Middlesbrough v Hull City, Wednesday 19th April 2023, 8pm

May 17, 2023

Whilst out in Spain I’d missed seeing the Boro tonk Norwich five-one in a game that was over by half-time. Harry reckoned that we weren’t remotely flattered by the scoreline and that we had eased off once the points were in the bag. With us in that sort of form I had high hopes of something similar against Hull.

This was another evening game selected by Sky and so we had a slightly later than usual kick-off time of 8pm. Riley McGree was absent injured and so Hayden Hackney got the chance to play further forward. I thought he did well, invariably looking for the adventurous option and was unlucky to only hit the post in the first half. He’s another fella who has had a great season and to think that he wasn’t even in contention for a first team spot until Leo was given the caretaker’s job.

Despite us being on top, it was Hull who took the lead just before the break with a header after a corner. We sometimes seem vulnerable at set pieces, but I wasn’t too concerned as it just looked to be a matter of time before we clicked. The injury list was worsening though with Forss and Smith staying in the dressing room as the teams emerged for the second half, giving opportunities to Dijksteel and Jones to show they deserved starting places.

And click we certainly did. Three goals in six minutes as we approached the hour took the game away from Hull. The third meant that Akpom had scored in nine consecutive home games which was a record of some sort and also his twenty-ninth of the season. The tally matched his shirt number and he ripped it off, twirled it about a bit and gave Carrick a hug.

The win confirmed our play-off spot with three games still to play. Not a bad position to be in.

Bruno’s Magpies v Europa FC, Sunday 16th April 2023, 4pm

May 16, 2023

After the game in Estepona, Jen and I continued south for a further three-quarters of an hour to the Gibraltar border. I’d read up a little on the easiest way to get in and the consensus was that it was best to park on the Spanish side and walk the couple of hundred yards to the immigration and customs posts. So that’s what we did.

It was all very straightforward, although it did mean that I’d pick up four Spanish entry/exit stamps in the space of a week. At that rate my new passport will be full in a year. Once into Gibraltar, we caught a bus, notionally to the town centre, but in reality just a couple of stops to the Victoria Stadium. Jen paid the fares with a tenner that she had and was given the change in euros. All wonderfully flexible but I suspect something that is likely to boil the piss of the flagshaggers.

We had time for a traditional Sunday lunch at Bruno’s in the harbour area. Were it not for the weather and the multi-million-pound yachts we could have been at Hartlepool Marina.  There wasn’t time for dessert if we were to make the kick-off and so we headed back towards the ground. Nobody was collecting any gate money and we went straight into the covered stand where there were around a hundred or so other people sat around, mostly family or friends of the players.

The stadium has a five-thousand capacity, with stands on each of the long sides and an artificial pitch. The main feature though is the Rock, which provides a suitably scenic background. If they still have monkeys living on it, then they kept a low profile as we didn’t see a single one.

One of the odder features of the ground is that it’s the venue for every fixture in the Gibraltar Premier League. Bizarre, really. I know space is tight but there are other grounds in the territory and if crowds of a hundred or so are typical then why not add some variety?

This game features Bruno’s Magpies, perhaps sponsored by the place where we’d had lunch, and Europa FC. The Magpies were in green and black and Europa in what Jen assured me was teal and grey.

It seemed like quite a critical game, with the winners moving into pole position for a spot in the very early qualifying rounds of the newish UEFA Conference competition. Europa went in front after ten minutes before a well-worked move from Magpies was finished with a back-heel to level the score.

At half-time we moved to the stand opposite for a different view. We didn’t stay until the end though as we had a two-hour plus drive back to Alora and I think I’d gained as much enjoyment out of the trip as I was going to. The main highlight, I suppose, was ticking off country number fifty-four where I’d seen a game. I’d like to make it sixty before my sixtieth birthday in a year and a half’s time, so six more to go.

CD Estepona v CD Diocesano, Sunday 16th April 2023, 12 noon

May 15, 2023

Having ticked off Antequero’s ground the previous day, I had a few options remaining for the Sunday which was a much busier day fixture-wise. Unfortunately, nearby Alora didn’t have a home game as it’s an interesting town. I’d braved the streets that were barely narrower than our car to visit their castle and we were able to view the surrounding area in all directions.

I wasn’t able to see the hillside on which we were staying as there was another hill between us. Without the hill I’d have been confident of spotting the brightly coloured vintage circus wagon that we’d booked. In an area where just about every house was white, it certainly stood out.

There were games taking place in Malaga which was less than an hour’s drive away, but when I discovered that there was a fixture in Gibraltar I couldn’t resist adding another country to my groundhopping list. The late afternoon kickoff time also meant that we could squeeze in a lunchtime game on the way, although I don’t suppose many Spaniards would consider noon to be an appropriate time for lunch. That meant our first stop of the day was Estepona, a coastal town about ninety minutes south.

