Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

Wakefield AFC v Parkgate, Tuesday 6th December 2022, 7.45pm

December 7, 2022

I’ve not been to many mid-week games lately as I’ve just about exhausted my options for new grounds that I can get to in under an hour or so driving. However, Paul had a spare ticket for The Cure in Leeds and as Jen is a fan we decided to head down with the plan that she would attend the gig whilst I occupied myself elsewhere.

I could have watched the Portugal-Switzerland match on the telly in the hotel but live football is always better and so I drove the twenty-odd minutes to Featherstone to watch Wakefield take on Parkgate in the tenth-tier Northern Counties East Division One.

The Millennium Stadium is primarily a rugby league ground but Wakefield get to use it in the rugby off-season when Featherstone Rovers aren’t playing. They might play there during the rugby season too, but I haven’t checked as there’s a limit to how much research I’m willing to do for these posts.

What I did find out is that the ground is a lot older than its name would suggest, assuming that it refers to the second millennium and not the one just before King Harold had his eye out. It dates back to 1908 with the main stand having been built in the fifties and two of the smaller stands recycled from Scarborough when they switched grounds twenty years or so ago.

It was a fiver in and as usual I bought raffle tickets. Less usually, I actually won. I popped up to the bar at half-time and was given the choice of a Wakefield beanie or scarf or a trucker’s cap supplied and branded by the sponsors, Lucas Oil Products. I’ve never driven a truck, but on the off-chance that I might do someday I selected the cap.

In addition to the drinks options available in the bar there was also a burger van open. The chips in curry sauce washed down with a Bovril worked well in temperatures not far above freezing. I was glad of my Russian coat, but did think that long johns might have been a sensible addition in the circumstances.

There was a decent turnout of 211 for a game at this level, particularly with World Cup football on the telly. Many of them nursed a pint of lager which didn’t seem like the greatest choice of drink. It was the sort of evening where hot toddies or mulled wine might have been big sellers if available.

Wakefield took the lead in the opening few minutes and then added a second mid-way through the first half. They were well on top throughout the opening forty-five minutes and missed numerous chances as well as having one disallowed for offside. It’s no exaggeration to say that they could have gone in at the break six goals to the good.

The standard was decent, higher I thought than the equivalent level Northern League Division Two, on a pitch with grass that needed an inch or so trimming off it. Maybe it’s kept that way at the request of Featherstone Rovers.

The game looked over when Wakefield scored from a Panenka penalty early in the second half, a move that had the Parkgate keeper chasing after the scorer in a rage. It might have turned into a rout at that point but Parkgate stemmed the pressure and pulled one back midway through the half. From that point the game got increasingly niggly culminating in a home player seeing red for exacting some retribution off the ball. The visitors scored from the subsequent free kick to set up a frantic last few minutes. However, Wakefield managed to see the game out with ten men to take the points that had looked to be in the bag just half an hour earlier.

I’m told The Cure were very good, but I think I made the right choice with my evening’s entertainment.

Kirkby Lonsdale Reserves v Burton Thistle, Saturday 3rd December 2022, 11.30am

December 5, 2022

Jen and I had driven across to Cumbria last month for a Westmorland League fixture on the strength of a Twitter post that mentioned that one of the teams, Kirkby Lonsdale Reserves, had fielded a sixty-eight-year-old in their previous game. Unfortunately, that game at Sedbergh was postponed and so we missed an opportunity of seeing such an unusual occurrence in person.

Once I get an idea in my head I’m persistent though and so two weeks later we headed back over, this time to Kirkby Lonsdale to see their reserve team take on Burton Thistle in the seventeenth-tier Westmorland League Division Four.

Ideally on a trip like this we’d go for a walk beforehand or at least have a mooch around the town. However, due to the possibility of England playing their round of sixteen World Cup game on the afternoon, the fixture had been pre-emptively brought forward to an eleven-thirty kick-off.

I’d intended that we hung around and had some lunch afterwards, but it was Christmas Market weekend in Kirkby Lonsdale and the place was crammed with people eager to pay over the odds for anything sprinkled with cinnamon. That made parking difficult for those of us with an important reason to be there and meant that after the game I was happy to clear straight off.

