Thursday 31 December 2020

Happy New Year & Groundhopping Hopes For 2021

Happy New Year! It’s been a difficult year for most of us, to say the least – for those of us who like to forget about the pressures of everyday life on a weekend afternoon by watching people kick a ball about, the last few months has been a constant rollercoaster of hope and disappointment. No supporters have been allowed in grounds for most of the year, then non-league clubs were permitted supporters back, then professional sides in select areas – and now, following the news yesterday of large swathes of England being put into ‘Tier 4’ restrictions, it’s back to square one.

Of course, us not being able to go to a football match pales in comparison to what other industries (and not mention, people who have been affected by the virus) are going through at the moment, but with football being a representation of our culture, it’s a good screen on which to see how our way of life has changed. As I said in my groundhop to Ashton Town just before lockdown became official; the only times football has been suspended was during the First and Second World Wars (and even then, friendly matches and wartime leagues were held). So, with such a upheaval, it’s no surprise that many people have felt lost without their usual routine and social contact with others – making the famous football quote by Pope John Paul II that more poignant; “Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important”.

And we’ve seen this, with all clubs doing various things in their local communities, trying to connect with people – community trusts', football club staff and even players helping to deliver items, hosting virtual events, making phone calls, giving things away, etc. All of this is an example of the impact football has on society, why it’s been frustrating to see the continuing situation unfold – and why we must continue to push for a return to some semblance of normality at the earliest opportunity.

Groundhopping In 2021 – and My Book

As it happened, I only got to see two matches after non-league sides were originally permitted to welcome crowds in again. Now, it’s difficult to assess when games will be able to restart – we don’t even know if non-league will even be able to continue beyond January as many leagues have already been suspended (some for the second time this season).

So, playing by ear it is – hopefully, the right solution can be found to protect our clubs, even if it means cancelling the season again. The initial lockdown was a leap into the unknown, so with the experience and resulting measures put in place by leagues, you’d imagine that swifter decisions can be made in everyone's best interests.

The unfortunate break has seen us all trying to fill the football void in some way; On this blog, I’ve written about a few different things (including my own team, Wigan Athletic's, fall into adminstration – unresolved as of yet). I've also featured a couple of interviews with people who use football as means to produce something – so far, I’ve spoken to a Norweigan groundhopper who has been to no less than 500 English grounds, and a bloke who has built the grounds of the 92 out of Lego! Unfortunately, it’s not been as much as much content as I would have liked to have produced, but there’s a reason for it – which brings me to some self-indulgent selling!

From the 2014-15 season through to the early part of 2019-20, I travelled across the country in a bid to ‘do the 92’. After each season I released a volume of the all the grounds I visited that season, ticking all the visits off. Containing an ever-expansive historical, social, and (often) irreverent look at our clubs and English football in general, I was delighted to see them warmly received.

I completed the project (spoilers!) in September 2019 and have been working on the final volume, Volume Five, ever since. It’s taken a lot longer than I envisioned – it’s by far the largest volume of the series and with COVID and everything, I’ve been pre-occupied with other things to get it all finished. I suppose an ironic twist to all our football grounds being shut is that I’m technically still ‘in the club’ in regards to having been to them all. Us groundhoppers can’t visit Barrow or Harrogate, or Brentford and Wimbledon’s new grounds until the start of the 2021/22 season at the earliest – so that’s good enough reasoning for me to justify the time taken to release the book!

Anyway, Volume Five will (hopefully) be out in late-February and I’ll no doubt be pushing it on here! If you’re interested in the series, you can buy the first four volumes of 'Playing Offside' on Amazon Kindle for £4.96. You don’t actually need a Kindle to read them – you can download the app from Google Play or the Apple Store and read on there.

So that’s all I have for 2020 – a frustrating year for us all, but however you’re celebrating its end, ensure you throw yourself into it because you doubtless deserve it. Hopefully 2021 will be much better, so take care of yourself and everyone around you, and hopefully we'll be back on those terraces, drinking, chatting, laughing and shouting as soon as possible!

Wednesday 16 September 2020

The Future of Football: Ticketing Apps and Livestreaming

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to rumble on, many industries are predicting what their futures may look like – whether that’s offices who want to establish a more flexible way of working (as employees divide time between the office and home), schools testing out new contact systems, through to pubs and bars that have established table service arrangements – we’re living in a time of experimentation.

Football is no different – this weekend (19th September), some experiments are going ahead in the EFL with a maximum of 1000 people attending select games. Non-League has been back for a few weeks now but even at these levels, maximum capacities and experimentation is happening.

As the last groundhop I did before lockdown, I returned to Ashton Town this week to have a look at the innovations they put in place for their first home game back – how will they affect games at these levels going forward? Well, that and a Wigan Athletic legend making his debut for the club encouraged me to go too!

Emmerson Boyce, the 40-year-old former Wigan Athletic captain, who lifted the FA Cup in 2013, signed for Ashton Town 3 weeks ago  – saying it was a ‘thank-you’ to chairman Mark Hayes for his years of charity work. Ashton have big ambitions for promotion this season (also appointing former Chesterfield striker, Glynn Hurst, as manager) and this signing made waves on the non-league scene. The capacity for this match was set at 150 – while this is certainly far more than the average crowd 10th-tier Ashton get, they would have got far more in if no restrictions were in place. And it was all marshalled by a new Manchester-based ticketing app, Shocal.

The lockdown has undoubtedly provided the perfect opportunity for these types of apps to grow their user base (I’m absolutely pig sick of seeing that Just Eat advert with Snoop Dogg – and no, I’m not linking to it) – and Shocal have moved quickly in an attempt to establish themselves as ‘the home of local deliveries’ for a range of different business in Greater Manchester. They aren’t the only home delivery app that has created a ticketing arm – I’ve seen other non-league sides promoting different ones – but I believe Shocal is one of very few that offer partners more than just an avenue to sell tickets. In fact, Ashton have put their entire club shop on the app – you can buy season tickets, scarves, player sponsorship and a plethora of Emmerson Boyce memorabilia on there.

For football clubs, having a means to make the purchasing process easier will help to promote them, working to increase their revenue – customers appreciate a quick, no-nonsense way of finding what they need above everything else. Mobile phone apps (especially ones that work!) offer such convenience – and I’m pleased to report that Shocal offered a seamless, secure way of buying my ticket (I was even tempted by the Emmerson Boyce cushion they had in the shop too). On approach to the ground, the representative of Shocal scanned the QR code on my phone and I was in – no waiting around, no fishing in my pocket for the right change; straight in to beat the queue at the bar for my can-of-Carling-in-a-plastic-cup. Yep, still no Leffe behind the bar.

Whist having the club shop on an app is great for non-league sides to potentially increase their revenue on a more consistent basis, it should go without saying that ticketing apps won’t be needed for the vast majority of games at this level. However, I won’t be surprised to see ticketing apps brought forward into the professional ranks in the next year or two. As someone who has apps for buses, taxis and Wetherspoons, I’m actually a bit surprised they haven’t been introduced already – the ordering ease they provide can’t be questioned. Not great news for paper tickets – as a collector myself, it’ll be a shame to see these physical reminders go, but with the time and money it costs to produce, print and send them out, it doesn’t make sense to keep doing it.

