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Al-Shabab v Al-Fayah, Thursday 9th March 2023, 8.30pm

March 21, 2023

There’s a couple of weeks to go before Ramadan starts and the decorations are already up in the hotel that I’m staying in. I’m curious as to whether there’s an acceptable date for putting up decorations and whether most people adhere to it. I’m also hoping to find out if some people feel Ramadany, in the way that some people in the UK feel more Christmassy than others.

The walk to the ground was busy with people, some going to the match, others just embracing the start of the weekend. Lots of families were picnicking outside of the park and their kids were running around in the way that small kids do. One of them was dragging a kite behind him. It had the shape and print of a bird of prey, hopefully an actual kite. When the kid got it airborne it caused one of the feral cats that lives in the area to freeze, unsure of whether it should pounce or was about to be pounced upon.

Al-Fayah were the team that I’d seen a month or so ago beating Al-Hilal here in some cup competition. I remembered them primarily because of their orange-clad fans. They hadn’t brought as many with them this time but those that did turn up kept up a constant racket, reminding me of a bunch of Hare Krishnas.

This game was in the league and of greater importance to Al-Shabab who were third in the table than Al-Fayah sitting in eighth place and with little to play for. Most eyes were on the first v second game in Jeddah between Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad and I suspect that many Al-Shabab fans would have hoped for a draw in that fixture. Some people may have stayed home to watch it as it looked like there were fewer than two thousand spectators in the ground.

Al-Shabab opened the scoring a quarter of an hour in and added two more before half-time. At that stage it looked like game over. A kid behind me attracted my attention by shouting “Inglesi, Inglesi” at me. I’m not sure how he’d worked out my nationality from the back of my head but he proudly told me that he was from Yemen, whilst his little mate was a Saudi. Whilst we were chatting Al-Fayah pulled one back with an own goal to go in at the break two down.

The visitors came out for the re-start all fired up and halved the deficit within minutes, setting up a nervy second half. With ten minutes to go attention turned to Jeddah where Al-Ittihad had gone a goal up against Ronaldo’s team. I could see the action on a telly in an executive box and was half expecting VAR to find a way to chalk it off. It stood though and with Al-Shabab managing to see out this game for a three-two win, it meant they had closed the gap to one of their title rivals.

Al-Hilal v Al Fateh, Monday 6th March 2023, 8.30pm

March 19, 2023

Al-Hilal hadn’t played a game at home for more than six weeks due to their involvement in Morocco in the World Club Championship, or whatever it’s called these days. This was swiftly followed by the latter stages of the Asian Champions League which were played on a tournament basis in Qatar. They did well in both competitions, going down to Real Madrid in the final of the first one and qualifying for the final in the second, which will take place at the back end of April.

Either the prolonged absence or the notable achievements, or more likely a combination of the two, meant that this was a much more popular occasion than usual. Tickets generally go on sale two days before the match and with routine sales of no more than  four thousand, I didn’t make it a priority. I got around to booking my seat the day before the game and by that time the main stand had sold out. I ended up buying a ticket in the smaller stand opposite, on the curve.

The ground is only around ten minute’s walk from where I’ve been staying and I decided to set off early and do a couple of laps of the adjoining park. Despite there being an hour and a half to go to kick-off, the streets were crowded and the queues were already forming at the gates. I cut my walk short and headed in with an hour still to go.

My section already had more people in it than it usually would. The stand opposite was filling up to and eventually had few empty seats. This was for a clash between the fifth and sixth placed teams in the league and whilst Al-Hilal had played three fewer games than all of their rivals, they had had an unlikely thirteen points to make up.

The attendance was eventually announced as just short of fourteen thousand, which is three and a half times busier than I’ve seen at their games so far. Sadly, it didn’t work out as planned with Al-Hilal starting off sloppily and focusing more on showboating than securing the points.

Al Fateh went in front late in the first half and clinched the points ten minutes from time, sparking a mass exodus and taking the attendance back to a more regular level. Al-Hilal notched a consolation in added time but when the final whistle went the homecoming heroes were loudly booed as they headed for the tunnel.

