012 aside, very little footballing action at the city's Olympiastadion. This could soon be about to change, however, with reports that local side Türkgücü München might well be playing matches at the stadium next season. Türkgücü currently sit top of Regionalliga Bayern and if their promotion from the league, suspended due to COVID-19, is ratified then they will be playing 3.LIga football next season. The club's home ground, however, does not meet 3.LIga standards and if the club does go up they will need to find an alternative venue with the Olympiadstadion currently looking a very likely solution to their problems.
Home to Munich's two main clubs for over 30 years, the Olympiastadion opened in 1972 having been built for the 1972 Summer Olympics held in the city. This famous stadium has, however, hosted many other major events since, particularly in the world of football. The list includes the 1974 World Cup final, several European Cup and Champions League finals, and also the final of the European Championships in 1988. With the stadium's two former tenants having also played 100s of games at the stadium, the Olympiastadion has been host to some fascinating matches over the years - here are seven of the best.

West Germany 2-1 Netherlands, FIFA World Cup Final, 7 July 1974 


When the Olympiastadion hosted the final of the 10th FIFA World Cup in 1974, 77,833 thousand spectators were in attendance to see what they thought would be a straightforward victory for the Netherlands. After all, a Dutch side that included star of the tournament Johan Cryuff had set the planet alight playing what was known throughout the world as 'Totaal Voetbal' an exhilarating brand of passing football with interchangeable positions. 

The Dutch were massive favourites to win their first ever World Cup but for opponents Germany, however, being rank outsiders was nothing new. 20 years earlier in 1954 they had also been given no chance at all but lifted the World Cup trophy after a final in which they beat a much fancied Hungary side that included the legendary Ferenc Puskás - a team they had lost 8-3 to earlier in the tournament it must be pointed out. That 1954 victory was referred to as the 'miracle of Bern', could there now be a miracle in Munich? Could the West German team, one that had suffered an embarrassing loss to neighbours East Germany earlier in the tournament, upset the odds and once again claim the unlikeliest of victories?

A few days before the final, a German tabloid newspaper claimed that the night before their previous match the Dutch stars had been partying in their hotel swimming pool with naked girls. Baring this in mind one can assume that as the final approached maybe some of the Dutch players were seemingly distracted by angry wives and girlfriends unhappy at these revelations. Who knows what effect this would have on the group but, regardless, almost everyone still had the Dutch down as clear favourites and when they took the lead after just two minutes the eventual outcome was never in doubt, surely? Germany's Uli Hoeneß brought down Cryuff in the box, the Dutch were awarded a penalty without the Germans having even touched the ball yet, and Johan Neeskens scored from the spot. 1-0. 

For the next twenty minutes or so the Dutch completely dominated the match with their possession football, at times toying with the opposition for whom facing up to these eleven Dutchmen for the rest of the game looked a very daunting prospect. If those watching thought the game was going to be all a one sided affair, however, then they were wrong as 23 minutes after the Dutch scored the Germans managed to draw level. Bernd Hölzenbein was fouled and another penalty was awarded. Out of almost nothing the Germans had a chance to get back in the game. Many accused Hölzenbein of diving but nonetheless the penalty was given by English referee Jack Taylor and Paul Breitner converted from the spot to level the scores. For many in the Netherlands, the disputed penalty is remembered for Dutch TV commentator Herman Kuiphof uttering a now infamous line “Zijn we er toch nog ingetuind,” which translates as “They’ve tricked us again”.

The Germans had looked the better side after the second penalty but surely the Dutch would win the match in the second-half? Shockingly, though, they would have to do it from a losing position as two minutes before half-time they found themselves 2-1 down when Gerd Müller slotted home for the Germans - a parting gift from an all-time great who was to retire from international football after the final. Nonetheless the Dutch were still sure they would, in the end, come out on top - everyone was! 

The Dutch had come out all guns blazing for the second period and dominated most of the play but in the words of Dutch defender Ruud Krol "the ball didn’t want to go in". Chance after chance after chance but no goal! Try as they might they could not find an equaliser and the Germans held out for an improbable victory. It was a result no one had expected but West Germany had for a second time won the World Cup - cue despair across the Netherlands and street parties all over Germany. 

Four years later, this time without star man Cruyff, the Dutch would lose another World Cup final by losing to tournament hosts Argentina. Germany have twice won the World Cup since whilst the Dutch are still looking for that first elusive win having in 2010 lost for the third time in a final.

FC Bayern München 4-1 Real Madrid CF, Champions League Second Group Phase, 8 March 2000 


For a short few years, during which a new millennium dawned, the Champions League included a second group stage where now they have the last 16 knockout round. During the 1999-2000 second group stage, we saw two cracking matches between FC Bayern München and Real Madrid CF with FC Bayern coming out on top on both occasions. After a 4-2 victory away at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, FC Bayern faced their Spanish rivals on home turf at the Olympiastadion week later. 

