Family Days v Family Days, Sunday 13th November 2016, 9am

December 3, 2016

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Jen and I haven’t really done any hiking since we were in England last May. The climate in Malaysia, whilst better than our last location of Darwin, Australia, is just that little bit too hot and humid to make going for a walk a tempting prospect.

That all changed when I read about the Cameron Highlands. The region is about four hours drive north of where we live and as it is a minimum of 1,500 metres above sea-level, the temperature tends to hover around sixteen degrees. That’s perfect really and so we went for the weekend.

The last hour or so of the drive took us up winding narrow roads that were flanked by stray dogs. I doubt many make it to old-age. Every now and then there would be an attraction such as a waterfall or a tea-room that would be marked by cars parked along both sides of the road for a hundred yards each way and supplemented by a few tour-buses.

We stayed in Tanah Rata. The mix of day trippers and slightly longer-term visitors, the cafes and attraction booking offices reminded me a little of some of the towns in the Lake District.

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I was tired from the concentration needed to avoid running over the dogs or driving off a cliff edge and so we didn’t do much on the Saturday night. We were up early on the Sunday though and went for a walk up to a waterfall and then into the forest. It’s the rainy season in Malaysia at the moment and a combination of a wet path and fallen leaves made it quite slippy underfoot. Sufficiently so that I ended up flat on my back at one point. Fortunately there weren’t any other people around to witness my senior moment.

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There wasn’t much in the way of wildlife either. A few lizards, one of those flightless birds, a chipmunk up a tree and a large red caterpillar. The highlight was probably a butterfly that when it spread its wings looked uncannily like a snake’s head.

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To get back into Tanah Rata we had to pass a football pitch and as we approached I heard a whistle and some shouting. Once in sight it was clear that there was a game going on. It looked pretty low-level but I counted the players and it was 11 a side.  There was also a ref and two linesman and so by my ground hopping rules it counted as a proper match.

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I took a few photos then wandered into the main and only stand. There were about fifty people watching, which isn’t a bad turnout at all. Next to the stand were a group of women in a tent. Most of them were preparing food but a couple were sorting out medals ready for a post-game presentation.

The standard of play was such that even at my age and not having kicked a ball for six years I reckon I could have shone. My Dad, at 83, would have made less of a shambles of things than both keepers were managing to do.

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Five minutes after we got there, the full-time whistle blew and in that time we’d seen three goals. I didn’t ask the score but I suspect that both sides were probably into double figures by some distance.

I did have a chat with a couple of players at the end. Apparently both sides were drawn from company employees on a team building exercise. They all worked for Family Days, a company from Ipoh, some eighty kilometres away.

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We chatted about Ipoh’s team Perak and, after I mentioned that I’d seen them in their Malaysian Cup game against Selangor, their excellent travelling support. At that point it was time for the medal presentation and so we left them to their team-building.

PBDKT T-Team v Pahang, Saturday 22nd October 2016, 9pm

November 16, 2016

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It was the final round of the Super League season and up until a couple of days beforehand the fixture between T-Team and Pahang had been one of those that would play a part in deciding the relegation places. However, in the run up to the game, the Malaysian FA belatedly awarded Pahang three points for something that had happened earlier in the season and that left both sides safe from the drop.

Jen and I arrived in Terengganu early on the Saturday morning, courtesy of fifty minute and twenty quid Air Asia flights from KL. We were greeted at our hotel by the sight of the Pahang team playing keepy-uppy at the entrance.

Terengganu itself didn’t seem like much of a tourist destination. There looked to be a few options for stuff to do in the surrounding areas but there wasn’t a lot going on in the town itself.

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We were staying next to Chinatown. As an attraction it had some scathing Tripadvisor reviews, probably because it wasn’t limited just to restaurants. If that’s what people were expecting then I dare say the shops selling angle grinders were somewhat of a disappointment.

The butcher’s was of greater interest however, with a fine selection of pig tails on display.

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We managed to resist the urge to stock up on power tools or porcine parts whilst in Chinatown and settled instead for a pre-match dinner. We sat outside the restaurant until our meal was interrupted by ten minutes of loud-speaker announcements in Malaysian which we were soon to find out were warning of the impending industrial-strength chemical bug spraying.