Lubbock Matadors v Irving, Saturday 25th June 2022, 7.30pm

July 2, 2022

After the week in Colorado, it was time to head south for another family celebration in a weeks’ time. Our first stopover was two nights in Lubbock, Texas. It was a six-hundred-mile drive and we managed it in around ten and a half hours. We stayed on a horse ranch on the outskirts of the city.

Lubbock was as hot as it had been in Nebraska, with the temperature beyond 100F. I was glad of the air-conditioning.

I didn’t really know very much about Lubbock, other than it’s the place where Buddy Holly was from. With that in mind we went along to the Buddy Holly Centre to look at some of the memorabilia. There was a house in the grounds of the museum that had belonged to one of the Crickets, Jerry Allison, and where he and Holly had written ‘That’ll Be The Day’.

Apparently, the reason that it is Allison’s house that was transported to the centre and not Holly’s is that the Holly family home been knocked down long before anyone thought of cashing in on it.

We also went to the City of Lubbock Cemetery to visit the grave. It was well signposted and easily found. Some people had left trinkets and glasses. There was even a Christmas tree bauble. I reflected on how strange it seems to me that Buddy Holly had actually played the Globe in Stockton. Twice, in fact, on the same day in his only tour of England in ’58.

He’d been to my town and now I’d been to his.

As we left the cemetery, we spotted a prairie dog on sentry duty by its burrow. There were a few others just outside the gates. I stopped the car so that Jen could take some photos, clearly bemusing the driver behind us who may very well have seen prairie dogs on grass verges by the road every day of his life.

After exhausting the Buddy Holly options Jen and I went along to Lowery Field, home of the Lubbock Matadors football team. They had a home fixture against Irving in the Lone Star Conference of the Western Division of the National Premier Soccer League. Lowery Field is another stadium used predominantly by an American Football team, but utilised for soccer in the offseason. It has a capacity of 8,500.

I’d bought tickets online a few weeks in advance for ten dollars a pop plus taxes. As we showed the fella on the gate the tickets on my phone, he offered us a dog bib if we could show him a photo of our dog. We don’t have a dog but I had a recent photo of me with my brother-in-law’s dogs that earned us two extra small bibs. They might fit the shiatzu belonging to Jen’s sister.

We had seats on the forty yard line, directly above around twenty or so singing ultras. They made a racket with a megaphone throughout the game, supplemented by drums and two trumpets. The crowd was later announced as over four thousand, which seemed a little high to me. Maybe they count tickets given away whether the recipients turn up or not.

There wasn’t much action in the first half, but the game came to life in the second when Irving went a goal up. This sparked some aggression from both sides and the visitors were soon a man down. Lubbock equalized with twenty minutes to go and the game then petered out to a draw with the focus moving to settling scores and accumulating yellow cards rather than any real attacking intent.

Torch FC v Pennsylvania Classics, Sunday 5th June 2022, 6pm

June 7, 2022

After spending a couple of nights in a hut on top of a hill in Kempton Jen and I moved on to the nearby town of Buckingham. It’s another small place and less than sixty miles from Newark Airport where we’ll need to swap hire cars.

Jen had noticed that there was a heritage railway on the way and so we stopped to take a ride. The conductor was an friendly fella to chat to and despite having worked there since ’76, a relative new boy compared to some of the other volunteers. There was an old bloke sat near to us who spoke just like Paulie Walnuts. I made sure that I did nothing to upset him.

Buckingham has a nearby nature reserve and so we spent a couple of hours following some of the trails. I’d been hoping to stumble across bears and snakes like our last visit to the states, but the most we saw were squirrels and a heron. It was still a worthwhile wander about though and with plenty of tree cover we managed to spend most of our time in the shade.

One of the other advantages of Buckingham was that there was a fourth tier fixture scheduled for the evening of our arrival and as it was only twenty-minutes down the road we popped along. Torch FC were taking on Pennsylvania Classics in the Keystone Conference of the National Premier Soccer League. It’s a short competition with the eleven teams in the league playing each other just the once and all within a seven week period.

