Ipswich Town 0 Norwich City 1

‘I like my football on a Saturday’ sang Ray Davies in the Kinks song Autumn Almanac and it’s convenient for the purposes of this piece to believe he meant that he liked his football on the afternoon of the first day of the weekend to the exclusion of all other days. If it had scanned, Ray might have added that a smattering of mid-week evening matches during the season are fine and the occasional Friday game as well, because as every TV commentator knows the atmosphere under lights ‘is always a bit special’. But football should not be played at midday ever, and definitely not on a Sunday. To make matters worse today’s match is the ‘derby’ between Ipswich and Norwich, the most over-hyped and unpleasant fixture of the season. It is with a heavy heart full of bitterness and rancour therefore that I set off at twenty to eleven to catch the train to Ipswich to watch this match. At least I have the recent memory of sausage, bacon, eggs, mushroom, tomatoes and a few rounds of toast plus tea and coffee to sustain me and ensure I won’t need to buy any over-priced, low nutrition, grease-based lunch inside Portman Road.
It is a grey, cloudy morning but as the train hoves into view faint sunlight can just about be discerned, but it won’t last.  A few other people board the train with me and are clearly bound for Ipswich and the match. A man opposite me seems to struggle to respond to his young daughter’s questions and conversation. At Colchester a couple on Platform 4 awaiting a London bound train nuzzle up to each other and hold hands. The carriage fills up at Manningtree with an assortment of blue shirted people, mostly men. The train crosses the river, the tide is neither in nor out; if I was looking for portents, may be that would suggest the game will be drawn. A few seats away an opinionated man dominates the conversation with his fellow travellers, his piercing voice finding a pitch that cuts through the rattle and whoosh of the speeding train, or perhaps he is just shouting. Arriving at Ipswich we are welcomed by a bevy of hi-vis clad police37597036700_95b1488178_o who wait by the foot of the pedestrian bridge. Outside there are more police, and more, and more, and more. There are white police vans with mesh grilles to cover the windows, motor bikes, dogs, horses, Kevlar, helmets and batons. I thought I was travelling to a football match, but I appear to have arrived in Paris in May 1968, or Brixton in the summer of 1981.

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A long crocodile of Norwich supporters; mostly ugly blokes in their twenties and thirties, are being shepherded along the pavement across the road; they chant coarsely and leer both threateningly and gormlessly at Ipswich fans across the street, who look and behave just like them. A policeman on horseback steers an errant Norwich fan in the right direction by grabbing him by the hood of his coat and dragging him back into line. Depressed, I soldier on in to Portman Road, a young policeman asks me “Are you Sir Alf?”37806242966_834240dcea_o by which I quickly surmise he means is my seat in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, but not before I laugh and it crosses my mind to say “No I’m not, and I don’t think you’ll find him here today, he died in 1999.” I think there is a flicker of recognition across the policeman’s face that his question was a bit daft or at best poorly framed, but I’m not completely sure. I don’t know why he picked out me to ask. Perhaps I looked a bit lost, I feel it. There are metal barriers along Portman Road to usher the Norwich people into their area of the Cobbold Stand and tables are stood before the turnstiles where bags are being searched, but no one is being patted down, so it would be possible to smuggle in a flare or smoke canister or firecracker under your coat, if that was your thing.
Inside the ground I buy a programme (£3.00), talk to a steward I used to work with and then take my seat in the stand. Someone has smuggled in a smoke canister and the acrid smell and the smoke waft up from the concourse beneath the seats. The public address system drowns out the sound of any noise football supporters might spontaneously make and the stadium announcer gives a clue to his age and catholic tastes by playing Bon Jovi and Heaven 17. The teams come onto the pitch and everyone has been given blue pieces of card to hold up to ‘turn the stadium blue’;37597139880_d54efdafd5_o(1) it doesn’t look that impressive and would look better if some bands of seats had been given white cards to hold up; at least the club has tried however. I am confident of an Ipswich win today based on the law of averages: Town having not recorded a victory in any of the last eight matches between the clubs it’s about time they did.
The game begins with a roar of enthusiasm and there are people stood up in the seats in front of me, which results in the drafting in of extra stewards. The lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey isn’t usually populated by people who would stand during a game, indeed it’s37597066870_dbc81449ee_o likely that standing to pee is as much as many of the regulars can manage. But the front of the Alf Ramsey Stand is close to the seats where the Norwich people are accommodated and therefore if you like nothing more than spending an afternoon making masturbatory gestures, gurning and telling people they are ‘scum’ and should ‘fuck off’, it’s the only place to be. There are a few chants from Ipswich supporters but very few from the Sir Alf Ramsey stand lower tier, which is more full than usual, but seemingly no more likely to burst into song in support of the team, despite its newly acquired standing contingent.
The first half is pretty even, but whilst Norwich may keep the ball for longer, Ipswich come closest to scoring. Early on Town’s Danish defender Jonas Knudsen kicks the ball very, very hard against a post of the Norwich goal; what he lacks in craft and accuracy he sometimes makes up for by kicking the ball very hard. David McGoldrick heads the ball over the goal from a free-kick when he could and should score, but this is symptomatic of an anxiety that permeates his play all afternoon.
There’s a cold wind swirling about the stadium and I have turned up the collar of my coat. At half-time I seek shelter in the space beneath the stand where the bars are doing a good trade. A large group of young men are singing, clearly not understanding that traditionally at football the singing takes place on the ’terraces’ during play. It seems that a generation or more of Ipswichians has forgotten or may be never have learned how to support their team. I wander up and down a bit and notice the large banners projecting from pillars announcing that Greene King brewery is proud to be supporting Ipswich Town, and they are no doubt proud too to know that their bland and insipid IPA bitter is being sold for £3.90 a pint.37806224896_a53532601b_o24002096988_4635c03522_o Back up in the stand one of Town’s more senior supporters tucks into a ham sandwich that he brought to the match wrapped in tin foil.
The game returns and Norwich are better than before and by a quarter past one they take the lead through James Maddison, who sounds and looks like he could be in a boy band. Maddison parades about the pitch, his floppy hair bouncing as if he is advertising L’Oreal shampoo, because today he is worth the £3million Norwich paid Coventry for him. Little Jimmy Maddison is better than anyone Ipswich have in midfield today, but of course he’s no Arnold Muhren.
Ridiculously, given the amount of time left, the goal kills the game. Norwich are better on the ball than Ipswich, they have a plan and are versed in winning 1-0 away from home. Ipswich don’t have the guile or skill; they run about, but they hit and hope too much and it will take more than the half an hour left for the law of averages to render a goal from this random approach. Naturally, the Ipswich fans are unable to help because they don’t even try. A bloke near me becomes frustrated and begins abusing the Town players. It is disappointing, but if the supporters don’t know how to support the team why should the players know how to play. The Norwich supporters have songs they all know, they are coherent like their team, and neither the Ipswich team nor its supporters has any answers.
The final whistle provides a sort of relief and I leave the ground as quickly as possible whilst some Ipswich supporters boo their own team, which no doubts adds to the Norwich people’s joy. The police presence outside the ground and on the approach to the railway station is as great as before the game. Rank upon rank of policemen and women are strung across Princes Street, a human obstacle course to the stream of fans heading to catch their trains.
It’s been a disappointing day; everything about the day has been depressing, which I guess the law of averages says has to happen sometimes. But as Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss tells us, all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Yeah, right. Keep the faith.

