Friday 27 September 2019

Six Clubs You Probably Never Realised Have Won a European Trophy

Dinamo Tbilisi

Nowadays sometimes champions in a low quality Georgian league whilst unnoticed on the European stage, Dinamo Tbilisi were once upon a time one of the top sides in the Soviet Union where they were twice league champions and for a while a big name in Europe. In 1981 they won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup defeating amongst others West Ham United and Feyenoord en route to the final.  

The 81 final was held at the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf where Tbilisi faced Carl Zeiss Jena in what was only the second time two sides from behind the Iron Curtain had met in a UEFA final. With travel at the time severely restricted for citizens of most Eastern European countries, it's unsurprising that only 4,750 turned up to watch Tbilisid come from behind to win 2-1.

Eintracht Frankfurt

Often a regular in the Bundesliga, Eintracht Frankfurt have, however, only once been crowned German champions. They are not exactly the biggest name in German football, and certainly not regulars in European competition. Frankfurt were, however, runners up in the European Cup in 1959 and twenty years later ended up winning the UEFA Cup. 

Unbelievably that year all four semi finalists were from West Germany. Frankfurt lost 2-0 to Bayern München in the first leg of their semi final but won the second leg by the same scoreline and progressed with a 5-1 win after extra-time.

In the final their opponents were Borussia Mönchengladbach who had beaten VfB Stuttgart in the other semi. In an era when the UEFA Cup was still called the UEFA Cup the final was in those days played over two legs and although Frankfurt lost the first leg away from home 3-2, a 1-0 win in the second leg saw them crowned UEFA Cup champions thanks to the away goals rule.

KV Mechelen

KV who? I'm sure you've heard of some Belgian football teams, Club Brugge and Anderlecht spring to mind, but KV Mechelen? Possibly not. After Mechelen won the Belgian Cup for the very first time in their history in 1987 the club qualified for the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and competed in European competition for also the very first time.

Based in a small town between Antwerp and Brussels no one expected Mechelen's European adventure to last long. Wins over Dinamo București, St MIrren, Dinamo MInsk, and Atalanta, however, saw Mechelen reach the final where they defeated favourites Ajax by one goal to nil in what is arguably the biggest upset in UEFA finals history.

1. FC Magdeburg

Nowadays a third tier German side few people outside of that country are probably aware of, 1. FC Magdeburg were once upon a time a top name in the former communist state of East Germany. But with East Germany not exactly a footballing power like their Western counterparts were, no East German side had won a European Trophy until Magdeburg won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1974. 

A 3-2 aggregate semi final victory over Sporting Clube de Portugal saw Magdeburg face AC Milan in the final at Rotterdam's De Kuip stadium. Travel restrictions imposed by the East German state, and Milan supporters seeing the result as a foregone conclusion, meant there were as little as just under 6,500 spectators in attendance to see goals in the 42nd and 74th minutes give the East Germans a shock victory that very few would have predicted.

Real Zaragoza

Real Zaragoza are not exactly the biggest of names in Spanish football and a sole runners up finish in 1974-75 is their best La Liga finish to date. With only 18 European campaigns to their same since they first entered the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1962, they are not exactly big names on the European stage either. They are however six times Copa del Rey winners and in 1995 also won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. 

Wins over Feyenoord and Chelsea amongst others saw Zaragoza reach their first European final where they beat Arsenal 2-1 after extra-time.

ŠK Slovan Bratislava

Although regulars in European competition, Slovan Bratislava rarely get beyond the early rounds, but in 1968-69 they beat FK Bor, FC Porto, Torino, and Dunfermline Athletic to reach the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final.

Slovan, based in the second city of what was then Czechoslovakia recorded a surprise 3-2 victory over FC Barcelona in the final to become the first and only ever team from Czechoslovakia or modern day Czech Republic and Slovakia to win a European trophy. 

Two second round European Cup appearances and in more recent times three Europa League Group Stage eliminations is the best they've managed on the European stage since.

Sunday 15 September 2019

Overshadowed by Red Bull: The Other Two Leipzig Clubs, a History Largely Forgotten and a Present Mostly Unnoticed

The old main stand at 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig's Bruno-Plache Stadion home is a relic from a bygone era and whilst the terracing around the ground is no doubt functional it too would not look out of place in a black and white photograph. Similar sentiments could easily be aired if you visited cross town rivals BSG Chemie Leipzig at their Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark home. However, this is of course not the Leipzig your average modern day football fan has come to know. But whilst Bundesliga high flyers RasenBallsport Leipzig are a fairly new addition to German football currently playing in the lower echelons of German football Lokomtoive and Chemie can trace their roots back to the days of the Berlin wall and the communist state in the East.

