Groundhopping: Ireland (v Belgium, Aviva Stadium)

Competition: International Friendly

Date: 23 March 2024

Result: Ireland 0 – 0 Belgium

Tickets:  About €30 for adults and €15 for kids when you break down the season ticket.

Attendance: 38,128

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: The first of what is likely to be two games in charge for John O’Shea (though on tonight’s evidence, there could be an argument for more), Ireland controlled this game against an admittedly weakened Belgium side captained by Youri Tielemens, who apparently captains Belgium exclusively when they come to Dublin.

With the impressive looking attacking trio of Ferguson, Ogbene and debutant Szmodics having lots of the play and Nathan Collins impressive at the back, there is the obvious spine of a team here ready to go, something that’s felt missing for a while. Szmodics on debut had a particularly good game, and while Ferguson is extremely highly regarded, it was his penalty being saved, as well as an Ogbene missed one-on-one in the opening minutes that probably cost a win against the world number four, who offered little. Unusually strong from Ireland.

The ground:  The Aviva up high on a March evening is absolutely baltic, with large chunks of the crowd retreating to under the stands until right before the whistle and as soon as the break came along. Good view though and the good has improved a bit, I think. We absolutely flew out of the stadium and back home today, which is unusual.

Extras: I left the programme as usual – I’ll save that for the bigger games. I’d like to see more places to buy stuff like shirts, but maybe I just need to look a little closer.

Assorted asides: The ‘duo’ ticket system the FAI are insisting on for home tickets at the moment is being widely criticised and with good reason: they’d have sold a lot more tickets to this game if it didn’t also require buying tickets for Tuesday night against Switzerland (which are now on sale individually a late notice – also not ideal), a far less easy to attend game if you live outside fo the Dublin area. Daft, with huge spaces in the stadium that could have been filled and created a better atmosphere.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 3. Home wins: 1 Draws: 1 Away wins: 1

Goals: 11. Home goals: 6. Away goals: 5. Goals per game: 3.66


Groundhopping: Loughgall (v Cliftonville, Lakeview Park)

Competition: Northern Irish Premier League

Date: 16 March 2024

Result: Loughgall 2 – 3 Cliftonville

Tickets:  £13 for adults

Attendance: circa 500

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: Conditions didn’t help with this, a scrappy contest played out on something of a bog, and made somewhat closer by a very average performance by the Cliftonville goalkeeper, who played a fairly major role in both the Loughgall goals. Both sides had several more decent chances in what could have been a goalfest, and ultimately the final minute or so – which saw a brief barrage on the Cliftonville goal after Loughgall got back within a goal – were the best part of the game.

There was something quite mellow about the whole thing, though – I didn’t ever feel that Loughgall really believed they could win the game, despite being well in it at times, and the Cliftonville fans on the way out sounded less than happy with their performance despite the three points. It was very watchable, but certainly not a great advert for the quality of the Northern Irish Premier.

The ground:  Lakeview Park doesn’t, at least from within the confine of the stands (and yes, I checked), have a view of Lough Gall, or any other lake, but what can you do. An unlikely spot for a top-tier football club, I went early enough to feel like the attendance might be in the two figures, but the ground – which will hold the population of Loughgall more than four times over – soon filled out, not least with two thirds of one side and one end’s worth of away fans, outnumbering the home support.

It’s a tiny but tidy little ground, with a small amount of seating and a handful of very windy terraces. A youth side welcoming the teams on is a nice touch. For this particular rainy March day, I did briefly think my trip up north might have been in vein, with the pitch a bog in some areas and probably not a million miles from seeing the game called off. Proper, old-school football; remarkable to think it’s at the level it is, really – I understand the club represents the smallest town in Europe to have a top tier club.

Extras: I didn’t find a programme, and while there are two food outlets – a coffee and snack stall and a cooked foot spot – I didn’t visit either as they were both cash only and I didn’t have any sterling with me. They did seem more than adequate for the number of people there.

Assorted asides: As someone commented on Twitter, what a superb Football Manager challenge this spot would be. I had a great walk around Loughgall Country Park for about an hour before kick off, and learnt that the town is where the Orange Order formed more than 200 years ago, which made me feel slightly nervous of my Irish reg plates. A friendly and enjoyable experience, though.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 2. Home wins: 1 Draws: 0 Away wins: 1

Goals: 11. Home goals: 6. Away goals: 5. Goals per game: 5.5


Groundhopping: Aston Villa (v Nottingham Forest, Villa Park)

Competition: English Premier League

Date: 24 February 2024

Result: Aston Villa 4 – 2 Nottingham Forest

Tickets:  £42 for adults, £15.50 concession.