The ninety minutes quickly turned into two hours after I realized that I’d forgotten the passports that we’d need to cross the border between Spain and Gibraltar and had to double back. We had plenty of time in hand though and if there had been a vacant table at any of the cafes near the Estadio Municipal Francisco Munoz then we could have had a pre-match second breakfast.

There was a short queue for fifteen euro tickets for a game that would impact upon both ends of their fourth-tier league table. Home side Estepona, in a very Spanish red and blue kit, were in seventh place and two points outside of the play-off spots. Visitors Diocesano, in blue and green, were eighteenth and bottom, although still not mathematically down.

The pitch was artificial with yellow markings for other sports or for five a side games. That sort of thing always strikes me as a bit small-time. I know they have to maximize use and revenue but aesthetically I’d rather it didn’t happen.

We found seats at the back of the reasonably full main shaded stand and so got the benefit of the wind blowing in. There were some black shirted ultras behind the goal to our left and a handful of people sat in the sun in the open stand opposite.

There weren’t many chances until the closing stages and, if you didn’t know, it would have been hard to say which team was propping up the table. Estepona put some pressure on towards the end but couldn’t take their opportunities. Two minutes from time a shot that might actually have been a cross sneaked in and the single goal was sufficient to take the points for Diocesano.

Antequero v Yeclano Desportivo, Saturday 15th April 2023, 6pm

May 14, 2023

Our week in Spain was mainly spent in the hills between Alora and Antequero. One evening we heard what sounded like wolves howling. I googled ‘wolves in Andalucía’ and learned that there are indeed wolf packs living wild in the region. Pretty good, eh? Some people aren’t keen on wolves, but I reckon that they are just like dogs and I’ve yet to meet a dog that didn’t get on with me. You just give them a treat and ruffle their fur a bit.

My Google search also revealed that there was a wolf park a few kilometres away in the direction of Antequero. We went along and had a look, although there was no fur ruffling allowed. The lady who showed us around confirmed that, if the winds are right, their nocturnal howling can be heard in the area that we were staying. The news came as a disappointment, as I was hoping that I’d see one walking past our cabin in the hope of being fed some sausages.

Anyway, we were back in the same area the next day for some football. It was a fourth-tier game between Antequero and Yeclano Desportivo. The hosts were fourteen points clear at the top of the table with just five games remaining and a win would clinch both promotion and the title. I learned from their website that they were expecting a sell-out and with the ticket office and ground opening an hour and a half before kick-off, we got there early.

There was already a lengthy queue when we arrived, but we were soon able to buy ten euro tickets for the uncovered stand. I turned down the option of a pig’s leg raffle ticket on the basis that with no wolves likely to pass our door Jen and I would have to consume the whole limb ourselves in the three days we had remaining.

El Mauli stadium holds seven thousand and quickly filled up. I suspect that a lot of the crowd weren’t any more regular attendees than we were, but were drawn in by the chance of being part of their team’s history and to catch up with old friends from their match-going days. There was a definite buzz about the place, but very little tension which is just as you’d expect when your team needs only a single point from their remaining five games. It wasn’t Leicester ’88.

Yeclano weren’t there to make up the numbers though, as they were in third place in the table with promotion hopes of their own, albeit via the play-offs. They had brought six fans with them and as many banners as well as a drum and a loudhailer. It was a friendly atmosphere though with no segregation and genuine banter between both sets of fans. The only involvement that the police had was to request that the Yeclano banners be moved so that they didn’t obscure some advertising hoardings.

Antequero were in green and white halves with black shorts and socks, with Yeclano in a sort of knock-off Milan kit. The first half was cagey with few chances apart from one home attack that required an impressive triple save from the visiting keeper.

The deadlock was broken by Antequero a few minutes into the second half, but Yeclano weren’t out of it and always looked to have a goal in them. It meant that the Cava remained on ice until a couple of minutes from time when a second home goal signalled the start of the festivities. It wasn’t my party and so on the final whistle I left them to it. As we drove away, we had to pause to allow an open topped bus to enter the stadium. Clearly it was going to be some evening.

Santa Rosaria Women v Stockholm Women, Thursday 13th April 2023, 5.15pm

May 13, 2023

Jen and I had decided to have a week in Spain and flew into Malaga. We were staying up in the hills about an hour inland, but on this particular day it was a bit too warm for going for a walk. Instead, we headed to the seaside town of Fuengirola with a plan to stroll along the seafront, ideally with the odd shaded section.

I wasn’t too impressed with what we saw of Fuengirola or the seafront and a couple of hours later with the necessary ten thousand steps in the bank we made our way back to where we were staying. When passing Cartama, Jen spotted a game going on in a stadium below the motorway. There was a handy exit and so I pulled off to have a look.

