Green v Orange, Friday 13th January 2023, 4pm

January 28, 2023

I’m quite particular about what constitutes a game or a ground that I can add to my groundhopping total. It’s got to be a regulation size pitch and it must be an eleven a side game. Although if a team turned up one short, I’d allow that.

I used to insist that there were proper linesmen, but after watching Wearside League games and below where a sub ‘runs’ the line or a manager sticks the flag in his pocket, I’m a bit more relaxed about that rule these days.

Sometimes though I stumble across a game that I can’t justify counting no matter what and this was the case when out walking near to the King Abdullah park. There were goals, nets even, but no linos and it was just ten a side, although I couldn’t be certain that there hadn’t been a couple of red cards before I turned up. It’s more likely if it had been eleven a side at the start that the missing players had just gone home for their tea.

Best bit though was the way the pitch was marked. Instead of whatever that white stuff is that usually denotes the edges and penalty boxes, rope had been stretched out and pegged to the floor. It looked permanently fixed, or as permanent as rope can be until someone needs to tow their Lexus or lasso a camel.

There were three blokes watching from settees, which is pretty luxurious at any level. I’ve only seen seats like that once before at a game and that was for Sachin Tendulkar in the Owner’s area at a game in India. I’ve no idea if the teams had names, so I’ll just call them Green and Orange after their hi-viz vests. I hung about for a few minutes to watch El Fluorescentio but not a great deal happened and I thought I’d better clear off in case I was freaking them out.

Barcelona v Real Betis, Thursday 12th January 2023, 10pm

January 27, 2023

The Super Cup is the Spanish version of the English Community Shield, or the Charity Shield to those of us old enough to remember Keegan and Bremner picking up long bans for an on-field scrap and then flinging down their shirts as they trudged off. That’s probably about as seriously as anyone had ever treated the game in England until foreign managers pitched up in the Premier league and started claiming the Shield in their trophy counts.

Whilst the Spanish Super Cup previously followed the traditional format of the league champions playing the cup winners, it has expanded and now includes the runners up from each competition. I’m sure that the thinking behind that approach is that it increases the chances of Real Madrid and Barcelona being involved which is probably quite important when you are hawking the rights to stage the competition around the world. Morocco hosted the first Super Cup to take place outside of Spain, but for three of the last four years it has been held in Saudi Arabia.

The game that I selected to attend was the second semi-final and between Barcelona and Real Betis. I picked up a ticket online for ninety-three riyals which was less than half the price of an Al-Shabab game at the stadium near my hotel.

All of the Super Cup games were taking place at the King Fahd International Stadium in the north-east part of Riyadh. I flagged down a fake taxi driver who wouldn’t quote me a fare. He just said not to worry and then, as almost all the taxi drivers do here, chatted about cricket. They all seem to have a favourite English player and this fella raved about Moeen Ali. It took around half an hour to get to the ground and, once there, he still wouldn’t give me a price. I gave him a hundred riyals which he seemed happy enough with. Maybe I overpaid, but if not, he’ll have learned a valuable lesson to mention the price in advance next time.

My seat was in one of the corners. It was free-seating, but within your allocated block and the stewards did well in making sure that everyone sat where they were supposed to. Lots of the fans around me were wearing Barcelona shirts or waving scarves or flags. I didn’t see anyone supporting Betis, but there were a few people with Real Madrid shirts on favouring them by proxy.

Many of the Barcelona ‘fans’ joined in with the singing and just about the whole crowd, with the exception of a curmudgeonly Englishman, got to their feet for the Mexican waves.

I’d no idea whether Betis were at full strength, but Barcelona fielded a decent line-up. Cynically I wondered whether certain players were contractually obliged to make an appearance. If there were any stipulations, I’d have liked to have seen them extended to the kits as for some reason Barcelona were wearing red shorts and socks.

It was a competitive first half, with ter Stegen pulling off a couple of very good saves and Barcelona having one chalked off at the other end after a VAR review. Lewandowski finally managed to break the deadlock five minutes before the break and Barcelona went in at half-time a goal to the good.

I needed some smaller notes for the taxi on the way back, so made myself unpopular at a stall on the concourse by buying a KitKat with a forty quid note. As I pocketed my change I noticed a procession of entertainers ranging from a brass band to Messi lookalikes performing juggling tricks. I latched on to them and followed them through a gate to the side section for a different second half view from the main stand.