Another experiment that was conducted for this match was a livestream. Broadcasting games over the internet is nothing new, but the pandemic has provided an opportunity for service providers, leagues and clubs to experiment with it on a mass level. As a groundhopper, you can probably guess that I’m against streaming and television in general – I don’t think the way it has influenced the game (changing kick-off times, encouraging people to not go to the match, growing a generation of fans who have never been to a match, who then label clubs as ‘tinpot’ for having empty seats, etc) has been positive – but we mustn’t kid ourselves any different; just like the ticketing apps, they provide a quick and convenient way of watching football.

For the professional level, I’m very worried about the effect it’ll have when things eventually (hopefully!) get back to normal. Despite a few boomer hiccups with the EFL’s iFollow service, it has generally been a success in providing fans with access to games. Before the pandemic, football games held at 3pm were not allowed to be streamed in the UK to protect crowd numbers – but as we’ve seen through the rise of streaming services and YouTube, the money is moving from television into the streaming market – Amazon already have a Premier League TV deal and will no doubt be pushing for more slices of the Sky/BT pie in the next few years.

If television has the power to move games, streaming companies will be powerful enough to dictate what they want too – it isn’t inconceivable that a streaming company will come in with a big offer for the EFL and as many of clubs (including my own) are currently on their arse, it stands to sense they’d submit to anything asked of them. Unless clubs let people in for free, I can’t ever see the vast majority of stadiums being anywhere near full – again though, it makes perfect sense; people don’t want to travel to games, spend extra money on programmes and catering when they are able to watch it from the comfort of their own home.

Emmerson Boyce in debut action for Ashton Town

 So where does that leave non-league clubs? Here at Ashton Town, they provided those who couldn’t get a ticket with an opportunity to stream the match for £1 – and 362 took them up on that offer. I have no idea of the cut they may have got, but let’s just say it was half – that’s £131 going to a club that usually gets 50 people on the gate (add that to 150 who were the game, and that’s over 500 people watching a game between a 10th tier side and an amateur club). The signing of Emmerson Boyce was the obvious attraction, which is why (beyond the odd curiosity like a former pro in action or a big match), I can’t see the streaming of non-league games lasting long-term – there simply isn’t a big pre-existing audience there to tap into. The attraction of non-league football is the ground and what you experience there, so unless they bring in some virtual reality app that recreates everything (the smell of the mud, the materials of the wonky stand, a dog pissing on an advertisement board, etc), the same people will continue to go these games.

However, just like how the shop app provides a way for non-league sides to promote themselves, I think the streaming of matches in non-league can give a curious local the opportunity to see a side in action, potentially encouraging them to go one day or at the very least, buy an Emmerson Boyce keyring. It’s how you use the technology that matters – and as these experiments continue, I hope clubs and leagues are able to find a way of encouraging people back to games, rather than presenting them with reasons to stay on this ‘new normal’, streaming games long after the pandemic is over.

As for the match itself, it was great to see Boycey back playing football – he’s obviously a legend at Wigan for his 9 years service and winning the FA Cup, but he’s a great man to boot; always willing to get involved with local community projects and charity work. Playing at centre-half, he marshalled his new side to a 5-1 win over Orrell Athletic – who despite playing their football many levels below their hosts in the South Lancs League, put up a great show. They certainly scored the goal of the game when their forward lobbed the Ashton goalkeeper from just inside the penalty area!

While the signing of Boycey can be seen as great marketing for the club, his ability and experience will undoubtedly help Ashton on the pitch too. Straight from kick-off, he was rallying his teammates and dishing out instructions – just by this brief insight, I can only imagine playing alongside him will encourage players, getting the most out of their own abilities and even help to improve their own game. I hope more former professionals consider similar moves; if grassroots clubs are given the means by the FA to offer a way into coaching for them, I’m sure we may see more of this.

As it turned it, the experiment on this night was a success; everyone had a great time, easily socially distancing in the 2,000-capacity ground and the ice cream van parked inside the ground even played the Match of the Day theme for our half-time entertainment. Ashton have already got tickets on the app for their opening league home match against St. Helens Town in October, with a maximum of 300 now allowed in – so I made sure to snap one up.

Here’s hoping the professional clubs are just as successful with their own experiments so we can all get to games as safely as possible. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for the television and livestreaming.

Saturday 29 August 2020

Ashton Athletic vs. Greenalls Padgate St Oswalds

After FIVE MONTHS of not watching a football match in person, I’m delighted to say that I’m back on the groundhopping bandwagon – but rather than spread my own brand of disease throughout the public transportation network, I decided to keep my first trip as local as possible. This is why I’m at Brocstedes Park to see North West Counties League Premier Division Ashton Athletic play Cheshire League side, Greenalls Padgate St Oswalds in a pre-season friendly.

If you recall from my last groundhop at Athletic’s rivals, Ashton Town on the 14th March, I was planning on coming to Brocstedes on that day but the game was postponed due to the developing pandemic. As it turned out, the following 10 days saw the country placed on lockdown and football at all levels wasn’t played for months – even now still, the professional game is being held behind closed doors. That was initially the plan for non-league too, but as these clubs’ entire income is based on what comes from the gate, sense prevailed and the authorities gave the go-ahead for limited capacities to be let in. As most clubs below the National Leagues have ground capacities of more than a thousand and a couple of hundred (at most) coming through the gate, it really isn’t difficult to upkeep social distancing measures.

During the pandemic, in the strive to keep up a fitness regime of sorts, I took up walking like many others; I had many a great day (and still do), walking to the local country park, spotting wildlife, getting pissed on rum-and-coke, etc. As Brocstedes Park is roughly four miles from where I live, I decided to make more of a day of it by walking to-and-from the ground, naturally with a pub stop on the way.

After an epic 45-minute ramble, I stop for a pint break at The Park in Bryn; a Marston's-owned pub, it's quite cosy inside (not always the case with Marston's – they sold The Swan and Railway 18 months ago, a notable pub in Wigan town centre as it sits opposite the mainline train station, after many years of genuinely not knowing what to do with it. After a refurb and a reimagining of the beer selection, it’s doing better now). In The Park today, there are social distancing markers everywhere, staff wearing face shields, me wearing a snazzy light-grey cardigan…so let battle commence. After a quick peruse of their taps, I plump for a pint of their own-brand Smooth to cleanse the palette. You always know what you're getting with a Marston's Smooth, it does a job; the James Milner of mass-produced bitter.

Most of the walk to the ground from there (just over a mile) is done in complete shock after seeing an advert for festive menu bookings. How is it (almost) September already? We've lost a year through all this – normally, I’m moaning about Christmas advertisements at this time of year, but it all hits home just how much time has gone, so I’m too stunned to moan about it. Still, it was a nice walk to the ground; it’s all country lanes and farms, occasionally bleeding into motorway bridges – Brocstedes Park itself sits in the middle of a group of farms who make it quite clear what they are with ornate signage on their gates, and sheep roaming around provide a big clue too.

Whilst it’s great the club have a home to call their own, it isn’t exactly ideal for the foot traveller or and/or those who want to have a few jars – the nearest bus stop is a good mile away. With land difficult to come by at the best of times, it just goes to show how difficult it is for non-league sides to find an ideal location that suits the club in terms of building a facility that will attract and develop players, but also to build the supporter base that provides the finances for them to push on.

Founded in 1968, Ashton Athletic started life in the Wigan Sunday League, moving up through the divisions and winning various cup competitions – a later switch to Saturday football in the Warrington League brought similar successes. After developing a ground at Brocstedes Park, the club joined the Lancashire Combination, later becoming founder members of the North West Counties League when the LC combined with the Cheshire League in 1982. Non-League football was changed, becoming more organised in a sense – which meant money was needed to bring clubs and their grounds up to a set standard. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much money knocking about to be spent on Brocstedes, so in 1986, Ashton were effectively relegated to the second tier of the Manchester League.

