Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Taylor Report unpicked: the terracing debate

Fans of Borussia Dortmund support their team e...

Dortmund's Westfalen Stadion (Image via Wikipedia)

In 1989 virtually all football grounds in Britain contained a sizeable portion of terracing. In fact, terracing was so synonymous with football, that it would have been impossible, prior to 1989, to imagine football without it.

Originally earth or cinder banking, rows of railway sleepers were placed on top to give a firm footing. Some earlier stadiums had had scaffold-like stands, until a collapse at Ibrox in 1902 killed many spectators. Gradually earth was replaced by stepped concrete. The wide expanse of these concrete terraces were broken up by metal crush barriers, which prevented surges and crushing – and also gave fans something convenient to lean on! Far more fans could be packed into an expanse of terracing than the equivalent area of seating, so the advantages to the clubs was obvious – more people, bigger crowds, more gate receipts.

Terraces were particularly popular among working class fans. It became traditional for a clubs most vociferous fans to stand on the terrace behind one of the goals. Standing is pro-active, whereas sitting is passive. Some terraces were covered and some were open, but no-one was particularly bothered if they got wet – it was all part of the experience. End terraces became held with great affection by fans – the Kop at Liverpool, the Holte End at Aston Villa, the North Bank at Arsenal and the Stretford End at Manchester United for example. At Fratton Park of course we had the famous Fratton End. There was also an area of the North Stand Terrace known as the ‘boilermakers hump’, where dockyard workers would gather (back in those days going to Football was a legitimate reason for leaving the yard early!).

During the boom years immediately after the Second World War thousands would crowd onto the terraces: one had to turn up at lunchtime to get a good spot for a three O’clock kick off. Clubs even employed crowd packers to move the fans around and get as many people in as possible. Footage exists of small children being passed over the heads of the crowd down to the front to get a better view. At the time few fans travelled to away games, but those that did could travel around the ground at will, moving from one end to the other at half time.

It is strange indeed that the Taylor Report outlawed terracing, especially after Taylor had stated that terracing is ‘not intrinsincally unsafe’. Terracing did not cause Hillsborough – bad policing of terracing caused Hillsborough. Sadly, it does all support the conclusion that Taylor was given a brief by the Government to ‘sort out’ football. Part of gentrifying football was the attack on its working class roots, and the terrace and its inhabitants were the most visible target for ‘cleaning up’.

Most German Football Stadia have what are dubbed ‘safe standing’ areas. One, the Westfalenstadion at Dortmund, houses almost 30,000 behind the goal. Usually one end, or a couple of blocks in one end, are terraced. This is highly safe terracing, with wide steps, a crush barrier for every couple of rows, and a sensible capacity so fans are not jammed in. FIFA and UEFA games must be all-seater, so clubs get round this by the simple expedient of either having ‘hybrid’ terracing, or terracing that is easily converted into seating. The Olympiastadion in Munch has terracing that gives each spectator a designated spot, and there is a seat built into the crash barrier behind that can be used if necessary. Even for standing games, this is convenient for half time. The Espirit Arena in Dusseldorf has terracing, with basic seats covered with a metal panel – this panel can be easily removed by ground staff. Dusseldorf is a particularly interesting example, in that when the stadium was completed in 2004, it was completely all seater. Terracing was retro-installed in 2010, due to pressure from fans. This shows that terracing CAN be retrofitted into modern all-seater stadia.

Given the Germans penchant for efficiency and health and safety, do we really think they would have terracing if it was that unsafe? I doubt it very much. I have felt far more safe standing on terraces in Germany than I do seated in England. Terracing is much more safe than having seating, but where fans stand up throughout the game anyway. If people want to stand up, why not just have terracing anyway, but do it properly?

The terracing of 1989 and Hillsborough cannot be judged against that of 2010. The perimeter fencing, excessive capacities, barbaric pen arrangements, poor policing and stewarding, lack of turnstiles, few crush barriers, poor crowd distribution and non-existant emergency procedures are light years away from the terracing I have seen in Germany. All of the aforementioned problems can be remedied without recourse to seating.

Terracing, with a sensible capacity, plenty of crush barriers, and well managed, is perfectly safe. I doubt very much whether there is any will to re-introduce terracing in English football – not from the clubs, the football authorities or the Government. Not only because it would restore football to its working class roots, but also because clubs have spent so much converting to all-seater, few would want the additional lay-out of bringing back terracing.

Have English football fans gone soft since the introduction of all-seater stadia? All the evidence would suggest so. It would have been unthinkable, years ago, for fans to complain about noise, or the lack of legroom, or if their seats aren’t nice and comfy. It was just part of the game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, the move from standing to seated is along the lines of conscious to comatose; from supporter to consumer.

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Review of the year 2010

Well what a difference a year makes! We started 2010 with a Labour Government, a Royal Navy with aircraft carriers and harriers, Pompey were (just) in the Pemieriship, this blog was getting 2,000 hits a month, and I was about as single as those things that appear in the top 40!!!

In military terms the biggest story has been the brutal cuts of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Put bluntly, the Army did OK thanks to the prominence of Afghanistan and the lobbying of people such as Richard Dannatt, the RAF did its usual slick string-pulling exercise to keep its Ferraris going, and the Navy got hammered. On a brighter note Navy Days in Portsmouth was a real highlight – in hindsight ‘enjoy it while you can’ might have been an apt slogan for the event.

In the general election people voted ‘for change’, without thinking that change can also take you backwards as well as forwards. Sadly over the next 12 months many people who currently have jobs may find themselves with a lot more time on their hands.

On a personal level, this blog has gone from strength to strength – only the other day we received our 80,000th visitor since we began back in July 2009. On 11 November – Remembrance Day, fittingly – we had our highest ever number of visitors, 439 in one day. A big thank you to everyone who has visited, and particularly those of you who have stuck around and contributed.

Away from the blog, I enjoyed giving four talks on ‘what my family did during the war’. I am in the advanced stages of talks with a publisher to get ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’ published. Most of the research is done, and I’m now in the process of writing it up. If all goes to plan, hopefully it will materialise sometime late in 2011.

And now, time for a few awards…

Best WW2 Book I have read this year

Danger UXB by James Owen… honourable mentions for Mother Country by Stephen Bourne; The Battle for Burma by Roy Conyers Nesbit; UXB Malta by S.A.M. Hudson

Best WW1 Book I have read this year

Mud Blood and Bullets by Edward Rowbotham… honourable mentions for The Great Western Railway in the First World War by Sandra Gittins and Kut: Courage and Failure in Iraq 1916 by Patrick Crowley.

