Author Archive: Gary Thacker

No Country for Old Men? – Colchester United 3 Leeds United 2.

There were mitigating circumstances to be sure. Leeds were missing their inspirational skipper Billy Bremner and the dancing feet of Eddie Gray; both injured, and Allan Clarke turned out despite medical advice to the contrary, carrying a feverish temperature. Leeds wanted the FA Cup though. The defeat to Chelsea in a physically bruising battle the previous May had been hard to take, and the fourth-round draw against lowly Colchester seemed like a ‘gimme’ passage. It wasn’t to be though and the team of veterans, wannabes and never-going-to-bes defied the odds and brought 16,000 fans crammed into Layer road to their feet in a tumultuous tie. Continue reading →

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The money-fuelled rise of PFC Ludogorets Razgrad.

It’s probably an incontrovertible truism that, in modern football, money talks. Some may argue that rather than talk, money actually screams out in uncontrolled profanity, but whatever your viewpoint on that, there’s little doubt that within the modern game, success and money tend to go hand in hand.

In England, Roman Abramovich became the first mega-money arrival to shake up the Ancien Régime when, as David Dein put it, he “parked his Russian tanks on our lawn…firing £50 notes at us.” This was then advanced another notch or three when Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan took control of Manchester City. In France the largesse of Qatar Sports Investments has endowed PSG with the money to dominate the domestic game merely as a prelude to chasing that elusive Champions League trophy. In Spain, the income of Real Madrid and Barcelona dwarfs all other clubs in the country and in Italy, via the EXOR organisation, the Agnelli family‎ fund Juventus, whilst Berlusconi fed the Rossoneri and after Massimo Moratti passed on the baton, Zhang Jindong’s Suning Commerce Group took over control of the Nerazzurri from Eric Tohir.

There are surely many more examples. It is not however only in Western Europe that money has bulldozed its way into the ‘beautiful game.’ Across the old Soviet-controlled east, big money is making its presence felt, and the Bulgarian club, PFC Ludogorets Razgrad, more popularly known as ‘Ludogorets’ is a good example. Razgrad is a town situated in the northeast Bulgaria, in the region known as Ludogrie, which refers to the wild forests around the area and is the home where Ludogrets were formed in 2001. Continue reading →

“Ein Kampf zwischen Brüdern” – When East met West at the 1974 World Cup.

Roughly translated from German, the phrase means ‘a struggle between brothers’ and has been used to describe the game that took place as part of the initial group stages of the World Cup, when West Germany played East Germany for the only time at international level during the 41-year period when the country was divided between the capitalist west and the communist east.

In those times of Cold War tensions epitomised by the scar of barbed wire and concrete running the country’s erstwhile capital, especially in the latter years, football acted as a bridge to many in the eastern sector. Whenever a team from the other side of the divide visited an Eastern Bloc country for a European competition tie, there was a collective clamour for tickets. It was hardly the sort of ‘collectivist’ movement desired by the authorities in the east, but illustrated both a desire to see the stars from the other side of the political divide, and a sustained sense of belonging, a bond that remained strong if restrained by the edifice of a wall.

Even in the fifties, it was not particularly unusual for clubs from different sides of that divided country to play friendly games. It was a way to keep at least a small measure of contact in place. Indeed, in what almost amounted to an ‘All-Germany’ play-off in 1956, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, who had been West German champions in 1951 and 1953, also finishing as runners-up in the following two years, played against Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt, at the time champions of East Germany. The game, played out at the Zentralstadion at Leipzig, drew massive interest with upwards of half-a-million applications made for tickets, far outstripping supply many times over. The crowd, lucky enough to be able to attend saw the team from the west triumph in a goal glut of a game by 3-5.

