A tribute to the greatest ground hopper

What started with an uneventful game on a dreary day in Plymouth has turned into a passion for watching football around the world. There’s one man to thank for that

Date: Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 
Location: Iwata city, Shizuoka prefecture
Venue: Yamaha Stadium
Match: Jubilo Iwata versus Vegalta Sendai (Emperor's Cup quarter-final)

There’s a football game taking place out there. Somewhere inside the thick blanket of fog that has rolled in off the bay, across the docks and up the hill. It has seeped in everywhere, through the exposed corners of this ageing stadium, between the green plastic seats, beneath the corrugated metal grandstand roofs.

It’s January 11, 1997. Plymouth Argyle versus Crewe Alexandra. Home Park. Football League Division Two. My first ever football game.

Discovering a new world

The fixture may sound arbitrary, but there was sound logic behind the decision to sit in the fog on a cold January day watching two of English football’s most unglamorous teams.

I was 13 years old and football mad. And as an impressionable youth, it was the biggest and best team in the country that caught my eye. These were the early days of Alex Ferguson turning Manchester United into a swaggering, attacking, all-conquering behemoth of English football.

And so it was that Manchester United posters began creeping onto my bedroom walls. That football in the school playground was being enacted with the collar of my shirt very much turned up. A habit developed that I would go to my neighbour’s house to watch United games on Sky Sports.

That was until the grey January intervention that would change my life.

I still remember everything of the day. Breakfast at home, making sandwiches, preparing a Thermos full of tea, the excitement building.

And then the bus ride. Through the humdrum Saturday afternoon streets of a down-at-heel Cornish market town. Out through the Clay Country, where the insatiable thirst for china clay has left the hills hollowed out beneath dirty grey mounds of chewed up earth. Into the thick covering of trees that sweep across mid-Cornwall. Under incredibly grand viaducts, over bridges above gentle estuaries, and finally towards the border.

We cross the Tamar Bridge, leaving Cornwall behind and into heart of Plymouth. The bus rolls through estates of terrace houses that stretch up and down the hills of the city. Past green-shirted fans walking along streets of beat-up pubs and bustling takeaway restaurants.

And finally I see it. Floodlights poking above the tree line. My first sight of Home Park. Face pressed against the bus window. Excitement off the chart.

But it wasn’t just a special day for me.

Home Park Plymouth Argyle Devon English football
The Theatre of Greens. Home Park, where my love affair with football began

Crewe is 250 miles from Plymouth. Nothing connects these two places, except one thing today. A family connection. The north west town being the birthplace of my father and I. It’s been over ten years since my dad last saw Crewe Alexandra play.

But today the shadowy figures on the pitch could be from anywhere. The fog has taken a particular liking to the Barn Park End, and as the clock ticks down, the action just so happens to be centred there.

We’re into stoppage time. It’s 0-0. Argyle are launching the ball forward, it disappears into the grey, there are shouts, there are groans. And then a murky goalmouth scramble. The net billows, a cheer erupts. Richard Logan has scored a late winner.

It wasn’t a classic. I barely saw the goal. It’s cold. But I’m hooked. Thanks to my dad, a whole new world of football has opened up for me.

Arabian adventures

Red, white and green flags are fluttering from almost every car as we drive down the six-lane motorway that cuts through the centre of the city. A few of the more excited motorists are leaning on their car horns. And it’s not just the drivers getting into the spirit. Huge flags drape from the squat office blocks, boxy shopping centres and imposing homes that line the road. And as the sun sets on the early-evening city bustle, the sky burns orange behind the jagged brown mountains. The perfect night for football.

It’s March 3, 2010. Oman versus Kuwait. Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex. Asian Cup qualifying, group B.

Life takes unexpected turns. And it’s hard to feel much further away from Plymouth.