The match was at Lunefield Park. It’s an area down by the river with two marked pitches and a clubhouse. We were on the pitch furthest from the river without the dugouts. Initially I only noticed one other spectator apart from Jen and myself, although as the game went on a few other people wandered over, with all of them looking as if they had some connection to the home side.

None of the players seemed to be close to seventy, with the oldest looking like he might be around fifty. I wondered if one of the linesman might be the elderly fella who had turned out last month but he flatly denied it and, as he seemed to be from the Burton Thistle camp rather than Kirkby Lonsdale, was probably telling the truth.

The game was played in good spirit and well-controlled by the ref, who conducted himself as if it were a Premier League match. He wasn’t helped by either linesman who rarely made a call that didn’t favour their own team. The home lino combined his flag waving with coaching the players near to him and appealing to the ref for various decisions. I’m surprised that he didn’t also take the odd corner.

The standard was as you might expect for a game at its level. Most of the goals came from defensive errors and it ended up with Kirkby Lonsdale running out four-two winners. Burton missed a few chances, particularly in the second half, and could easily have come away with at least a point. No doubt we’ll be back over to the Westmorland League before long in the hope of catching sight of the old bloke.

Wales v Iran, Friday 25th November 2022, 1pm

November 29, 2022

Friday meant our last game of the trip, just as we were getting the hang of it all. We’d learned that the metro was probably the best way to get to a stadium as it eliminated the risk of a traffic jam, whilst taking the bus back to Doha centre meant avoiding the post-match crush.

Ahmad Bin Ali stadium is around twenty kilometres west of Doha and we took the same green line that we’d used for the opening game, travelling one stop beyond the Education City stadium. Our carriage had a fairly even mix of the two sets of supporters and we got songs from both sides.

There was a fifteen-minute walk to the ground, although we ended up spending half an hour or so faffing around as I couldn’t get my digital match ticket to activate. We called into the ticket centre and two young girls worked their magic so that my phone could pick up the necessary Bluetooth and location signals.

We joined the queue for the entrance, just in front of some Welsh fellas who expressed some very anti-English sentiments. Presumably they either didn’t know or didn’t care about our nationality but it left me a little less favourable to the Principality’s chances than I had been.

Once inside Paul and I made our way to the upper tier and our seats in the corner. It was a decent view and well-shaded. I took the opportunity to ask the bloke behind to photograph us. I rarely bother with that sort of thing, but we’ve had one taken at each of the last four World Cups and its good to keep the continuity going as well as confirming my belief that we’ve barely aged at all.

The anthems were interesting. Wales sang theirs with all the gusto that you’d expect. It’s a great anthem, not quite as good as the French one in my opinion, but not far short.

The Iranian anthem had caused some controversy in their first game when the team had declined to sing it. They relented this time, presumably, and understandably, under some intense pressure, and the protesting against their government was left to the fans. There was plenty of booing and whistling and a woman a few rows behind us shouted ‘Freedom’ all the way through it.

Iran created the better chances in the first half and should have scored. One pass too many meant that when they did get the ball in the net the VAR team ruled it offside. The Wales fans around us seemed surprised that it wasn’t going to plan and may very well have thought it an easy three points after England’s 6-2 demolition of Iran four days earlier.

I suspect that the heat didn’t help and most of the Wales players, particularly the older ones, seemed sluggish and well off the pace of the game.

The second half was mainly more of the same and the game looked to be heading for a draw, until with five minutes left the Welsh keeper ‘Schumachered’ an Iranian who was headed for goal. The initial yellow was overturned, and he had to go. I was hoping that Wales had used all five subs and would have to put an outfield player between the sticks, but sadly they had at least one substitution remaining and were able to bring on another keeper.

The stoppage contributed to nine minutes of additional time and that was sufficient for Iran to score twice. I couldn’t resist a wry smile, not because I’ve anything against Wales, but more in support of an underdog and the joy that each goal brought to the Iranian fans around us.

At the final whistle the walk to the bus hub thinned out the crowd and we were soon being driven away without any queueing at all. It had been a very enjoyable tournament. The boat accommodation worked well and the organization and transport logistics for getting to the games had been first-class. I found the people that we encountered to be friendly, polite and happy to talk about their lives.

