Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hot Weekend in Riga

My last Saturday in Riga began at the Botanical Gardens, which meant a long, hot, non-signposted walk across the grubby side of the river to see some tree-sized rhododendron bushes and a tropical greenhouse that looked a bit like a dilapidated swimming pool from the outside.

In the afternoon I took a boat trip on the Daugava, the highlight of which was the discovery of a bar on the lower deck with cold bottles of Bauska Beer. Finally, after an afternoon nap, we had an unofficial end-of-year party at the huge Lido opposite the TV tower, drinking litres of Latvian lager in the sun and dancing pissed to the music of a man in a black spangly waistcoat and mullet.

Next Saturday I'll be in Stockholm, Heathrow and Newcastle, and various flight paths in between.

Ashley Bails Out

"It has been catastrophic for everybody. I've lost my money and I've made terrible decisions. Now I want to sell it as soon as I can".

Assuming our exile from the big league has spared us the prospect of a Glazer or a Hicks, the local consortium (not including anyone by the name of Hall or Shepherd, please) might turn out to be more than just paper talk at Ashley's 70% off for a quick sale offer. Whoever we get, they can't be much worse than the current lot.

In future the fit and proper owner test needs a section on stupidity.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

East is (Still) East

I made up a pub quiz for my last class with the teenagers, six rounds including general knowledge, sport and music. "If you met Barack Obama, what would you call him?" I asked, hinting at Mr President. "Black?" suggested one. "Nigg..," started another.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Beer Gardens

While traditional bars close or remain half empty, Latvia's growing economic crisis has brought beer garden prices tumbling down. In the Old Town's main square, faced with competition from a red fire engine beer pump, you can get a half-litre for just ninety santimes (about one pound ten) with blankets and really bad live music thrown in for free.

Just don't forget your coat.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sunderland-upon-Tyne, Famous for Newcastle

"Where are you from?" asked the man on Marrakech's Djemaa el-Fna. "Newcastle? Bobby Robson, Alan Shearer, Toon Army." His sales pitch hadn't changed when I bumped into him a week later, but this time I answered "Sunderland." He looked puzzled, the smile wavered. "Where's that?" "Near Newcastle." His face lit up with recognition. "Newcastle? Bobby Robson, Alan Shearer, Toon Army."

You'll never see a mackem in Milan. They've never heard of them there.

Monday, May 25, 2009


"If you only have time to visit one provincial town in Latvia then it really ought to be Kuldiga," advises my Rough Guide to the Baltic States. With no trains, bumpy roads and buses from Riga taking anything up to three and a half hours you'd need to have plenty of time on your hands to make the trip worthwhile - even if it does have lots of pretty, yellow-and-beige buildings and Europe's widest waterfall.

That's widest, not highest.

Reasons to be Cheerful

1. We've just saved ourselves a million quid a month on Owen, Viduka and Martins.

2. Ameobi and Xisco might start to look good.

3. Two foreign awaydays in the South of Wales.

4. Mike Ashley's lost a packet.

5. Is Bassong really that good anyway? Let him find out in Arsenal reserves.

6. The London media might forget we exist.

7. Hull and Sunderland are still going down next year and you'll never see a Mackem in Milan.

8. No more Monday night football, cheaper tickets and Blackpool away in September.

9. We did get rid of Dennis Wise. And Jimenez. And Llambias's smirk.

10. Phil Brown isn't our manager.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Welcome to the Championship

Let's be honest about it, we were down as soon the moment the final whistle went last weekend. For the third time in my life (and the second in my memory) Newcastle have been relegated. We didn't deserve any better.

I watched the game live in Riga, with sound from Hull, pictures from Villa Park and Latvians in Man Utd tops jumping around when they scored. At the final whistle I felt more relieved than devastated, sad to go down but glad to see the back of the Premier League and the overpaid has-beens who inhabit it.

I'll be there for the first game of next season, even if Michael Owen isn't.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Back to Sigulda

The sky was grey and heavy over Sigulda, threatening a downpour that only the wind kept away. We hiked for six hours, looping around hills and sandstone caves before we finally found our way on the poorly marked trails, stopping for food at a castle, missing out the best bits in our rush to get back for the train.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Top of Stalin's Birthday Cake

Sixty-five metres up, the first thing you notice about Riga is how very flat it is, like a grown up version of a children’s road play mat, only with trams and trains and trolley buses instead of plastic cars.

