501 Not Out: Football Nomad On Tour. My Story Attending Over 500 Matches Around the World.

I did an unintentional “Brian Lara”.

501 Not Out: Football Nomad On Tour. Attending Over 500 Matches Around the World.

501 NOT OUT

OK it’s a milestone but when you get to the facts, it’s nothing special. Here’s why – I have to be honest here and admit that even this figure of 501 NOT OUT (whether astounding or not) could and should have been much more sensational and earlier than it is tonight. In fact it’s a mere low average of 13.54 football matches per year, just over one football match a month of my life, not that impressive for a so-called football freak!!! Yeah I’ve been to just over one football match per month in life. Of course I have watched thousands more on TV but only real football counts here. Being in the stadium, being at the game. Really not as impressive as it could be, but hey, this is the post I needed to write before I hit 504 or 505 (this weekend) as somehow it still feels like a decent milestone.

“Jo Kuffour makes Hayter look shite” (we lied).

Watching AFC Bournemouth at Dean Court in Boscombe, England (2015)

Ridiculously I have visited over 100 national football stadiums, and not even watched a live match in some 85 of the countries I have been to. Again not impressive – work, life, travel writing, bar visits and too much coffee took over. Maybe even too much daydreaming and depression kicked in thanks to nasty liars on my journey.

“While we’re living, the dreams we have as children fade away” – Noel Gallagher.

At the Oval watching my local team in Belfast City, Glentoran FC (2007)

However, I nonchalantly clocked up my 500th football match, when I attended Legia Warszawa v. Zagłębie Lubin in the Polish capital on Sunday 27th August 2017. It was ironically the exact same day that this travel blog Don’t Stop Living turned 10. I didn’t even celebrate. I didn’t even buy a decent dinner or drink any alcohol. I went home, ate some cheese on toast, made myself a cup of tea, and went to bed. There is no new planet in the solar system. There is nothing up my sleeve.

“Spend your nightlife table hopping, trying to keep ya bag a bones in trim” – Noel Gallagher (my poet, for this lifetime).

Garth Crooks and I in Paris – BBC football pundit

I had worked that it was 501 not out, as I always felt it was approaching and was a good number, as we are not promised tomorrow, we can die tonight so if I don’t tell it now, I will not know the exact moment and could not share it. #dontstopliving #suicidebid #dontlietoyourfriends . But the 501 could be give or take 5 or 10 matches, so I could not be 100% sure this was the 501. But you’ll be smart enough to know there is no bullshit on here, I am an honest guy who shared my suicide bid, depression story and how I had to erase nasty liars and GuruGods from my life and try and stay alive. It was so hard to think the happy times could outweigh the bad.

jonny ultima brad pj gallaghers

Happier Times. Working in a land down under. Real smiles.

So despite my depression, I’ve now been to 501 football matches, but you know I’ve really been to 700 odd, but there needed to be a real system, I wasn’t just counting every match – even the match I played in Afghanistan wasn’t counted.

“Chrissy Brunt is good up front” – Northern Ireland fans.

Here were the rules I made up for myself:

  • the match had to be on a proper size football pitch (UEFA/NI/FIFA standards)
  • both teams must have been wearing different colours
  • there must have been 22 players on the pitch at the start of play
  • there must have been an official referee
  • the players on the pitch can be male or female but must be over 12
  • I could not include matches I played in or refereed
Jonny Blair lives a lifestyle of travel but he once won the Northern Ireland BB cup with 10th Bangor

10th Bangor Boy’s Brigade – Northern Ireland Champions 1997 – 1998!! I was proud to be part of the winning team! But none of those matches counted in the magic 501.

So this meant I didn’t count:

  • Matches I personally played in (probably around 100)
  • Matches for ages under 12
  • Matches were there was no official referee
  • Matches where the pitch was too small
  • Any 5-a-side, 6-a-side match etc.
  • Supporters Club Matches
  • Indoor tournaments

Not counted – Five a sides with my brothers, cousins, Dad and friends in my home town, BANGOR!

Not counted – Wannabe International

The Day I...Lobbed the Goalkeeper From 30 Yards in Afghanistan

Not counted – The Day I…Lobbed the Goalkeeper From 30 Yards in Afghanistan

Again, I cannot be 100% on this but I compiled a list roughly by home team, and I believe I have match tickets for over 300 of the 501 I’ve been to, so these are the matches I believe I have been to between 1980 and 19th September 2017, I can remember most of the 501. Thanks to all I met on the journey through the good and bad and everyone who played in these matches.

