Shabab Al-Ahli v Fujairah, Friday 27th September 2019, 6.30pm

February 9, 2020

Since finishing my job in Malaysia in May it has been non-stop holiday. Soph and the grandkids came out to visit us before we left and then it was the six-week American trip. On getting back to the UK we’ve had plenty to do in trying to make the house habitable, but I’ve had no ‘proper’ work for a while.

I’d been talking to a company about joining them and when the opportunity came up for a bit of freelance work in Dubai I thought it might be a useful way of sounding them out. In truth, Dubai isn’t somewhere that has ever appealed to me. It has always struck me as a place where the expats are a bit full of themselves, but I thought that it wouldn’t do any harm to find out whether my pre-conceptions were accurate or not and anyway, it was about time that I started earning again.

Of course, one of the first things that I did was check out the football fixtures and within a couple of days of me arriving in town there was an Arabian Gulf League fixture within striking distance of where I was staying. I took a thirty minute metro ride costing five dirhams, which was about a quid, to a stop right next to Shabab Al-Ahli’s Al-Rashid stadium. It cost me another fifteen dirhams for a seat opposite the main stand. It wasn’t covered, but there’s not a lot of rain in this part of the world.

I was given a wristband to wear, which I later found out was colour-coded to signify that I was a ‘home’ supporter.

There was a call to prayer just before kick-off which was ignored by everyone in the ground. It struck me as a bit risky for fans to pass up the chance to ask for a favourable result but maybe the more pious had already put their request in.

I’d timed my visit to the UAE well, as this was the second round of league fixtures and both sides were defending one hundred per cent records courtesy of opening weekend wins. In the early exchanges Shabab looked the side more likely to preserve their record and before long they were two goals to the good.

The goals were greeted by the sound of an air raid siren. If I were a local who already had to contend with the nearby rail line and the calls to prayer I’d be hoping for solid defensive performances every week. The noise level was further increased by a bloke with a mega-phone who was marshalling the home support and a couple of drummers. I don’t know why people can’t just sit quietly really.

The dominance of the home side was temporarily halted when Fujairah pulled a goal back before the break. It took a while before everyone was sure that it would count with the officials appearing to give the video ref every opportunity to overrule it. The real ref stood for a couple of minutes with his finger in his ear before eventually letting the game resume.

At half-time I went for a wander and ended up at the opposite side of the ground. I bought a bottle of water for three dirhams but was stopped from going back into the seating area with it and had to down it there and then. After finishing my drink I was stopped a second time from getting back in as I was trying to get into the area that was designated for away fans and my armband gave me away. I’m sure the steward must have thought that this was my first ever visit to a football ground.

I admitted defeat and headed back to my own area. moving seats to the edge of the section for a slightly different view and for forty-five minutes of having my chair kicked by a bored toddler.

The second half was all Shabab, with them adding another three goals, the last of them as I was standing up to leave with a minute to go. The overall standard wasn’t too bad, although the background of the foreign players suggested that they would struggle to get a job with a Championship or even League One club. Mind you, on current form I think that both sides might well have given the Boro a decent game.

Redcar Athletic v Esh Winning, Saturday 21st September 2019, 3pm

January 26, 2020

The main plan for this day was a hike along the cliff tops in the area between Skinningrove and Skelton. Jen and I parked up at Boulby, a place that that surely only exists for parking up, and took my daughter’s beagle up through the fields to join the Cleveland Way.

It was ideal weather for a coastal walk and by doubling back when getting near to anywhere inhabited we managed to spend a few hours in the middle of nowhere.

The downside was that the dog appeared to have a death wish. Or at least minimal understanding of how cliffs work. He got a lot closer to the edge than I was comfortable with and all it would have taken was a bird or a butterfly to have flown by him and he would have jumped off after it without a second thought.

I’d kept in mind the possibility of calling in at Redcar on the way back to take in some football and as we made it back to the car it looked possible that we could make the second half of Redcar Athletic’s Northern League Division Two game with Esh Winning. That was good enough for me. Most ground hoppers have their own rules and mine allow me to tick off a ground if I’ve watched any part of a proper game there. Even if I don’t arrive until the ref is moving his hand towards his mouth to blow the final whistle, it counts.

We didn’t cut it quite that fine, but it was around ten minutes into the second half before we found their Green Lane ground and made our way in. The bloke on the gate had long departed and so we saved at least a fiver a head. Dogs get in for free anyway, regardless of what time they arrive.

