Something very strange has been happening in Manchester recently. Yes, it hadn’t rained for a week, but that wasn’t it. A host of foreign sides (mainly Romanian) had agreed to play matches at small non-league grounds with limited notice. The most notable teams to be enjoying the Mancunian summer were Club Brugge, Dinamo Bucharest and Otelul Galati.
I was relaxing in the Swansea sunshine watching Andy Murray hitting his way to Wimbledon glory when the strange fixtures began to appear on my Twitter feed. I had to look twice when I saw that Hearts, Dinamo Bucharest, Club Brugge, Manchester United… and Oldham Athletic were all sending teams to Leigh Sports Village in the space of a week. Things became even more bizarre when Club Brugge v Otelul Galati was announced at Radcliffe Borough!
On the morning of the match I found myself still in Swansea. Waking up early, Lucy and I made our way into the city centre. With ample time to spare I opted to sunbathe in Castle Gardens before it was time to catch my train back to Manchester. The hours dragged on as I made my way back up north. What did I do to pass time? Did I learn some Romanian for the long week ahead? No. I listened to Two Door Cinema Club and watched Alan Partridge.
I met Matt at Manchester Piccadilly at 16:15 and we caught a Northern Rail special to Atherton, via Salford Crescent. There was just enough time for me to drop my bags off at home before going straight back out again.
We strolled into Atherton to catch the 582 bus to Leigh. As is often the case though we were dragged into one of Atherton’s many pubs. We opted for The Jolly Nailor. It’s only fair, they are sponsoring Atherton Collieries again this season!
A quick pint later and we were ready to catch the peasant wagon to Leigh. I was standing at the bus stop on Atherton Market Street when I began to have horrible flashbacks. It struck me that the 582 was the bus I used to have to get home from school after a detention. From past experience, each passenger tends to have a fetish for Greggs pasties and smells of stale sweat… myself included.
Fortunately when the bus arrived it contained relatively normal people on this fine summers evening. There was no traffic on the roads and we arrived at Leigh Bus Station around 10 minutes later. It all seemed like a bit of a pain getting to Leigh. As a local I’m used to it, but many visitors to the town (who come because of Leigh’s large tourism industry) seem baffled by the lack of transport in and out of the place. When I was at school it was always said that Leigh is the largest town in Europe not to have a train station. It’s always been an unconfirmed fact for locals and strangely they talk about it with immense pride. I’m surprised Wigan Council haven’t yet commissioned signs which say “Welcome to Leigh. The largest town in Europe not to have a railway station – Apparently”
Matt seemed taken back at the size of the bus station, but was quick to add that it wasn’t as good as the bus station back in his home town of Merthyr Tydfil which resembles a pair of breasts if looked at from above.
Everywhere in Leigh town centre was shut by the time we had arrived, so we set off on the walk to Leigh Sports Village. We took in the sights of BJ’s Bingo (which is brilliant on a Wednesday afternoon… or so I’m told) and Casba before crossing over the canal and walking through a residential estate which neighbours the Sports Village. The residential estate contained children who waved at cars.
The floodlights of Leigh East RLFC appeared over the houses and we could hear the shouts of a rugby training session. As we turned the corner I could see that Leigh Centurions were training on the pitch next to the 11,000 capacity stadium.
A few Hearts fans were knocking about. They were mainly found in the brand new pub at LSV called The Whistling Wren. We decided to give the Whistling Wren a miss and instead visited the Legends Bar which is found in the Main Stand. But first I had to pick up my press pass from the Main Reception! That’s right ladies and gentleman, I was given permission to be a photographer for this great occasion.
I approached the woman sat at Main Reception and gave her my details. She handed me a ticket which said “Press Box” and a heavy blue bib which said “Photographer” on the back. I was already sweating and now I had to wear that too!
Aaron and Lewis soon arrived and they began to laugh at me in my blue vest. Stranger things were happening over the road though! Dinamo Bucharest captain Catalin Munteanu had just walked out of Morrisons after purchasing what appeared to be a meal deal. He was closely followed by other members of the Dinamo squad. Matt approached Catalin Munteanu for a photograph as he once managed him on Football Manager and was apparently one of his better players.
Hearts captain Danny Wilson was the next to walk past us. He agreed to have a photograph with us. All was going well until he asked us what we were using the photo for. We explained that we “go around the country, visiting different football grounds having a laugh about them” to which he said “thanks” and walked off looking rather dejected and grumpy.
