Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

PNKP v Negeri Sembilan, Saturday 3rd February 2018, 4.45pm

March 14, 2018

It was the opening weekend of the new Super League season and my initial plan had been to head south to Johor Darul Ta’zim’s game with Kedah. Johor were last season’s champions and the fixture doubled up as the Malaysian version of the Charity Shield. That game was a nine o’clock kick-off though and that’s a bit late for me. I can stay up that late, usually, but it messes the evening up and means any post-match eating and drinking doesn’t start until knocking on for midnight.

There was a game up at Batu Kawan though that kicked off late afternoon and therefore looked a much better option. It was a four hour drive up the coast and Jen and I arrived at the Negeri Pulau Pinang Stadium with an hour in hand.

For the last two games we’d been in hospitality sections, but for this one it was back to reality. On the plus side though the tickets were only ten ringgits a go, just under two quid.

It’s an unusual looking ground, with curved stands on opposite sides lengthways and with the areas behind the goals grassed over. They’d be ideal places for lying back with a picnic, but it didn’t look as if anyone was allowed into those areas.

We took up seats centrally and towards the back of the stand. This gave us plenty of shade and a welcome breeze on our backs. We were among the first into the ground and eventually what was probably around a few hundred spectators took their seats on our side of the pitch.

A fairly even first half finished goalless. PKNP took the lead early in the second half but couldn’t get a second to make it safe. Negeri Sembilan went for it in the closing moments and hit the post twice in added time with one of the shots bouncing back out from what seemed an impossible angle.  At the final whistle the visiting players slumped to the floor at the reality of leaving empty-handed after having those two late chances to take a point.

We were staying about five miles up the road in an area renowned for its seafood restaurants. Unfortunately I’d booked us into a hotel located in an industrial estate and our only dining option was a curry in a café that didn’t sell booze. We were back in our dry hotel by 8pm and in hindsight probably would have been better off going to Johor after all.

Kerala Blasters v Delhi Dynamos, Saturday 27th January 2018, 8pm

March 5, 2018

I’ve seen a couple of Indian Super League games on the telly and I’d kept an eye on one of the teams, Bengaluru, because they have an ex-Boro player, John Johnson, turning out for them. My interest cranked up a notch this season when another ex-Riversider, Andre Bikey, found himself a club in Jamshedpur. As India is reasonably close to Malaysia and well-served by the budget airlines I added it to my list of places to take in a game.

In a perfect world the match would have featured Johnson v Bikey, but I was limited to Saturday games involving teams with convenient flights. When I checked the fixture list none of the games involving either of the ex-Boro lads were do-able. The best option was to head for Kochi, home of the Kerala Blasters.

We stayed in quite a touristy area, just around the corner from Jew Town. It was a pleasant enough place for a wander around and we popped into a museum showing the history of the area and then stopped to watch some fellas trying to catch fish with hand nets. Whilst they failed miserably, the watching birds were pretty good at taking a steady supply of the little silver fish.

The local shop keepers were keen to entice us in but there’s a limit to how many key rings, fridge magnets or sacks of brightly coloured spice that I’d want. None actually. The streets were busy with coach-loads of tourists, schoolkids on some sort of trip, a rat or two and the odd goat just moseying along.

I did pop into a barber’s shop, much to the wide-eyed surprise of a small kid waiting in there. I don’t think he’d ever seen an old white bloke having a trim. It wasn’t bad for a quid, or at least it wasn’t until the barber started violently knuckling my skull under the pretence of a ‘head-massage’.

The fellas in our hotel had been extra helpful and had made things much easier for us by ordering our tickets for the game in advance. We took a taxi to the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium and among the bedlam were able to be dropped about ten minutes walk from the ground.

We were politely accosted by people wanting to sell us tickets, exchange money or just inquire where we were from. Pretty much standard for most Asian football games we attend really. Getting to the ground meant a trek over some wasteland and then passing through security scanners.

Our seats were in the ‘Owners Box’ section. This is as posh as it gets, or at least as pricey as it gets at 5,000 rupees a pop. That’s sixty quid or so and, as you might expect, about fifty times the price of the cheapest ticket.

There were pre-match popadoms available in the lounge and a variety of sugary drinks. Kerala is pretty much a dry state. You can get alcohol from some official outlets but can’t legally buy it in bars, restaurants or hotels. Nor football stadiums.

