Tuesday 30 April 2019

FC Twente Come Roaring Back

Last season I visited the splendid city of Enschede in the Netherlands as part of a short break in the country, and as pre planned I ended up at De Grolsch Veste the home of FC Twente (read about my trip here). It was a mild November evening and that night Twente absolutely dominated possession with the opposition Excelsior barely getting near the ball, yet it was Excelsior who took the three points running out 3-1 winners. At that point Twente only had 9 points on the board, I thought nothing of it really and to be honest their ultimate demise and eventual relegation come the end of that campaign kind of passed me by. So when Twente started the current campaign in the second tier it came as a bit of a shock, but having finished the previous season with only 24 points and just five wins to their name there they were, relegated to the second tier Eerste Divisie. Amongst all this however there was actually more than meets the eye.

Aside from Steve McClaren's dodgy Dutch accent and that Eredivisie title in 2010, FC Twente is a club who has never gotten much attention over here in Britain. The Enschede based club hail from the home of the Grolsch brewery, and are named after the region in which the town sits. In a shape similar to that of Celtic Park, Glasgow, Twente's home stadium lies on the edge of the town but is only short train journey from Enschede's centre and it's smart looking car free streets. At this out of town venue, however, Twente's recent tale has been one mostly of severe financial problems, trouble with the footballing authorities, and of course that eventual relegation. But the team are fighting back and have just won the Eerste Divisie title to secure promotion back to the top flight with three games to spare in what has been an impressive first season back in the second tier since the 1980's.

For Twente, last season's relegation was the culmination of several years of problems on and off the field. The club who nearly went bankrupt in 2003 have in recent years again found themselves in massive financial problems after many years of mis-spending. In April 2015 club President Joop Munsterman left the club over allegations of financial mismanagement and this came a month after the Dutch football association (KVNB) had deducted the club 3 points when they failed to meet a deadline they had been given to get their financial affairs in order and sort out their huge debt. 

In December of 2015, the club were in further trouble with the KVNB. Twente's failure to reveal full details of a player third-party ownership contract with Malta-based Doyen Sports Investments saw them banned them from qualifying for European competitions for three years and fined €45,250 by the Dutch FA. Doyen had agreed to put €5m into the club in return for a percentage of the transfer fees of seven players, but leaked documents showed that the deal gave Doyen considerable say over Twente’s transfer policy, something they had previously denied. This also broke KVNB rules regarding third party involvement. 

Things almost got abundantly worse still for the club in 2016 when the KNVB declared it's intent to relegate FC Twente to the Eerste Divisie for "repeatedly and deliberately misleading" both them and the league's clubs about their finances. This, however, was subject to appeal, an appeal which Twente won to give them a huge reprieve. On the pitch, things weren't exactly great either, but with the club finishing 11 points above the relegation zone in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons they could have definitely been worse. The 2017-18 season, however, was when their problems off the pitch really caught up with them and affected performances on it.

Twente lost their first four games of the 2017-18 season, and though despite winning two of their next four, fans were then rocked by the shock departure of Rene Hake who was sacked by technical director Jan van Halst that October. His replacement was Gertjan Verbeek who lost 5 of his first 6 games in charge of the club. Verbeek did not last the full season, the club won only one game when he was in charge whilst it was rumoured that many players did not have confidence in him, and there was also clear fan unrest. Verbeek was sacked after just 149 days in charge. Twente were all but down and although they beat PEC Zwolle in April, they lost their following game 5-0 at Vitesse Arnhem which saw the club relegated with one game to spare, finishing rock bottom. FC Twente had spent 34 years straight in the Eredivisie, but one torturous season of despair in which they won only 5 league games and they were suddenly looking at the prospect of a stint in the second tier.

After relegation, debt restructuring was the order of the day, but as the clubs Eerste Divisie campaign got underway they were still €42m in debt and during that pre season there had been talk of bankruptcy. A court ruling that summer demanded that they pay €6.3m to agent Mattias Bunge over the transfer of Jesús Corona, whilst the club had asked for a loan from the local authority, even though they already owed them €17m from earlier loans.

