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A Tradition Maintained

7th November 2017

I turned up at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday knowing that Manchester City had made an impressive start to the 2017-18 season: maximum points from their 4 Champions League games to date, 9 wins (and one draw) out of 10 Premier League matches and safely through to the quarter-final of the Carabao (or League) Cup. In the Premier League, they were five points clear of second-placed Manchester United and nine points ahead of Arsenal in fifth spot. As Sunday’s game was against Arsenal – and United were playing fourth-placed Chelsea – there was the possibility that City would put further daylight between themselves and their title rivals.

I had wondered what to expect. The latest (2017) estimates of Forbes magazine are that the ManchesterCity and Arsenal corporate entities each have a value of approximately $2 billion. They are global brands in a global market. City are owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group; Arsenal’s major shareholders are an American sports tycoon and a Russian billionaire. The respective managers are a Spaniard (or, more accurately in the current political climate, a Catalan) and a Frenchman. Both clubs spent over £50 million on single players during the last transfer window. In the starting XIs, City fielded four Englishmen and Arsenal none (though there was one Welshman).

The question in my mind was whether – for the home supporters on this occasion – there was still a local connection. Do the City faithful still have a sense of identification with a club that will mark its 125th anniversary in 2019: the club of Billy Meredith and Bert Trautmann and Colin Bell?

There was plenty of evidence to indicate that the ties between club and supporters are still very strong. In this regard, the appeal to tradition is clearly significant. It was no coincidence that my seat was actually in the Colin Bell Stand. Moreover, the player described by the mc as probably the greatest ever to wear a Manchester City shirt was present to take his place before the kick-off in a guard of honour for Sergio Agüero who, in the previous match against Napoli, had become the club’s record goalscorer. Agüero’s total of 178 had taken him past the 78 year-old record of Eric Brook, whose daughter was on hand to make a pre-match presentation. She was accompanied by Mike Summerbee, a “club ambassador” and, of course, a colleague of Bell’s in the great City side of the late 1960s. In turn, Summerbee’s article in the match programme having made reference to Remembrance Day, a separate piece recognised some of the City players killed or wounded in the First World War trenches 100 years ago.

When Agüero scored his 179th goal – a soft penalty awarded five minutes after half-time to give his side a 2-0 lead – it looked as if the floodgates might open, given Arsenal’s occasional tendency in recent years to concede large scores to sides at or near the top of the table. Instead – prompted by the Welshman, Aaron Ramsey – they enjoyed their best spell of the match and a goal by the lively substitute Alexandre Lacazette duly reduced the arrears. For the third City goal, the naked eye suggested that David Silva was at least three yards offside before setting up the tap-in for Gabriel Jesus: the later television replay indicated it was perhaps half a yard, but offside nonetheless. 3-1 was the final score.

Much is made of ManchesterCity’s playing style: a passing game, built up from the goalkeeper and the back four, so that the skilful presence of Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane can threaten in the final third of the pitch. De Bruyne was announced to have been the man-of-the-match – he had struck the first goal and posed a danger throughout the afternoon – though Silva must have run him close, as also Fernandinho. The last of these is generally less-heralded, I suspect, but is clearly a vital component of City’s midfield machinery.

Earlier in the day, I had visited the NationalFootballMuseum in the city centre. I had been meaning to go for some time, partly because, when it had previously been located in Preston (as it was from 2001 to 2010), one of the trustees was the late Brian Booth, whom I got to know when I was a Scottish Executive civil servant and he was a non-executive director of the Glasgow-based Student Loans Company. Brian was a proud advocate of the Museum and its Lancastrian location.

The Museum, which is free to enter (and invites donations), is well worth a visit. For the traditionalists and historians amongst us, there is some fascinating older material, including a hand-written version of the Rules of Association Football (from 1863) and an England shirt from the first international football match (against Scotland in 1872). One should be prepared to be overwhelmed, however, as there is scarcely an aspect of (English) football history that does not seem to be covered. I’m not really sure if the exhibits need to include the shorn locks of Robbie Savage’s hair or the pickled knee cartilage of Willie Cunningham, though I suppose one of John Motson’s sheepskin overcoats just about qualifies.

The “sport-in-society” theme of my occasional blogs was certainly captured in some of the Museum’s displays, not least the dreadful array of knives carried by some of the members of the 1980s football gangs. On a more uplifting note, I was taken by the small model of the old Wembley Stadium – sculpted out of concrete – the concrete itself having been rescued at the time of the demolition of the old Wembley Stadium.

