It is Friday 11th May and tonight the 38th and final round of matches will be played in the French second division, known as Ligue 2, which despite the French reputation for gastronomy is sponsored by Domino’s Pizza. Tours have already been relegated to the Ligue National having been bottom of the league for much of the season. Le Havre, known as HAC, by contrast, have been within striking distance of les barrages (play-offs) positions for much of the season and a good recent run finds them in fifth place and needing a win to ensure that they will play in les barrages.
My wife Paulene and I arrived in Le Havre on Wednesday afternoon and bought our tickets (10 Euros each) at the smaller of two club shops, the one in the Place Perret in the centre of the city (the larger shop is in the Docks Vauban shopping mall, about 15 minutes away on foot). There is no longer a ticket office or club shop at the Stade Océane where HAC play their home matches, although guichets do open there on the evening of the match. Place Perret is named after the architect whose practice was charged with rebuilding Le Havre after a phenomenal 80% of it was destroyed by allied bombing in 1944. Perret was a great advocate of concrete construction and his planned city centre with its wide boulevards, massive city square and classically inspired concrete buildings is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking its streets is like being in an idyllic 1950’s vision of the city of the future.
The Stade Océane is at the very edge of what is a sprawling city, with its vast docks strung along the mouth of the River Seine. The HAC website refers to shuttle buses (navettes) that run from the city centre to the stadium but it doesn’t provide details. The bloke in the club shop didn’t seem to know anything about the navettes, disappointingly recommending travelling by car; nor did the woman at the Tourist Information centre, although she was able to supply a bus map and timetable for the regular service that passes close to the stadium. The HAC website does however provide a link to the website of CODAH (Communauté de l’agglomération havraise) the local public transport undertaking who provide the free navettes and where I learn that buses will run every forty minutes from Quai D (stand D) of the bus station (gare routier) beginning at 6.30pm. After the match four separate routes will run to various destinations across the city.
Although kick-off is not until 8:45pm we are perhaps over keen and are waiting at the bus station at 6.30 where a handful of people including a nerdish looking youth in a HAC tracksuit top are already hanging around Quai D. A white Mercedes bus swings onto the stand and first in the queue is a small boy who climbs aboard and stretches up to hug the driver, who it seems is his dad. Pausing briefly to go “awww” we board the bus and after waiting a few minutes, during which time no one else boards the bus who hadn’t already been waiting for it, we set off. The journey takes us through some less salubrious areas of the city, close to the docks through streets that might be termed both ‘gritty’ and ‘urban’ amongst other things.
The journey takes about 15 minutes at the end of which we are dropped off next to some tenement blocks beyond which, across a railway track and grey concrete open space is the amazing, bright blue Stade Océane, which looks like an enormous beached rubber dinghy. A few fans wait by the entrance to a subterranean world into which the team coaches will soon descend, but we ascend a flight of steps to the concourse around the ground where not much is happening. A friendly faced man in the mobile club shop speaks to the nerd from earlier and then peers out in vain for customers who don’t think he is selling ice creams. I take a look at his stock and he tries to convince me to buy a scarf; I tell him I already have a petit fanion (pennant) from the shop in town and this seems to satisfy him. He asks me who my team are in England and is complimentary when I say it is Ipswich Town, revealing that his knowledge of the English game is perhaps not up to date.
We hang about waiting for the turnstiles to open. Some people arrive and buy tickets at the guichets where club employees arrange plastic barriers and then take them away again. The huge car park beyond the stadium fills up slowly with a trickle of cars from the main road that runs close by. Children are being admitted free tonight and school parties gather at the south end of the stadium, where more barriers snake a path to the turnstiles. As we lean against a concrete wall two young women hand out free copies of the A4 sized, glossy four page match programme. There is a hot food van with the rather wonderful name of Friterie Momo parked on the concourse, providing a supply of massive cartons full of chips and sausage-filled baguettes (7 euros) to an increasing queue of casual diners. I wouldn’t usually eat this in England so see no reason to eat it in France, although it is likely to taste better, but I do buy a 500 ml can of Ch’ti Blonde (4 euros) the local beer of Pas de Calais and Picardie, which at 6.4% alcohol could probably not legally be sold at a football ground in England. But French people will drink one can of Ch’ti, English people would try and drink eight or ten.
Eventually the turnstiles open; they are automatic and read the barcodes on the tickets, but entry to the stadium is not speedy because once through the turnstiles everyone has to be patted down. Then the turnstiles go haywire as the barcode readers stop working, but it doesn’t matter because people are already backed up at the security check. Happily the turnstiles begin to work again and we are both into the stadium and up the steps to the upper tier; we make our way to as near to the half way line as we can get. It is a ‘sit where you like night’ tonight in this part of the stadium because there will be displaced supporters from behind the north goal where the seats will remain empty after fans threw objects onto the pitch during the recent derby match with Quevilly-Rouen.
The Stade Océane is only six years old, it cost 80 million euros, it has a few more than 25,000 seats and the two I sit in were more comfortable, spacious and felt much more solid than the average football stadium seat; they even have a smooth spring action to tip up. I sit in two different seats because the bloke just along from my first seat is puffing an e-cigarette, which emits clouds of sickly fruit scented vapour that make me feel slightly ill; he also has quite a pungent body spray so it is doubly necessary to move a bit further away. I can’t believe that his natural smell was so bad that he had to go to such desperate lengths to cover it up.