Now in the centre of Enschede stand two rather impressive churches, one Catholic, one Protestant, and in a once devout country, this is a scene you'll find in the heart of many Dutch towns. Considering Twente's troubles one would like to think that both congregations were praying for a more stable future down at De Grolsch Veste, and if indeed the flock did partake in a few Hail Mary's, then as we entered 2019 it looked as if their prayers might actually be answered. 

In February of this year new investment from sponsors raised €14m whilst in March ABN AMRO bank wrote off €4.5m of a €5.5m loan the club had previously taken out. April then saw even more good news as the city council announced it would write off €5m of the €17m debt the club was still owing them and would not charge interest on the rest. These proposals were voted through 23 to 16 in favour and came with the stipulation that the club would continue to invest €400,000 in their women's team, a figure they had previously intended to cut by half.

Whilst FC Twente were financially sorting themselves out off the pitch, on it, the team were also beginning to get back on their feet. Under the supervision of head coach Marino Pusic, the club won 6 of it's opening 10 Eerste Divisie games, and although they suffered three league defeats in November, 10 straight wins followed as the club surged to the top of the table. Although their winning run came to an end with a 1-1 draw away at Roda JC, they ended up taking 43 points from a possible 45 before eventually suffering defeat at the hands of RKC Waalwijk and then losing to FC Dordrecht. A win against Telstar followed and then with three games to spare, a 0-0 draw at home to Jong AZ in front of a sell out crowd of just over 30,000 combined with defeat for second placed Sparta Rotterdam saw Twente crowned champions and secure the only automatic promotion spot back to the Eredivisie.

For Twente supporters, it's been a refreshing season of hope and fulfilment, and despite having been demoted to the second tier, their average home attendance of about 26,000 is actually slightly higher than last seasons, and nearly treble what the divisions next best supported team have been getting. On all fronts, it's definitely been a successful season and no doubt those loyal fans turning up week in week out will have enjoyed the winning football on the pitch. Spanish winger Aitor and the front two of Tom Boere and Jari Oosterwijk have scored 34 goals between them, but crucially at the other end, they've conceded fewer goals than anyone else in the division with an impressive centre back pairing of 24-year-old local lad Peet Bijen and Uruguayan Cristian González aged 22. These are two inexperienced players who have really come to life in the second tier.

With a financial package now in place that should secure the clubs future, Twente returns to the Eredivisie in much better health than they left it, and the supporters who regularly turn up at what is effectively the town's third church are now a lot more optimistic about the years to come. 

This peice was published on Pundit Feed and can be read here.

Friday 19 April 2019

Fort William - The Team That Won't Give Up!

There is an interesting story coming out of the Highlands of Scotland right now, and that is the current plight of Highland League club Fort William FC. With two games remaining of their current league campaign the team find themselves on -7 points. That’s right minus 7! You did not misread and I did not mistype, even if they win their final two league matches they will still end the season on -1 point.

Situated on the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe and close to the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis, is the delightful town of Fort William. The earliest recorded settlement in the area is a Cromwellian wooden fort built in 1654 and from those humble beginnings, Fort William developed into a town of just over 10,000 inhabitants, which is popular with tourists and boasts a football team rather famous for losing. On the outskirts of the town just off the main A82 road with the hills of Ben Nevis towering over it is Claggan Park the home ground of Fort William Football Club and because of its mountainside backdrop, it is possibly one of the most picturesque grounds in Britain. 

Now Fort William as you can guess aren't exactly worldbeaters, last season they failed to win a single game and finished the season with only 5 points, whilst things did not start any better for the club this current campaign when the part-timers who usually play in front crowds of comfortably less than 100 lost their opening 5 games conceding 48 goals in the process. After such a dreadful start Fort William no doubt thought things could not get any worse, but sadly for them oh yes they could! The Fort as they are nicknamed suddenly found themselves deducted 9 points and fined £150 when the league decided they had fielded an ineligible player on three separate occasions. Five games in and they were on minus 9 points. Since then it's been a nothing but disastrous season for Fort William, yet for them, this torturous season is nothing new, this is just one of many.

