Guest Blog 2 – Richard Goes To Bolton

Unfortunately Martin will be unable to write the blog for a while. We hope you will enjoy the guest blog that follows

Since that game against Fulham nineteen seasons ago, a lot has happened.  Got married, had three lovely children, started my own business, got divorced, got engaged, fiance moved out and am now with a very special young lady who makes me very happy and who tries to understand football. She thinks she supports West Ham United. The irony!

For Burton Albion on the opening day the car lines up with my partner Jenna, her daughter Lauren  (first match for both of them), my youngest son Jacques,  plus regular football companion Adam. At Luton Town we mixed it up, just myself, Jacques and his elder brother Patrick. For Peterbrough United, it was all three of my kids, the boys plus my eldest Anna.

For the first long trip of season the girls in my life planned to takeover. Alton Towers is on the way to Bolton discovers Anna. Before I know it the fifth game of season where we could possibly go top has turned into a girls day out. Jenna, Anna and Lauren have vouchers so I am to leave at 6 am to get them to Alton Towers for 9am. Then I go on, arrive in Bolton at 11 and pick them up after the match. It’s all sorted and I plan the journey as I always like to know what’s happening.  I’m 53 years of age and have turned into my dad.

Fast forward to Friday. I’m at Portman Road watching young Jacques play for the Academy Under 12’s against of all clubs, you’ve guessed it, West Ham United. He scores the opener in a 6-1 demolition. Happy days! During the match Anna gets a call to say her GCSE grades are good enough to do A Levels where she wants to. The day gets better and better. Then it’s discovered Alton Towers vouchers are not applicable in August. We must cancel the trip I’m told as full price is ridiculous. Cancel the trip? Some have forgotten why we will be in the North West. So a couple of calls later and the old away crew from many past seasons is back together.  Myself, good friends Adam who lives around the corner and his dad Glenn plus his friend Susan. I used to sit with the three of them in Y block for many seasons.  I’m now loving it in Sir Bobby Robson lower. We agree to leave at 8.45am. Gives us loads of time. 

So Saturday has finally arrived. Thank heavens you are all thinking. I wanted to set the scene though. The Jag is fuelled up, ready to continue destroying the ozone layer quicker than Trump or the Chinese. My passengers are waiting outside Glenn’s house. The first dilemma of the day. Seating hierarchy, “Oh you’re in the front are you?” Susan challenges Glenn. Glenn naturally sits in front,  he has been folowing the Town as long as I have been alive. Adam jumps in with an official looking folder and we are away. A quick stop for cold drinks and the away fans bible, the  Saturday edition of the Sun. It’s already 23 degrees, bet it’s still raining in Manchester though. I’ve planned our route from Marks Tey, down to Stansted,  up the M11, A1, M62, M60. 248 miles. Decided to avoid A14 and M6. We will stop halfway up the A1. It’s all planned and Glenn approves of route. 

Now for many seasons we played a game (hense the folder), we would predict the days Premier League and Championship  results plus Colchester United. 3 points for correct score and 1 point for correct outcome, plus an ‘It’s a Knockout’ joker match with double points. We played for a fiver each winner takes all, which invariably is Glenn (who wisely has a newspaper with the form). Adam opens folder and we expect  printed out fixtures.  To our disappointment it’s a blank sheet. We agree the Championship should be replaced by the Third Division (not this League One nonsense). Curiously none of us think Norwich will lose .  I boldly predict we shall win 6-0. Adam says knowing us, we will struggle to a 1-0 win. We also predict the starting line up. All agree Holy must start but then think will Norris get the nod. Surely the new lad from Col U must start, if fit. We all agree Chambo will return but not at cost to Woolfie.  Kenlock will play but needs a good game as other options will soon be back. We agree Scuse and Downes surely play.  But then is it with Georgiu, Judge, Huws, Edwards or Rowe. Agree again with the two up front. 

We find ourselves at Stansted Airport in no time and the M11 is running well, much less traffic than expected. The sun is shining and the Mercury continues to steadily rise. All is good. Even the lifetime speed restiction area just past Cambridge passes without significant delay, all is good, plenty of time. Cambridge services come and go, ‘We can do better!’ I confidently exclaim. Within twenty minutes the dreaded red of a hundred brake lights appears on the horizon. We are literally on a junction . Do we turn off? We decide the delay will be brief. One then two fire engines with sirens blaring and lights demanding a through passage speed from the side road and force their way through.  That’s not great we think as one. Minutes later two police cars bustle through as well. Whatever has happened is 300 yards up the road. We are trapped between a turn off and an accident involving fire engines.  This really is not good. I hope nobody is hurt, but am really more concerned over how long we will be stuck here in the baking sun. 175 miles to go, and over four hours to kick off. We reassure ourselves the ground is just off the motorway so there’s still plenty of time. Twenty minutes pass and nothing.  We put some comedy on the radio and chuckle at James Mansfords observational humour. Then we start to move. We pass the scene, run of the mill three car shunt where fire engines appear to have moved the wreckage to the side of the road. Well done lads we all mutter. They’ve dealt with that well.