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Despite having all day to get to the ground we arrived at the Stadium Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah with just a few minutes to go to kick-off. We splashed out on twenty ringgit tickets for the main stand and went in just as the national anthem was being played. As usual, it was quickly followed by the state anthem.

Less usually, the teams then remained in their lined-up positions whilst the away fans sang what I assume was their own state anthem. Or maybe, after reflecting on their team’s performance over the season, it was something along the lines of “You’re shit and you know you are”.

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The stadium was a bit on the shabby side and whilst it didn’t have a running track there was enough space between the stands and the pitch to fit one in.

Our grandstand seats had the advantage of a roof, but the disadvantage of having a raised and fenced VIP section that obscured our view of a lot of the nearside touchline.  We were sat behind the Pahang wags, one of whom I presume was with the Pahang captain as she was wearing a shirt with his surname on the back. Although to be fair, it may very well have been her own name too.

Mind you, it would have been so much better if she’d actually been wearing a shirt with the name of her favourite player rather than that of her partner.

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Not much happened in the opening half hour or so, with the highlight being a cat wandering in from outside and then running along the front of our stand in a panic whilst trying to escape.

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Soon after the cat had departed the visitors took the lead with a curling shot from the right into the left corner of the net. Pahang desperately held onto their lead until close to full-time and at which point one of the T-Team players skinned their full back and whacked an equaliser into the roof of the net.

Whilst the result of this game was of no consequence, similar late goals elsewhere resulted in the season coming to an end with the other Terengganu team and the Police slipping into the second-tier Premier division. It all starts afresh in February.

Brunei DS v East Timor, Saturday 15th October 2016, 3.30pm

November 14, 2016

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One of the advantages of living less than an hour from Kuala Lumpur airport is that it’s easy to get to many of the nearby countries. My preference would be to spend a few weeks at a time travelling around the area but as I’ve got to go to work during the week it means that we’ll be doing the grand tour a couple of days at a time.

The destination this weekend was Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and the venue for the Suzuki Cup qualifier between Brunei DS and East Timor. We took a two-hour flight that arrived around breakfast time on the Saturday and which gave us plenty of time to see some of the sights before the football.

First up was the Killing Fields. I was initially a little unsure of the wisdom of this, after all if the killing is over, wouldn’t it just be, well, fields? It wasn’t though, it was an interesting museum, mainly outdoors, as fields tend to be, with a couple of rooms full of photos.

There was a tower in the middle of the site, where the skulls of some of the 12,000 or so victims were kept. They had been sorted by age, gender and method of killing. Not many had received a bullet, with most of them being bludgeoned by a stick or an iron bar.

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We walked around the site on the raised walkways that enabled us to keep out of the mud. They also served the purpose of keeping us from walking over the areas of the excavated graves. That was just as well as the recent heavy rain had caused some of the items that hadn’t been exhumed to rise to the surface. We saw numerous rags that had once been clothes and the underside of a set of upper teeth. Apparently the ‘fresh’ remains are gathered for storage at the end of each rainy season.

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Next was the S-21 prison that housed a lot of the prisoners of the Khymer Rouge before they made their way to the Killing Fields. It was another sobering experience, with the only real change from the seventies being the addition of photographs of the inmates.

There were a couple of ex-prisoners selling their books by the exit. The first one seemed to have learned his lesson and so we bought a copy. For most of the survivors it invariably seemed to be a stroke of luck that saved them from becoming one more skull surfacing on a rainy day.

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I’ll just briefly mention the food, which was generally quite similar to the sort of thing that you might expect to eat in most areas of South East Asia. Quite similar that is, apart from the deep-fried spiders. Jen spotted a pile of them as we wandered through the central market. I’ve no idea what the collective term for spiders is, but pile seems as good as anything.

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They were a type of tarantua and just thirty pence each. How could you pass up that kind of opportunity? We couldn’t and so we shared one. The legs had a crunchy texture and were chewier than I’d expected. They would probably have benefitted from having all of the hair removed and being served with a tub of garlic sauce.

