Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

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.

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.

Thai Army v Trang, Saturday 1st April 2017, 4pm

April 20, 2017

This was our fourth visit to Bangkok and I was determined that I’d finally get to see some Thai football. In a perfect world ex-Middlesbrough player Leroy Lita’s Sisaket team would have been in town. It’s always better if there’s a Boro connection. Sisaket were playing somewhere else though and so the next best option was a third division game between the Thai Army and Trang.

The stadium was just off the highway to Don Muang Airport. We’d spotted the ground from the elevated road as we’d arrived that morning and if you timed your journey to coincide with the rush-hour you could probably watch a good ten minutes or so of the action whilst your car inched its way into town.

The Royal Thai Army Stadium appears to be shared between the Thai Army and the second division Army United. Odd choice of name, unless there’s been some amalgamation of regiments going on. There was a sign outside of the stadium declaring that it was ‘The Home of Gentlemen’. That’s a lot better than the cringe worthy ‘Theatre of Dreams’ used elsewhere, but not really the kind of tagline that you’d imagine would strike fear into the enemies of an army. If you have to fight someone, it might as well be gentlemen.

There wasn’t anything going on at that first entrance and so we did half a lap around the ground to find the way in. There was no further mention of gentlemen, but instead we got a motto above the entrance pointing out that the third-rate kickabout that we had turned up for was ‘for country, religions, monarchy and people’. Quite ambitious, I suppose. I’ve always taken the view that football is just a way for people at a loose end to idle away an hour and a half or so.

It was sixty baht to get in, which is about a pound, fifty. Mind you the tickets weren’t even for the third division outfit, they were left over Army United tickets. The whole ticketing process seemed a bit pointless. After all, we could have just been waved through the gate after handing over our cash.

The army side were in a black and grayish stripey number, whilst their coaching staff were kitted out in a sort of red camouflage that might well have been ideal for hiding out in an Azalea bush. It didn’t really blend in at all though with either the pitch or the concrete stadium.

Trang were in an unusual combination of sky blue shirts with yellow shorts and trim. Both sides posed for the customary photos before we stood for the National Anthem which was bellowed out at top volume by a bloke to our left. They like their anthem in Thailand. Last time we visited Bangkok we went to the pictures, mainly for the air-conditioning. We got the anthem there as well.

The pitch wasn’t in much of a condition. It looked as if the home players had been carrying out foxhole digging practice in the goalmouths. There was one big covered stand, some seats in the bowl behind one goal and more at the opposite side to us. With the running track having plenty of room it did seem as if the ground was a little too big for football.

The crowd probably totalled around a hundred and fifty and I suspect most had some sort of military connection. The first half was scrappy with neither side looking threatening. Trang were probably the nearest to scoring late-on, but the Army keeper got down well to a low shot.

Five minutes after the restart the Gentlemen went a goal up. A free-kick was floated in and everyone missed it. The bounce almost beat the Trang keeper but he somehow managed to claw it out. It didn’t go any further though than an incoming striker who was able to nod the ball home to open the scoring.

The home side then doubled their lead on the hour with a well worked goal that was finished off at the back post.

A couple of the Trang players picked up yellows in the second half. Both nodded to the ref and smiled, acknowledging the decision good-naturedly. You don’t see that very often, which is a shame really. Maybe playing at the Home of Gentlemen had put the visitors on their best behaviour.

The Army saw the game out easily enough for a two-nil victory. We sloped off in the final moments and after a few failed attempts to explain to taxi drivers where we wanted to go we eventually, with some local assistance, managed to get a cab back into town.

HCMC v Hai Phong, Saturday 18th March 2017, 5.30pm

April 13, 2017

Vietnam is another of those handy to get to destinations. Or at least it is if you are starting from Kuala Lumpur and only going as far as Ho Chi Minh City. Our flight lasted less than two hours and from the air I was able to see the canals and channels of the Mekong Delta.

We’d arranged electronic visas in advance but whilst mine worked fine, there was no record of Jen’s. The immigration fellas were pretty good about it though and simply made a note on her printed copy that I assume said something like ‘looks ok to me’.

We saw a few of the sights. The war museum struck me as a little biased, as I’m sure both sides were more than capable of the odd atrocity. It’s the winners who get to decide the history though, particularly in their own country.