Across all of the club games between teams from east and west, it was usually the way that the west ran out winners. The authorities in the east would doubtless dearly have loved to trumpet the success of the communist system over the corrupt capitalist west, but the reality was what the teams from the DDR were usually just that bit weaker. As Cold War tensions heightened, in the sixties, the opportunity to play such games dwindled away. At least the teams from the east weren’t losing any more, but when draw for the finals of the 1974 World Cup was made, chance – or fate depending on your preference – offered up an opportunity for the ‘national’ teams to play each other. Now it was more than mere club pride at stake. Should the East German team prevail it would be an potential moment to paint the result as a major coup and significant victory for the socialist system

The draw for the competition took place in Frankfurt on 5 January 1974. There were four groups, with West Germany as the hosts in Group One, and the other previous winners, Brazil, Uruguay and Italy heading the remaining groups. The drawing of the teams to fill in each of the remaining slots in each group was made entrusted to the innocent hand of a young boy selected from the Schöneberger Sängerknaben boys choir of Berlin. Be it irony, divine intervention, or merely the playing out of the cards dealt by chance, but the youngster from the divided city initially provoked gasps, and then applause, as he drew out the token that would mean a 90-minute reunification of Germany on the football field, separated only by white lines rather than red ones and an edifice of concrete.

As hosts, of course, West Germany had no need to go through an arduous qualification campaign, but for the East Germans, a group including Romania, Finland and Albania had to be negotiated before they could take their place at the football world’s four-yearly jamboree. Despite being run close by Romania, with both teams winning their home games against the other, the team from Bucharest slipped up with a 1-1 draw in Finland, whilst the East Germans won all of their remaining fixtures to take their place in the Finals.

Alongside the two Germanys in Group One, were Chile and Australia, and as the draw came together, and surely as drama would require, the final game of the group would be between the hosts and their separated brethren.

The tournament would begin in mid-April, but a month before that, players from East Germany sounded a warning that perhaps their football was reaching a new height when FC Magdeburg, under the astute and iconoclast coach Heinz Krügel, delivered the European Cup Winners Cup, becoming the first and – latterly proven to be – only East German club to lift a major European trophy.  To be fair though, clubs in the west though were hardly struggling, and Bayern München lifted the European Cup a few days after Magdeburg’s triumph. They would go on to retain Europe’s premier club trophy for the next two years as well.

The group stages of the 1974 World Cup Finals started positively for both of the German teams. A fairly scrappy opening game of the tournament saw West Germany get the better of Chile thanks to a single strike from Paul Breitner, whilst Georg Buschner’s East Germany secured a 2-0 victory over Australia thanks to an own goal by Curran, before confirming the win with a strike from Hansa Rostock’s Joachim Streich.

In the following round, with the always difficult first game now safely behind them and the points in their pockets, veteran coach, Helmut Schön, would see his West Germany team overcome the Aussies with some ease. Three goals coming from Overath, Cullmann and ‘Der Bomber’ Gerd Müller without reply were more than enough to account for the boys from ‘Down Under.’ The hosts were clearly finding their stride. At the same time though, for East Germany, the going was somewhat tougher. In a tense game against the South Americans, Magdeburg striker, Martin Hoffmann, gave them the lead after 55 minutes, but an equaliser by Sergio Ahumada, with 20 or so minutes to play, kept Chilean dreams alive – at least for a while.

In these more innocent – some may say ‘naïve’ times, the last games of the group were not played simultaneously. That was an innovation that FIFA decided to adopt after another West Germany group finale game in 1982 left a nasty smell of collusion in the air. At this tournament however, Chile faced off with Australia three-and-a-half before the all-German squabble, and a 0-0 draw meant that neither could now qualify. All that was left to be decided was who, of the two German teams, would win the group, and which regime would be able to claim sporting hegemony for their particular political doctrine.

The game, that had been discussed in as many political circles as sporting ones since that choirboy’s hand drew out the East Germany ball back in January, took place on 22 June. Five months of anticipation, anxiety and apprehension were to be played out in 90 minutes of football. As well as the inevitable political attention though, it’s important to note that on both sides of the border, there was also huge public interest, not so much perhaps to promote any particular political philosophy, but more the case that here was a touchpoint, a nexus, between the divided country, and more pertinently, the divided people.