The game took place at Pennridge High School. There wasn’t a fixed price for admission but a suggested donation of ten dollars a head. Whilst it struck me as expensive for a fourth-tier game, we’d paid twice that for third-tier Richmond a few days earlier and so I coughed up. We were given a free programme which was a pleasant surprise.

Refreshments were better value with Jen getting a one dollar pretzel whilst I went big on a two dollar hot-dog.

I learned from the programme that Torch FC are a sort of Christian missionary project, a ministry through sport. Prior to the national anthem, which was sung by the club president from the commentary box, there was a prayer thanking God for providing a sunny day suitable for football. I’m sure there are plenty of football fans that will offer up a prayer during a game, more likely in respect of the result rather than the weather, but I’ve always thought that if there were any gods listening they’d have better things to do than get caught up in sporting events, particularly obscure ones.

Having said that, I’ve probably got better things to do most of the time than attending lower tier fixtures, so who’s to say that gods don’t have a similar mindset and are happy to prioritise prayers for minor leagues over major pandemics.

Once again, the pitch was cluttered with markings for a variety of sports in different colours. I reckon that six different activities took place on the pitch, including lacrosse. One benefit, I suppose, was that the ref was able to avoid pacing out ten yards at a free-kick and instead simply referred the players to the American Football one-yard markings to determine the placing of the wall.

Torch were in white with an orange trim, whilst Pennsylvania Classiscs were in a dark blue and teal kit. The players were all very polite, some of them referring to the ref as ‘sir’. We should adopt that in England.

Not a lot happened for most of the first half. Torch rattled a post a few minutes from the break before opening the scoring a couple of minutes into added time when the keeper flapped at a cross and someone tapped home from close range.

Torch doubled their lead on the hour before Classics notched a couple of goals to level the scores with fifteen minutes remaining. The points went Torch’s way though with a disputed late penalty that led to off the ball head-butting and a distinctly un-Christian reluctance from those involved to turn the other cheek.

Richmond Kickers v Chattanooga Red Wolves, Wednesday 1st June 2022, 6.30pm

June 6, 2022

After leaving Alabama we drove up to Richmond, the state capital of Virginia. It’s a fair distance between the two and the five hundred and sixty odd miles drive took the best part of nine hours.

We stayed in a quiet district, where a lot of the houses were more than a century old. That, as the janitor mentioned to me, is a big deal over here. I told him that St Mary’s church at Norton is around a thousand years old, but graciously highlighted that we rarely get hurricanes twirling their way across the Green.

There wasn’t a great deal that we wanted to do in Richmond, but we did call into a civil war museum that had some interesting exhibits. After our epic drive north, I was surprised to learn that Virginia fought with the South but as in England I suppose that your perception of where north changes to south depends on where you are from.

One of the reasons that I’d picked Richmond was that there was a football game scheduled for the time that we were there. Richmond Kickers were taking on Chattanooga Red Wolves in the third-tier USL League One.

The Kickers claim to be the longest continually existing football club in the US. I’ve no idea if that’s true or what qualifiers might apply to it, but a quick check suggests that their history goes back to the nineties rather than the seventies and what might be regarded as the golden era for US soccer.

It was $20 dollars to get in, although we could have paid less if we had booked in advance of the matchday. As the City Stadium was only a half-hour walk from where we were staying we were able to have a drink. Jen got wine in a can whilst I had a couple of pints of IPA. Unlike at the supermarket, we weren’t asked for ID. Presumably I look over twenty-one when outdoors.

Our general admission tickets entitled us to sit in the shade up against the back wall. I was pleased to see that it was a grass pitch with no markings other than those necessary for a proper football game. There were two main uncovered stands, but only one was open, restricting the potential capacity from around twenty-two thousand to nine thousand.

Pre-match announcements included a description of the ref as the ‘Head Referee’ and adverts for partners such as the Official Pest and Termite Control Affiliate. I wonder if the likes of Man United have one of those.

Kickers were in white with Red Wolves in red. I think the policy in this league might be that in the event of a clash, the home team is the one to switch kits. There were probably around four hundred people watching including a lively group with drummers and flares.