We also had a wander along to the Presidential Palace in the hope of seeing some seventies furnishings and an umbrella stand made from an elephant’s foot. No such luck unfortunately, but we did get to go upstairs, look out onto the front lawn and imagine the tanks breaking down the front gates as Saigon fell to the forces from the north.

Good as all that was, I was primarily in town for the match and with the pavements seeming to accommodate as many scooters as the roads we took a taxi for the short journey to the twenty thousand capacity Thong Nhat stadium.

It was fairly busy outside and as we stepped out of the cab we were met by a tout who wanted a hundred thousand dongs for each of the two tickets that he had for the main stand. As that works out at three quid fifty a pop I wasn’t really too bothered about whatever mark-up he’d added and was quite happy to take them off his hands.

A later scrutiny of the tickets revealed that they had a face value of seventy thousand and so we’d paid an extra quid for the convenience of not having to find the ticket office.

There were plenty of fans in our covered stand and around five hundred or so home fans on the terrace opposite. They had a brass band and fireworks. Proper fireworks with showers of sparks, not just smoke flares.

Up at the back of the home fans terrace were a small group with a union jack that identified them as the Ho Chi Minh City UK Supporters Club. I presume they now live locally in Saigon rather than travelling to games from the UK, but you never know. It’s a funny old game, as Greavsie used to say, and you’ve got to get your fix whatever way you can.

There was a decent turnout from the visitors too, although I’ve no idea how far their hundred and fifty or so supporters had to travel. They had a high flag to fan ratio and every now and then would run across the terracing behind the goal waving their colours in a half-hearted attempt at riling the home support.

The home side were in red, with visitors Hai Phong in yellow. I didn’t think the standard of the top-tier game was too bad but maybe watching the Boro has lowered my expectations a little. The big number nine for Hai Phong put himself about a bit without ever really seeming to get the ball under control.

Ho Chi Minh had a skillful left-winger with a trick or two and a tendency to embarrass the defenders in a way that put him at risk of being launched into the distance.

Whilst the hosts had generally looked the most likely to score it was the away side that broke the deadlock when one of their strikers followed up his own saved shot and put them one up. Ho Chi Minh put the pressure on in the final minutes but the single goal was enough to seal the win for Hai Phong.

We flagged down a taxi and headed off for some nems.

Middlesbrough v Oxford Utd, Saturday 18th February 2017, 3pm

April 9, 2017

The Boro’s cup run had coincided nicely with our trip to the UK and the fifth round tie with Oxford meant that I had another opportunity to go along to the Riverside.

Tom was working and as I’d already bought two tickets I took my six-year-old grandson, Harry. He’s not that bothered about football really. He has a kick around in the playground but his main interests are spiders and bats. I couldn’t promise him that we’d see any of those, but the day started well for him when we spotted a squashed rat after parking up.

I’d taken advantage of the reduced cup prices for hospitality and so our tickets were in the Fenton Club. The last time I’d been in a posh part of the ground I’d got away with black jeans. This time though the requirements were somewhat stricter and I needed proper trousers and a jacket.

Fortunately I found a suit in the lock up that I’d bought for a wedding in Kazakhstan nine years ago. I rarely get invited to weddings and so I don’t think I’ve worn it since.

Harry, however, had been to a wedding last year and was just about able to squeeze into the suit that he had worn on that occasion. I think he quite liked the dressing up. If he didn’t he certainly liked the frequent compliments on his appearance.

The Fenton Suite is a large room in the West Stand with a small bar at one end and a carvery along the side. It overlooks the pitch. You get your own table and there are tellies everywhere for watching the early games. Best bit was probably the framed shirt and cap from a Micky Fenton England appearance.

In the corridor on the way in and out were the pre-season team pictures cataloging our squads for the past century or more. It would be nice to have some of those images blown up a bit and added to the walls in the concourses in the ground so that everyone can see them. I was up at Hampden Park last year and they’ve got loads of old photos dotted around.

We started off with carrot soup and then tried the carvery. Harry was offered a secret option of chicken nuggets which he accepted on the basis that he could also have exactly five roast potatoes with them. He’s precise about things like that.

There were a few Oxford United fans in the suite, including former children’s entertainer Timmy Mallett. He seemed pleasant enough but I couldn’t quite work out if he wearing a headband that spiked up his hair or if the entire thing was actually a hat that was intended to resemble a shock of hair.

Either way, it smacked of attention seeking in a way that made me wonder if his ‘wacky’ tv personna is actually the way he is in real-life. Admittedly, I didn’t see him twat anyone on the head with a hammer but you got the impression that he might very well have done if he were allowed.