Lowestoft Town 2 Kingstonian 1

It’s a one and a half hour journey by rail from Ipswich to Lowestoft on a chugging two-carriage diesel. Leaving at 12:17 the train arcs around the north of Ipswich giving a fine view across the town as it crosses Norwich Road and Bramford Road; the cluster of tower blocks in the town centre and on the waterfront look impressive and the floodlights mark out Portman Road as a football ground that still looks like football grounds should do, with lights at each corner, even if on steel sticks not pylons.
Leaving Ipswich, the train, which smells of cheese, possibly parmesan, which means it probably smells of sick, trundles on to Woodbridge23852564398_4a7a82ae49_o and Melton past Westerfield and through disused Bealings station. On into the Suffolk countryside the ride becomes more and more rural. It’s a journey for geographers, biologists and historians as we pass through sands and boulder clays, marshes and broads, passing cows and horses, pigs and sheep, an albino pheasant, partridges, ash and oak, gorse and broom, flint churches, a World War 2 pill box and thatched cottages. Football fans who know what they’re looking for can spot the floodlights of Woodbridge Town Football Club, and further up the line  College Meadow, where Beccles Town are destined to lose 0-3 at home to Debenham in the Suffolk Senior Cup later this afternoon, is right next to the station.
The train stops at Woodbridge, Melton, Campsea Ashe for Wickham Market, Saxmundham, Darsham, Halesworth, Brampton (request stop only), Beccles and Oulton Broad South; as if taking an inventory of rustic place names. Large stretches of the line still produce the old-fashioned clickety-clack of the railway track; near Brampton two people stood in a field wave and I wave back imagining they are Jenny Agutter and Sally Thomsett; a child at the table in front bawls, a mother accuses and a whining sibling pleads innocence; it was a game that went wrong. A John Deere tractor tills a massive field, the train passes37448300030_dc11d0db12_o under towering pylons marching two by two from Sizewell nuclear power station whose dome is visible in the distance over the tops of trees; there’s a windmill and wind turbines. This is a wonderful journey on a beautiful, bright autumn day.
Leaving Oulton Broad South the approaches to Lowestoft soon follow; a bleak landscape of seemingly disused dock on one side,

a huge Aldi and retail park on the other. Lowestoft station is at the centre of the town, at37656994766_a846c3409e_o the bottom of the High Street. It’s the end of the line and it looks it, a handsome Victorian building that’s too big for the two lines that host the buses on rails that rattle in through wonderful East Anglian landscapes from both Ipswich and Norwich. It’s a town that has undoubtedly seen better days, it expanded in the late nineteenth century on the back of industrial scale fishing, an unsustainable activity like coal mining and as that industry declined so the town lost its raison d’etre. It had other industries such as bus body building (Eastern Coachworks) but with the de-nationalisation of bus travel that closed too.
It’s just a ten minute walk from Lowestoft railway station to Lowestoft Town’s stadium via Katwijk Way, onto Raglan Street and then left into the charmingly named Love Road.36995695774_414a0e9c77_o The streets are of terraced houses and even a couple of back street boozers, an alleyway runs down the back of the main stand; this is a proper football ground with a vista of chimney pots and residential roof tops. You can see where the supporters live here, not where they buy their weekly groceries, or go bowling and to the cinema. Lowestoft Town have been at Crown Meadow since 1894.

However, before getting to the ground I take a diversion to the excellent Triangle Tavern on the Triangle Market at the top of the High Street. It’s not far from the stadium and serves beers brewed by Lowestoft’s own Green Jack Brewery. I have a pint of Lurcher Stout (£3.30) and a little while later a pint of Bramble Bitter (£3.00); both good, but the Lurcher was easily my favourite. There are twelve other drinkers in the bar where I sit and I think eleven of them are older than me. Four are sat around a table, all drinking halves. Three sit in a row,37705881601_7f80655d17_o talking occasionally but also reading and another three, one of whom sports a Kingstonian shirt, sit at a table by the door. One of the Kingstonian group looks at least 70 and surprises me by suddenly mentioning Depeche Mode, although he seems to think David Sylvian was lead singer and is quickly corrected by the wearer of the shirt. I bemoan to myself that the conversation between the sort of blokes who frequent real-ale pubs often sounds like they are just waiting for the pub-quiz to start.