I asked how things were going and one fella told me that Redcar were three-nil up. A few moments later I overheard someone else asking the same question only to be told the score was three-one. Somebody wasn’t paying attention. Possibly me. As it was more likely that someone had missed a goal rather than invented one I worked on the basis that Redcar were ahead by two.

There was a small covered seating area that held about fifty and with a few wags in residence. There was also a covered standing area, but with the weather being pretty good most people just lined the perimeter railing for a closer view.

It wasn’t long before Redcar had a chance to kill the game off when one of their strikers ran on to a long ball. It was just out of his reach though and he took an unwarranted tumble in a desperate attempt at picking up a penalty. All he got for his efforts was a volley of abuse from the visiting defence.

The striker had still to get up when Esh Winning broke to the other end and had a penalty shout of their own. This one was given and converted to reduce the deficit to a single goal. The efforts of the visitors to get back on level terms weren’t helped by their lack of discipline. They had a player who I thought had been sin binned but who might have actually just received a second yellow. At that point I noticed that they only had nine players on the pitch so had either suffered an injury after using their subs or had already had someone sent off.

The Esh Winning charge sheet grew in the final minutes after a fracas where the home manager claimed to have been racially abused by an opposition player and one of the players on the visitors bench was subsequently shown a red and sent packing to the changies despite the ref not appearing to be anywhere within earshot.

All the excitement on the sidelines overshadowed the remaining on-field activities with Redcar holding on for the win.

Cleator Moor Celtic v Cheadle Town, Saturday 7th September 2019, 3pm

January 19, 2020

After briefly stopping off at the Gosforth game, Jen and I headed further north for our originally intended destination of Cleator Moor. It’s usually an awkward place to get to, but as we were already over in this part of the world for a British Sea Power festival it made it easy enough.

The festival, which took place in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, was excellent. It had been limited to five hundred people, but as Sea Power aren’t the most popular of bands these days, or any days really, it didn’t sell out and so there were probably only around four hundred people to see three BSP sets as well as some band member spin-off stuff and some well-chosen support acts.

The festival camping worked well too, at only a short walk away from the barn where the action was and with drinking water supplied and showers nearby. A real toilet block made the facilities an improvement on just about any other festival I’ve ever been to. As you’d expect at a Sea Power gig everyone was very friendly with many of those attending being older than me and with quite a few of them having brought their dogs along too.

Daytime is a difficult time at a festival though. If you start the drinking too early then you may not see any of the bands later in the day. I remember one early start at End Of The Road resulted in me being asleep in my tent by 6pm, but then I woke up refreshed and ready to start the new day at midnight meaning I was able to catch the annual outing of the Jonathan Richman tribute band, The Modern Ovens, in the early hours. That was a little weird as I was more in the mood for coffee and Weetabix than I was for a beer. This time though, a morning hike and an afternoon trip to the football filled the daytime hours very well.

The football on this occasion was a Playermatch.com Cup fixture between Cleator Moor Celtic of the tenth tier First Division North of the North West Counties Football League and visitors Cheadle Town who ply their trade in the equivalent First Division South of the same league.

It was the first home game of the season for Celtic at their McGrath Park ground, after a run of seven away fixtures brought on, I think, by the laying of a new pitch.

I can’t remember how much we paid to get in but I’ve a feeling that it might only have been three quid with another pound for a programme. We were there just in time to take a couple of seats in a small covered stand. There was a separate covered standing area too, although most people just leaned on the perimeter barrier.

One odd thing was that nobody spent any time looking at their phones due to there being no signal in Cleator Moor or anywhere as far south as Muncaster. How can that be? It’s as if this part of Cumbria hasn’t moved into the twenty-first century. Instead of looking up line-ups and anything else random that popped into our heads we were distracted by more present goings-on such as the small dog playing with a clothes peg and a kid who couldn’t have been more than four years old wearing a denim jacket with Slayer on the back.

I’m not really sure that the Playermatch.com Cup figured significantly in the ambitions of either club, but for what it’s worth Cheadle took the tie by two goals to one leaving us to head back down the road to Muncaster for the evening activities at the festival.

Gosforth v Moor Row, Saturday 7th September 2019, 2pm

November 29, 2019

Ticking off this ground was a bit unexpected in that I’d no idea that there was a game taking place until I noticed the players running around as we drove past on the way to a different match. We had plenty of time though and I pulled in and parked up to take a few photos.