At the turn of the millennium, the club embarked on a youth development policy, forming part of
their ten-year plan to improve the club and its facilities. This helped them to gain access to several grants made available from the Football Foundation and Wigan Council; the main pitch got a new drainage system, a second pitch was acquired and improved, new changing facilities and a clubhouse was built. All these enhancements allowed the club to regain their membership to the NWCFL in 2006 – additional improvements to the ground since then have seen more seating installed. Their second season in Division One of the league saw a third-place finish, which was enough to gain them a promotion to the top tier of the North West Counties. A level they have remained at ever since.

In more recent times, the club have had three great runs in the FA Cup – winning three ties to reach the Second Qualifying Round in 2016, where a crowd of 479 saw the visit of FC Halifax Town, who ran out 5-0 winners. Ashton went one better a year later, facing another Step 2 side in the shape of Chorley, again at home. A record crowd of 610 packed into Brocstedes as the visitors squeezed into the final Qualifying Round – winning 1-0, the match streamed live on the BBC Sport website. In 2018, the club reached the Second Qualifying Round again, being drawn away to York City – although they suffered another 5-0 defeat to yet another National League North side, they nevertheless learned a lot from playing such a prestigious club in front of a crowd of more than a thousand.

These three huge shots of income have undoubtedly further helped to develop the club; aiding their push to get in the Northern Premier League – they were lying in 5th in the NWCFL’s Premier Division when football at these levels was abandoned last season, and hopes remain high that they can get there sooner rather than later. Their youth development philosophy has continued; they currently have a wide array of teams; from Under-7s, right through to Under-18s and even a Development Squad (‘Reserves’ in old money) – not necessarily something that’s common at this level of football. They’re certainly making great strides to become Wigan Borough’s second-best producer of youth footballers, anyway (after Wigan Athletic, obviously!)

There are full social distancing measures and a one-way system in place in the clubhouse; a nice, roomy facility that’s well-set to make concessions for this ‘new normal’. With a choice of Coors or Tetley’s Smooth on tap, it isn’t really a choice – it’s another smooth bitter for me. I got here just after 2:15 pm, expecting there to be quite a few here at the first public game they’ve held since March – there’s a couple of others in the clubhouse and a small crowd outside, but not as many as I’d have hoped. I’m not complaining – it at least lessens the chances of me getting COVID – but it would have been great for the club to get more £4 entries on the gate. 

As much as I'm revelling being back in a clubhouse, drinking my Tetley’s and watching Cash In The Attic on one of the big tellies, there was a game to watch! I walk out to the side of the pitch for the kick-off, before moving to the larger of the two stands midway through the half – this structure has three rows and covers most of one half of the pitch. The other stand is tiny and lies right in the corner – I’ve no idea, but I suspect this was put there to abide by ground grading rules for 'number of seats'!

Today’s visitors, from Padgate in Warrington, play in the Premier Division of the Cheshire League – two tiers below Ashton. It’s no surprise then, that the home side look the much stronger team – they’re quicker to the ball, spending much of the first 20 minutes probing down their opponents’ side (why does everything I write seem to be an enthusiasm these days?) Despite the dominance, it takes ‘The Yellows’ 23 minutes to score the opening goal  a well-placed finish from the edge of the area. The floodgates were open; just a minute later, Ashton swarm up Greenalls half again, winning a penalty that was slotted home with ease.

By the time I get my second pint of Tetley’s and take my seat in the stand, the temperature has dropped and there’s a cutting breeze in the air – my decision to wear a snazzy cardigan is looking increasingly idiotic by the minute. Half-an-hour in, Ashton add a third through a close-range finish – the dejected Greenalls players must have felt even more put out by the sound of two kids singing ‘three-nil, three-nil’ in their angelic tones. At least these players get to run about and keep warm, not be freezing like some people who have come out, ill-dressed for the weather.

After slipping in a fourth just before half-time (another close-range finish), Ashton don’t let off at the start of the second; scoring the pick of the goals early on. Some careful, intricate play down the right-hand side (where I'm sat) eventually sees the ball crossed in and headed home. Not long later, it's six; a shot inside the area is saved by the keeper, but it falls back to the striker who lays it across to a teammate to roll in. Greenalls do get one back – a break sees them 2-on-1, the ball played across and side-footed in. It was a decent finish as it came to him quite quickly – Ashton respond by netting another from close-range.

The main issue with Greenalls (as highlighted by one of two blokes with high-quality digital cameras sat below me – definitely groundhoppers!), is that they keep playing the ball out from the back every time they have a goal-kick. This recent rule change that allows for defenders to stay in the penalty area for a goal-kick (so they can receive it short) has been interesting to watch – while it undoubtedly allows for the play to be built up from the back, it does lead to the other team pressing you into mistakes – I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a team who plays in the 11th tier of English football to constantly keep doing this. I understand the need to learn and improve, but at least belt it long once in a while when you're under pressure, lads!

Ashton add two more; the eighth is a well-placed finish, across the goal and in the corner, whereas the ninth is a result of a ball being slipped through the defence (claims for offside not given) and the striker places it in the corner. There was even a chance for a tenth; the keeper making a save and the ball just-about cleared before the referee blew the whistle to end the match – two minutes early, by my clock! Fair play to Ashton for not letting up and keeping on putting pressure on their opponents. While there was an obvious gap in quality, it will do them no harm to sharpen their attacking play with the season approaching. If all teams play out from the back, they’ll be champions by March.

So as I’m walking back to civilisation, I’m left to reflect on this ‘new way’ of watching football; sanitising your hands, one-way systems, keeping your distance from people – what new way? The only thing that’s new here is my new-found passion for walking; something that I’m hoping to continue for a few more groundhops in the coming months. Well, until Christmas, anyway – the only season when I'm properly dressed for the weather!

Ashton Athletic 9

Greenalls Padgate St. Oswalds 1

Sunday 26 July 2020

Football: Together In Adversity

It’s been a couple of days now since Wigan Athletic were relegated* from The Championship – despite 1 defeat in 15 games, collecting 18 points in 9 games after the Coronavirus lockdown, sealing a 13th–place finish. After being put into administration for unfathomable reasons, the club was deducted 12 points, dropping them into the relegation zone after the final whistle sounded at the end of the 46th and final game of the season.

An appeal* against the removal of the 12 points is in the works, but it’s the immediate future of the club that’s the biggest concern at the moment – everyone is for sale at rock-bottom prices, including many of the talented U18 team that I’ve covered this season on this blog. It’s sickening to think about the progress we have made is about to be flushed away; our future ‘assets’ being sold for peanuts just so the club can keep going until a buyer is found.

It can be easy to get angry and appropriate blame – but there is nothing I can do but hope justice is done. In the meantime, instead of dwelling on the negatives, here’s why I’m feeling proud of the club at the moment: 

The Players and Staff. It can be easy today, what with the vast amounts of money players receive (even in The Championship), to criticise them. Every mistake, bad shot or poor cross is set upon and labelled as an example of them being ‘overpaid’, ‘not worth the money’ or simply ‘not bothered’. Their commitment is questioned when a run of results doesn’t go the way as expected – they ‘don’t care’ about the club and ‘can’t wait’ to leave.

