A tale of two matches (part II)

roma-v-interAnd so to the Eternal City. Rome is a city of grandeur past. A similar claim can be made of Roma, currently making stuttering progress under Luciano Spalletti. The Juventus monopoly over Serie A will not be an eternal one, but their empire is utterly dominant for the moment.

Last month, as part of my Italian grand tour, I went to see Roma – Inter. Setting out from the apartment, I crossed Piazza del Popolo on my way to get a tram to the Olympico stadium. As I approached the tram, a young Chinese guy approached me. “Excuse me mate, is this the tram to get to the football stadium? Where do I buy a ticket?” he asked. In a thick cockney accent.

I was as impressed by his English as I was disoriented by it. I was able to confirm that this was indeed the tram but unable to enlighten him on buying a ticket as I had purchased one at a kiosk earlier. I advised him just to get on and see if he could get a ticket aboard.

Of course, as expected, the tram was so packed that any ticketing procedures were rendered redundant.

For the second week in a row the game I was going to kicked off at 8:45 pm on a Sunday evening and thus I was alone and not with my young son as I had hoped to be. Security at Italian games has been increased significantly and I would feel entirely comfortable taking a 6 year old to a Serie A game.

Having made it to the stadium and through the myriad security, I took my seat behind the goal in the Curva Nord. Having paid a premium the previous week for a covered seat at Fiorentina, this time I had one of the cheapest tickets available for the game.

And it was a better seat than the one I had occupied in Florence.

Opposite me, behind the far goal, was the Curva Sud, home to Roma’s (in)famous ultras. Or at least some of them. One of the new security measures at the stadium is a barrier splitting the Curva in half and its installation has prompted mass protests and boycotts among the ultras. They had turned out in reasonable force for the visit of Inter but there were enough gaps to indicate that some ultra-boycotters are yet to be placated.

It was the week of Francesco Totti’s 40th birthday and the great and the good of the footballing world, and beyond, had been paying tribute to Il Capitano in the build-up to the game. Messi spoke of having “always admired” him while former teammate Cassano described him as “Italy’s greatest.”

Usain Bolt, with characteristic modesty, offered birthday wishes “from one legend to another.” Bolt is reportedly going to be training with Borussia Dortmund (most likely a sponsorship stunt since both he and the German club are sponsored by Puma) and has expressed a desire to play for Manchester United.

Mourinho’s side do currently lack pace at the moment.

Speed of foot has never been one of Totti’s greatest attributes, but his remains one of the quickest minds on the pitch. Sadly on this occasion, the Italian master only took to the pitch for the warm-up before remaining an unused substitute.

The crowd paid their own tribute with a prolonged chant of “uno capitano,” one of the few that I was able to follow and participate in with my limited grasp of Italian.

Five minutes in and it was uno – nil to Roma; Dzeko providing the fitting conclusion to a fast break down the right with a crisply clipped finish into the far corner.

The fact that this was a big game was reinforced by the sight of Spalletti in a suit. The Roma boss is more commonly attired more comfortably in a tracksuit but clearly felt that this was an occasion that warranted his Sunday best.

Also interestingly attired were the Argentinian couple sat next to me. One wore a Boca Juniors shirt while the other sported a River Plate top. This display of unity was in keeping with the overall atmosphere in the ground, which was passionate but mercifully lacking in much of the vitriolic excess I’ve witnessed at Serie A games in the past.

One observation that I noted down during the game was that Inter looked a lot better than their Milanese neighbours had the previous week in Florence. Milan were dull and utterly lacking in inspiration against Fiorentina. Inter were behind against Roma but playing with patient fluidity.

Subsequent results – and the sacking of Inter coach Frank de Boer – indicate the challenge of making judgements based on a single performance. Inter were impressive that night though and contributed significantly to a very fine game of football.

Roma were content to concede possession and ground to the visitors while focusing on breaking at great pace when they won the ball back. Salah was central to this tactic and several times found himself in excellent positions to increase his side’s lead but succeeded only in producing a series of erratic finishes.

