Coupe de France on Telly 5 Going to a Live Match 0

The world of football has stopped spinning on its axis, leather no longer strikes leather or skin or wood or nylon netting, whistles no longer blow, crowds no longer chant, turnstiles no longer click, the stink of frying onions no longer pervades the streets, people no longer gawp at the blacked-out windows of team buses, floodlights no longer shine, nobody leaps like a salmon, referees no longer brandish yellow cards, sniffer dogs no longer sniff for non-existent pyrotechnics, over-zealous stewards no longer hassle carefree supporters,  pre-match pints are no longer downed, blades of football pitch grass remain spittle free and no one listens to the results on their car radio.  Saturday has died, along with the occasional Tuesday and Wednesday evening.

Having spent most of this season experiencing dead Saturdays, unable to go to football because of illness and my subsequent convalescence, it’s somewhat odd that now no one can go to football because of the Covid-19.  Social media is awash with reminiscences of past games and goals as bewildered football fans search for something to fill the void in their lives.  I have few memories of this season to look back on having only seen eight games, but I may be fortunate that at least I have plenty of recent experience of coping without going to a match.  When Ipswich travelled to Tranmere Rovers for example, I could not go and so sought solace in my living room. I now find myself reminiscing about that January day when I watched live football on TV, cue eerie sounds and a wavy effect in your mind’s eye.

After a frosty start to the 18th of January the sun has risen as high as it will get in the clear pale blue sky. It’s beautiful, but it’s cold.  It is Saturday. Football. Ipswich Town are away in Birkenhead; I haven’t gone, I can’t, but according to the ‘little book’ that I keep I have been to Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers, nine times before, the last time being a 2-0 win in March 2000. I’ve paid my dues, I’ve done my time; I’m staying home unless I go to a local game. Coggeshall Town and Stanway Rovers and Colchester United are my nearest clubs and they are all at home.  I won’t be going to Colchester as a protest at the withdrawal of the shuttle bus to the ground, the only thing that made the far out of town location at Cuckoo Farm in any way viable; we should be cutting carbon emissions to save the planet after all and I bet Greta Thunberg isn’t a Col U fan.  I find it hard to get enthused about bank-rolled teams such as Coggeshall Town, and Stanway Rovers has never managed to capture my imagination, probably because of its hyper-boring suburban location; all net curtains and open-plan living.

Ideally, even in preference to Birkenhead, I would be in France, where today is the round of the last thirty-two teams in the Coupe de France, the French equivalent of the FA Cup.  Three Coupe de France games kick off at noon English time, which after 11.30 is normally my least favourite time for a football match to start; all games should of course start at either 3 o’clock or at some time between 7.30 pm and 8.00 pm.  The three 12 o’clock games are Nice v Red Star, Prix-les Mézières v Limonest and Epinal v Saint Pierroise, and after a bit of interrogation of the ‘interweb’ I discover that all three games are live on ‘Jour de Coupe’ (Cup Day) on the French speaking Eurosport 2 channel, which is available to watch on the roast beef-eating side of the English Channel through the magic of the Amazon Firestick.   At 2 o’clock English time a further two games kick off with Gonfreville playing LOSC Lille and Belfort playing AS Nancy Lorraine.

The programme is presented by the personable Gaëlle Millon who certainly earns her money on Coupe de France weekends as she presents the matches at lunchtime, in the afternoon and on into the early evening with a 5 o’clock kick-off and then the later evening match at 8 o’clock.  It doesn’t stop on Saturday evening for notre Gaëlle either, as on Sunday she will then present the afternoon games and an evening match and then possibly another evening game on Monday too.  Gaëlle is perched on a high chair or stool behind a small desk in a studio which is probably in the headquarters of Eurosport in the Paris suburb if Issy-les-Moulineaux, which incidentally is only a fifteen minute walk from Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint Germain.

