Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Waving Goodbye To The Boleyn

There has been, and will be over the coming weeks, a number of articles and blogs written about the last game at the Boleyn Ground, Upton Park, and the majority of them will be written by people much more experienced than I, and written in a much more professional style too. But I wanted to get my words down on paper, or at least the internet, as I know when that final whistle blows and the curtain comes down on that historic stadium, a part of me and every other West Ham fan will be gone forever.

Many people will write about their first visit to the stadium, about how they remember exactly who they saw and who they were with. Some will write about the legacy of the club, about the academy and the seemingly endless line of young England internationals that have walked through that tunnel to the pitch. Whilst others will simply bemoan the fact that we as a club are moving to a new stadium and leaving our home of 112 years behind. Me, well I do have plenty of memories of Upton Park, many that will live with me forever, and far too many to fit in one blog, but I wanted to share a couple of things that mean a lot to me.

My first visit to Upton Park wasn’t actually for a match surprisingly enough; I was late in the attendance stakes, no my first trip was with my dad, who drove me to the ground just so I could look at the place from the outside for the first time in person. I had my picture taken outside the East & West stands, and loved every moment of it. I still have those photos, and I’m wearing a dodgy old basketball jersey as the visit was a bit of a surprise as we were originally visiting my Nan who lived down the road, I’ll have to scan one or two so I can share them online.

I do still remember the first game I went to, I had been given a ticket one Christmas for the game a few days later (28th December 1998) and I went on my own (as generally became the norm for me over the years). West Ham at home to Coventry City, I remember it well as I was in the lower part of the Centenary Stand (now the Trevor Brooking stand) and saw Ian Wright and John Hartson score to give us a 2-0 win.

That was the first of many, and the following season I actually had a season ticket which was awesome. That year we went through the whole Manny Omoyinmi issue (cheers Harry), the emergence of Di Canio & his wonder goal (scored in front of the centenary stand where I was at the time) against Wimbledon. I’ve seen incredible victories and heartbreaking losses, shed tears and cheered so loud I got a bit light headed, and sung I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles countless times. I’ve met some superb people thanks to that club, some of which will remain a part of my life for a long time to come, I’ve met an idol (Julian Dicks) and shared in some special moments for people in my life at Upton Park.

I won’t be there for the last game, my final visit was a stadium tour just last week which sent chills down my spine, especially when walking out the tunnel to the pitch. I am glad I had the chance to say goodbye to the place, somewhere that holds countless memories for me and so many others. Some may think this is an overreaction, but any football fan who has seen their club move home will know the feelings West Ham fans have right now.

Thank you Upton Park, thank you Boleyn Ground, thank you West Ham United. It is the end of an era, but the beginning of a new and exciting chapter down the road at Stratford. It’s certainly been emotional, and watching that final game tonight won’t be easy, but I’ll belt out bubbles at home in honour of the Boleyn Ground tonight for sure. Come On You Irons!

Friday, 22 April 2016

Family, New York, And Talking About It

Last weekend I, along with my brothers and dad, went to Newcastle for my cousins wedding, it was an emotional occasion as it would be the first time all this side of the family would be together in one place since my Nans funeral last February.

It was a great celebration for Claire & Stevie on the day, even though our southern clan struggled at times to understand a word Stevie and his side were saying (the Geordie accent can be a tough one to get round). I enjoyed catching up with the family again, it gets said all the time but it’s sad really that a lot of the times we catch up are at weddings and funerals. There were a few standout moments of the weekend though for sure, the grooms speech got a lot of us choked up as he’d lost his mum recently, and also mentioned our Nan, so tears flowed from my aunts & a few of us. Speaking of my Nan, about 10 years ago we had a family photo taken for her, one of which was all the cousins together. The wedding was the perfect opportunity to get another one done, the professional one will come soon but my aunt captured one too, felt like a good touch and nod to Nan, and we know she’d have loved the photo.