Attendance: circa 42,000

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆☆

The Game: My first game at Villa Park in what is arguably the best season in Aston Villa’s modern history (I’d certainly argue the best in the 00s), following my tradition of trying to make at least one a year. This was a fantastic game in parts. Villa are seriously weakened in defence (they finished this game with the fifth and sixth choice centre backs on the pitch), but so fiery going forward.

At the heart of that are the immensely effective Watkins, and Leon Bailey, who has gone from looking a bit of a flop briefly, to one of the outstanding attacking players in the league. The strings are pulled by Douglas Luiz, who is frankly one of the best players I’ve ever seen in claret and blue. An almost flawless first half saw Bailey shred Forest as Villa went into a 3-0 lead.

When it got back to 3-2, the Villa of a couple of years ago would have gone on to lose. Instead, they stabalised their position with a 4-2 win and continue to heap the pressure on Tottenham and Man United when it comes to Champions League places. The cheers around the ground when United’s loss to Fulham at home was announced was something else.

The ground:  Obviously as a Villa fan I love Villa Park, and it’s with some concern that I’ve watched the recent stuff around extension being cancelled (there are some rumours it might relate to a move to a more modern facility, which I don’t think many Villa fans would be in favour of, despite the current difficulty getting tickets).

I sat in the North Stand for the first time in years, right in the very back row, and to be honest it didn’t have the atmosphere I’ve got used to down there, so that was a bit of a let down, and I’ll be moving back to either the Holte to the Doug Ellis next time around given half the chance. Still such a pleasure to drop by, of course.

Extras: I love the old programmes around the place alongside the matchday ones at Villa Park. I found one from a game against Dynamo Bucharest in 1983, describing in details elements of the 1982 European Cup win I’d never heard about, which made for great pre-match reading. A Balti Pie seems to have become something else these days, which is a shame because of childhood memories from the Trinity. Still my favourite ground to go to anywhere, though.

Assorted asides: I went to this game feeling pretty terrible – still getting over a nasty dose of the flu, which meant it a tough task to climb the North Stand and also that I spent almost the whole day sat around in coffee shops writing and reading, rather than my usual exploration of Birmingham. I did find a little pin from my only ever Villa away game, though, vs Hamburg in 2008, so I have nice a little souvenir anyway.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 1. Home wins: 1 Draws: 0 Away wins: 0

Goals: 6. Home goals: 4. Away goals: 2. Goals per game: 6


The League of Ireland without a team: can you be a fan of a league?

As the League of Ireland prepares for the 2024 season, which kicks off this evening, I am preparing to spend (some of) my Friday evenings travelling all over the Dublin region supporting… no one in particular. While the concept of groundhopping (you can find mine here) is certainly not alien to football fans, the idea of watching a league on a week by week basis without picking a team, or even one that could potentially be in that league one day, is likely an odd one. After 15 years of watching the League of Ireland, though, I’ve found it the best way.

The key value it gives me (and my son) is that I can pick the game that looks like it might be the most fun each week. Not that it’s typically necessary in the League of Ireland, but I have a booking record at every club within an hour of Dublin (and a few further away, too), and when I look at the League of Ireland fixtures on a Friday night with the intent of heading out, I look for what I think will be the best game.

Not ending up at the same place every week probably has a lot to do with having a loose definition of what the best game is. Last year, for example, I went to Bray Wanderers on the second game of the season, because I wanted to check out Kerry right after their acceptance into the League of Ireland. I wanted to see what their fanbase was like, how they were coming together (not great, as it turned out – they had a really poor season), and what style of play they would have. As it turned out, I also got to see their first ever goal at League of Ireland level (they lost 3-1).

Later in the season I decided I had a liking for the Louth derby, and went to Drogheda United v Dundalk, at either side’s ground. It has pyro, a slightly edgy atmosphere, and typically a few goals. Speaking of goals, picking Bohemians v Cork City (a 5-0 hammering) was a good call, and my absence of having a ‘team’ meant that I saw Shamrock Rovers and Derry City play several European games in Tallaght, a chance to see a few teams from outside Ireland (I would have gone to more European games, but unfortunately it was quite a poor year for Irish sides in Europe).