Luckily for Fort William due to the way the Scottish league system is structured, there isn't any relegation from the Highland League, otherwise, the club would have departed the division through the trap door a long long time ago. Having been formed in 1974 they weren't accepted into the Highland League until 1985 having just won the North Caledonian League the previous season. In their first season, they finished a respectable 13th and although yes there has also been finishes as high as 11th on occasion, the club has finished bottom of the league in 14 of the last 20 seasons, losing games with scorelines such as 13-0, 12-0, and 11-1. Some call them Britain's worst team and to be fair you can see why.

The Highland League is a league of the haves and the have nots, and Fort William are without a doubt currently the worst of the have nots. As I write, without a win to their name they have only two draws on the board for the season, something that takes them to -7 points. They have actually scored 19 goals, as many as Huddersfield Town in the English Premier League, but Huddersfield have only conceded 67 whereas Fort William have let 234 slip through, and having played 32 games that's 7.3125 goals on average conceded per game. As it stands the Fort have lost every one of their last 15 games, all by at least a four goal margin, with the opposition five times reaching double figures. A 3-3 draw at home to Clachnacuddin in November was followed by a 13-0 defeat at Fraserburgh whilst in their first game of 2019 was a 14-1 defeat at Fortmartine United, and whilst most of their heaviest defeats have come away from home, in February Brora Rangers went to Claggan Park and scored 11 against them without reply. In February and March, there was also a 12-1 hammering at Turriff United and an 11-0 thrashing away at Keith, whilst earlier in the season, there were also defeats of 11-1 (twice), 11-0, and two 10-0 scorelines. It really has been a difficult time for Fort William.

Last season, however, was slightly more successful, the club only conceded 184 goals and scored as many as 31, as mentioned earlier finishing the season on 5 points, all earned from draws. Only managing draws, however, means the club have not won a match in over two years. It has not been all horrendous in recent times mind. Go back another season further and the club actually scraped into double figures points wise (11) whilst their most memorable season since the turn of the century came in the 2014-15 campaign when they finished as high as 13th with an impressive 27 points. They even managed to win four in a row at one point, and whereas The Fort are used to heavy defeats themselves, that season they actually managed to inflict some pain on others with three of their 8 wins coming by a 4-0 scoreline. 

For sure in some seasons they may occasionally win a few games, but more often than not it's lose, lose, lose, meaning a hard life for The Fort who at the end of last season were considering their future. There was talk of dropping out of the Highland League and turning amateur, but for now they are still playing in the division. The town itself is rather remote with a small population, and isolated from the rest of the league the club are the only Highland League side based in the west of the country meaning sometimes they have to travel for as many as five hours just to get to an away game. It's not just away games that involve long journies either, with members of their squad based far and wide across the region some players have to actually travel long distance to get to home games too. Another large problem is the local game of Shinty. Shinty is a sport unique to Scotland and is rather popular in the area with three major clubs snapping up lots of young sporting talent that might have otherwise ended up at their local football club. Besides, on the rare occasions that Fort William does produce any young talent of note, they are usually lured to larger clubs elsewhere.

Whilst Fort William's squad has usually consisted of substandard, second rate, but nonetheless eager and committed part-timers, there is one player of note who used to turn out for The Fort. Centre Forward John McGinlay went on to have a successful career in England where among other clubs he made 192 appearances for Bolton Wanderers including a stint in the Premier League,  scoring 101 goals in the process. But the Scotsman from Inverness actually started his career at Fort William. As a 16-year McGinlay made a substitute appearance for the club in a match against Elgin City before going on to score 61 goals in 92 games for Fort William before ending up at Bolton via a stint in New Zealand amongst other places. No doubt The Fort would love another player like McGinlay on their books but McGinlay it seems was a one off and the team has since struggled on with its imperfect gang.

Another more pleasant topic when it comes to Fort William is the Scottish Cup, or at least one match in particular. Back in January 1986 when the club were Highland League new boys they were given a plum home tie with Scottish Football League side Stirling Albion in the second round. Over 1500 spectators crammed into Claggan Park to witness a heroic performance from the home side in a match that ended with a 0-0 draw. Sadly a week later the replay was not so pleasant and they lost 6-0 away at Stirling's old Annfield Stadium. Nevermind.

