Groundhopping: Maynooth University Town (vs Malahide United, Rathcoffey Road)

Date: 5 August, 2020

Competition: Leinster Senior League, Sunday Senior Division

Result: Maynooth University Town 1, Malahide United 1

Tickets: No entry fee.

Attendance: circa 70

The game: A defence vs counter-attack contest in the main after Malahide United had a man sent off for a fairly vicious late slide tackle in midfield midway through the first half. Malahide United took the lead totally against the run of play with 70 minutes on the clock, after Maynooth pressure left them short at the back and Malahide took advantage on the break. Maynooth equalised with a cross/ shot from their right back that flew in from about 40 yards – I’m not sure he meant it – about five minutes later.

These two are first and fourth in the LSL Sunday Senior, which is historically high for both of them. Judging on the one game alone – always dangerous – Malahide are an extremely solid defensive unit and look really difficult to break down, while Maynooth pass the ball out nicely from the back but lack a bit of cutting edge (something to do with that Malahide defence, perhaps). That Malahide have conceded only 17 in 20 games seems to back this up. I’d expect both to finish below where they are now, as there are a huge number of games in hand for some sides below them, with St Mochta’s, currently in second, looking heavy odds on to take the title.

The ground: A nice open field with a couple of pitches next to the main road between Dublin and Galway (you’ll have to go round the houses a little to get there – it’s not next to one of the junctions). Very much a ‘stand around the pitch’ job, with a metal barrier and no stands; both ends are not really suited to spectators.

Aston Villa 2019/2020 – My Season Review

Wow, what a hairy one. It’s been a weird season all in, and I think every Villa fan knew from early on that if we stayed up, it would be a very close run thing. It was evident from the utter euphoria that accompanied that home win against Everton early in the season, which I watched through Now TV in a hotel room in Munich. The reaction showed we knew even then that wins would be hard to come by.

The end of the season has been at the opposite extreme to those ‘eyes from abroad’ early days for me: locked in our houses with the games played out in front of nobody at all, and, oddly, they’ve brought most of the year’s highs (and been a fantastic distraction), though I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t think it was over with four or five games to go.

The season’s really had its moments, from the ‘ghost goal’ we conceded against Sheffield United (which I have a feeling Bournemouth fans might be talking about a while) and general VAR controversies, to the power and passion of Grealish and Douglas Luiz, and the defence finally coming together for those final few games that saw Villa edged to the narrowest of 17th places. Relegation could have gone the other way if West Ham had conjured a single late goal on the final day. What a rollercoaster.

A heads up before I start: this is a long one.

A good season, or a bad one?

This is a genuinely difficult question. I don’t think there’s much doubt that if Villa had conceded a late losing goal at West Ham on the final day, this would be classified as really quite a bad season, with relegation back to the Championship. That said, I think most Villa fans – and I certainly put myself in this category – would consider staying up, even marginally, a really quite good season. Beating the drop on the last day was totally euphoric, and a fantastic end to the year in a game we probably should have won.

Cynics will point to the money spent in the summer (which was substantial), though it has to be noted that a substantial chunk of that money was spent on players that were on loan last year, and took the team to only 5th in the Championship. Almost none of it, bizarrely, was spent on established premier league players. There have also been significant injury issues throughout the team.

In fact, it’s hard to argue the team this year was any stronger than last year’s all things considered: sure, the defence probably looked a little bit better on paper (though it performed poorly for most of the season), but we bought two relative flops up front and lost a far better striker in Tammy Abraham back to Chelsea, and even the goalkeeper position’s strengthening disappeared when Tom Heaton was injured for the second half of the season (round of applause for Pepe Reina’s cameo, though).

This was a team that was at best only just good enough for the Premier League, and that’s how it went, so by that measure it went well. We also got a cup final back in February and gave the money boys from Manchester City a real game in it, too. So all things considered, a pretty good season, but only because it went the way it did on the final day. I’d give it a 6/10. That said, there’s plenty to worry about, with next season just around the corner…

Groundhopping: Bluebell United (v Crumlin United, Capco Park)

Date: 23 July, 2020

Competition: Leinster Senior League, Sunday Senior Division

Result: Bluebell United 2, Crumlin United 2

Tickets: No entry fee (they have charged a fiver in the past, which I believe is normal, but seemed to be waving people through after taking names for contact tracing at this game).

Attendance: circa 90

The game: A first game back after corona for me (though the second for the teams). A cliched game of two halves, in which Crumlin United utterly dominated the first half winning two penalties, the first of which was saved by the charismatic Andy McNulty in the Bluebell goal. They scored the second and then added another, and then seemed to fall apart in the second half.

Crumlin looked like getting the win anyway, but Bluebell’s very late scrambled equaliser tied the game. Strangely, that was the same result as the last time I saw these two play at this ground, a final day of the season contest for the LSL top-tier title which saw Bluebell win, as Crumlin needed to win the game to overtake them. They’ve typically been at the top of this league, though both have faded to upper mid-table in recent years, which is a shame, as the rivalry is intense, making for quite aggressive-feeling and argumentative games – always entertaining.

