Lynchburg Hillcats v Wilmington Blue Rocks , Friday 14th June 2019, 6pm

June 24, 2019

After the Mets game it was time to start what I regarded as the proper holiday. The plan was to drive down to Louisiana and Mississippi to see Jen’s family and then get back up to New York for the boat trip back. We had thirty days before embarkation and had plotted a route that took us along the Blue Ridge Highway to the Smoky  Mountains, then on to Nashville and Memphis before heading south for a few days  prior to a mad dash back for the boat.

We started with a couple of nights in Shenandoah National Park, staying in the nineteenth century paymasters cabin. Bedding must have been in short supply in the olden days as we had to use the sleeping bags that we’d brought for the nights when we’d be camping.

The big advantage of the park though was that the Appalachian Trail went past our cabin and so we had easy hiking options that didn’t require us to find a starting point. First day we hiked north and didn’t see very much at all in the woods. Second day we started earlier for the southern option and were rewarded with a deer, a few chipmunks and something in the undergrowth that was probably a groundhog.

After a drive along the skyline we spent the next two nights camping at Big Meadows in Virginia. This was also on the Appalachian trail and we hiked a circular route that detoured to Hollow Falls before rejoining the trail for the last section back to the campground.

Jen was walking in front as we turned a corner to discover a mid-sized black bear stretched out in the sun on a rock no more than about six feet ahead of us. It had probably been asleep but was quickly wide awake, frantically crashing through the bushes to get away from us. I’m not sure which of the three of us got the biggest shock but I now know that Jen’s go to expletive in times of high stress is “Holy Fuck!”.

I’m pleased to say that over the past nine years, I don’t recall doing anything to trigger that particular response. The bear paused briefly about fifteen yards away to stare at us, no doubt muttering something similar to itself, before ambling off into the woods.

Back at the campground we discovered a second bear wandering around close to our tent. This one was much smaller and probably less than two years old. It didn’t seem interested in us, preferring to spend its time digging up roots. If we got close it would move away, occasionally grabbing a tree trunk but never bothering to climb up. At one point it halfheartedly chased a deer that got too close but I think they both knew that the gesture was more for show. After an hour or so a warden turned up with an air horn and what looked like a paintball gun to chase the bear away into the woods.

Our next stop took us out of the mountains for a couple of days and into Lynchburg. This gave us the opportunity to take in a minor league baseball game at the City Stadium.

I’d booked the seats online a few months earlier, opting for the $8 unreserved ‘bleacher’ seating mainly for the flexibility of being able to choose who I sat near to. If I’d wanted, I could have had a seat behind the plate for $15, but I’m not overly keen on looking through netting. It’s like those sensors or what ever in a car windscreen. Once you’ve noticed it, it’s hard to filter it back out again.

Our tickets were easily collected from the ‘Will Call’ line at the ticket office. I didn’t even need to show ID, just told them who I was and the bloke behind the counter readily handed them over.  As we made our way into the stadium we were given pink tee shirts as part of a mammogram awareness campaign and then a bag each for putting them in. It all seemed a lot for an $8 dollar ticket.

Once inside, we chose ‘bleacher’ seats at third base, just beyond the netting and in the shade. Best seats in the house in my opinion. There were plenty of bars selling beer at less than half the price than at the Mets the previous week, but I was driving this time so wasn’t able to take advantage.

Local side Hillcats were supporting the mammogram campaign with one-off pink player jerseys that were being auctioned off after the game. This fixture was the sixth in a run of eight consecutive daily meetings in the Carolina League between the two sides. The visitors, Wilmington Blue Rocks, had been having the better season but had struggled in the recent head-to heads.

A lot of the crowd seemed to know each other, although I’d expect exactly that in the UK at a lower level football game with a smallish attendance. There were a few college kids in who gave the impression that it might have been their first night ever on the drink, but we’ve all been there.

As we reached the sixth innings Jen and I moved around to the seats at first base for a different vantage point. This coincided with the sunning starting to set and for a while, until the full benefit of the floodlights kicked in, I thought the twilight conditions were a significant disadvantage to everyone other than the pitcher.

Our move coincided with the opening of the scoring, with the Blue Rocks scoring two runs in the sixth, before the Hillcats countered with one of their own.  A third run for the visitors in the eighth was enough to clinch the win.

