Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

Chertanovo Moscow v Tekstilshchik, Saturday 5th September 2020, 3pm

September 19, 2020

I tend not to visit stadiums more than once these days. It’s a combination of wanting to see somewhere new and of wanting to add to the number of grounds where I’ve attended a game. This weekend was an international weekend though and so my options were more limited than usual. So limited in fact that the only game in town looked to be at the Luzhniki Sports Camp where I’d watched Chertanovo drop three points at home to Alaniya six days previously.

However, even if I couldn’t tick off a new ground I still thought watching live football would be better than lazing around in my flat. To try and avoid it feeling like a repeat visit I booked myself a ticket on the other side of the ground. This meant that I’d be watching from the padded seats in the centre section of the main stand rather than standing in front of a seat that required me to view the game through two fences. My posher seat in Sector A2 cost me three hundred and thirty rubles which is three pounds thirty. Even at the higher price it struck me as being much better value than last week’s two hundred and twenty ruble ticket.

I also decided that I’d walk to the stadium along a different route, so rather than just heading out from my flat and following a reasonably direct route I took a taxi to the Kremlin with the intention of tracking the river all the way to the ground.

Red Square had fewer tourists than last time I’d been there. Most people were taking selfies with the historic buildings in the background, a just married couple were posing for wedding photos in front of the Borovitskaya Tower and a small queue had formed for those wanting to pay their respects in the Lenin Mausoleum.

I knew that if I made my way through the square past St Basil’s Cathedral I’d reach the river in another two or three hundred yards. All I had to do then was turn right, keep the river on my left and I’d eventually reach the Luzhniki Sports Camp.

Anyone who has read this blog before will know that such plans invariably don’t go as smoothly as I’d hope, but on this occasion it worked perfectly. I didn’t even have to check my location on my phone. I passed the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with its golden onion bulb topped towers and the impressive Ministry of Defence building. On the other side of the river was a big statue of some seafaring fella.

The river water didn’t look particularly clear, but as there was the odd duck bobbing about it couldn’t have been too bad. It must have been good enough for fish to survive as there were a few fishermen trying their luck. I didn’t notice anyone catch anything but at one point I paused to watch a fella try to haul in what turned out to be a log that he’d snagged. I don’t think he appreciated the audience.

The river was busy with cruise trips, some of which didn’t have music blaring out, and so maybe at some point I’ll try one myself. The one downside of the walk was having to keep an eye out for electric scooters. They are easily and cheaply hired in Moscow and whilst there are walking and cycling lanes marked on the riverside path, the scooters would appear suddenly weaving from lane to lane.

The walk was definitely a city walk, with a busy road alongside me all the way to Luzhniki. Across the river I could see Gorky Park and if I end up paying a third visit to the Sports Camp I think I’ll walk along the opposite bank for the quieter surroundings.

I arrived at the Sports Camp two hours after setting off from the Kremlin and with a few minutes to spare to kick-off. Unfortunately, admission was via a gate on the opposite side of the ground and so I had to backtrack through the park, eventually reaching my back-row seat a minute after the game got underway. My late arrival inconvenienced the bloke at the end of my row who was videoing the match, presumably in some sort of official capacity. He had to move the tripod to let me by and so anything of note that happened in the second minute of the game will escape analysis.

My vantage point was much better than the previous week and my padded chair also had armrests. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t recline or have an automated cigar lighter. The seats around me were only partially occupied with at least every second one taped to signify that it wasn’t to be used although clusters of people, presumably from the same household, were sat together. I took advantage of a break in play for an injury and counted the fans in the opposite side of the ground. I made it ninety-four depending upon whether I’d correctly identified anyone stewarding. There were approximately six hundred seats in that side of the ground so that’s reasonable distancing in theory.

The fans on the far side included two singing clusters, both supporting Chertanovo and both tending to limit their repertoire to repeated renditions of “Shirta, Shirta”. Over on my side, to my left were ten or so away fans who didn’t really pipe up until the second half when we were treated to a snarly sort of chant loosely based on the tune to Yellow Submarine. Ringo sang it so much better.

Tekstilshchik, in red and black stripes, had the better chances in the first half including a free-kick from around thirty yards that was tipped over the bar by the home goalie with the top-knot. As with last week, there was a player booked for diving, although for what it’s worth I’d have given the pen. Diving in the box must be this season’s clampdown issue.

It was goalless at half-time and whilst I was tempted to wander around to the burger van on the other side of the stadium, I thought I’d disrupted video guy enough already. Three minutes after the restart the visitors took the lead.  Their tall striker with the beard did well to keep the ball in and pulled it back for someone else to stab it home from a yard out.

Beardy bloke might well have been the best player on the pitch. If he wasn’t he certainly believed that he was. In the latter stages of the game he formed a strike partnership of Ravanelli and Beck proportions with one of the subs. Beardy was quick to throw his hands up if the sub didn’t try to set him up or misplaced his pass whilst for his part the sub seemed to be constantly seeking the approval of his hirsute team mate. It was in vain as Beardy withheld his appreciation and avoided eye contact whenever the sub did anything that might be considered praiseworthy.