I miss the starts of the games because I am making a cup of tea, but no one has scored so I am not overly bothered.  The coverage is of the ‘Multiplex’ variety so all three games are being covered and the broadcast flits between them according to where it seems most likely something interesting is going to happen. But in reality the coverage concentrates, to begin with at least, on OGC Nice v Red Star because on aggregate these two clubs have the best cup records of those playing today, Red Star with five wins and Nice with three, although Nice haven’t won the Cup since 1997 and Red Star not since 1942.  Nice, managed by Patrick Vieira dominate the game, but I am pleased and then foolishly optimistic when Red Star hold out for ten, fifteen, twenty, and then twenty-five minutes.  In the twenty-seventh minute however, Danilo scores for Nice and with indecent haste Ignatius Gonago scores a second, a mere two minutes later.  After that second goal the result is a foregone conclusion; despite doing well in Ligue National, the French third division, Red Star are something of a Gallic Ipswich Town and rarely manage to score more than one goal a game.

I lose interest in the Nice game as a result of that second goal and begin to only pay attention to the TV when the Multiplex coverage switches to the games at Stade de la Poterie in Prix-les Mézières and Stade de La Colombiere in Epinal.  The game at Prix-les Mézières is between two clubs in the fifth tier of French football, the National 3.  Prix-les Mézières is effectively a suburb of Charleville Mézières the principal town in the Ardennes département which borders Belgium and is about 330 kilometres and a three hour drive from Calais.  Epinal is further south and east and is the principal town in the Vosges département. Epinal football club is in the fourth tier of the French leagues (National 2), whilst their opponents are in the first level of the Regional leagues which is the sixth tier.

Sadly the coverage rarely switches to the ‘lesser’ two games. I miss the Epinal goal which wins the match and Limonest concede the only goal of the match at Prix-les Mézières after fifty two minutes.  The Stade de la Poterie and Stade de la Colombiere are typical of French grounds outside the elite of most Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 stadia, which are the only venues to host fully professional football. The grounds or Stades are owned by the local authorities and whilst they all have a decent main stand or ‘tribune,’ the other three sides of the ground often have no cover at all and sometimes no terrace.  Poterie and Colombiere possess some of the charm of the English non-league, with spectators stood on grassy banks, a terrace of houses forming a cosy back drop, and traffic passing by with panoramas of streets and landscapes beyond. With more to see than just football, TV coverage from non-league is so much more interesting to watch because if the football is rubbish at least there is still something to see.

In the 92nd minute of the game in Nice Yanis Hamache scores for Red Star and for ninety seconds or so I hope against hope for another Red Star goal, extra time and the lottery of penalties.  But hope is all I get and Nice win the day, although Yanis Hamache gets a second moment of glory as he is interviewed on TV; the money he spent on a weird haircut wasn’t wasted.   On Twitter @RedStarFC tweet “Focus desormais sur le championnat,” which is pretty much French for “now we can concentrate on the League.” 

After a brief return to Gaëlle in the studio in suburban Paris, coverage of the three noon kick-offs quickly switches to the two ties which are beginning at two o’clock in Belfort and Le Havre.  The Belfort game sees ASM Belfort of National 2 play AS Nancy Lorraine of Ligue 2, whilst in Le Havre, ESM Gonfreville also of National 2 play LOSC Lille, runners-up in Ligue 1 in the 2018-19 season.   Whilst Belfort’s stadium, the Stade Serzian is another typical French municipal stadium with a single cantilever stand on one side, a running track and views of suburbia all around, Gonfreville, which is effectively an industrial suburb of Le Havre, are borrowing the modern and totally enclosed Stade Océane, the home of Ligue 2 Havre AC.  Stade Océane, which looks as much like a giant, bright blue rubber dinghy as a football stadium, has made recent successful TV appearances in the Women’s World Cup and today the attendance is bigger than Le Havre usually sees for its Ligue 2 matches. The magic of the cup clearly translates into French.

Most of the coverage of the latter two games centres on Le Havre, but it is in Belfort where the action begins and continues as after just seven minutes the wonderfully named Enzo Grasso puts Belfort ahead.  Disappointingly for the romance of the Cup, which pretty much means ‘giant-killing’, Nancy’s Malaly Dembele equalises a bit less than twenty minutes later.   Sadly, I miss the goal, partly because I had become distracted by my mobile phone and partly because the live coverage at the time of the goal was in Le Havre so there was no over-excited commentator to alert me to it by bawling “ Quel but!” (What a goal!). Meanwhile in Le Havre there are no goals at all, only the intriguing sub-plot of how Lille manager Christophe Galtier’s hair seems to have grown darker whilst his beard has become more grey. It could just be my imagination however, and according to my wife it is, but then, she always had a bit of ‘a thing’ for Monsieur Galtier, I think it’s because he’s from Marseille.