Overall it was a much better evening out than the Mets game had been. Warmer weather, cheaper prices and a smaller, more traditional ground all outweighed the drop in playing standards that I’m not experienced enough to notice anyway.

New York Mets v Colorado Rockies, Saturday 8th June 2019, 7.15pm

June 14, 2019

It’s a while since I’ve been to a sporting event, the last one being a football game in Spain three months ago. There has been stuff going on in Malaysia but with it being so hot and with Ramadan kicking in, the matches haven’t been starting until 10pm and that’s too late for me. Shame really, as ex-Boro player Herold Goulon was in town recently with his Pahang team. I’d seen him play for the reserves at Central Avenue  a few years ago and thought it might be worth seeing how he was doing these days, but my curiosity wasn’t enough to justify a midnight finish.

It will be unlikely that I’ll see any more Malaysian sport now as I’ve finished my contract at the power station. Three years was enough to see whatever I wanted to in the region and I’m gambling that after a bit of a break I’ll be able to pick something up closer to home. My daughter and grandkids came out for a holiday before we left and we took a trip over to Sarawak to get up close to the proboscis monkeys and wild pigs.

proboscus monkey

After flying back and making full use of everybody’s luggage allowance Jen and I set off for a holiday in the States. I’d not been since we got married in 2013 and so felt it was time to catch up with her family and see a bit more of the place. To make it more of a trip we went by boat from Southampton, a seven night crossing on the Queen Mary 2.

Queen Mary 2

I really enjoyed doing very little for a week. Internet access was slow and expensive so I barely bothered with it. Instead, I wandered around the deck and rounded off my evenings in the cigar lounge in the company of Roy Walker. I didn’t get around to seeing his show but he’s a very nice fella to smoke Cubans with and not at all ‘big-time’.

We were late into New York after diverting to Canada to drop off a passenger who wasn’t well. This meant that we arrived in the daylight rather than before dawn. Disembarkation was slow and so we spent a couple of hours on the deck loungers watching the river traffic on the Hudson go about their business.

Statue of liberty

Our first couple of US nights were in Long Island. I liked that it wasn’t full of tourists. I’m a tourist, but I’m happy to avoid the bustle of others if I can. It didn’t take long to get into Manhattan on the subway and so were were able to catch up with Jen’s brother and sister who live there whilst I walked around with my head tilted back in classic tourist pose looking up at the skyscrapers.

empire state building

I’d booked tickets for the Mets baseball a few months ago, but was spoiled for choice when the day came. GGG was fighting at Madison Square Garden and there was a big race meeting at the Belmont Horse Track. I’d probably have preferred the boxing but thought I might as well stick to the original plan rather than waste the $51 tickets.

We took the subway to Citi Field and had a wander around outside the stadium. Our seats were in the Bullpen section which is around by second base. It was fairly busy getting in but our phone tickets were scanned successfully and we were carrying nothing that attracted the attention of the security blokes.

citi field

Once inside, I headed for the beer queue. It was a short queue mainly because they wanted a minimum of eleven dollars for a beer. That’s about nine quid. I’m on my holidays though so we ordered a couple of twelve dollar Stellas to be greeted with “Do you have ID, Sir?”

As I’m fifty-four I rarely get asked for proof of age these days and I didn’t have anything suitable with me. Fortunately the lady behind the bar suggested that I get someone else to buy it for me and the person behind was happy to go through the pointless charade of taking my money, handing it to the bartender and then completing the reverse process with our drinks. After all the fuss I was happy to settle for the single round.

citi field concourse

Our seats were in the middle tier, but with it being a sharp incline we seemed close to the action.  I was surprised by how many empty seats there were though. It filled up over the first hour but there always seemed to be as many fans in the concourses as there were in the stands. It wasn’t helped by the chilly weather though or by the wind blowing through the seats.

citi field second tier

Whilst I’ve seen a lot of baseball, this was my first Major League game. To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed.  The balance between bat and ball seemed out of kilter with only the one decent hit in the time we were there. Too many of the pitches were top-edged into the crowd behind. The pitchers slowed the entertainment down by opting all too frequently to try and run out batters already on bases who were attempting to sneak a yard. Just get on with it.

