Thursday, 13 January 2011

Trouble in Hungaria

There hasn't been this much trouble in Hungary since Archduke Franz Ferdinand were a lad - welcome onboard guest contributor (and long suffering housemate of your erstwhile scribe) Nick Dunkeyson.

A word before I start this piece. I'm not John, the guy who writes most of this blog and has an unhealthily pretentious approach to Carlisle United. I'm just some guy unlucky enough to houseshare with him. Just don't expect a similar type of prose, that's all I'm saying. (This is the least insulting intro I have ever received from Nick - Ed.)

There's a certain type of football fan who views the whole process of football as akin to collecting stamps, or more appropriately Panini stickers. Said football fan equates “quality of human being” with “percentage of the 92 league grounds visited for a match”. Or perhaps they judge the worthiness of someone's opinion as a fan of a club on how many matches they go and see a season. Maybe they've even taken to following as much world football as possible, in order that they can offer a comprehensive opinion on the Latvian left winger that West Brom are trying to sign.

In my own way I'm a trainee football fan of this kind, especially with European football. I've seen a few matches these season from the comfort of my own home, taken a liking (as others have) to Napoli, Dortmund, Atletico...the usual suspects, really. And it was in that vein that I decided a trip to Central & Eastern Europe on holiday should include me going to a few matches. I did all the preparation, worked out where I'd be and when, and found home matches for Ferencváros, Slovan Bratislava and Austria Wien while I was in each city. Three matches, right – after all, if circumstances conspire against me for one of them, there's still another two, right?

Wrong. In Slovakia, I was victim to the modern plague on the football fan's scheduling – TV demands, which saw Slovan's home clash with Dubnica moved from Saturday to Sunday. I could've waited another day I guess, but ehh, there isn't that much to do in Bratislava. In any case, Slovan won 6-1, and to quote Jonathan Wilson, goals are overrated – especially when the match is no spectacle. In Austria, I was victim to a more, er, literal kind of plague. Namely, 'flu. Not much you can do about that, and yeah, pretty unlucky considering but hey, it'll have been alright having seen Ferencváros first up, won't it?

Okay, I know that unless you're scriptwriting “Memento”, it's a narrative mess to come back to your first event last, but it's Ferencváros that I want to talk about most here. Anyway, they're playing newly-promoted Siófok off the back of being thrashed by local rivals Újpest. And I've buggered up my timings. Expecting to arrive 45 minutes before kick off, just, y'know, to absorb the atmosphere, kick off's half an hour before I'd written down, so I've got 15 minutes to get in. Still plenty of time, so you'd think, but that isn't accounting for one rather major problem.

Speaking to a Millwall fan recently (Millwall played Ferencváros during their 2004 UEFA Cup 'run'), he'd said the atmosphere there was fantastic, yet terrifying. He mentioned things like Nazi symbols, and the general impression he gave was one of the stereotypical Eastern European football experience. It's maybe this, and the fact Ferencváros are so enthusiastically supported in Budapest that led to my problem. You see, I couldn't buy a ticket to go and see the match, even though it had far from sold out. Why? I had to have a “FradiCard” (Fradi being the nickname for Ferencváros) – a piece of photo identification to prove that, well, to prove something or other. Why do clubs and organisations have photo ID? Whatever their reasons, that's why. And I didn't. And I only had by this time 10 minutes before kick off to get a ticket. How could I get a card? I had to walk halfway round the ground to the club shop, to find a frantic scramble of people waving pieces of paper to try and get the aforementioned card. I shoved to one side to get a form, and despite knowing next to no Hungarian I made myself understood, and got a form. And then, a problem – of course a problem. It's all in Hungarian. By now I've less than 5 minutes before kick off. The 'queue' in front of me to get a card is 40-strong, and more dependant on physical strength than anything to get to the front. Screw this, I think, talk about making the whole experience hard for the neutral. I went back to the hostel and got drunk with a couple of Swiss.

Looking back at this, it's a bizarre tactic. I spoke to Hungarian football blogger Tomasz Mortimer about Ferencváros' initiative, and he noted it was “no wonder they get shit attendances”. And you know, I have to agree with him. It's a hell of a rigmarole to go through for a match, especially for someone like me just hoping to see some football while on holiday. Domestically, Hungarian football's in a kind of terminal decline at the moment. The most successful club of recent years, Debrecen, have to travel 200 km to Budapest for their UEFA Cup matches, as their ground isn't up to scratch. With the exception of Adam Szalai, there aren't really young Hungarians making the breakthrough across Europe. And the best-supported, most famous club in Hungary are doing their level best to discourage casual fans.