We made our way out to the seating area which was full of settees. Cool. I’ve never watched a live game from a settee before. I still haven’t actually as the comfy seating was reserved for the actual Owners and their guests. Us ticket buying plebs had regular seats around the edges of the box. The best-known owner of the Blasters is none other than Sachin Tendulkar who I think could probably also be considered to be the best known Indian, full-stop. Maybe ever.

The Little Master made his entrance just before kick-off and was treated to a few choruses of his name from the fans below us. I’ve seen Shearer subjected to the same adulation at the boxing up in Newcastle and I imagine it must get pretty tiresome, particularly when you are just nipping out for a pint of milk.

Kerala had recently re-appointed David James as their manager. He’d had a stint as a player-manager with them before, but as he’s knocking on fifty he understandably didn’t bother bringing his gloves with him this time. I can’t help but remember his appearance in that game at Man City back in 2005. The one where the Big Aussie saved Robbie Fowler’s penalty to clinch a second successive season in Europe for the Boro.

The penalty was partly caused by the distracting presence of David James in our box after Stuart Pearce had taken the brave, if somewhat unorthodox, decision to bring a new keeper on, take an outfield player off and stick James up front. It so nearly paid off for them but I suspect didn’t do much for Pearce’s managerial credentials.

The visitors took the lead in the first half through a penalty and very nearly got a second after a Wes Brown mistake. Yes, that Wes Brown. Fresh from his part in Sunderland’s decline he now gets his feet tangled up in the India Super League. I can only assume he’s short of cash, although wouldn’t it be great if he was doing it for the love of the game or to experience new cultures? Who knows.

At half-time there was a buffet with a few different curries. Very nice. There was decent air conditioning too which gets extra marks from me. There must have been a secret lounge for the Owners though as I didn’t see Sachin in the queue for a korma.

The settees were still empty as the second half kicked off and so the Owners all missed the Blasters banging in an equaliser straight after the restart. The tempo picked up after that in what was quite a niggly game. A coach from each side was sent to the stands, with David James’ sidekick heading up our way and settling into one of the sofas. Doesn’t seem like much of a punishment to me.

As the half went on the ref evened up the penalty count and Kerala were able to take the lead. Dehli applied a lot of pressure but couldn’t force an equaliser, whilst the frustration resulted in one of the visiting players receiving a red card for dishing out an elbow to the chops. The sending off seemed to cause the stadium announcer to call the result which was celebrated for a couple of minutes before the mistake was realised and everyone settled down again for the final few seconds.

We didn’t stay for any post-match nosh and were soon in a tuk-tuk heading back to Jew Town. I think there is definitely potential for the India Super League to grow in popularity. The fan base seems to be there and if the success of the IPL is any sort of indication it could do very well indeed.

Kelantan v Ratchaburi, Saturday 20th January 2018, 8pm

February 19, 2018


The 2018 Malaysian Super League kicks off in a couple of weeks time. As part of Kelantan’s preparations they had signed up to a three team tournament, the Boost Sportsfix Super Cup and as we all know, putting ‘Super’ in a competition’s name makes it extremely prestigious. I wouldn’t usually bother with this sort of nonsense, but the tournament was being held at the newly reopened National Stadium at Bukit Jalil and it was a chance to pop along on an occasion where I doubted demand would be high.

Tickets were being sold online in advance and there were some that were described as VIP and came with food and drink. Whilst they were ten times the price of regular tickets they were still only twenty-five quid and for that price I thought we might as well see how the other half lives. The traffic in KL was reasonably light for a Saturday afternoon and we pulled into the car park outside the ground a good hour and a half before kick-off.

It’s an impressive looking stadium, although I’m not sure how much of that is due to the refurbishment. Perhaps it had always looked good. We did a lap of the outside, weaving our way between pockets of Kelantan fans. It’s a seven hour drive from their Kota Bharu location way up on the east coast, so I suspect that a lot of them will actually have been based in the capital. Mind you, it’s a lot further to Ratchaburi in Thailand and so it wasn’t surprising that we didn’t see any fans outside supporting the opposition.

At the end of our circuit of the perimeter we made our way into the VIP entrance. There was an area where a buffet was being set up which we were told would open at 8pm, kick-off time. That struck me as a little odd, as I’d thought the food was intended to keep you occupied during the times when there wasn’t any football going on. Maybe VIPs don’t want to spend much time watching the game.

With no food available we went for a mooch around and once clear of security we sneaked into the room where the press conferences take place. I don’t often include myself in photos when at the match, but you can’t miss an opportunity to capture yourself announcing a Willo Flood magnitude signing.