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As this isn’t a food blog I’ll move on to the match at the National Olympic Stadium. It was built in the sixties and as Cambodia has yet to host the Olympics, the name has remained a bit of wishful thinking.  We’d seen a 1970’s photo of the ground in the Killing Fields museum that suggested that there were greater priorities during the civil war years than keeping the stadium in good repair.

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There were two games scheduled for the Saturday of our visit. Brunei DS against East Timor at 3.30pm followed by Cambodia taking on Laos three hours later. Our plan was just to see the first of the double-header, hopefully with a sparse crowd, before heading out into the evening.

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We wandered around the stadium for ten minutes or so before finding the ticket office. I couldn’t work out how to get tickets for the covered grandstand and so we ended up with two for general admission at a quid a go.

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There wasn’t really any shade to be had, but we found a spot close to a wall that looked like it might be ok once the sun dipped a little further down. As the game kicked off there were probably about five or six thousand people in the ground, but by the time it finished I’d say the 63,000 capacity stadium was at least two-thirds full. We watched the second game on the telly later on and by that time the stadium had sold out.

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We were probably the only people who had turned up specifically to watch the first game, but I think most of the locals realised that it would be a lot easier to find a spot to sit on the terracing if they arrived well before the Cambodia game.

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There were food and drink sellers down by the fencing at the bottom of the bowl. I had a lukewarm bottle of green tea that might have been better had the bloke who turned up with an enormous block of ice for the cooler arrived that bit sooner.

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There were also people, mainly women, wandering around the terrace selling food from trays balanced on top of their heads. One had what looked like a selection of fruit salad, another had assorted crisps and snacks. An older woman had a washing up bowl of monkey nuts, whilst the star attractions were a large tray of duck eggs and a foot tall pile of deep-fried something. Probably not tarantulas.

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The game itself wasn’t really up to much. But with so much going on in the crowd that didn’t really matter. We’d seen Brunei the week before in a warm up game against Malaysia U22s. As the Malaysian kids looked the better side in a deserved victory it didn’t really bode well for the standard of this game.

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East Timor took the lead early on in the first half, but Brunei fought back and went into the break two-one up. East Timor thought that they had equalised in the second half, but the effort was disallowed for a clattering of the keeper that Nat Lofthouse would have been proud of.

On the final whistle we fought against the flow of incomers to leave the crowd at least two spectators short of the reported capacity and then kept an eye the Cambodia v Laos game whilst in a bar having dinner.

The television sound was turned down, but with the open window and the short distance to the stadium we were able to hear the encouragement of the crowd whenever Cambodia pushed forward.

Malaysia U22 v Brunei DS, Saturday 8th October 2016, 5.15pm

November 13, 2016

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Seremban is just up the road from where we live and so when I read that the Malaysian U22 team had a fixture there we thought we’d go along.

The Tuanku Abdul Rahman stadium in the Paroi area of town is the home ground of second-tier team Negeri Sembilan. It was quite busy outside with people making use of the cafes and with a few stalls selling mainly football shirts.

As tends to be our habit at these games we picked up a shirt for our grandson. It was a yellow and red Selengor kit that was more Melchester Rovers than Watford. As the season only had one more week to go the seller knocked a few ringgits off what was already a bargain price.

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We couldn’t see a ticket office and so approached the nearest entrance to ask for directions. It turned out that we didn’t need tickets as admission was free. Very nice.

Jen had her bag searched, although I’m not sure what they were looking for. I had a bottle of coke sticking out of a side pocket of my shorts which was ignored. Perhaps they were just curious to see what she was carrying around.

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Our entrance led us into the lower part of a two-tier uncovered stand. It worked out quite well though as we were able to sit on the last row of terracing and take advantage of the shade created by the overhang.

As tends to be the way over here, our section was part of a bowl-type arrangement, with a running track between us and the pitch. There was a small covered stand opposite that had shade and seats. Maybe we should have walked a bit further around.

Malaysia were in yellow and black stripes with Brunei in white with a nifty single three-coloured stripe. It wasn’t clear whether this was a real U22 game or whether it was actually the full Brunei team warming up for the upcoming Suzuki  Cup qualifiers by taking on a team of youngsters.

