The days in South East Asia have rushed past like a hunting wolf pack; magnificent, with the flashing of savage smiles, hearts beating hard with excitement and a smell in the air of pure living. In reflection it is hard to pick out individuals; there was a day on a 3rd class train carriage that had no glass in the windows, sat on wooden benches breathing fumes and spitting ashes from the field fires. With no idea how long we had been travelling or how far it was to our destination, the dark green countryside flickering strobe-like. Hat brim low, sunglasses as goggles and I-pod on shuffle – it was wonderful. Cambodia I think it was, now we are in Vietnam where “hello” has switched from “su-i-ci dai” to “sin jao” and the preferred beer brands have changed as we travelled north.
We met Jim from Newcastle in Ho Chi Min City (which he, like many of the residents, calls Saigon) and Jim rides a scooter. It is impossible for a camera or a paragraph to begin to capture the number of scooters in HCMC, they swarm in their millions, intertwining, mounting the already crowded pavements, three or four people perched on one machine, people transporting goods, livestock, a car windscreen, a four foot wreath. 12 thousand people a year are killed on the roads in Vietnam, traffic lights are purely for decoration, you cross from one side of the road to the other by walking slowly and allowing the deafening tide of engines and horns to swirl around you. Reaching the other side you feel an exhilaration and relief equal to having passed your driving test, which few people here have actually done it seems.
Jim’s scooter stands out from the millions because it has black and white stripes, he drinks in a bar called Phatty’s and it was parked outside when we arrived. We didn’t know Jim before we walked in the door but the conversation rattled along from the off as is so often the case when Newcastle fans meet. The tribe has a shared history and a communal experience that means a lot is understood without the need for explanation. It’s been magical where so ever we have encountered it and especially so with Jim who is a funny, generous and gentle fellow. Like all of us he turns feral when actually watching a game so it would have been good to have seen the derby match with him but our schedule dragged us away.
The day before the game against sunderland Wifey and I were in Nha Trang which is a seaside resort with silver sand that burns a bare foot after mid day and a surf line that demands you cavort in it. The waves rise and crash with a peculiar beach side force that means a swimmer can be propelled from chest deep to ankle deep like a penguin fleeing a sea lion. Children from 7 to 47 laugh and spit sea water and dive back for more.
Later we raise a glass to our daft, irascible, beautiful, restless spirited mate Jamie who, we heard this day, took his own life. Dammit Jamie.
We thought we were due on a overnight train to Da Nang when the filthy troop of idiot baboons would be taking their overly generous away allocation on Level 7 so, short of checking our squad for fresh injuries from pointless international matches, we tried to put the whole affair out of our minds. Then we did the maths.
The seven hour time difference meant the noon kick-off at SJP would actually mean a 9pm-ish final whistle in Nha Trang. Which was pretty much when we would be leaving our hotel for the train station. Not only that but we had watched Arsenal win at Liverpool in our room the night before so we probably had the required channel.
We could see it.
At which point the agitation galloped up at us. The excitement, the anxiety, scanning recent results for clues to form, should we allow Ben Arfa onto the same grass as that odious f***ing sack of shit Lee Cattermole? And what does it say about modern football that we ask the question at all? In the long term Martin O’Neil will come up short at sunderland because players who have a choice won’t want to live there and he will strop off as soon as the cheques for new players dry up but in the short term? His “everybody run around a lot, leave your foot in, get the ball up to the big fella, run around until exhausted, hope the game ends before the good players on the other side realise,” tactic will be effective. All this and more is spinning round my brain as we rickshaw race with some companions to a local restaurant. (I was second out of 15 by the way and was still complaining “rickshaw racing was ruined the day they outlawed the use of the whip” as I tackled my first drink).
Wifey checks her watch (mine is in a bin somewhere in New Zealand); it is five minutes to kick off. None of our party shares our desperation to know what is happening in Newcastle so our urgency for the bill and a taxi the second the last plate is cleared is unechoed. It is a hot and humid night in Nha Trang, T-shirts stuck to our backs, trying to work out if our skin is prickling from excitement or from the strength of our insect repellent. We crash into our hotel room to turn on the TV. 68 channels and nothing. That can’t be right. We roll round again. “Next” – reads a preview page “Live English Premiership football” and the programme only lasts half an hour. Which is about how long the game has left. We are the only Premiership game happening “live” in the world – this has to be it. The logo comes up, three guys in the studio put their hands together and bow…
…then the screen turns black. Jim warned us about this, we search some more somehow hoping that if we sneak up on the blocked channel it might let us in. It doesn’t. We grab our bags and rush to the lobby for an internet connection. The BBC is often “unavailable” in Vietnam so we go to Twitter in time for Ba to miss his penalty. 0-1, oh for phucsake. Bags are being loaded onto a bus, we have to go. We are submitting slowly to despair when Lee Ryder from the Chronicle tweets “SHOLAAAAAAA!” and our cheers echo round the busy lobby. Our tour guide is clapping his hands and shouting “chop chop” as the final whistle is reported. We bundle onto the bus last, giddy with joy, imagining the stupid twisted faces of our enemy.
We saw highlights on the internet in enchanting Hoi An and enough of the re-run of the whole game in Hué. Even knowing the score it doesn’t look like we were going to equalise – credit to Pardew and our team’s spirit that they didn’t stop believing, just a shame the chance to win it fell to Williamson and not Cabaye.
Now we are in Hanoi where the sky is as grey as the buildings. We haven’t been cold for months and we are trying to tell ourselves that 17 degrees isn’t excuse for two coats. Tomorrow we fly back to Bangkok where we hope to complain about the heat again, before heading to Phuket.
Like I said the days are running like wolves and sometimes you have no choice but to run with them.