“He looks like Jimmy Quinn” – Northern Ireland fans.

Team – Quantity of Matches attended (estimate and could be wrong. I have missed some and possibly miscounted some)

Total – 503 (with three more to add this week and below figures not 100% accurate)
TOP FIVE:
Glentoran FC (home only) – 131. NOT OUT.
AFC Bournemouth (home only) – 121. NOT OUT.
Northern Ireland (home, away, neutral) – 121. NOT OUT.
Milk Cup (all matches were 1992 – 1996) – 25. OUT.
Legia Warszawa – 14. NOT OUT.

The night I watched Legia Warszawa win the league

Bangor Amateurs FC – 10 to 15 (unsure of the number, with Joe Blair, watching my Dad play, he also won’t remember the exact number, only God will). 

Dad and I in Rio de Janeiro for the 2014 World Cup Final

My Dad, Joe Blair scored hat-tricks for fun back in the day. His stories will never leave me.

My Dad, Joe Blair supporting Northern Ireland in Vienna, Austria in 2005

My Dad, Joe Blair supporting Northern Ireland in Vienna, Austria in 2005

camping ni

Dad kitted me out in a Northern Ireland shirt in the 1980s. I’m so proud.

Dad in Colombo Sri Lanka sunset

Admiring the Colombo sunset with my Dad. Extra special to have a beer with him here in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

More on my Dad Joe Blair below. And so back to the list of matches…

Millwall FC – 11 (inspired by the famous “Millwall Neil”)

neil macey jonny blair london

Millwall Neil and I on the tube in London back in the day…

Bangor FC – 9 (some Glens away matches, other matches)
Sydney Tournament – 6

jonny blair sydney fc

Watching Sydney FC with Simon Hopkins and Neil Delaney.

Sydney FC – 5
Spurs – 5
Hong Kong – 5
Penarol – 3
Glasgow Rangers – 3
Cheltenham Town – 2
Colchester United – 2

With Jeanette and Lea – the Colchester United bar ladies at the old Layer Road.

Coleraine-  2
Crusaders – 2
Liverpool – 2
England – 2
Nottingham Forest – 2
Toronto World Cup Under 20s – 2
Yeovil Town – 2

With Andy Kirk at Yeovil Town

Birmingham City – 1
Leyton Orient 1

QPR 1
Everton 1
AFC Wimbledon 1

Don't Stop Living a lifestyle of travel watching AFC Wimbledon

AFC Wimbledon mascot – James Condron and Jonny Blair 2006

Aldershot 1
Alphington 1

Watching Alphington v Okehampton in 2007

Ards Reserves 1
Australia 1
Bath City 1
Blackburn Rovers 1
Bournemouth FC 1

Watching Bournemouth FC – The Poppies

Bristol City 1
Bristol Rovers 1

Dan and I – Cherries won 1-0 away to Bristol Rovers!

Burnley 1
Bury 1
Carlisle United 1
Carrick Rangers 1
Charlton Athletic 1
Chelsea (Makita) 1
Cliftonville 1

Glentoran win 2-0 at Cliftonville in North Belfast

Deyna XI 1
Doncaster 1
Dundela 1
Dunmurry Recreation 1
Guatemala City 1

Watching a local match in Guatemala City.

Kartofliska 1
Killyleagh 1
Knockbreda Parish 1
Lechia Gdańsk 1

Watching Lechia Gdańsk in September 2016

Watching Lechia Gdańsk in September 2016

Linfield 10
Manchester City 1

Man City away as one of 3,000 Cherries

Masar E Sharif 1

Reza and I watching football at Sina Stadium in Masar e Sharif, Afghanistan

NI Legends Select 1
Poole Town 1
Portland United 1

Watching Portland United in 2008.

Preston North End 1
KP Starogard Gdański 1
Sheffield Wednesday 1

Sheffield Wednesday away!

Stoke City 1
SV Grodig (BABY) 1

With long term fellow football nomad Lock in Lee watching the famous SV Grodig BABY!