Mehmet Scholl slotted home to put the hosts ahead after just 4 minutes although the goal should have probably ruled offside. 1-0 became 2-0 on 30 minutes when Fernando Hierro misjudged a clearance by 'keeper Oliver Kahn and Giovane Elber beautifully controlled the ball before lifting it over Iker Casillas in the Real Madrid goal.

The hosts were comfortably ahead at the break but Iván Helguera fired the visitors back into the game on fifty minutes and the match became a rather tense affair. Bayern, however, did not intend to drop points and Alexander Zickler smashed them back into a two goal lead after some fantastic passing football in the build-up. Zickler fired home another on 90 minutes to complete the route and the hosts ran out 4-1 winners.

Real Madrid would have the last laugh, however, as, after managing to finish second in the group, they went on to beat Bayern 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals before defeating Valencia CF 3-0 in the final at the Stade de France.

Germany 1-5 England, FIFA World Cup Qualifier, 1 September 2001


"Oh, this is getting better and better and better" exclaimed the BBC's John Motson commentating to the nation. Michael Owen had just completed his hat-trick and England were rampant. When Germany had won what was the final ever match at the old Wembley Stadium before it was demolished and rebuilt, England manager Kevin Keegan resigned. But now under new manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, England were beating their rivals, not the other way round, and boy were they doing it in style.

Things had not started well for England in this World Cup qualifier at the Olympiastadion, however, as the hosts took the lead after just under six minutes. Germany broke forward which saw Michael Ballack find Oliver Neuville who headed the ball down and across to Carsten Jancker who prodded the ball home. Germany's lead did not last very long, though, as England were level six minutes later through Michael Owen. Oliver Khan came out but was all over the place, he missed the ball and Nicky Barmby headed down for Owen to slot home. After the equaliser, it was end to end stuff but the only other goal in the first-half came deep into stoppage time when England took the lead. A David Beckham free-kick was cleared and his second attempt was headed clear only as far a Steven Gerrard who smashed the ball home from 30yds out to make it 2-1 with a stunning strike.

Three minutes into the second-half and 2-1 became 3-1 in what was the perfect start to the second period for the visitors. Beckham found Emile Heskey who headed back across to Owen and Owen found the net on the half volley to grab his second. A fourth followed 18 minutes later as Owen completed his hat-trick. A long kick forward from the keeper was headed onto Owen who rushed forward towards the goal before slotting home. Owen was on fire, England were rampant. Then on 73 minutes, there was a fifth for England. Paul Scholes back to Beckham, Scholes runs forward and Beckham finds him with a pinpoint long pass, Scholes takes the ball forward and hits it through to Emile Heskey, unmarked, who slots home past Kahn. That was that no further goals and England won 5-1 in what was an emphatic victory against 'ze Germans' which helped ease the pain of two semi-final penalty shoot-out defeats against them at Italia '90 and Euro '96 respectively.

England gained automatic qualification for the following years World Cup finishing top of the qualifying group. A Beckham free-kick in second-half injury time secured a 2-2 draw with Greece in their final match whilst at the same time Germany themselves drew 0-0 with Finland and had to settle for second place. Germany would qualify through the play-offs, however, and make it all the way to the World Cup final where they lost to a Brazil side who had defeated England in the quarter finals.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin 2-0 1. FFC Frankfurt, UEFA Women's Champions League Final, 17 May 2012


Munich's Olympiastadion has hosted three European Cup/Champions League finals over the course of the history of the competition. Nottingham Forest defeated Malmo FF there in 1979, whilst Marseille defeated AC Milan 1-0 at the venue in 1993, and four years later the final returned to the stadium and saw Borussia Dortmund defeat Juventus 3-1. If you include women's football, however, there has actually been four of these finals at the Olympiastadion. 

The 2012 UEFA Women's Champions League Final set a new record attendance for a women's club match in Europe with a crowd of 50,212. Those present saw Olympique Lyonnais Féminin defeat 1. FFC Frankfurt thanks to first-half goals from Eugénie Le Sommer and Camille Abily. 15 minutes in Frankfurt's Melanie Behringer brought down Shirley Cruz Traña in the box and from the spot, Le Sommer smashed the ball past the keeper who despite diving the right way had no chance of stopping the ball find the net. On 28 minutes a long clearance saw Frankfurt goalkeeper Desirée Schumann rush out and head the ball into the path of Abily who looped the ball over her to double Lyon's lead. 

Lyon dominated most of the match but failed to increase their lead, 2-0 was the final scoreline and Lyon were European champions. The following season Lyon reached the final again only to lose to VfL Wolfsburg Frauen whilst in 2016 they returned again and this time were victors over Wolfsburg defeating them via a penalty shoot-out. That 2016 win was the first of four Champions League final triumphs in a row for the club. The following season saw them win again on penalties as they this time defeated Paris Saint-Germain Féminine whilst successive 4-1 wins over Wolfsburg again in 2018 and FC Barcelona Femení in 2019 followed. Frankfurt had one more final appearance up their sleeves as they defeated PSG 2-1 in 2015.