One of the best things about the game was that the pitchers have to have a bat. None of that replacing with a pinch hitter nonsense. One had a really low average but was happy to have a slog which is what I’d have hoped all the batters would be doing.

citi field

Long before the end we’d had enough. A combination of little in the way of action, the arse on of obtaining an expensive beer and the cold wind blasting around us meant that we cut the evening short in the fifth innings with the Mets a run ahead. They added another after we’d left for a 5-3 win. In hindsight I should have gone to the boxing.

Gimnastica Segoviana v La Granja, Sunday 24th February 2019, 5pm

May 9, 2019

Whilst we’d flown into Madrid on this break, I’m much happier staying somewhere less busy and so Jen and I spent five nights about an hour away in Segovia. It’s just like most other Spanish towns in that the historic centre remains intact, with the usual castle and cathedral, but it has the added attraction of a Roman aquaduct. Apparently there is no mortar between the blocks and all of them are held in place by nothing more than gravity. I’ve worked on plenty of construction projects that skimped on materials like that too.

A further benefit of basing ourselves in Segovia was that it was on the route of the Madrid to Santiago de Compostela Camino. Never heard of it? Me neither, I’d thought it started in France, but it turns out that there are loads of different pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostela.

This meant that we had two easy options for going for a walk. On the morning of the match we struck out in the direction of Madrid, walked along the route for a couple of hours and then retraced our steps back into town. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, unless cows count, but there was a decent mountain in view for the outward stretch.

Next day we walked towards Santiago de Compostela. We cheated a bit by driving to Zamarramala and starting from there but it cut out the urban section of the walk and a big hill. We walked for a few hours to Los Huertos and back, stopping in the same cafe for breakfast on the way out and then lunch on the way back.

This time we had views of fields, with the track stretching out in front of us into the distance and the odd hawk hovering overhead.

Having exhausted the easy Camino options we decided to our next walk should be at the snow covered mountain that we’d had as the backdrop. It was a few miles away in the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park and peaked at around 1800m. It seemed a good idea initially but without spikes it was fairly treacherous underfoot. After a series of slips we drove back down the hill a couple of hundred metres until we got below the snow line and then did a few miles along a forest track instead.

So, Segovia has some decent historical features and it’s a great base for a walking holiday. It’s also famous for suckling pig, although I thought the ones that we had were too old at six weeks. I prefer the two week old ones with the thinner skin that we get in KL. Segovia has some decent bars too and we visited just about all of them.

Fortunately it also has a football team, Gimnastica Segoviana, that plays in the fourth-tier Tercera Division. Just as fortunately, they were playing at home during our stay, although good planning on my part in selecting Segovia as our destination might actually have had more to do with it.

The six and a half thousand capacity Estadio La Albuera is on the edge of town and as four hours walking earlier in the day was enough we took the car. There wasn’t much of a queue at the hole in the wall ticket window and we picked up a couple of eight euro tickets for the stand on the far side.

I’ve no idea how well attended Segoviana’s games usually are or whether the fact that their opponents, La Granja, are from just a few minutes drive away had made a difference, but there was a lengthy queue to get through the gates.

Once inside we walked around the back of the goal which, just like the other end, had no seats or terracing. There were barriers though, so anyone wanting to stand could get close up to the action.

Our stand seemed to be the popular one and we had to walk the full length of it, passing the counter that was serving alcohol free beer and low strength Radler shandy, to find an area with few people in it. To our left we had the local ultras, some of whom preferred to face away from the pitch so that they could better coordinate the singing.

I didn’t notice any La Granja fans, but even with the traditional reluctance of Spanish fans to travel away, you’d think some would have made the effort to make the short trip.

The main stand opposite us looked a lot older than our section and I think is the one original stand remaining, which dates it to the stadium opening in 1978. It holds around about 600 and from what I could hear it had the benefit of a lack of drums.

Anyway, enough about the ground. It’s the shirts that made my afternoon. Not so much Gimnastica, who were turned out in an unimaginative Barcelona style kit, brightened up with a Burger King logo.

La Granja, though, had oddest shirt I’d ever seen. At first glance I thought it featured peanuts or maybe potatoes. After a closer look I concluded that it was probably baked beans. Eventually, after some zoomed in photography I spotted small morsels of pork among the beans, so presumably it was some sort of stew, possibly a dish that their village regards as their local speciality. No doubt there will be a parmo shirt somewhere in the Boro’s future.

