Muay Thai Boxing, Sunday 13th January 2019, 6.30pm

April 29, 2019

Whilst I’ve been to kick boxing in Bangkok before, I’d not had the opportunity to see an event at the Rajadamnern Stadium as they don’t do Saturday nights. However, they do do Sundays and so a public holiday on the Monday meant that we had a rare chance to pop over to Bangkok for a longer than normal weekend and tick it off my list.

Jen and I landing late on the Friday night at the main airport, not the Don Muang one, and so I booked a hotel not too far away. Big mistake. The roof-top bar shown on the website turned out to be aspirational and as such so did my chances of a convenient drink.

The location was handy for a park though and on the morning of the boxing we had a wander around. Highlights were a few water monitors making their way around the rivers.

Later that day we took a taxi in the general direction of the boxing stadium but got out slightly early for a look around a temple. I can’t remember its name, same as with the airport, park and hotel, but it was just as you’d expect a temple to be and as with most of them not really worth the bother of having to remove your shoes.

It was a further half an hour or so’s walk to the stadium and despite there being more than an hour to go to the first bout there were plenty of people milling around. It was too early to buy tickets though and so we called into a café around the corner for some chicken that looked dangerously under-cooked.

Tickets started at 1,000 baht, which is about twenty-five quid and entitled you to watch from the back of the arena and from behind a mesh fence. Next option was the one that we took, lower down and with no mesh for 1,500 baht. If we’d splashed out an extra 300 we could have had a plastic chair, but I thought that section might be busier. I can’t remember what ringside cost, probably 2,000, but we’ve done that before and it’s a bit low down. I prefer to be above the ring rather than looking up through the ropes.

As with the bouts that we’ve seen elsewhere you get snake charmer music played before the start of each fight. There was a four piece band over to our right that reminded me of the one on those early French and Saunders shows.

The fighters performed a dance to the snake charmer music, weaving their way around the ring. Part of the pre-match arsing about involved them standing in a large metal dish and having water poured over them. I could see the benefit of the dish in keeping the canvas dry but I’d have thought a few drops of water would have satisfied whatever ritual was being carried out.

The first fight appeared to result in a disqualification for the boxer in the blue corner after he wrestled his opponent to the floor and in a move straight out of Freddy Natt playground drop-kicked him in the head. Fair enough. The other fella made the most of the foul, rolling about for a couple of minutes in the forlorn hope that a dinner nanny might turn up.

One of the plus points of our section was a fella scurrying around taking drinks orders. It meant that I never went short of 150 baht Singha beers and didn’t need to leave my patch of concrete to get them.

The interesting thing about the second fight was that both boxers ceased hostilities with about thirty seconds remaining of the final round and just danced around as if they’d suddenly spotted a pair of handbags on the floor. Perhaps the result wasn’t in doubt. It was a bit like in basketball where they don’t bother playing out the time properly at the end if one team is out of sight, choosing instead to just bounce the ball until the hooter goes.

Despite the boxing shorts being the usual length, the fashion among the participants was for wearing them rolled high at the waist and then pulled up high on the thigh like Souness in his pomp. A few of the kicks to the shins that we witnessed were uncannily reminiscent of the King of Ayresome Park too.

None of the boxers were particularly heavy but the final contest was notable for taking place at 96lbs. That’s six stone, twelve pounds if I’ve retained my fourteen times table knowledge. For the size of them it might well have been a couple of eight year olds in there. Sadly the place was just about empty by that point, possibly due to everyone else being uneasy about paying to watch small children boot the shit out of each other. On the basis that it’s nothing I haven’t seen the grandkids get up to and with a Singha to finish, we stuck it out until the final bell.

Boro v Ipswich, Saturday December 29th 2018, 3pm

March 29, 2019

The second game of my Christmas trip to the UK was another home game for the Boro and this time involved a catch-up with Paul and Aiden. I usually see Paul a couple of times a year for gigs or football tournaments but with Aiden it’s generally once every three or four years and almost always a festive fixture at the Riverside.

