It’s a few minutes into 2009 and I sit on my sofa back from a New Year’s Eve party I attended almost out of a sense of compliance because to be honest I don’t particularly enjoy New Year celebrations. However 2008 was such a remarkable year personally that I feel it deserves some moments of reflection. It was a year of many highs, a few lows, but it was never dull, and provided some very special memories.

The year 2008 actually started in a sad way. After spending a wonderful couple of weeks around Christmas with Tina over from the USA, 1st January 2008 was the day I had to take her back to Manchester Airport for her flight home. We didn’t know when we would next see each other, although it was likely to be late March or April when my Annual Leave entitlement was replenished. December had marked the flourishing of our relationship to something stronger than just “friends with benefits”. On the way back from the airport I tried to cheer myself up with a trip on the East Lancashire Railway, but the drizzly day, and the feeling of missing someone special beside me prevented a real upturn in spirits. The house seemed empty, I felt like a part of me was missing, and the year was off to a bad start.

Yet there were plenty of highs too. I lost almost a stone in weight, getting myself fitter and leaner for when I next saw Tina, and making myself feel more positive about my appearance. I started being mentored by our Head of Department in February and the first session alone went a long way to raising my confidence and increasing my positivity. In early March I obtained a worldwide recognised qualification in software testing, and later that month the wait was finally over – I was heading to Florida to see Tina. Those 17 days opened my eyes and I went from showing general disdain for all things American to contemplating a whole new lifestyle for myself over there. Tina and I did some touring around, some highlights being the Ocala National Forest area with Juniper Springs, the JFK Space Center, and walking in the Apalachicola National Forest.

I enjoyed myself so much that I returned home and immediately booked to go back in June. In the meantime I went to Coniston in the Lake District and was taught how to drive a 7.5 inch gauge steam locomotive for the first time, something I’d continue to do regularly for the rest of the year. Furthermore I had a fantastic trip to Brussels in April, meeting fellow Stoke City message board users who have since become friends, and with them experienced the quite surreal moment of being introduced former Stoke manager Johan Boskamp. A week later I was in Scotland walking in the Cairngorm mountains when news trickled through that Stoke City had won promotion to the top flight of English football for the first time in 23 years.

May was finished off by a trip down to the South West walking in Exmoor and Dartmoor with my friend Jen, and taking in two preserved steam railways during the Bank Holiday period, while the final Saturday of the month presented a beautiful day in the Lake District walking up 4 peaks around Buttermere. Then came another trip to Florida in early June. Another Stoke message board name became a face as Tina and I met Calvin and his wife Margaret for the first time, and another friendship began, while again there were road trips to see parts of Florida neither of us had seen before. I also met a new addition to the family – Hadley the kitten – and Tina’s youngest son. The trip was enough to make me decide I wanted to spend much longer in Florida, so plans were made to rent out my house, ask for a sabbatical at work, and spend several months with Tina to see how the relationship developed.

This is where the year took a bit of a nose dive. A new boiler and double-glazed windows were needed to get the house up to scratch to rent it out, and I hoped this work might be done by August and October was suggested as a best case scenario for my arrival in Florida. However delays with projects at work, the complexities of arranging finance and the availability of the contractors meant that the house improvements were finally completed at the end of October! I still had decorating and minor DIY work to finish too. I was not in Tina’s good books. The excitement of meeting Johan Boskamp again when he brought his team FCV Dender to a friendly game at Leeds Utd, plus Stoke City starting their first ever season in the Premiership punctuated the downturn. But when it became obvious that Tony Pulis was going to deliver his usual brand of negative football, it took the shine of things. The obstacles in the way of an extended stay in America seemed to becoming more difficult to overcome, leading to a growing malaise and a growing waistline as I put back on the weight I had previously lost. Still I did turn some of my energy to positive things like discovering my political activism again, joining the Green Party and attending an anti-war demonstration in Manchester. Overall the tail end of the year was bleak, and I was angry with myself for not achieving what I had set out to do. Self doubt had returned.