Kick off was fast approaching and we didn’t want to annoy any other players so we decided to enter the fortress that is the Leigh Sports Village Stadium. The Hearts fans had already covered the South Stand in their flags and the Romanians were frantically setting up their recording equipment. The match was being broadcast live on Romanian national television. Boy were the viewers in for a treat! The Romanian Geoff Shreeves had arrived in Leigh and he had dressed to impress. He looked dashing in double denim.
Around 300 people were now in the ground and it was time for the two teams to emerge. Hearts were in their white away shirts with Dinamo wearing their usual red strip. Both clubs had opted to field their first teams with Danny Wilson the only notable player missing.
It was the boys from Bucharest who had the first opportunity of the match, and it was an early indication of which team would be the most dominant. Dinamo striker Joel Thomas shot from 25 yards out and his effort flew just wide of the post.
Dinamo should have opened the scoring on 9 minutes when Alexandru Curtean found himself one on one with goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. About to fire towards goal, David Smith put in a last ditch challenge to get a toe to the ball, resulting in a corner.
One player was already catching our eye. A 21 year old attacking midfielder named Cosmin Matei. He was controlling the game and every single Dinamo attack went through him. He has the confidence and arrogance to run a midfield and this was confirmed when he kept shooting from 30 yards out.
On 15 minutes Matei scored. Andrei Vastag dispossessed Hearts defender Dylan McGowan and squared the ball to Cosmin Matei on the edge of the box. Matei hit the ball first time into the top left hand corner leaving MacDonald with no chance. Large cheers erupted from the crowd which I thought was rather odd as the Dinamo fans had an army of two. It was then that I saw Leigh Centurions and Hibernian fan Matt Lawton celebrating like Hearts were 1-0 down in an Edinburgh derby.
5 minutes later and Dinamo were 2-0 to the good. Cosmin Matei and Joel Thomas linked well. Matei passed into Thomas who turned Jamie Hamill and Kevin McHattie too easily. Thomas had enough strength to hold off the two Hearts defenders before slotting the ball past MacDonald for another great goal.
The remainder of the first half consisted of the Dinamo manager Gheorghe Mulțescu hurling abuse at his own striker Joel Thomas… or “Joe” as he kept shouting. Poor old Joel could have dribbled past all eleven Hearts players and scored and his manager would have still shouted at him.
As the second half began, you sensed it was going to be a high scoring half. Lewis predicted that it would finish 5-1 to Dinamo. On 60 minutes, Kevin McHattie fired a long ball into the Dinamo box and Dale Carrick controlled the ball well before being brought down by Srdjan Luchin. Jamie Hammill scored the resulting penalty to give Hearts and consolation goal.
Hearts then seemingly gave up. Dinamo’s Collins Fai burst through the midfield before threading the ball to Joel Thomas. Thomas then flicked the ball around the Hearts defence where Dorin Rotariu finished easily past MacDonald to make the score 4-1
Further poor defending nearly increased the Romanians lead just minutes later when the ball was presented to Ionel Danciulescu on the edge of the area. His effort went just over. Straight from MacDonald’s goal kick Danciulescu picked the ball up again and this time missed by a matter on centimetres.
With minutes left on the clock Ionel Danciulescu got his goal. After persistent pressure he beat MacDonald one on one to make the score 5-1.
By this stage the small Romanian fan base (two blokes) were jumping up and down in delirium. The Romanian flag was being waved everywhere around Leigh Sports Village, much to the disappointment of a group of Hearts fans. With one of the Romanians shouting support for his team, the Hearts fans began to sing Steau Bucharest songs… something which didn’t go down too well in Romania by the looks of it!
Referee Darren Handley blew for full time and the players rushed into the changing rooms. We had our photos with the travelling Dinamo fans before heading outside to go Cosmin Matei hunting. He was sat on the couch in the Main Reception with an ice pack on his shin. Matt and I had a bus to catch back to Atherton so we couldn’t be bothered waiting around to have a photograph with him. A decision which may come back to bite us in years to come when he becomes one of the best players in Europe!
It was whilst sitting in Leigh Bus Station at bus stand A (the best bus stand) that I reflected on the evening. Overall it had been great. Getting to see two European sides on your doorstep was a great experience. Unfortunately I don’t think Hearts will play Dinamo Bucharest in Leigh ever again. The overzealous stewarding had put a bit of a dampener on the evening throughout… but we all knew that it was to be expected. It wouldn’t be Leigh Sports Village if you didn’t get a slap on the wrists for daring the breathe.
As the sun set, we knew that Thursday’s match between Club Brugge and Otelul Galati would be even better…
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 4.4 miles
- ADMISSION: Free as a photographer
- PROGRAMME PRICE: N/A
- PIE: N/A