In the confused gaggle of bibbed players, he instantly stood out. A shock of blond floppy hair charging tirelessly up and down the left wing. With silent, dark determination, he seemed to be taking the seven aside practice match more seriously than his jokey, lackadaisical teammates.
Port Said, February 1, 2012. At the end of the Al Masry - Al Ahly match, hundreds of spectators storm the away stands. In a few minutes the number of dead and dying is in advance of seventy, whist the police stand by and watch.
Dukla Prague sunk after the dissolution of Czechoslovkia and the name all but vanished from the annuals. For years it looked like they would be fondly remembered by fans of Half Man Half Biscuit, those old enough to have seen the likes of the great Josef Masopust and the statisticians amongst us. Football and modernity had sadly passed the giant of old behind.
Last year I was in Ecuador, South America, to spend time with a team called Sociedad Deportiva Aucas. Founded in 1945, and originally owned by oil company Royal Dutch Shell, financial troubles have cost them dearly in recent years, resulting in a dramatic fall from grace.
To the outsider, Africa is a complex dichotomy, a region where the joyful expressions of tradition and culture take place amid the reality of dire poverty and chronic malnutrition. Home to over one billion people and thus resistant to easy generalisations, Africa is often referred to as the birthplace of humanity, but viewed as a neglected suburb of the modern world.
There is a wonderfully old-fashioned documentary that can be found on the footballing treasure-trove, YouTube, that shows what looks like a near-empty Wembley Stadium hosting the FA Trophy final in 1980.
So dwarfed is the crowd by the giant old stadium, it is hard to believe from the evidence of "Mossley Goes to Wembley" that on 17th May that year practically the whole population of a Pennine mill-town had descended upon the capital to watch their Northern Premier League champions take on Dagenham.
Mossley lies on the traditional borders of three counties: Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire, approximately nine miles from Manchester. It is home to around 10,000 people, countless sheep and the "Lilywhites", Mossley AFC.
Just as Wembley must be a daunting place for all players to visit the first time round, Mossley's humble home, Seel Park, also has an unforgiving presence in its own way. The ground is perched upon the top of a hill, in "Top Mossley". One side of the ground, opposite the main stand, has a small terrace with a roof. Behind that is an open aspect and a sheer drop to the railway lines and "Bottom Mossley" in the valley below. Over the years there must have been a heavy cost in spare footballs.
Such geography leaves Seel Park exposed to the worst examples of the weather patterns that the surrounding moors attract. The conditions during winter months may have had some bearing on the outcome of home matches during the late 1970s and early 1980s "glory years" of the club, but it was clear that the management team had also built a powerful non-league side. It was a period that saw Mossley AFC win the Northern Premier League title twice and finish runners-up three times.
But the crowning moment of this regal era was the FA Trophy cup-run and trip to Wembley in 1980. "Big" John Salter signed for Mossley from Southport for £1000 in 1979. He is remembered as an instant success and was a powerful and commanding centre-half who played in the Wembley final:
"We set off on the Wednesday before the final and headed for a hotel at Watford Gap. We had a good card school on the way down, me, Leo (Skeete), Mooresy (David Moore) and Kevin Keelan. I think I lost my bonus for the final on the way down!"
How much that bonus was has been lost with the passage of time, although there is a section of the documentary where the manager, Bob Murphy, mentions that he is negotiating a bonus for the players. After questioning by the interviewer and a pause for thought, he said "I think they should get £100."
Murphy had built his side around striker Leo Skeete, who spent seven years at Mossley beginning with a loan spell from Rochdale in 1974. This was cemented on a full time basis in 1975, along with a job at the local engineering company Weldem Ltd, which was owned by the club's owners.
Skeete was a charismatic figure who would go on to score 174 goals in 350 games for the club. He broke numerous post-war scoring records in individual seasons, and scooped player of the year awards.
Along with a free-scoring bunch of forwards, consisting of David Moore, Eammon O’Keeffe and Ian Smith, Murphy and Skeete were to lead Mossley to the very top of non-league football. The humble Seel Park (not deemed to be league standard) seemingly the only barrier to further successes. The little ground held the club back from promotion to the newly formed Alliance Premier Football League (the precursor to the Football Conference) in 1979.