As their plight in recent time suggests, such highlights and brief glimpses of promise as those listed above are an absolute rarity and with the club far more renowned for their consistent failures. Having said that, this is something that sometimes gives them welcome exposure. Their points deductions and those two years and counting wait for a win have given them written press coverage they would not have otherwise gotten, whilst Sky Sports recently did a feature on the club for their Soccer Saturday programme. Fort William have also recently themselves produced their own short documentary for social media highlighting their plight.

No doubt some people will laugh at Fort William Football Club and the abject failure that is regularly seen on the pitch, but hopefully, like me most will be impressed by their dogged determination and the fact that they never give up. Defeat after defeat yet they still carry on, all for the love of the beautiful game, and the love of Fort William. Despite the despair this is in many ways a heartwarming story, and win, lose, or draw, long may it continue. 

PS: One final point of interest, Fort William are not the only team to have finished a season on minus points. Maccabi Umm al-Fahm finished bottom of Israel's second tier Liga Leumit in the 2013-14 season with -4 points to there name. Having been deducted 5 points for entering administration they managed to lose all of their matches during that campaign bar one solitary draw. If there are further examples of teams finishing a season with minus points I have been unable to find them.

An updated version of this article has been published on PunditFeed and can be viewed here.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Enjoying The Craik

Getting to Morpeth's Craik Park without a car is, to be honest, a little awkward, albeit rather scenic. Disembarking at the town's train station or slightly closer at the nearest bus stop both involve walking down a long tree-lined path that runs through the local golf club and then through some woods and finally walking across muddy playing fields, just  to get to a back entrance you could almost miss amongst a mass of tall trees. The alternative is heading for the main entrance and car park which involves walking down a winding country road that has no footpath alongside it, making unsuitable for those arriving on foot. Slightly easier to get to however is St. Jame's Park. The home of Newcastle United is right in the heart of Newcastle city centre, and as we enter the business end of the season, what is a massive week for Morpeth Town AFC starts at this illustrious Premier League stadium.

It's mid April and four days before Morpeth entertain Pontefract Colliers in a game that could see the Northumberland based club crowned Evo Stick League Division One East champions and secure a second successive promotion, they face Northern League Division One side North Shields in the final of the Northumberland Senior Cup.

Nicknamed the Highwaymen, in 2011 Morpeth Town finished bottom of Division Two of the Northern League playing in front of fewer than 30 fans for some games, that is the 10th tier of English football and two divisions below the level at which they currently play. Since then they have been through an impressive turnaround, are on the verge of a third promotion in the years since, and during that period have also won the FA Vase at Wembley. This is a club on the up, and with a league and cup double in their sights, they could soon be flying higher than ever before.

St James' Park takes pride of place amongst the Newcastle skyline and is easy to spot when driving into the city. In a football mad town, this is their cathedral and fans from all over the Tyneside area and beyond flock to this 52,000 all seater fortress to watch their beloved Newcastle United. The ground has hosted many other major events over the years and one regular feature at the venue is the Northerland Senior Cup final every year. Last season Morpeth Town lost to Newcastle United's u23 side in the final and this year they return hoping not to go away empty handed again. Their opponents North Shields meanwhile were here two seasons earlier when they beat Blyth Spartans 4-3 in what was a cracking final.

So to St James' Park. I walk past the famous Strawberry pub opposite the ground then turn right towards the East Stand where plenty of fans mingling about outside when I arrive on cup final night. Only the East Stand is open tonight since as you'd expect they aren't expecting anywhere near a full house for two local non league sides, but the loyal fans from both sides that do turn up are in full voice at the turnstiles, particularly the North Shields lot who are rather boisterous. Calling themselves the North Shields Ultras, for the clubs home games at the Darren Persson Stadium they usually stand on a grassy bank for which they have christened the Curva Nord. There is also a large group of Morpeth fans in attendance amongst the 2247 strong crowd, and not wanting to be outdone soon come to life chanting themselves.