La Granja’s play was as bad as their kit. Their defence didn’t have much confidence in their keeper and panicked whenever they thought he might be given something to do. Further upfield was a diminutive number ten with a temper as short as his stature and who looked unlikely to go the distance. Somewhat surprisingly, Segoviana failed to take advantage and the teams went in level at the end of a goalless first half.

With the sun getting lower and in our eyes, we took the opportunity to switch to the opposite side of the ground for some second half shade. As we made the move we got a decent view of the hills from the steps at the end of the stand.

We started off inside the barrier, leaning back against it but were soon moved behind the railings by someone dressed up as if he were on the coaching staff but who was actually turned out to be little more than a fifty year old ball boy. The change of location gave us frequent close ups of the right back for La Granja being given the runaround.

The game remained goalless until twenty minutes from the end when an indirect free kick missed everything but the visiting keeper‘s fingertips. If he’d been just that little bit more hapless then he would have got away with it.

The goal seemed to intensify the bad feeling between the keeper and his defence. One fella was in a constant state of fury because the goalie would never play it short to him. Bizarrely, the first time the keeper did throw him the ball was from a goal kick. The defender just blasted the ball back at him in frustration. On taking the goal kick correctly, the keeper found his man again only for Mr. Angry to let it roll under his foot and out for a throw in.

There was some quality from the home side though in the final moments as one of their strikers ran from deep leaving at least three La Granja defenders floundering. He rode their increasingly wilder lunges, kept his feet and then twatted the ball home with the keeper getting his fingers nowhere near this time. The two-nil win for Segoviana and the stew on the visitor’s shirts will have given the headline writers an easy caption.

Getafe v Rayo Vallecano, Saturday 23rd February 2019, 1pm

May 3, 2019

It’s always good to squeeze in a holiday in Spain and as Madrid is one of the airports that works well for our route we broke our journey back to the UK with a few nights in nearby Segovia. Madrid works well for football too and a mid-morning arrival fitted in very nicely with the lunchtime game at Getafe. Well, lunchtime for me anyway. I doubt many Spaniards would think of one o’clock as being anything more than time for a late breakfast.

I’d checked the Getafe attendances and even with them in the dizzy heights of a Champions League spot they hadn’t been anywhere near selling out their seventeen thousand capacity Estadio Coliseum Alfonso Perez. Whilst that meant that I could have bought a ticket at the stadium office I had a crack at their mainly Spanish website and booked my seat in advance instead.

Forty euros got me a spot at the front of the upper tier in the Lateral Alta which is the uncovered stand along the side, opposite the covered main stand. Forty euros is way more than Jen considers good value for somewhere to spend an hour and a half knitting and so I left her in a nearby coffee shop and followed the crowd up the hill to the ground.

The stadium is just over twenty years old and oddly it seems to be named after a former player. Not a former Getafe player but someone from Getafe who turned out mainly for Real Betis. Even odder is that Senor Perez is only forty-six now and so had a ground that he apparently never played at named in his honour whilst in his mid-twenties. Why would you do that? It’s like us naming the Riverside after Keith Houchen or Robbie Blake and I don’t remember either of those names even making the voting shortlist.

I entered the ground at the main stand and walked around behind the goal before being directed to my seat in the sun. It has been a bit chilly earlier on but the lack of shade meant that I was overdressed in a jumper and jacket.

Getafe were in blue with fellow Madrid-based team Rayo Vallecano sporting a Peru kit. Whilst Getafe were having about as good as season as you can get, the visitors were struggling at the other end of the table and came into the game on the back of a run of three defeats.

Mata opened the scoring for Getafe half an hour in, taking the ball across the goal before turning and wellying it into the far top corner. It sparked mass scarf twirling from the home fans and a blast of The Final Countdown from the speakers.

There were no more goals before the break and my seat gave me pole position for getting in the queue for a coke and a bacon sandwich.

With a crowd of only eleven thousand I took advantage of the available seating to find a different vantage point for the second half, moving to the back row behind the goal to my left. There was a welcome breeze blowing in and I was able to stand and lean against the perimeter wall.