With back-to-back Northern Premier League titles in 1979 and 1980, the team were at their peak.
As if to underline the strength of this side, Mossley faced Altrincham in the third round of their FA Trophy march to Wembley. Altrincham happened to be one of the sides who did take up a place in the new Alliance Premier Football League and actually sat at the top of that division at the time of the Trophy match. Mossley brushed them aside with ease, winning 5-1.
John Salter put much of this success down to the hard work of the manager, who had arranged for training sessions to take place at a school local to the team hotel in preparation for the final:
"Bob Murphy was a very thorough man. He had scouts watching Dagenham for weeks and he had us training on the Thursday and Friday, using the school's facilities. It was very intense."
There was some tension amongst the team, though, which forced the lid off the pressure cooker once or twice.
"We had worked on set pieces in training and the on the Friday night, the night before the final, we had a team meeting. Things didn’t go down well with Bob and Leo - I can't remember exactly what was said between the two - but it ended with Leo storming out. He was a bit like that, Leo. He always had something to say - but he was a great captain and a leader.
"Saturday arrived and things had settled down from the night before - Leo and Bob were buzzing. Off to Wembley!"
Arriving at 1.30pm, the team headed straight for the changing rooms for massages and warm ups. A bizarre moment is captured on the 'Mossley Goes to Wembley' film, where Bob Murphy enquires, "No toilet, John? Have you been?" Salter sheds some light on that incident:
"I do seem to recall having a problem with frequenting the toilet a lot before matches! Bob mentioned it in the team talk before the match - I think it was a nervous thing I had!"
It was forgotten, though, when "We walked out on to the great Wembley pitch. The hairs definitely stood up on the back of my neck."
Dagenham began the match much brighter: no signs of nerves from their players, and despite the goalkeeping heroics of John Fitton, Mossley fell behind to a goal scored by George Duck.
"We didn't really create much in that first half," Salter states. "We arrived back to the changing rooms to be greeted by a rather distraught manager. He gave us what I would say equates to Fergie's hair-dryer treatment and we came out second half a different team. Mossley on top, we got the equaliser through Ian Smith. A brilliant headed goal from, I think, a Phil Wilson cross. He came on for Mooresy at half time, he made a big impression when he came on."
With the sides locked at 1-1, and the clock running down, disaster struck for Salter and Mossley.
"Their midfielder, Chris Maycock I think, received the ball on the edge of our box and turned me. He hit a low shot into the bottom corner. Gutted."
There was still time for some late drama as Keelan headed a header down from another Wilson cross.
The old adage is to always try and head the ball down - on this particular occasion, the header was so powerful, it flew straight back up and, as Salter put it, the ball "bounced agonisingly over the crossbar, our last chance. Game over. Mossley 1 Dagenham 2 - not one of my better games for Mossley, I must admit. That I do."
Despite the disappointment of the loss, the whole town returned home and took to the streets the next day to welcome home their heroes back. The team embarked on an open top bus parade and a civic reception was held.
Photographs exist of Salter brandishing a cardboard cut-out of the FA Trophy handed to him by a supporter, of a team bus besieged by well-wishers and a town in the mood to party. The mayor spoke in glowing terms about what the team's exploits meant to Mossley.
Unfortunately, the club would never reach such dizzy heights again, but that small taste still lingers on the lips of the inhabitants of the town.
My own grandfather was a Mossley supporter all his life. Some years ago, on my grandparent's golden wedding anniversary - held at the club, naturally - the pair were presented with golden season tickets in recognition of their long support, giving free entry to future matches.
He whispered - not quietly enough - that for years, his friend on the turnstiles had been letting him in for free in any event! (He did make up for this in bar sales.) You could tell, though, that this was still a touching and proud moment for him and highlighted the close-knit community spirit that still exists between the people of Mossley and their football club, but even that could not top the memory of the day that the whole of Mossley went to Wembley.