Betis equalized with around a quarter of an hour to go, sparking some gleeful celebrating from a bloke in a Real Madrid shirt. With the score level at full-time and the clock ticking around to midnight I wrongly assumed that we’d go straight to penalties. Instead, the teams lined up for extra-time and after the first fifteen minutes each side had added another goal.

At that point I called it a night as I didn’t care which team won and I was worried that I might not be able to find a taxi outside. My fears were unfounded though and a bloke outside, who volunteered that Joss Butler was his favourite cricketer, agreed to drive me back to town for one hundred and fifty riyals. Perhaps I had underpaid the first guy.

I checked on the score when I got back to the hotel and at ten to one in the morning Barcelona had prevailed on penalties, setting up the ‘Clasico’ final that the sponsors and tv companies will have been hoping for.

Al-Shabab v Al-Ittihad, Monday 9th January 2023, 9.15pm

January 24, 2023

Ten days after my first visit to the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium to watch Al-Hilal, I was back to see the other tenants, Al-Shabab, in another top-tier Saudi Pro-League fixture. This time I’d bought a ticket online in advance, but at a cost of two hundred riyals, which is around forty-four quid and almost seven times the price that Al-Hilal charge. I’ve no idea why there’s such a difference but I dare say I’ll find out before long.

There were a lot of people milling around outside, perhaps equally baffled by the pricing. My ticket was in the open area opposite where I’d been sat the previous week. The segregation policy wasn’t enforced as there were a few women and kids in my section. The opposition, Al-Ittihad, had brought a decent away following and had a section at the other end of the ground. The ground was still only a quarter or so full though, with just under six and a half thousand fans in the twenty-odd thousand capacity stadium.

There was a bit of a scuffle near me in the first half, with a couple of blokes giving each other a slap. That’s actual slaps with a flat palm to the face. It turns out that there were a few away fans in our section and they were making their allegiance obvious. I don’t know why they didn’t just sit in the empty areas near to their allocated section, rather than plonking themselves in the middle of the seats occupied by the more vocal Al-Shabab supporters. The stewards did their best but were ignored and it took the arrival of a copper to restore order and lead the slappers to an exit.

I got chatting to Ahmed, who was a supporter of Al-Hilal and Arsenal, but like me was just keen to watch a game. He seemed surprised that I only followed the Boro and that I didn’t have a Premier League side as well. I was tempted to mention that I’d been looking out for Bournemouth’s results this season in the hope that Tav was doing well in his post-Boro career, but thought that would just make me look even odder.

Al-Shabab took the lead from a penalty on twenty minutes, but Al-Ittihad equalized soon after with a scrambled effort that they seemed to be doing their best to miss. The score stayed that way and with both the teams fighting it out with Al-Hilal in the top four, Ahmed was happy to see them both drop points.

Al-Hilal v Damac, Saturday 31st December 2022, 8.30pm

January 20, 2023

I’ve got some business going on in Saudi Arabia at the moment. It’s not a place that I’d ever really expected to visit and so adding it to the list of countries where I’ve watched football strikes me as a bit of a bonus.

My hotel is in the Malaz area of Riyadh and I’ve been going for a walk on a morning around the perimeter of the King Abdullah Park. The route takes me past the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium and as both Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab stage fixtures there, it was just a matter of waiting for the first one to crop up.

Al-Hilal were first, with a game against Damac in the top-tier Saudi Pro League. An 8.30pm kick-off gave me plenty of time for buying a ticket, but it wasn’t quite as easy as I’d hoped. Each morning as I lapped the ground I’d passed three ticket offices, but on the night of the game they were just as closed as they had been at seven in the morning.

I asked a steward how I bought a ticket and he told me that it was online only, via Al-Hilal’s ticket app. It wasn’t the easiest of apps to find and I struggled for a few minutes before a fella asked me if I needed a ticket. When he found out that I did, he told me to take a photo of one that he had on his phone and then refused to take any money for it. The ticket was thirty riyals, which is about seven quid, so it was a generous gesture from him.