Best ‘other’ History book I have read this year

A Long Long War by Ken Wharton… honourable mentions for Bloody Belfast by Ken Wharton and Crimson Snow by Jules Stewart

Best Fiction I have read this year

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks… honourable mentions for New York by Edward Rutherfurd and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

… and finally, I would like to thank you all for your support and encouragement, and I hope you all have a great 2011.

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The Taylor report unpicked: the effect on stadia

Entrance to Fratton Park football stadium, Por...

The Entrance to Fratton Park (Image via Wikipedia)

 

Since 1989 – and the Taylor report specifically – Stadium design in English football has changed beyond recognition. Far more time, thought and money has been invested in accomodating supporters than ever before.

The earliest football stadiums in England were rather basic affairs. A main grandstand might be built to seat directors and well-off patrons, as well as dressing rooms and offices. Along the front of the main stand might run a paddock for standing spectators. Another more basic stand would run the length of the pitch on the other side, and both ends were usually of uncovered terracing. In the early days this consisted of cinders with railway sleepers dumped on top, but in latter years terracing was constructed out of concrete. Such a stadium configuration is still known around the world as the ‘English style’. Typical examples are the Estadio Alfonse Henriques at Guimaraes, the Stade Felix Bolaert at Lens, or the larger Westfalenstadion at Dortmund.

Between the turn of the century and the Taylor report there was little incentive for clubs to improve conditions. Most working class supporters were happy with their lot and not worried about having gold plated crash barriers or doileys in the toilets. The only ground improvements might be to build a bigger stand to fit in more people, to extend a terrace maybe, or perhaps to put a roof over an open terrace. But in their way, the old grounds had character, in particular those that had the old style Leitch lattice work along the front of the main stand.

The 1985 fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade Stadium led to a new impetus for ground safety. 56 people were killed on the final day of the 1984-5 league season when rubbish underneath the old wooden main stand caught fire. It is believed that a match or cigarette was dropped through a hole in the wooden floorboards, and that rubbish had for many years accumulated in the void underneath. Fire swept through the stand within seconds, a horrific spectacle that was shown on live TV. Many exits were found to be sut or locked, condeming fans to their fate. The fire took hold so quickly that when the Fire Brigade arrived four minutes after the alarm was raised, nothing could be done.

The Bradford fire led to the Popplewell Inquiry and subsequent report. Safety in stadiums was improved: wooden stands were condemmed, and fire exits were added in many places. Yet the Popplewell Report did not go far enough – many grounds still had perimeter fencing to counter pitch invasions. The stand at Valley Parade did not have fencing, but if it had, hundreds would have been killed. This should have posed a salutory ‘what if’, but instead, the Government and English football – inexplicably – fudged the issue by only looking at the risk of fire, not of other scenarios such as crushing. Remember also that Heysel took place a matter of days later. The overall safety emphasis of the Taylor Report came four years – and 96 lives – too late.

Fast forward to 1989, and the Taylor report ushered in all seater-stadia for the top and second flight divisions in English football. Taylor had originally proposed to make all football stadia all-seater, but this was later scaled back by the Government. To aid building work the Government waived a proportion of VAT on Football Pools, and this was ploughed into stadium work via the Football Trust. Suddenly clubs HAD to act and were forced out of their laissez-faire malaise.

Taylor ordered that the capacity of all terraces should be instantly cut by 15%. This immediately cut into the capacity of most stadiums, in particular large grounds with big terraced ends. The Capacity of Portsmouth’s Fratton Park fell from 36,000 to 26,000 overnight. In 1949 the same ground had held 51,000 people, with exactly the same stands – such was the effect of successive legislation following first the 1985 Bradford fire and then Hillsborough.

Seats take up far more room in a stadium than a terrace. Therefore, the prospect of simply bolting seats onto an old terraced Kop was an inefficient and unlikely prospect. The bank would need re-profiling, and sightlines would not be ideal. Faced with the prospect of losing huge swathes of spectators – and income – clubs were faced with no alternative but to either radically redesign their grounds, or look at building completely new stadiums altogether. A boom in Sky TV money also made building work more feasible. Between 1991 and 1997 a total of £507.8m was spent on football stadiums – £371.3m from the clubs, and £136.5m from the Football Trust.

Yet amidst all the talk about relocation, Scarborough moved to the new Glandford Park in 1988 – the first English club to build a new stadium since 1955. Since then, many clubs have moved grounds – Sunderland, Middlesborough, Stoke, Manchester City, Wigan, Arsenal, Bolton, Hull, Reading, Derby, Southampton, Leicester, Chesterfield, Oxford, Coventry, Cardiff, Swansea, Millwall, Huddersfield and Doncaster to name but a handful.

Although plenty of money has been spent on English stadiums, in my opinion they are on the whole disappointing. Compare the cheap identikit meccano stadiums of St Marys, the Riverside, the Walkers Stadium and Pride Park with Munich’s Allianz Arena, Arnhem’s Gelredome or any of the stadiums designed for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Of new English stadiums perhaps Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium warrants a mention, as does Old Trafford – simply for the way in which it has been built to a logical all-round plan rather than having different stands constructed haphazardly on each side. But on the whole, most English football stadia are lazily designed and characterless. They could have been designed by a 5-year old on the back of a fag packet.

I suspect one of the major problems that has inhibited stadium architecture in Britain is the difficulty of long-term planning. Unlike many parts of Europe Football Clubs in England tend to own their own stadiums, unlike in Germany, for example, where many stadiums are owned by the municipal authorities. Thus if the club is strapped for cash it cannot be bothered to invest in the stadium, and even if the club has funds, it is likely to try and get away with spending as little as it can get away with. Any attempts to rebuild or relocate stadiums have to go through planning permission with the local council, which can take years or legal wrangling, consultation, and struggling with narrow-minded NIMBY’s. Ambitious and wealthy owners are sometimes able to force things through.

Lets take a look at the example of my local team, Portsmouth. 1989 found Pompey playing at the inner-city Fratton Park, hemmed in on four sides by houses and a rail goods yard. The main south stand dated from 1929, the North Stand from 1934 and the Fratton and Milton Ends were basic open terraces. The capacity fell from 36,000 in 1989 to 26,000 after Hillsborough, and then – due to a high level of terracing – just over 10,000 in 1994. For a club that was in the second tier at the time this was unacceptable.

Plans were made to move to a purpose built 22,000 seater stadium at Farlington, until the plan was scuppered by a few local residents and geese. With a new apathetic owner, the club remained at Fratton. Then Terry Venables took over and built a new all-seater Fratton End, raising the capacity to 20,000. The only problem was, that the club did not actually have the money to build the new stand, and almost went bust as a result. The rest of the ground and its facilties were essentially the same as in 1939.