We had a spare ticket too, but Paul’s dad, Mike, who would have come in the past wouldn’t entertain it. Tom was working and as Harry was at his nanna’s, it went unused.

We were in the West Upper and the first half was spent catching up on each other’s news. Aiden had just retired. That seems weird. It shouldn’t really at fifty-four, but just being fifty-four in itself seems weird. Mid-fifties. How did that happen?

Half-time discussions quickly turned to how crap we are. I don’t see a lot of the Premier League on the telly as the time difference in Malaysia makes it an arse on, but for Paul and Aiden who are able to watch the likes of Man City or Liverpool, it must have been like sitting through a different sport.

I thought that the inclusion of Howson at wing back and Wing in midfield made us a bit more adventurous than in the game I’d watched three days earlier, but maybe that was more a reflection on the relative merits of Ipswich and Sheff Wed.

Still, the result worked out better. We’d taken a first half lead through a Hugill penalty that nobody seemed to appeal for and then second half sub Tavernier capped a livewire performance with a goal. That’ll be him dropped for a while again then.

Overall though, nobody was much impressed with anything at all and by the time the full-time whistle blew half the twenty-three thousand crowd had already cleared off. It’s the time of year when football is supposed to get you out of the house and away from that between Christmas and New Year stupor, yet most people seemed keener to head back home. That speaks volumes.

Boro v Sheff Wed, Wednesday December 26th 2018, 3pm

March 28, 2019

After the lay-over for the FIFA Club World Cup it was back to something a little more mundane and a visit to the Riverside for my first Boro game in eight months. My son, Tom, has a season ticket for the South Stand and I thought that it might be time for my grandson, Tom’s nephew, to join us in what is probably the liveliest part of the ground.

The last time Harry came with me to the Riverside the highlight of his day was spotting a squashed rat on Borough Road. I’m sure he must consider Middlesbrough to be infested with rodents as despite him keeping a good eye out all afternoon he was surprised not to see another one.

His ticket was seventeen quid. He’s eight years old. Actually he wasn’t even eight as his birthday wasn’t until the following day, so still seven. With the booking fee we paid about fifty quid in total for the pair of us to get into the cheapest area of the ground. I doubt that many small kids get taken to the match at those prices.

The lack of rats wasn’t the only change for Harry. Last time we’d been in the West Upper and he was only on his feet when we scored. This time everyone around us stood from the start and so in order to see, anyone Harry’s height  had to stand on a seat. He was a bit reluctant at first as I think his Mam has rules about feet on chairs, but he soon got the hang of it, even joining in with some of the songs. I think his Mam probably has rules about swearing too.

Boro were terrible. We were set up to with five at the back, protected by three holding midfielders. That left Stewie in no-mans land and Britt isolated up front. Sheff Wed had former Boro player Adam Reach in their side and as such he was nailed on to score. He did. Strange to think that he couldn’t get a game for us in the promotion season, but if he came back now he might very well be our best player. I doubt he’s improved much in his time away so it’s more a reflection on our rapid decline.

The Sheff Wed fans had a decent song for him, to the tune of The Beautiful South’s Rotterdam. They milked it all afternoon in what was a rare successful away day for them.

The support from around us mainly comprised frustrated chants of “attack, attack, attack” and, after an out of character moment of positive intent, a sarcastic rendition of “We’ve had a shot”. However, despite the cynicism from the rest of us, Harry remained confident that we’d equalise up right until the final whistle. It’s great to be eight. Or seven.

 

Real Madrid v Al-Ain, Saturday 22nd December 2018, 8.30pm

March 26, 2019

The final of the FIFA Club World Cup was the second game of a double-header evening at the Zayed Sports Stadium in Abu Dhabi. The later kick-off came with a significant drop in temperature which I welcomed but it made it cold enough for Jen to choose to clear off back to our hotel.

