Ipswich Town 1 Stoke City 1


After a week of beautiful winter sunshine today is grey.  As I am about to walk to the railway station I receive a text message from Roly to tell me that there are rail replacement buses between Colchester and Ipswich.  The gloom of the day deepens.  I leave the house forgetting to say goodbye to my wife Paulene.

At the railway station I see Roly over the tracks on Platform Two, he is eating a muffin and holds a paper cup of coffee.  Roly is a conspicuous consumer, of food. Our train journey is brief and we soon find ourselves boarding a sleek grey coach belonging to Tendring Travel, the front of the vehicle sports a Union flag, which no doubt goes down well in that land of hope and glory that leads to Jaywick.  Already on board there are people sporting the blue and white favours of Ipswich Town and it feels like we’re setting off on an away trip, but equally I feel like an extra in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, such is the magic of boarding a bus or coach.  A ‘steward’ in a day-glo coat quietly counts us on to the coach, she’s Tendring’s Wendy Winters, but predictably less glamourous. I cast a fat bloke over the aisle as Ringo’s auntie Jessie; the partly-vacant seat next to him is predictably the last to be occupied.  The unhappy looking driver is very anxious that his vehicle is not over-filled “I can’t have anyone standing” he says, twice in quick succession.  Someone has to alight but then we depart.  The bus is swelteringly hot.

We arrive in Ipswich twenty five minutes later than if we’d arrived by rail, but of course we have been charged the same price for this slower, less comfortable service.  If I’d wanted to save money by travelling by bus on Ipswich Buses service 93 from Colchester to Ipswich or by National Express coach I could have done so.  Instead I thought I would pay a bit more and travel by….oh dear, bus.

Reeling from our experience Roly and I hot foot it up Portman Road to St Jude’s Tavern, barely registering that the programme kiosks have been painted dark blue and therefore making me imagine even more vividly that each one is a Tardis piloted by Mick Mills  capable of time travel back to the 1970’s, that distant time when Ipswich Town first seduced me.  St Jude’s is busy with drinkers, but Roly and I claim a table where we sup our pints of today’s Match Day Special, Goblin’s Piss (£2.50) which I am relieved to discover tastes much, much, much better than it sounds.  Our conversation is of football and more precisely Ipswich Town and we conclude that playing Collin Quaner and Will Keane up front together is like having two Mich D’Avrays; a concept which we like very much.  We drink quickly, probably due to de-hydration from our coach trip and I soon return to the bar to buy a further pint and a half of the Match Day Special, which has now changed to St Jude’s Hoppy Jude (still £2.50).  Roly only has a half because he is nothing if not responsible and he will be driving his car later this evening (it’s a Vauxhall Astra). I suspect Roly also wants to leave space for something to eat once he gets to the ground; I sometimes wonder how he is not the size of Ringo’s auntie Jessie.

Under the insouciant gaze of Sir Alf Ramsey we part, Roly heads to the ‘posh’ seats of the East of England Co-op Stand and its gourmet offerings whilst I slum it in the cheap seats of Churchman’s, now the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  There is no queue at the turnstile where I thank the operator cheerily for his pedal-work and proceed to my seat via the toilet.  Unusually I get to my seat before the match ball has been plucked from its plinth. Pat from Clacton is here but ever-present Phil who never misses a game is not, he’s being wined and dined with supporters club supremos and is watching from a ‘posh’ seat somewhere.

Ipswich begin the game playing towards me and Pat from Clacton, as ever they wear blue shirts and socks with white sleeves  and shorts and display the deeply tacky logo of an organisation of on-line scammers across their chests.  Today’s opponents are Stoke City and to their everlasting credit they have eschewed the wearing of any unnecessary change kit and instead wear their traditional kit of red and white stripes with white shorts and socks. They look a bit like Signal toothpaste, and coincidentally this chimes with the novels of Arnold Bennett set in the Potteries in which the fictional local paper is called The Signal, although I do not recall any reference to toothpaste in any of the novels I have read. I can very much recommend ‘The Card’, which even weaves football into the story near the end.

The ‘Stokies’ assembled in the corner of  the Cobbold Stand (we will later be informed that there are 1,138 of them in the total crowd of 15,924) immediately burst into a chorus of Tom Jones’ Delilah for which they are rightly famous amongst people who pay any attention to these sorts of things.  Ipswich supporters seem to have given up already on inexplicably singing “Sweet Caroline” as our attempt at being quirky and interesting, possibly because it will now forever harbour painful, dark memories of the destructive Paul Hurst era, brief though it was.  Moving forward, as people now say instead of ‘looking ahead’ in these thrusting modern times, spectators in the Cobbold Stand, East of England Co-op Stand and Sir Alf Ramsey Stand could be given song sheets for Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’.  Make it performance art and the song sheets could be blank.

