Malaysia F1 Grand Prix, Sunday 1st October 2017, 3pm

December 1, 2017

I’ve a mild interest in F1. Mild in comparison to, say, football, cricket or rugby. I know the main drivers and I could probably tell you which of them was leading the championship at any given time. I also quite like the ebb and flow of the driver’s championship over the course of a season.

My mild interest means that I’ll watch it on the telly if I’m in the house, or at least I’ll watch the pit lane interviews in the ten minutes or so before the start and then the first three or four laps. After that it will usually stay on, but I’ll be researching scantly-clad ladies on my ipad or reading the paper rather than watching the tv screen. Every now and then the commentator will raise his voice and I’ll glance up to see what he’s got excited about. It’s a stark contrast to, say, cycling where despite a similar level of ignorance as to the identity of the majority of the participants or the nuances of the sport, I can happily watch an entire stage just to see the countryside and confirm to myself that I’d be content to live in any of the villages along the route.

I went to Silverstone with my son in 2009. We had a great weekend, camping, drinking and eating roast pig, but I felt attending the race itself was a bit dull. We had starting grid tickets that if I remember rightly cost more than two hundred and fifty quid a pop. However,  without the benefit of the tv coverage I had very little idea what was going on once the cars spread out and the front-runners caught up to the back markers. What’s more, the cars made such a racket that if you wanted to communicate with your companions then you were limited to hand gestures. I only know a couple of hand gestures and I tend to reserve them for when I spot someone like Boris Johnson. I concluded that, just like American football with its frequent breaks for studio analysis that you don’t get to see at the stadium, F1 is a sport that is better watched on the telly rather than live.

Jen and I were in Malaysia last year at the time of the Grand Prix and I didn’t bother going, despite us living no more than twenty odd miles from the Sepang circuit. I’d learned my lesson from 2009, you see.

So, what changed? Well, we were supposed to have been three hours away at a football game, but a few days beforehand someone brought it forward forty-eight hours. Bastards. And we think Sky are bad. Matches over here seemed to just disappear or be brought forward at a whim.

It was also billed as the final Malaysian Grand Prix. Final I imagine until such time as a local promoter gambles that he can make the event pay. It’s fine not bothering with something when you know you can probably go next year. However, if it may be your last chance, that’s slightly different I suppose.

I think my ‘collectors’ mentality played a part too. What happens if in a few years time I start ‘collecting’ F1 Circuits? I’d no doubt regret not having bothered with Sepang whilst it was available and far easier to attend than most.

So, on the Friday afternoon I checked for tickets. There were plenty available and so I selected two in the C2 Covered Hillside Stand for fifteen quid each. That covered the Saturday and Sunday with admission to the Friday session being free to everyone. Silverstone could learn something from those prices, hog roast or not. I didn’t realise at the time that it was a grassy bank with a roof covering just the back ten yards or so, but as it described itself as having panoramic views of seventy percent of the circuit I doubt I’d have paid the higher prices for the stands that came with actual seats.

My other concern had been the traffic and with that in mind, we rocked up at noon, three hours before the main event. We’d approached from the quiet side of the circuit but still ended up having to enter in the same gate as the people coming from KL. With a mile or two to go to the entrance it was so quiet that I wondered if the same fella who moves my football matches  had stuck his neb into this event as well.

It got a little busier once we were inside and it took a while to find a car park with spaces where it wasn’t necessary to pre-book. As luck would have it the first available area was no more than a hundred yards walk from our entrance gate. There was minimal security and my careful hiding of prohibited food and drink turned out to be unnecessary.

We’d taken cushions and found a spot on the grass in the shade at the top of the hill. Whilst parking would have been difficult if someone had turned up later, there was always plenty of room for sitting under cover. That was just as well really as we got a torrential downpour a couple of hours before the race and just as a supporting event involving, I think, Porsches racing other Porsches took place. One fella in that race was so far off the pace that I half wondered if he’d turned up for one of those track days and they’d indulgently let him join in.

The main race was preceded by a procession of the drivers in old cars. That was more interesting than the Porsches. Possibly more interesting than the main race too. Certainly more varied.

So, how does Sepang compare to Silverstone? For a start, there wasn’t a hog roast, just a hundred yard long queue for burgers. The viewing experience was better though in that we had a big screen ahead of us that regularly updated the positions and we could see a lot more of the track than was possible my starting grid position at Silverstone.