Despite their efforts Tekstilshchik failed to add to the earlier strike and Chertanovo were no more effective. The contest petered out with just the single away goal to separate the teams.

Chertanovo Moscow v Alaniya, Sunday 30th August 2020, 3pm

September 3, 2020

After a few months of there being no football or of me having little interest in attending it’s starting to get back towards normal. Normal in that I’ve been checking the fixtures and working out what games it might be possible for me to get to. In addition to the language barrier and ever-present frustration caused by a lack of clarity on the actual venue for the fixture, the restrictions related to the coronavirus have reduced capacities and, it appears, made advance ticket purchases a necessity.

Chertanovo has one of the better websites and it explained in English that whilst they hadn’t previously charged an admission fee for their second-tier Russian National League matches, the requirements for social distancing had resulted in them making games ticket only and as the tickets were issued through an agency, they would have to be paid for. Fair enough I thought and with a lot less palaver than I’d had with the CSKA tickets a week earlier I bought and printed a two-hundred and twenty-ruble ticket for section B7, the only section available.

The venue for the game was the Luzhniki Sports Complex. It’s the park where the 1980 Olympic Stadium is located, although I understand that the stadium had been re-built since then and no longer features a running track. If Seb Coe had attended Chelsea’s Champions League Final defeat against Man United and tried to imagine himself powering down the home straight he’d have had to ignore the rows of seating that presumably cover where the track had been.

On checking how to get to the game I discovered that Luzhniki is only around six miles from my flat and so that made it within walking distance. I prefer to get around on foot if I can as you see a lot more that way. On setting off the first part of the route was easy to follow as I’d done it before on a visit to the Darwin Museum earlier in the year. The main attraction of that museum is bad taxidermy and if that is one of your niche interests then I can recommend a visit.

Further along the route took me through a park that has a small football ground in that I noted for future games and a large chess board that nobody had much interest in. Russia has seemed to dominate the chess world for as long as I’ve been aware of the game and so I’d have though that it would have been a popular attraction. Maybe Covid has caused it to be moth-balled for a while.

As I neared the river that provides a boundary to the complex the path took me through some woods. I spotted a well-worn, but un-marked path that looked like a short-cut. As invariably happens it didn’t work out exactly as I’d planned with the trail petering out and me having to scramble down a steep and muddy embankment, grabbing on to tree trunks and branches to stop me going arse over tit.

Once at the bottom I re-joined the tracks that I should never have left and crossed the river by way of a walkway attached to the outside of the metro line. The river was busy with tour boats, one of them holding some sort of boom-boom-boom party where all the attendees were dancing in a huddle and waving their arms in the air. The noise was so loud that, if they were so inclined, the passengers on any of the other boats within a couple of hundred yards could have partied along as well.

Once over the river I was soon inside the complex. It had taken me a little longer than I’d anticipated but there were still twenty minutes to kick-off. I checked a map of the area and realized that in addition to the main stadium there was also a North Sports Centre, a South Sports Centre, a Palace of Sports and a Sports Camp. I doubted that the game would be in the main Olympic Stadium as the website had mentioned an overall capacity for the venue as being around eighteen hundred seats and so I asked a security guard if he could match the venue information on my ticket with the map of the park.

As expected he had little idea, but was at least able to orientate our position with the map and send me off in the direction of the South Sports Centre. Five minutes later I was able to rule that location out and I passed the main stadium on my way to the next option of the North Sports Centre.

There was nothing doing at the North Sports Centre where I was joined by a woman and her small son who were also hoping to attend the game. We spoke little of each other’s languages, but I was able to communicate that I’d already checked the South Centre and so together we headed for the next stop, the Palace of Sport.

Once again we drew a blank, but as we passed the kick-off time of 3pm we heard drumming and shouting. We followed the noise to the Sports Camp where it was clear that a game had started. Unfortunately, the six minute delay in getting in turned into one of twenty minutes as there was no way through a perimeter fence and we had to detour out of the park to the entrance gate.

Getting through the gate followed a similar pattern to last week’s game. My ticket was scanned and I passed though a metal detector. I was instructed to put on my gloves and, in an extra precaution, I had my temperature taken. I often get my temperature taken at work and it is usually indicative, at best, of hypothermia setting in, or at worst of me having been dead for an hour. I wasn’t overly worried therefore that the exertion of getting to the ground might have warmed me up to the extent that I’d be considered a Covid risk. Sure enough, I was fine.

It was another couple of minutes from the gate to reach the ground and I was directed to my right, along a series of small five row stands on the side of the ground opposite the tunnel. To my left was a single stand for home supporters that housed the drum that had guided me in. I should have thanked the fella really.

My section was at the end of the row, beyond the goal line and with the need to peer through two fences if I wanted to see the near goalmouth. What do you expect for two quid? It was also the away section, with every block bar that first one allocated to the Alaniya supporters. I’d guess that around a third of the 1800 seats had been sold with the away allocation extending to a large section of the main stand too.

Whilst Chertanovo were in all blue and Alaniya in all white, most of the visiting fans were togged out in what I assumed to be their team’s home kit, a Melchester Rovers inspired red and yellow striped effort.