Half-time takes us back to Gaëlle in Issy-les Moulineaux to re-cap on what has gone before and  chat with ‘experts’ perched on stools like performing animals. The second halves begin and all the decent action remains in Belfort whilst the live coverage is in Le Havre.  With just ten minutes of the second forty-five played, karma gets even with Malaly Dembele of Nancy for scoring that romance-crushing equaliser and he is sent off.  I don’t know why Malaly is sent off because once again I have become distracted and miss the action, this time because I’m catching up on what’s happening in Birkenhead, which is nothing.  Having learnt my lesson, I put down my phone and concentrate on the games on the telly.  Lille are making hard work of getting past Gonfreville, a club three levels below them and I begin to notice the perimeter advertising; the usual multi-nationals are there such as Nike and Volkswagen but less expected in a country known for its love of haute cuisine is KFC, but some welcome novelty is present in the form of EDF the French electricity company and the French bakers Pasquier, whose industrially processed bread products can also be found in British supermarkets. My reverie is broken as coverage switches to Belfort in time to catch a Nancy player blowing his nose on his shirt. He might have got away with if he was playing for Norwich, whose kit is the colour of snot, but Nancy are playing in white shirts today.  

Back to Le Havre and with sixty-nine minutes played Loic Remy at long last gives Lille the lead, but the replays of the goal are not over before there is also a goal at Belfort where hopes of a ‘giant-killing’ are restored by Thomas Regnier and the TV screen divides in two to show two goals being scored at once, the excitement in my living room is now palpable.  Five minutes elapse and Belfort are awarded a penalty which gives the programme director time to ensure that the main action is being beamed from Stade Serzian and Thomas Regnier scores again to give Belfort a 3-1 lead with just twelve minutes left to play of normal time.  This is great, so good I almost fail to notice that in the Coupe de France teams do not carry their usual sponsor’s names on their shirts, but instead all the away teams display the logo of PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) a horse racing promoter and betting organisation, whilst home teams advertise the symbol of the Credit Agricole bank.  As if that’s not enough all players display the name of the Intermarche supermarket chain across their shoulders and club crests are replaced by the badge of the FFF (Federation Française de Football), the French football association. My mind begins to drift to thoughts of Vincent (Samuel L Jackson) in Pulp Fiction and his ‘Quarter Pounder/Royale’ conversation with Jules (John Travolta); “It’s the little differences…”.  But injury time, as it used to be known, has started and with two minutes of it gone Victor Osimhan brings some late excitement to my TV screen as he confirms Lille’s ‘safe passage’ through to the round of sixteen with Lille’s second goal, but Belfort still have six whole minutes left to play. 

In Le Havre the game ends and the victorious Lille players line up to applaud the Gonfreville team from the pitch; what with the late goal, the mass sporting gesture not to mention the ‘giant-killing’ I feel rather moved by it all and emit a small cheer when the game in Belfort finally ends with no further goals.  Back with Gaëlle in the studio I remember to check the half-time score in Birkenhead, I wish I hadn’t.

Happy times, perhaps not quite as good as the real thing, but looking back from this shut-in, locked down world I feel quite privileged to have had them. Please appreciate the moment and make the most of it. In the words of Country, Pop and Novelty songwriter Ray Stevens “Everything is beautiful in its own way”. Oh, and there was a happy ending in Birkenhead after all.