With half time approaching it struck me that I hadn’t heard a single flare be let off. The last time I visited the Olympico (for Roma – Juventus in 2010) a flare exploded roughly every ten minutes, provoking a half jumping, half cowering motion from me on each occasion. Those around me at that game, much more used to the pyrotechnics than I, watched with some amusement.

Always worth watching is Daniele De Rossi, and once again he did not disappoint. He finds pockets of space and is able to play passes at the subtlest of angles, both in ways reminiscent of the great Xavi. He makes Roma tick and was the one who provided the platform for the majority of their most enterprising moves.

One slightly unusual feature of the game was Inter’s insistence on taking every corner as a short corner. I’ve never been much convinced by the short corner except on those rare occasions when it’s taken very quickly before the defending team has had a chance to organise itself.

When that’s not the case, the short corner is designed to create a better angle for crossing the ball but how often does it result in possession being squandered or in a sequence of passes that mark a retreat back as far as the halfway line?

Inter’s succession of short corners didn’t produce a single noteworthy chance. If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, this was a mad way to proceed.

At half time the score, incredibly given the opportunities created at either end, remained 1-0.

Both teams were acquitting themselves well, with clearly defined patterns of play, yet it was obvious that neither side had the confidence to go on the sort of run that would cause genuine alarm in Turin.

These were two sides in transition; works in progress. Whether either turns out to be a masterpiece remains to be seen.

Serie A as a whole is not in rude health but on the evidence that I saw in two games, it is still much better than its detractors would have you believe. The essence of the Italian game – technical ability, tactical sophistication, and a sense of theatre – remains intact.

The biggest global stars mostly play elsewhere these days: in Spain, England and Germany. But like empires, footballing powers rise, wane and fall. Italy’s time will come again.

Football culture varies from country to country (and that’s one of the reasons I love going to games when I travel) but some aspects of the beautiful game are universal. It’s remarkable the extent to which crowds applaud the same things everywhere – a committed tackle, an earnest attempt on goal however wayward, a defender obstructing a forward in letting the ball run out for a goal kick.

After 71 minutes, the Inter supporters were applauding an equaliser; Banega cutting through the Roma defence to drill a low shot in at the near post.

It was a fine and deserved leveller and it would have been easy for panic to set in among Roma’s players. But instead they found fortitude and resolve.

And just four minutes later they found themselves back ahead; Manolas stooping to steer home a header from a free kick. It was the cue for bedlam in both Curvas.

The rest of the story, as told from the Curva Nord, can only be described as tense. Both teams created further chances but the scoreboard was not further altered.

I spent the last minutes stood at the top of the stairs as Inter forced several late corners. Many Roman prayers were offered in search of the final whistle. The ref kept the whistle in his mouth but silent. Time ticked on at the cruel, excruciatingly slow pace that it reserves for such moments.

We waited. And waited.

And panicked a little. Breaths started to be held for periods that were damaging to health. “Kick it anywhere son.” I think that’s what they were saying. They spoke to me in Italian and I did not understand the words but I understood. Men gripped each other’s shoulders.

Then it was done; and the sweet, sublime relief. The puffing out of cheeks. Hands raised. Faces of joy, slightly dazed. Victory is appreciated when it’s hard earned.

I ran with the crowds for the tram. After a reasonable wait, one arrived. The scramble aboard began, the scary surge of a mass of bodies entering a confined space.

The surge continued after I made it through the door. You cannot plant your feet in such circumstances, only wait for the wave to subside. But on it went, relentless and dangerous. Breath was no longer held but it was restricted. Limbs contorted into shrinking spaces.

It felt like the world’s worst game of Twister; played upright.

We were packed like that for twenty minutes, all the way back to Piazza del Popolo where we emerged into the late night: relieved and victorious, taking deep breaths.

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Sub-zero at San Siro

San Siro pictureI’ve watched football matches at some of the greatest stadiums in the world: the Nou Camp in Barcelona, the Olimpico in Rome, Wembley in London, and of course Glebe Park in Brechin. But the best stadium I’ve ever seen a game in is the San Siro in Milan.

