Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Der Pokal Hat Seine Eigenen Gesetze: Stories from the DFB-Pokal

The great thing about the DFB-Pokal is that all teams enter at the same point. No mammoth qualifying runs for the minnows just to get a glimpse of a semi big name side when you can draw a top flight team right from the word go! Of course, with only sixty four teams entering what is Germany's premier cup competition places for amateur or semi-professional sides are limited. But for those who are allocated a place a dream tie against a big name professional side is a real possibility, especially as the draw is seeded. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a feature about the fascinating Coupe de France and, perhaps a little slow off the mark, having followed with interest the opening round of cup fixtures in Germany just the other weekend I thought I'd take a look at another interesting domestic cup competition where as the saying goes, Der Pokal hat seine eigenen Gesetze (the cup has its own rules).

I've actually written about the DFB-Pokal before, or should I say in particular the 1983 competition and the exciting run of underdogs Fortuna Köln who made it all the way to the final where they faced big time neighbours 1. FC Köln in an all-Cologne final. The DFB-Pokal is definitely worth revisiting, however, as like the FA Cup in England in and the Coupe de France in well er France, Germany's knockout competition also has many other intriguing stories to tell. It may not quite have the same tradition of FA Cup or the sheer number entrants that the Coupe de France has but it is still, nonetheless, a pretty special animal with an exciting history.

This season’s DFB-Pokal got underway the weekend before last with the sixty four entrants comprising of last seasons Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga sides, the top four teams from last season’s 3.Liga, and other selected teams including mostly the winners of Germany’s Verbandspokal the various regional cup competitions which are usually open to teams from the third tier and below. As well as the draws being seeded the lower-ranked teams in each tie are given home advantage as they vie for a place in the cup final played at Berlin's Olympiastadion each year. In this year's first round the most entertaining tie was newly promoted 2. Bundesliga side Eintracht Braunschweig's 5-4 win over Bundesliga team Hertha BSC whilst the biggest shock of the round came when fourth tier Regionalliga West club Rot-Weiss Essen defeated newly promoted Bundesliga side Arminia Bielefeld 1-0.

Teams from the Regionalliga and below, who are in many cases semi-professional or even amateur, defeating a top flight side as Essen did is nothing new. For many of these clubs just being in the competition is a big deal as many rarely get to enter. So when they do enter they have to savour the moment and this has brought over the years some shocks that even the FA Cup and Coupe de France, both famed for their upsets, would struggle to produce. 

In the 1990s FC Bayern München, the country's most successful side of all-time, twice lost to amateur sides in the Pokal. On 4 August 1990, Just over 8,000 spectators crammed into FV Weinheim's Sepp-Herberger Stadion to see the minnows from the Baden-Württemberg region face the might of FC Bayern and, hoping for an upset, they weren't to be disappointed. The home side took the lead from the penalty spot on 26 minutes after a rash challenge saw Bayern down to ten men but even the most optimistic of supporters would not have expected them to hold on for the win. Hold on the did though and Weinheim were through to the next round where they would sadly lose to Rot-Weiss Essen whilst four years later there was an even bigger shock in store for the Bavarian giants of Bayern.

On 14 August 1994, TSV Vestenbergsgreuth were the opposition when Bayern suffered another humiliating defeat against amateur opposition in what goalscorer Roland Stein called "the perfect day". The team from a village with a population of at the time just 350 were live on primetime terrestrial television channel ZDF with almost 7.5m people watching and they would soon be the talk of the nation. Lothar Matthäus, Oliver Kahn, Thomas Helmer, the Brazilian world champion Jorginho and the striker Jean-Pierre Papin, these were just some of the star names in the Bayern line-up. Managed by Franz Beckenbauer they were a formidable side but in this cup tie they were well and truly shown up. 

"And there is the goal. There is the goal" was the cry the commentator on ZDF when on 43 minutes Wolfgang Hüttner found Stein who headed home to put the hosts into dreamland. 1-0 up at the break, Vestenbergsgreuth still had to survive the second-half and at times they were clinging on for dear life in the match that had been moved Nuremberg to allow more spectators in. They did hold on, however, although late stoppage time drama where Bayern hit the post nearly saw an equaliser. Hearts in mouths. Vestenbergsgreuth and Stein had their moment in the sun but after defeating FC Homburg in the next round lost to VfL Wolfsburg on penalties and such is the glamour of amateur football that Stein nowadays works as an elevator fitter.

There have been numerous other upsets in the pokal down the years. When Hamburger SV lost 2-1 at amateur side VfB Eppingen in 1974 it was called Die Mutter aller Pokalsensationen (the mother of all cup sensations). With amateur and semi professionals clubs having only been allowed to enter the competition for the first time that season it was easily the biggest shock in the history of the competition up to that point. A little over four years later another amateur side called TuS Langerwehe beat Hertha BSC 2-1. In those days the lower ranked sides were not given home advantage, that rule came into force a few years later, and Langerwehe drew 0-0 (aet) away at Hertha with that 2-1 win actually coming in a replay, something that is no longer used with all ties now settled on the day. Hamburg were on the wrong end of a shock again in 1984-85 some ten years after that 'mother of all cup sensations' when they lost 2-0 to SC Geislingen of the Amateur-Oberliga Baden-Württemberg. Fastforward to 2000-01 and 1. FC Magdeburg versus FC Bayern is also worth a mention as the former East German side who won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1974 were playing fourth tier football when they defeated Bayern on penalties. Also of interest is Berliner AK 07 setting a new scoring record for a fourth tier side against a Bundesliga club when they defeated 1899 Hoffenheim 4-0 in the opening round of 2012-13. There are too many other upsets to mention them all but before we finish we must look at 1. FC Saarbrücken's run to the semi finals last season and then the curious tale of Hertha BSC Amateure which is a story definitely worth telling.

Four years after then third tier side Energie Cottbus lost to VfB Stuttgart in the final another third tier side in unfancied 1. FC Union Berlin defeated two Bundesliga sides en route to the final in 2001. 1. FC Union lost to FC Schalke 04 in the final, but arguably more remarkable was fourth tier Saarbrücken's run to the semis last season. Round two saw Saarbrücken defeat Bundesliga club FC Köln 3-2 in what was a pulsating match with Köln coming back to draw level from 2-0 down before Saarbrücken hit back with a 90th minute winner. Fortuna Düsseldorf, another top flight side, were defeated on penalties in the quarter finals before the dream ended at the semi final stage where diluted home advantage thanks to a post-COVID lockdown behind closed doors match did not help as they lost 3-0 to Bayer Leverkusen. En route to that semi final loss, Saarbrücken had also defeated two second tier sides along the way.

Another fascinating tale from the Pokal, perhaps the most captivating of all, comes from the 1992-93 season and involves Hertha BSC Amateure, who are nowadays known as Hertha BSC II, the reserve side of Hertha BSC. Rule changes in the 2000s mean reserve sides can no longer enter the pokal but once upon a time lower league reserve sides of top flight clubs were a regular feature in the pokal. Whilst Hertha BSC were knocked out just before the quarter finals their reserve side managed to progress all the way to the final something the first team have yet to manage. Second tier Lokomotive Leipzig, then known as VfB Leipzig were defeated in a seven goal thriller before Hertha Amateure beat second tier Hannover 96 who only a year earlier had become the first side outside the top flight to win the cup. Victory over Hannover set up a quarter final tie with Bundesliga outfit 1. FC Nürnberg. 