Weather /Covid – 19 1 US Boulogne/ Lyon Duchere 0

In April 2019 in a moment of brilliant optimism my wife and I bought ten crossings on Le Shuttle; they had to be used within twelve months but it was worth ‘buying in bulk’ for the discount ,and why wouldn’t we want to commit ourselves to getting away to continental Europe at least five times in the next year?  We say “Bugger Brexit”.  In April 2019 we went to Dijon, in July ,in the midst of the heatwave, we drove to Paris to spend a week looking after some friends’ dog and in September we were due to spend three weeks looking after a cat in Strasbourg.  Disappointingly, we never made it to Strasbourg; in a personalised prototype of the current global shut-down, my life was put on hold as I spent five weeks in hospital and the best part of six months recuperating.  But now I am at last repaired, and there’s a rush to use up our six remaining crossings.  At the end of January we  spent a few days in Belgium, foolishly departing early on the Saturday morning to catch Ipswich Town v Oxford United instead of staying to join the 4,423 who enjoyed KV Oostende v Sint-Truiden, and then a couple of weeks ago we arranged a long weekend in Boulogne and Calais, planned to coincide with US Boulogne’s Friday night fixture in Ligue National (the French third division) against Lyon Duchere.

Life is sweet we thought and with US Boulogne in third place it promised to be a lot of fun; but on the morning of our departure the game at the Stade de la Liberation in Boulogne is called off, supposedly because of windy weather; but all twenty games in the Ligue 1 and 2 programmes are already postponed because of Coronavirus and within a few hours the whole of the Ligue National programme is cancelled too.  To add to our disappointment we had thought we were blessed by having succeeded in booking into a hotel with free parking opposite, which is a mere 300m walk from the stadium, and this had had us fantasising about being able to comfortably stagger back from the match hi on frites and Kronenburg, fine wine and third division football.

Friday is a beautiful sunny day with Boulogne-sur-Mer looking at its best, aided perhaps by no one much being about as schools and colleges begin to close and people stay at home due to Covid-19.  We enjoy the street art on the gable ends of the town houses and telecom equipment boxes, I drink Chimay trappist ale at a street café whilst my wife drinks pastis, we walk the town ramparts and visit the cathedral crypt, I buy a postcard and we sit in the sun.  Our day ends with a pleasant meal in a small restaurant in the centre of the fortified old town.  I forget about the football but for a brief glimpse of a single floodlight pylon at the end of the road as we step from the hotel and cross into the old town. I sleep well and dream sweet dreams.

On Saturday morning the puddle of standing water on the flat roof outside our hotel room window ripples with falling rain drops.  After breakfast we will depart for Calais, but first I must give my regards to the Stade de la Liberation and head out into fine drizzle that is coming directly off the English Channel and dropping on Boulogne-sur Mer.  Not wishing to provoke her asthma my wife remains in our room watching the drama of the Corona virus unfold on French TV when not looking for Les Lapins Cretins on the cartoon channel.  But I have to get a measure of what I missed last night and imagine what I might have witnessed under the beams of those four floodlights. 

The floodlights of the Stade de la Liberation peak over the roof tops around the ground, appearing between high gables and block of flats or hiding behind the spreading canopies of leafless grey trees.  A sign with an arrow says “Ribery” and points the way to a stand at the side of the pitch named after Boulogne’s famous son Franck, one of those players not greatly celebrated in England because like Zidane, Trezeguet and Thuram he was always just a bit too classy for the Premier League.

The man entrance to Stade de la Liberation is on Boulevard Eurvin where I peer through the railings across the pitch past the statue of a naked woman clutching a shell and standing on a fish.  How many clubs I wonder can boast such erotic statuary combined with references to seafood, not many I’ll wager.   Smiling to myself about what they’d make of such things in Grimsby and Fleetwood I turn into Rue de Dringhen and then Rue Leo Lagrange, which run behind ‘Ribery’ whilst tantalisingly offering no views of it at all.  Another right turn takes me in to Rue du Vieil-Atre and more sitings of the floodlights and the entrances to both the ‘Kop’ and the away supporters enclosure. Stickers adorn the signage outside indicating that at least one supporter from Creteil, a south eastern suburb or banlieu of Paris, has been here and that he, or she, was well supplied with Creteil related stickers. If the ultras from other clubs have stickers it would seem that Creteil are the only visiting supporters to have ventured this far north and they either went nowhere else or had stickers to spare.