The heavy grey cloud and hint of damp in the air lend the afternoon a sombre atmosphere but the floodlights are on and once again, as on Wednesday night versus Derby, this feels like a proper football match; the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, or more accurately the corner of it occupied by the Blue Action supporters group is audible.  From the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand however, the Stokies are more audible and soon sing “One Gordon Banks, there’s only one Gordon Banks”.  Many Town supporters in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand begin to applaud and frankly I’m confused as to whether this is a one minute’s applause for the deceased goalkeeper or just applause directed at the Stoke fans singing “One Gordon Banks”.  Modern football with its sentimentality is complicated.

Stoke are dominating possession but not in an exciting way; they don’t look much like scoring and their fans are hopefully being ironic when they sing “We’ve got the best team in the land”; having been to Stoke On Trent I think it likely that Stoke supporters are capable of irony.  For Town, little Alan Judge (Judgie) looks our best player by some way and when he picks himself up off the turf after being fouled the spectators around me applaud him warmly, showing far more enthusiasm for this ‘resurrection’ than they do for supporting and getting behind the team the rest of the time.  “Shoot!” bellows someone from behind as Town players circle in front of the Stoke penalty area. “They don’t know where the goal is anyway” mumbles the old boy behind me, clearly hankering for the latter days of Mick McCarthy’s reign when we only came to games to be miserable.

It’s twenty-five past three and as little Judgey crosses the ball with speed and purpose a chant of “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” comes out of the blue from the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand; a spontaneous, instinctive, momentary burst of enthusiasm in a dull first half. Less than ten minutes later and Alan Judge is floored again as he is fouled by Stoke’s James McClean who becomes the first and only player to be booked by the small, balding referee, Mr Scott Duncan.  Hilariously McClean tries to make out that it is he who has been fouled by then diving outrageously; he is fully deserving of the chorus sung just for him by the Sir Bobby Robson Stand of “Wanker, Wanker…”  It makes me wonder why so many professional footballers are such bare-faced cheats and why the normally po-faced Football Association puts up with it.

Four minutes to go until half-time and the game is hardly thrilling.  “That’s gettin’ misty” says the old girl behind me, understandably more engaged by the weather than the match.  Stoke have had better chances to score than Ipswich, but fortunately seem to believe that the cross-bar is much higher than it actually is. A minute before half-time however, Town’s Jonas Knudsen loses all sense of where he is in relation to the rest of the planet and heads a harmless looking cross away from rather than to Bartosz Bialkowski in the Ipswich goal, allowing the cheating James McClean to run on and score from less than a yard into an empty goal; even he couldn’t miss that or fall over. Once again justice doesn’t play to the whistle and has gone early for a half-time cuppa. 

Half-time follows and after a chat with Ray I let out some more of the Goblins Piss and Hoppy Jude.  I take a look at the half-time scores and search for a Panda brand liquorice stick that I thought I had in the inside pocket of my coat.  I will eventually find it later this evening in the coat lining, I should probably buy a new coat, this one has to be twenty-five years old at least.  The new half begin at five past four and Ipswich improve a little and the crowd remain with them, politely applauding an over-hit pass which last season would have drawn scorn and bile from the stands.

Teddy Bishop begins to run with the ball. He does it once; he does it again and is brought down to win a free-kick. “I knew that would happen” says the old boy behind sounding annoyed as if to say he shouldn’t have bothered.  “But he’s won a free-kick” says the old girl displaying a more measured tactical approach to the game.  Alan Judge draws a spectacular flying save from the Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland when the kick is taken.

Collin Quaner goes down injured and the game is stopped with Stoke in possession. Sportingly, the Stoke fans boo, revealing their proud Premier League heritage.  When I was at university I knew a Stoke City supporter; his name was Tony and he was a lovely, friendly bloke, fun to have a drink with. He lived in Wolverhampton but went to watch Stoke he told us, because of the violence.  He was very proud of his sexual conquest of the daughter of a local Chief Constable and he once defecated in a milk bottle; I didn’t see him do this, but I saw the milk bottle, which was enough.

Fifty seven minutes have been played and the Stokies sing “Is this a library?” It’s a mark of how things have improved at Portman Road that they have had to wait this long to sing it; they do so only once; it’s almost as if it’s a condition of sale on the tickets.  Stoke press forward and earn a corner, the ball runs back to the edge of the box and one of their number, I have no real idea who, but it could have been Oghenekaro Etebo , wellies the ball nominally goalwards; travelling like a comet the ball drifts left in a graceful curve under the influence of an unseen gravitational force and heads at speed directly towards me.  I remain seated but raise my arms, succeeding only in getting a finger-tip touch which barely alters its trajectory.  “Why didn’t you catch it?” shouts Ray “I would have if I could be bothered to stand up” I tell him “I’m just very lazy, it’s why I’m not in the team”.

The game drifts away, meandering towards time added on as the evening chill sets in. I sense disappointment and frustration behind me. “Come on! You can beat this lot. They’re nearly as bad as you are” calls the old girl cruelly. “That’s all very pretty…” says the old boy as the Town pass the ball across the pitch and back “…but does absolutely nothing”.  He sounds bitter and his attitude illustrates why English football will always be inferior to French or Spanish or Italian, because we can’t abide all that soppy passing.