1-0 up after a first-half goal, Hertha BSC Amateure saw their visitors from Nuremberg draw level in the 89th minute but responded by immediately going up the other end and retaking the lead to win 2-1. Things were now getting serious and Hertha Amateure's part-time coach Jochem Ziegert quit his day job as a tax officer to concentrate on Hertha with the big semi final looming. Second tier side Chemitzer FC would be the opposition. The star of this Hertha Amateure side was a young  Carsten Ramelow who would later go on to play for the German national team at the 2002 World Cup and it was he who opened the scoring after just five minutes. Hertha Amateure were soon 2-0 up and leading 2-1 at the break ended up winning the match by that same scoreline to reach the final. It was an excellent performance that impressed many including Kicker magazine who wrote: "The success of the amateurs was well deserved against the higher-class guests who appeared without ideas." For the final there was a sell-out crowd at Berlin's Olympiastadion most of whom were supporting local side Hertha but, unfortunately, the fairytale ended and they lost 1-0 to Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.

Above are some of the intriguing stories the DFB-Pokal brings to life each season. The unique structure of the competition means only a handful of clubs that might be considered 'minnows' get to enter each year. But the ones that do well they have a decent chance of drawing one of the big guns in their very first match and with David v Goliath ties extremely common and David always getting home advantage a famous cup upset is, as we've seen, never far away. As they say in Germany, the cup has its own rules.

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Saturday, 12 September 2020

Three Matches, 330 minutes, and Only One Goal To Separate Them: The Mammoth Amateur Cup Final of 1954 That Saw Almost 200,000 Through the Turnstiles

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

It took a mammoth 330 minutes but eventually, a victor was found. In scenes that would seem incredulous today, almost 200,000 spectators over the course of three matches saw two Northern League amateur sides from County Durham battle it out for glory in a tale that gripped the region and indeed much of the nation. Bishop Auckland v Crook Town in the 1954 FA Amateur Cup final had a script that even the greatest of movie writers could not have come up with up but, having said that, if similar drama had occurred in America's favourite past time of baseball then Hollywood would have surely made the story into a feature-length film.

Those of the younger generation may not be familiar with the FA Amateur Cup, after all, the 1974 final was the competitions last. With many non-league clubs no longer strictly amateur and more accurately semi-professional, and many past winners having arguably been not as amateur as they seemed, the competition's eventual demise was hardly surprising. In 1969 the FA Trophy was introduced as a new competition aimed at those non-league clubs who could no longer class themselves as amateur and although it did not have the prestige of the Amateur Cup it would essentially soon replace it. When five years later the Football Association abolished the distinction between amateur and professional or semi-professional status the Amateur Cup was finally discontinued. The Trophy and a new competition for smaller clubs known as the FA Vase would together take on the mantle as the national cup competitions specifically for non-league sides, a position they both still hold today.

In the 1954 Amateur Cup Bishop Auckland scored 26 goals in their five games en route to the final and this included a 5-0 win over Hallam, and a 5-1 semi-final victory over now defunct Briggs Sports of Essex that took place in front of 54,000 spectators at St. James' Park, Newcastle. Their final opponents Crook Town were not far behind in the scoring charts, however. Crook had defeated Hitchin Town 10-1 in the quarter finals having also won 5-0 at home to Walton & Hersham earlier in the competition but needed a replay at Roker Park, Sunderland, in front of another bumper crowd, to beat Walthamstow Avenue in the other semi-final.

Based five miles apart in County Durham, Bishop Auckland and Crook were very much part of the Durham coalfield. Crook was a pit village whilst Bishop Auckland also saw many employed in the many collieries dotted about the surrounding areas. There was also large scale employment in the local ironworks. Life was tough but a work hard play hard attitude saw football play a key role for many locals in their spare time. Amateur football in the region was big and the local Northern Football League regularly drew four figure crowds that its clubs could nowadays scarcely dream of. 

Despite their amateur status, however, it was believed that players at some of these clubs actually earned more money than some at professional sides. This had been particularly noticeable at both Bishops and Crook over the years and brought with it a bitter rivalry that stemmed back to what was known as the 'Crook Town Affair'. In 1928 Bishop Auckland reported Crook Town to the Durham FA for the illegal payment of players. This started a chain of events that saw Crook booted out of the league and a widespread investigation that saw in total 341 players from numerous clubs suspended. By 1954 things were not always so obvious and as Harry Pearson notes in his excellent book The Farther Corner players at supposedly amateur clubs might have the club foot the bill when their wives or mothers went to the butchers to buy meat for the Sunday roast or have them help out financially when they needed a new suit. Having said that, some players still did, however, privately take illicit payments often referred to as boot money. In his book Up There - The North East Football Boom & Bust, Michael Walker also tells the story of a goalkeeper playing for Bishop Auckland who was offered the going rate of £15 a week to sign for Middlesbrough only for said 'keeper to laugh and say he was getting £20 a week at supposedly amateur Bishops. Yes, despite the Crook town affair, almost thirty years later such practices were still seemingly rife and, indeed, a colleague of mine recently suggested to me that BIshop Auckland and Crook used to be the two most corrupt football clubs in the country. Who knows...

Bishop Auckland were seemingly favourites for the 1954 final and after Crook's semi final win the verdict from the Sunderland Echo was that it 'will take a more skilful, harder fighting Crook Town to stand a chance against Bishop Auckland.' Another local newspaper the Shields Evening News, meanwhile, were also predicting a Bishops win and when previewing the local football for the weekend of the final they ran with the headline 'It's Bishop Auckland to win the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley, Newcastle and Sunderland in desperate league struggles,' With Bishops having beaten Crook 3-1 and 4-1 in the pairs two Northern League meetings earlier that season their favourites tag was probably justified and the Evening News continued by saying 'The Bishops are in an all conquering mood this season and the way they have disposed of previous Amateur Cup opponents this year suggests Crook's visit to Wembley will be in vain.'

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
When the Amateur Cup final of 1954 finally came around, 20 special trains and 250 coaches would take fans from the North East down to Wembley and a crowd of 100.000 would be in attendance. Whilst for those who couldn't attend, there were BBC radio updates from Raymond Glendenning in-between commentary on that afternoons France v England rugby union match on the Home Service and live second-half BBC television coverage with a young Kenneth Wolstenholme behind the microphone. An electrical shop in Bishop Auckland, meanwhile, won permission show the match via 'projection tv' in what was basically an early version of the beam-back.

Harry Pearson, in his aforementioned book, describes the Bishop Auckland side of the 1950s as the Real Madrid of amateur football and indeed such was the stature of the club there was even a Bishop Auckland Subbuteo set. Many of the club's star players during that decade actually joined after the 1954 final, however, but they still had a few notable names that year. Wing-Half Bob Hardisty had captained the Great Britain side coached by Matt Busby at the 1948 London Olympics and 1952 edition in Helsinki and was by many considered the finest amateur player of his generation whilst Corbett Cresswell was the son Warney Cresswell a star player in the 1920s and 30s who was previously the world's most expensive player when Sunderland signed him from South Shields for £5,500 in 1922. Carlisle born inside left Seamus O'Connell was another Bishops star in 1954 but whilst others stars would soon join he would be on his way out leaving to play professionally with Chelsea shortly after the final.

In charge of Crook Town was a young manager called Joe Harvey an ex-Newcastle United player who would famously go on to manage his former club to European glory in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969. Arguably their best player was Jimmy McMillan a winger who had previously turned down offers from Chelsea and Newcastle United to play professionally so he could train to be a government planning officer.