An uncovered mass of seating above a scaffolding frame looms above me as I approach the turn into Rue Hector Berlioz , another residential street that backs onto the stadium.  I like that every  French town has streets named after the same great French composers and writers and wonder why England is so different and why we choose not to remember Britten or Williams or Holst but to honour local councillors and dignitaries who no one has ever heard of and even less gives a toss about.  Between the buildings there are glimpses of the cream painted render of the art deco style Tribune ‘Honneur’ where the posh people sit; but in truth the ground is now largely hidden but for the occasional lamp of a floodlight poking over  or between the rooftops.   A few more steps up the slope between parked cars and my tour of the Stade de la Liberation is over and I find myself back on the Boulevard Eurvin.

To be honest, in my ten minute walk I’ve not seen a lot of the Stade de la Liberation ,but what I have seen has been a series of snatched, tantalising half views of bits of stands and floodlights and signs and traces of those who’ve been here before, added to which my coat, my trousers and my shoes are all a little wet.  I will now be sure to remember for posterity my visit to US Boulogne during the great pandemic of 2020, and I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I got wet watching a game that never happened, having not even got into the stadium.   But it’s of such tales of pointless folly that football legend is made and such suffering and stupidity is what following football is all about.

Ipswich Town 0 Coventry City 1

Last night I went to a ‘gig’ in a very small music venue in Chelmsford called the Hot Box.  My friend Pete, who has never really got over being eighteen, invited me to see a ‘Psyche Rock’ band from Glasgow called Helicon, he thought I’d like them because some of their songs feature a sitar and I’m a sucker for a sitar, so he thought right.  It was when sitting in the bar chatting and listening to the trains rumble overhead (Hot Box is inside two railway viaduct arches) that we couldn’t help but notice all the reproductions of classic album covers of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that plaster the walls, and Pete spotted that for the Only Ones’ eponymous album released in 1978, my favourite year. Today I have realised how the lyrics to the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet describe my relationship with Ipswich Town “You get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating”.

Today the sky is blue with a hint of wispy cloud.  I stepped out of my back door a bit earlier and it felt flippin’ freezing; so, it is cloaked in a thick woolly jumper, overcoat and muffler that I set off for the railway station having flagrantly ignored the threat of COVID-19 and kissed my wife goodbye. The train arrives on time and the twelve minute walk has left me hot and a bit sweaty; life is not always what you expect. Naturally, the sun is shining in Ipswich and behind the Station Hotel in its beer garden the scarves and shirts of Coventry City fans mimic the colour of the sky; surreally the Eton Boating Song drifts up over the pub car park and the murky waters of the River Orwell, I half expect to see Boris Johnson and his cronies burning £50 notes in front of the rough sleepers who doss down at the front of the railway station.

In Portman Road the six-wheel, slate grey Coventry City team bus arrives at the same time as me, but the bus reverses into Portman Road, turns round and is re-directed to the Constantine Road entrance. Unlike the coach driver I know exactly where I’m going and walk on through, past a man who appears to have a metal bollard stuck up his anus, and the usual pre-match panorama of people munching low-grade meat product between slabs of low grade bread product.  The flags on the Cobbold Stand fly strongly in the breeze and I walk on towards St Matthews Street and St Jude’s Tavern where Mick is already a good way through a pint of Iceni Brewery Partridge Walk (£2.50).  I buy a pint of the same and once sat down we discuss the end of my phased return to work after illness, our weight , today’s team selection and, after Mick reveals how he can’t stand people going on and on about their dogs, dogs. Neither of us owns a dog but I used to have two Lurchers called Alfie and Larry, until they were put down.  I drink another pint of Partridge Walk whilst Mick sinks a Jamieson’s whisky and with fifteen minutes or so until kick-off we depart with the licensee wishing us luck as we don our coats.

Turnstile 5 is my portal into another world today and as usual I smile and thank the operator for letting me through. With bladders drained and hands washed Mick and I take our seats, stepping over them from the row behind so as not to inconvenience Pat from Clacton who is already ensconced at the end of the row.  Of course ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here too, along with his young son Elwood and there’s a welcome return of the old dears (Doug and Sheila) who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me; the only absentee is once again the man with the Brylcreemed hair; that’s two games on the trot he’s not been here, I fear we may have ‘lost’ him and Pat from Clacton says as much.  I won’t miss him, I found his thick hair furrowed with Brylcreem somewhat distracting.