Time added-on arrives and Town are pressing, but not looking likely to score; they win a corner and in a stroke of good fortune Paul Lambert, still wearing his black Marks & Spencer v-neck jumper and black slacks still has one substitute left.  On to the field comes Suffolk’s favourite 1.93m high Congolese centre back Aristote (Toto) N’Siala.  I can almost hear the Stoke players thinking “Who the feck is going to pick him up?” Possibly several players go to mark Toto and as the corner is taken I see the ball and the number fourteen on the shirt of Will Keane converging.  “Goal!” I shout and a fraction of a second later Keane’s head sends the ball into the net and Town have equalised.     It is a moment I may not forget, like when Mich D’Avray scored from Kevin O’Callaghan’s cross against Liverpool in February 1986.  

There’s barely time left for either side to score again and a little predictably they don’t.  The game ends and for the second match in a row Town have not lost and we are deliriously happy.  This is truly one of the weirdest season’s I have ever known at Portman Road.  We are still bottom of the league and we never get appreciably closer to the teams above us, but for some reason it feels good and a good number of people are enjoying it.   Are the Russians putting something in the water or the Match Day Special?

Ipswich Town 1 Derby County1


I usually catch the train home from work at about ten to five, but today I am engrossed; writing a report and explaining why a deadline has to be extended. At about five past five however, my stomach feels slightly jittery, I am feeling inexplicably anxious and my concentration is waning , thoughts of beer and football tumble over one another displacing everything else in my mind. All at once it seems horribly late, it’s getting dark outside, I can feel my heart beginning to pound.  I have to leave.  At five-fifteen I step out into the cool, dimming light of dusk in Ipswich.  Office lights shine out sadly from upper floor windows casting shadows of regret.  But what do I care, I am making straight for St Jude’s Tavern.

I pass the Ipswich Town main gate where people wait like groupies at the stage door. Is it a free ticket they crave or a glimpse of a star player arriving for the match in his nastily ostentatious Audi or Range Rover?  A steward leans in towards the wound down window of a Ford Fiesta, perhaps explaining that this sort of car isn’t acceptable round here and there is a Council pay and display car park over in Portman Road for his sort. I walk on past warning signs about CCTV and bag inspections, past burger vans and polythene goodie bags containing the local paper. It all has a certain beauty.

In St Jude’s Tavern I collect a pint of the Match Day Special, St Jude’s Thaddeus (£2), I ask if they have any pies, but they haven’t. I console myself with the thought that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I sit down with two of the superannuated old blokes who are here before every match; we talk football and Ipswich Town.  The older looking of the two tells me he saw Town play three games during their last season in Division Three South in 1957, versus Bristol City, Charlton Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday.  He’s talking nonsense because none of those teams was in Division Three that season.  The memory can play tricks.

I buy another pint of Thaddeus and Mick arrives, and then so does ever-present Phil who never misses a game, they both drink Thaddeus and Phil remarks that it tastes like it’s ‘on the way out’, it is, and for my final pint of the evening I choose St Jude’s Oatmeal Stout (£3.60); it’s an extra £1.60 well-spent.  Along with third division football grounds, a jazz festival in Nice and what the city of Derby is famous for (Rolls Royce, real ale pubs and Bombardier trains) we talk of euphemisms for dying and I relay how a member of staff at the crematorium in Colchester referred to my ninety eight year old mother-in-law’s eventual death as being when “she performs”, which we all agreed was a very odd turn of phrase. 

After just a half, Phil leaves first for the ground because he’s going to visit the Fan Zone,  but Mick and I also leave earlier than is decent because Mick has to arrange a refund having bought two tickets together in the West Stand for tonight’s match even though I have a season ticket in Churchman’s.  Mick is extremely polite in the ticket office and I feel slightly guilty when the ‘saleswoman’ says that the club doesn’t usually move season tickets seats and I reply a little snappily “Well, they did for the Rotherham game.”  As a person who generally is almost as polite as Mick, I can’t really explain my bad attitude, but suspect I harbour a lot of resentment as a result of being a season ticket holder for the past 35 years. I am also fearful that if the club knew that I sometimes imagine handing out flares, or at least sparklers in the family and disabled enclosures I would be banned for life.

The ticket refund palaver has made us late and the teams are already on the pitch and participating in a minute’s applause for the late Gordon Banks who very sadly has ‘performed’ today.  By the time we have drained our bladders and taken up our seats the game is just kicking off.  Tonight’s opponents are Derby County a club whose appearances at Portman Road in their halcyon days of the early 1970’s I somehow contrived to miss. Despite first attending Portman Road in 1971, I failed to see Derby County play here until December 1977, by which time their once brilliant star had started to wane.  It is for this reason perhaps that I have no strong views on Derby County and in my mental map of league football they appear only faintly as peripheral, shadowy figures.   Tonight’s game will do nothing to alter this image as Derby line up and begin the game in the most insipid, uninspired and vapid kit of pale grey shirts, shorts and socks with lime green cuffs and trim. Town meanwhile sport their usual blue and white attire despoiled by the anything but magical “Magical Vegas” logo.

