Saturday, 20 August 2011

Two days in London

Last month we were on our travels to London. The main event that led us to getting a plane to Heathrow was Fulham Vs Crusaders at Craven Cottage but we decided to make a little bit of a holiday around it. So here are some photos from the couple of days we visited the capital of England at the end of July.

London Panorama

After our flight to Heathrow we bought an Oyster card each and topped then up before taking the tube into the centre of London. After getting off at Covent Garden tube station, without realising it at the time (and unfortunately for me, as it was my idea - I honestly thought I could hear the street above) we took the stairs... all 193 of them. It turns out it's one of the deepest London Underground stations... and unsurprisingly, it has many stairs to climb - only really beaten by Hampstead Tube station having over 320. With bags on our backs that contained clothes for 4 days, it wasn't the easiest climb. Half way up I think I may have sold it to Norngirl as an alternative gym workout, she wasn't impressed.

Once we'd had breakfast in a cafe opposite Drury Lane Theatre and had a look around some shops we got some cupcakes and headed back on the tube to the V&A Museum of Childhood. Before we went in we sat in the park next to it and ate our goodies. Mine being a nommy chocolate number that didn't taste as much of glitter as it looked, indeed it was quite delicious.

Chocolate rose cupcake

It was then into the museum which was free and we headed to a section that had games you can play. We rewrote the rules for snakes and ladders but had fun playing anyway before looking around the rest of the various toys, games, activities and displays.

V&A Childhood Museum building

Most of the toys were in glass cases but it was fun to see some toys we'd forgotten existed from our childhoods though I was disappointed after seeing things like the Turtles and Sooty that there were no Manta Force toys, I used to love those! The mechanical toys section was pretty cool though and I finally got to see the boxes/put names to some of the toys and bits of plastic we used to get given to play with at primary school.

Once we'd relived some of our childhood it was then back on the tube to go take a look at the already famous construction site of the Shard, one of the new skyscrapers to have popped up around London.

The Shard under construction

From the bus station at the base of the Shard, we went for a walk down past the Scoop at MoreLondon. Personally I thought it seemed like quite a depressingly corporate part of town given the cultural highlights of a performance going on in the Scoop and the River with HMS Belfast floating not so far away from Tower Bridge.

MoreLondon Buildings Panorama

The buildings, as shiny as they are, each looked quite dark and cold, reflecting the overcast day above them. It was also hard to miss the depressed looking office workers walking out of them with sullen looks on their faces trying to find a spot to sit to eat their lunch.

To be honest the Tower of London looked more inviting.

Tower of London and River Thames

We were soon at Tower Bridge and I was competing with the other tourists in taking some pictures of the Bridge and the skyline.

London's Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge Close up

Lunch was a trip to a Mexican fast food place for Burritos and Tacos. It was then on to Fulham to the hotel before heading out to sample what the Fulham and Putney Bridge areas had to offer. After a drink on Fulham's North End Road, we headed down to Putney Bridge itself.

Putney Bridge

A meal south of the river in a Weatherspoons, we headed on to the football match.

The next day we woke up to a brighter Friday morning. First port of call was a tour of BBC television centre.

BBC Television Centre

There we got a great insight into how things like the news and weather are produced, the layout of the building and where the guest stars of BBC shows get to stay. The best bit for me was seeing one of Kryton's heads from Red Dwarf and a Tardis from Dr Who.

Dr Who Tardis

Tripod at the BBC

After the tour we headed down to St Paul's Cathedral where we had a walk around the building.

St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul's Cathedral seagull on a statue

Front of St Paul's Cathedral

It was then time to head to One New Change a relatively new shopping centre that opened in October 2010.

One New Change building

The thing that took us there, other than it appearing on 'The Apprentice' TV show, was the roof terrace that is open to the public which gives a great view of the surrounding area.

One New Change terrace panorama

We had some nice pies from the fast food place 'Eat' and sat in the sun eating them and trying to find on our phones a new plan for the afternoon.

We didn't really have one when we headed to get some essentials like a razor (the problem of only having hand luggage on a plane), after that little bit of shopping we just headed west, the plan was to find a pub and work from there. Instead I found a sign for the Museum of London. Wires slightly crossed, I ended up leading us towards the Museum. Norngirl realised this before me and so we stood debating what the heck we were doing next. As it became clear a pub indeed was a priority I got rather lucky in that when we turned around we'd been stood right outside a bar - the Lord Raglan. We went inside and I bought Norngirl a London Pride as a peace offering.

Lord Raglan Pub Sign

In the end we decided to give the Museum of London a try, after all it was free. It turned out to be an enjoyable visit and I learnt a lot about London, especially how the settlement developed and how the various parts of London merged to be the megacity it is.

