If you’re a bit of a football obsessive but it’s winter and you live in a country which takes a three-month break from the game, one thing you can do to relieve those occasional withdrawal symptoms is go on the internet and read about someone else’s match-going experiences.
There are countless websites which will cater for you, but I will name two I rather like. Tim’s 92 is a lovingly-compiled written and photographic record of visits to England’s 92 league grounds and beyond, while, more locally to my home in Slovakia, Kde je Stadion also features some excellent photography in detailing trips to lower-league Moravian grounds.
But none have quite the exuberance, self-awareness or all-round good humour of the European Football Weekends site, which recently posted a typically upbeat farewell message. To say I was sorry to read this and that I will miss finding new articles on EFW is absolutely not a criticism of its founder’s decision to hang up his keyboard. When you write for nothing but love, and others – up to 10,000 apparently - get to enjoy your work free of charge, you don’t owe anyone a cent.
That said, I do think EFW was doing itself a disservice with some self-deprecating lines in ‘The Last Post’. Much of EFW was about people getting together with football as the backdrop. I can accept that, on the surface, there’s nothing terribly literary in that, but there was certainly plenty of fun in the shape of experiences most of us can relate to; witness, for example, the account of the journey from Hungary to Trenčín (Slovakia) in a clapped-out old bus.
But EFW did two other quite significant things. Firstly, it celebrated different cultures, its writers radiating a fascination not just for football grounds, teams and fans, but also for countries, towns, restaurants, pubs and people in general.
Secondly, as with much of the best-observed writing, there was a delight in the quirky and incidental, in things like outsize scoreboards or toy-town fire-engines parked on stadium running-tracks. Partly, this taps into much of what many of us don’t like about the modern game, with its flat-pack stadiums and sterile atmosphere. Instead of whining about these things, though, EFW got on with celebrating the places where they hadn’t taken hold. People who, like me, were teenagers in 1980s Britain - a time and place where watching football live was viewed as something close to a perversion - were delighted to find we were actually far from alone in our love of things like floodlight pylons or steep banks of terracing.
EFW was not a comprehensive guide to football culture in different countries, but then it never claimed to be. Essentially, it was the sum of the experiences of the different people who wrote for it - and it says something for the concept that there seemed to be dozens of contributors. If it had an ethos at all, it would have been something like ‘take as you find’. The one obvious shortcoming this has, that a writer might miss, say, the more sinister aspects of a particular fan-culture, could easily be overcome by looking elsewhere on the internet, and EFW itself was always generous in linking to sites containing alternative views.
Ultimately, the best thing about EFW was not that it could kill an hour and put a smile on your face on a dull winter’s day (though it could); it was more that it renewed the appetite to get out and visit new places yourself, as well as giving fresh perspectives on places you thought you were familiar with. In that sense, it wasn’t just fine football writing, it was fine travel writing too.
You can find more of James Baxter's work on Dan Richardson's Slovak football site Britski Belasi.