One thought that I took away from Qatar is that football support can be passionate without alcohol. I rarely drink at games anyway these days, but it was a pleasure to go to matches without encountering the pissed-up cokeheads that are hard to avoid in England, particularly as an away fan in the higher tiers of the pyramid.

The November scheduling wasn’t an issue for me and, as a plus, means that we are only three and a half years away from 2026. I’ve not yet seen matches in Canada or Mexico so am looking forward to that World Cup and a North American adventure.

Switzerland v Cameroon, Wednesday 24th November 2022, 1pm

November 29, 2022

Normally when Paul and I go to a tournament we pace ourselves. It’s a maximum of one game per day, but more often an average of one every two days or even just one a week. With the stadiums being so close to each other in Qatar I got carried away and on two of our four full days in Doha I scheduled in two matches.

After our first two game day it became apparent that it was a bit much. I re-sold the tickets for one of the remaining games and we resolved to take it a bit easier. Paul took it so much easier that he decided to skip the Switzerland game and have a day lounging around on the cruise ship. Not a bad alternative.

I was still energetic enough to take in a one o’clock game and took the shuttle from the boat area to the usual bus hub. It was mainly Swiss fans travelling but two fellas in Cameroon shirts received a friendly cheer when they hopped on.

The fixture was at the Al Janoub stadium. It’s the ground that is reputed to look like a vagina, although I’ve not seen one shaped like that. Perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life. It’s also another one of those grounds where half of the seats will be removed after the tournament and donated to good causes. I’d like to see four seat sections made into benches and just put up randomly around the world. Benches are always good and benches with a World Cup heritage are even better.

There was a ten minute walk from the bus park to the ground. I passed a bloke who was looking for a ticket but it was only once I was inside that I realized that I could probably have arranged the transfer of Paul’s unused seat. It was so much easier when there were paper tickets. I hope he got sorted.

I was a little closer to the kick-off time for this one and it was busier outside the stadium. The queue for free flags was far longer than at previous games, possibly because of the Cameroon colours. I’d be happy to re-upholster chairs with that flag.

There was still time for some shopping though and I picked up a World Cup baseball cap for Harry from the FIFA shop. The lad who served me told me that he was from Tunisia and had been given a three-month working visa for the tournament. He was hoping for an extension afterwards, although I imagine that the workforce will drop substantially in the days after the final. Perhaps he’ll get a spot on the seat removal team. I’d like to think so, he was a friendly chap.

My seat was in the lower tier for a change, but in direct sunlight. I waited until close to kick-off before taking my position but it was too hot for comfort. There were plenty of empty seats around me and in other parts of the stadium so I moved back a few rows. It didn’t take long for the sun to creep towards me so I cast my eyes around for a longer-term alternative. There were lots of seats in the opposite corner still empty and so I made my way around the back of the goal and across to the shaded section.

It was easy enough to get past the stewards who were checking tickets and I modified the old ‘two cups of tea’ trick that we used as kids to avoid showing tickets that we didn’t have to get into the North Stand at Ayresome. With a coke in one hand, my shopping bag in the other and a confident point to what I was purporting to be my seat, I was straight in.

The view was similar from the new position, but the comfort was much improved. Not only did I have no direct sunlight, but there was also cold air blasting out from underneath my seat. It doesn’t get much better than that and it was no surprise to see a lot of the seats around me fill up as the match progressed.

As you might have seen on the telly, the football was nothing special. Switzerland took the win courtesy of a bloke who was originally from Cameroon and who didn’t celebrate after scoring. I can get that you don’t need to rub it in, but he looked like he had scored an own-goal. I’m not sure I’d be one for big celebrations anyway if I were a footballer, but I’m sure if I were to score in a World Cup game I might at least manage to force a smile across my chops.

I took my time at the end and by taking the bus rather than the shuttle to the metro I avoided the crowds. There was time for a wander around the market area at Souq Waqif and I had a look in some of the small shops down narrow alleys. They sold a mixture of tourist tat, industrial tools and rolls of cloth that looked as if they had been awaiting a buyer since the days when all that area was still desert. The best shop was one that sold vintage taxidermy and had a mangy looking lion. Sadly, I didn’t have the luggage allowance but I was sorely tempted.