Jen and I were staying down the road at Muncaster for British Sea Power’s Krankenhaus festival and had spent the morning walking up on Muncaster Fell. It’s somewhere that I‘ve been to before and we had decent views both inland and out to sea. Further up the coast we could see Sellafield which was somewhere that I first worked at nearly thirty years ago.

Back in those days I stayed just outside of Gosforth and would regularly drink in all of the three pubs that are within a few feet of each other in the village. Sometimes the sessions would go on a bit longer than I’d consider wise these days and on more than one occasion I ended up going straight to work without ever making it back to my digs.

It wasn’t all drinking though, sometimes we had a kick about after work on the same field as where this game was taking place. Although we would usually then end up in the pub anyway so perhaps it was all about the drinking after all.

I learned from one of the home coaching team that this was a cup game against Moor Row, which is a few miles to the north. I’ve no idea what level the teams play at but it looked to be lower than Wearside League standard so maybe 12th or 13th tier. Anyway, I later found out that the cup was the Conway Cup and despite me hanging about for a good ten minutes I didn’t see any of the seven goals that Gosforth subsequently put past the visitors.

Still, it’s another ground, number three hundred and thirty to be precise, and it gave me a chance to reminisce about the times when concluding an evening at seven o’clock meant the next morning rather than early that same evening.

Billingham Town v Heaton Stannington, Saturday 31st August 2019, 3pm

November 22, 2019

I’ve no idea why I’ve never been to Bedford Terrace before. You’d think that for someone with an interest  in ground hopping visiting a ground that is less than ten minute’s drive or just a forty-five minute walk from my house would have been something that I’d have got around to at some point.

Not long after leaving school, one of my mates used to play for them, but it would never have entered my head to have gone along and watched him, just like he wouldn’t have bothered coming to see me turning out for my Sunday League side Hartburn Villa.

Thirty-five years on from the pinnacle of my footballing days and what was the start of a pretty decent career for my mate, I finally made my way over the A19 to see a Billingham Town game.

There’s a decent sized car park which, had I not abandoned my car in one of the side streets, would have been ideal. It was six quid in to the ground, with another pound for the programme for an FA Vase game against Heaton Stannington. I’d no idea where Heaton Stannington is, or even if it is a place. The visitors were wearing Newcastle style strips so my immediate assumption was that they were from that area. However, I later noticed that they were sponsored by the Whitby Co-op so perhaps they are from around that way.

I’m also not sure where the FA Vase ranks in comparison the Northern League games. Stockton made it to Wembley last year so perhaps they had prioritised it. I certainly would have. The officials though were a lot older and fatter than the bright young things that I’d seen officiating in the league, so perhaps the authorities rank it a bit lower.

I went in a covered standing area on the far side which seemed to be the place where the dozen or so away fans were congregating. There was a seated stand opposite where Billingham has a few vocal fans in the top corner accompanied by a drum and possibly some brass instrument.

The windy conditions didn’t make things easy for either team, but it was the visitors who opened the scoring. The goal seemed to increase the extent of the niggling between the teams which peaked when the Billingham nine did something off the ball that led a flat out opponent and a red card. There was no further scoring in the first half and at the interval I got some chips, a coffee and a seat in the main stand.

The second half brought more pressure from the visitors with Heaton having a goal disallowed and drawing a decent save from the Town keeper. At that point Heaton were well on top against the ten men and when one of the visitors was subbed he was in such a good mood that he cheered his own name as it was announced on the tannoy.

The confidence was misplaced though as a Billingham free-kick that was floated into the box appeared to either take a deflection or be caught by a gust of wind. Either way it drifted beyond the keeper for an against the run of play equaliser.

The goal revitalised Billingham and when pressing for a winner were only stopped in their tracks by a blatant body check from a Stan defender. The subsequent yellow was greeted by a cry of “Who’s your father, referee?” which is something that I don’t think I’ve heard for thirty years and something that may very well cause bemusement to anyone born in that time.

With extra time looming a Town central defender went on a mazy run, not unlike the ones that my mate used to do all those years ago. He held off the covering challenges and finished into the corner, giving his team a two-one victory that had looked out of reach for most of the game.