The two teams soon emerge from the shiny, blue, plastic tunnel and Crazee the mascot waves his flag like Liberty leading the people in Eugene Delacroix’s painting. “L’étendard sanglant est levé” I sing to myself, in my head, whilst wishing this game was in Ligue 1 and not League One.  The sky is no longer blue, but grey and cloudy.  The game begins and Ipswich are wearing their customary lovely royal blue shirts and socks with white shorts whilst our guests Coventry are in a somewhat avant garde ensemble of white shirts with a black and white chequered band across the chest, black shorts and white socks; they look as though they are either the 2-Tone Records works’ team or the Metropolitan Police, but it’s quite smart in a un-football-kit-like sort of way. The 2-Tone connection is in fact used to market the kit and in my mind I take things a step further imagining the players on the team bus all in dark suits, pencil ties and pork-pie hats before stepping off the bus in a line like Madness or skanking to The Selecta.  If Ipswich Town was to go for a dress style based on that of a famous, local, popular music artist the players would have to have haircuts like a 1980’s Nik Kershaw, and indeed Frank Yallop did.

Five minutes pass and Town’s Jon Nolan falls theatrically in the penalty area, it’s a blatant dive and I express my disgust with outspread arms and disbelieving expression whilst those around me bay for a penalty.  Town looked okay for a short while, but Coventry are now dominating possession and seem like they have a plan. Up in the Cobbold Stand the Coventry supporters sing Tom Hark (originally a Ska song by Elias and his Zig-Zag Ji-flutes, but not on 2-Tone) and something about ‘going up’, which my ears won’t let me decipher.  The away following today is impressive, even if their annunciation is poor; we will later learn that there are 1,740 of them and in forty-nine years of coming to Portman Road I have never seen so many Coventry City supporters, but then this is the first time in forty-nine years that a Coventry team has come to Portman Road that is at the top of or even anywhere near the top of a league.  These people have been very patient, their team having previously only ever been models of mediocrity, although most Town fans would kill for a bit of mediocrity right now.

As seagulls soar overhead and perch on the cross girder of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand roof, Coventry win the game’s first corner, but the ball is sent directly behind the goal line. The match looks like being one of attrition, but then Coventry score; the uninspiringly named Matt Godden turning very cleverly and shooting inside the far post. No one saw that coming, least of all Luke Chambers and his chums in the Ipswich back-four. Fifteen minutes have passed. “Super, Super Matt” sing the Coventry fans as if advertising a local launderette, but then clarifying the matter by adding “Super Matty Godden”, all to the tune of Skip to My Lou.

The Sir Bobby Robson stand, who had been in reasonable voice fall quiet and the pall of gloom that had seemingly been blown out to sea after the defeat to Fleetwood on Tuesday returns.  “Fucking dog shit this” opines the roughly spoken gentleman behind me.  “Fuckin’ sums it all up” he continues, as a Town player is out-jumped for the ball, “How was he beaten in the air? He’s not even trying to win the fuckin’ ball”.  Pat from Clacton rolls her eyes at the coarseness of the language whilst owning up to me that she sometimes says “shit”.

On 28 minutes a ball drops over the top of the Coventry defence and Town’s Jon Nolan is on to it with just Coventry’s Slovakian goalkeeper Marko Marosi between him and glory. Nolan opts for abuse as he tamely heads the ball into the goalkeeper’s hands. “We’re gonna win the League” sing the Coventry supporters, sounding a little unsure of the words, having never sung them before this season.   Half an hour has passed and the wonderfully named referee, Trevor Kettle, whistles for a foul on Town’s Teddy Bishop and then gives his yellow card its first airing of the afternoon, brandishing it in the direction of the perpetrator Liam Walsh.  Town win their first corner five minutes later and Luke Woolfenden’s shot is sent wide of the goal.  It’s nearly half-time and seizing their opportunity to deliver ironic humour as Town supporters head for the toilets, the Coventry fans sing “Is this a library?” Time enough remains for Nolan to be through on goal again and send his shot over the cross bar and a few rows behind me some unusually posh sounding people talk to one another very loudly ,as posh people often do, about something completely unrelated to football.

