Walsham-le-Willows 3 Brantham Athletic 0

Today, Saturday 13th October, has been designated by persons unknown as “Non-League Day”, which is nice, but also a little patronising. It implies that non-league football is only of any consequence on this one day when there happens to be no Premier League or Championship football. There’s no ‘proper football’ today so you might as well go to a non-league game. Whatever my misgivings, I nevertheless feel it would be bad form if I didn’t go to a non-league game today, and so that is where I am going. Engineering works on the railway west of Ipswich has limited my choice of fixtures a little, to the extent that I am having to travel by car. So, in for a penny in for a pound I have chosen to make the trip to Walsham le Willows, which is pretty much inaccessible by public transport; at the time of writing the No 338 bus leaving Bury St Edmunds at 11:15 will get you to Walsham in bags of time for a 3pm kick off on a Saturday, but there is no bus back, only a bus to Diss at five-past six. The nearest railway station to Walsham is only 6 miles away in Elmswell, but the bus journey between the two involves going into Bury St Edmunds, getting on another bus and journeying back out, an adventure taking over two hours.
It’s a breezy, bright and unseasonably balmy autumn day for a drive through the mid-Suffolk countryside. My Citroen C3 carries me on through the rural splendour of Elmswell and Badwell Ash (there seems to be a tree fixation in local place names) once we have left the rough, patched up and noisy A14; the Highway to The Midlands. Arriving in Walsham-le-Willows I pass the splendid medieval church of St Mary with its wonderfully airy clerestory and fine proportions and then head up the delightfully named Summer Road, to what a firm of structural engineers from Bury St Edmunds has31437733648_4ca963f0c7_o presumably paid to now have called The Morrish Stadium. The word ‘stadium’ does not do this delightful football ground justice and there really needs to be another word to describe a football pitch within the boundary of a cricket pitch surrounded by trees with just a metal stand on the half way line and a small covered standing area behind one goal. There is car parking on both sides of the road, but that adjacent to the pitch and club house is full so I park over the road by the impressive array of all-weather, 3G pitches that have been built over the road in the past few years. This is a truly magnificent facility and not what you might expect to find in the depths of the Suffolk countryside.
Having neatly parked the Citroen, I leave the car park to cross the road and enter the precincts of the ‘stadium’. I pass an old boy who asks with an enquiring but soft Suffolk accent “Are you Brantham?” “No” I tell him “I think I’m probably impartial today”. “Oh well, that’s probably a good way to be” he replies. Buoyed by his vote of confidence I31437744428_77524097c4_o cross Summer Road and walk on through the little blue gate marked ‘Match day entrance’, which looks like it might also serve the village primary school, although it doesn’t. I walk across the car park to a wooden hut where I pay my entrance money (£7 – it’s gone up £1 since I was last here inn 2014) and am handed a small yellow ticket: “Admit One”. I also purchase a programme (still £1). In front of the club house and bar is a patio area laid out with chairs and tables at which people are sat talking and drinking. I cross the patio to a dark timber clad building, which houses the changing rooms and the tea bar. I order a bacon-butty (£2) from one of the three middle aged ‘dinner ladies’ and am impressed that the meat is supplied by a local butcher, Rolfes of Walsham. This is how local football clubs should be run, promoting and partnering local businesses, not churning out the cheap and the dubious offerings from the Cash n’ Carry.


Satiated I walk through the bar and use the toilet; I briefly consider buying a drink but it looks like only Greene King products are on offer, which is disappointing, so I don’t bother and step outside once again
It’s not long before the referee, his assistants and a few footballers appear in a huddle at the entrance to the changing rooms. They seem afraid to come out into the open but I 30372602607_cb6e1eae9b_oguess they are really just waiting to be sure no one gets left behind. Eventually referee Mr Alistair Wilson leads the teams along the open ‘corridor’ to the pitch where they all line up in front of the stand and indulge in the usual excessive shaking of hands; I always hope that one day the teams will also bow to the stand, but it hasn’t happened yet. Today Walsham are playing another ‘village team’, Brantham Athletic, in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. Walsham are seventh in the league table after nine games and Brantham are just a point behind in eighth, but having only played six games due to a bit of a run in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. Coincidentally, both clubs are village sports clubs, although with Brantham originally being borne out of the local BX plastics factory (since closed and demolished). Both clubs also play on pitches where cricket is played in summer.

Walsham kick-off the game playing towards the tiny ‘covered end’ and the open country side beyond, in the direction of the A143 between Bury and Diss; they wear a dazzling kit of all yellow. Brantham Athletic (nickname The Imps) meanwhile, play in the direction of the bar, clubhouse and the village beyond, and wear an all blue kit with two white diagonal bars across the front. I find that Brantham’s is an unsatisfactory kit, although a good solid navy blue colour, the white bands make the players look like they might have been lying in the road when a white line painting truck came by. The design smacks of the designer of single colour kits having finally run out of ideas, the pressure of coming up with something different every year having at last become too much.
With both teams finally lined up the sound of the referee’s whistle is met with a loud bellow of “Willows” from a man in the main stand and the game begins. After that initial burst of support for The Willows, the people seated around me in the small stand are44399647925_a9d1413cd4_o silent, although the hum of lively conversation can be heard at the other ‘rowdier’ end of the stand where a group of men in their sixties and seventies stand on a small terrace. The peaceful ambience allows me to appreciate just what a lovely, bucolic setting this is. What is possibly an old pavilion on the far side of the site looks like a blacksmith’s shop and the breeze through the leaves of the trees seems to whisper Walsham le Willows.

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Uncomfortable with the silence I move and stand next to the Willows’ bench where I can enjoy some shouting and swearing from the coaches. “Movement” “Keep your shape” “Pressure” “Talk to him” are the calls from the unhappy sounding coaches. Brantham have started the better of the two teams and look more purposeful and confident and after nine minutes they win the game’s first corner; then a diagonal cross only just fails to be transformed into a close-range diving header, which might well have caused a goal had it materialised. On the small terrace I hear someone say “We always do well against these”, but The Imps win another corner and Walsham’s number six Craig Nurse commits the first foul on Brantham’s Joseph Yaxley. A Willows player complains to the referee and the coaches bemoan how he talks too much rather than getting on with the game. “Come on fellas, wake up!” then “Aaagh, fuck me” are the words from the bench. “We need one of the strikers on the number eleven” says The Willows’ Nurse to the bench, “Well do it then” is the not unreasonable response.
A quarter of an hour has passed, The Imps have not scored and The Willows are at last settling into the game and playing more successfully in their opponents’ half. All of a sudden a long range shot is tipped onto the cross bar by Brantham goal keeper Luke Evenell. A corner to Walsham follows, and then another one. I move and stand near to the Brantham bench and nearer to the goal that Walsham are attacking; the atmosphere amongst the coaches here seems less tense than on the Walsham bench, but I wouldn’t say they looked happy. Walsham’s number ten Niall McPhillips has been finding space and threading some decent passes through the Brantham defence. It hasn’t gone un-noticed, but so far the Imps’ defence has just argued about it amongst themselves. But then The Imps launch an attack of their own, and number eleven Daniel Rowe finds himself free on the left inside the penalty area, he shoots, but misses the target completely, skewing the ball high and wide. “Ooooh! Ah, ya bell-end” I hear an excited and then dejected voice say from the bench.
It’s almost half past three and Walsham win a third corner. The ball is struck quite low across the pitch and The Willows captain and number nine Jack Brame sidefoots the ball into the corner of the goal past a surprised looking goal keeper to give Walsham the lead. It was slightly unexpected, but in these games anything can happen and often does. Brantham carry on much as before, often getting their wide players to chase long balls but nothing comes of it and the highlight for me in the remaining time before half-time is a slightly panicky looking lofted clearance from Walsham’s Craig Nurse, which soars and then drops to earth with a satisfying clatter on the bonnet of a BMW behind the stand.
With half-time I head the queue for a pounds worth of tea and a sit down at one of the picnic tables on the patio. I hear one of the ‘dinner ladies’ asked if they are busy, “Not very” she says. I reflect on a pretty entertaining first half and flick through the programme. There’s quite a good ‘Half-Time quiz’ which is testing but answerable although question nine sets me thinking. ‘What was Sheffield United’s Brian Deane the first to do?’ it asks. The answer given is ‘Score the first ever Premier League goal’ and it makes me wonder who the second player was to score the first ever Premier League goal. Of course I don’t really care because I don’t give a toss about the Premier League.
Refreshed by what was a very good cup of tea, I watch the players return for the second half and note that the Brantham number six William Crissell is the only player to wear anything other than a ‘regular’ haircut, sporting as he does a very small top-notch. I imagine his influences are more Zlatan Ibrahimovic than Sikhism, although you never know. As the new half develops Walsham are gaining the upper hand and this encourages vocal encouragement from the crowd. “Come on boys – let’s have that other one” calls a man in a throaty Suffolk drawl. Number eleven Ryan Clark hits a post with a shot for Walsham and then screws a follow up shot wide but the second goal doesn’t arrive and a tension builds because Brantham still look capable of an equaliser. Some niggle enters the game and both sides complain to referee Alistair Wilson about perceived injustices and his failure to punish fouls with bookings. “Bottle job” is the accusation from the Walsham bench followed up with “For Chrissakes ma-an”. On the Brantham bench frustration grows that chances are not being made. When a pass is over hit I hear “He’s not getting that, he’s not Usain fucking Bolt”
It’s now about four thirty and it might stay like this, it might not. It doesn’t, as again a little unexpectedly, a shot flies into the top right hand corner of the Brantham goal from outside the penalty area; it’s a helluva goal and should win the game. Despite claims and counter claims for free-kicks and bookings from both sides, up until now the game has been played in a good spirit, but suddenly two players are on the ground and something happens between them which leads to pushing and shoving and a general melee and other players swarm around in an angry knot. If it was in a school playground they would have been chanting “Fight, fight, fight”. Mr Wilson the referee seems paralysed and for a while all he does is blow his whistle, it’s as if he’s trying to speak without taking it out of his mouth. He sounds like a Clanger on amphetamines. It’s all a bit unfortunate, but quite entertaining and the upshot is that Brantham’s number two Callum Bennett is sent off and Walsham’s number seven Ryan Gibbs is booked by Mr Wilson, once he’s stopped whistling. The action doesn’t stop there however as one of the Brantham coaches now berates Mr Wilson from the touch line in a sweary manner and he is sent off as well.
The game is up for Brantham and it’s no more than Walsham deserve when a shot from McPhillips hits the cross bar and number two Lee Warren drives home the rebound to round-off a 3-0 victory for The Willows. It’s been an entertaining afternoon and despite the imbalance in the final score the result was always in doubt until pretty close to the end. The sending’s off and shoving contest just added to the fun; no one wants to see such things really, unless a game is very boring, but when it happens we might as well enjoy it.
Summer Road, Walsham le Willows is a beautiful, bucolic place to watch a football match, especially on an autumn afternoon when the leaves on the surrounding trees are turning form green to gold and if it was closer to home I might come more often. The clichéd setting for football is an urban one, that’s where the evil Premier League is played out, but non-league football is played everywhere and if you want to get away far from the ‘big time’ this is possibly as good as it gets.

Paris St Germain 4 Stade de Reims 1

It has been a warm, sunny day in Paris beneath a clear blue sky. I have spent the afternoon in St Ouen, now a northern suburb of the city, but a town in its own right.

