Racing at Sedgefield, Friday 13th April 2018

May 8, 2018

Jen and I were in the UK for a few days and staying in Sedgefield. There was a Friday afternoon race meeting on and as it was only a twenty minute walk away we had a stroll over.

We got there shortly before the first race and paid sixteen quid each to get into the grandstand section. It didn’t look as if the cheaper area in the centre of the circuit was open. I’ve been to Sedgefield before for evening and Saturday fixtures and there are usually a few families in there. Perhaps with this meeting being on a weekday and, I imagine, a lot of punters preferring to watch Aintree on the telly, it wasn’t worth them bothering opening it up.

Once inside it was clear that we’d picked a quiet day with probably no more than a couple of hundred attendees. That’s fine with me though, I can do without the crowds, particularly groups of people on the drink. My own drinking is fine, it’s just other people doing it that I don’t like.

I started with a pint of John Smith’s Smooth. It’s terrible stuff but there didn’t appear to be anything else. Fortunately I spotted some bottles of Wainwright’s Golden Ale in a fridge behind the bar. They were a lot more drinkable, with a hoppy, floral flavour. The barmaid apologised for the £5.10 price tag but it still struck me as better value than the John Smiths and would still have been even if they had been giving the Smooth away for free.

It wasn’t the best of weather with a hint of rain in the air and enough mist to make viewing of the far side of the course less than ideal. But, cold and damp trumps the hot and damp climate of Malaysia and I was more than happy to have to keep warm in a battered old Barbour that I’ve inherited from my Dad.

There were seven races, six over jumps and a bumper to finish, with another seven on the big screen from Aintree. We made a poor start to the betting but clawed it back over the course of the afternoon and went into the last race in the position where if our horse were to win then we’d have made a small profit and if it lost we’d go home a few quid down. It was second. Still a good day though.

Middlesbrough v Nottingham Forest, Saturday 7th April 2018, 3pm

May 2, 2018

I’d had plans whilst back in the UK to take in a Northern League fixture or two. However, stuff got in the way and so the only match I saw was the Boro’s home game against Forest.

There was a ‘fanzone’ outside the ground for this game. It was nothing like the fanzones that I’ve visited at World Cups, with just a small bar, a few umbrellas and not much else. Still, as Tom was in the South Stand whilst I was in the West Lower it meant we could have a pre-match Heineken outside of the Riverside.  That’s a step in the right direction I suppose.

I’d chosen the West Lower just for a change. There aren’t any spare seats near Tom and, if the truth be known, I was happy to be in a part of the ground with a better view and a chance to sit down.

I suppose the main talking point was the return of Karanka. I noticed a Basque flag in among the Red Faction banners being waved before kick-off and I suppose that was probably for his benefit, although they might very well wave it every week.

Aitor kept a low profile until about ten minutes in when he got up and moved from the bench to the technical area. He seemed surprised and emotional at the applause that rang around the ground, followed by the singing of his name and then a request for a wave.

By that time Danny Ayala had already put us a goal up and half an hour in Stewie added a second. That was enough to beat a limited Forest side. I imagine Karanka will tighten them up at the back fairly sharpish but I wonder whether he will be able to develop them into a team that can recover from going behind. I hope so, but despite all his success in the Championship, he never really managed it with us.

SD Eibar v Real Sociedad, Sunday 1st April 2018, 6.30pm

April 30, 2018

The first couple of nights on this Spain trip were spent in Vitoria-Gasteiz. It’s just like almost every other Spanish town of a similar size, with a few big churches, a historic centre and any number of narrow cobbled streets and tapas bars. Perfect really.  It’s also the home town of La Liga side Alaves. Unfortunately they didn’t have a home game during our stay and so I had to look a little further afield to Eibar for a game on the Sunday evening.

The 6.30pm kick-off worked well in that it gave us plenty of time to go for a walk along the GR-38. It’s a hiking trail that extends from Oyon to Otxandio and over our four-day stay we managed to cover forty miles through woodland, vineyards and a selection of small villages. It was an ideal way to finally finish off a pair of shoes.