The main difference was the noise. We had brought ear plugs. In fact, in a rare moment of sensibleness I’d actually turned the car around to get them after forgetting them. However, with the exception of a cameraman up in a gantry who had great big jobbies on, we must have been the only people wearing them. F1 cars are evidently part milk float these days as it was perfectly possible to have a conversation during the race. I kept the ear plugs in though as I quite like shutting a lot of the world out. I might start wearing them for meetings at work.

It wasn’t much of a race, more of a procession really. As I said though, I don’t mind that. I take the view that it’s a season long event and this was just a small part of it. A bit like when a spinner ties an end up for a while in cricket.

For no good reason I’d backed Ricciardo each way  and so my interest was in gauging the distance, as he passed us, that he was behind second-placed Hamilton each lap. Initially there were about four or five seconds between me being in the money, which increased to about eight or nine seconds after his pit stop. Although I am aware that my “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” counting probably doesn’t meet F1 timekeeping standards.

Ricciardo spent most of the race in third place and finished up that way, behind Hamilton and easy winner Max Verstappen. Apparently Verstappen celebrated his twentieth birthday the previous day. I wonder how much his regular car insurance costs and if there is even an option to select racing driver as occupation?

We stayed until the end and left as Vettel did his getting back to the pits lap sat on someone elses car stunt. Leaving was a doddle and within ten minutes we were outside of the circuit and less than an hour after the chequered flag we were back in the house. That’s a whole lot less fuss than Silverstone.

It was a better day than I’d anticipated. I still think it’s a sport that is best watched on the telly as you see much more that way, in contrast to say, football, where you can’t see the play unfolding properly on the box.

Nevertheless, I doubled my collection of F1 circuits.

Horseracing at Penang, Saturday 23rd September 2017

November 15, 2017

My memory is getting worse these days and to be honest I can’t remember a great deal about this day out. It’s not that I drank excessively, although I will have had a few Tigers, it’s more that it has taken me a few weeks to write about it and I’ve been to another race meeting in the meantime.

Still, I suppose whatever I can’t remember I can just make up. Right, the facts. It was in Penang, which is less than an hour’s flight from KL. We stayed in Georgetown, which is a very picturesque town with a lot of its historical areas preserved. Our hotel was in the Little India area and we had curry for just about every meal.

So far so good. We took a Grab car (just like Uber) to the racecourse and, I think, paid six ringgits for admission with a further twenty ringgits for access to the air-conditioned lounge.

After that, well, not much comes to mind. We had seats in the lounge, but no table and in addition to betting on the live action we also backed horses in races on the telly from Seoul and Macau. Probably. It‘s hard work betting every ten minutes or so at multiple tracks and for a while it felt more like employment than enjoyment.

The only place to buy beer was a counter out in the main concourse so every few minutes I’d pop out and brave the lack of air-conditioning to get another. There was limited food available but I got bags of peanuts and cashews from a bloke walking around with a tray.

The betting was marginally successful. We’d been behind until the final race but the desperate measure of bumping up the stake and getting a decent priced winner meant that we finished ahead on the day, including admission, beer, air-conditioning and nuts. I’d have needed a much bigger stake if I were to include the flights and hotel in the calculation.

Lamigo Monkeys v Elephant Brothers, Saturday 9th September 2017, 5.05pm

November 8, 2017

I’ve not been to the baseball for a while, or at least to a proper game. Jen and I went to a game in Darwin a couple of years ago that turned out to be little more than a knockabout and an excuse for a picnic. I’m not even sure that they kept score. As it’s more than four years since we left Korea, it must be that long since we’ve seen a baseball game. Never mind, a brief visit to Taiwan gave us the chance to put things right.

The baseball was actually a fallback option as the trip had been primarily to see a football game. However the Taiwan Premier League appears to be less organised than the lower divisions of the Stockton Sunday League and the game that we’d planned to see had been shunted, with minimal publicity, a couple of hundred miles to the other end of the island.

Whatever, an evening at the baseball makes a fine alternative and so we took a taxi to the Taoyuan International Baseball Stadium. The area around the stadium was as busy as the roads on the way there had been and fans milled around the perimeter, making their way to the various gates.