There's always a genuine excitement around Wembley way on the day of a cup final and those expectant fans from Bishop Auckland and Crook Town would not be disappointed. Ken Wolstenholme described it as the best two hours sport of 1954, 'Thrill packed toughest ever Wembley final' was how the Sunderland Echo described it, and 'as thrilling and hard thought a match as could be desired' was the view of the Journal & North Mail. The Northern Echo, meanwhile, said that if the North East's top clubs, Newcastle, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough, had shown the same courage and never-say-die spirit throughout the season as Bishops and Crook did in the final then all three might not be in danger of relegation (In the end it was only Boro who went down).

The match had drama right from the off when just minutes into game Bishops half back Jimmy Nimmins slid into a tackle and never got up. Nimmins was stretchered off having fractured his leg. In the days before substitutions Bishops would have to face the remainder of the game with only ten men, a tough ask. Bishops fans had seen their side lose on each of their previous three Wembley appearances but this time the disadvantage of being one man short did not seem to bother their team and they soon found themselves in front. Picking up the ball after a free-kick was crossed into the box, Les Dixon smashed the ball past Fred Jarrie in the Crook goal and the Bishops lead 1-0. Crook responded almost immediately, however, and in the blink of an eye the match was all square when Ronnie Thompson fired a low drive past 'keeper Harry Sharratt and into the bottom lefthand corner.

Despite Crook's one man advantage, it was the Bishops who scored next to retake the lead whilst for Crook an injury to Ken Williamson soon saw him hobbling around the pitch for the rest of the match so really their advantage was arguably at best half a man anyway. Bob Watson, a railway worker by day, found Ray Oliver on the edge of the box and the ex Whitley Bay Athletic forward from Cullercoats darted past several players before blasting the ball into the top corner. Bishop Auckland back in front.

2-1 Bishops at the break and by all accounts they had been the better side but in the second-half Crook equalised on 55 minutes when a Bill Jeffs cross saw Eddie Appleby smash the ball home. That equaliser was the final goal of the 90 minutes so the match would head to extra-time.

The match report in the Sunderland Echo heavily emphasised Crook's man advantage and the writer referred to only as D.W. claimed that 'Bishop Auckland even with a man short, held their own for most of the normal playing time and were still able, in the last five minutes extra time, to give the Crook goal such a pounding that they might have had three more goals,' They did not, however, get three more goals, in fact, they did not get any. Extra-time came and went with no further goals and in the days before penalty shoot-outs, of course, there would have to be a replay.

There had been plenty more praise for Bishops in the following day's papers. Laurie Burills of the Daily Herald wrote: "Bishop Auckland's tremendous fighting spirit against their Northern League rivals, Crook Town, in the FA Amateur Cup final at Wembley, was one of the greatest displays I have ever seen,' Meanwhile, Bobby Rodney of the Daily Mirror who suggested 18-year-old wing-half Barry Wilkinson would replace the injured Nimmins for the replay was impressed enough by Bishops performance to say Wilkinson 'will probably end his year by winning the Amateur Cup,'

There would be a nine day wait for the replay. April 19, an Easter Monday evening, would see the pair battle it out again this time at St James' Park, Newcastle. A few days before said replay both clubs suffered league defeats but their minds were set firmly on the Amateur Cup. It was a 25-30 mile trip up the road from County Durham and 56,008 spectators made the short journey - a record attendance for an amateur match outside the capital. Supporters paid between 2/6d and 12/6d for a ticket it which I work out to be roughly between 10p and 60p in modern currency though probably a lot more with inflation.

Despite being considered favourites by most once again, it was a horrendous start by Bishop Auckland who found themselves 2-0 down within four minutes. Both goals came from Ken Harrison, a schoolmaster from Annfield Plain, a small village north west of Durham city, who'd scored a hat-trick in Crook's semi final replay win. The first goal came just 15 seconds into the match when Wilkinson was robbed of the ball by Ronnie Thompson who then passed it to Harrison and the goalkeeper was left helpless. His second came when the ball fell to him after the Bishops defence were unable to properly clear it. The drama continued in the early stages that followed with sitters missed at both ends in what had been a pulsating opening salvo.

Crook Town defended well and Bishops struggled to break them down but, 2-0 behind at the break, Bishops did eventually find their way back into the game with a goal on 79 minutes. Oliver eventually bundled the ball home to make it 2-1 after a free-kick was hit into the box. The match did not stay a 2-1 for long either as within minutes Bishops were level. It seemed these two sides could just not be separated. Oliver fired the ball home to grab his second and the replay, like the first match, was heading for extra-time. In the extra two periods, O'Connell headed over for Bishops from six yards out and this was the closest we came to a winner as like the first match the replay also finished 2-2. 

It was a match that the Shields Evening News reckoned 'could have gone either way' although they were particularly impressed by Bishops goalkeeper Sharratt. The Northern Echo meanwhile were getting accusations of favouritism with a small number of readers writing in to complain of bias towards Bishop Auckland in their coverage of the first two matches. 

The outcome Amateur Cup final could not be settled by a replay so a second one would be needed. It was decided, however, that if a third draw occurred then the trophy would be shared. The two sides would hold the cup for six months each and who held it first would be decided by the toss of the coin. When the pair were to meet again at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, three days later it would be the final act of what had been so far a thrilling drama.

Kicking off at 6pm on a Thursday one can assume that many supporters might have found it difficult getting out of work early enough to have made the match but that did not stop some 36,727 from getting into the ground. Those who did not make it would have to make do with second-half radio commentary. With BBC reporters having already sat through 240 minutes of the football and commentated on large parts of it the Shields Evening News suggested that 'The BBC must be wondering when the final is really going to end,' before adding 'Never in the history of broadcasting has so much been said about two amateur football teams,'

In this second replay, Oliver rose to head home from a Jack Major corner midway through the first-half and Bishop Auckland thought they had the lead. Referee Alf Bond, a one-armed man who Bishops supporters would refer to as the 'one armed bandit', had other ideas, however, penalising the centre forward for a foul in the build-up. Shortly afterwards Oliver should have found the net again but fired over, a chance he would especially rue missing when Crook Town took the lead four minutes before half-time. It was Harrison who scored and as described in the Sunderland Echo he 'used the sole of his boot to guide the ball past the advancing Sharrott,'

It was 1-0 at the interval but could there be one final twist? After what had happened in the two previous matches surely there would be more drama in store? Or maybe not? Those watching would soon find out. In the second-half Bishops played with a more direct style of play but it was an attack minded Crook side who were the better of the two teams. Bishops did force Jarrie to make what was the save of the match, however, punching away an Oliver header. In the end, though, Crook held on and after a mammoth 330 minutes, they had won the FA Amateur Cup final of 1954. 

At full-time jubilant Crook Town fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate before their captain Bobby Davison, himself a former Bishops player, was handed the trophy by the Mayor of Middlesbrough. Ken Williamson whose leg was in a plaster having hobbled around injured for most of the first match was helped onto the pitch to join in the celebrations. Joe Harvey's men would then board a special train back home where 15,000 people from Crook and the surrounding pit villages were there to greet them. There was not much time to celebrate, however, as many of the players had work the next day followed by a league match at West Auckland Town in the evening before a rearranged Northern League Challange Cup semi final with Shildon the day after.

The Sunderland Echo attributed Crook Town's win to what they called 'H plan', they dubbed it 'Crook Town's secret weapon' and it involved inside left Johny Coxon marking Hardisty out of the game which they claimed worked a treat. The paper was also wowed by the performance of Davison who they said was 'given the ball to keep after the match' before suggesting 'They should have struck a special medal for the number of times he pulled the defence out of trouble,'

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
With almost 200,000 spectators in total, 196,727 according to the Yorkshire Post, having passed through the turnstiles over the course of the three games both sides each received £11,650 from the £46,000 gate receipts. This would have been a huge sum of money for the two clubs.