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I have visited Stade Bauer, the home of France’s second oldest football club Red Star, founded by no one less than Jules Rimet, in 1897. Sadly Red Star are not permitted to play there this season because it does not meet the standards of Ligue 2, and I am not surprised, it is quite alarmingly dilapidated and I am sure many people would consider it to be an absolute ‘dump’. But it has character, albeit the sort of character that means only one stand can be used and the long terrace at the site of the ground is a virtual ruin. Nevertheless, this club is clearly at the heart of its local community and whilst I was there children’s games and coaching sessions were taking place on the synthetic pitch and on the pitch behind the ground.
In total contrast to Stade Bauer and Red Star FC, tonight I shall be at Parc des Princes to see Paris St Germain (PSG) play Stade de Reims; Reims by the way is pronounced “Rance”, not “Reems” or “Reem” and as you say “Rance” go to put your tongue behind your top front teeth to make the “n” sound, but then don’t; you will hopefully end up with a satisfying nasally growl; one example of why French is such a beautiful language. BT Sport television commentators would do well to pay particular attention to the above.
The journey from Meudon Val Fleury , where my wife Paulene and I are staying, to Issy Val de Seine is a short one; just two stops on the RER suburban railway (1.95 euros each, each way). We sit at the back of the lower deck of the train, recreating the feel of ‘sitting up the back’ on the bus to school, although Paulene actually walked to school from her44942590311_4d3b434cb6_o house. From Issy Val de Seine train station it is a 20 minute walk or so to the Parc des Princes, crossing the river Seine over the Pont d’Issy des Molineaux with its view of the Eiffel Tower and then through back streets. The walk to the ground is not like the one to Portman Road that I am used to. There are no tantalising glimpses of floodlights and no smell of frying onions and nasty looking processed meat products. Parc des Princes, as large as it is, is not visible from far away; it squats or perhaps nestles amongst the expensive apartment blocks, offices and hotels of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Nearing Parc de Princes security is conspicuous with ‘road blocks’ to check tickets and direct us along specific streets according to which tribune (stand) one’s seat is located. The red team bus of Stade de Reims is guarded by a cordon of police in Kevlar armour.44025173585_b37d1e5baa_o The stadium is on our right across a park and all that is visible as we approach are the concrete ‘fins’ that cantilever the roof and make the stadium look like a huge decorated concrete pie which has slumped in the middle. Being France it is entirely possible that the design was inspired by a large pastry or fruit tartelette. Despite now being forty-five years old the stadium is still an impressive one and I am with its architect Roger Taillebert in believing that it should not be expanded in size; the integrity of the original design should be preserved.31064460688_7e352cdfe5_o
After a visit to the club shop (boutique) in which I particularly enjoyed the serried ranks 44942587611_72fcbe55dc_oof soft toy renditions of Neymar (reduced to 16.90 euros from 24.90) and the 3D model of Parc des Princes (29.90 euros), we enter the stadium itself. Unlike on the previous two occasions when we had been to Parc des Princes, and at the French Cup Final in the Stade de France, we do not need to show our passports. I am patted down and wished ”Bon match” by a man who looks as if the job is getting him hot and bothered and as I move on, he wipes his brow. Our seats (28 euros each) are in the lower tier to the right of the goal in the corner between the Auteuil and Borelli Tribunes; it’s a pretty good view but the electronic advert boards at pitchside mean we can’t see the near goal line and the guy ropes attached to advertising banners for Nike hanging from the roof of the stand annoy me. These things are sadly symptomatic of the sort of modern football club that is forever maximising its income and consequently forgets that its raison d’etre is so that people can watch live football in its stadium; without supporters in the stadium what is the point? Worse still, PSG does not produce a programme, free or otherwise, which sets it apart from most top French clubs and even the two Paris clubs in Ligue 2, Red Star and Paris FC; shame on PSG.
As the teams line up the public address announcer calls out the first names of each of the PSG players and the crowd call out their surnames in response. It’s a bit like the versicles and responses in an Anglican church service, but more shouty and not so boringly pious. They do this for every player including the substitutes until the announcer reaches the name of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, when after calling out “Eric” the rejoinder from the supporters is somewhat mumbled and muted. Eric needs to get himself a snappier surname if he’s going to be a success.
The teams line up before the usual banners showing the club crests and that of Ligue 1 and its sponsor Conforama, a large, national furniture retailer. The crowd behind the goal to our left is in full voice backed by two drummers who are at the front of the stand. “P-S-G, Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez!” they sing, to the tune of Yellow Submarine. These are the Ultras, of which there are several groups; they wave huge flags, one of which has been given a ragged appearance as if to channel the spirit of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions or the Paris Commune. With its seething mass of humanity it’s a scene Eugene Delacroix might have painted, had he not died in 1863.
The game begins with PSG kicking off and playing towards me, Paulene and the Ultras and in the rough direction of the Arc de Triomphe. PSG are wearing their kit of all navy blue with a fuzzy bib of red down the front of the shirt, whilst Reims are in their traditional kit of red shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and red socks. It might be said that Stade de Reims look a bit like Arsenal, but unlike the Gunners they have played in two European Cup finals. Stade de Reims are historically one of France’s greatest clubs with a rich history of Cup and League titles, which is perhaps why the fans of nouveau riche PSG boo them so unsportingly. Tonight, Reims are kicking in the direction of Meudon and the house where we are staying, and within two minutes they score as the Argentinian Pablo Chavarria charges down the left wing and pulls the ball back to Xavier Chavalerin who in one precise movement places the ball low beyond the outstretched figure of Gianluigi Buffon and just inside the far post. It is Reims’ first goal in four games. The Ultras carry on as if nothing has happened and in my head I punch the air and whisper Allez Reims.
Predictably PSG don’t waste time in going for an equaliser. Within seconds of the re-start Thomas Draxler’s 20 metre shot is saved by Reims goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and soon afterwards Edinson Cavani turns on a loose ball and strides forward of the nearest Reims player before producing the most spectacular and magnificent chip from outside the penalty area, which sails over Mendy’s head and into the far corner of the goal. It is a thing of beauty and a worthy equaliser.
PSG now dominate producing nothing less than an exhibition of mesmerising passing and running, but Reims are keen to attack on the break clearly realising that if they don’t score, PSG will. Edinson Cavani is a fabulous sight, with his long, dark hair flowing behind him he could be a central character from the French 1960’s children’s TV series known in Britain as The Flashing Blade (Le Chevalier Tempête in France). The imperious young Adrien Rabiot in midfield cuts a similar dashing figure, and likewise a lot of it is down to his hair; it is so hard to believe he was not a first choice for the French World Cup squad.
Meanwhile, the Ultras and their drums don’t let up as they produce a variety of rhythms and songs including, slightly bizarrely, ‘Yankee Doodle’, Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ and ‘My Darling Clementine’. It is now about twenty five minutes past nine and Edinson Cavani falls dramatically in the penalty area. Thomas Meunier replaces the44216940294_327da4a58a_o injured Colin Dagba in the short wait before Neymar scores from the penalty. Neymar places the ball casually to Mendy’s right whilst the goalkeeper goes left. Now that they lead, there seems no way that PSG will not win this match and they assume almost complete control, although Reims manage to hang onto the one goal deficit by defending stoutly. Despite appeals from PSG players and fans it takes until almost twenty to ten before the first Reims player is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thuai. Monsieur Thuai’s first victim is Alaixys Romao, predictably for a foul on the waifish Neymar who a little while beforehand had treated the crowd to one of his multiple rolls, this one at high speed. I can’t decide if Neymar dives or if he really is fouled more than other players. At times he makes the most of the challenges he receives, as most forwards do, but significantly Neymar is much quicker and much more skilful than most, if not all other forwards.
The first half is close to ending as Neymar wins another free-kick and drops the ball to the far corner of Mendy’s six-yard box. Mendy fumbles as he climbs to catch the ball and Cavani reacts instantly to lob the ball into the unguarded goal from an acute angle; it’s not a particularly beautiful goal but it’s a very skilful one nonetheless. Three minutes are added on to the original forty-five for stoppages, which gives Xavier Chavalerin time to send a shot over the PSG cross-bar, but he was really only trying his luck.
Half-time brings a visit to a small but recently refurbished and well-appointed toilet and a brief time spent queueing for two 600ml bottles of water (3 euros each), a coffee (2 euros), and a recyclable branded PSG cup for one of the bottles of water (2 euros); I juggle these items back to my seat . It is noticeable that many of the people here are tourists, like me and Paulene if I’m honest, although for us it’s really just another football match and Paulene is enrolled as a member, primarily to get tickets perhaps, but she is also enamoured of Cavani, Rabiot, Verrati, Di Maria and Buffon. The bloke behind us sounds Scandinavian, whilst in front a couple from the Far East make themselves conspicuous with their photography. For myself I am slightly mesmerised by the electronic advertising hoardings in front of the stands and between the tiers. The boards operate in such a way that the same advert appears all around the ground and the changes in colours and brightness with each change of advert is quite distracting as a different light is cast onto the pitch.
In due course the game begins again and the noise from the Ultras is so loud it vibrates the sides of the plastic water bottle I hold in my hand. This atmosphere is how I remember football back at home in the 1970’s, but better. If PSG dominated the first half then in this half their two goal advantage gives them the confidence to simply entertain. The Brazilian central defenders Marquinhos and Thiago Silva pass the ball between themselves across the penalty area, but In particular Neymar starts to show off his ability. Less than ten minutes into the half he runs at the Reims defence, passing two or three players with swift acceleration. A few minutes later Neymar does much the same again before passing cross field to Moussa Diaby whose low cross by-passes Mendy in the Reims goal to give Thomas Meunier a straightforward tap-in.
For the rest of the match I wonder what the French for “PSG go nap” is, but miraculously the fifth goal doesn’t come. Instead, Neymar provides a masterclass in flicks and turns and two-footed dribbling; with him to watch goals aren’t really needed. Anyone who doesn’t rate Neymar is an idiot, he is a marvel. I saw George Best play in a goalless draw against Ipswich in 1973 and he was hopeless, but that proves nothing. Neymar like Best is an entertainer and in essence we go to football to be entertained, although of course we must enjoy the misery too if we support a club like Ipswich Town has now become. I would go so far as to say that Neymar is nearly as good to watch as Frans Thijssen was and he is definitely quicker.
The second half passes in a blur of exhibitionism the like of which I can honestly say I have never seen before, and all for the price of a ticket pretty much equal to the cheapest available at Portman Road to watch Town struggle to a goalless draw with Bolton Wanderers. The match ends with Neymar putting Cavani through on goal only for the Uruguayan to clip his chipped shot against the cross bar and with Neymar having a free-kick well saved by the diving figure of Mendy. I’m not sure I like PSG, in fact I know I don’t, they are just a French Manchester City or Chelsea, the sort of club that has ruined football for the majority of football supporters and destroyed real competition; this match marks the first occasion on which PSG have won all of their opening seven league fixtures.  But despite the way in which the ‘big’ clubs like PSG have commodified football and tried to appropriate it and its best players all for themselves, the rough and untamed Ultras still exist and there is a bond between them and the players as evidenced at the end of the match as all the PSG players run to each end of the ground to commune with the fans and have a bit of a general love-in.

I cannot deny I have enjoyed seeing Neymar, Rabiot, Draxler, Di Maria, Cavani et al tonight, but those players would all still be as good if they all played for different clubs and the league would be more interesting for it. But heck , what am I going to do but write about it?

