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The Ground Hopping Exploits of a Man from Down Under

Lifelong Terrors fan Ewen (aka ‘The Far Post’) was deported to Australia many years ago for reasons best not detailed here. Periodically the terms of his exile allow him to return, most recently in January. In line with most return visits of ex-pat Toots I was abroad at the time. His journey back, not for the first time, was not exactly straightforward……..

Part One - Malta

When travelling overseas on holiday, I always try to fit in a game of football at each destination I visit. The trip of January 2020 was no exception. There were three destinations lined up; London, Malta and Tunis. London saw me visit old haunts for a few days and my old favourites, Tooting & Mitcham United were due to play a home fixture on Saturday 18th January. The opponents at Imperial Fields were Staeua Bucharest (aka FC Romania) who were struggling at the wrong end of the Isthmian League South Central Division. The Terrors on the other hand were pushing for promotion and had a game of two in hand over similarly placed rivals.

A beautiful winter afternoon was made even more beautiful as The Terrors raced to a 6-0 lead at half time. The crowd awaited the second half with eager anticipation. Despite the best efforts and the last man standing efforts of the visiting ‘keeper, the score remained 6-0. Still it was a good result for the goal difference and the crowd was happy. And so was I. The Terrors have never lost a game since their move to Imperial Fields when I have been present. That’s both home and away fixtures.

The offer of Hackbridge Harry to pay for my fare over every other week sounded tempting, but tiring. Snared a few souvenirs from Harry’s ravishingly overloaded table of delights of all things Toots. I do wonder if I’ll ever get back to see the mighty Terrors, so make the most of it while you can I told myself! Cost to enter was GBP 5 (I played the OAP card – normal price GBP 10) and the programme was GBP 2.50.

Next stop was Malta. Prior to leaving the sun burned country down under – or should I say, completely burned out country – I emailed the Maltese FA to enquire about any Monday evening Premier League fixtures that I might be able to attend. Yes, there was one – Monday 20th January, K.O. 7pm between Valletta and Sliema Wanderers. The game was to be played at the National Stadium at Ta’Qali. No idea where that is, but I had time to find out. I was staying in Sliema, so decided to do the right thing and support them. Valletta were pushing for a top three spot in the league whilst Sliema were pushing for a bottom three spot. Might have my money on the wrong horse here!

Prior to attending the game, I did the tourist thing around Valletta before taking the bus to an ancient walled city high up in the middle of the island of Malta called Mdina. This ancient walled city was very peaceful and from the walled city’s ramparts, views could be had over the island of Malta for as far as the eye could see, which wasn’t very far as Malta is quite a small place really. As I stared out over the countryside towards Valletta, there below me, almost within reach, was the National Stadium at Ta’Qali. The stadium is also known locally as simply Ta’Qali . I remember when England had to play an international in Malta. It was before the days of this rather swish upmarket modern affair that lay below me now. The pitch was an old fashioned cinder pitch from memory. The type where you left half your leg behind and didn’t raise an eyebrow.

Having played at being a tourist, I found my way to the Mdina bus stop and bought a ticket to Ta’Qali, disembarked and started to explore the area around the stadium. Eventually I found myself on the top floor of the stand in the VIP area and ordered myself a toasted sandwich for dinner. Got talking to a couple from Germany. Now their travels sounded like a real Groundhopping marathon. They had arrived in Malta a couple of days ago and already seen one or two games over the weekend. In Malta, most games are played at a small selection of grounds, as the standard of most grounds is “suburban” to say the least. The Germans came from Halle in the old East Germany. Their team played in the 3rd division of the Bundesliga and had excellent support. There were some big name teams in that division including TSV Munich 1860 (whom West Ham beat to win the old ECWC back in the mid sixties) and Kaiserslautern who had seen a fall from grace in recent times. Their next road trip to see Halle play was at the weekend. A 550 km trip to the northern port city of Rostock to watch Hansa Rostock take on Halle. (Later checks of the match revealed that Rostock won 1-0). In the meantime, as kick off for the “big” match was still over an hour away, they told me about another game being played at the smaller Centenary Stadium right next door. So, having finished my “toastie”, I wandered over to the ground and paid my EUR 2 to gain entry. I was given a green ticket with a tear off section and as I wandered a few paces to the entry turnstile, a very large hand came through a small 20cm x 20 cm hole in the wall and relieved me of my green ticket. It was returned – less the end bit that was perforated, and I was clear to enter.

