The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 2: Mad Hungarians, Upsets, and A Trip Down Wembley Way

Szekely Land fans in Haringey Borough, for the game against Matabeleland

In the baking heat in Haringey, I’m trying to talk to a Hungarian about his side, Szekely Land. “We are Hungarian,” the half-cut fan and his mates yell repeatedly at a largely empty stadium half an hour before kick-off, pausing to whisper that they have a bag full of flares, and plan to whip them out as soon as the players appear.

He looks at the opposition and promises an easy win, dipping into the supremacy of Hungarians over Romanians, while his mate attempts to burn the lace off my shoe to use to tie his flag. He thinks he’s being subtle – I copped it straight away, but figured the cost of the shoelace is worth the madness of the ‘interview’ – and soon three inches of string carefully burnt from my rugged old pair of Sondicos is being used to attach a red, green and white flag with some dubious looking lettering to the pitchside railing.

Szekely Land are playing Zimbabwean rural underdogs Matabeleland in the blistering heat, and despite the advantage that might seem to afford the African side, Matabeleland are on a road to sad self-destruction. The men in tribal white and orange start strongly, pressing the Szekely Land side back and making several solid chances.

They implode shortly afterwards, their goalkeeper shown a straight red card only twenty minutes in for flying out of his goal and clattering a forward clear through on goal – the first decent Szekely Land chance. From then on, it was only a question of ‘how many?’ The answer was five, and with Padania and Sekely Land both two wins from two against Tuvalu and Matabeleland, Group C is over with a game to spare. It’s hard not to love the naive flare of Matabeleland, but in a stadium surprisingly dense in nutty Hungarians intent on ‘trolling’, maybe some things are for the best.

There’s always some fun to be had with Matabeleland, though. This time it came through the ‘keeper’s new way of firing the ball out: an incredible flat kick out of his hands that flew 70 yards at extreme pace, at no more than head height, and caught out Szekely Land several times. It was odd enough to have caught out almost anyone. No Bruce Grobbelaar this time for the Zimbabweans, but he’ll likely be playing tomorrow.

The results from around the ground started trickling in from CONIFA, and a couple stood out. Holders Abkhazia, beaten by this tournament’s Denmark (circa 1992), Karpatalya, another Hungarian ethnic minority, this time in the Ukraine. Western Armenia turned over CONIFA’s number one ranked team Panjab, and Cascadia got their act together to beat hosts Barawa, who looked excellent in their opener (full results below).

Working With: Story Terrace

In journalism circles, the first question anyone asks you is almost always ‘who do you work for’? It occurs to me, then, that it might make sense to start telling you, when I get the time to sort a post or two on the people who keep me so wonderfully busy.

I’m going to start with Story Terrace, a fast-growing producer of personalized, private books, who commission me to work with Irish clients from their office in London. They’re a little bit of a departure for me: I most often work with features going up to about 2000 words, but I’ve had assignments from Story Terrace in the tens of thousands, sometimes taking months to put together over a heap of different personal interviews. It’s a fantastic experience.

Typically, in my experience so far, the books come either as gift from family, or are bought by someone trying to tell a story of their life, who doesn’t feel able to do it themselves. More often than not, these people have had fantastically interesting lives. They’re often relatively late into life, and talking about some of the deeper connections they’ve made, and the experiences that shape them. At times, I’ve found it quite personally profound, too.

I can’t talk specifics, as every book I produce is private, and belongs to the person who commissioned it. If you don’t work in journalism, you’d probably be surprised to learn how much of the work we do is not credited by name, but assigned in some other, less explicit way. I don’t mind, at all: these stories are often some of the more interesting ones I get to write, and intensely personal. You can read my profile on their website, here, which I actually love in its own right. I was asked to sum up my own story in a couple of hundred words and relate it back to writing. It came out sounding far nicer than I could have anticipated.