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Paris FC 2 FC Metz 1

DSC00331It is a cloudy, autumn Saturday afternoon as my wife Paulene and I board the RER suburban, electric, double-decker train at Meudon Val Fleury for the short journey (2.05 euros each) to Pont du Garigliano from where it is a further twenty-five minute tram ride (1.90 euros each) down busy, tree-lined boulevards to Stade Charlety, the current home ground of Paris FC. Today at 3 o’clock Paris FC will play FC Metz in Domino’s Pizza Ligue 2. If you plan your journey on the website of RATP, the Parisian transport company, several options are listed according to whether you want the quickest journey, the one with fewest changes, the one with least walking or one which provides disabled access. But with every route the website tells you the amount of CO2 emissions for your journey, our journey ‘cost’ 29 grams compared to a colossal 1758 grams by car; it’s Martin & Paulene 1 Global Warming 0 and the match hasn’t even started.DSC00220
It may be a grey day, but this is Paris, City of Lights and perhaps appropriately therefore the stadium floodlights are already shining as the tram draws up at the stop. On the next street, the Boulevard Jourdan is lined with the white vans of the Police Nationale and on the opposite corner the Le Gentilly bar and restaurant is surrounded by dark uniformed

police with riot shields and helmets. The Le Gentilly appears to be the chosen pre-match meeting place for the fans of today’s visiting team FC Metz who are top of Ligue 2 having won all of their seven games so far this season. In 2016 the Metz v Lyon game was abandoned after Metz supporters threw firecrackers at the Lyon goalkeeper, so they have ‘previous’. But the police presence still looks like overkill for what is a Second Division match at a club whose home crowds do not often exceed 3,000.
We hadn’t got around to buying tickets on-line so we pay a bit more and buy our tickets (15 euros each) at the guichets at the entrance to the stadium. We take a wander around, making a circuit of the stadium; spotting the respective team buses, Metz fans queuing

 

for tickets (only 8 Euros in the away ‘end’) and even more ‘tooled-up’ police. On a concrete support beneath the Peripherique is a poster for the Union PopulaireDSC00221 Republicain, a sort of French UKIP who peddle the somewhat stupid sounding ‘Frexit’, not that it’s any more or less stupid than ‘Brexit’.
Stade Charlety is named after the French historian and academic Sebastien Charlety who was associated with the nearby Cite Universite de Paris. Naming a sports stadium after an intellectual is pretty much unimaginable in England; just think of West Ham United not playing at the London Stadium but at the AJP Taylor Stadium or Tottenham at the Simon Schama Stadium. Stade Charlety dates originally from 1938 but was re-built in 1994, the architects being Henri Gaudin and his son Bruno, and a damn fine job they did too. The stadium is oval in shape, a segmented concrete bowl, partly single and partly two-tiered, sitting beneath a sweeping, curving, rising and falling roof floating on steel supports, with four floodlight towers each leaning and raking forward as if to peer over the roof at the pitch. The stadium has 20,000 seats and conveys the drama, excitement and sense of occasion that a stadium should.DSC00209
Keen now to experience the stadium from the inside we walk through the turnstiles and our tickets are scanned by hand held devices before we are patted down and wished “Bon match” in the habitual way of French football. In a corner at the back of a stand is a very talented and entertaining band of five brass players and a drummer providing a soundtrack to the pre-match build-up. We both pick up copies of the free eight pageDSC00223 colour match programme (only one page is an advertisement) and are each given a free Paris FC flag. I reflect on how I have been a season ticket holder at Portman Road for 35 years and as ‘thanks’ for my loyalty and thousands of pounds all the club has ever given me is a baseball hat, a metal badge and a car sticker; I’ve been here less than five minutes and on the strength of just one 15 euros ticket Paris FC have already given me a programme and a flag. I like that the programme is called ‘Le Petit Parisian’ making a virtue of Paris FC’s ‘small club’ credentials, a poignant contrast no doubt to the behemoth that is Paris St Germain. According to Planete Foot magazine, Paris FC drew average crowds of just 3,070 last season and this season have a budget of 11 million euros compared to PSG’s budget of about 560 million euros; this against a background of PSG having evolved out of Paris FC as a ‘breakaway’ club in 1972.
Bowled over by Gallic generosity and with hearts lifted by the music of the little band we head for gangway 109 off which we can sit where we choose. Seats chosen I head back into the concourse and to the buvette to buy a bag of crisps (2 euros) and plastic cups of mineral water and Orangina (5 euros for the two, including the re-usable Paris FC branded cups). Paris FC has no club shop as you might find at an English league club or at the larger French clubs, but there is a hatch between the buvettes from which two young Franco-African women are selling replica shirts, scarves and assorted merchandise. Unable to resist a souvenir I buy a pennant or petit fanion (5 euros) which, when I get back to Blighty I shall hang it in the toilet with all the others.
Back at our seats the quarter of the stadium behind the dug-outs is filling up with flag toting Parisians and a sprinkling of Metz fans, who probably live in Paris. The Metz fans who have made the 330km journey from Alsace are all corralled on the other side of the stadium in a section of the upper tier, with a battalion of stewards and police seemingly watching their every move. As three o’clock approaches the public address system begins to play a sort of minimalist electronica with hints of John Barry, which gathers pace, building as the teams walk side by side onto the pitch to shake hands before a back drop of huge banners showing the club crests and the Domino’s Pizza Ligue 2 logo. A man in aDSC00234 suit, Paris FC scarf and pointy shoes, who looks a bit like the late Keith Chegwin parades before us with a radio mike as he announces the teams.
The teams line up with Metz in a change kit of all white and Paris FC in all navy blue. FC Metz kick-off playing in the direction of the tram stop, and generally north towards the Pompidou Centre far beyond, whilst Paris FC play towards Orly airport. From the start Metz are neat and energetic, passing well and closing Paris FC down quickly whenever they win the ball. In front of us and to our right a group of thirty or forty Ultras (possibly the ‘Old Clan’ group) are rallied by a young bloke with a small white megaphone which looks 44906431821_ffcf83e1cb_olike it is only a toy. He faces his colleagues and misses virtually the whole game. The Ultras stand and clap and sing without pause and one of them bangs a drum. “P -F -C, P-F-C” they chant, for that is how Paris FC are commonly known. One guy has a beer in his hand meaning he can’t clap, so he just slaps his head with his free hand, taking a second to tidy his hair when he’s finished.
Despite Metz looking the more accomplished team they don’t test the Paris goalkeeper and it is the home team who manage the first decent shot at goal from number twenty-six Dylan Saint-Louis, which Metz goalkeeper Alexandre Oukidja dives low to his right to save. Metz continue to look confidant and strong but PFC are matching them. It’s only just gone ten past three and PFC left-back, number eighteen Romain Perraud strides forward, he rides a block tackle stumbling over a leg but taking the ball with him and looks to go for goal. He is over twenty metres from Oukidja the man between the Metz goal posts and I don’t expect to see the ball go flying in to the far top corner of the net and dropping to the grass inside the goal, but it does. It is a spectacular goal, easily the best I have seen so far this season. A goal behind, Metz have further troubles as they have to make a substitution and Senegalese Opa Nguette is replaced by Malian Adama Traore due to injury.
Conceding the goal has not dampened the Metz fans’ spirits however, as they continue to wave their own flags and banners. Behind us to our left another group of PFC Ultras DSC00254(possibly the ‘Ultras Lutetia’ group) have their own somewhat bigger drum and bigger flags but no megaphone, well not as far as I can see anyway. A fine drizzle is falling now and the stadium announcer who strutted about in pointy, shiny shoes before kick-off shelters beneath an umbrella. Rain drops run down the back of the transparent covers to the dugouts and it feels every bit like a quintessential autumn afternoon at the football. It’s marvellous and not only because this is Paris.
At last, after over twenty minutes of play Metz manage a shot on target, but it’s an easy save for Vincent Demarconnay the ‘keeper for PFC. Despite Metz’s failings in front of goal they still look a good team and this is an entertaining game, well worthy of the live TV coverage it is receiving this afternoon; the large cameras at the side of each goal look oddly old-fashioned however and conjure memories for me of Grandstand and Sportsnight with Coleman. It’s just gone half past three and Metz win a corner on the far side of the pitch from which their Zambian number thirteen Stoppila Sunzu sends a powerful header down towards the goal line; for a split second it looks like it must be the equaliser but the ball meets the boot of Romain Perraud and skews off his foot for a throw. Perraud has effectively scored twice for Paris now, without him they might be a goal down, rather than a goal up.
Half-time is less than ten minutes away and although they are the underdogs Paris FC are playing well and deserve their lead, then what seems like disaster strikes, compounded by it being a gross injustice. In an incident similar to the sending off of Ipswich Town’s Toto N’Siala at Sheffield Wednesday earlier this season, PFC’s Julian Lopez slides along the wet turf to get the ball, which he does, a moment later however

and Metz’s Thomas Delaine arrives and falls over Lopez‘s leg, twisting as he falls. The referee Monsieur Pierre Gaillouste, who has an annoying and unnecessary habit of running quickly up to players whenever a foul occurs, does so again and shows Lopez the red card. We are all outraged. It was not a foul, if anything Delaine fouled Lopez. As a neutral this should be pure theatre to me, but the injustice is intolerable and I decide that Paris FC must win.
The sending off has distorted the match and I cannot really see that Paris can hold on, but in injury time they win a corner which Metz forget to defend and the wonderfully named Cameroonian defender Frederic Bong heads the ball into the middle of the Metz goal to double PFC’s lead. I leap from my seat and stick it to Monsieur Gaillouste and his inept refereeing. Half-time soon arrives and I can enjoy it. I return to the buvette with the thought of a celebratory beer but the queue is too long.
The game begins again and within a minute Habib Diallo scores for Metz with a header from a cross by Thomas Delaine. I fear the worst for PFC now but Metz fail to capitalise and PFC defend brilliantly. Metz show growing frustration, Traore looks to the heavens as he sends a low, bobbling shot bouncing weakly past a post and Marvin Gakpa is booked after following through with a challenge on the PFC goalkeeper. The Metz coach Frederic Antonetti, a balding, solid man who wears what I would describe as a Marks & Spencer jumper patrols the area in front of his team’s dugout, shaking his head and looking displeased. I think I can smell a cannabis cigarette, but it’s not from Monsieur Antonetti. On the other side of the ground the incidence of flag waving has definitely reduced. Now Renaud Cohade, who I thought was the main force in the Metz midfield is replaced by the Algerian Farid Boulaya and as the electronic substitution board is held aloft Paulene casually asks how many double A batteries I think it takes.
Paris FC are restricted to defending in depth but they are succeeding and cannot expect to do too much else with only ten players against probably the best team in the league. There are still twenty minutes left as PFC’s Ivorian Edmond Akichi, billed in the programme in his own words as a midfield battler goes down and a stretcher is needed to carry him off. Number six Romenique Koumane replaces Akichi but suddenly Akichi is up on his feet again appearing to say he wants to play on, only for him to even more suddenly double-up in pain up clutching his knee before being helped away.
There are less than ten minutes to go and PFC are holding out well and even almost score a third goal as Souleymane Karamoko breaks down the right and into the penalty area; the ball goes out and he goes down. “Penalty!” I cry, because anything has been shown to be possible with this referee, but it’s a corner which number twenty-seven Jonathan Pitroipa, who is from Burkina Faso, heads very wide. There are four minutes of added time to endure, but PFC survive them whilst all Metz do is to collect another booking, this time for Emmanuel Riviere as he flicks a passing foot at the PFC goalkeeper, or at least that’s what the referee thought.
The final whistle brings unbridled joy, something I don’t often experience at football matches any more. This has been an excellent match, one the best of the ten or so I have seen in Ligue 2. I hadn’t expected a lot from a crowd of just a few thousand (the attendance will later be reported as 5,097) in a 20,000 capacity stadium with a running track around the pitch, but I was wrong. Despite swathes of empty seats there has been a really good atmosphere in the small part of the stadium that is open and with minimal stewarding it has felt a bit like an English non-league game. I have loved seeing so many African players, it’s been like a mini African Cup of Nations and Paris FC have played superbly well to beat a good, but on the day ineffective Metz team, who nevertheless remain one of the favourites for promotion. I have nothing in particular against Metz, but it was great to witness their first defeat after seven straight victories. If only my team Ipswich Town could now get their first win.