Bishop Auckland would make up for their defeat by winning all of the next three Amateur Cup finals whilst three more Crook Triumphs would follow in the years after. Before 1954 Bishops already had seven Amateur Cup final wins to their name, the first occurring in 1896, the last in 1939. Ten in total for Bishop Auckland was more than anyone else ever managed in the competition's history and five more than Crook Town who were joint second with Clapton in terms of wins. 

1954 may seem a lifetime ago but hopefully, the stories will continue for years to come. Of all the Amateur Cup finals the 1954 one was definitely the longest. Three matches and four halves of extra-time completed a monumental tie that saw huge crowds watching amateur football in scenes the modern football fan would scarcely believe. These scenes came in an era before violence and tragedy paved the way for all-seater stadia and wall to wall Sky Sports coverage and it may at times seem alien to the modern reader. But if there was ever a golden age for football then this was surely it and the 1954 FA Amateur Cup final surely its crowning glory.


This article was written with information obtained from the British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) and the British Library Board. These services are not free and incur a fee so for more articles like this please contribute by donating/supporting me via my Patreon page www.patreon.com/inlovewithfootball.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Jack Greenwell, FC Barcelona, and a 4-2 Loss to Crook Town


FC Barcelona 2-4 Crook Town is probably not a scoreline you've heard before and, to be fair, unless you are a keen follower of North East non-league football then Crook Town are probably not a team you have heard of either. As for FC Barcelona, well they are a world-famous side and as one of the biggest clubs in the world their major trophy haul is seemingly endless - If you haven't heard of them there is clearly something wrong with you. The following story linking the world-renowned Catalan side who describe themselves as més que un club and a little known once amateur nowadays probably just about semi-professional side from County Durham is one rarely told but one that is nonetheless fascinating and worthy of being covered on this here blog.

For those unaware of Crook or its football team, Crook is an ex mining village in County Durham and its football club currently plies its trade in the tenth tier of English football, step six in the non-league pyramid. Nowadays relatively unknown, even by many within the region, Crook Town AFC have had a slightly more illustrious past compared to many non-league sides having five times won the old FA Amateur Cup. Those previous successes are all relative, however, as even in their heyday the club were still small fry in terms of English football. They did, as mentioned, however, play on numerous occasions against one of the biggest names in the world football and even beat then. Ten times they faced FC Barcelona to be precise, with their first tour to Barcelona coming in 1913. Although football was still in its infancy in Spain at the time and Barcelona were not the big force that they are now, anything but, it is still amazing to think that a little known non-league team from the North East once beat them. It is an interesting story and to tell it we must first start with the story of Jack Greenwell.

Jack Greenwell, born 2 January 1884 in Crook, was the son of a miner and would become one himself whilst playing amateur football as a wing half for Crook Town before leaving in 1912 to join FC Barcelona. In an era when travelling to the next town or village along was probably considered an adventure such a move was somewhat astonishing and how it came about is a little unclear. There is, however, one possible explanation and that is the suggestion that Greenwell made contacts in Spain thanks to partaking in a football tournament in Italy. Greenwell made several guest appearances for another local side Weast Auckland Town when they played in a competition held in 1909 and 1911 known as the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy. Held in Turin and considered by many as the original World Cup as it included teams from several different countries, West Auckland won the competition both times it took place. One issue with the theory that his move to Catalunya came about thanks to connections made during his time in Italy, however, is that Barcelona never actually participated in the tournament. Italian giants Juventus did and West Auckland beat them 6-1 in 1911, but not Barcelona.

As a player at FC Barcelona, Greenwell would win two Campionat de Catalunya titles (A national league championship was not introduced in Spain until 1929) before then going on to manage the club. As manager, with his side playing a passing style of football that was very much uncommon at that time, the club won a further five Campionat de Catalunya's as well as two Copa del Rey's. His managerial career, however, extended beyond Barcelona and in fact beyond even Europe. As well as being Barcelona's second longest serving manager of all-time behind Johan Cryuff he also had spells at crosstown rivals RCD Espanyol and then Valencia CF before moving to South America. During his short spell at Espanyol, Greenwell won both the Campionat de Catalunya and the Copa del Rey whilst at Valencia he won the Campeonato de Valencia. In South America, he had spells coaching in a Peru and Colombia and coaching the Peruvian national team he won what is now known as the Copa America, the country's first and to date only one of two such triumphs (the second came in 1975).

In 1913 it was arranged, with the help of Greenwell, for his old side Crook Town to come to Barcelona and play several matches against his new club. Part of the reason for inviting an English side over was that Barcelona at that time wanted to help increase the popularity of the game of football in their homeland. The sport did not have the popularity it nowadays has and it was hoped through bringing across a team from the country that invented the game they could help increase its stature. Being not so popular, however, was perhaps an understatement as in fact the sport was actually despised by many in the middle and upper classes who thought it morally reprehensible. Despised to the point that when King Alfonso XIII announced he would attend some of the matches against Crook there was mass outrage from many and even death threats issued to him. One such death threat came from Sancho Alegre who was a prominent Catalan anarchist at the time. In the end, having weighed up his options, King Alfonso decided not to attend the matches but others did turn up and watch. Three matches took place and although only 2,000 spectators bore witness to the first the second saw that figure increase to 7,000 before reaching 10,000 for the final match of the tour. 

All played at Barcelona's then Camp de la Indústria home, there is little information forthcoming about the actual matches themselves. Although one thing that is noted about the games was the use of substitutions by the hosts. Making substitutions was something that had become common in Spain but was still a long way off in England where the idea of using substitutes was unheard of. Crook won the first match 4-2 and ended the tour unbeaten with draws of 1-1 and 2-2 in the other two matches. To this day a pennant from their trip still hangs in the clubhouse at their Sir Tom Cowie Millfield ground.

There were two further tours to Spain for Crook which involved a further seven matches against FC Barcelona. The tours of 1921 and 1922, however, saw Crook face a much improved Barcelona side that included the legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora who currently lends his name to the La Liga goalkeeper of the year trophy (although it is believed he made a guest appearance for Crook in one of the games). This improved Barça side won four times against Crook with two draws and one sole win the for the visitors. These results included wins of 4-1, 5-1, and 8-1 for the hosts whilst the final match of the 1922 tour saw Crook run out 3-1 victors.

In between and after those three trips to Barcelona, Crook continued back home as a small town amateur non-league side although for a short while in the 1930s they played professionally in the old North Eastern League which included the reserve sides of Middlesbrough, Newcastle United, and Sunderland. In 1931-32 the club reached the third round of the FA Cup but lost 7-0 First Division Leicester City and, of course, there were those aforementioned Amateur Cup wins whilst in 1976 they became the first-ever English side to tour India. Currently, Crook Town play in the Second Division of Northern League which as mentioned earlier in the piece is the tenth tier of English football. Crook's average league attendance last season pre-COVID was 156, FC Barcelona's was 72,472.