Our VIP seats were as disappointing as the catering arrangements. They were close to the half-way line but next to a cordoned off better section. Perhaps for ‘Super’ VIPs. The other seats were bigger and had arm rests.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they received complimentary ear-plugs as well to muffle the hundred decibel stadium announcer.

This game was the final match of a three team tournament involving an Indonesian team. The results of the previous two games meant that Kelantan needed a draw to take the trophy, whilst Ratchaburi had to win by three or four goals depending upon whatever the criteria was for separating teams tied on points and goal difference.

Rain started to fall before kick-off and after the unnecessary rigmarole of the national anthems the couple of thousand Kelantan fans opposite sang their state anthem. Our side of the ground got out of our seats again and the players stood to attention as if it was a formal rendition. We had only just sat down when they piped up once more, or maybe we got the second verse.  Anyway, the Kelantan players  felt obliged to delay their final preparations to stand to attention for a fourth time whilst we added to the wear and tear on our knees by getting up again.

There was a Boro connection in the newly appointed Ratchaburi manager, Christian Zeige. Usually that would be enough to sway my allegience, but the manner of his departure to Liverpool balanced out any positive feelings I might have had from his time at the Riverside. Still, I’m not one to bear a grudge and it was nice to see that his spots have cleared up. Perhaps it’s the sunny climate.

Once underway, it was an entertaining exercise for what was effectively a pre-season friendly. Ratchaburi opened the scoring and then after being pegged back took a three-one lead. That meant Kelantan needed two goals to take the trophy and Ratchaburi maybe just the one. Both sides having to score opened the game up which enabled Kelantan to pull level at three each and put one hand on the trophy.

However, despite Ratchaburi having too much to do to win the competition they didn’t settle for the draw and somehow nicked a winner at the death. The late goal determined that neither team took the cup and in an unexpected turn of events it was left to the representatives of the Indonesian team to make off with the swag.

Middlesbrough v Bolton Wanderers, Tuesday 26th December 2017, 3pm

January 30, 2018

After the morning outing to the Northern League game at Willington it on to the Boro for the Boxing Day game with Bolton. As I approached the Riverside I noticed some new official graffiti on the side of the underpass. It commemorated the late Ali Brownlee by quoting his radio commentary from the final whistle of the UEFA semi final against Steaua Bucharest. I’d missed his excitement at the time as I was at the match and to be honest my mind at that point had already moved on to logistical matters around how to get tickets, flights and time off work for the final.

That comeback from three goals down, our second in a row in the competition, fully deserved all manner of celebrations. Nobody enthused about all things Boro as much as Ali did and it was nice to be reminded, a couple of years on from his passing, of those European adventures a decade earlier when we really were punching well above our weight.

This was my first Boro game of the season and it was the third different manager for me in as many games. Craig Liddle was in charge for this one, following on from Steve Agnew in our final game of last season and Aitor Karanka for the cup game with Oxford back in February. In between I’d missed the entire managerial reign of Garry Monk.  It’s as if Steve Gibson had been replaced by Jesus Gil.

I wouldn’t revel in anyone losing their job. It’s happened to me enough times for me to know that, whilst it’s an inevitable part of going to work, it’s a miserable experience. However, there wasn’t really any sense of direction under Monk. He bought forty million quids worth of players to suit a system that he promptly abandoned and then he persisted trying to shoe-horn the newcomers into the team when it clearly wasn’t working. When we won, it often seemed as if it was despite Monk’s involvement and instead due to the overall quality of the squad being sufficient to overcome the failure of that week’s seemingly randomly generated selection and formation.

I don’t think the fans ever warmed to him and I suspect most had him down as a bit of a chancer, a Tim Sherwood type. Still, thanks and all the best, Garry.

The match wasn’t a home sellout, unusual for Boxing Day and the overall attendance was further reduced by Bolton only bringing a couple of hundred fans with them. David Wheater was making a return to the club he formerly captained and, given that he sometimes turns up in the Boro support at away games, I was a little surprised by the lack of acknowledgement for him.  Another of the Youth Cup winning team from 2004 was also playing for the visitors but I didn’t realise until I spotted that familiar Taylor strut.

In a further nod to the past, there was a tribute to Leo Percovich, much more recently ‘One of Our Own’. He had just lost his two daughters in a car crash, prompting some light shining in the second half. I’ve no idea how to make my phone do that, but I sang his name and hope he took some comfort from the show of support.