The usual rules apply, I think. If one seeks to understand the current state of affairs of something – in this case, of football in general or a club such as Manchester City in particular – it is immensely useful to start with its history. Some traditions are maintained, others are re-interpreted, yet others are broken.

For the present, ManchesterCity go from strength to strength. By the close-of-play on Sunday, their lead at the top of the Premier League had stretched to eight points, courtesy of Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester United. There is still over two-thirds of the league season to run, of course, but it is looking ominous for the rest of the field.

As for Arsenal, the traditions of my personal relationship with the club have been maintained. I have seen them play three times – against Leeds United at Elland Road in 1971, against Manchester United at Highbury in 1985 and now against ManchesterCity at the Etihad Stadium in 2017. They have lost on all three occasions.

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A Tough Pool

23rd October 2017

The Glasgow Warriors have been drawn in a tough pool in this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup. In addition to the Exeter Chiefs (the English champions), their section includes Leinster (three times winners of the competition in its previous guise as the Heineken Cup) and Montpellier (currently third in the Top 14 championship in France). For their part, Glasgow had begun the season by winning their first six matches in the Guinness PRO14 championship.

Having already lost at Exeter on the previous weekend, Glasgow met Leinster at Scotstoun on Saturday.

The game was played in proper rugby conditions with dampness in the air and a tricky, swirling wind. It was clear that attention to detail – a sine qua non for a professional player I would have thought – would be important. I could imagine the frustration of the Glasgow coaches, therefore, when the scrum half, Ali Price, kicked the ball directly into touch from just outside his 22 on the first play of the game. It was from this advantageous field position that a Johnny Sexton penalty kick opened the scoring for the visitors. Later in the first half, with Glasgow leading 10-3, a massive punt downfield by Stuart Hogg took the ball all the way over the Leinster deadball line. The resultant scrum, brought back to 10 yards from the Glasgow line, led to the first of Cian Healy’s two close-range tries. On such fine margins are matches won and lost.

Healy was one of 5 British Lions who took the field for Leinster, two of the others also being prop forwards: Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath. They were instrumental in the Leinster forwards gaining the upper hand in the tight exchanges. For their part, Glasgow often looked dangerous when moving the ball swiftly to the wider channels, where Hogg could time his intrusions from full-back into the three-quarter line. I thought that the accuracy of their passing was not all it might be, however, and there was also the commonly-seen fault of the runners drifting across the pitch.

It all added up to a very interesting contest with both sides demonstrating skill as well as muscular strength. Stuart Hogg’s try required him to chase a bouncing ball over the try line and touch it down before either he or it went over the deadball line. The way that he managed to keep his feet in bounds as he stretched forward reminded me of one of the fundamental skills of a wide receiver in the National Football League, where a catch for a touchdown in the end-zone requires that both feet touch the ground in the field of play.

From 3-10 down, Leinster took a lead of 24-10 mid-way through the second half. A penalty goal by Finn Russell and a well-worked try by Tommy Seymour – along with Hogg the Glasgow Lions on view – gave the home supporters some hope before Leinster’s late surge extended the final margin to 34-18.

As expected, the game was somewhat feisty at times, but it was well handled by the referee. This was equally anticipated, as the man in charge was Jerome Garces of France, one of the world’s best. (It was Garces who dismissed Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand from the field during the Lions’ Second Test in July). It was a pleasure to see him in action.

Garces was especially efficient in stopping the game immediately when a couple of players received head knocks. In the cases of Ryan Wilson and Callum Gibbins these appeared to involve concussive injuries, even to this non-medical expert sitting in the depths of the stand. There is undoubtedly a serious problem for rugby union concerning this issue and I shall return to it in a future blog.

Experience suggests that teams’ performances in the early rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup can be deceptive. In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I reported on the hugely disappointing Bath side that lost 10-37 to Glasgow on the same ground in October 2014; Bath went on to win the pool. Conversely, the apparently all-conquering Toulouse team that won their first four matches in the same group that year somehow failed to qualify for the quarter-finals. But, having lost their first two fixtures in this year’s competition (and without the consolation of any bonus points), it must now be long odds on Glasgow reaching the next stage.