When Milan Mandaric took over various plans were advanced to first build on Fratton Goods Yard, then rotate the stadium by 90 degrees (with an odd design that envisaged keeping the 1929 vintage south stand), then move to Hilsea Gasworks, King George V playing fields and a host of other sites. Lots of ideas, but no real work. Once Sacha Gaydamak took over, a plan was announced to build on reclaimed land at the Hard (this time an imaginative design by the architects behind the Allianz Arena), and when this was ruled out, a more realistic plan was made to build on Horsea Island. This plan, however, was dropped when Gaydamak lost interest (and his daddy pulled the plug on his millions), leaving Pompey right back where they started.

That said, there is something romantic about Fratton Park and its inner city location. Walking to the ground from Goldsmith Avenue is a stirring experience, that is somehow lost in the multitude of out-of-town stadiums nowadays. True the facilities are not great, but does that really matter to those of us who used to stand on the terraces? Its football, not the opera. And the old mock-Tudor house that greets visitors in Frogmore Road is still a sight to behold. There are plenty of pubs in the local area, the railway station is a ten minute walk, and the city centre is not far away. Would this matchday experience be anything like the same if the ground was housed on an industrial estate?

But if we must have new stadiums, why do they have to be soul-less constructions of mecanno and prefabricated concrete? A stadium with landmark design and with a character all of its own is more likely to engender identity, loyalty and pride. For example the ‘lifeboat’ design of the Allianz Arena, the new Wembley Arch or the old Munich Olympiastadion’s eyecatching perspex roof.

There has been no disaster in any English football ground since 1989. No lives have been lost, but what about the soul of English football, and the character of English Football Stadia?

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The Taylor Report unpicked: the shadow of hooliganism

The Leppings Lane end after the tragedy

The Leppings Lane End after the disaster (Image via Wikipedia)

The term ‘hooliganism’ originated from the Irish diaspora who populated British towns and cities in the late Nineteenth Century, and in particular young Irish lads who would run about town making a nuisance of themselves. The term ‘hooligan’ – derived from the Irish surname of Hoolihan – has since been used as an umbrella term to describe any kind of violent disorder.

The Hillsborough disaster was caused overwhelmingly by poor facilities and poor policing, which led to catastrophic overcrowding. There is no evidence of hooliganism on the Leppings Lane End that day, and no more misbehaviour than you might expect from any high-spirited football crowd at a major game. Yet inexplicably, Hooliganism features centrally in the Taylor Report. Why was this?

We need to be careful of falling into the trap of thinking that Hooliganism suddenly appeared on the terraces in the late 1970′s – there are plenty of recorded incidents of violence at football matches, going back to the turn of the century. It is a complete myth to think that before the 1970′s everyone went to football wearing a cloth cap and a rosette and had a jolly good time. It is a common fallacy to think of the ‘old days’ as some kind of halcyon age, almost like a stick to beat the present with. And crowd disasters happened way back in time – Ibrox in 1902, Wembley in 1923, and Bolton in 1946. Why was nothing done then?

Several high-profile incidents took place in 1985 which brought matters to a head. Rioting fans invaded the pitch at a televised Millwall-Luton FA Cup Quarter Final tie. On the final day of the league season a 14 year old boy was crushed to death under a collapsing wall at Birmingham, after police had charged hooligans. At the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels crowd disorder led to the deaths of Italian Fans. The Bradford City fire – although not caused by Hooliganism – also directed attention onto crowd safety. If ever there was a time for the Government to get tough on Hooliganism, it was 1985 – and few in Britain could have objected if Thatcher had taken football to task. Yet aside from lobbying UEFA to ban English clubs from European competitions, nothing happened. It could be argued that by shirking the issue in 1985, the Government made Hillsborough all the more possible.

In the interim period between 1985 and April 1989, the football authorities and clubs carried on with their laissez-faire approach to safety and facilities, while also strengthening anti-hooligan measures – most grounds had strong perimeter fencing, usually with an overhang, and some even with barbed wire or spikes on top. Terraces resembled Prisoner of War Camps more than sports venues, with their pen-like construction. These measures made disasters even more likely. Policing remained as rigid as ever, herding fans around like sheep, and with poor command and control. Hooliganism should have improved policing and crowd control, yet it seems to have remained as archaic as ever. Policing on the day of the Hillsborough disaster was pretty clueless, and there might have been an even bigger disaster if there had been crowd disorder.

Reading Taylor’s Interim Report, which dealt specifically with the causes of the disaster, time and time again senior officers from South Yorkshire Police spoke with a virtual paranoia about crowd trouble. The operational planning for the match on 15 April 1989 was solely focussed on preventing or dealing with hooliganism, with virtually no planning for crowd safety problems. This paranoia about hooliganism actually paralysed police action on the day – PC’s had had it drilled into them not to open gates, to the point where one said that he ‘expected a bollocking’ for opening a gate to allow fans to escape the crush. Even when it was clear that people were dying, some officers were more concerned about spectators being on the pitch – never mind that they were escaping a fatal crush. And even as the dead were being pulled out of the Leppings Lane End, Police reinforcements drew up a blocking line on the pitch to prevent Liverpool fans from reaching the Nottingham Forest fans at the other end of the ground. Whilst this was sensible in theory, did the Police divert too many resources?

It is quite inexplicable that having fudged the issue of safety at Football Stadiums for so long, the Government then went way over the top in 1989. Avoiding the issue had led to the deaths of 96 people. The ever-present thread of hooliganism in the Taylor report is a mystery. There is not necessarily a link that all football ground disasters are caused by hooliganism, something Taylor would have stressed if he did not have a pre-conceived agenda. Reading the Taylor Report, it is probable – at least in my opinion – that Taylor ‘lumped in’ high-spirits, hot dogs and a few beers as one and the same as hardcore hooliganism – a typical top-down, class based misconception. Kind of the same attitude that would lead a Victorian middle class investigator to irrationaly link a working man having a few beers in an inn with serial killers.

The introduction of all-seater stadia, more professional crowd control and policing has undoubtedly led to a rapid decrease in football hooliganism in Britain. It is more expensive to go to football now – cutting out many young male working class supporters – and seating is not conducive to rioting. A preponderence of CCTV makes it nigh-on impossible to commit crime and get away with it. Hooligan firms still exist, but any violence is low-key and takes place away from the stadiums, even in car parks and industrial estates.

But even though football has become safer for the majority, something has been lost along the way. All-seater stadia were an excuse to hike ticket prices. Atmosphere is non-existant compared to the old terrace days. Football crowds have got soft, complaining if seats are too hard, if somebody stands up or if there is too much noise. This has all contributed to the supporter becoming a customer – disenfranchised and exploited. Watching football is now more akin to going to the theatre.