Getafe seemed well on top but were caught out when de Tomas equalised with a well placed shot from the edge of the D. It was at the opposite end to me but I reckon it bounced a couple of times before crossing the line and the keeper should probably have done a bit better with it.

The goal was enough for a handful of home fans to head for the exits despite there still being half an hour to go. Fourth in the league and drawing an hour into a game obviously isn’t acceptable to some people.

It was a shame for those that cleared off when they did as it didn’t take Getafe long to regain the lead and clinch the points. Mata broke free and unselfishly squared for Molina to tap into an empty net. Scoring the winner earned Molina a rendition of the Nicky Bailey song as he was subbed off a few minutes later. Possibly with a few lyrical amendments.

The result kept both teams in their pre-match positions, with Getafe still on course for the Champions League and Rayo eyeing up a swift return to the Segunda Division.

Selangor Horse Racing, Saturday 19th January 2019

April 30, 2019

Jen and I had been to the Royal Selangor Turf Club in KL a couple of times before but as I’d never been able to get a reply to my inquiries about going in a posh bit we had always just been in the non-air-conditioned and noisy sections.

This time though I got an almost immediate reply to my email and we were able to book two places in a special lounge for 170 ringgits a head including lunch and afternoon tea. We stayed over in KL the night before in the Bukit Bintang part of town and had half a suckling pig to eat. Half a pig between two seems a lot, but they are slaughtered at only two weeks old so it worked out fine. Fine for us anyway, less so for the pig.

Next day we took a cab to the track, got dropped off at the regular entrance and then wandered up to the VIP bit. It looked as if a wedding party were also in attendance but fortunately they were doing their celebrating in a different lounge to us.

We collected our badges and a race card from the front desk and took a couple of escalators to high in the stand. We were shepherded into our lounge and seated at a table for eight that had a couple of fellas opposite us.

I’d have much preferred a table for two. It’s no reflection on our table companions who were friendly enough, it’s just I’m quite anti-social and don’t have any interest in small talk with people I don’t know. Or any size talk really.

The lunch was good. It had a few prawns and some fish in it. Probably some other stuff too but I wasn’t paying attention. We got a glass of wine and then a refill. That was the lot though and when I asked for more they claimed to have run out. The only other option was Carlsberg which I’m starting to conclude is probably The Worst Lager in the World and so it was a relatively low-alcohol afternoon.

The betting was hectic in that as well as the live racing beyond the window we also had Macau and a couple of Australian tracks on the telly. I was able to bet with my phone for the Australian races which made things a little easier, but a punt on the live stuff and the Macau racing required frequent trips to the tote lady sat by the door.

Afternoon tea wasn’t as good as lunch and with a lack of wine and the air-conditioning on the warm side we’d had enough by about four o’clock. Just the two winners all afternoon meant that we failed to claw back any of the admission charge and instead put us slightly further out of pocket on the day.

Muay Thai Boxing, Sunday 13th January 2019, 6.30pm

April 29, 2019

Whilst I’ve been to kick boxing in Bangkok before, I’d not had the opportunity to see an event at the Rajadamnern Stadium as they don’t do Saturday nights. However, they do do Sundays and so a public holiday on the Monday meant that we had a rare chance to pop over to Bangkok for a longer than normal weekend and tick it off my list.

Jen and I landing late on the Friday night at the main airport, not the Don Muang one, and so I booked a hotel not too far away. Big mistake. The roof-top bar shown on the website turned out to be aspirational and as such so did my chances of a convenient drink.

The location was handy for a park though and on the morning of the boxing we had a wander around. Highlights were a few water monitors making their way around the rivers.

Later that day we took a taxi in the general direction of the boxing stadium but got out slightly early for a look around a temple. I can’t remember its name, same as with the airport, park and hotel, but it was just as you’d expect a temple to be and as with most of them not really worth the bother of having to remove your shoes.

It was a further half an hour or so’s walk to the stadium and despite there being more than an hour to go to the first bout there were plenty of people milling around. It was too early to buy tickets though and so we called into a café around the corner for some chicken that looked dangerously under-cooked.