Difficult times at Rugby Park

2nd October 2017

It is not one of the braver predictions to forecast that Celtic will win the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership this season. Aberdeen and Rangers are likely to contest the runners-up place, though the term had a slightly hollow ring to it last season, when Aberdeen finished 30 points behind Celtic. It is also reasonable to assume that the consistently well-organised St Johnstone team will end up fourth (or thereabouts), the position they have reached in each of the last three years.

For the other eight teams in the division – and although they would no doubt publicly set their sights higher – the first priority is to avoid either direct relegation through finishing last or ending up in the penultimate place and facing a hazardous play-off against one of the Championship teams. A finish in the top 6 – also achieved last season by Hearts and Partick Thistle – would represent a distinctly successful season.

That is not to say that, outside the Old Firm and Aberdeen, the Scottish Premiership clubs lack the ambition for winning trophies. Over the course of the last decade, the Scottish Cup has been won not only by St Johnstone, but also by Dundee United, Hearts, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hibernian and so the prospect of lifting some silverware is clearly realistic. But, as far as the league is concerned, the long, gruelling task of autumn and winter is to eke out as many points as possible in order to enter the spring with some optimism.

On Saturday, I went to see two of the likely also-rans – Kilmarnock and RossCounty – battle it out at RugbyPark, where a cash payment of £15 bought me a senior’s seat in the Frank Beattie Stand. On the opposite side of the ground, the front of the roof proudly referenced the home club’s foundation – “Kilmarnock FC 1869” – four years before the formation of the Scottish Football Association, of which it was a founder member.

The further investment of £3 procured an impressive match programme which, in addition to the usual news and comments from the home team’s perspective, included details of the 18 previous encounters between Kilmarnock and RossCounty as well as career summaries of all the players in the visitors’ squad. There was also a fascinating piece on a relatively obscure piece of Scottish football history: the “B” Division Supplementary Cup, which was contested between the second division teams in 5 of the 6 seasons from 1946-47 (although the 1949-50 final between Kilmarnock and Forfar was not held because the clubs could not agree on a suitable date).

Kilmarnock have not been in the second tier of Scottish football for 25 years, but this season is already shaping up to be something of a challenge. Prior to Saturday’s match, they were bottom of the table with 3 draws and 4 defeats from their opening 7 fixtures. For their part, RossCounty – two places and one point above them – had responded earlier in the week to what was obviously considered to be their disappointing start to the season by parting company with their manager, Jim McIntyre, and replacing him with the experienced Owen Coyle.

The 2-0 win for RossCounty was thoroughly deserved. They had forced half a dozen corners and generally held the upper hand with some impressive passing play before a neat header from Craig Curran gave them the lead after 35 minutes. Just before half-time, another extended passing sequence resulted in the left-back Kenny van der Weg finding space in the penalty area to score the second. Kilmarnock brought on their talismanic centre-forward Kris Boyd for the second half and had a period of pressure midway through the period – aided by the bright sunshine streaming into the faces of the visiting defenders – but their opponents held on comfortably. There were perhaps 100 or so visiting supporters in the stand behind Scott Fox’s goal, who no doubt enjoyed their journey back to Dingwall.

Ross County were anchored in midfield by the physical presence of Ross Draper and Jim O’Brien; they have streetwise campaigners in the lively Michael Gardyne and the captain Andrew Davies; Fox is an experienced goalkeeper and Curran led the forward line with energy and commitment. Interestingly, their starting line-up had five players with experience in the lower divisions of the Football League in England.

In some respects, Ross County reminded me of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle team that I had seen play at St Mirren in November 2014 (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator) on their way to winning that season’s Scottish Cup – indeed Draper was a member of that side – though perhaps without the cutting edge provided on that occasion by the young Ryan Christie. I might check out this season’s Cup odds when the fourth round draw is made.

For Kilmarnock, these are difficult times. The referee’s half-time and full-time whistles were accompanied by crescendos of booing from a sizeable proportion of the home supporters in the main stand behind the dugout. As I left the ground, I did wonder what the immediate future might hold for the manager, Lee McCulloch, and, sure enough, it was announced yesterday that he had lost his job.

A rearrangement in the fixture schedule means that, for McCulloch’s replacement, the first 5 league games will be away from home, including trips to Rangers and Celtic. A long and gruelling journey through to spring is indeed in prospect for Kilmarnock FC.

