Judging by other groundhopping blogs, the end of the (traditional August-May) season is the perfect opportunity to offer up a season’s best review of the previous nine months. And, as a stickler for tradition, I’ve decided to follow the proverbial crowd.
Unlike other prominent awards ceremonies, I can’t promise petty physical violence (well, actually, given how my trip to Paralimni turned out, I can). What is certainly on offer, though, is nine carefully thought-out categories (that I came up with in my lunch break) that allow me to reflect on my travels across the footballing world in the last year.
Like most awards, I’ve saved the most prominent until last. So enjoy. And keep my team’s name out your fucking mouth.
Best Match Attended
This award is for the most entertaining, enjoyable and – where possible – dramatic match I attended. To be honest, there were pretty slim pickings in this regard (although, satisfyingly, no bore draws). Certainly, there were no 6-6 mindblowers, or battles of Bramall Lane. There was a pretty decent League 2 ding-dong on a Friday night, though.
Winner: Newport County v Hartlepool United
Most Newport fans probably don’t even remember this game (or, given its impact on their failed promotion challenge, have probably chosen to forget it). But it was a topsy-turvy affair in which both sides lead at various points, eventually finishing 3-2 to the Monkey Hangers (seriously, look up the story behind that one). There were a few well-worked goals and some standout performances on both teams, which is usually an indicator of an entertaining encounter; I also drank a few pints of Tiny Rebel before it, which may have helped.
An honourable mention goes to Olympiacos v Volos, too, which was decided by three goals in the last three minutes. This match probably would have been the winner if I hadn’t left in the 84th minute and missed them all.
Best Atmosphere Generated
This award is for the best atmosphere generated, ideally by both sets of fans (I created a separate category for “Best Fans”, as some matches were a little lopsided in this regard). Two matches stood out here.
Winner: Rapid Vienna v Sturm Graz
As I mentioned in my original article, this is something of a derby in Austrian football, with both sets of fans, as the colloquialism goes, “well up for it” as a result. A full tribune for the home team and a packed out away end resulted in pyro, tifos, non-stop singing and – memorably – two Graz fans offering out any willing participants in the home end before their inevitable arrest. This match was great fun and an excellent advert for Austrian domestic football.
An honourable mention goes to Apollon Limassol v Anorthosis Famagusta, another derby of sorts, but also one that had (and is still having) ramifications on the ongoing title race in Cyprus. Hectic, chaotic, pyro-riddled fan frenzies are nothing new here, but the pre-match festivities – performed at a capacity-full Tsirion – were something genuinely spine-tingling.
Best Player Seen
In Tales of a Groundhopper, Dan Robinson regularly asks his guests who the best players they have seen live are. Usually, the answer is Ronaldo or Messi. But here, I want to focus more on players who caught my eye on the day, and stand out relative to their level. So while I saw some top, top players this year, if they didn’t deliver on the day that I saw them, they’re not up for consideration.
Winner: Jason Puncheon (Pafos FC)
An ex-Premier League regular taking the piss out of kids in a Sunday morning friendly. Some will say it’s a controversial choice. But aside from being several echelons of footballing intelligence above everyone else on the pitch, Puncheon’s attitude, professionalism, and commitment in his side’s 5-1 demolition of Brentford B was spot on. The legs might be on the wane, but it was great to see the former Crystal Palace man treating the game of football with the respect it deserves.
Honourable mentions also go to:
Jamie Sterry (Hartlepool United): The former Newcastle and Crewe right-back may have dropped down the divisions, but his performance against Newport was exciting, attack-oriented, and really caught the eye. At 26, it’s unclear if Sterry still has the potential or the desire to play at a higher level, but based on what I saw, he could well be worth a closer look.
Mathieu Valbuena (Olympiacos): Now 37, Mathieu Valbuena is in his twilight years. But the diminutive former France international came on to score a remarkable 30-yard freekick in November, giving his side 3 points and adding another juicy clip to his sizeable 18-year highlight reel.
The Attila Szalai Award (aka the “One to Watch” Award)
An award dedicated to any young players I’ve seen who may be worth watching out for in the future. Named after Attila Szalai, the former Apollon defender who has plucked from the obscurity of the Hungarian third division, sold to Fenerbahce, capped 23 times for Hungary (and counting), and has since been linked with every top club in Europe.
Winner: Olli Kilpeläinen (APEA FC)
The Cypriot fourth division might not be the obvious place to unearth unpolished gems, but APEA seem to have acquired some interesting young talent recently (thanks, chiefly, to the network of their Dutch owner Jamory Leysner). For me, Kilpeläinen – a commanding ball-playing centre-back – is the pick of this pack, although the Finn’s midfield teammate, Nick Kaaijmolen, was the one signed by top-flight PAEEK in January. Aged 21, Kilpeläinen still has time to grow and improve, although it will be interesting to see how he handles the step up to the third tier next season.