Tickets started at 1,000 baht, which is about twenty-five quid and entitled you to watch from the back of the arena and from behind a mesh fence. Next option was the one that we took, lower down and with no mesh for 1,500 baht. If we’d splashed out an extra 300 we could have had a plastic chair, but I thought that section might be busier. I can’t remember what ringside cost, probably 2,000, but we’ve done that before and it’s a bit low down. I prefer to be above the ring rather than looking up through the ropes.

As with the bouts that we’ve seen elsewhere you get snake charmer music played before the start of each fight. There was a four piece band over to our right that reminded me of the one on those early French and Saunders shows.

The fighters performed a dance to the snake charmer music, weaving their way around the ring. Part of the pre-match arsing about involved them standing in a large metal dish and having water poured over them. I could see the benefit of the dish in keeping the canvas dry but I’d have thought a few drops of water would have satisfied whatever ritual was being carried out.

The first fight appeared to result in a disqualification for the boxer in the blue corner after he wrestled his opponent to the floor and in a move straight out of Freddy Natt playground drop-kicked him in the head. Fair enough. The other fella made the most of the foul, rolling about for a couple of minutes in the forlorn hope that a dinner nanny might turn up.

One of the plus points of our section was a fella scurrying around taking drinks orders. It meant that I never went short of 150 baht Singha beers and didn’t need to leave my patch of concrete to get them.

The interesting thing about the second fight was that both boxers ceased hostilities with about thirty seconds remaining of the final round and just danced around as if they’d suddenly spotted a pair of handbags on the floor. Perhaps the result wasn’t in doubt. It was a bit like in basketball where they don’t bother playing out the time properly at the end if one team is out of sight, choosing instead to just bounce the ball until the hooter goes.

Despite the boxing shorts being the usual length, the fashion among the participants was for wearing them rolled high at the waist and then pulled up high on the thigh like Souness in his pomp. A few of the kicks to the shins that we witnessed were uncannily reminiscent of the King of Ayresome Park too.

None of the boxers were particularly heavy but the final contest was notable for taking place at 96lbs. That’s six stone, twelve pounds if I’ve retained my fourteen times table knowledge. For the size of them it might well have been a couple of eight year olds in there. Sadly the place was just about empty by that point, possibly due to everyone else being uneasy about paying to watch small children boot the shit out of each other. On the basis that it’s nothing I haven’t seen the grandkids get up to and with a Singha to finish, we stuck it out until the final bell.

Boro v Ipswich, Saturday December 29th 2018, 3pm

March 29, 2019

The second game of my Christmas trip to the UK was another home game for the Boro and this time involved a catch-up with Paul and Aiden. I usually see Paul a couple of times a year for gigs or football tournaments but with Aiden it’s generally once every three or four years and almost always a festive fixture at the Riverside.

We had a spare ticket too, but Paul’s dad, Mike, who would have come in the past wouldn’t entertain it. Tom was working and as Harry was at his nanna’s, it went unused.

We were in the West Upper and the first half was spent catching up on each other’s news. Aiden had just retired. That seems weird. It shouldn’t really at fifty-four, but just being fifty-four in itself seems weird. Mid-fifties. How did that happen?

Half-time discussions quickly turned to how crap we are. I don’t see a lot of the Premier League on the telly as the time difference in Malaysia makes it an arse on, but for Paul and Aiden who are able to watch the likes of Man City or Liverpool, it must have been like sitting through a different sport.

I thought that the inclusion of Howson at wing back and Wing in midfield made us a bit more adventurous than in the game I’d watched three days earlier, but maybe that was more a reflection on the relative merits of Ipswich and Sheff Wed.

Still, the result worked out better. We’d taken a first half lead through a Hugill penalty that nobody seemed to appeal for and then second half sub Tavernier capped a livewire performance with a goal. That’ll be him dropped for a while again then.

Overall though, nobody was much impressed with anything at all and by the time the full-time whistle blew half the twenty-three thousand crowd had already cleared off. It’s the time of year when football is supposed to get you out of the house and away from that between Christmas and New Year stupor, yet most people seemed keener to head back home. That speaks volumes.

Boro v Sheff Wed, Wednesday December 26th 2018, 3pm

March 28, 2019

After the lay-over for the FIFA Club World Cup it was back to something a little more mundane and a visit to the Riverside for my first Boro game in eight months. My son, Tom, has a season ticket for the South Stand and I thought that it might be time for my grandson, Tom’s nephew, to join us in what is probably the liveliest part of the ground.