Could hooliganism have been eradicated without the draconian measures of the Taylor report? The primary causes of football hooliganism in the 70′s and 80′s were sociological – bands of disafected working class young men, many unemployed or in low paid work, grouping together and showing their disdain for authority. More intelligent policing would have paid dividends – not just erecting bigger and stronger fences, or deploying more police horses, Herding people around and penning them in like animals, it made it all the more likely that fans would behave as such. Police should have engaged more with fans, and thinking more strategically about how to manage large crowds rather than the same old route one policing.

By its illogical obsession with hooliganism, the Taylor Report was the wrong sledgehammer, used to crack the wrong walnut. And thus the Thatcher Government gentrified what was our national, working class sport. A failure to understand the causes of and nature of football hooliganism has had a lasting effect on the game, and those who follow it. I would like to advance the argument that all-seater stadia and the gentrification of football was not the only way to clean up the game.

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Leading from the front by General Sir Richard Dannatt

Richard Dannatt has probably been Britain’s most controversial General since the end of the Second World War. Not afraid to stand up for what he thought was right, he received the support of his men and officers, but at the same time became the scourge of the Brown Government. Not only for his public criticism of Government defence policy, but also for agreeing to advise the Conservative Party whilst he was still technically on the Army payroll.

Dannatt joined the Army in the early 70′s, becoming a subaltern in the Green Howards, a famous Yorkshire Regiment. The early 1970′s were a busy time for the army, with heavy commitments in Northern Ireland. Dannatt served several stints in the province, winning the Military Cross – something which he almost breezes over. Remarkably, Dannatt also suffered a major stroke in his mid 20′s. And even more remarkably, he managed to make a full recovery and serve on to have a full army career afterwards. A picture emerges of somebody who was no doubt a very brave man, with plenty of resolve. Dannatt also served as a senior commander in both Bosnia and Kosovo. All three operations, which involved fighting in and around people and dealing with security and reconstruction, gave a strong understanding of the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Dannatt also gained a Bachelors Degree in Economic History – an interesting subject for an army officer to study. This obviously gave him a better understanding of budgets than most Generals ever manage to obtain! He also served in the Ministry of Defence several times, which ensured that he had a good understanding of how the Whitehall machine worked when he reached the top of the tree – again, not something many Generals master. This probably explains his clever use of media interviews to get his point across, rather than constantly banging ones head against the Whitehall ‘wall’.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was his work to restore the Military Covenant – the unwritten agreement of support between the armed forces, the Government and society. Within several years, homecoming parades for returning troops are packed. Charities such as Help for Heroes are raising millions for troops welfare. You cannot help but feel that the armed forces matter more to people in Britain more than they have done for a very long time, and this is a real and lasting achievement.

It was undoubtedly a mistake to agree to advise the Conservative Party, particularly as when asked Dannatt was still a paid member of the British Army, even though he had stood down as Chief of the General Staff. Dannatt explains that he had hoped to keep the announcement secret until he had left the Army, but that it seems to have been leaked for mischievous political reasons. Dannatt then changed his mind, deciding not to join the Conservative ranks as a Defence minister. As he quite rightly states, it would have undermined the serving Defence Chiefs to have one of their retired counterparts undermining them from a tangent. It was a rare naive moment for somebody who strikes me as a very astute man. The political management of Defence is in something of a strange situation – we have a scenario where politicians are appointed to head a department, usually with no experience of defence at all – and who are nominally in charge or ordering around older, senior commanders who have 30 years of experience behind them, and have fought and led in wars. It is a strange set-up indeed, and I cannot help but think that the new National Security Council fudges the issue even more.

The Memoirs of Dannatt’s predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, gave the impression of an officer who – although no fool – was definitely one of the lads. Dannatt strikes me as someone who, although keen to stand up for his men, is more of a thinker. This is shown by the last chapter, which is really Dannatt thinking about loud about what he calls ‘the future’, and where we need our armed forces to be to face threats that might – or might not – transpire. He quotes from General Sir Rupert Smith‘s utility of force, going further to suggest that modern wars will not be just amongst the people, but also about the people. And if we think about it, this is exactly what has been happening since the end of the Second World War. Yet still people hanker after a Cold War style armoured clash, the kind of war they would like rather than the kind of war we are faced with in the real world. The Army spent years doing this sat in Germany, until Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leonne and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan forced a change in thinking. We still have, however, the RAF longing for dogfights over the white cliffs of dover, in much the same fashion.

As somebody who was in charge of Defence ‘Programmes’ political parlance for buying equipment – Dannat has some strongs words to say about Defence Procurement. In particular, he repeatedly questions the RAF’s need to buy and maintain lavish numbers of fast fighter jets, when it is hard to see when exactly we will need them. Meanwhile, the Army struggled by for years with sub-standard vehicles and equipment, for wars that were happening in the here and now. Published before the Defence Review, it was sadly prophetic, as the RAF triumphed once again. Helicopters are one of Dannatt’s keen interests – as Colonel of the Army Air Corps, he earnt his Army flying wings at a relatively advanced age for a soldier! He sees the formation of the Joint Helicopter Command as a fudge, as it placed Helicopter support in an area where it was owned by no-one, and ripe for cuts. At a time when the Army needed as many helicopters as it could get.

This is not perhaps as readable or exciting in its own right as Mike Jackson’s memoirs, but in terms of explaining the past three years – some might argue much further – of political-military development, this book is crucial and will have a firm place in the historiography of the British Army. It’s certainly got me thinking.

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The Sinking of the Laconia… FINALLY!

I have been informed by a reliable source – via the BBC – that the Docu-drama ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ is going to reach our screens on 6 and 7 of January 2011. It will be on BBC at 9pm each night.

The programme was originally due to be on screen in the Spring of 2010. However the BBC asked the producer to edit it from a feature length drama to two shorter episodes. It’s been a long time coming, and there have been several false starts before, but it’s listen on the BBC website so fingers crossed!

For those of you who aren’t aware, my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard the Laconia when she went down, so I’ve got a personal interest in the programme.

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The Taylor report unpicked: Class bias

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fe...

Liverpool fans climbing on to the pitch to escape the crush at Hillsborough (Image via Wikipedia)

Motivated by my recent trip to watch German football matches, and my long-term interest in Football Stadia and Football culture, I have been taking a historical look at the pivotal Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. I’m starting with a look at the class bias of the report, and following on with a look at hooliganism, the terracing debate, and stadium architecture.

On 15 April 1989 a crush at an FA Cup Semi Final at Hillsborough resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. The subsequent report into the disaster, the Taylor Report, led to all major football stadiums being all-seater. This meant the end of terracing at football stadiums, and along with the introduction of Sky TV at around the same time, has probably done more to shape English football than any other development.

Although the report was supposed to be focussed on the Hillsborough Disaster, the recent history of football in England had a chequered past. The 1985 Bradford Fire had led to the Popplewell Report into Fire Safety at Football Grounds. In the 1970′s and 1980′s crowd disorder had culminated in English clubs being banned from European Football after the Heysel Disaster in 1985.