Paris St Germain 6 Red Star Belgrade 1

A bit after 5 o’clock on another sunny, early autumn afternoon in Ile de France and my wife Paulene and I arrive at Meudon Val Fleury station to find that the suburban RER train service is suspended for at least two hours because someone has unfortunately been hit by a train at Champ de Mars station. The Paris St Germain versus Red Star Belgrade match in Group C of the European Champions League kicks-off at six fifty-five, which is a bit of an odd hour, and it means that a different mode of transport will be required to get to the game on time. Seasoned travellers that we are, we don’t panic, but stroll round to the front of the station and across the forecourt to the bus stop where a No 289 bus is conveniently just drawing up. In just twenty minutes this bus will take us to Porte de St Cloud, which is more or less just over the road from Parc des Princes. Our carbon footprint will be bigger courtesy of the Iveco diesel engine, but what can you do? We board the bus and validate our tickets (1.49 euros each if bought as a carnet of ten).
It’s a fun ride through the streets of western Paris and we have a driver who likes to use his horn; at one stage he leans out of his cab window to converse with the driver of a45092035431_3e911401fd_o Peugeot who has pulled across in front of him. With car drivers cowering, the bus pulls onto the cobbled surface of the Porte de St Cloud bus station and, along with a handful of blokes sporting various Paris St Germain branded attire, we alight and make the short walk to Parc des Princes. Our tickets tonight (48 euros each) are in the Paris tribune, the stand which has its back to the centre of Paris. It is a dramatic approach to the stadium as we cross a bridge over the 45092036911_0ff19c18d1_opériphérique, Paris’s inner ring road, which actually passes underneath the corner of the Paris tribune. Of all those ‘you can see the stadium from here’ moments that you get on car and rail journeys, this has to be the best. We walk past the PSG supporters’ shop (most definitely not the official club shop) with its delightful “Fuck Marseille” scarves. It’s not much past six o’clock and it’s still light, and the concrete ‘fins’ that define the silhouette of the stadium look fantastic; Parc des Princes may be over forty years old but it’s a marvellous sight, a far more exciting looking building than any stadium in Britain.
Security arrangements mean some queuing to get in, with everybody patted down by44180984635_6f060b44f6_opeople wearing what look like knitted gloves; it’s a matter of luck how quick or thorough your ‘patter’ is. My ‘patter’ is slow and thorough; Paulene’s patter may be no quicker, but as she only has to deal with women in a crowd of mostly men the queue to be patted down is shorter. This means that by the time I get to the turnstile itself, Paulene is already in the stadium. We have tickets that were sent by e-mail to Paulene and she then sent my ticket to my mobile phone, so ‘all’ I should have to do is pass the black and white patterned thingy in the e-mail beneath the electronic reader at the turnstile. But the reader doesn’t like what I place under it; it seems it needs to read the original rather than the one Paulene forwarded to me. It takes a steward to explain this to me of course and I send two desperate texts to Paulene: “I can’t get in”, “Come to the turnstiles” I plead. As my wife and carer, Paulene immediately understands and answers my call; the reader reads the ticket from her phone and I get inside the stadium. Technology and I are sworn enemies, but everything has worked out fine, until the next time.
Out of gratitude and because she asked me to I treat Paulene to a bottle of Coca Cola (2.50 44371980404_8bb98469c4_oeuros), but I decide to go thirsty because I object to buying a bottle of drink from which the cap is confiscated. I am a 58 year old adult and can be trusted with a plastic bottle top, so “shove your Coca-Cola and other topless bottled drinks where the sun doesn’t shine” is my message to PSG. I later buy a coffee (2 euros) to keep me alert against other possible infringements of my human rights. The spirit of Mai ’68 lives on.
PSG has e-mailed Paulene earlier in the day to warn that trouble was a possibility at tonight’s game from followers of Red Star Belgrade (FK Crvena Zvezda in Serbian), who might have dodged any efforts to segregate supporters. It seems like an admission that PSG have failed to properly control ticket sales and they also advise away supporters not to wear club colours, which surely increases the possibility for trouble by making them impossible to spot. We had heard lots of Balkan voices as we approached the stadium, but there was no sign of any antagonism between French and Serbs. Inside the stadium we find ourselves sat behind a row of blokes in their thirties or early forties who are clearly Belgrade supporters but they seem a bit like the sort of ‘youngish professionals’ you might find at a rugby match in England or in the Greyhound pub in Ipswich; two of them wear Mercedes Benz lanyards which suggests they may have wangled a trip to Paris on the back of the current motor show at Porte de Versaille.
Our seats are close to the front of the stand and in a corner, close to where the Paris45043601722_1f79f55979_o tribune ends and the Boulogne tribune begins. A wedge of Belgrade supporters are nearby to our left, behind a large net which hangs from the roof of the stadium, and a moat. More Serbians fill a batch of seats in the upper tier of the stadium, away to our right. The Auteuil end of the stadium where the bulk of the Paris Ultras are usually accommodated is completely empty tonight, presumably a sanction by UEFA for some previous transgression by the Ultras, probably the use of flares. The noise level is reduced as a result, but there is still a decent atmosphere inside the ground, but then there are still over 39,000 people here.


Pre-match entertainment includes the players’ warm-ups to a soundtrack of tunes from the ‘legendary’ Charles Aznavour, who sadly died earlier this week and some serious watering of the pitch, which reminds me of the spectacular fountains at the gardens of the palace of Versaille. I am a little surprised that PSG haven’t considered choreographing the sprinklers to a musical accompaniment. At last the overblown Champions League anthem, that rip-off of 45092131931_858bdc0502_oHandel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, strikes up and the teams line up on the pitch whilst some young people stand in a circle and shake a big circular thing; it looks to me like they are shaking the crumbs off a massive table cloth, possibly one used by UEFA officials in some lavish pre-match banquet; the comparisons with Versaille continue. Tonight PSG are wearing an all-black strip, whilst Red Star Belgrade wear red and white, looking like Stoke City from the front and Fleetwood Town from the back.
The game begins with PSG having first go with the ball and aiming in the direction of the banks of empty seats at the Auteuil end of the ground; Belgrade shoot towards the Boulogne-Billancourt end. Predictably, the first free-kick of the game, and the second, is awarded for a foul on Neymar. Backed by chants of “Red Star, Red Star” the Serbians have the first shot on goal however, as a poor header from Presnel Kimpembe is half-volleyed into the beautiful blue evening sky by Goran Causic. Belgrade look keen but translate this into committing lots of fouls. The likes of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria are a bit too quick for them. The Belgrade number thirty-one El Fardou Ben from the Comoro Islands is very chunky, a sort of scaled down Ade Akinbayi. To begin with he looks like he might be a handful for the PSG defence, but he’s not and in the pantheon of chunky players is probably no better than former Ipswich Town superstar Martyn Waghorn.
Having weathered the early Red Star enthusiasm, Paris St Germain settle down into totally dominating possession, as is their habit. With twenty-minutes gone a free-kick is granted to PSG in a position from which it is almost inevitable Neymar will score, and he does. Two minutes later he performs a brilliant high-speed one-two with Kylian Mbappe and scores again. Mbappe is set up by Neymar but the Belgrade goal keeper Milan Borjan saves at his near post and then saves a header from Edinson Cavani. Marco Verratti is magnificent in midfield, winning the ball back almost instantly every time a move breaks down. Edinson Cavani scores the third goal just after half-past seven before a Thomas Meunier cross, or possibly even a pass, is delicately flicked in by Angel Di Maria four minutes before half-time. Paris St Germain are magnificent and I’ve seldom if ever seen the like of it before.
At half-time we feel we need a rest, not just because our collective breaths have been taken away by the sumptuous football, but also because the Serbian blokes in front of us have been stood up throughout the first-half and we need a bit of a sit-down. Whilst they go off to pay 7 euros for non-alcoholic beer in PSG branded plastic cups we can rest in relative comfort and gaze upon the green of the pitch without having to look over their neatly cut heads of hair.
The second half is soon underway however, and the Serbians return looking suspiciously at their beers. Paulene now stands by a free seat further back across the gangway because the Serbs have played musical chairs and a tall one and a shorter one have swapped places so her view is obstructed. The second-half proves even more exciting as Mbappe attacks down the left and we get to witness his remarkable speed at close quarters from which he looks even faster. But the PSG forwards and attacking midfield are so free, interchangeable and flowing that anyone can pop-up anywhere. Mbappe pops up regularly but misses every time and by the time he does score Belgrade have even had a couple of shots on target of their own. In the far corner of the ground some Paris Ultras have begun to wave banners, one says Paris, whilst a second is clearly aimed at winding up the Serbs and reads ‘Kosovo’, a part of the country that has declared independence from Serbia; although Serbia recognises the government it sees Kosovo as its own province.44171686915_83e7470fae_o
Belgrade’s Filip Stojkovic is the first player to be booked by Portuguese referee Artur Dias Soares, when he tugs at Neymar’s shirt; Stojkovic just couldn’t wait until the end of the match to claim his souvenir. Mbappe’s eventual goal is scored two minutes later with 70 minutes played, it’s a relative tap-in from a bamboozling passing move instigated by Neymar that should have resulted in a goal sooner, but previous shots were blocked. The only surprise is that it’s taken so long for the fifth goal to be scored, but any sense of shock is eclipsed four minutes later as Milan Miran scores with a fine shot for Belgrade. The Serbian fans are ecstatic and make the most of their only opportunity to celebrate this evening, which is a lesson to all football supporters of losing teams, Ipswich Town fans please take note. But not to be outdone the Paris Ultras also light four or five flares on the opposite side of the ground where the flags were, for which the club will no doubt be punished in some way by UEFA.43269643400_d3ee064df0_o
A man in a dark suit appears from the back of the stand to ask everyone to sit down as people behind can’t see. He has some success but it’s a bit late for this now and within ten minutes everyone is stood up again anyway. But we see the last ten minutes with an unobstructed view because the Serbs in front can’t take any more and leave. All that remains is for Neymar to complete his hat-trick with a second perfect free-kick over the defensive wall into the top left hand corner of Milan Borjan’s goal.
This has been the fourth time I have seen PSG at Parc des Princes and I can’t but help feeling a little disconnected from these matches, because PSG are the French version of Manchester United or Bayern Munich, and are the club who everyone except their own supporters loathes. I can’t help disliking them too because their un-earned wealth distorts and compromises the French league and Cup competitions. But I have to admit that tonight PSG have played brilliantly and produced possibly the best football I have ever seen, better even than Ipswich Town’s during the 1980-81 season. English commentators will no doubt debunk the win by saying that Red Star Belgrade are a weak side, but the brilliance of Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani, Rabiot, Di Maria, Meunier and Verratti just cannot be denied. This has been a fantastic evening’s football.

Meudon AS 0 St Ouen L’Aumone AS 2

Today is the last day of September, my wife Paulene and I are staying in Meudon on the edge of Paris and having enjoyed both professional Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 football in the past week and a bit, watching both Paris FC and Paris St Germain, this afternoon we are getting down with the French equivalent of ‘non-league’. Not much more than ten minutes away by car at the Stade Georges Millandy in Meudon Le Foret (twenty minutes by bus service No 289) is a Coupe de France fourth round tie between Meudon AS of the Ile de Paris regional league Division 3 and St Ouen L’Aumone AS of the Ile de Paris regional league Division 1. These leagues are the 6th and 8th levels of the French football league ladder, although probably not directly comparable to those levels in the English non-league ‘pyramid’.
The parking at the local community sports centre, where the match is to take place is full, so we park our Citroen C3 around the corner in Rue Georges Millandy between large blocks of modern apartments. We are not sure exactly where we are going, but the Federation Football Francais (FFF, the French Football Association) website says this is the where the match is taking place and having walked through a corridor in a sports hall we find ourselves next to an artificial football pitch. There is no turnstile and watching this match is free. A bunch of blokes in tracksuits sit outside a portacabin eating baguettes and drinking coffee. In my exquisite school boy French I ask if this is this is where the Coupe de France game is taking place at 2.30; I am relieved to learn that it is and flattered that the man I speak to recognises the Ipswich Town crest on my T-shirt. I explain that I am a fan and not from the club itself, but we both quickly make the connection that Ipswich’s Under 18 player Idris El Mazouni is from Meudon. I will later discover that I have been talking to Idris’s dad.
The Stade Georges Millandy is not a stadium as we might understand it in Britain because it has no stands, it’s just a 3G synthetic pitch with dugouts and a metal fence, overlooked by five or six large, shiny white apartment blocks.

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It wouldn’t make the grade for the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League, although in truth the playing facilities are better than at most clubs in that league. It seems quite new, is in good condition and is the sort of installation that a town the size of Ipswich should probably have at least ten of. Given that these pitches are not cheap to install it is doubly impressive that the surface extends beyond the actual pitch to the area around it, with a mini pitch and goals in the space behind one goal. A game (possibly Under 15s) is

just finishing with a penalty shoot-out and I return to the portacabin, which is a sort of club house and buvette, to get two cups of green tea and a Kit-Kat (all 1 euro each); the tea is poured from a huge pot. On one wall is a large array of trophies won by all age groups within the club.

Paulene and I wander around the pitch as we drink our tea and I scoff Kit-Kat trying to remember why Nestle products were boycotted and if they still should be; too late now I have become complicit in their multi-national nastiness. It is a beautiful, bright sunny 45013661531_f3c54472c1_oafternoon beneath a clear blue sky and the gaze of those shiny apartment blocks, which cast no shadows on one another or the pitch; this has to be how Le Corbusier imagined La Ville Radieuse.

 

A man in a loosely belted gabardine raincoat appears; if he was wearing a trilby hat he could have stepped from a 1940’s film. He sports a bright arm band which adds to the look, but in a slightly sinister manner; he is however the délègue principal, the FFF official who 43201967200_10152fe2e5_owill oversee this afternoon’s game from the side lines. Out of the blue one of the spectators walks up to me and shakes my hand. In due course the two teams emerge from their respective changing rooms and walk through the metal gate onto the pitch before lining up side by side, then in a line before shaking hands. Introductions between the referee and players and délègue principal are made all-round, before the game kicks off about five minutes late (it was advertised as a 14:30 kick–off) with St Ouen having first go with the ball, aiming at the goal in front of the buvette. Meudon kick in the general direction of far off Stade Charlety and the 13th Arrondissement. St Ouen wear an all-green kit, whilst Meudon are all in red; neither club has its club crest on its shirts but instead bear the logo of the FFF with its cockerel.