This was brought to mind today by an article in the Daily Mail (with one of their typically brief headlines):                                                                      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3606437/The-San-Siro-football-s-Scala-Opera-House-prepares-host-Real-Madrid-Atletico-Madrid-Champions-League-final-history-car-park-spaceship-lookalike.html

I visited La Scala del Calcio in December 2010 on the occasion of my 30th birthday. My wife and I were celebrating the milestone event with a romantic weekend in Milan – it wasn’t entirely coincidental that the Milan – Roma game happened to be on while we were there. Regular readers of this blog (you know who you are) will be aware that football matches often feature in romantic weekends enjoyed by my wife and I. Yes, I know, I spoil her.

And so it was that the Saturday night found me stepping out of a Milan metro station alone, making my way up the stairs and out into a freezing cold evening. There was a light dusting of snow on the pavement.

There weren’t too many other supporters around because it was early (around 7pm and the game kicked off at 8:45) but I still had to collect my ticket and besides, I was going to the San Siro. I was a tiny little bit excited, for not only was I going to the San Siro, I was going to watch my beloved Roma for just the second time. And something remarkable had already happened to me earlier in the evening.

My wife and I were staying at a nice hotel. When we arrived on the Friday night I noticed a discreet sign in the lobby that read: ‘Welcome AS Roma.’ Well, this was an interesting development. There was no sign of any players or club staff but I was very pleased (my wife was also pleased as she regarded this as a good indication of the quality of the hotel).

On the Saturday morning we were up early and off out sightseeing (including La Scala opera house). Milan is a wonderful city and we passed a very pleasant day wandering in the sunshine, marvelling at the architecture, and making regular stops at those funny little cafe/bars in Italy where everyone stands to eat and drink.

It was about 5:30pm when we returned to the hotel. We walked into the lobby, turned left to go down the corridor to the lifts, and as we did so, Francesco Totti came strolling round the corner towards us.

Someone (presumably a fellow guest) jumped out from behind a pillar and asked Totti for a photograph. He smilingly obliged. “Quick, get the camera out” I urged my wife (neither of us owned a smartphone in 2010).

Not knowing the Italian for ‘photograph’ (or very much else), I stood in front of il capitano and made a photograph gesture with my hands. He put his arm round me, smiled, I smiled (a ridiculously cheesy grin), and my wife got the picture.

Totti

“Good luck tonight” I said, “I’m going to the game.” Totti put his thumb up; the famous thumb upon which he sucks in celebration of scoring a goal. What a birthday weekend it was turning out to be.

The walk from the metro station to the stadium was long, cold, and uphill. The first sight of the stadium is incredible, especially at night. It sits glittering atop the hill, shimmering like Anita Ekberg emerging from the Trevi fountain.

The car park is big and it was already full of expensive (mostly German) cars. I collected my ticket at the perimeter of the stadium, received a cursory frisk, and I was inside. Sort of. There was still quite a long way to go to get to the stand.

Finally, up some steps, and there she was: bold, beautiful, and utterly breathtaking. The steepness of the stands creates an extraordinary intimacy in a huge steel and concrete structure that seats 80,000 people. I stood still and looked. Up and up, all the way round.

The San Siro was redesigned and remodelled for the 1990 World Cup; it hosted the iconic opening game between Cameroon and Argentina. The Mail article describes the tournament as ‘defining an era of football for many supporters.’ I am among that many.

As a 9 year old watching in Scotland, I was amazed and it was the stadiums that were the most amazing – this despite the fact I’d already been to Glebe Park. It felt surreal to be standing there at San Siro thinking about how many times I’d seen it on TV.

Soon I was watching the Roma players warm up. I was cooling down rather alarmingly as all feeling in my feet gradually disappeared. My new friend Totti glanced over in my direction but I’m not sure he recognised me. Sadly, he started on the bench and there he remained.

I was not in the part of the ground reserved for the away fans so I had to conceal my loyalties, always an awkward situation for a football fan. The first half made it relatively easy however since excitement was not exactly abundant.