Crook Town AFC Tour of Barcelona, 1913

20 April, 1913: FC Barcelona 2-4 Crook Town

24 April, 1913: FC Barcelona 1-1 Crook Town

27 April, 1913: FC Barcelona 2-2 Crook Town


Crook Town AFC Tour of Barcelona, 1921

20 March, 1921: FC Barcelona 5-1 Crook Town

29 March, 1921: FC Barcelona 4-1 Crook Town

02 April, 1921: FC Barcelona 2-1 Crook Town

03 April, 1921: FC Barcelona 1-1 Crook Town

05 April, 1921: Civil Service FC 1-2 Crook Town


Crook Town AFC Tour of Barcelona, 1922

16 April, 1922: FC Barcelona 8-1 Crook Town

17 April, 1922: FC Barcelona 2-2 Crook Town

22 April, 1922: FC Barcelona 1-3 Crook Town

Monday, 31 August 2020

The FA Cup Is Back!

This week the FA Cup returns. With the latter stages of last season's competition delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the knock-on effects have meant a delay in starting the new season's competition. Finally, however, the 2020-21 FA Cup is about to get underway. 

Over the next few days, 184 teams from the lowest echelons of non-league football will participate in the Extra Preliminary Round of the competition with most matches allowed up to 300 spectators present. The winners are joined by a further 136 clubs in the Preliminary before various clubs join along the way as the competition goes through the first, second, third, and fourth qualifying rounds before we reach the First Round proper.

When last season's competition begun I visited Whitely Bay FC in the Extra Preliminary Round and you can read my piece, as featured in Football Weekends magazine, here. Also, if you love the magic of the FA Cup then you will love how they do things across the channel and you can read my feature on the Coupe de France, a competition which covers several continents, here.

As for this year's Extra Preliminary Round, you can view the full draw here. (Though it must be pointed out some matches have been moved from Tuesday to Wednesday night, check with individual clubs for exact details especially as spectator numbers are currently limited due to COVID)

Friday, 28 August 2020

Five of the Most Humiliating Exits For Scottish Cubs in Europe

On Wednesday night there were scenes that nowadays seem all too familiar. The new season had barely got underway but Glasgow Celtic had already been knocked out of the Champions League. Struggling to get past the qualify rounds by losing to sides they would hope to have beaten is unfortunately for the Glaswegians nothing new. However, it's not just Celtic who fail before most have event started. Scotland's recent footballing history is littered with early European exits to some of the continents lesser sides, some of these losses quite mortifying. Although this latest defeat was nowhere near as embarrassing as some of the ones we've seen in the past, Ferencvárosi are to be fair at least half decent, playing at home in what because of COVID-19 was a one-off tie, Celtic were still obvious favourites to win. But what about the real humiliating nights? There have been some absolute shockers as far as Scottish sides in Europe are concerned and here are five of the worst.


UEFA Cup Preliminary Round 1994-95

Skonto Riga 0-0 Aberdeen
Aberdeen 1-1 Skonto Riga
1-1 on aggregate, Aberdeen lost on away goals rule

Between 1991 and 1994 Latvian side Skonto Riga won a record breaking 14 domestic Virslīga titles in a row. In 1994 when Aberdeen faced Skonto in the Preliminary Round of the UEFA Cup, however, the Virslīga was, and still is, considered one of the weakest top flight divisions in Europe. Baring this in mind, progression for the Dons seemed a foregone conclusion. 

By rights, Skonto should probably have been participating in the Champions League but for a few seasons during this period the league champions from some of the lower ranked nations were only given UEFA Cup spots. It did not matter which of the then three UEFA competitions they entered, however, they would have always been favourites for an early exit against all but the lowliest of opponents. So when the first leg in Latvia ended in a 0-0 draw it was considered a heroic performance for the minnows.

If the first leg was bad for Aberdeen the second was far worse. That poor first leg showing was followed by the Dons going crashing out after a second leg which the Independent claimed was ‘their most humiliating night in European football’. That same paper also described Aberdeen’s opponents as ‘unknown Latvians’, but after that now infamous night in North East Scotland, they soon became very well known amongst followers of the Scottish game.

Aberdeen were poor on the night but managed to keep the match goalless until 55 minutes when Aleksejs Semjonovs put the visitors into the lead and secure what would end up being a vital away goal. Aberdeen would now need to score twice but quite frankly they never looked capable. The Dons levelled the tie in injury but that was not enough and they were out on the away goals rule.

Skonto Riga lost 3-0 on aggregate to Napoli in the next round, they continued to dominate Latvian football for many years but then hit hard times and went bankrupt and out of existence in 2016. For Aberdeen, that Skonto result was the start of a terrible season that saw the club finish second bottom of the Premiership but stay up by surviving a relegation play-off tie.


UEFA Europa League First Qualifying Round 2017-18

Rangers 1-0 Progrès Niederkorn
Progrès Niederkorn 2-0 Rangers
Rangers lost 2-1 on aggregate

Perhaps the most famous shock European exit for a Scottish side came when Glasgow Rangers lost to Progrès Niederkorn of Luxembourg in 2017. 

At the time, Luxembourg's Nationaldivisioun was among the lowest ranked leagues in terms of their UEFA coefficient and for a team of Rangers' stature defeating a side from Luxembourg was considered a formality. Surprisingly, the first leg did not look that way but, all things considered, an uninspiring 1-0 home win was, nonetheless, expected to be just about enough to see the 'Gers through. The part-time side from Luxembourg, however, had other ideas...

Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha, who had taken on the role only four months earlier took his side to Luxembourg for the second leg and saw them unable to extend their lead from the first leg despite having most of the possession. The match was goalless at half-time and in the second-half the scoreline did not really look like changing but on 66 minutes, however, there was actually a goal yet it did not come for the Glaswegians. From a free-kick Emmanuel Françoise headed in the opening goal for Progrès and the tie was suddenly all square. The goal was the first Progrès had scored in European competition since they found the net in a 1–1 draw against Northern Irish side Glentoran in 1981, albeit it came in what was only the seventh European match they'd played in the years since.

Rangers suddenly had a fight on their hands and unfortunately, it was they who would end up on the canvas. It was the Luxembourg side who would Progrès to the next round and the goal which won the tie came nine minutes after the first. A Sébastien Thill free-kick curled past everybody and into the net it to send the hosts into dreamland and of course the second qualifying round. Absolute despair for Rangers, however, as they had been knocked out by part-time minnows in scenes that were described by the Daily Record as a 'Horror show' and dubbed 'humiliating' by the BBC.

Progrès lost 3-1 on aggregate to Cypriots AEL Limassol in the next round but following season they progressed one round further defeating Azerbaijani side Gabala FK and then Budapest based Hungarian club Honvéd before losing to FC Ufa or Russia. Then, a year further on again and guess who were opponents in the second qualifying round? Yep, you guessed it, Glasgow Rangers again. This time, however, Rangers won 2-0 on aggregate. Progrès have not been the country's most successful club on the European stage in recent years, however, as football in the country has gone from strength to strength since that famous Progrès win. F91 Dudelange have unbelievably reached the group stages of the Europa League in each of last two seasons beating teams from Poland and Romania along the way. Their group stage record, however, reads played 12, won 0, lost 10, drawn 2.

As for that Rangers side who lost to Progrès, their poor form continued into the Scottish Premiership season and when a 95th equaliser saw bottom of the league Kilmarnock secure a point away at Ibrox on 26 October manager Caixinha was sacked. Rangers ended the season in third place behind arch rivals Celtic, and Aberdeen.


UEFA Europa League First Qualifying Round 2019-20

Connah's Quay Nomads 1-2 Kilmarnock
Kilmarnock 0-2 Connah's Quay Nomads
Kilmarnock lost 3-2 on aggregate

A 2-1 win over Welsh minnows Connah's Quay Nomads was hardly earth shattering but it was a win nonetheless and Kilmarnock would surely have no problem defeating the same opposition at home when the second leg came around, right? Wrong. 