St Ouen quickly win a free-kick as their tricky number nine goes down under a challenge; he gets up to send a neat free-kick over the red wall of Meudon, but into the arms of the very young looking Meudon goalkeeper, who strangely is one of the smallest players on the pitch, a sort of French Laurie Sivell. It is also St Ouen who have the second serious goal attempt, again a free-kick, but this time firmly hit from a wide position by their number ten. Once again the goalkeeper, whose blond hair may not be its original30077406907_10dcb243ea_o(1) colour, saves, batting the ball away for the first of five corners that St Ouen will win this half. Most of these corners are either poorly taken or all the St Ouen players are waiting for the ball in the wrong places.
Meudon are very competitive and the game is played at a fast pace with the emphasis on passing rather than just getting the ball forward by the fastest route. Meudon come close to scoring a bit before three o’clock as their huge number eleven breaks through on the left. The St Ouen goalkeeper, who incidentally reminds me of St Etienne ‘keeper Stephane Ruffier on account of his designer stubble and very short dark hair, and is possibly the second smallest on the pitch dives at his feet. The ball rebounds to the Meudon number seven whose goal-bound shot is headed away at improbably close range.
Meudon seem to be growing in confidence and their number ten does a few feints and jinks over the ball like a footballing Michael Jackson (Bubbles’ friend, not the one who played for Tranmere and Shrewsbury) might have done. There are a few jeers and within the next twenty seconds his ankles are swept away from beneath him by the St Ouen number three as he goes to dribble down the right touchline. It’s one of those situations that some people would try to excuse by saying that number ten had been ‘disrespectful’, but that’s just a modern buzzword, a sort of false political correctness and it is tosh; I blame Eastenders. Football is a game of skill and dumping someone on their bum shows little ‘respect’ itself. Referee Monsieur Charly Legendre doesn’t see fit to book anyone either way.
The coaches on the side lines are animated, “Parlez –vous” one calls urging his players to talk to one another. The St Ouen coach, a portly man in his fifties sports a fine mullet and43201968530_160c2105a2_o has the look of Maradona about him. The Meudon coach becomes involved in a prolonged discussion with the linesman Mefa Bakayoko about an offside or a free-kick which has been and gone and so no longer matters. On the field the St Ouen number ten sends a free-kick solidly over the cross bar whilst Meudon’s number six comes as close as anyone else with a long range shot that goes wide. St Ouen’s number nine is proving industrious and creates a couple of shots for himself one of which is well saved and Meudon replace their number three with substitute number thirteen. Half-time arrives and Paulene and I look back on a good but slightly frustrating forty-five minutes, which was too tight to be really entertaining. I head for the buvette to get a bottle of water (1 euro).
During the half-time break we stand about and as a man walks by he shouts “Ipswich!”. We could do with that sort of enthusiasm at Portman Road. As I stand I enjoy the44294420204_39f8378ac4_o contents of the many balconies that overlook the pitch from the surrounding apartments. Bikes, mattresses, plants and drying clothes decorate the bright white buildings and on one corner is a tricolour, perhaps left over from the summer’s World Cup win. As the afternoon wears on more people seem to arrive to watch the game and by the end I estimate that at least one-hundred people are here.
The délègue principal oversees the away team leaving their dressing room by a side door to the sports centre building and heads back to the pitch still wearing his gabardine raincoat, although it’s a warm afternoon; he is perhaps the anti-thesis of the banker in The Beatles’ Penny Lane and also feels as if he’s in a play, or a British TV sitcom. The bearded referee begins the game again and St Ouen soon win their sixth and seventh corners of the game, although in between their number eleven also shoots over the cross bar. At about four o’clock the St Ouen number eleven breaks forward through the middle, stretching the Meudon defence before playing a through ball to number ten who slips the ball inside the near post past the ‘blond’ goalkeeper; St Ouen lead 1-0.
They may be losing and disappointed to be doing so, but Meudon still pose a threat and a good run and cross from number eleven meets the thigh of number seven just a few yards out, but he can’t direct the ball past the goal keeper. The first booking of the game goes to Meudon’s number two and the game enters a tetchy stage where it seems it could flare up at any moment. As at most French football matches I have seen where this happens however, there are only outbreaks of animated discussion between the players, but the referee stands back and let’s this carry on. It’s a civilised approach which may reflect the character of a country that has produced far more philosophers than England has produced ‘World Class’ footballers.
St Ouen are buoyed by their goal and their bearded number three controls a ball beautifully on his chest before advancing down the flank. The lads watching near us jeer at his skill and nickname him Fekir, and they’re right to do so because he does vaguely resemble the French international. But Meudon are not beaten yet and the large number eleven strides past a couple of St Ouen players before playing a through ball to number twelve who either wasn’t paying attention or the pass wasn’t as good as it looked. Paulene and I belatedly realise that the number twelve has replaced the number seven, who we had thought was Meudon’s best player.
St Ouen almost score a second goal as their number nine diverts a cross from ‘Fekir’ the wrong side of the post from close range, but the game is becoming more scrappy and there are more fouls. The Meudon number ten spends more time than most not being upright. St Ouen win an eighth corner and as a passage of play ends Monsieur Legendre calls over Meudon’s number nine and ‘Fekir’ and books them for a mystery offence that neither Paulene or I saw. It is now gone half past four and we are witnessing time added on as St Ouen’s number eight runs down the right and then pulls the ball back across the penalty area for substitute number fourteen to side foot beyond the small, blond goalkeeper into the far corner of the goal.  St Ouen L’Aumone AS is the name that will go into the draw for the 5th round of the Coupe de France.
It’s been a reasonable game although not an exciting one in terms of goalmouth action. We turn to leave and Paulene notices a man with an Ipswich Town crest on his coat; I speak to him and it turns out he is the father of a second player from Meudon AS who is now in Ipswich Town’s Under 18 squad, Lounes Fodil. 44294397894_dca5642a04_oLounes’s dad, who is called Mustapha (apologies if the spelling is wrong) is a lovely bloke and is genuinely pleased to meet us and invites us for a coffee in the buvette. Our conversation probably isn’t the best as neither our French nor Mustapha’s English are fully fluent, but Mustapha gets across his philosophy of football; it’s a game of skill and intelligence not brute strength. He’s been to Portman Road and has noticed the glum atmosphere, which he attributes to the dull football. Whilst we are at the buvette some of the players come in for post-match drinks and snacks, one of them (I think it might have been the big number eleven or the captain) tells me Lounes is a good player. I tell him that’s good news because Ipswich Town really needs some good players; before he leaves he shakes my hand. The man who I first spoke to when we arrived comes to the bar counter and gets out his mobile phone before showing us a montage of clips of Idris El Mizouni playing for the Under 18’s, this is when I discover that this is Idris’s dad.
After a good half an hour or more we have to leave and walk from the ground with Mustapha who leaves us his phone number and invites us round to eat; sadly Paulene’s food intolerances and allergies will make that too complicated. We thank Mustapha and say how good it has been to meet him. Hopefully we will see him again.

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Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.


In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAany one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.
Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in dueOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.
Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.
The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of twoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.
Early on Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.
Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead Fire United fail however, to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requiresOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.
I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.


From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.
It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnited still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.
I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.
It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.

 

Harwich & Parkeston 2 Benfleet 1

My mother was born and grew up in Shotley at the mouth of the River Stour. As a child she hardly ever went to Ipswich, and Saturday afternoon shopping would mean a boat trip with her mum across the estuary to Harwich and to Dovercourt. Her father was a mild-mannered man, but if someone did manage to annoy him he would not tell them to “Go to hell” but instead to “Go to Harwich”, by which I think he meant to go and jump in the river rather than any slur on the gateway to the Continent. My childhood memories from thirty odd years later were of going to Harwich by car, an ice cream cornet outside the town hall, Dovercourt Woolworth’s and having shrimps for tea.
With these fond family memories in mind I guide my Citroen C3 along the winding, undulating B1352 from Manningtree to Harwich, through Mistley, Bradfield, Wrabness and Ramsey. My wife Paulene and I have been to Ipswich to visit some of the historic buildings open to the public for the Heritage Open Days, but were a bit miffed to find two of the three buildings we wanted to view, which were advertised as open in the leaflet, were shut and only open next weekend. But arriving in Harwich our fortunes have improved, it is warm and it’s not raining, even if it is a bit cloudy and the Royal Oak

ground is open for this afternoon’s fixture in the tortuously titled Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties First Division South. We park up in the car park at the side of the stadium and cross the lane to the turnstile by the main stand. Entry costs £4 each and the-grey haired man operating the turnstile helpfully verbalises the mental arithmetic of £4 plus £430684736148_a5cac6de7b_o making a total of £8 and the addition of the glossy and groovily typefaced, 16 page programme “Black and White” (£1) making a total of £9. A few steps inside the ground an old boy in a flat cap relieves me of the final tenth of the ten pound note I proffered at the turnstile, in exchange for a strip of draw tickets (Nos 61 to 65).
The Royal Oak Ground , where Harwich & Parkeston have played since 1898 stretches out before us , a green panorama, the broad pitch sloping away across its width, down towards Harwich town itself. Beyond the far side of the pitch a terrace of 1950’s houses, one with a hideous loft extension overlook the pitch. To the left behind one goal a steep but shallow concrete stand with a rusting tin roof and faded red steel stanchions, a sort of truncated barn backing on to Main Road, where the Royal Oak pub stands, and which leads into Dovercourt High Street; to the right and set back some way beyond the other goal, the changing rooms in a building with gabled dormer windows and a small clock on the roof, like a 1980’s pastiche of a village cricket pavilion. Behind us the main stand is short in length but disproportionately tall with a steep, corrugated, pitched roof; a typical football stand from the 1950’s, sadly its top half is now closed off.

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It’s about twenty past two and the Harwich team are appearing from the changing rooms to warm up; we walk to that end of the ground to perhaps catch a word with their coach Michael, who we know from our previous mutual involvement at Wivenhoe Town.

