Spartak Moscow v Krasnodar, Monday 9th March 2020, 4.30pm

April 20, 2020

Just before Christmas I accepted a job based in Moscow. I went out there for a short trip in December and then started properly after the Russian New Year in January. It had been a long time since I’d visited Moscow, thirty-three years in fact. On that occasion in 1986 I’d gone for a December weekend with a girl that I was trying to impress.

A lot had changed in that time. For a start, the GUM department store next to Red Square was selling Ferraris and Louis Vuitton handbags. The last time I’d been there it was all knock-off ‘Adidas’ tracksuits with just the two stripes.

Jen and I are living out in the suburbs for the simple reason that being able to walk to work beats using public transport or taxis every day. I can even pop home for my lunch. The Moscow winter was milder than I or any of my local colleagues had been expecting with occasional snow and sub-zero temperatures, but nothing like most previous years or the minus twenty-five that I’d encountered a few years ago in Kazakhstan.

Whilst the winter had been relatively mild, it still meant that there was no football. Up until relatively recently football in Russia was a summer game with matches taking place between March and November.  A few years back they changed things to align their season with most of the rest of Europe, but with the severe weather still preventing games from taking place between mid-December and March that time of year is now set aside for a winter break rather than the close season.

The winter break meant that for the first two months that we were here I just had to wait it out. I looked at the option of going to the Ice Hockey, but the 2019 season in that sport was drawing to a close and I thought I’d save that until next winter. Once the winter break was over I selected a Spartak Moscow game taking place on a public holiday as my introduction to the Russian Premier League.

Jen and I took the subway up to Spartak’s Otkrytiye Stadium just before lunch. It was easy enough, with just the one change of line as we travelled from a south western suburb to one at the north west of the city. The hour long journey cost us around forty pence each. There were a few people at the stadium when we arrived and also some local coppers keeping an eye on us.

I’d wanted to be there early so that we could sort tickets before the arrival of the match day crowd and we selected seats in the upper tier along the side for 1800 rubles a pop. At the current exchange rate of a very convenient one hundred rubles to the pound that’s around eighteen quid each.

With our tickets in hand we back tracked one stop on the Metro, also forty pence, had some lunch in the food court of a shopping mall next to the station and then went for a walk in a nearby park.  I discovered that Russian squirrels look a bit different to the ones in the UK. They are darker than the grey squirrels that we have and seem to be more in the shape of the red ones. They have bigger ears though. I only had my phone with me so the photo isn’t the best.

There wasn’t much else in the way of wildlife in the park, but we did stumble across a woman taking her cat for a walk. Or rather, she was doing the walking whilst the cat perched on her shoulder. When the time comes for the cat to ‘cross the rainbow bridge’ as pet deaths tend to be described these days, she should have the cat made into a stole and life, for her anyway, would be little different.

We headed back up to the Otkrytiye Stadium with plenty of time to spare. By now the area around the ground was a lot busier. There were more police than earlier and a few small concessions selling scarves or food and drink. Our tickets were for the far side so we did a lap of around three-quarters of the stadium before having our tickets scanned at the turnstile.

You might remember the Otkrytiye stadium from the last World Cup. It’s the ground where England played Columbia and went through on penalties. It was also the venue for the group game between Belgium and Tunisia that Paul and I had watched in a Fan Park in Saint Petersburg.

Once inside we noticed a tribute to Igor Netto. He was a former captain of Spartak and the Soviet Union, playing for the former for seventeen years. Netto had also found time to turn out for the Spartak ice hockey team too. He died around twenty years ago, but the display celebrated what would have been his ninetieth birthday.

We took our seats high along the side facing the tunnel and what looked to be an almost entire stand of media facilities and hospitality. I suppose with the stadium having been built shortly before the 2018 World Cup, there was always going to be plenty of provision for that sort of thing within the forty-four thousand capacity.  There are a lot of rich people in Moscow, but there didn’t seem to be much of a take up of the two hundred quid ‘Platinum’ seats opposite.