Spain v Costa Rica, Tuesday 23rd November 2022, 7pm

November 29, 2022

Our second game of the day was Spain against Costa Rica at the Al Thumama stadium. It’s in the south-west of Doha and so a decent trek from the Al Bayt stadium where we’d watched the earlier game. The direct bus between stadiums got us there in about an hour and a half, which was a much easier way of doing things than a combination of metros and buses.

We could see the ground from a fair distance away. It’s the one with the design based upon one of those little hats that you often see in this part of the world. We walked for around half an hour from the bus park to the ground, passing through what looked like an academy. Apparently former Everton Aussie Tim Cahill is in charge of the Qatari youth system and they’ve certainly given him some decent facilities to work in.

Al Thumama was the smallest of the three stadiums that we’d seen at that point. Its capacity of forty-thousand will be further reduced after the tournament with half of the seats being given away. I’d like to think that some of the Northern or Wearside League teams might ask for a few as I think it would be interesting to have some World Cup seats supplementing their current facilities.

We were in Row B of the upper tier and once again had an excellent view, this time from behind a goal. There was a television studio to our left and it was noticeable how little time the pundits spent looking out of the window at the live action. Any analysis that they broadcast must have come mainly from watching the match on tv. It all seemed a bit pointless them being there really if they were going to spend almost all of their time with their backs to the pitch.

The food options were limited, but the five pound chicken shawarma was better value than the nine quid burger that I’d had in the previous ground. I washed it down with a couple of cans of Bud 0%, primarily to add the souvenir beakers to my World Cup collection.

Spain were so much sharper than Costa Rica, embarrassingly so, and had the win sewn up by half-time before emptying their bench at the earliest opportunity and still managing to put seven past their opponents.

The transportation arrangements worked well again and after a brisk walk back to the bus park we were soon back into town and then off to the boat to watch the remainder of the final game of the day on the big screen.

Croatia v Morocco, Tuesday 23rd November 2022, 1pm

November 29, 2022

Our second game was the fixture between Croatia and Morocco at the Al Bayt stadium. That’s the one around fifty kilometres to the north of Doha. It’s amazing to think that all eight grounds are so closely situated. It’s certainly a contrast to the next World Cup where games will be staged in Canada, Mexico and the USA. Kick-off time was one o’clock in the afternoon and so Paul and I left the boat not long after nine.

We took the shuttle to Al Ghanim again but instead of walking around the corner to the Souq Waqif metro, we instead went to the Souq Waqif North bus station to catch a stadium specific bus. It was all very easy with people directing us between the stations and then towards the correct bus for our game.

It took around an hour and a half to reach the ground. Progress was slow through Doha but then quicker as we left urban areas behind for the desert. The Al Bayt stadium isn’t too far from Las Raffin, an industrial area and somewhere that I’ve been approached to work at before. Whilst I’d be content to live in Doha, I’m not sure camp life in the desert would be very enjoyable.

The ground has been designed to look like a tent from the outside and as if it has been lined with carpets on the inside. It has a retractable roof and a sixty thousand capacity which will apparently be scaled back by two thirds after the tournament with the upper tiers becoming shops and offices.

It was easy enough to negotiate the ticket and identity checks and we were soon inside. We’ve seen games involving Croatia at a few previous tournaments and it’s usually the biggest party in town. This time though it was the Moroccans who were there in bigger numbers and made the most noise. Our seats were high up in a corner, but with a decent view.

It wasn’t the most enthralling of games. Modric seemed stifled early on but provided the few moments of class on the pitch. Neither side offered much going forward though and looked content with the nil-nil draw long before the end.

We had four hours before our next game and so had no need to hurry out after the final whistle. A leisurely stroll took us back to the bus park where we were able to catch a stadium-to-stadium bus direct to our next venue. That’s a very handy initiative and it worked extremely well.