Most of the River Plate fans who had cheered their side to victory in the earlier third-place play-off also chose to clear off and that enabled me to move from my designated seat to one along the side, lower down and about level with one of the penalty spots. It seemed a few other people were doing the same and there was a fair bit of re-positioning going on in the run up to kick-off when the actual ticket holders for those seats eventually turned up.

Whilst I was surprised at the drop in temperature, it could have been worse. We’d been for a look around an old fort that morning and the taxi driver reckoned that we were in for their once a year rain downpour. Fortunately it didn’t happen. The fort was ok, but in a Trigger’s Broom sort of way, with just about all of it looking like it had been re-built over the years.

There was a museum attached to the fort that I enjoyed more. It had a selection of photos showing the development of the city over the last fifty years or so. Best of all was an early picture of the Zayed Sports stadium that we’d be attending.

As kick off neared I looked around at the fans. There weren’t anything like as many Real Madrid fans around as there had been from River Plate and those I did see looked decidedly like locals. I’m not really sure how they take pleasure from supporting a global concern against their hometown team? Although I suppose they probably saw the two teams as operating in different worlds. It’s as if the Boro were somehow pitted against Norton’s George and Dragon. You can’t switch your allegiance from the bigger team just because you usually walk your dog across the opposing team’s Sunday League council pitch.

Happily, there were plenty of Emeratis supporting Al-Ain who had progressed against the odds as host club to knock out the champions of Oceania, North America and then South America to reach the final.

Madrid had all the big guns on the field including Bale, Kroos and Benzema. Ramos received solid but essentially good-natured booing every time he touched the ball. Modric got a cheer when announced and was a pleasure to watch. He was always looking to start something off and a quarter of an hour in took more applause when he opened the scoring with a curled effort into the corner.

The goal and Ramos baiting aside, there wasn’t much noise from the home fans and there was even less in support of Real. After a while the couple of thousand River Plate fans who had stayed behind after their game started singing their own songs and drowned everything else out.

Al-Ain were almost on equal terms soon after the opening goal when pantomime villain Ramos foiled their best efforts by clearing one off the line. Shortly afterwards a second home effort was ruled out for offside.

In truth though I don’t think Al-Ain really believed that an upset was on the cards and so the European Champions were never in any real danger of losing. The title was in the bag when Llorente added a second on the hour. Ramos nodded in what must have been a very satisfying third Madrid goal as we entered the final ten minutes to put the game out of reach.

I nipped out not long after that as back to back games is pushing my limit for football in one evening. I heard the roar of the crowd for an Al-Ain consolation as I walked away from the ground and the more muted response to a fourth and final Real Madrid goal a couple of minutes later as I approached my hotel.

River Plate v Kashima Antlers, Saturday 22nd December 2018, 5.30pm

March 21, 2019

There are no direct flights from Malaysia to the north-east of England, so when I travel back to the UK I’ve got to break the journey somewhere. Usually I change planes in London or Amsterdam, but for my Christmas trip home I went via Abu Dhabi. The UAE Is not somewhere that has ever appealed to me as somewhere to live and as such I’ve knocked back any number of enquiries for jobs in the region over the years. This time though the final of the FIFA Club World Club Cup was taking place at a time that fitted in with the flights and that’s as good as reason as I’m ever likely to have for paying the place a visit.

The logistics were very easy and a forty quid online ticket from FIFA covered both the final and the third place play-off that took place as a double-header. We were only staying for a couple of nights and so we didn’t need a visa, whilst our hotel was just across from the Zayed Sports City stadium. It was also only about ten minutes in a taxi from the Sheikh Zayed mosque, which is just as well as my original plan for whiling away my time at a sanctuary for injured falcons didn’t come off.

I’m not really a fan of big modern buildings but I was happy to wander around the enormous mosque mainly to look at the tiling. I’m renovating a house and in my latest manifestation of geekiness have developed an unhealthy interest in reclaimed Victorian ceramics. It took a bit of effort to get in though. Not so much for me, but Jen was required to dress up as Obi Wan Kenobi with a shawl and a head scarf. My time and money-saving suggestions of a tea towel or a cardboard box with eye holes were dismissed as grossly disrespectful and she chose to buy the necessary gear from a department store that no doubt did very well out of improperly dressed tourists.