FC Bayern München 4-3 SG Dynamo Dresden, European Cup Second Round, October 24, 1973


When FC Bayern were drawn to face Dynamo Dresden in the second round of the 1973-74 European Cup, it would produce an epic East versus West duel. The two German nations would face off against each other as their two best sides met in Europe's premier club competition.

50,000 spectators were present for the first leg at the Olympiastadion including 1,000 Dresden supporters hand picked by the Stasi (East German secret police) who saw Dresden take the lead then come from 2-1 down to lead 3-2 at the break. 

Dynamo broke forward on 13 minutes in a move that ended with Frank Ganzera hitting the ball across the box only for Johnny Hansen to knock the ball into his own net. 1-0 to the visitors. Four minutes later it was all square, however, as Bayern broke forward and Bernd Dürnberger found Wilhelm Hoffmann who slotted home. 1-1 soon became 2-1, nine minutes later to be precise. Dürnberger smashed the ball home in off the post from the edge of the D and the hosts were in front. Rainer Sachse on 36 minutes and Gert Heidler on 42 minutes turned the game, however, and put the visitors 3-2 up at the break. A cross into the box saw Sachse score with a diving header whilst Heidler, the ball headed down to him, controlled the ball turned and hit home from close range. 

Both teams had chances in the second-half but Bayern were the better side and won the match 4-3. Poor defending helped Franz Roth drive the ball home for the equaliser on 17 minutes whilst 12 minutes later Gerd Müller ran in to knock the ball home from close range after a cross into the box missed several Bayern heads.

FC Bayern went all the way to the final that year and after 1-1 draw with Atlético de Madrid defeated them 4-0 in a replay to crown themselves champions of Europe for the very first time. The following season Bayern faced more East German opposition with 1. FC Magdeburg beat 3-2 at home and 2-1 away. Again Bayern reached the final and again they won with Leeds United defeated 2-0 whilst a third consecutive triumph saw AS Saint-Étienne defeated 1-0 in the 1976 final. Bayern did not reach the final again until 1982 when they lost to Aston Villa. Twice more runners up in 1987 and 1999 it would be 2001 and some 25 years after their last triumph before they were crowned champions of Europe again. Dynamo Dresden have never reached a European final.

Soviet Union 0-2 Netherlands, Euro 88 Final, 25 June 1988


The Dutch have painful memories of losing the 1974 World Cup final at Munich's Olympiastadion but when they returned to the venue for the final of the European Championships in 1988 it was an altogether happier occasion.

The Netherlands had actually lost to their final opponents Soviet Union 1-0 in their opening match but followed that up with victories over England and Republic of Ireland to reach the semi finals where they avenged that 1974 defeat by beating Germany 2-1. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had drawn with Ireland and beaten England before defeating Italy 2-0 in the semis.

The Soviets had the better of the opening exchanges but it was the Dutch who found themselves in front at the break thanks to a thumping header from captain Ruud Guillit. In the second half, Marco Van Basten scored what would go down as one of the greatest goals in the history of the European Championships. It came in the 54th minute and Van Basten volleyed a right-footed shot over 'keeper Rinat Dasayev from the tightest of angles on the right of the penalty area after a looping ball from Arnold Muhren had found him. Later the Soviets would miss a penalty when Hans van Breukelen saved from Igor Belanov having himself brought down Sergey Gotsmanov to concede said penalty.

The Dutch held on for the win and Guillit lifted the trophy as the Netherlands won a major tournament for the first and to date only time in their history. Those in orange finally had something to celebrate.

TSV 1860 München 2-3 Newcastle United, Intertoto Cup Semi Final, 25 July 2001

Okay, being a Newcastle fan I may be a little biased in picking this one but in my defence, it was a five goal thriller. 

The now defunct Intertoto Cup was once upon a time a qualification route for the UEFA Cup, or UEFA Europa League as it is now known, and separate from the UEFA Cup's own qualifying rounds. The Intertoto Cup was formed as a summer football tournament in the 1960s and came under the wing of UEFA in 1995. Clubs could apply to take part in the competition with the highest ranked clubs from each countries applicants selected by UEFA to participate.

In the 2001 edition Newcastle United were drawn against TSV 1860 München at the semi final stage. Having entered only in the previous round, United had defeated Belgian side Sporting Lokeren whilst, entering a round earlier than their semi final opponents, 1860 had defeated Serbians FK Sartid Smederevo and Dutch side RKC Waalwijk before facing Newcastle.

United found themselves 2-0 up with goals from Nolberto Solano on 11 and 55 minutes - the second a penalty whilst 1860 scored twice to draw level at 2-2. The first of those was scored by Paul Agostino and came just a minute after the visitors had doubled their lead whilst the second came 10 minutes later and was scored by Filip Tapalovic. United won the match in the 83rd minute, however, thanks to a goal from Aaron Hughes. The Northern Ireland international met a Solano cross to head home and secure a vital first leg win.

Newcastle won the second leg at home 3-1 but would lose to French side Troyes in the finals with all the goals coming in a second leg that finished 4-4 and saw Troyes win on the away goals rule.