By this episode alone, I can say all that is bollocks. To a man, the players at Wigan Athletic have strived to get the club out of a mess that wasn’t anyone’s making but the owners in Hong Kong. Already on reduced wages thanks to the Coronavirus, the players accepted an 80% pay-cut for their June payment, apparently with no dissension. They went on to record 2 wins and 3 draws after that – including the amazing spectacle that saw them beat Hull City 8-0, with 7 goals coming in the first-half. I hadn’t seen anything like that before – and I’ve played amateur football!

We came up agonisingly short in the end, but it’s no disgrace. These players will be remembered for their commitment and willingness to keep the club in The Championship, despite many of them being set to leave/sold on. People like captain, Sam Morsy, who leads the club on and off the pitch; putting out positive messages to supporters, even calling at a young supporter’s house, unannounced, to give him his shirt. Manager, Paul Cook, creating a positive environment around the club when times were hard (especially earlier in the season when we couldn’t buy a win!), taking it upon himself to ring up staff who had been made redundant. Then there’s staff like Jonathan Jackson, the chief executive who himself was made redundant, but has still been going into the club, working tirelessly to help out the administrators.

These people may earn more money than we do, but the vast majority of professional footballers come from the same backgrounds as many of us – they understand what these clubs mean to supporters. Many club owners obviously do not. 

The Supporters. In a similar manner as players, it can be easy for people to throw their arms up and flounce off when things are hard. It’s a well-worn cliché, but supporting a club the size of Wigan Athletic is like a family (indeed, there are probably families out there much larger than our fan base!) – Yeah, we may argue with one another most of the time but when there’s a crisis to deal with, everyone comes together.

From positive messages to the club and players online, donating money to the crowdfunding page, thinking about ways to raise even more money; selling their memorabilia, throwing garage sales, creating t-shirts, mugs, art prints, keyrings, etc, to spending days investigating the shady characters that have put the club in administration – Wigan Athletic supporters have been relentless in trying to do everything to save their club. They haven’t turned on the staff or each other during all this – all they’ve asked is ‘how can we help?

It isn’t just Latics supporters though, as people from other clubs have been a big help in trying to spread information about what’s happened, pressuring the EFL, even donating money themselves. Nothing I can say will be enough to thank them – they know that unstable owners are a plague on the game in England and it has happened too many times and it needs to end. 

Journalists and Politicians. I never thought I’d be writing this (what with these two groups often battling one another), but the media and local politicians have worked brilliantly together; quick to listen to what was happening at Wigan Athletic. The administration was initially reported as solely being a result of Coronavirus, but as it became apparent there was more to it (a club with no external creditors being put into administration is odd, to the say the least); they rallied around and got information out there, seeking answers.

Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, have been a great help in liaising with the EFL and communicating with supporters, the Shadow Cabinet Leader, Kier Starmer and Shadow Sports Minister, Jo Stevens, also got involved in bringing it to the attention of the government. Media figures such as Colin Murray used his platform on Radio Five Live and the EFL highlights show on Quest to draw attention to it too – then there are the numerous commentators, bloggers, vloggers, podcasters, experts in various fields many of them, who also helped.

All these people have recognised that football clubs are a crucial part of the local community – they don’t just provide us with something to watch and shout at every other week, but their presence allows local people to find work, pubs, shops and restaurants to make money, kids somewhere safe to play football (and dream about playing for their team) – football clubs like ours are a vital part of people's lives. They’re more than a business.

I think it’s this aspect that has struck a chord with people outside of the club – just like Bury, Wigan Athletic aren’t a brand to shopped about around the world; they are community club that welcomes anyone with open arms. What happened to Bury should never happen again, what happened to us should never happen again and what is currently happening to Charlton (uncertainty over their own ownership) should not be happening. It could easily be YOUR club next – so when will things change?

A great place to start would be the government petition set up by the Wigan Athletic Supporters Club – calling for a review into how the EFL’s ‘owners and directors test', it is the best way to push for change. It needs 100,000 signatures to be put up for debate, so if you would like to offer your support, you can find it here.

At the start of this Coronavirus pandemic, I was reminded of a quote by the Starbucks chairman, Howard Schultz. Responsible for saving the coffee company from going bust and turning them around to become the corporate multinational giant they are today, the overriding sentence from his book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, was “In times of adversity and change, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of."

I thought about that while hearing about all the panic buying going on; how it would make us look in the annals of history? I think it’s an apt quote for what’s going on with Latics right now too; there’s a lot of work ahead to save the club but whatever happens, everyone can hold their heads up and say we did all we could. Which is more than what I can say about the body that runs our leagues – but we’ll leave that for another time!

Sunday 5 July 2020

92 Lego Football Grounds: An Interview With The Master Builder

Creating models seems to be a rite of passage for many us – Lego bricks being a particularly favourite building material. Whilst there are a plentiful supply of old and new sets that can be purchased to build a pre-defined model, the true creativity of Lego is the way in which something completely new can be created from a bucket of bricks. For us football lovers, the stadium of our team would be one of the first things we aim to build – but imagine being creative, patient and skilful enough to build the grounds of every team?

Wembley Stadium - In Lego!

In the latest Q&A with a creative football fan, I chatted to Jules, a Cardiff City supporter who decided to build the 92 grounds of the English (and Welsh!) professional clubs in Lego, completely from scratch. Armed with a bucket of bricks and his own wits, the detail in these models is quite something and he’s rightly been lauded for his efforts. After building his models, he sells them to supporters of the clubs – ensuring they go to a good home and not back in the brick box!

I asked Jules about his process, his favourite models, the positive effects of Lego building and whether he takes precautions against brick-related injuries… 

Hi Jules, let’s start with the obvious question – what inspired you to build the 92 stadiums out of Lego? 

I saw some people’s attempts at Lego grounds and thought I'd have a go. I built Cardiff City Stadium and when a friend said "you should do them all" after building about 6 different grounds (Hillsborough, Carrow Road and Wigan were a few of them), I thought he was mad but I started to order more Lego and it just took off from that point. 

Lego obviously has a presence in many a person’s childhood. In the last few decades more people seem to be carrying the hobby into adulthood – is this the case for you? 

Yeah I think so. I played with Lego as a boy and never lost interest in it. But for many years didn’t go near it as in my eyes it was too expensive.  A lot of Lego I started using was up in the loft and gathering dust so at least it came into use. 

Wigan Athletic - DW Stadium - In Lego!

How important can Lego be in providing that literal building block between different generations, say between a parent (who has those fond memories of building their sets) and their own child? 

I think that's really important and if parents share what they used and played with when younger it's great then for that child to see that. By using the same toy, they can produce anything and build things they see now compared to what their parents may of seen and have been used to. A car back in the day is very different to one now, for example. 

I’ve read about how ‘brick therapy’ is used as a thinking, social and calming activity for children (specifically for those who have developmental disorders). Even as an adult, do you find building Lego models to be therapeutic? 

Absolutely! I was building pretty much most evenings when not at work or on my days off and I said to many people it was very therapeutic (although it could be stressful at times!) Lots of people have many hobbies and this was my only one, and it was rewarding when seeing some pictures & comments of how happy people were with their builds. But yes, very therapeutic and a calming way to relax after a stressful day at work.

Wolves - Molineux - In Lego!
Lincoln City - Sincil Bank - In Lego!

How do you plan each model? Do you just look at pictures and play around with the bricks, or do you make use of tech to colour-in and map out where you place each brick? 

