Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Best of the Rest of Belfast part 2

After a few hours sleep (mainly because my brain decided I wanted to wake up at 6am), it was time for day 2 of my flying visit to Belfast. I was meeting up with my friends Bryan and Elaine, but first I posed for a selfie with a fish.

Technically, he's The Salmon of Knowledge, but everyone just calls him the Big Blue Fish.

Those big yellow gantry cranes in the background are part of the shipyard and are called Samson and Goliath. They are also Belfast icons.

Bryan and Elaine took me to Titanic Belfast, a museum attraction as grand on the inside as on the outside.

Outside, the outline of the Titanic and Olympic are marked out in a park area around the actual ramps the ships were launched from.

The exhibit covers everything, from the building...

... to the launch... (hey! That's my birthday!)

... to the disaster.

The tragedy is covered in a very respectful and thought-provoking way. I found it quite moving reading the stories of those who died.

The park outside is also a memorial garden. Walking the length of it makes you realise how massive these ships were.

Next to Titianic Belfast is the SS Nomadic, which was the ship used to ferry passengers to an from liners at the port of Cherbourg. It carried passengers onto the Titanic for the Atlantic crossing.

It also gives you another good view of the Titanic Belfast building.

For lunch we went to an "Honesty Cafe" called The Dock Cafe. You pay what you can, or what you feel it was worth, for your food. It had a lovely ambiance.

There's also an art installation of the Titanic done like an Airfix kit. I thought it was quite cool.

Bryan and Elaine know me well enough to take me to a shop that sells Lego. It also had a lot of large scale sculptures, including this massive one of Clone Wars era Yoda.

We then drove along the coast to Carrickfergus. This is where Elaine grew up, and centuries beforehand, it was where William of Orange landed to fight the supporters of his predecessor, King James. "King Billy" has a statue, which is apparently life-size, in which case he was quite short.

His statue is right next to Carrickfergus Castle, which is a proper battle-worn fortress.

And, the front looks like Castle Greyskull!

After a very full day (and a meal overlooking Carrickfergus Harbour), I was dropped back at the airport. I'd managed to cram a huge amount into 2 days. A big thank you to Bryan and Elaine for giving me a grand day out.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Best of the Rest of Belfast part 1

I had about 36 hours in Belfast around Barry Town's Europa League game with Cliftonville FC. Here's what I got up to on day 1.

First Belfast selfie: Outside City Hall when the taxi dropped us off.

After an Ulster Breakfast (veggie version), I went to the Botanic Gardens.

The Palm House is pretty old, and has an impressive array of plants inside. (You can see the early sunshine had disappeared at this point.)

The rose garden was spectacular visually and olifactorally.

And the Tropical Ravine House has a waterfall inside.

Next to the Botanic Gardens is the Ulster Museum. I felt at home as soon as I walked in.

The dragons were part of a special Game of Thrones exhibition. It was mostly filmed in Northern Ireland and everyone is cashing in on fantasy nerd tourists.

I found the section on the Troubles very interesting. It brought back memories of the 6 o'clock news coming on after Neighbours during the 1980s. If the first story was Belfast or Northern Ireland, it was undoubtedly another atrocity.

My favourite exhibit that I saw was labelled as possibly the most dangerous toy ever sold, which was shipped to customers with radioactive isotopes inside. (Including Polonium, which Russia uses to kill ex-citizens it doesn't like!)

The instructions were humorous too.

After the museum, we walked past Queen Anne's University.

I went and met my friends Bryan and Elaine for lunch. Then on the way to my hotel I saw the Titanic Memorial on the other side of City Hall.

It was a nice hotel. There was a mint on my pillow.

I was knackered, having been up since 3.45am. So I rested for a couple of hours, charged up my phone and when I left it was time to go to the game!

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Europa League Dreams - Unbelievable Barry Town versus Cliftonville FC

When I declared for Barry Town last season, I didn't think they would qualify for the Europa League preliminary round. Of all the clubs in the draw, Cliftonville was the closest away trip we could get. (I had been a bit worried we would end up in Kosovo.)

The first leg was at 'home' but UEFA didn't pass Jenner Park as fit to host European football, so Barry had to decamp to Cardiff Athletics Stadium in Leckwith. Now as Leckwith is next door to Grangetown, this benefitted me personally, but I think it was to the detriment of the team.