The post-hiking drive to Eibar should have been a straightforward forty-five minutes up the motorway, but for some reason the sat nav took us to Durango instead which, once we’d realised we were in the wrong place, meant a doubling of our journey time. You can see Eibar’s Ipurua municipal stadium from the motorway, but parking nearby was initially hard to find. Fortunately El Corte Ingles had generously opened their underground car park, despite the store itself being closed for Easter Sunday. It meant that even with the detour and the parking difficulties I still found myself outside of the ground with twenty minutes to spare.

I’d initially expected to struggle for a ticket as Eibar’s ground only holds seven thousand, an amazingly small capacity for a top-flight club in one of Europe’s major leagues. However, they seem to have some sort of scheme where season ticket holders can sell their seat back to the club if they can’t attend. My frequent checking of their website paid dividends when I was able to snap up a fifty euro ticket for the central area of the north stand.

My seat was in row nine of eleven, so a pretty good view. Mind you, with the front row being raised up six feet or so, everyone had a decent vantage point. The people around me all greeted each other with hugs. They seemed very doubtful that I was in the right seat and were obviously expecting to see the regular occupant.

Oddly, the ground wasn’t full, with approximately eight hundred seats remaining empty. I’ve no idea why that was as only the odd seat had been on sale. Visitors Real Sociedad did their bit with around a third of the stadium being filled by their fans, most of whom were wearing their blue and white colours. There was little in the way of segregation, but there was no trouble despite pockets of vocal fans finding themselves singing alongside their opposition.

After not seeing the fake Kike, Kike Sola, the day before at Bilbao, I was quite pleased to see the real one, Kike Garcia, up front for Eibar. He looked different to how I remembered him from his time at the Boro. He seemed leaner, maybe a bit fitter and somewhat oddly appeared to have a better head of hair. Perhaps he’s had a transplant or wears a wig. He still went to ground very easily when challenged but, as when he was with us, he rarely drew the foul.

Kike didn’t manage to get on the scoresheet and neither did anyone else as the game petered out into a nil-nil draw.

Athletic Bilbao v Celta Vigo, Saturday 31st March 2018, 4.15pm

April 24, 2018

Jen and I often call into Spain for a few days when flying in or out of the UK. In recent years we’ve stayed in some of the bigger cities such as Barcelona, Seville and Granada, as well as some of the quieter locations in Tortosa, Toledo, Girona and Baza. This time we were staying a couple of nights in each of Vitoria-Gastiez and Laguardia and we landed at Saturday lunchtime in nearby Bilbao.

In a stroke of good fortune, or more truthfully a consequence of sensible planning ahead, Athletic Bilbao had a La Liga game that afternoon against Celta Vigo at their newish San Mames stadium. I’d bought a ticket online a few days earlier and after leaving Jen in a coffee shop made my way to the game.

It was busy outside the five-year old stadium, with fans drinking in just about every bar in a long street leading to the ground. I was surprised at how many away supporters were there. Fans don’t really travel in numbers in Spain, or at least they didn’t in the past, and it’s a fair distance to Galicia. Maybe it being Easter weekend made a difference.

San Mames is an impressive stadium with a steepish incline to the seating that keeps you close to the pitch even if you are towards the top of your stand. I’d paid sixty euros for a seat in row seventeen of the upper tier of the tunnel side of the pitch. I could have got away with paying forty euros if I’d been prepared to sit a bit higher up and alternatively if I’d wanted to be in row fifteen or lower it would have cost me eighty euros. The fifty-three thousand capacity ground was around two-thirds full.

As ever I’d had a look in advance to see if I knew any of the players and it turned out that Bilbao had an ex-Boro player, Kike, on their books.  It wasn’t the Kike that played for us for a couple of years though who due to the quantity of Kikes in Spain now has to call himself Kike Garcia, but the other one, Kike Sola. My Spanish was never brilliant and is getting worse these days, but I’m reasonably confident that Garcia must mean ‘genuine’ or ‘original’, whilst Sola will likely translate as either ‘fake’ or ‘spare’.