Yet, reading the Taylor Report, you do not have the feeling of a Lord Justice trying to investigate the causes of 96 deaths. Taylor goes much further, almost as if he has been given a tacit remit by the Thatcher Government to ‘sort out’ English football, even elements that had nothing to do with Hillsborough and didn’t need ‘sorting out’. In short, was the Taylor Report a sledgehammer to crack a walnut?

Taylors remit from the Home Secretary was as follows:

“To inquire into the events at Sheffield Wednesday Football Ground on 15 April 1989 and to make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports events”

The ‘and’ is important. Previous inquiries had looked into the specifics of a disaster. The Hillsborough inquiry was different – Taylor was instructed by Douglas Hurd to go further than the events of 15 April 1989, and to report on the state of the game in general. The inquiry took place from 15 May to 29 June 1989, and heard evidence from 174 witnesses, as well as much written evidence. 31 sports ground were visited, including in Holland and France, and other sports grounds such as Rugby, Cricket, tennis and golf. Part I considers Hillsborough; Part II wider safety at sports grounds; Part III crowd control and dealing with Hooligans; and Part IV the proposed national membership scheme.

The Taylor report was the NINTH such report into saftey at football grounds. In 1973 the first Green Guide on safety at sports grounds was published, largely prompted by the 1970 Ibrox disaster. That Hillsborough happened, after such scrutiny, does suggest that the Government, football authorities and clubs had failed to take safety seriously enough. Measures that would have prevented Hillsborough had been proposed as early as 1924. This was due to a combination of cost, a laissez-faire attitude, and a pre-occupation with dealing with hooliganism. Taylor stated that ‘there is no point in holding inquiries or publishing guidance unless the recommendations are followed diligently’.

Taylor states that when touring grounds after Hillsborough, the inquiry encountered an attitude amongst football clubs that ‘it could not have happened here’ – this was exactly the kind of complacency that allowed disasters to happen in the first place. What is most sobering, is that Hillsborough was regarded as one of the best and safest stadiums in the country. These are all sobering and salient points.

Yet in his section ‘A Blight on Football’, Taylor belies his intentions:

“Football is our national game. We gave it to the world. But its image in our country has been much tarnished”.

There was indeed a malaise amongst football clubs before 1989. Ground improvements were minimal, as there was no pressing need to improve. In the 1980′s most clubs occupied the same grounds as they had at the turn of the century, and many stands were almost just as old. Any changes were half-hearted or not motivated by safety. In this respect, Taylor DID bring about a change in focus on the part of football clubs, and a willingness to demolish, build and improve that was not there before.

In terms of facilities, Taylor laments the poor condition of football grounds, from a spectators point of view. He describes the terraces as ‘squalid’, yet I doubt that many people who stood on the terraces in 1989 thought of it that way. Going to the football on the saturday afternoon was different to going to the Opera. In classic victorian terms of social control, Taylor states that ‘it directly lowers standards of conduct’. Unbelievably, Taylor sees fit to comment on the quality of the Burgers available to fans – ‘on sale from shoddy sheds’ – as if that really mattered. Was he comparing football to a day at the races or a night at the theatre, one wonders? The classic line, however, has to be ‘there is a prevailing stench of stewed onions’. How about if fans liked having onions in their burgers? I hardly think that stewed onions caused Hillsborough.

Taylor also mentions the lack of quality pre-match entertainment, which is pertinent. However, it is difficult to imagine what the football clubs could have organised – even nowadays, the usual pre-match and half-time entertainment is best filed under ‘cheese’ and is widely ignored by most fans. Taylor had clearly failed to grasp the attitude and background of the average football supporter.

Taylor recognised in his report that ‘football created special problems’ not to be found at other sports grounds – namely, the numbers in attendance and the atmosphere. Within two pages, football was being singled out for special treatment. Amongst the sports listed, it is noticeable that Football is predominantly the most working class sport, and the one that generates the most visible passion and support.

Conclusion

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Taylor Report was a part of wider class issues in 1980′s Britain – the report is couched in ‘top-down’ class semantics. Clearly, Taylor was no football fan. The language is evocative of a victorian philanthropist investigating inner-city slums, holding firm to pre-conceived agendas and prejudices. Not just from a personal perspective, but we cannot expect a Lord Justice – instructed by a hard-line conservative Government – to be too bothered about understanding the culture of Football, THE working class sport. Thatcher had shown a willigness to ‘take on’ football earlier in the 80′s – it is believed that pressure from Thatcher herself led to UEFA banning English clubs after Heysel. For Thatcher and her Government, was Hillsborough part of the wider class struggle, much the same as the miners strike and the Poll Tax riots? It is hard to come to any conclusion other than that Taylor and the Government used Hillsborough - and the deaths of 96 people – as cover for gentrifying football and firing another shot across the bows of ordinary working people.

 

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The decline of English football: a German perspective

Dietmar Hopp

Dietmar Hopp, backer of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (Image via Wikipedia)

Regular readers will be under no illusions that I have a very low opinion of the state of English football. In my opinion, it is far too commercialised, bloated, devoid of atmosphere and passion, weighted far to far in the direction of the wealthy few, inaccessible to ordinary working people. Its virtually at the point of eating itself. Its not even as if the overpaid, overhyped players we are told to idolise are really any good – witness South Africa earlier this summer.

By contrast, I’ve been to a few football matches in Germany over the years, and the contrast is striking. 90 minutes spent on the terraces at Borussia Monchengladbach is like going back 20 years to the uncovered, terraced Fratton End. Not just in terms of architecture, but in terms of the culture, and the experience. Why is this so? How has our national game declined to such a pathetic level, whilst in Germany it is thriving?

Ownership and Management

Lets just take a look at the ownership of the 20 Premier League clubs – the vast majority are owned solely by wealthy foreign oligarchs, people who have little or no understanding of football or English society. Rich person’s playthings. By comparison, the majority of clubs in Germany are just that – clubs. Not only football clubs, but full blown sporting clubs, with amateur, junior and womens teams, athletics, basketball, and all kinds of other sports – Unterhacing’s logo is a bobsleigh, as the club also has a winter sports heritage. Bayern Munich, the biggest club in Germany, has 162,187 members. The football part of the club is run by a spin-off company, of which 81.82% is owned by the Club itself, and 9.09% each by Adidas and Audi. The club is not listed on the stock exchange, so is therefore a private company controlled by the members of the club.

