Gap Connahs’s Quay v Stabæk
Belle Vue / Europa League First Qualifying Round / 30th June 2016
The football wasteland of June is passing and football is now officially back…well, it didn’t really go away did it? This summer has seen us treated to the elongated footballing delights of Euro 2016 and for the first time ever I could even enjoy a tournament with my own country competing – and competing astutely too. I publish this just two days after watching Wales triumph over Belgium in the quarter-finals to make it to the semi-finals…THE SEMI-FINALS! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed armchair binging on Euro 2016 and I’ve even gotten over the fact that I couldn’t make it over the channel to France because of work commitments. However, there was no doubt I was missing my live football and was happy to see the 2016/17 season dawning on the horizon. It was time to decide where to begin it.
One fruitful evening saw me draft up a route through the preseason weeks and I was all set to begin my latest football odyssey at Atherton Colls v Bolton Wanderers on the 2nd July. Good plan. Yet an even better starting point would arise.
Bored of being a Welshman stranded amongst the English during Wales’ maiden European Championships, I decided enough was enough and when Wales found themselves playing Northern Ireland in the second round (we won our group if you didn’t know) on a Saturday afternoon, I opted to head over the border to me amongst my Welsh brethren for the occasion. Having seen Wales qualify for the Euros on a night out in Wrexham back in October, I figured the North Walian city had some sort of magical power and so that was to be my destination with my pal Tom agreeing to host me at his parents’ home in Flint that night. Wales won 1-0 and I got monumentally drunk…monumentally; I was even a bit hungover the next day and I virtually never ever get hangovers. A sign of a good night. It seemed throughout the night a new footballing plan had been made too – not that I remember the conversation.
With Lost Boyos regular Craig being back in Huddersfield to move into his new abode, him and York fan Ben had discussed heading across the Pennines, through the north-west and into North Wales in the week to come. The reason? Only a European glamour tie: Gap Connah’s Quay v Stabæk in the first qualifying round for the Europa League. Glamorous indeed. So glamorous that the Nomads’ ground was deemed not worthy of such an occasion and a more glitzy arena was needed instead. Of course, the obvious choice was Rhyl FC’s Belle Vue. Looking back through my messages from that Saturday night celebrating Wales’ win over the Northern Irish, it seemed I was making hardwork of answering text messages from Craig asking, ‘Do you want to come to Gap Connah’s Quay v Stabæk on Thursday?’ I think my brain had actually melted as shown below as my inebriated state seemed to mean I couldn’t process or answer the question. I particularly like the ‘Elaborate lad x’ part – I’m not sure what more information I could have wanted.
(My messages are the ones in green).
Eventually I did say yes and was reminded of that the next day, remembering none of the previous evening’s text message conversation. It was official: Lost Boyos 2016/17 was to begin in sunny Rhyl with Rhyl FC’s home ticking UEFA ground grading for Connah’s Quay’s maiden European adventure, whereas Connah’s Quay’s actual home ground didn’t.
Let’s get technicalities out of the way first. The game was taking place on the 30th June and I’m usually one of those pedantic people who insists the new football season doesn’t start until the 1st July, as dictated by the FIFA calendar. However, I decided for the sake of one day, this was my official to start to 2016/17 – it was a qualifier for the 2016/17 Europa League after all.
Traditionally Welsh clubs have always struggled in these early European ties, although there has been a steady improvement in their efforts over recent seasons with many clubs starting their preseasons much earlier to prepare for such fixtures. For example, whilst I was beginning my all day drinking session in Wrexham today’s ‘home team’ Gap Connah’s Quay were playing Northern Irish club side Crusaders to prepare for their European adventure. Stabaek, on other hand, are 13 games into their league season in Norway, although it’s not exactly going well for them. At the time of writing, they sit 15th in the league…out of 16. Despite their clearly abject efforts in the league, I was excited to see a European team play in North Wales. In my school years, Stabæk were a much cherished club by me and my school friends purely as they were the club of Championship Manager bargain buy and utter legend Tommy Svindal-Larsen. Sadly, Svindal-Larsen is long since retired and there were no familiar names on the team sheet on this evening, although there was one in the dugout: former Scottish international Billy McKinlay. Mckinlay may be a familiar name to younger football fans thanks to his very, very brief spell as Watford manager at the start of 2014/15 as well as being assistant manager to David Moyes during his ill-fated spell as Real Sociedad manager.