I actually saw the entire Boro career of Fake Kike. It began with a forty-five minute debut at home to Blackburn where if I recall correctly he looked what might be politely described as ‘well off the pace’. He got the hook at half-time before concluding his contribution to our promotion campaign with the last five minutes away to MK Dons. I have no recollection of him whatsoever on that occasion, but I trust he enjoyed Jordan Rhodes’ injury time equaliser as much as the rest of us did.

He sat on the bench for the Boro a couple more times before quietly disappearing back to Spain. I doubt he’ll bother attending the promotion team reunions. I didn’t hold out much hope of seeing him today though as despite being allocated the number nine shirt the nearest he had been to a game had been a spell on the bench a few weeks ago. In the Boro v Blackburn photo below he’s the fella being marked by two players.

Celta Vigo provided the opposition. I’d watched them a few times when I lived in Spain, but that’s twelve years ago now so I wasn’t expecting any of the players that I’d seen then to still be at the club. However, that Iago fella’s name seemed familiar. A quick check suggests that may be because he had a season at Liverpool that had either passed me by during our Championship years or I had completely forgotten about. However, a further check showed that he’d made twenty-one league appearances for Celta’s reserve team in the 2006-07 season.

I’d watched the B team play Ferrol at the Campo Municipal de Barriero that season, and there’s a two in three chance that he will have played in that match. I certainly remember his brother Jonathan turning out for Celta’s first team at that time, as much for his name I think as anything he’d done on the pitch. I checked my photos from way back then, but most of them were of the crowd rather than the players and so I’m none the wiser if I’ve seen Iago before or not.

As expected, there was no sign of Fake Kike. The first half was goalless, with Williams posing a bit of a threat for the home side. He picked up a booking for diving that seemed a bit harsh, but the ref was a little closer to play than I was. There’s no alcohol served in the higher divisions in Spain, but I was driving anyway, so it didn’t really matter. I was tempted by the pork bocadillo, although not quite enough to bother queuing.

In the second half Williams risked a second card when he went down in the box in a similar way to the way he had done before the break. He didn’t get the penalty but avoided the card. Iago put himself about for the visitors but never looked like getting on the score-sheet. I moved down about a dozen rows to sample the view from the more expensive seats.

Athletic took a lead early in the second half that you could probably say was deserved but an injury time equaliser left the home fans well and truly pissed off. I don’t know why, neither side was in danger of relegation or of reaching a European spot. Save your anguish for when it matters. Mind you, it could have been worse for Bilbao as in the remaining added time Celta went on to hit the post and then have a goal disallowed. That would have given the Basques something to complain about.

Sri Lanka v Bangladesh, Saturday 10th March 2018, 7.15pm

March 30, 2018

Our third sporting event of the day was the game that the trip had originally been planned around. It was a T20 international between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and required another tuk-tuk ride, this time twenty minutes or so to the R. Premesada stadium.

It was busy outside, with reports of a sellout and our driver dropped us a few minutes walk away. It wasn’t much of a tourist area, with the streets full of shops doing bike repairs, selling car parts and even a tinker. I don’t remember what a tinker does, but should I ever need any tinking I now know where to go.

Security was tight, as you might expect when a state of emergency had been declared three days earlier. We passed through two security checkpoints and  a body scanner before doing a lap of the stadium to find our entrance for the grandstand. We had posh tickets, bought online for five thousand rupees a few weeks earlier and there was a lift to take us up to our upper level.

I’d selected row A, which was fine until people started standing at the railings. Initially I was able to wave them out of our line of vision but sensing a losing battle we soon moved backwards to an area of empty seats that gave a much better view. Beer was on sale for under a quid and there was a selection of chicken, burgers and chips available. I had plenty of everything.

Whist there were empty seats in our section and the stands either side, the big curved stand opposite looked full. Most people appeared to be standing in those areas and all were making plenty of noise. The section we were in was definitely the best for sitting quietly.