It was a fairly even contest until around ten minutes from half-time when Kickers went one up with a header from a corner. A couple of minutes later they repeated the move to double their lead. A curler from outside the box made it three before the break and effectively sealed the points.

At half-time I toured the food trucks and got us some pulled pork and tater tots, which are a sort of chicken nugget sized hash brown. I also had a different IPA from one of the stalls. There was certainly a much better choice of beers than I’m used to at the Boro.

Both teams had the odd chance in the second half but with Kickers happy to keep it tight and Red Wolves keen to avoid a hammering there were no more goals and it finished up three-nil.

Gateshead Rutherford v Killingworth, Monday 18th April 2022, 6.30pm

May 4, 2022

I suppose the only good thing about the Boro’s game against Huddersfield was that it was a lunchtime kick-off and that meant that I could head to a second Bank Holiday Monday fixture.

I had a couple of options, both in the Northern Alliance, and picked the nearest one which was at Gateshead Rutherford’s Farnacres ground. Rutherford were taking on league leaders Killingworth in the eleventh tier Premier Division.

Farnacres is just off the A1, before the Metro Centre. It’s up a country lane with parking outside of a fence where if you chose, you could watch the game from your car. It was a pleasant evening though and so I headed inside. I don’t think that there was anyone taking money, at least there wasn’t at the gate I used. Hopefully I hadn’t cheated them out of a couple of quid.

Rutherford were in a red and black kit with Killingworth in grey. A win for the visitors would be enough to clinch the title and of the eighty or so spectators who were lined up at the top of the embankment I’d estimate that around half were supporting the champions elect.

In addition to the people watching there were also a few dogs in attendance. I was stood near to an elderly beagle who had that faded appearance that comes with age. At half time when I went into the clubhouse for a chip butty, his eyes didn’t leave me until the empty polystyrene tray had been deposited in the bin.

There were also a few greyhounds, a couple of shih tzus, a spaniel and two French bulldogs. In fact, I missed the final goal of the evening as I was scratching one of the bulldogs on the head.

Rutherford had nothing to play for in this end of season game. Perhaps that explained why they only had the one sub available compared to Killingworth’s full bench. I was pleased to see the lad get on, even if only for the last ten minutes. It would have been soul-destroying to have been the only option for a change and still not receive the nod.

For a team with nothing at stake, Rutherford certainly put the effort in. They took an early lead and when pegged back in the second half soon got back in front. They conceded a second equaliser before nicking the winner with fifteen minutes to go. By that time, it was getting dark and I doubt that anyone was hoping for much added time. The defeat for Killingworth meant that their title celebrations would have to wait another week.

Middlesbrough v Hull City, Saturday 9th April 2022, 3pm

April 11, 2022

When Harry and I got the half-season cards I bought an additional seat thinking that he might want to bring a mate along every now and then. It was only twenty odd quid for the eleven games so if it got used twice it would pay for itself. Plus it has proved useful for cup game tickets.

My niece’s son, Alistair, is into football and whilst he’s often busy at a weekend he was available for the home game with Hull and so he tagged along.

Alistair is seven, although he informed me that it is only “fifty-six sleeps” until he is eight. He is a polite and friendly kid and a contender for the under-eight’s Parkour Champion of the World. He seemed incapable of just walking anywhere in a straight line. If there was a tree to climb, he was up it. Pillars and posts taller than him were summitted. He walked along railings and dodged in and out of bushes. He even slid down the handrails in the ground at the steps up to our seat. He’ll be leaping from one skyscraper to another before he’s ten.

He was fascinated with the group of Army cadets in the North Stand and adamant that every time a Boro player went down it should have been a red card for the opposition offender. He was also amazed by how far the keepers strayed from their goal lines when play was at the other end. I suspect that it’s always ‘stick-goalie’ when he has a kickaround with his mates. Besides, the further you move from the goal the harder it is to shin up the posts and swing from the cross-bar.