Muscat Oman Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex Middle East Arabian Gulf football
Welcome to Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex

On our frequent trips to Home Park, I learnt about my father’s football watching past in the north west of England. I would read him the day’s fixtures from the newspaper, he would regale me with stories of the teams he travelled to watch. Stoke City, Port Vale, Bury, Rochdale, Northwich Victoria – historic names of English football echoed through distance and time on the Argyle supporters’ bus that rattled through the Cornish countryside. I could picture the terraces, see the floodlights shining above stadiums rich in history, surrounded by houses, where the chants of the fans rang through the streets. I laughed at the story of my dad getting hit in the face by a football while looking for his seat at Gresty Road.

It took a while for me to catch the ground hopping bug. But on this balmy Middle Eastern night, I feel it stirring.

Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex is the main stadium in Muscat, the picturesque capital of Oman. But as kick-off approaches, the floodlights are on full power, and the beautiful city has melted away into the darkness beyond this brutalist concrete bowl.

Tonight, all that matters is what happens on the pitch.

There are 27,000 fans in the stadium tonight. It’s an electric atmosphere. Omani flags fly, full-throated Arabic chants reverberate around the stands.

This is the final game of Group B. Australia and Kuwait occupy the top two places, both on eight points. Oman are third with seven, meaning victory tonight will secure their place at the finals in Qatar.

But Kuwait know a draw will do, and they set out to thwart the home side. It’s a scrappy game. Nothing sticks for Oman. The visitors are organised. They have a plan.

It’s not what the home fans expected. Their excitement is turning into frustration. The goalless first half wasn’t enough.

And as the second half ticks away, desperation spreads through the crowd. Each missed chance provokes cries of anguish.

Football means so much in Oman. Kids play impromptu games on the middle of roundabouts and the thin strips of grass alongside the main roads through the city.  The golden beaches lined by palm trees are the perfect setting for kick-abouts with groups of friends.

But seeing the national team succeed means even more. When Oman won the 2009 Gulf Cup as hosts, wild celebrations broke out around the country, with fans singing and dancing on the streets all night.

Tonight, though, time is passing fast. It’s still 0-0, and deep in stoppage time Oman launch one last-gasp attack. The fans are up on their feet, screaming, urging the team on. There’s a scramble in the box, the ball ricochets around, and then the ball breaks loose. One last shot. It flies over the bar.

The final whistle blows shortly after. Oman 0 Kuwait 0. The away team advance to the 2011 Asian Cup. The home side miss out. A fan collapses to his knees and screams in despair.

I’m 4,500 miles from home. But the passions the game evokes take me back to Home Park. To those matches with my dad. I call him after the game.

He knows from my voice that this is just the beginning of a new football adventure.

Football to the rescue

I get a quizzical look from the man behind the glass. He seems suspicious. I think he’s maybe misunderstood me. So I say it again.

“One ticket, please.”

He turns around and shouts at someone in a dark corner of what is allegedly the ticket office. I wait. Buses spewing diesel fumes roll past before parking up at the station across the road. A couple of shoppers stroll along, heading for the mall. I feel like I should be doing the same.

The man turns back to me.

“Go ahead, my friend. It’s free.”

“I don’t need a ticket?”

“No, no. Just go in.”

“Thank you very much!”

It’s October 28, 2016. Al Wahda FC versus Al Nasr. Al Nahyan Stadium. Arabian Gulf League. And as I walk in, ticketless, on this pleasantly warm autumn day, I know I’m going to like Al Wahda.

Up until I left home for university, my father and I made regular trips to Home Park. But as the years went by, the trips back to Cornwall became less frequent, and my father became less mobile. The time came when he was no longer able to travel to Home Park, so I would go with friends instead. But I would always call at full-time with my analysis of the performance. Usually doom and gloom, but with the occasional “they played alright, actually”.

Ending up in the Middle East was never part of my plan. But life takes unexpected turns. After three years in Oman, I found my way to the UAE. And, for a short time, Abu Dhabi was my home.

The capital city of the UAE has its charms. Incredible modern architecture, stunning sites of natural beauty, and rich culture.

But at this time of my life, Abu Dhabi had failed to capture my imagination. It wasn’t where I wanted to be.

So I would spend my free time wandering the crowded Al Zahiyah streets near my apartment. It’s a multicultural area. Vibrant. Bustling. Arabic, Urdu, Hindu and Tagalog voices. Aromatic restaurants from around the world, textile stores spilling out on to the street, corner shops piled high with anything and everything.