The game was part of a three team tournament  that also involved India and, I think, was intended to celebrate an independence anniversary. Sri Lanka batted well and comfortably went along at ten an over to finish on 214.

That score should really have been enough, particularly as Bangladesh has a poor record against their hosts in this format, winning only two of the the previous nine encounters. The visitors went at it well though, initially scoring at twelve an over and always seeming to be up with the required rate.

At the death Bangladesh hit the winning runs with two balls in hand. Our tuk-tuk driver for the journey back to our Fort hotel seemed to think he had the invincibility of an armoured vehicle rather than the vulnerability of a motorbike with a box on the back. On the plus side, his reckless manoeuvres did leave a little more time for late evening drinking, something that the ongoing state of emergency or the recent law that prohibits women from consuming alcohol failed to impact upon at all.

 

Colombo FC v Cooray SC, Saturday 10th March 2018, 4pm

March 29, 2018

Whilst the initial reason for the Sri Lanka trip had been the T20 international between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, there was no way that I could pass up an attempt to add to the list of countries where I’ve watched a football game.

The problem, however, was that the Sri Lanka Premier League season had finished a few weeks earlier. After a lot of effort, I managed to discover that a pre-season, or perhaps post-season, tournament known as the President Cup would have a fixture during our stay. The game between Colombo and Cooray was scheduled to take place at the City League football ground, a venue that wasn’t too far from our Fort area hotel.

Early that morning we went for a wander along the seafront with the intention of finding the ground. No such luck. We did however see a bit of wildlife and as we passed over a bridge we startled a three-foot long water monitor. It was just as well that we did startle it as it appeared to have plans for crossing a busy road. I see enough monitor corpses on the tarmac in Malaysia to know that they have as little road sense as a kid hearing ice cream chimes and our intervention probably extended its life by at least the ten minutes that we stood between it and the road.

We also saw pelicans that were perched, usually in pairs, on street lights. I know it’s not like seeing them in a nature reserve, but I suppose they will view it as their natural habitat.

Best of all though, were a couple of cobras. Sadly not just slithering around or spitting at passers-by but in a basket, craning their necks as a snake charmer piped them upwards. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing and before long Mr. Charmer was explaining that the snakes did not have any venom in them. I’ve no idea how that works, whether they are milked of their poison or whether there is a more permanent solution.

I probably don’t want to know either, I suppose, as I doubt it’s something that is in the best interest of the snakes. Anyway, we hung around long enough for him to produce a python from a sack which he draped around my neck and by doing so increased his tip to a fiver. You don’t see stuff like that at Seaton seafront.

As game time came around we decided to increase our chances of getting there by taking a tuk-tuk. The driver claimed to know the venue and despite my doubts as to his geographical knowledge or his ability to resist a detour to a magic carpet shop he successfully delivered us to the City League Ground in good time.

We went in at the gate next to the pavilion and were sold 200 rupee tickets for upstairs seats behind the goal. This was the posh section and as we wandered around it looked as if our ninety pence admission might also have got us a cup of tea and a chapati. The pavilion had been built, or at least paid for, by the chairperson of Basel FC as part of the tsunami relief effort.  That struck me as a very generous gesture and undoubted proof that there’s no such thing as karma, otherwise I’d have expected Massimo’s last minute header in that semi final to have been glanced wide rather than powered into the net

However, the view from the pavilion was through some wire fencing. Perhaps the posh people of Colombo have a fear of being struck by a Rochemback style free-kick. I’m happy to risk a smack in the chops though for a clearer view and so we gave up the chance of food and drink and moved to the 50 rupee seats along the side of the pitch where I could peer over the top of the fence.

The pitch was in a bad way after the mid-afternoon rain and kick-off was delayed by twenty minutes to enable kids to mop up puddles whilst other people re-painted the lines. A few fellas had large sponges which they would use to soak up the water before re-depositing it five yards away, no doubt for the next bloke to deal with.

Once this group-stage tie got underway Colombo, the current league champions, looked a little better than their opponents Cooray, although I’m not sure how many first teamers were on show. A couple of the subs looked to be lacking fitness, so perhaps this tournament was a chance for some squad rotation. The wife and daughter of one sub were sat next to us so I was pleased for them when he got on.

