Thursday, April 30, 2009

Four To Go

After Monday's game I've become a figure of pity whenever the subject of football comes up at work. "You never know, you might stay up," the Man Utd fan offered in consolation. "I can't see Hull winning again and the Scousers have dropped a few points at home."
"I don't know," laughed the Villa supporter from the queue for last-minute photocopies, "even Owen thinks you'll get stuffed."
"Yeah, well if we do he'll probably end up playing for you next season," I replied. His smile disappeared. "I fucking hope not."

Running IV

The same route again but I upped the pace after halfway and cut over a minute off my previous time. It was the perfect weather for a run, sunny but not too hot, with a slight headwind on the outward half blowing dust and car exhaust fumes at my back.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April in Riga

Like a shower in a dodgy hotel, Riga's temperatures swing from one extreme to the other. As I write it's twenty degrees outside and the tree downstairs has exploded into blossom overnight. We haven't had a drop of rain for two weeks, daylight stretches long into the evening, and the sky remains an unadulterated shade of Coventry City blue. "It's something unusual," a student told me. Whatever it is, I'm not about to start complaining.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Morning After

We didn't win because for all our huff-and-puff we had nobody capable of creating chances. Viduka's legs have gone, Martins and Gutierrez run around but don't actually do anything, Duff has lost his pace, skill and crossing ability (but still looks quite good compared to Geremi), and Butt, Guthrie, Barton, Smith and Nolan are different names for the same player, each slightly worse than the one before. The only positive thought I had at full-time was that we'll soon be spared paying Michael Owen's wages. "He only needs one chance," commentators say. Well, he got it - and he was no David Kelly.

The game in Twitter updates:

Are they sure that bloke's an opera singer? Looks like someone they dragged out of The Blackie Boy.

Decent start from what I can see. Not that that's very much between static and splutters.

Admittedly I've missed quite a bit of this match, but is Michael Owen actually on the pitch? I've heard his name twice.

Our best effort so far from Duff. Make that our only effort so far.

We could be playing Di Stefano, Gerd Muller and Thierry Henry up front here and still not score. What we need is a bit of invention.

Pass, Martins. Pass!

Face it, we're down.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Must Win Game: One of Three

"We know the situation, we know the stakes and now we have to produce" - Alan Shearer.

Tonight's game is the most important since the last time we played Portsmouth needing a win to stay up. Even now, seventeen years later, I can still remember the explosion of relief when David Kelly scored the only goal late in the game. For a while we never looked back. Win tonight and Hull and Sunderland might fold under the pressure. Lose and we can start planning trips to Doncaster, Swansea and Blackpool.

Be strong, lads.


With one thing and another I wasn't able to run again until this morning, so I stuck to the same route, distance and pace as last week: twenty-five minutes, two-and-a-half miles, touch the metal fence at the port and turn back for home. Banners in the colour of the Latvian flag hung from lamp-posts down by the river, a pleasure boat was moored by the walkway, waiting for passengers. I ran back into a headwind. Drunks lay sleeping in the long grass by the market.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


In years to come, when I think back to Kemeri it'll be the sound of barking dogs that I hear first, loud and insistent like car horns in some big Chinese city. What little traffic there was moved too quickly on the narrow roads. Church bells rang from invisible spires. Everywhere was the foul, rotten-eggy smell of sulphur.

I walked aimlessly for the first half an hour, finding nothing but dust, before stumbling across what's left of the spa park. Two men in wheelchairs were arguing by a weatherbeaten statue, turned black by the angle of the sun. Paint peeled from walls, metal rusted, weeds grew taller, the lovers' island had tarpaulin over the roof and the only visible sign of restoration was a scribbled line drawn through the graffiti. Through the trees I could just make out of the Colgate-white shell of the Kemeri Hotel, slowly being rebuilt. To the right, by a latticed bandstand, an old woman filled a plastic water bottle from a concrete spring.

A signed path started on the far side of the hotel, finishing at Kemeri National Park and a raised boardwalk that winds around boggy woodland like a toy railway. The temperature was up to twenty degrees. I sat on the grass reading, waiting for my train.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


It's half past twelve and the Lielvarde train sits idling on platform six. Hawkers stand by the door speaking quickly in Russian then moving down the carriage, selling nothing. The sun beats through the dirty window, passengers step languidly across the glinting metal tracks, over the tannoy the announcer draws her vowels out until each new station begins to sound like a list of complaints.

The guidebook describes Lielvarde as "the first town upstream from Riga worth spending some time in," which doesn't say much for the places I passed on the way. There are only two things to see, one at either end of Lāčplēsa iela, named after the mythical Latvian bear-slayer and adopted son of the Lord of Lielvarde. Nearest the station is Udevena pils, a replica 12th century fort that looks like somewhere you might drop the kids off for an hour while you have a Sunday afternoon pint. Three kilometres in the opposite direction, the Andrejs Pumpurs museum overlooks a quiet stretch of the River Daugava and the ruins of a stone castle built by crusading German knights.