Virtutem Petamus – and Other Thoughts

11th September 2017

When I entered RoundhaySchool in north Leeds as a first-year pupil over 50 years ago, the school uniform included a cap with a metallic badge on which was inscribed virtutem petamus: “We seek virtue”. (The cap was a compulsory part of the uniform, on pain of detention, until the end of the fourth year). Part of the ritual/initiation/minor bullying (delete as appropriate) faced by a freshman was for his cap to be snatched from his head, usually by a second-year pupil, and dashed against something solid – a brick wall or the concrete playground – in order that it might be “christened”.

The modern RoundhaySchool is a comprehensive providing “all-through education from 4-18” and its badge reads “Courtesy, Cooperation, Commitment”. I can quite understand that these are virtues that any school would wish to inculcate amongst its pupils. However, I am also pleased to see that the original Latin motto survives in the crest of the Roundhegians Rugby Football Club, the home ground of which is on Chelwood Drive, a mile and a half away along Street Lane.

The Old Roundhegians club, established in 1928, moved into its present home in 1953. In common with the venues of many other rugby clubs – including Headingley and Bristol, about which I have written in Still An Ordinary Spectator – it is called the Memorial Ground in honour of the old boys of the school who lost their lives in the World Wars. The grounds are neatly maintained, comprising two pitches that are framed by a combination of mature trees and suburban housing. The club became an open one in the early 1970s.

I played at the Memorial Ground on one occasion – for the RoundhaySchool 1st XV against the Old Roundhegians 2nd XV in October 1971. We won that day, partly due to my left-footed drop goal which – I shouldn’t be surprised – might still be referred to with some awe in the local clubhouse. Health and safety regulations have put an end to this type of school/Old Boy fixture – quite rightly, given the latter’s invariable dominance of size and weight, though not necessarily of speed and skill.

This season, Roundhegians RFC are playing in Yorkshire League Division 2 of the RFU North’s structure: the 8th tier of club rugby in England (if my calculations are correct). On Saturday they were at home to Wetherby in their second league fixture of the year, the initial outing having resulted in a 15-38 defeat at Old Crossleyans.

The first 20 minutes took place in a torrential downpour, when the ‘Hegians also had to contend with playing into a stiff breeze and dealing with the marked superiority of their opponents in the set scrums. They stuck to their task, however, and, by the time the rain stopped, had established a 14-0 lead thanks to some skilful handling in the difficult conditions. The right-wing Alex Miyambo scored two tries, both impressively converted from wide out by Alex Jones.

By midway through the second half the position had changed, as Wetherby, taking advantage of their scrummaging superiority, took a 15-14 lead, one of their scores being an emphatic pushover try. The decisive phase came when the ‘Hegians managed to hold out against another short-range scrum, turn over possession and make their way downfield, where the decisive penalty goal took them to the final 17-15 scoreline.

The handful of spectators – family, friends and support staff in the main – braved the inclement weather under a colourful array of large umbrellas, either on the raised grass banking along the touchline or on the balcony of the clubhouse. At this level, rugby is arguably a game for players and coaches, rather than spectators, but there was still much to admire in the commitment and organisation of both teams. Indeed, the game’s final play was genuinely exciting, as, in search of the winning score, Wetherby worked the ball through several phases down the field from under their own posts to their opponents’ 22 before possession was lost.

And, of course, the game had its informal moments. The touch judges being supplied by the respective clubs, it was not really a surprise to hear one of them – an otherwise consistently impartial assessor of when the ball was out of play – shouting “offside, ref” during a tense period of play. Later, he gave one of his own side a high-five when the player had followed up a long clearance kick to touch. I also liked the moment when, standing on the touchline, the home side’s coach turned round in surprise to see that one of his players was standing next to him; I had previously watched the player make the long walk from the far side of the pitch and round the back of the goalposts to this near touchline, having been sin-binned for 10 minutes. The coach’s response was to offer him a sweet from the packet he was consuming.

After the match, I caught the bus to RoundhayPark and walked down from the main entrance to the café next to WaterlooLake for a cup of tea and a rather good flapjack. Another shower of rain came and went. I then walked back to the main arena and up the steps next to Hill 60. Somewhere in that imposing grass mound is the toy soldier that I lost – to my considerable distress – when I was about 6 or 7.

