It’s almost the end of the year, so that means it’s almost compulsory to look back at the last 12 months and share a few of my favourite experiences with you all.
2019 has been an interesting year on many fronts, not just in terms of the football I’ve seen, so I hope I’ve managed to get that across here.
Málaga’s Christmas Lights
Back in January, I returned to Spain via Málaga, meaning I got to experience something which I first saw in 2016, the magical tunnel of lights which decorate the city’s Calle Marques de Larios through the festive season.
They’re definitely the best Christmas lights I’ve seen anywhere in Spain and we’re going back again in 2020.
The Madrid Derby
I had long targeted the February meeting of Atlético and Real Madrid as a potential way of finally seeing one of Spanish football’s big games and I was able to accomplish this thanks to parting with one hundred and twenty of my hard-earned Euros (call it an early birthday present to myself).
The match was pretty exciting without ever being a classic, the manner that Atlético struggled to get back into the contest after going 3-1 down and losing Thomas Partey to a needless red card was frustrating and to everyone watching, it looked like Real Madrid were ominously coming into form at just the right time. Again.
Of course, a week later I saw them lose at home to eventual relegation fodder Girona and their season totally imploded.
Up Close and Personal with Diego Costa
A week on from the derby I was watching Atlético again, although from an altogether different viewpoint. Instead of being high up in the stands above the pitch at the Wanda Metropolitano, I was watching from a few seats away from the pitch in Vallecas.
The game itself was nothing special and at €70 per ticket, it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it gave a great up-close view of the action and allowed me to take some of my favourite pictures of the year.
A Lovely Day Out in Alcalá
At the start of March I took a day trip out to Alcalá de Henares on the train to explore the historic city and also take a visit to the picturesque setting of the Estadio Municipal del Val, home of RSD Alcalá.
The game wasn’t much to write home about but the city left a lasting impression and I want to go back again in 2020.
My first trip outside the Communidad de Madrid of the year was at the beginning of April as I took a day trip on the train to Valladolid for a bit of sightseeing and of course, Real Valladolid v Sevilla.
I spent enough time wandering around to get a feel for the city and I loved the Estadio José Zorilla. Really atmospheric and just so purple, it’s somewhere I want to go back to in 2020. I just hope the weather is a bit nicer next time I go. Just around half time, the heavens opened and I spent the rest of the game under an umbrella and when I got back into the city centre I was forced to spend the rest of my time there waiting for my train indoors.
A wet Plaza Mayor in Valladolid
My trip to Lisbon in April was almost everything I wanted it to be.
Three years on, I got to visit the Estadio da Luz again and this time actually watch a match there.
I spent much more time in Belem, fitting in a proper tour of the Torre de Belem, visiting Belenenses’ stadium and of course, going to the famous café and having pasteis de nata. In fact we had loads of them all over the city!
I was able to take the train out to the beautiful town of Sintra which I missed on my last visit.
I went to museums I had never been to before, climbed up to Castelo de Saō Jorge (again) and took a trip on Tram 28.
The only thing which didn’t line up was the weather. There must be some unwritten rule which states that when I’m in Lisbon, it has to rain heavily for at least half of the time I’m there.
Time off in Madrid
I’ve worked really hard this past year. So that means I’ve learned to treasure my time off more than ever before.
When I lived in Huelva, I had a very predictable routine on my days off, only broken up by day trips to Sevilla and weekends away, so moving to Madrid was quite the change. Suddenly I was in a bustling city, with lots of options for things to do.
Some of my favourite things I’ve done this year were visiting Parque Europa in Torrejón in February, riding the Teleferico back in March, countless walks in Retiro but the bank holiday at the start of May was undoubtedly the favourite.
An afternoon by the Lago in Casa de Campo, taking in the Dos de Mayo festivities in Malasaña and revisiting the abandoned Metro station at Chamberi, which was the first place Sarah and I visited together in Madrid, back when the idea of us being married had never even crossed our minds.
Everything about the Champions League Final except the match.
Yeah, for all my excitement about getting a ticket for the Champions League Final, the game itself turned out to be a horrible anti-climax. Liverpool scored right at the start and right at the end, while Spurs spent the entire intervening period passing the ball about aimlessly in front of the Liverpool penalty box.
The experience of having the Champions League Final in the city was brilliant though. The city was buzzing in the build-up with events starting on the Wednesday before the game. I visited the fan zones in Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, took a photo with the giant replica trophy outside the Palacio Real, waited a ridiculous amount of time to get inside the shop at Callao and best of all, visited the exhibition at the Real Casa de Correos – the first time I’ve ever been inside the iconic building.
Although the game was more than a bit rubbish, I’m still glad that I got the chance to go to the final, especially considering rumours that UEFA are planning to open the bidding up to non-European host cities from 2024.
As a long time listener and subscriber to The Spanish Football Podcast, one of my highlights of the year was getting to join the guys for a recording session back in June. I didn’t get a trip in the famous podmobile, but it was still a great morning of football chat, Spanish and otherwise.