Or are they? Since I got back I've done a bit of investigating, and I genuinely cannot find any mention of this FradiCard anywhere on the Internet. The Ferencváros site is only available in Hungarian, but even translated into English there's no mention of it, certainly nothing on the ticket information page. And I can't imagine such a Draconian measure would be introduced for a match against a bottom-of-the-table side like Siófok. So, did I dream the whole thing? Or, more likely, are Ferencváros merely possessed of a singularly unhelpful website. Given their attitude to getting entry to the ground, I'm going to suggest the latter may be the case.

As a little sign-off, I'll just note that in a way, not seeing Ferencváros was probably a lucky escape for me. It was only when I was trudging off that I saw a latecoming fan arrive...wearing a Sheffield United shirt. As a Wednesday fan, I'd completely forgotten that the Blunts used to have a tie-in with Ferencváros. I could've been supporting an ideologically distateful enterprise had I gotten in!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Richard Offiong: The Sun Goeth Down

Dear Australia, please accept this as a friendly note of caution from a man in the know. That precious flower spraying down rocks, all the while looking half a frame removed from a bulldog sipping poison… Talented lad, silly tattoos, lack of temperament? Look after him. In 18 months time he could end up like Richard Offiong.

For those who don’t know of Offiong, he left Carlisle United this week ‘by mutual consent’ after a wretched 18 months following a long trailed and, by shallow pocketed Cumbrian standards, high value transfer from Hamilton Academicals. The return on an investment of £75,000 was a measly two goals in all competitions (including the reserves), two more than he scored on loan at both Darlington and Swedish side Ostersunds during his Carlisle tenure.

So what went wrong? Why, to use the pejorative sobriquet swiftly applied by the Brunton Park faithful, was Richard told to ‘fuck Offiong’?

As noted above Offiong’s arrival in Cumbria was a long time coming. Greg Abbott’s search for a striker in the 2009 close season was initially hamstrung by a tardy tribunal ruling on Watford’s capture of Danny Graham. After that panel threw their tawdry offer of £25,000 into the refuse and instead awarded £300,000 up front Abbott had money burning a hole in his back pocket. He needed it. No one saw goals in the strikeforce of the lightweight Scott Dobie, converted winger Joe Anyinsah or Gary Madine, at this point well on the first down slope of his young career’s sine wave.

On a purely personal level I remember being excited by Offiong’s potential signing. I remembered watching him turn out for the England u20s at the Stadium of Light during my uni days (he didn’t stand out but then only Michael Dawson and Fiorentina’s Marco Donadel, captain of opponents Italy did from memory), his provenance at the Newcastle academy alongside lower league scoring deities Michael Chopra and James Coppinger a genuinely mouth whetting notion. I was also willing to overlook his nomadic existence, which included an unsuccessful stint at Korean club Chunnam Dragons (‘Asia wasn't for me’), in favour of his impressive record at Hamilton (41 goals in 102 games) and the fact that he’d turned down big spending Colchester.

It didn’t start well. The transfer took forever to process and the murmurs blowing Westerly down Warwick Road suggested that agent led caprice was to blame. Abbott had spent all summer searching for ‘his man’ only to be choked off by unseemly demands. When a 2 year deal with option for extension was finally completed and Offiong made his debut as a sub at Leyton Orient the United faithful’s impatience, stoked by a summer of relative penury, had reached fever pitch.

His five minutes that day as the Blues searched for an equaliser (which Paul Thirlwell wrested in injury time) did little to lower the temperature. For a man of 6’1” he jumped like he’d escaped the trunk of Mafiosi car en route to the dock, whilst the ‘frustrating amble from offside’ Hamilton fans had warned of, and which became the stuff of legend, was on show from the off.