There aren't many bandanas around Birmingham these days but in the summer of 1995 they were all the rage.
At the end of the 2011/12 campaign Leeds-born Lloyd Sam found himself without a club after being released by his hometown side at the end of his contract. Having spent part of the season at Notts County - and becoming a hit with the Magpies faithful - Sam issued a 'come and get me' plea to then County manager Keith Curle. Although he would have loved the pacey winger to head to the midlands, Curle concluded that his small budget made any move unlikely.
As Sam waited patiently for a move to materialise and trained with Portsmouth to maintain his fitness levels, a call came from an unlikely source: New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer. Sam was invited to the city that never sleeps for a trial.
Initially unsure about uprooting to the United States of America, he was persuaded to grasp this opportunity with both hands by former Red Bulls striker Luke Rodgers, who refers to his time at the Red Bull Arena as "the happiest I have been in football". After impressing in a reserve team match against DC United, Sam was offered a contract for the remainder of the 2012 season in August and officially signed a day later.
The winger, raised in London, has had a decent career thus far. Coming through the youth ranks at Charlton Athletic, he signed his first professional contract in 2003 before gaining a small amount of first team experience on loan at Leyton Orient in early 2004. The following season Alan Curbishley handed Sam his Charlton debut on the final day of the Premier League season against Crystal Palace.
He featured a further nine times at England's highest level between 2005 and 2007, with loan moves at Sheffield Wednesday and Southend United in between during the 2006/07 season. However, Sam was given his opportunity to shine the following season under Iain Dowie after the Addicks suffered relegation from the Premier League. He featured regularly as Charlton were relegated once again - this time to League One - in 2009, before playing a key part during the 2009/10 season as the Londoners suffered defeat in the play-offs at the hands of Swindon Town.
During his time at Charlton Sam featured for England Under-20s before switching allegiance to Ghana, his parents' place of birth. Having been called up to the full squad in 2010 for a friendly played at Leyton Orient, Sam had to withdraw from the squad due to injury.
After failing to secure a new contract at the Valley following their play-off failure, Leeds United came calling and Sam returned to his place of birth. Over the course of his debut season, the winger started to forge himself a regular place in the first eleven at Elland Road before a recurring leg injury caused him to miss large chunks of the 2010/11 campaign. Sam struggled to regain his place in the team the following season and joined Notts County in March 2012.
Sam blossomed at Meadow Lane, scoring five times in ten appearences including a hat-trick against Yeovil Town. After being released by Leeds, Sam was weighing up a couple of offers on home soil before the Red Bulls came calling.
After joining up with his new team-mates Sam found himself thrust into action almost immediately, making his debut as a substitute on August 29th 2012 in a 2-2 draw against DC United. His first start came exactly a month later in a 4-1 victory over Toronto FC, contributing in Red Bulls' second goal as he threaded a neat through ball through to Thierry Henry, who teed up Kenny Cooper for a simple tap-in.
The Englishman's season was over a month later as he started in Red Bulls' 0-0 draw with Sporting Kansas City but was withdrawn in the 77th minute with a suspected knee injury, later revealed to be posterior cruciate ligament damage.
Despite his limited playing time during the 2012 season, Sam impressed the Red Bulls support with his pace and energetic displays and was rewarded with a new contract in January. It was revealed by Red Bulls sporting director, Andy Roxburgh, that he would be fit for pre-season.
Sam was indeed fit for pre-season but newly appointed head coach, Mike Petke, felt that the winger was not working hard enough in training to merit a place in the matchday squads. Petke stated that Sam needed to improve his fitness and mentality levels to stand any chance of breaking into the squad.
He eventually made his first appearance of the season as a late substitute in the 1-0 defeat at Montreal Impact and also gained a little pitch time in the following games against Philadelphia Union and Chicago Fire. However, he was an unused substitute in the following two games and questions were starting to be asked by the Red Bulls faithful.