Hebburn Town v Ryhope Colliery Welfare, Tuesday 27th August 2019, 7.30pm

October 25, 2019

Having broken my Northern League duck for the season it didn’t take long to clock up a second game. Jen and I made our way up the A19 to the Hebburn Sports Ground or as it is currently known, the Energy Check Sports Ground. Whatever the name, it appears to date back to 1899, a good few years before Hebburn Town even existed.

We were there for the Division One clash with Ryhope Colliery Welfare and handed over six pounds each to get in with another couple of quid for a programme that was much more informative and professionally put together than I could have expected at this level. I don’t know how many they sell, but with a crowd of just 249 it can’t be enough to justify the efforts that will have gone into it.

Hebburn were in yellow and black as I suppose a team nicknamed the Hornets probably should be, whilst Ryhope were in purple. The home side had made an excellent start to the season, topping the table with four wins in their first five games. The visitors hadn’t began the campaign too shabbily either and were just above half-way in the table.

It was mainly Hebburn possession and territorial advantage early on, but it took a long ball that was miss-controlled by a Ryhope centre-half into the path of a home striker to break the deadlock. Hebburn were much the better team for the remainder of the the first half but didn’t take any more of their chances.

At half time I wandered around from our seats in the main stand and joined the queue at the food hatch next to the club house. Chips and curry sauce looked to be the best offering and it went down well.

With the nights drawing in the second half was played in near darkness with the Hebburn floodlights little brighter than a landing night light. The substitute board provided more illumination and I’m convinced that the teams were bringing players on just so that they could use the board lighting to see what was going on.

One thing that I did notice despite the gloom was that the officials all seemed very young. I suppose that’s the way it is these days and more to do with getting younger people into officiating rather than a perception due to my age. They managed the game well, with one of the linesman having a very detailed discussion with an unusually polite Ryhope defender over the newly introduced changes to interpreting handball.

From what I was able to see, Hebburn were clearly on top but Ryhope were never really out of it and missed a couple of decent chances to level the score. Deep into injury time, the Hornets sealed the win with a break bringing a second goal. The victory was well deserved and consolidated their position at the top of the table.

 

Thornaby v Stockton Town, Monday 26th August 2019, 11am

October 23, 2019

I’d had a fair bit to do after getting back to the UK so it was a while before I got around to fitting a game in. A bank holiday Northern League derby was perfect though for getting back into it and so Jen and I made the short trip to Thornaby’s  Teesdale  Park.

It was a long walk in down a back lane. There were a few cars parked by the verges including a couple that had blocked a taxi in. The driver seemed resigned to his fate and I wondered if he was secretly happy to hang around and watch the game.

It was six quid to get in, which Jen thought quite expensive for a match that I’d described to her as being in the ninth tier of English football. I didn’t think it was too bad though. You don’t get much for that sort of cash these days.

There were a few choices for sitting or standing. We could have gone in the main covered stand, or in an open stand behind one of the goals. There were some outdoor tables in the club house that you probably had to get there quite early for and, as ever, the option of just leaning on the perimeter barrier. It was a dry, sunny day though and so we sat on the grassy bank across the pitch from the dug outs.

The keepers caught our attention early on, with the Stockton goalie being described by a kid behind me as a “pound shop Schmeichel”. I was initially impressed that the pre-teen would even know of the former Man United keeper before twigging that it was more likely Peter’s boy that he was referring to.

The other goalie was notable for wearing gloves that went so far up his arms that from a distance Jen thought he had plaster casts on them. When I questioned the likelihood of a goalie turning out in that condition she reminded me that it was a Bank Holiday and suggested that, in view of the other demands on their time, the clubs might very well have been struggling to put teams of fully fit players together.

The ground continued to fill up over the first half with the attendance later being announced as 470. That’s pretty good for a ninth tier game and I suspect  the morning kick-off time probably played  a part.

A moment after a fella nearby had commented how evenly balanced the game had been to date, Stockton took the lead when Kevin Hayes hit a speculative shot from distance that evaded the home keeper. A few minutes later Nathan Mulligan, who I seem to remember was on Boro’s books a while ago, rifled home across the keeper for a two goal half-time lead.

The second half was largely as even as the first had been and for a while it looked as if that brief spell just before the break had cost Thornaby. However, as the game drew towards its conclusion Kevin Hayes appeared to miss-hit a cross that wrong-footed the Thornaby keeper and dropped behind him into the net. The scorer looked more sheepish than the goalie did. At the death and with people heading off to their barbecues, Mikey Roberts broke through for the visitors and hit the cleanest finish of the game for Stockton’s fourth.