My next problem was that the ticket was for the area reserved for women and families. As I entered the stand it looked as if the women’s section was to the left with the families to right. I’d struggle to pass convincingly as female, even if I am at the age where many of them will have facial hair, and so I took a seat in the family area, on the basis that I easily pass for a granda.

The segregation wasn’t enforced, with a few mixed couples sat together in the women’s area and lots of people in my section without children. I looked over to the stand opposite and could see women and kids over there too, so it’s a policy that may no longer be a thing.

My section had a roof over it, but with no rain forecast and the sun having long gone down it offered no advantage over the uncovered bowl to the other three sides of the pitch. The ground holds over twenty thousand but was only a quarter full, with twenty or so away fans behind the goal to my right.

I got chatting to a couple of teenage lads sat in the row in front of me who kept trying to feed me popcorn. I’ve never contemplated popcorn as football food. Mind you I can’t see the attraction of it in cinemas either. Or in the house. With the big news that week being Ronaldo signing for Al-Hilal’s rivals, Al-Nassr, one of them told me that they had plans to sign Messi. Maybe he’s in the know.

The only player that I was familiar with was the Al-Hilal striker, Ighalo. He’s the fella that Man Utd borrowed from a Chinese club a couple of years ago. He did ok, opening the scoring late in the first half when he steered home a cross from the left.

The home side doubled their lead not long after the restart when an Ighalo shot was turned onto the post and the rebound bundled in by a teammate.

Al-Hilal looked like they had put the game to bed with a third on the hour, but a VAR check ruled it out for offside. With time running out and the home side having withdrawn some of their better players, Damac pulled a goal back. They put the pressure on and equalized in added time after the Al-Hilal keeper, who had done well up to that point, fumbled a shot.

The small group of away fans were ecstatic with the lads in front of me distraught. Maybe they’ll cheer up when Messi signs.

The game brought my 2022 football watching to an end and the futbology app revealed that I’d been to one hundred and five matches, ranging from the World Cup to the tier seventeen Westmorland League Division Four, with a couple of Sunday League games for good measure. I’d watched the Boro first team thirty times and the Riverside was my most visited stadium with twenty-four visits. Key stat for me was that I’d been to seventy-four new grounds over the course of the year, taking my lifetime total to four hundred and seventy eight. It was a very enjoyable year.

Burnley v Middlesbrough, Saturday 17th December 2022, 3pm

December 19, 2022

At the start of this season there were two Championship grounds that I had yet to visit, Burnley and Watford. I missed the chance to go to Vicarage Road in the summer as we were over in The Lakes and it would have meant a ten hour round trip for an evening game. That left Burnley and fortunately Harry and I had just enough priority points for me to nab a couple of the remaining tickets and the last two seats on one of the Supporters Club coaches.

In the end I went by myself as Harry was ill. Shame really as he likes the away games where we stand in our end and sing. He enjoys the coaches too, particularly the banging on the window and the gesturing at the home fans walking to the ground. Oh, to be eleven again.

Mind you, a spare seat next to you on a coach isn’t a bad thing, particularly when the weather extends the journey time from two hours to three. The snow had laid and most of the livestock that we drove past looked as if they would rather be anywhere else than stood in a field.

We parked up with an hour and a half to kick-off. Burnley cricket club had opened up for away fans and it was packed with most of the 2,500 travelling support. I’m not overly keen on drinking cold beer when the outside temperature is close to freezing and so I limited myself to sausage and chips from the kitchen on the second floor.

It was all a bit busy and so I left everyone to it and headed back out towards the ground, passing the Jimmy Anderson Stand. I wonder if he ends up bowling there when his England and Lancashire days are over. We might have to wait a few years for that.

It didn’t take long to negotiate security outside the turnstiles. I had my big Russian coat on which already weighs as much as you’d expect a coat to do if the pockets were filled with flares and house bricks. Fortunately, I’d neglected to being anything like that and after a cursory pat down I was in.

My seat was central in the lower tier in the old stand behind the goal. There was another old stand to my right, the Bob Lord Stand, with newish looking structures to my left and at the other end.

I went into the game reasonably hopeful of getting something out of it and when Watmore put us ahead just after the break, three points looked a possibility. If the penalty appeal just afterwards had gone our way, then I think we might well have won. A twelve-minute spell where Burnley scored three times scuppered it though and a saved penalty near the end denied us a frantic finale. It was an enjoyable day out and another Championship ground ticked off. Just Watford remaining to complete the division.