Up to this point in the season the Red Bulls' form had been patchy at best, with many claiming their attack had become one dimensional and predictable. This prompted many fans and local media to question why Petke was continually overlooking Sam when it was starting to become clear that the side was crying out for his pace. Petke finally relented and threw the winger on midway through the second half in a 4-1 victory over New England Revolution. The move was praised; Sam earned positive reviews for his performance.
A week later he was handed his first start for six months in a 2-1 victory at BMO Field against Toronto FC. Sam put in a decent performance and was evidently overjoyed at making the starting eleven.
Dropping back to the bench for the 1-0 and 2-1 victories over Columbus Crew and Montreal Impact respectively, a potential turning point in the career of Lloyd Sam came as he made the starting eleven in May against New England Revolution.
New England took the lead in the 54th minute through Diego Fagundez. Just a minute later, The Red Bulls had levelled the score through Sam's first goal for the New Yorkers. Picking the ball up just inside the penalty area from an Andre Akpan pass, Sam controlled it with his left foot, poked it forward with his right before drilling a low angled shot past Revs goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth.
Understandably delighted to net his first MLS goal, Sam stated in the following days that he finally felt he was moving in the right direction. With his fitness levels returning to where Petke had demanded they be, and with the games coming thick and fast as NYRB sit pretty at the top of the Eastern Conference, Sam may well find himself becoming a real star at Red Bull Arena as the countdown to the playoffs begins.
You can follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_ward84
(Photograph by Paul Lowry via Flickr)
When people think of sport in Neath - a historic Welsh Roman fortress town situated not ten miles from Swansea - they would be inclined to think of the rugby team, steeped in history with its plethora of international stars such as Jonathan Davies, Paul Thorburn and Scott Gibbs.
Albania has, for all of its footballing history, been a minnow, never qualifying for the finals of a major tournament once, or really ever coming close for that matter. Their largest margin of victory was a 5-0 result against Asian also-rans Vietnam in a friendly in 2003.
As the Portuguese Primeira Liga drew to a close at the weekend, all eyes were understandably on Benfica and Porto as they battled it out for the League Championship and, for the latter, the enviable record of enduring the season without defeat.
The withdrawal symptoms from the lack of A-League football have already started to kick and we still have another four and a half months of the offseason to go.
The British Asian community’s reputation as a production line for professional footballers is roughly as well established as England’s reputation for producing elite footballers who fare well when plying their trade beyond these shores. In other words, there’s not a great tradition of either.
Irrespective of region, culture or history, it’s one of football’s constants. The meeting of two teams sharing a common catchment area can act as the ultimate source of pride or shame. Those 90 minutes alone have the power to overshadow an otherwise positive season, or redeem one otherwise nondescript.
February 2008: the Brighton Bandits go to Nottingham for a Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN) national league match against the Nottingham Ballbois. It’s a long trip – 150 miles each way.
While South Americans have dominated Spanish soccer for decades, much rarer is the successful player from the Northern half of the hemisphere. For every successful Mexican like Hugo Sanchez and Rafa Marquez, a disappointing Omar Bravo returns home with his tail firmly tucked between his legs.
Earlier this year, fans not just of Juventus, but of Italian football in general took a moment to remember the sad passing of the inimitable Gianni Agnelli. January represented the tenth anniversary of that fateful day, and Juventini everywhere recalled their greatest memories of perhaps the most charismatic President a club could ever dream of having.
There is one thing that Dayton offers the soccer community that very few -- if any -- other city can.
When the British Army launched its great Somme offensive in the summer of 1916, few people could have envisaged the devastation battle would bring. The opening day alone saw British casualties of almost 60,000 and by the time the slaughter had ground to a bloody halt in the November mud, Britain and her dominions had lost a staggering 400,000 men.
Besides ‘Nessum Dorma’ and Gazza’s tears, the 1990 World Cup is probably best remembered as the tournament so dull and so cynical that it drove FIFA to introduce the back-pass rule. But like any modern World Cup, the finals of the 1990 edition were merely the tip of the iceberg, with its 52 matches and 24 participants dwarfed by the schedule of fixtures contested by 114 countries across the globe over 19 months during the qualifying competitions.