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There were lots of vendors selling to the sparse crowd with sunflower seeds being a popular option.  Most of the spectators were in family groups and with everyone trying to squeeze into the back couple of rows that were providing the shade, the sellers pretty much had a captive market to aim at.

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The standard on the pitch was poor in both technical ability and in decision-making. Malaysia took the lead after ten minutes and whilst there were sufficient defensive mistakes for there to have been any number of further goals, poor finishing meant that there was just the one in the first half.

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At half time we came out of the ground and wandered around to the covered stand on the other side of the ground. It was also free to get in and we took a seat to the left of the fence of VIP section in the middle.

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As the half drew on, the sun dropped behind our stand. The fading light allowed the fans opposite to gradually abandon their seats beneath the overhang and spread out a little more.

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Towards the end the crowd was announced as being 315. I’m not sure how they worked it out and as we’d gone in twice I wondered if we’d been counted on both occasions. Maybe somebody just looked around the ground and did a head-count. Or perhaps the announcer just made it up. My money is on that last option.

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There were no more goals and the Malaysian youngsters hung on for their one-nil win.

Pahang v Penang, Saturday 24th September 2016, 9pm

November 12, 2016

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Jen and I drove the four hours or so to Kuantan for this game in our recently acquired nine-year old Proton Gen 2 car. It seemed increasingly less of a bargain with each time that we had to stop and prevent it over-heating by adding a litre or more of water.

Our hotel overlooked the Darulmakmur stadium and if we’d wanted to we could have watched the game from our room.  However, with the ground just a ten minute walk away, I thought we’d have a better view from inside.

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At the ticket office we had a choice of tickets at 12, 15 and 25 ringgits. I assumed that the cheapest were concessions, the middle band terracing and the top priced tickets were for the grandstands.

I was wrong. The middle option that I’d chosen on the basis of it being terracing turned out to be upper tier of the grandstand. It was a mistake that worked out well though in that the seats towards the front of the upper tier probably provided the best view in the ground.

This was another game that would go a long way in determining the relegation slots from the Super League. If Penang lost they were down, if Pahang won they would stay up. Or maybe it was the other way around. I dunno, it would have been easier if they hadn’t had such similar names. A draw suited neither really. Surprisingly, for a meaningful game the crowd seemed quite small.

There were a hundred and twenty or so visiting fans on the far side, with a banner encouraging ‘Lobo’ to stay. I’d no idea at the time who Lobo was. Or if the banner was even football related. It could just have easily been something to do with the training of dogs.

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Penang were in white with two light blue stripes whilst Pahang were in yellow.

The visitors played in a similar way to the previous week, generally starting from the back via the big fella at centre-half. I looked him up later and it turned out that he was the Lobo that the fans were keen to see stay. He didn’t have much in the way of ball-control and often needed the extra space and time that hanging ten yards behind the play gave him. He could boot it a long way though and you knew that if he were a Sunday league player he’d be taking the goal kicks and launching them almost to the opponents penalty area.

When the option was there for a short pass, Lobo would play it to the Korean in defensive midfield who was putting in what’s often described a workman-like shift. The usual plan for the Korean was then to find the Argentinian bloke ahead of him who would try to play in the Nigerian striker.

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Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, Pahang had little trouble foiling the plan and they went into half-time a goal up after Penang failed to clear a corner and the ball was whacked home from four yards out.

There was a choice of refreshments at the interval. I declined the luminous green drink and instead plumped for the King Cola at 2 ringgits a cup. It was a lot sweeter than my usual choice of diet coke and were I an expert on these matters I’d probably say that the complex light floral notes were finely balanced with lingering hints of Jeyes fluid.

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We moved to the end of our stand for the second half as it was less busy and gave us a view of the rest of the stand from the curve. As I could see down to the lower tier, I’d say that there were probably 1,500 home fans in the 32,500 capacity ground.

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Penang varied their approach a little in the second half by moving the Korean further forward at the expense of the Argentinian fella. It didn’t make much difference though and their job was made harder when one of the visiting players was sent off for lashing out in what seemed an obvious case of frustration at the scoreline.

