31 December 2016
Walking out of the airport at Yangon to the sight of a lengthy line of taxis was a relief and the lead car being emblazoned with a large Slipknot logo something of a surprise. Unfortunately we didn’t make it in time for that one and were denied the opportunity to try and chat over the metal as we got into a more sedate looking vehicle further back. This may have been for the best as our driver was a friendly sort who after launching straight in with questions about the Manchester United game the previous evening chatted helpfully about Myanmar. Pagodas were identified as we went by and beaches that had yet to see tourists recommended before he acknowledged that the road to Mandalay was longer than he was prepared to drive.
Now I’m sure he was keen to take us everywhere else but there was no hard sell and we weren’t getting a half-hearted tour to justify a bigger fare as they were always agreed with the minimum of haggling before the journey began. Once we arrived in downtown Yangon the talk turned to his preference for the somewhat dilapidated colonial architecture over the still relatively infrequent modern constructs. That many of these soulless new buildings belong to the “cronies” of the military regime who are now forging links with Aung San Suu Kyi and mentioned disparagingly by our driver was highly likely.
On arrival at our more lived in establishment I noticed the driver was wearing the sensible sarong like garment called a longyi as he leapt out of the car to take charge of cases. As my legs swelled in the heat I briefly flirted with giving one a go before concluding that a lanky middle aged westerner was attracting enough amusement without it looking like he fancied himself as David Beckham. After another good natured wrestle with the cases and the hotel staff I switched on the room television to discover a channel which seemed to consist entirely of Premiership football played on a never ending loop.
I awoke from a couple of hours sleep in the dark and feeling as disorientated as Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now” but with added Everton against Swansea whirling around my head. Now in my experience it is never a good idea to be too ambitious when venturing into an unknown city with little sleep so the ease of finding a relatively close expat bar seemed the best option. This was reckoning without the strip lights normally used in a western kitchen hanging from wires directly outside the hotel and lulling me into a false sense of security. Once we hit the main road there was no light at all apart from the occasional car which took on a kind of hallucinatory quality as they loomed up towards you. The roadside provided some sanctuary with aromatic food stalls acting as beacons before the heat which radiated from them made me feel even more unbalanced.
Walking into the bar provided some very temporary respite from this feeling of queasiness. Like you forget how bad toothache is it soon comes back to you how painful a room full of people who work in a multinational’s head office abroad can be. In Asia this mixture goes toxic with the sort of sweat stains on a barstool who buy the presence of local women a third their age. While the relative infancy of the tourist trade means the scale of this seems small compared to the likes of Cambodia the bar was treated to one particular charmer announcing that he provided “the money and make up” before raising himself up to grab his crotch to indicate what he got in return.
As with the women involved I imagine the enormous disparity in wealth means the bar staff bite their tongues when this cast of frustrated Donald Trumps are barking orders at you. It was good to see them gaining a little respite by keeping one eye on Myanmar playing Vietnam at football on the screens around the bar. When Myanmar equalised I noticed one man do a discreet little jig before smiling at his equally shy looking colleagues.
Coincidently I had been reading Joe Moran’s “Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness” on the plane. Amongst many other things he highlights studies of people in the Hebrides or Scandinavia where the hostile surroundings have contributed to them seeming taciturn in nature. This led me to wonder what the impact on what was then known as Burma and Rangoon by British colonial subjugation or the complete isolation of the country under military rule had on the national psyche.
As is the case with leaders the world over the country’s military leaders had a tenuous grasp of reality. On one occasion the whole junta wore the female version of the longyi to meet the Thai prime minister in an attempt to harness the power of Aung San Suu Kyi. Unsurprisingly this mumbo jumbo failed to stop her taking the effective leadership of Myanmar last year.
Moran concludes his book by wondering why shyness has become seen as undesirable or something to be medicated against while the loud or boorish seem to be encouraged. As the Donald’s choice of medication seemed to be making them worse I concluded that watching the next round of matches in the South East Asia Cup at the ground would be for the best.
Come the day of the games and with a picture of the Thuwunna Stadium or somewhat ominously named Youth Training Centre on my phone the ever helpful but seemingly bemused hotel receptionist didn’t just call a taxi but disappeared for a few minutes before returning with one he seemed to be escorting down the road. During this journey I was reminded that the majority of cars have their steering wheel on the right despite this being the side of the road they drive on. The crazy guys of the dictatorship purportedly thought this would ward off a right wing coup. In reality it makes over taking an adventure but perhaps not as hair raising as it sounds because the traffic is nowhere near as frenzied as in neighbouring countries.