Best Goal Seen
As it says on the tin: the best goal I saw live this season.
Winner: Vince Szegi (for Gyirmot v MTK Budapest)
This Aaron Ramsey-esque piss missile looked impressive when I saw it in person, but it actually looks even better on the video replay. You can see it at the 30 second mark.
Honourable mentions also go to:
Mathieu Valbuena (for Olympiacos v Volos): As mentioned, I actually managed to miss this excellent free kick. But I saw the other 84 minutes of the game, so I feel entitled to include it. Definitely one for fans of goalkeepers getting caught out at their near post.
Bassel Jradi (for Apollon v APOEL): A slight bias to this one, but still a technically excellent volley nonetheless. The Lebanese playmaker cultivated quite the collection of screamers during the early part of the season (although a persistent injury curtailed his influence from January onwards). This one, during Apollon’s 2-1 victory over APOEL, was the pick of the bunch. He also shared one of my videos on Instagram, so he gets to be included. The goal can be seen at 34 seconds.
Best Fans Seen
This is possibly the most difficult award to judge, because it’s unclear which decision factors should carry the most prominence. Is it the consistency of the noise levels? The visual displays? The distance travelled?
Winner: PAC Omonoia
In the end, I decided on PAC Omonoia for several reasons. For one thing, I was made to feel welcome among their hardcore support. For another, they were loud, well-organised, and well choreographed. But the key decision was that, as a fan-owned club, PAC Omonoia are literally their team. The level of dedication and effort required to start your own club and take it up the divisions means that Gate 9 are fully deserving of this award.
An honourable mention also goes to the fans of Hartlepool United. A six-hundred mile, ten-hour round trip on a Friday night is pure commitment; respect to the few hundred Pools fans that made the journey. True football supporters, each and every one.
Best Ground Location
This award is for the ground with the best surroundings. This could either be in terms of natural scenery, or simply a perfectly-located stadium (such as the Millennium Stadium in the centre of Cardiff).
Winner: TIE – Kouklia Community Stadium (Pafos) and Cwmnantygroes (Six Bells)
In the end, I couldn’t separate these two grounds, both of which are surrounded by striking – albeit vastly different – organic landscapes. To give you some context, the former overlooks the blue hues of the Mediterranean sea, while the latter simply speaks for itself; either way, these are two incredible places to sit back, relax, and watch some football.
Favourite Club Visited
This award is for the club that I had the most positive experience with, in terms of feeling welcome and my perceptions of the whole matchday experience. As an existing supporter of Cardiff and Apollon, I haven’t considered these clubs.
Winner: APEA FC
APEA Akroriti is a relatively small club, but it has big ambitions under the ownership of Jamory Leysner. The team itself is composed of young talent from all over Europe (supported by a core of experienced local players) and won its league at a canter. But as well as being one of the most watchable teams I saw this year, the matchday experience was also the most positive. Every volunteer and employee was polite, friendly, and engaging; the small but healthy crowd (of Cypriots and Brits) was diverse; and the facilities were better than many higher-placed grounds I’ve attended. As a neutral, this is the only club whose results I continued to monitor after my visit, and I’m inclined to make more appearances in Akrotiri as they take on the third tier next year.
And now for the big one…
Best Ground Visited
The “Best Picture” equivalent of these inaugural groundhopping awards. I was tempted to split this into two awards: Best Ground and Best Small Ground. But, to borrow from boxing’s pound-for-pound methodology, size is relative, and it shouldn’t detract from making one decision. So here’s what I went with…
Winner: Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium (Olympiacos)
In all honesty, I probably went to the legendary Karaiskakis Stadium at the wrong time on the wrong day. After all, a Sunday afternoon jaunt against mid-table opposition isn’t really set to the same energy levels as a European night or a domestic derby. But the logistical stars were aligned that day, and so it was worth ticking the box, even if it wasn’t the “full” Olympiacos experience.
However, none of this matters when assessing the ground itself. An impressive structure easily accessed via its own Metro station, it features food, beer, and merchandise stands on nearly every corner. Greek football doesn’t really have the “pre-match pint” culture that’s prevalent in, say, Germany or the UK, but there’s more than enough in the vicinity to keep you entertained in the buildup. The stadium’s interior is modern and clean, too, with excellent, unrestricted views, providing fans with a highly positive matchday experience. The only downer is that tickets were extremely pricy (especially by Greek standards), although I may possibly have been dealt a tourist’s hand by the ticket vendor. Still, a fun experience, and highly recommended to anyone – not just football fans – that happen to be visiting Athens.