I have never used any of the technology, I have seen others use it to plan builds. Literally Google Street View, Google aerial shots and any pictures I could look at. When I did a Turf Moor for someone he sent me pictures of the whole perimeter of the ground through the post. But yeah study the ground, inside and out of it. Looking for detail around the ground like programme outlets, or statues etc. Write down roughly what bricks and pieces I need and then order what I need.  

Which Lego stadium (aside from Cardiff’s!) are you most proud of, and why? 

Yeah the Cardiff City one as you say is my fave and not my first attempt cos the most recent one I did was much better. Either Ninian Park which obviously is Cardiff's old home but as a ballboy there for 7 seasons it brings back great memories. Apart from those I would say Burnley which I enjoyed doing because the detail of the ground, in particular the back of the stadium, I didn't think would be possible. Also Molineux I would say which again is a quirky ground in places  but again thankfully I was able to replicate it well and I would say I'm most proud of those two particular builds.  Nottingham Forest also was a personal fave.

Turf Moor - Burnley FC - In Lego
Ninian Park - Cardiff City - In Lego

Which of the stadiums were the most straightforward and the most difficult to build? 

Most straightforward one I would say was AFC Wimbledon. The toughest I would say was Huddersfield’s John Smith Stadium, Molineux, Upton Park & Chelsea. Huddersfield has curved roofs like Fleetwood and Brighton but that was deffo one of the toughest parts of that Huddersfield build. Chelsea was the 3-tier stand and the surrounding hotels and exterior was also tough. 

What’s your favourite (official) Lego set to build? 

You may be surprised but I have never built a big Lego set. Had a few in the past but smaller ones. I would say, although I've never built them, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament would be good ones. 

Gluing the bricks together to maintain a model’s structure – good idea or sacrilege? 

I would say sacrilege. I never glued any of my builds as I was never able to source the glue. Normal glue would ruin the bricks, which made it tricky in terms of sending them, so I never did. I've always drove them to people or met up. The first model I did for someone [was sent to them] and obviously it fell apart. But I drove to his and fixed it in a few hours.  

And finally, how many Lego bricks have you stepped on over the years? 

A few! Thankfully not as many as I have laminate floor so could hear them fall. I did sit on a mini build I did for someone once forgetting it was on the chair! 

Thanks to Jules for answering my questions and for providing these excellent photos. You can follow his progress on Twitter @CCFC_jules

Saturday 4 July 2020

Wigan Athletic’s Administration – (Further) Exposing The Weakness In Football

Football is exciting because we’re aware that a single swing of a boot can change the outcome of a match – we accept this, it’s why we buy a ticket and get so involved in the narrative playing out on the pitch. What we don’t expect to change in an instant is the status, nay the future of our clubs.

Just a matter of hours after a fantastic performance against Stoke City – a 3-0 win that put them eight points clear of the Championship relegation zone – my club, Wigan Athletic, were put into administration. There was no warning, no build-up – this wasn’t the result of months of uncertainty or because of mountains upon mountains of debt – it was a calculated move by the club’s new owner who had only got involved four weeks prior. He has effectively booted the club into uncertainty and it seems that the English Football League (EFL) has a lot of questions to answer.

When Dave Whelan, the man who had transformed a struggling fourth-tier club into one that graced the top tier for eight years and won the FA Cup, sold Wigan Athletic to Hong Kong-based International Entertainment Corporation (IEC) in 2018, we were told that the club had a bright future. Initially, it was going okay – the team flirted with relegation but this wasn’t overly unexpected in The Championship where the financial gap between clubs is becoming ever-wider. IEC sanctioned investments into the infrastructure of the club – the Academy was expanded to meet Category 2 grading, the stadium got a touch-up in places and we even got a big telly put in the corner of one of the stands. It was starting to go well on the pitch too – despite a difficult start to this season, the team has been one of the best performers in the division since the turn of 2020. So what happened?

In June, IEC sold the club to a company called ‘Next Leader Fund’ (NLF). Both of these companies are headed by Stanley Choi, a professional poker player who through IEC, has an interest in a casino in The Philippines. Prior to the sale going through, the consensus was that Choi was taking the club from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed IEC to NLF, a private company based in the Cayman Islands, so that ‘decisions could be made quicker’ (any changes to IEC would have to be announced on the HK Stock Exchange).

NLF was only set up in January 2020 and it borrowed £28million from IEC to fund the takeover. The terms of the loan raised eyebrows when announced on the HK Stock Exchange – the interest rate was 8% rising to 20% if it wasn’t paid back within the first year. This amounts to roughly £100,000-a-week in repayments that Wigan would not be able to afford – the EFL approved the takeover. NLF was announced as being 51%-owned by Stanley Choi, with the remaining shares being held by one Au Yeung Wai Kay. On the 24th June, Au Yeung took a majority shareholding in NLF (believed to be 75%), paid off the loan owed to IEC and immediately put the club in administration – despite there not being a single creditor.

Why? Why would Au Yeung invest so much money to buy the club only to put it at risk with less than a month to go until the season is completed? It makes no sense on the face of it – if he found that he had got over his head, he could have got the club through the season and put a Championship club on the market. Instead, he called his lawyers who notified the administrators and the club’s future – both in the short and long-term – was put at risk.

Obviously I need to be careful here as any theory is unsubstantiated – there is no clear reason why Au Yeung has done this. A young Wigan supporter, who happens to live in the same area as EFL chairman, Ricky Parry, chatted to the man about it – and he mentioned a rumour about bets being placed in The Philippines on Wigan being relegated. Almost immediately after it was announced that the club was in administration, the EFL sanctioned a 12-point dedication – which would put Wigan at the bottom of the league. The theory is that seeing the team perform well, Au Yeung moved quickly to gain control of the club and place it in administration. You can, by now, imagine why he might do that.

It seems nuts to even suggest that anyone would go to such great lengths to do this – I’ve heard about how crazy Asian betting markets are but do they really take bets with the equivalent worth of tens-of-millions of pounds at stake? Without any other clear thread to pick on, this is the only theory that makes a modicum of sense. The only other theory that I’ve seen is that IEC wanted to dump the club because it was costing them too much – the loan repayments saw them make a small profit. But again, why would Choi not seek to sell the club externally (rather than to himself) and why did Au Yeung effectively write off his investment?

This is a world away from what supporters should be worrying about – we should be looking forward to the match against Brentford today; the two in-form sides in the division going head-to-head but it has now been tempered with an urgency of we need to win to claw back the points that the EFL may end up taking away. Whilst relegation is only a setback (when compared to the club going out of existence!) it will thin-out the field of investors and may even lead to the club being asset-stripped. I know I’m a supporter and therefore liable to be biased, but purely through their performances, the players don’t deserve being relegated – it isn’t their fault that some shady Far East character plunged the club into the mire mere hours after taking charge.

It’s important to get one thing straight – Wigan Athletic’s administration has got nothing to do with the Coronavirus pandemic. The club was ticking along (as well as what can be expected during a pandemic, anyway) and had even agreed contracts and signed up players for next season. This isn’t a result of a club spending beyond its means – it’s something far more sinister, which is why it needs investigating by the EFL, the government, perhaps even Interpol.

What has been pleasing, is seeing Wiganers and football supporters of all clubs come together on this – everyone sees that the EFL’s checks and balances simply aren’t fit for purpose. A great example of this can be seen through Wigan's supporters – in a couple of days they have found out more information on Choi and Au Yeung than the EFL ever did. I say that because I refuse to believe that the EFL let the takeover pass if they had access to all the information that’s floating about on Twitter right now – if they did, then the governance of football in this country is rotten.

