“Groundhopper”is not a term I am not very enamoured with, but it seems to be the most common for what I have gradually become. I prefer to just say I am a football fan. It’s a simple as that. I like to watch football wherever I can. Yes, I have a list of grounds I would like to visit and one of where i have been and i do hop around stadia, but I still prefer to be called a football fan. I didn’t always collect football grounds. I didn’t go to football as a neutral very often either. The occasional Highland League game when the Dons were on the road and watching my mates play for Formartine United in the juniors was as neutral as it got. A high percentage of the grounds I had visited were due to following Aberdeen in league and cup action. Over the past few years I have found myself watching football over the length of Scotland from Wick Academy to Forfar West End to Annan Athletic. Scotland has not been the only destinations either. I have found myself touring Europe from Valarenga to Rot Weiss Oberhausen to Dukla Prague. I have grown awfully fond of live fitba in the past few years. I have always been a big fan don’t get me wrong, As already mentioned have been doing it for near enough three decades (and hopefully for another three at least). Nowadays though, rocking up at a ground I have not been to has become a hobby. The Cambridge dictionary states that a hobby is; “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.” I feel that sums me up nicely. But I have been told I am obsessed. Back to the dictionary, obsession is “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind”. My favourite though must be “geek” which has been thrown in my direction on numerous occasions. “You went to watch third division Norwegian fitba, you are a bloody geek” sounds familiar. The definition of geek, its “a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”. In all honesty I suppose I fall into all three categories.
The geeky, obsessive hobby all started on December 5th, 2015 me and a few others decided to make a day of Keith V Brora R*****s at Kynoch Park. A great day it turned out to be with one guy missing the train and appearing at kick off , free booze in the Ugie House Hotel, warm welcomes from the locals in the boozers visited post and prior match, a soaking in the Moray drizzle, eight goals, no prima donnas to be seen and the inevitable comatose train journey home, this meaning I got off in Aberdeen instead of Inverurie leading to a forty five quid taxi home . This instead of a free lift to my door. To top it off I had to retrieve my phone from the Aberdeen train station lost property on the Sunday. Although unknown at the time that damp afternoon in Banffshire was the catalyst for many miles, many beers, many scarves and many great memories. What started as mates on a day out changed to a personal challenge of wanting to go around every HFL ground in a calendar year, complete with photo outside (which became the custom on my sojourns). 16 grounds stood in my way after Keith and my goal (the odd number caused by Cove R*****s living a gypsy like existence) The mission started at Keith and culminated at Brora with a total of two thousand and fifty-four miles covered by car, taxi, train and bus, 136 pounds in entrance fees.(This fee not including the extras included in a day corporate day at MacKessack Park in Rothes) Every mile and every penny was worth it. It became like an addiction. Midweek trips to Clachnacuddin, Forres Mechanics and even Fort William showed my dedication to the cause. I travelled to ten of the matches on my own including Wick and Brora which equates to just over six hundred and fifty miles driving between them. It was completed in eleven months, but when you factor in that I work away for half the year and the two-month summer break it was really four and a half months which is impressive considering Pittodrie took precedence over the HFL.
Once the HFL tour was done and dusted I immediately set my sights on doing the top 40 in Scotland. I realize some of you will be quick to point out that I am missing two clubs. This is because celtic and the new incarnation of r*****s 1872-2012 will not be visited as I refuse to ever put money directly into their coffers in my life again. That and they can both get to fuck. To reach this milestone of the top forty I need to revisit a lot of grounds that I have previously been to watch the Dons. The reason for the revisits being, I need the photo outside. I am almost there too. Really just lacking a lot of the premier league. Most of which will be revisits, hence why they have been left to last. There are five outstanding that I have never set foot in though. Queen of the South, Stranraer, St Mirren, Livingston and Hamilton Accies. St Mirren will be nailed by the visit of the Dons next Sunday which i will take Wee Man too.