There were lots of River Plate fans wandering around the mosque in the hours before their third-place play-off game. No doubt they too were marveling at the elaborate encaustics whilst cursing the limited opening hours of the hawk hospital.

Later that day Jen and I made our way over to the stadium with plenty of time in hand. Just as well really as it was almost as much of an arse on getting in to the ground as it had been the mosque. I got away with a small, yet still prohibited, camera but had a pen no bigger than you’d find in a bookies confiscated. These posts struggle for accuracy at the best of times but my memory is so poor these days that if I can’t make a few notes then you can’t be confident that anything I write here is in any way accurate.

Still, this one was easier than most to check later. It was the third-place play-off featuring River Plate, fresh from their much disrupted Copa Libertadores triumph against Boca Juniors, taking on the champions of Asia, Kashima Antlers.

Iconic is a much over-used word but I think that the River Plate kit of white shirt, diagonal red stripe and black shorts counts. Kashima were in a somewhat less iconic red combo. There were at least six sections of River Plate fans, maybe five or six thousand or so of them, compared to a small but vocal section of a hundred or so Japanese fans just to my left. A few local fans, some supporting Abu Dhabi’s own Al-Ain, others wearing the global uniform of a Real Madrid shirt, made up the numbers in a crowd that was officially announced as being seventeen thousand.

The River Plate fans made an incredible racket all the way through despite the game meaning little to them. I mean, you win the Copa Libertadores against your greatest rivals and before you have the chance for a triumphant home-coming you have to pitch up at a Micky Mouse tournament only to switch off and lose your first game to the team that qualified by being local.

Play was fairly even in the early stages up until former Jeonbuk Motors goalie Kwoun Sun-tae picked up an injury and had to be subbed. The replacement keeper’s first job was to pick the ball out of the net as River Plate went one up from a corner. Strangely their fans barely celebrated. The goal brought the Asian Champions out of their shell and made for a much more open game but the Argentinians went two up late on and then added a couple more in the final moments to rub it in. It’s a shame that River Plate hadn’t turned up in their semi-final as I’d have liked to have seen them take on Real Madrid for the title.

 

Viettel v Binh Phuoc, Saturday 29th September 2018, 3pm

March 19, 2019

In our time over here we’d only been to Vietnam once, a trip to Saigon a year or so earlier. It was an interesting place so we thought we’d see if Hanoi was just as good.  Turn out that it is, with the added benefit of being to gawp at the actual remains of their former leader Ho Chi Minh, rather than just wander around somewhere like his 1970’s decorated palace searching in vain for the advertised elephant’s foot umbrella stand.

The walk through Mr. Minh’s mausoleum was very well-managed. The queue snaked through the grounds for a few hundred yards but under covered walkways. It was kept moving at a good pace by some very smartly dressed soldiers and once inside, as you might imagine, there was extremely chilly air-conditioning. You weren’t allowed to talk or take photos, in fact you weren’t allowed to do anything but walk. Jen was told off for crossing her arms whilst I did my best to stifle a cough.

The route eventually ended up in a dimly-lit room with a corpse in a bed. He looked a bit like his photo on the main stand at the game we went to later, but a little waxier.

Other highlights were a big lake near to our hotel surrounded by eating and drinking establishments. The roads were closed off for the weekend to allow people to stumble around with less chance of being killed by the traffic.

We walked to the match on the Saturday afternoon and had to dodge scooters on the pavement as well as cars on the roads. We also had to dodge a bloke smoking a bamboo pipe that was at least a foot long.

The Hang Day stadium is pretty run down, but that’s the way I like them. We arrived about an hour before kick-off and there were lots of people milling around the main entrance. Vendors were selling snacks that may have been cooked a while ago and were unprotected from flies. You could wash them down with something cold. Or at least you would be able to if the cans and bottles weren’t just sitting in the sun rather than a cool box or fridge.