A few miles up the road we pull in to services at Stibbington, a cafe in a dustbath of a car park. Adam and myself go into the gents where a trucker is washing his smalls in the sink. As we go into the eating part of this establishment I sense this is not quite what Glenn had in mind for brunch. the menu is written messily on a giant blackboard. People were queuing and those sitting were without food. The chef (I use the word loosely) shouted to the guy behind counter, “do us a favour and drop the till on the floor so we can go home. At least a 20 minute wait for food!”. We left, hungry and another quarter of an hour used up. Back in the car the satellite navigation proudly informs us that the M62 is heavily congested. We can cut across the Peak District  (an area my father knew well from his walking days). We turn off the A1 near Rotherham and stop at a services that has a Diner. We go in , are seated promptly then ignored for ten minutes. We go to the petrol station for brunch. Glenn chooses a cold pasty. Susan a sandwich,  Adam selects a kids cheese and cracker snack and I opt for a Turkish Delight (they’ve shrunk ). We return to the Jag eagerly, raring to crack on, we’ve been blocked in by a delivery lorry. I mutter obscenities under my breath. He’s a nice chap though and promptly moves.

We soon find ourselves crossing the beautiful National Park. Miles of unspoilt by humans countryside. I’m enjoying proper driving roads and for the first time since Cambridge have to check our speed. 70 miles with two hours to go and enjoying the drive. The Norwich v Chelsea match entertains us. Then just by Glossop we join the back of yet another queue. We travel 3 miles at a snails pace. Frantically checking a map for a short cut to the motorway that is close. I turn off up a side road to beat the delay to a set of traffic lights further up. A couple of minutes later we are on a farm track barely wide enough for us. Adam is convinced it will end up in a farm. Desperate, as now time is firmly against us, I stubbornly continue (we have all done this). Incredibly we find ourselves on tarmac. The time is 2.02pm and we still have 37 miles to the stadium. We hit more traffic and we spot a shortcut across an industrial  estate to the motorway spur road. Not so lucky this time, we turn around and sheepishly try to be allowed back onto road by those we overtook minutes before. We end up exactly where we were before. 2.15pm and 33 miles. We join the motorway and it is clear. Apart from an elderly man trying to wipe us out, we travel as fast as the law allows us. Car park A is for away fans. The approach road is clear. Fourteen minutes before kick off and we are parked up in a barely half full car park.

After the relief of realising we had made the kick off, a strange thing happened. My memory transported me back to after the 4-1 defeat to Bolton Wanderers in our Premier League relegation season . The defeat and the nature of how we had no fight that afternoon, pretty much sealed our fate. I vividly remember the Trotters supporters goading us and celebrating our demise as if they had won the FA Cup. It was their revenge for the play offs two seasons before. It was in just about the same space in the car park as I was now, “Ipswich scum!” “F**k off you tractor boys!” was shouted at us with real hate in their voices. Here I was now, feeling for them, in the perilous position they found themselves. As we joined the queue Town fans all said thank you to the turnstile operators (normally it was just head down and get in). A good 700 Ipswich supporters were in good voice.  Other than that the Macron, or whatever it’s called now, was dotted with clusters of home fans. 
What happened next brought a tear to my eye and summed up our supporters, reminding me of when Billy Sharp scored against us days after losing a young infant, the whole ground stood and cheered him.

I’d gone down to get some food and Susan asked for a bottle of water. I see a sign for a meal deal, Burger and drink £5.50. Perfect I think.  In front of me at the counter a man appears to be arguing with the young girl serving.  I’m trying to eavesdrop but am just out of range. All I can make out is him saying that he has paid for and insists that he had what he has paid for. When it’s my turn the drinks chiller is empty bar a few cokes. The girl explains looking forlorn that as the club hasn’t paid the bills no drinks supplier will supply them. She offers free tap water in a plastic glass, plus £2 for the drink part of deal as refund. I then realised that the man in front had insisted on paying for the tap water as then did nearly all our fellow fans. The girl was almost in tears. That really summed up the mess the people in charge had made of this famous old club.
The match itself really was men against boys. Our lads scored the five they had to to keep up with clubs who had gone before. No wild celebrations just compassion at the end. It now appears the game will be voided from official records as the clocks ticks down to the 5pm deadline to remain part of the Football League. The trip home took just under four hours with a break. We go again Saturday.  Take a moment to consider the Bolton fans who will probably never see their team play again.