I’m choosing now to talk about this particular work in part because Story Terrace are at a key moment in their evolution, and currently seeking crowdsourced investment, here (in fact, as I write this, they’re close to fully-funded). I’m no financial expert, but they look like a very solid investment to me. They’re currently selling books as well as they ever have, including the option to buy in Harrods. That means you can technically currently commission me in Harrods, should you want to, which I think is pretty mad.

The world moves in mysterious ways…

Check out some of my other writing clients here.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 1: Clattenburg, Sportsmanship and the Matabeleland Party

Padania and Matabeleland walk out at Gander Green Lane, Sutton ahead of their Group A game at the CONIFA World Football Cup

Tamil Eelam are on the back foot, the men in white forced back by the Somalian hosts, Barawa, under the Thursday night Hayes Lane floodlights. The hosts are swift and aggressive, a fluid attacking team that play into space and exploit static backlines.

The killer punch is coming: a rapid through ball pinged out to the right of midfield towards star man Gianni Crichlow. The former QPR man skins his marker, looks up, spots Tamil goalie Umaesh Sundaralingam about five yards off his line, and pings a spectacular lob over his head into the Tamil goal. His teammates shine his shoes in front of the fans: Barawa have arrived.

It’s day one of CONIFA in London, and it’s following the unwritten rule of any kind of travel based writing: when you’re on a very specific schedule, there will always be delays. Thank you, Ryanair.

So my CONIFA experience started with a mad rush down to Sutton United’s Gander Green, where I arrived just in time for halftime in the Ellan Vannin and Cascadia game.

Ellan Vannin -from the Isle of Man – are considered one of the early favourites for the tournament. Their fans tell me that the recent rejection of Jersey’s UEFA application has hit them hard, their chances of recognition diminished by another entity in a similar situation being emphatically rejected in February despite intense lobbying. But they’re passionate, aggressive and organised.

Their opponents, Cascadia, arguably have more obvious technical ability, but are fairly incoherent as a team. The North Americans have been brought together in recent weeks, with a couple of real superstar players, in particular, former MLS mainstay James Riley, who’s come out of retirement to captain the side.

Ellan Vannin won out 4-1, controlling chunks of the game, though a lot of the margin could be put down to disorganization on the part of their opponents, who also looked more than a little jetlagged, and will almost certainly improve.

Things came to life for game two at Gander Green, Matabeleland v Padania. Like Ellan Vannin, Padania – a North Italian separatist state – are amongst the early favourites for the whole tournament, with most of their players drawn from the Italian fourth tier. Matabeleland – representing relatively rural southern Zimbabwe – are almost all out of the country for the first time, and immediately charmed almost everyone.

Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: Stumble and Fall

Well, that sucks.

It’s a quirk of football, though, that pretty much any team can play any game poorly. It seems to apply doubly when it’s absolutely loaded with meaning (how many good cup finals do we see? I’d argue not many). In truth, I think Villa could have played another 90 minutes and might not have scored in this game. I’m not sure if it was a case of bottling it on the big day, or Fulham just working out how to shut the team down, but I’ll lay it out how I saw it.

Most days, that game would have finished 0-0. That’s not a complaint, by the way: Fulham’s goal was extremely well taken. It’s just, I’m not sure I’ve seen Villa concede another goal where a man was just left alone roughly where Hutton is supposed to pick him up all season. Generally speaking, it just doesn’t happen.

The goal went in early, though, and in truth, Fulham could have had more before the break. It was the same old theme of the playoffs this year for Villa: step back, and let teams come at you, and hope the defense is good enough. It would be another thing if the ‘attack on the break’ approach was working a little better, but it really wasn’t.

The second half was a little stronger from a Villa perspective, if very frantic. Grealish was by far the best player on the pitch. One of Fulham’s defenders got a pretty harsh red card with 20 minutes to go. Villa had a couple of decent penalty shouts and Grealish tried to take on everyone (and almost succeeded). But there was nothing really clear-cut. Grabban seemed to drift, and was utterly ineffective. Snodgrass had a sub-par game by his standards, and the wing-backs were pretty ineffectual. Apart from chucking on a load of strikers who didn’t do a whole lot, there didn’t seem to be much of a plan B. Only Adomah and Grealish – as has become standard, actually – had particularly above-average games, and it just wasn’t enough.