We did an entire lap before finding the ticket office and after weighing up whether the home or away sections would be emptier we opted for outfield seats on the Monkey side of the bleachers. I can’t remember how much it cost to get in and the ticket doesn’t really make it clear. It might have been 350 Taiwanese dollars, which is about nine quid. Alternatively, that 350 figure might have been a block number or something. Sorry.

We got inside early in the first innings and found seats in an emptyish area towards the back. The section gradually filled up as the game went on with a mixture of families, couples and small groups of friends. I hadn’t been sure of the rules about bringing drink in and so hadn’t brought any beer with me. My gamble paid off though as I was able to buy reasonably cold cans of something that turned out to be made by OB, a Korean brewer. Or at least under licence from them. It seemed quite appropriate for the baseball and took me back a few years to the evenings spent at Jamsil.

Elephant Brothers had a few hundred fans to our left making a decent racket and overall the seventeen thousand attendance was pretty impressive. I’d forgotten most of the nuances of the sport and a fair proportion of the rules but it didn’t really matter. I’m happy just to sit with a beer as the sun goes down and wait for someone to twat the ball over the fence.

The visitors took the lead in the second innings and after being pegged back regained the advantage in the seventh. Lamingo Monkeys levelled in the eighth at 3-3 and then nicked a winner. I think they are having the better season of the two teams but I could be wrong. Fifty percent chance that I am.

As the game drew to a close we were turfed out of our seats by stewards who I think were setting up for a post-game concert and firework show. We watched the final balls from the posh seats down the side before nipping out and having the good fortune to quickly find a cab. All in all, it was very similar to going to the baseball in Korea and that’s a good thing.

Vietnam v Singapore, Sunday 27th August 2017, 1pm

October 29, 2017

We’d stayed up in Kuala Lumpur overnight after the Thailand – Myanmar football semi-final and had a late night glugging back rioja in a Bukit Bintang tapas bar. It all worked out well though as next day there was a game in the SEA Games cricket competition soon after lunch.

The game was at Kinrara Oval, a venue that we’d turned up at for a game once before only to find nothing more going on than a few kids practising in the outfield. It’s a relatively new ground and if I remember my research from that earlier visit I think Australia once played a one–day international there. Still, I could have been as wrong about that as I was the date of whatever game I’d previously mistakenly turned up to see.

I wondered if I’d ballsed up again this time as the place was hardly crowded. We parked a couple of hundred yards down the road but if I’d tried, and been able to bluff my way in, there was still space for parking in the small area behind the pavilion.

We could have sat in the seating at the front of the small pavilion but there was a speaker close by that was blaring out music loud enough to make conversation difficult. Why do places do this? Supermarkets are as loud as nightclubs in Malaysia. There’s no need whatsoever to subject people to shite music at any volume whatsoever, never mind levels similar to an aircraft taking off.

To get away from the noise we headed over to a covered stand that ran parallel to the wicket. As play got underway we were gradually joined by another thirty-odd people. Hardly a great attendance for a free international fixture.

Singapore batted first and looked pretty competent as they tonked the bowling in all directions. Vietnam looked less capable in the field, with one experienced looking player bollocking his team mates just about every over for their inability to get hold of the ball. He quietened down a bit after letting one through his legs for a boundary.

Singapore knocked up a couple of hundred or so in their twenty overs. I’d be more precise but it really was irrelevant as they could have declared at fifty and still won. Vietnam, if my dodgy memory is anywhere near accurate, lost half their wickets before they even reached double figures. I think Singapore may have eased off at that point and allowed them to eek out a few more overs and get somewhere near thirty.

Despite the one-sided nature of the contest and the standard being somewhat similar to Norton Thirds, it was still an afternoon at the cricket and that’s always a decent way to while away my time.

Thailand v Myanmar, Saturday 26th August 2017, 4pm

October 1, 2017

The South East Asian Games has been taking place in Malaysia. It’s an Olympic style event, held every couple of years and includes football. I’d been keeping an eye on the fixtures to see if there were any games that I could attend but my daughter and the grandkids were visiting for most of the duration and they have little interest in football. Or at least they don’t when the alternative is monkeys. Mind you, I don’t have much interest in football when the alternative is monkeys. We visited ‘monkey hill’ at Kuala Selangor to feed monkey nuts (what else?) to silver leafs and macaques, did the same with the baboons at the Batu Caves and then nipped over to Sabah to stare at the orangutans and proboscis monkeys.