Perhaps as a result of low self-esteem induced by that “Magical Vegas” logo or because they simply didn’t notice the Derby players drift by in their shadowy, foggy kit, Town offer up the customary one-goal lead to the opposition within the first two-minutes. Bloody hell.   Town are now quite literally giving teams a goal start, I fear they will soon be kicking off every game with a ball already in the back of their net to save time.

Happily, once play resumes it’s as if the goal never really happened and for people reaching their seats only fractionally after Mick and me, it never did.  Town soon settle into playing passing football and they dominate possession. The crowd, who we will later be told number 18,604 (including 926 from Derby) are behind the team as one; the Sir Bobby Robson stand is as good as full and the enthusiasm engendered by the Blue Action group has seemingly spread all along the lower tier.  “Man On!” shouts the man behind me trying to help out Town’s on-loan full-back James Bree. “Who’s that” asks Mick . “Bree” I reply. “What, Bree as in tree?”. “Yes”.

“Ohh, just that bit too high, weren’t it” says the bloke behind me as a Town’s first corner kick sails over everyone’s’ heads. He’s not wrong. “O-oh no-o” he then says developing an ugly streak of pessimism when Alan Judge’s pass is intercepted.  There’s no such doubt in the Sir Bobby Robson stand however where “Ipswich ‘til I die, I’m Ipswich ‘til I die, I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Ipswich ‘til I die (or perform)” is the life-affirming song of the day.   All the Derby fans can muster in response is a wishy-washy “Lampard, Lampard, give us a wave” which he does, limp-wristedly.

This is a good game and things get better as the first player booked is former Ipswich darling Martyn Waghorn, as he fails to fool referee Mr Andy Madly into awarding him a free-kick and pays the price for his impression of someone ‘performing’.  The smell of chips wafts up into the middle tier of the East of England Co-op stand as half-time approaches but the bloke behind me refuses to be optimistic “ Oh, here we go” he says as a Derby player runs at the Town defence.  A flowing passing move releases Town’s Collin Quaner into the penalty box, he shapes to shoot and I tense my calves, ready to jump up, but he shoots high and wide having almost fooled me into thinking he might actually score.

Matthew Pennington is having possibly his best game so far in a Town shirt and I can think of no higher compliment, for the time being, other than to say he reminds me of David Linighan; it’s his leggy run I think.  Less leggy is diminutive, little Alan Judge who is nevertheless a cut above his fellow midfielders and reminds me of Olympique Marseille’s Valere Germaine, but with a little bit more hair.  Trevoh Chalobah tips over Derby’s number seven Harry Wilson whom Brian Clough would hopefully have called Harold Wilson.  “He was lucky to get away with that” says the bloke behind, adding “He does do that” as if to explain that he can’t help himself, which the referee understands and is why he didn’t book him.   Pessimism soon returns however as the bloke behind me muses “If they score another, that’s it”.   He couldn’t enjoy the game if he wasn’t so miserable.

Half-time necessitates further bladder draining before stepping out onto the practice pitch to take the air and stretch our legs.  The middle tier of the West Stand is a little uncomfortable for people who exceed 1.8m height like Mick and me, but we rationalise our pain by deducing that in the 1950’s when the lower part of the stand was built people were probably shorter on average, perhaps because they never had the benefit of free-school milk that us baby boomers enjoyed.

Refreshed and un-coiled we resume our positions and Town resume their dominance.  Derby really are as pale and innocuous as their kit, which barely seems possible.  Surely Ipswich are on the brink of the play-offs and Derby bottom of the league?  “As if to verify this the North Stand chants “Can you hear the Derby sing? No-o, No-o”.  It is the first time in years that Town fans have had the confidence to sing this.  

A Derby player has the ball, “Put him under! “ Put him under” shouts a wannabe coach or anaesthetist.  Trevoh Chalobah misplaces a pass and we speculate that his bleached, dreadlocked fringe got in his eyes.  Jon Nolan replaces Flynn Downes for Town; for some reason I cannot hear the name Nolan without thinking of the Nolan sisters and I am reminded that Anne Nolan was married to former Blackpool footballer Brian Wilson and I enjoy the ‘Seasiders’ and ‘Beach Boys’ connection.  Within two minutes of Nolan’s appearance, Collin Quaner lays the ball off to him and everyone is in the mood for dancing as his low shot tears past Kelle Roos the Derby goalkeeper.   What a great goal!  But when your team hasn’t scored for three games and seldom does anyway, the feeling of elation reaches new heights. Winning might be overrated, but scoring isn’t.

This is the best match of the season so far, by far. Defeat at Norwich, or perhaps more so Paul Lambert’s alleged threats of violence towards the Norwich goalkeeping coach have been an inspiration.  “Paul Lambert is a Blue, Is a Blue, Is a Blue; Paul Lambert is a Blue, He hates Norwich” to the tune of London Bridge is falling down tumbles from the mouth of the Northstanders.  The rest of the stadium remains pretty moribund but they carry us through.  The pessimist behind remains un-moved from his dark outlook. “Uh, ohh” he groans as a Derby cross flies in.   Meanwhile I breathe deeply the smell of the damp, cold turf.  Derby come with a late surge on the back of some forlorn cries of “Come on Derby” from the 926 in the Cobbold Stand; they hit a post and miss a shot but nothing terrible happens.