Before kick-off there was a further tribute to Mr. Netto with a huge banner to our right and his son and, I think, great grandson coming onto the pitch. I like sentimentality in football, I think it is has just as much a place in the game as winning trophies does.  Although as a Boro fan, you’d probably expect me to say that.

Once the home fans had put away their Netto display, they got out their normal match day flags and banners. There must have been around thirty flags, all waved non-stop throughout the game and accompanied by constant singing.

In the corner to our left were a couple of hundred Krasnodar fans. It’s probable that some of them will have been living in Moscow, but for those that had travelled from their home town, it was around sixteen hours drive each way.

Krasnodar were in black and third from top whilst Spartak were somewhere in mid-table. On the plus side though, they were wearing shirts that weren’t too far off being classic Boro tops. I may have just found my Moscow team.

There weren’t many chances in the first half for either side. Spartak had some decent build up play but weren’t clinical enough whenever they made it into the box.

At half time I went down for a tea and a hot dog. The beer of choice was Budweiser, but the American version rather than that from the Czech Republic. That made it easy to pass on it even before I noticed that it was zero percent alcohol, although I’m not sure it would have tasted a lot different from their regular version.

In the second half, the visitors missed a couple of sitters before a slick passing move twenty minutes from time gave them a man over and they drew the foul for a penalty. Ari converted to give them the lead. The goal opened the game up and a second for Krasnodar looked likely. It still hadn’t materialised by the time we decided to leg it with five minutes to go to avoid the subway crush and that’s the way it stayed.

The game took place straight after the weekend when most teams in England played their final game for a while. There was one more round of fixtures over here, which I kept away from, before all Russian football was shut down until further notice.

Middlesbrough v Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday 5th January 2020, 2pm

April 13, 2020

I went to this one with my grandson Harry who hadn’t been very impressed with the Northern League game we’d gone to on Boxing Day at Stockton Town. I think a lot of his disappointment had been due to him thinking that we’d actually been going to the Boro and so I thought I’d make it up to him with our first visit of the season to the Riverside.

I took him last year over Christmas and whilst he didn’t seem disheartened by an hour and a half of Pulisball and a defeat, I’d had no real desire to go back since then. It’s strange the way that something that was once so important can become so much less so.

Maybe the pricing is part of it. If this had been a Championship game it would have been fifty quid for the two of us. With it being a cup game it was a much more reasonable twenty quid for me and a tenner for Harry. The kick-off was scheduled for 2.01pm, to allow for the showing of a mental health video before kick-off. Whilst it’s a very worthy cause, everyone’s eyes were drawn instead to one of the mascots, the two year old son of Robbie Keane who dribbled from the halfway line, finished with a flourish and then stood glaring at the ball which was resting at the back of the net.

Last season we’d gone in the South Stand where Harry had to stand on his seat to see. This time we had seats in the West Stand Lower just in front of the disabled section. Boro were on a roll with four wins on the trot and I thought that we played very well, considering the number of young players we had and the strength of the opposition.

It was nice to see the two loanees from Man City get a go and nicer still that the business had been done right at the beginning of the transfer window rather than in desperation with an hour to the deadline remaining. We had a good view for Ashley Fletcher’s goal and were close enough to the dugouts to witness the rare sight of Mourinho in a good mood, joking with the Boro staff.

Harry enjoyed himself, which was the main thing, and his Mam reported later that he was singing Boro songs in the shower before bed. Hopefully it wasn’t the one about us being dynamite. I’ll have to take him to see his team more often.

Scarborough Athletic v Staleybridge Celtic, Saturday 4th January 2020, 3pm

April 10, 2020

Jen and I had bought a chair off eBay that needed picking up from Scarborough. It’s a place where we’ve visited and holidayed at and even though it’s mid-winter we decided to stop over for a change of scenery. We’d stayed nearby the summer before last and had enjoyed the donkey rides with the grandkids and a bit of sword fighting at the castle.

We needed different activities this time though as the donkey man takes the winter off and Jen and I had forgotten to bring our swords. That meant the next best option was nipping along to the Flamingoland stadium to watch Scarborough Athletic’s seventh tier Northern Premier fixture with Staleybridge Celtic instead.