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Appropriately, page five of the programme has a small feature on Michael, from which we learn amongst other things that he drives a Citroen C4, his favourite food is curry and his favourite holiday resort is Acapulco. There is a photo of Michael stood with arms folded and looking quite butch, if a little overweight. After the game Michael will tell me that he likes to read this Blog whilst sat on the toilet.
“Well he should have some fresh milk, I put some in there on Tuesday, er no Thursday” we hear a man in a white shirt and black and white striped tie say to another man. At the corner of the ground a man with a Scottish accent asks us if we are from Benfleet, because, he explains, he didn’t recognise us. We tell him we are not but, are partly here to see Michael the coach, but also to just enjoy a Saturday afternoon at ‘the football’. Whilst Paulene watches the warm up, the Scottish man tells me how the club owns the ground and is debt-free. Harwich & Parkeston are playing at a lower level than they once did, but I am told that the club trustees saw that the need to simply keep the club alive was more important than trying to compete unsustainably in a higher league. The Scottish man bemoans the rise of ‘village teams’ into the semi-professional ranks, which he feels has fragmented local football and he’d like to see a league of clubs just from the main East Anglian towns. It’s a somewhat Stalinist approach, but I can see the attraction. The population of Harwich is about 18,000.
Kick-off is approaching and I buy two teas (£1 each) from the tea hut, a neat brick30685788148_87460e7c1e_o building probably dating from the 1950’s or 1960’s, which wouldn’t look out of place on a seafront esplanade. In the tea hut a woman is incredulous that an official has come from Norwich to referee a match in Harwich, she thought the point of the league re-structure was to cut travelling costs. “You can bet your arse that in Yarmouth they’ve got a referee from London” she says, and she’s probably right, although I’m not sure Ladbrokes would be interested in her or anyone else’s bottom as a wager. “There’s not many here today” she adds.
42747605380_9cc3b7bca7_oAs the game begins we take up a spot at a Yogi Bear–style picnic table in the corner of the ground by the bar and backing onto Main Road. Harwich kick off towards us, the River Stour and Shotley beyond. Harwich are wearing black and white striped shirts with black shorts and socks, completing a hat-trick of clubs along with Newcastle United and Grimsby Town that span the length of the east coast and wear black and white stripes. Benfleet are in a rather boring all red kit, although their home kit is a much more interesting light blue shirt with dark blue shorts.
From kick-off the ball is almost instantly hoofed into touch and early action sees the Benfleet number five take out both the Harwich number nine and one of his own team mates with a lunging tackle. The free-kick produces nothing of note but at least the tackle made me laugh. The football is scrappy but the passes that do get strung together are mostly strung together by Harwich or ‘The Shrimpers’ as they are known, a nickname which no doubt has to do with what I had for tea as a child. The neighbouring picnic tables are occupied too and on one of them some young women, possibly ‘wags’, talk about an away game they went to recently. “There was no bar” one of them says “Just a bottle of Blossom Hill in the fridge”. At another table a middle aged woman calls out “Come on ‘arridge”.
Despite Harwich’s dominance, at about twenty past three they almost fall behind as the centre-half misses the ball and Benfleet’s number nine Ben Foord is gifted a clear run at goal; he runs, looks up and shoots, but the Harwich ‘keeper Sam Felgate makes a fine diving save to his left. Stung by that near miss Harwich soon produce the best move of the match so far as number three Jake Kioussis overlaps into the penalty area, but loses his composure and blazes the ball high over the goal and onto the vegetation covered bank in the corner of the ground. Distraught at his failure to do better, Jake appears to try and garrotte himself in the netting behind the goal. Michael the Harwich coach leaves his post in front of the dug-outs to fetch the ball. The entertainment is improving and Benfleet win a corner but hit the ball straight to an unopposed Sam Felgate.
Just before half past three The Shrimpers take the lead as Sean Gunn dinks the ball into the net from close range as three Benfleet defenders look on admiringly; it’s what Harwich deserve in what has so far been quite a one-sided game. Paulene and I decide to get a different perspective on the match and wander further round behind the goal

enjoying the cascade of greenery in the corner of the stand and an abandoned roller. Non-league football just wouldn’t be the same without the atmosphere of decay and the implied memories of better days long ago; the Royal Oak has that beautiful faded glory in spades.
All of sudden a bit of ill-temper erupts on the pitch and the Benfleet number four squares up to the Harwich number two and shoves him backwards, not just once but three times. A melee ensues and Michael is on the pitch to help break it up. The referee Mr Harvey looks uncertain about what has happened and he consults his version of the VAR, the linesman Mr Arnot. 30686126038_1dc5f53e29_oUnusually both linesman are called Arnot, although if they are related the relationship looks like grandfather and grandson, with one being stocky and totally bald and the other lanky and very youthful. The referee consults Mr Arnot senior, who talks to Mr Harvey with his hand over his mouth, like players do on the telly. I’m not certain why he does this; even if Mr Arnot has a strange paranoia about lip-readers what can he possibly be saying that is such a big secret? The result is a free-kick to Benfleet and bookings for both players, although I’ve seen players sent off for shoving before. A short while later the match breaks down again into confrontation as Benfleet’s number five tackles horizontally at knee height and a Shrimper hits the turf clutching a leg. This time Mr Harvey sorts it out on his own, but again appears lenient as he doesn’t even show a yellow card. Happily, half-time soon arrives and everyone can go for a lie down.
Paulene and I continue our wander around the ground and I picture how the bank42747580570_69889cf102_o behind the dug- outs was perhaps once a grassy ‘terrace’. Beneath the vegetation a path can be discerned which runs up to a large pair of metal gates onto Main Road, I feel like some sort of football archaeologist, and as I look across at the terrace of 1950’s houses that overlook the ground I am struck with a sense of deja-vous. The layout of the Royal Oak with the houses on one side, the rickety main stand opposite and the club house up the corner is a lot like that of the Stade Municipal in Balaruc-les -Bains in southern France, where Paulene and I watched a Coupe de France (French FA Cup) game last September (see the archive section of this blog for an account of our visit and the match) . I buy two more teas (£2) and am served at the tea hut by the Scottish man who is helping out with the half-time rush. Paulene and I take a look in the club house where a display on the wall recalls Harwich & Parkeston’s appearance in the 1953 FA Amateur Cup final before a crowd of 100,000; The Shrimpers lost 6-0 to Pegasus (a combined Oxford & Cambridge University team) and it was probably Pegasus that drew the crowd rather than The Shrimpers, but it’s still an impressive piece of history nonetheless.
The game begins again and Benfleet are playing a bit better, although Harwich still get opportunities to score again. But at just gone twenty past four the Harwich defence recreates the error they made an hour ago. Harwich’s number five mis-reads the flight of the ball and fails to play it back to the goalkeeper who is a long way off his goal line; they are both left helpless as Benfleet’s number ten Rob Lacey nips in to lob the ball over Sam Felgate and into the goal to equalise. Quickly some of the Harwich players turn on one another to apportion blame. One of them stands with arms outstretched and says “If are going to make mistakes…” but sadly I don’t catch the end of the sentence. For a little while Benfleet are the better team and they seem to have broken up the link between the Harwich midfield and forwards. Benfleet’s blond-haired number six Martin Lacey has moved to left back and snuffed out the Harwich attacks down this flank; added to which his haircut has a hint of the 1960’s Mod about it.
Benfleet now look the more likely team to score again and we walk round behind the goal that they are attacking. We arrive in time to see the game again erupt into an unseemly mess as a Harwich player scrambles about on the ground and then a scrum of pushing and shoving and angry faces develops from seemingly nothing. Michael again appears to break things up. I don’t have a clue what happened or who was involved and sadly it seems neither does referee Mr Harvey who once again consults the human VAR Mr Arnot senior. The decision from Mr Harvey is to send off Harwich’s number five Ben Hammond and Benfleet’s number two Lewis Hunt and to book Harwich’s number four Shaun Kioussis and Benfleet substitute, number twenty Stephan Adeyemi , who hasn’t even come on to the pitch yet. Lewis Hunt and his team mates, manager and coaches protest his innocence and he certainly didn’t appear to be involved in the ruckus. Lewis heads for the dressing room and walks past us, I ask him what happened. He didn’t know but said he didn’t do anything, he tried to separate people and got hit in the mouth and then stepped away. He seems like a really nice bloke, which is what the Benfleet team were telling Mr Harvey. During the mayhem the Harwich ‘keeper takes to time to relax and have a lie down, adopting the pose of a gentleman-player in one of those photographs of a Victorian football team.
The break in play seems to have affected Benfleet more than Harwich, possibly because of the sense of injustice that Lewis Hunt has been wrongly sent off; perhaps whoever was guilty, and someone was, should have owned up and said “Send me off Ref, Lewis is innocent”. Never before has my wearing of my Albert Camus philosophy football T-shirt been so poignant, with its slogan “All that I know most surely know about morality and obligations I owe to football”. Benfleet have lost concentration and at a bit past four thirty The Shrimpers number eleven Sean Gunn breaks through the middle and places a low shot wide of Florent Gislette in the Benfleet goal. Understandably after all that has happened the Harwich team celebrate somewhat.
The final fifteen minutes play out without too much sense that there will be any more goals, although Shrimpers substitute Nicky Palmer sends a shot out towards the North Sea when nicely set up by number ten Michael Hammond, who had passed up on a chance to have a shot of his own. Hammond also becomes the eighth player to be booked before Mr Harvey eventually closes proceedings and the crowd of 160 give appreciative applause for what has been a thoroughly entertaining afternoon of football and brawling, but mostly football.
Paulene and I retire to the bar for a pint of Greene King Abbot Ale (easily Greene King’s best beer) and a Bacardi with Soda (£5.25) and a chance to reflect on a very enjoyable (and cheap) afternoon. We might have been disappointed not to sample the Heritage of Ipswich earlier today, but the sporting heritage of Harwich and Parkestone’s Royal Oak ground has more than made up for it. We’ll be back.

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Ipswich Town 1 Norwich City 1

I received a text at a quarter past six this morning from my friend Mick who was at work but, in what was presumably an idle moment, had decided to let me know that he was watching assorted vehicles setting off from Suffolk Police headquarters heading, he assumed, for the match at Portman Road today. He asked me to give Town a shout on his behalf and predicted a draw. I tried to sleep on for another hour or so after reading the text but with only partial success. Thanks Mick.
Today should be one of the highlights of the football season, one of the most exciting games, the game with the biggest crowd and the best atmosphere; the one most like a professional football match should be. But the portents are not good; there are no trains from Colchester direction, only replacement buses. Far worse than that it’s Sunday and kick-off is at twelve o’clock, noon. The relevant authorities and ‘stakeholders’ have made a ‘risk assessment’ and decreed that there is a risk of football supporters enjoying the event too much if it takes place on a Saturday afternoon at 3 pm when football matches should be played and so Sunday lunchtime has been chosen as the time when the game should take place. That last time Ipswich played Norwich on a Saturday afternoon was probably in the last century; I tried to look it up on the interweb, but gave up and may be the records have been deleted to deter dissenters and give the impression things have always been like this; but I remember the 1970’s so they won’t silence me!
Moving on, I drive to Ipswich because life is too short to consider rail replacement bus services an option and I park up on Chantry, that spaciously laid out estate of public housing from the time when it wasn’t seditious to place need above profit. It’s a pleasant walk down through Gippeswyk Park beneath a blue sky as I strive to find pleasure in otherwise desperate circumstances. In Ranelagh Road I pass two drunken Norwich City supporters.


I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge for which the planners of Ipswich Borough Council must be congratulated, for it was they who got it built by the developers of the old Reavell’s factory site, which incidentally provided some of the locations for the 1960 film the Angry Silence starring Richard Attenborough. From the bridge I can see four cormorants which are basking on the concrete weir. I imagine them as the lucky four cormorants of Ipswich, harbingers of doom to those from north of the River Waveney. In Constantine Road I find evidence of horses having littered the road and wonder why dog owners have to clear up their animal’s excrement but horse owners don’t. I have never seen a police dog defecate in the street but wonder if their handlers nevertheless carry little plastic bags, just in case.


Perturbed I turn into the Fanzone just for something to fill the time until it is time for the game to begin. There is a band playing out of the side of a shipping container in the Fanzone, they are playing some decent tunes including an ITFC version of the Ramones’ Blitzkreig Bop. People may be listening but they are not moving to the music, which is a shame. I feel an urge to show them what to do, but heck I’m fifty-eight and wouldn’t want to listen to the game on the radio in the back of an ambulance.