Pahang hung on to their lead and took the three points. It wasn’t a result that finally resolved anything though and with one game of the season remaining there were still five teams in danger of the drop.

Penang v Police, Saturday 10th September 2016, 9pm

November 11, 2016

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Jen and I don’t live too far from Kuala Lumpur airport and so there are quite a few options for a Friday evening getaway. For this weekend we’d chosen Penang which is an hour’s flight up the coast.

We stayed in Georgetown, an old town that has a couple of interesting museums, a nineteenth century fort and a town centre that late on the Friday night seemed to be a magnet for travelling white boys with dreads. We didn’t stay out for long.

On the Saturday we had a look around the other attractions and then in the evening walked the couple of miles towards the Bandar Raya stadium. On the way we passed someone getting a massage. Nothing unusual there, I’m sure Georgetown has plenty of options for massages, as does most of Asia. What made this one different was that it involved a couple of meat cleavers. Not much prospect of a happy ending with that one, I suppose.

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We were still two hours or so early by the time we reached the ground but the floodlights were on and the gates open. We checked the kickoff time with a couple of coppers on the gate, whom I presumed were on duty and not waiting to get changed for the game.

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The ticket office was right next door to the turnstiles and there were already people milling around. It was a big game, in as much as Penang were in danger of being relegated if they lost, whilst the Police weren’t far enough ahead of them in the table to be considered safe from the drop either.

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Tickets were fifteen ringgits which is about three quid. I just asked for two, without specifying any area of the ground. It didn’t look like rain and so I wasn’t really bothered about where we sat.

With our tickets in hand we called in at a restaurant a minute or two away for something to eat. It was mainly outdoor tables but fortunately there was a light breeze to cool things down a little.

The place was filling up quickly, perhaps as a consequence of them having a telly that was showing the Manchester derby. We ordered chicken and rice which, when you aren’t confident in identifying the items on the menu, was a safe enough option.

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After dinner we popped into the petrol station next to the turnstiles to pick up a couple of drinks. We got as far as the turnstile with them, where they were confiscated for being potential missiles. The police couldn’t have been more apologetic though and suggested a compromise whereby we could leave them in the turnstile hut and, if we promised not to hurl the bottle at anyone, we could call in for a drink whenever we liked. Perfect.

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The stadium is the oldest in Malaysia, dating back to 1956 and with the usual uncovered bowl and one main stand arrangement. We just sat at the top of the terracing behind the goal, mainly because it meant a shorter walk to the turnstile hut whenever I wanted a swig of coke.

There was a decent turnout from the Penang fans and also a handful of ultras to our right who were supporting the visitors. They seemed well-organised and so I presume they were actual junior policemen who had been ‘encouraged’ to attend and offer some support.

Curiously, one of them had a scarf with A.C.A.B. on it. If it meant the same as it did on those knuckle tattoos in the seventies, it seemed an odd sentiment. Mind you, there was another one with a ‘Fuck The System’ scarf. Probably CID.

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At half-time we had a chat with the rozzer on the gate. After admitting to supporting Penang rather than his employer he expressed his reservations over their chances of survival. He had faith in the manager who had been recently appointed but was worried that the upturn had come too late for this season.

After finishing our drinks we moved around to the other side of the ground, passing a prayer hut where a few of the fans were doing their best to get some divine assistance for the second half.

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The prayers turned out to be in vain, unless one of them had put the game down for a one-all draw on his coupon. It was a result that didn’t really help either team out in a definite case of two points dropped for both sides.

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We made it back to the hotel without encountering anyone else waving a meat cleaver and had a few drinks on the rooftop terrace where there wasn’t a white boy dread in sight.

Selangor PKNS v Perak, Saturday 13th August 2016, 9pm

November 10, 2016

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One of the things that I needed to change at work was the Saturday working malarkey. Six days a week is too many, particularly when you are doing ten-hour days. Fortunately we were able to come to an agreement that gave me ‘proper’ two-day weekends and that allowed Jen and I to head up to Shah Alam for a Saturday night Malaysian Cup game.

Our hotel was only about twenty minutes walk away from the stadium and with the kick-off not being until nine o’clock we had plenty of time to find somewhere on the way to get something to eat.