In Love Road, the away team bus, which is called Elaine Mary, is bumped on the kerb opposite the stadium;

I approach the smart blue turnstile block beneath a sign that says “Welcome to the 37673670372_c6fe6fed60_oAmber Dew Events Stadium”; it should say that it’s real and lasting name is Crown Meadow but it doesn’t. “What is it? A tenner?” I ask of the lady turnstile operator. “Eleven” she says, adding “If you’re an adult, are you?” I laugh, “Nooo, I’m not an adult” I say perhaps a little too sarcastically, but later I think maybe she thought I’m a pensioner. I reckon £11 to watch non-league, part-time football is a bit steep, and although it’s no more than other clubs charge at this level, in France it cost less (9 Euros) to watch a fully professional match (Nimes v Auxerre)  in Ligue 2. C’est la vie. Just inside the turnstile programmes are sold from a table for £2, I buy one.
Whilst I’m not thirsty anymore, I am hungry and after exploring the earthly delights of the club shop I head to the far end of the ground to the food kiosk.37657008196_83b263619d_o Inside the kiosk a middle aged man attends the deep fat fryer and a young woman takes the money, whilst surreally a second older man is asleep on a chair.37657008666_744983181f_o From the usual football food menu I opt for the ‘hot dog’ (£3.50), which consists of two very ordinary sausages with onions (optional), in what turns out to be a very crumbly

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finger roll; I can’t recommend it. It takes a while to cook the sausages and the teams have come on to the pitch, been through all that hand shaking ‘respect’ stuff and kicked off before I take my first bite. Kingstonian are in red and white hooped shirts with black shorts and socks whilst Lowestoft, who kick-off the game towards Love Road and the dock, are in all-blue. Lowestoft Town are nowadays known as the Trawlerboys, but their shirts are sadly not sponsored by Fisherman’s Friend cough sweets, but by ‘Africa Alive’, which I believe was once more prosaically known as the Kessingland Wildlife Park.
The game is evenly contested early on, to the extent that neither team looks likely to go on and win. Although Lowestoft do hit the cross bar, not much else is happening near the goals, but it holds my attention in bursts. The Kingstonian number five Michell Gough stands out, mostly because of his hair, which might be described as pirate-like or a bitOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA girlie depending on your point of view, but also because he is very involved in the game and hits a decent long pass. It is probably a good thing that men are once again comfortable wearing a pony tail, but I’m glad that a rubber band or scrunchy did not deny me the sight of the flowing locks of Mario Kempes, Kevin Beattie and Gunter Netzer back in the 1970’s. For Lowestoft, their number eleven Cruise Nyadzyo seems keen to get the ball forward, but too often his crosses pick out no one in particular. I multi-task by walking around the ground and watching the match at the same time. A steward eyes me suspiciously. There is a country bus shelter type structure behind the far goal which sports on its back wall a trawler-shaped memorial plaque to one Ted Lightfoot.

Three Kingstonian fans occupy the shelter and muse upon whether they comprise the smallest group of Kingstonian fans ever assembled behind a goal for a Kingstonian first team match. Along the long side of the pitch opposite the mainstand are the dug-outs; the Lowestoft manager, bald headed and in a black tracksuit is very mobile, swearing violently to himself when one of his players fails to live up to his expectations.

Above the dug-outs a camera loft looks like it could double up as a hide for birdwatchers on the nearby Broads. I linger for as long as it takes me to get bored with hearing the word ‘fuckin’. Moving on I can see the blades of a wind-turbine over the top of the stand opposite. I pass behind the goal at the Love Road end, squeezing between a wall and the row of mostly younger Lowestoft Town supporters pressed up against the rail.

It’s approaching half-time and I settle in a gap between spectators stood against the wall in front of the main stand. “Hello Peter, how are ya?” says a cheery Suffolk-accented voice. “I int sin ya for ages” he continues. “Well, I sin your boy” says Peter, adding a further layer of mystery to the conversation. It turns out Peter and his friend who hasn’t seen him in a while are also Ipswich Town fans. Peter’s friend has been taking the train to Ipswich to watch matches and keeps Tuesdays free for midweek games, which is why he is annoyed that the Sheffield Wednesday match has been moved to a Wednesday night. “Bloody Sky tv” he says “they’re ruining the game” and he voices the thoughts of football supporters everywhere.