Yet the year ended on a positive note. Tina secretly arranged a wonderful gift for my birthday in November – a ticket to see Leonard Cohen live at the M.E.N Arena – and I also decided to spend Christmas in Florida, luckily managing to obtain a cheap fare. How can anyone complain about a year that saw three trips to Florida?! The final visit in many ways was the best of the three. There may have been no road trips but there was plenty of quality time with Tina and two of her boys, seeing Calvin and Margaret again, and spending time with Tina’s family. It reinvigorated my desire to spend some serious time over there, and strengthened my belief in our relationship at a point where I was beginning to wonder if it could actually work.

The year 2008 has been memorable. I have been exceptionally lucky to experience what I have. Only a perfectionist like me would pick fault with it. Despite the achievements and experiences I still feel a certain disappointment about not being able to see though all my plans and not completing what I intended. This coming year has a lot to live up to, but if I do manage to achieve those dreams then 2009 will be equally memorable. Now it’s time to strap myself in and enjoy the ride however choppy.

The previous afternoon’s meeting with Johan Boskamp was not the end of the FCV Dender experience. Johan had kindly invited me to return later in the day with fellow Leeds Stokie, Dave aka The Goat Major who was returning that evening from a stint in Sweden. Unfortunately we left it too late to visit that night, so Johan told us to turn up in the morning. We arrived at the hotel just as the Boss Man was sauntering in for breakfast and told us to join him at his table with Patrick Asselman, Dender’s Manager and other members of the coaching team. Johan declared he slept “like a block” until someone set the fire alarm off in the early hours. It wasn’t too early for a joke though as one of his assistants brought him some pills to take with his breakfast. “Ah my Viagra” he said with a grin as those around the table burst out laughing. One nice touch was that every member of the team coming down to breakfast shook hands with the people at our table including Dave and myself even though they had no clue who we were.

We were allowed to hang around with FCV Dender until the coach came to take them to Elland Road, Patrick asking me to take some photographs for the club website as they brought neither an official cameraman or even a camera with them. Bossie works on his teamJohan set about drawing up plans of his teams and formations so we left him to it. However a shout and whistle across the bar from one of his coaching staff trying to attract my attention to get me to take a photo brought a furious response from the irate Boskamp, shouting back what sounded like “Hey this isn’t a football field now”. Any one who thought Boskamp was just a jovial clown best think again. When he’s at work he’s deadly serious, focussed, a disciplinarian and well organised. I’d wandered over to look at his team selections and said wryly “But there’s no room for Mama Sidibe in there”. I got an unamused grunt for a reply, so sidled away sharpish to leave him to it. As Dender departed we were invited to meet post-match behind the scenes in the changing rooms. After a pub lunch with two of Dave’s maniac mates at The Fenton pub near the University for a blast from the past, we all set off for the stadium and took our seats in the massive East Stand.

FCV Dender clearly suffered from leaving five key players behind, three due to visa issues, the other two being injured. They lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with centre forward Norman Sylla playing pretty much as a left winger, likewise for his team mate on the right leaving a large but slow target man in the centre in the form of Van den Eede. To be honest it never really worked. FCV Dender looked sluggish and disappointing in the first half, overrun in midfield and lacking potency upfront. Eraly on their keeper made three very good saves to prevent what looked certain goals. Brassed off BossieMartinovic’s brilliant one-handed save flicked Robinson’s rising shot over the crossbar with 17 minutes gone and a weak clearance which laid the ball to the feet of Beckford required a frantic block from Siebe Blondelle to prevent an opening goal which eventually came, three minutes later. Robert Snodgrass’ free-kick from the right wing was worked into the centre of Dender’s box with the help of Showunmi’s strength and Huntington arrived in space to drive a low finish past Martinovic.

This setback didn’t seem to raise Dender from their slumbers, but merely encouraged Leeds further. With 28 minutes gone Snodgrass aimed a corner into a crowd of players and Marques dispatched a simple header into the bottom of the net as the defence stood and watched. Leeds’ third goal arrived on 34 minutes, effectively ending the tie. Showunmi played in Beckford, who floored Dender’s keeper with a quick shuffle of the feet to clip home a tidy finish with some poise. Dender somehow reached the interval without sustaining further damage, in fact, they nearly scored when confusion between ‘keeper Casper Ankergren and former Stoke loanee Frazer Richardson, saw Sylla steer a lob past an empty net. Dender no doubt trudged off to a half time rollocking from the stern looking Boskamp.

