The town of Sète is a fabulous seaport, fishing port and resort in Languedoc, it nestles by the sea where a rocky outcrop meets a saltwater lake. It has trawlers and its own network of canals and narrow streets, which give it the character of a cross between Venice, Naples and Lowestoft with a bit of North Africa thrown in thanks to its ferry links to Morocco. It has a population according to Wikipedia of about forty three thousand. Of all the places I have ever been I think Sète is one of my favourite towns anywhere.
FC Sète were early members of the French professional football league, winning the title in both 1934 and 1939 and the Coupe de France (French FA Cup) in 1930 and 1934, being the first club to win ‘the double’ in France. After 1960 the club declined and then, having been in Ligue 2 as recently as 2006, were relegated to the regional leagues in 2009 due to financial problems. But promotion to the second amateur tier (CFA2) in 2013 was followed by promotion to the top amateur tier in 2015. The club remains at the amateur, fourth level of French league football, which is now known as League National 2 and is divided imto four regionally based leagues with sixteen clubs in each.
So far this season Sète have won just one of their four games but are undefeated; their opponents today are Stade Bordelais from Bordeaux near the Atlantic coast, some 380 kilometres away by road; they have won one and lost two of their four games so far. Kick-off is at six pm and we arrive about a half an hour beforehand, parking in the spacious gravel topped car park at the side of the Stade Louis Michel, although other spectators prefer to park in the road outside. Entry to the stadium costs €6 and we buy our tickets from the aptly porthole-shaped guichets outside the one gate into the ground. Just inside the gate a cardboard box propped on a chair provides a supply of the free eight-page, A4 sized programme ‘La Journal des Verts et Blancs’. Also today there is a separate team photo and fixture list on offer.
The Stade Louis Michel was opened in 1990, but its pre-fabricated concrete panels somehow make it look older, but in a good way; the brutal angular concrete of the main stand, the Tribune Presidentielle, could be from the 1960’s or 1970’s, channeling the inspiration perhaps of Auguste Perret or even Le Corbusier. The concrete panels on the back of the stand are lightly decorated and sit above wide windows; a pair of curving staircases run up to the first floor around the main entrance, above which is a fret-cut dolphin, the symbol of the town and the club. The stand runs perhaps half the length of the pitch either side of the halfway line and holds about twelve hundred spectators, as well as club offices and changing rooms. Opposite the main stand a large bank of open, ‘temporary’ seating runs the length of the pitch, it is built up on an intricate lattice of steel supports. Behind both goals are well tended grass banks; there is a scoreboard at the end that backs onto the carpark.
There is now not long to wait until kick-off and the teams line up; Sète in green and white hooped shirts with black shorts and socks, Stade Bordelais with black shirts with white shorts and socks. There is a ‘ceremonial’ kick-off before the real one, taken by a youmg woman with a green and white scarf draped around her shoulders. Eventually, referree Monsieur Guillaume Janin gives the signal for the game to start in earnest.
Its a grey, overcast afternoon, but not a cold one and the game quickly settles down with both teams enjoying attacking bursts in turn. The visiting team perhaps look slightly more accomplished, a bit more knowing, particularly at the back where their number four is the only player to have a tattooed forearm. He has long, lank hair and a beard and looks like he might have ridden into town on a Harley-Davidson rather than travelled over from Bordeaux with the rest of the team. The Bordelais number two is a man mountain with a wide shock of bleached hair on the top of his head, and thighs the size of other men’s waists.
There’s not much of a crowd here today, three or four hundred perhaps and I count just eleven people on each of the grassy banks behind the goals and about the same number looking lost amongst the expanse of empty seats opposite. A few spectators stand and peer through the metal fence below the main stand, but most are up in the plastic, backless seats where we sit in the company of greyhaired men, idle players, club volunteers, wags and their children. A man in front of us wearing double denim reminds me of a petit Yosser Hughes, not that Yosser Hughes ever wore double denim.
The first real scoring opportunity falls to Stade Bordelais after seventeen minutes as a ball over the top of the Sète defence puts their number nine through on goal with just the goalkeeper between him and glory. But he must have been dazzled by the dayglo yellow kit of the bald and bearded goalkeeper, who makes a startling, even dazzling save from close range.
