Argentina v Nigeria, Tuesday 26th June 2018, 9pm

July 9, 2018

After seeing the Brazil game, Paul and I had a four-day wait for our next live action. At previous World Cups we had always seen matches at more than one venue, but this time we’d opted for a more leisurely stay in just the single location.

There’s plenty to do in Saint Petersburg though and we started off with a wander around an old barracks just across the river from our hotel. It had a church with a golden spire that I doubt would have lasted too long in Teesside.

On the same day we called in at a museum to see a collection assembled by one of the Tsars, Peter The Great.  Pete seemed to have a bit of a scattergun approach to collecting, similar I suppose to my own where late evening post-drinking ebay sessions have seen me amass anything from postcards of Norton to houses in Bulgaria.

I’ve not yet started a collection of dead babies in jam jars though, or of two-headed calves. Still it’s probably just a matter of time and whilst some visitors politely feigned interest in stuff like the Red Indian clothing it was fetuses in formaldehyde and the cows that could drink and moo simultaneously that everyone was really there for.

There’s a much bigger museum in town, the Hermitage and whilst it didn’t appear to have any bovines blessed with multiple bonces it did have some Eskimo corpses that had been discovered in glaciers somewhere. Unfortunately the queues for tickets were too long for nothing better than icy Inuits and so the most we saw was the building and the big square outside.

All the culture fitted nicely around the three games a day routine with us mixing up the various pubs that we watched each match in. There were traditional Russian bars, Irish bars, a middle eastern place where the air hung heavily with smoke from hookah pipes and an English bar with a regal presence.

It was the Tower pub where we watched a quite astonishing first half performance from England against Panama. I remember being derided on a football message board as a ‘Southgate apologist’ for defending Gareth during his spell at the Boro. No doubt the same people were the ones later describing him as an ‘FA suit’, employed only because he was a ‘yes-man’. My current interest in England’s national team is mainly because of his Boro connection and it’s great to see that our Carling Cup captain has well and truly silenced his critics.

In addition to the bars, there was also the Fan Fest. I’m not usually that keen these days on loud, drunken crowds, but the atmosphere around Saint Petersburg was so good that we thought we’d have to give it a try one afternoon.

Thankfully there was a Russian alternative to Budweiser and it was enjoyable to sit in the shadow of The Church Of The Spilled Blood and watch Belgium and Tunisia play out a nine-goal game of what my Mam might describe as ‘shotty-in’.

By Tuesday it was time for our second live game, Argentina against Nigeria. It was make or break for both teams and after a few drinks in a city centre Irish Bar watching a Denmark game featuring ex-Boro players Martin Braithwaite and Viktor Fisher, we took the subway up to the stadium.

There were an abundance of Messi shirts among the crowd, that might quite easily have been two-thirds Argentinian.

The process of getting in to the stadium was as easy as it had been for the Brazil game, although this time our seats were on the dugout side of the ground and so we had to walk around almost all of the stadium due to the one way system that was in place.

We had a couple of beers and then took our seats among what is probably one of the noisiest crowds I’ve ever been in.  I had to shout in order to make myself heard to Paul in the next seat. There were small pockets of Nigerian fans around the stadium but it seemed as if everyone else was cheering on Argentina.

Messi, perhaps stung by the “Messi, Ciao” chants that had been randomly breaking out wherever we had been over the previous few days set Argentina off on the right foot, but after Nigeria equalised from the spot it was difficult to see how the South Americans would come up with a necessary second goal.

Nevertheless, the Argentinian support never wavered, particularly from the bloke behind us who seemed to know no other word than ‘Puta’ and who struggled to keep his beer within his plastic cup. Their support was rewarded with a late winner that sent Argentina into the next round and despite us having to lap the full stadium to get to the subway we managed to get ahead of the celebrating fans and were away before the volume of people brought things to a standstill.

It was a great week, in a city where I could quite happily live. The media had been putting out the scare stories prior to the tournament in the same way that they did before South Africa and Brazil and if it were down to me I’d lock up some of the editors and proprietors for their lies and the worry that they caused. The reality was that the claims could not have been more wrong and not only did we see no trouble, but the people we met could not have been friendlier. Well done Russia and roll on Qatar.

Brazil v Costa Rica, Friday 22nd June 2018, 3pm

July 3, 2018

I watch a lot of lower-level football, quite often where the players are unpaid and the crowds are in double figures at best. Sometimes though, it’s good to watch the game at an elite level and it doesn’t get much more elite than a World Cup. Paul and I had been to the last three World Cups and I’d been looking forward to this tournament since the hosting nation was announced. Russia has always seemed to me to be a ‘proper’ football country, particularly in the Soviet days with Lev Yashin in his black kit and Oleg Blokhin in a CCCP tracksuit.