However Dender scored within 10 minutes of the restart. Sylla collected a long ball on the left to run infield before driving a low shot against Ankergren, the rebound falling nicely for Van den Eede to curl a low finish into an empty net. Leeds might have been punished again were it not for a wasteful finish on the hour from Sylla, who chipped the ball over the bar with only Ankergren to beat. Leeds Utd fourth goalA plethora of substitutions by Gary McAllister dampened the tempo of the game, allowing Dender’s young replacements to express themselves and raise the team’s overall performance. It was rather unexpected and against the run of play when Leeds wrapped up the game four minutes from time, Huntington rising to head home a fourth goal from former Stoke City player Peter Sweeney’s corner. It had been a disappointing display from Dender, and didn’t bode well for post-match joviality from Bossie!

Leeds United: Ankergren, Richardson (Bayly 56), Marques (Michalik 56), Huntington, Sheehan, Snodgrass (Douglas 62), Prutton (Gardner 62), Howson (Sweeney 62), Robinson (Delph 62), Showunmi, Beckford (Parker 65). Subs (not used): Lucas, Martin.

FCV Dender: Martinovic, Deflandre, Filipovic, De Petter, Van den Eede, Wiggers (De Pever 46), Destorme (Jacobs 46), Neva, Sylla, Blondelle, Barbe (Copel 74). Subs (not used): Berthelin, Degroote, Vanderbiest, Wittesaele.

Dave and I blagged our way into the reception area of the banqueting suite, finding ourselves amidst Leeds’ souvenirs of better times (Billy Bremner’s shirt and all that), and waited patiently to see whether Johan would allow us “back stage”. Evidently the post match post mortem was not for our eyes or ears. What seemed an age passed and players started to leave for the coach. Patrick Asselman invited us to join them at the hotel but we were off to the wedding party of another Leeds Stokie, the Padster of Farsley. So it was one last shake of the huge hand of Johan, a quick autograph, a big thank you for all his hospitality, and we were off. I did get a final photograph alongside the very polite Norman Sylla, who on another day might have scored a hat-trick. All in all a very memorable weekend. Many thanks Johan, best of luck for the coming season.

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By some strange twist of fate this weekend Leeds United play Belgian side FCV Dender in a pre-season friendly. Leeds were due to play Lokeren but they pulled out and Dender stepped in. Why should this interest me? FCV Dender are managed by former Stoke City manager Johan Boskamp. Andy meets Johan BoskampIn April a collection of mad Stokies went to Brussels for a weekend of drink, culture and football. The football element was listening via webcast to Stoke City’s big game which might have led to promotion, and a trip to FCV Dender to see them play in an equally big match. Their win that evening secured another season in the Belgian top flight against all the odds and to defy all the “experts”. After that game we met Johan and were treated to hospitality in the players’ lounge. Unfortunately it was brief meeting and one arranged for the next day never materialised.

Today on a whim I thought I might try to met up with “Bossie” again, cursing myself for not sorting something sooner. An email to FCV Dender brought nowt. A call to Leeds Utd was equally useless. So I thought I’d be cheeky and text Johan a “welcome to Leeds message”, never expecting a reply. Much to my amazement Johan rang me back very shortly to say they had just arrived at the hotel and I was welcome to meet up before or after the game. By chance the hotel is outside the city centre and only five minutes walk from my work place. It was lunchtime, and working on the premise that “shy bairns get nowt” I set off with my camera to see if I could speak to the Boss Man. I found him eating lunch. Rather than being annoyed by the interruption he invited me to sit down and join him and the team. I spent a very amusing fifty minutes with him before I had to return to work. I’ve been invited to bring some other Leeds Stokies over to see him later today or tomorrow. For all other Stokies Johan has a message for you (below). Top guy, the Boss. Approachable, friendly, funny and by his own admission, totally crazy! A very memorable afternoon. Thanks Johan.

Johan Boskamp message to Stoke Fans