There are several German clubs that do not follow the club principle. Bayer Leverkusen are supported heavily by the Bayer pharmaceutical company. Although the club started as a social club for Bayer employees in the town, many fans of other German clubs consider Bayer Leverkusen to be an ‘artificial’ club. Ironically, however, perhaps the most prominent example in Europe of an artifical club is that of 1899 Hoffenheim. A fifth flight club in 2000, Hoffenhiem made a remarkable rise to the top rung of the Bundesliga ladderr in 2008, helped along the way by the wealth of software magnate Dietmar Hopp. The club only turned fully professional in 2007-08. Hoffenheim and Hopp have been roundly criticised in Germany, even being referred to as 18.99 Hoffenheim. The village of Hoffenheim only has 3,000 residents.

Schalke 04 were once known as perhaps the most down-to-earth, working class club in Germany. Hailing from the heavily inustralised Rurh city of Gelsenkirchen, in recent years Schalke has evolved into a slick business operation, with a brand new 60,000 stadium. Disturbingly, in in 2006 Schalke announced a link-up with the Russian energy giant Gazprom, who also own and sponsor Zenit St Petersburg. Gazprom apparently intend to invest up to 125million Euros over 5 years, something that has been seen as an attempt to gain political influence in Germany. It’s sad indeed for such a proud, cultural club to turn its back on its roots.

Although FC St Pauli are often held up as an example of a working class club with a strong fan culture, this reputation has almost become a victim of its own success, with thousands of random people around the world deciding that they are St Pauli fans. Whilst it is OK to go along with the ideals and the culture, I cannot help but feel that an English person randomly deciding to support St Pauli ‘because everyone else does’ is like a Londoner supporting Man Utd. Why St Pauli? Pick a different team!

But these examples aside, German clubs are overwhelmingly exactly that – clubs. Clubs are viewed by the size of their membership. The differences with English football are not just in ownership. In German football Clubs are often run by former players (it is not hard to come to the conclusion that English footballers, on the whole, are too intellectually challenged to run a hot dog stand, let along a football club). Figures such as Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rumenniegge and Uli Hoeness, and more recently Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voller moved not only into team management, but also club management. Club boards are also larger, and made up with a far more balanced membership, from a wide range of backgrounds. Not just the rich owners handpicked flunkies.

Fan Culture

Not only is German football different in terms of the bigger issues. I have often felt that English football has sold its soul and fogotten the very people who made it so special – the gate-paying, ordinary working fans. Now, you have to sit down and shut up. Even at Portsmouth, ‘fans’ (no doubt called Norman or something like that) complain about the noise of the singing and the drums, or when someone stands up in front of them. A club with any bollocks would tell them to stick their season tickets somewhere uncomfortable. When did English football get so soft? (see Taylor report). Fans are no longer supporters, but customers. Fans have no real stake in the club, and are there only to be exploited and taken for granted. Clubs do nothing to encourage atmosphere, or stimulate passionate support. Spectators of English football are as removed from events on the pitch as a cinema goer is from the film on the screen.

I would like to see somebody complain about standing or excessive noise on the Nordkurve at Monchengladbach. At a German football match atmosphere is appreciated and encouraged. Tickets are cheap. Huge flags and banners and singing are encouraged. Many fans will be full members of the club, so are not just spectators, but really are part of the whole club experience. No wonder they are more likely to get more involved and more passionate about events on and off the pitch. At Monchengladbach there is a Fan Haus (Fan House) a few hundred yards from the ground. Decked out in flags and memorabilia, it is essentially a hub for supporters, selling beer but also putting on live music, and surrounded by food and clothes stalls. I know of nothing like it in English Football.

In England, the supporters clubs are normally run by eccentric bearded gentlemen, often called Roger or Norman. Their most important contribution to the operation of the club is giving their opinion on the number of toilets, or the quality of the meat pies at half time. You cannot help but feel that the Football Clubs view them as a nuisance. At Pompey we have the Supporters Club, the Independent Supporters Club, and now a Supporters Trust. The next step will probably be a supporters club branch from the People’s Front of Judea.

Whereas in Germany, the Fan Club is a real powerhouse. Although independent from the clubs themselves, the supporters clubs have real influence over what goes on. Most German clubs also employ fans liaison officers, who play a significant part in looking after supporters, both home and away. When I worked in youth politics some time ago, I came across something called the ladder of participation. At the bottom of the ladder, you are standing there watching; powerless. Whereas nearer the top, you are in the thick of the action, playing a part in what is going on. No prizes for guessing where on the ladder I place English and German football respectively.

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They died on Christmas Day (1914-1919)

Last year on Christmas Day I made a blog post about the men from Portsmouth who were killed on Christmas Day during the Second World War. Out of 2,549 men and women, 3 men died on 25 December.

Yet when I went to search through my WW1 Database, something remarkable transpired. Not one man out of the 2,101 I have so far researched died on Christmas Day between 1914 and 1919. Given the extreme number of casualties suffered by the British Army on the Western Front and elsewhere, this is quite a surprise to say the least.

Many men did die very close to Christmas, however:

Private Arthur Frederick Merriot, 1st Bn Gloucestershire Regiment, 19 and from Boulton Road, Southsea. Killed on 23 December 1914, and remembered on the Le Touret Memorial.

Private Edward Victor Emis, 2nd Bn South Staffordshire Regiment, 20 and from Forton Road, Kingston. Killed on 26 December 1914, and remembered on the Le Touret Memorial.

Driver Sidney John Walter Budden, 5th ‘C’ Reserve Brigade Royal Field Artillery, 22 and from Craswell Street, Landport. Died on 26 December 1916, buried in Kingston Cemetery, Portsmouth.

Bombardier William Davey, Royal Field Artillery, from Lucknow Street, Fratton. Killed on 24 December 1917, buried in Kingston Cemetery, Portsmouth.

Corporal N.S. Gibson, 1/4th Bn Hampshire Regiment, 24 and from Eastleigh. Killed on 26 December 1917, buried in Baghdad North Gate War Cemetery.

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Tracing your Legal Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians by Stephen Wade

Reviewing this book posed one small problem: I don’t actually HAVE a legal ancestor (although there are possibly one or two illegal ancestors, but thats another story). I’ve done a little research and study into criminal history (check out the Old Bailey online for some good old crime reading), but this book looks very much at the other side of the coin – the judiciary and legal system.

The British legal system is horribly complicated and confusing – Quarter Sessions, Assizes, Magistrates, County Court, High Court to name but a few. There are lawyers, barristers, judges, recorders, registrars, clerks and coroners to name but a few more. Its hard enough to understand for those of us who have studied it for a while, so for the family history enthusiast finding that they have a lawyer in the family, it must be terrifying to know where to start. This book gives a good starting point.

I would go further however, and suggests that this is actually probably quite useful to read if you find that you have a criminal ancestor, as it gives a great description of the legal system. Therefore, you will be able to gain a much better understanding of the system that you ancestor will have gone through, and the people who would have defenced, prosectuted and sentenced them.