Groundhopping: Shamrock Rovers (v Dundalk, Tallaght Stadium)

Date: 28 February, 2020

Competition: League of Ireland Premier Division

Result: Shamrock Rovers 3 (Dylan Watts, ’20; Roberto Lopes, ’71; Jack Byrne, 83′) – Dundalk 2 (Jordan Flores, 22′; Patrick Hoban, 63′)

Tickets: €15 (adult), €5 (child).

Attendance: 7,522 (close to capacity).

The game: Wow. You expect a good contest out of the league’s top two clubs, but this was something else. Two attack-minded clubs just going at each other for 90 minutes, with some real quality on show. Rovers were the better team early on, and took the lead after a period of consistent attack. They lost their way a bit soon afterwards, and Dundalk were on top when Jordan Flores scored an absolutely incredible goal on the volley from a corner. A powerful, head-height hit that absolutely flew, and definitely one of the best goals I’ve ever seen live. Grab a look here – it’s being talked about as a Puskas contender.

There was a real stunned sense around the ground after that for a little while, but the game took off again as it went on. When Dundalk led they probably just about deserved it, but then Rovers took charge and scored from a header, and then a swinging finish from 25 yards by Jack Byrne. Dundalk closed out the game with a flurry of corners and Rovers hung on. An absolute classic, and a nice prelude to what’s looking like it could be an excellent title race between these two.

The ground: This is probably the best stadium in the League of Ireland, though it is also probably one of the least quirky, being a fairly basic set up in terms of modern mid-sized stadia. It has decent-height stands on two sides and one end, and the empty north side, currently essentially a wall 20 metres behind one goal, is awaiting development. There are good views from everywhere, pretty much (I’ve been to Tallaght at least a dozen times). The South Stand, behind one goal, seems to hold the most passionate fans, and the away lot are stuck in the northeast corner.

Groundhopping: Wexford FC (v UCD, at Ferrycarrig Park)

View from the bar at Ferrycarrig Park

Date: 21 February, 2020

Competition: League of Ireland First Division

Result: Wexford FC 1 (Conor English, ’90+1) – UCD 1 (Colm Whelan, ’15)

Tickets: €10 (adult), €2 (child).

Attendance: Perhaps 100, but the storm front can take some of the blame for that.

The game: One of those early-season contests that felt a little bit like the teams don’t quite know each other yet, played out in absolutely horrendous conditions in a spot that offers very little shelter. UCD are newly relegated from the League of Ireland Premier Division, but a much-changed team from last year, and might struggle to get back. They started stronger in a first half that was a real slog. As the game went on, Wexford looked the neater team and better able for the wind and sideways rain. After putting the visitors under pressure they eventually scored a real beauty of a last-minute goal that sent the locals home happy. Not a classic, but it certainly improved as it went on, and the last 15 or 20 minutes were really worth watching.

The ground: A very nice pitch with a chunk of space between it and the barriers, there’s a bar/ club house with a nice view over the action from the first floor in one corner. The main stand is on the far side from the entrance, and is one of those temporary-type things with only netting along the back. Decent in the summer, no doubt, but pretty horrible to sit in mid-storm. There’s a little press/ commentary box on the halfway line, and other than that it’s railings around the pitch the whole way. The bar is decent, though.

Clapton CFC: “Making the club an open, welcoming environment that stands up to intolerance runs right through the club’s DNA”

Having formed last year following a dispute that arose in Clapton FC, Clapton CFC are part of a growing football trend: clubs that look to distinguish themselves by stepping away from the more corporate aspects of the game, and instead taking on distinct identities relating to their community-driven nature and politics.

Having just completed their first full season, though, Clapton CFC have been successful beyond any reasonable expectations. Their away shirt, which referenced the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish civil war, a bright purple offering with the slogan ‘No Pasaran’ on the collar.

I came across the club through their extensive social media over the course of last year, watching their fanbase grow to an astonishing 1,400 or so for the final home league game, playing in 11th tier of English football. Having joined the club myself (at £10 for annual membership, why wouldn’t you), I got in touch with communications manager and match commentator Martin Fletcher to learn more…

Hi Martin! Before we get into the politics of the club, let’s cover some football. You’ve obviously put together a side that’s very competent for its level. What style of football do you play, and who are you stand out players?

This iteration of the club was founded in June last year, and so it was quite a rush to make sure we had a full and competitive squad for the season. Fortunately, our player coach, Geoff Ocran, has a lot of contacts and was able to pull some players in. We also held open trials which turned up quite a few gems. As you would expect, it took the new team a while to gel and at the halfway point in the season I think we’d have been happy with a good mid-table finish. However, from early 2019 the squad really started to come together, resulting in their title winning run that saw us go 9-1-1 down the stretch.

Key players in our run were keeper, Dan Anfossy, our defensive lynchpin, Dean Bouho, dead ball specialist, Stefan Nielsen and our bullet on the wing, Josh Adejokun, who scored a hat trick in our league title deciding game at the end of the season. There tends to be quite a high turnover of players at our level so it’s difficult to confirm who will be back next year. But I’m sure we’ll continue to play a pacey, attacking style of play that entertains our growing fanbase.