Once we were all monkeyed out, Jen and I were free to take in a semi-final game at Selayang. Tickets were briefly available online and I snapped up two at twenty ringgits a pop. Selayang is a couple of hours away, to the north-east of KL and we arrived at the fifteen-thousand capacity Majlis Perbandaran stadium about thirty minutes before kick-off.

The area around the ground was very busy, mainly with Myanmar supporters in red shirts. I didn’t immediately spot that our tickets had gate numbers marked on them and we did half a lap of the ground to where the queues appeared shortest behind one of the goals.

Someone noticed the tickets in my hand and very kindly pointed out that the gates we were in the throng for were for those without tickets and seeking free entry in some sort of government freebie.

I checked the tickets again and realised that we needed to backtrack and enter near the halfway line. There was a big scrum for those gates and we joined at the back and gradually worked our way forward. After a while we were hemmed in and it was a case of ‘elbows out’ and maneuvering as best we could towards the single body and bag scanners.

I didn’t ever feel in danger of anything other than getting my toes tread on, but Jen is a bit shorter than me and she mentioned afterwards that she struggled for breath a couple of times. We got in just as the teams were kicking off and with the section along the side of the pitch full, made our way towards the empty area behind the goal.

Twenty minutes or so into the game I had a look over the back wall and it was just as busy outside as it had been half an hour earlier. A lot of people had given up trying to get in and had found vantage points on the road outside that enabled them to see part of the pitch. Others were still trying to get through the gates with a heaving mass of bodies behind them.

Myanmar were by far the best supported of the teams and seemed to have around ninety percent of the stadium. They had all of the ‘bowl’ and all but a third of the small ‘main’ stand to our right. It took until well into the second half for the ground to fill up but with a single scanner for each stand it was never going to be easy.

There weren’t a great deal of chances in the game. I suppose with it being a semi-final it was always likely to be a cagey affair.  Thailand were probably the more attacking side, but neither keeper had a great deal to do and it was well into the second half before one of them was required to produce a decent save.

We cleared off with about ten minutes to go and the game still goalless. I didn’t fancy hanging around for extra time and pennacks as we had plans for a KL tapas bar that I was keen to get started on. As we left via a gate that was opened specially for us there were still fans outside pressed against it. Our departure meant that two of them were let in for the last ten minutes and I felt a little guilty that we’d deprived fans from attending a game that obviously meant a whole lot more to them than us.

Mind you, the two Burmese fellas probably wished they’d stayed outside as an injury time header sneaked the win for Thailand and took them into a final against hosts Malaysia.

Kedah v Selangor, Saturday 15th July 2017, 9pm

September 12, 2017

Kedah play their home games at Alor Setar which is more than five hundred kilometres north of where we live. There are flights, but I thought it might be more interesting to take a train instead and so a few weeks in advance I booked seats online from Kuala Lumpur Sentral. They were less than twenty quid each way and in a modern train described on the website as ‘Platinum Class’.

The train was fairly full, or at least it was in the early stages of the journey and our ticket included biscuits, a sweetened soy milk drink and nut-numbingly cold air-conditioning. We even got to see a sub-titled film that, I think, featured Tom Hanks as some sort of Berlin-based spy.

Our hotel was just a five-minute walk from Alor Setar station and the Darul Aman Stadium was a further half an hour away. I got there early so that I could do a lap of the outside of the ground and get some photos whilst it was still daylight.

There were lots of stalls selling football shirts and food and I had some chicken in triangular-shaped pastry and then something that was claimed to be a kebab but probably could be more honestly described as a mix of unidentified meat and veg in a hot dog bun.

I’d noticed that the ends of the ground were open and as you never really know when it might rain in Malaysia I requested a seat with a roof above it. My twenty ringgit ticket got me into the covered section of the bowl, opposite the tunnel and the main stand.

By kick-off the thirty-two thousand capacity ground felt as if it was about two-thirds full. There were around two hundred Selangor fans in a section to my left, most of whom were wearing their team’s red colours. Kedah were in yellow and the majority of their fans also wore team shirts, not surprising I suppose when you could buy them for under a tenner outside the ground.

The noise was provided by four drummers to my left and a singing section straight across in the opposite stand. We also got three national and state anthems and then a short silence for someone or other just before the action started.