One day I ventured further and stumbled across a gigantic, sand-coloured shopping mall. So far, not much of a surprise.

Shopping is a major pastime in the Gulf. For six months of the year it’s too hot to go outside, so the air-conditioned malls become an escape.

And Al Wahda Mall seemed nothing out of the ordinary. I walked the halls, checked out a few stores and stopped for a sit down in a coffee shop. I took a seat by the window, glanced out and saw something incredible.

Al Nahyan Stadium Al Wahda FC Al Wahda Mall Arabian Gulf League Abu Dhabi UAE
Not a bad view from a shopping mall

Al Wahda Mall looks out over Al Nahyan Stadium, the home of Al Wahda FC. But this is more than just a shopping centre team. They’re the most successful club in the capital city of the UAE, with four league titles to their name.

And Al Nahyan Stadium, despite its location, wedged between a bus station and a mall, is an atmospheric arena. It’s surrounded by a choppy sea of buildings, a jumble of homes, shops and offices, from where intricate minarets rise above the chaos.

I get the chance to pay close attention to the neighbourhood during my first game at Al Nahyah Stadium. It’s a goalless first half. Scrappy. Uneventful. And it seems Al Wahda aren’t the biggest draw in the city. I can choose my spot from banks of claret seats.

Al Wahda Stadium 1
Nightfall at Al Nahyan Stadium

Half time refreshments Middle East-style might not satisfy the faithful back in Devon, but I’m happy with my packet of Chips Oman and plastic cup of orange juice. And having a clear head helps me to comprehend a mad second half.

Argentinian forward Sebastian Tagliabue bags four goals as Al Wahda come out on top 5-1 against Al Nasr in a mind-boggling, logic-defying, six-goal 45-minute festival of footballing mayhem.

Explaining what happened during my weekly phone call home to dad was fun that night. And it continued to be during the rest of my time in Abu Dhabi.

Al Wahda FC Al Nahyan Stadium fans Arabian Gulf League football Abu Dhabi UAE
Al Wahda fans in full voice at Al Nahyan Stadium

Getting lost in football

“Where are you going this week?”

“Not far. Just up the road to Omiya.”

Japan became home in early 2017, but the football bug took a little while to catch. Life was getting in the way of football. But conversations with dad still revolved around the game, primarily Argyle.

The distance back to Cornwall grew further with the latest move east. Trips to Home Park had become once a season, if lucky. Neither my dad or I were attending games. Snatched highlights and newspaper match reports were the fuel for our outrage at the poor running of the club, which in 2018 turned to uncontrollable glee at the form that nearly snatched a play-off place from the jaws of relegation. Supporting Argyle is anything but dull.

At the same time as Argyle were starting their climbing up the league table, I was embarking on my first true season of ground hopping.

It all began with an early start. A pre-dawn bus ride through the dark streets of Tokyo. Heading north. A blurry-eyed service station stop for a much needed cup of coffee. Waking up as the bus slowed down in a spacious, green city on a bright spring day.

It’s March 7, 2018. Vegalta Sendai versus Albirex Niigata. Yurtec Stadium. Levain Cup, group A.

Sendai is a beautiful, historical city. It’s green, with trees lining the wide avenues, gentle rivers flowing underneath stone bridges. High above the city are the remains of Aoba Castle, where legendary feudal lord Date Masamune looks out over his former domain.

1810890429_e9674c1590_o
Date Masamune surveys his domain

But back down on the streets, on a bitterly cold night, I’m waiting for a train out to the suburbs. I board with yellow-shirted fans and watch through the window as the buildings shrink in size. Warm orange lights from family homes and lurid neon shopping centre signs shine out of through the increasing darkness of early evening.

And as we approach the end of the line at Izumi-Chuo, there’s an unnatural glow in the sky. A group of schoolboys turn to look out of the window, chatting excitedly as a floodlit Yurtec Stadium rolls into view.