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There will be two minutes of added on time at the end of the first half which is time enough for Kingstonian’s number four Paul Rogers to clear the ball and in so doing raise a boot too close to the face of the Trawlerboys’ number five and captain Travis Cole, who makes me think of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsey Anderson’s marvellous film “If”. Travis keeps touching his face and looking for blood, clearly suffering from the weird form of hypochondria that affects all footballers when anything brushes by their pretty faces. The consequence is that referee Mr Quick wastes no time in booking the slightly unfortunate Rogers and awarding a penalty to the home team, which is scored by number nine Jake Reed. Emboldened by the goal, there are a few shouts of “Come on you Blues” from the home supporters, one of whom has a bass drum. But half-time swiftly follows and I return to the scene of the crumbling hot dog to obtain a pounds worth of tea, which comes in a much larger cup than at other grounds I’ve been to, but it doesn’t taste particularly nice; I think it’s the fault of the slightly waxy paper cups. Back in front of the main stand ‘Woody’, a large bear dressed like Uncle Sam, patrols with his minder encouraging people to visit Pleasurewood Hills, a local theme park.  As things stand Woody is a viable United States president.   I look through the match programme and am a little disturbed that the advert for the stadium sponsor, Amber Dew Events, features a picture of a partially squashed ant, albeit a partially squashed ant inside a piece of amber. 37733059866_c1ac726a82_o
For the start of the second half I choose to sit in the main stand, just in front of the area reserved for the club officials; the only people in the ground wearing suits and club ties.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I want to tell them to relax, grow their hair, wear shades and a beret; they surely only dress like they do so people know that they are the club officials. I smile to myself. The main stand is a lovely, low, gloomy structure with a deep, grey fascia beneath the roof and glass screens at either end. Inside the stand there are no plastic seats like those found at most grounds; here they have the original cast iron frames with beautifully mellowed, curved wooden backs and wooden tip up seats. The stand has no stanchions to block your view suggesting it might be of  a cantilever design, in which case it was an early one.  Despite lashings of blue paint, it’s dull and utilitarian; but it’s beautiful and a candidate for local listing by Waveney District Council. Club officials in de-mob suits, brogues and fedoras, and smoking pipes would not look out of place in this stand.
The second half begins and from my newly elevated position I finish my tea and enjoy37448276580_f8acd4d810_o the burst of sunlight that breaks through the mass of cloud that started to hang low over Lowestoft this afternoon whilst I was in the Triangle Tavern. For all its beauty, this stand is on the wrong side of the pitch and a hundred or more people squint in unison. There are more shouts of “Come On You Blues” as people sense victory is possible, but this seems to make some older supporters sat behind me a bit tetchy too. Mr Quick the referee receives some mild abuse for one or two of his decisions and there is clearly a belief that the world and in particular Mr Quick is against Lowestoft. But according to Wikipedia, this is a town with three UKIP councillors, so fear and a lack of logic are common currency.
The folks behind me are full of advice for the team; “Pass to Smudger”, “Too Late”, “ You shudda passed to Smudger”, “ Get a grip Blues”, “ What did you give it away for Blues?”, “Give it to someone who can put their foot on the ball”. It’s odd, but I must have seen more than two thousand football matches in my time and I’ve never seen anyone gain any advantage by just putting their foot on the ball, but there are still people who seem convinced that it is an effective tactic. I did see Arnold Muhren put his foot on the ball, drag it back and then release a thirty metre pass of pinpoint accuracy, but I don’t think that is quite the same thing.
The game rolls on and way off to the right I can see the copper spire of Lowestoft’s parish church, the Grade One listed St Margaret’s. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOblivious of medieval flintwork the  commentary continues from from behind me, particularly when Cruise Nyadzyo is substituted; it’s not a popular decision. The view seems to be that he was the best player on the pitch. Things don’t get any better in the eyes of the mainstanders as Kingstonian’s Thomas Derry strikes the cross-bar with a header from a corner. But taking the best player off seems to have no lasting effect, perhaps it makes the other players work harder, and soon afterwards a low right-wing cross from Lowestoft’s number eight Sam Borrer is easily kicked into the Kingstonian net from close range by Jake Reed and Lowestoft lead 2-0. Going further behind seems to be just what Kingstonian needed to do however, in order to raise their game and they eventually score a goal too, from a free-kick off the head of number five Michell Gough. The remainder of the game involves Kingstonian trying to equalise and Lowestoft trying not to concede. I leave my seat to stand closer to the exit because when the final whistle blows it won’t leave long to get to the railway station for the 17:07 train. Eventually at 16:58 Mr Quick calls time and I sprint off down Love Road leaving the victorious Trawlerboys behind me; I make it onto the train with nearly three minutes to spare.
It has been a good day out, a day of many pleasures; a scenic train ride, fine local beers, blue skies, sunshine and clouds, a football ground set amongst terraced houses and back alleys, an old-fashioned grandstand and a half decent football match, which isn’t bad for a depressed town with the highest unemployment rates in Suffolk. Visit Lowestoft, it needs you.


AS St Etienne 2 Stade Rennais 2

Ever since 4th March 1981, when Ipswich Town produced what is probably the club’s greatest ever performance, winning 4-1 in St Etienne, I have wanted to see a game at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard; it would be a pilgrimage to the scene of Ipswich Town’s finest hour. St Etienne is famous for its fanatical supporters and seeing and hearing them on the television since just added to the draw of the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
Today, thirty-six and a half years on I have stopped off on my way back from the south of France. Our hotel is close to the centre of town opposite the wonderful brick and metal-framed St Etienne-Châteaucreux railway station.

From there it is 1.40 euro tram ride on Ligne 1 to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. It is a little after one o’clock and there are several green-shirted St Etienne supporters on the modern, green tramOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA which glides through narrow central streets into broad squares of fountains, trees and majestic buildings. Why are French provincial cities so much more attractive and inviting than our own? St Etienne isn’t even that big, with a population of the town itself being about 150,000; vistas of the green hills outside the town are visible along some city streets. It’s an industrial town built up on coal mines and manufacturing like Sunderland or Salford but that’s where the comparison ends.
At the tram stop on Rue Bergsson, conveniently named Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, we alight and make the walk along Boulevard Roger Rocher towards the corner of the stadium which looms in the distance like a sleek grey box. We approach through car parking shaded by plane trees and past stalls selling club shirts, food and beer. There are several approaches to the stadium each with its own collection of food stalls.

People stand about in the sunshine, talking, eating, drinking, being French. I buy a hot dog for 3 euros, it’s one of those where the frankfurter is slotted into a hole in the centre of a baguette; I have mustard with it.
A man gives out 24 page, A4 sized, colour programmes named “100% St Etienne”, they are absolutely free; there are more advertisements for restaurants (eight) within its pages than for any other type of business. The club shop is close by the stadium and I take a look inside; it’s very, very big and very busy with a huge range of St Etienne branded goods which includes watering cans, locally brewed beer in 33cl and what look like 3 litre bottles, and wine.