As ever, there was a cat to feed and it was happy to accept whatever we dropped down under the table. We ate whilst watching people sauntering past on their way to the mosque, seemingly unhurried by the persistent call to prayer.

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PKNS, of the second-tier Premier League, were taking on Super League club Perak in the Malaysia Cup. It was supposed to be a home fixture for PKNS, but my understanding was that they usually played their games in Melaka. I noticed very few home fans in the area around the stadium.

Perak, despite being based a couple of hundred kilometres away in Ipoh, had lots of support. Maybe they are just a more popular team. I dare say that I’ll find these things out in time.

We opted for grandstand seats at twenty ringgits rather than general admission at half that price. The tickets appeared to back up my suspicion that PKNS didn’t usually play at this ground, with the Hang Jebat Melaka stadium named on them as the venue.

Mind you, the competition was wrongly listed too. Perhaps we could have got into the ground with old bus tickets.

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Everyone was searched on the way in, including girl who couldn’t have been any older than five. She had a packet of fags in her back pocket which she had to hand over so that they could be checked to see if a lighter was concealed inside. The lighter was found and duly confiscated.

I like to think that the stewards will have missed her Paw Patrol hip-flask of whisky.

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Odd as it might seem, we couldn’t find the entrance to the grandstand from the concourse and after doing half a lap of the ground too far we ended up in general admission seats on the opposite side instead. It was fine though as with there only being three or four thousand fans in an eighty-thousand capacity stadium we had plenty of space.

I googled the Shah Alam stadium and whilst I couldn’t be absolutely certain it looked as if the Boro might have played there on a pre-season tour under Robbo. I doubt he’d have been too impressed by the refreshment options in the area where we’d just had our tea.

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We had the usual state and national anthems and then with the game underway the noise continued with each set of fans having at least two drummers. My initial assessment outside had been correct and it looked as if the ‘home’ side had less than thirty fans, with everyone else originating from either Ipoh, Norton or Baton Rouge.

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Perak, in the white, took the lead mid-way through the first half with a glancing header from a floaty free-kick. PKNS, in an orange kit, were struggling. They had a player in left midfield who had a habit of mis-hitting his shots and passes and then apologising with a wave of an arm that brought nostalgic memories of Curtis Fleming flooding back.

On a similar Boro-related note, PKNS had a fella upfront who bore quite a resemblance to Jonathan Greening in his Jesus phase. Was that a phase? Probably not, as I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen him looking any different.

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At half time the only refreshments available were small cartons of water. Despite it being late in the evening the temperatures hadn’t dropped much and so I braved the scrum to buy a couple for a ringgit each.

We switched seats to behind the goal and one of the Perak fans came over for a chat. He reckoned a lot of the visiting support had made the short journey from nearby Kuala Lumpur rather than all the way from Ipoh. It’s similar, I suppose, to the make-up of a Boro crowd for London games.

He also mentioned that Perak had picked up a bit since they had appointed a German coach who was in his eighties. Apparently he was the bloke who had managed Malaysia to their greatest achievement, which was qualifying for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. I presume it was for the football and not three-day eventing or something. Their efforts turned out to be in vain though as the government then promptly withdrew them in support of the US-led boycott.

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The visitors equalised after the break with Jesus Greening flicking on a cross with his head into the corner of the net to make it one each.

Ten minutes from time Perak missed a sitter when the striker put his shot against the bar only for PKNS to nip straight down the other end where one of their players wellied the ball home.

The Super League side failed to force an equaliser and  finished the evening both short-tempered and short-handed with one of their players being sent off and their manager, who was certainly old enough to know better, waved away to the stands.

Sepang Indians v Port Dickson Chinese, Sunday 8th August 2016, 6pm

November 2, 2016

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I’ve driven past Sepang Field a few times now, generally on the way from Lukut to the airport. It’s an enjoyable drive through an area that’s mainly palm oil plantations and it has a couple of areas where you are pretty much guaranteed to see monkeys by the side of the road.

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On this occasion though it was a football game that caught my eye and so I turned off the main road and parked up behind one of the goals to take a look.