I have two competing impressions of the suburban landscape in this part of the city. On the one hand, it changes over time: the shop frontages are different and I try to recollect which stores were there before; the public house is demolished and replaced by a foodstore’s car park; a road junction is altered with a plethora of new markings and lights. On the other hand, there is the continuity of that which is unchanged: the rugby club with its lush pitches, the location of the bus stops, the beauty and greenness of the park.

On balance, I would say that, over the period which I find myself contemplating – 50 plus years – it is the latter characteristic that generally prevails. Notwithstanding all that is new or unfamiliar, there is an overwhelming sense of that which was there before still remaining in place. Of course, with the people inhabiting that landscape, it is the opposite that applies. We are all just passing through and our presence – whether counted in decades or years or occasional half-days – is only transient, irrespective of whether or not we seek virtue.

The Wolfpack and the Cheesy Dog

27th August 2017

Last Saturday, in order to get to the Allan A Lamport Stadium from downtown Toronto – a distance of just over two miles – I took the 504 streetcar along King Street heading directly west. I arrived early and went for a beer in the nearby Shoeless Joe’s, where the Toronto Blue Jays were in action on the screens in the second of their weekend triple-header against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. However, the purpose of my journey was not televised Major League Baseball, but live rugby league in the (British) Kingstone Press League 1: Toronto Wolfpack vs Newcastle Thunder.

We do live in times that are, occasionally, slightly bewildering.

The division has now entered the Super Eights phase of the season, in which the top 8 sides play each other to decide (eventually) which two teams will be promoted to the Championship. As the points accumulated during the season are carried forward, Toronto Wolfpack are in a strong position, as they lead the table from Barrow and Whitehaven. For their part, Newcastle were in 7th position, with an outside chance of finishing in the top 5 and engaging in the final rounds of knock-out play-offs.

I suspected that the match might be somewhat one-sided. Toronto have recruited ambitiously in their playing and coaching staff – the former Great Britain coach, Brian Noble, is the Director of Rugby – and had lost only one (and drawn one) of their 18 league and Super Eight matches to date, averaging 57 points per game. And so it proved. The left-winger Liam Kay went over for the first of his three tries inside two minutes and the home side ended up scoring a total of nine tries in a 50-0 win.

(A curious statistical aside. I have seen Newcastle Thunder play three times: once here and twice in their previous guise as Gateshead Thunder against the Hunslet Hawks at the South Leeds Stadium. On each occasion, they have conceded exactly 50 points).

The outcome of the match not being in much doubt, I was more interested in the presentation of the game and the local response to it. It was all pleasingly encouraging. The Lamport Stadium has several tiers of elevated open seating, running the full length of both touchlines, which provide good views of the action: ideal for a warm and sunny afternoon such as this, less so if Toronto experiences one of its occasional summer thunderstorms. The row of concession stands populating the King Street end of the ground, behind the goalposts, was also heavily patronised throughout the afternoon.

The sizeable crowd – over 7,500, according to the Wolfpack’s website – enjoyed the home side’s dominance, the volume of cheering not seeming to diminish as the later tries were run in. Interestingly, many spectators stayed around in their small groups after the game had finished, remaining on the seating or at the edge of the pitch: it was a social gathering on a pleasant Saturday afternoon.

As at other sporting venues in North America, there were a plentiful number of beer-sellers doing the rounds up and down the terraces. Food and drink is a significant component of these events and so I treated myself to a Big Mamma’s Cheesy Dog (with tomato sauce) from one of the fast-food stalls. It was as delicious as the name suggested.

The demographics of the crowd covered all ages with many family groups, a significant proportion of women and – it seemed to me – a plethora of Canadian accents, rather than those of casual visitors from Britain or the Antipodes. The loudest gasps were heard at the collisions between the respective prop forwards, perhaps not surprisingly as one of those wearing a Wolfpack shirt was the formidable Tongan, Fuifui Moimoi – a veteran of 10 seasons in the Australian Rugby League – who was typically aggressive both with the ball and in defence. (It struck me that Moimoi’s clear emergence as a local cult hero was not unlike that attained by the similarly-sized Ian Van Bellen in the latter stages of his career at the newly-formed Fulham club in the 1980s).