The second half was better, much better. In the 70th minute Borriello scored for Roma. The Roma fans (with the exception of my good self) erupted jubilantly. I feigned a scowl though I suspect not altogether convincingly. The Roma fans let off some flares, presumably for warmth.

Milan wasted several good chances to equalise and Roma held on for a hard fought victory. Totti and I left the stadium very happy. I hadn’t thought to ask for a lift back on the team bus so instead I skipped through the snow back to the metro.

I’d been to the San Siro, my team had won. Happy birthday! No Totti, some party.

There are only four teams for me

Totti

Totti and I. Milan, December 2010. Doesn’t he look pleased to finally meet me?

I support 4 teams. That probably seems like a lot so let me explain. First, there is a hierarchy. In answer to the question, “who do you support?” my answer is Dundee United. It’s the team I grew up supporting – I was a season ticket holder in my teens – and they will always remain the teenage sweetheart of my footballing affections.

I also support Liverpool, as my English team. Most football supporters in Scotland have an English team that they follow. Liverpool are mine because my best friend at school had family in Liverpool and thus he supported them. We used to watch lots of Liverpool videos together. It is 25 years since Liverpool last won the league title so at least I’m not often accused of glory hunting.

My third team is Roma. Ever since I saw my first Serie A game on Channel 4’s Football Italia in 1992 (a 3-3 draw between Sampdoria and Lazio) it has been my favourite league. Back then, it was the best league in the world. That is no longer the case but I love it still. That love used to have a universal purity about it. I just loved Italian football in general and didn’t mind too much who won particular games. It was 2009 until I went to my first Seria A game – Roma v Juventus at the Stadio Olympico. I’ve been a Roma fan ever since.

Last, and in all honestly least (but do not mistake that for a lack of passion, I speak here in very much a relative sense) there’s Rijeka. My wife is Croatian and Rijeka, the third largest city in the country, is her hometown. It is thus my adopted hometown and that comes with a duty of care toward the football team.

As summer turns to autumn across Europe (or as one slightly less rainy season turns into a slightly more rainy season in Scotland) it feels like a reasonable time to assess the start that each of my teams have made to the new season.

Dundee United

2015 started very well for Dundee United but it doesn’t look as though it’s going to end that way. I was there on New Year’s Day to see us beat Dundee 6-2 in an extraordinary derby. A month later, the transfer window closed with two of our best players – Armstrong and Mackay-Steven – having escaped through it to Celtic. It’s been downhill faster than a bobsleigh race ever since.

After it emerged that boss Jackie McNamara receives bonuses related to transfer fees (but is not involved in transfer negotiations), his stock has fallen quite significantly among some sections of the support. A fairly miserable run of form hasn’t helped. We currently sit second bottom of the table with just a single win from eight league matches this season.

Only two players who started the derby on January 1st were in the starting line-up for last weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The current squad is barely recognisable to me. I’ll be in Scotland next month and am intending to take my son to his first ever football game. We’ll be going to Tannadice to watch Dundee United v Hearts. I rather fear that every time he asks me, “Dad, who’s that?” I will have to shrug my shoulders and say I don’t know.

He’s five years old and the only footballer he really knows and recognises is Messi. A few weeks ago he asked if Messi will be playing when we go to the stadium. Sadly not son, sadly not.

Dundee United: P8, W1, D2, L5, Pts5, League Position 11/12

Report Card: D

****

Liverpool

Things are not much better for my team south of the border. In fact, it’s pretty much all gone south at Anfield since Suarez left for the more southerly charms of Barcelona. I was happy to see him go such was the shame that he’d brought upon the club but it’s now very obvious that he absolutely carried that side to within a whisker of winning the league in 2013/14.

At the time, Brendan Rodgers got, and seemingly deserved, a lot of credit. Managers take plenty of flak when their team is losing so they surely warrant some praise and a little singing when they’re winning. Whatever trust there was in Rodgers though is evaporating fast around Anfield and personally, I have lost all trust in him and his methods.