While trying to accomplish the top forty challenge I read a cracking book. “On the Trail Of The Scottish Holy Grail: From the Toon To The Joons” by Shaun E Smith. (Give it a bash). In short, he turned fifty and decided to celebrate by going to every Junior club to win the Scottish Cup. This despite being from Gateshead and not having any affiliation to Scottish Fitba. A cracking idea I think any fitba fan would agree. You guessed it, I “borrowed” this idea. I am currently around the half way mark just now and have Beith v Largs Thistle and Hurlford United v Beith penciled in for my next trip home from work. Cumnock (v Glenafton Athletic), Hill of Beath (v Tranent) and Largs Thistle (v Rutherglen Glencairn) also penciled in for later on in the season. It’s a great challenge and I have met some great people doing it, especially at the fantastic club that is Auchinleck Talbot. So, Shaun if you ever read this, cheers for the idea min. The juniors didn’t stop there, once I got the taste for it, I started finding myself heading down the A90 midweek to Dundee and the vicinity to places like Thomson Park of Lochee United, Downfield Park of Downfield, Davie Park of Blairgowrie. I even headed to Foxhall Park in Coupar Angus on a Monday night to witness two of the three* worst Junior teams in Scotland last season do battle. Coupar Angus v Forfar Albion, now that’s dedication. Forfar won 1-0 with a last-minute strike. (*the other of the three being Cruden Bay).
Away from Scotland I had done a few foreign grounds over the years, Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon with the Dons. I had also racked up few English league clubs (they count as foreign), Ninian Park, Old Trafford, The JJB Stadium, St James’ Park all on piss ups with the lads, Craven Cottage as I was visiting a mate and Nottingham Forest as I was nearby with work. But I would not class those times as ground collecting in an “official” sense. The foreign collection started the day after I completed the Highland hike at Dudgeon Park, Brora in November 2016. On arrival back at my house that Saturday I had a quick chipper and a few beers, a few hours kip and up for the six am to Amsterdam as Ajax versus NEC Nijmegen beckoned . This Eredivisie encounter was nicely tied in with a course I was to attend in Essen on the Monday and Tuesday. Due to the proximity I was to visit the Westfallenstadion in Dortmund for a Champions League encounter between Borussia Dortmund and Legia Warsaw. Sutherland to North Holland to North Rhein- Westphallia in four days and I was treated to a 3-3 draw between Brora R*****s and Nairn County, a 5-0 Ajax rout of NEC inclusive of a perfect hattrick from Kasper Dolberg. Then over in Germany, Dortmund threw up and incredible record breaking 8-4 to the hosts which truly was as ridiculous as it sounds. There were twenty-three goals in three games yes and yes it was refreshing that I didn’t have to care about the outcome of the match. I only wanted good football and I can safely say I was treated to two hundred and seventy minutes of just that. Something else I took from it which added to the experience. I spoke to some decent people. It is true that I don’t suffer from any sort of shyness and I will speak to anyone, it’s a trait that comes in handy when travelling. At Dudgeon Park I got speaking to the Chairman of Brora, William Powrie who invited me into the “prawn sandwich” lounge at half time where I was fed and watered with the corporate folks, all free of charge. A gesture that was as much appreciated as it was uncalled for and offered to me as I had travelled from the ‘shire as a neutral. Also, that day I spent the first half chatting to Nairn County and Aberdeen nut and author of Pittodries Silent Assassin, Donald Wilson. A very fine guy whose book sits in my fitba book collection in the book case at the top of my stairs. In Amsterdam you have the Dutch, I think it goes without saying that there are some of the most peaceful and approachable people on earth. Which makes the fact they have one of the worst fitba hooligan problems in Europe surprising. But there I befriended the barmaids in the famous Three Sister pub in Rembrant Square prior to the match, I spoke to Bristol City fans in a bar at the Amsterdam Arena in the lead up to the game and had a few beers over a discussion on Paul Hartley, Jamie McAllister and Derek McInnes who have worked for both clubs in some capacity. They were well accomplished “hoppers” and their stories and list were impressive and did give me ideas. Then when taking refuge at a beer stall from Legia fans spoiling for a tear up outside the Westfallen I got speaking to six Aussie geezers. They had also decided to let the crazed Poles who were spoiling for a fight head off before getting back to the city centre. From there we ended up steaming in a up market strip joint until the early hours. Those few days made me realise that this foreign fitba malarkey was for me. On my return home I was constantly thinking of doing it again. Football, new places, good people, different cultures and copious new beers. What was not to love ?
