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 paabortebane.no, 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 https://vikinghopper.blogg.no/ (Click here for an English translation).

2 comments:

  1. Great interview. And a face only a mother could love! :-)

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