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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Sunday 2 August 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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