I arrived at the ground with a few minutes to go to kick-off and realised that I had no cash in my wallet. I couldn’t find out from anyone in the queue if I could pay with a card and so had to retrace my steps back towards the town centre to find a cash point. I missed the first quarter of an hour and after paying my twelve quid admission I was relieved to find that there was still no score.

Flush with cash again I got myself a bacon sandwich and a coffee and watched from the corner near to the turnstiles for a while. Once I’d finished scoffing I passed by the small covered terrace behind the goal that contained some of the travelling support.  One of the away fans was quizzing the home keeper as to what his go to karaoke choice was. I’m not sure if this was intended to be banter or abuse but it was more like two fellas simply passing the time of day whilst the ball was elsewhere.

For the remainder of the first half I took a seat in the centre section of the stand opposite the tunnel. Over on the tunnel side there was a main stand that I think was entirely hospitality. It was the place that I’d first tried to get in there by mistake without realising what it was. Perhaps they would have taken my card after all.

Celtic opened the scoring towards the end of the half. The fans around me thought that it was a bit fortunate. I’d say, scrappy. It looked to have taken a lucky bounce off a defender and the finish seemed scuffed, but they all count.  It inspired a chant of “Come on Burra” and so I felt at home for a while.

In the second half I moved around a bit, which is one of the benefits of lower league games. If the Celtic goal could have been considered a touch spawny, there was nothing attributable to good luck in Scarborough’s equaliser, with a well hit shot from the edge of the box giving the visiting keeper no chance.

With the floodlights on Athletic pushed for the winner. They should probably have taken the points with at least three decent chances going begging. Overall though, a draw felt like a fair result and the game made up for the lack of donkeys at the beach.

Blyth Spartans v Gateshead, Wednesday 1st January 2020, 3pm

March 24, 2020

Another New Year and another new ground, number sixteen of the season and my three hundred and fortieth in total. It was Croft Park that provided the venue for my footballing ‘first footing’ with Blyth Spartans taking on Gateshead in the sixth tier National League North.

Spartans were beginning 2020 in the relegation area whilst visitors Gateshead, who had been demoted last season for financial issues, were in mid-table.

It was twelve quid to get in, which is twice what I’d pay in the Northern League. However, the National League North is three divisions higher in the pyramid, making it a two quid per division increase. If the pricing continued up the leagues like that then it would make Boro tickets twenty quid a pop. Dream on.

I got a chip butty before kick-off but it wasn’t the best. It would have benefitted from a better quality bun and fewer chips, so that it could be eaten with the chips inside the bun rather than having to eat them first and throw away most of the stale and crumbling bread.

Croft Park has a main seated and covered stand down one side, with three covered terraces along the other three. I started off in the terrace along the side, but soon moved around to behind a goal. The Gateshead fans were in the other end, but I don’t think they had the whole stand. Spartans were in green and white stripes with Gateshead in some sort of Burnley knock-off kit.

One of my reasons for picking this game is that both sides were fielding an on-loan Boro keeper. Gateshead has a bit of a history for doing this as the current Boro keeper Aynsley Pears spent last season in goal for them. This year we had lent them twenty year old Brad James.

Blyth had recently been given Zach Hemming from the age group below. He’d had a spell at Hartlepool but hadn’t played. I think sending out the young keepers is a great idea, as long as they play. They’ll still train part of the week at the Boro, but they will get a physical battle each Saturday with players who depend upon win bonuses and they will play in front of crowds that care passionately about performance and results.

Gateshead took the lead in the first half with a penalty that incensed the Spartans fans near me. The ref had already been getting plenty of stick but pointing to the spot escalated the abuse a few levels. Shouts of ‘wanker’, ‘prick’ and ‘bellend’ were directed at him from just a few yards away, before the same spectators then appealed to him to give a subsequent decision their way. I’d have given them nothing all afternoon if someone had yelled at me in that way. There’s a difference between caring passionately and abusing someone in a manner that if you did it anywhere else in public you would be arrested.

The Blyth fans soon turned on their own players too. I can’t see how people think that’s a good idea either. I rarely perform at my best at work if I’m told that I’m shit at my job and I’m sure it’s the same for footballers too.