I’d checked the players out in advance and the visitors had a Spanish fella up front who had made a single La Liga appearance for Atletico Madrid. It was eleven years ago and at a time when I was living in Spain. I had a look at my records and discovered that I’d missed his day in the limelight as I was at the Boro’s FA Cup semi final against West Ham at Villa Park watching Dean Ashton elbowing Mark Schwarzer in the face and Pardew dancing his jig along the touchline. Twats. I don’t dislike many clubs, but West Ham are certainly on the list. It’s not so much for that semi, they’ve a much bigger rap sheet than the events of that day, but I’d be happy to see them relegated. Every single year.

I did see Atletico a few months later, whilst the impressively named Rufino Segovia del Burgo was still at the club. It was a pre-season tournament at Coruna and so I briefly had high hopes that I might have actually witnessed him turning out for Los Rojiblancos. I like it when I’ve seen a player before. However, If he was in that pre-season squad there’s no evidence that he made it onto the pitch.

I didn’t see a great deal more of the Spaniard on this occasion either as he was stretchered off in the twenty-fourth minute having contributed little to the game himself but with his team a goal to the good.

I had however seen one of the Kedah team play before. They had a Dane, Ken Larsen, who I’d watched at Home United in Singapore last season. I’d say that the Malaysian Super League is definitely a step up from Singapore football and it must be a lot more enjoyable to play in front of a well-attended noisy stadium. He scored in the game that I saw him play in last year. He scored in this one too with a very similar curling effort from outside the box that nobody got a touch on, including, most importantly, the keeper. Ken’s goal levelled the scores and that’s the way it was at half-time.

I was able to get a couple of orange coloured drinks at the break that I doubt contained anything that had ever been anywhere near a tree and, as I didn’t fancy squeezing past people to get back to my earlier seat, I made my way to the uncovered back corner of the stand.

Whilst I was now confident that it wouldn’t rain I hadn’t factored in the weird bugs that were dropping from the sky. They didn’t seem to have wings and so it was as if something bigger was dropping nits on me. I moved a little further over to a seat back under the roof.

Kedah, who had started the day in second place in the table, pushed hard for the win with a bloke from Kosovo, Lindon Krasniqi, running the show for them in midfield. Kosovo is considered a proper country these days. Who knew that? Or at least it is as far as UEFA and FIFA are concerned and that’s probably the criteria that holds the most weight with me when deciding if countries are real or not.

Selangor wasted time shamelessly and whilst Kedah went close a few times there were no more goals. The draw was probably about right overall but meant that both teams slipped a little further behind league leaders Johor Darul Ta’zim.

Horse Racing at Selangor, Saturday 26th May 2017

July 14, 2017

Malaysia has three racecourses. There’s one at Penang, another in Ipoh and one at Selangor which is quite close to us and on the road in to Kuala Lumpur. I’m surprised it has taken us as long as it has to have a day at the races as I’m quite partial to the combination of gambling and daytime drinking.

We stayed at a hotel right next to the track. The aptly named Palace of the Golden Horses. It might be considered a bit on the garish side, but there’s a place for that sort of thing and I’d suggest that fifty yards from a racecourse is exactly that place.

It was six ringgits to get in and then another twenty for admission to a lounge on the top floor of the grandstand. I’d hoped that our three quid upgrade would get us air-conditioning, but we had to settle for electric fans that did not much more than help to re-distribute the cigarette smoke.

On the plus side there was a tote window in the lounge and table service from a ten year old kid. Screens above the window overlooking the track were showing Australian and Korean racing which meant that the betting opportunities came fast and furious. There wasn’t a great drink selection, Carlsberg, Heineken or Guinness, but I worked my way through a steady supply of Heineken.

The first of the ten races went off at 12:30. In the second a horse suffered an injury that required it to be shot in front of the main stand. Although a screen provided notional cover we were high enough up and at sufficient an angle to see its demise. I’d expected the stricken equine to just crumple to the ground, but on the firing of the bolt it somersaulted backwards in a ‘best man dead’ for horses sort of way.

Most of the people present watched the races on the tellies inside. That was understandable though as it was pretty hot out in the sun. A few racegoers made the short trip outdoors to view the horses in the parade ring, whilst a handful watched in the open air from lower tier seating. A few even called them home from ground level.

As we approached the penultimate race it started to rain. Proper rain. It was sufficient to cause the early abandonment of the meeting, although nobody had any intention of heading for home until it had eased off a bit. Fortunately there were still a couple of televised races to be run in Australia and so I cracked open another can of Heineken. We hung about until the only thing going on was the sweeping up of the afternoon’s litter.