(Written before the current situation was made public)

ALLEZ LES BLEUS!

Guest Blog 1 – Introducing Richard Hipkin

Unfortunately Martin will be unable to write the blog for a while. We hope you will enjoy the guest blog that follows

Many football fans find themselves supporting their club through two very traditional methods of selection,  fathers team or local team, (more often than not I would imagine both). My route was a little more complicated. Born in Hadleigh, the Essex version with the castle not Suffolk, my local team was Southend United. (There are many pronouncations of Southend but the correct way is Saufen-mate always said with an Eastenders accent.)

My dad though was a season ticket holder at Stamford Bridge, originally coming from Battersea in South London. Back in the late 70’s Chelsea were, of course, a different animal to todays club and you couldn’t really take a 10 year old there.

This was a time when Southend played at home on Friday nights as many fans also followed West Ham on a Saturday, (many of you will remember Colchester United and Tranmere Rovers did the same, with their fans also supporting Ipswich Town and Everton or Liverpool). So my first games were at Roots Hall with my dad in the old Fourth Division. My love affair with football had begun. My two best friends Mark and Phil also watched Southend United, but also followed a big team. Mark was a Leeds United fan, to the best of my knowledge he did this purely as a glory hunter. Phil was and still is a fan of West Ham United and indeed now takes his grown up son Luke to games. I went with both of them to Upton Park to see West Ham beat Leeds in a 4-3 thriller. The crowd and atmosphere was so much larger and noisier than at Roots Hall. It was a baking day and I’m sure I remember Mark nearly passed out on the packed terrace.  I enjoyed it but my mum presumed I had become a Hammer and promptly purchased me a pink and turquoise replica shirt. Back then Southend United did not produce such things. 

So by the time I reached 14 years of age, I had wanted to go with my dad and watch Chelsea but couldn’t, had started watching Southend United but wore, very reluctantly, a West Ham shirt for a season. 

I soon developed a dislike for the Hammers and their disgusting kit and settled down to following Southend United home and away until 1996. I was lucky to be supporting them during the most successful period in their history. I remember them beating Newcastle United 4-0 on New Years Day to go top of what is now the Championship, then later that season beating West Ham United 1-0.

My best memory though was a couple of seasons later when Southend United were away to Fiorentina in the Anglo-Italian Cup. 200 fans flew out on the day and me and my mates were in a bar in Florence drinking in the afternoon.  The bar area had scarves from so many of the big teams the Viola has played over the years left by opposing teams supporters.  The owner offered to give us a round of drinks in exchange for my scarf. What happened next was surreal. Ipswich Town have Ed Sheeran, Southend United back then had Alison Moyet (she used to stand just behind us). Alison rocked up into our bar and the owner recognised her, ‘if she sings, the food is on the house’. So I ended up being a backing singer for Yazoo in Italy! The game by the way was settled by a twenty minute first half hat trick by none other than Gabriel Batistuta!

During the 1995/96 season I took my girlfriend at the time to a game against Stoke City as I remember. At half time an over zealous steward pushed her and she was covered in scalding hot chocolate.  I reacted very badly and was literally thrown out of ground by four thug stewards and my love affair with my home town club was over.

I spent the next three seasons following England, at the same time I had moved up to Colchester through work. I missed club football so much. I’d caused such a stink at the club over how I had been treated that I was told I was no longer welcome there.  I found my love of Southend United turn to hatred in the same way it easily can with an ex. I couldn’t follow Colchester United on principal so found myself ground hopping to random matches.  Without the passion  and caring about the result I soon found games uninteresting.

I needed to find a new love. Just as in human relationships, on occasions you find your perfect partner by accident. Many of my customers followed Ipswich Town and I remembered their great Bobby Robson team well. I was invited to the Fulham game when Martyn Reuser debuted. I enjoyed the game, the passion of those around me. I knew that day Ipswich Town was who I was going to support and fell in love again.

My first away match was Bolton 2-2 in the First leg of the Play Off Semi Final. What a match! I couldn’t get a ticket for the 5-3 but did go to Wembley.  From there onwards I’ve had season ticket and been to most away games up until two seasons ago, when I could not cope with the McCarthy brand of the beautiful game anymore. My season ticket has returned this year and I will support the Blues in every game home and away

So that explains how and why drove to Bolton on Saturday August 24th 2019.

ALLEZ LES BLEUS!

Ipswich Town 1 Sunderland 1

Only the 10th of August and it’s bloody started already.  Summer is still here although today it has the good grace to pretend its autumn; a howling gale licks around the corners of my house and my Women’s World Cup bunting, strung joyfully across my back garden, slumps over the patio and plants in colourful tatters.

