My return to the Stade de Sauclières in Béziers is an important one because of the toilets.
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 Orb
; 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.
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.
Imagine 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,
from 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.
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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 are 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.