My delayed arrival had caused me to miss the opening goal, a penalty from Alaniya, or as their fans stretched it out in their chants “Al-Are-Knee-Arrgh”. A second followed soon enough though, a daisy cutter from Butaev that passed through a crowd of players and left the home goalie leaden footed.

Alaniya thought they were due a second penalty just before half-time but despite (from around a hundred and fifty yards away) it looking nailed on to me, the ref instead booked the striker. I wondered if he had had his doubts about his first award and was trying to make amends.

In the second half a different away striker received a booking for diving in the box. On this one I had no idea as to whether it was a penalty or not, the obscuring of my view by two fences meant that I wasn’t really in a position to decide. It seemed clear though that Alaniya wouldn’t be getting a second penalty unless limbs were severed.

The lack of spot-kicks stopped being an issue when the visitors extended their lead with a clever passing move that drew the keeper and enabled Malogan to tap into an empty net in the way that you would do in a five-a-side game.

In the closing stages it just seemed a question of how many more the visitors would extend their lead by. Gurtsiev shrugged off the last defender and in a one-on-one looked certain to make it four only for the home goalie who sported the sort of top-knot that should only be seen in a Sumo-ring to deflect it around the post.

In an even worse miss, Khabalov must have beaten three or four defenders, some of them twice, all in order to give Malogan an even easier tap-in from a yard out. The poor bloke waved a leg at it and missed the ball completely bringing laughter from the fans around me. I suppose you can do that when the game is won.

CSKA Moscow v Rubin Kazan, Saturday 22nd August 2020, 8pm

August 29, 2020

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It’s not often that I go five months without getting to a game of football, but I suppose these aren’t typical times. The Russian football league continued for a further week after I’d attended a Spartak Moscow match in March, but even within that week the Covid situation had worsened and I’d cautiously stayed away from crowds.

Lock down in Moscow was taken seriously and in the three months that I worked remotely from my apartment the only time I was allowed to leave was for shopping trips to my nearest supermarket. It’s only fifty metres away and as I tried to minimize contact with others by limiting visits to twice a week, it did little to break the monotony.

Fortunately that supermarket was well-stocked and with little evidence of panic buying I was never in danger of having to wipe my arse with the curtains. Even so, there’s a much bigger supermarket a mile or so away that I’d have much preferred to shop at. They’ve got live carp at their fish counter which makes the outing much more interesting. I know eating carp is a big thing in eastern Europe but it still baffles me that they don’t go for trout instead. I ate carp in Kazakhstan a few years ago and it was ok, although the sauce it was served in masked any hint of the muddy taste that it’s renowned for. Maybe a week or so cleansing in a supermarket tank makes all the difference.

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Whilst lock down in Moscow is now over, there are still some lingering restrictions. It’s compulsory to wear masks and gloves in shops and on public transport and whilst almost all bars and restaurants have reopened again, most of them seem to be serving people outside at hastily constructed patio areas. Let’s see how that works out for them in December when it’s minus twenty.

Attendance at football has been adversely affected too. I can’t work out what the rules are but clubs are only allowed a small number of fans at each game. I’d assumed that the reduced capacities would limit attendance to those with season tickets and so hadn’t really been looking at opportunities for getting to a game. Old habits die hard though and when looking at the CSKA website the night before their Premier League fixture with Rubin Kazan I noticed that they were selling tickets. I was surprised that anything was available so close to the game as I’d have thought that CSKA would have had more than enough fans to sell out the limited capacity with or without a general sale.

That section of the website was Russian language only, but with the help of Google Translate I was able to navigate my way through to the final stage of purchasing a ticket only to be thwarted by what I later concluded to be a delay in processing my registration.

I had another go the next morning and this time it worked well. The spacing requirements meant that they were only selling every seventh seat and then only in alternate rows. That’s ideal for someone as anti-social as me and something that I’d be happy to see remain should the virus make itself scarce. I bought a ticket for five hundred rubles in the upper tier of the main stand. That works out at five quid which is slightly less than I’d pay for a ninth tier Northern League game back home. It is also, at the equivalent of two pints or so, exactly the amount that I think going to the match should cost.

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On Saturday evening I took a taxi to VEB Stadium. I could have used the subway, but I thought that a car journey where both the driver and I wore masks would be safer. He dropped me off outside the ground and as there was still an hour and a half to kick-off I had a wander around in the adjacent Berezovaya Roshcha park.

It was a pleasant enough place for a stroll, with some quiet trails through the trees and a couple of restaurants that in different circumstances would have been ideal for a pre- or post-match drink. A few supporters were making their way towards the stadium, many of them pre-gaming with a can or bottle of beer. There were also a few small groups of policemen, dressed as if they were expecting a riot. They had little interest in the fans with a beer, so I concluded that drinking a beer in a park wasn’t seen as sufficiently riotous to warrant intervention.

I headed inside with plenty of time to spare. First up was a check of the ticket and a reminder to put on my mask. I’d brought gloves with me but as disposable ones were being handed out I took a pair of theirs.

Once I’d passed through that first check point I didn’t see anyone wearing gloves and so they must have been discarded at the first bin. I then had to pass through a metal detector and undergo a frisking, before finally reaching the section 507 turnstile where my ticket was scanned and I was allowed to climb the stairs to the upper tier.