We were a couple of goals up and cruising at half-time, but two goals in a minute mid-way through the second half brought Oxford right back into it and Mallett to his feet in celebration. He’s perhaps a little fortunate that he was in the hospitality section as his reaction might very well have brought about a nostalgic sharp blow to his own head in other areas of the ground.

It all worked out though as Stuani popped up towards the end with another of those vital goals of his and we were through to the quarter-finals. We trooped back into the Fenton Club for ice cream before Harry informed me that, good as it was, he’d quite like to go home now. So that’s what we did, making sure that we kept an eye out for squashed rats.

Crook Town v Tow Law Town, Friday 17th February 2017, 7.30pm

April 7, 2017

Jen and I were staying in Sedgefield for this UK visit  and that made it handy for getting to a Northern League Division Two fixture at Crook. I was reasonably confident of finding their Millfield ground on the basis that if I followed the sign at the A1 roundabout for Bishop Auckland, sooner or later there would be a sign for Crook. Sure enough, that’s exactly how it worked.

I’d also assumed that Crook would be a small enough town to make finding the stadium a doddle, but if it hadn’t been an evening kick-off under floodlights I’d probably have struggled a little more than I did.

It was five quid to get in, with another pound for a programme. From what I can gather, the ground pre-dates Crook Town’s formation in 1889. It has seen a few Amateur Cup winning sides including one that featured Frank Clark, a future European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest.

There was a main stand that was built in the twenties and a slightly smaller one to its right. The goal at that end had some concrete terracing and the other two sides just a grassy bank apiece.

Tow Law were the visitors in a reverse of the fixture that I’d seen at their Ironworks Road ground last season. Most of the noise came from the players who, in what didn’t seem to be an ironic manner, spent the match shouting to each other that they were “too quiet”. I’m not sure that any situation can ever be too quiet.

If the players weren’t berating each other they were having a pop at the ref and each side seemed to have a rota for carrying out the criticism. If all of the players are critical in turn, I presume it’s less likely that one will be singled out for a yellow card. I’d just book them all.

There were a couple of hundred home fans and a small section of visitors up in the main stand. Although with the two towns only being five miles apart there were probably a few more Tow Law supporters dotted around the ground. Neither set of fans made much noise, with the biggest contribution coming from a bloke leaning on the railing who was coughing so hard that I thought he might hack his rib cage up.

Tow Law were the better side and after being a couple of goals up at half-time kept adding to their score as the game went on. Crook had neither the necessary composure or luck in front of goal and as the second-half drew to a close found themselves five-nil behind.

I hung on to see if the visitors could match the six-nil score of the game I saw between the teams last season.  Tow Law came close, hitting the post with the final kick of the evening. I suppose Crook can take some comfort from the slightly smaller defeat. I might turn up next year and see if they can maintain their improvement and limit the deficit to four.

Middlesbrough v Everton, Saturday 11th February 2017, 3pm

March 30, 2017

The first game of my latest trip to the UK took place just six hours after we’d completed a twenty hour journey from Malaysia. Tom had been supposed to be coming to the home match against Everton with me but he’d just started a new barbering job and so would be missing Saturday games for the foreseeable future.

As I approached the Riverside I could see a new boat in the dock. The North Sea Producer had moved on last year to be scrapped and something a little bigger had taken its place.

My ticket was in the South Stand, but I had plenty of time and so I had a wander around to behind the North Stand for a better look. I’m not expert on these things but I’m told that the MPI Adventure is a wind turbine installation ship, presumably for those wind turbines that you see a few hundred yards out to sea, rather than those up on the moors.

I know that most people don’t like the turbines, particularly those that spoil a view, but I don’t mind them. I imagine technology will move on and that in a hundred years time or so I doubt that any of the existing ones will still be in place.

I continued around the ground only to discover that you can’t do a full lap anymore and you have to head out onto the road at the South East corner. I’m not sure that’s an improvement.

When I got to my seat I could see the top of the wind turbine boat behind the North Stand. The grey sky and the circling seagulls made it look like an ideal subject for a Mackenzie Thorpe painting.

We played ok in the wet and windy conditions. Foreshaw struggled a bit but perhaps he was trying too hard against the club that he’d joined as a seven-year old. There were a few moans around me about Negredo and Karanka but overall it was a decent performance that earned what might yet turn out to be a valuable point.