So now…

I already have a love-hate relationship with the playoffs. In one sense, they’ve obviously inherently unjust, and arguably an end of season money-spinner. Fulham went up, and they also finished third, so there was a certain poetic justice to it all, where it makes me personally happy or not (the answer is not, in case I’ve left any doubt!).

The consequences for Villa, as I outlined before it all kicked off, are quite substantial. Next year has an air of ‘must do’ about it now, as the parachute payments will be gone. The deadwood, in the form of Micah Richards and Gabby Agbonlahor, really need to go. We probably need a new striker, unless Kodjia can find some real form.

Of course, many of the best players will be gone, too. It’s hard to picture Grealish hanging around all that much longer in the Championship. Snodgrass, Johnstone and Grabban (the latter I’m fine about) are on loan, and will be going, perhaps except Johnstone. Terry can’t have that long left in him. The squad, in short, is going to need an overhaul, and it’s currently quite hard to envisage Villa finishing higher next year, rather than lower.

It’s bleak, in other words. Very bleak. Or perhaps that’s just my pessimism.

Context.

I’d be lying if I said football doesn’t matter to me. The same day as this final, though, the results of Ireland’s vote over the rights of women to access abortion services came in. I think you probably have to live in Ireland to understand how frightening to 8th amendment is to anyone who’s ever had a child. There are numerous reasons why it was a bad regulation, ranging from some revolting extreme cases, to simply that it seems sensible to allow someone in the early stage of pregnancy to decide for themselves whether they want to be a parent.

And yes, I know you probably weren’t expecting a football blog to take that turn, but it’s hard to be all that sad in the context of today’s other result, which matters a whole lot more to me. I won’t go on about it, but in my view, Ireland is growing up and emerging from a world of religious dogma at a rapid pace, and I’m proud of it. It makes a football match seem more than a little insignificant.

Context, I guess, matters. Time to get my writing into gear and focus on the ‘other world cup‘.

Heroes In Hiding: A Debut A Decade In The Making

Dublin indie band Heroes In Hiding forged their reputation in the live arena. Having existed in various forms for over a decade, they’ve changed genres entirely, become confident in front of a crowd, and learnt some smart live tricks. Those include their extraordinary 360-degree concert, played at Newmarket’s Green Door Market last year. That saw the band place their entire audience inside a boxed-off screen, while they played on its exterior to beautifully orchestrated imagery. Now, after a decade of playing about with their style and identity, they’re finally ready to launch debut album ‘Actor’.

It has to be a lot of pressure finally stepping up to the grandeur of the LP after such a long time, but after exploring near-death experiences in earlier EP ‘Curtains’ (specifically, in title track ‘Hospital’), and going big on Spotify with a quarter of a million plays, it makes sense to finally make the transition.

“We changed the name from The Dynamics and changed the sound a few years ago,” Rathfarnham native Cian Donohoe recalls. “The band set up was different, we’d reduced from six people to four, losing the brass. I think this album was a little different, in that we worked in the studio and put things together, and then figured out how to put it into a stage show. In the past, we figured it out live and then worked out where they went from there.”

“We were pretty much playing stuff live in the studio on the last EP,” he continues. “There weren’t drastic changes. Back when we were sixteen we were interested in ska music, mainly, and it’s gone from there. Ska came out of ability as well, as ska music’s pretty easy to play. Obviously there was an indie influence, then we started listening to folk music, and that became the sound of the band. Eight years later, it’s matured a lot as a sound.”

“The disparate influences collide in the middle,” Liam McCabe explains. “We’ve tried to fight against it at times, but I think that’s the nice bit. The nice thing about this record is it’s all the influences mashed together in this pile. We either push them aside, or just allow it to happen.”