Currently overshadowed by their new city neighbours, since reunification both Lok and Chemie have struggled facing bankruptcy and reformation with a sole Bundesliga season between them. But once upon a time, both clubs were big name successful sides often competing against the greatest names in not just East Germany but across Europe. In 1987 Lok themselves even appeared in a European final. However, theirs is a history largely forgotten and a present mostly unnoticed.

The RasenBallsport Leipzig story is one by now well known. The Red Bull Empire looking to invest in German football bought a fifth tier side based just outside Leipzig in 2009, renamed and completely rebranded them, moved them into the city's main stadium rebuilt for the 2006 World Cup and took them to the top flight Bundesliga. With football struggling in the city and a fantastic arena going largely unused Red Bull tapped into the city's potential and now have a team regularly playing in front of 40,000 spectators. The club's full name of RasenBallsport Leipzig, often shortened to RB Leipzig (RB for Red Bull), came about because of rules stating German clubs can not change their name for sponsorship reasons meaning Red Bull Leipzig was out of the question. RasenBallsport translates as 'Lawn Ball Sports'.

The Red Bull club, however, is hated by many football supporters across the country who dislike the way they have bought success and the fact that they are run by a large corporation and have very little in the way of fan membership, something very uncommon in German football.

Just as English football did not start in 1992 with the formation of the Premier League, football in Leipzig did not start with Red Bull in 2009. 'Lok' can trace their roots back to VfB Leipzig a club formed in 1893 but were dissolved after the war. In the early years of German football, VfB were one of the country's top sides and were, in fact, the country's first ever football champions in 1903. The club was reformed as SG Probstheida and after several dissolutions and mergers forced upon them by the East German state became 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig in 1966. Chemie were also able to trace their history back to several previous clubs whilst various similar mergers ended with BSG Chemie Leipzig being formed in 1950, and although the club were dissolved by the state a few years later they reformed in 1963. Along with Lok, Chemie continued in that latest guise until the wall came down without any further meddling as both clubs became prominent forces in East German football.

The story of football in Leipzig during the early years after the war with varying teams, name changes, mergers, and clubs being dissolved, is a little confusing and in truth maybe not quite as simple as I have made out. I wouldn't want to go into too much detail, however, and bore the reader, but it's worth noting that one derby match between two Leipzig sides in 1956 saw over 100,000 spectators turn up to watch at the old Zentralstadion, still today the highest ever attendance for a match in the whole of Germany.

With clubs in East Germany generally run by the state, Lok were overseen by the state owned railways company. The club never won the top tier DDR-Oberliga but were three times runners up and four times won the East German Cup. Lok regularly competed in European competitions and in 1973-74 reached the semi finals of the UEFA Cup losing 4-1 on aggregate to Tottenham Hotspur whilst in 1986-87 they went one better...

In 1986-87 Lok made it to the final of the UEFA Cup Winner's Cup. Having struggled to a 3-1 aggregate victory over Glentoran of Northern Ireland in round one, Austria's Rapid Wien were then defeated 3-2 on aggregate with a 2-1 home win after extra time in the second leg. A 2-0 aggregate victory over Swiss side Sion in the Quarter Finals set up a semi final tie with Bordeaux from France.

It was a tale of two 1-0's for Bordeaux and Lok, the first leg in France saw a 1-0 win for visitors Lok who then lost the second leg at home by the same scoreline to force extra-time and penalties. That semi final second leg was played at Leipzig's Zentralstadion, a venue much larger than Lok's usual home. The stadium since replaced by the World Cup venue where RB Leipzig currently play was rocking with almost 75,000 in attendance as the city turned out in force to support Lok's quest for European glory. A third minute goal put the visitors ahead and a further 87 minutes of regular time followed by 30 minutes of extra-time saw no further goals and so the 1-1 aggregate scoreline. The dreaded penalty shoot out would have to be used to determine who would make the final. Both teams took seven penalties and both missed their second, Lok scored all of their other six whilst Bordeaux 6-5 down saw their seventh penalty saved by goalkeeper Rene Müller. Lokomotive Leipzig were heading for the final where they would face Ajax of Amsterdam. The scenes inside the stadium were jubilant and the noise was deafening. The city of Leipzig had a team in a European final.
Played at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, the 1987 Cup Winner's Cup final was won by a single goal scored by Marco Van Basten for Ajax after just twenty minutes. Managed by Dutch legend Johan Cryuff the Ajax squad also featured Frank Rijkaard and a young Dennis Bergkamp but despite losing the match Lok gave a good account of themselves.