Ryan Wignall gave the part-time visitors the lead at Kilmarnock's Rugby Park home but was later sent off. By that point, however, Kilmarnock were already down to ten men themselves and Connah's Quay had gone 2-0 up from the penalty spot. The Welshmen defended deep for much of the game whilst the hosts had plenty of chances to win the tie but in the end, the visitors held on for the 2-0 win. Kilmarnock had gone crashing out to a part-time side who's last European tie had been a 5-1 aggregate defeat against the might of Belarusian side Shaktyor Soligorsk a year earlier.

The Nomads followed up that historic victory over Kilmarnock with a 4-0 aggregate loss to FK Partizan of Belgrade whilst for Kilmarnock, a mediocre season saw Italian manager Angelo Alessio, who had joined in the summer, last only until December and the Ayrshire club finish 8th in the 12 team Scottish Premiership having finished third the previous campaign.


UEFA Champions League Second Qualifying Round 2005-06 

Artmedia Bratislava 5-0 Celtic
Celtic 4-0 Artmedia Bratislava
Celtic lost 5-4 on aggregate

When Celtic lost 5-0 away to Slovak side Artmeida Bratislava in 2005 it was described by the BBC as 'one of the most embarrassing defeats in their history'. Losing to the club from the Slovak capital was hardly the biggest upset in the history of European football but Celtic were nonetheless still favourites to win and the manner of their defeat was stunning. 

In what was new manager Gordon Strachan's first game in charge Celtic were well and truly slaughtered. The hosts lead only 1-0 at the break but four second-half goals seemingly made progression to the next round all but guaranteed for Artmedia. Chris Sutton went off injured early on for Celtic and from that point on they never really settled. Juraj Halenar was the star of the show for Artmedia and after scoring the opening goal he went onto score a hat-trick. He also turned provider at one point grabbing an assist when Blazej Vascak scored. 

With a 5-0 thumping Celtic left Bratislava with their tail between their legs but they did restore some pride in the second leg, however, defeating their opponents 4-0 and coming close to what would have been a remarkable comeback in front of a 50,000 strong crowd at their Celtic Park home. Close but no cigar, however, as they were knocked out by the Slovaks.

Artmedia played out two goalless draws with FK Partizan in the next round and after a goalless period of extra-time time defeated their Serbian opponents on penalties to qualify for the Champions League group stages where they faced Celtic's arch rivals Glasgow Rangers. Three draws plus a victory over FC Porto saw them finish third in the group and qualify for the knockout rounds of the UEFA Cup where they promptly lost to Levski Sofia. Celtic recovered to win the Scottish Premiership finishing 17 points ahead of second placed Heart of Midlothian.


UEFA Cup Qualifying Round 2000-01

Aberdeen 1-2 Bohemians
Bohemians 0-1 Aberdeen
2-2 on aggregate, Aberdeen lost on away goals rule

Having been knocked out by Latvian minnows Skonto Riga in 1994 another horror show six years later saw Dublin based Irish part-timers Bohemians get the better of Aberdeen.

'One of the bleakest results of recent years for Scottish football' was how the BBC match report described the Dons 2-1 first leg loss at home and they were not wrong. Although Aberdeen had various chances and took the lead in the second-half through Robbie Winters things then went completely pear-shaped. A Shawn Maher header after a pinpoint corner soon saw the visitors level before disaster really struck when Bohemians were awarded a last minute penalty and Trevor Molloy was on hand to slot the ball home and secure a massive first leg victory the Irishmen.

Goalless at half-time in the second leg and things were looking grim for the Dons but a 69th minute own goal gave them a way back into the game. Level at 2-2 on aggregate an extra away goal from the first leg for the Dubliners was all that separated the two sides but it was a goal that meant the Dons needed to score again. Problem for Aberdeen was they didn't. Try as they might they couldn't find the net and the match finished 1-1 as the Dons went crashing out again.

Another heroic display in the next round, unfortunately, did not end in victory for Bohemians as they lost 3-2 on aggregate to German side Kaiserslautern. Another disappointing season followed for Aberdeen as they finished 9th in the Premiership but perhaps luckily for them it meant they missed out on a place in Europe for the following campaign and therefore ruling out the possibility of another horrific loss to a part-time side.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Football to the Left of Me Cricket to the Right Here I Am: Stuck in the Middle at Percy Main for the Return of Spectators to Our National Game

The previous day's heavy winds have died down and at times the sun is peeking out of the clouds on what is a fairly warm day. I don't know if these are perfect conditions for football but you could definitely do a lot worse and besides this is a special day where even a heavy downpour would not have dampened the spirits of those involved. Twenty two men are kicking a ball about on what is a perfectly maintained grass surface with for the first time in months spectators in attendance. This is a picturesque setting for it too. You are surrounded by greenery on three sides with trees along one side of the pitch and a large hedge at one end separating the ground from a charming cricket pitch. Today the cricket ground is complete with players in their whites dotted around the pitch partaking in a local league match. Cricket is a majestic sport, I adore cricket, but my other sporting love football is finally back and that is what I have come to see.

Yes, today is the day that spectators are allowed back into football grounds. The powers that be have decided clubs at step three and below in the non-league pyramid are allowed to admit fans again, albeit in massively reduced numbers. A welcome return after many months away when the COVID-19 virus put a stop to large gatherings. 15% of the minimum required capacity for the level you play at is what the clubs are allowed in and this will rise to 30% in September. Why it is not based on individual ground capacities I don't know but there you go. For a step six club like Heaton Stannington, for example, this means 15% of 1000 or 150 to be precise. Today they are away, however, and their hosts Percy Main Amateurs play at what is essentially step seven where seemingly the same numbers are allowed in. I myself am in attendance too as the first weekend of football with spectators back in attendance finally gets underway. 

Steps one to six of non-league football are officially known as the National League System (NLS) whilst anything below step six is classed as grassroots football. From what I understand grassroots football does not come under the jurisdiction of the FA and leagues are run by the various county football associations around the country. Also, unlike in the NLS above, grassroots clubs do not enter FA competitions such as the FA Cup or the FA Vase competition that clubs directly above them also enter. Facilities in grassroots football are often more basic too. Other than the mandatory changing rooms there are usually some sort of refreshments available for spectators and maybe a toilet block but little else. The small seated grandstands mandatory in the leagues above are often non existent and those refreshments served often do not extend to a full clubhouse bar. Many grounds do not have floodlights either and in the winter this can mean kick-offs earlier than the traditional 3 o'clock. Nonetheless, this is the beating heart of football in England. Towns, villages, and neighbourhoods all over this great land host clubs ran by volunteers who tirelessly keep these pillars of the local community afloat for no financial gain with players playing for love and not for money. Whilst I believe players even at step six might in some cases get a small match fee or part-time wage I very much doubt those in the grassroots game do, and as for Percy Main Amateurs well the clue is in the name!

