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Aston Villa (v Liverpool, Villa Park)

Competition: English Premier League

Date: 13 May 2024

Result: Aston Villa 3 – 3 Liverpool

Tickets:  £42 adults, £14 kids (North Stand Lower restricted view – front row!)

Attendance: 42,600

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆☆☆

The Game: My first time bringing the little lad to Villa, and he absolutely loved it. With Villa playing for a Champions League place, but clearly dead on their feet over the last few weeks, a Martinez error in goal in the very first minute gifting Liverpool the lead looked at ominous sign. Villa grew into the game, though, especially after Watkins beat his man and squared for Tielemans to equalise. The game had an air of chaos about it, with Moussa Diaby extremely effective on the break but unable to finish from at least three really good chances throughout the game.

Instead, Liverpool pulled away, and I must admit that at 3-1 just after half time, I turned to the little lad and said “that’s it” – it just didn’t feel realistic to come back given the state of the team recently. It turns out it wasn’t it at all. Villa were the better side for much of the game, and when Jhon Duran scored a long range beauty the place erupted, before an equaliser that may or may not have been intended made things 3-3, with both Villa’s late goals coming after the 85th minute.

Diaby could have won the game, drawing a top late save from Allisson, but the draw was enough to have Tottenham needing a win against league leaders Manchester City to catch Villa for that Champions League place. There was a sense of ‘nearly done’ in the vocal crowd reaction after the equaliser, and it proved right – the following day, Villa stepped out of Spurs’ reach to get into elite European competition for the first time in my lifetime. Incredible game.

The ground:  I loved showing the young lad around Villa Park, which was suitably adorned with a flag in every single seat to welcome the impressive team. We were in the very front row of the North Stand, the far side from the away fans, and my first time in the North Lower. It feels quite cramped and old school compared to much of the rest of the ground, but nobody sat down at any point from start to finish, so it had a terrific atmosphere.

We dropped in the shop for one last time – images of it being knocked down to buy a new one as Villa try to boost commercial revenue to aid the push towards the top-end of the Premier League appeared online only two days later. I’ve been going there since the mid 90s, so a strange feeling!

Extras: The ‘Up The Villa’ flags were a great momento, and I ended up bringing heaps of programmes home, mostly for Liverpool fans, but that’s Ireland! As the last home game, the speaches and crowd send off for the players was superb, too.

Assorted asides: The following day we rented a car and hit up Alton Towers Waterpark. Decent but a lot of effort for the reward all in.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 5. Home wins: 1 Draws: 3 Away wins: 1

Goals: 19. Home goals: 10. Away goals: 9. Goals per game: 3.8

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

Groundhopping: Leinster (v Northampton Saints, Croke Park)

Competition: Champion’s Cup Semi Final

Date: 4 May 2024

Result: Leinster 20 – 17 Northampton Saints

Tickets:  €26 (Hill 16 adult)

Attendance: 82,300

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆☆

The Game: If you’re a regular reader of ‘Groundhopping’ (as if), you might know that it’s almost all about football, which makes this a bit of an aside, but I couldn’t resist the chance to see a high level rugby match from the iconic HIll 16 for less than €30. The game itself was actually not great – Leinster were utterly dominant for roughly the first hour, making for little in the way of contest, with James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park controlling the game. They lead by double digits for the bulk of the game.

Northampton woke up a bit in the second half, creating a tense atmosphere that felt a little bit unnecessary given the dominance Leinster had held throughout. Northampton got back within a kick and even held the ball – although in their own half – in the dying two minutes where a kick would have levelled up the game, but ended up giving it away. A good, close contest that didn’t seem like it would be a good, close contest for the majority of its lifespan.

The ground:  As a former Dublin football (GAA) season ticket holder, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Croke Park, and it’s one hell of a place, just for the sheer scale of it. Hill 16, where I was stood, is an odd part of the ground on the face of it, an undeveloped terrace surrounded by massive stands that has some very substantial history connected to the formation of the State.

The atmosphere was decent throughout, and I was quite taken with the efforts of the Leinster mascot to pump it all up – unusually effective. At times, the aisles of the stand were crammed and the stewards had little interest, which felt uncomfortable and in some ways bordering on dangerous. It seemed to clear itself up in the second half. A phenomenal spot that’s rarely used for rugby or football, so you have to take the chance when it arises.

Extras: €8 for a medicore programme felt a bit much, but I guess it was a Champion’s Cup semi final. That aside, I didn’t really explore – the nature of Hill 16 is you have to hold on to your space or you end up shunted somewhere inconvenient (and honestly, watching rugby end on is not ideal in the first place).