Denmark v Tunisia, Monday 22nd November 2022, 4pm

November 29, 2022

It’s World Cup time again. Paul and I have attended all of them since Germany 2006 and the switch to a tournament taking place in the northern hemisphere winter wasn’t going to stop us. Nor was the choice of Qatar as the venue. I recognize that Qatar hasn’t moved as quickly as some other countries in respect of human rights, but the UK is hardly leading the world on those issues these days. The Tory review of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the proposed removal of our existing rights isn’t something that reflects well on the UK. If I boycotted every country that had laws or attitudes that I disapprove of then I’d be stateless. And I’d never visit some of my relatives.

On that basis, I’ve no regrets about travelling and don’t consider that my presence endorses any particular Qatari viewpoint in the same way that continuing to live in England should in no way be taken as my tacit approval of anything that the incompetent and corrupt chancers running my country get up to.

Paul took responsibility for sorting out somewhere to stay and he booked us onto the cruise ship that also accommodated the Wags. I wouldn’t recognize any of them these days so I’ve no idea if we ended up drinking in the same locations. The ship had a few big screens showing the football and we watched most of the matches from a deck high up with a very nice view of the Doha skyline. As you might expect on a cruise ship, there was a fine selection of drinks.

It was easy enough to get the Education City Stadium for our first match. The journey began with a forty-minute bus ride from outside of the boat terminal. There were always sufficient buses and we didn’t have to queue. The shuttle wound around the various ships before dropping us at the Al Ghanian bus station.

It was a short walk to the metro station and then just the one change of line to get to the ground. The metro was fairly noisy, with a lot more Tunisians that Danes. Apparently, a lot of Tunisians work in Qatar.

Something that surprised me was that many women on the metro were wearing short skirts and low-cut tops. I wasn’t expecting burkas, but neither had I anticipated a dress code of ‘Friday Night Out in Newcastle’. It was a fair walk from the subway to the stadium. We passed a few campus pitches where I’d have liked to have seen a game going on.

Once at the ground we had to activate our tickets on our phones. I’m not really sure what purpose that served as usually a bar or QR code is sufficient. We also had to show our digital Hayya cards, which again seemed overkill, but as they had our photos on them it made informal transfers of tickets by lending someone your phone that little bit harder.

The searches and scans were thorough, but I did notice that people were able to bring bags in with them. At a lot of games I’ve been to you are limited to something about A5 size, but many of these were a lot larger. I remember Paul getting turned away at the Euros in France a few years ago for having one of those small shoe-type bags with a draw string.

Once we were in, it was easy enough to find our upper tier seats. We were given free flags to wave, but on the basis that I didn’t care which team won I kept them rolled up and then later gave them to a couple of small kids on the metro who somehow had managed to lose their flags and had been left with just the sticks.

There was no opportunity for a beer in the stadium, although that’s how it generally works at the Euros, so I didn’t see it being adopted for a World Cup as such a big deal as the media were making out. I had a couple of non-alcoholic Buds, which didn’t taste too different from their regular product.

The game was supposed to be sold out but there were a few empty seats in most areas. Whilst each side had what looked like a dedicated area where tickets were presumably sold by the respective football associations, there were lots of fans of the teams spread around the ground.

The Tunisians, as they had on the metro, outnumbered and out sang their Danish counterparts. Many of them wouldn’t sit down and it took a lot of effort from the very polite stewards to keep order. We switched seats so that we wouldn’t have our view limited to the back of a Tunisian supporting woman who flatly refused to use her seat.

The game ended goalless and we headed for the metro. We were directed away to a tram that took us one stop away from the ground. Unfortunately, it was one stop along the line where the carriages were already full of fans and it was a tight squeeze to get on. There were some Saudi supporters at the stations, clearly delighted with their win over Argentina and we were treated to the chants of ‘Messi, Ciao’ that we’d heard at the previous World Cup. Things change, things stay the same.

Sedbergh and Dent United v Wetheriggs United, Saturday 19th November 2022, 2pm

November 21, 2022

It will be a shame if Elon Musk does cause Twitter to implode as I currently get some great information from it. Last week I discovered from my feed that a team in Cumbria had fielded a sixty-eight-year-old player. You can’t pass up the opportunity to see something like that and so, on the off chance that his performance merited him retaining his place in the team, Jen and I headed for Sedbergh to see Sedbergh and Dent Reserves take on Kirby Lonsdale Reserves in the fourth division of the Westmorland League.