A further goal for Gateshead in the second half was enough to provoke chants of ‘sack the board’ from the home fans. Fortunes changed though when two penalties for Spartans in quick succession brought the scores level at two each. The ref was a little more popular with those decisions. Oddly, each of those goals was also followed by chants of ‘sack the board’ from the home fans, so maybe it is some sort of local custom.

Gateshead was then awarded the fourth penalty of the match, which Blyth and Boro keeper Zach Hemming saved. The home joy was short-lived though when the visitors took a three-two lead at the death. The Gateshead players were taunting their opponents and I wondered if it had its history in the reverse fixture played  just six days earlier, on Boxing Day, when  Blyth had scored a late goal to earn a three-two away win of their own.

The game still wasn’t over though and with keeper Hemming up for a corner, Spartans equalised in the third minute of added time. Best match I’ve seen all year.

Berwick Rangers v Caledonian Braves, Saturday 28th December 2019, 3pm

March 15, 2020

Jen and I needed to nip up to Edinburgh to put in a visa application and whilst we could have stayed there, or I suppose, driven straight back, we decided to draw out our journey back to Teesside with a night in Dunbar and another in Berwick.

We didn’t see much of Dunbar on the evening that we arrived, spending the time sampling Belhaven’s products in the bar of our hotel, but next morning we took a hike along the John Muir Way to Barns Ness Lighthouse and back. The route followed the coast and skirted a golf course for a lot of the way. There wasn’t much in the way of wildlife, apart from a goose with a damaged wing, but it was great to be out in the fresh air for a few hours.

It was a short drive from Dunbar to Berwick and after dropping off Jen and the car at our guest house I had a wander up to Shielfield Park for Berwick Rangers’ game with Caledonian Braves. Whilst a year ago I’d have been watching the only English team in the Scottish League, this year I would be watching the only English team in the fifth tier Scottish Lowland League after Berwick’s relegation last season.

Shielfield Park dates back to 1954, when Berwick shifted from their previous stadium on the adjacent land. It is also home to the Berwick Bandits speedway team which makes for a somewhat distant view of the pitch. At least there wasn’t a fence obscuring the view.

After paying a tenner to get in and another pound for a raffle ticket, I got myself a cup of tea and found a spot in the main stand that I think had been bought second hand from Bradford. With the stanchions it wasn’t possible to get an un-obscured view but I managed to find a seat that allowed me to see both goalmouths.

On the other side of the pitch was covered terracing and to my right a small enclosure about the size of a bus stop for travelling fans. There was also a club shop that was selling what I overheard one fan describe as the relegation shirt.

At 2.59 the teams ran on to the pitch. There was none of the pre-match handshaking and they went straight to their positions. The toss took place and within ten seconds of the ref confirming that the players didn’t need to switch ends the game had started. Brilliant. If I’m ever sentenced to be hanged I want the Scottish FA and this ref to officiate. I reckon I’d go from swigging a final diet coke in my cell to being cut down from the gallows before I’d had time to put the top back on my drink. The ref further enhanced his reputation during the afternoon, in my eyes anyway, by booking at least three players for booting the ball away after he’d blown for a foul.

One of the home players went down injured early on prompting the fella behind me to speculate that it might have been with a dislocated shoulder. He related that on noticing previously that the player in question hadn’t been seen for a couple of weeks, either on the pitch or in the Red Lion, he’d phoned him at home to be told from the horse’s mouth about his poorly shoulder.

The teams were wearing the same colours as I’d seen in last week’s game between West Auckland and Penrith, namely yellow and black for Berwick and red for Caledonian Braves. These players looked a bit fuller in figure than their Northern League counterparts but I suppose with one game taking place four days before Christmas and the other three days after then perhaps there’s a good reason for that.

Berwick took the lead ten minutes before half-time when Osei broke down the left and shot powerfully enough for it to squeeze under the visiting keeper. The scorer was from Swaziland, although Berwick had picked him up after he had been released by Raith Rovers, rather than having scouted him themselves playing for Langley Zebras.