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The thirty-thousand capacity ground looked in good nick, not surprisingly really as it was only built four years ago. There’s a great big tower in one corner that resembles the UEFA cup, perhaps in tribute to CSKA’s win in 2005. In the final they had beaten Sporting Lisbon, the side that had knocked the Boro out earlier in the competition.

As all the food and drink kiosks were closed free bottles of water had been set out on tables. That was a very welcome gesture particularly after the four flights of stairs to the upper tier.

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When the teams were announced, visiting manager Leonid Slutskiy got a good reception from the home fans. It was well-deserved considering that he’d delivered a few trophies during his past seven-year stint in charge of CSKA. I doubt he’d be as warmly received at Hull if he ever went back there.

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The crowd spacing wasn’t quite as I’d imagined it from the ticket booking website, but there was still plenty of room in a crowd that I’d estimate to be around six thousand. I wore my mask throughout although not many others did. A significant number of people had removed their masks altogether, whilst most others chose to cover only their neck or chin. A young steward spent the game venturing into the crowd to ask that the masks be worn correctly but most people that she spoke to complied only for a few minutes before letting it slip down their face again. She put the effort in but as the evening wore on it increasingly resembled a game of Whac-A-Mole.

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The exception to the spacing was behind the goal at the opposite end, where the more hardcore fans largely abandoned social distancing, preferring to huddle together and protect themselves from the virus by removing their shirts instead.

CKSA were in a sort of sub-Barca kit with Kazan in green. I was pleased to see the visiting keeper in an all-black kit. It’s what I expect from a Russian goalie. That and a mullet. He spoiled the effect somewhat with orange gloves and boots, but they seem to be the fashion as at one point eleven of the players on the field were sporting orange footwear.

Both sides struggled to create anything in the first half. Most of the best opportunities came down the CSKA right when their wing back managed to get balls into the box. Ten minutes before the break Kazan midfielder Bakaev somehow found himself one on one with the home goalie and calmly stroked it past him for the opener. The lead didn’t last for long though as a couple of minutes later the ball fell to CSKA’s Vlasic on the edge of the box. The former Everton player volleyed it goalwards with the bounce taking it over the keeper’s arms.

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In the second half there were a few decent chances for both sides. CSKA looked to have won it in the final minutes only to be denied by a Monty-esque double save from the Kazan goalie. The failure to take that chance proved costly as in added time Kazan broke and substitute Makarov pinged the ball home from the edge of the box as casually as if he’d still been hitting the ball into an empty net at the half-time warm-up.

The home fans around me didn’t appear to be too disheartened at the late goal or the loss. Maybe, like me, they were just glad to be back.

Spartak Moscow v Krasnodar, Monday 9th March 2020, 4.30pm

April 20, 2020

Just before Christmas I accepted a job based in Moscow. I went out there for a short trip in December and then started properly after the Russian New Year in January. It had been a long time since I’d visited Moscow, thirty-three years in fact. On that occasion in 1986 I’d gone for a December weekend with a girl that I was trying to impress.

A lot had changed in that time. For a start, the GUM department store next to Red Square was selling Ferraris and Louis Vuitton handbags. The last time I’d been there it was all knock-off ‘Adidas’ tracksuits with just the two stripes.

Jen and I are living out in the suburbs for the simple reason that being able to walk to work beats using public transport or taxis every day. I can even pop home for my lunch. The Moscow winter was milder than I or any of my local colleagues had been expecting with occasional snow and sub-zero temperatures, but nothing like most previous years or the minus twenty-five that I’d encountered a few years ago in Kazakhstan.

Whilst the winter had been relatively mild, it still meant that there was no football. Up until relatively recently football in Russia was a summer game with matches taking place between March and November.  A few years back they changed things to align their season with most of the rest of Europe, but with the severe weather still preventing games from taking place between mid-December and March that time of year is now set aside for a winter break rather than the close season.

The winter break meant that for the first two months that we were here I just had to wait it out. I looked at the option of going to the Ice Hockey, but the 2019 season in that sport was drawing to a close and I thought I’d save that until next winter. Once the winter break was over I selected a Spartak Moscow game taking place on a public holiday as my introduction to the Russian Premier League.

Jen and I took the subway up to Spartak’s Otkrytiye Stadium just before lunch. It was easy enough, with just the one change of line as we travelled from a south western suburb to one at the north west of the city. The hour long journey cost us around forty pence each. There were a few people at the stadium when we arrived and also some local coppers keeping an eye on us.

I’d wanted to be there early so that we could sort tickets before the arrival of the match day crowd and we selected seats in the upper tier along the side for 1800 rubles a pop. At the current exchange rate of a very convenient one hundred rubles to the pound that’s around eighteen quid each.

With our tickets in hand we back tracked one stop on the Metro, also forty pence, had some lunch in the food court of a shopping mall next to the station and then went for a walk in a nearby park.  I discovered that Russian squirrels look a bit different to the ones in the UK. They are darker than the grey squirrels that we have and seem to be more in the shape of the red ones. They have bigger ears though. I only had my phone with me so the photo isn’t the best.