Inside the ground, I find a decent vantage point and stare at the emptiness of large parts of this imposing stadium, particularly the giant Milburn and Leazes stands which are usually jam pack full of black and whites. As the game gets underway Morpeth start the brighter, but North Shields, however, do improve as the half goes on and a draw at half-time would have been a fair result. A 25yd effort from Sam Hodgson sees the North Shields 'keeper forced to make a save on 19 minutes, whilst not long after at the other end, Gary Day has a shot deflected over the bar. But just before half-time arrives Liam Henderson heads Morpeth in front, Joe Walton then has a tame effort saved but Morpeth lead 1-0 at the break.
In the second half, a Walton header is superbly tipped onto the bar and the rebound is headed over by Chris Reid. Liam Henderson also heads wide and not grabbing a second costs Morpeth dearly when a Sean McRoberts cross headed home by Craig Spooner late on to force extra time, a goal that brings the North Shields Ultras back to life with wild scenes.

In extra time, Jordan Fry has a shot deflected wide for Morpeth whilst Carson sees a shot of his blocked by the 'keeper. Morpeth then retake the lead when a Stephen Forster cross is nodded into the path of Jack Foalle by Walton and Foalle volleys home at the Leazes End, cue rapturous celebrations from the Morpeth followers with North Shields supporters heading for the exits. 2-1 Morpeth is the final score and Morpeth have won the cup, but can they add words such as 'league' and 'double'? It's off to Craik Park on the following Saturday for me to find out.

Craik Park is a hive of activity when I arrive about an hour before kick-off, at least the clubhouse is anyway. With the sound of probably the loudest loudspeakers I've ever come across in non league football blasting out various tunes, I walk around the ground in peace taking photographs before entering the clubhouse for a pint and finding it absolutely rammed.
Eventually, the supporters filter towards the pitch in time for kick off, all 950 of them, a bumper crowd for a big day. The original main stand on one side of the pitch sits on the same side as a newer temporary looking covered stand, whilst the other side of the pitch hosts a second temporary stand, and there is covered terracing at one end.  Surrounded by trees on three sides the setting is rather picturesque, although the ground itself feels a little disjointed with the mismatch of stands.

Morpeth know a victory over their second placed rivals would secure the title but defeat will close the gap to just four points, and disaster strikes after just three minutes when Michael Dunn fires the visitors into the lead.

After the shock of going behind Morpeth begin to dominate, Foalle has an effort cleared off the line whilst Michael Turner heads over before the equaliser comes on 38 minutes courtesy of Sean Taylor who volleys home from a Walton cross. Both sides have further chances but it's 1-1 at the break.

Morpeth aren't going to settle for a draw however and Walton volleys through a crowd of bodies and into the net on the hour mark to give the home side the lead. Two minutes later Taylor heads over and then 2-1 becomes 3-1 on 75 minutes. Carson splits the defence in two with a brilliant ball before Foalle runs clear of Spencer Clarke and rounds the keeper to slot home.

Morpeth hold on for the win and there are wild celebrations at the final whistle. The fans are partying, the players are celebrating, Morpeth Town are champions, the Northumberland side and their pleasant stadium set amongst a backdrop of beautiful towering trees are heading for the Evo-Stick Premier Division.
The bar is doing a roaring trade after the game as the locals celebrate the clubs fantastic achievement. I don't hang around myself however, it's a retreat back across the playing fields for me as I head towards the bus stop. Who knows maybe the next bus will be an open top one, after all Morpeth have achieved it would certainly be deserved!

This piece was featured in issue 48 of Football Weekends magazine, September 2019

Tuesday 16 April 2019

The Dramatic Fall of Paderborn and How They Are Rising Again

"To have a comeback you have to have setback", those are words once echoed by Mr. T, and this seems to ring true with SC Paderborn 07 who are making a very impressive comeback after several years of nothing but setbacks. The small time club worked hard to eventually gain a seat at the top table of German football for the first time in their history in 2014, but from there it all went wrong. Paderborn did not dine at the top for very long, and when they were booted out they fell so far back that within a couple of seasons but for the grace of God they would have ended up playing regional football. Almost as quickly as they fell, however, has been their rapid rise back, and heading into the last 5 games the current season they find themselves just 4 points off an automatic promotion place that would take them back to the Bundesliga, Germany's top tier.

Based in the town of the same name that sits at the source of the River Pader, SC Paderborn were formed in 1985 after a merger between 3 local sides and first reached the second tier of German football in 2005. Paderborn became regulars in the second division and in 2013/14 went on to make history under coach André Breitenreiter. A second placed finish that season saw Paderborn enter the big time, for the first time in their history they had been promoted to the Bundesliga.