Another tube ride and we were back in Fulham getting dolled up for the night. We'd booked some tickets to go to see the musical Wicked as Norngirl really wanted to see it and I was curious as to what the hype was all about. We headed to the theatre and picked up our tickets before a quick visit to a supermarket to pick up some snacks and sandwiches to eat before we headed to the show. A pint of ale in a nearby pub later and we headed back to find our seats.

Little mini binoculars purchased we watched the show, and you know what, quite a show it was! There aren't as many individually great stand alone songs as you'd get in something like Les Misérables but in terms of a spectacle it was brilliant. It had a great use of the stage and stage effects and some really strong voices. Oddly the peak of the show came with 'Defying Gravity' which is sung as the pre interval crescendo. It was a great plot and show and if you get chance to see it, I have to warn you that you'll never watch The Wizard of Oz in the same way again... in a good way though!

A slight mishap with tube stops resolved by a short walk and we'd got back to Fulham a little late for a meal in a restaurant so we headed out for what turned out to be a Subway and Dominos.

We had a great time in London but it was bedtime and we got some rest to be ready to travel to Cardiff the next day... though we didn't set off the next day until we took a slight detour to take a look at Stamford Bridge.

Stamford bridge Panorama

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Crusaders FC vs Fulham - Home and Away

Just hours before Crusaders FC were to take on Fulham in the Europa League 2nd Qualifying Round, 1st leg, it finally sunk in that our beloved semi pro team on the Shore Road were going to be pitting their resolve and skills against the pressures, athleticism and fitness of a fully pro mid table English Premier League side. It was a two legged tie between English Premier League and Irish Premier League - Elite Professionals vs Part Time Semi-professionals.

Fulham Freekick

The first leg was at the newly revamped Seaview Stadium. It was Crusaders first competitive game of the season and the anticipation and excitement of a Premier League team coming to Belfast had the crowd really up for the game. And it really was a Premier League Fulham side that was fielded - not just a reserve team.

Crues Vs Fulham lineup

Up front were Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora, a midfield of Damien Duff, Danny Murphy, Kerim Frei (reserve team player) and Dickson Etuhu. In defence, Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes, Matthew Briggs (another reserve player breaking through) and to complete the outfield line-up, one of the best defenders in the Premiership - Brede Hangeland. Just when you think that's probably enough, in goal was Austrailian international goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. A subs bench featuring Philippe Senderos, David Stockdale, Stephen Kelly and Steve Sidwell was also a little daunting.

To put the strength of that side in context - 8 out of the 11 that were on from the kick off at Seaview also started in Hamburg when Fulham played Atlético Madrid in the Europa League final in 2010.

The Crues were up against it... especially when you consider the fact that 3 of our first team were unavailible; Chris Morrow and Declan Caddell through injury and Colin Coates through suspension.

We had called into the social club before the game and so found the now all seater stadium pretty much full up and an eagerly anticipating crowd awaiting the start of the game.

Football head mascot.

The ground was looking great and the scene set for a memorable evening of football at Seaview.

Crusaders playing Fulham at Seaview

Seaview Construct Stand

Before the action started the 2 new stands were opened by well known supporters and a plethora of balloons released into the evening sky.

Opening of new stands at Seaview

After the now traditional line of handshaking by the players and officials and a brief pause to kick off on time for the TV cameras it was all down to the players on the pitch  - and for the Crues, some of those players had only finished their day jobs hours before the game, about to take on a fully rested Fulham side whose starting line up's combined wages for just a week or two would likely fund the entirety of an Irish League club's existence for a year or more.

Players and Mascots shake hands

Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora kick off

Here are the highlights from the 1st leg:

As you can see in the highlights, it wasn't all one way traffic. Six minutes before half time the Crues went a goal down to a great finish by Briggs but in the 2nd half, rather than roll over, the Crues came out and pressed, it paid dividends for on 54 minutes, Timmy Adamson looped and twisted his way past Aaron Hughes just enough to get a shot in which pinged in off the post. I don't think I've been happier about a goal since Mark Dickson scored the winner in the 2009 Irish cup final, or the Jermaine Beckford goals scored for Leeds against Man United in the FA Cup and another against Bristol Rovers that won Leeds promotion back to the Championship.

With nothing to lose the Crues went on the attack again, Stuart Dallas breezed his way into the box but a split moment before being able to release the ball was struck with cramp, before succumbing to it he was able to lay the ball into the path of Adamson again who struck the ball at the net.  Schwarzer beaten, it was like watching in slow motion to see where the ball would go. Sadly on this occasion the ball hit the crossbar and flew back into play, the chance had gone but we'll all remember the time the Crues had the Fulham first team and the crossbar shaken.