If the tournament itself wasn’t elite enough, we’d struck lucky in the draw for a change and our first game pitched Costa Rica against Brazil. How good was that? Watching Brazil in a World Cup moves eliteness up to a whole new level. I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Brazil. I suppose most people do. I’d like to say it dates from the Juninho era at the Boro, but I can remember wearing a Brazil shirt in ’94 to cheer them on to their fourth star in a variety of Edinburgh pubs.

Paul and I flew into Saint Petersburg the day before the game. Immigration went super-smoothly with our Fan-Ids serving as visas and after a taxi journey in drizzling rain we were at our hotel next to the Niva River. We had good views of some old buildings and we were in time to catch the second half of the France v Peru game in one of the hotel bars.

In addition to showing the match on the telly, the hotel also seemed to be hosting some sort of ‘Russia’s Got Talent’ style competition in a curtained-off section of the room. The curtain provided little protection against the loud drumming that accompanied most acts and so we headed off out in search of somewhere more suitable for the 9pm game between Argentina and Croatia.

A bar around the corner proved to be a better venue with the game up on a couple of big screens, local beer at under two quid a pint, sausage and cheese for snacks and a forlorn bloke in an Argie shirt at odds with the rest of the bar who seemed to delight in the Croatian win.

We left not long after the final whistle and with twilight closing in picked up a couple of bottles of cider from a window in a wall to finish the evening off.

Next morning was match day and as an app on Paul’s phone suggested that stadium was an hour and forty minutes away on foot, we thought we’d set off about eleven and take in the sights on the way to the ground. It all started well. We passed numerous historic looking buildings and saw plenty of fans milling around.

After an hour or so there were fewer people in replica shirts and we were out in the suburbs. The architecture from a hundred and fifty years ago had given way to Soviet era apartment blocks and more modern-day high-rise buildings.

After two hours of walking and with another two to go to kick-off, Paul decided to check that the ground we were walking to and were still more than half an hour away from, really was the World Cup Stadium. Well, what do you know? It wasn’t. We’d just spent two hours walking towards the an old stadium where nobody, least of all the Brazil team, was appearing. The confusion appears to be due to the correct location having a variety of names ranging from the Arena Stadium to the Zenit Stadium by way of the Saint Petersburg Stadium or the Krestovsky Stadium. I’ve a feeling that we had been well on the way to the old Zenit ground rather than the new one. It would have been nice to have seen it, but not, I suppose, at the expense of a World Cup game.

Fortunately Paul’s app gave us directions to the correct ground that involved a few stops on a bus and a couple of subway rides, enabling us to arrive with fifty minutes to spare.

The access to the ground was managed by a one-way circuit. As we made our way towards the gates, there were frequent chants from Brazilians, Costa Ricans and neutrals alike revelling in the misfortune of Argentina the previous evening.

“Di Maria, Ciao! Mascherano, Ciao! Messi, Ciao, Messi, Ciao, Messi, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao!”

The queues at our gate were well-marshalled and whilst I did see riot police loitering, they kept a low profile and left the crowd management to stewards. In order to get through the turnstile you had to have the bar code on your Fan-Id scanned and then the bar code on your ticket.

With your photo on the Fan-Id and your name on both, the system looks to have killed touting stone-dead. In contrast to every other tournament I’ve been to where tickets have been readily available, I didn’t see anyone trying to off-load spares and I only noticed one person looking to buy.

Once inside, we got a couple of Buds. Whilst I’m appreciative of FIFA’s stance on selling alcohol and their willingness to allow it to be swigged in the stands, I’d like it a whole lot better if they could find a better global beer partner. Or, if it’s all about the marketing, just sell something decent in a Budweiser cup.

Our Category One seats at two hundred and ten dollars a pop were half-way up the upper tier, about level with one of the goals. We were a long way from the pitch but the fairly steep incline in the stands helped a little with the view.

I’m not sure how the ticket allocation was organised. We’d bought our tickets blind before the draw, but the stadium was probably half full of Brazilian fans, or at least spectators in Brazil shirts. There were random small blocks of Costa Ricans, each one maybe two or three hundred strong.

The lack of segregation made for an unusual atmosphere. We had Costa Ricans in the row behind us, with Brazilians to the right and left. These fans ignored each other and took the safer option of taunting rivals ten or twenty yards away instead. The Brazilians struck me as being quite arrogant, frequently pointing to the stars on their shirts or holding up five fingers and a clenched fist to highlight the difference in the historical achievements of the two sides.