Harry and I had been confident of a win before kick-off, but it didn’t work out that way and it seemed a flat performance from early on. Tav did well filling in at wing-back but we missed his drive in midfield and with Isaiah Jones absent again we had nobody to perform that bit of magic needed to bail us out.

Joe Lumley should have kept their winner out and rightly got some stick from Chris Wilder. I’m starting to think that maybe it’s time for Sol Brynn to get his chance. In the two U23 games that I’ve seen him play in this season he looked confident and commanding. I don’t think we have much to lose by giving him a go.

Manchester United v Middlesbrough, Friday 4th February 2022, 8pm

February 9, 2022

When we were drawn against Man Utd in the Fourth Round of the Cup I initially thought that a televised Friday night slot and close to ten thousand tickets being available to Boro fans would make it easy for me to continue my run that stretches back to the Extra Preliminary Round back in August of having attended a game in each round of this season’s competition.

The fixture, however, caught the imagination on Teesside and it sold out long before sales reached recent season card holders like Harry and myself. Fortunately, my friend Paul saved the day with a couple of corporate hospitality tickets that he had going spare at work. Cheers, mate!

I picked Harry up when he finished school for the day and set off for a trip that on a good run would take no more than a couple of hours. With the match traffic and the usual M62 Friday tea-time congestion it ended up taking around three and a half hours. Parking spaces were non-existent and I had to leave the car in a spot where I probably shouldn’t have within our hotel car park. I’ll wait and see if the postman brings a penalty notice.

We followed the crowds to Old Trafford and reached the Sir Bobby Charlton Suite with ten minutes to spare. We had to pass through an airport-style scanner on the way in, although I’d have thought doing it on the way out to stop us nicking any silver cutlery might have been a better use of it.

The lounge was just about the right level of poshness with buffet food available and a couple of bars. It was busy, but far less of a crush than you’d get in a concourse. Our last-minute arrival meant that that we didn’t have much time for anything other than a pre-match slash, but we were in our seats as the teams came out.

We were surrounded by Man Utd fans, but they were very friendly in that way that you can be when you expect your team to win. They saw it as our ‘big day out’ and smiled indulgently at every chance they squandered, confident that there would be others. As you might have seen on the telly they ran out of chances eventually and we nicked it on pens. Big day out indeed.

I was interested in their attitude to Phil Jones. He’s been out injured for a long time and his appearance from the bench was treated with mirth. They praised everything he did with a smirk, as if he was there as a competition winner or something and clearly thought Man Utd were too good for a player like him. He didn’t look any worse a centre-half than Harry McGuire to me and I wouldn’t swap either of them for Dael Fry.

It seems commonplace these days for me to praise Chris Wilder in these posts and this one is no different. I’ve lost count of the times when a big Boro cup turnout has seen key players ‘rested’. Stevie Mac infuriated me at times in the UEFA Cup runs with his selections, although to be fair to him he generally got the results that he needed to overall. This was a full-strength selection from Wilder with the intention of giving it a real go against a Man Utd line-up that the fans around me reckoned was as strong as it could be from the players that they had available. It’s great when decisions like that pay off.

Darlington v Gateshead, Tuesday 28th December 2021, 3pm

December 29, 2021

I’d had my eye on a Darlo game for some time and added this visit by Gateshead to my spreadsheet a while ago. I bought tickets online in advance paying sixteen quid for me, nothing for Harry as an under eleven and a fiver to park in the official car park.

Driving in brought back memories of using the car park seventeen years ago when I worked in Darlington for a few months and it was hired by the company I worked for as a base for a shuttle service. I was briefly involved in the subsea industry, work that appeared to be so weather dependent for a profit that you might was well instead bet on it snowing on Christmas Day.

As Harry and I queued to have our tickets scanned he remembered that he had been at Blackwell Meadows before too, playing on the one of their rugby pitches for Billingham a couple of years ago. The ground works well, I think. There’s a covered standing area behind one goal which, if not quite enclosed enough to make it reminiscent of The Shed at Feethams, did the job in providing a home singing end.

We had seats in the main covered stand along one side, with an impressive building opposite that had a hospitality balcony. An open area behind the goal to our left was given over to the Gateshead fans.