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Sepang Field doesn’t have a stand of any sort, although it does have a dozen or so benches along one side of the pitch. Nobody was using the benches though and so I stood behind a goal to get a bit more information as to what was going on.

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The fellas next to me were happy to fill me in on the details. It was a veterans game for over forties, a pre-season friendly between Sepang Indians and Port Dickson Chinese. As Indians from Sepang, they were supporting the home side. I didn’t see anyone who looked Chinese in the twenty-five strong crowd.

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Sepang appeared to have the better players and they combined well to set up some decent one-on-one chances against the Port Dickson keeper who had eschewed  official kit in favour of a Mario Ballotelli tee-shirt. I doubt the trend will catch on. Not unless Mario himself decides that he fancies a stint in goal at whatever club he’s at now.

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In another break from tradition, the linesman were signalling by waving with bibs rather than flags. They were a bit lax with the offsides, perhaps because they were often twenty yards away from where they needed to be.

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Despite the home side’s dominance, it was a goal apiece by the time I left half-way through the first half. It’s not the level of football that gets reported anywhere so I doubt we’ll ever know how it ended.

Croatia v Czech Republic, Friday 17th June 2016, 6pm

November 1, 2016

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Paul and I had intended to stay in a village just outside of St Etienne for the game between Croatia and the Czech Republic, mainly for the perfectly good reason that it was named after him. Or at least shared his surname. However, at the last minute we decided not to bother and instead we booked another night in Lyon and made a forty minute rail journey to St Etienne instead.

Our first port of call was an Irish bar for lunch and then we had a nose around a temporary exhibition all about St. Etienne’s run to the European Cup Final in 1976. The competition was a much simpler affair in the mid-seventies, with just a first round, second round, quarter-final and semi before the inevitable defeat to Bayern Munich in the final.

The memorabilia was good, but it was the old photos that I found the most interesting. They’d had fixtures at Ibrox, Hampden and Eindhoven, all of which I’ve seen games at and they’d also played Dynamo in Kiev at the old stadium where Paul and I had wandered around eight years earlier before a McCartney concert.

We often seem to end up at Croatian games in these tournaments and it’s always a decent atmosphere. Mind you, my experiences of Czech fans, primarily with the Boro in Ostrava, have also been very positive.

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We paused at a bar just off the main road and around twenty minutes away from the Stade Geoffroy–Guichard. Once again we’d managed to find somewhere quiet and we had a few drinks whilst watching Italy snatch a late winner against Sweden.

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The organisation outside the ground was as poor as it had been in Paris and a crush developed in the area prior to the searches. It was one of those occasions where you needed one hand out in front of you to give some breathing space, whilst the other hand kept tight hold of your wallet.

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We had seats close to the half-way line in the lower tier directly across from the important people. The official attendance had the crowd some three thousand short of its 42,000 capacity but there looked to be more empty seats than that to me.

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England’s Mark Clattenburg had been given the refereeing gig. I’ve not watched a lot of Premier League football in the past few years with the Boro not being involved and so I’ve not really seen as much of him as most people will have done. He had an almost ‘dis-interested’ style about him, where he seemed to go about his business as if he were bored shitless. It was as if he’d been roped in at the last-minute and it had messed up his previous and much better plans. A bit, I suppose, like the way in which Alan Green behaves when required to commentate on teams like the Boro.

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The Croatians were by far the better team and with Modric pulling the strings created most of the chances. It was no surprise when they took the lead in the first half with a low Perisic shot into the corner of Cech’s net.

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At half-time we went for a wander and then watched the second half from the back-row of the upper tier. We had a chat with a French bloke who, like us, had seen a few games around the country. He seemed pleased to have picked up a ticket for face value outside, although I couldn’t help but think that in a game that had plenty of empty seats he should really have been able to acquire one for next to nothing.

Croatia doubled their lead on the hour when Rakitic clipped one over the Arsenal keeper. At this point they made a ‘Bobby Charlton in Mexico’ substitution, looking to save Modric for future games. I wondered if it might have been a little hasty when Skoda pulled one back for the Czechs with around fifteen minutes to go.