Both fans were united however in their condemnation of anything they didn’t like with a cry of “Puta” or one of its variants. No matter what irked them the instant response was to suggest that the perpetrator or his Mam was on the game. It’s all a bit tiresome really.

Mind you, I was tempted to sling a few insults myself at whoever had decided that Brazil would wear blue shirts. It’s Brazil FFS and if I’m finally going to see them I want the full experience with the iconic kit. There’s nothing wrong with the blue shirt but it’s like when, say, The Waterboys don’t sing their ‘Whole Of The Moon’ song. Perfectly acceptable if you see them fairly often, but if it’s your one and maybe only time, you want to hear their hit.

The performance of the five-times champions wasn’t much better than their choice of shirt. They were cagey in the first half, with Willian getting the hook at the break for as less a Brazilian performance as you could imagine. They were a bit more forceful in the second half but it took until injury time for them to get the opener, quickly followed by a victory-confirming second goal, much to the delight of the fella to our right.

There was a walk through the woods to the subway after the game where foam-handed volunteers were positioned to high-five the departing fans. We had been intending to call into the Fan Fest but the queues were a little on the long side so we popped into a nearby hotel instead for the second half of the Nigeria v Iceland game and then headed back to the bar we’d been in the previous night for Switzerland and Serbia.

After what could have been a disastrous trip to the wrong ground, it turned out to be a pretty decent day in the end.

Police v Army, Saturday 2nd June 2018, 3pm

June 8, 2018

Laos is one of those countries where it’s quite difficult to plan ahead if you are trying to see a football game. The information is all out there somewhere but it’s not the easiest to find until a week or so before any matches take place.

I had a three-day weekend back in March and on that occasion we made a speculative trip only to find that the top-level fixtures had been cancelled in preparation for a forthcoming international game. That time we stayed the Saturday night in the capital, Vientiane and our hotel was just around the corner from the old national stadium.

We had a wander around the old ground and, rather frustratingly, were told that a match would take place the following day, a couple of hours after our onward flight to Luang Prabang was due to depart. The fella I was talking to spoke no English, so I wasn’t able to work out what level of game I was missing, but it suggested that their league structure might be a little deeper than the Premier League that I was aware of.

We arrived in Luang Prabang the next day and I had faint hopes that there might also be some sort of game on at the local ground. It normally hosts a Premier League team, but if there was another level below that then who knows?

I was briefly encouraged as we approached the ground after a two miles walk from the town centre. There was a woman with a stall outside the main entrance selling shirts and flags. It’s hard to imagine that she would bother doing that on a non-match day.

Hard to imagine it may have been, but that’s exactly what she was doing. After she confirmed that no game was scheduled we made a lap of what appeared to be a stadium as old as the one we’d seen the day before. There was a gate open further around which gave us the opportunity to have a look from inside the ground rather than just peeking in.

Oh well. Still, it wasn’t a completely wasted trip as Luang Prabang is an interesting place to visit. There are the usual temples and markets, a rickety bridge across the Mekong and any number of elephant ‘sanctuaries’. I’m not wholly convinced by the use of elephants in tourism though and had little desire to join a queue of backpackers to sit on the back of one.

However, I found a place that seemed to better balance the need for cash with the best interests of the elephants. You weren’t allowed to ride them, but instead a group of no more than four people could walk alongside the elephants for a couple of hours.

You took a boat across a river to a spot where a couple of females and a two-year old male calf were fed bananas every morning at the same time. You then walked a mile or so along a track to a spot where they were fed again. The elephants weren’t guaranteed to turn up, or indeed to move to the next spot, but elephants aren’t daft and are unlikely to turn down a regular feed.

We fed them bananas at the first place as planned and then walked with them to the second one. Sometimes we plodged though rivers or mud but with some kind of wet-suit material socks on our feet it was easy enough.

A one stage the young ‘un got a bit arsey and charged at me. The guides flapped a bit but I stood my ground and steered him away. I don’t think he had any really bad intentions, but I imagine he could be a bit of a handful as he gets older.

Anyway, after a third and final stop for bananas another mile or so along, the elephants had no further need for us and left the trail by heading up a bank into the undergrowth. It was a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours and I’d be happy to do it again at some point.

This latest trip was just to Vientiane and planned around a fixture that I’d noticed on a list posted on Lao Toyota FC Facebook feed. I’m not really a big user of Facebook as, this blog apart, I’m quite a secretive person who doesn’t like people knowing what I’m up to. Still, I can appreciate that it has its uses at times.