I like to try and combine these trips out with something other than football and a check on the route revealed that we would be passing Cautley Spout, which is the biggest waterfall of its type in somewhere or other, possible Cautley. Further investigation led to the discovery that we could park up at the Cross Keys temperance pub, have some lunch and then walk out and back to the waterfall, all in sufficient time to get to the game.

The Cross Keys was fantastic. It was full of old, interesting stuff and had a coal fire burning in one of the rooms. They do B&B as well, so at some point I’d like to go back and use it as a base for a longer walk across the Howgill fells.

The walk to the waterfall was easy enough as it probably wasn’t much more than a mile each way. Despite the rain on the way over, we struck lucky with a break in the inclement weather and within an hour we were back at the Cross Keys. We saw some unusual looking mushrooms but little in the way of wildlife apart from the brightly painted sheep penned in near to the road.

The short walk meant that we had plenty of time to get to Sedbergh, for the game in the seventeenth tier of the pyramid. However, as two o’clock approached we still hadn’t found a pitch with people on it. A further check on Twitter revealed that the fixture had been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch and so my plan to see the sixty-eight-year-old was thwarted. Temporarily, I hope.

Plan B meant seeing the Sedbergh and Dent United first team instead. They play in the dizzy heights of the fourteenth tier Westmorland League Division One and just four miles away at the club’s other pitch in Dent.

We arrived at the Church Playing Field twenty minutes into the game and with Sedbergh, in green and black, a goal to the good. It was a decent venue for a game at this level, with a grass pitch, dugouts and goalposts that didn’t require the players to fit the nets and risk losing a finger.

Jen and I set up our camping chairs on the far side from the dugouts, alongside the Wetherigg subs and manager. It was a reasonably feisty first half with a lot of noise coming from both sets of teams. Our arrival brought the attendance up to fifteen which seemed a little on the low side as I doubt that there was anything else going on in Dent that afternoon.

The visitors equalized a few minutes before the break with a well-taken half-volley, but Sedbergh re-took the lead bang on the forty-five-minute mark when the away keeper fumbled a corner. We then got to listen to the Wetherigg half-time team talk in which their captain criticised the jittery defending, commenting that it was as if they had all done three lines of coke. I liked his precision in specifying the quantity.

By the time the second half started it was already beginning to get dark, so much so that with twenty minutes to go there wasn’t sufficient light to take useable photos. The players and management continued to shout at each other and at the ref but didn’t manage to add any further goals. Despite not seeing the pensioner play it had been a good day out and I’ll try to get along to some more Westmorland League fixtures when the opportunity arises.

Skanstes v JDFS Alberts, Sunday 13th November 2022, 1pm

November 16, 2022

Whilst the top-tier Virsliga had reached its conclusion the previous day, there was still a round of fixtures remaining in the next league down. I’d had a look to see what was nearby and there was a choice between a game a few minutes on from the Skonto stadium that we’d been to the day before and one in the opposite direction, a little further away and over the river. On the basis that we hadn’t yet crossed the river I picked that one.

We had a decent view of the old town from the bridge including some of the big churches that we’d had a look inside. Once over the river, it was a little more modern and after forty-five minutes walking we arrived at the location for the stadium. Or at least we would have done if there had been a stadium there.

I asked a fella coming out of a house if there was a football ground nearby and his bemused look told me all I needed to know. We retraced our steps back across the bridge and I headed for the other option. Jen had done enough walking and so she made her way back to the apartment.

The route to the Hanzas Vidusskolas Laukums ground took me past the Russian Embassy and up to the Skonto stadium again. A further few hundred metres on I spotted the game, albeit on the opposite side of the road to that indicated on my phone. The scoreboard revealed that we were almost an hour into the game and it was level at one each.

I couldn’t see a way in from the side of the road and so had to make my way past the pitch and turn the corner before finding an entrance on the far side. Nobody was taking any money at that late stage, although I doubt that anyone will have had to pay at any time. There were three rows of seats along one side of the artificial pitch and I made my way around behind the goal and sat down. I’d estimate that there were maybe sixty people or so watching.