I talked to one or two of my neighbours. Of the two young men on my right, one was familiar with rugby union in Canada – a well-established sport in some areas of the country – and seemed to be accurately explaining the rules of rugby league to his friend. He remained nervous about the Wolfpack’s promotion prospects, quoting to me the narrow leads over Barrow and Whitehaven (2 and 4 points, respectively) in the league table. When I asked about the local media coverage, the second man acknowledged that rugby league was a “second tier” sport, but noted that soccer (through the Toronto FC) was succeeding in making its own inroads from a similarly low base. He made an interesting point about the need to keep the entry price at a competitive level, compared with soccer: the cost to me (as an adult with no discount for seniors) was $30 Canadian (about £20).

The middle-aged couple seated in front of me were attending for the first time with their young children. The father told me that his preferred sport was lacrosse and his awareness of the Wolfpack had been raised by press reports of some of the injuries that the players had sustained (which partly answered the question about the local media). He seemed to thoroughly enjoy his afternoon and, I’m sure, they will be repeat visitors.

If professional rugby league is to take root in Canada, Toronto seems to be the best place to start. It is a large, prosperous and cosmopolitan city with a liberal attitude to outside influences: we were informed on the city bus tour that one-half of its inhabitants were born outside Canada. The sport might also be able to take advantage of the growing concerns across North America – including amongst the parents of high school and college students – about the potential effects of head knocks incurred playing American Football on long-term health and wellbeing.

It is a summer sport, however, and the main challenge in raising general awareness of the local rugby league is undoubtedly the blanket media coverage given to baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays have regular season fixtures in Major League Baseball on 160 of the 183 days between 1st April and 30th September. That said, the local television station did report the Wolfpack’s win in a single by-line on the screen, whilst Monday’s Toronto Star gave all four of the weekend’s Super Eights results and an updated league table. It might be expected that the local media coverage will increase when there is a larger domestic presence within the Wolfpack ranks: the 25-man squad listed for the Newcastle game had 18 players from the British Isles, 3 from Australia or the PacificIslands and 4 from Canada or the USA.

The other major challenge will be on the playing field, of course. If and when the Wolfpack are promoted, they will incur much tougher challenges than those posed this season by the Gloucestershire All Golds and Hemel Hempstead Stags and, indeed, Newcastle Thunder. Next season’s opponents should include the skilled (and grizzled) campaigners of Featherstone and Halifax and Batley. All being well, this enhanced competition – and the higher standard of rugby league on offer – will lead to the further progress of the Toronto Wolfpack club.

More immediately, I noted from the match programme (price $2 Canadian) that the Toronto Wolfpack have three home fixtures remaining in this year’s Super Eights. Two of these are against Barrow and Whitehaven.

Let’s Go Blue Jays

26th August 2017

The Toronto Blue Jays baseball team plays at the Rogers Centre – popularly known by its original name of the SkyDome – next to the famous CN Tower. This downtown location meant that, for my family and me, it was only a short walk from our hotel for one of last week’s matches against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was a safe walk too, provided that we respected the pedestrian traffic signals and avoided the automobiles, buses, streetcars, joggers and cyclists as we crossed Queens Quay West; some of the last group, in their dedicated lane, would undoubtedly give Chris Froome a run for his money.

It was our first baseball game, so why not start with the Major League, in which the Blue Jays are the sole Canadian team. They entered the match with a record of .483 (from 57 wins and 61 defeats so far this year), which placed them in fifth position (out of five) in the American League East. However, with one-third of the regular season still to play, there was still a chance of a wild-card place in the play-offs, if they could put together an impressive run from their 40-odd remaining fixtures. The Tampa Bay Rays were third in the same division with a record of 59-61 (or .492).

As the game progressed, the four baseball novices started to work out the narrative from the plethora of statistics that flashed out of the multi-coloured scoreboard – notably the numbers of balls, strikes and outs in each inning. On the far side, another board registered the mounting score. The Rays stretched out to a 6-1 lead, but a home run by the Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson cut the deficit to 6-4 by the completion of the latter’s fifth inning – the bottom of the fifth, as we baseball experts call it (I think). It turned out that this was the final score, some impressive pitching in the closing stages by the Dominican Republic–born Alex Colome denying the Blue Jays hitters any chance of overturning the deficit.

It was a spectacle that assaulted all the senses. The sights of the action on the pitch and the general bustle in the crowd and the colour of the advertisements were complemented by the loud cheering of the Blue Jays fans whenever one of their hitters made it to first base or a catcher secured a skier in the outfield. The scoreboard’s instruction to “Make Some Noise” did seem somewhat superfluous, as the roars of over 33,000 spectators echoed around the stands. Our taste buds were satisfied by the foot-long hot dogs covered in tomato – pronounced tomato – sauce, which (for two points of information) officially come in at 860 calories each and are disconcertingly difficult to eat when one is also holding a plastic glass of beer.