Of course, you know what families are like at weddings, one of my aunts was on my case, why aren’t you with someone, why aren’t you married and having kids, you should have someone etc. Thankfully there’s not many weddings in this family so I don’t get that very often, but it’s not exactly easy explaining that actually you don’t need to find someone, and marriage isn’t something I want in life. Maybe there was a moment when I thought I’d do that for the right person if that’s what they really wanted, but that’s a once in a blue moon thing, even when you say it’s not something you want, there’s still too many people that think you have to have someone, get married, have kids etc to be happy in life!

Anyway, enough of that for now. Summer is coming, which means that the NFL schedule has been released ready for the start of the season at the end of August. With the schedule comes my plan for my next NY trip, and I’ve already gone through the guys at Sports Travel Tours and put my deposit down! It didn’t take long to get sorted, so a week after my 33rd birthday this year I’ll be back off to New York to see the Jets take on the LA Rams (formerly of St Louis)! These NY trips are fast becoming a tradition and a year wouldn’t be the same now without a jaunt over to the US for a game and a bit of touristy sight-seeing.

Sports on this side of the pond have been entertaining too, the lads at Concord Rangers won the Essex Senior Cup for the third time in as many seasons, and West Ham are fighting for a European spot as they it 6th in the league. Following the teams I do, being able to get along to the games I do, it’s because I’ve got the time, freedom, and money to do so, one of the reasons I am continuing to enjoy life and embrace the opportunities that are provided for me!

What’s next? Well the wrestling podcast continues to go well, still having a laugh each & every time we put it together. Actually that has prompted me to record my own little snippets and stick them online, almost verbalising a mini version of my blog (on Soundcloud, as BullJet, original I know). I sound like an idiot when I’m doing it, hence why I’ve not really publicised it, but it’s kind of cathartic, much like writing these are. Work is going well, usual blips but it could be worse. Other than that, life is life, I’m still smiling, hopefully you are too!

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Whisky, Podcasts, and What's Next

Bit of a catch up this blog, not one specific topic but two main ones as noted by the title! Recently I attended Whisky Live, and subsequently wrote a lengthy blog about it. In said blog I also mentioned the Whisky Weekender, which took place this past weekend (run by the guys at The Whisky Lounge). Of course I attended and had a blast as always, catching up with some of the same people I'd seen just two weeks previous at Whisky Live. One difference though was that I took a long time friend along to what was her first whisky event.

Now she likes whisky, and going in to the event had a general idea as to the type of whisky she liked, as anyone who is slightly familiar with a dram would have. But as I've said before, these shows are about sampling new whiskies and finding out what other drams you like and enjoy. It was actually a proud moment seeing my friend try some rather different whiskies from what she was used to and finding out that she really enjoyed them. It was also good to see that some of those were ones I'd recommended, my taste in whisky isn't too shabby! The “marmite of whisky” Balcones was one standout, along with the new “Quiet Man” Irish blend, and The One, a blend released from the new Lakes Distillery (which is on the list to visit eventually).

This past weekend, whilst full of lovely whisky for me, was also a rather important one in the wrestling world, being that on Sunday night it was Wrestlemania, the biggest event of the year that WWE (the company we all knew back in the day as WWF) put on. Now I'm not going to sit here and write a bucket load of stuff about wrestling, but recently I've had more than one reason to watch it (other than general enjoyment). Back in December, myself, my two brothers and a couple of mates went to a wrestling show at Wembley arena, beforehand at a restaurant we sat around a table and talked a lot of wrestling, to which one mate suggested we should put together a podcast. 3 months later and after much discussion, we finally got off our arses and started recording one, and at the time of writing we're 4 episodes in and regularly notching up around 75-80 listens per show. If you like wrestling, or know anyone that does, our podcast is at Soundcloud.com/thesmarkcast, and we also have a Facebook page & twitter account!

Nothing like a bit of shameless self promotion eh? Other than that, things are going fairly well in general. Looking forward to the NFL schedule being released later this month, as then I can organise my next trip to New York (Kyle, Brian, guys I'm sure I owe you a beer or two when I get over there), and the month after that I am hoping to book a trip to Vegas for next year with friends which should be a blast too. Plus there's the Great British Beer festival in August, another whisky event in October, and any other trip that I decide to book before then (thinking Barcelona next as the summer approaches).