Despite decking out Leckwith with Barry flair, it wasn't a 'home' game.

Barry flair

Even bringing along a huge number of mascots didn't work to dull the brightness of the blue interactive running track (seriously, it's called Power Track and times races by itself).

Mascot plethora

Still, Barry battled to a decent 0-0 draw against their Northern Irish opponents.

Which set things up nicely for the return leg. I got the early flight into Belfast, landing at 7.15am and with some newly-made friends arrived too early for breakfast at a  city centre Wetherspoons. Once it opened I had the veggie version of an Ulster Breakfast. I'm going to post a general post about everything else I did in Belfast, but suffice to say about 11 hours after our flight landed, I arrived at Solitude, the home ground of Cliftonville FC.

We all gently and politely squeezed into the clubhouse, which had already been claimed by the Barry fans. I discovered Clonmel Lager. I liked it.

We made ourselves at home

Soon it was time to head to the away end in anticipation of kick off.

That big, derelict looking stand? Yes, it has actually been condemned. There's been discussion about how Solitude made it past the UEFA inspectors when Jenner Park failed. The pitch is an old style artificial pitch with so much black crumb getting kicked up the players looked like Pigpen from the Peanuts cartoon strips. I also noted that the directors parked their cars next to the derelict stand, inside the ground, at considerable risk of a drilled clearance denting their bodywork.

Previous visitors had left their mark on the away end.

We flagged it up. I don't think anyone brought stickers.

We saw a lot of action in the first half because Cliftonville were kicking towards us. And the game seemed to be mainly Cliftonville kicking the ball towards us.

First half close up action

Cliftonville led 2-0 at the break. I stood motionless in the chip van queue for 15 minutes then gave up as the second half kicked off. The sun came out. The rays really made the rust patterns on the derelict stand 'pop'.

Second half distant action

We saw very little down our end in the second half. Cliftonville got two more goals. This then prompted a conga of Barry Town fans around the away end, and in front of the 'overflow' home fans who had been parked in seats next to us, singing "Four nil down; Who give a f***; We're Barry Town; And we've got a fox!"

Conga time

So, yeah, about the fox (as seen at the front of the conga there)... Well, two Barry lads turned up with it. There are already a few versions of the story going round, but the one I heard is that "Basil" (as he's now known) was acquired as they walked through a housing estate to the ground, when a random old chap asked them if they wanted to buy a stuffed fox (it's a proper stuffed fox, as well, not a toy). Now, that in itself is weird, but I suppose the really weird thing is that they said yes, and brought him along to the game.

The fox has come home to Barry. It took the lads in question an hour with environmental health officers to get him on the plane. As hand luggage.

A 4-0 defeat, a plane ride away from home? Well, you got to keep singing. At the end the players trudged across the pitch to applaud the fans and stood there for five minutes listening to us sing.

Mutual admiration

The reaction on social media from the Cliftonville fans shows that we made an impression the way we kept on singing throughout the game. Realistically, football-wise it was a hammering. It was an epic away trip in every aspect apart from the 90 minutes on the pitch. I have no regrets about going and I would do it again... except that's the end of the Europa League dream for this season.

(A shout out to the Barry Town fans I made friends with on the trip and Mike, Steve, Neil, Mark, and Kathryn, in particular. Also to Tom and Steve H who sat through the 0-0 at Leckwith with me.)

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Lookalikey Castle

I've just got back from a brilliant trip to Belfast watching Barry Town lose gallantly (and heavily) to Cliftonville FC. More on that later.

I also timed my 36 hour trip to when my friends Bryan and Elaine were over there. Elaine hails from the area and they took me to Carrickfergus where she grew up. One of the things Elaine pointed was the castle. It might seem strange to bother pointing out castles to a visitor from Wales where we have more castles per square kilometer than any other part of Europe, but Elaine wanted me to see it because she reckons it looks like Castle Greyskull from the old He-Man cartoons. (She knows me well enough to know that's the kind of sightseeing sight I want to see!)

I was slightly sceptical. But then I saw it.