Of course, there are certain things I particularly enjoy. I have a soft spot for stadiums that feel like they’re from the 80s, so while my son will almost always opt for Shamrock Rovers given the choice (sorry, Shamrock Rovers fans, it’s the McDonalds in the Square carpark he’s most enthused about), I would fairly regularly opt for Shelbourne or Bohemians, just because it feels like going to football when I was growing up.

I have a soft spot for some teams, too. Drogheda United, for example, seem to gather odd results, often threatening the big clubs and losing to the little ones, and I enjoy the chaos. Bohemians left-leaning thing is not for everyone, but I’ve always enjoyed that, too, not least for the grafitti and the memorable away shirts. It would be a huge stretch, though, to say that I support any of those clubs. I simply don’t: their results don’t effect me on any meaningful level at all. I just enjoy the games.

One thing that’s different about the League of Ireland to what I grew up with in England is that while it’s growing in popularity (try getting a Bohs ticket at late notice), a lot of people here don’t go to games, don’t know a lot about the league, and don’t grow up supporting a team. As such, for a lot of people it might become necessary to ‘pick’ a team.

For those getting into the game, yes, of course, go down to your local team, enjoy the (in my opinion very good value) entertainment, and throw some money in the coffers to help the league’s development. But equally, especially if you live in Dublin and have, potentially, comfortably half a dozen clubs within an hour, consider simply picking something that looks entertaining one week, and then doing the same the next, and so on. I’ve found it a great way to engage with the league, and at this point, I can’t see myself every picking an Irish club. I’ll simply keep flitting around soaking up the best the league has to offer.

Groundhopping: Crusaders (v Carrick Rangers, Seaview)

Competition: NIFL Premier Division

Date: 30 December 2023

Result: Crusaders 2 – 0 Carrick Rangers

Tickets:  £13 for adults, £9 concession.

Attendance: circa 1,000 (best guess)

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: I was quite disappointed in a first half that we watched from the very quiet family stand up against the Shore Road, with both teams lacking quality in the post-Christmas cold. It got a lot better in the second half, with Crusaders pressing Carrick until they first broke through with a nice passing move, and then pressured the fairly well-supported visitors into a red card, at which point the game felt over. It finished 2-0, with Crusdars legend and one club man Jordan Owens grabbing the second.

It wasn’t an exciting fan experience: perhaps the lack of excitement around it all came from the positions of the two sides. Crusaders are in a bit of a nothing position, isolated in the middle of the NIFL Premier League table with Cliftonville and unlikely to finish anywhere other than right where they are. Carrick already look safe from relegation below them. This was my first glance at the NIFL though, and I can’t say the quality impressed me all that much.

The ground:  Seaview is located in what is clearly a very unionist part of Belfast, with lots of flags around the neighbourhood, but even parking our Irish registered car outside I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable – in fact, i found the place to be quite welcoming. The ground has some nice aspects: a tall stand on one side, a two-storey bar that was quite cool to walk around in one corner, and some popular food stalls that we couldn’t face the queues for. The little standing area in the back left hand corner was particulary good; we stood there for the second half and it was a huge improvement atmosphere wise.

Extras: A programme was available, though having no sterling, I didn’t get it. The bar looked particularly good. It would be useful if they made ticketing policy around youngsters clearer on the website – I paid £9 for a two year old just to be sure we got in online. I suspect I didn’t need to.

Assorted asides: Truthfully, we came up to Belfast for the Glentoran game that was rained off, hoping to see The Oval. This was a solid compromise, though, under the circumtances.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 20. Home wins: 12 Draws: 4 Away wins: 4

Goals: 56. Home goals: 37. Away goals: 19. Goals per game: 2.80


Groundhopping: Drogheda United (v Bohemians, United Park)

Competition: League of Ireland Premier

Date: 22 September 2023

Result: Drogheda United 0 – 0 Bohemians

Tickets:  €15 for adults, €5 for kids.

Attendance: circa 1,500

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆

The Game: I think we can all admit that sometimes football is just a bit dull. Just as often it’s fiercely exciting, but this game fell firmly into column A. A really indifferent, low-energy encounter that saw the Drogheda ‘keeper make a couple of fine saves and very little else happen at all. Europe seems to be slipping through Bohs fingers, and this was the worst game I’ve seen all year. Nice to watch with Chris Lee of Outside Write, though, who I’ve known ‘online’ for some time. He’s over in Ireland sniffing out a new project, which is well worth keeping an eye on.

The ground:  I like United Park, if only for its ramshackle, proper oldschool feel (much the same reason I like the visitor’s ground, too, as it happens). It has decent facilities for the state of it, and generally sells well with good local support. Not great for walking around (you’re always stuck on one side or the other), but it’s a cool place to watch Irish top-tier teams in close proximity.