Middlesbrough v Luton Town, Saturday 10th December 2022, 3pm

December 11, 2022

It seems ages since we’ve been to the Riverside, but it’s just five weeks. In that time though I’ve seen ten games elsewhere including fixtures in Latvia and Qatar, so it’s little wonder that the memories of the draw against Bristol City on the afternoon of Bonfire Night have already faded.

Jen and I drove back from Cumbria on the morning of the game. We’d stayed over the night before after a Boo Hewerdine gig. The trip had also given us the opportunity to do a little bit more of the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail. We did the good bits in the middle of the route ten years ago, but have recently been completing the sections at the western end. There’s not much wall to see, but it’s easy walking and well-signposted, so requires little preparation other than remembering where we left the trail on the previous visit.

On this occasion we had time to walk for six miles from Crosby on Eden to Rickerby Park and back. The temperature rarely got above zero and we saw little wildlife other than geese and robins, but it was great to be out in the fresh air before the daylight faded.

The gig was very good too. Boo was playing in the village hall in Armathwaite which has a capacity of less than one hundred. There was no bar, but everyone was encouraged to bring their own drink and we had a great view from the front row. Jen was a bit worried that he might think we were stalking him as we were front row in a small club in Bradford for one of his gigs last year, but I don’t think he recognized us.

I remember being front row for Mark Lamarr at the Comedy Store in Leicester Square thirty-five years ago. I had my beer resting on the stage and then my feet. Lamarr and I exchanged a few words during the show, culminating in him asking if I thought I could do better than him and then challenging me to step up on to the stage. I accepted his invitation and did an impression of Mr. Whippy having a shit. It got as big a laugh as he had done all night. Thankfully for the people of Armathwaite, the stage was too far away for me to put my feet up and there was no reprise of my brief stand-up career.

Having dropped off Jen, I picked up Harry and Alistair and we made our way to the Riverside. Talk was all about how Carrick was likely to have benefitted from the World Cup break with him having had the chance to get his ideas across the players. We also wondered how Riley McGree would do after the career high of playing in a World Cup against Messi.

Initially it looked as if there had been little benefit to us from the World Cup break as we struggled to assert ourselves against Luton, but we grew more into the game as the first half progressed. McGree looked more confident than usual, so perhaps there was a Qatar dividend. With time running out another Crooksy cameo goal took the three points and moved us into the top half of the table.

Wakefield AFC v Parkgate, Tuesday 6th December 2022, 7.45pm

December 7, 2022

I’ve not been to many mid-week games lately as I’ve just about exhausted my options for new grounds that I can get to in under an hour or so driving. However, Paul had a spare ticket for The Cure in Leeds and as Jen is a fan we decided to head down with the plan that she would attend the gig whilst I occupied myself elsewhere.

I could have watched the Portugal-Switzerland match on the telly in the hotel but live football is always better and so I drove the twenty-odd minutes to Featherstone to watch Wakefield take on Parkgate in the tenth-tier Northern Counties East Division One.

The Millennium Stadium is primarily a rugby league ground but Wakefield get to use it in the rugby off-season when Featherstone Rovers aren’t playing. They might play there during the rugby season too, but I haven’t checked as there’s a limit to how much research I’m willing to do for these posts.

What I did find out is that the ground is a lot older than its name would suggest, assuming that it refers to the second millennium and not the one just before King Harold had his eye out. It dates back to 1908 with the main stand having been built in the fifties and two of the smaller stands recycled from Scarborough when they switched grounds twenty years or so ago.

It was a fiver in and as usual I bought raffle tickets. Less usually, I actually won. I popped up to the bar at half-time and was given the choice of a Wakefield beanie or scarf or a trucker’s cap supplied and branded by the sponsors, Lucas Oil Products. I’ve never driven a truck, but on the off-chance that I might do someday I selected the cap.

In addition to the drinks options available in the bar there was also a burger van open. The chips in curry sauce washed down with a Bovril worked well in temperatures not far above freezing. I was glad of my Russian coat, but did think that long johns might have been a sensible addition in the circumstances.

