Amiens is an hour and a half by car from Calais and about half way to Paris; that makes it a handy place to stop when travelling between the two and that’s partly why I turn up there on a freezing cold afternoon in early February. The other reason is that due to meticulous planning my visit coincides with SC Amiens’ Ligue 2 home match with Gazelec Ajaccio, a club born out of the Corsican town’s gas and electric company a bit like Colchester’s own Gas Rec’ Football Club, but more successful.
Amiens is an interesting town with plenty to enjoy including some rather fabulous post war concrete buildings including the Tour Perret , named after the architect, which is opposite the also impressive Gare du Nord (main train station). But with another five hours until the match, I pay a visit to Amiens’ fabulous Gothic Cathedral. There’s barely another soul in this wonderful, soaring, spiky building, which may be because the draft blowing through the west door amplifies the cold, which the towering ancient stones store, chill and radiate so that stood in the centre of the nave it feels even colder than it does outside. Chilled to the bone, but spiritually enriched the only thing to do is find out about buses to the stadium and then may be find a bar.
The Stade de la Licorne (Unicorn Stadium) is on the edge of town and has masses of car parking all around it, but I need to atone for driving to Paris and back so I choose to catch the bus in order to help save the planet.
The bloke in the Tourist Information Office tells me that the Football Special leaves the Gare du Nord at five past seven from Quai D. How do I find that I ask, and he tells me to just follow the crowds of football supporters. I get to the Gare du Nord at about ten to seven, but where are the football supporters and where is Quai D? I’m buggered if I can see either. With an increasing sense of panic I find Quai B and Quai C and then Quai E but not Quai D. I ask where is Quai D but either no one understands my French or they just won’t say because they don’t want to share their Ligue 2 football with someone from the land of Brexit; I see their point. But then an English voice says that the number 7 bus to Saleux goes close to the ground and leaves from Quai E where we are stood; the stop to alight at is called Megacite. The Englishman is going to the match too and having paid my fare of 1.30 euros I sit with him on the bus where he reveals that he is a scout, for of all clubs Norwich City. Most of the Ametis (a sort of Amiens Corporation Transport) buses stop running at about 8 o’clock, but the football special is special for a reason and it runs back to the Gare du Nord at 10pm. The last time the Norwich scout watched Amiens he had to get a taxi back to the city centre because he didn’t know about the football special (snigger), but in the spirit of détente I share the secret.
After a twenty minute journey the bus itself rather cleverly and very helpfully announces our arrival at Megacite. Over the road from the bus stop, the Stade de La Licorne is a beautiful thing; four uniform ‘trays’ of seats beneath four graceful, transparent, gently arcing metal framed, glazed rooves, which reach up high over the seats, perhaps like the windows of a certain nearby Gothic cathedral. As is usually the case in France, the stadium is owned and was built by the municipal authority and the French still possess the civic pride once known in England that forces them to make a statement with their architecture. Stade de la Licorne is a wonderful structure. Sadly the beauty of the architecture was perhaps not altogether matched by either the construction standards or the ongoing maintenance budget. Although the stadium only opened in 1999, the glazing of the roof has failed and has all been removed, leaving the stadium skeletal and open to the elements, but nevertheless on a dry evening it is still a thing of beauty.
One of the greatest things about French football, particularly Ligue 2 football, and proof of France’s cultural and moral superiority over England is the price of tickets. It is just 25 minutes before kick-off and I purchase a seat in the stand behind the goal for 10 euros. Had I planned ahead and bought it on-line it would have cost me just 8 euros. The best seats in the stadium can be had on the night for 21 Euros. Pick the bones out of that Ipswich Town and Colchester United; and the rest of the over-priced Football League.
Security getting into French stadiums is tight nowadays and everyone is frisked and asked to reveal what, if anything might be concealed under their bobble hat, beanie or beret. Before going up in to the stand I seek out a souvenir of my visit and spot two young women flogging stuff from behind a trestle table under a gazebo. “Avez-vous un petit fanion?” I ask, which might sound somewhat risque if this were a Carry On film, but the French are much more grown-up about such things than the English. Sadly they had no petits fanions (pennants), only replica shirts. My ticket allocates me a seat, but tonight there are about six and a half thousand people in a stadium that currently seats twice that number so I just sit where I fancy, although there is a dense group of supporters immediately behind the goal. these are the Amiens Ultras.
After giving me time to absorb the atmosphere, the referee Monsieur Sylvain Palhies signals kick-off with Amiens attacking the goal just in front of me. There are a series of tendon snapping challenges and a good bit of diving about early on and Mr Plahies struggles to get to grips with it all, leaving some of the worst assaults unpunished and booking players whose crimes were doubtful. But, the malice nevertheless starts to leave the game and it settles down into a stale boring contest. I don’t envy the Norwich scout trying to spot latent talent amongst this lot.
The Amiens Ultras are enjoying it all it seems however, with their two ‘cheerleaders’ elevated at the front of the stand, stood with their backs to the ‘action’ as they lead the crowd with their chants. The noise from the Ultras is pretty much constant and doesn’t rise and fall at all to reflect events on the pitch; but then not too much is happening on the pitch to excite. The Ultras’ drone is in some ways the perfect soundtrack for what isn’t happening on the pitch.