What little height there is in the city has been provided by man, German, Russian, Latvian: the syringe-like TV Tower poking through the dirty cotton wool fluff clouds, sloping red roofs and copper-coloured spires in the Old Town, crammed between the river and a v-shaped wedge of green, the polytunnel shapes of the Central Market hangars, and the green and silver domes of Orthodox churches scattered like sentries around the edge of the city centre. Clouds mass across the river; behind the glass and steel of the Hotel Latvia shipyard cranes dangle like abandoned compasses. White hands on a giant clock face move round to ten past twelve and there's a slow whir of electric as a train pulls across the railway bridge. The grass is yellow with dandelion heads.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


My first (and in all likeliehood only) Latvian balcony radish crop. Although the vegetables were a bit smaller than I'm used to they tasted a lot better than the ones you get by the kilo in supermarkets. I ate them all in one meal, chopped up into an onion, cucumber and aubergine salad served with boiled rice and a soy sauce dressing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What if...?

Sunderland Implode At Portsmouth read the headline on the BBC. An image flashed through my mind of Hull players celebrating on the pitch, Chelsea scoring two unanswered goals, Mark Viduka heading a last-minute winner to send the Mackems down...

Then I remembered who it was I support.

Monday, May 18, 2009



In lots of ways I liked Vilnius best of the three Baltic capitals. The streets are clean, beer and food are only two thirds of the price in Riga or Tallinn, and the architecture has a joyful flourish that you don't often find in the grey stone and red brick of its northerly neighbours. It was only after dark that I began to feel grateful that I lived in Riga. The streets were closed and empty, at least two of the places in my guidebook had gone bankrupt, and the liveliest pub was crowded with people watching Eurovision on a big screen TV, cheering every Lithuanian point as if it was a goal in the World Cup Final. When it closed at one our only choice was a bar playing 80s music. "Is this as busy as it gets?" I asked a girl in the gap between Haircut 100 and Spandau Ballet. "Nowadays, yes," she replied. "Everybody drinks at home."

Recession nightlife is not half as much fun as it used to be.

Going Down in Lithuania

At five o'clock Lithuanian time I was in the beer garden of the Uzpio Kavine with only text messages to tell me what was happening in Newcastle. "Owen not in final 16," "Hull losing, Boro winning," "One-nil down. We've had better of first half but defensive fuck up," "Hull drawing. Shite," "Goal disallowed for nothing. We're down."

Walking back to the hostel, the Old Town was as empty as my hopes of staying up. I remembered a quote from a Russian politician as their economy went down to the tubes in the mid-1990s, "We hoped for something different but things turned out like they always do." Nothing is certain, Hull might lose to Fergie's reserves, we might yet scrape a point at Villa, but overall we deserve to be relegated: too many mistakes made at the top, too much money wasted, too many people just going through the motions. Whatever the pain, tear it up and start again.

Friday, May 15, 2009


I'm going to Vilnius early tomorrow morning and so probably won't get to see tomorrow afternoon's game. Fulham are a good team - better organised than us and with enough pace to hit teams on the break - but it's their home form that's kept them in the top half of the league. If we can do what Hull, West Brom, Blackburn and the Mackems have already done this season, then our goal difference should be enough to keep us up.

My predictions:

Newcastle 1 Fulham 0 (before the Boro game I would have had it nailed on as a draw, now I think the extra confidence might just be enough to see us through)
Bolton 1 Hull 1 (Bolton only need a point)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Corner Turned?

There were worrying moments, lots of them, and a noticeable lack of pace or skill in the middle of the pitch, but Newcastle deserved to win last night on commitment and effort alone. For the first time in ages it looked like we wanted to win more than the opposition did, and you felt that goals would eventually come (just not from Michael Owen).

This might all turn out to be another dead end (remember that the first part of doing a Leeds is to stay up thanks to Mark Viduka), but this morning is one of those (increasingly) rare times when it feels good to follow Newcastle United.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Now or Never

"The players are aware we are playing for huge stakes here...they are aware of the importance of this particular game. It will be difficult to enjoy it but if we go out and get an early goal, it will settle everyone down".

Let's be honest, it's only thanks to Hull (or more specifically that narcissistic loony Phil Brown) that we haven't been relegated already. If we can't win tonight, we don't deserve to stay up. Simple as that.

Howay the lads!

Sunday, May 10, 2009


It was a warmish day - close to twenty in the places that were sheltered from the wind - but, still out-of-season, Parnu's beach was much quieter than I expected. A couple of joggers did press-ups on a bench, kitesurfers were out on the sepia-coloured waves, there was a kickabout on the sand, a man with a walking stick chasing after the ball, a coachload of Polish tourists took photos of the dunes, paving stones were piled by a fountain, waiting to be laid. In the beachfront pub I was the only customer; the waitress had to scribble the menu on a chalkboard before I could order.