I could write a bunch more about football (what a season for West Ham eh? And Concord are flying....), the countless tv shows I'm watching (series 2 of Daredevil is awesome by the way), the books I've read recently (yes I read), my emotional state (relatively solid), my family (a pain as always but I love them), but then I would end up boring you more than I already have! Thanks for reading, it's always appreciated.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Love A Whisky Or Three

Those that know me, know I enjoy a whisky or two, ok maybe more than two, and over the years I have been to a number of whisky tasting events. There's plenty that go on during the year, with three main ones that take place in London. There's the big one, The Whisky Show, in October, The Whisky Weekender in a couple of weeks, and most recently there was Whisky Live (this year I will be attending, and possibly writing about, all three)

I first attended a Whisky Live event many moons ago, back in 2008 if I remember right, and since then I've attended every London event except for 3 years ago when I was ill. Needless to say I am familiar with the set-up and how the event has changed over the years. The first one I went to was in Westminster, the Royal Horticultural Halls to be precise, then the next couple of years the event moved to a bigger space at the Hurlingham Club in west London, before switching to the Honourable Artillery Company near Old Street where it remains to this day.

So on to this years event, not sure whether there were less tickets on sale or just that less people showed, but it didn't seem as busy as it has done in previous years. The venue is a small one compared to other events, so it's easily crowded, but it didn't seem as much this year. That didn't detract from the drams on offer though obviously! Coming to these shows more often you tend to bump into exhibitors you've met a number of times before, so you gravitate towards them and get to try some truly special whisky. That was the case on this day, as I sought out Dave Worthington aka WhiskyDiscovery (who took the picture below), and the Maverick Drinks stand.

The Reference Series, taking a whisky and exploring exactly what effect cask/age etc has on it, is a whisky geeks dream. Reference III is a blinding blended malt (yes a blend!), and I sampled all the versions that Dave had on the stand. The most I've spent on a bottle previously is £200, there's a chance I may break that for one of these (over £200 a pop). The truly special one though was The Lost Distilleries Blend, featuring whisky from closed distilleries such as Port Ellen, Caperdonich, Mosstowie, Glenisla, Glenlochy and Imperial Scotch malt whiskies as well as grain from Port Dundas. This was £350 a bottle, which was shocking, as a whisky from each lost distillery in the blend could cost much more than that!

Also on that stand was an award winner, The Golden Age Blend whisky, which had an age statement attached of 40 years. Those that know whisky know that a blend displaying an age statement has to display the age of the youngest whisky in there, so the ones in this blend were a lot older than me! Only 210 bottles were made, which is understandable given the age of the whiskies, but again this is only £350, which is incredibly cheap given what's in there. Trying drams like this are why I go to these shows, I catch up with old whisky pals (not saying you're old Dave) and get to try whisky that I would never normally have.

Some of the other whiskies I was able to enjoy on the day included a sherry cask Amrut (Indian whisky), a number of independent bottlings from Murray McDavid (which before this show I had never heard of), a cracking Elements of Islay bottling (on the recommendation of Billy/Cowfish), and some excellent Irish whisky from Dunville's. The regular greats were there too, Nikka, Teeling (love their grain whisky, and loved the free hat), Glen Moray and Compass Box. At the end of the day I bought 3 bottles, the Elements of Islay bottling, the sherried Amrut, and one of the early Reference Series bottlings.

If you enjoy whisky, even as a passing interest, I'd recommend taking in one of these shows/events to get you started. You get to meet some great people with an incredible knowledge of whisky, they are friendly and will happily take you through any questions you have about it. No matter how many times you go, you will always learn something new and try a different whisky, trust me on that one!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made A Choice

Life is a wonderful thing, and it's amazing when you look at it how so many seemingly small decisions can end up having long lasting and almost life changing consequences.

I look at a few key moments actually that have played a part in putting me where I am today and having some of the experiences that I have over the past few years. I know I've mentioned it before, but one tweet suggesting I go watch Concord Rangers was essentially the start of what has been a 6 year journey as part of a club I now see as family. Back then, I would never have even had a thought that a) I would fall in love with the club as much as I did, b) I would become good friends with the players & people around it, and c) that I'd end up being a committee member and editor of the matchday programme. The experiences that have come my way can essentially all be traced back to going to that first game.