On the other side of town, Chemie Leipzig, ran by the local chemical plant, were twice DDR Oberliga champions winning the title in 1951 and 1964 whilst in 1966 they also won the East German Cup. Their 1951 title win came via a play-off with Turbine Erfurt after the sides finished the season level on points whilst in 1964 the regime had allocated the city's best players to Lok only to see a seeingly weaker Chemie side beat them and everyone else to the title. Although a top flight regular in the 1970s and 1980s the club failed to win any further trophies. Chemie did appear in the European Cup in 1964-65 which is something Lok never managed but they lost in the first round and unlike their crosstown neighbours were never really regulars in European competition. However, whilst Lok were generally seen as the more dominant force of the two as the decades went on, they could not compete with the success of Dynamo Dresden and later Dynamo Berlin or indeed Chemie's success in those early years.

It is claimed that some people disliked Lok because of their ties to the communist regime whilst Chemie were by some seen as the club of the people. In truth, however, under the East German regime, both teams were equally popular domestically, and Lok on occasion drew massive crowds at the main Zentralstadion for big European nights.

Then came reunification... A country split in two once again became one. In 1990 before the final season of football in East Germany Chemie merged with a club just south of Leipzig called SV Chemie Böhlen and this newly merged club went under the name FC Sachsen Leipzig. The final season of before reunification (1990-91) was massive with league positions helping decide the make up of East German football post unification. Finishing seventh and twelfth respectively neither Lok or the new name Sachsen secured an automatic position in either the Bundesliga or 2. Bundesliga in the new unified Germany. Both clubs had to participate in an end of season play-off group to see which division they play in the following season, 2. Bundesliga or the regional leagues.

The play-off group consisted of four sides and home and away fixtures against each with Lok winning both derbies. The first match saw Sachsen lose 1-0 at home whilst the second fixture saw Lok conjure up a 4-0 demolition to spark wild scenes in the Bruno-Plache Stadion. Lok then clinched qualification to the 2. Bundesliga in their last play-off match with another commanding win, this time over cup finalists Eisenhüttenstadt. Sachsen, on the other hand, missed out and would be playing regional league football the following season.
For reunification Lok decided they fancied a name change themselves and became VfB Leipzig, a name which conjured up memories of the pre war glory years. Glory briefly appeared on the horizon when in 1993 a third placed finish saw the team promoted to the top-flight Bundesliga but the club, however, finished last the following season and were promptly relegated back down to the second tier. A steady drop down the divisions followed and by 1998 Lok were in the fourth tier. By 2004 they were bankrupted and went out of existence. In 2001 Sachsen had also succumbed to bankruptcy having spent all their life post reunification in the third tier. The club survived but after a second bankruptcy in 2009 managed two more years before folding.

1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig were formed as successors to the bankrupted VfB and currently play in the fourth tier Regionalliga Nordost. As for Sachsen, when they went out of existence two successors were formed. The first  SG Sachsen Leipzig went bankrupt in 2014 and were replaced by another side called LFV Sachsen Leipzig who currently play in the ninth tier of German football, whilst the second club fan led BSG Chemie Leipzig, recently promoted to the fourth tier, are generally seen as the true successors to the previous club.

Since reunification, there have been struggles not just on the pitch but also off it. After reunification, many top East German players were offered lucrative contracts in the west and without the money to compete East German clubs struggled, but in Leipzig, there has also been other problems. Leipzig is a football mad city yet until Red Bull came along attendances for many years had been terrible, going to watch football in Leipzig had become unfashionable. But why?

Throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and into the current decade, games involving Lok and/or Sachsen/Chemie were often marred by violence. The derbies between the two may be what some might call a 'tasty affair', but the violence for derbies and other games has caused many fans to stay away. Some locals have even described fans of the two sides as being 'childish' with banning orders for the worst offenders when it comes to violence being commonplace. In recent times Lok have been known to have a strong right wing support, in some cases far right, whilst currently, Chemie fans tend to be more left wing. This has driven many fans away feeling they do not identify themselves with the messages fans of each club are sending out. 

In the last few years, however, things have begun to calm down and attendances at both clubs are slowly beginning to rise, albeit Lok's average of 3051 last season and Chemie's 2795 are well below what both clubs achieved in the 1970s and 1980s and pale in comparison to the 38380 average gate at RB Leipzig last time around.
Still, after years of post reunification financial trouble and bankruptcy, in their current guises, both clubs are beginning to find their feet. Lok who are trying to shake off their extremist far right tag finished sixth in the Regionalliga Nordost last season and find themselves joint top eight games into the new campaign with promotion to the third tier a stated ambition. Chemie meanwhile currently sit eleventh in the same division after last season finishing top of the fifth tier NOFV-Oberliga Süd.

Neither club is RB Leipzig and neither want to be. Whist RB is a corporate machine for the masses ran by the Red Bull Empire, Lok and Chemie are both community orientated clubs that have far more fan influence in terms of how they are run. Recapturing the top flight glory days from behind the wall seems a fantasy, but steady improvement is the aim of the game with both clubs having every intention of sticking around. Leipzig doesn't have to be all about Red Bull, in this city there is definitely room for all three clubs and they all can hopefully prosper in their own way.

Monday 2 September 2019

Newcastle Benfield; The Club at the Heart of one of Newcastle's East End suburbs.

Situated between a small housing estate and a secondary school in a nondescript suburb it has to be said that Sam Smith's Park is a world away from the Premier League ground that sits just over three miles away. But whilst Newcastle United is a club mostly surrounded by doom and gloom with an owner nobody wants and a fanbase at times divided things look a little more harmonious at near neighbours Newcastle Benfield.

With Newcastle often described as a 'one club city', you could almost be forgiven for thinking there is only one team in town, Benfield fans, however, would most definitely disagree. Having said that, with attendances usually averaging in the low hundreds and in stark contrast to the 50,000+ plus who often turn up down the road, the fact that Newcastle United and Newcastle Benfield both hail from the same city is probably where the similarities end.
Crossing the iconic Tyne Bridge from Gateshead into Newcastle Upon Tyne sees you enter a thriving city famous for it's warm welcome and it's world renowned nightlife. Right in the centre of town, the magnificent Grey's Monument sits at the top of Grey Street a street once voted the Best Street in Britain by Radio 4 listeners due to its stunning architecture which includes the majestic Theatre Royal. The city's splendid Quayside is another destination popular with tourists and it's contemporary Millenium Bridge takes you across to the old Baltic Flour Mill now an art gallery and the modern, built to impress, Sage music venue that both sit on the Gateshead side of the river. Some claim the Sage is Tyneside's answer to the Syndey Opera House, whilst interestingly Sydney's Harbour Bridge was modelled on Newcastle's very own Tyne Bridge. You can't complete a tour of Newcastle City Centre, however, without visiting the Cathedral on the HIll where the Premier League stars strut their stuff. Otherwise known as St Jame's Park, unlike many modern out of town stadiums the home of Newcastle United sits right in the heart of the city centre. Away from the city centre though, there is another local football team making a name for themselves albeit situated in far less glamorous surroundings...

Arriving from the city centre, when you disembark from your train at Walkergate Metro station and walk down the stairs to ground level you find yourself on a small main road amongst the neat bungalows and semi-detached houses of this small rather plain East End suburb. Walk further up Benfield Road and you'll find a small NHS medical centre to your left and a school to your right, turn right past the side of the school, you could almost miss it, past the brick houses and through the car park, you are here, welcome to Newcastle Benfield Football Club.

Newcastle Benfield were formed as recently as 1988, almost 100 years after their Premier League neighbours, and spent their first fifteen years plying their trade in the Northern Alliance until they joined the Nothern League in 2003 where they achieved immediate promotion from Division Two to Division One. Currently residing in Northern League Division One which is the ninth tier of English football they have in recent times became a well known name on the local non-league scene developing a small but loyal following who can often be spotted in their blue and white Benfield shirts on matchdays.