Getting out of the car outside the ground I immediately endeared myself to the locals by walking into the metal awning of a food stall outside a ticket office which consisted of a man behind some railings and a desk. Presuming that some sort of bizarre dignitary would want the best seats I was given the 5,000 Kyat or less than 3 pound tickets, so poked my money through the railings. With my grazed head throbbing we sat under a tree and were soon surrounded by smiling locals drinking water from plastic bags. It seemed a precarious process as they walked away looking like someone had stolen their gold fish.
Taking this as a cue to enter the ground the first impression was that the austere surroundings seemed almost refreshing compared to Wembley concourse’s airport terminal feel. As Malaysia took the field to play Vietnam midway through the afternoon I realised that in an unsurprisingly sparsely populated ground we had inadvertently made the splendid move of sitting near the good value Malaysia support. About 150 strong, one man launched into an impassioned rendition of “You are my sunshine” before everyone else kept singing without the somewhat regulated nature of most Ultra style support. The Vietnamese following whilst significantly more in number insisted on banging a variant on those clapper things used by Leicester City fans.
Losing the match didn’t dampen the spirits of the Malaysian support who seemed keen to congregate for a photograph after the game. Less enthusiastic to attend was the Malaysian Sports Minister who called for a boycott of these group games as the Myanmar militaries crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the north east forced thousands to flee into Bangladesh. Indeed the treatment of the country’s ethnic minorities and restrictions on press freedom are the first tests of the new National League for Democracy governments commitment to real change in a Buddhist society which considers the Rohiingya as illegal immigrants even though they have been in Myanmar since colonial times.
It was partly this history of authoritarian rule which dissuaded me from attempting a shot of an extensive police presence having what looked like hundreds of take away meals delivered in the break between games. Back inside the ground as people began to flood in for the Myanmar against Cambodia game my curiosity was soon satisfied as the fans in front presented us with the egg and noodles which they were eating. Attempting to eat a fried egg with chopsticks while explaining what we were doing in Myanmar was one thing but inflating a clapper with a flag to stick on my face a stress level higher. I am not a fan of flags ordinarily and my forehead proved even more resistant. Some people seemed to have “Epson” written on their faces which as far as I could ascertain was the printer company who were sponsoring something or other and the point where I like to think I would have drawn the line.
A feeling of being more involved than I imagined was soon complimented by the game. After Cambodia opened the scoring Myanmar replied with two goals before half time to give the home fans plenty to sing, bang drums and generally carry on to. In the towns over the river we had seen the locals playing Chinlone which seemed reminiscent of Brazilian beach football as graceful moves and elaborate flicks are used to keep a ball aloft. Here this and Mourinho like tactical boredom were completely absent and replaced by the lost art of head down dribbling from end to end. During this period of play having what seemed like the only lighter in our section made us lots more new friends as it was passed up and down rows. As this immersive and slightly febrile game unfolded a nostalgia for pre Premiership football became undeniable.
A relatively sedate half saw Myanmar score again before the crowd left the ground to lean on car horns and thumbs up gestures through windows to illustrate their excitement. This contrasted somewhat with elimination from the 2013 South East Asia Games after defeat by Indonesia. After waiting 44 years to hold a tournament the bottled up emotion of the country seems to have erupted as players left the field in tears and supporters ripped up seats and started fires. Since then attempts to channel this passion has seen the establishment of a national league but it is somewhat hampered by all the games being played at two grounds in Yangon.
Tonight in and around one of them was Myanmar letting its collective hair down with a lack of inhibition which I had not seen elsewhere. Whilst accepting the country would benefit from infrastructure other than football grounds it would be a shame if the league didn’t take off and a belief in what makes the country and its football special was sacrificed for a second hand experience in a Liverpool replica shirt. Whether this singular nation will resist the Premiership colonialism which has engulfed the rest of Asia seems unlikely but Burma’s first organised football game saw the Putsoes, or a longyi tucked up so as to maximise movement, beat the Trousers 2-1. Maybe they can again.
19 February 2016
Welcome to England Jurgen. After Liverpool conceded a goal against Crystal Palace in the eighty second minute many people began to leave and the new manager Jurgen Klopp confessed to feeling 'very alone'. Used to German football and the backing of Borussia Dortmund's yellow wall stand it was no wonder that the insipid nature of the support at the legendary Anfield took him by surprise. Awash with money English football has cleansed itself of it's core following through a variety of means and the likes of Anfield are now famous for making supporters sit down while the new breed of fan has their picture taken in a half and half shirt.
A month later and I am that tourist in the Nuremberg end at St Pauli's Millerntor ground in Hamburg for their top end of the table clash in Bundesliga 2. Now being with the away fans wasn't a deliberate ploy but the result of the ideologically frowned upon fumblings with a ticket tout I had engaged in to get a ticket. Nevertheless it gave me a panoramic view of the home teams USP section moving as one before unfurling a stand length 'Straight Outta St Pauli' banner as AC/DC's 'Hells Bells' heralded the teams arrival and brought an already good atmosphere to the boil.