Last year the club celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its one European Cup Final appearance, when the team containing Jacques Santini and Dominic Rocheteau lost in Glasgow by a single goal to the Bayern Munich of Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, Gerd Muller and Uli Hoeness; a book commemorating the event is on sale for 25 euros; I don’t buy it.
Back outside I join a short queue through one of the many automated turnstiles and after a cursory patting down by a very smiley gentleman I enter the ‘Chaudron’ (Cauldron) as it is known. Our seats are way, way, way up in the stand and the succession of flights of stairs seems to go on and on forever. Eventually I find my seat in the very back row of the third tier. The view is spectacular, but it’s a long way from the pitch and a massive steel girder obscures any view of a good half of the stand at the far end of the ground, although that’s okay if you’re just here to look at the football and not the architecture.37430129191_f59c952158_o But even with an interrupted view, it is a mightily impressive stadium; fundamentally it is a traditional arrangement of four individual stands around the pitch, but they have been unified by the placing of a massive steel box over the top of them with irregularly shaped cut outs in the faces of the box. It is a simple idea and it works brilliantly, creating an imposing building, the outside of which doesn’t give a clue as to what the inside is like; it could easily be a factory viewed from the outside, which is wholly appropriate for St Etienne. The retention of the traditional four stands on each side of pitch successfully avoids the risk of this being a bland, anonymous bowl of a stadium.

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The Stade Geoffroy-Guichard is a stage and the supporters behind each goal are every bit as much performers as the players. Already there are thousands inside the stadium and from high up at the back of the stand I look down upon those still yet to enter. Across the open space below me a crocodile of fans stride towards the turnstiles; they seem to be all part of a single group. The ultras beneath us in the stand two tiers below sing “Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey Hey Hey, St Etienne”; very 1970’s. The teams will soon be on the pitch but there is a strange looking man with long silver hair in the centre circle, he is accompanied by four young women in short skirts or hot pants.

He has a radio microphone and he is going to sing. A truly bizarre couple of minutes ensues in which the silver haired man struts about, the women dance and everyone seems to have a great time joining in with a truly awful Eurovision style song that would have been considered a bit naff even forty years ago. I recall having seen a picture of a man with the fashion sense of Jimmy Savile in the club shop, but I had dismissed it as something I’d rather not know about. Well you would wouldn’t you?
Fortunately the teams now enter the field to great fanfare with banners and anthems and hullabaloo and the memory of the poor man’s Johnny Halliday is soon lost beneath more pleasant sensations as the game begins, St Etienne (les Verts) wearing their distinctive green shirts and socks with white shorts, whilst Rennes sport all-red. St Etienne start well and is it any wonder with a crowd of 31,000 roaring them on. It’s a warm day and at the far end of the stadium virtually a whole stand of ultras is shirtless.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Below, the ultras are urged on and orchestrated by blokes with megaphones. At most French grounds I have been to there might be two blokes sharing one megaphone; today at one time I see as many as five each stood up high facing the supporters with his own megaphone. There seem to be parties going on down there with36760026263_953ec16ac1_o outbreaks of frenzied pogoing in the centre, but in general just expressing a great communal support for their team. The ultras at each end of the stadium call to one another in song, it’s like some sort of very noisy religious service and it’s haunting, beautiful even. But then, French is the language of song. A young bloke in the seat but one next to me clearly longs to be down amongst the ultras as he bawls and shouts fiercely and joins in with songs which turn into solos, because he is so far from the main congregation. Children turn round to look at him and his girlfriend seems quite proud. Much of the crowd noise is independent of events on the pitch, it just happens constantly, an avant garde soundtrack of incidental drums and chants. Nevertheless, the stream of sound wobbles from time to time as referee Monsieur Miguelgorry does something like booking Assane Dioussé after four minutes Kevin Theophile-Catherine after thirty-one and Saidy Janko three minutes later.
As all the bookings might suggest, it’s an entertaining game on the pitch as well as off, and St Etienne are giving us all something to shout about, but they haven’t scored and it’s nearly half-time. The Rennes players seem unable to stand up when a St Etienne player is near and this explains the bookings and, typically for cheating bastards, it is Rennes who score therefore. Les Verts’ Ola Selnaes is far too easily knocked off the ball just outside his own penalty area and Rennes’ Benjamin Bourigeaud insolently chips the ball over the wonderfully, stereotypically gallic goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier and into the net.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Forty odd Rennes fans are filled with a belief that it was worth travelling the best part of 750 kilometres to be here.
The St Etienne supporters telepathically share their disappointment so they don’t have to stop urging their team on vocally. The game heads on into the four minutes time added on by Monsieur Miguelgorry because of all the recumbent Rennes players lying prone on the turf. Justice is served however as in the second minute of this additional time a corner to St Etienne is headed across goal by captain Loic Perrin and Gabriel Silva hooks a splendid, athletic volley into the roof of the Rennes net. The ultras surge to the front of the stand and we are all consumed in the extreme, noisy, joyfulness of the moment. It somehow feels like St Etienne have scored twice in one go.
Half-time comes and I look around a bit. I am impressed by the signs for the toilets which37316187401_916131cef9_o feature a very stylish, well dressed and attractive looking couple; after they’ve emptied their bladders I’d be happy to spend time with either of them.
The second half begins and the ultras sing something containing the words ‘Ally Ally O’ and it reminds me of Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan in A Taste of Honey and a time when Britain made films as artful as the French. But my reverie is disturbed eight minutes in to the new half as a cross and a perceived shove sees another Rennes player in a crumpled mess and a penalty kick later Rennes lead 2-1 through Wahbi Khazri. Monsieur Miguelgarry bought it again. How we boo those Breton bastards and their superior acting skills. But life and football and the match carry on and St Etienne and their fans continue to excite and eventually their pressure pays off as the Stade Rennais goalkeeper Tomas Koubek appears to snatch at the ankles of Lois Diony and Jonathan Bamba equalises with another penalty kick. The noise of drums and chants doesn’t let up and although Stephane Ruffier has to make a brilliant diving reaction save, pushing the ball away off a post, St Etienne continue to dominate. With less than ten minutes to go Kevin Monnet-Paquet’s header is clawed away from the top corner by Tomas Koubek sailing across his goal like a runaway kite in shorts and football shirt. In the final minute Monsieur Miguelgarry cements his place in the hearts of the St Etienne fans as a grosse merde as he sends off Gabriel Silva whilst another Oscar deserving Breton lies prostrate on the grass.
The game ends in a draw and it has been bloody marvellous, even though I had wanted St Etienne to win. I have fulfilled my wish to see St Etienne play a match at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard and now I can’t wait to come back and see another one. This was a real football match, better than anything I have ever witnessed in England; the football wasn’t of the highest quality, although good enough, and these aren’t the world’s best players, but the supporters are the very, very best. I will return. Allez les Verts!