Neither was really worth the trip.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Next Place

Beirut, Bogota, New York, Almaty. We sat in the bar after work flicking through jobs on the transfer list. Someone had brought a highlighter pen and was marking the salaries in fluorescent green. Another was counting the vacancies, "...two hundred and twenty six, two hundred and twenty seven. Look at this, there are fifteen jobs here. It must either be massive or shit". Two people were talking about Portugal or maybe Milan, one laughed at a description of a school's great students. "That means they'll be out-of-control," she said in a voice that suggested too much knowledge. The highlighter pen settled on Costa Rica. "I'm getting sick of these post-communist countries," came a voice from the far end of the table. "I dunno, there are plenty of jobs in Poland." "Eeeeuurgh, it's grotty." "Not everywhere it isn't. Where did you go?" "I've never been."

"How about you? Seen anything you fancy?" someone asked, turning to me. "No, not really," I replied, thinking once again about Japan.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Morning Run

I upped the run to twenty-five minutes this morning, over a traffic-clogged road then keeping to the banks of the river as far as the castle. I turned back by the metal fence at the entrance to the port, passing unemployed men with cans of beer and fishing rods, all dressed in army fatigues or black leather jackets. The pace was comfortable until the very end when the top of my thighs began to tighten, possibly due to the fact that I was running in flat-soled pub trainers. Otherwise it felt like I could've gone a lot further.

Tomorrow's a day off. On Thursday I'll try to add another five minutes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Only Hull Can Save Us Now

With just five games left and only win in seventeen, things don't look good for Newcastle United. "We have to start games from the first minute like we finish them in the 90th," was Shearer's response to yesterday's defeat at Spurs. The truth, as he must have already suspected, is that there isn't enough pace, passion or ability in this team to do much besides run around for a bit in blind panic. Or stroll if your name's Michael Owen.

If there's any hope left, it's with Hull and Boro not winning another game.

Signs of Spring

Czechs used to call April the month of dog shit because of what was left behind when the snow all melted. I'll remember spring in Latvia as a time of daylight at nine in the evening, weeks without rain, and people weeding flowerbeds instead of scraping snow. The ice rink in the train station square has been replaced by outdoor seating for an Italian restaurant, and at the nearby crossing a busker has started playing the Amelie theme on an accordian, though the novelty value of that one soon wears off.

Now that I can't blame my laziness on the weather, this morning I also went out for my first run since November, a short fifteen-minute jog along the banks of the Daugava to the Old Town and back that was slightly easier than I expected it to be.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Karosta Prison

"Please," said the man in the Soviet prison warder's uniform, extending his arm towards the open cell. The door shut behind us with a clang and in an instant all light vanished from the world. I heard a wooden stick being tapped against a wall, then there was nothing but the cold, still air and a musty smell like an underground drain. "This was special punishment cell," the guide resumed, pulling back the bolts. "Three hours in here, no more problems. You have any questions?"

Friday, April 17, 2009

Spurs Away

With Sunderland and Middlesbrough both at home, kick off on Sunday could see us second bottom and four points from safety. Even this time last year I would have been pretty confident of getting three points from White Hart Lane, but right now I'd be ecstatic with just the one.

UPDATE: Bollocks.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Men At Work

There are only two seasons in Latvia, or so the old joke goes: winter then repair. As with many examples of the local humour, the barb is aimed at the Soviets, who were much better at putting things up than they ever were at keeping them in good working order. It explains the number of roads being dug up or cordoned off, forcing me to pick my way across at least two sand pits on the way to work. "It gets worse in summer," my friend laughed. "They blast water through the pipes to test for leaks - and they usually find plenty."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Easter Monday

"Latvians are like Hobbits," explained the Swede between cigarettes, "they love anything that grows." We were sitting in the garden of his mother-in-law's country cottage, passing round beer from a two-litre bottle while the women were inside making a meal out of smoked chicken, painted hard boiled eggs and potatoes flavoured with dill. Around our feet the crocuses and snowdrops were out and tulip leaves curled and twisted upwards. By the wood pile, birch tree sap dripped slowly into a recycled water container, attached to the trunk by plastic pipe. It looked like gloy glue, and tasted only very slightly better.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Friday Night in Liepaja

The flat was on the fifth floor of an apartment block overlooking a broken playground, pine trees and the sea. In the tiny kitchen there was a waist-high fridge with a broken handle and re-used glass jars full of something that could either have been pondwater or kvass, but was probably a mixture of the two. An old curtain hung from the living room doorway, next to a 2008 calendar, a double bed and a bookcase with black-and-white photos of stern-faced men in military uniform. In the bathroom, the shower curtain was held up by clothes pegs and old bits of washing line.

We drank vodka in the kitchen then set up the beds for the night, four of us in the same room. I slept in an armchair, which folded down to make a narrow bed as wide as my body. "You knew Lenin, didn't you?" my friend asked his grandmother. "Not Lenin," she laughed, bent double over her walking stick, "but I did see Stalin once."