Hopefully, this will be the tipping point for the government to reign in the powers that run football – Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy, has spoken brilliantly about the issue, lobbying the Sports Minister and doing the press rounds. Having worked closely with the club’s Community Trust – a charity that has spent the last three months delivering essentials to people on lockdown, ringing them up and seeing how they’re doing – she understands, like us, that football clubs are about more than what goes on, on the pitch. They are the beating heart of our communities in most cases.

As for the players, to a man they have come out and shown defiance – the captain, Sam Morsy, typifies this. Just a day before the club went into admin, he paid tribute to the cardboard cut-out of the son of a Latics supporter, who lost her baby at just five-months-old, by placing his shirt over him. Like many of our players who have been and gone, he understands that the club is a family – it isn’t the biggest club around, but it doesn’t want to be. We all want to feel part of our clubs and Wigan Athletic, with its community outreach, harnesses that brilliantly. It was no surprise to see Sam was the first to come out and say that the players were going to fight to keep the club going (though knowing the combative style of his play, I hope he doesn’t mean it literally!)

It’s difficult, to sum up my feelings right now because I’m still trying to come to terms with what’s happened. So whilst I spend the next few days trying to collect them, cheering on the lads from my television screen as I do, I would heartily recommend you read this blog by Sam Whyte – though obviously Wigan-centric, any supporter of any club can transfer their own experiences to the spirit of this piece. It beautifully sums up why football is important to us all and why it needs protecting from the characters outlined here.

Finally, I would like to mention that the Wigan Athletic Supporters Club have set up a fundraising page to see the club through the season – the staff at the club were not paid and there are other costs that need to be paid to host/get to the remaining games, so if you would like to help out, please visit the crowdfunding page. Also, if you could share information about what’s happened (including this Tweet that sums everything up brilliantly) or contact your local MP; the more people with influence that can be made aware of what’s happened, the better. It isn’t just the future of Wigan Athletic that’s at stake here now – our game MUST change.

Wednesday 1 July 2020

Cardboard Fans Are Human Fans

In my previous post, talking about ‘the new normal’ watching football, I commented on how clubs
were introducing cardboard cutouts to give supporters a presence at the games they cannot go to. Being a dedicated guardian of everything that’s cool and trendy in football (?), and somewhat of a Grumpy Gus, I immediately dismissed this as ‘a bit ridiculous on the face of it’ – it just seemed to be a quirky way for clubs to earn some extra coin by doing something that was fundamentally pointless. Oh, how wrong I was.

Aside from the cardboard representations of the supporters who couldn’t be there, there were also celebrities and other, shall we say, ‘controversial’ figures taking up seats in empty stadiums. It was mostly seen as a bit of fun for people – the opportunity to have themselves (or their favourite people) at the ground in cardboard form was a novelty, something to ‘banter’ about if you will. Then, there was a story at my own club, Wigan Athletic which made me completely rethink my take on them – why they’re important.

Five years ago, Latics supporter Christine Lamb lost her five-month-old baby, Jack, to sudden infant death syndrome. Like Christine, Jack’s father, Stephen, is a Latics fan – in fact, they both met during Wigan’s run to lifting the FA Cup in 2013 – so it was inevitable that Jack would have grown up to be a fan too. In tribute, Christine (after a suggestion from her children) decided to get a cutout made of Jack so he could ‘attend his first game’. Not there in person, but in spirit at least – just like all the other supporters who couldn’t attend owing to the lockdown.

When I saw this story, it all suddenly made sense – the poetry of it is quite beautiful, in fact. They are ostensibly cardboard cutouts, inanimate objects that have taken a minute to create, but the feelings and memories they convey to those who know them make them real. All of a sudden, these ‘cardboard fans’ were ‘human fans’ – and their presence provided people with an opportunity to pay their respects to loved ones; telling their stories to people who didn’t get to know them.  Is anyone really gone if we remember them and pass their stories on? No, of course not – they live on in our hearts (and for special occasions like these, as cardboard cutouts).

After learning about Jack, Wigan Athletic refunded the money, but in a typical example of the tight community the club has come to represent, Christine immediately donated her refund to the club’s Community Trust; a charity that undertakes a wide range of activities for the betterment of the lives of local people (they’ve especially been busy in the last three months of this Coronavirus pandemic, checking in on vulnerable people and helping to deliver supplies).
I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the community spirit that has been shown by the club and its supporters during the last few months – things like producing cardboard cutouts, donating to charity and giving someone a ring to see how they’re doing may seem like small gestures, but small gestures can make a huge difference to a person’s outlook on life. As a big focal point in our communities, football clubs are in a great position to inspire us, that we’re all part of something – and what are our football clubs if they don’t represent us? What’s to left to support?

When we’re able to get back to normal, Christine hopes to embark on the annual Latics fans walk to raise money for Joseph’s Goal (a charity which I’ve covered in my report of the Wigan Athletic charity game at Ashton Town). It was supposed to be a three-day excursion to Barnsley this year, but it obviously got postponed – but whenever the next one is, Christine will attend with her son.  So if you would like to support her efforts, please consider donating to her fundraising page.

Cardboard fans are great – although, I’m not sure I’ll change my mind about the artificial crowd noise; let us hear the players swear and curse as nature has intended!

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Watching Football In ‘The New Normal’

Saturday 20th June saw football ‘return’ – at least for me. My team, Wigan Athletic, are currently involved in a 7/8 team battle to avoid the Championship relegation zone, with the promotion places similarly being competitive.

With so much money at stake, the league was always going to continue in some form – aside from the obvious windfall clubs will get by winning promotion to the Premier League, the drop in TV money from The Championship to League One is massive too (which explains why League One and Two were ended with Points-Per-Game).

With the rest of the season being played behind closed doors, this leaves season ticket holders somewhat short. As a season ticket holder at Wigan, I was presented with 3 different options instead of being able to attend in person:

  • A pro-rata refund.
  • Put credit towards next season’s season ticket.
  • ‘Donate’ the remaining credit to the club for a streaming pass for the remaining 9 games.
As I’ve already spent the money, I’ve missed watching games and I’ve got everything I need to stream it on the telly – I chose the latter option. It offered great value; I get to watch the remaining 9 games (instead of the 5 home games I would have been entitled to) and the club keeps the money, so everyone’s a winner. I should say that this was the best option for me – in times like this where money is scarce, it’s understandable that people would want refunds.

Hooking up my laptop to my telly with an HDMI cable, I got settled for ‘the new normal’ watching football – to be honest, I didn’t notice much difference. Our match was a particularly important one at Huddersfield, who are also hovering around the bottom end of the table. Obviously, no crowd being there made for a weird atmosphere, but I found that after 10 minutes of watching the game, I didn’t really notice, as I concentrated on the play.

The most interesting aspect of these remaining games will be to see how the home teams get on without a home crowd there to cheer them on (and to sway the referee, which we all know doesn’t happen…) – and there certainly were some interesting results in The Championship, where only TWO home sides managed to win (Cardiff and Blackburn, who we are hosting next week, coincidentally). Winning 2-0, Wigan continued their pre-lockdown form; it took a while for them to get going, but once they were able to get their pressing game sorted, the team controlled the match from then on.