I look out of an upstairs windows to glimpse a silver Vauxhall Astra slip past; it’s Roly, he’s going to park on my back drive.  Roly is not the name of the Vauxhall Astra, he’s the driver. We had planned to meet at the railway station but seconds after he bought his ticket his train was cancelled; the result of a fallen tree, possibly two.  We walk to the railway station, the usual journey ensues. Roly tells me how his partner Sarah would castigate him for catching the train and not driving all the way to Ipswich, but he’s not going to tell her. Roly wants to save the planet, like me, and he also hates having to find somewhere to park and then sitting in traffic after the game.

Ipswich appears to be in a state of emergency, a police van sits in the middle of the station plaza but in fact everything is okay, it’s just ‘Norfolk and Suffolk working together for you’.  Football chants in thick far northern accents are carried up on the wind from the beer garden of the Station Hotel.  We cross the road and hurry away; we pass a lairy looking youth who suddenly bawls something unintelligible.

After a successful relegation season it’s a new dawn for Ipswich Town in division three and entering Portman Road I think I might buy a programme for every match this season to mark the newness, the difference.  I am looking forward to seeing the slightly unfamiliar clubs deemed ‘unfashionable’ by dullard journalists.  I approach a programme booth; I don’t think I will buy a programme after all, they’ve put the price up to £3.50 a copy, that’s an increase of 16.6%, way above the rate of inflation, not that I know what that is.  Why couldn’t they just make the programme less glossy, a bit smaller, add a couple of adverts and take out some of the drivel no one reads?  I want to blame Brexit.

At St Jude’s Tavern Roly buys two pints of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which today is Mr B’s Plan Bee, he gives one to me.  We invade the space of a man sat at a table on his own, but I ask him first if the seats are free, they are.  Mick arrives and buys a pint of porter and a packet of crisps, which he opens upon the table for us all to share, I don’t ask him how much the porter or the crisps costs.  It only takes one person with a loud voice in St Jude’s Tavern to make it difficult to hear what my fellow drinkers are saying and such a person is here today so I end up nodding and smiling as  the conversation drifts in and out of my comprehension.  I buy two more pints of the Match Day Special, Mick doesn’t want a second, but I get him a bag of dry-roasted peanuts (90p).  It’s barely half past two but Roly wants to get down to the Portman Road so that he can eat. We hang on ten minutes or so but soon give in to his gluttonous cravings.

At the corner of Portman Walk I leave our trio andI head for the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand whilst Roly and Mick head west to the East of England Co-op Stand and the posh seats.  I tell them I will wave up at them and doff my cap from amongst the groundlings behind the goal.  I make my way to the far end of Portman Road, following the pointing finger of Sir Bobby Robson’s statue; the parked up away supporters coaches either side of him displaying the names of County Durham towns he would have been familiar with.   

Nearby, a ginger-haired bloke in a yellow hi-vis jacket sells Sunderland fanzines.  There are queues at the turnstiles, possibly because not all the turnstiles are open. I pause to select the fastest moving queue and am quickly in the ground.  I speak briefly with Dave the steward with whom I once worked and then use the toilet facilities before proceeding to my seat.  Nothing has changed, Pat from Clacton is here and so of course is ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood.  On the pitch before us the serious looking steward with the enormous headphones looks as worried as ever, as if fearing that a violent supporters’ rebellion might start at any moment.  To confuse the operators of the improved CCTV surveillance system I have moved my seat slightly, I no longer sit in front of the old dears behind me, but behind them, a couple of seats to the left of Pat from Clacton.  Otherwise it seems like the first day back at school, “Have you had a good summer?” asks Pat from Clacton,   “It’s not over yet” I tell her, not really answering the question but subconsciously implying that the start of the football season doesn’t mean an end to ‘summer fun’. Ever-present Phil and I shake one another’s hand “Happy New Year” says Phil, which seems apposite.

It’s busy here today, with plenty of seats occupied that may not be sat upon again all season.  The attendance will eventually be announced as 24,051. The Sunderland supporters are present in large numbers (1,847) and mostly seem a humble, self-effacing lot.  No unduly boastful or mean spirited songs can be heard from the Cobbold Stand, which is nice. Their continuing, numerically impressive support for a club which was successful in the 1890’s but otherwise is most notable for a level of mediocrity which puts Ipswich Town’s recent averageness in the shade is such that mass sainthood doesn’t seem unreasonable. In nineteen eighty-something Sunderland even lost a League Cup final to Norwich, for heaven’s sake.  That careless catastrophe aside, Sunderland have good reason to be forever loved a little by everyone outside West Yorkshire because of the 1973 FA Cup final, which not only saw hated Leeds United beaten by the then Second Division team, but gave us the joyful sight of a man in a trilby hat and pale raincoat running with arms and hands outstretched to embrace his victorious players.  Manager Bob Stokoe’s joyfulness is now captured forever at The Stadium of Lights in a statue to him and by association his team of Montgomery, Malone, Guthrie, Horswill, Watson, Pitt, Kerr, Hughes, Halom, Porterfield and Tueart.  They might have won the FA Cup before in 1937, but seeing the world through a filter of ‘Ipswichness’ and TV pictures then 1973 was Sunderland’s 1978.