There wasn’t much else in the way of wildlife in the park, but we did stumble across a woman taking her cat for a walk. Or rather, she was doing the walking whilst the cat perched on her shoulder. When the time comes for the cat to ‘cross the rainbow bridge’ as pet deaths tend to be described these days, she should have the cat made into a stole and life, for her anyway, would be little different.

We headed back up to the Otkrytiye Stadium with plenty of time to spare. By now the area around the ground was a lot busier. There were more police than earlier and a few small concessions selling scarves or food and drink. Our tickets were for the far side so we did a lap of around three-quarters of the stadium before having our tickets scanned at the turnstile.

You might remember the Otkrytiye stadium from the last World Cup. It’s the ground where England played Columbia and went through on penalties. It was also the venue for the group game between Belgium and Tunisia that Paul and I had watched in a Fan Park in Saint Petersburg.

Once inside we noticed a tribute to Igor Netto. He was a former captain of Spartak and the Soviet Union, playing for the former for seventeen years. Netto had also found time to turn out for the Spartak ice hockey team too. He died around twenty years ago, but the display celebrated what would have been his ninetieth birthday.

We took our seats high along the side facing the tunnel and what looked to be an almost entire stand of media facilities and hospitality. I suppose with the stadium having been built shortly before the 2018 World Cup, there was always going to be plenty of provision for that sort of thing within the forty-four thousand capacity.  There are a lot of rich people in Moscow, but there didn’t seem to be much of a take up of the two hundred quid ‘Platinum’ seats opposite.

Before kick-off there was a further tribute to Mr. Netto with a huge banner to our right and his son and, I think, great grandson coming onto the pitch. I like sentimentality in football, I think it is has just as much a place in the game as winning trophies does.  Although as a Boro fan, you’d probably expect me to say that.

Once the home fans had put away their Netto display, they got out their normal match day flags and banners. There must have been around thirty flags, all waved non-stop throughout the game and accompanied by constant singing.

In the corner to our left were a couple of hundred Krasnodar fans. It’s probable that some of them will have been living in Moscow, but for those that had travelled from their home town, it was around sixteen hours drive each way.

Krasnodar were in black and third from top whilst Spartak were somewhere in mid-table. On the plus side though, they were wearing shirts that weren’t too far off being classic Boro tops. I may have just found my Moscow team.

There weren’t many chances in the first half for either side. Spartak had some decent build up play but weren’t clinical enough whenever they made it into the box.

At half time I went down for a tea and a hot dog. The beer of choice was Budweiser, but the American version rather than that from the Czech Republic. That made it easy to pass on it even before I noticed that it was zero percent alcohol, although I’m not sure it would have tasted a lot different from their regular version.

In the second half, the visitors missed a couple of sitters before a slick passing move twenty minutes from time gave them a man over and they drew the foul for a penalty. Ari converted to give them the lead. The goal opened the game up and a second for Krasnodar looked likely. It still hadn’t materialised by the time we decided to leg it with five minutes to go to avoid the subway crush and that’s the way it stayed.

The game took place straight after the weekend when most teams in England played their final game for a while. There was one more round of fixtures over here, which I kept away from, before all Russian football was shut down until further notice.

Middlesbrough v Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday 5th January 2020, 2pm

April 13, 2020

I went to this one with my grandson Harry who hadn’t been very impressed with the Northern League game we’d gone to on Boxing Day at Stockton Town. I think a lot of his disappointment had been due to him thinking that we’d actually been going to the Boro and so I thought I’d make it up to him with our first visit of the season to the Riverside.

I took him last year over Christmas and whilst he didn’t seem disheartened by an hour and a half of Pulisball and a defeat, I’d had no real desire to go back since then. It’s strange the way that something that was once so important can become so much less so.

Maybe the pricing is part of it. If this had been a Championship game it would have been fifty quid for the two of us. With it being a cup game it was a much more reasonable twenty quid for me and a tenner for Harry. The kick-off was scheduled for 2.01pm, to allow for the showing of a mental health video before kick-off. Whilst it’s a very worthy cause, everyone’s eyes were drawn instead to one of the mascots, the two year old son of Robbie Keane who dribbled from the halfway line, finished with a flourish and then stood glaring at the ball which was resting at the back of the net.

Last season we’d gone in the South Stand where Harry had to stand on his seat to see. This time we had seats in the West Stand Lower just in front of the disabled section. Boro were on a roll with four wins on the trot and I thought that we played very well, considering the number of young players we had and the strength of the opposition.

It was nice to see the two loanees from Man City get a go and nicer still that the business had been done right at the beginning of the transfer window rather than in desperation with an hour to the deadline remaining. We had a good view for Ashley Fletcher’s goal and were close enough to the dugouts to witness the rare sight of Mourinho in a good mood, joking with the Boro staff.

Harry enjoyed himself, which was the main thing, and his Mam reported later that he was singing Boro songs in the shower before bed. Hopefully it wasn’t the one about us being dynamite. I’ll have to take him to see his team more often.