Stabæk have spent most of the 21st century having a crack at Europe although without really venturing too far in either UEFA Cup (Europa League in new money) and their one attempt at the Champions League, after winning the Norwegian league in 2008. For Connah’s Quay though, this was their first European football foray and an exciting opportunity for the club, even if UEFA ground regulations meant that their adventure began 25 miles away in Rhyl.
I finished work at 4pm and walked out the door to find Ben and Craig waiting for me in Paddy – Craig’s car which shuttled Lost Boyos around on several trips last season. A 1.5 hour drive to Rhyl from Irlam awaited us, although time flew with Craig’s music choices proving adequate this time; it ranged from Fatboy Slim to Natalie Imbruglia today with him even having the good grace to put on the official Wales song of Euro 2016 – Manic Streets Preachers’ Together Stronger (C’mon Wales) – as we crossed the border into North Wales. The day before, I re-read my previous Rhyl blog and I noticed me hailing the showings of Wales in their qualifying campaign and once again I was heading to the North Wales coast with Wales soaring – this time on the big tournament stage. Apparently, Craig and Ben, both English remember, had taken bets on how long it would take for me to mention Wales’ quarter-final appearance and it seemed I let them down. 2 minutes was their estimate, but I failed to mention my triumphant national team for a good 40 minutes or so – even then it was prompted by the Manics coming on. You see, I have the good grace not to brag in front of English fans (*cough…Iceland…cough*).
Soon enough, we were in a very wet ‘Sunny Rhyl’ and parked within the gates of Belle Vue’s car park; whether we were allowed to be there, we were unsure, but a hi-vis gentleman just opened the gate to us and let us in, so we followed on.
After a gentle 10 minute stroll into town, we arrived at Wetherspoons (named The Sussex much to Sussex-born Craig’s liking) and with it being a Thursday that meant only one thing: curry club. Of course, on this side of the border I made sure to order Y Ddraig Fflamllyd (Flaming Dragon curry) accompanied by a pint of a lovely Beachcomber Blonde from Conwy.
Despite being a South Walian, this was still my technically homeland, but my two companions were technically ‘abroad’. And there’s one thing you have to do when you are Brit abroad: visit an Irish Bar. I had been to Rhyl’s local Irish bar last time I was in town and labelled the place ‘weird’. It hadn’t changed, although I was happy to be IDed (I’m 28 now) and be charged a mere £2 for a pint. We enjoyed our drinks whilst sitting on some weird fairground roundabout-like seating arrangement.
The time was now 18:30 and with a 19:15 kick-off this evening we headed back out from the town centre and towards the floodlights of Belle Vue, still backdropped by grey clouds.
For tonight’s European football I was charged £10, which I felt was reasonable, and I was happy to be back at Belle Vue. As I stated last time I was there – I’m a big fan of the ground. The lads seemed to be too with them comparing it Scunthorpe’s Glanford Park – which I think they meant as a compliment of sorts.
We hadn’t really entered the ground with a plan or any expectations of the evening’s arrangements, but instantly we seemed drawn to the contingent of Stabæk fans in the corner of the ground. Already they were unfurling flags and getting ready to greet their team, so we decided that was the place to be. There was still plenty of time until kick-off and having acquired fellow groundhopper Shaun Best (he wrote a book about his travels you know), we went for a lap of the stands of Belle Vue.
Earlier, we had met Rhyl native Kieron, who had informed me that David Moyes was apparently in attendance somewhere, obviously seeing his old pal Billy McKinlay. One former Scottish and slightly more legendary Manchester United manager expressed his disdain for me in the past, so I thought we’d keep an eye out for that man’s successor and see if Moyesy wanted a double thumbs up photo. Sadly, we never found him, although my blood did boil when I spotted Premier League referee Mike Dean in the stands; if you are a Swansea fan, then you know why I, like all other Jacks, have such a loathing for the man…anyway…
Eventually, we made our way around to the far corner of the ground just as the teams were coming out onto the pitch. The guy working the PA repeatedly apologised for his pronunciation of some of the away team’s players’ names, but he also reiterated how welcome the Stabæk were and encouraged them to create some ‘colour’. They did just that. The players were greeted onto the pitch by raucous chanting to our right and vigorous flag waving. To be honest, the Stabæk fans would prove to be the only entertaining factor of the evening.