“We’ve always written a lot of music. There’s a lot of discarded stuff out there. I think our plan has always been to write a load of tracks and pick the best few. With this one, we did a lot of experiments. Even if they aren’t full songs, there must be thirty or forty songs out there. There were a couple of real nonsense songs where we tried things, then tried to see things through. We had some Indian riff on one, and a vocoder. That was one of the slow days in the studio. We were writing tracks that wanted to be really long, with spacey intros, no verse, no chorus. In the end, we wrote an album of three-minute tracks. That wasn’t really the intention.”

“We self-produced for Curtains, but the engineer we had mixing it, Martin Quinn in Jam Studios, is brilliant. Really creative. We felt easy about trying new things this time around, and he helped us put them together,” Donohoe explains. “He guided us when we were going wrong. There’s definitely a nice sense of achievement you can take from saying ‘this is us, we did all this.”

Ash Get Personal On Break-Up Record ‘Islands’

DOWNPATRICK pop-rockers Ash have been going for 26 years, and for many, it’s the relatively early hits – Girl From Mars, Oh Yeah, Shining Light – that still stand out. In fact, it’s been 11 years since the three-piece announced their intention to “never make another album,” something that lasted until 2015, and the release of Kablammo!

Still powering through with the same distinctive vocals and hooky chords that helped them find their niche, eighth album ‘Islands’ has been a slow process, and one held back by factors outside of the band’s control.

“There’s been quite a gap,” drummer Rick McMurray told the Gazette. “The actual process went quite quickly, but there were a lot of changes on the business side that held up the progress of the record. It was finished towards the end of 2017, but it could easily have been a lot sooner. We wrote new stuff while the album was being finished, so we have a big backlog of material.”

The idea of abandoning the album completely is one that’s long in the band’s past now, but at the time they felt like it was a progressive move. “It seemed like we were witnessing the re-emergence of the single,” McMurray recalls of the plan to only release individual tracks back in 2007. “The album had only been out a week at the time, and when we came up with the idea, it really felt like getting ahead of the curve. Everything was going that way. We don’t have a problem with the format, but then vinyl came back, and an album kind of became a work of art again. The return of vinyl meant we had to go back to albums.”

Islands will get the customary new album tour, then, but a follow up is already on the horizon. “I doubt it will be another three years,” McMurray says, laughing about the extended gaps between the band’s records “I expect we’ll have another album out in 2019, some time, though it’s far from definite. We’ve hit on a new method of songwriting that is really working for us at the moment. There’s so much material around at the moment. We probably seem quite lazy when it comes to albums. In our defence, we did put out 52 singles in a year,” he adds, referencing the ‘A-Z’ project that saw Ash experiment with one off tracks throughout 2009 and 2010.

The new release is very much about frontman Tim Wheeler’s difficult breakup. The band live apart now, Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton in New York, and McMurray with his family in Edinburgh, jetting in for recording sessions and communicating largely digitally. “It’s pretty easy, really. It kind of suits all three of us. I like working in quick bursts, as that’s just what works as a drummer. Tim’s more slow and thought out. For me, this album was just one big explosion of energy.”

“It’s got very easy to get together and record,” he admits. The way things are is a natural thing. It took Tim six months to make this album, and me two weeks, but that really suits our personalities, at least the recording part.

Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: Off To Wembley!

Well, that was far from a classic. Tinged with the added emotion of Jlloyd Samual’s death in a car crash a few hours before kick off, Villa’s second leg against Middlesborough was one of the tensest and most uninspiring games of football I’ve ever seen as an Aston Villa fan. All’s well that ends well…

 

An oddly flat but intense game.

In my experience, Villa have always known how to test your nerves. You’d have to say, trying to look at things from a Middlesborough point of view, on balance they were really poor over the two legs. Without wanting to downplay the occasion, which makes things very different to a normal game, you could almost say Villa won by default. I’m reliably informed they had one shot on target over 180 minutes, none in this second game, which they needed to win, but seemed to forget that until the latter stages. They created incredibly little.

