Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

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.

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

May 9, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

March 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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