It wasn’t really a game where there seemed to be four goals difference between the teams, but Stockton were just that bit more clinical when it mattered .

Philadelphia Union v Orlando City, Saturday 6th July 2019, 7pm

October 9, 2019

After the thunderstorm affected game in Nashville we continued to drive north, staying for a couple of nights in Salem, Virginia before getting up to Chester, Pennsylvania the night before catching the boat from New York back to Southampton.

I don’t imagine Chester is on many tour itineraries but we were there for the Philadelphia Union game. If I’d had a bit more time I’d probably have had a look at the Rocky statute, although I doubt I’d have ran up the steps to it. As it was, we checked into our hotel in the rain and when it cleared drove down to the Talen Energy Stadium.

It was thirty dollars to park the car and that wasn’t even at the stadium, just some gravel wasteland a couple of hundred yards away. Despite the threat of rain there was some tailgating going on, tailgating in the American sense that is of eating and drinking in the car park, rather than the English meaning of just driving too closely behind someone else.

We didn’t bother. As I was driving I couldn’t drink and so milling around next to my hire car didn’t seem all that attractive a proposition. Instead we headed around to the stadium, picked up our tickets from the collection point and, after a cursory bag search, made our way inside.

I’d booked our tickets a few weeks earlier for fifty five dollars a pop with the booking fees. We had seats down the side, but towards the end. One noticeable aspect was the width of the seat. They were much wider than those at the Boro, where I’m generally squeezed up against the fans either side of me.

The width of the seats might have had some correlation to the availability of stuff to eat in the concourse. It was more like a food court than a football ground. I had something called a Goop Dog which was a hot dog sat on a bed of bacon and onions and topped with a layer of cheesy sauce. With a coke it came to fifteen dollars and so it’s easy to see why people may prefer to eat their own snacks in the car park.

Back in our seats there wasn’t much going on. I’d checked the line-ups and Orlando had the ex-Man United player, Nani, on the bench, whilst Union had the dodgy Jamaican keeper that I’d seen three days earlier starting for them. I didn’t see either of them though as the players weren’t bothering to warm up. Perhaps they had done it earlier.

As the stadium clock reached the scheduled start time of seven o’clock there was still no sign of the players. What we got instead was a severe weather warning announcement asking everyone to leave their seats and take refuge in the concourse. About half of the two -thirds full stadium took notice and headed indoors. Some took advantage of the empty seats to move under cover, whilst others, ourselves included, just stayed where we were.

After the game in Nashville I felt I was a veteran of these situations and judged the darkening skies to be more inclement than severe. Besides, I’ve stood in the pouring rain watching the Boro at Oldham in the past and at the end of the game gone home with a waterlogged sheepskin coat that weighed more than I did. That’s severe.

We sat in our seats for the next hour and a quarter watching the lightning in the distance. At no point did it seem anything like as near as it had been at the Nashville game. A fella in front of us had some sort of storm tracking app on his phone that he was scrutinising as if he were a Formula One engineer deciding when to pull his driver in for new tyres.

At a quarter past eight the game was called off. I’d already checked the terms and conditions on the back of my ticket which stated that no refund would be given if the game were to be rescheduled sometime within the next year.

It was later announced that the game would be rescheduled for 4.30pm the following day, exactly one hour after we were due to board the boat to England. Great, that’s a hundred and ten dollars down the Swanee. We made it back to the car before the rain started and then were stuck in our thirty dollar car park for an hour whilst the traffic cleared.

It was a disappointing end to what had been an excellent few weeks in the States. We’d driven the Blue Ridge Highway, watched three baseball games and a football match, hiked in the Smokies and on the Appalachian Trail, startled a bear at close range, tracked a snake and boiled eighty pounds of crawfish in an oil drum. I can put up with a postponed game after that lot.

USA v Jamaica, Wednesday 3rd July 2019, 8.30pm

August 6, 2019

After the Memphis visit and the Redbirds game it was time to head south to Louisiana and Mississippi to spend some time with Jen’s family. I didn’t see any sport this time but we got lucky in that the unseasonably high water levels in the area extended the craw fish season to coincide with our stay. The highlight was a craw fish boil at Jen’s Dad’s house where eighty pounds of of the crustaceans were purged, seasoned and boiled before being tipped into a canoe shaped bowl for us to pick at. You twist off the head, suck out the juices and then peel and eat the tail. It’s what they would have wanted.