In the Fanzone I meet ‘Mac’ a woman who will not thank me for saying she is really called Maxine. She played for Ipswich Town Women’s Football Club back in the 1990’s, in the days before Ipswich Town took much of an interest in women’s football. Mac, who incidentally is a triplet, lives in Needham Market; she loves football and Ipswich Town, she is a lifelong fan and she tells me how the club told her she had to give a week’s notice if she wanted to watch the team train and then when she wrote and asked they said no. I often don’t like Ipswich Town Football Club much.
It’s beautifully warm, even hot lounging on the plastic turf of the Fanzone, but I resist any temptation to buy a drink because all that is on offer is Greene King East Coast IPA, which whilst fashionably hoppy will be fizzy, chilled and will make me belch like a dyspeptic Sperm whale. At length I leave the Fanzone thinking “Hey ho, let’s go” to myself and so that I can avoid seeing any more Norwich supporters until inside the stadium I head for the turnstiles at the west end of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, where appropriately I find OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAturnstiles 59 and 60 as well as turnstiles 61 and 62, recalling the seasons in which Sir Alf managed Town to consecutive Division Two and League Championship titles. I enter through turnstile 62. By the Constantine Road gates I meet Ray and his wife Ros who are waiting for their son and grandson, who are held up in traffic.
Inside, the ground looks close to full with the only vacant seats largely being to the back of the stands, mostly those from which the view is partly obscured by steel stanchions. As usual, this ‘derby’ match is not a sell-out; I expect all those Ipswich puritans have had to go to church. It is nevertheless strange to find the seats all around mine to be occupied and I wonder what these people usually do on Saturdays when Town are at home; I’m sure they’re not all watching local non-league games; perhaps they are Jewish.
At last the teams trail on to the pitch to much rousing applause, cheering and infantile posturing and I once again realise why I simultaneously love and loathe this fixture. Town kick off towards me, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Pat from Clacton and the many unfamiliar faces all around us. Norwich City, the Canaries are wearing their usual unsightly yellow shirts and green shorts, but this season their shoulders are flecked with what from a distance looks, most appropriately like guano. Very quickly Town win a free-kick just outside the Norwich penalty area; it’s an opportunity for a direct shot at goal if anyone has the requisite skills; they don’t and new loan signing Jordan Graham, whose name makes me think of breakfast cereal (Jordan’s Country Crisp and Nestlés Golden Grahams) blazes the ball high over the Norwich cross-bar, dashing the hopes of 20,000 Town fans in a split second. “Oh Christ” says the old boy next to me with sad resignation.
Five minutes pass and the away fans break into a chorus of “On The Ball City”, the sort of archaic football song that could only survive in a remote corner of the country whereOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA incest is rife. On the touchline, young, “hungry” Ipswich manager Paul Hurst looks the part in his small size tracksuit. Beyond ‘Hursty’, Norwich manager Daniel Farke looks like a groundhopper, dressed as he is in a sort of grey anorak. It may be a heresy to say so, but I can’t help liking Daniel Farke, I think it’s because he’s German, but I’d also like to know where he bought that anorak.
On the pitch Town’s early effort on goal is a fading memory as Norwich start to look the stronger team, both physically and in terms of skill. It’s a bit before twelve-thirty and Town captain Luke Chambers is booked by referee Robert Jones. With three debutants in the side, Town at times look as if they don’t know whether they’re at a football match or a coming-out ball. Norwich hit a post with a shot and Ipswich do the same, but better. Town’s Jordan Graham is booked for cheating by falling over in the penalty area unassisted, although I like to think a small part of the booking was also for his hopeless free-kick at the start of the match. It’s a scrappy and overly physical match punctuated by several injuries to players of both teams and six minutes of injury time are to be added at the end of the half,

or they will be once Town’s Cole Skuse is scraped off the pitch and loaded onto the electric truck and carted away. As ever-present Phil points out, it’s not often the first half hasn’t ended by the time the second half is due to start. Today’s attendance is announced as 25,690 and the Norwich congregation, appropriately on a Sunday spontaneously break into a rendition of the hymn Cwm Rhondda, but cast doubt on their faith by singing “You’re support is fucking shit” rather than the more traditional “Be though still my strength and shield”, but each to his own.
Half-time arrives eventually at close on one o’clock and it’s time for lunch. Only a few hours ago I ate a vast breakfast of bacon, toast, tomatoes, poached eggs and croissants with honey to stave off hunger, but all around me tin foil and Tupperware are opened up to reveal all manner of packed meals; OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAit’s like the teddy bear’s picnic, but without the teddy bears. Ros has cooked sausage rolls, and kind and generous man that he is Ray delivers one to me on his way to the toilet. People are lovely, I don’t deserve this, but I eat OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAit all the same. I had been looking forward to a Pawelek Advocaat and fondant ‘filled’ plain chocolate bar (reduced to 30p in the Sainsbury’s World Foods aisle) as a half-time treat, but it has melted somewhat in my pocket, soOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA disappointed I leave it unwrapped and uneaten. To raise my spirits I look at the match programme (£3) and seek amusement in the names of the Norwich City squad; at number four they have Mr Godfrey (“Do you think I may be excused?”) and number six Zimmerman reminds me that the Clapton FC have a player called Dylan, but I wouldn’t say it made me laugh.
Fortunately, the footballers return, although Daniel Farke’s anorak doesn’t, and play resumes but not before the old dear next but one from me says to the old boy next to me “Mmmm, smell the grass”. She is so right, you sometimes just have to simply smell the grass. Returning from my moment of quiet contemplation it’s evident Trevoh Chalobah has replaced Cole Skuse and he soon smacks a half volley over the Norwich cross bar as Ipswich start to dominate in a frantic fifteen minute spell of excitement and increasing volume of support from the Town fans. Nine minutes into the half and Kayden Jackson has what I reckon is Town’s first goal attempt on target as he accurately re-directs a Jon Walters’ cross. Three minutes later Jon Walters heads back to Gwion Edwards and his shot deflects off a guano-dappled shirt and into the far corner of the Norwich goal and a roar erupts from the Portman Road crowd the like of which I have not heard in a very long time. Apparently it is the first occasion on which Town have opened the scoring in a match versus Norwich at Portman Road since 1998, when incidentally, Town won by five, yes five goals to nil, which again incidentally Town also did in 1977 and also in 1946.
I begin to dare to believe Ipswich might win this game, but our dominance doesn’t last and Norwich grow stronger again as Town are unable to maintain the righteous onslaught. Norwich have a spell of pressure similar to the one Ipswich had and a nasty habit of letting the ball run to Norwich players at the edge of the penalty area culminates in Moritz Leitner striking a firm low shot just inside Dean Gerken’s left hand post; it is a shot I have a disturbingly perfect in-line view of, all the way from the German’s boot to the net. Bugger.
The Town support falls silent having previously made the sort of noise normally only heard in places like Portsmouth or Marseille. The Norwich support are right to ask if this is a library. The belief in a win has evaporated in a flash. When Jordan Graham is substituted the old boy next to me asks “Who’s coming on?” When he‘s told it’s Grant Ward he glumly remarks “Well, he’s not bad” as if to leave unspoken the fact that he’s not going to win the game though. The last minutes are eked out, Norwich come close, Gerken makes a couple of good saves, Town break up field and a corner and free-kick raise hopes and voices, but all too briefly before Mr Roberts calls time.
It’s not been much of a game really, but it has been bloody exciting nonetheless. If the crowd is passionate enough, even relatively poor quality football matches can be enjoyable, because as we were told by Mary Poppins “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”; although it was the 1960’s when she sang that and some sugar was known to be laced with LSD and some with the polio vaccine.

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Coggeshall Town 0 Witham Town 0

It’s a Friday evening in late August and in Coggeshall history is being made as the local football club, established in October 1878, will play its first ever FA Cup tie after almost 140 years of non-involvement in what used to be, until the Premier League ruined everything, England’s most thrilling and most-loved football competition.
It’s been a blustery day, but the afternoon has been quite warm. My wife Paulene and I have had our tea early (bangers and mash) and are making the short drive to Coggeshall; a large crowd is predicted tonight for what is a local ‘derby’ against Witham Town, so we thought we would get in early, park up and have a drink before the rush. Driving along West Street towards ‘The Crops’ we follow a large Audi car with the registration M1 LTS, the personalised number plate of former Ipswich Town player Simon Milton; I wonder to myself if footballers are more likely to have personalised number plates than ‘normal’ people. I think perhaps they are. As we follow I tell Paulene about how hack sportswriter Dave Allard would nearly always refer to Simon Milton in the back pages of the Ipswich Evening Star as “… the former paint sprayer and van driver from Thetford”. Paulene thinks this was rather rude of him. The Audi brakes suddenly as it reaches the turning into the Coggeshall Town car park; “Milts” is evidently not a regular at the Crops. We turn in after him and wait whilst he backs his transport into a space close to the entrance.
There are a good number of cars here already but there is no queue at the turnstile and we soon pay our entrance money (£9 each) and buy a programme (£1.50). At the bar I order a pint of Adnams Ghostship (sadly keg and not real ale) for me and a Campari and soda for Paulene. “A what?” says the young woman behind the bar .
“Campari and soda” I reply.
“What’s that?” She asks.
“It’s Campari topped up with soda”
“What, like lime and soda?”
“Yes, but with Campari instead of the lime, but still with the soda”
“I don’t know if we’ve got that”
“Yes, you have, the Campari is on the top shelf”. The barmaid turns to look at the shelves behind the bar. “Which one is it?”
“The bottle in the middle with the word ‘Campari’ on it”. Paulene is served her Campari and soda (£7.70 with the pint of Ghostship) and explains to the woman stood next to her (who had asked) how she cannot have grain-based drinks due to a food intolerance and so has to stick to wine-based ones like Campari, Martini and Noilly Prat. The woman’s husband tells me how he has a bottle of Campari in a cupboard at home, but has never opened it. Plastic cups of drink in hand we stand outside on the deck and watch what’s occurring whilst playing “Spot the Groundhopper”. We speak with ‘Migz’ who we know from his having played at Wivenhoe Town; he has just joined Witham, his younger brother Tristan plays for Ipswich Town. It’s rather lovely sat out here, with the neat, well-tended pitch before us and the grey leaves of the riverside trees beyond the fields behind the ground blowing in the breeze. But it’s getting a bit chilly and I put my coat on. On the pitch the Coggeshall coach is interviewed in front of a video camera, apparently BT will be showing the match in a highlights programme. Good luck with finding it on BT’s poorly advertised schedules.


Drinks drunk we move to the low seated stand at the side of the pitch and pick a spot at the back, in the middle, saving a seat for Paul who normally videos the match but has given over his gantry to BT tonight.

The BT people said they will let him have a copy of their recording, which is nice of them and much better than the service you get as one of their paying subscribers. The ground is filling up; a large man in front of says to his wife “The barbecue is up and burning, do you want anyfink?” He leaves and returns with burgers and paper napkins; the burgers don’t look burnt despite what he said. The referee and his assistants warm up in front of us, the referee who has scrupulously short hair setting out a series of flattened cones to run between, although he begins by running with his chums to the goal line and back. I thought I saw one of his assistant smirk as the cones were laid out, but it might have been me. They don’t really need these flattened cone things, perhaps they were a Christmas present and he feels obliged to use them or may be just setting them all out and picking them up again is part of the warm up.


The light is fading as cloud builds and the floodlights come on before kick-off. Barbecuedsc00074_30406466408_o smoke drifts in to the air and teases our nostrils as Witham Town in yellow shirts and blue shorts have first kick at the ball playing towards the town, with its fabulous medieval tithe barn and Tudor, double jettied, Paycocke’s house. Coggeshall sport their usual black and red striped shirts with black shorts and socks.
An early free-kick to Coggeshall and their number six and captain Luke Wilson heads the ball over the goal. The game is fast and frantic. “Well in son” shouts a shiny headed man standing near to us and then “Well up son” to another player, showing a touching fatherliness towards the Coggeshall team. At the open end of the ground a lone voice bellows “You’re supposed to be at home” single-handedly trying to create the big match, local derby, cup-tie atmosphere that I hope for at every game.
After just six minutes the Coggeshall captain is substituted due to injury and then there is a flash. I thought the floodlights flickered, but the rumble of thunder that follows