It’s three o’clock, the game begins; Sunderland in their excellent traditional kit of red and white striped shirts, black shorts and red socks get first go with the ball. Town parade this season’s version of whatever Adidas is peddling, a similarly traditionally plain blue shirt, white shorts and blue socks number. The crowd is noisy but there’s little co-ordinated chanting or singing.  The football is fast and uncontrolled; the long ball is favoured. After not many minutes the child sitting behind me is bored; I can understand why, it’s not exactly recognisable as the ‘beautiful’ game, but to the trained eye Town are already looking better than Sunderland.  Kayden Jackson is very quickly booked for trying to con the referee Mr Neil Hair, a man who I wish was German, into awarding him a penalty.  I quite liked Kayden Jackson last season, I hope he isn’t going to be an arse this season.

 A fraction of the match passes that is equal to the percentage increase in the cost of the match programme since last season and a long throw is helped into the Sunderland penalty area; the ball is cut back, Luke Garbutt controls it and surges through a mass of players towards the touchline before striking a finely angled shot through the legs of Sunderland goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and just behind the far post. “Garbutt, 1-0”, as David Coleman might have said had he not been long dead.   How we cheer.  This is what we came for. Joy abounds.

I think this is better than I expected, although even last season we took the lead in a few games. The remaining half an hour of the first half sees Sunderland fail to do anything to threaten Town’s lead. It takes them forty minutes to even have a shot at goal. Kayden Jackson pines for attention and has an ice bag pressed against his head.  Garbutt develops a mystery ailment and is substituted by little Alan Judge. Everyone in a blue shirt is playing well, but no one scores another goal.  This new system of two players ‘up-front’, isn’t working  that well; James Norwood and Kayden Jackson sometimes get in each other’s way, they’re no Johnson and Whymark or Crawford and Phillips, not yet anyway.

Half-time arrives and I dash from my seat to stand before the stainless steel urinals beneath the stand before checking on the half-time scores, which are singularly unremarkable.  I return to the stand to speak with Ray and his grandson Harrison.  Our verdict on the game is that it’s okay and Ipswich are by far the better team, but the quality of the football could be better.  Harrison predicts a final score of 3-0.  Ray and I reserve judgement, our capacity for unbridled optimism beaten, squeezed and drained out of us by decades of bitter experience.

The second half disappoints. The blue skies over the Sir Bobby Robson Stand are as lovely as ever and I bask in the warmth of the August sun, but Town have lost their way; all they can do is pump in inaccurate cross after over-hit cross after inaccurate cross, Alan Judge buzzes about doing nothing very successfully. An hour has passed and a Sunderland throw is punted forward.  Luke Chambers has this covered; he is a yard or two ahead of Marc McNulty even though he cannot run as fast.  But Chambers doesn’t decide what to do and as he waits for an almost static ball to roll into touch McNulty dispossesses him and then simply has to pass the ball into the path of the incoming Lynden Gooch who side foots the ball into a gaping wide goal.   It’s like last season all over again.

There’s plenty of time for another goal but Ipswich have no inspiration, no means to prise an opening.  Fortunately Sunderland have even less idea and their forays forward are both rare and ineffective.  “Your support is fucking shit” sing some Sir Bobby Robson Standers to the Sunderland fans, demonstrating a complete absence of any concept of irony.   Mr Hair annoys the home crowd with a series of decisions that penalise imaginary infringements and favour Sunderland.  Pat from Clacton offers me a sweet from a plastic bag and shows me her new blue and white watch that she’s only going to wear on match days.  It’s a nice looking watch, but I’m feeling very self-centred and prefer the crumbly peppermint I took from Pat’s pick’n mix selection; it’s probably my highlight of the second half.   The attendance is announced and I verify that Pat from Clacton’s brother has won the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus; his guess was the highest of all, 24,001.

After three minutes of added on time the game ends.  I rise from my seat and quickly leave. It’s been an afternoon of three thirds, Sunderland, Wonderland, Blunderland……all infused with Peppermint.

Today my favourite name of an opposing team’s player was Denver Hume.  I also liked the names Dylan McGeouch and George Dobson.