Remarkably, it’s unclear how much influence the manager has over the signings that Liverpool make these days but it’s already evident that another summer of big spending is not likely to stave off another winter of discontent. Liverpool currently look miles away from being contenders for a Champions League place but rather less far away from League Two side Carlisle, who we scraped past in the Capital One Cup this week. On penalties.

I simply can’t see Rodgers turning things around sufficiently. Earlier in his reign, the possession philosophy that he espouses looked as though it could develop into something exciting. Indeed, it briefly did as Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling (ably supported by Gerrard) menaced defences with their skill, pace and speed of thought. Now though, it just appears ponderous and visiting defences can scarcely believe how easy an afternoon out they’ve been treated to at Anfield.

Talking of scarcely believable: Mark Lawrenson. On the 20th of September, Lawro wrote a column on the BBC website declaring that the 1-1 home draw with Norwich represented ‘fresh hope for new-look Reds.’ Really? Where he saw freshness, hope and something a bit different, I saw a stale, hopelessly inadequate performance that was eerily similar to many such performances in recent times.

Much of Lawrenson’s analysis seemed to be based on the fact that Liverpool had far more touches in the final third in their game against Norwich than they managed the previous week. That game was away at Manchester United. Thanks for picking up on such a subtle and unexpected phenomenon there Mark. He also provided a couple of diagrams to illustrate the point for anyone who’s a little bit slower than one of our centre halves.

Lawrenson is nothing if not a man of firm and unwavering opinions. He wrote another column yesterday. Now, apparently, “Liverpool have gone back to being a bit rudderless, characterless and seem to have lost their way.” No freshness, no hope, Mark? Not much else either.

“No rhyme, no reason, no pattern of play. Liverpool had 40-odd shots and most of them were from outside the box. Carlisle, middle of League Two, kept them at arm’s length. It was very samey. You are looking and thinking ‘what the hell is happening here?”. From “new-look” to “very samey” in just four days.

Much more of the same and it will be the dug-out that has a new look. Klopp is available and rumour has it he’s interested. Things definitely wouldn’t be too samey under the German.

Liverpool:  P6, W2, D2, L2, Pts8, League Position 13/12

Report Card: C-

****

Roma

And so to Rome. When in Rome … support Roma, as the saying goes. Or something like that. I visited the Italian capital in 2009 and I was delighted that my stay coincided with one of the biggest matches in Serie A – Roma v Juventus.

My ticket cost me €110 so it’s perhaps not surprising that I felt as though I was signing on for life as a Roma fan. At the club shop they assured me there was only one area of the ground that still had tickets available, and of course it was one of the most expensive areas. When the game kicked off with lots of empty seats in various other parts of the stadium, I had the feeling that I might have been taken for a bit of a Roman ride.

Roma lost 3-1 to Juventus that day and it seems as though they’ve been trying to catch up with the Old Lady of Italian football ever since (which turns out to be harder than that makes it sound).

Last season, Juventus did the league and cup double as well as reaching the final of the Champions League. Roma finished in second, 17 points behind the champions. Can they sustain a title challenge this time round?

The early signs are reasonably encouraging but that’s based more on the shaky start that Juve have made rather than anything particularly convincing from Roma. Last weekend summed up why Roma have come close but ultimately fallen short in recent years: too many draws, especially at home. Last weekend it was 2-2 against Sassuolo.

Totti scored one of the Roma goals; his 300th for the club. A week short of his 39th birthday, the Roma captain is a truly legendary figure. He only has one Serie A winner’s medal to his name (he’s finished runner up on eight occasions) and I hope that he claims a second one next May. That would possibly make him as happy as I was when I met him in Milan in 2010 when my wife and I ended up staying in the same hotel as the Roma squad (see picture above).

Roma:  P5, W2, D2, L1, Pts8, League Position 9/20

Report Card: B-

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Rijeka

Next week I will be in Rijeka, enjoying some rest and recovery after running my first ever marathon (here in KL on October 4th, and for a very good cause: https://www.justgiving.com/Craig-Wilkie/). Sadly there’s no domestic football on while I’m there but there is an international fixture – Croatia v Bulgaria in the European Championship Qualifiers – so I might make it to that.

