Milton Keynes today, Pretoria tomorrow

Milton Keynes seems like a strange place for an international friendly, but it has actually staged 2 in a week – and there have been no complaints about their pitch.  It is obvious that the town/stadium is on some kind of inside track as they were included in the 2018 World Cup bid submission in almost a two fingered salute to other better placed and easier to get to venues.  Easier to get to I hear you ask – yes exactly but we will come onto that in a minute.

Ghana had for some reason delayed their departure to South Africa preferring to head to the delights of roundabout city instead of an alpine training camp. They had come in for some stick from their own fans for heading to Milton Keynes instead of Durban, but if you close your eyes then they both look the same anyway.

Their plans for the World Cup had been thrown into disarray with the injury to captain and talisman Michael Essien, but then again the team had reached the final of the African Cup of Nations back in January without the Chelsea star so it was something that Serbian coach Milovan Rejevac was used to.

Milton Keynes today, Pretoria tomorrowNever one to miss an opportunity of a game I set off from SE9 in good time on one of the hottest days of the year.  And good job I did.  The simple A20, M25, M1 75 mile journey ended up involving A-roads galore and taking close to 3 hours.  And when you eventually get to Milton Keynes, don’t expect anything as sensible as road signs to Stadium MK – after all such a thing as spectators may spoil the ambience.

The stadium had hosted Nigeria versus Columbia last week, although due to the last minute arrangement it had been necessary to play the game behind closed doors. It was originally been scheduled for Upton Park, then Kenilworth Road Luton but ended up in Ikea’s car park.

Ghana 1-0 Latvia
Saturday 5th June 2010

According to the box office they had sold 19,000 tickets which would have made it the biggest attendance at the stadium.  According to my manual count at the start of the game they were a good 16,000 short.

Milton Keynes today, Pretoria tomorrowThe Ghanian’s are one of the success stories of Africa, both on and off the field. A country that has tried to steer clear of corruption and political instability, they bounced onto the world football stage in Germany in 2006 when they reached the second round, eventually being eliminated by Brazil.

Whilst their talisman was and still is Essien, they have enough quality to make his absence a story simply for the back pages. They had come close to an unlikely African Cup of Nations victory in January and had qualified with ease for South Africa. They had also come to Milton Keynes with a healthy following of colourful fans.

You could almost feel as if you were in South Africa. The sun was shining, those horns that no one could pronounce were making a constant hum, and the football was dire. Well, not quite dire but it was hard to see what purpose Latvia had been recruited for. They failed to muster one attack in the first half an hour, failed to make one challenge and failed to silence any part of the crowd. 

On the other hand the Ghanian’s inspired by Portsmouth’s Kevin-Prince Boateng and Andre Ayew in midfield prodded and poked creating half chances galore. None more so that the shot from Asamoah in the 29th minute that appeared to hit the bar and bounce over the line.

Milton Keynes today, Pretoria tomorrowAll through the half we were entertained by the constant commentary of a Ghanian to our right who was relaying all of the action and much, much more to an eager audience on Radio Focus UK via his old Nokia mobile phone. Nothing like modern technology to keep the troops informed.

I had a wander as the half drew to a close. I had been to Stadium:MK in its early days in a pre-season friendly with West Ham and little had changed. The upper tier still didn’t have any seats (sensible planning) but I was amused by a sign behind the goal that told me that “abusive and aggressive behaviour was not welcome in the family stand”.  I assume that it was fine in every other part of the stadium then!

One of the wonders of modern technology is how football reporting is done. Twitter is the best example and at many games you will see people literally update their followers on a minute by minute basis, such as Sid Lowe in his coverage from Spain. 

Sitting just in front of us was the official Ghanian FA Twitterer. This was a guy who is probably paid to be in the stadium to report on games. Here are a selection of his tweets from the game:

3.40 – “40′ into the game Ghana 0-0 Latvia”

3.45 – “Ghana 0 Latvia 0”

3.46 – “Half Time”

3.59 – “Twittering live from the MKDons”

4.01 – “2nd half is moments away”

Follow his update through the tournament for all the breaking excitement here.

The second half was as predictable as an England friendly – lots of passing across the middle, few chances and multiple substitutions. The biggest cheer of the day seemed to be reserved for the appearance of Stephen Appiah mark. They did come close to a goal but their 72nd minute effort was ruled offside although by this stage my obsession with following the game I was watching on the offiicial Twitter feed as it seemed far more exciting. I would imagine that the Latvians had some “unwritten” instructions not to get too involved in the game and that certainly showed.

But with the clock ticking down ex-Arsenal substitute and star of another famous run to the semi-finals of the Carling Cup, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie teed the ball up on the edge of the area and smashed the ball home. Ghana just deserved the win based on possession but if they played with such lethagy in South Africa it would be a short trip for them.

Milton Keynes today, Pretoria tomorrowThe final whistle was greeted with loud applause and then the fans started to come onto the pitch to wish their team good luck. Pitch invasions come in two forms. The West Ham/Millwall variety, and the other type. This was definitely the latter as hundreds of fans swarmed onto the pitch to the sound of the PA system telling them to go back to their seats – yeah right. 

One female fan was apprehended as she got her leg over – a crime in itself stopping any lady get her leg over. She was pushed back into the crowd only to try again and again at different points.

So to the press conference. I don’t think I have ever seen a more bored looking assembly of players as they mumbled their answers to banal questions. No press officer turned up nor was there any microphone so in the end all of the press (and a few hundred fans who had sneaked in) crowded round the table to get their slice of the players. The Latvians didn’t bother coming at all, feeling more like a spare part at a wedding and headed next door to the supermarket to stop up on some fashion items to take home.

The Ghanians came through their final test. They clearly wanted to be in the southern hemisphere rather than in southern Buckinghamshire! Next stop for them, Pretoria; next stop for the Latvians, Asda and next stop for us, the bar!

For more pictures of the day, taken with my new camera click here.

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