Huddersfield looked a little tired if truth be told – despite making the five substitutes (the rule brought in for these remaining games) they still had a player going down with cramp late on. Whilst the players have been in training for a couple of weeks, they’ve essentially had to fit in a full pre-season in that time, with only one-or-two friendly matches for practice. You can’t get up to speed physically in that time.

Overall, the streaming service was great – full HD, no connection issues or anything. Apparently, supporters of teams who use the iFollow service had connection problems at kick-off – the server provider not making concessions for the sheer volume of people who would have been streaming. Although Wigan’s feed is provided by iFollow, it’s hosted on another server – so it was fine for me and the millions of other Wigan fans across the globe!

The issue with the atmosphere at these empty grounds is a sticking point for many – as I said, I don’t mind it, but others said they found it a hard watch. The Premier League games have seen crowd noise pumped into the grounds to make up for it – I don’t like it, to be honest. It’s been designed to ‘create familiar surroundings’ for the players and the people watching back home. The problem is that I know it’s fake and the players know it’s fake – wouldn’t that work to provide a negative effect? I even watched one game where it was clear someone was in charge of a soundboard and had to do the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ whenever there’s a chance, but unless they’re psychic, it’s always going be a couple of seconds behind.

Another thing clubs (including Wigan) have done is to have cardboard cut-outs of supporters (and certain notorious people) at grounds – again, I’m not a fan (it sounds a bit ridiculous on the face of it), but as they’re raising a bit of money for the clubs who’ve had their income streams hit, I’m more willing to let it slide. Our cardboard cut-outs cost £20 for the remaining games, so I’m currently racking my brains of a notorious celebrity that will get through the censors!

The good thing about our teams playing behind closed doors is that it shines a spotlight on how important supporters in a match-environment – hopefully this dystopian future where we all watch on television in the homes we live, work and play in 24/7 won’t happen now, as we’ve experienced what it’s like? Maybe the importance of supporters will be shown some appreciation when games do resume with cheaper ticket prices…okay, I concede that’s less likely than the dystopian future!

So whilst this new normal will do for now, I hope we get back to being in stadiums before long – it isn’t just the matches we all miss, it’s everything we do before and after; the meeting up with friends/family, travelling, going to pubs, exploring new places, meeting new people…you can’t recreate that with streaming, WhatsApp or Twitter.

Sunday 7 June 2020

Interview With A Viking Hopper

In a new series, the blog is going to feature interviews with a range of different people who use their love of football to explore other passions. Whether that’s scratching a particular creative itch, visiting new places, building a career, connecting with others, delving into history…there’s many great stories out there that sum up what ‘the beautiful game’ can provide people outside of the 90 minutes – so I’m aiming to uncover as many of these personal tales as possible.

In this opening Q&A, I was delighted to chat with Anders Johansen – a groundhopper from Norway who has become notable on the English scene, visiting 526 grounds throughout the country (and plenty more across the rest of the UK too). He’s been featured in articles on BBC News, on many of the websites of the clubs he’s been to and has a strong following on Twitter. Always looking to explore new places, he’s constantly planning his trips to England – it literally took a global pandemic to pause his total!

Anders has made use of his trips, writing travel guides – ‘Engelsk fotball: Lagene, banene, pubene (English football: teams, courses [directions], pubs), which caters for a growing market of football-mad Norwegians taking ‘football holidays’ in the UK. Interestingly though, it isn’t the glamour of the Premier League that attracts many of these Vikings, who are simply looking to experience what British football is truly about – as you’re about to find out.

I asked Anders about his groundhopping, his best experiences, what he thinks about modern football and if Norway, without a major finals tournament appearance in 20 years, can qualify for Euro 2020 (now taking place in 2021, of course!) 

Hi Anders, when did your passion for groundhopping start? 

I'd say it was something that happened over a bit of time. At first I was happy flying over watching Reading, then sit in the pubs waiting for the next Reading game or fly back home. At some point I decided I might as well watch some other games on days Reading weren't playing. However, it didn't really take off until a few years later, and I'd say my first proper groundhopping trip was over Christmas and New Year’s 2008/2009. Then things really started picking up once I went to a couple of non-league games in 2010 and got the taste for it. At that time I was becoming disillusioned with football at the top levels, feeling it had been reduced to a business, but I now fell in love with the game again and never looked back.  

Many people in Norway have a great love for British football; not just the Premier League, but all the clubs in England's professional leagues seem to have a Norwegian supporters club - what's the appeal behind a Norwegian following, say, a struggling club in League Two? 

The Norwegian’s fascination with English football can probably be quite easily explained. NRK (Norway's equivalent to BBC) showed, from November 1969 onwards, live football from one of the Saturday matches in England. A whole generation or two grew up watching English football as this soon became an institution and the TV highlight of the week. The weekend's game was what we talked about in school, and the stars of the English games became the heroes, collecting and swapping cards and stickers of them. 

As for the appeal behind lower league clubs as well, that's a harder one to answer. English football in general has a big appeal here, but I can't really explain why someone in Norway chooses to support the likes of Exeter City, Hartlepool United or even Chippenham Town. Maybe a desire to support someone that not "everyone else" supports? For some clubs now in the lower divisions, it could be a case of them having been in the top flight in the past and shown on Norwegian telly at the time; some people might have liked their kits or something. Most people in Norway will of course support the big clubs, but other clubs now outside the top flight have a good following. However it's easy to explain the amount of support for clubs like Leeds, Forest, Derby etc, as they were big teams when most of this people were kids watching them on telly. Some will have been on a trip to England, taking in a game somewhere, then getting hooked on that club. But it'll be mostly guessing on my part. 

I know however, for some of the lower league and non-league clubs, that there are people who might have supported a big club in the past, who got fed up with the modern game and how it's been reduced to a business; hence finding a new club to follow further down. But again, this is a difficult one to answer. 

So you’re a Reading supporter – how did you come to be a fan, when was your first visit and what’s your favourite memory supporting them? 

In 1994, a mate and I was on a holiday in Playa del Inglés, Gran Canaria. We ended up spending every night out with a group of lads from Reading, and I went over to visit them the year after, just as Reading were on their way to Wembley and the play-off final (which they lost to Bolton after throwing away the lead).

My first visit to a Reading home game was the following season, in October 1995, when my mate Rob took me to wonderful old Elm Park in some of the worst torrential rain I've ever experienced. They were playing Bury in a league cup game, and the away team looked to cause an upset when the ref stopped the game after 28 minutes with the score at 0-2. The Bury fans were fuming, the homes fans were singing "always look on the bright side of life", and I was hooked. On a side note, I still miss Elm Park a lot.

As for my favourite moment supporting Reading, the first that comes to mind is a certain Saturday back in April 2002, when they played in the third tier. Last game of the season, it was Brentford v Reading at Griffin Park. Reading would go up as runners-up if they managed a draw, while Brentford would leapfrog Reading by beating them. Brentford took the lead in the second half, but with 13 minutes remaining Jamie Cureton popped up to score a vital equaliser. After a nervy finish, Reading got the point they needed. Cue wild celebrations on and off the pitch.

Also fondly remember some cup games from later years, like knocking out Liverpool etc. But sadly, as football at those levels has changed (and the club has changed with it), I have to admit that my interest isn't quite the same at all anymore.  

One of the things I enjoy about groundhopping is visiting unfamiliar places and being surprised at what I find (especially the pubs!) – do you like to explore the towns and cities you visit? 