I wasn’t expecting the standards of play to be up to much, despite these both being teams from the top division in the country. However, everyone passed the ball well on an unfavourable surface and I think the clubs would probably do well against, say, Northern league teams. Neither side had the big stoppers that you tend to see in that league but with the ball rarely in the air being built like a brick shithouse may not have been much of an advantage.

Colombo took the lead in the first half and then doubled their lead with a penalty in the second. The twenty minute delay in starting due to the water mopping meant that we had to head off with ten minutes remaining to get to the cricket game we had lined up for that evening.

By the time we left it was very dark and with no floodlights available I doubt the ref would have played much additional time. A subsequent check to find out the score turned out to be a complete waste of time as it seems that the group stages of the President Cup isn’t remotely newsworthy in Sri Lanka.

Royals v Thomians, Saturday 10th March 2018, 10.30am

March 28, 2018

Colombo is less than a four-hour flight away from KL and so when I noticed a weekend T20 international between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh I thought it might be worth a visit. Jen and I arrived on the Friday night and on Saturday morning we had the task of collecting our tickets from the Sri Lankan cricketing headquarters at the Sinhalese Sports Club. The game wasn’t taking place there, it was at the newer R. Premesada stadium a few kilometres away, but I suppose it made sense to ensure that everyone arriving for that evening’s action already had their ticket in their hand.

The SSC wasn’t the easiest place to find and so we made use of a tuk-tuk. It goes without saying that the driver had no desire to take us straight there, but as we had plenty of time we agreed to his suggestion of stopping off at some famous buddhist temple.

It was an odd sort of temple, on one hand it had the usual golden statues, but it was also crammed with all sorts of bric-a-brac, old photos, ornaments and thirty year old cameras. There was even a radio cassette player from the eighties and a video recorder that you could probably carbon date to ten years later. It made me wonder whether I should convert our UK lockup into a place of worship.

The SSC was incredibly busy, far more so than you’d expect, even if a lot of people had left collecting their T20 tickets until the day of the game. The real reason for the crowds was that there was an annual Schools match, the 139th Battle of the Blues. Whilst you’d probably say Eton v Harrow at Lords would be the nearest English equivalent in terms of a sporting contest, the atmosphere was more like the annual Oxford v Cambridge rugby game at Twickenham.

Well, with something like that going on, the tuk-tuk driver’s proposal that he take us to some gems market around the corner was never going to have much appeal. We told him that we were fine for diamonds, picked up our tickets for the evening game and then set about trying to get inside the ground.

We were directed all around the perimeter but couldn’t find a ticket office. Eventually at Gate 1 we were told that there should be tickets available in around five minutes. A quarter of an hour later we were quietly told by a young lad handing out those cardboard signs with a 4 on them that the game was actually sold out and that the gatekeepers didn’t want to pass on the bad news.

We wandered back in the direction that we had come from and when I saw a bloke with a couple of tickets in his hand I asked him where I could buy some. “Here” he replied and offered me the two that he had. They were three-day tickets with a face value of 3,800 Sri Lankan Rupees, which is around seventeen quid. As this was day two of a three-day game he discounted them by a third and asked for 2,500. Result.

We made our way back to Gate 1 and after giving a thumbs up to the boundary card distributor we were into the ground. We passed through a section with food stalls and made our way upstairs to our seats in the pavilion grandstand. We were just in time to nab front row seats which, apart from a stanchion, gave us a decent view of the field.

Whilst the outside had been busy, the inside of the SSC was at another level. I read that there had been eighteen thousand attending the day before, including the Sri Lanka Prime Minister who had quite rightly prioritised an old boys day out over paying closer attention to the domestic crisis that had necessitated him announcing a State of Emergency just two days earlier. It looked as if there were at least as many spectators for the second day as the first.