After a week of family stuff it was time to return north to catch the boat from New York back to Southampton. Whilst it had been a leisurely drive on the way down we had to do the journey back over four days. First stop was five hundred miles away in Nashville, a city where we’d stayed for a couple of days on the way down.

I hadn’t been too impressed with Nashville. The bars in Music Street were competing for custom by trying to drown out the noise of their competitors and these days I prefer something quieter. We eventually found one with just an acoustic singer but it took some doing. Even worse was the homeless problem. Every corner or doorway seemed to have someone camped out. I appreciate numbers are more concentrated in the tourist areas but it was disappointing to see the extent of the problem.

One women on the street asked Jen if she could have the lunch left-overs that Jen had brought out from the bar with the acoustic singer. Jen handed it over and later commented to me that whilst we’d done that umpteen times when living in South Africa, she’d never been asked for left-over food in her own country before.

On a slightly more upbeat note, the Johnny Cash museum was worth a visit, although at more than twenty dollars a head it seemed expensive to me. I voiced that sentiment to the cashier and he nodded his agreement with me. I should have left it at that, but then went on to mention that I doubted I’d have considered paying as much as that to actually see him play live. That earned me a glare.

The other museum that we visited was dedicated to The Dukes Of Hazard and ran by a minor character that I’d forgotten even existed. They had some interesting memorabilia including original scripts and it gave me a chance to pose next to the General Lee. Or at least one of them.

We didn’t make it into town for the return visit as we were only able to stay overnight and we had plans for a game at the Titan’s Nissan Stadium. For convenience we stayed across the river at the Quality Inn next to the stadium. I’m glad we did, as being able to walk to the ground saved us the $40 car park fee, which was actually more than the $35 that I’d paid for my match ticket.

Whilst the stadium is more normally used for American football it’s too early (or too late) in the year for that and so the game that we were here for was a proper football match, between the US and Jamaica. My first game of the season was a semi-final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which judging by the far from sellout crowd may not be a particularly prestigious trophy.

Our tickets were for high in the upper tier. The 55,000 capacity stadium wasn’t particularly well attended though and that gave us the option of sitting just about anywhere we fancied. We started off in the upper tier but moved to a central position a handful of rows from the very back. I was like watching ants, but you got a good idea of formations and with the whole pitch in view at all times you could watch the action without the need to ever move your head. Or your eyes.

The hosts looked sharp early on and soon took the lead with a well-worked goal, celebrating to the somewhat overused Seven Nation Army.  Unfortunately for fans of the White Stripes hoping for the tune to be reprised, the American momentum was promptly halted by the arrival of a thunderstorm sufficiently concerning for the ref to order the players to the dressing room and an announcer to order the rest of us to go and hide in the concourse.

The delay went on for over an hour and a half and by which time I’d had enough of standing in the concourse. Our initial upper tier vantage point had allowed me to work out which areas of the stadium were both undercover and with spare seats and so we moved to the back part of the lower tier, near to a corner flag.

With the teams still in the dressing the crowd amused themselves with Mexican waves and chants of “Let’s play soccer”. One fella ran on to the pitch to retrieve a stray ball and was swiftly bundled to the floor by armed security and hand cuffed. It seemed a little over the top in the circumstances. Although maybe he could have considered himself lucky not to have been shot dead.

The game was a lot tighter after  the restart with Jamaica pressing harder than they had done before the interruption. The Jamaican cause wasn’t  helped by the tendency of their keeper to palm the ball into the path of incoming strikers though and it ended up 3-1 to the hosts.

I’m glad that we had a result in normal time as it was six minutes to midnight when the final whistle blew and by that stage of the evening I didn’t fancy another half hour of extra time or even penalties. I think one of the things that I like about football is its relatively short duration. Thunderstorm delays not withstanding.

Memphis Redbirds v Nashville Sounds, Tuesday 25th June 2019, 6.35pm

August 4, 2019

After Lynchburg we headed back into the mountains and along the Blue Ridge Highway. We stayed a couple of nights in a hut at the Fancy Gap campground which was close enough to a music place for us to nip up and listen to old people paying bluegrass on fiddles and banjoes. I doubt that they were paid for their efforts but it seemed a great way of getting them out of their wilderness cabins.