The ground had excellent floodlights and a stand along one side with perhaps about 500 seats. The other three sides of the ground were open and un terraced. Wikipedia gives the ground capacity as being 3,000. The game was a Bank of Valletta Division 3 game between Gharghur and Santa Venera Lightnings. The 3rd division is the lowest division in the Maltese League structure and at times the standard matched the level on display. The artificial turf pitch ensured an even bounce of the ball. No muddy puddles to slog through. The one thing that did surprise me was that most players were caught out by the relatively high bounce of the ball. You would have thought that they would be used to it and be able to read that aspect of the game. But there again, it was the bottom division. Gharghur took the lead midway through the first half and the goal scorer, a short, balding man who went by the name of Warren Zerafa, ran half the length of the pitch jumping and punching the air. Anyone would have thought that he’d scored a winner in the World Cup Final. He was though, despite my description of him, one of the better players on view. At half time, I left the ground (as did the Germans) and headed towards the National Stadium next door for the “big” game. They opted for the Grandstand side at a cost of EUR 15 each, whilst I went for the opposite side (where most supporters were) and noted that the elderly spectator paying to get in in front of me seemed to have asked for an OAP special. I played the “Old Man” card again and paid the princely sum of EUR 4 to get in. The normal price for younger supporters was EUR 8. This is for a top flight league match that gives the winner entry to one of Europe’s elite club competitions.

The ground has a capacity of 16,997 according to Wikipedia and the ground record is over 35,000. Perhaps looks can be deceiving, it can be hard to tell. The crowd was a massive 642 and 98% of them were under the cover of the covered terraces (it’s an all seater ground) opposite the main Millennium Grandstand. Valletta supporters were all gathered at one end and were by far the noisiest fans. They had a big drum and throughout the match were to be heard singing and cheering (and drumming). By comparison, I seemed to find myself at the other end of the stand amongst the Sliema supporters who by comparison were very quiet. I guess considering the relative league positions of each side, this was hardly surprising. Despite being in the middle of the Mediterranean, it was quite chilly with a cool breeze (perhaps wind would be a better word for it) constantly blowing. The standard was better than the 3rd division game next door. As it should be, I hear you say. The “artificial pitch” made of hybrid grass of reinforced natural grass is a product created by combining natural grass with synthetic reinforcing fibres, didn’t cause the players as many problems as in the other game. The bounce didn’t seem to catch anyone out. It was a huff and puff affair with Valletta perhaps having the edge although Sliema always looked dangerous on the break only to hit the wall at the 18 yard line.

Half time came and the score remained deadlocked at 0-0. I wandered down below the stand to the “tea bar” and bought a hot cuppa in an effort to stave off the chilly Mediterranean winds. The man behind the counter looked bored. At least he would have been warmer than the fans up above. The second half started and Valletta stepped up the pace in a bid to consolidate their top three spot. It didn’t take long for them to score the opener. Would there be more?

 Half way through the second half Valletta made it 2-0 and it looked curtains for Sliema. But they continued to push until about the 90th minute when one of their players was pushed in the area and the centre forward, a tall lanky fellow that from the safety of the stand looked a bit like Jordi Cruyff, slammed home the penalty. 2-1 to Valletta. Valletta withstood the efforts of Sliema in the final few minutes and held on for the three points much to the delight of the drummer and his cohorts. Outside the ground, a short walk to the bus stop found me chatting to the Germans again who seemed a great deal warmer than me. Our bus turned up on time a few minutes later and we headed off to Sliema. The journey took about 50 minutes.

Part 2