January 2017, my marriage had collapsed and wasn’t going to fix. What was I to do, sit about and mope about, stewing over the impending shit clouds making their way over me? No chance, my plan was to take a holiday to get away from things and just forget and sample the delights of another country. Ajax and Dortmund had given me a taste for Continental fitba and I fancied a glut. The main question was where could I get such a thing? As it turned out there was one option without heading to the Middle East which wasn’t really an idea I even gave thought to. That better idea being? Hop Suisse! When you think Switzerland, you would automatically associate skiing, chocolate, cuckoo clocks, holey cheese, yodeling and Nazi gold. As it turns out it is hotbed of ultra-fan culture and football hooliganism. But also, the small but vastly wealthy country changed my life forever and quickly established its self as one of my favourite places on earth. This is nothing to do with the fact there are seven hundred plus breweries, well it made it more enticing. Due to midweek Schweizer Pokal games I managed to organize a four game, seven team, five day traipse around the stunning alpine nation. The itinerary was, red eye to Zurich via Amsterdam, one day in Aarau, one day in Basel, two days in the capital Bern and one day in Luzern. It was to be a four game, seven team trip, over two competitions. The Schweizer Pokal was to give me Aarau v Luzern and Basel v FC Zurich and the Swiss Super League was to give me Young Boys Bern v Thun and Luzern v Grasshoppers. Nineteen goals over the four games was the outcome. Aarau 3 – 5 Luzern, Basel 3 -1 FC Zurich, Young Boys 3 – 2 Thun and Luzern 1 – 1 Grasshoppers is what I witnessed, but a lot more came along with it. At Aarau the biblical downpour was to be seen to be believed, the worst I have watched football in. My pint was filling quicker than I could drink it, the Luzern Neptune display with the smoke that followed after the multitude of flares set off, this preventing me from seeing the far goal from my position in the terrace for around five minutes. The Aarau fans (who were dressed awfully like the Klu-Klux Klan) not wanting to be outdone by their derby rivals flaring up significantly. The fact the fans created a fantastic atmosphere and not having their spirits dampened by the monsoon that hit the wide-open Stadion Bruglifeld that night was also an excellent experience. It put Scottish fitba to shame really. Then up at St Jakobs Park in Basel the “we will lift the cup in Bern” display and rocket propelled flares which accompanied when the teams emerged was stunning. Again, like nothing I have seen before and totally legal unlike back home. The Zurich fans unlike Aarau the previous night or their hosts had other ideas than flares. They were there to riot, which they did and then some. Battles with the riot police ensued. The carnage was also something I had never seen before. At the Wankdorf in Bern I saw a two-goal derby deficit overturned by three stunning strikes from the home side then down at the Swissproarena in Luzern I was lucky to be in such a quality ground. A ground which would be an ideal ground to copy for Pittodries unwanted replacement. I was also fortunate to witness the best away fans I have seen and still think so to this day in Grasshoppers. Maybe not so great away from the stadium though as the city centre was shut down and heavily guarded by riot police but what a way to support their boys in the stadium. The trip was not all about the football ball though. Included in the trip was some great food, many new beers, falling in love with Aarau with it becoming my ideal place to retire. I saw an impromptu gig in Bern where I saw local hard rockers Krokus and was almost pickpocketed while doing so. Thankfully a bit of forehead prevention saved me from losing all my money and bank cards halfway through the trip. There was finding all the fountains including the creepy Kindelifresserbrunnen or “child eater” in Bern. There were many more points of interest included throughout, the Basel Minister, Zytglogge, Einsteinhaus, Bernisches Historical Museum being particular favourites. Then there was the obligatory walking taking in the beauty of the spectacular country that is Switzerland. That trip was a major turning point in my life. That’s when I knew watching football was now a fully functional hobby and I was to get abroad as much as I could manage. But it was more than just the ninety minutes. It was the culture, the sightseeing and the making friends and influencing people.
Since that trip I have found traveling Europe watching games at Go Ahead Eagles (my favourite trip to date), Belenenses, Rapid Vienna, AZ Alkmaar, Slavia Prague, Roma/Lazio (I was at the derby), Middlesbrough, Carlisle United, Sporting Lisbon, Atalanta and even Frigg in Oslo who are 3rd tier and many more. I have also been to some of the most iconic grounds in Europe in De Kuip, San Siro and Ernst Happel (0-0 in all three for the record ) The geek in me has now also came out in force where I have a scarf from every foreign ground I have visited which hang proudly in my fitba man cave. Another challenge I have set myself is, I am now trying to get around foreign team for every letter of the alphabet. Only I ,J, K, O,Q, X and Z to go . bring on Željezničar.
I currently sit on fifty grounds abroad (in thirteen countries) and one hundred and one in Scotland. With long distance visits (i.e scarf obtaining) to Dungannon Swifts, Dundalk, Lyon, Accrington Stanley and Cefn Druids not too far away (time not distance) With the closer to home Newmachar United, Islavale, Spartans and my competitive season starter next Saturday at Ogilvy Park for Arbroath Vics v Forfar Albion all booked in for my next two trips home ill be at the two hundred mark before I know it ……………..Bring it on