Never the less, this is a very useful book indeed. I must confess, it doesn’t sound like the most rivetting read, and its probably not something you would pick up purely for fun. But if you find thats one of your ancestors was a lawyer or judge or such like, this would be an ideal guide. As usual with the ‘Tracing your… Ancestors’ series there are plenty of useful resources listed, and – particularly useful in this case – a sizeable glossary of tecnical legal terms.

Its on my bookshelf just in case!

Tracing your Legal Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Commando Tactics of the Second World War by Stephen Bull

As Stephen Bull quite rightly states in this book, the word ‘Commando‘ has become common currency for all kinds of special forces operations.

The ‘commando’ concept originated from the Boer War, when Dutch-descended ‘Kommando‘ units caused havoc for much larger British units in the South African veldt. Winston Churchill, who was a war correspondent at the time, recalled the idea in 1940. At the outset of the Second World War, Britain didn’t really ‘do’ special forces. The Commando’s were formed in 1940, partly by initiative amongst the armed forces, but also spurred on by characteristic notes that flourished from Winston Churchill demmanding instant action. The idea was that while Britain was unable to stike back at the enemy in a conventional manner, small groups of nimble special forces could inflict an impact on occupied Europe out of all proportion to their size.

Commando’s made their presence felt on the Lofoten Raids in Norway; at St Nazaire and Dieppe; on D-Day and in Siciliy and Italy. Strictly speaking the British Army C0mmandos were formed from volunteers from Army units, but the Royal Marines also formed their own Commando units later in the war. The Parachute Regiment was formed from No 2 Commando in 1940, and the SAS and SBS were formed by formed Commando officers. Thus it could be argued that the Commando’s formed their embryo for modern British special forces. Ironically, whilst the Royal Marine Commandos, Parachute Regiment, SAS and SBS still exist, the Army Commandos were disbanded soon after the war.

The title of this book focuses on tactics, but Bull goes much further by writing about the wider history of the Commandos, and the impact that the development of the Commando’s has had on British military ethos and development, the effects of which can still be seen today. But the real strength of this book is in the description of the making of a Commando – what went into selecting and training the men, the development of tactics and equipment, and how mistakes were made and lessons were learnt until a well-honed concept was arrived at. The ‘small, heavily armed but highly mobile’ approach has become widespread amongst all special forces to this day. There is also much in the selection and training that will be familiar to anyone who has read Bravo Two Zero or the million and one other SAS memoirs.

 This book adds considerably to the historiography of British special forces during the Second World War. It is an interesting read in its own right, but it also stands up extremely well as an in-depth military study. It contains some fascinating biographies of leading Commandos, and some useful eyewitness accounts. But the real piece de resitance is the inclusion of contemporary documents, such as details of Commando clothing and equipment, the establishment and armanent of Commando units, and a booklet describing Commando Battle Drill.

Commando Tactics of the Second World War is published by Pen and Sword

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The British Army of the Rhine

Sleeve patch of the British 21st Army Group.

Image via Wikipedia

My recent trip to the Nord Rhein Westfalen region of Germany has got me thinking about the role that British forces played in that part of the world for many years during the Cold War. I wrote an article on this subject some time ago, submitted to Britain at War (and apparently vanished into their ether). Sadly it disappeared on a crashed and rebooted PC, so I have to re-write from memory.

21st Army Group ended the War occupying large portions of Northern Germany, from the Dutch border across to the Baltic, with Montgomery receiving the German surrender on Luneberg Heath. Although initially the British Army was very much an occupation force, and involved in de-Nazification and keeping the Germans to heel, as the Soviets became more and more confrontational, western military doctrine in Germany focussed more on keeping the Russians out than keeping the Germans down. The Berlin Airlift, the creation of West Germany and the Deutsche Mark and the formation of NATO polarised the former allies across either side of the Iron Curtain.

British forces in Germany from the late 1940′s onwards were under no illusions that they were there to face the Russians. British Land Forces in Germany came under the command of the British Army of the Rhine. The Commander-in-Chief of BAOR also served as the commander of NATO’s northern Army Group, and as such had Dutch and German units under command in the event of war. British Air Forces in Germany came under the command of RAF Germany.

In the event of the Balloon going up, the BAOR was to face the Soviet 3rd Shock Army. Intelligence reports suggest that the BAOR was heavily outnumbered and seriously in danger of being rolled over very quickly – a likelihood that was not lost upon British squaddies. Documents I have discovered in the National Archives also suggest that there were very few reinforcements available for BAOR – pretty much a few TA Battalions, and two TA SAS Regiments for special forces work. And these units would take days to arrive by air and sea. And from 1969 onwards, the troubles in Northern Ireland proved a constant drain upon manpower in the BAOR. Evacuation of casualties and civilians would be almost impossible due to the lack of transport. But for the first time in British military history, the Army was at the forefront of British defence policy and strategy.

Thousands of British men – and indeed women in children – spent some of the most formative part of their lives in Germany. Imagine the experience a young 19 year old might enjoy being posted to a strange country, going abroad for the first time, and to a country that until relatively recently was the enemy. Only to find that actually, the German Beer and Food is quite to his liking! No wonder many former servicemen look back on their time in Germany so fondly.

Places such as Celle, Hohne, Herford, Hameln, Krefeld, Bielefeld, Paderborn, Detmold, Lippstadt, Sennelager, Soltau, Fallingbostel, Osnabruck and Minden became almost as well known to the British Army as Aldershot, Colchester, Salisbury Plain, Tidworth, Winchester and Catterick. Whole parts of Germany were occupied by thousands of Brits, in virtually exclusive British settlements, on base and off base.

At its height BAOR consisted of over 50,000 men. Add to that the amount of women, children, civilian workers et al, and then consider the turnover of troops every few years, and its no wonder that so many people experienced life in Nord-Rhein Westfalen and Niedersachsen. This experience probably went a long way to establishing Anglo-German relations again after the war.

British Forces in Germany have been in the process of winding down since the end of the Cold War. Few garrisons remain, concentrated mainly around Paderborn and Fallingbostel. There is no military reason for the British Army to be in Germany, but we still have access to some excellent training facilities and the Germans like having us. Indeed, during the Cold War the West German Government paid part of the Army’s basing costs. And until recently, it was cheap to base units in Germany.

Eventually – by 2020 – the British Army in Germany will be nothing more than a memory. We have to hope that this period of history is not lost, simply because the Cold War never became hot. Im particularly interested in the social history of life in BAOR – the human experiences, the impact of living in a foreign country on men, women and children. Sadly the excellent BAOR locations website seems to have gone offline, which is a real pity.

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Four days in Dusseldorf

Well I finally got back to Portsmouth at 2am this morning, after a long(er) weekend in Germany!