I didn't make it as far as the Hill of Crosses, but I did get to walk along the wooden pier at Palanga, the Blackpool of the Baltic. Lapping against the narrow, white-sand beach, the sea was as calm as a garden pond.

From Palanga we drove south to Kaunas, where the sun finally came out. Church spires, apartment blocks and painted smoke stacks tumbled from the hillsides above the river. There were market stalls outside crowded church doorways and coloured easter eggs hanging from branches in the Old Town's main square.

Two Down, Six to Go

In the end I didn't make it back to see the game: as the match kicked-off I was leaving Kaunas, we were just about to drive across the unmanned border when Carroll's header looped under the bar, and the World Service signal remained as elusive as a Gutierrez goal all the way back to Riga. My first reaction on seeing the score was relief, but a point doesn't do any more than keep us in touch with Sunderland. Six games left - and we still need to win at least half of them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Escapes

After much humming and hawing and checking of bus times I'm heading south to Lithuania, Šiauliai's Hill of Crosses and one, both or possibly neither of Kaunas and Kleipeda.

I should be back in Riga tomorrow night, just in time for kick-off in what might well be our most important game since Portsmouth at home in 1992 - and hopefully one with a similar outcome.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

After the Quake

Seventeen thousand homeless people sleeping in tents. It's raining and the outside temperature is just four degrees above freezing. "They should see it like a weekend of camping," Silvio Berlusconi told German TV.

There speaks a man who's seen the Lake District in July.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Balcony Gardener

Now the sun has finally reached this far north, my balcony makes a pretty good vegetable plot. I picked up the grow bag from Maxima and planted some radish seeds, which should give me at least two small crops before it's time to leave. The plastic container-cum-ashtray was already here when I arrived, with a long-dead shrub inside and no drainage holes in the bottom. If my improvised anti-seagull device works, it should be sprouting rocket plants in a few weeks.

Monday, April 06, 2009


No matter how hot it gets during the day, Riga keeps the central heating on until temperatures remain above five degrees for seven nights in a row. This week, even with the windows permanently open, my flat is as comfortable as an Andalusian greenhouse in July.

It's cheaper than paying for a sauna, I suppose. But not much.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

You Will Be Robed

One predictable result of the Latvian economic crisis has been a rise in the crime rate, blamed on the cost of winter heating bills. Needless to say, tourists are not immune from petty thieves and pickpockets. In a Riga hostel I came across a sign that listed eleven bars for visitors to avoid, ending with the words "DO NOT GO THERE. YOU WILL BE ROBED".

Sounds dangerous, whatever it is.

Sunshine on Sigulda

If I'd gone to Sigulda a couple of months ago I would, I'm sure, have considered it drab, cold and featureless. Back then, that's how everywhere looked: concrete and puddles and snow-piles on the pavement. But today, with temperatures pushing fifteen degrees, the sky a brilliant sheen of blue, and a ten-kilometre hike to Turaida Castle in polo shirt and sunglasses, for a few sun-filled hours the place was truly glorious.

Back to Earth

Realistically, I always expected us to lose yesterday. With the bunch of players we're stuck with until the summer we can also write off Liverpool, Spurs and Villa away. That leaves four games, three at home, to find the ten points needed to stay up.

With Middlesbrough and the Mackems losing as well it looks like any two from the three North-East clubs to join West Brom. Next Saturday we go to Stoke while Saturday play Man Utd and Boro face Hull, both at home. Three points could see us out of the drop zone. Lose and we're as good as down.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Blue Sky Days

The short, dull, biting-cold days of winter are behind us at last. Warmed by the sun, the first pavement cafe opened in the Old Town today and half the city decamped to Mezaparks, Riga's garden suburb. There were long queues for candyfloss and shashlik, people in sunglasses riding bikes across frozen scraps of snow, and children building sandcastles on the park's tiny beach, still wrapped up in hats and gloves. A few hundred metres away the last of the ice fishermen were out, cold and motionless on top of the lake.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Shearer Comes Home

"You lot'll never learn," said the Man Utd fan at work. "It's like Keegan all over again." "He'll fall flat on his face," the Villa supporter agreed.

Maybe he will, but watching Shearer being presented to the fans gave me a football-sized lump in the throat. This season's been one long nightmare - we're due a few dreams.

Things Are Looking Up

This week just keeps getting better. Shearer comes (and no matter what he says, it's inconceivable that Kinnear will be back in charge next year), Wise goes, and Sunderland's star player gets lifted for assault outside a lapdancing club. Even the weather has improved: in Riga yesterday's temperature was nine degrees, the highest of the year. One day soon I might see a Latvian in something other than knee-high boots and a fur-lined hood - and Newcastle could be out of the bottom three.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Supporting Newcastle United

Never dull, is it?

Forty years of near constant disappointment teaches you to live in hope not expectation. As a manager Shearer might well turn out to be more Bobby Charlton than Brian Clough, but things can't get any worse than the depressing downwards drift of Hughton, Calderwood and Wise. If nothing else, today's the first time I've felt positively about the club since Keegan left. A new boss always gets a reaction. It might just be enough to keep us up.

After that, we'll see.