It would be of little surprise that a number of people living in the East were keen to see West Germany triumph. Both teams were seen as representing Germany, so there was little if any national rivalry, and a result the other way would only bolster an unpopular regime, keen to build its renown on sporting exploits, no matter how they were gained, as later events in a number of other sports would reveal.

In the opinion of most pundits the West German team was seen to be the more accomplished and likely to prevail. This wasn’t merely due to the contrasting performances of the two teams in the tournament so for. Neither was it because Schön’s team were reigning European champions, and any ‘home’ advantage they held would be arguable at best. The key factor was that they were perceived as having the better players, the core of their team being taken from the Bayern München eleven that had defeated Atletico Madrid to lift the European Cup. They were overwhelming favourites to win the game and top the group.

It shouldn’t be thought however that the team from the east were going to easily succumb. As well as Magdeburg’s European success, East Germany had won bronze in the 1972 Olympics and would take gold in the 1976 games.

Although it’s difficult to find any direct evidence, a number of reports around the game suggest that confidence was riding high in the West German squad, with a comfortable assurance of victory being the dominant trait. There would also be a massive superiority of support for West Germany at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg. Over 60,000 would watch the game, but of that number, only 1,500 or so selected guests from the east would be allowed to travel across the ‘border’ to watch. It’s hardly needs to be said that none amongst that number would be anything other than staunch supporters of the regime.

It should also be mentioned that the West Germany squad had an additional incentive to win the game. Veteran manager Helmut Schön, who was guiding his nation’s hopes through a third World Cup finals tournament had been born in the East German city of Dresden, although at the time of his birth, back in 1915, the division of the country was a long way off. Much later, his family had fled the east of the country to escape the Russian imposed regime. There was therefore a strong feeling among the group that they were ‘playing for Schön.’ It was a theme that skipper Franz Beckenbauer used to urge on his team-mates.

It’s interesting to note that, after the initial ceremonies, as the players were stripping off their tracksuit tops, the chants of “Deutschland, Deutschland,” rang around the stadium. Was this merely for the home team or some kind of statement by the people attending? The pitch had a running-track around it, creating a buffer area between players and crowd, but the emotions streamed down from the terraces and washed over the men on the pitch representing the divided country.

Uruguayan referee, Ramón Barreto, blew for the start of the game. Gerd Müller tapped the ball to Wolfgang Overath and the intra-international game was under way. Very quickly, it became clear that the underlying emotion in the air was one of tension. A desire to win from both sides was clearly there to see, but so was an appreciation of the pressure thrust upon the 22 players on the pitch, each seen to be representing a whole doctrine of life, as well as a nation. It wasn’t quite the Cold War subsumed into a football match, but it wasn’t a million miles away from it.

With the all pervading political backdrop, no-one wanted to make a mistake and caution was the byword. Tackles were tame and tempers held in check as a mutual respect, and perhaps a measure of fraternal understanding for each other’s situation, came to the fore.  It was perhaps understandable, but meant that the first half of the game became quite sterile. Two teams more concerned about not making a mistake and losing the game, or crashing into a tackle that may trigger an international incident produced tepid fare that at least settled down the political hype.

A shot from the right by Heinz Flohe flew wide of Jürgen Croy’s right-hand post. The ‘keeper threw himself towards the ball, but it was more of a gesture than a required save. Probably the best chance of the half for the home team came when an astute pass by Beckenbauer towards Müller, allowed ‘Der Bomber’ to roll his defender before squaring across the box for an onrushing Jürgen Grabowski, but although the ball beat the despairing dive of Croy, who tried to intercept, it ran behind the Eintracht Frankfurt wide man, and he couldn’t reach back to turn the cross on target. The ball trickled tamely wide of the upright. Midway through the half, Breitner shot tamely wide, as the West German efforts continued to breakdown on the well-drilled East German backline, offering solid protection to Croy.