After five minutes of additional time courtesy of six substitutions and the usual needy players craving the attention of the physio, the day-glo shirted Mr Madley whistles with final certainty.  We all get up to go home, but not before a round of applause and a general exchange of good wishes and loving feelings.  Happiness reigns; Town haven’t won, but they haven’t lost and even if they had I didn’t think most of us would have minded that much, because even though they didn’t look very much like scoring it was clear that was what they were trying to do.   It makes me wonder if we’re not re-defining sport here in Ipswich, returning it back to what it’s meant to be.  We’ll need a few more relegations to accomplish that fully however and the Southern Amateur League isn’t what it used to be.  It’s been a while since we played the Crouch End Vampires.

Brightlingsea Regent 1 Merstham 1

Until 1964 I could have journeyed all the way to Brightlingsea by train via Colchester and Wivenhoe, but the treacherous activities of the evil Dr Beeching mean that it is now necessary to leave the train at Colchester and then catch a number 62 bus. My excuse today for not using public transport is that the bus journey alone would take me the best part of an hour and it would also prevent me from stopping off on the way home to buy much needed mushrooms, salad and bananas at Waitrose. Today therefore I am making the 32 kilometre trip by Citroen C3 and saving the planet takes second place to future breakfasts, lunches and a boeuf bourguignon.
It’s a bright and blowy Saturday afternoon and wispy clouds scud across a pale blue sky. The B1029 twists its way across the flat lands of the Tendring peninsula and down into Brightlingsea from the north, past medieval All Saints Church with its impressive tower, sitting high on a hill outside the town; part place of worship, part lighthouse. Brightlingsea itself arrives as a sprawl of mid-twentieth century houses around a much older central core and a waterfront. I miss a turn, but having gone round the block I find my way. Residential North Road, all pebbledash and net curtains leads to Brightlingsea Regent’s home ground, currently called the Taydal Stadium, but more traditionally referred to as plain old North Road.
I reverse the Citroen into a space at the end of a line of other similarly neatly reversed family saloons. It’s a very short walk to the turnstile where I tender the correct money for entry and a programme (£10 + £2). Just inside and I am assailed by a lady with copper coloured haired selling draw tickets (£1 each); although not a gambling man I can’t help but feel it would be rude not to buy one, so I do. Come half-time ticket No372 will win, I’m sixteen tickets too late; if only I hadn’t missed that turning into Spring Road. It’s not quite twenty to three, so optimistically I think I might have a beer and therefore take a look in the bar; sadly there’s no hand pump, so I don’t bother; I can’t be doing with that cold stuff full of burps. At one end of the room however is a very brightly lit trophy cabinet which shines like a beacon and could easily attract magpies or ward off shipping from the mud banks in the Colne estuary; it has a slightly incongruous appearance in the otherwise very plain surroundings.
Back outside I seek out the ambience of non-league football. North Road is a hotch-potch of low stands and covered terraces confined within a steel fence backed up against the gardens of dull suburban houses. Beneath the cover outside the clubhouse people are eating chips from small polystyrene trays and drinking beer from plastic cups. The hatch in the club house wall beneath a sign that reads Regent Snacks is doing a steady trade.

Several free range children run about the stands and path around the pitch; today’s match is sponsored by the Brightlingsea Regent Youth Section which no doubt accounts for this. From the public address system, the names of the teams are announced. “First, the Mersham team” says the disembodied voice, mispronouncing the name of the visiting club and annoying at least one of their twenty or thirty supporters who are preparing to choose a goal to stand behind. As I drove to the ground this afternoon even the BBC Radio Essex announcer made the same mistake; I can only attribute this to being in a County where much of the population can’t pronounce the letters ‘th’ as anything other than an ‘f’ or a ‘v’, but ‘Mersfam’ would sound silly.

I take a walk around the perimeter of the pitch and then the teams emerge from the corner of the ground by the club house, walking in two neat lines behind the referee Mr Karl Sear and his leggy assistants Leo Del Rosso and Ashley Butler. The standard mass handshaking ensues before Merstham break from a team huddle to kick off towards a row of ugly bungalow roofs which form the backdrop to the goal at the clubhouse end of the ground. Merstham wear yellow shorts and socks with black shorts, whilst Brightlingsea sport a natty kit of black and red striped shirts with black shorts and red socks and kick towards the suburban back gardens of houses on Regent Road, one of which rather unexpectedly and splendidly has crennellations. It’s a colourful sight.
The opening minutes of the game see Merstham, who are third in the excitingly titled Bostik Premier League, but only five points ahead of twelfth placed Brightlingsea, spending as much time in the Brightlingsea half as Brightlingsea, but gradually the game evens out into an inconclusive midfield struggle. Brightlingsea have a shot cleared off the line which the home crowd are convinced was a goal. Fortunately there is no VAR to make shouting “Linesman, you’re useless” a redundant exercise, so somebody shouts it. On the covered shallow terrace behind the Merstham goal the self-styled Brightlingsea Ultras sing “Can you hear the Merstham Sing?” A respectable looking middle-aged woman quite quietly says “No swearing, please” and the Ultras complete their chant singing “I can’t hear (pause), anything, wo-oa, wo-oa-oah”.
I wander round to the dugouts, interested in what the coaches and managers are doing. The Merstham manager is smartly dressed in a mid-length, navy blue rain coat, shiny black shoes and neatly pressed trousers; he sips from what appears to be a paper cup of coffee, although I guess it could be super-strength cider, but that wouldn’t really fit the pattern established by his wardrobe. The Brightlingsea manager wears a woolly hat, trackie-bottoms and football boots; he glugs from a plastic water bottle which he chucks to the floor when he’s finished. This is the Surrey stockbroker belt versus Tendring. Merstham is on the edge of Reigate, a town 21st out of 401 in a league of average tax bills drawn up by Chartered Accountants Hacker Young for 2011-12.