The stands were sub-divided into numerous enclosures occupied by groups of old boys and current boys. There was a mix of live and recorded music blaring out with the drummers and trumpeters competing to drown each other out. It was obviously a very big social occasion with few people watching the cricket as they caught up with old classmates.

The Royals were three down in their first innings, responding to the St Thomas’ score of 166. For most of the morning we watched a decent partnership between two lads who will no doubt be reliving it over a beer at this event for the next fifty years. It was brought to an end when the big fast bowler took his fourth wicket of the innings and Royal College went in at lunch about seventy behind with six wickets remaining.

The lunch break was the signal for a lot of the spectators to wander around the outfield, catching up with old mates and documenting their attendance with selfies. We had stuff to do and with rain in the air we did a lap around the edge and then headed out, ears ringing. At the exit we handed over our tickets, wristbands and pass outs to the boundary card fella who had been helpful when we’d been ticketless. Hopefully he was able to put them to good use.

Kelantan v Perak, Saturday 24th February 2018, 9pm

March 27, 2018

I’d picked this game as it had originally been scheduled for an afternoon kick-off. Of course by the time the game came around and after I’d booked the flights and a hotel, it had been shifted to a 9pm start. Our mid-morning flight to Kota Bharu took just under an hour, which was a lot easier than I imagine the alternative of an eight-hour drive to a town high up on the east coast and only about fifteen miles from the Thai border would have been.

There’s not lot goes on in Kota Bharu. We called into their state museum which seems to celebrate Islam successes rather than local or state achievements. Until our visit I hadn’t realised that everything that had ever been invented had been first thought of by a muslim gadgee and then just tweaked slightly by whoever the western world subsequently credited with the invention. I was hoping to see an early version of my sadly non-patented and brandy-fueled brainwaves of the Ryan Air coat for getting around flight luggage restrictions and the spoon with a hole in it for those who don’t like too much milk with their cornflakes. However, there mustn’t have been room for them among the planes, motor vehicles and weaponry.

The only other activity we could find to occupy us was a walk along the river. The stretch that you can access is pretty short and in the hour or so that it kept us occupied we saw nothing more than a couple of bright yellow birds, a few scabby but friendly feral cats and a sleeping tramp.

The Sultan Mohammad IV stadium was only a short walk from our hotel and was overlooked from our room. I’d had a bit of a fright when I woke from a pre-match nap as I noticed players running around under the floodlights. Fortunately it was just the warm-up and not another revision to the kick-off time.

On the way into the ground we stopped for some food. You never really know what will be available inside and even then, it’s rarely up to much. Jen had chicken and rice, whilst I had char kway teoh or something. It’s flat noodles with chicken. I’ve had it in Thailand before and it was better there. Still, it enabled us to watch the pre-match chat on a telly.

Even though our food choices were something that you imagine would be knocked up in a few minutes, they took a while to arrive and so despite arriving in town eight hours before kick-off the game started without us. We had the usual lap of the ground to find the ticket office where we bought fifteen ringgit seats behind the goal. When we’d looked from our window that has appeared to be the section with the fewest fans.

It turned out that we were right next to the Perak fans and their drums. We would have been in with them if I hadn’t nipped under a tape barrier. Still, everyone was very friendly, if a little louder than I’d have liked them to have been.

The visitors opened the scoring mid-way through the first half. I couldn’t tell you what happened as it was up the other end and I was looking around the crowd. They held their lead well into the second half until Korean Do Dong-Hyun equalised for the hosts. I think the Perak fans had been taking victory a little for granted, but they took the Kelantan celebrations well.

They had less than a minute to wait though to regain the lead and then it was the turn of those around me to flash those wry smiles. Ten minutes of Perak time-wasting later and Kelantan were level again with another from the Korean fella. At that point the game could have gone either way and I think neither side would have been too disappointed with a draw.

There was more to come in the final moments though and we had a brawl, a disallowed goal at one end and a legitimate one at the other, a hat-trick effort from Mr. Do to clinch the points. I’d been tempted to nip off early to try to find somewhere for post-match drinking but with most of the action condensed into the last quarter it’s just as well that we didn’t.

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

March 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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