Swansea City 1
Sparta Prague 1

Lee and I watching Sparta Prague v Slovan Liberec in the Czech Republic

Torquay United 1
Weston Super Mare 1
Weymouth 1
Wybrzeze Gdańsk 1

Watching GKP Wybrzeze 2-1 Gryf Goręczyno in Gdansk, closing in on the half grand…

Brazil 1
Argentina 1
Eastleigh 1
Brentford 1

Jonny Blair in Griffin Park

We stung the “Bee hive” –
Brentford 0-2 AFC Bournemouth 2005

FA Ma Tin Shui Wai 1
Polonia Gdańsk 1

Watching Polonia Gdansk

Perła Złotoklos 1
Southend United 1

The Night Northern Ireland beat England 1-0 in Belfast. Please note: This photo was taken at half time!

The Night Northern Ireland beat England 1-0 in Belfast. Please note: This photo was taken at half time!

But really life is busy and no time to reflect. I’m actually now on 503 matches, with 3 more to come soon so will be 506 before I know it. If you want a great groundhopping page to follow, go to European Football Weekends by Michael Stoffl – a superb Facebook page. I’ll see you at a match someday.

“If God spares us” – Mary Blair (my grandmother).

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine – Kings of LYON, France (2016)

The Blair GAWA in Lyon the day that Northern Ireland beat Ukraine 2-0.

Selling fanzines at the Ukraine match in Belfast in 2002 when we only drew 0-0!

For the record, although we are only allowed one team (in which case I’ll choose only Northern Ireland) here are the teams I officially support (and have justification in doing so. I ain’t no plastic or bandwagon jumper):

Bangor Amateurs (my Dad played)
10th Bangor Boys Brigade (I played)
Glentoran FC (my Dad was born in Glentoran street – his team, my team)
NORTHERN IRELAND (probably my biggest love here. LOVE)
AFC Bournemouth (the first place I lived outside my home country, 6 seasons a regular, many aways, “Cherries are the team for me”, followed religiously through 4 divisions)
Legia Warszawa (they are my popular Polish team, 2 of my best friends were delighted I bought a scarf and care)

Our dreams are the same “in the sleep we don’t get” – My Polish friends at Legia!

Klub Pilkarski Starogard (they are my raw Polish team after the local newspaper featured my story and photographed me)

I became a Klub Pilkarski Starogard fan

I became a Klub Pilkarski Starogard fan

Sydney FC (they were my Australian team)

Daniel and I watching Sydney FC in 2009

Tin Shui Wai Pegasus (they were my Hong Kong team)

Watching Tin Shui Wai Pegasus (Fay Ma) in Hong Kong in 2011

Penarol (they were my Uruguayan team)

montevideo uruguay norn iron flag

Flying the Northern Ireland flag at one of the matches watching Penarol in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Soft spots:
Millwall FC (inspired by Millwall Neil)
Derry City FC (the only Northern Irish team to play in the Republic of Ireland’s top division for years)
Colchester United FC (great hospitality)
Arka Gdynia (it’s a long story and being a Legia Warszawa fan is hard to justify)

Touring Arka Gdynia’s stadium in 2017

And how do you finish an article like this? It’s hard. I can’t do my “top 10 football memories from 501 matches” can I? Or maybe I can in a simple way, let’s do it, in chronological order, though the first one probably wins:

1.The kick off when my Dad touched the ball first in my first ever live football match (1988/89, maybe)
I have to be proud of that. The first ever live football match I went to, the first person to touch the ball was my Dad. On kick off from the centre circle. Probably always number one football memory for me. My Dad played at Bangor Amateurs, Dunmurry Rec, Crusaders, Distillery, 10th Bangor, British Telecom and Construction down the years. My first match watching him was either for BT, Dunmurry Rec or Bangor Amateurs.

My Dad Joe Blair playing for Construction in the 1970s

2.The night Northern Ireland beat Poland 3-1 in Belfast City in a friendly (February 1991)
It was my third Northern Ireland match. We had lost the first one 2-0 to Yugoslavia and drew the second 1-1 with Denmark (thanks Colin Clarke) and now, tonight, we beat Poland 3-1. At the time of course I knew nothing about Poland. I was 10. I didn’t expect to later move to Poland, have dates with three Polish girls and end up with two of my best friends in life coming from Poland. A notable mention also to my first Ireland derby in November 1993 when Northern Ireland drew 1-1 at home to the Republic of Ireland which was just two years later.