‘Little matter, he’ll come good’, we all thought; perhaps giddy on the nitrous oxide that is last-minute footballing escapology. How wrong could you be? Further, irritatingly profligate, cameos from the bench and an inability to score goals even at reserve level led Abbott to swiftly call on Richard to up his game. His route from the bench was further blocked by the arrival of 85 stone hulk Vincent Pericard whose 3 month spell, and substantial backside, provided the Blues frontline with a much needed fulcrum from which to exploit the talent of their wingers Hurst and Robson and whose Premier League pedigree gave a flagging season the shot in the arm it badly needed.

Richard (by now, aware of his fragile persona, I’d taken to referring to him internally by forename in a bid to soften my angry stance) continued to plug away in the reserves without reward and suffer a stream of niggly injuries which seemed continually to bar a path to full fitness. By now serious questions were being asked. Fans had begun to label him ‘the worst signing ever’, clearly forgetting the displays of Mark Rivers in our League 2 championship year or the nightmarish presence of David Beharall at right back. Worse still, Abbott seemed to be questioning his own judgment in public – never an interview went by without a non-committal response on Offiong’s place in the side, which soon morphed into public questioning of his desire to succeed.

I’ve blogged before about the potential malign influence of Greg Abbott’s man management techniques but with Richard Offiong it may have proved fatal to his Carlisle United career. In an interview prior to his departure from Hamilton, discussing his eventual fulfilment under Billy Reid, Offiong was quick to lay praise at his then manager’s door for ‘…putting his self esteem back together’. There can be little doubt over what such public flogging would do to Richard (there I go again) and his self belief.

His only goal in United blue came as an injury time winner to cancel out a late Ryan Harley leveller on a cold January night in Exeter. Many expected this, and the absence of the now departed Pericard, to prove his redemption song. It didn’t. Despite stereotypical soundbites in the press that he’d kick on, I personally wasn’t sure he wanted it enough to succeed. So it proved as his astonishing goal shy run in the reserves was followed by loan to lowly Ostersunds in the third tier of the Swedish pyramid. Another goal free spell, designed to up his fitness and confidence over the summer period, was cut short as his troublesome hip failed to come to terms with the Astroturf pitches.

Unlike many fans I was almost willing to give Richard a second chance at the start of this season. Again we found ourselves short of strikers and short of the cash to persuade the right men to Cumbria. There had been flashes of talent which convinced me that we still had a ‘player’ on our hands if only he wanted to be harnessed.

It wasn’t until later in the summer that I changed my mind. It wasn’t his (again goal free) spell at Conference Darlington, described by Quakers fans as beyond appalling, that did it either; but rather a broadcast interview he gave to BBC Radio Cumbria as part of their pre-season preview.

BBCRC’s James Phillips trailed the piece by saying that Offiong had come over as really determined to succeed. I was genuinely excited. And then verging on upset. He said everything he needed to say but the statements lacked any degree of passion or commitment. I heard the voice of a broken man trotting out softly spoken platitudes in a bid to curry favour. The timbre of his Geordie lilt cracked with insincere desperation. He called to mind the chastened housewife of a serial philanderer, publicly standing by her man for the good of the children. It wasn’t Tess Daly but almost Dickensian in its anguish. I knew right then he was finished.

Richard’s demeanour in person and in print since that interview was broadcast has smacked of a sickly puppy waiting for a final kick from its owner before the RSPCA arrive. This week he got that kick and I for one felt deeply sad for him.

Whilst searching for the perfect analogy for his Carlisle United career (one much more apt than Tess Daly or Mitchell Johnson could ever be) I’ve found my self consistently returning to Jake Barnes, the central character in Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises’. Jake, like Richard, drifts through his life amongst company he doesn’t relish in a vain attempt to find some purpose. Jake, like Richard, permanently seems to be on the edge of existential despair, never far from another scrape. Jake, like Richard, is snubbed by the person(s) who he most desperately wants to love him. Of course, as those who know the book will know, Jake’s crises are rooted in a deeply personal secret (which I shan’t spoil). These past few days I haven’t stopped wondering if Richard’s constant niggles and swelling CV are too.

As a postscript to all this we learnt yesterday that Offiong has been working towards an Open University degree in Law and may move this way if he doesn’t stay in football. Whilst I can’t stop myself from lauding such unusual endeavour in a footballer, there’s a question whether this has turned his mind away from football or if it affected his status in the dressing room. As a man who left that profession due to the pressures it placed on my personal well being I can say one thing for certain… for Richard Offiong the change of career may well just be a trip from Paris to Pamplona.