In 2009 the club completed a Northern League league and cup double, but the club had first come to real prominence in non-league circles when they reached the fourth (final) qualifying round of the FA Cup in 2006.

Having already progressed through two rounds Benfield won 2-0 at then Conference North side Hyde United in what was a big big upset. In the next round, Benfield defeated Guiseley 1-0 away from home and although Guiseley were a division below Hyde at the time it was nonetheless still a hugely impressive result. It was also a result that put them one win away from the first round proper. 927 people crammed into Sam Smith's Park when York City then of the Conference came to town for the fourth qualifying round tie but despite putting in a stellar performance Benfield sadly lost 1-0.

Two years later Benfield reached the third qualifying round and again reached that stage in 2017 when 403 turned up for the visit of National League North side Kidderminster Harriers. One visiting fan thinking he was clever said to me "I bet this is the biggest crowd you've ever had," upon which I replied, "no, over 900 were here when we played York City about ten years ago." As someone who is a regular watcher of North East non-league football I happened to be present for the York City tie, and in attendance again, I was to witness similar scenes against Kidderminster who like the Minstermen would also run out 1-0 winners.
At Benfield's home ground the aesthetics of the stadium are fairly pleasing on the eye, and with this compact non-league arena mostly surrounded by somewhat striking trees, it is actually a rather scenic place to watch football. Situated close to the East Coast mainline, on matchday's the rumble of trains is an occasional accompaniment to the shouts and cheers of the Benfield crowd. Two small seated stands sit either side of the pitch both of which have a small section of covered terracing next to them. Behind the goals, one end is rather empty and forlorn looking whilst the other end houses a clubhouse, players changing facilities, and even a newly built gym. 

Benfield are a family club at the heart of the community and more than just the eleven players on the pitch. Outside of matchday's the club house serves Sunday lunches every week, and hosts Bingo on a Thursday evening, whilst the club recently hosted a summer family fun day with a bouncy castle, inflatable slide, penalty shoot-out competition, and in the evening a disco inside the club house.

My latest trip down Benfield Road is for another FA Cup tie. Benfield last year lost to Workington via a replay and again they face the same opposition in the same competition. It is a preliminary round tie and Workington having been relegated last season now sit just one division above their hosts.

Benfield are currently managed by ex-Newcastle United youngster Stuart Elliott, Elliott never made a first team appearance for the Magpies but went on to make 88 Football League appearances for various clubs before dropping into non-league football. Whilst at Northwich Victoria he played alongside another man who would also go on to play a vital role at Newcastle Benfield. Still at the club aged 41, Elliott's ex Vics colleague striker Paul Brayson is another ex Newcastle United youngster but he left the club in 1998 to join Reading for £100,000. Brayson went on to play for various other league and non-league clubs before joining Benfield several years ago where he has regularly been the star of the show.

Elliott's men have a crowd of 248 for company when Workington come to town for a second season running and this includes club mascot Leo the Lion who is walking around the ground greeting spectators (the club are nicknamed the lions). Another point of interest is that the visitors rather amusingly have someone on their substitutes bench named Sam Smith!

The home side more than holds their own in the first half and the game is tied at 0-0 during the interval. It's a sweltering hot August day and at half time I head for some refreshments. In terms of catering facilities the small 'Snack Attack' food bar attached to the club house is far from the worst I've seen on the local non-league scene and given the conditions the ice cold cans of pop and bottles of water are too good to turn down. I also opt for a slice of some homemade looking cake titled 'Back to School Cake'. Delicious stuff.

The stalemate continues into the second half until late on when a Workington defender blocks the ball with his hands in the box and the home side are awarded a penalty. Dennis Knight slots home to give Benfield the lead and most of the crowd are delighted. The hosts then hold on through until full-time to leave the visitors going home disappointed.

Another pleasant afternoon at Sam Smith's Park as Newcastle Benfield again do themselves proud against higher division opposition and this time actually win. An excellent start to the season has seen the club not only progress in the cup but also lose only one of their opening six league games. Pyramid restructuring means three promotion places are up for grabs in Division one of the Northern League this season and this will no doubt be on the club's mind as the season progresses. With their Premier League city rivals seemingly lurching from one crisis to another, it's great to see one club from Newcastle enjoying themselves. These may seem like dark times for football in the city, but amongst haze, the small shining light of community based club Newcastle Benfield is most definitely peering through.