Northern Ireland in the 1990s – Jimmy Quinn almost knocked the Republic out!

3.My first AFC Bournemouth match (2-2 home draw with Hartlepool, Division Three, October 2003)
Warren Feeney came over to get a photo with my flag. My friend Austin called me a nutcase. “No way will you still be a Cherries fan at the end of the season”. 14 years later, I’m as loyal as I can be, for a nomad. I watch every match on TV/teletext/laptop and I fly back for occasional matches. I was 4 times a season ticket holder, when we were bottom two divisions.

“Where were you while we were in Carlisle?”

This was really my first ever photo in Dean Court!! 2003

austin sheppard

Austin and I at the Hartlepool match, 2003

4. NORTHERN IRELAND 1-0 England (World Cup Qualifier at Windsor Park, Belfast, September 2005)
The night we beat England 1-0 was surreal for me. I lived in England at the time and flew back home for the match. The England team had multiple Champions League winners, superstars like Michael Owen, David Beckman, Cashley Cole. We had Jamesie Quinn and Stephen Craigan. Mind you, Craigan and Quinn are Gods on the Kop. We bate them 1-0 that night, well deserved. David Healy scored at the kop end right in front of me and my mates. We had been going to matches together for years and this was a key moment. Cashley claimed offside, what an eejit, David Healy was well onside! Warren Feeney almost hit a second and James Quinn also went close so we could have won 3-0, but in the end England got away with a 1-0 defeat. I even wrote about this match for the university magazine that month.

My article on the Northern Ireland v England match in 2005

My article on the Northern Ireland v England match in 2005

The night we bate the England in Belfast City

The night we bate the England in Belfast City

5. Birmingham City 0-8 AFC Bournemouth (November 2014)
OK so after a 9 year gap in the top 10, I had to choose AFC Bournemouth’s 8 nil win at Birmingham. I was only back in England for a week yet I made it to three matches, all of which the Cherries won (Brighton and West Brom were dicked in the same week). But Birmingham away was ridiculous. We won 8-0 and could have won 15-0. Really! Just five years before this, we were about to go out of existence and second bottom of the football league while Birmingham made it into Europe and 2 League Cup finals. The tables had turned and we partied that night!

Future Championship Champions Cherries fired 8 away goals past Birmingham City FC. Darch and I back like old times.

6. “We’re Premier League” Charlton 0-3 AFC Bournemouth
I was actually there for 5 games of the season when we finally got promotion to the top tier. But NONE of us expected it. Players like Matt Ritchie, Steve Cook, Charlie Daniels and Yann Kermorgant played for fun. The problem for the other teams was – we were the best team in the league. So justice was served and we won it. A 5-1 win at Fulham and a 8-0 win at Birmingham City proved the level. Within a year, we had beaten Manchester United and Chelsea in the Premier League. It was ridiculous as we had come from almost liquidation from the Grimsby match in 2009.

Cherries at home in the promotion to Prem season

Charlton away in 2015. Champagne train! We won the League!

7.SV Grodig v. WAC (Austrian Top Flight, April 2016)
Lock in Lee and I landed on a golden dream in March 2015 when we won about £300 on a bet thanks to a little known Austrian team called SV GRODIG. A few beers later and we decided we would go to Grodig to watch them live. We lived the dream on a never to be forgotten trip just over a year later and in honesty, it was the last time I was truly happy. The depression kicked in soon after inspired nastily by a liar that Lee never met. The trip remains legendary though for the famous “SV GRODIG BABY” chant that we invented and had all the locals singing.

Living the dream – SV Grodig Baby!!

Living the dream – SV Grodig Baby!!

8. Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine (Lyon, France, Euro 2016)
The next one on my list was hard to choose as I wanted to pick the Northern Ireland v. Poland Euros match for my top ten as it was my FIRST ever tournament match watching my country. But I decided to go for glory for once. This was a special day in Lyon. Unexpected Northern Ireland beat Ukraine 2-0 and ended up going through in a group where we only conceded two goals, despite playing Germany and Poland.

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine in Lyon

My full set of 7 tickets for Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 (4 out of 7 ain’t bad!)