This week I have been reading ”The man who hated football”, a novel by  Will Buckley (2005)

Dijon Football Cote d’Or 2 Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace 1

The 570 kilometre journey down the A26, A5 and A31 motorways from Calais to the elegant and historic city of Dijon takes a good five hours plus stops, but it’s worth it.   The medieval city was the seat of the influential dukes of Burgundy and the modern city is still the regional capital with a population of about 155,000.   But that aside, tonight Dijon FCO are playing RC Strasbourg Alsace in Ligue 1 of the French professional football league and I am heading out with my wife Paulene to the Stade Gaston Gerard, to witness it.  If I hang out of the window of our hotel room in I can see the stadium and the lights are already on.

It’s been a day of gusty wind, sunshine and showers, of cafes and bars and the tombs of dead dukes and duchesses.  We have pre-purchased our joint ticket for the tram (5.60 euros for two journeys each) and are at Place Darcy in the shadow of Dijon’s triumphal arch, the Porte Guillaume, ready to ride out to the Parc des Sports wherein lies Gaston Gerard’s eponymous football stadium.  Gaston Gerard incidentally was mayor of Dijon from 1919 to 1935 and later a member of the French government.  But there is a problem, we want to catch a T1 tram in the direction of Quetigny but it seems they are not running the length of the line due to a ‘perturbation’.  We could catch the T2 and then walk to Auditorium to catch a T1, but the helpful man at the tram stop, who works for the transport company Divia, advises us to cross the road and catch the number five bus to Université, and then catch a T1 tram from there, so that’s what we do.  The bus soon arrives and with our ticket validated we are soon out of the city centre travelling through anonymous looking early evening streets in a bright pink, 18m long Heuliez articulated bus.  From the end of the bus route the tram stop is just around the corner on a windswept, open part of the university campus, but a tram arrives within a few minutes, almost as if the public transport services were somehow co-ordinated; we know from living in England however that such a thing is just not possible.  From the university it is just three stops to the Parc des Sports tram stop, which is but a nonnette de Dijon’s throw from the Parc des Sports itself.

A man in a ‘gilet orange’ checks our tickets and ushers us through the gate and into what seems like a leafy suburban park.  We follow a trail down between the trees; there are tennis courts off to our right, we round a couple of bends and then the stadium is before us.  Three sides of the Stade Gaston Gerard have been re-built  this century, the remaining part of the original stadium has its back to us; it’s a neat, classical looking concrete structure which dates from 1934  and is quite typical of pre-war French municipal buildings; it’s got style; it’s a bit Art Deco.   Over a fence there is a glimpse of the blue Strasbourg team bus.

We walk on and pass through the turnstiles which read our bar-coded tickets before we are patted down and wished “bon match”.  It amuses me that Paulene seems to be searched more thoroughly than I am, but then the French have a history of female villains; Madame Defarge, Madame Thenardier, Marine Le Pen.   At the back of the Tribune Sud (south stand), which is built into the hillside behind the goal, a couple of blokes who look a bit old to be Ultras are unfolding a tifosi banner in the form of a huge Dijon home shirt.  I half expect to see them plugging in an especially large iron. 

Our tickets (24 euros each) are in the top tier of the east stand at the side of the pitch, so we keep on walking, on past the ‘Le Bon Sucre’ stall selling crepes, gauffres and beignets, and bizarrely decorated with the figure of a busty woman, posed with her mouth slightly open and about to lick a dollop of cream from her finger.   France can be oddly schizophrenic with regard to women; seemingly ahead of Britain in the use of female football presenters and commentators and in appreciating women’s football, but still displaying the same casual sexism of the 1930’s when Gaston Gerard’s wife Reine impressed a well-regarded critic and gastronome with a new chicken dish, which thereafter became known as Chicken Gaston Gerard after her husband, not her.

Resisting the temptations of le Bon Sucre we walk on beneath the Tribune Caisse D’Epargne as it is known thanks to sponsorship from the bank of that name, where we cannot resist the lure of the club shop. 

Thankfully Dijon FCO do not have their own brand of mustard, and sadly their T-shirts don’t appeal so we restrict our purchases to a petit fanion (5 euros) to add to the collection in the upstairs toilet, a bear in a red and white scarf (10 euros) for Paulene’s cupboard of football related cuddly toys and a bib (6.50 euros) for the new grandson Jackson, because he needs more bibs.  Leaving the shop we pass by one of the buvettes, from which people are leaving with the best looking chips I have ever seen at a football ground, proper big chunky ones.  I collect a couple of the free match day programmes, which are actually more like 12 page newspapers, but they tell us all we need to know, listing the squads, tonight’s other fixtures and the up to date league table.