Middlesbrough v Southampton, Saturday 13th May 2017, 3pm

June 12, 2017

And that was that. A year on from the euphoria of clinching promotion against Brighton I was back at the Riverside to witness the death rattle of our Premier League adventure.

The whole season has been so frustrating. We brought in players who weren’t noticeably better than those who had achieved the promotion and then, in a cunning plan of Baldrick proportions, tried to stifle our way to safety by clocking up thirty eight goalless draws.

I appreciate that the standard is so much higher in the top division, but we had a decent team last year.  If we weren’t going to ‘give it a go’ in the transfer market then we’d probably have been better off persisting with the players and tactics that were successful last season, rather than giving the opposition the respect that you might reserve for Barcelona. As it was, the whole experience was like taking a gap year, making plans to nip off to Machu Picchu, but then just idling your time away in your bedroom instead.

But, whatever. We’ve been relegated before and no doubt we’ll be relegated again. Although hopefully not next season.

For this trip to the UK Jen and I were staying out near Whitby in a converted railway carriage. It was modern and comfortable, although I suspect that it may be quite cold in the winter.

The Hawsker carriage was handy for the Cleveland Way and on one morning we did the ten miles along the cliff-top between Ravenscar and Scarborough. We usually see some wildlife on these walks but this was the best so far. Jen spotted a snake on the path. It was brown and about ten inches long. I was surprised at how slowly it slithered away and in the manner of a slightly arthritic Steve Irwin I was able to grab it and pick it up.

It seemed friendly and was calm enough wrapped around my hand. Later investigation on the internet revealed that it wasn’t actually a snake at all, but something called a slow worm, which is a legless lizard. I’d not heard of them before, so my disappointment at it not actually  being a real snake was tempered by discovering something new.

Getting to the match from Hawsker was easy enough as the X93 from Scarborough stopped right outside of the railway carriage. A journey that took me through Whitby and Guisborough terminated an hour and a half later at Middlesbrough Bus Station. I met Tom and we headed up to the Riverside.

I don’t get to many Boro games these days and so I don’t have to shell out for a season ticket any more.  However I’m happy to spend the money that I would have done watching games in a bit more comfort and so for the Southampton match Tom and I were in the Middlehaven Lounge.

It’s good being able to drink in a proper bar environment whilst at the match and I knocked back a few pints of Theakston’s Pale Ale over the course of the afternoon. We had observations on the season from John Hendrie and Spike Armstrong and whilst Pally made another appearance we didn’t get a chance to reprise our previous chat about our ageing parents and their stair-lifts.

The action on the pitch? Well, it didn’t amount to much. It seemed apparent that the majority of the crowd weren’t behind Agnew. Guzan’s confidence won’t have been helped much when the South Stand called for his dismissal after he conceded a penalty, but that was probably more in frustration at the missed opportunity to give Dimi a Premier League appearance.

Downing got roundly booed when subbed and the abuse from the people around me seemed largely for his perceived ‘slow worm in the grass’ role in Karanka’s departure. Mind you I suspect that a lot of it came from the people who in the past had given him stick for ‘being a fanny’ or ‘not having a trick’.

At the final whistle we headed back to the lounge rather than wait for the ‘lap of appreciation’. I tried to focus on  this year’s positives such as me being able to see far more of our games on the telly than I’d been able to do in the Championship, although I can’t say that I enjoyed too many of them.

Still, we are much better financially than we were pre-promotion and we’ll have one of the biggest budgets in the division whilst the parachute payments last. Our recruitment of Championship standard players in January means we’ve probably got the nucleus of a decent second-tier side already. Roll on August.

Papatudo v Artilheiros, Saturday 22nd April 2017, 2pm

June 5, 2017

Our latest weekend trip found us in Macau. It’s a destination that appears to exist for the purpose of providing somewhere handy for the nearby Chinese to gamble. I’m fairly sure that very few of them booked their trip primarily to take in a local third division game of football.

Jen and I had been to Macau before, a few years ago, and she’d also been before we met. Each time the place has been busier as more plane loads of visitors arrive from mainland China and the day trippers pop across from Hong Kong.

As we were staying overnight I’d hoped that the streets would empty later on as some folks caught their ferry home and others headed for the casinos, but it seemed equally hectic whatever the time of day.