That shake was a wake up call though and the Fulham players began to raise their game. We knew set pieces were going to be a problem given Hangerland tends to get on the end of corners against English Premier League opposition and at 1.94m tall dwarfed even our tallest striker Jordan Owens who was given the unenviable task of trying to mark him in those instances. In the end, it was Bobby Zamora who got onto the end of a Damien Duff corner to force the ball home with a powerful header. The game was then put to bed by the pros when Danny Murphy stepped up to put a penalty into the bottom corner of the net after an unlucky handball in the box by Paul Leeman.

In the last 10 minutes the Crues were hanging on but that was understandable given the fact our players have day jobs that don't involve preparing to play football.

Crusaders and Fulham players after the game

We stayed long enough after the final whistle to see a few interviews being performed on the pitch - including a slightly relieved looking Martin Jol talking to the cameras.

Martin Jol talks to the press

A 1-3 loss at full time doesn't sound like much success but considering that Fulham with a similar side beat Sunderland 0-3 away in the premier league earlier this year and in domestic cups, swept aside lower league opposition, we were very proud of our side's achievement of not being overwhelmed. For 70 minutes they were able to give the multimillionaires of the Fulham side a run for their money.

Fast forward a week and it was the 21st July, the date for the away leg.

Outside the ground at Fulham vs Crusaders FC

After a long day sightseeing in the centre of London, we made it to Fulham, got checked into our then headed out for food and drink. Time flew and before we knew it we were walking with the crowds through Bishops Park towards Craven Cottage.

Outside it was great to see so many Crues fans had also made the journey and that there was no segregation, home and away fans just mingling outside the ground like at Seaview the week before. I bought my programme and we found our entrance. I got searched twice, once either side of the turnstile which was novel but the security were polite and friendly. The stand we were in was the Johnny Haynes stand (formerly the Stevenage Road Stand), the structure according to the Fulham site is a grade 2 listed building. Once we'd got sorted, had a look around and Norngirl had got her coffee, we headed up into the stand.

The Cottage

It wasn't really the same instant impressive sight that you'd get walking out at say Elland Road or The City of Manchester Stadium but it was nice to be walking out into a top flight football league ground once again. I'd never been to Craven Cottage before so it was all new to me (except what I'd seen on TV) and I was intrigued to see the Cottage itself which sits in the corner of the ground. It kind of reminded me of the control tower that used to sit in the corner at Highbury, but of course much more historic and pleasant on the eye.

The view from the Johnny Haynes stand

The view from our seats was ok but we couldn't even see the top of the end stands so it made it feel quite contained and closed off from the rest of the ground. The view we had of one of the penalty boxes was obscured by one of the stand's roof supports which is understandable (as many grounds have the same problem) but it does make watching the goal mouth action that little bit more frustrating compared to the clear unobstructed views of most modern stands. I did like the wooden seats, not the most comfortable but not the worst I've ever sat on given that their design is at least 100 years old and people on average were smaller back then.

The compact nature of the stand however did seem to add to the noise we were generating and the whole game long there was barely a moment that the Crues support didn't sing.

Fulham Vs Crusaders July 2011

Once the game itself kicked off, it was as expected a little more one sided than our home leg. The first half had few chances really, Fulham had a lot of possession and went ahead after 18 minutes through Andrew Johnson who burst through the defence to slot home. Fulham should have gone further ahead through Steve Sidwell but he put his chance wide and then for the Crues Timmy Adamson got a little too much on our best chance and put it over the bar.

Crusaders Corner against Fulham July 2011

The 2nd half started well, the Crues got forward a couple of times but up against a strong defence it was hard for the Crues to form any clear cut chances though. Once Fulham had their 2nd goal though  it was one way traffic for a good 15 minutes and this resulted in 2 more goals, Fulham winning the game 4-0 and the tie 7-1 on aggregate.

As the teams headed off the pitch, spirits were still high and we sang our side off with the verve you'd expect from a support who had just seen their side win. If you'd just entered the ground 30 seconds after the final whistle and didn't know the score you'd probably have thought Fulham had lost. As it was, being there and competing against the likes of a Premier League side was a level of success everyone at Crusaders was proud of, including manager Stephen Baxter who came into the stand to join us. We didn't expect to get a positive result from either game, we just hoped the side would do us proud and they did. 7 against over 2 legs given the calibre of player Martin Jol fielded wasn't too bad and best of all we had our memorable moment with our goal and knowledge that we didn't just sit back for 180 minutes, that was worth cheering.

