Conventional wisdom tells us that one of the important things about being a committed football supporter is that you don’t interrupt your nine or ten months of religious devotion with inconvenient weddings, family events or holidays that might prevent you from watching your team every week. Well, yah-boo to conventional wisdom, after over fifty years of watching Ipswich Town and forty years of being a season ticket holder I partly no longer care but have also found that going on holiday during the season opens up new possibilities of watching other football in foreign lands, and so it is on the sultry last day of August that I find myself in the Breton capital, the city of Rennes.
Number eleven buses leave frequently from Republique in the centre of Rennes for Roazhon Park home of Stade Rennais and the correct bus stop is easy to find because of large numbers of people in red football shirts. Bus company stewards patrol the stop ensuring people stay on the platform and giving advice to first time travellers like me and my wife. A petite woman with auburn hair and clad in a hi-viz jacket bearing the legend ‘Ami-Star’ (Rennes’ buses are operated by Star) tells me that the fare is one euro fifty and we can pay on the bus with a bank card. The bus soon arrives and consumes the waiting throng within its articulated 18 metre length. It takes just ten minutes to get to Roazhon Park; although the city centre traffic is heavy, our chauffeured Mercedes speeds unimpeded along bus lanes.
The bus drops us off within site of the stadium, there are still ninety minutes to go until the Coupe d’envoi (kick-off) at 9pm, but the street outside the towering angular stadium is a mass of people, most of whom are queuing for food and beer at the many bars and mobile food concessions that line the street. I think of how quiet Portman Road is even an hour before kick-off. We make our way along the street to the far end of the stadium and find the club shop to make our traditional souvenir purchases, which today comprise a fridge magnet and a small furry rendering of the club mascot ‘Erminig’ the ermine, which is attached to a keyring. It is very warm in the shop and my wife Paulene steps outside to get some fresh air whilst I queue to pay. After paying, I head for the door only to meet Paulene coming back into the shop, it has started to rain outside and she needs a hat. As I queue to pay once more, I see Paulene has met the real, I hesitate to say ‘life-size’ Erminig, who has surely also come indoors out of the rain and once I’ve paid for her hat I photograph her with the outsized weasel, who I must admit I thought was a polar bear when I first saw him on tv.
Emboldened by her hat and my thirty-year old Umbro shower jacket, Paulene and I venture out into the rain and walk behind the main stand next to the River Vilaine, which runs through the city; the deep grey sky is suddenly illuminated by an electric flash of light and a deep rumble of thunder; we hurry to turnstile 17 where after scanning the tickets we printed for ourselves back in blighty, and a quick patting down, including a look under Paulene’s hat we are admitted into the Tribune Credit Mutuelle de Bretagne. Sadly there no match programmes, but at the top of a flight of metal steps I am given two large pieces of corrugated card which read “Allez Rennes” on one side and carry an advert for Malo natural Yoghurt on the other. I am also given two foldable, pocket-size fixture lists. Weighed down with cardboard, I head for the buvette to buy a cola (E2.50) for my wife and a bottle of water (E1.50) for me. I am surprised and disappointed to find that the cola is not the local Breton Breizh Cola but one of the inferior American brands.
As we take our seats and look out onto the brilliant, floodlit, lush turf it is clear that the rain has become much, much heavier; cracks and flashes of thunder and lightning coarse through the air; people retreat from their seats at the front of the stand as the rain drifts in beneath the high roof. On the pitch, the players of both teams continue to warm up, seemingly oblivious. Incredibly, the rain falls even harder. Even more incredibly the rain falls harder still, but the pitch drains impeccably. It rains torrentially for possibly twenty minutes, but the storm then passes over, as storms do, and by 9 o’clock when kick-off arrives the sky is almost clear.
The stadium has filled-up with people who set out on a warm evening in t-shirts but now look as if they swam here. In the away supporters’ enclosure many of the male youth of Brest are topless, the same is true of the Rennes ultras in the lower tier of the stand at the other end of the stadium. With the steep stands on all four sides now largely full, the atmosphere inside Roazhon Park is all those things that atmospheres in football grounds are usually described as, from bouncing to electric to rocking and all stations in between, and well worthy of the passions that a meeting between Brittany’s best supported team and the team from its second largest city might be expected to raise. As we wait for the teams to appear the floodlights start to flash on and off; it’s not a power problem due to the storm but just a part of the build-up to this ‘Breton derby’ to go with the singing in Breton of a Celtic-sounding anthem to the same tune as the Welsh national anthem, pyrotechnics and thumping music.
Finally, after the Rennes team is announced via a combined effort between the electric scoreboard and the crowd, who shout out the surnames of the players in response to the stadium announcer calling out their first names, the teams appear to a crescendo of noise and the lighting of flares amongst the Rennes ultras who rejoice under such names as Les Socios, Allez Rennes and Roazhon Celtic Kop.