Bohemian Like You
Another long-held ambition was to see a game down in Dublin during the summer and thanks to the rearranging of the Bohemians v St Patrick’s Athletic clash due to the latter’s Europa League involvement, I was able to do it.
It seems weird to say it, but I’d not actually been in central Dublin for around four years, the last time being for a Football Ramble live show in July 2015, so I was looking forward to spending a bit of time on the city as well.
Unfortunately poor weather meant that part of the day trip was a wash-out, but the football was worth the trip on its own. Bohs won the game 3-0, despite being largely outplayed for most of the contest and it was great to experience one of Ireland’s most iconic grounds before a planned refurbishment starts.
Everything is OK at Coleraine again
Life following Coleraine during the first half of 2019 was difficult. Having won the cup and gone so close to winning the league in 2017/18 there was a logical expectation that we could kick on and mount a similar challenge in 2018/19.
But the club never really got over the upheaval of manager Oran Kearney departing to take charge of St Mirren in September. Things just didn’t really work out for his replacement Rodney McAree, League form was inconsistent and January signings largely failed to impress. That said, had a couple of penalty decisions in the months of April and May gone differently, Coleraine have ended the season with another Irish Cup in the trophy cabinet and/or a European place secured.
After McAree was sacked in May, Kearney eventually returned following his own controversial exit from St Mirren, having kept the Paisley club up. He only took charge at the start of July and there weren’t any major signings brought in before the season started. In fact more players left the club.
It’s probably fair to say that expectations weren’t high, Coleraine didn’t feature in any pundits’ top tips for the season but so far, it looks like Kearney has managed to recapture the old magic. Home and away wins over both Linfield and Crusaders have been the standout results and while there’s still a long way to go, Coleraine fans can look forward to the new year, which will include a League Cup Final in February, with a sense of excitement.
Two Views of the Rock
I spent almost a week at the end of summer in La Linéa de la Concepción and Gibraltar and while there I got to see matches on both sides of the border.
Of the two games, the one at the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar was probably the more entertaining, a 2-2 draw with a late equaliser, but for views of the Rock, with the added bonus of a sunset thrown in, Linense’s ground wins hands down!
Not long after I got back to Madrid, I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to Leganés v Levante, but when I got to the ground I discovered that it wasn’t just any ticket – but one for the VIP section.
Previously the closest I’ve ever come to the posh seats is having a cup of tea and a sandwich in the boardroom while covering matches at the Coleraine Showgrounds but things are a good bit fancier at a La Liga ground!
The November puente is a great time to escape from the city and visit new places. Last year it was Salamanca, this year we headed to Zaragoza, a city which has long been on my list to visit.
Despite some poor weather (there seems to be a theme when I leave Madrid this year) I really enjoyed exploring the city, particularly getting to see the rooftops from one of the towers of the iconic Basilica del Pilar. No football though, Real Zaragoza unfortunately kicked off on Sunday evening that weekend, but I did find time to visit La Romareda on Saturday morning and buy another scarf to add to my collection.
One of the best things about being in Madrid this past year has been getting to know lots of different people from the English-speaking football fan community. There are plenty of us (as you can see from the photo above) and the Día del Fútbol Modesto movement continues to go from strength to strength. There’ll be plenty more great days out to come in the new year!
A Brilliant Boxing Day
As I wrote about recently, Boxing Day is a special day in the Northern Irish football calendar, with derby matches taking place in front of packed out stadiums.
I’m a firm believer that Christmas can’t be considered a success until after you know the outcome of the match on 26th December and thankfully this year, Coleraine delivered. It wasn’t a classic, two early goals did the business against feeble opposition but it was a great occasion. It’s always great to see The Showgrounds full (or at least close to) on an occasion like this, or the draw against Linfield two days later which closed out the year for the Bannsiders.
Oh… I got married!
Yeah, I couldn’t really leave this out. It’s not even tenuously related to football (aside from the fact Coleraine beat Crusaders 4-2 on the day of the ceremony) but I just had to include the single biggest thing that happened to me this year.
Over two ceremonies, a civil ceremony in Gibraltar and a church service and reception back home in Northern Ireland we got to officially tie the knot and then celebrate it with some of our family and closest friends.
It was an unorthodox way of doing things but it’s the one which made most sense for us, circumventing the need for either of us to get an expensive fiancé Visa for a country we weren’t planning on living in. It also meant we got to have two wedding days, a fun, relaxed day in Gibraltar and then the more official celebration in Ballycastle and at Larragh Lodge. These are memories we will treasure for the rest of our lives.
And I got to show Sarah a bit more of Northern Ireland (on two occasions)
The only time Sarah had previously visited my homeland was in December 2017 and January 2018. At that stage we’d only been dating for a couple of months but part of me knew that this was much more than just a new relationship.
Unfortunately we couldn’t make the most of our time there because 1) the weather was characteristically poor and 2) we had extremely limited daylight hours. So in the gap between our two wedding ceremonies in September, it was great to be able to be a proper tour guide.