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Montpellier Hérault SC 0 Paris St Germain 0

Having arrived on holiday in Languedoc on Monday, on Tuesday tickets for this match went on general sale. With no secure internet connection acquiring tickets required a forty-five minute drive to Montpellier, to the Odysseum complex just off the A9 motorway where Montpellier Hérault SC has its’ club shop. Joining the queue outside in the blazing sun at about 12:15 we emerged from the shop clutching a pair of 35 euro tickets at about 13:45. By the time we had reached the front of the queue the only tickets left had been in the upper tiers of the stands behind each goal. We chose seats in the Tribune Petite Camargue above the Montpellier Ultras at the opposite end of the Stade de la Mosson to the Paris St Germain supporters.
Two weeks and four days later we park up in the dedicated football car park near the37399307972_eb9bb2373d_o park and ride tram station in Mosson, or La Paillade as it is colloquially known. It costs just 2 euros to park. It’s early, not much after 3 o’clock and the game won’t kick off until 5 pm. We dawdle out of the car park towards the stadium enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I am supporting Montpellier today because like a lot of football supporters I despise clubs like Chelsea, Billericay Town and Salford City that are bankrolled by people with too much money. But also I first saw Montpellier in 2011 against PSG (they lost 0-3) and followed their results for the rest of that season, in which they ended up winning the Ligue 1 title. I like their navy blue and orange kit too and added to which Montpellier is a very attractive and exciting city. The upshot is today I am wearing a Montpellier Hérault SC t-shirt, and as we cross the car park I exchange glances with a PSG fan who is stood with two women under the shade of a tree enjoying a snack and a drink. He rolls his eyes at my T-shirt and smiles and so I decide to stop and try and talk with him. Happily neither his English nor my French are so inadequate that we can’t make ourselves understood to one another. I tell him that I really support Ipswich Town and he rolls his eyes again, although he agrees that they had a good team a long time ago; he believes that Chelsea and Liverpool are okay, but then I’d expect as much from the sort of person who supports France’s most hated club. My wife tells him her team is Portsmouth, which he doesn’t understand until she pronounces it ‘Ports-moose’. He is in his fifties, a scruffy looking bloke in a denim jacket with a beard and long hair; he and his wife and daughter live in Béziers but he is a PSG ultra; he grew up in Paris and his dad took him to watch PSG at the Parc des Princes as a boy. Having both shared our deep disappointment over Brexit (every German, Belgian and Frenchman I have spoken to seems as upset as me) and probably exhausted our respective vocabularies in each other’s language we wish one another well and my wife and I carry on towards the stadium.
There is a lot of hanging about going on because the road to the stadium is closed off. But there are a number of gazebos selling food and beer to help while away the wait.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A blacked out Mercedes minivan is guided through the road block behind two police motor cycles and an army of policemen look on, some in full Kevlar riot gear, one or two with sub-machine guns, including one who looks a bit like the late John Le Mesurier.37397661451_31eb220131_o Later we learn that former president Nicolas Sarkozy was at the game and it is likely it was him in the Mercedes.
Eventually, having enjoyed a beer in the shade of some trees we are allowed through the barriers and approach Stade de la Mosson at about twenty to four. Unusually perhaps for a stadium that was used in the 1998 World Cup, Stade Mosson is not particularly spectacular looking; in fact it is a fairly basic cantilever roofed design, which forms an angular horseshoe around three sides of the pitch. The steel stanchions from which the roof hangs are painted in the club colours of orange and blue. It does have one striking looking stand however,

a triple decker with a massive top tier but no roof, supported on streamlined, sloping concrete legs. Bizarrely however, the top tier is closed; something to do with the club’s average attendances and its licence from the French Football Federation, which is explained on the website, but I don’t quite follow.
There is a mobile club shop out in the road and a bar run by one of the ultra groups is built into the back of a stand by the roadside. After the usual pat down we enter the stadium and entering the stand pick up one of the glossy, A5 size, 28 page and free match day programmes entitled ‘L’Echo de la Mosson’, which are left in cardboard boxes at the top of the stairs. I buy another beer (4.50 euros but this price includes a club–branded reusable plastic 500ml ‘glass’).37399326532_c0479ae95c_o The guy who serves me at the buvette instantly detects that I am not French but sees my Montpellier T-shirt and so I explain that I dislike PSG; not as much as he does he replies.
It’s a good view from our backless plastic seats and we watch the players warm up. The PSG players are roundly booed as they come onto the field. We watch the stands fill up and are interested by the eclectic mix of spectators. Montpellierians tend to be keener on rugby than football and the average attendance at Stade de la Mosson last season was only 12,356, although the team were mostly struggling, finishing fifteenth out of twenty in Ligue 1. It is inevitable that there are a lot of people here today who probably rarely come to Mosson; many will have been drawn by the anticipated presence of Neymar, the world’s most ludicrously expensive footballer. Fortunately for the club, the tickets sold out long before PSG announced their squad would be minus Neymar. There are many families here but also a group of four young women who seem to be dressed more for a night out rather than a football match; they perhaps want to look their best for PSG and its millionaires. A happy looking man works hard up and down the aisles and staircases selling packets of cacahuètes andOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA crisps from a tray; I buy a packet of the locally made crisps (2 euros) which are in a plain bag which carries no branding whatsoever, very good they are too.
Before the teams come on to the field there is a display of flag waving and then with much fanfare and the playing of the Ligue 1 theme music the teams take to the field led by Monsieur Clément Turpin possibly Europe’s finest current referee.