The game was at the Ciudad Deportiva de Cartama, home of CD Cartama. It had a main covered stand but no facilities for spectators on the other three sides of the pitch. There was a running track and it looked as if the place was geared up primarily for track and field rather than football. We took a seat in the main stand alongside fifteen or so other people.

A nearby fella filled me in. It was a women’s game between a local side from Santa Rosario and a team from Stockholm that were on a tour of the area. The Swedes, in navy, looked the better side but the Spanish women, in white and green, were holding their own at nil-nil.

We had plans, so didn’t watch for too long before heading off.

Tadcaster Albion v Bridlington Town, Monday 10th April 2023, 3.10pm

May 12, 2023

I’d thought about going down to Ashton Gate for the Boro game, but it has been switched to a tea-time kick-off and the thought of travelling back to Teesside from Bristol afterwards on a Bank Holiday Monday was sufficient for me not to think about it too seriously. Instead, I drove down to Tadcaster for a match in the eighth tier Northern Premier League Division One East. I’ve been to a few grounds in this division as it’s where teams that are promoted from the Northern League tend to find themselves.

Tadcaster is great as it has that brewery smell of mashing grains and boiling wart. Or at least the area around their Ings Lane ground does. The John Smith’s brewery provides the backdrop to the pitch and whilst I’ll only drink a pint of Smooth if it’s pretty much my only option, I’m happy to inhale the production aroma all day long.

It was nine quid in, which is about par for this level and I called into the clubhouse for a chip butty that led to a conversation with the girl behind the counter about the respective merits of ‘spread’ ‘spreadable butter’ and ‘butter’. We agreed that ‘spread’ is the least desirable of the three, yet that was exactly what I got. The chips were good though and, with heavy drizzle coming down, I took the butty and a coffee to the covered stand behind the goal at the brewery end.

There was a ten-minute delay to the kick-off as an elderly lino, who perhaps hadn’t warmed up as thoroughly as he might have done, pulled a leg muscle when over-vigorously checking the goal net for holes. One of the away staff was roped in for flag duties. I’d have thought that there would be a fourth official at this level and maybe there was. Perhaps his duties were considered more difficult to fill than running the line.

I found myself sitting behind the Bridlington coach driver and he filled me in on the respective merits of the teams. That was two conversations with strangers in the space of ten minutes. Maybe I’m getting more sociable these days. He told me that Tadcaster were bottom of the league and already relegated, with Bridlington destined for mid-table whatever happened. Perhaps this was why everyone was happy to go ahead with a replacement linesman.

It was an excellent match. Tadcaster went a goal up early on and then doubled their lead midway through the first half. Bridlington had plenty of chances though and kept the pressure on, pulling one back from the penalty spot fifteen minutes from time. Tadcaster finally cracked in the final minute and conceded from a header lofted into a crowded box. For a nothing game, there was far more emotion than you’d imagine with the home players slumped to the floor and Bridlington celebrating as if they had done far more than nicked a point against the side propping up the table.

That wasn’t everything though. As Bridlington pushed for the winner in added time that they clearly thought was on the cards, Tadcaster broke free and the ball was squared to their Polish striker who finished it off to clinch the win. It was now the turn of the Bridlington players to drop to their knees and for Tadcaster to celebrate as if they’d been promoted.

Billingham Synthonia Reserves v Wear United, Saturday 8th April 2023, 2pm

May 10, 2023

My second game of the afternoon was also at Northfield School, but on the artificial surface that they have named the Northfield Sportsdrome. I don’t know why, but I always imagine any venue with ‘drome’ in its title to be an indoor stadium. I think it probably stems from Muhamad Ali’s fights at the Houston Astrodome. I googled Sportsdrome and got images of speedway and motor racing so clearly it’s a term that is also used for places that stage outdoor activities.

This drome had no roof, or a cinder track, but it did have a fence around it and I picked a spot inside to watch the thirteenth tier Wearside League Division Three clash between Billingham Synthonia Reserves and Wear United. The sides were bottom and second bottom respectively. I don’t think that there is any relegation from the Wearside League, so there may not have been a lot for either team to play for.

Synners were in their classic green and white quarters, with Wear United wearing yellow shirts and then a mix of either black, blue or navy shorts combined with blue, yellow or black socks. Either the kitman was having a mare or else he had managed heroically with whatever he had. Or maybe there was no kitman and the players just brought whatever shorts and socks weren’t in the wash.

Despite the lack of uniformity, the sartorial standard still exceeded the quality of play which was absolutely abysmal. Few players looked to be at the level of those playing in the friendly on the adjacent pitch and I imagine that if any of the other four spectators were Synner’s fans they have must be horrified at the decline of their club over the past decade or so.