This was already at least up there with an English local derby but it was the relentless nature of both team's fans which proved most impressive. While a lack of spontaneity can sometimes be irksome the ultras perched on sections of fencing who would be immediately ejected from English grounds ensure the volume never drops a notch by urging their support on. Rather than passive consumers losing interest after five minutes and photographing players taking throw ins the supporters were the spectacle.
Nuremberg play an interesting role in German football history as the club to have won the most league championships before being overtaken by Bayern Munich. The last one was however in 1968 and like Nottingham Forest in reverse managed to get relegated the following year. As they eased to a four nil win and gentlemen of a certain age with foaming pints raised aloft joined in heartily with the Ultras at the front it was good to think some of them remember that. My knowledge of German is non existent but nobody seemed irate if their view was momentarily blocked or indeed a victory cigar was smoked.
More extensively chronicled is the rise of St Pauli from a club who attracted two thousand fans in the early eighties to the nearly 30,000 I was part of. This upsurge has it's roots in the nearby anarchist punk squats with legend having it that the club's skull and cross bones insignia comes from a flag stolen in the fair ground outside the Millerntor before a game. This saw the club allied to various anti establishment causes and a game against the money making machine of Bayern being deemed 'class war'. Since then such an increase in support has predictably drawn some resentment from other supporters as St Pauli are ironically now the only club in Germany other than Bayern Munich who people travel from far and wide to see. As everyone should know you don't get to pick which team to follow.
This change in demographic is highlighted by the lack of punk in Nick Davidson's recent 'Pirates, Punks & Politics' book on St Pauli and a certain smug left wing conventionality seems to have taken it's place. Nevertheless it would be a shame if this discredited the pioneering example St Pauli set with fan involvement and the empowering influence this has had on clubs internationally. It was also noticeable that despite the scale of the defeat the St Pauli fans stayed in the ground and singing until the end.
Next stop Krakow for a game considered 'Poland's Derby' but one which has recently fallen on hard times. Wisla from the old Polish capital and Legia Warsaw from its current one generates a predictable level of animosity but a standard of football which seemed Championship level. Wisla having gone seventy odd home games without defeat in the early part of this century surrendered tamely to a two nil defeat here. Consequently it fell to the supporters of both clubs to generate their own entertainment with the Legia fans penned into one corner of the ground long before kick off making more noise than I heard at any Premiership game last season. With a top price of 60 Zloty or about £10 maybe contributing to this.
In a golden period for Polish football when their national team reached the World Cup semi finals twice Legia had the goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski before he knocked England out of the competition and Brian Clough dubbed him 'The Clown'. Captained by the legendary Kazimierz Deyna Legia got to the 1970 European Cup Semi Finals before he signed for Manchester City late in his career. Now the the likes of City hoover up all the players while their fans imitate the goal celebrations of Lech Poznan in an attempt to generate some sort of atmosphere.
With English football awash with more and more money there is no more chance of this than the oligarchs who further bankroll these clubs looking like they are doing anything more than indulging in a very expensive ego trip to places they don't understand. So while the football might be more entertaining if not successful than elsewhere Jurgen will have to get used to football without the feral quality he probably remembers from TV footage of the Kop in its prime. The old guards protest against £77 tickets was laudable but that particular football special has well and truly left the station meaning that whilst Klopp might have the aim of 'heavy metal' football he will be doing it for the equivalent of folk fans.
A pub just before City's last game at Boothferry Park
11 May 2015
At any other time in the club's history the run in to the 2014-15 season would have seemed like the promised land for long standing Hull City supporters. Home fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Burnley and Manchester United beyond the wildest dreams of fans more used to the threat of liquidation and cup defeats to Hednesford Town.
Alright Burnley is stretching the point. Not content with seeming like something of a bogey side Turf Moor was the scene of an infamous night in my City supporting history. The last game of the 1983-84 season saw City needing to beat Burnley by three goals to take the last promotion spot to the old second division from then serious rivals Sheffield United. After future PFA Chairman and then Manchester City suit Brian Marwood made it two nil City not getting the third saw the bizarre sight of Burnley and a travelling contingent of United fans celebrating together.
But where did this season begin to turn sour? Unbelievably after 110 years of existence our first venture into Europe. After a historic FA Cup run and defeat of Sheffield United in the semi final my season ticket was partly only renewed for the possibility of a Europa Cup run. The club itself however approached it with all the enthusiasm of a Johnstone's Paint Trophy campaign and seemed relieved to be eliminated in the second qualifying round. Support for this half hearted approach was echoed by a section of the club's support trotting out cliches about 'focusing on the league' because of the reality of life in the Premiership. It is difficult to dispute in monetary terms that seasons of slogging it out to stay up can compare with the nights Portsmouth had against AC Milan to Hull's burgeoning amount of financial advisers.