There was a decent turnout of 211 for a game at this level, particularly with World Cup football on the telly. Many of them nursed a pint of lager which didn’t seem like the greatest choice of drink. It was the sort of evening where hot toddies or mulled wine might have been big sellers if available.

Wakefield took the lead in the opening few minutes and then added a second mid-way through the first half. They were well on top throughout the opening forty-five minutes and missed numerous chances as well as having one disallowed for offside. It’s no exaggeration to say that they could have gone in at the break six goals to the good.

The standard was decent, higher I thought than the equivalent level Northern League Division Two, on a pitch with grass that needed an inch or so trimming off it. Maybe it’s kept that way at the request of Featherstone Rovers.

The game looked over when Wakefield scored from a Panenka penalty early in the second half, a move that had the Parkgate keeper chasing after the scorer in a rage. It might have turned into a rout at that point but Parkgate stemmed the pressure and pulled one back midway through the half. From that point the game got increasingly niggly culminating in a home player seeing red for exacting some retribution off the ball. The visitors scored from the subsequent free kick to set up a frantic last few minutes. However, Wakefield managed to see the game out with ten men to take the points that had looked to be in the bag just half an hour earlier.

I’m told The Cure were very good, but I think I made the right choice with my evening’s entertainment.

Kirkby Lonsdale Reserves v Burton Thistle, Saturday 3rd December 2022, 11.30am

December 5, 2022

Jen and I had driven across to Cumbria last month for a Westmorland League fixture on the strength of a Twitter post that mentioned that one of the teams, Kirkby Lonsdale Reserves, had fielded a sixty-eight-year-old in their previous game. Unfortunately, that game at Sedbergh was postponed and so we missed an opportunity of seeing such an unusual occurrence in person.

Once I get an idea in my head I’m persistent though and so two weeks later we headed back over, this time to Kirkby Lonsdale to see their reserve team take on Burton Thistle in the seventeenth-tier Westmorland League Division Four.

Ideally on a trip like this we’d go for a walk beforehand or at least have a mooch around the town. However, due to the possibility of England playing their round of sixteen World Cup game on the afternoon, the fixture had been pre-emptively brought forward to an eleven-thirty kick-off.

I’d intended that we hung around and had some lunch afterwards, but it was Christmas Market weekend in Kirkby Lonsdale and the place was crammed with people eager to pay over the odds for anything sprinkled with cinnamon. That made parking difficult for those of us with an important reason to be there and meant that after the game I was happy to clear straight off.

The match was at Lunefield Park. It’s an area down by the river with two marked pitches and a clubhouse. We were on the pitch furthest from the river without the dugouts. Initially I only noticed one other spectator apart from Jen and myself, although as the game went on a few other people wandered over, with all of them looking as if they had some connection to the home side.

None of the players seemed to be close to seventy, with the oldest looking like he might be around fifty. I wondered if one of the linesman might be the elderly fella who had turned out last month but he flatly denied it and, as he seemed to be from the Burton Thistle camp rather than Kirkby Lonsdale, was probably telling the truth.

The game was played in good spirit and well-controlled by the ref, who conducted himself as if it were a Premier League match. He wasn’t helped by either linesman who rarely made a call that didn’t favour their own team. The home lino combined his flag waving with coaching the players near to him and appealing to the ref for various decisions. I’m surprised that he didn’t also take the odd corner.

The standard was as you might expect for a game at its level. Most of the goals came from defensive errors and it ended up with Kirkby Lonsdale running out four-two winners. Burton missed a few chances, particularly in the second half, and could easily have come away with at least a point. No doubt we’ll be back over to the Westmorland League before long in the hope of catching sight of the old bloke.

Horseracing at Catterick, Monday 28th November 2022

December 5, 2022

It’s been quiet for a while on the horseracing front. The syndicate voted to keep Ironopolis and run him as a three-year-old. It’s a decision I was pleased with as I think he has potential and I’d rather see him win in our colours than in someone else’s.

It was also decided that as he won’t run until Spring at the earliest, we would lease a horse for a few months for over the winter. One of the syndicate members has a suitable horse and so it’s ownership was temporarily switched and a few of us went along to Catterick to see his first run over hurdles.