At half time I joined the queue at the food place. They’d sold out of pies and burgers before the game having only put on a limited supply due to expectations of a low crowd. They had some soup though, Christmas soup apparently, made of turkey and vegetables put through a blender. It was very nice, athough I did wonder if it had just been made from the scrapings from people’s plates.

There only seemed to be two ball boys and they stood together behind one of the goals. They’d been criticised in the first half by people in the crowd for spending their time looking at their phones. Second half they had found a football and were equally criticised for booting it around. The paused their private game however when a subbed player went past them on his long trek around the pitch perimeter and then got their phones out again to have him pose for a selfie.

There were a few chances at either end but nobody took them and the final whistle blew to a collective cheer from the home fans for the one goal win.

Stockton Town v Thornaby, Thursday 26th December 2019, 11am

March 12, 2020

I always think of Boxing Day as a day for going to the match. It used to be with the Boro but I’ve drifted away over recent years and for this year’s festive football I thought I’d go along to watch Stockton Town at their Sixth Form ground.

I went to Stockton Sixth Form back in the early eighties but it wasn’t a great success. I had no real interest in learning and spent most of my time there recovering from nights out at Bentleys and Gaskins or skipping lessons for fictitious dental appointments. By the time they booted me out I should have had better teeth than Steve McClaren.

One thing I did turn up for in my time there were football matches. I was the keeper for the B team, with the occasional first team call up when their keeper had a genuine dental appointment. We played on the same pitch as Stockton Town do now, in a way.  You have to ignore that the pitch has been rotated ninety degrees and the grass replaced with an artificial surface. If you can put that to one side, you’d never notice the difference.

For this Northern League Division One game with Thornaby I took my grandson Harry. I paid seven quid for me and a pound for him. That’s a big difference from the Boro where it would have been thirty two pounds for me and seventeen for him for us to stand behind the goal. That’s near enough fifty quid and so it’s no wonder I rarely go anymore.

And as if to show the benefits of getting kids through the turnstiles we then spent another twenty quid or more on a golden goal ticket, programme, scarf, burger, hot dog, two hot chocolates and a coffee. The coffee was for me.

We were there quite early and so able to get a couple of the unreserved seats in the small stand along the side. There was also a shed type stand to our left populated mainly by blokes in santa hats. With the crowd exceeding a thousand, we did well to get a seat.

This will probably be the last season that the Northern League will see of Stockton Town as they are clear at the top of the table and with three teams going up they are more than likely to be playing in the Northern Premier League Division One North-West when August comes around.

That will be quite a rise for Stockton as it’s only about three years since they were in the Wearside League. In fact it’s only about ten years since they started a men’s team. They were playing as Hartburn Juniors up until then. I discovered all this reading the programme and also learned that they were founded by Derrick Small, one of my former bosses at Capper Pipes back in the day. Well done Derrick.

Sadly for the visitors, Thornaby might be two divisions apart by then with them kicking off this game in the third from bottom spot. Stockton were in yellow and blue with Thornaby in orange.

Not a lot happened in the first half and Harry, having been told by me that there might well be five or six goals, declared it a boring game. He also confided to me that he’d thought we were going to the Boro match. The fella next to me attributed the lack of goals to Thornaby being up for it and Stockton having enjoying their Christmas lunch too much.

In the second half Stockton stepped up the pressure but struggled to make the breakthrough. Our main interest as the game went on was the golden goal ticket that had a time of seventy five minutes and which we’d agreed to split the fifty quid prize. We hadn’t checked the exact time that the game had restarted but with around a quarter of an hour to go a Stockton player curled one into the corner of the net through a crowded box. We waited for an announcement of the goal time but there wasn’t one. I’ve a vague recollection of reading somewhere that local residents objected and so no announcements are made.

The goal was enough to secure the three points and the three points were enough to consolidate Stockton’s place at the top of the table. When it became apparent that there would be no goal time announcement we made an early dart, pretty much as I done throughout my brief stay at the college all those years ago. A later check online revealed the time of the goal to be seventy-eight minutes.