As we had sufficient time we did a circuit of the stadium. It was quieter around the back and we spotted a couple of soldiers. They seemed much more relaxed than the ones on duty at the funeral home.

If we’d been inclined we could have had haircuts at the back corner of the ground. That’s something the Boro should start offering during matches. I reckon there would be a decent queue of people keen to escape watching the soul-destroying set-up of five centre halves and four defensive midfielders taking turns to lump the ball forward to a single striker ill-equipped to do anything with it.

Anyway, this game was free to get in to and the sounds of partying that we’d heard coming from inside were due to the home side Viettel having already clinched the second division championship with a couple of games to spare. Not quite Charlton’s Champions but you take what you can get.

There were two tier stands down each side, with open terracing to our right and a wall to the left that backed on to housing. Potential there for “Once more and we’ll stick a knife in it”. The home fans were celebrating their promotion with their band and by waving a variety of flags. The carnival atmosphere was mirrored on the pitch where Viettel, in white, seemed to be applying the ‘Tuncay’ rule whereby the build up to any chance must include at least one fancy but ineffective flick. Binh Phuoc were in green shirts with a red band. Or red shirts with a green yoke. Hard to say really. Either way the best chances in the half went to the hosts, but poor finishing and some decent keeping kept it goalless at the break.

Our first half viewpoint in the stand opposite the tunnel had become less attractive as the sun got lower. When it began to shine through the gaps in the structure on to the backs of our heads we were forced to move to an area where the sun was blocked by a stairwell. At half time we took the opportunity to move upstairs and take advantage of the better shade provided by the roof.

The excitement level rose soon after the restart when the away coach was sent to the stands. Maybe the sun had been a bit much for him too. It didn’t seem to change much on the pitch though as the champions continued to press ineffectually for a goal to complete the coronation.

With a quarter of an hour to play it was the turn of the players to lose their composure. We had a minute or two of argy-bargy before Binh Phuoc switched off from the subsequent free-kick and an unmarked header put Viettel a goal up. It sparked just the sort of celebrations that you’d expect.

A few minutes later another header doubled their lead and we sloped out leaving them to it. Game and season over.

Davao Aguilas v Ceres Negros, Saturday 22nd September 2018, 4pm

February 15, 2019

Getting to see a game of football in the Philippines turned out to be a lot more trouble than I’d imagined. The first time we went to Manila I checked for updates at the hotel before setting off to the match and discovered that not only had the venue been changed, but the match would be played behind closed doors.  Even so, I still fancied my chances of somehow getting in, or at least I did until our taxi driver took us to the Rizal Memorial Park rather than the Rizal Memorial Stadium and the traffic was just too bad for us to get to the right location in time.

On the plus side we saw some weird blackface performance in the park where only the armpits gave them away.

I’m a trier though and so three months later we made a return visit to Manila. This time the ground was in the north of the city in the middle of nowhere and with limited hotel options. Very limited, with the view from our window giving some idea of the neighbourhood. There weren’t any bars nearby either and Jen and I spent the latter part of that evening drinking beer on the steps of the hotel whilst security men with shotguns patrolled the nearby petrol station forecourt.

Still, we were there for the football and the stadium was within walking distance. If it had been a little further I suppose we could always have got one of the retro looking shared taxis that cruised around.

We arrived a good half hour before kick off only to find that the pitch wasn’t marked and that the game had been moved to a different city. Probably behind closed doors and possibly the day before for good measure. Terrific.

I thought I’d missed my opportunity but two months further on a cup competition, the Copa Paulinho something or other threw up a game at the same Rizal Memorial Stadium that we’d tried to reach five months earlier. This time I booked a hotel overlooking the ground, so as long as the four-hour flights weren’t unduly delayed we would only have to rely upon a taxi driver finding the hotel, rather than the football ground. That’s always an easier proposition.

It turned out that the stadium isn’t actually that far from its namesake park. In fact we walked it along the seafront the next morning in under an hour.