Half -time brings boos for Trevor ‘The Whistle’ Kettle as he leaves the pitch with his two side-kicks in their unpleasant yellowy-green tops and the air is one of despondency.  Mick asks if I thought we should have had a penalty near the beginning when Nolan went down; I tell him I can’t remember the incident. “Well, you were very animated at the time” says Mick, and then I remember and have to explain that actually I was annoyed that Nolan had dived.  I speak with Ray who bemoans the absence of decent full-backs at the club and the fact that once again the goal Town conceded came down the left hand side of the pitch.

At 16:04 the second half begins, but the blokes behind don’t return for a good few minutes; they don’t miss much and we don’t miss them.  As time passes inexorably it becomes apparent that the second half is better than the first from a Town supporting perspective, we have more of the ball anyway, which makes it feel like we’re doing okay.  Godden misses a good opportunity to confirm the win for Coventry, but otherwise his team doesn’t look that much better than ours, just a bit more confident due to a fortunate habit of winning rather than an unfortunate one of losing.  Pat from Clacton tells me that she’s going to Yarmouth next weekend for a week of playing whist, but she’ll be back on the Friday, the day before the Portsmouth game.   She won £28 last year.

An hour of football has passed and as he turns towards goal Town’s Freddie Sears is hacked down by Coventry’s Kyle Macfadzean who is consequently booked by Mr Kettle, who I imagine must have asked “Would you spell that please” as he reached for his pencil and his notebook. With the help of her compact Sony camera and its zoom lens Pat confirms that Ed Sheeran’s is here again today and she snaps him. I tell her that I saw on Twitter that Rick Wakeman is here too, and she gets a really good picture of him in the directors’ box, in which he’s looking right down the camera.   Watch out for the Patarazzi.  Pat’s sister Jill wins the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus.  “Oh please let them score” entreats Pat as another cross is sent into the Coventry penalty area, but the team is in need of some luck and Pat gets out the masturbating monkey charm who introduced himself at the Fleetwood game; she rubs his head but nothing happens.  I learn that the monkey actually came from Cambodia, not Vietnam as I said before.

Neither Mick nor Pat from Clacton, nor I notice how many minutes of added time there are, so engrossed are we in the match and so strongly are we willing Town to score, but at 16:53 Mr Kettle whistles for the last time and it’s all over bar the booing, of which, thankfully, there isn’t as much as there was on Tuesday.  Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil and who never misses a game and Elwood make a sharp exit for their respective coach and car but Mick and I stay to applaud the team.  They haven’t all played well, but we don’t doubt that they tried to, who doesn’t want to do their best except nihilists and they probably want to be good at being nihilists.  If we don’t applaud them that can only make them feel worse; we’re Supporters, it’s what we do.  Something tells me the masturbating monkey would say it’s just fate.

Ipswich Town 0 Fleetwood Town 1

In spite of my enigmatic mix of eternal optimism and a passion for existential misery, and never having seen Fleetwood Town before, I am not overly looking forward to tonight.  It’s a bit cold and damp and there is a sad inevitability that a good number of the Portman Road crowd will be quick to moan now that Ipswich Town have embarked on a solid run of defeats made more impressive by how easily the winning goals could have been prevented.  It is without any sense of excitement or anticipation therefore that I leave work and step out into the late afternoon and its quickening rain drops.