It would be wrong to say that there was no threat from the ‘nominally’ away team though. A throw in from the left by Lothar Kurbjuweit into the West Germany box caused consternation as Reinhard Lauck gathered and turned towards goal. Sepp Maier was drawn towards his near post, Bernt Cullmann followed suit, but the move left Hans-Jürgen Kreische in yards of space. Lauck squared the ball across the box, bisecting goalkeeper and defender leaving an unguarded net for his team-mate. In a 14-year career, Kreische would play over 250 league games for Dynamo Dresden, netting almost 150 goals. In his club colours, the chance would surely have been accepted, but this was an entirely different ball game. As the ball arrived with him on the six-yard line, he leant back and hoisted his shot way over the bar. The clear opening had come and gone. The striker walked back with head bowed, to receive a consolatory pat from Jürgen Sparwasser. It would have felt like cold comfort at the time, but later in the game, the Magdeburg player would brighten East German emotions enormously.

At the break, the game remained goalless. The West Germans had clearly been the more dominant team, but as is so often the case, the best chance fell to their opponents. For differing reasons therefore, both coaches would have had cause to feel both frustrated and relieved at the score line.

The second-half began much as the first had ended. One change though was that, for some reason, Sepp Maier had seen it necessary to change his black goalkeeping top, for a green one. So much else though remained the same. West Germany continued to press and a ball by Müller put Grabowski into space, but his shot was high, wide and not at all handsome. Distant shooting was becoming the order of the day, but with East German efforts sporadic and West German ones facing a solid blue wall of defenders to block any efforts on goal, a draw began to look increasingly inevitable. Given the other group results, it would mean West Germany would top the group; the authorities in East Berlin would have to console themselves with an ‘honourable’ draw and progression to the next phase. There was still time for that scenario to be changed though. A scrambled effort for Paul Breitner was at least on target as he followed in on a poor clearance, but the ball bounced a number of times before it rolled into Croy’s welcoming arms.

With 65 minutes played and a few tired legs beginning to show, Buschner withdrew midfielder Harald Irmscher, replacing him with Erich Hamann. A dozen or so minutes later, the move would prove to be hugely significant. On the other bench, Helmut Schön was also looking at options. A few minutes later, removed the teak-tough centre-back, Hans Georg Schwarzenbeck, who always provided the stability at the back for Beckenbauer to indulge in his sallies forward, both for ‘Die Mannschaft’ and Bayern München, sending on Horst-Dieter Höttges. He also took off Overath, and threw the thrusting power of Günter Netzer into the fray. For the next few minutes nothing changed, but with 13 minutes remaining the goal came.

With his back to goal, Uli Hoeneß flicked the ball over his head in an attempt to cross, but the ball fell comfortably for Croy to collect. Quickly looking up, he saw the fresh legs of Hamann, the substitute, cantering forward down the right flank, and hurled the ball towards him. The 30-year-old was playing in one of only three games in which he would represent his country but, in the next few seconds, he would take a leading role in one of East Germany’s greatest sporting triumphs. Running forwards, he looked up as he entered the West Germany half. Jürgen Sparwasser was accelerating forwards, into a gap as the defence funnelled back to cover. Hamann hoisted a perfect ball to meet up with the forward’s run. Chesting past a slipping Beckenbauer, exposing the libero’s less than perfect defensive prowess as he entered the box, the Magdeburg player then fired right-footed past Maier to give east Germany the lead.

Completing a forward roll in celebration, Sparwasser regained his feet to see the small contingent allowed to travel from the east celebrating in jubilation, before he was engulfed by his ecstatic team-mates. The West Germans stood, hands on hips. They hadn’t really threatened to score other than the poor pull-back from Müller that Grabowski had been unable to fully control. As time had ticked away, the draw that would see them top the group seemed like an increasingly inevitable conclusion to the game, but their lethargy in settling for a share of the spoils had betrayed them to their hungrier brethren. Now they had a mountain to climb – and precious little time to do it in.