Scarborough Athletic v Staleybridge Celtic, Saturday 4th January 2020, 3pm

April 10, 2020

Jen and I had bought a chair off eBay that needed picking up from Scarborough. It’s a place where we’ve visited and holidayed at and even though it’s mid-winter we decided to stop over for a change of scenery. We’d stayed nearby the summer before last and had enjoyed the donkey rides with the grandkids and a bit of sword fighting at the castle.

We needed different activities this time though as the donkey man takes the winter off and Jen and I had forgotten to bring our swords. That meant the next best option was nipping along to the Flamingoland stadium to watch Scarborough Athletic’s seventh tier Northern Premier fixture with Staleybridge Celtic instead.

I arrived at the ground with a few minutes to go to kick-off and realised that I had no cash in my wallet. I couldn’t find out from anyone in the queue if I could pay with a card and so had to retrace my steps back towards the town centre to find a cash point. I missed the first quarter of an hour and after paying my twelve quid admission I was relieved to find that there was still no score.

Flush with cash again I got myself a bacon sandwich and a coffee and watched from the corner near to the turnstiles for a while. Once I’d finished scoffing I passed by the small covered terrace behind the goal that contained some of the travelling support.  One of the away fans was quizzing the home keeper as to what his go to karaoke choice was. I’m not sure if this was intended to be banter or abuse but it was more like two fellas simply passing the time of day whilst the ball was elsewhere.

For the remainder of the first half I took a seat in the centre section of the stand opposite the tunnel. Over on the tunnel side there was a main stand that I think was entirely hospitality. It was the place that I’d first tried to get in there by mistake without realising what it was. Perhaps they would have taken my card after all.

Celtic opened the scoring towards the end of the half. The fans around me thought that it was a bit fortunate. I’d say, scrappy. It looked to have taken a lucky bounce off a defender and the finish seemed scuffed, but they all count.  It inspired a chant of “Come on Burra” and so I felt at home for a while.

In the second half I moved around a bit, which is one of the benefits of lower league games. If the Celtic goal could have been considered a touch spawny, there was nothing attributable to good luck in Scarborough’s equaliser, with a well hit shot from the edge of the box giving the visiting keeper no chance.

With the floodlights on Athletic pushed for the winner. They should probably have taken the points with at least three decent chances going begging. Overall though, a draw felt like a fair result and the game made up for the lack of donkeys at the beach.

Blyth Spartans v Gateshead, Wednesday 1st January 2020, 3pm

March 24, 2020

Another New Year and another new ground, number sixteen of the season and my three hundred and fortieth in total. It was Croft Park that provided the venue for my footballing ‘first footing’ with Blyth Spartans taking on Gateshead in the sixth tier National League North.

Spartans were beginning 2020 in the relegation area whilst visitors Gateshead, who had been demoted last season for financial issues, were in mid-table.

It was twelve quid to get in, which is twice what I’d pay in the Northern League. However, the National League North is three divisions higher in the pyramid, making it a two quid per division increase. If the pricing continued up the leagues like that then it would make Boro tickets twenty quid a pop. Dream on.

I got a chip butty before kick-off but it wasn’t the best. It would have benefitted from a better quality bun and fewer chips, so that it could be eaten with the chips inside the bun rather than having to eat them first and throw away most of the stale and crumbling bread.

Croft Park has a main seated and covered stand down one side, with three covered terraces along the other three. I started off in the terrace along the side, but soon moved around to behind a goal. The Gateshead fans were in the other end, but I don’t think they had the whole stand. Spartans were in green and white stripes with Gateshead in some sort of Burnley knock-off kit.

One of my reasons for picking this game is that both sides were fielding an on-loan Boro keeper. Gateshead has a bit of a history for doing this as the current Boro keeper Aynsley Pears spent last season in goal for them. This year we had lent them twenty year old Brad James.

Blyth had recently been given Zach Hemming from the age group below. He’d had a spell at Hartlepool but hadn’t played. I think sending out the young keepers is a great idea, as long as they play. They’ll still train part of the week at the Boro, but they will get a physical battle each Saturday with players who depend upon win bonuses and they will play in front of crowds that care passionately about performance and results.

Gateshead took the lead in the first half with a penalty that incensed the Spartans fans near me. The ref had already been getting plenty of stick but pointing to the spot escalated the abuse a few levels. Shouts of ‘wanker’, ‘prick’ and ‘bellend’ were directed at him from just a few yards away, before the same spectators then appealed to him to give a subsequent decision their way. I’d have given them nothing all afternoon if someone had yelled at me in that way. There’s a difference between caring passionately and abusing someone in a manner that if you did it anywhere else in public you would be arrested.

The Blyth fans soon turned on their own players too. I can’t see how people think that’s a good idea either. I rarely perform at my best at work if I’m told that I’m shit at my job and I’m sure it’s the same for footballers too.

A further goal for Gateshead in the second half was enough to provoke chants of ‘sack the board’ from the home fans. Fortunes changed though when two penalties for Spartans in quick succession brought the scores level at two each. The ref was a little more popular with those decisions. Oddly, each of those goals was also followed by chants of ‘sack the board’ from the home fans, so maybe it is some sort of local custom.