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine in Lyon, FRANCE

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine in Lyon, FRANCE

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine in Lyon, FRANCE

During the tournament, I went to all four Northern Ireland matches, overtaking Pat Jennings record of 119 caps. We lost 1-0 to Wales and went out in the last 16 but heroes Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn and the “Kings of Lyon” will live long in the memory.

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine in Lyon, FRANCE

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine in Lyon, FRANCE

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine in Lyon, FRANCE

9. Glentoran 0-3 East Belfast (The Oval Grounds, July 2017)
Undoubtedly this match cemented my love (37 years late) for Glentoran FC. We lost 3-0 at HOME to our East Belfast neighbours some 5 divisions down, having previously lost to the other East Belfast rival Dundela FC. It was on this night I realised I was a proper Glentoran fan despite my nomadery. It probably brought me more satisfaction seeing the club at their worst, knowing my love was as equal as the night in 2005 when I watched us smash rivals Linfield away. Plus I was with my Dad again. It will always be my team and I’ll be back again soon.

Glentoran 0-3 East Belfast FC

Glentoran 0-3 East Belfast (The Oval Grounds, July 2017)

Glentoran 0-3 East Belfast (The Oval Grounds, July 2017)

Glentoran 0-3 East Belfast (The Oval Grounds, July 2017)

10.Kartofliska 1-1 Ulubiona (Polish Cup First Round August 2017)
One of my most recent football memories was also one of my best. A famous Polish groundhopper started his own team and they ended up being drawn AGAINST the pub team that he drinks in! It was a fairytale match that I attended in Warszawa city in August 2017! The match finished 1-1 and went to penalties with the pub team (Ulubiona winning 3-2 on McCrums). Radoslaw, the groundhopper has the famous slogan “Nie ma futbolu bez alkoholu” – “there is no football without alcohol” and we had a few beers that day too.

Kartofliska 1-1 Ulubiona (Polish Cup First Round August 2017)

Kartofliska 1-1 Ulubiona (Polish Cup First Round August 2017)

Kartofliska 1-1 Ulubiona (Polish Cup First Round August 2017)

Kartofliska 1-1 Ulubiona (Polish Cup First Round August 2017)

Didn’t quite make it:
Linfailed 0-1 Glentoran (2001 Irish Cup Final)
Linfailed 0-3 Glentoran (2005 Irish Cup)
Argentina 0-1 Germany (2014 World Cup Final)
Legia Warszawa 0-0 Lechia Gdansk (Ekstraklasa 2017)
AFC Bournemouth 6-0 Wrexham (Division Three 2004)
Northern Ireland 3-2 Spain (Euro Qualifier 2006)
Northern Ireland 0-1 Poland (Euro 2016)

Northern Ireland 0-1 Poland (Euro 2016)

Northern Ireland 0-1 Poland (Euro 2016)

Top 5 Footballers I ever saw live:

1.Paul Gascoigne
2.James Hayter
3.David Healy
4.Pat Jennings
5.Lionel Messi

Top 5 footballers I never saw live:
1.George Best
2.Diego Maradona Better
3.Pele Decent
4.Kazik Deyna Very Good
5.Alfredo Di Stefano Good

Finally a bit about my Dad, Joe Blair:

My Dad scored hat-tricks “for fun” and once nutmegged Derek Dougan when playing AGAINST Northern Ireland (for a Crusaders Select). I have some newspaper cuttings but my eyes saw what they saw as a young boy. If my Dad was offside, he was never offside. For one match only I played alongside my Dad, in 1999. I remember it. I was 19 and Dad was 49 and I think it was a 2-2 draw between 10th Bangor and a Belfast team at Bloomfield Playing Fields in Bangor. Just before kick off I was told I would play. It had no idea it would be the only 22 a side refereed match I would ever play with my Dad, but it is. We’ll keep it. I was right wing only for my speed and skill. Dad was right back (and/or centre half) and at one point sent me through on goal. I rounded the keeper and missed. My Dad told me “I’d have scored that” and he’d have been right. But it’s a great memory. And yes, I should have scored…I think my friends Colin Walker and Daryll Freel played in that match too and with Alan Bartlem in nets, but I cannot remember. I really can’t. I played the next week and Dad didn’t. I quit football soon after that and Dad didn’t. He’d never let a ball leave his foot. My Dad. My hero.

No videos needed other than these three:

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