Inevitably pressure mounted, and a series of free-kicks and corners saw plenty of bluster, but hardly any sustained threat on Croy’s goal. The East Germans locked down at the back and held a firm line as belief and time drained away from their hosts. When the final whistle was sounded, it was the blue-shirted east Germans surrounded by photographers capturing their moment of triumph with Croy and Sparwasser receiving particular acclaim. The Magdeburg striker was well aware of the significance of his goal, later declaring that, “If one day my gravestone simply says ‘Hamburg 74’, everybody will still know who is lying below.” In East Berlin, the authorities would have been in raptures. In the cities and towns around East Germany, the people, perhaps less so. East had triumphed over West. Socialism had defeated capitalism. Fifteen hundred fans celebrated while 58,000 sloped away. But what did it mean?

The victory took East Germany to the top of the group. Normally, this would mean an easier path to progress, but as things shaped up, that wasn’t the case in this tournament. Plunged into a second-stage group alongside Brazil, Argentina and the Cruyff-inspired Oranje of the Dutch, a single point was all they could achieve after a meaningless draw in the last game against Argentina when both were already eliminated. In contrast, the West Germans were pitted against Sweden, Poland and Yugoslavia. Duly winning all of their games, and then going onto beat the Dutch in the final. If the east had won a football battle, the West had won the war. There was a political triumph to savour, but perhaps that was a Pyrrhic victory as well.

Later, players who had worn the DDR shirt on that June evening would seek to play down any political importance. Tall, powerful and blond, every inch the athletic sweeper he was, East German skipper Bernt Bransch would relate that it was the victory that was important, not the opponent over whom it was gained. Goalkeeping hero, Jürgen Croy, would concede that, “It was important because it was the World Cup and because it was Germany against Germany,” but was also keen to add that, “Of course it was glorified by the politicians, but that happens everywhere. All countries try to take political advantage of sports success.” Let’s leave the summary to Jürgen Sparwasser though. Later, when responding to questions about how the goal changed his life in the east, he related that, “Rumour had it I was richly rewarded for the goal, with a car, a house and a cash premium. But that is not true’. Perhaps the result changed very little in the end, especially for the central character in the passion play. In 1988, just a year before the Berlin Wall fell, a 40-year-old Jürgen Sparwasser defected to the west.

For a short while, it looked like the qualifying tournament for the 1992 European Championships may produce a reprise of that June evening in Hamburg when the two Germanys were again drawn to play each other. Political events overtook matters though and the falling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 precluded any such event. On 12 September 1990, the Deutsches Demokratisches Republik, East Germany, played their last ever international game during a friendly against Belgium in Anderlecht’s Parc Astrid stadium in Brussels. Less than a month afterwards, the two sectors of Germany were reunited. The struggle between brothers as over.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ website).

“And where we can’t reach with our legs, we’ll reach with our hearts.” The inspiring story of Alessandro Lucarelli.

Football produces many stories. Some are sad, some are uplifting, and just a few are writ through with an impossible tale of devotion and romance that would test the credibility of any Hollywood script writer bent on wringing a few tears from his audience. The difference of course is that in football there are no tall tales, no preordained scripts, with lines rehearsed and honed to perfection, emotions delivered with cold sterility. In football there is reality. Spontaneity and reality. Drama and reality. Romance and reality. Above all, though there is reality. It’s a reality that can at times be both cruel and mundane but, at others, truly inspiring and uplifting. Some stories, football realities, you simply could not make up. This may well be one of them. Continue reading →

Beauty and the Best – Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi.