Rijeka’s stadium, Kantrida, is the most beautiful location that I’ve ever watched football in. Cut into a cliff on one side, with the shimmering Adriatic Sea on the other, it’s a glorious setting for the beautiful game. The football of course is not always quite as spectacular as the surroundings but the last couple of seasons have brought much to cheer for Rijeka fans, including two excellent runs in the group stage of the Europa League.

Last season a title charge looked a real possibility but Rijeka fell away slightly in the second half of the season following the sale of star striker Kramaric to Leicester. I expected him to take the Premier League by storm but so far he’s been a whole lot less than prominent. In fact, I’m almost certain that there are streakers who have spent more time on the pitch than Kramaric this season.

Dinamo Zagreb went on to win the league and finished the season unbeaten, the first time that’s ever happened in the Croatian top flight. Few would bet against Dinamo retaining the title and their 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the Champions League suggests they might even be a force in Europe as well this year.

Nevertheless, Rijeka are off to a reasonable start (despite exiting the Europa League in Aberdeen) and currently sit in second place, five points behind Dinamo but with a game in hand.

Rijeka:  P10, W4, D6, L0, Pts18, League Position 2/10

Report Card: B

****

All four of my teams drew last weekend; I didn’t get to feel the exhilaration of victory but at least I avoided the despondency of defeat. They all have winnable matches this weekend so I’m expecting three points to be collected somewhere.

Those then, are my teams. I’ll support you ever four.

The Monday Post

newcastle

Newcastle. Photo by Nigel Taylor, http://www.flickr.com

Today we’ll take a quick look back at a few things that happened in the world of football this weekend. This may become a more regular feature (part of the purpose of this Blogvember challenge is to try out some different kinds of post) so if you like it, don’t hesitate to say so.

All (kind) comments shall be gratefully received.

I watched two and a bit games this weekend – Newcastle v Liverpool, the Manchester derby, and a bit of Napoli v Roma (see yesterday’s post for why I love Italian football).

As a Liverpool fan, Saturday’s game was painful viewing. Suarez was always going to be tough to replace, and Sturridge being injured has hugely compounded that problem, but the current issues at Anfield seem to run a bit deeper.

I have written elsewhere on this blog in praise of Rodgers but I think his summer transfer policy raises serious questions. Most of the attention is understandably focused on Balotelli (when has that ever not been the case in his career?) but I actually think he was a gamble worth taking at £16 million.

The early signs have not been great but he’s still adjusting to Liverpool’s style of play, he’s hardly played in partnership with Sturridge, and the team as a whole is struggling. His performances have been mixed to say the least but he’s been working hard and has largely avoided controversy (one overly-eager jersey swapping incident aside).

I’m much more concerned by a defence that appears shakier than last season despite some considerable investment in it and a midfield that is nowhere near as commanding as it was last season. The sparing use of Coutinho baffles me.

Rodgers spent some big money in the summer and the side appears stronger as a result. Southampton’s side that is. We took three of their best players and we now sit seventh in the table, behind Swansea and West Ham. Southampton are second.

Lambert, Lallana and Lovren are all decent players. Lambert has not yet had much of a chance (wrongly in my view), Lovren is quite elegant on the ball but lacks authority as a centre half (authority is in short supply across our whole back four and our goalkeeper Mignolet has never had a deep or lasting relationship with the concept), and Lallana looks a little overawed and a lot overpriced.

The Real Madrid – Liverpool game starts at 3.45 am on Wednesday morning in Malaysia. I don’t think I’ll get up for that one.

The Manchester derby was an intriguing game that sparked on several occasions without fully igniting. I predicted in Saturday’s post that City would win and they deserved to. Smalling proved once again that he’ll soon be playing on a smaller stage and van Gaal described him as “stupid.” It’s certainly true that the next club he joins is not likely to be Mensa.