Once we were into the final few days before the flight a bit more information appeared and as luck would have it I had a choice of three games. I picked the first one of a double-header taking place at the New National Stadium, mainly on the basis that the three o’clock kick-off left more time for carousing later in the day.

The new national stadium, didn’t look that new to me, although I suppose it’s relative. I still see the Riverside as new, but I’ve been going there longer than the twenty-one years that I went to Ayresome Park. In another similarity it’s out of town, in this case by more than half an hour in a taxi.

With plenty of time before kick-off we had a mooch around the outside for a bit, nipping in through an open entrance to photograph the main stand before heading back around to the main entrance to get inside.

Nobody was selling or asking for tickets and so we followed the VVIP signs and emerged in the directors box where we took a couple of seats. If I were a real director I’d be asking them to remove the loud speakers that were blasting out the fucking racket that I hear all over Asia about somebody sending out misleading dating signals by leaving their clothes on someone else’s bedroom floor.

Our covered seats were in the west stand, giving us shade throughout the match. I spotted one person in the uncovered end to our left, but nobody in the covered, but less shaded, stand opposite or the uncovered end to our right.

At kick-off there probably weren’t more than thirty people in the stadium, including our somewhat bemused taxi-driver who had agreed to wait for us and who found it hard to understand why a local game would have any spectators at all. The rest of the crowd at that stage were predominantly wives and girlfriends of the players and they were quick to fold the team sheets that they were given into makeshift fans.

The Police team, in red, had more of the early chances. The Army, who were in white, had a striker with a weird little top knot that I like to think was some sort of variation on a fusilier’s hackle. There was no real niggle in the game which surprised me as you never know when the two teams could find themselves on opposite sides in a coup.

By the time the teams went in goalless at the break the crowd had swollen to around a hundred. It probably doubled during the second half as the officials and fans of Lao Toyota and Young Elephant arrived in advance of their 5.30pm kick-off.

It was Top Knot who broke the deadlock when he knocked the opener in off the far post. The goal caused his wag to scream in delight for a good minute or so afterwards.

There was a lot of of Army timewasting  in the closing stages. I’d have hated to have had to try and get any of them to go ‘over the top’in the trenches and I suspect that the victory parade would have been long over before any of these fellas were ready to make a move. The delaying tactics paid off though and the Army comfortably saw out the remaining minutes for a one-nil victory.

The match took the total number of countries in which I’ve seen a football game to forty-five. My next game will be country number forty-six and the World Cup clash in Saint Petersburg between Brazil and Costa Rica. Whilst there will be a bigger crowd and better players, I’m sure that there will be a similar level of time-wasting in the final few minutes.

 

Kuching FA v ATM, Sunday 13th May 2018, 4.15pm

May 25, 2018

Kuching is over on the Borneo bit of Malaysia. It’s somewhere that Jen and I had been before to stay in a couple of the nearby national parks. Kubar national park was ok, but we didn’t see a lot of wildlife. I think the highlight was a grub that we spotted on the path as we hiked to a waterfall.

Bako national park is much better. We’d last stayed there a few months ago and the highlight of that trip was seeing a snake eating a lizard. We were walking on one of the trails near the camp and spotted the snake ahead of us. He was obviously engrossed in something and as we got close we realised that he was attempting to scoff a lizard.

I know you aren’t supposed to interfere in these things or even touch the wildlife, but I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Steve Irwin type. After all, messing around with the wildlife rarely did him any harm. I’d had a bit of success in catching a slow worm on the North Yorks moors last year and so I thought I’d catch this snake too.

I’ve no idea if the snake was venomous or not, even after a subsequent google search, but there was no way he was going to drop his dinner to give me a cautionary nip. On the other hand, his Dad might have been keeping an eye out for him and so I moved them from the path into the undergrowth and we watched him finish his lunch.

We stayed at Bako again this trip and whilst we didn’t see any snakes we did get up close to a few proboscis monkeys and plenty of macaques. The macaques are no big deal as I see them every morning driving to work but proboscis monkeys in the wild are a lot rarer.

There were also a few wild pigs knocking around. We watched one eating a particularly chewy looking octopus on the beach. The last time we were here I gave the pigs a drink of beer by tipping it down from the seating area outside of our hut, but by the time the pigs turned up on this visit I only had the one can left and there was no way they were getting that.

After a Saturday night in Bako we took the boat back along the coast to Kuching. Our flight wasn’t until the evening and so that gave us the opportunity of taking in a third tier game at the Negeri Stadium.