The Boro never really got out of second gear. Similar I suppose to much of Monk’s reign. Downing looked a class above everyone else on the pitch and the overall quality in the side was good enough to secure a comfortable three points against a struggling Bolton side. New boss Tony Pulis was sat next to Gibbo in the director’s box and if he can manage to dodge the bullet until I’m back again at Easter he’ll become my fourth manager in as many games.

Willington v Tow Law Town, Tuesday 26th December 2017, 11am

January 25, 2018

Bank Holiday games in the Northern League generally kick-off at 11am and so that meant I had time to fit one in before the Boro’s Boxing Day fixture against Bolton. I picked Willington as it was handy enough to get to from Sedgefield.

On the way there I passed a couple of signs for a Roman fort. It’s a shame that I don’t plan ahead a bit more as I’d have quite liked to have had a look around and it might have made the blog post mildly interesting for a change. Oh well.

It was five quid to get into Hall Lane for the Division Two game with Tow Law Town. It’s a ground that has been home to Willington for almost all of their hundred-plus years and I think the stand opposite the dugouts dates back to the 1930’s.  As ever, most of the crowd stood around the perimeter fence. It was a decent turnout, as you’d expect on a Boxing Day and I overheard one fella say that at almost two hundred, it was three times the usual attendance.

I don’t know a great deal about Willington other than they were managed for a while by Malcolm Allison. This was after he had left the Boro and long after his hey-day. If Willington had a team bath back in those days then it would be nice to think that the likes of Fiona Richmond would still be joining Big Mal in it for a bottle or two of champagne.

In addition to a former Boro manager, I seem to remember that they had one of our captains for a while. Tony McAndrew had a spell with them in the late-eighties as his playing career drew to a close. I’m pretty sure Trappa captained Chelsea during his spell there too. It’s hard to imagine any modern-day footballer continuing at this level after a successful pro-career, never mind Chelsea captains who probably earn enough in a week to fund Willington for a few years.

The game was lively from the off with a kung-fu style assault going unpunished in the first minute. The ref lost control from then on in and having set an early precedent allowed another couple of potential reds to go unpunished as the tackles flew in.

Willington were kicking down the slope and opened the scoring in the first half when someone tucked away the rebound from a shot that the Tow Law keeper couldn’t palm far enough away from danger. It stayed that way until half-time. I queued for a chippy butty and updated the tea lady on the violent disorder out on the pitch.

Tow Law could have gone top with a win but that looked increasingly unlikely as Willington went two up a few minutes after the break. The visitors had their chances, hitting the post and then having a penalty saved but despite the pressure Willington added another at the death for a slightly flattering three-nil win.


Shildon v Billingham Synthonia, Saturday 23rd December 2017, 3pm

January 22, 2018

Jen and I were in the UK for Christmas and with the Boro away at Sheff Wed I thought I’d take in a Northern League game. We were staying at Sedgefield and so it was only a twenty-five minute drive to Shildon for their Division One clash with Billingham Synthonia.

As I often do, I assumed that I’d be visiting a one-horse town and that it would be impossible to miss the football ground. I was wrong again and somehow managed to drive the full length of Shildon twice before admitting defeat and checking the location on my phone.

It was six pounds to get in and then another couple of quid for a programme. A bucket collection on the other side of the turnstile hoovered up the remaining change from my tenner.

I’m told that the Dean Court Ground dates back to 1903 and that the big five hundred seater stand was built in 1923. The stand might not see its centenary though as on my visit all you could do was loiter in front of it. The seated area had been taped off, presumably as some sort of safety measure.

On the opposite side of the ground was a much newer stand that had only been open for a few weeks. It holds two hundred and has replaced a longer covered terracing section. I’m not sure that’s progress at all. The crowd of 190 could have all fitted in the new stand, but most chose to stand at various points around the perimeter.

I positioned myself behind the home dugout for a while and listened to the softly spoken Shildon manager advising his players on his requirements for flatness and narrowness. I wasn’t really paying enough attention to remember whether they were too flat and too narrow or not flat and narrow enough. Possibly it varied according to the state of play. Regardless, I liked the calm way he got his point across to his players one at a time.

I had hoped that one of the players would be former Boro Youth Cup winner Anthony Peacock. Remember him, the little midfielder? After spells at Darlo and Spennymoor, he turns out for Shildon these days. Unfortunately he had been out injured for a while.

Despite Shildon being up at the top end of the table and Synthonia rock bottom, current form for the two teams was very similar. Whilst the home side had the better chances throughout and pressed hard towards the end, the result went true to current form and the game finished goalless.

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.