If we’d done that the first time rather than rely on a taxi driver who didn’t know the football ground existed we could have saved ourselves two hours in traffic and two return trips.

This time though, it all worked out. The stadium, which was built in 1934, reminded me of one that my mate Paul and I had wandered around whilst in Poland for Euro 2012. That Polish place had been built in anticipation of an Olympics that used other venues instead and by now was magnificently run down. As was the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Nobody wanted any money for admission and so I took my place in the main stand. The only concession to modern life was the artificial pitch with those little black bits of rubber flicking up from the surface.

Davao Aguilas were in white with red and blue trim with Ceres in black. Davao took the lead a quarter of an hour in when a corner was glanced in at the near post. Despite the goal coming so early on it was enough for the Ceres coach to immediately haul off his big lump of a centre-half. Perhaps he’d taken a knock. I hope so, for his sake.

Davao had about twenty fans at one end of the main stand, including three drummers. None of them looked particularly old so it might have been a school trip of sorts. They were rattling out a chant of “Davo, Davo, Davo” to the tune of No Limits. The early goal got them fired up, not that they needed it when it’s a choice between watching your team or an afternoon of algebra. Maybe they’d think differently if they had someone like Tony Pulis slowly squeezing any possible joy from watching their team. Quadratic equations might very well be preferable then.

Ceres just seemed to have a handful of fans but they made a disproportionate amount of noise by taking advantage of the good acoustics created by the main stand roof. Mind you, the noise that they made was pointless, just some oh, oh, ohing to the tune of Go West. Noise for the sake of it really. I was temporarily distracted by the old industrial light fittings above us that would be worth a decent sum to a salvage yard.  Strange how your mind wanders.

The teams went in at the break with just the one goal separating them, but it didn’t take Davao Aguilas long afterwards to double their lead with a penalty. Within two minutes though Ceres had pulled one back when a corner was missed by everyone except the fella who tapped it home from close range.

The Ceres goal was the cue for some argy bargy and a Ceres player escaped a sending off despite having put an opposition player in a headlock.  Davao weren’t so fortunate though and one of their players did walk shortly afterwards, for a second yellow. He seemed somewhat frustrated at the apparent inconsistency.

After everyone had settled down there was a strange lack of urgency from the Ceres players.  They were slowly trotting up for corners and staying down far too long after any contact. I began to wonder if the game was two legs, or if a single goal defeat somehow put them through. More likely, they thinking about the possible end of season approaching and the opportunity to head off on their holidays. Fair enough.

Maldives v India, Saturday 15th September 2018, 7pm

November 29, 2018

Whilst I suppose most ground hoppers concentrate on completing a league, or on ticking off grounds where they have seen their own team play, I’ve lately had more of an interest in ‘collecting’ countries where I’ve seen a football match.

Initially it was quite easy working my way through the territories near to Malaysia, but after a while it takes a bit more of an effort. Bangladesh wasn’t somewhere that I’d initially thought I’d go to, what with all the fuss over shootings, bombs, the security fears around cricket tours and the like. But, it seems to have calmed down a bit lately and so when I saw that the final of the SAFF Cup was scheduled for a free weekend I booked flights to Dhaka.

My first impression was the chaos. I’ve been to India a couple of times and have also braved the traffic in Manila but nothing came close to the congestion on the roads in and around the Bangladeshi capital. Lorries, buses, cars, tuk-tuks and finally bicycle rickshaws vied for position in what were often five or six informal lines of traffic on roads marked with two or three lanes. It made it the maddest place I’ve been for getting from A to B.

I took a ride by rickshaw and even something of that size struggles for space on the roads. The ‘driver’ was able to nip through a few of the backstreets, which helped a bit and it had the added bonus of letting me see sellers with baskets that were full of chickens that were stood upright and presumably tied in at their feet.

It seems that not many westerners pop over the Dhaka for a weekend break and we were objects of curiosity, more so than most places I’ve been and we posed for numerous photos with people. I called into the former house of the assassinated president who had led the country to independence and I ended up in conversation with one fella who was desperate for my opinion on why Simon Jones and Marcus Trescothick had faded from the Test scene so soon after the 2005 Ashes win.