“Go Manny” shouts the Merstham manager, not just when number eleven Emanuel Ighorea has the ball, but whenever anyone else does too. “Come inside, keep sucking it in” he adds complicating matters. His subsequent plea to “Get the ball” seems sensible if perhaps over simple. On the Brightlingsea bench there is the same concern for their number eleven, Harrison Banner. “Look at Banner, look at Banner!” is the exasperated call, followed by “For fuck’s sake” suggesting that if anyone did look at Banner they forgot to do anything else.

With half-time approaching I move on to behind the goal where the Merstham fans are congregated in a long line. Merstham enjoy a little flourish at the end of the half and all of a sudden number ten Fabio Saralva has the ball with no one much around him, he steps forward to the edge of the Brightlingsea penalty area before launching a shot into the top left hand corner of the Brightlingsea goal; ‘keeper James Bradbrook’s dive is despairing and Merstham lead 1-0 from a very fine looking goal. Understandably the Merstham supporters are thrilled by this event and I can’t deny being impressed somewhat too. I wander round past the players’ tunnel which looks like it might once have accommodated primates at Colchester zoo and wait just a few yards from the tea bar for half-time. The final action of the half sees referee Mr Sear wave his yellow card at Merstham’s number nine Walter Figuiera whom the referee has seemingly ‘had it in for’ all afternoon, to the extent of calling back play for a free-kick to Merstham as he was about to cross the ball. As the players leave the field for their half time cuppa the Merstham fans gather at the players’ tunnel and I add my voice to questions to Mr Sear about his attitude towards Figuiera; he doesn’t answer, confirming his guilt to my mind.

I queue for a cup of tea (£1.50) and consider why tea costs more the further up the football league pyramid one goes. I fish the tea bag from my cup and drop it in the bin next to the table on which the milk and sugar is placed. An elderly man with a flat cap and a stick tries to flick his teabag from his cup to the bin, but his tea bag falls on the ground with a wet splat. “That’s you out of the basketball team” I tell him, he smiles sympathetically. I stand my tea on the brick perimeter wall to allow it to cool. “Haringey are losing again” says an excited voice behind me “Potters Bar are winning at Worthing”. No one responds, but another voice declares that the hot chocolate is lovely. “Best in the league, since they cleaned the machine” says someone else. I look through the programme. It’s an attractive glossy publication and I am reminded why it is so disappointing that some clubs no longer produce one. Where else would it be possible to learn that Regent’s number nine Michael Brothers brings some “top banter” to the dressing room?
At four minutes past four the game resumes and Brightlingsea look to have had the more inspiring half-time team talk, getting forward more consistently than they managed before and they win a couple of corners. “Head it, head the ball” is the considered advice from the stands, as well as a more violent sounding “Attack it!” “Come on you R’s” sing the Ultras. At twenty past four a Brightlingsea corner is cleared but only to a point a few yards outside the penalty area from where it is lobbed high back towards the goal. Necks are craned but only Brightlingsea’s Jake Turner moves his feet and follows the flight of the ball and the two come together about five yards from the goal where he sweeps it unchallenged into the net past a surprised looking Amadou Tangara, the Merstham goalkeeper.
The remainder of the second half is more open than the first with both teams having chances as the sun is engulfed behind hazy cloud and the floodlights come on. Substitutions are made and the PA announcer attempts to induce excitement by lifting the tone of his voice on the final syllable of Clarke Gilbert, as he replaces Michael Brothers; it has no discernible impact. Having equalised, the urgency they had at the start of the half deserts Brightlingsea somewhat, but it remains an entertaining match. There’s a worrying few minutes late on however as Brightlingsea’s number seven Jordan Barnett appears to have some sort of fit after a collision with his own goalkeeper and after several minutes of uncertainty he is stretchered off.
Today’s attendance is announced as 231 and as the sun sinks towards the horizon the telephone wires across North Road are silhouetted through the descending gloom, looking a cat’s cradle. I stroll past the Merstham fans assembled behind the goal at the Regent Road end of the ground. “Come of Merstham” they shout. “Who’s that? Mersham?” I ask innocently. Happily they seem get the joke, I think. I head past the main stand towards the exit and with the final whistle am handily placed for a swift departure.
I make the short walk back to my trusty Citroen reflecting that I have not witnessed a classic match, but it has had its moments and the result is a fair one, which counts for something in this unfair world.  Waitrose awaits.

Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

It’s been a cold, grey February day in northern France; it snowed last night to add to the snow that had been lying around waiting for the next lot to fall.

It takes some effort though to imagine what it must have been like in Flanders’ fields just over a hundred years ago. But I’m born lucky, there’s no march to the front for me, just a walk from my hotel to the République/Beaux-Arts Metro station in Lille. My grandfather came to France in 1914 to fight for king and country and get hit by shrapnel; I’m here with my wife Paulene to watch Lille OSC play OGC in Nice in Conforama Ligue 1. It seems very unfair on him really, but who knows, things may change; half the population seem oblivious to the fact that the EU and the longest ever period of peace in Western Europe are not a coincidence.
Down in the Metro station at about 7:25 pm we recharge the tickets we had last time we were here back in March of last year; it’s the responsible thing to do and it saves 0.20 euros per ticket too (3.30 return instead of 3.50). Ligne 2 of Lille’s two line, driverless metro system will take us on the twelve stop journey to the end of the line at 4 Cantons Stade Pierre Mauroy in a about fifteen minutes, from where it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk through the university campus to the stadium. As metro systems go, Lille’s is the most fun of any I’ve travelled on; the rubber-tyred trains make a whizzing, whirring noise and with no driver you can sit up front and watch the tunnel and the lights of on-coming trains hurtle towards you. I’ve been on worse and more expensive funfair rides which have failed to take me anywhere near a football ground; one-nil to Lille.
The train is hot and busy with football fans and Friday night commuters; the heat aggravates Paulene’s asthma so we alight three stops early at Villeneuve d’Ascq Hotel de Ville, which is no further from the stadium than the dedicated station. This walk to the stadium takes us through the local shopping centre, but we get out and walk through outcrops of slushy snow across the car park where the air is much fresher, and more breathable. Across the car park supporters in ones and twos converge on a point in a corner by a roundabout where we join the throng of Lillois on their march to the ground. Up Rue de Versailles we head, past the Picwic toy shop, Saint Maclou flooring shop and the ubiquitous Leroy Merlin DIY store, this is the wonderful world of out of town French retailing. A number 18 bus, which we would have caught from République Beaux Arts if the Metro hadn’t been so enticing, disgorges passengers; above the front windscreen the digital display alternately reads the destination and ‘Allez LOSC’. Behind us a man and his young daughter are part of the marching crowd in their red and white scarves; the girl talks excitedly to her father; she has the endearing, soft voice that many young French children have; she sounds as if she’s lost her big white dog, Belle.

Reaching the top of Rue De Versailles, the Stade Pierre Mauroy hoves into view like a huge neon-lit slug. With its curves and strip lights it’s not immediately recognisable as a football stadium but happily it doesn’t look like a DIY store either, as it might if it was in England. It seems England and France have a different language of architecture as well a different spoken language. The French like to make a grand statement; the English would seem to like to save money.
As much as I want to visit the club shop to delight in what it has to offer, Paulene is still struggling due to her asthma so together we make our way directly to our seats. We bought our tickets on-line a month or so ago (16.65 Euros each) but there are queues at the guichets tonight with a special promotion for students, including those at the lycées (secondary schools for 15 to 18 year olds), who can get in for just five euros. Eventually there will be a crowd of 32,849 watching tonight’s match, which is also live on satellite/cable TV. Kick-off is half an hour away and we do not have to queue for our tickets to be checked, or to be ‘searched’ and patted down; it makes me and the steward smile when he pats me on the head to see if I’m hiding anything under my Ipswich Town beanie hat, I’m 1.87m tall. At every turn we are wished “Bon Match” by the polite, helpful, friendly and efficient security and gate staff. At the turnstile I collect a copy of the A4 sized, glossy and completely free match programme. On our last visit the programme had the title Reservoir Dogues, a weak and nonsensical pun on the club nickname of Les Dogues. This season the heading is ‘In The City’ above a silhouette of some Lille’s most outstanding buildings, including the Stade Mauroy. The title shows understandable civic pride and a fine appreciation of the oeuvre of The Jam. We make for our seats which are on the back row of the bottom tier of the stadium and the view is excellent, particularly given what we paid for them; about what it would cost to watch Colchester United.

With kick-off time (8:45pm) nigh Lille introduce their new signing from Belenenses the interestingly named Reinildo, possibly the only Mozambique footballer I have ever seen. Greetings for the new boy over, the teams file onto the pitch side by side and we are treated to a display of giant Roman candles and the Ligue 1 theme music; the excitement is building and in the Tribune Est (East Stand) red and white scarves are held aloft. The western end of the stadium mirrors the east and then supporters all around the ground join in as they sing the club song, somewhat weirdly to the tune of Amazing Grace. It’s impressive nonetheless and far superior to anything likely to be seen or heard from supporters of any English club nowadays.