The taxi driver knew his stuff and in addition to taking us to the right place, he pointed out the rest of the stadia in the complex. There’s a new football stadium, although he reckoned that it rarely hosted games, a couple of practice pitches and stadiums for swimming and diving, hockey and basketball. I could probably live quite happily in Kuching, even if they didn’t have snakes, pigs or monkeys.

Whilst he knew all about the layout of the stadia complex, our taxi driver was less well-informed on the third division fixture list and he was concerned that we might have turned up for nothing. He very kindly collared someone who looked like he knew what he was doing to check that there was definitely a game taking place.

The bloke was a volunteer for the Kuching club and he took us in through the main entrance and up to the VIP Area. He advised us to sit in the press box, so that we could recharge our phones if we wished and he later sent someone up with a large electric fan for us. Perfect.

The Negeri Stadium seemed quite old. We were in the covered main stand. The rest of the ground comprised of a concrete open-ended horseshoe with a roof over the section opposite to us. I don’t think I saw anyone in any of the other stands.

The visitors, ATM, are the Malaysian Army team. I’ve no idea if the players are all serving soldiers or if they are allowed to draft a few ringers in. I was disappointed in their choice of kit, an unusual blue shirts with red shorts combo. They should wear camouflage or khaki kit really, unless it’s a cup final where they could turn out in something with plenty of braid on it.

Kuching were dressed up as Atletico Madrid.

As kick-off approached a few fans started to file in, most of them sitting to our right. There were probably about two hundred altogether. Whilst the majority seemed to be supporting the home side, most of the noise came from half a dozen military men, sat up at the back.

Both sides had early chances and it was the Army who took the lead after twenty minutes with a close range shot through a melee of defenders. Kuching had plenty of chances but ATM clinched the points with a second goal a quarter of an hour from the end.

 

Japanese FC v The Mighty Shane, Sunday 22nd April 2018, 11am

May 23, 2018

As good as an evening at the baseball is, what I really wanted to see whilst in Taipei was a football game. One of my current ‘collectables’ is ‘countries where I’ve seen a football match’ and I still hadn’t added Taiwan to my list despite this being our third visit.

Last time around, I’d planned to see Taiwan Football Premier League team Royal Blues at the Taipei Stadium. However, in an ever more familiar tale of ground hopping woe, they switched the fixture to the other end of the island at short notice. We spent that afternoon jumping from one taxi to another or staring forlornly at empty pitches.

It initially seemed that my luck would be little better this trip as for some reason it was a blank weekend for the top-tier Football Premier League. My mood brightened though when I discovered what appeared to be the next league down, the On Tap Premier League. Even better, there was a fixture scheduled for the Sunday morning at the Fu Jen University Stadium.

It wasn’t the busiest of events and by the time the game kicked off there were just the six of us watching. Jen and I had the main (and only) stand to ourselves, whilst a couple sat picnicking with their young son who had just finished his football training. The crowd was completed by a bloke who may or may not have been sleeping rough and who was resting in the shade under a tree.

The Mighty Shane seemed like a bunch of English blokes. I’m going to guess ESL teachers. They had a classic Sunday league approach, getting changed by the side of the pitch and then rather impressively putting in a lap of the pitch for a warm up. To their credit, I didn’t see any of them throwing up the previous night’s excesses in the way that I remember from my George and Dragon days.

Japanese FC might well have been mainly Japanese. They warmed up by having a chat and in at least one case, a pre-match fag.

The game started a few minutes later than planned due to the last-minute arrival of a linesman. There wasn’t a lot of scheduling leeway though as the plastic pitch was being used again at 1pm and 3pm. One of the Mighty Shane subs strolled up just as the teams were lining up and bellowed instructions at everyone. Presumably “Set your alarm clock” wasn’t one of them. When the action got underway his favorite admonishment was that “We are too fucking quiet”.

I thought that the Mighty Shane were not nearly quiet enough, especially when some of them gave the ref a load of abuse. The Japanese players on the other hand were much quieter. I like that. They weren’t any more punctual though with one of their subs turning up a good ten minutes after kick-off. Not only was he late, but he’d brought a dog with him. Hopefully it knew the pitch was just for football.

The overall standard was generally pretty poor with most players looking like they were running in quicksand. If a player ever did manage to control the ball then he would invariably find the opposition with this next touch rather than a team-mate. It was a while before the Japanese team strung three consecutive passes together. I’m not sure that Mighty Shane ever did.