Percy Main Amateurs FC are based in Percy Main which is an area of North Tyneside sat between North Shields and Wallsend. Just a few minutes walk from a nearby Metro rail station I arrive at their Purvis Park ground a good hour before kick-off unsure how many will be in attendance. There is little attention paid to my arrival but eventually, I find someone so I can pay my entrance fee which twitter stated was £2 with higher donations welcome. I doubt they regularly record attendances at this level but once the game is well underway I count 69 spectators. A large number of those are Heaton Stannington followers including my good friend Imran Mohammed who is there to meet me when I arrive. He will be my company for the afternoon. Based in a suburb of Newcastle Upon Tyne, Heaton Stan or 'The Stan' as they are often referred to play in the EBAC Northern League Division Two. Their supporters are known as the Stan Army and usually number between 150-250 at home games. These are more than healthy numbers for the level they play at. Grassroots club Percy Main, meanwhile, play in the Northern Football Alliance which is under the jurisdiction of the Northumberland FA and although they are a name I've been aware of for many many years this is actually my first ever visit to their humble abode. The club has been in existence for over 100 years and as part of a slightly more illustrious past reached the quarter finals of the old FA Amateur Cup in 1930.

Times have been tough for clubs like Percy Main with COVID-19 stopping what little income streams they had and I do wonder how many of these clubs around the country may with little or no fanfare have disbanded due to the current financial strains. Clubs like Percy Main probably generate barely enough income to cover costs at the best of times so what little money they do make today from the serving hatch inside selling tea, coffee, cans of beer, and hot dogs is no doubt greatly received. Also welcome will be any money made from the bookcase full of donated football books sat opposite. It is a £2 per book suggested minimum donation and my haul includes Malcolm MacDonald's autobiography and a book entitled 'Jack and Bobby' about those two famous footballing brothers from up the road in Ashington. I give generously.

Financial worries seemingly stretch as far as to the loss of footballs with one official agitatedly enquiring about an unaccounted for ball when during the warm-ups many end up on the cricket pitch behind. The hedge at the cricket pitch end leaves enough space either side for you to step down into the cricket ground and before kick-off we get to witness a few sixes from one of the batsmen. Later when taking a few photographs I end up back in the cricket ground and bump into work colleague and Whitley Bay FC (step five) supporter Ian. Although I know Ian is a big cricket fan having spotted him at more high profile cricket surroundings in the past I did not realise he was a Percy Main CC follower.

Being able to attend a football match again after so long feels like a big deal but although I am very much enjoying my tranquil surroundings and the experience of a new ground the match itself, a rather low key pre-season friendly, feels pretty underwhelming. The hosts are 3-0 up at the break with Imran and the rest of the Stan Army anything but pleased with the performance of their side. A rather short half-time break with the players sat on the pitch is followed by a much better performance from the Stan in the second-half. The visitors only manage to pull one goal back, however, and the game ends in a 3-1 win for Percy Main Amateurs.

With the match over it's time to head home and I must say that despite all these supposed COVID related restrictions in place today's experience has seemed no different to normal. Social distancing has seemingly not been high on the agenda amongst most spectators today but having said that the lack of care from fans does not really bother me and I am just happy to have been at a football match on this glorious day. Besides, today's scenes have been nowhere near as extreme as, for example, those we have seen around the nation on some of our seafronts in recent times which have, in particular, seemed dangerously crowded.

It is great Grassroots clubs such as Percy Main Amateurs can have supporters in their grounds again. As suggested earlier, without that support they may well before long fold and, after all, these clubs are a massively important part of football in our country. They are important not just to the amateur players who run around the pitch for 90 minutes or the fans that attend but also important to the local communities they serve. Whilst these clubs run senior sides that give an outlet for those adults who never made the grade when it comes to the professional game many of them also offer opportunities to local children by running youth sides for various age groups. Albeit currently there does not seem to be much of a junior set up Percy Main, elsewhere these youth sides offer the chance for children to play sport and get some valuable exercise when they could instead be at home watching television or playing video games. Many of these clubs could also be helping produce the talent of the future too!

With spectators now allowed back, it is vitally important that we continue to support our local grassroots and non-league football clubs as to lose them would be a terrible shame and I for one would certainly miss days like today. This is football in its purest form and long may it continue!

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Semi Finalists Again Twenty Five Years On: Remembering the Previous Time PSG Reached the Penultimate Stage of the Champions League

As the match dragged on last Wednesday night it looked like PSG might have blown it, but when they were suddenly once again involved in late Champions League drama it was this time they who came out on top. After years of Champions League misery, they finally matched a feat they had achieved only once before many moons ago. It had taken 25 years but PSG had once again made it to the semi finals of UEFA’s premier competition. Not since the days of David Ginola, Bernard Lama, and George Weah had PSG made it so far.

In their 1994-95 UEFA Champions League campaign Paris Saint-Germain defeated Barcelona in the quarter finals having won all six of their group games in a group that included German giants FC Bayern München, and an FK Spartak Moskva side that had reached the European Cup semi finals four years earlier, and the semi finals of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup just two seasons prior. The Parisians would end up losing to AC Milan in the semi finals but had, until now, nonetheless still progressed further than they have at any point since including the decade just gone when they’ve had a star studded side that has dominated French football. That dominance has seen the club, including the campaign just gone that ended early due to COVID-19, win the Ligue Un title seven times in the last eight years in a run that has also seen four domestic trebles and two domestic doubles. Success in the Champions League, however, has continuously alluded them.

In recent seasons great things have been expected from PSG in the Champions League, at least by some, but each time they have failed to deliver never progressing beyond the quarter finals. Indeed in the last three seasons prior to this everlasting campaign they’ve exited the competition at the round of 16 each time culminating in Marcus Rashford’s 93rd minute winner for Manchester United last season that saw the Parisian’s crashing out. Those events last year were not nearly as terrifying as two years prior, however, when the club blew a 4-0 first leg lead and found themselves on the wrong end of one of the greatest comebacks in the whole history of UEFA competition when they lost 5-1 to FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou with the hosts scoring in the 91st and 95th minutes. This season, however, PSG have put those memories behind them and have made to the semi finals just like they did back in 1995.

The 1993-94 Ligue Un season saw PSG lose only three league games as they ended it as champions for the second time in their history finishing some nine points ahead of their nearest challengers in a division still awarding two points for a win. Alongside their league triumph, the club also reached a European semi final for the second season running. The previous year it was the UEFA Cup, this time out it was the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. As league champions, however, they would be participating in the UEFA Champions League the following season.

In July 1994, at the end of that title winning campaign, Artur Jorge left his job as PSG manager to move to SL Benfica in his native Portugal. Jorge was replaced by a Frenchman born in Spain who went by the name of Luis Fernández. Fernández had been sought after by chairman Michel Denisot who had wanted to replace Jorge with in his own words a coach who could bring "pleasure and efficiency,"

With Fernández in charge, players Jean-Luc Sassus and Laurent Fournier both departed but otherwise the first team squad changed little from the previous campaign with Oumar Dieng joining from Lille OSC the only arrival of any note and he was hardly a big name signing and did not end up playing a big role at the club. One major change, however, saw Paul Le Guen stripped of the captaincy and Alain Roche being given the armband. Some may remember Le Guen better for his later achievements as a manager where he won three league titles at Olympique Lyonnais before a two-year spell as PSG manager where winning the Coupe de la Ligue came via a disappointing half-season in charge of Scottish side Glasgow Rangers. 

PSG had an attack minded squad that included the likes of forwards George Weah and David Ginola and attacking midfielders Raí and Valdo Filho both vying for a place behind them. Liberian George Weah, in particular, would play a key role in the club's memorable European run during Fernandez' first season in charge. Bernard Lama in goal, meanwhile, would star between the posts for France at the European Championships in England in 1996 and, famed for wearing tracksuit bottoms as opposed to shorts whilst on the pitch, he would in goal time and time again make vital saves for the club.