West Auckland v Penrith, Saturday 21st December 2019, 3pm

March 9, 2020

I’d recently watched Bishop Auckland and reflected on how, despite being a non-league club, they were famous enough for me to have had them as a Subbuteo team when I was a kid. Their near neighbours, West Auckland, haven’t too shabby a history themselves as it happens, winning the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy a couple of times early in the last century.

They were twice invited to a four team tournament in Italy beating a Torino XI in the final first time around and then Juventus when returning a couple of years later. I’ve heard the competition described as the ‘First World Cup’. It strikes me as something more like one of those four team pre-season tournaments that we see these days, but I suppose that is looking at it through modern day eyes.

I remember seeing the trophy in, I think, a working mens club in West Auckland back in the days when my mates and I were borrowing our parents cars in the evening and heading off to country pubs. I understand that it was stolen a few years later and a replica was commissioned.

Those days of playing Juventus seemed a long way off as I turned up at the Wanted Stadium and handed over my six pounds admission. The programme listed former Boro player Bruno Pilatos in the Penrith side. As far as I know he never made the first team (or just made the first team laugh) but I can remember watching him turning out at Synners for Boro reserves.

Bruno was listed as a right back in the programme notes, whereas I’d remembered him as a central midfielder. Regardless of whatever  he used to be, in this game he played as a left sided winger/midfielder. I’m not sure if he was new to the position, or to Penrith, but the other players seemed to be offering him a lot of positional advice and he rarely touched the ball in the opening quarter of an hour.

The hosts, in yellow and black opened the scoring after about twenty-five minutes when someone stooped low to direct a header past the Penrith keeper. A couple of minutes later a home striker broke through and tucked it across the goalie into the corner to make it two.

With ten minutes to go to half-time West Auckland scored their third with a shot from the edge of the box. I thought it was close enough to the keeper for him to have kept it out but perhaps he was unsighted.

At half time I got some chips that looked and tasted as if they may have been left over from West Auckland’s previous game. I got lucky with my other choice of a pork pie.  It was served hot and usually the only time I eat them anything other than cold is if I chance upon one fresh from the oven at Blackwell’s. I’d forgotten how good hot pork pies are and decided that if I were to make any resolutions, it would be to eat them hot more often.

West Auckland were kicking up the not insignificant slope in the second half but it didn’t prove to be any disadvantage as they increased their lead a few minutes after the restart whilst I was still burning my mouth on the pie.

Penrith managed to keep  West Auckland at bay until the eightieth minute when someone added a fifth with a header from a corner. A sixth followed shortly afterwards that might have been meant as a cross but drifted in via the keepers fingertips and the underside of the bar.

Six-nil seemed a fair result. Bring on Juventus.

Seaham Red Star v Bishop Auckland, Saturday 30th November 2019, 3pm

March 8, 2020

One of the places that we’ve visited the most in our recent spell in the UK has been Seaham. It all started from a Google search for ‘dog friendly beaches near me’ and it quickly developed into somewhere to spend an hour or two when Jen and I were looking after my daughter’s beagle.

He quite likes water, usually the more fetid the better, although he’s not particularly capable once he’s out of his depth. I recently had to jump waist deep into Billy Beck to rescue him when he failed to resurface and got himself trapped under the bankside shrubbery. At Seaham it was the tide that flummoxed him. One moment he would be stood up to his midriff and then next he would be looking around in a mixture of bemusement and panic as he was lifted off the sand, before getting out of difficulty with an instinctive doggy-paddle. We’ve all been there.

Seaham beach also proved to be a great place to take the grandkids too and without their Mam to keep an eye on them they were keen on climbing the cliff faces. It wasn’t too high, but gave them the best viewpoint for looking out to sea.

If the beach and the surrounding cliff-top walks weren’t enough of an attraction, the place also has a football team, Seaham Red Star, named, I believe, after a pub and not as a nod to the side from Belgrade. And so, as the time of year wasn’t conducive to dipping the dog into the sea, I took myself along to the Ferguson Motor Repairs Stadium instead.