The SkyDome had the distinction of being the first sports stadium in the world with a retractable roof – open on this occasion, a warm summer’s evening. High in the stands is the “Level of Excellence”, which honours some of the key personnel in the Blue Jays’ 40-year history; this select group includes not only former players but also the radio play-by-play announcer, Tom Cheek, who called every Blue Jay game from the team’s inaugural fixture in April 1977 until the beginning of June 2004. Looking down from above the hitter’s plate, “42 Jackie Robinson” recognises the shirt number that was retired by every Major League Baseball team in April 1997.

From our excellent vantage point – square to the wicket in cricket parlance, in the Field Level Bases – we got a sense of the speed of the pitchers, who hurled their missiles at up to 95 mph, as instantly recorded on the scoreboard. (I gather that over 100 mph is regularly attained in the Major League). We were also impressed by a couple of spectacular catches – even allowing for the giant mitt in the catching hand (my cricketing background betraying itself again) – and, of course, by the huge hits that produced the evening’s three home runs. I also admired the speed and accuracy of the throwing from the outfielders and by the infield custodians of each base.

In terms of cricketing analogies, I must also refer to the capacity of both sports for producing some

wonderfully obscure statistical facts. When the Ray’s Steven Souza Jr went out to bat, the scoreboard stated that his first 25 home runs had all been struck against right-handed pitchers and that he was the first “righty” to have achieved this feat since 1961. Test Match Special, eat your heart out.

About half way through the game (which lasted for just under 3¼ hours), I took a walk round the stadium on the raised concourse. On one side were the beer stalls and fast-food vendors and merchandise outlets and rest rooms and, on the other, a clear view of the continuing action on the field of play. At one point, I struck up a conversation with a young cop and asked him if he expected any trouble on an evening such as this.

His answer was firmly in the negative: there might be the occasional drunk, but such a potential felon would usually see sense “when confronted by 6 or 7 of us”. I thought back ruefully to the Carlisle United-Hartlepool United football match that I had attended last autumn (reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator) when a sizeable police presence had been required to marshal the respective tribes at a fourth-tier English soccer match. Admittedly, there were only a few Tampa Bay Ray fans at the Rogers Centre (though there were some), but that is hardly the point.

The policeman and I talked for a few minutes about Toronto and baseball (which he said he absolutely adored) and soccer (which he found a bit slow) and Niagara (which he hailed from and also loved). I wished him a quiet evening and we shook hands. It was a pleasure to meet him; he was a credit to his city.

The Blue Jays played two more fixtures at home to the Rays on the following two days, by which time we had moved on to test out (and confirm) the cop’s enthusiastic promises of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The consecutive victories in these games duly raised the post-season play-off hopes. Unfortunately, the three games played over the following weekend – all against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field – were lost, as was the next match against the Rays (in Tampa), so the prospects of post-season glory have promptly receded again. The Blue Jays’ World Series titles of 1992 and 1993 edge a little further into the past.

But no matter. Our allegiances within the significant component of Americana that is Major League Baseball are secured. And we bought the tee-shirts – Let’s Go Blue Jays.

Good Company and Chance Encounters

10th August 2017

For such as me, traditionalists – or conservatives or old fogies (delete as appropriate) – of English cricket, it is a source of some concern that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have hollowed out the CountyChampionship season so that, in Yorkshire’s case, only one 4-day match is being played this year between 6th July and 5th September. Of the 14 Championship fixtures (reduced from 16 last year), no fewer than 8 are being played before the end of May or from the beginning of September. The days of mid-summer are largely allocated to the powerful beast that is Twenty-20 cricket.

There was a certain inevitability, therefore, that George Farrow – a near(ish) neighbour (though resident in the wilds of Strathblane) – and I should plan to attend the four days of the Essex fixture at Scarborough. We had pencilled in the engagement some time ago, given George’s allegiance to the visitors, and the decision had been notably prescient, as Essex had established a healthy (29 point) lead at the top of Division 1. Yorkshire started the match in 4th position, 38 points behind the leaders, though perhaps equally relevantly only 36 points above the Somerset side occupying the second relegation place (and having played one more game).