It hasn't stopped there though, the team is on the verge of their 4th cup final in as many years (Ryman, then 2 Essex Senior Cups), holding their own in a league not far off the pro game, and the club continues to expand and progress with all the community work they are doing. There's a bright future on the horizon for Concord Rangers and those that are a part of it, however we got to be there.

I went to New York back in 2002, and brought home a New York Jets towel, just as a bit of NY merchandise really. If I didn't pick up that green & white towel, which I still have to this day, would I have chosen a different team to follow when I got into the NFL? Probably, or I may not have even have got hooked on the sport like I eventually did. Small decision, but ultimately it led me on a road which has taken me back to New York two more times to see the Jets live at their home stadium (and meet the team owner), I've been to countless NFL games at Wembley (including to see the Jets last year), and I have met some fantastic people on both sides of the pond thanks to a mutual love of and enjoyment of the Jets or the NFL in general. Again, it's not stopping either, I plan on visiting NY again this year to catch another game, meet up with some of the friends I've made over the last two years, and hopefully meet some more.

Small decisions that you don't think about too much at the time can set you on a path that can bring a lot of opportunities and experiences. Even with work it goes all the way back to being too lazy to find anything for work experience back at school. So I asked my mum, who at the time worked at Fenchurch Street station, if I could go work with her for 2 weeks. Easy enough, no effort in finding businesses or roles that matched what I wanted to do with my life, because I didn't know even then. There was timing involved later on though, as I finished school just as a part time job came up, the manager knew me, so it was easy enough to get into that job and settle in. 16 years later I'm still on the railway, doing a job I enjoy with a number of decent people and getting a decent wage for it. Obviously there's been tough times and I've had to work hard over the years to change roles and move upwards, but I wouldn't be in the place I am today if it wasn't for these decisions way back when.

Why am I being all reflective and thoughtful about all this? Well I was thinking about it all, one of those moments where you wonder how you got here, what decisions led you to this stage in life. I overthink things sometimes, so waffling on here allows me to clear the head a bit!

Am I talking bollocks? Maybe, but the thing is that, even if I do say so myself, this makes sense. The decisions you make through life, no matter how insignificant they may be at the time, will set you on an unknown path which could ultimately lead to some of the most impressive, enjoyable and interesting experiences there is, from the places you may visit, the people you meet, the relationships you form, the things you do, it all started from a simple, 5 second thought of a decision way back when. They say life is what you make it, well yeah, thanks to the decisions and choices you make.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Beautiful Bruges, Where Next?

I'm writing this just over 24 hours after returning home from a couple of days in Bruges, a couple of days away where I could chill out, take in the sights and clear my head of any issues that have been bugging me recently (all work, so nothing too major).

Bruges, for those that don't know, is a city in Belgium, about an hour by train from Brussels, and overall about 3 hours journey from London via the Eurostar. It's one that has a rich and diverse heritage, with various influences that have shaped its style over its history (Flanders/Flemish, French, Dutch etc). Up until this past week, all I'd seen of Bruges was pictures on the tv, and mostly from the film "In Bruges" (one I'd highly recommend you watch too), but that was enough for it to be high on my list of cities to visit and experience.

(As a background, early last year I made a mental list of cities I wished to visit and see now that I have a) the time, b) the money and c) the motivation. Rome, thanks to the Italian blood in the far reaches of my family amongst other things, was the first on my list, and I had the distinct pleasure of going there last July. My list includes a bucketload of other places, and continually changes in number, but it's something I look forward to adding to in the future)

Back to Bruges, and from a visual standpoint the city is beautiful. You can see the influence from the different cultures over the years in the buildings that line each and every cobbled street, from the buildings that house the seemingly endless chocolate shops, to the belfry (Belfort, 366 steps to the top and I climbed it, was very out of breath at the top) and buildings on Markt Square, to the equally impressive churches across the city. Then there's the canals that run through the city, which sparkled under the winter/spring sun that I had the pleasure of experiencing (no rain or snow till I was leaving thankfully), and the four windmills that sit on the outskirts of the city were impressive also.