Montpellier wear an all navy blue kit with orange names and numbers on the back; oddly but fashionably the shoulders are a different colour too, a sort of burgundy. Paris St Germain wear an all yellow kit and they remind me of Leeds United of the 1970’s, not just because of the kit but because of how obvious it is that everybody in the ground except their own supporters loathes them. Like in most countries there is much antipathy between the regions and the capital in France, but Montpellier is deep in the south of the country just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean coast and that dislike of all things Parisian is even greater down here.

The game begins, Montpellier kicking towards the Tribune Petite Camargue, and predictably PSG don’t let go of the ball; they pass it around effortlessly and endlessly but Montpellier are not going to be a pushover, they chase and they tackle and every success is cheered wildly by the fiercely partisan home crowd. A couple of bangers are let off to our right somewhere and a fire cracker burns in the PSG goalmouth down in front of us. PSG’s Brazilian defender Marquinos is booked after just twelve minutes and the home supporters cheer like a goal has been scored; to please them that bit more PSG’s Italian hard-man Thiago Motta has a free-kick awarded against him and seems to hurt himself in the process of committing the foul.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
There is a lot of football being played in this game, PSG are great to watch. There is the incredible speed and quickness of thought of Kylian MbappéOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA, the sheer presence of the rugged Edinson CavaniOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the elegance of Adrien Rabiot with his pre-Raphaelite looks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The atmosphere is intoxicating with constant noise from both sets of ultras; the PSG fans ceaselessly waving flags and banners at the far end;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a short while before half-time the PSG fans together raise their scarves aloft as English fans once did. The perpetual threat of a possible goal from PSG at any time is its own form of excitement, enhanced by the tension of 20,000 of us willing it not to happen. But as PSG go on longer without scoring, Montpellier get more into the game and come forward; there is a belief that they could grab a goal themselves which only adds to the churn of emotions, hopes and fears.
Half-time brings respite and a visit to the ‘toilette’, which is a bit dark and a little grim but there’s no queue, unlike for ‘the ladies where as is often the case there just aren’t enough cubicles. The bars are busy so I return to my seat to enjoy the scene and the warmth of this beautiful bright, late September afternoon. Looking out across the pitch it is plain to see that it isn’t in a very good condition; it is almost bare in places and if they don’t win PSG can always use that as an excuse.
As the second half begins the Tribune Minervois behind the far goal now casts a shadow over the penalty area at that end. The same pattern of play resumes with PSG dominating possession of the ball. The Montpellier defence is playing brilliantly however, and their captain, 40 year old Brazilian, Vittorino Hilton,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a veteran of the 2012 title winning side is outstanding. At different times both Mbappé and Cavani look sure to score but don’t, but now Montpellier also get the opportunity to spurn chances. As much as most of us in the ground would love Montpellier to score, it is enough that PSG do not. For the impartial, if that is possible in this atmosphere, or for journalists, this game is probably not the best and indeed the following week’s France Football magazine will only give it 8 marks out of 20 in its summary of matches, although no match will get a mark higher than 14. But football matches are not just about the football. On 74 minutes the whole crowd breaks out into applause for Louis Nicollin the wealthy industrialist and former chairman of Montpellier Hérault SC who died on his 74th birthday during the summer. Nicollin was a legend in Montpellier and across France having led the club from the regional amateur leagues in the early 1970’s to Ligue 1 in the space of just eight years. Nicollin was affectionately known as ‘Loulou’ and this name adorns the team shirts this season and that plastic cup that I drank my beer from before the game. Despite the divisions between the ultras of Montpellier and PSG, Loulou succeeds in uniting them.
By now the shadow of the Tribune Minervois has lengthened to shroud the whole pitch and the four minutes of added on time are a final test, creating a terminal tension which explodes with joy and relief and pride with Monsieur Turpin’s final whistle. This has been a fantastic afternoon, a classic example of the underdog winning through, one of the very best things in football. As much as people love to hate clubs like PSG the pantomime villain has his place and if he didn’t exist he would need to be invented…as indeed he has been.