Manchester United actually performed very creditably with ten men and Blind showed that he’s a truly class act. It’s been a very bad start to the season for the red devils but I still expect them to comfortably finish in the top four. There’s so much talent in that squad and despite the desperate start, van Gaal is the real deal.

Roma lost 2-0 in Naples and face a Champions League trip to Bayern Munich in midweek. Bayern beat them 7-1 in Rome a few weeks ago so they’ll probably travel with all the confidence of Mignolet coming off his line at a corner.

The happiest sight of the weekend for me was that of my beloved Dundee United at the top of the table in Scotland. Well played boys.

We also have a league cup semi final against Aberdeen to look forward to. The other semi final will see the reuniting of some firm old friends in Glasgow. Ally McCoist has sensibly appealed for calm ahead of the return of Celtic v Rangers for the first time in almost three years. He might get his wish and I hope he does but I suspect it’s about as likely as Liverpool winning at the Bernabeu this week.

The great ticket robbery?

 

arsenal-supporters

Arsenal supporters. Photo by jpellgen, http://www.flickr.com

The BBC recently announced the results of their annual ‘Price of Football’ study and there was plenty to chew on in the findings. Not least in the revelation that Manchester United would have to sell 75,715 pies to cover just a week of Falcao’s wages. Coincidentally, a colossal number of pies appear to be what Harry Redknapp thinks Adel Taarabt is spending his wages on.

Overall, and unsurprisingly, the price of watching football in the UK was found to be steep and rising. The study notes that ‘the average price of the cheapest tickets across English football has risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011.’ The Football Supporters’ Federation called the increases “completely unacceptable” but it seems that many fans do accept them – Premier League attendances are on the increase.

Remarkably, ‘Charlton’s £150 season ticket is the cheapest in England’s top four divisions. However, Barcelona charge around £103 for their lowest-priced season ticket.’ I’ve seen Barcelona at the Nou Camp twice and it’s a thrilling experience (although it must be said that the catering facilities for example are quite awful). I think I paid about €20 in 2010 for a La Liga game against Malaga and about €27 a year later for a league match against Real Zaragoza. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Charlton at the Valley but I imagine it’s a slightly different experience to the Nou Camp.

The report generated some interesting responses. Most interesting of all was the solution that Sunderland came up with. Just a few days after the report was published they played so badly at Southampton that they lost 8-0 and the goalkeeper offered to refund the costs incurred by their fans.

I’ve definitely been to games where I’ve felt as though I’ve deserved some sort of compensation for my attendance – the Berti Vogts era as Scotland boss springs to mind here. It’s surprising that lawyers haven’t cottoned on to this potentially lucrative revenue stream and launched adverts along the lines of: “were you traumatised at the game today? Did the manager make ill-advised substitutions that had a direct and negative effect on your health? Call today for a no win/no fee consultation.”

In midweek, Danny Baker (well worth a follow on Twitter by the way if you’re into that sort of thing @prodnose) questioned why Chelsea fans had bothered to pay expensive prices to see their team demolish Maribor 6-0 in the Champions League. His point wasn’t so much about the prices as about what he sees as the devaluation of the tournament caused by over-expansion. In Baker’s view, a near full-house at Stamford Bridge for such a game represents a triumph of branding by UEFA.

The Champions League is indeed a branding masterclass but it can also be considered a genuinely premium product. While there were some very large victories in the tournament this week due to a huge gulf in resources and quality between opponents, it was not true in all cases. Bayern Munich beat Roma 7-1 and I think most people would consider that a clash between two big European clubs and very much worthy of the Champions League setting.

Roma happen to be my favourite Italian team and I’ve seen them live twice. The first time was in 2009. Roma happened to be playing Juventus the weekend that my wife and I were visiting the eternal city (this, I must confess, was not entirely a coincidence). We arrived in the city late on a Saturday evening, the night before the game and all the ticket offices were shut as was the club shop.