I like my food, that's fairly obvious when you take a look at me, I mean you don't get a figure like this by saying no to extra helpings! One of the things I am trying to do when I visit these cities/places is eat the local food, try more grub and not just resort to the same standard English dishes that it would be easy to hold on to. There was no shortage of eateries, plenty of resturants & "tea-rooms" around the city to sample, so I made sure that the four meals I ate were a) all different, and b) all in different establishments. As I start to travel more, and as I get older, I realise the importance of taking as much in as possible, you never know if you'll be back again, so enjoy the experiences! Anyway, the food, a Flemish Stew made with one of the many outstanding local beers (too many to list) was very moreish, I could have had that every meal, and the Brussels Witlof was a chicory & ham dish baked in a cheese type sauce, that was new but very enjoyable!

So as a whole the trip was fantastic, I am glad I went to Bruges, glad I can now tick it off my mental list of cities to visit, and glad I had a chance to chill out, think about all things life and prepare for what awaited me when I returned! Work can be a pain in the arse, especially at the moment, but otherwise things are good, football, life, family, I'm in a "happy place" and long may that continue. Next up on the list, hopefully not as long a gap between Rome & Bruges, is either Paris (where I went as a 21 year old, & I want to return to really take it in this time) or Barcelona, but that may well change next month knowing me! Things are good, so I'm enjoying it while I can!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

It's Officially Wrestlemania Season

Wrestling, sports entertainment, something that continues to polarise opinions across the world, but remains one of the most watched regular episodic programmes on television. And this time of year is its most important, the Road To Wrestlemania from this Sundays Royal Rumble through to the biggest event the company puts on at the end of March/beginning of April, Wrestlemania.

So with the biggest, and possibly most profitable period for the company in full swing, it would be the perfect time to put out their best product on their main shows (Raw). However if anything, regular viewers would have noticed that the main event product just isn’t provoking the entertainment and excitement that this season should to bring fans in. A big reason for that, at least in my opinion, is that much of the storyline is what we’ve seen before, it’s the same old thing, and the characters that are doing it just don’t provoke the same emotion as the first time we saw it (see Stone Cold Steve Austin compared to Roman Reigns).

There is an original and popular 1 hour weekly show that the WWE currently produce which in my humble opinion regularly trounces the 3-hour behemoth that is Monday Night Raw, and that’s their developmental brand NXT. Developmental is no new thing, but the way NXT is used and promoted is far different to what OVW and other brands were for WWE rookies. It is its own brand, its own part of the WWE universe, with its own fans that have made this brand the success that it now is. The stars are learning the ropes, trying out their characters in front of a live, highly opinionated audience, and putting on some of the best matches in the company right now. With established “indie” stars coming in as well to add validity to the brand, it continues to grow and take over.

The success of these talented guys is there for all to see, with last years Wrestlemania being full of NXT alumni, every match save for one featuring guys who have made the step up. The progress is continuing too, with guys like Tyler Breeze, Adrian Neville and Kevin Owens making the successful transition to the main stage. Their matches are always some of the best on the card, but they can only do so much, the booking on RAW sees the same old storylines come our way, whilst NXT these guys appear original and give fans a fresh look on the business. Supposedly RAW & Smackdown, well the guys behind it, are realising this, but that remains to be seen in the end product. The main roster shows need something fresh, need something new and need to have the guts to take chances and follow it through to the (hopeful) payoff.      

The WWE must know this, and have seemingly (as we still have no official confirmation on the shows) gone all out to mix things up by bringing in some of Japans biggest current stars to the WWE ranks, including one of the best wrestlers in recent years in AJ Styles. Now Vince McMahon has brought in big names from other companies before, and with the WWE being the only real name in town since the demise of both ECW & WCW, Vince’s ego has been known to keep him from pushing them to the top. It remains to be seen if a) these guys have actually been signed up, and b) if they’ll be used in the most appropriate way for their respective star powers.

It could all be a big work by the WWE guys, and the fans could be left disappointed yet again, but it’s the Road To Wrestlemania season, there’s always hope that something big will happen to get the fans buzzing again and wanting to watch every show without fail. Either way, there’s one big bright light for WWE right now, and that’s NXT, if you’re a wrestling fan then quite simply you should be watching it.