Rennes kick-off and are on the attack from the start and massively dominate possession throughout the first half. Rennes play quickly particularly down their left wing where full-back Birger Meling gets forward, constantly overlapping and linking up with the fluid midfield. Despite Rennes’ dominance however, they can never quite penetrate the Brest defence which blocks and chases and runs but seldom breaks forward to any effect. Rennes come closest with a free header which is somehow blocked or perhaps could be better directed, and a follow up shot which is also blocked. Watching as a neutral surrounded by Rennes fans I feel their frustration.
Although their team have not managed to score, the Rennes supporters evidently appreciate their efforts and their style of play and the applause is generous as the teams leave the field at half-time. As for Brest, their team are not losing, and their supporters have had a whale of a time singing and chanting and linking arms and turning their backs to the pitch and letting everyone know they are here, even if their team hasn’t ‘turned up’ in quite the same way. Half-time sees a line of stewards assemble in front of the stand holding what looks like a length of rubber tube, presumably this is to prevent any unexpected pitch invasion by me, my wife or the mostly respectable looking people sat around me. One of the stewards, with his bald head visible inside the hood of his red cagoule looks like a cross between the murderous, red-coated figure in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Don’t Look Now, and former Ipswich manager Paul Cook. Aside from the stewards, half-time entertainment is limited and consists of people trying to drop kick a football into a huge and presumably fake pot of Malo yoghurt. The first attempt by a young woman drops straight into the pot, but no one else succeeds and one boy embarrasses himself royally, slicing the ball horribly wide to the jeers of the crowd. Finally, Erminig the giant stoat has a go and comes as close as anyone, except the first contestant who has struck another blow for women in football.
Our seats face the half of the pitch which Rennes will now be attacking and somewhat typically the start of the second half sees Brest come out with re-found purpose and for the first few minutes most of the play is at the far end of the pitch, but it soon begins to even out. Rennes win a corner just eight minutes after the re-start and directly from it, centre-half Joe Rodon heads his team into the lead that they probably should have had at half-time. Roazhon Park explodes into a wall of noise as Rodon’s name is shouted out by the crowd after the stadium announcer has shouted out his first name. Narrow canvas pylons inflate and deflate behind the goals as if advertising a remedy for erectile dysfunction and the players form a human tumulus, burying the goalscorer. Rennes will now surely go on to win.
Four minutes later, after a first shot is blocked Franck Honorat scores for Brest with a low shot inside the near post; but for an outbreak of pandemonium in the away enclosure to our right, Roazhon Park pouts in stunned silence. Brest had had to do something more than just defend, and very quickly they had, to everyone’s surprise, possibly including their own.
The second half continues to be more evenly contested than the first. Brest have worked out a better plan that gives them more of the ball although Rennes are still the team that have more attacking verve and their best players Benjamin Bourigeaud and Martin Terrier are more involved than they were previously. Brest maintain a disciplined back line, successfully catching Rennes offside or tracking the Rennes players’ forays forward. The match continues to entertain, and the ultras of both teams are in good voice. The Rennes fans chant to each other from both ends of the stadium, one end echoing the shouts of the other. The game enters its final ten minutes and based on the previous eighty minutes I dare to think to myself that no more goals will be scored. The three blokes sat in front of us are clearly of that opinion too and boldly, but perhaps foolishly, they leave.
Three minutes of normal time remain. Rennes win a free-kick in front of us and Bourigeaud arcs a cross into the penalty box. A cluster of players jump together and with his neck straining Martin Terrier flicks his head and the ball up, sending the ball behind him in a dipping curve beyond the figure of Marco Bizot the Brest goalkeeper. Rennes have surely scored what is a late winner. The inevitable noise erupts all around us amidst waving hands and pumping fists and the sight of men in red shirts and black shorts cuddling one another. Paulene enjoys the fact that our jointly held belief that one must never leave a game early has yet again been vindicated.
There is nothing now for Brest to do but once again alter their game plan and try and score a goal. Normal time ebbs quickly away and suddenly four minutes of added on time is all they have. It’s the ninety first minute and it’s Rennes who are getting forward; down their left, their substitute Desire Doue is running into the penalty box, he still has the ball, no tackle comes in, he looks up and smoothly passes the ball firmly beyond the diving Bizot and into the far corner of the goal. Doue looks up seemingly surprised that he has scored and the blur of noise, hugs and excitement of four minutes ago happens all over again.
With the final whistle, Ermining the giant stoat appears once more and joins the players on the pitch as both teams applaud their supporters and share post-match handshakes. As neutrals Paulene and I applaud, but soon depart for the bus stop and the trip back to the city centre where we’ll enjoy a night cap in the bar on the corner of the street where our hotel is situated as we look back on another memorable evening of football in France.