Clapton CFC seem to have developed into a kind of anti-facsist, alternative football club. How has this come about?

Clapton CFC grew out of a group of fans that started following Clapton FC, one of London’s oldest football clubs, back in 2012. From the beginning the fans who attended were looking to build an inclusive atmosphere and differentiate themselves from more mainstream clubs, which can sometimes be quite unwelcoming spaces for a lot of people. In the years after 2012 attendances grew largely through word of mouth as more like-minded people wanted to come along and participate.

The fans broke away to form Clapton CFC last year, as part of what is an ongoing dispute with Clapton FC’s ownership. The club was founded as a democratic, fan run organisation. Making the club an open, welcoming environment that stands up to intolerance runs right through the DNA of the organisation.

Red Wine and Arepas: New Book to Explore Venezuelan Football

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in recent months to learn a great deal about the unconventional footballing world. As a result of writing about CONIFA, I learnt of and attended the Island Games, met people who obsess over the minutiae of football on tiny island states, and became mildly fixated with a tiny London football club called Clapham CFC.

I also met, virtually at least, Jordan Florit, who was kind enough to bring me on the These Football Times podcast. I learn he has his own strange football leanings, in that he’s obsessed with one of South America’s weakest footballing nations, Venezuela, and their sporting output. Much like CONIFA, this fascinates me: you’d have done well to miss the countries economic problems in recent years, yet the team are thriving, with increasingly impressive showings at international level. They’re currently ranked 26 in the world, they’re highest ever position. Yet I know almost nothing about them. I suspect I’m not alone.

Jordan’s book isn’t out until some time in 2020, though he will be putting out his Kickstarter in the coming week, in order to fund a trip over to South America, printing, and the other aspects of such a book. He has a host of big-name interviews lined up. You can get a discount on the Kickstarter by signing up for updates on his mailing list, here

He kindly agreed to talk about it all, so here’s an informed little glance at football in a South American company you might not have had much of experience of to date. I know I hadn’t…

Obviously, South America is a real footballing powerhouse. It’s fair to say Venezuela are very much the poor relations. What attracts you to the place from a footballing perspective?

From purely a footballing perspective, it was a mixture of the appeal of the unknown, the U20s reaching the World Cup final in 2017, and the Juvenile Rule introduced in 2007. Its something I’ve already talked a lot about with many people, privately and publicly. I’m a massive fan of it. It stipulates that teams must field at least one U20 in their starting line-up and this is in place in both the men’s and the women’s game.

Within six years, it was having a noticeable impact. They finished runners-up in the U17 South American Championships in 2013 and reached the U17 World Cup finals for the first time in the same year. Four years on from their first World Cup finals, they reached the final, finishing runners-up to England. Successes have also been reaped in the women’s game. The U17s reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2016, won the U17 South American Championship in the same year, and then finished fourth in 2018 edition. 

Sixteen of the 23-man 2019 Copa América squad made their debuts as “juveniles de la norma,” including all three of the goalkeepers, four of the defenders, six of the midfielders, and the three strikers, including Salomón Rondón. Additionally, 91% of them play their football outside of Venezuela, compared to just 41% in 2007, when the rule was introduced. 

Interview: Zimbabwe Homeless World Cup team 2019

The Homeless World Cup has long been widely reported on in Ireland, and it’s a tournament that fills me with hope. It’s pretty obvious, of course, that most of the participants have gone through significant hardships in their lives, and the chance to represent their country probably means a great deal to them.

It got me thinking, though, for all it means to represent a country in the Homeless World Cup, it probably means that much more when you come from a place where the average person wouldn’t have much opportunity to travel, let alone people living on the street.

The next edition of the Homeless World Cup will take place in Cardiff in late July/ early August 2019, and Zimbabwe are one of the participants. They’re in the aftermath of the fall of Robert Mugabe, and the country is in turmoil. What would it take to bring a football team of disadvantaged people to another country against that backdrop? I asked head coach Joseph Kuseka:

Hi Joseph! Can you give me a short history of this team – how did they come together, and how are they funding their trip to Mexico?

The Zimbabwe Homeless World Cup team is coordinated by Young Achievement Sports for Development (YASD) – a community-based initiative that seeks to empower young people through mentoring, positive coaching and education to transform their lives. The Zimbabwe Homeless world
Cup team was formed in 2006 after many families in Zimbabwe faced the destruction of their homes following a government directive to demolish unregulated and unplanned settlements. An estimated 700,000 families were left homeless.

The founders of YASD are survivors of this cleanup exercise. The founders were young people who came up with a homegrown solution to address the challenges they were experiencing due to being homeless.

I understand you had a female manager, Pearl Gambiza, previously in charge of the team for the tournament in Mexico, still a relative rarity in the tournament. How was her tenure, and how have things been for you so far?

Pearl was the 2018 Manager for the team and was amazing in advocating and championing women’s inclusion and participation in sport. Through her initiatives, she created platforms to enable more women to be involved in YASD sporting initiatives. Her tenure saw her advocating for the 2019 team to have a quota for women and the 2019 team will feature 3 female players. Pearl should have been part of the 2019 team but could not renew her passport due to challenges in the country where the travel document is not available.