Our seats, we learn, are in the top tier of the stand;  it’s been a bit of a walk from the tram stop and Paulene’s asthma means she’s not feeling up to climbing two or three flights of stairs so I ask one of the many young women in gilets oranges if there is a lift.  I am directed to a man in a blue jacket with the words Besoin d’aide? (Need help?) printed on the back; he asks us to follow him and  having led us into a room from which he collects a set of keys he unlocks a white door hidden within the white walls of the concourse beneath the stand.  The blue jacketed man leads us down a long white corridor and round a corner, part of a hidden labyrinth within the stand; I think to myself that this is what near death experiences are supposed to be like.  The man then unlocks what seems like a secret compartment, but is in fact a lift, which takes us to an open concourse at the back of the top tier of the stand.  We thank the man but not before he shows us to our seats; what a helpful bloke.  From each seat projects a red flag at 45 degrees which bears the Dijon FCO club crest; it doesn’t do to sit down in a hurry; it could be painful.  We are in the second row at the front of the top tier and have a fine view of the pitch, but also, over the top of the stand opposite, a panorama of Dijon stretches out with an array of towers and spires, like a Gallic version of Oxford. Beyond the city, rolling hills and forests.

There is a still a while until kick-off so I return to the open concourse for some drinks, returning with a cup of orange Fanta for Paulene and a small beer for me (7 euros for the two). Both drinks are in re-usable plastic cups which celebrate Dijon FCO’s twentieth anniversary; Dijon had a club dating back to 1913 (Cercle Laique Dijonnais) but it remained resolutely amateur, like my own beloved Ipswich Town did unti 1936, before merging with Dijon FC in 1998 and the new club eventually turned professional in 2004.  Looking north-east from the back of the stand the sky is a menacing grey and in the distance it is clearly raining; a strong gusty wind is blowing it towards us, something wicked this way comes, but more probably something wet.  Walking back to my seat I begin to regret not having noticed until I had ordered beer and fanta that I could have had a cup of the vin chaud (2.50 euros).  The rain arrives in the form of stair rods, it is spectacular and I am thankful I am not in the Tribune Sud into which the wind is blowing, or on the open terrace opposite where an increasing and impressive following of Strasbourg supporters are gathering and getting soaked.  The deluge is mercifully brief and heads off into the hills of Burgundy leaving the fading evening sunlight to glisten and reflect off the roof tops of the city.

As kick-off approaches the public address system pumps out loud euro-pop, the teams are announced, their faces looming in technicolour on the scoreboard.  That tifosi shirt ripples across the lower tier of the Tribune Sud; the Lingon’s Boys Ultras at the north end hang out their banners.  The best display however is from the Racing Club Strasbourg supporters who celebrate making the 330 kilometre journey by waving white flags around a central blue cross with the letter RCS in the centre of that.  All around there is noise from the crowd of 13,105 and then the teams enter the pitch through a colonnade of giant Roman candles as the Ligue 1 theme tune plays over the public address system and everyone waves their red Dijon flags, me included; one of the many things they know how to do in France is put on a show and give everyone a free flag.

After handshakes and huddles the game begins with Dijon all in red and the words “Roger Martin” emblazoned across their chests, a sentiment I heartily agree with. Strasbourg unnecessarily wear all- white; their ‘proper’ signature kit of blue shirts with white shorts would not clash with Dijon’s home strip. Dijon are playing towards the Lingon’s Boys, with Strasbourg aiming in the direction of the Tribune Sud.  It’s the 36th journee of the 38 game season and Dijon are struggling in 19th place in the twenty team league.  Strasbourg are mid-table (10th) and have every right to feel smug and relaxed having qualified for the Europa League by winning the Coupe de La Ligue against En Avant Guingamp, the team bottom in Ligue 1, who by the end of tomorrow afternoon are destined to be relegated to Ligue 2.

Dijon are more eager because they have more at stake and they have the first shot on goal, from 39 year old Florent Balmont, a marvellous if unexciting, mostly defensive midfield player who simply keeps the team ticking over like a sort of bald-headed human, metronome.  Paulene and I reminisce about seeing him play a much more dynamic game for Lille against Copenhagen in a Champions League qualifier back in 2012.  This game is not dynamic.  Dijon struggle to play accurately whilst Strasbourg’s season has already finished, and they appear to lack motivation.   Lacking inspiration from the football I enjoy the architecture of the three re-built sides of the stadium; three individual stands linked by an arching, curving translucent roof; architect Michel Rémon has done a fine job and I get to thinking what self-respecting architect would put his name to the breeze block and tin sheet constructions that pass for provincial football stadia in England.