The game was early afternoon and as it looked like rain Jen was happy not to bother going. In the end though it was merely overcast and breezy which I reckon is just about perfect weather for this part of the world.

My taxi driver overshot the Macau University of Science and Technology Stadium and so I had to backtrack to the ground on foot and missed the first ten minutes.

I was initially directed back out of the entrance that had delivered me to the side of the pitch and I re-entered a little further along and took a seat upstairs in the main stand. There was a grass pitch with a running track and the stadium was surrounded by skyscrapers.

It wasn’t a bad ground for a third division game. Can you even believe Macau has three divisions? The place amounts to less than twelve square miles. There was just the one stand and just the two spectators, me and a girl that I assumed was keeping an eye on her boyfriend for ninety minutes. I hoped that, whichever one he was, he would get himself sent off so that she’d clear off and I could be the only person in attendance.

Play was quite pedestrian with Papatudo happy to stroke the ball around at the back and opponents Artilheiros equally content to wait until their territory was threatened before paying much attention. The home side looked at lot older with some of their players probably well into their forties. I’d guess that most of them were of Portuguese ancestry whilst the visitors appeared much younger and probably from a Chinese background.

The old blokes took the lead seventeen minutes in when a long shot that bounced a couple of times eluded the Artilheiros goalie who, no doubt anticipating a somewhat more forceful effort, had already completed his dive before the ball skipped over him and into the net.

I hadn’t noticed that the away team didn’t have any subs in the dugout until one turned up after half an hour. A second reserve appeared just as half-time approached. Perhaps they’d thought it was a three o’clock kick-off.

Artilheiros should have equalised a minute before the break, but the elderly Portuguese keeper pulled off a save, that to be frank, he didn’t look anything like agile enough to do.

The girl who had been watching her boyfriend cleared off at half-time leaving me as the only spectator. How good is that? Both teams now had substitutes to go with their managers. There were half a dozen ball boys dotted around the running track and two coppers guarding the entrance below me. We even had a fourth official. And yet, just the one spectator, me. I often feel a bit special and at that moment, just for a while, I suppose I was.

A few minutes into the second half my current brand of specialness came to an end as a couple wandered in and took seats to my right. They didn’t seem to have much interest in the game and had probably earmarked the ground as somewhere with a little more privacy for a snog than at their parents houses.

The original girl returned a few minutes later with a cup of coffee dangling in a polythene bag and caused me to wonder how well the players would cope with pressure of having four pairs of eyes on them. Not very well was the answer, or at least it was in the case of Papatudo as a defensive lapse allowed Artilheiros to equalise with a nicely taken half-volley.

The weight of expectation arising from the big attendance told further on the hour when one of the visiting strikers waltzed past an over-ambitious offside trap and knocked the ball in off the post.

It was looking desperate for the Portuguese and their frustration showed as one of them had a shot directly from the restart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that ploy work in five a side, never mind a proper game. Plan C involved them warming up their subs, two of whom might very well have been in their fifties and the other, whilst perhaps being of an age that you’d expect a footballer to be, didn’t seem overly comfortable with a ball at his feet. It didn’t look promising for the home side.

With twenty minutes left the crowd swelled to six as another couple joined the existing one. I presumed that they all knew each other as they had around a thousand empty seats to choose from.

The additional support made all the difference as shortly after their arrival the home defender who had ballsed up for the first Artilheiros goal managed to stab the ball home in a goalmouth scramble. All the subs got onto the pitch in the final few minutes, as you’d hope they would do, but there were no more goals and the game finished two each.

The brief spell during which I was the lone spectator wasn’t the only noteworthy aspect of the game. The stadium was the three hundredth different ground that I’ve watched a ‘proper’ game at. ‘Proper’ is subjective for ground hoppers. In my world a ground counts if it’s hosting an eleven a side game of football with a ref and two linesman. I’m not fussed about the fourth official as they didn’t exist when I started watching football. I could probably forgive a missing corner flag or two as well.

It’s taken forty-four years to reach this stage, with the first hundred grounds taking thirty-four years, the second a further six years and the last ton coming in just four. For what it’s worth, it has spanned forty-one different countries and with games in front of crowds that ranged from close to a hundred thousand down to, on this one occasion, just me.

