Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Three false starts and my search for the Europa League

Visits to Bala Town, Estoril and Boroughbridge

For me the qualifying rounds of the Europa League are starting to take on the appeal of the FA Cup qualifiers. Both feature teams from tiny towns, sometimes with funny – and in the Europa League, unpronouncable – names and the vast majority with no real chance of making the proper rounds. The competitions are also similar in that their quirky appeal ends when the bigger sides join in. 

Few Europa League entrants come from smaller settlements than Bala Town of the League of Wales. It’s population is just 2,000 and only a decade ago the team played in a parks league. I called at their ground en route to a work assignment five days before their first qualifying round tie against Levadia Tallinn. Tragically, the match was actually played at Rhyl for ground grading reasons, robbing the occasion of most of its allure and novelty.
A member of staff spotted me lurking (I felt like such a groundhopper) and kindly invited me to have a look around inside. Maes Tegid is a very trim arena with a Scandinavian feel on account of the pine trees behind one goal and a timber clubhouse that looks like a forest lodge. A tower that at first appears half-finished is actually complete and designed with an open top for cameras. Behind it you can see another tower which belongs to a former Presbyterian college and now church youth centre.

Bala won the first leg 1-0 but their “great European journey” (love that cliché) came to an abrupt end on July 11 weeks before the start of the league season when they lost the return in Estonia, 1-3.

I had another Bisto kid-like whiff of European football while on holiday in Portugal. Seredipitously, Groupo Desportivo Estoril Praia (the town once hosted Grand Prixs) was playing a third qualifying round tie of the Europa League against Hapoel Ramat Gan. My brother and nephew turned up at the ground 40 mins before kick-off. As we approached we remarked on the lack of traffic and parked with ease a couple of hundreds of yards away. (You know what’s coming). The turnstiles had polythene bags over them and the gates were barricaded. Mmmm. Not exactly a warm welcome, we agreed, but we could see what looked like Israelis warming up on the turf (see below). Making our way to the main entrance we at last found an open door. “Is there a game on tonight?” I asked. “No. Tomorrow,” said a man. Bollocks. The soccerway.com website had supplied the wrong date and has a lot to answer for. We were unable to go the following night. The fact that the match ended in a goalless draw did little to ease my pain. 

Travel to the third of my false starts to the season (although I knew I wasn’t going to get a match at Bala) was at Boroughbridge just 10 mins up the road from home. The club from the (unofficial) step 7 West Yorkshire League was hosting a prestige friendly against a Carlisle United XI following a similar fixtures against a representative side from Doncaster Rovers a few years ago. The third division visitors fielded a youth team which was hardly surprising as the senior side was playing Blackburn in the League Cup the following night having opened the season with a 1-5 drubbing at home to Orient on Saturday. 

Aldborough Road, home of Boroughbridge, is such a small ground that even I’ve played here – albeit on the secondary pitch. The grandstand is a little hard to tell apart from the adjacent dugout and the only other structures are a second dugout and a clubhouse. To my delight and surprise, though, there was a programme for the match which was sponsored by the London branch of the Carlisle United Supporters’ Club. The attendance was over 100. The Carlisle lads looked smart – in terms of their playing style, haircuts and strip (sponsored by Eddie Stobart for the last 18 years). Unlike the hosts, I don’t expect they take it in turns to wash the kit. Carlisle won 3-2.

At half-time as the mower on the cricket pitch started up I got ready to play myself – by walking to the side of the bowling green and behind the hedge to my tennis club. My unusual double-header  was a delightful way to spend a summer’s evening. Might even get to watch a full 90 mins next time I visit a football club …

More holiday hopping: I cycled around Anglesey in June and was wondering about the football club in Holyhead. Didn’t have time to investigate but another hopper has done so on his holiday travels. The club is the wonderfully named Holyhead Hotspur. Click here for the report and pics.

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