As champions, PSG were favourites to win the title again in 1994-95, especially with a match fixing scandal involving the previous season's runners up Olympique de Marseille seeing them forcibly relegated. FC Nantes Atlantique, however, dominated the league from the off and losing only once all season finished in first place comfortably ahead of Olympique Lyonnais with PSG back in third. PSG lost both games against Nantes and eleven times in total in what was a rather poor league campaign for the defending champions. In the cup competitions, the club fared much better, however, winning both the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue alongside what was a memorable run in Europe.

Having defeated Hungarian side Vác FC-Samsung in the qualifying round PSG started off their Champions League Group B campaign with a home match against Bundesliga champions FC Bayern München. With Lothar Matthäus as captain, Jean-Pierre Papin up front, and Dietmar Hamann, Thomas Helmer, Samuel Kuffour, and Mehmet Scholl amongst others plus a newly signed Oliver Kahn in goal, this was a very strong German side. It was PSG who came out on top, however. On 41 minutes a downward header from a corner hit the crossbar then fell to Weah who slotted home whilst an exceptional 83rd minute volley from Daniel Bravo doubled the home sides lead. 

A 2-0 victory over Bayern was followed by a 2-1 win away at FK Spartak Moskva, which included a stunning strike from outside the box by Le Guen, before two matches with FK Dynamo Kyiv. A 2-1 away win that saw Vincent Guérin score with a superb long range strike for the visitors was followed by a 1-0 victory at home with Weah scoring in both games - three goals in four group stage matches. Next up was a trip to Munich's Olympiastadion and another match with FC Bayern. PSG won 1-0 in Germany and although their winning goal did not come until the 80th minute boy was it a memorable one. Weah skipped past several defenders before slotting home in a move that made him look unstoppable. 

The final group match of the campaign saw Spartak Moskva visit PSG's Parc des Princes home and Weah was once again star of the show. Another stunning outside the box strike saw Weah put the hosts in front after half an hour before a low Ginola strike from just inside the box doubled their lead 12 minutes later. Seven minutes into the second-half 2-0 became 3-0 when Weah waltzed past several defenders before slotting home like he had done in the last match whilst a missed penalty from Spartak was followed by Raí driving home a fourth before Spartak finally found the net and PSG settled for a 4-1 win to make it six wins out of six in the group phase. 

Next up for PSG in le Ligue des Champions was a quarter-final tie with the previous season's runners up FC Barcelona. The first leg away in the Camp Nou saw PSG lucky to go in at half-time with the scoreline still at 0-0 after the hosts had absolutely dominated proceedings. Visiting the Camp Nou for the first time, it was only an excellent performance from Lama in goal keeping PSG in the match but he could only do so much and Igor Korneev gave the hosts the lead early on in the second-half. That lead lasted only six minutes, however, with a magnificent header from, you guessed it, Mr Weah drawing the sides level. The match ended 1-1 and with a vital away goal PSG were in a great position going into the second leg.

The first half of that second leg in the Parc des Princes ended goalless but José Mari Bakero headed the visitors in front four minutes into the second-half having seen an earlier shot of his excellently saved by Lama. The hosts were struggling and Barça seemed confident of securing a semi-final place but Raí had other ideas and headed home from a corner on 72 minutes to level the tie at 2-2. Then, on 83 minutes the winning goal came. It was a low drive from just outside the box that won the match and the tie and came from Guérin in a PSG shirt. The Parisians had reached a third successive Europe semi-final and a first ever in the Champions League - one which had come after defeating a Johan Cruyff managed side of Stoichkov, Romario, Hagi, Guardiola, and Koeman. A star studded side famously defeated by Paris Saint-Germain. At full-time Frenandez threw himself into the arms of some his players and there were celebrations all round as PSG were two legs away from the Champions League final.

Seven wins and one draw was an excellent European record for the season but next up would be the might of AC Milan, defending champions who themselves had swept aside Barcelona in last years final. This was a Milanese side that included the likes of Demetrio Albertini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, and Christian Panucci in defence, Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly, and Roberto Donadoni in midfield, and Dejan Savićević, and Marco Simone up front. That strikeforce may have lacked the firepower that Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten had shown for the club in recent years gone by but on the other hand, the Milan defence at times seemed unbreakable.

PSG were at home in the first leg and the great and good of France were in attendance at the Parc des Princes for this historic semi final match up including four-time Formula One champion Alain Prost and former French Open tennis champion Yannick Noah. The game was lively with plenty of chances for both sides but both goalkeepers were in great form and neither side could seemingly find the net. PSG dominated much of the game and an excellent long range effort from Ginola hit the crossbar at one point whilst on another occasion, he was unfortunate to be denied a penalty. In the end, though, the hosts were left to rue missed chances when in second-half stoppage time AC Milan caught PSG on the break and an excellent piece of play ended in Croat Zvonimir Boban slotting past Lama. A valuable away goal for the Italians and a mammoth task in store for the Parisians when they travelled to the San Siro for the second leg.

Whilst PSG had dominated the first leg and earned nothing for their troubles, unfortunately for them, AC Milan dominated the second and managed to get rewarded for their dominance with two goals from Dejan Savićević. Milan broke forward on 21 minutes in a move that ended with the Serb coolly slotting home whilst a similar effort in the second-half saw him double his sides lead. Milan created various other chances including an Albertini free-kick early on in the game that just sailed over. PSG, however, offered little.

2-0 was the final scoreline and one which saw AC Milan through to their second successive Champions League final, but one which they would ultimately lose to AFC Ajax of Amsterdam. PSG, on the other hand, were going home empty handed. A rather impressive European campaign that had seen Paris Saint-Germain win all six of their group games, twice defeating Bavarian giants FC Bayern München in the process, and knock out the previous seasons runners up FC Barcelona in the quarter finals was still nonetheless something to be proud of even if it had ended in a 3-0 semi final defeat.

The following season PSG won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup defeating SK Rapid Wien in the final to become only the second French side to win a European trophy and indeed their European record between 1992-93 and 1996-97 spread over all three competitions would end up reading semi final, semi final, semi final, winner, runner up. Those 96-97 runners up medals also came in the Cup Winners' Cup and after defeat to FC Barcelona, the side they had beaten in the Champions League two years earlier.

Luis Fernandez lasted two seasons at the Parc des Prince before becoming manager of Athletic Bilbao. Fernandez returned to PSG for a three season spell in charge starting in 2000 but did not manage a league championship during either period. Indeed, PSG would not get their hands on the Ligue Un trophy again until 2013 as a club transformed by Qatari billions. Star of that 1994-95 Champions League campaign and top scorer in that season's competition, George Weah left almost as soon as it was over and joined PSG's conquerors AC Milan. In Milan, he made 114 appearances for the Rossoneri some 18 more than he had managed in a PSG shirt. In 1996 he would win the Balon D'or, awarded each year to the player considered best in the world, whilst later he would become president of his home country Liberia. David Ginola also left around the same time and would soon be a Premier League runner up with Kevin Keegan's entertainers at Newcastle United before later joining Tottenham Hotspur and also becoming the face of L'Oreal shampoo in the UK. Most of the rest of PSG's squad would last a few more season's at the club before sides decline set in for the years that preceded a Qatari takeover that has transformed the club into a supposed European superpower.

Despite all that domestic success in recent times, Paris Saint-Germain have of course struggled in the knockout rounds Champions League. But the club have now reached the semi finals once again and will on Tuesday face RB Leipzig as favourites in a tie that due to COVID-19 is being played as a one-off match as we see the 2019-20 Champions League come to a conclusion in Lisbon. Might they go one better this time and make it to the final? We shall soon find out.

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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