 

DPMM v Warriors, Saturday 15th April 2017, 8.15pm

May 25, 2017

I’m not particularly good at geography. Old fashioned geography that is. You know, the type where you have to know which country is which, what their capital cities are called, or who owned them when they had natural resources worth pilfering.

Mind you, I’m even worse at the new-fangled geography where it’s all about coastal erosion, population changes and not a thought is given to the names of rivers or what colour a country should be on a map.

If you were wondering just how bad someones geography knowledge could be, I can reveal that for years, almost all of my years to be a little more precise, I’d thought that Brunei was in the Middle East. No idea where in the Middle East, maybe the middle or the east of it, but probably next door to somewhere like Qatar or Oman. Possibly another one of those emirates like Dubai. It sounds a bit like Dubai, doesn’t it? I knew that they’ve got a Sultan and that they do pretty well out of the oil business, so the Middle East is where I’d have stuck the pin in the wall map.

Brunei is nowhere near the Middle East though. It’s actually just a short flight from Kuala Lumpur and consists of less than three square miles over on the other Malaysian island, the one that’s got a bit of Borneo in it. Who’d have thought it? People who know their geography, I suppose.

As you may have expected, the reason for the trip was a football game. We saw some other stuff whilst we were there though. There’s a stilted village which was proudly described as the biggest in the world. I’ve no idea how many other places decided that it was a good idea to build houses on sticks in a river but Jen reckons that they are fairly commonplace in Louisiana.

It was a bit hot for walking around but we had a wander up a hill behind our hotel anyway in the hope of spotting a monkey or two. No such luck. No camels either despite me having always assumed that Brunei would be overrun with them.

Jen spotted a snake doing some snaking in the undergrowth, but the best I managed to see was a bird that had decided sitting on the ground was a much preferable activity to flying around.

Saturday evening was match time and local side DPMM had a fixture in the Singapore League. A little odd that they compete in the competition of another country, but it’s quite an odd league. As well as a team from Brunei, there’s a reserve squad from a Japanese club and the Singapore U23 national team get to take part as well. It seems to work, so fair enough.

We took a taxi to the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium where it was eight Brunei dollars to get in and another three for a programme.

We had centralish seats in the main covered stand, just above what looked like a VIP section complete with red carpet. It was reported in the paper next morning that the chair that was wide enough for two people to share was occupied by the Sultan himself, whilst the fella next to him who was getting more and more agitated as the match unfolded might very well have been the Crown Prince. Apparently a couple of lesser princes made up the rest of the front row.

The ground holds 28,000 when full. There might have been a thousand or so in there for this game with most people being in the main covered stand with us and a fair few opposite making a non-stop noise.

The Brunei team had a forty-six year old goalie. That was never likely to go well. Mind you, how old was that goalie from the Euros last summer, the one with the grey tracky bottoms that looked as if he’d retrieved them from a bag destined for the charity shop?

The elderly keeper had plenty to do. Just as well really as you’ve got to stay active and playing football certainly beats the standard old folks staple of wandering around pound shops and pursing their lips at the price of stuff they already have plenty of in their cupboards at home.

The geriatric goalie didn’t save anything he shouldn’t have but likewise didn’t let any in that he should have stopped. I imagine he’d have settled for that.

I don’t often recognise any of the players in these games, but on this occasion Billy Mehmet seemed familiar. It turned out that we’d watched him play up front for Tampines Rovers in Singapore a year earlier. He’d had quite an interesting career, taking in St Mirren and a club in Turkey. I doubt you’d get to live in a house on sticks in either of those places though.

There was a familiar face on the home bench too. Blackburn bogeyman Steve Kean has been quietly rebuilding his career over here since escaping the somewhat misplaced vitriol of the Blackburn fans in 2012. It’s a long way to go for a fresh start but perhaps he thought that Brunei was somewhere near Dubai too.

The visitors from Singapore always seemed to have that bit more about them. They went a goal up midway through the first half and whilst the teams went in level at the break Warriors were soon ahead in the second half.

DPMM equalised through Billy Mehmet, but two more away goals put the game out of reach of the home side. A late Brunei consolation was countered by an even later strike by Warriors that maintained their two goal advantage and rounded off the scoring in a 5-3 away win.

Heavy rain in the closing minutes saw the Royal party dashing for cover and, as I hadn’t brought a coat, left me cursing my preconception that the Brunei climate would have been drier. Something, perhaps, like that of the Middle East.