Extras: I saw programmes for the first time at Drogheda. I don’t buy them – this is my alternative – but good to see paper offerings. I think the food and drink is decent and decently priced compared to a lot of places.

Assorted asides: A week earlier these two teams had a really entertaining cup game that Bohs won 3-1. We drew the short straw!

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 20. Home wins: 11 Draws: 5 Away wins: 4

Goals: 54. Home goals: 35. Away goals: 19. Goals per game: 2.70


Groundhopping: Ireland (v The Netherlands, Aviva Stadium)

Competition: European Championship Qualifying.

Date: 10 September 2023

Result: Ireland 1 – 2 The Netherlands

Tickets:  Included in season tickets, but works out at about €45 for an adult and a kid.

Attendance: 49,807

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: There’s a sense of inevitability around Ireland at the moment. I’m a strong defender of Stephen Kenny’s attempts to play decent football with what is overall a pretty weak group of players (especially absent Evan Ferguson, as tonight), but there’s also a naivety that’s somewhat depressing.

It’s shown a fair bit tonight. After some fantastic Ireland pressure in the opening 15 minutes and the Dutch looking genuinely rattled for a short time, Ireland led 1-0 through a penalty resulting from a fairly obvious handball. The Dutch came back when Gavin Bazunu was forced to fly out of goal and took out a Dutch forward, but for much of the first half, Ireland were at least competitive.

In the second half, though, there was only one winner, and Wout Weghorst eventually slammed in for a 2-1 Netherlands win, something that late Irish posession made all the more frustrating as it resulted in so little in the way of attacking intent. Kenny might be on his last legs. Though the losses to France and The Netherlands are far from shocking given the quality disparity, he’s simply unable to adapt strategy to the situation.

The ground:  I have mixed feelings about the national stadium. Great views and a decent design, but annoying to get to (we found a slighty better way to park this time, wihch I won’t promote for obvious reasons, but it’s always awkward), with poor service and ridiculous prices. True of the most corporate end of football everywhere, I suppose.

Extras: Programmes, limited and overpriced food and drinks. The Aviva usual.

Assorted asides: Dutch fans seems a whole lot of fun. From forming a ‘bus’ (a kind of vibrant dance-march) to the stadium, to the chatty woman outside the ground who handed my son a pair of orange glasses to remember her by, the nicest bunch of away fans I think I’ve come across. I suppose they did win!

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 19. Home wins: 11 Draws: 4 Away wins: 4

Goals: 54. Home goals: 35. Away goals: 19. Goals per game: 2.84


Groundhopping: Derry City (v Tobol Kostanay, Tallaght Stadium)

Competition: Europa Conference League Third Qualifying Round, Second Leg

Date: 17 August 2023

Result: Derry City 1 – 0 Tobol Kostanay (1-1 on aggregate, Tobol win 6-5 on penalties)

Tickets:  £25 for adults, £9 for kids.

Attendance: 3,128

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆☆

The Game: Derry came into this game 1-0 down from a trip to Kazakhstan, and based on the highlights I’d seen, a little unfortunate with that. Forced to play in Tallaght instead of Bandywell or Windsor Park (which works for me, though I’d imagine was a serious frustration for their fans), they created an almost manic atmosphere which I really quite enjoyed, although almost entirely in the Tallaght Stadium’s West Stand.

I thought Derry dominated most of the game, creating a host of chances, though their actual goal came from a penalty. There wasn’t a lot of cutting edge, as demonstrated by the final kick of normal time, a one-on-one with the Tobol goalkeeper that was frustratingly scuffed. There was nothing in the tie, though, which is always a bonus, and ultimately it went to penalties, with Tobol’s goalkeeper, something of a game player, delaying loads of kicks and causing a few issues.

It was Derry goalkepper Brian Maher who was eventually key after Tobol had hit the crossbar with their first chance to win the game. He hit the seventh Derry penalty quite tamely at Tobol’s keeper, and then got nowhere near the reply, with Tobol coming out 6-5 winners after seven penalties each. A good contest that Derry were unlucky not to win, but neither side felt riddled with quality.

The ground:  I’ve been to Tallaght countless times but it felt different occupied by lively Derry fans, who lit up the normally quiet-ish West Stand. I particualrly enjoyed their renditions of ‘Teenage Kicks’. The North Stand looks close to completion, maybe another month’s work.