Dire. Absolutely dire. I had witnessed some dross games in the closing months of 2015/16 and I was hoping that a new season would bring more thrilling games – it had started poorly to say the least. I hope this game wasn’t a trendsetter for the season.
I love a ‘hipster footballer’ and so my eyes were already looking out for candidates for the coveted Lost Boyos award of ‘The Cosmin Matei Hispter of the Year’ award, an award currently held by South Shields’ midfield anchor Julio Arca (check out the whole 2015/16 awards blog here if you missed it). There are lots of ways you can claim ‘hipster’ status (e.g. the Stabæk’s goalie, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, was now the first Indian to ever feature in the Europa League) but ultimately you have to show talent too. There wasn’t much on show tonight.
Perhaps predictably, Stabæk looked the better team in possession, but they offered virtually no killer instinct. The Nomads, on the other had, looked a steely unit and in fairness probably had the better chances on the night. The ‘home’ team actually took the lead within 5 minutes, only for Michael Wilde’s header to be ruled out for offside.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s historic night would come to an end after 30 minutes, when he was subbed for Ivorian goalie Mande Sayouba after the Indian sustained an injury. Other than that, there was little else to report on the pitch – it was off the pitch where the fun was.
We stood metres away from the Stabæk support without intruding on their space. They were a fun bunch singing for the whole 90 minutes (there were a few catchy numbers in their football chant arsenal) as well as hailing abuse down on the nearby linesman, who had upset them early on in the game with a couple of his decisions. The hand gestures directed his way lasted for the duration of the game.
Half-time: Gap Connah’s Quay 0 – 0 Stabæk.
I was still quite full from my earlier curry, but I still ventured over to the food hatch with the other two who were craving some of Belle Vue’s fine half-time cuisine (cheese and chips). It was here we got chatting to Stabæk fan Mathias, who talked us through all things Stabæk-related and was just generally a very friendly guy. He became almost like a tourist attraction to us as we each posed for a photo with him.
Back in the stand, and after finishing their food, Craig and Ben had clearly got bored with me and decided to mix in with the Norwegians. Without much thought to it, I had found myself naturally cheering on the Welsh club on show, so I felt that I’d stay where I was with Shaun. I also had my ‘Bale 11’ shirt on and I’ve learned that he proves a divisive figure amongst football fans and I was unaware of the Norwegian stance on King Gareth. Additionally, it seems I can be quite a divisive figure amongst Norwegians after a pleasant Friday night drink with a group of Norwegians in a Bury bar before a Bury v Rochdale game in 2014 turned into what we’ll call here a ‘slight skirmish’. But that’s a story for another day…
The game was still an utter bore-fest, although we did briefly get excited when a mistake saw Connah’s Quay striker go through on goal one-on-one, only for his touch and nerve to let him down, leading to the keeper easily parrying his effort and follow-up attempt.
Substitutions proved the most exciting part of the second half. Connah’s Quay were bringing on Welsh Premier legend Les Davies. For those unaware, Davies is a Bangor legend for his goalscoring exploits; he even made it on the shortlist for UEFA Player of the Year award in July 2012 with the likes of Leo Messi, Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo after one journalist nominated him (one vote was all that was required). For those wondering, he didn’t win. However, it was the away team’s substitute that caused more frenzy in the stands. I’m sure by now you’ve all been brainwashed by the ubiquitous songs and chants of Will Grigg and his constant state of combustion and the defending team’s subsequent terror at the unfolding situation. Well, as I write this Will Grigg’s name in GALA’s Free From Desire is not the name circling in my head; no, it is all about ‘AGON MEHMETI…LALALALALALALA!” Stabæk fans were insistent that they belted out their ode to their number ten for virtually the entirety of the closing stages.”He’s our Zlatan,” one of the Stabæk fans told me later, as Mehmeti hails from Zlatan’s hometown of Malmö too.