My attention is drawn by the Gazelec supporters at the far end. There is a row or two of about twenty people near the front of the stand and then at the very back of the stand, fifteen or twenty rows back, sitting on the very end of the row is a single person who looks like they’re wrapped in a duvet. The Amiens support at the other end is not without interest either; directly behind the goal is a panda; or may be a person in a panda costume. The panda just sits there looking bored and doesn’t appear to be a mascot, it really is just a panda; okay, or a person in a panda costume. It reminds me of a book by French writer Pascal Garnier entitled The Panda Theory, although only because the word Panda is in the title, it’s a French book and I happen to be in France. Good book though, you should read it, it’s only short. But it’s a bit surreal isn’t it? A panda at a football match, although to be fair we’re not that far from Belgium.
Half–time arrived as half time does and I thought I’d have look around, may be get something to eat and a drink. I looked for a food kiosk in the stand but didn’t find one, so I went out of the stand and round the back. It was here that I was surprised to find the scruffiest, dirtiest looking burger van I think I had ever seen. Inside were what looked like three rather obese heavy metal fans in jeans and black tee-shirts huddling over a griddle. There was a clutch of unhealthy looking scruffs forming a small scrum around the counter. This was not what I had expected. This was not haute cuisine, it wasn’t even pommes frites, it was greasy chips. Northern France is chip country, it can put your greasiest, nastiest British chippy to shame; their near neighbours the Belgians invented chips and Northern France is a lot like Northern Britain. It’s grim up north and don’t you forget it.
After a stroll back into the stand I settled for a coffee from the club’s own buvette; an espresso of course, which was a blessing because I wouldn’t have wanted a filthy great mug full of the stuff, it was an instant espresso but it only cost a euro. I decided to settle down for the second half on the other side of the Ultras. Carefully sitting down, so as not to spill my hot drink, I looked down the near touchline and spotted a unicorn. Okay, so it was a person in a unicorn costume. He was a sad unicorn, he trudged along the edge of the pitch, head down watching each step he took; his horn drooped morosely and swung a little from side to side. As he approached the corner flag the unicorn/ person raised his arms and what happened next was horrifying; he removed his head. I was aghast. I have read that to remove your head in public is simply not permitted if you are a club mascot. It would result in instant dismissal. But this Unicorn clearly didn’t give a shit. I watched him, as in no hurry he went through the security gate and up into the stand; he was a slightly stooping, grey-haired man in his sixties and he sat down next to a younger blond woman, may be his daughter, may be not. He had no shame, a unicorn from the neck down he sat and watched the second half like everyone else, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. A group of three men about the same age as the unicorn could clearly read the surprise and shock on my face; they laughed and shouted across to me and laughed again. I think they said it was the only job he could get or no one else would do it, I’m not sure, my French is crap.
Traumatised, I was pleased beyond words when the second half started, although the night was now growing increasingly cold. Fortunately, I had just twelve minutes to wait before Amiens brought life to the Unicorn with a goal from Bakaye Dibassy. From there on Amiens didn’t look back and seemed transformed from the team who had slogged out the first half. Nevertheless, it took until the final ten minutes of the match, when the cold was really biting, for Amiens to confirm their superiority through the traditional medium of goals. Substitute Harrison Manzala lead the way with ten minutes left and Aboubakar Kamara followed suit two minutes later whilst Guessouma Fofana left us waiting until the final minute for his contribution to the scoreline.
As the game draws to a close the half-man, half-unicorn gets up, moves down the stand, puts on his head and shuffles along the touchline to stand between the dugouts. With the final whistle the unicorn trots on to the pitch uncertainly to do the best an ageing man in a baggy costume can to celebrate Amiens’ climb to second place in Ligue 2, without frightening the younger people in the crowd that is. Sadly I cannot hang about long to watch the post-match fun because it’s ten to ten and the Football Special back to town leaves at 10 o’clock. I hurry out from the stand and down the stairs where a young boy is kissing the unicorn on the club badge that is painted on the landing wall; his mother drags him away with a horrified expression on her face. I hasten out of the gates and across the car park boarding the Ametis bendibus with five minutes to spare. The Norwich scout isn’t far behind and the bus sets off a good 90% empty with only about ten or so people on board. I can only think that les amienois have stayed behind to celebrate with the unicorn or check up on the panda, or may be their backsides froze to their seats and they are stranded inside the stadium.
The journey back to town takes no more than ten minutes and bidding my new found Norwich chum adieu and bon chance, I get off the bus just round the corner from my hotel. Back in my hotel room I find my wife drinking wine and eating olives in the recent company of Adrien Rabiot, Marco Verratti and Edinson Cavani who have been on the telly beating Girondins de Bordeaux 3-0; so it’s nice to know we’ve both had a lovely time. Allez Amiens!
France is a republic and has had almost as many revolutions as we’ve had Labour governments, so it is obviously superior and it’s a country that respects intellect and loves a grand statement; Britain and more especially England just can’t compete with that. England is home to too many small minded bigots, who can’t see further than their garden gates unless there’s a drink in it, and if they do, they try and make what’s beyond into an extension of their boring little suburban gardens with their neat little lawns and poxy bedding plants. That’s why we got bloody Brexit. May be it’s not our fault, may be it was the ruling class, who closed ranks behind the monarchy in the time of Napoleon and somehow made you all Royalists, whilst the rest of Europe left feudalism behind and embraced social democracy.
This in a manner of speaking explains why I love France and French football and why I rocked up in Amiens on a freezing night in February at a stadium with a broken roof whilst my wife, who is not as angry and disillusioned with the world as me, stayed back in our hotel room watching Bordeaux v PSG on the telly and drinking wine.