We moved further south along the highway, breaking the journey to Newlands with a stop at some museum. I didn’t really have much interest in its contents but that didn’t matter because we stumbled across a snake on the pathway up to it. It was just crossing from one grassy area to another and so we were able to stalk it. Jen reckoned that the shape of its head meant that it probably wasn’t venomous. It was moving slowly enough for me to have caught it but as I doubt that my medical insurance covers me for Steve Irwin-style mishaps we limited ourselves to photographing it in the undergrowth.

We had three nights at Newlands where it rained for much of the time. It was a decent place to be holed up though and with a creek running by the back of the house I was able to pass some time fishing for trout. I didn’t get as much of a bite with any of the flies that I was using but I didn’t break any rods either. It was enjoyable just being down by the river

Newlands was the last stop on the Blue Ridge Highway before the Smoky Mountains. We camped for three nights inside the national park at Big Creek Campground. Once again we were lucky enough to be next to a river and one afternoon I cooled off after an Appalachian trail hike by sitting up to my shoulders in the fast flowing water. I watched a humming bird hover a foot above the water looking for fish and it occurred to me that life rarely gets much better than this.

One morning I’d been cooking sausages and an orange spider appeared from under the table and started to eat some of the grease that was on the knife I’d used to prick them. I’m not usually scared of spiders but a spider with a knife cranks things up a level. He was a leg short, no doubt due to some past cutlery-related mishap but seemed friendly enough. If I’d known how much he was going to enjoy the sausage fat I’d have saved him some of my breakfast.

Big Creek signalled the end of the camping part of our trip and was followed by a couple of nights in each of Nashville and Memphis. We are heading back to Nashville on the return leg of the journey so I’ll describe that then and move on to Memphis now.

We were staying in an area described as ‘historically hip’ which to me just means ‘likely to be murdered’.  We got away with it though and were able to pay a visit to the Civil Rights museum which is based around the motel where Martin Luther King hadn’t been quite so lucky. We also did a tour of the Sun Studio where we stood in the small room where so many of those early rock’n’roll classics were recorded. It’s not really my kind of music, but I sort of wished it was.

Being in Memphis meant that we could take in a third baseball game of the trip. I think Memphis Redbirds are a triple A team, and so their contest with localish rivals Nashville Sounds was just one tier below the Major League. From what I understand that would mean that most, if not all, of the players involved would be contracted to a top tier team but were currently judged to be not quite up to the top flight and so were farmed out to one of their affiliates. I’m also told that an injury or form crisis in the MLB side means that players turning out for the Redbirds or Sounds can suddenly receive a top-tier call up, with their places at this level then being filled by some fella from a double AA team.

The Uber car that took us to the game had a small hole in the windscreen which I assessed to be about the size of a bullet. However our driver assured us that it had been caused by nothing more serious than someone throwing a rock at the car. That’s ok then.

We had pre-booked tickets at Autozone Park and after a cursory bag search we were up on the second tier beyond third base but not quite beyond the netting. There wasn’t a big crowd though, maybe a thousand in a ten thousand seater ball park and so it was easy enough to move a few seats along for an unobstructed view.

A lot of the people on our tier seemed to be on work trips out and as such many of them had little real interest in the baseball. I did wonder how such a low crowd would make the team viable but I suppose with the amount of money kicking around at the top level, funding an affiliate team is just seen as one more Major League expense.

There were some decent craft beer options at $8.75 which you could pretty much consider to be a tenner once you’d added the tip. Whilst it was cheaper than the Mets it’s still an expensive do. At those prices I doubt many people in the US get shitfaced in the way that I did when I attended baseball games in Korea.

There was a hint of rain in the air and so we moved downstairs after the first couple of innings to increase our chances of staying dry.

Both sides were quickly off the mark and as we reached the end of the third visitors Nashville had an 8-4 lead with the home pitcher having already been hooked for being too easy to hit. It slowed down somewhat after that with the main entertainment coming from a catch that one fella dropped only for a teammate to scoop it up before it it the turf.

Three hours is enough for me at these games and after getting the circulation going doing the seventh innings stretch, we kept moving all the way out of the gate. We didn’t miss much with Nashville adding a further two runs in the ninth for a 10-4 victory.