Catterick is a small, quiet track and just the sort of place I like, particularly on a winter weekday. There was a lot of fog in the air, so much so that there was some doubt over whether the meeting would go ahead. The commentator struggled once the horses were more than about fifty yards from his position and so had to just make assumptions as to where he thought they might be.

The owner’s badges entitled us to some lunch and so we had cottage pie in an upper tier restaurant that would have normally provided a great view of the course. On this occasion it was fine for the hundred yards or so to the right or left but of little benefit elsewhere.

Positive Force didn’t have the best of days. The bookies had him down as fifth choice in a field of seven and he finished sixth. It might have been that he was still not fully rested from his flat season efforts or maybe the ground was a bit of the soft side. Alternatively, he may just be a horse that isn’t keen on jumping over things.

There was talk of a possible run on the all-weather, so maybe reverting to the flat and a shorter distance might suit him better.

Wales v Iran, Friday 25th November 2022, 1pm

November 29, 2022

Friday meant our last game of the trip, just as we were getting the hang of it all. We’d learned that the metro was probably the best way to get to a stadium as it eliminated the risk of a traffic jam, whilst taking the bus back to Doha centre meant avoiding the post-match crush.

Ahmad Bin Ali stadium is around twenty kilometres west of Doha and we took the same green line that we’d used for the opening game, travelling one stop beyond the Education City stadium. Our carriage had a fairly even mix of the two sets of supporters and we got songs from both sides.

There was a fifteen-minute walk to the ground, although we ended up spending half an hour or so faffing around as I couldn’t get my digital match ticket to activate. We called into the ticket centre and two young girls worked their magic so that my phone could pick up the necessary Bluetooth and location signals.

We joined the queue for the entrance, just in front of some Welsh fellas who expressed some very anti-English sentiments. Presumably they either didn’t know or didn’t care about our nationality but it left me a little less favourable to the Principality’s chances than I had been.

Once inside Paul and I made our way to the upper tier and our seats in the corner. It was a decent view and well-shaded. I took the opportunity to ask the bloke behind to photograph us. I rarely bother with that sort of thing, but we’ve had one taken at each of the last four World Cups and its good to keep the continuity going as well as confirming my belief that we’ve barely aged at all.

The anthems were interesting. Wales sang theirs with all the gusto that you’d expect. It’s a great anthem, not quite as good as the French one in my opinion, but not far short.

The Iranian anthem had caused some controversy in their first game when the team had declined to sing it. They relented this time, presumably, and understandably, under some intense pressure, and the protesting against their government was left to the fans. There was plenty of booing and whistling and a woman a few rows behind us shouted ‘Freedom’ all the way through it.

Iran created the better chances in the first half and should have scored. One pass too many meant that when they did get the ball in the net the VAR team ruled it offside. The Wales fans around us seemed surprised that it wasn’t going to plan and may very well have thought it an easy three points after England’s 6-2 demolition of Iran four days earlier.

I suspect that the heat didn’t help and most of the Wales players, particularly the older ones, seemed sluggish and well off the pace of the game.

The second half was mainly more of the same and the game looked to be heading for a draw, until with five minutes left the Welsh keeper ‘Schumachered’ an Iranian who was headed for goal. The initial yellow was overturned, and he had to go. I was hoping that Wales had used all five subs and would have to put an outfield player between the sticks, but sadly they had at least one substitution remaining and were able to bring on another keeper.

The stoppage contributed to nine minutes of additional time and that was sufficient for Iran to score twice. I couldn’t resist a wry smile, not because I’ve anything against Wales, but more in support of an underdog and the joy that each goal brought to the Iranian fans around us.

At the final whistle the walk to the bus hub thinned out the crowd and we were soon being driven away without any queueing at all. It had been a very enjoyable tournament. The boat accommodation worked well and the organization and transport logistics for getting to the games had been first-class. I found the people that we encountered to be friendly, polite and happy to talk about their lives.

One thought that I took away from Qatar is that football support can be passionate without alcohol. I rarely drink at games anyway these days, but it was a pleasure to go to matches without encountering the pissed-up cokeheads that are hard to avoid in England, particularly as an away fan in the higher tiers of the pyramid.

The November scheduling wasn’t an issue for me and, as a plus, means that we are only three and a half years away from 2026. I’ve not yet seen matches in Canada or Mexico so am looking forward to that World Cup and a North American adventure.