The next day, my wife’s priority, quite rightly and naturally, was sightseeing but mine was to obtain a ticket. By midday, and with several hours of sightseeing already completed, we arrived at the Roma store where match day tickets could be purchased. I waited patiently in a ticket queue that was comprised mostly of tourists. When I got to the front I said: “uno ticket for today’s calcio, grazie.” I like to use a bit of the local lingo where possible.

The Italian woman selling the tickets looked at me and smiled. In that moment I presumed that she was a) impressed by my use of Italian, b) charmed by my Scottish accent, or c) a combination thereof. Looking back I think the smile probably arose from option d) “I know you really want to see this game and thus you’re going to accept the ticket price I’m about to quote you.”

€110.

For a moment I was speechless, in both Italian and English. I turned, crestfallen, to my wife. “I know,” I said, “I can’t pay that much for a ticket.” Her reply astonished me. “Yes, you can. I know you really want to see this game.” She and the Italian woman smiled at each other. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes.”

With a slightly trembling hand I offered up my credit card. Still smiling, the Italian woman explained that the only tickets left were in the most expensive part of the stadium. Later, inside the stadium I judged by the empty seats in other areas that this may have been a lie. I left the official Roma store with a slightly dazed sensation and clutching what felt like one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets.

Roma lost 3-1 and never offered a refund.

photo 1 (1)

That is the most I’ve ever paid for a ticket. Many European clubs have a steeply tiered pricing system with very expensive tickets at one end and very affordable ones at the other. Of course only the biggest clubs with the best players can operate those sorts of pricing policies, other clubs have to be more creative and make more of an effort.

Living abroad, I very rarely get to see my home town team Dundee United these days. The last time I was at Tannadice was on New Year’s Day this year when my brother and I went to see United versus Aberdeen. I paid £25 for the ticket. Scotland in January is generally very wet and very cold.

So it was for the Aberdeen game. We shivered through a 2-1 defeat with the pie and tea providing only a brief respite from the cold and ran back to the car through torrential rain. Happy New Year! In my view £25 is too much to pay for the quality that’s currently being offered in Scotland’s top flight and I wouldn’t be inclined to pay it regularly. I say that despite the fact that my club are currently doing an excellent job of bringing through exciting young players and adopting an entertaining style of play.

photo 2 (1)

To be fair though to United and many other Scottish clubs, they are making some effort to contain prices and improve the experience for fans. United offer some good discounts for kids and seem to do a good job of engaging with season ticket holders. They’ve also started doing some reciprocal deals with other clubs for specific matches to lower prices for away fans.

When I lived in Scotland I was a regular at Hampden for Scotland games. Sadly following Scotland has mostly involved heartache for my entire adult life – I was 17 the last time we qualified for a major championship. The team’s recent resurgence under Gordon Strachan has offered the greatest hope in the entire period since.

It was therefore hugely disappointing that the recent European Championship qualifier against Georgia at Ibrox was played against a backdrop of so many empty seats. The cheapest ticket for the game was £35 and 17,000 empty seats was a stark illustration of how badly the SFA have misjudged the pricing policy for these games. The cheapest tickets for next month’s friendly against England are priced at £50. I think the motivation for staging that game is pretty obvious.

The tartan army have reacted quite furiously to all of this. Online petitions have been launched and t-shirts with the slogan Shafting Fans Always are apparently selling well (people are obviously prepared to pay money to protest at how much money they’re being asked to spend). Recent years have seen quite a lot of progress in supporters taking a stand and getting together to represent themselves.

A lot of clubs have responded, at least to an extent, and given fans more of a role in how they are run. Germany is rightly held up as a model in this regard but there is hope in the UK with the work being done by organisations such as Supporters Direct (http://www.supporters-direct.org/)

Just as the influence of workers has weakened with the erosion of trade union power so the influence of fans has been diluted at many clubs for whom ticket revenue makes up a much smaller proportion of overall revenue than it once did. Football supporters are among the most loyal groups of people anywhere, far more loyal than the average employee or customer is to any particular company.

That loyalty is not without limits though. Any club or football association that continually takes fans for granted will eventually pay a heavy price, when those supporters stop doing so.