confirms that it was lightning. If the crowd isn’t creating much of a ‘cup-tie’ atmosphere the weather seems to be making an effort and soon it begins to rain. Coggeshall win the first corner of the match as a swarm of raindrops swirl within the beam of the floodlights above. The referee speaks with Witham’s number eleven and two grumpy looking men in suits and ties enter the stand to shelter from the rain, they are wearing dsc00089_30406410328_ohuge black coats plastered with the logos of Mitre and Bostik, they must be League or FA officials. It’s another thing I love about non-league football; officials all dressed up and made to sit in a tin shack. Perhaps that’s why they look so grumpy, but at least they’ll get free sandwiches at half-time.
It’s not quite a quarter past eight and Witham’s number three claims the first booking of the evening for acting the playground bully as he unsubtly shoves a Coggeshall player in the back. I’d like to say that he stares wild-eyed up through the rain at the yellow card as it is illuminated by a flash of lightning, but it didn’t really happen like that. The rain gets harder and a dark bank of cloud forms the back drop to the floodlit pitch, which sparkles with rain drops. The thunder and lightning passes over, it’s nearly twenty past eight and Witham win their first corner with what could be their first attempt on goal. Coggeshall have been dominating this game but without troubling the Witham goalkeeper who has a stockade of four big blokes in front of him who block every way through to goal. Coggeshall are nimble and quick but small and Witham are big and solid. A hoofed clearance disappears above the roof line of the stand and I wait for it to fall like someone in 1944 who has just heard a doodlebug engine cut out. After a silent pause the ball noisily clatters the corrugated iron above us. There’s time for Coggeshall to win another corner, which is cleared and then it’s half time.
It’s still raining so we stay where we are, a cup of tea might be in order usually, but there are over 300 people here tonight (309 to be precise) and I don’t want to queue in the rain. I flick through the programme and Paul leaves and returns with a burger. The large man at the front of the stand goes to get a burger, but returns empty-handed, put off by the queue.
The second half brings the football back and Witham’s number ten is soon cautioned for a tackle which the shiny headed man says was two-footed. From the resultant free-kick, Coggeshall’s number ten Ross Wall (a moniker which I randomly notice combines the names of two frozen food manufacturers) sends a flying header goal-wards, but the Witham goalkeeper is equally air worthy and hurls himself to his right to push the ball onto the post and away, drawing excited but frustrated “Ooooohs” from the crowd, including me.
It’s still raining as Coggeshall’s number ten is booked, seemingly because several Witham players surrounded the referee appealing for his censure. But Coggeshall remain the better team, or at least the more attack-minded and entertaining team and soon a throw on the right reaches number seven who turns smartly to send in a rising shot, which the Witham ‘keeper again touches on to the cross bar in spectacular fashion. An hour of the game has passed and another Coggeshall player, number fourteen is booked for sliding into an opponent across the wet turf.
dsc00069_43555980904_oThe game remains physical and frantic and wet. A free-kick for Coggeshall almost sneaks under the cross bar and a corner is won after number eleven Nnamdi Nwachuk produces some nifty footwork and tries several times to tee up a shot on his right foot. Coggeshall’s number fifteen replaces number seven and Witham’s number four joins those already booked by the very neat Mr Michael Robertson – Tant the referee. It’s been a game of several free-kicks and much falling over and a special prize should go to Witham number nine, a huge man who several times falls to the ground heavily and lies perfectly still as if mortally wounded. He has clearly learned from watching the World Cup that rolling over and over and over is not convincing; he is the anti-Neymar and amusing with it.
Nnamdi Nwachuk stays down on the turf “Get up , we need you” bawls a team mate. A Witham player goes down and seeks attention “Come on ref, he’s a pansy” shouts the shiny headed man. Coggeshall win more corners, the ball is cleared, is headed over and Nwachuk’s shot is deflected away as everyone struggles to control it on the greasy, wet grass. Nwachuk cannot carry on and is replaced by number eighteen. Witham’s number four is replaced by number fourteen, a curly haired, bearded man who looks like a history teacher who taught me back in 1976. Frustration grows but the pattern of the game doesn’t , Coggeshall press and Witham hold out. The shiny headed man develops a rising, piercing falsetto voice as Witham’s nine fails to get booked “Why doesn’t he book him? He’s taking the piss. It’s ridiculous”. Moments later nine is booked for childishly withholding the ball before a Coggeshall free-kick. The shiny-headed man is apoplectic and with the game ebbing away he turns to religion. “Jesus Christ!” he spits as a searching through ball is played much too long and rolls harmlessly off the pitch. The good word spreads to the woman next to me who on being told there wouldn’t be extra-time if the game is drawn says “Thank God, I don’t think I could take it”.
Entering time added on, the Witham players have taken to complaining heavily when fouled; they earn a free kick which is cleared to the edge of the penalty area where the history teacher clubs it on the volley just past the Coggeshall ‘keeper’s right hand post. It’s the last notable action of the game. The rain has stopped and the smell of cooking meat returns as a pall of barbecue smoke hangs over the pitch. After four minutes of added time it’s all over and we emerge from our shelter into the damp night to say our goodbyes. It’s disappointing not to have seen any goals and ultimately effort and strength have beaten skill but the thunder, lightning and lashing rain beneath the floodlights have made it a memorable evening.

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IpswichTown 1 Aston Villa 1

 

It’s a sombre August afternoon beneath overcast, grey skies; I walk to the railway station.  The heat and bright sunshine that greeted the first match of the football season have gone and with three games played Ipswich have still not won.  But it’s warm.20180818_125516_44115116991_o

On the platform at the railway station a poster entreats me not to get on the train if I feel unwell, but I’m okay, it’s too early in the season to feel ill at the thought of another match.   The train arrives and is a minute later than it was a fortnight ago; the timetable seems to have changed.  On the other side of the carriage sits a young woman with a flourish of wild blond hair and dark eyebrows. She checks her make-up using her mobile phone.  I look out of the window.

In Ipswich a group of Aston Villa fans look over the bridge parapet opposite the railway station; perhaps they will jump into the river below if their team loses, or maybe it’s just their way of joining in with Maritime Ipswich. Portman Road is busy with people indulging in pre-match hanging about; two lads, one in an Ipswich shirt, one in a Villa shirt create a pleasing tableau of inter-club friendliness beneath the statue of Sir Alf Ramsey.

I buy a programme (£3.00) and  walk on to St Jude’s Tavern where Mick has arrived, seconds before; he buys me a pint of Colchester Brewery Metropolis (£3.00), which I choose because of Fritz Lang’s 1926 film of the same name. Mick has a pint of peach flavoured beer, which he discovers he doesn’t really like (£3.00).   We sit at a small table, the only one that is free; the pub is busy.  We talk of football, of what my wife and I might do on a forthcoming trip to Paris, of how we perceive our lives and the reality of them, of what Mick will do now he has split with his partner of the past fourteen years and what he really does in his shed.  I buy a second pint of beer, Colchester Brewery Sweeney Todd (£3.00), whilst Mick has a half of Earl Soham Victoria Bitter (£1.50).

An hour gone and glasses drained we leave with a host of others bound for the match.  Mick and I part at the corner of Portman Road and St Matthews Street, he will be going to 20180818_153709_30246974478_oSainsbury’s.  Down in Portman Road there are queues for the turnstiles, which is surprising.  I assess which queue is shortest and join it, it is very short and I am soon inside the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. I thank the turnstile operator, drain off some excess liquid and head for my seat near Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and who today has his son Elwood with him.  The teams appear to the strains of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, I don’t know why, but apparently people voted for it, like Brexit.

The game begins; Ipswich kicking off and playing towards me and Phil, Elwood and Pat.  20180818_161256_44065987012_oIpswich sport their new kit for this season; blue shirts with white sleeves evoking a memory of the shirts of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, but with added Addidas branded stripes in red to make sure we don’t miss them.  Ipswich’s Polish goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski looks like a huge ‘Mivvi’ in all-orange.  Aston Villa wear white shirts and maroon shorts and socks. Boots come in many colours, a rainbow of feet.

Inside Portman Road it is quite noisy today, mostly thanks to the 2,027 Aston Villa supporters but the Town fans are doing their best to contribute in a week when a new group of supporters ‘Blue Action’ has launched itself on social media with its stated aim to “…ignite and unite the support”.  Its name might sound like a washing powder but the aim of the group seems laudable provided nothing gets burnt.  The Villa fans sing a song about empty seats, which is hard to decipher and then their star player Jack Grealish falls to the ground, the first of many, many times which he will do this this afternoon; for someone with such big legs, he seems incredibly frail.  “He’s dead again” says the old fella behind me “Get up you creep” – well it sounded like creep.  Town’s Trevoh Chalobah then receives treatment after he is fouled and I have time to check on the buddleia on the roof of the stand; it’s still there.  In the first ten minutes ten free-kicks are awarded by referee Mr Tim Robinson for fouls.  Town manager Paul Hurst watches on, arms folded across his chest.  “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” sing the Aston Villa fans.  It’s lovely of them to offer to do requests like that I think to myself, but then disappointingly they don’t bother; something from Bizet’s Carmen would have been nice.

It’s not 3.15 yet and Town’s Gwion Edwards hits the Aston Villa cross bar at the end of a flowing move across the pitch from one side to the other and back, which started with him dribbling the ball away from the Town penalty area.  This is the stuff.  Town fans sing and clap a bit, but not for long and within minutes Villa fans are chanting “No noise from the Tractor Boys”.  Then town have another shot, which bobbles past a post but then Aston Villa score; Ivorian Jonathon Kodjia being left to head in a cross.  The old couple behind me are amused by his surname which they pronounce ‘Codger’ as in ‘old codger’.  Very droll.

The game continues with free-kicks a-plenty as Aston Villa players seem keen to lay about on the turf whilst Mr Robinson seems keen to blame Ipswich players for this.  Town’s Tayo Edun does nothing more than collide with Villa’s Ahmed El Mohamady and is cautioned by the increasingly officious Mr Robinson.  Kodjia hits the Town cross bar with a header from the resultant free-kick.  When Gwion Edwards is then fouled and a free-kick awarded, the decision is greeted with a hail of ironic cheers from Town fans; it’s what we do best, sarcasm.   It’s about twenty five to four and a long throw falls to the feet of Trevoh Chalobah who turns and bounces a low shot just inside the goalpost and a little unexpectedly Town have equalised.

Things are looking up, but only temporarily as just two minutes later Tayo Edun is booked again by Mr Robinson for a foul and is therefore sent off.  Despite the scores being level, Aston Villa have looked the better team in the first half and with just ten players I feel that defeat for Town looks inevitable.  The Town supporters are not happy, but they seem to like it like that.  “You don’t know what you’re doing” they chant to Mr Robinson and “You’re not fit to referee”.  Kodjia goes down again under a challenge and receives treatment; “Get up ya pansy” shouts the old boy behind me, following it up with “What a bunch of pansies”.  The half ends in acrimony, which is always a good thing for the atmosphere at a football match.

Mr Robinson leaves the field guarded by stewards who happily can do nothing to protect him from the hail of vitriol and verbal abuse which is directed at him.  If he has any sort20180818_120714_42299377040_o of a heart he will hopefully sit in his little room and weep over his half-time tea whilst his two assistants ignore him and whisper between themselves.  I eat a Panda brand liquorice bar and chat to Ray who is not impressed and foresees defeat, although he considers the sending off to have been unjust.  I visit the latrines and beneath the stand people stare up at the TV screens replaying highlights of the first half.

With everyone refreshed the game begins anew.  The old girl behind me offers up her insight playing the part of the half-time TV pundit “Sometimes it’s harder to play ten men” she says sounding unconvinced by her own words. Following a pause she adds “Cos you don’t know where they’re going”.  As qualifying statements go it’s a poor one, but at least she realised one was needed.

Aston Villa begin the new half with even more resolve to fall over at every opportunity and Town’s St Lucian Janoi Donacien is soon cautioned by Mr Robinson, who shows no sign of having reflected upon his rank first half performance. Aside from ‘rank Robbo’ the villain of the piece this afternoon  is Jack Grealish who despite showing ample skill and poise on the ball mostly falls down  Bambi-like attempting to win free-kicks, which is a sad indictment of modern football and the reliance on set-pieces.  In ‘rank Robbo’ Villa have discovered a referee who loves to award free-kicks as much as they love to win them and he evidently has no understanding of the concept of players falling over on purpose to win free-kicks.

But despite the efforts of ‘rank Robbo’ and Jack ‘Bambi’ Grealish the game is overall an entertaining one and Ipswich overcome the handicap of having only ten players admirably.   Sunshine is breaking through the clouds and the crowd is engrossed in the game, but not so much that they don’t every now and then cheer and clap and behave like a football crowd should.  With about fifteen minutes to play Villa’s Irish substitute Conor Hourihane falls screaming to the ground in the Ipswich penalty area as if haunted by wailing banshees and he rightly incurs the displeasure of both Luke Chambers and Jonas Knudsen; his is the afternoon’s most blatant attempt at cheating.  Aston Villa then bring on the player with the most exotic name of the day, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy whose surname conjures up images of a triste between a sophisticated looking lady in a little black dress and a jobbing builder.

Jack ‘Bambi’ Grealish looks purposeful with the ball at his feet but with his slicked back hair and confident air he possibly believes he is better than he is and with time running out and Villa encamped around the Town penalty area he carefully picks out the perfect pass to the only Villa player in an offside position.   Grealish should really have worn a dark cape, black hat and grown a twirly waxed moustache for today’s game, although he might have had to fight ‘rank Robbo’ for it, which would have been an entertainment in itself.

With the final whistle a great cheer goes up, which is not really commensurate with a home draw, but today it feels like Town have won because it has been achieved in adversity against a club which is expected to be challenging for promotion and is still profiting from Premier League ‘parachute’ payments.  As befits a team managed by 5’5” Paul Hurst, today Town have played the ‘little guy’ and have come through.  I stay to applaud and although Town have now gone four games without winning, this game was well worth being at.  Perhaps our first win will be against Norwich City in a fortnight’s time.

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