It was the usual six quid in for what was a ninth-tier fixture in Division One of the Northern League, with most of the change going on a programme and a ticket for the meat draw. The opposition was Bishop Auckland, a team with a somewhat more illustrious history than that of former pub team Seaham, including a record ten Amateur Cup triumphs.

It wasn’t the past record of the visitors that immediately struck me though, it was their light and dark blue vertically halved shirts. It took me a while to remember, but then I twigged that I’d had them as a Subbuteo team, some forty odd years previously. There can’t be many teams at this level with that sort of accolade.

There were early chances for both sides but it was Bishops that opened the scoring a quarter of an hour in. It brought an immediate equaliser from Seaham, only for the visitors to retake the lead from the penalty spot and then under pressure from the home side, add a third on the counter to make it four goals in an eight-minute spell.

The teams settled down somewhat at that point and we made it to half time without any further scoring. I got myself a tray of chips and gravy and whilst waiting in the queue listened in to the conversation between three visiting fans on the merits of artificial insemination in the farming industry.

Apparently when bulls are involved, they mount something that looks like a pantomime cow complete with a strategically placed receptacle resembling a welly top. That sort of deception only works for bovine bunk ups though as pigs are too intelligent and/or picky for that sort of thing and instead hold out for a hand shandy from, I presume, a farm labourer rather than a vet. I bet the careers office kept quiet about that task.

It didn’t take long after the break for Bishops to notch a fourth goal and for a while I wondered if a rout was on the cards. Seaham pulled one back though with about twenty minutes remaining and with panic setting in amongst the visiting defence the comeback looked to be on. Seaham had a potential third ‘goal’ disallowed as they pressed to get back into it, but the two goal cushion and some inspired goalkeeping eventually proved to be sufficient as Bishop Auckland dug in for the win.

Orihuela v Castellon, Sunday 17th November 2019, 5pm

March 7, 2020

After a few days in Elche, Jen and I headed back to the coast and stayed at a place called La Mata. It appeared to be shut for the winter, with just a couple of bars and cafes catering for ex-pats in fleeces in need of that pre-lunch beer.

We managed to do a bit of walking as one of those long-distance coastal trails took in the beach as part of its route, giving us easy sign-posted options in two directions, with a further option of a trail around a nearby salt lake.

In the absence of eating out options we tended to snack in our apartment. If we’d have been there for a while longer I’d probably have had a crack at the whole pigs that we saw in the freezer section of a nearby hypermarket. We’d shared half of a two-week old suckling pig in Malaysia in the past and had portions of a slightly older one when we’d been in Spain earlier in the year. These ones were just that touch too big though for the time we had available.

The most suitable football option was a third tier Segunda B game an hour or so down the road at Orihuela.  I cut it fine getting there and with no parking in view at the Estadio Municipal Los Arcos we had to put the car in one of those underground car parks some distance away.

We emerged into the daylight and I strode off sharply in what I thought was the direction of the ground. Despite nothing looking familiar I dismissed Jen’s suggestion that I use the map on my phone as unnecessary until I’d taken us a good five minutes in the wrong direction. Eventually I got my phone out as if it had been my own idea, sheepishly did the required U-turn and we arrived at the ground bang on kick-off.  I’d have still been wandering around the town centre were I not a married man.

It was fifteen euros for general admission for the visit of Castellon. If I remember rightly Castellon is the place where I stayed with my daughter when the Boro played Villareal in one of the UEFA Cup seasons. I’ve also got a faint recollection that Mendieta was either from there or turned out for them early in his career. You could always Google it or him if you wanted to be sure.

The main stand was taped off and so everyone was watching from the three rows of terracing that ran around the other three sides of the ground. Every now and then someone would appear on a balcony of the apartments that overlooked the stadium and cast a disinterested eye at the action as they retrieved their washing or drew on a fag. Along that same side was the main home singing section of thirty-odd Orihuela fans.

At the opposite end to us were a few Castellon supporters in front of an impressive mountain backdrop. With the visitors sitting one place off the top of the table and Orihuela rock bottom, I’m sure they were expecting to go home three points better off.

