My Football Cities was set up to make it easy for fans to travel to enjoy both the football stadium and the city of their choice. Football breaks or football weekends, whatever you want to call them, were certainly on the increase up until the end of 2019, both as a result of individuals arranging their own football trips and also via special sports tour operators. I had done a fair amount of travelling myself based around watching football and doing stadium tours. Having worked in the travel industry for around 25 years, I decided to set up a business offering exactly what I enjoy doing myself: turning a weekend away into a football weekend. My Football Cities are not the only business to do this, but I suppose if we specialize in anything that makes us a little different from the other operators it is the personal attention to the trips (I have been to all of the cities and stadia in our portfolio) and that we offer multi-match weekends based on our knowledge of the geography, transport links and match schedules. Also, we feature a wider range of clubs and cities, rather than just the ‘obvious’ mega-clubs.
However, none of that is possible just now. The business is on hold and we are doing everything we can to ensure that when travel restrictions are lifted and fans are allowed to fill stadia again, we will be ready.
The last match I went to was Torino v Sampdoria on Saturday 8th February 2020. I know that I’m being very specific with the date but unfortunately that date has been stuck in my head for over fourteen months now. At the time, COVID had not really hit with the gravitas of the subsequent weeks and months (well, not quite), so it seemed a little odd to me that I was being temperature checked as I arrived at Turin airport before moving on through arrivals and off to the train station in (what was then) the normal way. Having visited Juventus’ Allianz Stadium with a backdrop of the Alps, been on the funicular railway to climb to the top of the mountain where the 1949 Torino team tragically perished in an air crash, seen that match on the Saturday night and eaten quite a lot of pasta, I returned home with thoughts of where my next trip was going to be. I was coming towards the end of writing my first book, My Football Cities, at the time and just needed my own multi-match trip to Portugal to report on Lisbon, Porto and Braga to finish it off. That trip has still not happened. The book therefore had a slightly different ending to what I had been planning.
So . . . what can we do when we can’t go to football?
Well, amongst other things, I started work on another book. It is about the history of football grounds. It features clubs that have moved ground once or more for a number of reasons (for example Arsenal, Bayern Munich) and also some clubs that have been at the same ground pretty much forever (for example, Rangers at Ibrox) and have modernized and improved, again for a variety of reasons. However, even though I had already done a lot of research from my study at home, you still need to visit the places to talk to the relevant people and see things for yourself. COVID restricted this too, so that has been parked and will resume when freedom of movement allows.
So, to answer my own question, I suppose what I have done most, other than watching TV football in empty grounds that we are getting worryingly used to, is to read more. I was never a big reader, but I do have an insatiable appetite for football knowledge have expanded my football book collection considerably over the past eighteen months or so. It has certainly given me an even better understanding of the history of the game and broadened my knowledge of other clubs and leagues in other countries. But, overall, it has simply been enjoyable. I thought I’d share my thoughts on three of the better ones that I’ve read recently that you might not be aware of and might like to try.
A Tournament Frozen in Time: The Wonderful Randomness of the European Cup Winners’ Cup by Steven Scragg. For fans under a certain age, you might not even be aware of the old Cup Winners’ Cup which was last contested in 1999. In the ‘old days’, you had three European club competitions; the European Cup (for just the winners of each of the leagues across Europe), the UEFA Cup (for the next couple of leagues places down) and the Cup Winners’ Cup (for the winners of the major Cup competition in each country, England putting forward the winners of the FA Cup). Each competition consisted of two-legged home and away ties the whole way from start to finish until the final which was a showpiece one-off match. Well, it was after the first Cup Winners’ Cup Final in 1961 which was played over two legs and after the UEFA Cup scrapped the concept of a two-legged final after 1997. There was no seeding and so you could get major clubs drawn against each other from the first round. All very simple to understand. As with the Champions League these days, there was a certain inevitability about some of the clubs that would qualify for the European Cup and UEFA Cup on a regular basis, given that it was based on League placings. St. Etienne were Ligue 1 champions in France ten times between 1957 and 1981, Liverpool won the English First Division thirteen times between 1964 and 1990 and Ajax won the Dutch Eredivisie twelve times in the twenty seasons between 1965 and 1984. However, the Cup Winners’ Cup was different. We all know that any club can have a decent Cup run. The FA Cup threw up second division winners in Sunderland (1973) and West Ham (1980) as well as the less fancied Southampton in 1976 and Ipswich in 1978. The triumphs of Coventry and Wimbledon in the late eighties would have also earned them a place in the competition if it was not for Heysel, but that’s another story. Similar unlikely Cup winners used to be thrown up around Europe as well. Scragg’s book does an excellent job of documenting these clubs’ excursions into what was always the third most important European trophy, but still a major one. He has a section on those clubs, particularly from Eastern Europe, whose names take us back to that era but who rarely trouble the headline writers these days: Dynamo Dresden, Dinamo Tbilisi, Carl Zeiss Jena, Lokomotiv Leipzig. Unfortunately, it all came to an end when Lazio beat Mallorca at Villa Park on 19th May 1999 in the last ever final. The tournament was ‘absorbed’ into the current Europa League, which you have to go through a massively complicated path to success depending on how you qualified for the competition and the UEFA co-efficient of your host country. Give me simple any day – much easier to understand and much better. Those were the days.
Life in la Liga by Rab MacWilliam. We probably all think we know a bit about Barcelona and Real Madrid, maybe even a little about Atletico, Sevilla and Valenica. But how about Osasuna, Huesca and Murcia and the many other clubs that have significantly contributed to the history of Spanish football? Part way thorough the book, the author wonders how he could have written such a book without concentrating too much on the Big Two, likening it to trying to write a book about the history of Scottish football with only passing reference to Celtic and Rangers. But achieve it he has. The book starts in the very early days of football arriving in the various areas of Spain and documents very well the importance of those regions that were very much autonomous communities. The history and development of football in the country has close links to the political situation and the book ties these together well. Clearly Real and Barca do have to feature to a certain extent given they have won sixty La Liga titles between them with Atletico in third place on just ten. Overall, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and very educational read. A link to it on Amazon is included at the end of this blog, as are links to the other publications mentioned.
Up There: The North-East Football Boom and Bust by Michael Walker. As with the previous book, Walker’s Up There is a comprehensive account of the history of football in a particular area that does not just concentrate on the big clubs. There are individual chapters dedicated to Hartlepool, Gateshead, Darlington and amateur leagues in addition to the major Tyne, Tees and Wear clubs that you would expect. There are interesting points raised about the potential correlation between the decline of the traditional industries of the area, coal mining and ship building, that spawned and supported youth teams in the past and the lack of success of the big clubs over the past five decades. It is well known and well documented that Newcastle’s last major trophy was the Inter Cities Fairs’ Cup in 1969 and Sunderland’s the FA Cup just four years later. The success of the big personalities from the area: Clough, Shearer, Paisley, the Charltons, amongst others are also featured.
I should also mention a really interesting article in the March 2021 issue of Football Weekends that I have just read about the summer leagues across Europe (Scandinavia, Ireland and Belarus amongst others) which, when football does properly return, provides a way of giving us our football fix in the months that are traditionally associated with laying on the beach. Special call out to Jim Rendall @can_chas for his great feature on the Faroe Islands that contributed to that article.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing . . . and continue to do. I’d be really interested to hear if you have any reading recommendations. Please use my Instagram account @my_football_cities to leave comments or email me at email@example.com. It would be great to hear from you.
Oh and those links. . .