Here are the highlights from the 2nd Leg:

Walking in the crowd through Bishops Park

As we headed back in the dark through Bishops Park we could look back on a memorable couple of games and hope, that if the Crues can continue to do well domestically, that there could be the possibility of more chances to play against sides from the big leagues in the future.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

My IFA Premiership Predictions for the 2011-12 Season.

Today sees the start of the new domestic football season in Northern Ireland, at 3pm the 2011/12 season IFA Premiership kicks off - just for fun and to keep a record of how bad my predictions can be, I'm joining Alex Gulranjani in putting my predictions out there in a bit more detail than I would on ILS Forums. Here are my thoughts on what to expect from the clubs involved:

Linfield. The current reigning champions are firm favourites for the title once again. Linfield's main advantage is that they have the funds to keep a large squad of good players whereas other teams can't afford to keep the same calibre of reserve players on their books. Over the course of a season that tends to win the league. There is little point discussing anything else about them except to expect a little more flair on show this season compared to last given the additions to the squad with it's improved attacking options – Rory Patterson and Daryl Fordyce spring to mind. If Linfield play to their potential, it's going to take something truly special to snatch the title from under their noses.

Crusaders. The Crues begin the season with high expectations but they're not just wishful thinking. The main weakness in the squad last season was a lack of cover in defence and a goalie who was down on confidence – both issues have been addressed. Like last season, the goals are unlikely to be hard to come by, an attack minded and hard working midfield combined with the clinical finishing of Timmy Adamson who has been added to the side could potentially see the Crues exceed last seasons impressive goal tally. The biggest improvement for the Crues though is in defence. Paul Leeman has been brought in and gives new options, combined with Sean O'Neill in goal, the goals against should hopefully come down. If anyone is going to push the Blues it's looking likely it'll be the Crues.

Glentoran. Since last season the Glens have added a few new faces but have also let a couple of experienced players leave and it'll be touch and go whether they can muster the fire power to keep up with the Blues and the Crues. The defence looks steady enough but it'll have to be a solid team effort in putting the ball in the back of the net if the likes of Andy Waterworth and Darren Boyce don't deliver. Seemingly a reason why Scott Young has let Gary Hamilton back in from the cold just in time for the start of the season. If no one can step up to the plate, there are a few other teams who might be hot on the Glens heels for a top 3 finish and realistically I could see them finishing 4th or 5th because so many sides have improved their attacking credentials. With the pressure off for once though, discount them at your peril.

Cliftonville. After what really has been bit of a slump the last couple of years after such a promising season in 06/07, the Reds will be up for breaking back into the top 3. Up front Cliftonville go into the season with some great attacking options after the addition of Martin Donnelly and Joe Gormley and will be full of confidence. Like Crusaders, goals will not be the problem, strength and depth in defence will be the making between challenging at the top or just riding out the season at the top end of mid table.

Coleraine. Without seeing them play and with such a revamped squad it's hard to know what they're capable of or if they'll gel. Potentially, on paper at least, Coleraine could be the wildcard in a challenge for a top 4 place. Up front they've potentially plenty of goals in Leon Knight and Curtis Allen. With the personnel changes and uncertainty of recent months, a lot will come down to whether Oran Kearney can instil enough team spirit to have the side work together to provide the service required to their tricky two up front. If they can gel quickly I can see it being a very good season for them, if things aren't looking good by January it could be a case of going back to the pick and mix counter.

Portadown. The general feeling is that the Ports, like last season, will easily make the top 6.
Personally, I think that this season they'll be pushed all the way to do that. I think their hopes will rest on the shoulders of Jamie Tomelty and Matthew Tipton to give the sturdy side a little bit of spark. It just seems Portadown have stood still whilst others have made their moves so I'm thinking if the new look Glenavon, Ballymena and Coleraine's gambles pay off, the Ports may be playing catch up.

Glenavon. I have a good feeling about Glenavon and I can't quite place it. No one seems to be expecting much from Marty Quinn's team but they've got some players now in place in some of the key areas where they were underachieving last year. Though their defence doesn't fill me with confidence their midfield looks good. The likes of Peter McCann and Alan Davidson and by all accounts David Magee too, will be a handful. Up front, former Ballymena striker Kevin Kelbie should be the sort of player Glenavon really need as he has proven he can score from pretty much anywhere and against anyone in this league - a match winner. I think that this season they can secure a top 6 finish if their core players can stay fit. The only glaring problem being that from an outside perspective there isn't really a plan B if things don't work out.