It’s only a quarter past six, but the floodlights are coming on; every now and then there is a metallic rattle and rush behind us as a passenger or freight train speeds by on the track between Montpellier and Perpignan, which is just the other side of the road behind the Tribune Presidentialle. Sète win their first corner of the match and I am surprised to hear rythmic clapping rise from the ‘posh’ seats at the centre of the stand, but Sete has no Ultras so someone has to get behind the team; it’s a lesson that would be well learned by many club owners and officials in England.
It’s now half-past six and a ball forward is headed down to the feet of the Bordelais number ten; he feints one way and then the other to shake off the defender and shoots past the luminous Sète goalkeeper to give the away team the lead. Before the game resumes the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper is given timeout by the referree to throw a ball back to a bunch of children who have been playing their own game on the grassy slope behind his goal.
It’s six-thirty seven by the scoreboard clock and Sète win another corner to elicit more rythmic clapping from the centre of the stand; sadly it doesn’t produce an equalising goal only spiky, bitter shouts of disappointment. In the final minute of the half Séte’ s number five is booked for a trip, which leads to a Stade Bordelais free-kick within striking distance of the goal, but the opportunity is spurned.
I can’t deny I’ve been looking forward to half-time as I nimbly nip down the stairs to the buvette, which is close by at the corner of the stand where we are sat. The reason for my eagerness is that Sète is the home of the tielle, a small, spicy, calamari and tomato pie, with a bread like case. I love a tielle, and I love that they are specific to Sete, and are served at the football ground as a half-time snack. I only wish there were English clubs that served local delicacies. Middlesbrough has its parmo, but I can’t think of any others. Do Southend United serve jellied eels or plates of winkles? Do West Ham United serve pie and mash? Do Newcastle United serve stotties? Did the McDonald’s in Anfield’s Kop serve lobscouse in a bun? I need to know. Sadly, I don’t think my town Ipswich even has a local dish. Many English clubs don’t even serve a local beer; Greene King doesn’t count because it is a national chain with all the blandness that entails.
Having eaten my tielle (€3) with relish, by which I don’t mean some sort of pickle, but rather enthusiasm, I wash it down with a small beer (€2) and I treat my wife to a bottle of cold water (€1).
Reflecting my sense of tielle induced well-being, sunshine floods the stadium some time after the start of the second half. I look out across the pitch to the backdrop of the tree covered rocky outcrop that is Mont St Clair and all is right with the world, except that Sete are still losing; they substitute their number ten for number fifteen, but their opponents counter ny swapping thier number eleven for a thirteen.
Sète don’t look particularly like scoring, despite the change in personnel, and Stade Bordelais almost double their woe as a corner kick is headed firmly but deftly against the far post from an unlikely distance by a player whose shirt number I didn’t quite catch. The Stade Bordelais number nine is very quick and slaloms between two or three Sète players before being outnumbered. Sète’s eight becomes a fourteen. There are twenty minutes left and a free-kick to Sète is saved at full stretch by the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper. Sète’s eleven is replaced by their thirteen, a player and father of a little girl who calls and waves to him as he warms up in front of the stand, and he waves back. But undaunted by familial pleasantness Stade Bordelais replace their number seven by number fourteen. Stade Bordelais’ number nine breaks free down the left; he gets behind the Sète defence and delivers a low cross which is perfectly placed to meet the incoming run of the number ten who, from a position near the penalty spot, embarrasses himself with a shot which misses the goal in two directions. Two minutes later ten’s failure is compounded as his time under the unforgiving glare of the floodlights is terminated and he is replaced by twelve. There are still ten minutes left, but the final act of any note sees Sète’s number nine head the ball past the post from a corner. Stade Bordelais’ defenders hold firm to win the game. No one is a match for their huge full-back, their very own, very mobile rocky outcrop.
It’s not been the best game I’ve ever seen, but it’s been an oddly calm, measured one. Was anyone booked? I don’t recall. Stade Bordelais have won with greater guile and knowledge and strength, but Sète will always have their tielle, although they’ve run out of them in the buvette today.