At the heart of almost every successful team is a solid backline, usually built around the central defensive partnership. They are the bedrock of the team. They provide the foundation upon which a team is built and can grow and flourish. If the value of such partnerships is gauged by the success enjoyed by the team, then the trophies garnered by AC Milan when they dominated European football in the eighties and nineties suggest that the partnership provided by Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi was nothing but pure gold. Continue reading →

John Terry & Ricardo Carvalho – Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea gatekeepers.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to definitively measure the effect of a partnership. For example, not many would demur from the opinion that Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit were important to the success of the Arsenal team of that era, but just how important? Bergkamp, Henry, Seaman, Dixon and Adams were also major cogs in the machine that helped to make the team work efficiently. What about Roy Keane and Paul Scholes of Manchester United of broadly the same era?  Did they contribute more to the success of the team than, say, Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs or Beckham?

Looking at partnerships in some areas of football and evaluating their importance can be a little tricky. At the sharp end of things, both in scoring goals and keeping them out though, there are a plethora of numbers to define things. This is certainly the case with the pair being celebrated here. The rock-hard centre of Jose Mourinho’s first double-title winning Chelsea team – John Terry & Ricardo Carvalho. Continue reading →

The little big man and the big little man –  Preben Elkjær and Michael Laudrup.

The ‘big man, little man’ combination is a common thread among successful striking partnerships. There’s the ‘big man,’ full of muscular hustle and bustle, aggression and a determination to dominate defenders. Then there’s the ‘little man’. He’s the smooth as silk, extravagantly skilled and elegant technician, whose ability bewitches opponents and fans alike. It’s a fairly apt description of Preben Elkjær and Michael Laudrup, Denmark’s iconic striking partnership of the mid to late 1980s when Danish Dynamite exploded into international football. Like so much about the pairing though, there’s even an iconoclastic element to the ‘big man, little man’ description. In this case, Elkjær, the ‘big man’ stood at 5’ 11”, whilst his ‘little man’ partner was 6’ 1” tall, although he hardly ever headed the ball. It’s not the only non-traditional aspect of a partnership that had so many contrasts – both on and off the field – but, particularly in the World Cup of 1986, for a brief time, took on the mantle as the most dynamic pair of strikers in world football. Continue reading →

‘Dolly & Daisy’ the rocks of Ferguson’s early Manchester United team.

If the sobriquet of ‘Dolly and Daisy’ sounds like a double act from an Old Time Musical Hall playbill, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that, thanks to their manager, it was in fact the nom de guerre of the most successful central defensive pairings of the early Premier League years. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were the pair in question, and they would write their names large into the history of the most successful football club of the time. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance that the pairing had on the development of Manchester United’s domestic dominance, when Sir Alex Ferguson built his dynasty of success. Suffice to say however, that the unassuming pair at the heart of the Old Trafford backline was the rock upon which the Scot relied over a seven-year partnership jammed full with trophies. Continue reading →

“The secret to happiness is freedom… And the secret to freedom is courage.” (Thucydides) – The philosophy of the Libero.

Ever since the early days of the game, wherever people have kicked a ball around, someone would come up with an idea that would help their team, their players, to be more successful and to be better achieve their aims; in short to win more often by making the most of the assets at their disposal.  These sorts of ideas weren’t tactics; they surpass that. They provide the framework, the structure that tactics are hanged upon. They are ways of playing – much as there are ways of living – a set of ideas and principles that guide in decision making, a light that illuminates the path. Continue reading →

Billy Lamont – Part-time Manager. Full-time hero to the town of Falkirk.

East Stirlingshire Football Club is based in the town of Falkirk in Scotland’s Central Lowlands, and without doubt, their most famous ex-manager is Sir Alex Ferguson. It was the Scot’s first step into management, but the set up was far removed from the grandeur of Old Trafford. The job was part-time and paid only £40 a week. He stayed there for a single season, joining in June 1974 and leaving the following October to take over at St Mirren. If Ferguson was the most famous of East Stirlingshire’s managers due to his later successes however, his short time in office was insufficient for him to make any sizeable impact at the club any tangible results were a long way behind the man who took the club to its highest position in the league. Continue reading →