Failing to get with the programme has subsequently seen the old school fan become more and more alienated from the Premiership breed. Most readers will be familiar with the never ending name change embarrassment and not surprisingly this polarisation reached its nadir when sections of the ground made their first audible contribution to a game by booing their own fans for singing 'City Till We Die' in case it upset the owners.
Whilst the choreographed continental style antics of Ultra groups may prompt UKIP style bemusement in those of a certain age the Hull brand mirrored those elsewhere in being younger fans who make the most effort to generate some sort of atmosphere at Premiership grounds. Unfortunately the KC Stadium seems to be dominated by the over forties, children and day trippers in half and half scarves. This change in demographic is surely influenced by the £50 tickets for the so called big games which saw Liverpool fans boycott the game at the KC even after
City spent the £200,000 Away Supporters Initiative money on improving the 'experience' for visiting supporters rather than away travel for their own fans. Using it on the concourse, where the fans most likely to attend away games and be against the owner had been before having to move, yet another example of their vindictiveness. Somehow when City have never been more prominent they have even turned some teenagers and twenty somethings to rugby league.
Supporters of City in the last century grew up listening to locals pledging allegiance to the likes of Leeds and Liverpool. This has cultivated a suspicion of the new fan and and a questioning of their intentions akin to an over protective father. So while Leeds following has declined in tandem with the club the scourge of the frustrated scouser persists but with the volume turned down slightly. Consequently there is a feeling that when City falter more of those old replica shirts will be retrieved from the backs of drawers and Liverpool against Manchester United on Sky will become the big game of the season again.
As already alluded to the spectre of the great dictator Assam Allam hangs over all this. Like the military leader of a small country he issues increasingly bizarre proclamations from his generator factory on the outskirts of Hull and the local media dutifully report it without serious questioning. In the space of a few days in March he offered the Labour Party a million pounds to sever links with the unions and become more Thatcherite, told the FA he intended to continue to try and change the clubs name without needing to resubmit the application and issued eviction notices to local sports teams from the arena which forms part of the council owned community stadium complex as the club needs an indoor pitch to improve it's academy licence status.
After threats to take the club outside the city to play because of a dispute about ownership of the ground you might have expected the City Council to finally say enough is enough. Instead they directed their ire at the Premier League with a letter about 'unreasonable timescales' being signed by the city's three Labour MPs who requested an urgent meeting with Chief Executive Richard Scudamore. It was pointed out that: 'It is up to the clubs themselves to request a date on which the independent audit takes place and is not dictated by the Premier League'.
This attempt at appeasement backfired spectacularly when the club simply went ahead and installed a 3G pitch in the arena. Despite it being illegal to do so Allam cited the council's refusal to guarantee planning consent for an alternative 'bubble pitch' as the reason. With an unsuspected sense of humour the council have responded by grassing up the club to the Premier League in the hope that they do their work for them and reject the academy licence bid. Perhaps the likes of Alan Johnson should show as much concern about a football club awash with TV money refusing to pay the living wage to all it's employees. Seeing our supposed representatives allied with Allam however comes as no surprise in the context of his dinners with Blair, photos with Miliband or receiving meaningless degreesat the local University with Lord Prescott.
All Allam lacks now is a row of campaign medals which could be rectified with the new club badge which has no mention of Hull City swinging off his blazer. Indeed references to Hull City have been expunged from official club material and the unfortunately titled 'Proud To Be Part Of Something Special' video campaign to sell next seasons passes contains only one reference to City and that from a commentary when we first went up to the Premiership. Pitched onto the payroll and into the fray by Allam as a particularly witless Minister of Propaganda was Dean Windass the former club legend who scored the goal at Wembley which achieved this. Hearing him try to work references to Hull Tigers into every media opportunity one of the most embarrassing aspects of the whole sorry season.
So when you find yourself siding with just about anyone other than this alliance of Hull's establishment and Premiership at all costs sycophants what do you do? Conclude that you're not very good with success and the people who attach themselves to it thinking it says something about themselves. It does, just not what they imagine and even when Allam goes it will take time for the air to clear. Meanwhile choose to spend your fiftieth birthday on the other side of the world and give your season pass for the end of season Manchester United bun fight to a previously life long home and away supporter who has already adjourned to the pub for the majority of games. It may even spare me from our own fans running onto the pitch to embrace the opposition like they did Steven Gerrard when we played Liverpool and were relegated the last time.
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