Gateshead was then awarded the fourth penalty of the match, which Blyth and Boro keeper Zach Hemming saved. The home joy was short-lived though when the visitors took a three-two lead at the death. The Gateshead players were taunting their opponents and I wondered if it had its history in the reverse fixture played  just six days earlier, on Boxing Day, when  Blyth had scored a late goal to earn a three-two away win of their own.

The game still wasn’t over though and with keeper Hemming up for a corner, Spartans equalised in the third minute of added time. Best match I’ve seen all year.

Berwick Rangers v Caledonian Braves, Saturday 28th December 2019, 3pm

March 15, 2020

Jen and I needed to nip up to Edinburgh to put in a visa application and whilst we could have stayed there, or I suppose, driven straight back, we decided to draw out our journey back to Teesside with a night in Dunbar and another in Berwick.

We didn’t see much of Dunbar on the evening that we arrived, spending the time sampling Belhaven’s products in the bar of our hotel, but next morning we took a hike along the John Muir Way to Barns Ness Lighthouse and back. The route followed the coast and skirted a golf course for a lot of the way. There wasn’t much in the way of wildlife, apart from a goose with a damaged wing, but it was great to be out in the fresh air for a few hours.

It was a short drive from Dunbar to Berwick and after dropping off Jen and the car at our guest house I had a wander up to Shielfield Park for Berwick Rangers’ game with Caledonian Braves. Whilst a year ago I’d have been watching the only English team in the Scottish League, this year I would be watching the only English team in the fifth tier Scottish Lowland League after Berwick’s relegation last season.

Shielfield Park dates back to 1954, when Berwick shifted from their previous stadium on the adjacent land. It is also home to the Berwick Bandits speedway team which makes for a somewhat distant view of the pitch. At least there wasn’t a fence obscuring the view.

After paying a tenner to get in and another pound for a raffle ticket, I got myself a cup of tea and found a spot in the main stand that I think had been bought second hand from Bradford. With the stanchions it wasn’t possible to get an un-obscured view but I managed to find a seat that allowed me to see both goalmouths.

On the other side of the pitch was covered terracing and to my right a small enclosure about the size of a bus stop for travelling fans. There was also a club shop that was selling what I overheard one fan describe as the relegation shirt.

At 2.59 the teams ran on to the pitch. There was none of the pre-match handshaking and they went straight to their positions. The toss took place and within ten seconds of the ref confirming that the players didn’t need to switch ends the game had started. Brilliant. If I’m ever sentenced to be hanged I want the Scottish FA and this ref to officiate. I reckon I’d go from swigging a final diet coke in my cell to being cut down from the gallows before I’d had time to put the top back on my drink. The ref further enhanced his reputation during the afternoon, in my eyes anyway, by booking at least three players for booting the ball away after he’d blown for a foul.

One of the home players went down injured early on prompting the fella behind me to speculate that it might have been with a dislocated shoulder. He related that on noticing previously that the player in question hadn’t been seen for a couple of weeks, either on the pitch or in the Red Lion, he’d phoned him at home to be told from the horse’s mouth about his poorly shoulder.

The teams were wearing the same colours as I’d seen in last week’s game between West Auckland and Penrith, namely yellow and black for Berwick and red for Caledonian Braves. These players looked a bit fuller in figure than their Northern League counterparts but I suppose with one game taking place four days before Christmas and the other three days after then perhaps there’s a good reason for that.

Berwick took the lead ten minutes before half-time when Osei broke down the left and shot powerfully enough for it to squeeze under the visiting keeper. The scorer was from Swaziland, although Berwick had picked him up after he had been released by Raith Rovers, rather than having scouted him themselves playing for Langley Zebras.

At half time I joined the queue at the food place. They’d sold out of pies and burgers before the game having only put on a limited supply due to expectations of a low crowd. They had some soup though, Christmas soup apparently, made of turkey and vegetables put through a blender. It was very nice, athough I did wonder if it had just been made from the scrapings from people’s plates.

There only seemed to be two ball boys and they stood together behind one of the goals. They’d been criticised in the first half by people in the crowd for spending their time looking at their phones. Second half they had found a football and were equally criticised for booting it around. The paused their private game however when a subbed player went past them on his long trek around the pitch perimeter and then got their phones out again to have him pose for a selfie.

There were a few chances at either end but nobody took them and the final whistle blew to a collective cheer from the home fans for the one goal win.

Stockton Town v Thornaby, Thursday 26th December 2019, 11am

March 12, 2020

I always think of Boxing Day as a day for going to the match. It used to be with the Boro but I’ve drifted away over recent years and for this year’s festive football I thought I’d go along to watch Stockton Town at their Sixth Form ground.

I went to Stockton Sixth Form back in the early eighties but it wasn’t a great success. I had no real interest in learning and spent most of my time there recovering from nights out at Bentleys and Gaskins or skipping lessons for fictitious dental appointments. By the time they booted me out I should have had better teeth than Steve McClaren.

One thing I did turn up for in my time there were football matches. I was the keeper for the B team, with the occasional first team call up when their keeper had a genuine dental appointment. We played on the same pitch as Stockton Town do now, in a way.  You have to ignore that the pitch has been rotated ninety degrees and the grass replaced with an artificial surface. If you can put that to one side, you’d never notice the difference.