Much to the fury of the shouty bloke on the Mighty Shane bench, Japanese FC took the lead after about ten minutes with a neat finish from a cut-back. The quieter lads went on to double their lead with an unchallenged tap-in from a corner after twenty minutes.

“Come on!” the beaten keeper shouted at no-one in particular. “We are better than this”.  I don’t think anyone really believed him though and it was no surprise when the not so Mighty Shane eventually succumbed to a four-one defeat.

Brothers v Guardians, Saturday 21st April 2018, 5.05pm

May 21, 2018

The first weekend after returning from Europe we headed off to Taiwan. It’s more than four hours flying time from Kuala Lumpur, but that doesn’t seem such a big deal after the thirteen hour flights to and from London.

First up was the baseball game at the Xinzhuang stadium between the Brothers and the Guardians. It’s the home stadium of the Guardians but baseball for some reason, lists the away team first. We’d booked a hotel just around the corner and so had no more than a short walk to the ballpark. We spotted a few black squirrels scampering around that looked larger than the grey squirrels in the UK.

As we approached the ticket office I was still in two minds as to where to sit. My preference is usually for the free-seating outfield seats, the ‘bleachers’ as they are known in America. It’s mainly because I’m anti-social and want the option of sitting apart from my fellow spectators if they are making a nuisance of themselves. Although I’ve also an aversion to watching a game through a protective net and by sitting far enough away I can get an unobstructed, if somewhat distant, view.

However, it looked like rain was in the air and so I had to consider whether to go for something in the main stand that was undercover. In the end, my preference for being as far away from other people made the bleachers worth the risk and so we paid 250 dollars (six quid) each for outfield seats.

It turned out to be the right decision as the rain held off all evening. In fact, in hindsight, the cloud cover might have been smog rather than a potential downpour. We’d seen a fair bit of industry on the way in, which didn’t surprise me as when I was a kid it seemed as if everything made from plastic had been produced in Taiwan. So, bad for the lungs I suppose, but less need for an umbrella.

As I was unsure as to what refreshments would be available I brought a selection of beers in with me. Some of it was local, but I also played safe with stocks of a couple of Japanese beers. I usually plump for Asahi in these situations but on this occasion I supplemented the ‘Gold Medal’ Taiwan Beer with Kirin and Sapporo instead. I thought the local stuff tasted a little soapy, which I doubt very much is the flavour that they were striving for.

We’d selected our seats well as most of the visiting racket came from the section on the other side of the scoreboard. They had drums, a brass section and a megaphone or two. The singing section for the home fans was up to our left in the covered stand. Far enough away to be of minimal disturbance.

There were a few home fans near to us who piped up later in the game, but it was easy enough for us to shift along a block or two for a different and quieter vantage point.

The Brothers, who were wearing a mismatched grey kit that looked as if the trousers had been washed on a hot setting a lot more frequently than the shirts, took a 9-0 lead. There was a brief fight back from the Guardians that I thought might let them make a game of it, but in the end the Brothers ran out convincing 15-4 winners.

Racing at Sedgefield, Friday 13th April 2018

May 8, 2018

Jen and I were in the UK for a few days and staying in Sedgefield. There was a Friday afternoon race meeting on and as it was only a twenty minute walk away we had a stroll over.

We got there shortly before the first race and paid sixteen quid each to get into the grandstand section. It didn’t look as if the cheaper area in the centre of the circuit was open. I’ve been to Sedgefield before for evening and Saturday fixtures and there are usually a few families in there. Perhaps with this meeting being on a weekday and, I imagine, a lot of punters preferring to watch Aintree on the telly, it wasn’t worth them bothering opening it up.

Once inside it was clear that we’d picked a quiet day with probably no more than a couple of hundred attendees. That’s fine with me though, I can do without the crowds, particularly groups of people on the drink. My own drinking is fine, it’s just other people doing it that I don’t like.

I started with a pint of John Smith’s Smooth. It’s terrible stuff but there didn’t appear to be anything else. Fortunately I spotted some bottles of Wainwright’s Golden Ale in a fridge behind the bar. They were a lot more drinkable, with a hoppy, floral flavour. The barmaid apologised for the £5.10 price tag but it still struck me as better value than the John Smiths and would still have been even if they had been giving the Smooth away for free.

It wasn’t the best of weather with a hint of rain in the air and enough mist to make viewing of the far side of the course less than ideal. But, cold and damp trumps the hot and damp climate of Malaysia and I was more than happy to have to keep warm in a battered old Barbour that I’ve inherited from my Dad.