I walked around most of the town twice before it was time to get the bus home to Riga, stopping off to take in the local football team's two-nil home defeat to a side in black and white stripes. Who knows, one day such wonders might even catch on in Britain...

Saturday, May 09, 2009

V.E. Day in Riga

There weren't many Latvians out commemorating the end of the Second World War and their liberation by the Soviet Union yesterday, but thousands of ethnic-Russians (and a few hundred riot police) congregated at the Victory Monument in Pardaugava. What started as an austere event - covering the steps in flowers and remembering the dead in silence - became a drunken knees-up after dark, the fireworks and shouts of Rush-ee-ya, Rush-ee-ya feeling more like a show of strength than a mark of respect.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Boumsong Mystery

"Ever wondered how Boumsong gets to play in the French team?" began the email from my friend in Paris. "My students reckon he's a very intelligent, highly-educated guy who turns up for training carrying Le Monde. He discusses philosophical questions with Domenech, the manager, who likes to think of himself as a bit of an intellectual, though most French fans just think he's a complete wanker. I see a lot of French footie and when he's not berating the referee Boumsong's moaning at his team-mates to distract them from the howler he has just perpetated."

Which rather makes you wonder what he found to talk about with the likes of Souness, Bellamy, Bowyer, Bramble and Dyer. The search for truth and beauty inherent in the wearing of ten grand gold chains, the absurdity of life as seen from the windows of yellow Hummers, the aretaic turn and scrapping on the pitch...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Taking the Piss

The Independent's Michael Walker gets straight to the nub of what's wrong with Newcastle. Barton, Viduka, Martins, Owen, Gutierrez, Duff, Cacapa, Ameobi, Smith, Geremi, Coloccini (who would've struggled to get into our reserves a couple of seasons ago according to Bobby Robson): whichever league we're in next season, a massive clear-out is long overdue.

When The Rain Comes

A few hours after saying that Riga hadn't seen proper rain since the end of March it came down like Joey Barton's studs in a tackle from behind. I was teaching at the time, using a video lesson based on the first episode of The Apprentice. The timings need a bit of tweaking but overall it worked pretty well - which is a lot more than you can say for the odious Scouse thug.

Barton, you're fired.

Trouble on the Balcony

After four and a bit weeks my first crop of radishes should be almost ready to eat, but all I've got so far are a bunch of leafy vegetables the shape and size of a snapped bookmaker's pencil. If you want your radishes to plump out, they need plenty of direct sunlight, a bit of heat and lots of moisture. The temperature on my balcony has, I think, been so hot that the shallow growbag soil is drying out too quickly (of course it hasn't helped that we haven't had any proper rain since the end of March). What I need is a deeper container and something to shade it from the sun, but for now all I can do is thin the plants out and hope for the best.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Stuck in Bauska

Two times I walked the long road from Bauska Castle to the station. Two times the promised bus to Rundale failed to arrive. The ticket window was closed and boarded up, the timetable on the wall told me nothing that the internet already hadn't. Both were wrong.

The Riga bus pulled out of its bay, a young girl cried on a bench while her mother slapped her face, dust blew across the square. There were three hours left to kill so I walked to a cafe. Closed on Monday said the sign on the door.

Nida: The Dunes

From the lightning-struck sundial I could see all the way to Russia, wide, dark and featureless beyond the high wooden watchtowers. The Baltic sparkled like crystal on a windowsill and the many-coloured houses of Nida made the lagoon seem like a tributary of the Rhine.

The sky turned red, branches poked like half-drowned arms from white-sand hills. My head played out scenes from a Kobo Abe novel.

Hope Dies Last

Three games, no goals and two defeats since our fourth manager of the season told his team they couldn't afford to lose again. But for the lemming-like determination of Hull and Sunderland to relegate themselves we would already be down. Some of our players have already given up, most are no longer good enough to do anything about it.

"If we have to go down to the Championship to rid ourselves of the clowns and conmen that pollute the dressing room, that might not be the end of the world," thinks Whatever the financial implications, there's a big part of me that agrees. Better relegation and a clear-out than scraping along the bottom with the likes of Joey Barton in the team. We've been through worse than this and still survived. Players and owners come and go, the football club remains.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


It was ten past five by the time we got to Klaipeda. It was still hot, the streets were as quiet as Paris in August, and with beer in the Old Town half the price of Riga there wasn't much to do besides drink. "Is there anywhere with lots of people?" we asked the barman in the Black Cat, almost deserted at half past ten. "Try the Jazz Club," he suggested, "they have live music."

An ACDC cover band wasn't quite what I expected. But like the city itself, they had a funny way of growing on you.