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As we had a train to catch back to Lyon we decided to leave five minutes before the end, although if we hadn’t relocated to the top of the stadium we could probably have hung on a couple of minutes longer. As we hurried away we heard the sound of flares exploding on the pitch. Clattenburg’s decision to temporarily halt play until the smoke cleared worked to our further advantage by giving us an even better head start on most of the crowd.

We made it back to the station with perfect timing for the next train with the knowledge that had we left it much later we’d have been a long way back in the queue at the barrier.

With the drinking restrictions in Lyon city centre we went back to the pizza place that we’d eaten in the previous night to watch the Spain v Turkey game. We discovered that the Czech Republic had equalised with a last-minute penalty and then ended up talking football with a couple of blokes who were on a first date. One of them was a bit of a nutter and I’d say it was fifty-fifty as to whether the pair of them would end up fucking or fighting. Maybe both.

The fourth game in four days brought the tournament to an end for us and the next day I flew back to Malaysia. As ever, we’d had a great time with no trouble. Roll on Russia and the World Cup in two years time.

Northern Ireland v Ukraine, Thursday 16th June 2016, 6pm

October 31, 2016

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The third game of our Euro trip took us to Lyon for Northern Ireland’s fixture with Ukraine. Our train wasn’t until mid-morning and so I took the opportunity to have a wander around Paris before breakfast. It’s amazing what you can stumble across when you least expect it.

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Paul and I had upstairs seats on the train for the two-hour journey to Lyon. The train was busier than the one we’d taken the previous day, with plenty of Northern Ireland fans enjoying their first tournament since the days when Pat Jennings was between the sticks.

Our hotel in Lyon was only five minutes from the station, but our plan to head into the town centre was scuppered by an alcohol ban. It all seemed a bit over the top, particularly as neither of the teams involved have any reputation for mischief.

We headed away from the station in search of a quiet area of town that might have bars that were either unaffected by the ban or had chosen to ignore it. We eventually found one showing the England game and we were the only customers. If Carlsberg did bars…

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We hung about long enough to see England sneak a spawny injury time win over Wales and then managed to flag down a taxi to take us to the Stade de Lyon. We arrived with a few minutes to spare and by entering via a side entrance we were quickly inside.

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We made our way to our seats just as the National Anthem struck up. I know how the Queen feels now. We had seats on the edge of the Irish section and fortunately we were high enough up to be under cover. It started to rain early on and it wasn’t long before it was heavy enough to have people in the lower tiers scurrying upwards in search of somewhere drier.

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The Irish fans were fantastic, singing throughout the game and pausing only when offering up a minutes applause for a fan who had died earlier in the week. Sadly, another of their number passed away during the second half.

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Both teams had lost their first games in the group and so a defeat for either side in this game would make qualifying difficult, even in a competition where only eight of the twenty-four teams taking part go home after the first-phase.

With the heavy rain making good football difficult, Northern Ireland took the lead just after half time when Gareth McAuley ghosted into the Ukranian box for an unmarked header. As you can imagine, the Irish fans were quite pleased.

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The rain got heavier over the next ten minutes or so and when the hailstones starting arriving the ref called a temporary halt. From what I saw later on the telly, some of them were the size of chocolate brazils and so it was probably the right decision.

The weather didn’t seem to affect the Ukrainian fans behind the far goal, who just removed most of their clothes. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the best approach in hailstorms.

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The Irish didn’t sit back on their lead and there always looked to be another goal in the game. We had to wait until the ninety-sixth minute for it to come, with Niall McGinn knocking in a rebound to secure a two goal victory.

The rain had stopped by the final whistle and we were able to join the queue for the tram into town. It was all very well organised and we were soon whisked away and deposited near to the station that we’d arrived at that morning.

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The alcohol ban in the centre posed the same problems as earlier in the day and so we decided to head back to the bar where we’d watched the England game. For some reason it was closed. Perhaps having two customers at a time that afternoon had worn them out.

We walked around for a while, mainly through a Muslim area that was unaffected by the temporary alcohol ban due to  none of the establishments selling the stuff in the first place. We eventually found a pizza place that not only had food and drink, but also had that evening’s other Group C game between Germany and Poland on the telly.

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Three games down, one to go.