There were seven races, six over jumps and a bumper to finish, with another seven on the big screen from Aintree. We made a poor start to the betting but clawed it back over the course of the afternoon and went into the last race in the position where if our horse were to win then we’d have made a small profit and if it lost we’d go home a few quid down. It was second. Still a good day though.

Middlesbrough v Nottingham Forest, Saturday 7th April 2018, 3pm

May 2, 2018

I’d had plans whilst back in the UK to take in a Northern League fixture or two. However, stuff got in the way and so the only match I saw was the Boro’s home game against Forest.

There was a ‘fanzone’ outside the ground for this game. It was nothing like the fanzones that I’ve visited at World Cups, with just a small bar, a few umbrellas and not much else. Still, as Tom was in the South Stand whilst I was in the West Lower it meant we could have a pre-match Heineken outside of the Riverside.  That’s a step in the right direction I suppose.

I’d chosen the West Lower just for a change. There aren’t any spare seats near Tom and, if the truth be known, I was happy to be in a part of the ground with a better view and a chance to sit down.

I suppose the main talking point was the return of Karanka. I noticed a Basque flag in among the Red Faction banners being waved before kick-off and I suppose that was probably for his benefit, although they might very well wave it every week.

Aitor kept a low profile until about ten minutes in when he got up and moved from the bench to the technical area. He seemed surprised and emotional at the applause that rang around the ground, followed by the singing of his name and then a request for a wave.

By that time Danny Ayala had already put us a goal up and half an hour in Stewie added a second. That was enough to beat a limited Forest side. I imagine Karanka will tighten them up at the back fairly sharpish but I wonder whether he will be able to develop them into a team that can recover from going behind. I hope so, but despite all his success in the Championship, he never really managed it with us.

SD Eibar v Real Sociedad, Sunday 1st April 2018, 6.30pm

April 30, 2018

The first couple of nights on this Spain trip were spent in Vitoria-Gasteiz. It’s just like almost every other Spanish town of a similar size, with a few big churches, a historic centre and any number of narrow cobbled streets and tapas bars. Perfect really.  It’s also the home town of La Liga side Alaves. Unfortunately they didn’t have a home game during our stay and so I had to look a little further afield to Eibar for a game on the Sunday evening.

The 6.30pm kick-off worked well in that it gave us plenty of time to go for a walk along the GR-38. It’s a hiking trail that extends from Oyon to Otxandio and over our four-day stay we managed to cover forty miles through woodland, vineyards and a selection of small villages. It was an ideal way to finally finish off a pair of shoes.

The post-hiking drive to Eibar should have been a straightforward forty-five minutes up the motorway, but for some reason the sat nav took us to Durango instead which, once we’d realised we were in the wrong place, meant a doubling of our journey time. You can see Eibar’s Ipurua municipal stadium from the motorway, but parking nearby was initially hard to find. Fortunately El Corte Ingles had generously opened their underground car park, despite the store itself being closed for Easter Sunday. It meant that even with the detour and the parking difficulties I still found myself outside of the ground with twenty minutes to spare.

I’d initially expected to struggle for a ticket as Eibar’s ground only holds seven thousand, an amazingly small capacity for a top-flight club in one of Europe’s major leagues. However, they seem to have some sort of scheme where season ticket holders can sell their seat back to the club if they can’t attend. My frequent checking of their website paid dividends when I was able to snap up a fifty euro ticket for the central area of the north stand.

My seat was in row nine of eleven, so a pretty good view. Mind you, with the front row being raised up six feet or so, everyone had a decent vantage point. The people around me all greeted each other with hugs. They seemed very doubtful that I was in the right seat and were obviously expecting to see the regular occupant.

Oddly, the ground wasn’t full, with approximately eight hundred seats remaining empty. I’ve no idea why that was as only the odd seat had been on sale. Visitors Real Sociedad did their bit with around a third of the stadium being filled by their fans, most of whom were wearing their blue and white colours. There was little in the way of segregation, but there was no trouble despite pockets of vocal fans finding themselves singing alongside their opposition.

After not seeing the fake Kike, Kike Sola, the day before at Bilbao, I was quite pleased to see the real one, Kike Garcia, up front for Eibar. He looked different to how I remembered him from his time at the Boro. He seemed leaner, maybe a bit fitter and somewhat oddly appeared to have a better head of hair. Perhaps he’s had a transplant or wears a wig. He still went to ground very easily when challenged but, as when he was with us, he rarely drew the foul.

Kike didn’t manage to get on the scoresheet and neither did anyone else as the game petered out into a nil-nil draw.