The game begins courtesy of Lille who are aiming towards Rue de Versailles and the Auchan supermarket and are wearing their customary red shirts with navy blue sleeves and shorts. Nice kick towards the multi-storey car park behind the Tribune Ouest and wear all-white. Lille quickly take the initiative as expected of the home team; and so they should, being second in the league table behind Paris St Germain and nine points ahead of seventh placed Nice. But Nice look the better team because they are all in white like Real Madrid; it’s a kit that sets off their Cote d’Azur suntans; they also have the majestic Brazilian Dante at centre half and at number seven Allan Saint-Maximin who, with his blond dreadlocks and headband is the coolest looking player on the pitch.

With nine minutes on the scoreboard the stadium erupts into spontaneous applause for Emiliano Sala the former Nantes player lost in the English Channel due to a plane crash; it seems there is very high regard for Sala amongst supporters of all French teams and it is a very moving sixty seconds.

Nice whose first choice kit is the same as that of AC Milan continue to look good in their all-white change kit but sadly for them, Italian and Mediterranean style count for little and it’s not even five to nine before Lille’s Jonathan Bamba hares away down the left and a cross finds 19 year old Portuguese Rafael Leao with little else to do but kick the ball into the goal. The already ‘up for it’ crowd are even more ‘up for it’ as more Roman candles ejaculate white sparks behind the goals and the Lille players enjoy a group hug.

From now on the Lille supporters are in good voice, as if they weren’t already. “Lo lo, lo lo lo, lo lo-o-o, L-O-S-C” they sing and other catchy chants. At the Tribune Ouest, the two guys stood on the raised platform at the front of the stand who are conducting the ultras are joined by an older man whose long white hair makes him look worryingly like Jimmy Savile; happily however his enthusiasm for supporting Les Dogues does him credit and he waves his arms encouragingly to good effect.
The game progresses and Nice don’t look like scoring; they have some decent players but they don’t look happy to have left the Cote d’Azur to spend a cold evening near the Belgian border. With less than ten minutes to go until half-time 23 year old Ivorian Nicolas Pepe breaks away down the right; he shoots unexpectedly and the ball goes across Nice ‘keeper Walter Benitez and inside the far post. More out-sized Roman candles, more joy, more chants, less likelihood of Nice not losing this match. In front of us two ten or eleven year olds who look like they are here with their grandfathers behave annoyingly, tearing up their programmes and lobbing the screwed up fragments onto the people sat below and then jumping about aping the ultras in the Tribune Nord. “Petites merdes” I think to myself. Another boy with blond hair is constantly fed sandwiches, cakes and biscuits by his dad who at other times has the childish grin of the two petites merdes.
Half-time arrives and I ‘nip out the back’ to the buvette for an espresso coffee (2 Euros) and a hot chocolate (2 euros), although after a long wait in a not particularly long queue the hot chocolate proves to be only a lukewarm chocolate, but it is a cold night. The guy serving in the buvette immediately detects that I’m not French and asks where I’m from; I tell him England and oddly he asks me if I’m British; I tell him I’m from Ipswich just to confuse him.
I get back to my seat just in time to see the teams return for the second half. Nice manager Patrick Vieira has evidently failed to galvanise his team who remain disappointing, as perhaps one might expect from a manager who has failed to nurture the mercurial, damaged and flawed but fabulously entertaining Mario Balotelli and instead allowed him to join French Riviera rivals Olympique Marseille. The second half is like the first, but a little colder, even though the roof to the stadium is closed. When anyone opens one of the doors behind us that lead out onto the concourse there’s a helluva draft. With fifteen minutes left twenty-two year old Jonathan Bamba evades the Nice defence to score a third goal for Lille and the fireworks explode again and the ultras erupt into an orgy of flag waving. The game is won and the crowd celebrates with more songs and chants which echo across the pitch from one Tribune to another, scarves are held aloft again and then a Mexican Wave begins; I think it’s called joie de vivre, we don’t really have it in Ipswich.
The game may well be won and lost but there is more fun to come as Nice substitute Pierre Lees Melou is fouled by Lille’s Luiz Araujo. Lees Melou steps across Arujao to get the ball and catches Arajao on the leg; he collapses to the ground. Referee Jerome Miguelgorry consults the VAR and we wait; he returns to the scene of the ‘crime’, reverses his decision and shows a red card to Lees Melou, apparently for violent conduct; it all seems rather ridiculous and everyone seems a little stunned. I sense Nice just want to head back down south where it’s a good ten degrees warmer and who can blame them; sadly for them they don’t make it before Lille score a fourth goal in time added on when Loic Remy dashingly diverts a cross from Jeremy Pied past Walter Benitez with the use of his head. For Lille it’s the ideal way to end a successful evening, for Nice….well, they are past caring.
The final whistle just brings further celebrations for the Lillois as everyone salutes their team with generous applause before turning away and off into the night, filling the dark, deeply cold streets with the hum of excited conversation and hurried steps. It’s been a lot of fun.