Assorted asides: There is something genuinely quite funny about the cliche of Leinster fans and the north side of Dublin. I thought it was tongue in cheek, but quite a few looked genuinely quite uncomfortable, and I overheard one making quite a lot of noise about how he’d never be back unless Leinster play in Croke Park again. It’s just a stadium and a less affluent part of the city, lads.

Groundhopping: St Patrick’s Athletic (v Waterford, Richmond Park)

Competition: League of Ireland Premier Division

Date: 19 April 2024

Result: St Patrick’s Athletic 1 – 1 Waterford

Tickets:  €18 adults, €5 kids

Attendance: 4,376

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: I must admit I saw less of the action at this game than I’d have liked to – the drawback of bringing a two year old who needs to be watched, and the need to keep her happy by giving her space to run around in the corner of the Camac Stand. From what I saw, it was of modest quality at best, with both sides scrappy in midfield and creating relatively few chances. Waterford led early on from a corner, with Pat’s equalising in the second half and then pushing for a winner that never really particularly looked like coming.

Both seem to lack a bit of patience and control, and I think they’ll be mid table at the end of the season in a League of Ireland that has a couple of quite poor teams this year (and a few other really decent looking ones).

The ground:  I’ve been to Richmond quite a few times and this is the first time I’ve seen it quite as packed as it was tonight, and my first time in several years since moving away from the area – the growth of the league of Ireland continues, and I believe this must have bene very close to a sell out, if not a total sell out, judging by how packed the stands were. So far as I can tell it’s close to impossible to get into the main (Inchicore side) stand this season due to season tickets.

There’s one main covered seated area that has space for home and away fans, another large uncovered seating area behind one goal and the rest is terraced standing. It’s all a bit old school but I’ve always liked that, nice to see so many packed in.

Extras: I liked the almost hidden food stall right at the far end of the Camac. Richmond seems to have decent facilities these days, but with the four kids in tow, I passed on the trip to the club shop or any search for a programme, and ended up buying small heaps of sweets.

Assorted asides: The kids were fascinated with the river running behind the terrace, in particular when a ball was blasted into it and they could watch it float down.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 4. Home wins: 1 Draws: 2 Away wins: 1

Goals: 13. Home goals: 7. Away goals: 6. Goals per game: 3.25

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

Groundhopping: Blackburn Rovers (v Sheffield Wednesday, Ewood Park)

Competition: EFL Championship

Date: Sunday, April 21, 2024

Result: Blackburn Rovers 1-3 Sheffield Wednesday

Tickets: Adults – £25-30, Seniors – £20-25, Age 18-23 – £15-20, Age 12-17 – £10-15, Under 12 – Free

Attendance: 21,718

Game/Experience Rating: ☆☆☆☆

The Game: With both sides embroiled in a battle to avoid relegation to League One, it was little
wonder that they both came out flying.

Josh Windass gave Wednesday an early lead, but Rovers levelled courtesy of a player who has been
the scourge of Championship defences this season.

Sammie Szmodics has been a standout performer for the Lancashire outfit and it was no surprise
when he fired home the equaliser. His efforts for Rovers recently resulted in a call-up for the Republic of Ireland squad and his performance highlighted why that was fully deserved.

Szmodics has become hugely popular with Irish sports bettors this season, delivering numerous
payouts for people who wager in the ‘anytime scorer’ market. However, punters who backed Rovers to win on the top Irish betting apps were left frustrated as Wednesday scored twice after the break to claim a valuable victory.

The result boosted the Yorkshire side’s chances of avoiding the drop and left Rovers looking
nervously over their shoulders.

The Ground: It is not too long ago that Rovers were hosting Premier League games at Ewood Park
and their stadium remains an excellent venue.

The atmosphere was helped in no small part by a 7,000-strong contingent from Sheffield who made
plenty of noise throughout the game. The playing surface was also in excellent condition despite the number of games that have been played on it this season.

Extras: Standard fare for a second-tier club. The prices were not too bad and the McDonald’s across
from the ground was an added bonus.

Assorted Asides: Rovers’ demise in recent years has been well-documented, with owners Venky’s
making a complete mess of running the club. It is sad to see how far things have fallen and conversations with their fans painted a sorry picture about the ineptitude they have had to endure.

Allowing under 12s in for free is a nice touch by the club, but they are unlikely to retain many of
them if Rovers’ fortunes do not improve on the pitch.

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

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

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

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

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

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.