Nevertheless, Villa contrived to make things difficult for ourselves. The first half saw the home side sit back from about 15 minutes on, after a strong start, struggling to hold the ball outside of our own half, and sitting horrendously deep as Middlesborough seemed to keep a lot of the ball. Inability to clear our lines or hold onto the ball in an in any way attacking position is offset, I guess, by the fact that Adama Traore was once again largely shut down. The best Boro really created in the first half was a number of potentially dangerous crosses, which the superb Alan Hutton largely opted to let just fly over his head at the back post. It said more about Middlesborough’s lack of quality, though, than anything Villa were doing.

Things did get better in the second half. With the intensity ramped up, that Adomah/ Grealish partnership came into play, and looked really threatening at times. We seemed to figure out that the best way to defend was to try and get the ball in the other half and hold it, and Grealish and Grabban both had decent efforts on goal. I’m a little unsold on Grabban still: he had very little impact on the game (though you could certainly blame the service), and looked clunky at times. James Bree is also an obvious weakness: he struggled at right back in place of Elmohamady, and I’d be more than a little worried about him coming up against someone better on that wing when Wembley arrives.

The drama came at the end, of course. Downing smashed the crossbar – heart in mouth. Johnstone made a very rare error, in saving a shot by handling outside the area, a move he arguably should have been sent off for, depending on your definition of a clear goalscoring opportunity.  I suspect we would have gone through anyway, given how late in the game the incident was, but the leniency will serve us well in the final: Johnstone is essential to this Villa team, and I suspect he’ll have work to do at Wembley.

Here’s my good friend Stephen’s take on watching me watch the game. I suspect my nerves were more entertaining than what was on screen…

It’s hard to say anything all that positive, apart from that we did enough, and it really is all that matter at this stage. This was emphatically not a classic, though I do think the better team won.

Onwards.

All of which means it’s a one-off game against Fulham that determines whether Villa go back to the Premier League; a game played on the same day as the Champions League Final, and allegedly substantially more valuable. As I said in my previous blog on this, Fulham are the team it would have been better to avoid. They’re all but unbeaten since New Year, they have Mitrovic and Sessegnon, both of whom are undeniably Premier League class, and they will certainly go in as favourites.

A Quicky With… One Horse Pony

Taking the American deep south and transporting it to Ireland in the form of swampy Lousiana folk rock, One Horse Pony take cajun beats and infuse them with a rootsy Corkonian charm. Aiming to get your feet stomping, the band are building on an acclaimed live show – so far, they’ve hit up Electric Picnic, Kilkenny Roots Festival, the Cork Jazz Festival and Indiependence – and looking to put it all on record. 

Here’s what they had to say ahead of the launch of their new single ‘Muddy Waters’ this month. An EP, ‘Hot One’, produced by Gavin Glass, follows later this year.

Let’s start with a potted history of the band… Tell me your story.

We had a really organic beginning. We started life as a couple of strangers playing blues and folk around a table in the Franciscan Well in Cork, before it was the worldwide bastion of craft beer it is now. Over time, new members joined and more material got written. A two-year residency in Whelan’s, a couple of years spent on the festival circuit in Ireland and a couple of international tours put us and our songs through the mill, made us friends all over the world, gave us amazing adventures, a couple of funny stories, and a lot of laughs.

What are your musical backgrounds?

They’re varied. There’s a lot of old blues in what we do, as the title of the new single suggests, but throughout the upcoming EP Hot One, from which the new single is taken, there are nods to gypsy jazz, Irish trad, lots of gospel and the sort of roots grooves that make your shoulders move.

How did you come to be Louisiana-inspired in Cork?

They are both deep South. There’s lots of Irish inspired roots music going back hundreds of years. Cork is as much a melting pot of musical influences as New Orleans at the moment too. We also supported the Blind Boys of Alabama a few years ago and we loved their attitude to life.

How was working with Gavin Glass on the new single?

Gavin (Unkie Gav to us) is a force to be reckoned with. A serious artist in his own right, he has the musical chops, the ear and the enthusiasm to take a song and turn it into a statement. He has that gift of making a musician twice as good or half as bad.