We also had a wander around the grounds of an old fort, which turned out to be a rare oasis of calm in what was otherwise mainly bedlam.

Our hotel was carefully chosen to be within walking distance of the Bangabandhu stadium as there was no way I was going to risk travelling all the way to Dhaka and then missing the game due to traffic. As we set off for the match it was as busy on foot as it was by rickshaw or taxi and we had to fight our way through a crowded market.

We didn’t have tickets in advance as the hotel had wanted 100x face value. Yes, five thousand Bangladeshi takas for a fifty taka ticket. That’s fifty quid for a fifty pence ticket! I politely declined and we took our chances, ending up paying a twenty taka premium to a kid outside the ground for two tickets in the Category 1 south stand.

Whilst buying the tickets we acquired a new friend, Bob. He told us that he lived nearby and that he was unmarried due to being orphaned as a child. There are some people who might view the absence of in-laws as a bit of a positive in a spouse, but he didn’t see it that way. Bob was supporting the Maldives on the basis they were playing local rivals India, although a lot of others around us were supporting India on the basis that India didn’t really get on with Pakistan. There was a real animosity towards Pakistan, I suppose stemming from the past skirmishes both before and after independence.

One fella had a bit of a pop at me for being English, on the basis of our colonial past. He was keen to point out that they were doing fine without us and that they wouldn’t like us back. I reassured him that we’ve enough on our plate sorting out our own infrastructure without getting involved in other countries. He seemed happy enough with that and wound his neck in for the rest of the game.

The 36,000 capacity stadium was a bit run down with some posh bits incorporated into a couple of the stands for VIPs. There was a large picture of the father of the nation away to our right in the ground named after him. The usual running track and advertising boards affected our view a little, but on the plus side we had a roof in our section that included overhead fans.

I think the SAFF Championship is a qualifier for another competition later in the year and its lack of prestige was highlighted by India sending their U23 team. That said, it gave the grown ups from the Maldives a decent opportunity to pick up a trophy and that’s exactly what they did.

A goal on the break in each half clinched it for the Maldives. We left just before the end and missed the injury time India consolation. The early dart failed to mitigate the impact of any of the traffic or crowds. I imagine that it remains equally chaotic every minute of the day and night.

England v India, Sunday 9th September 2018, 11am

October 30, 2018

At the end of our UK holiday, Jen and I had a Sunday evening flight back  to Malaysia. This meant that if we made our way down towards Heathrow in plenty of time we could watch most of the third day’s play at the Oval in the final test of the series with India. So that’s what we did.

Rather than just rattle all the way down the M1 at once, we broke our journey overnight at Eyam. No, I’d never heard of it either, but in looking for somewhere to go for a walk in the Peak District I discovered that four and a half centuries ago Eyam earned it’s fame as a ‘plague village’.

Apparently, a load of flea infested clothes arrived from London, bringing the plague with them. It caused devastation among the villagers who, very thoughtfully in the circumstances, agreed for the village to be quarantined until they either all died or someone invented antibiotics.

Eyam is an interesting place to stay. Most of the period buildings are still standing with a lot of the plague-related history detailed on signs around the village and then expanded upon in a visitor’s centre. There are also a few footpaths, one of which goes past the boundary stone where food would be left by folk from the next village and coins would be placed in holes filled with vinegar by the Eyam residents.

I’ve no idea how effective vinegar is against plague but I used to work with a bloke who swore by it as the answer to all of life’s ailments. He’s dead now so it looks as if it may not quite cure everything.

We followed up the Eyam stopover with a night in Richmond. The London one. That made it easy enough to take a train into the Oval the next morning where the touts were out in force. The prospect of seeing Alistair Cook’s final innings for England meant that they were frantically trying to hoover up any spares, although I didn’t see any actual buying or selling taking place.