Playing at their compact, modest but modern Benteler-Arena, Paderborn were a team that had a very small budget to go with their rather small stadium and weren't expected to hang around in the top flight for very long. Paderborn looked like the might prove the doubters wrong, however, as they started their league campaign with a bang, remaining unbeaten after four games and finding themselves top of the Bundesliga. Things then calmed down a bit but a fairly successful first half of the season saw the club enter the winter break in 10th position.

The second half of the season, however, saw Paderborn drop right down the table. Paderborn were losing games whilst the teams below them slowly began to pick up points and overtake them. After a 6-0 defeat at home to FC Bayern in February, the threat of relegation was becoming deadly serious. Things were now beginning to turn out how people had expected before the season started. More defeats followed and in March Paderborn finally entered the bottom three where come the end of the season they would still be, ending the season in last place. But that was just the beginning...

After relegation Breitenreiter moved on to Schalke 04 and Paderborn struggled, with interim boss Markus Gellhaus lasting only till October after the club took just 10 points from their opening 11 matches. This dreadful start meant that when in a surprise appointment pundit Steffen Effenberg left the tv studio and took over at the club they were already sliding towards another relegation. Effenburg described himself as the 'New One', but there wasn't really anything new about his Paderborn team as the dismal results continued and he did not last the season. Academy coach Rene Müller took charge for the final ten games but could not stop the unthinkable and the club finished rock bottom for the second season running.

With so many players having jumped ship, Paderborn entered the third tier 3. Liga with a squad barely recognisable from the side that had played in the Bundesliga only two seasons earlier. This new unsettled side did not however fair any better than the teams of the two previous campaigns and after a disastrous start to the season Müller was eventually sacked in November when Paderborn lost 6-0 to Sportfreunde Lotte, a team playing in the third tier for the first ever season in their history. Müller's replacement was out the door by Easter and Paderborn went into their final game of the season with relegation a real threat. Drawing 0-0 with VFL Osnabruck they thought they were safe, but an 84th minute goal for Werder Bremen II in their match with Aalen saw Bremen II finish a point ahead of Paderborn who dropped to 18th (out of 20) and took the final relegation spot.

Having played in the Bundesliga just two seasons previously, Paderborn would be playing next season in the West Division of the semi professional fourth tier Regionalliga, a fall from grace of mammoth proportions. At least that's what was supposed to happen, but 1860 Munich, however, had other ideas...

Having just been relegated from the 2. Bundesliga, 1860 Munich were due to financial problems not able to obtain a licence to play in the 3.Liga for the following season (basically their owner wouldn't stump up the fee for a licence). Not being able to play in the 3. Liga meant Munich's second club would have to settle for a place in the Regionalliga and Paderborn would be given a reprieve and stay in the 3. Liga at 1860 Munich's expense. No club had ever been relegated from the Bundesliga to the Regionalliga in three consecutive seasons and Paderborn's men in black and blue were set to be the first, but thanks to a serious stroke of luck a third successive relegation would not be coming to the mouth of the Pader.

Having taken charge late on in the season and tried his best to save Paderborn from relegation, Steffen Baumgart remained in charge for the following season of 2017/18 that followed, and after drawing their opening match the club then won 7 in a row as they stormed to the top of the table. Paderborn remained top for much of the season before eventually finishing in second. The previous season they should have by rights been relegated for a third successive season, but with circumstances elsewhere working in their favour they stayed up and then produced the most remarkable of turnarounds to secure promotion back the 2. Bundesliga. It really was a script you couldn't write.

During the first half of the current 2018/19 season it looked like too many draws might stop Paderborn from progressing beyond a mid table finish during their first season back in the second tier, but winning their final two games before the winter break and 5 out of their first 6 when the league restarted put them firmly in title contention. Mixed results in recent weeks means they are as mentioned four points off an automatic promotion spot and one off the promotion/relegation play-off birth, but with 5 games still to play anything is possible and who's to say they can't make it back to the Bundesliga for next season and complete a stunning rise as dramatic as their unbelievable fall?

As featured in Pundit Feed: https://punditfeed.com/quick-reads/fall-and-rebirth-sc-paderborn-07/