On the plus side, the ref was far better than you’d expect at this level. At one point a player told him, albeit with a smile, that it was as well the reffing assessor wasn’t in attendance. If I were the bloke with the whistle I’d have struggled to avoid a suitable retort whenever a player ended up on his arse after an air shot or repeatedly failed to control a two yard pass.

For what it’s worth, it finished up one-each.

Wynyard Village Reserves v Wynyard The Stables, Saturday 8th April 2023, 1.30pm

May 9, 2023

This was a bonus game, as in one that I stumbled across and which are always welcomed for adding to my number of grounds attended. Although it’s debatable whether there are any criteria other than my own interpretation that would deem a school pitch without even a boundary rope as a ground. It wasn’t even the school’s main pitch, which is where I’d planned to see a game, but, as I say, I make my rules.

The fixture was at Northfield School, somewhere that I’m likely to have played at, or much more likely to have shivered to death at on the touchline as an unused sub for my school team forty-odd years ago. I’ve no memory of this particular pitch from those days but then again, I’ve little recollection of most things that I got up to way back when.

I asked a lad with a team tracksuit on who was playing and whilst he knew that his team were Wynyard Village Reserves, he had no idea who the opposition where. Clearly, they don’t go in for Revie-style dossiers on the opposition at this level.

I checked with an older bloke who turned out to be a former manager of Wynyard Village and he knew enough to tell me that their reserves side were playing someone called Wynyard The Stables in a friendly. Wynyard Village Reserves are in the third division of the Wearside League, so a tier thirteen side. He didn’t know what league The Stables were in, other than it was a step or so down from the home side’s dizzy heights. He confirmed that his former team were leading three-one and then tipped me off that there were only two decent players on the pitch, one of whom was his son.

Ten minutes was sufficient and with kick-off imminent in the game that I’d come to see I walked the hundred yards or so to the main pitch.

Middlesbrough v Burnley, Friday 7th April 2023, 8pm

May 7, 2023

I’d been out of the country since just before Christmas and so hadn’t seen the Boro live since the corresponding away fixture at Turf Moor. Disappointingly, the fixture had been switched from a 3pm kick-off to 8pm. After flying in that morning, I’d planned to spend the afternoon at the match and then the evening having a drink, but the need to drive to the game and the late finish meant that getting re-acquainted with beer would have to wait one more day.

I caught up with the grandson, Harry, and noted that he had grown about three inches since December. I suppose that’s how it works, and it may not be long before he’s taller than me. Maybe I should stop taking the piss out of him.

He reckoned that a point would be a decent result and I tended to agree. Burnley are having a great season and even with our outstanding form since Carrick arrived, we’ve not really made any inroads into the gap between us.

The other reason why a point wouldn’t be too bad was that automatic promotion now looks out of reach. There’s a chance of overtaking Luton for the third spot but really, who cares? Third or fourth both give you a home second leg tie, so it’s not really an issue. Not for me anyway.

In the end it panned out pretty much as might have been predicted. Burnley took the lead with a goal that looked offside to my subjective eye before Chuba equalized with a penalty and his billionth goal this season. What a turnaround in his career it’s been.

As mentioned though, Burnley are a more than decent side and it was no surprise when they responded with the winner. Even so, it was good to be back at the Riverside.

Al-Riyadh U17 v Sudair U17, Friday 17th March 2023, 3.50pm

April 30, 2023

This was my first trip to the Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz Stadium, home to second tier Al-Riyadh. After picking up some drinks and snacks from a supermarket opposite I wandered into the main stadium only to be directed to the practice ground that was tagged on to one end. I was fine with that though as it meant that I’d be able to tick off the auxiliary pitch and then return to the stadium proper for a future first team fixture.

The game was taking place on a grass pitch with three rows of seats along one side. At the time I arrived there were only a handful of people there, possibly because of the lack of shade. As the game progressed the crowd swelled to around two hundred. Order was maintained by a few stewards and seven policemen, which struck me as a little excessive.

A couple of families sat down near me but were soon moved to the other end of the seating leaving my area as one for men only. This was my first experience of enforced segregation and it seemed over the top. If the families had been uncomfortable where they were then they could easily have instigated a move themselves.

Just as some welcome cloud cover arrived midway through the first half, Sudair opened the scoring. I didn’t see the move finished off as a big bloke was climbing over the back of a seat between me and the far goal, but the subsequent celebrations revealed that a fair proportion of the attendees were supporting the visitors.

The second half was quite fractious with lots of niggly fouls, plenty of injury faking and a few flare-ups between the players that seemed more for effect than to settle any particular grievance. The actions of the players served to fire up the crowd with some of the Sudair fans on the receiving end of a warning from a steward for standing and chanting.

Al-Riyadh pressed hard for an equalizer but with two minutes to go Sudair broke clear and their striker tucked his chance away to clinch the win. Hopefully I’ll be back for a game at the main stadium before long.