Oh yes, very much so! That's half the fun, I think. Always plan ahead to see what there is to see and what pubs there are there, and I always try to get there with plenty of time to spare to have a look around and check out the pubs etc.  

You’ve visited over 400 grounds in England – you once did 20 games in 3 weeks, which is incredible. How would you explain the attraction of your hobby to someone who doesn’t know what it’s about? 

I'm actually on 526 grounds in the English pyramid now, and hope it won't stay that way for too long. The trips have just gotten bigger and longer over the years, but I think my most productive trip was when I did 31 games in 24 or 25 days back in April 2017 - with the good help of the organised groundhop in NCEL & NWCL [Northern Counties East League & North West Counties League]. 

That's someone most people will probably describe as madness, and I think you have to enjoy football to even understand it. But I'd say it's a fantastic way to see the country. I like travelling, and UK is my favourite country to travel in. Unlike a "normal" vacation, my groundhopping trips have brought me to places I wouldn't have visited otherwise. And I've made lots of good friends along the way. It's probably harder to explain to them my fascination with football grounds.

Still, must my mates here still think I'm a bit mad, I think.  

What are your 5 favourite grounds you’ve visited? 

Oh, that's a hard one. I always have a reply right away when asked about my favourite ground, but picking 5 is not easy. Well, off the top of my head now...

1) The Oval, Glentoran
It just has to be the Oval. Fantastic, classic old school football ground, just how they should be.

2) Borough Park, Workington
Even with the old Main Stand long gone, and the classic old floodlight pylons replaced and finally removed, Borough Park is a reminder of a time when the club played in Football League...and when FL grounds had much more character.

3) Royal Oak, Harwich & Parkeston
That steep old stand is just wonderful, even though most of the seats were missing on my visit back in 2014, or covered in pigeon droppings. Nice little cover behind the goal as well. Can only imagine how great a ground that was when it apparently had cover on all four sides.

4) Millfield, Crook Town
The Northern League once had loads of lovely grounds oozing with character. Of those remaining, Crook Town is many people's favourite, and also mine. You can just feel the history walking up the steps and looking out over the pitch, with the characteristic main stand on your left.

5) The Recreation Ground, Aldershot Town
If I have to pick a favourite ground from the current top 5 levels of the English pyramid, this will be it, no doubt. Apart from the pre-fabricated, little stand put in at the end near the entrance, it's like time's stood still at the Recreation Ground. The East Bank is just something else, with its barrel-shaped roof and big terrace. Main Stand looks great as well. Shame there aren't any grounds like this left in the Football League (where my current favourite would probably have to be Carlisle United btw).

On a different night, maybe I would've ended up including one or two others, but there are so many great grounds to choose from. And I didn't even include old Elm Park, as I focused on grounds still there. Other grounds worth a mention are Bath City, Boston United, Hastings United, Falmouth Town...I could go on and on. And from Scotland there are great contenders in the likes of Ayr United, Queen of the South, Morton, Pollok, Cambuslang Rangers, Johnston Burgh, Fraserburgh etc. But have to stop somewhere…moving on! 

You’ve commented that you’re not particularly fond of ‘modern’ stadiums – what’s your main issue with them? 

While they are probably great in a functional way, as well as new and modern with 'better facilities', I find them lacking the character of the older classic grounds. They're often a dull plastic bowl, I think. And of course, for the all seater ones, I miss the terracing. I see the point that some people prefer them as they're more comfortable with better facilities. But if I wanted to be comfy, I'd watch the game from my sofa. Also, many of them are built miles out of town. Not a fan!

In non-league they won't be plastic bowls, but here I think they'll often be uncharming complex type grounds...often with a plastic pitch, which is also something I hate with a passion (it's one of the main reasons Norway is perhaps still my least favourite country to groundhop in). But each to their own. 

Following on from that, how important do you think it is for professional clubs that stadiums are built in the communities they represent? 

The short answer is: very important. Not the biggest issue for me anymore as most my games these days are in non-league. But of course, much better when grounds are in the community and walk to the ground, rather than miles out of town needing a shuttle service (if there is one) or taxi. A nightmare getting back to catch your train after an evening game at some of these places. And then there's the possible impact of local pubs etc in the town centre.  

The Premier League has been criticised for a long time for valuing profits over supporters and the communities they’re based in – is this just a problem in England, or is this something that’s common across Europe? 

You'd be surprised by how little I actually follow top-level football these days. The only time I watch it is if I'm at a game watching it live. I very rarely watch football on TV, and the main reason I even keep somewhat update on results here and there now is my betting. 

But I'd say the PL is probably the best example of this. When the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City fly across the world to play a friendly against each other (even having cities bid and pay millions to get them there), it's utter madness as far as I'm concerned. We've already seen English cup draws conducted on Chinese time to accommodate the Asian sponsors and the markets there [The EFL Cup], and it's probably just a matter of time before we'll see English clubs go to other continents to play each other in domestic competitions. Never mind local season ticket holders who have supported the club all their lives. 

Think I read something about the Spanish league already planning something like this, so they might be just as bad. But naturally, it's probably worse in the bigger leagues. Seems to me we're seeing a tendency in more and more leagues, where "Champions" League/Europa League money etc has resulted in a league where the same 2-3 clubs keep winning year after year, the financial gap between them and the rest increasing every year. In Norway, Rosenborg benefitted from this in the 1990s and ended up winning 13 seasons in a row, causing many to lose interest. Still, it's not come to the point here where the clubs seem to value profit over supporters and the community, but that's probably just because the Norwegian league is a small league compared to the likes of PL, with MUCH less money. They know they can't compete with English, German, Spanish and Italian clubs on the Asian to American markets anyway, so this doesn't seem to be an issue at all here yet. 

And finally…how do you rate Norway’s chances of qualifying for next summer’s Euro 2020? They’ve not been to a major tournament for many years but with Erling Håland smashing in goals for Dortmund, confidence must be high? 

I think the future looks brighter than in a very long time for Norway. They've got a squad with several young, talented players, and I think the postponement of Euro 2020 can even work to their advantage, should they qualify. As for Erling Braut Haaland, I don't think he's actually scored a goal yet at senior level for the national team. But he's only had a couple of games still, and no doubt he's had a big breakthrough, so it'll obviously just be a matter of time. He'll be important in years to come. I think the Serbia game can be tough, and Mitrovic the danger man, but feel Norway have a good chance. Should they win, it's either Scotland or Israel, and I think Norway would be slight favourites against the Scots and bigger favourites against Israel. Norway with home games as well (unless they decide to change that somehow). 

But as I don't really follow the Norway national team that closely, I took the liberty of asking another Norwegian groundhopper about this as well. Stig-André Lipper has the blog, and follow the national team as well as Norwegian team Strømsgodset. He had this to say:
He seems to agree with what I said, and believe Haaland will indeed be a key player up front. However, he points out that the Norway team will be more than just him. Ajer is a rock in the back 4, Ødegaard is already class in the midfield, where Sander Berge also will only get better. And up front, Norway is starting to become spoilt for choice for a change. Haaland, King, Sørloth…he thinks the Serbia game is 50/50, and reckon the Norway would be slight favourites in a home game v Scotland, while they should beat Israel. All in all, he's positive.

Massive thanks to Anders for answering my questions (and the images featured!) – here’s hoping we all get to return to matches as soon as possible! 

You can follow Anders’ adventures through his Twitter @vikinghopper2, Facebook and on his own [Norwegian-language] blog at (Click here for an English translation).