The last time Harry came with me to the Riverside the highlight of his day was spotting a squashed rat on Borough Road. I’m sure he must consider Middlesbrough to be infested with rodents as despite him keeping a good eye out all afternoon he was surprised not to see another one.

His ticket was seventeen quid. He’s eight years old. Actually he wasn’t even eight as his birthday wasn’t until the following day, so still seven. With the booking fee we paid about fifty quid in total for the pair of us to get into the cheapest area of the ground. I doubt that many small kids get taken to the match at those prices.

The lack of rats wasn’t the only change for Harry. Last time we’d been in the West Upper and he was only on his feet when we scored. This time everyone around us stood from the start and so in order to see, anyone Harry’s height  had to stand on a seat. He was a bit reluctant at first as I think his Mam has rules about feet on chairs, but he soon got the hang of it, even joining in with some of the songs. I think his Mam probably has rules about swearing too.

Boro were terrible. We were set up to with five at the back, protected by three holding midfielders. That left Stewie in no-mans land and Britt isolated up front. Sheff Wed had former Boro player Adam Reach in their side and as such he was nailed on to score. He did. Strange to think that he couldn’t get a game for us in the promotion season, but if he came back now he might very well be our best player. I doubt he’s improved much in his time away so it’s more a reflection on our rapid decline.

The Sheff Wed fans had a decent song for him, to the tune of The Beautiful South’s Rotterdam. They milked it all afternoon in what was a rare successful away day for them.

The support from around us mainly comprised frustrated chants of “attack, attack, attack” and, after an out of character moment of positive intent, a sarcastic rendition of “We’ve had a shot”. However, despite the cynicism from the rest of us, Harry remained confident that we’d equalise up right until the final whistle. It’s great to be eight. Or seven.

 

Real Madrid v Al-Ain, Saturday 22nd December 2018, 8.30pm

March 26, 2019

The final of the FIFA Club World Cup was the second game of a double-header evening at the Zayed Sports Stadium in Abu Dhabi. The later kick-off came with a significant drop in temperature which I welcomed but it made it cold enough for Jen to choose to clear off back to our hotel.

Most of the River Plate fans who had cheered their side to victory in the earlier third-place play-off also chose to clear off and that enabled me to move from my designated seat to one along the side, lower down and about level with one of the penalty spots. It seemed a few other people were doing the same and there was a fair bit of re-positioning going on in the run up to kick-off when the actual ticket holders for those seats eventually turned up.

Whilst I was surprised at the drop in temperature, it could have been worse. We’d been for a look around an old fort that morning and the taxi driver reckoned that we were in for their once a year rain downpour. Fortunately it didn’t happen. The fort was ok, but in a Trigger’s Broom sort of way, with just about all of it looking like it had been re-built over the years.

There was a museum attached to the fort that I enjoyed more. It had a selection of photos showing the development of the city over the last fifty years or so. Best of all was an early picture of the Zayed Sports stadium that we’d be attending.

As kick off neared I looked around at the fans. There weren’t anything like as many Real Madrid fans around as there had been from River Plate and those I did see looked decidedly like locals. I’m not really sure how they take pleasure from supporting a global concern against their hometown team? Although I suppose they probably saw the two teams as operating in different worlds. It’s as if the Boro were somehow pitted against Norton’s George and Dragon. You can’t switch your allegiance from the bigger team just because you usually walk your dog across the opposing team’s Sunday League council pitch.

Happily, there were plenty of Emeratis supporting Al-Ain who had progressed against the odds as host club to knock out the champions of Oceania, North America and then South America to reach the final.

Madrid had all the big guns on the field including Bale, Kroos and Benzema. Ramos received solid but essentially good-natured booing every time he touched the ball. Modric got a cheer when announced and was a pleasure to watch. He was always looking to start something off and a quarter of an hour in took more applause when he opened the scoring with a curled effort into the corner.

The goal and Ramos baiting aside, there wasn’t much noise from the home fans and there was even less in support of Real. After a while the couple of thousand River Plate fans who had stayed behind after their game started singing their own songs and drowned everything else out.

Al-Ain were almost on equal terms soon after the opening goal when pantomime villain Ramos foiled their best efforts by clearing one off the line. Shortly afterwards a second home effort was ruled out for offside.