We flew into Dusseldorf Weeze airport, a small budget airline airport not far from the Dutch border between Kleve and Kevelaer. Weeze is actually an ex-RAF airbase, better known as RAF Laarbruch, where units of RAF Germany were stationed during the Cold War – most notably the Harrier GR force. Much of the RAF base still remains, and there is an RAF Museum on the site, which unfortunately I did not have time to visit.

We stayed in Dusseldorf, and went to watch Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Hamburg on Friday night. German football is a real experience, for anyone who can remember the time before English football sold its soul its a real experience. You can still stand on the terraces, and you can quite happily stand there drinking a beer and eating Currywurst. Its cheap as chips to get tickets, and the whole experience is far more fan focussed, so you’re not being treated like a customer (eg mug) like English football. Borussia have got a strong fan culture, and there is a ‘Fan Haus’ near the ground selling beer and playing heavy metal before and after the game. The atmosphere in German football is electric – as you would expect considering that normal people can afford to go and they still have terracing. Borussia also have an unusually strong British following, thanks to the long-term presence of a large British military presence at nearby Rheindahlen and places like Krefeld. My Uncle John watched a pre-season friendly between ‘Gladbach and Liverpool in the late 70′s when he was based at St. Tonisvoorst with the Army.

Borussia vs. Hamburg

Borussia are rooted bottom of the table with 10 points, and haven’t won a game at home all season. Not surprisingly the fans are calling for the Manager’s head. And after a lacklustre 2-1 defeat, unbelievably Michael Frontzeck still hasn’t been sacked. Zweite Bundesliga for Borussia next year… I’d forgotten just how could it is to stand on terraces, and believe me 90 minutes stood still in -15 celsius is no joke. Even when you’re wearing three pairs of socks!

Borussia Park

I’ve got a bit of a thing about football stadiums… Borussia moved to their new Borussia Park stadium a few years ago after years at the enigmatic but antiquted Bokelberg Stadion. I went to the Bokelberg in 2003 and it was a real old fashioned ground. The 55,000 seater Borussia Park reminded me very much of the identikit-Meccano stadiums that sprang up in England a few years ago (St Marys, Riverside, Pride Park, Walkers Stadium etc) that look very nice from afar, but are incredibly cheap and cheerful and devoid of character. This isn’t such a problem however, as the atmosphere in German football makes up for the bland architecture. One nice touch I did like was the use of green light to illuminate the stadium inside and out – I’ve never seen that at an English stadium, it would obviously cost too much for clubs to bother about. Near Borussia Park is an innocent looking school, that in fact used to be a hospital used for Hitler’s medical euthenasia programme during the Third Reich.

Espirit Arena, Dusseldorf

The next day we went to see Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Greuther Furth in the Second tier. The game was at the Espirit Arena in Dusseldorf, a new 55,000 capacity stadium. I was really impressed with the ground. The U-Bahn station runs right up into the ground, which looks very good from the outside, with an effective screening technique that enclosed the outer concourse. Once inside the facilities are roomy and first class. The whole of one end is terraced, and can be converted to seats quickly for European and international matches. There is a retractable roof in the ground too.

inside the Espirit Arena

There were only 19,000 at the match, but with the atmosphere it felt more like 30,000. The Dusseldorf fans really made some noise. One guy is obviously the leader, given that he spent most of the match egging the crowd on and hollering into a mic. And it worked! When Fortuna scored to go 1-0 up he even took off his jacket to reveal huge tattooed arms. Quite a sight!

Fortuna Dusseldorf

Having fulfilled one-thing-to-do-before-you-die (watch a match with an Orange ball) we went back into Dusseldorf accompanied with some Polish Fortuna fans, and then ended up in a pub serving the excellent Koening Pilsener. A nice evening, even with the German bloke who decided to grab one of the bar girls round the neck! That aside, a night out in Dusseldorf’s altstadt is highly recommended. By now the snow was falling heavily. For most of the weekend my feet were completely soaked, even with multiple pairs of socks on. Why oh why didn’t I take my waterproof walking boots? I ate four Currywurst and fries over two days just to try and keep warm!

Dusseldorf overlooking the Rhine

The fun really began when trying to get home on Sunday. We had heard that airports and flights were looking dicey, and every other flight from Weeze was cancelled one-by-one. Our flight looked OK right up until we were at the boarding gate, at which point it was cancelled. Faced with the prospect of hanging around at a tiny airport for days, with no information and plenty of backlogged flights, we went back to Dusseldorf, got on the internet and managed to find a hire car to get to Calais. Having picked up the Car and made good time driving the 260 odd miles to Calais in about 6 hours, via Monchengladbach, Genk, Antwerp, Ostend, Bruges, Dunkirk and listening to Europop and  dodging veering lorries – we couldn’t find the car hire place to drop it off. A quick call to the car hire firm informed us that there was not in fact a branch in Calais, and they had entered our booking as dropping off in Celle in Northern Germany. Now, for those of you who don’t know, Celle is a British Army Garrison town between Hannover and Hamburg – clearly we were not going to take it there. So in the end we pretty much dumped the car in Calais, handed the keys to someone in the ferry port, and told the car hire company.

Fortunately we walked straight onto the next Calais-Dover ferry, which sailed uneventfully. The serving lady on the ferry refused to open the restaurant ‘until the Fish and Chips is ready’, in her words – brilliant, makes you proud to be British! We then managed to jump on a train from Dover to London… great!… but then the train was delayed at Ashford for an hour after the train in front was stuck on the points. After some nailbaiting the train got going, and using the high-speed rail link reached St Pancras in incredibly quick time. From there a quick hop on the underground, and we managed to catch the last train home from Waterloo. I finally got through my front door at around 2am, some 24 hours late. I really like Germany, but it’s always great to get home.

Obviously it was a seriously stressful time, but to quote Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks:

‘this is a story you will tell your Grandchildren – and mightily bored they will be!’

Don’t be surprised if I don’t go abroad during the winter for a while!

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I’m Back

It might be a few days later than planned, but I’m finally back from Dusseldorf having got caught up in the all the weather travel chaos. After our flight was cancelled on Sunday evening we hired a car, and drove from Dusseldorf to Calais, from there on the ferry to Dover, train to London, then train down to Portsmouth. I finally got in the early hours of this morning, over 24 hours late. Which isn’t bad, considering people who were on our flight and stayed put at the airport are still there now… I’ll write a full report when I’ve thawed out a bit!

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Auf Wiedershien… for a few days!

Hi all, just to let all you regular readers know that I’m going to be away for a few days… I’m off to Germany, to catch Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Hamburg, and Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Greuther Furth. I might just be catching the christmas markets in Dusseldorf too! I might write a photo-essay post when I get back if anyone is interested.

See you all soon!

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