Yurtec Stadium Sendai Japan
Yurtec Stadium, the home of Vegalta Sendai

Tonight isn’t a big game. As I would come to learn in my first season of watching Japanese football, the Levain Cup isn’t a major draw, especially during the group stage.

But I don’t care.

These mid-week games opened up a world of football and travel. And it all began on this freezing night in Sendai, under the multi-coloured light show of the Yurtec Stadium, as Vegalta and Albirex battled to an entertaining 1-1 draw.

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A quiet Yurtec Stadium for the early-season Levain Cup match against Albirex Niigata

Now the calls home to dad had a new element. As I travelled Japan watching football, from Tohoku in the north, all the way down to Kyushu in the south, I described the sights I saw — the castles, the museums, the breath-taking scenery. And of course, the matches.

He listened as I talked about all the meaningless Levain Cup games I attended. Showed more interest than anyone ever could about Sagamihara SC versus Azul Claro Numazu in J3. And laughed as I glumly told of sitting in the snow in Kofu and getting drenched by a biblical Matsumoto downpour.

Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium snow Ventforet Kofu Tokushima Vortis Kofu Yamanashi prefecture Japan J.League 2 football
Groundkeepers clear snow before Ventforet Kofu’s J2 game against Tokushima Vortis

My journeys to the games seemed to catch his imagination. He was fascinated by the bullet trains, intrigued by the promises of Maglev. And as a former bus driver, he never failed to ask what make of coach took me away from Tokyo as I headed out to the likes of Nagoya, Shizuoka and Hamamatsu.

I finished my season with a short two-stop hop up the Saikyo Line. Game number 21 of 2018. Omiya Ardija versus Montedio Yamagata in a must-win J.League 2 game for the hosts.

It was a sell-out. I arrived 90 minutes before kick-off, yet it was still a struggle to find a seat in the unreserved section behind the goal at Ardija’s scenic ground.

Nack5 Stadium is nestled inside a quiet corner of Omiya Park, reached by a pleasant walk along a tree-covered path and beyond a beautiful temple resting amid the gentle woodland.

But on match days the area’s natural colours are accentuated by bright splashes of orange worn by the Ardija faithful.

And on this bright, sunny early-November day, as a light breeze rustled the autumn leaves, Ardija were pushing for a play-off place. For the fans packed into the steep stands at Nack5, the chatter was all about the chance of an instant return to J.League 1 after a one season absence.

A win was needed to keep that hope alive in this penultimate league game of the campaign. But it felt like a huge anti-climax in a lacklustre first half, the pressure and expectation seemingly getting to the players.

Omiya Ardija Nack5 Stadium Saitama J.League Japanese football
Dark clouds gather over Nack5 Stadium

As half-time approached, dark clouds rolled in over the stadium, threatening an epic soaking. But the heavy sky wasn’t a portent of misery for Ardija. Not for today, anyway.

Buoyed by the break, the home side came out for the second half with intent. They snapped into tackles, moved the ball quickly and created some excellent chances.

At full-time, the 12,000 home fans were celebrating a 2-0 win. The play-off dream was kept alive, and Ardija secured their place in the final game of the season.

But there wasn’t to be a happy ending to 2018 for Ardija. A 1-0 home defeat to Tokyo Verdy meant the team in orange fell at the first hurdle of the play-offs. Another season in J2 awaits in 2019.

A new season

As the Japanese football season trickled to its conclusion, dad and I went back to talking about about Argyle. About the old players we used to watch, the old Home Park grandstands (all gone now) we used to sit in, the state of today’s team and what the future holds. A grim season of toil was beginning to show signs of hope. We wondered about another great escape.

My father passed away on January 13, 2019. Our final conversation was the day before his death. We spoke about football, of course. He was in hospital, so I updated him on the fixtures. He said we should beat Southend. I told him I’d call again in a couple of days.

I never got the chance to tell him the score. But he was right. We won 3-2.

And although I won’t get the chance to tell him about my football adventures in 2019, every post I write will be in his memory. For the man who taught me so much about life. Who supported me at every step, even when we were continents apart. And who always listened. Who always had the right words at the right time.

To the man who gave me the gift of football.

This is for the greatest ground hopper I ever knew.

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