Orihuela, in yellow and blue, took the lead after a quarter of an hour when their right-sided striker was first to a ball over the top and finished well. I missed Castellon’s equaliser ten minutes or so later as I was searching online for the height of Orihuela’s ‘big unit’ Antonio. Turns out that he’s six foot five, but he looked to be taller.

It was still level at the break as I wandered around to the kiosk near the front gate and got myself a pie filled with an unidentified, but tasty enough, reddy-brown substance.

On the hour Orihuela had a chance from a corner that Castellon just couldn’t clear. The ball bobbed up and down on and around the crossbar before the home side eventually turned it in for a two-one lead.

The goal injected some life into the game and a slide tackle by an Orihuela player right in front of the Castellon bench sparked a fracas that, I think, led to a red card for the slidee. One of the away coaches should have picked up one as well, maybe he did, it was hard to tell.

It looked like the ten men of Orihuela would hold on but with the scoreboard showing just the four minutes remaining someone hit a sweet half-volley from the edge of the box that nicked the inside of the post on the way in and levelled the scores. It was two points dropped though for the visitors and a well-deserved draw for relegation-threatened Orihuela. In an added bonus we found our way back to the car without having to resort to the phone map.

Intercity v Eldense, Sunday 17th November 2019, 11.30am

March 5, 2020

Prior to moving on to Elche, Jen and I had spent four nights in Alicante. It’s somewhere that I’ve flown into before but had never stayed longer than the time it had taken to collect a hire car and head off somewhere quieter. It was ok, although I imagine that I might have been less impressed had we come at a busier time of year. In November it was quiet, warm enough to wander around in a tee-shirt and with enough tapas bars and Spanish eateries for me to forget that I was somewhere that attracts three million tourists a year.

Another advantage of visiting in November, rather than the summer is that the football season is in full swing and earlier in the week I’d noticed that a local side, Intercity, was playing its first ever Copa del Rey fixture. The 9pm kick-off didn’t tempt me away from an evening of knocking back rioja and feeding croquettas to pigeons but I made a plan to pop back for their next game the following Sunday.

Jen claimed to have better stuff to do than sit through a Group 6 game in the Tercera division but had she changed her mind would no doubt have been astonished by the quantity of cars trying to park up close to the Poliesportiu de Sant Joan more than half an hour before kick-off. I ended up leaving the hire car in a country lane a few minutes’ walk away before handing over ten euros to get in.

The cost struck me as a bit on the steep side, considering that I could have got into the second division game at Elche the night before for a similar sum.  Still, it was their first season in the fourth tier of Spanish football and few people were actually coughing up as most had season cards. It felt a bit like when the Riverside opened and people who had previously had little interest in the Boro, or even in football, were caught up in the attraction of shiny and new.

My ten euros entitled me to a backless seat bolted to concrete terracing that ran the length of one side of the pitch. It was the only area that you could watch from and part of the pitch was obscured by sections of fencing. The artificial pitch was set out not only with the markings for this game but also with a couple of five-a-side pitches. The goals from those pitches further obscured the view.

The teams entered the field to the strains of ‘The Final Countdown’ although it sounded like a re-mixed version of the tune that assaulted my ears in the eighties, making that one not such a final countdown after all. Intercity were in black and Eldense in a white kit that, quite appropriately I thought for this level, didn’t include the player’s names on their shirts.

Intercity opened the scoring after a quarter of an hour with a tremendous edge of the box volley from their left-back captain. His teammates took inspiration from his example and were soon firing in shots from distance, although without any success in the remainder of the first half.

Not long after the restart the long range shooting policy paid further dividends when a speculative welly from thirty yards was fumbled onto the post by the away keeper only for it to rebound, smack him on the back of his napper and end up in the net.

The size of the crowd continued to grow throughout the second half with a lot of people pitching up after the finish of a cross-country race next door. There were also a lot of kids kitted out in their Intercity tracksuits, perhaps having arrived straight from a game or training session of their own.

Eldense had their chances to get back into it, hitting the post and then having a penalty saved. The fourth–tier newcomers held out though before adding a last minute third goal for a score line that I thought probably flattered them.