The players warm up on the pitch as the ground fills up; eventually the ground will be almost exactly half full, which with a nice sense of numerical symmetry is about twice as full as it is has been for most Ligue 2 games this season. The teams are introduced in the customary French manner with the stadium announcer providing players’ first names and the crowd shouting out their surnames, it’s a lot of fun but I don’t think it would work as well with English surnames. Banners display the club crests and the teams enter
the arena. There is a band of ultras in one corner at the southern end of the ground they wave flags and then sing the national anthem, the British national anthem, which for Le Havre is the club song. (https://youtu.be/Wy2MhV8sFyw) Havre Athletic Club is France’s oldest football club, founded in 1872 by a bunch of Englishmen from Oxford and Cambridge universities, so possibly a Tory cabinet, and this English connection explains the use of Thomas Arne’s tune.
Le Havre kick-off the match towards the empty Tribune Nord wearing what is possibly an Oxbridge inspired kit of Cambridge blue and Oxford blue quarters with Oxford blue shorts and socks. Alternatively, the two blues could be of those of the sky and the sea as HAC are known as Ciel et Marine (sky and sea); two things that are prominent in Le Havre and somehow define the city and it situation. Tours meanwhile wear all white, but with blue and white checked sleeves. Havre are quickly on the attack passing the ball zippily on the lush playing surface and soon earn a corner and within four minutes the beautifully named Zinedine Ferhat crosses from the right and Jean-Philippe Mateta sends a fine header into the bottom left hand corner of the Tours goal. Six minutes later and a precise through ball from Jean-Pascal Fontaine precedes a right foot shot from Mateta and Havre are winning two-nil, with Tours having explained graphically why they are bottom of the league. That’s all that needs to happen this evening, if Havre can keep the score as it is they will be in les barrages. To an extent it seems that they realise this and after such an exciting opening ten minutes the game settles down to be not quite so exciting.
It takes twenty minutes for Tours to have a shot and despite the score the Le Havre supporters don’t seem overly thrilled; perhaps they are not wanting to tempt fate by celebrating too soon. The ultras provide another rendition of the club song, but the most interesting development is in the stand where some people complain to a steward about
two blokes who are stood at the top of the steps watching the game. The young steward is pressured into asking them to sit down or at least move because it seems they are blocking the view, which they may well be. The older of the men, who looks well in his fifties gesticulates and argues but eventually moves, walking past his accusers and jabbing his index figure at them angrily; it’s marginally more entertaining than the match, although Tours are now having more shots and their Baptiste Etcheverria is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thual for a rather violent assault on the impressive Zinedine Ferhat. Meanwhile, the other man who had been ‘outted’ for standing moves to stand at the side of the stairs and lights a cigarette.
All around the open sections of the ground there are people standing in the area at the
back of the lower tier, and skulking in the Tribune Sud behind the completely empty away supporters’ area are masses of police, all just watching the game apparently. I don’t know if the police were expecting Tours fans who never turned up; perhaps they were delayed, but heard the score after nine minutes and decided not to bother; it is a three and a half hour drive after all. With about five minutes to go until half time some rhythmic clapping breaks out and then the ultras sing another burst of ‘God Save The Queen’ as they hold their scarves aloft like English football fans used to before the Premier League spoiled everything.
Half-time arrives and I head downstairs to release some of that Ch’ti that I drank before the match and have since processed as nature demands. Passage downstairs however, is
difficult because bizarrely and surely contrary to safety requirements, the bottom of staircases E3 and E4 are blocked off with Heras fencing. This may be an odd attempt to keep the people who have paid 10 Euros for a seat out of the centre of the stand where normal prices have been charged, but it just has the effect of making people in the cheap seats walk through the central section to get to an open staircase. Down in the lower concourse children are playing on bouncy castles and the light shining through plastic outer ‘skin’ of the stadium creates a bluish hue. At the back of the lower tier people stand and smoke.
The football returns and the scoreboard encourages the fans to get behind the team; “Faites Du Bruit” it announces, “Make Some Noise”. The ultras obey but no one else much does. On the opposite side of the stadium is the directors box and it amuses me a little that above this are the words “Shopping, Restaurants, Loisirs (leisure)”, as if advertising the thoughts of the wealthy people in the seats below. In the players’ tunnel a man in a suit, presumably a club official, lolls casually against the concrete wall with his hand on his hip, perhaps summing up in his casual posture the
apparent attitude to the ongoing failure tonight to promote supporter safety in the Tribune Est (East Stand) opposite. A procession of people descend the steps of the Tribune Est expecting to be able to go down the staircase to the toilets or buvette, but of course they find the foot of the stairs closed. A small girl gets quite distressed until led away by her older brothers and an elderly man looks equally perplexed when he finds his way barred. There is no easy way to the other staircases except by walking along whole rows of seats and asking people to stand up to let you through. I just hope there is no need to evacuate the stand quickly.
As the game approaches its final minutes, at last a tangible sense of anticipation and excitement returns to supporters other than the ultras. There is clapping and singing and the fans at last seem confident that their team is capable of holding on to a 2-0 lead against the league’s bottom club and despite three minutes of time added on they do. Le Havre qualify for the play-offs where they will be at home to Stade Brestois 29, another club from a great French port that was also bombed heavily by the allies towards the end of World War Two. We leave the supporters to celebrate without us in order to head for the navette, because we’re not sure what time it will leave.
It has been a good night, but a slightly disappointing one nevertheless. The Stade Océane is fabulous, but has not been shown at its best and its management tonight has been nothing short of alarming. Everything is in place for football to be memorable in Le Havre, but the club really needs that promotion.