Carrickfergus Castle

Castle Greyskull

Yep. Elaine was right. That is the real world home of He-Man.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

2018-19 Football Season Review - breaking records again

I feel embarrassed that I'm only publishing my 2018-19 review after my 2019-20 season has already started, thanks to Barry Town's appearance in the Europa League Preliminary Round on 27 June!

Last season I went to 30 matches and made much of that in my season review. But I went between 16.6% and 20% better this year, depending on whether we count the 15 minutes of an abandoned match as a game. I've been told that if you've turned up, paid for your ticket and seen the game kick off then it counts, although the goal that was scored doesn't officially count for anything. What an anomaly.

So, let's say it was 36 matches. As per previous seasons, here are the overall stats:
Season: 2018-19
Total games: 36 (includes one game abandoned after 15 minutes)
Most goals in a game: 7
Fewest goals in a game: 0
Total goals seen: 104
Number of football grounds visited: 12 (2 of which I’d never visited before)

So, what games did I go to?

15 of the games I saw featured Barry Town. I went to 12 at Jenner Park, two away games and the Welsh Cup Semi-final at Latham Park in Newtown.

Jenner Park - a magical place

All the way to Connah's Quay

Semi-final line ups

I loved following Barry this season. It's friendly, affordable football at a better standard than most people expect. They also have brilliant programme covers.

Barry's season went beyond expectations as they finished third and qualified for the Europa League. At the end of the Welsh Premier League first phase they were topping the table.

The team I saw the next most often were Cardiff City. My friend Sara is still trying to convert me. I saw City 8 times last season, including an away game at Arsenal. That worked out because I had a meeting in London that day and I saved £88.50 coming home on the supporters coach instead of getting a return train ticket. I should have put my match ticket on expenses really as my employer would still have been in pocket. But I didn't.

I love The Emirates as a stadium. I was very tempted to buy Cathy a Gunnersaurus Rex.

I think this is the first time Sara has featured on my blog. (It's also her photo)

Cardiff had a tough season, a long drawn-out relegation scrap limited their Premier League sojourn to a year. Given the hype there is some desperate football played in the Premier League. Newcastle United were abject in the extreme, and with Cardiff served up my only 0-0 of the year.

Talking of abject, desperate football, Shrewsbury had a really disappointing season with several weeks in the relegation zone. I saw one game under manager John Askey, and they won. I saw 4 games under Askey's replacement, Sam Ricketts, and it was a real mixed bag. A good away draw in Bristol (as part of my failed attempt at a 'twofer'), a lucky home win against Wycombe, and a couple of pathetic losses.

I did get some photos of the Shrewsbury mascots having a dance off, though.

I also made it to three Newport County games, including their fabulous, famous win over Leicester City. Beforehand Spytty the Dog didn't look very optimistic.

Newport had a decent fist of a season with a cup run and a play-off final. I saw them three times and they won all three games. Shame I didn't make the effort to go to the play-off final, really.

And then there are the other games, that get collected up in the "randoms". My first game of the season was The New Saints versus Midtjylland of Denmark in a European game held at Cardiff City Stadium. I also went to see my friend Ben play for Goytre AFC, except at the last moment he was benched, which was disappointing for both of us. I saw Wales get beaten by Denmark in the UEFA Nation's League.

And then in January I went to see Telford versus Kidderminister Harriers in a game that has taken on poignant significance for me. It turned out to be the last game I went to see with my Dad before his unexpected death a few weeks later. Now I have mixed feelings seeing pictures of Benny the Buck.

Funny story. We'd parked up and were walking round to the turnstiles at the Buck's Head. As he always did, Dad felt the need to talk to anyone we met on the way and explain who we were and why we were there, so he loudly told a Telford fan that "Really, we're Shrewsbury fans, but we've just come over to watch the game..." He saw no reason at all why telling people we were fans of their local rivals could have been a problematic announcement to make. Bless 'im.

And then I finished the season with a rare June game. Wales women against New Zealand women at the Cardiff Athletics Stadium across the road from the Cardiff City Stadium. New Zealand had qualified for the World Cup and this was a warm up game for them. Wales won with a very late goal, having saved a penalty in the first half.

I really enjoyed going to the Women's international and it was a great way to round out the season.