I’d bought our tickets a couple of months earlier, at eighty-five pounds a pop in the Lock Laker Stand and even at that stage there weren’t many available. I imagine Cook’s retirement announcement quickly shifted any that had remained.

There were brass bands playing as we arrived, although probably not specially for us, and our early start allowed us to watch the teams warming up. England, somewhat controversially due to the past injuries that have been sustained, were playing five-a-side football. Or maybe six-a-side. Stuart Broad didn’t look to have much of a first touch, whilst Moeen Ali appeared to be able to waltz through the opposition at will.

Whilst our seats were nominally in the Lock Laker stand, they weren’t really. We were actually sat in the curved section close by to the side nearest to the gasometer.

India resumed their first innings about a hundred and fifty behind, with just four wickets in hand. For most of the crowd, or at least those supporting England, it was just really a matter of how long it would be before Cook batted for the last time.

It reminded me of when Juninho made his comeback after a long-term injury in his third stint at the Boro. He’d been named on the bench with the consequence that until he finally got onto the pitch every movement in the dugout commanded far more attention than anything happening on-field.

We had a long wait for the England opener though as India eked out their innings until mid-way through the afternoon session and reduced the deficit to just forty runs. From the moment the last wicket fell all eyes were on the pavilion until such time as Cook made his entrance to another standing ovation. It continued long after he’d arrived at the wicket and stopped only as the bowler commenced his run-up. I think I may have had something in my eye at that stage.

Our flight time meant that we had to leave at five, with still another hours worth of batting to come. I was unsure, somewhat selfishly, whether I’d have liked Cook to have been dismissed before we left, so I could be part of the clapping off. That wasn’t on the cards though and he batted out the session in our absence before returning the next day to complete one more daddy ton.

By the time the former England captain was out for not far short of a hundred and fifty, we were back in Malaysia where I watched his dismissal and departure as it happened on the telly in our house. It’s not often you see a batsman’s innings start and finish from locations more than six thousand miles apart.

Whitby Town v Hednesford Town, Saturday 1st September 2018, 3pm

September 28, 2018

Jen and I were back in the UK for a couple of weeks and we rented a cottage at Sandsend, just outside of Whitby. We took my mam, daughter and the two grandkids along for an old-fashioned seaside holiday.

Whilst I’d made all sorts of tentative plans to get to a few local matches, it was the second weekend before a lull in activities gave my grandson Harry and I the opportunity to nip along to the Turnbull Ground for Whitby’s seventh-tier Northern Premier League fixture with Hednesford Town.

It was a tenner admission for me with the boy getting in for free. I’d not seen a game at Whitby before, although I’d walked past their ground a few times. They’ve got a big stand down one side with a smaller covered standing area opposite. The only other time that Harry has been to the match with me we were in the Fenton Suite hospitality at the Boro. I thought that standing might be too much of a shock to the system and so we sat in the main stand.

I was disappointed to discover that Whitby’s Matty Tymon was out injured. He’d played in an under nines team with my son Tom twenty years ago and my main recollection is how much better he was than the rest of his team mates. Whilst Tom and the others spent their time chasing the ball and then either mindlessly booting it up field or dribbling until dispossessed, Matty was laying the ball off or diligently making off the ball runs to create space that went unnoticed by the rest of the team.

In Mr. Tymon’s absence, I focused on former Boro youngster Junior Mondal who you’d think was named after a pair of kid’s football boots. He buzzed about up front with very little service but had a decent touch. It looked to me as if he was good enough to play at a higher level, but he was hauled off early in the second half so maybe I’m out of step.

I think the highlight of the afternoon was Harry’s support of Whitby. After checking that it was fine to cheer on another team in the absence of the Boro, he would shout out “Come on Whitby” every few minutes. Naturally I’d offer similar encouragement but in a mangled ‘club singer’ style or Gazette seller growl. The boy sighed and shook his head in the way that his mother does.

Whitby went a goal down in the first half before conceding a second late on when a pacy run from a Hednesford player culminated in him wellying it home. The hosts notched a consolation at the end, no doubt as a result of our encouragement.