We were joined for the Monday’s play – the second and, as it turned out, final day – by Andrew Carter, an old schoolfriend, whose co-presence following Yorkshire’s fortunes was a nice throwback to many a yesterday, as noted in An Ordinary Spectator. On the Tuesday evening, in the hotel, George and I had a drink with Dick Davies – the respected cricket correspondent of BBC Radio Essex – and his wife Sarah, the latter also an expert on her county’s side.

Good company.

Amongst the other spectators (around 5½ thousand on both days), there was a supporting cast of new faces who became increasingly (and eerily) familiar. On the outward train journey from York to Scarborough, George and I fell into conversation with two Essex supporters (one living in Hove and the other a native of Dundee!) and a Yorkshire member from Redcar. The latter was pessimistic, not only about the form of the home side’s batting line-up, but about the likely quality of the B&B to which the Hove man had committed. Towards the end of Sunday’s play, we met a Derbyshire supporter and his elderly father in the Scarborough ground’s tea room, whilst watching the closing overs and being fortified by the thick slices of a rather good fruit loaf. On the Monday afternoon, on the front row of the raised stand opposite the Scarborough ground’s entrance, my neighbour to the left was middle-aged man explaining the finer points of the game – in a locally prep-schooled accent (as I later learned) – to his wife.

The Redcar man’s pessimism was (partly) justified. Yorkshire’s batsmen couldn’t cope with the speed and control – and general excellence – of the Pakistani left-arm pace bowler Mohammad Amir, who took 10 wickets in the match and was ably supported by Jamie Porter who claimed 7 victims. (It is a sign of trouble when, 40 minutes into a 4-day match, the score stands at 25 for 5). Yorkshire’s totals of 113 and 150 all out rested heavily on an outstanding first innings 68 by Adam Lyth and an impressive 70 on the last afternoon by Jack Leaning. Aside from these two efforts, the runs scored in the 10 innings played by Yorkshire’s top six batsmen totalled exactly 31.

By contrast, when Essex batted, all of the top six made double figures and, batting at number 6, the captain Ryan ten Doeschate scored a well-constructed 88 to earn his side a decisive first innings lead of 118. If Essex do win this year’s CountyChampionship – and their lead at the top of the table at the end of this round of fixtures has stretched to 41 points – they will undoubtedly look back on ten Doeschate’s innings as one of the season’s defining contributions. On this occasion, Essex duly knocked off the 33 runs required for victory for the loss of two second innings wickets.

It’s a small world. As George and I walked to the ground down North Marine Drive on the second morning, we met the Hove-based Essex supporter and his mate. They had been suitably impressed by the welcome given by the Scarborough club (and by their B&B) as well as the performance of their side. Later in the evening, we also met the Derbyshire man and his father in the dining room of the hotel. The following morning – the game having finished and our plans now revised to take in a visit to Beverley Minister – we met the Hove man for a third time on our way to Scarborough railway station.

It poured with rain in Beverley and it was with some relief that we completed the short walk from the station to the Minster. The first people we met on entering the church were the pleasant prep-schooled man and his wife.

The visit to the Minster completed, George and I went for a long walk through the driving rain out to Beverley racecourse and then returned, about an hour later, to the centre of the town. There seemed to be about 25 tea rooms in which to find suitable refreshment and to dry out. We chose one on Ladygate where, seated at an upper-floor table, were Mr and Mrs Prep-School. Almost inevitably, after George and I had rested for another hour and decided to take the long sweep past the Minster on the way back to the station, we met the same couple coming in the opposite direction.

It goes without saying that, back at the hotel, the man from Derbyshire was sitting in the hotel lobby with his parents.

Perhaps these opportunities for acquaintance and re-acquaintance take place all the time and we simply don’t notice them. (I reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator of a similar experience with a neighbouring spectator at a Leeds Rhinos/Castleford Tigers Super League match in 2014, who on the following lunchtime sat down at the adjoining table in the café at LeedsCityArtGallery). It could be that the element of chance is not in the encounter itself, but in the ability to recognise it when it occurs.

For the county cricketers of Yorkshire and Essex, the opportunities for re-acquaintance are already mapped out. At present, the respective directions of travel are clearly evident: for one, the look over the shoulder to the relegation places; for the other the progress towards a Championship pennant. The final 4-day match of the season is Essex versus Yorkshire at Chelmsford.