In truth though I don’t think Al-Ain really believed that an upset was on the cards and so the European Champions were never in any real danger of losing. The title was in the bag when Llorente added a second on the hour. Ramos nodded in what must have been a very satisfying third Madrid goal as we entered the final ten minutes to put the game out of reach.

I nipped out not long after that as back to back games is pushing my limit for football in one evening. I heard the roar of the crowd for an Al-Ain consolation as I walked away from the ground and the more muted response to a fourth and final Real Madrid goal a couple of minutes later as I approached my hotel.

River Plate v Kashima Antlers, Saturday 22nd December 2018, 5.30pm

March 21, 2019

There are no direct flights from Malaysia to the north-east of England, so when I travel back to the UK I’ve got to break the journey somewhere. Usually I change planes in London or Amsterdam, but for my Christmas trip home I went via Abu Dhabi. The UAE Is not somewhere that has ever appealed to me as somewhere to live and as such I’ve knocked back any number of enquiries for jobs in the region over the years. This time though the final of the FIFA Club World Club Cup was taking place at a time that fitted in with the flights and that’s as good as reason as I’m ever likely to have for paying the place a visit.

The logistics were very easy and a forty quid online ticket from FIFA covered both the final and the third place play-off that took place as a double-header. We were only staying for a couple of nights and so we didn’t need a visa, whilst our hotel was just across from the Zayed Sports City stadium. It was also only about ten minutes in a taxi from the Sheikh Zayed mosque, which is just as well as my original plan for whiling away my time at a sanctuary for injured falcons didn’t come off.

I’m not really a fan of big modern buildings but I was happy to wander around the enormous mosque mainly to look at the tiling. I’m renovating a house and in my latest manifestation of geekiness have developed an unhealthy interest in reclaimed Victorian ceramics. It took a bit of effort to get in though. Not so much for me, but Jen was required to dress up as Obi Wan Kenobi with a shawl and a head scarf. My time and money-saving suggestions of a tea towel or a cardboard box with eye holes were dismissed as grossly disrespectful and she chose to buy the necessary gear from a department store that no doubt did very well out of improperly dressed tourists.

There were lots of River Plate fans wandering around the mosque in the hours before their third-place play-off game. No doubt they too were marveling at the elaborate encaustics whilst cursing the limited opening hours of the hawk hospital.

Later that day Jen and I made our way over to the stadium with plenty of time in hand. Just as well really as it was almost as much of an arse on getting in to the ground as it had been the mosque. I got away with a small, yet still prohibited, camera but had a pen no bigger than you’d find in a bookies confiscated. These posts struggle for accuracy at the best of times but my memory is so poor these days that if I can’t make a few notes then you can’t be confident that anything I write here is in any way accurate.

Still, this one was easier than most to check later. It was the third-place play-off featuring River Plate, fresh from their much disrupted Copa Libertadores triumph against Boca Juniors, taking on the champions of Asia, Kashima Antlers.

Iconic is a much over-used word but I think that the River Plate kit of white shirt, diagonal red stripe and black shorts counts. Kashima were in a somewhat less iconic red combo. There were at least six sections of River Plate fans, maybe five or six thousand or so of them, compared to a small but vocal section of a hundred or so Japanese fans just to my left. A few local fans, some supporting Abu Dhabi’s own Al-Ain, others wearing the global uniform of a Real Madrid shirt, made up the numbers in a crowd that was officially announced as being seventeen thousand.

The River Plate fans made an incredible racket all the way through despite the game meaning little to them. I mean, you win the Copa Libertadores against your greatest rivals and before you have the chance for a triumphant home-coming you have to pitch up at a Micky Mouse tournament only to switch off and lose your first game to the team that qualified by being local.

Play was fairly even in the early stages up until former Jeonbuk Motors goalie Kwoun Sun-tae picked up an injury and had to be subbed. The replacement keeper’s first job was to pick the ball out of the net as River Plate went one up from a corner. Strangely their fans barely celebrated. The goal brought the Asian Champions out of their shell and made for a much more open game but the Argentinians went two up late on and then added a couple more in the final moments to rub it in. It’s a shame that River Plate hadn’t turned up in their semi-final as I’d have liked to have seen them take on Real Madrid for the title.