With only fourteen minutes played Florent Balmont is cautioned by referee Monsieur Hakim Ben El Hadj for complaining too vociferously when a free-kick is awarded against a team mate.  Dijon are ponderous and what shots on goal there are, are blocked or wide and no one looks much like scoring, that is until five minutes before half-time.  Tunisian international Naim Sliti pursues another mis-placed pass inside the penalty area, it’s running away from the goal towards the corner flag but somehow the chasing defender manages to clip Sliti’s heels, he goes down and Monsieur Ben El Hadj awards a penalty.  Paulene thinks it’s a bit harsh, suggesting that Sliti was moving so slowly towards the ball that the chasing defender, Adrien Thomasson, just caught up with him sooner than expected.  Monsieur Ben El Hadj ignores her pleas and Dijon’s Cape Verde international Julio Tavares gets the glory, booting the ball beyond the dive of Strasbourg’s Belgian goal keeper Matz Sels into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal;  Stade Gaston-Gerard is rocking all the way to mi-temps (half-time).

I make use of the break to use the facilities but haven’t got the will to wait at the buvette for another drink; I return to my seat and zip up my wind-cheater against the evening chill.  Small boys take part in a shoot-out and I feel very sorry for a particularly ungainly looking one whose control is so poor that the goalkeeper has claimed the ball before he even shoots, you just know he gets picked last in the playground.

The second half begins and Strasbourg are re-vitalised by their half-time espresso and now look much more interested, whilst Dijon are no better than before.  But time moves on, it gets dark and still Dijon lead but their Icelandic goalkeeper Runar Runarsson is busy, running off his line and making saves.  A corner from Strasbourg’s fabulously monikered Kenny Lala is sent goalwards by the Bosnian Stefan Mitrovic, the header is blocked by Dijon’s Roman Amalfitano but rebounds to  Ludovic Ajorque who has a simple ‘tap-in’ to equalise.   As Strasbourg celebrate a pall of gloom falls over most of Stade Gaston-Gerard.  Runarsson is called to make further saves from Thomasson, Da Costa and Goncalves, and Dijon manager Antoine Kombouare seems to be facing the prospect of both the Ligue 1 clubs he has managed this season being relegated; he was given the Dijon job in January having been sacked by Guingamp in November.

I like Antoine Kombouare, he has a kindly face and previously managed Strasbourg, Lens and Paris Saint-Germain, where he was sacked when they were top of the league. He looks on impassively in his grey suit and baseball hat.  With 15 minutes left Kombouare acts and replaces Florent Balmont with the Korean Kwon Chang-Hoon.   Balmont takes his place on the bench to great applause from the Dijonnais, he doesn’t look happy, not because he’s been substituted but because of how the game is going. 

Kombouare’s decision makes a difference however as Kwon seems to have far more energy than the rest of his team put together; he darts about, running at the Strasbourg defence and shooting on sight, he energises the crowd. But despite his efforts nobody scores for Dijon, although Ludovic Ajorque is prompted to even up the scores for yellow cards.  The ninetieth minute arrives and leaves; five minutes time added-on will be played and the home crowd urge their team on.  Dijon have to win to have a chance of avoiding relegation, their main rivals Caen are beating Reims 3-2.  If they lose Dijon will be five points behind with two games left, one of which is away to Paris Saint-Germain.  It’s the ninety third minute, Tavares has the ball, it runs on to Kwon in the centre of the penalty area, he takes a step and lashes the ball magnificently into the net past Sels. Kwon is engulfed by blokes in red shirts and in the stands everyone is on their feet cheering.  This is the way to win a football match, be ropey for ninety minutes and then get a last minute winner.  In the following day’s local paper “Le Bien Public” the game will be marked as a five out of ten, although the national sports paper L’Equipe will give it four stars out of six.   The stats will show that Dijon had fewer shots, fewer corners, less possession, won fewer duels and fewer tackles, made fewer passes and interceptions and their passes were less accurate.  What the stats cannot show however is that they never stopped believing they could win.

The full-time whistle soon follows and as we applaud the teams a man in a blue jacket appears from nowhere to take us back to the lift.  Paulene would be fine going down the stairs, but is mightily impressed that she has been remembered.  We are joined by two older men with gammy legs; the man in the blue jacket pushes the button on the lift control panel marked “-1” and leaves us.  One of the older men clearly thinks he knows better and pushes the button marked “0”; the lift descends and the doors open onto a darkened cupboard.  Fortunately the doors close again and we complete our descent,  and having negotiated a long white corridor find ourselves back in the concourse beneath the stand from where we step out into the night and stroll back to the tram stop.  Riding back into town on the packed tram I feel like Albert Camus in Algiers.  I love going to football matches in France.