AS Béziers 1 Red Star 0

My return to the Stade de Sauclières in Béziers is an important one because of the toilets.20170908_184645.jpg After the Dunkerque match I had e-mailed AS Béziers about the state of them. The club secretary replied telling me that the Ville de Béziers, the Borough Council, was responsible for this because it was their stadium and my e-mail had been forwarded on to them. I then received an e-mail from Monsieur Pintavy in the sports department of the mayor’s office telling me that they would do the necessary work before the next fixture.
So it is with a mission in mind that we arrive at the semi-rural setting of the Stade de Sauclières a little more than an hour before kick-off; but whereas on our previous visit it had been possible to park almost in front of the guichets, tonight there is a traffic jam outside the stadium, with cars parked all along the road and on the dusty, untended pitch that is behind one end of the stadium. Children and youths of both sexes in blue and white track suits are everywhere, along with their mums and dads who are wearing ordinary clothes. Parking our car on the roadside verge a good 250 metres up the road we make our way back to the stadium gates through the chatty, happy but mostly dawdling young French people. Fortunately, everyone has complimentary tickets so we don’t have to queue to pay our 10 Euros each at the guichets; only to be patted down on our way into the stadium. It is a cooler evening than when we were last here a fortnight ago and I am therefore wearing trousers instead of shorts and so never find out if it really is the local security policy to pat down bare legs. I don’t see the young man who had done this a fortnight ago; perhaps someone had complained. It wasn’t me, I only e-mailed about the toilets.
Once inside the stadium precincts we round the corner beneath a floodlight pylon and approach the toilets towards the rear of the main stand; now within a few metres of the door the fresh smell of pine toilet duck wafts alluringly towards us, the now opened door reveals the gleam of bright, white porcelain. Monsieur Pontavy and “Béziers Borough Council” sports department are true to their word, the system works, as I’m sure would the cistern if there was one. Vive La France!
I hang around outside the toilet whilst my wife uses it; this is because although the toilet is clean, the lock on the door doesn’t work. We then prepare to go up into the stand, but not before I notice that the stadium backs on to the River OrbOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA; there is a large white sign with red letters on the bank that spells danger. The Canal du Midi is over the road opposite the guichets and so it turns out the Stade de Sauclières is actually on an island or at least an isthmus. We go up into the stand and observe that all those French children in blue and white tracksuits are now sat on the terrace behind the goal by the entrance. Meanwhile, I wonder to myself if there is a club shop because I have developed a desire for a souvenir. In faltering French I ask a bloke in a hi-vis tabard who tells me there is one under the stand, but it’s not open now. I ask if it is open at “mi-temp” and quickly and smilingly he says his first words to me in English “Half-time? No”. It seems these are the only English words he knows; how odd. I return to my seat, but then decide to go and see for myself and it turns out that souvenirs are on sale at the buvette, although not all the staff, even in the buvette, seem to know this. Eventually, I come away with a petit fanion (pennant) for the somewhat inflated price of 7 euros (bloody Brexit!), but it’ll look nice hanging with the others in the spare toilet at home.
Flushed with success I return to my wife and my seat to await the start of the match. The track-suited children are now in the centre of the pitch and are lining up for a photograph. It turns out AS Béziers have organised a special night for all their youth and children’s teams of which there seem to be quite a number.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Clearly, AS Béziers has a firm place in the community of the town and tonight they are celebrating it. Why have I never witnessed such a thing at an English Football League club? Perhaps I haven’t been anywhere on the right day.
I have been looking forward to this match for several weeks because Bezier’s opponents tonight are Red Star, an almost legendary French club. Red Star is France’s second oldest club, founded in 1897 by none other than Monsieur Jules Rimet himself, the man after whom the World Cup trophy was named. The club is from the Paris suburb of Saint Ouen, the former docks area of the French capital. The club has a rich heritage and is known for its politically left-wing support, which has a strong anti-fascist stance. The club also has a really good badge; a red star inside a green circle. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImagine my horror therefore when the Red Star players walk out onto the pitch wearing yellow shirts and green shorts, the colours of Norwich City. Happily, the kit isn’t theirs, but is a spare AS Béziers kit; although it isn’t clear why they needed to wear it as their usual green shirts and white shorts would not clash with AS Béziers’ all blue kit. Would they?
A cocktail of smells assaults our nostrils as the stand fills up; a mixture of Gitanes, perfumes and salt and vinegar. The game begins and referee Monsieur Cedric Dos Santos is soon explaining to Béziers’ number 21 that fouls are wrong, although the first player to be booked is Red Star’s number 12. Things then only get worse as a punt forward bypasses the Red Star defenders and Beziers’ number 17 pokes the ball past the only player in a Red Star shirt, albeit a day-glo orange one, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfrom a spot close to the one called penalty. The Bezier’s supporters at the other end of the stand sing something to the tune of Yellow Submarine, the last three words of which are Allez, Allez, Allez.
There are only five or six Red Star supporters here tonight but two of them are very vocal with shouts of “Allez Red Star” and plenty of clapping too; they have a small banner which proclaims “Gang Green” one of the Red Star ultras groups.

After going behind, Red Star increasingly look the better team, they have more skill and they win a remarkable succession of free-kicks all down the left flank. But the Red Star goalkeeper does also make one spectacular flying catch, a replica of one I saw Ipswich Town’s David Best make in about 1973 and which has stayed with me all these years..
Half-time comes and goes and Red Star get even better in the second half, but they don’t score. Some of their players are displaying wonderful levels of skill for a semi-professional team, everywhere there a flicks and dinks; the number eleven crosses the ball beautifully with the outside of his right foot. But they don’t defend as well and as AS Béziers’ number 17 chases a punt forward; the Red Star 29 chases him and sort of rolls into him. Monsieur Dos Santos awards a free-kick and cautions 29 for a second time resulting in his being sent-off. I usually like to see players in yellow and green sent off, but not tonight.
The imbalance in player numbers makes the task harder for Red Star but they continue to be the far more skilful team, whilst AS Béziers are big and physical and play on the break and by falling over when tackled. The Gang Green retain their faith with chants of “Come On l’etoile, Come On l’etoile” to the tune of Auld’s Lang Syne, adding Scottish into the strangely random mix of English and French that characterises their club.
In odd moments where the action stops as players play dead and Monsieur Dos Santos waves his yellow card about I notice that there are some massive insects fluttering about in the beams of the floodlights tonight, although it is also possible that there are some very small bats; but I’m not Chris Packham.
Red Star’s number 2 makes a brilliant run down the left and pulls the ball back only for the goalkeeper to make a spectacular save and then the Red Star ‘keeper pushes away a header, diving down low to his right in equally thrilling fashion. But it doesn’t look like Red Star will equalise, although they probably deserve to win. A second booking for AS Béziers’ number 29 comes too late to even things up sufficiently in terms of player numbers and despite a clearance off the line in time added-on the home team claim the points; their trainer jabs the air in front of him in that odd way football people do as if they can’t quite work out the difference between happiness and anger.
I feel quite deflated. This is Red Star’s first defeat of the season and I had hoped to see them win, but instead I’ve seen them play in yellow and green, have a player sent off and lose. Football, like the sea, is a cruel mistress. The Gang Green pack up their banner and move down to the steel fence around the pitch to applaud their team and we head off up the Chemin Moulin Neuf and back to our car, disappointed but pleased to have had good value for the meagre 10 Euro admission fee and to have seen French local government in action.