Ballymena United. I think Ballymena might be one for a cup this season. The side looks to have plenty of goals in it and I think they'll be much more creative with the addition of Allan Jenkins and Alan Teggart. Combined with Costello and McCutcheon up front it and very little expectation, it might just play into their favour for one off games. Though the side still doesn't seem strong enough to push for a top 4 finish, I reckon they'll ride it out in mid table and give a good account of themselves in the cup competitions.

Lisburn Distillery. The Whites go into a season with nothing much to lose. Distillery have had the uncertainty of a CVA pending the sale of their ground since 2010 and obviously have had to cut their cloth accordingly in terms of wages. I think they will be unlikely to make the top six this season though I can see them still giving sides a good game. For that reason I don't think they'll be caught in the net of relegation prospects. Expectations seem to be resting with attacking midfielder Jordan Hughes who impressed Crues fans at the end of last season when he ran at the defence to score a consolation for Distillery.

Carrick Rangers. Newly promoted, the surviving members of the side will be on a high. With that element of the unknown too, they might just provide a surprise package and join in the mid table shuffle. I haven't seen enough of them to make a reasoned judgement but going by the rumour that they could spend in January if needed, well that makes them less likely to be relegation fodder. They seem to be similar in depth to DC and I can see them maybe finding it hard going towards the end of the season. Though they might be caught up in a relegation battle I think they'll be OK in the end.

Dungannon Swifts. The Swifts look to be flying a little bit light this season. Whether its financial pressures or the introduction of the salary cap at play, their squad is looking a little thin. Dermot McCaffrey has stayed and so will be their threat from set pieces but other than that it's not looking great. Either the Swifts will get lucky with players stepping up a level, riding out the season in mid table with hard work and team spirit, or, alternatively they'll be sucked into the possibility of relegation.

Donegal Celtic. DC struggled last season due to their defence, 89 goals against was the worst in the league yet they managed to score more than 6 of the 10 teams above them. Even with the arrival of Johnny Harkness, With so few defensive options it looks like it will once again be down to Paul McVeigh and an attack minded midfield to bail them out of the relegation boat. Treading such a fine line, I'd say they would be favourites for last place.

I could be right, I'll probably be wrong but whatever the outcome it'll undoubtedly be another great ride following our local teams. If you're not a regular at your local club, give it a try, you might just be surprised at the entertainment on offer :)

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The rest of our Mallorca trip.

Following the beginning of the week where we realised our inability to relax which was then followed by some fun days out where we realised we could relax, the rest of our week in Mallorca was at a leisurely pace.

Acorn in the Sea

Here is a photo heavy guide to the rest of our trip.

As well as the tranquil views from our balcony...

Tranquil Mallorca

We spent the days after our day trip relaxing at the beach:

Rocks by the beach

And by the pool:

Round pool

We also visited Alcudia old town again:

Alcudia panorama

A tourist shop in Alcudia

Tight streets of Alcudia

And this time we went for a walk on the walls.

Walking on the walls of Alcudia

The walls gave a good vantage point to scope out the rest of the area.

Alcudia walls panorma

View from the walls of Alcudia

Alcudia walls

We were looking for a supermarket at the time but what we did find was this water tower looking thing which was kinda cool.

At the bottom of the garden

We did venture out and made it to the quieter end of the port of Alcuida again looking for souvenirs.

Port de Alcudia harbour and beach

Port de Alcudia sandy beach

A couple of days before they were building up for the Ironman but the most exertion we expelled was to sip some hot drinks like this lovely Rooiboss.

Mallorca Ironman 2011

Rooiboss in Alcudia

We also spent a fair bit of time on evenings at the bar. Our laptop power cable had given up on us so we couldn't continue to watch How I Met Your Mother so we made the most of the hotels entertainment as well as inventing our own such as the Elephant trunk pump 'high five' secret handshake.

Elephant bump five

We also headed out and took in a bit of the local nature in Alcanada.

Hiding Fish

Sea Bird

Isla Aucanada Panorama

Isla Aucanada

Washed up seaweed in Alcanada

Alcanada evening sky

On the last day we found a new addiction; the hotels' Spa. The jets and jacuzzi bits of the pool were great and after going once we got the feel for it and spent most of the afternoon there too until we'd gone all wrinkly.

Eurovision at the hotel

Then that night we sat down with people from several places in Europe to watch Eurovision. Blue were pants but then so were a lot of the acts. In the end I think we went away happiest with the result because the UK didn't come last :)

Overall, Mallorca was a great place to visit, I could see how it could be a horror story in places we were not staying but where we went and what we found to do was better than most islands I've visited in the Med. In the end it did turn out to be relaxing and a good place to unwind and it's certainly on a list of places I wouldn't mind returning to at some point in the future.


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