For this Northern League Division One game with Thornaby I took my grandson Harry. I paid seven quid for me and a pound for him. That’s a big difference from the Boro where it would have been thirty two pounds for me and seventeen for him for us to stand behind the goal. That’s near enough fifty quid and so it’s no wonder I rarely go anymore.

And as if to show the benefits of getting kids through the turnstiles we then spent another twenty quid or more on a golden goal ticket, programme, scarf, burger, hot dog, two hot chocolates and a coffee. The coffee was for me.

We were there quite early and so able to get a couple of the unreserved seats in the small stand along the side. There was also a shed type stand to our left populated mainly by blokes in santa hats. With the crowd exceeding a thousand, we did well to get a seat.

This will probably be the last season that the Northern League will see of Stockton Town as they are clear at the top of the table and with three teams going up they are more than likely to be playing in the Northern Premier League Division One North-West when August comes around.

That will be quite a rise for Stockton as it’s only about three years since they were in the Wearside League. In fact it’s only about ten years since they started a men’s team. They were playing as Hartburn Juniors up until then. I discovered all this reading the programme and also learned that they were founded by Derrick Small, one of my former bosses at Capper Pipes back in the day. Well done Derrick.

Sadly for the visitors, Thornaby might be two divisions apart by then with them kicking off this game in the third from bottom spot. Stockton were in yellow and blue with Thornaby in orange.

Not a lot happened in the first half and Harry, having been told by me that there might well be five or six goals, declared it a boring game. He also confided to me that he’d thought we were going to the Boro match. The fella next to me attributed the lack of goals to Thornaby being up for it and Stockton having enjoying their Christmas lunch too much.

In the second half Stockton stepped up the pressure but struggled to make the breakthrough. Our main interest as the game went on was the golden goal ticket that had a time of seventy five minutes and which we’d agreed to split the fifty quid prize. We hadn’t checked the exact time that the game had restarted but with around a quarter of an hour to go a Stockton player curled one into the corner of the net through a crowded box. We waited for an announcement of the goal time but there wasn’t one. I’ve a vague recollection of reading somewhere that local residents objected and so no announcements are made.

The goal was enough to secure the three points and the three points were enough to consolidate Stockton’s place at the top of the table. When it became apparent that there would be no goal time announcement we made an early dart, pretty much as I done throughout my brief stay at the college all those years ago. A later check online revealed the time of the goal to be seventy-eight minutes.

West Auckland v Penrith, Saturday 21st December 2019, 3pm

March 9, 2020

I’d recently watched Bishop Auckland and reflected on how, despite being a non-league club, they were famous enough for me to have had them as a Subbuteo team when I was a kid. Their near neighbours, West Auckland, haven’t too shabby a history themselves as it happens, winning the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy a couple of times early in the last century.

They were twice invited to a four team tournament in Italy beating a Torino XI in the final first time around and then Juventus when returning a couple of years later. I’ve heard the competition described as the ‘First World Cup’. It strikes me as something more like one of those four team pre-season tournaments that we see these days, but I suppose that is looking at it through modern day eyes.

I remember seeing the trophy in, I think, a working mens club in West Auckland back in the days when my mates and I were borrowing our parents cars in the evening and heading off to country pubs. I understand that it was stolen a few years later and a replica was commissioned.

Those days of playing Juventus seemed a long way off as I turned up at the Wanted Stadium and handed over my six pounds admission. The programme listed former Boro player Bruno Pilatos in the Penrith side. As far as I know he never made the first team (or just made the first team laugh) but I can remember watching him turning out at Synners for Boro reserves.

Bruno was listed as a right back in the programme notes, whereas I’d remembered him as a central midfielder. Regardless of whatever  he used to be, in this game he played as a left sided winger/midfielder. I’m not sure if he was new to the position, or to Penrith, but the other players seemed to be offering him a lot of positional advice and he rarely touched the ball in the opening quarter of an hour.

The hosts, in yellow and black opened the scoring after about twenty-five minutes when someone stooped low to direct a header past the Penrith keeper. A couple of minutes later a home striker broke through and tucked it across the goalie into the corner to make it two.

With ten minutes to go to half-time West Auckland scored their third with a shot from the edge of the box. I thought it was close enough to the keeper for him to have kept it out but perhaps he was unsighted.

At half time I got some chips that looked and tasted as if they may have been left over from West Auckland’s previous game. I got lucky with my other choice of a pork pie.  It was served hot and usually the only time I eat them anything other than cold is if I chance upon one fresh from the oven at Blackwell’s. I’d forgotten how good hot pork pies are and decided that if I were to make any resolutions, it would be to eat them hot more often.

West Auckland were kicking up the not insignificant slope in the second half but it didn’t prove to be any disadvantage as they increased their lead a few minutes after the restart whilst I was still burning my mouth on the pie.

Penrith managed to keep  West Auckland at bay until the eightieth minute when someone added a fifth with a header from a corner. A sixth followed shortly afterwards that might have been meant as a cross but drifted in via the keepers fingertips and the underside of the bar.

Six-nil seemed a fair result. Bring on Juventus.