Athletic Bilbao v Celta Vigo, Saturday 31st March 2018, 4.15pm

April 24, 2018

Jen and I often call into Spain for a few days when flying in or out of the UK. In recent years we’ve stayed in some of the bigger cities such as Barcelona, Seville and Granada, as well as some of the quieter locations in Tortosa, Toledo, Girona and Baza. This time we were staying a couple of nights in each of Vitoria-Gastiez and Laguardia and we landed at Saturday lunchtime in nearby Bilbao.

In a stroke of good fortune, or more truthfully a consequence of sensible planning ahead, Athletic Bilbao had a La Liga game that afternoon against Celta Vigo at their newish San Mames stadium. I’d bought a ticket online a few days earlier and after leaving Jen in a coffee shop made my way to the game.

It was busy outside the five-year old stadium, with fans drinking in just about every bar in a long street leading to the ground. I was surprised at how many away supporters were there. Fans don’t really travel in numbers in Spain, or at least they didn’t in the past, and it’s a fair distance to Galicia. Maybe it being Easter weekend made a difference.

San Mames is an impressive stadium with a steepish incline to the seating that keeps you close to the pitch even if you are towards the top of your stand. I’d paid sixty euros for a seat in row seventeen of the upper tier of the tunnel side of the pitch. I could have got away with paying forty euros if I’d been prepared to sit a bit higher up and alternatively if I’d wanted to be in row fifteen or lower it would have cost me eighty euros. The fifty-three thousand capacity ground was around two-thirds full.

As ever I’d had a look in advance to see if I knew any of the players and it turned out that Bilbao had an ex-Boro player, Kike, on their books.  It wasn’t the Kike that played for us for a couple of years though who due to the quantity of Kikes in Spain now has to call himself Kike Garcia, but the other one, Kike Sola. My Spanish was never brilliant and is getting worse these days, but I’m reasonably confident that Garcia must mean ‘genuine’ or ‘original’, whilst Sola will likely translate as either ‘fake’ or ‘spare’.

I actually saw the entire Boro career of Fake Kike. It began with a forty-five minute debut at home to Blackburn where if I recall correctly he looked what might be politely described as ‘well off the pace’. He got the hook at half-time before concluding his contribution to our promotion campaign with the last five minutes away to MK Dons. I have no recollection of him whatsoever on that occasion, but I trust he enjoyed Jordan Rhodes’ injury time equaliser as much as the rest of us did.

He sat on the bench for the Boro a couple more times before quietly disappearing back to Spain. I doubt he’ll bother attending the promotion team reunions. I didn’t hold out much hope of seeing him today though as despite being allocated the number nine shirt the nearest he had been to a game had been a spell on the bench a few weeks ago. In the Boro v Blackburn photo below he’s the fella being marked by two players.

Celta Vigo provided the opposition. I’d watched them a few times when I lived in Spain, but that’s twelve years ago now so I wasn’t expecting any of the players that I’d seen then to still be at the club. However, that Iago fella’s name seemed familiar. A quick check suggests that may be because he had a season at Liverpool that had either passed me by during our Championship years or I had completely forgotten about. However, a further check showed that he’d made twenty-one league appearances for Celta’s reserve team in the 2006-07 season.

I’d watched the B team play Ferrol at the Campo Municipal de Barriero that season, and there’s a two in three chance that he will have played in that match. I certainly remember his brother Jonathan turning out for Celta’s first team at that time, as much for his name I think as anything he’d done on the pitch. I checked my photos from way back then, but most of them were of the crowd rather than the players and so I’m none the wiser if I’ve seen Iago before or not.

As expected, there was no sign of Fake Kike. The first half was goalless, with Williams posing a bit of a threat for the home side. He picked up a booking for diving that seemed a bit harsh, but the ref was a little closer to play than I was. There’s no alcohol served in the higher divisions in Spain, but I was driving anyway, so it didn’t really matter. I was tempted by the pork bocadillo, although not quite enough to bother queuing.

In the second half Williams risked a second card when he went down in the box in a similar way to the way he had done before the break. He didn’t get the penalty but avoided the card. Iago put himself about for the visitors but never looked like getting on the score-sheet. I moved down about a dozen rows to sample the view from the more expensive seats.

Athletic took a lead early in the second half that you could probably say was deserved but an injury time equaliser left the home fans well and truly pissed off. I don’t know why, neither side was in danger of relegation or of reaching a European spot. Save your anguish for when it matters. Mind you, it could have been worse for Bilbao as in the remaining added time Celta went on to hit the post and then have a goal disallowed. That would have given the Basques something to complain about.