One team were in black and orange, with the other in grey and black. I didn’t bother asking anyone which was which as I was hoping that a further goal would solve the identification issue. There were plenty of chances in the final twenty minutes, but they all went begging and I finished none the wiser as to the team’s identities.

It was good to tick off a second Latvian stadium though, even if it meant a twenty-five thousand step day. With their leagues running from March to November I’m tempted to go back in the summer and take in some games outside of Riga.

Riga v Riga Futbola Skola, Saturday 12th November 2022, 1pm

November 15, 2022

Now that Jen has her visa, it’s a lot easier for us to travel outside the UK. We don’t have to worry about whether the border force fella is having a bad day and might refuse her entry just because he can. I’d been looking at the various options for heading off for a game somewhere and ended up picking Riga. We took cheap flights from Newcastle and spent four days wandering around the old part of town.

The weekend coincided with the final fixtures in the Latvian leagues and on the Saturday we made our way to the Skonta stadium. The route took us along the recently re-named Ukrainian Independence Street which, by remarkable coincidence, happens to be the street where the Russian Embassy is situated.

There’s a great view of the Paul Stradin Museum from the side windows of the Russian Embassy, although the diplomats and staff may not appreciate the image of Putin that has been fastened to the wall of the museum. It’s a handy reminder for them though that there is little support for their actions in the rest of the world. If the Putin image wasn’t enough, a small group of protesters maintains a presence across the road and visible from the front windows.

Whilst the route to the Skonto stadium went past the Paul Stradin Museum, it’s a place that we’d intended to visit anyway. It had a lot of historical scientific stuff, but it was a ‘two-headed dog’ that had drawn us in. I’d been expecting some sort of mutation, similar to calves and lambs that I’d seen elsewhere, but this was actually a scientific experiment with the head of a small dog grafted onto the upper back of a larger one.

Back in the fifties someone had thought it a good idea to see what would happen if the head of one dog was attached to the body of a larger one and connected into the host circulatory system. Apparently, the small dog was able to see, hear and smell as well as drink and respond to the transplant team. Hopefully it gave some of them a vicious nip. Both dogs lived for four days and in future experiments other dogs lasted for over a month.

Interesting as all that was, we had a game to see. As the museum is only ten minutes or so from the ground I’d usually expect to be able to follow the crowd. However, despite it only being half an hour to kick-off, there wasn’t anyone that I’d readily identify as being on their way to the match.

The reason for this is primarily that football isn’t very popular in Latvia. It’s an ice hockey country. I’d checked the fixtures for that sport in advance but it was a blank weekend.

The Skonto stadium was built in 2000, but it has aged quickly. I’d have dated it as being twenty years older than it actually is. We did a lap around the ground, cutting through the car park behind one goal where the stand has been demolished. I paused for a photo from the far corner which is where the away fans would be situated. The ground holds over eight thousand but I doubt the capacity is ever threatened.

I’d bought tickets online the day before for five euros each. They were general admission and we had the choice of the main stand or behind the goal to our our left, which housed the local ultras. The forty of so of them kept up their drumming and chanting throughout the game and then let off a few flares at the end.

The game was in the top tier, between Riga and local rivals Riga Futbola Skola. They went into the final game of the season in second and third place in the table respectively. FS were marooned in third, but Riga still had a chance of the title if they won and the team in first place did no better than a draw.

You’d think with a title at stake that there would have been more people there than the two to three thousand that showed up but, as I mentioned, it’s a hockey town.

Riga were in sky blue with FS in navy. There weren’t too many chances in the first half apart from one FS shot that hit both the bar and post but somehow stayed out. FS were probably the better side in a game where they had nothing to play for other than denying another Riga team a chance of winning the league.

There were a lot of people around me watching the other game that affected the title race on their phones and it remained unsettled until well into the second half. The league leaders went ahead in their game and then Riga went behind when an FS sub rattled one into the top corner within seconds of having come on. Riga attacked frantically towards the end but couldn’t force an equalizer.

The defeat meant that the score in the other game didn’t matter and Riga’s chance of the title was gone. Nobody seemed unduly disappointed, and I’ve seen more annoyance at the outcome of mid-table Boro games. Maybe they save all the anguish for the hockey games.