“I can’t start the season with a 0-0,” I repeatedly lamented to Shaun, but, to be honest, I knew it was heading that way minutes into the second half. Stabæk piled on the pressure in the last exchanges of the game, but, once again, without creating anything or causing too much damage. The whistle blew and I suppose we were all put out of our misery.
Full-time: Gap Connah’s Quay 0 – 0 Stabæk.
I was ready to leave and head home with me having to get up for work at 6.30am. What I didn’t bank on was still being in Rhyl at 11.30pm that night. But I’m glad I stayed.
It seemed that Ben had agreed with our pal Mathias from half-time to go for a convivial drink in the pub to enhance British/Norwegian relations. I’m never one to turn down a drink, so I counted myself in. Our Norwegian pals began the walk into town, whilst I hopped in Paddy with Craig to get Lost Boyos’ most famous wagon closer to town for a speedy departure later and to get him away from some preying Rhyl ASBOs.
Much to my liking, our Norwegians decided that we were to head to the Swan Inn. And from my two Rhyl experiences, I have to say that this was my favourite Rhyl pub; although the Stabæk fans may have swayed me here.
It seemed that the majority of Stabæk’s faithful headed here and we were invited to join them around the table, drinking beer, singing their songs (“AGON MEHMETI!…LALALALA!”) and banging the tables along to the beat. It seemed the Norwegians had a love off lifting up chairs and stools and wielding them above their heads too, so I had a lot of respect for the landlord for realising that despite their drunken rowdiness, the Stabæk lads meant no harm and were just enjoying their trip to Rhyl. Soon we were even inventing our own chants for the Stabæk fans, recycling chants from our respective clubs and just inserting the word ‘Stabæk’.
The party was paused briefly as the whole pub congregated in the main room to watch the Poland v Portugal Euro 2016 quarter-final go to penalties. I was supporting Poland, as they had Swans keeper Fabianski in goals, and it seemed there wasn’t any love for Portugal in the pub – Welsh, English or Norwegian. However, it was Ronaldo and the gang who triumphed, which led to everyone sort of shrugging their shoulders and carrying on the party.
Some of the locals wanted to capture the fun and challenged the Norwegians to launch into their best song. They happily obliged. Within seconds the Stabæk fans were sitting down on the floor quietly chanting. I immediately recognised the tune as Swansea chant favourite One Man Went to Mow – except obviously in Norwegian. In fairness, their rendition was far more imaginative than Swansea’s. Their chanting crescendoed from a whisper to full blown singing and chanting, before they peaked with bouncing around and, once again, wielding stools. It was all jolly good fun and even the landlord was out filming them and enjoying himself immensely.
We had been invited to join the Norwegians at the private bar they had rented somewhere near the seafront, but sadly the night had to come to an end for us soon. We didn’t leave though without what has to go down as possibly my favourite double thumbs up ever: a lovely mix of locals and foreigners with fans of Rhyl, Connah’s Quay, Swansea, Crawley, York and Stabæk creating a wonderful football fan cocktail. Football fandom really is beautiful at times.
Our journey back over the border was soundtracked by 80s classic, as I get semi-emotional on realising that this was probably the last time I would ride in Paddy with my move abroad to Slovakia just weeks away now. On arriving outside my Salfordian abode, I even kissed the bonnet as a parting gesture to the little, red Fiat Panda. It was all a bit weird.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure I could have picked a worse game of football to kick-off the 2016/17 proceedings, yet undoubtedly this was an awesome season opener, thanks purely to the Stabæk fans salvaging the day. I’m sure they’ll be talking about the Stabæk gang in the Swan Inn for a long time to come, whilst a lot of our car journey home was discussing a possible future trip to Stabæk. We’ll see – watch this space.
Highlights: back in the homeland, curry club, fan of Belle Vue, Stabæk fans, the scenes in the Swan Inn.
Low Points: awful game of football.
See all my photos from our Europa League adventure in Rhyl here.