We initially had trouble finding two unreserved seats together and it took a while for me to convince an old bloke to move along one seat so that Harry and I could sit together. Relations got worse when I bashed the fella’s arm with my seat when rising to let someone else pass. Despite my profuse apologies he seemed determined to be pissed off about everything, to the extent that if I’d acted on my urge to give him a swift poke in the eye I doubt that his mood could have been any further darkened.

I kept my eye on former Boro Academy player Junior Mondal in the first half. He was playing on our side of the pitch for Darlo and made a decent job of it. I remember seeing him in a more forward role for Whitby three years or so ago and it’s good that he has continued to make a living out of the game.

Gateshead had the best chances in the first half but it was goalless at the break. Harry and I joined the queue for the food cabin which was long enough to mean that we watched the opening ten minutes of the second half from that line and then just stayed on the rail afterwards.

Gateshead brought on Luke Williams at half-time. Boro fans will remember him as the wunderkid in the dark days of Strachan. He’s been unlucky with injuries over the years but seems to be making a consistent contribution from the bench for Gateshead most games. Twelve years on he looked as good as ever on the ball in a slightly deeper role than I’d anticipated.

The game came to life in the last quarter with three goals in as many minutes. Gateshead took the lead, Darlo equalised and then Gateshead regained the advantage creating quickly contrasting emotions for those who cared. A third goal for Gateshead before the end clinched the points and kept their National League North promotion challenge on course.

Gateshead v Guiseley, Monday 30th August 2021, 3pm

September 15, 2021

I’d been to Gateshead International Stadium a couple of times previously but for athletics and rugby. I’m pretty sure my son Tom and I went to watch Linford Christie run there in the early nineties and I definitely remember us watching England A take on their All-Black equivalents around about the same time. I’ve never seen a football game there though and so thought I might as well tick it off by way of a sixth tier National League North game between Gateshead and Guiseley.

I’d bought the tickets about a week in advance and had splashed out twenty-five quid for hospitality seats. As regular admission was fifteen quid I reckoned that we wouldn’t need much in the way of extras to make it worthwhile.

We got to the stadium about forty minutes before kick-off. Parking was easy enough at that time and we were soon in the lounge allocated for us VIPs. There was a decent buffet, coffee and juice, a programme and seating at a table for six where the other two occupants were young lads getting stuck into a few pre-match cans of Fosters. At the risk of incurring the scorn of Roy Keane I had what I believe to be my first ever prawn sandwich at a game. When we made our way out into the cold our seats were central in the main covered stand and padded. On returning at half-time there was a well-stocked cheeseboard. Very nice.

One of the reasons for picking a Gateshead game had been their recent signing of former Boro player Luke Williams. He stood out as a kid under Strachan but a series of injuries have meant that he hasn’t played a lot since. Unfortunately he didn’t play in this one either as he was serving a suspension for being sent off in the previous game. Maybe I’ll fit in a Gateshead away game at Darlo or York and see how he is getting on then.

An announcement on the tannoy revealed that the attendance was eight hundred and sixty including forty-eight fans from Guiseley who were out of sight to our left. A few of the fans behind us were singing in support of ‘the heed’, mainly about how much they disliked Blyth Spartans or that they were ‘just a stop on the metro’.

Gateshead gave their fans plenty to sing about with a goal inside the first ten minutes from someone that they all just referred to as Macca. He cut inside from the right and finished well, across the keeper. A few minutes later he added a second and an easy victory looked on the cards. Gateshead had plenty of chances to kill the game off but with ten minutes remaining Guiseley pulled one back. That gave us a frantic ending to the match including a header that just went wide from the away keeper who was up for a last-minute corner. There were no more goals though and ‘the heed’ held on for the points.

I wasn’t sure whether we were allowed back into the hospitality after full-time but an announcement that “Dickson’s excellent pies will be available at a reduced rate of one pound on way out” was enough to send me on my way with the masses. I picked up a hot pork pie for a quid and had scoffed it before I’d hit the A19.