In an effort to make a clean break from the past weeks and stop myself looking like a slimmer but greying version of Brian Wilson circa 1965, I am going to get my haircut.  As usual I take my custom to Francesco’s of St Matthew’s St, an establishment which was formerly by appointment to Sir Bobby Robson. The pleasant woman who cuts my hair tells me of a current Town player who always wore his Town tracksuit top when he came to get his haircut, but is seemingly no longer so keen to be recognised and now turns up in ‘mufti’, not that she uses that expression.  Lighter of wallet (£15.50) and head but enlivened up by a very welcome, complimentary espresso coffee I leave Francesco’s and step into a Beatles song as I start to roam, and then I’m in town.  The damp streets of down town Ipswich are largely deserted, there’s nothing doing, everything is closing, it’s like a ruin.  I’m killing time until, by way of another change to the usual pre-match ritual, I will meet Mick at the Arbor House, where we will both drink a pint of Young’s London Special (£3.80), Mick will eat Chicken Risotto whilst I eat a Scotch Egg, Halloumi Chips and Sweet Potato Fries (£10), and we will conclude our meal with a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.60) for me and a half of Shipyard American Pale Ale (£2.50) for Mick.

At about 7:15 Mick and I leave the convivial surroundings of the Arbor House and head down the hill towards Portman Road, where I stop off at one of the blue booths to buy a programme (£3.50).  I’m not sure if I get disorientated by the thought of paying £3.50 for a programme, or whether it’s just the dim, evening light but it takes me two goes to work out which window I need to go to, but at least it makes the programme seller laugh, and I laugh too ,just to make sure that he’s laughing with me and not at me.

Wishing the operator of turnstile number four a cheery thanks for letting me into the ground I make for the facilities with Mick before we take up our seats in the cheap seats between the goal and the players’ tunnel.  In front of us a crew of sailors in their ‘number ones’ hang about waiting to form an unexpected and unexplained guard of honour as the two teams enter the field.  If we were playing Portsmouth it might make some sense but Fleetwood’s seafarers are more likely to wear sou’westers, waders and thick jumpers smelling of fish than naval uniforms.

Tonight’s crowd is a bit sparse compared to recent weeks; ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, obviously, and so is Pat from Clacton, but the old dears who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me are absent , as is the bloke with the brylcreemed hair.   Ray walks past with a pie, and when I ask what sort of pie it is he points to what  appears to be a  letter ‘C’ written on top in pastry; my guess and Ray’s is ‘C’ for chicken or perhaps, as tonight’s game is against Fleetwood, Cod,  but Pat from Clacton says she thought the ‘C’ was for something else; she doesn’t say what.  Ray looks aghast and tells me he’s glad he doesn’t have to sit next to her, I know what he means.

The match begins, Ipswich in classic blue and white trying to get the ball inside the white, wooden frame just in front of us to our right.  It is Fleetwood Town who get first go with the ball however, although visually they are disappointing wearing an insipid all pale yellow kit rather than their first kit which is red with white sleeves ,like Arsenal’s. Ipswich’s sartorial superiority sadly doesn’t seem to count for much however, and they struggle to do the things that usually help us to distinguish football from other sports such as Eton Fives, Discus and Dominoes.  The likes of Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt, Andre Dozzell and Janoi Donacien all try to cross the ball to a centre forward who I can only guess we haven’t actually signed yet, but Fleetwood’s gigantic number six Harry Souttar simply bats everything away with his head or an extended leg; if Harry Souttar was a fish he’d be a whale shark, which in case you didn’t know is the world’s largest cartilaginous fish.

There is some excitement after a quarter of an hour when Fleetwood have to make an early substitution with Ched Evans, whose name makes me think of Shed Seven, replacing Callum Connolly.  Meanwhile Mick is staring into the Cobbold stand trying to count the Fleetwood supporters, but the back of the stand is too shadowy to make it possible to tell the difference between people and seats and people who look like seats. We console ourselves with the knowledge that the attendance, including the size of the ‘Cod Army’, as Fleetwood supporters are known, will be announced later.   Soon the Sir Bobby Robson stand are chanting “ Evans, Evans, you’re a cunt” but Pat from Clacton and I can’t decide if they are singing to Ched or Marcus; we eventually settle on it being a catch all for anyone called Evans, tough as this is on choirmaster Evan Evans (known as Evans the Song) in ‘Ivor The Engine’.

Twenty eight minutes pass and Fleetwood win a corner.  It’s about now that I notice that the Fleetwood Town players bear the message ‘BES Utilities’ on the fronts of their shirts and I allow myself to ignore the difference in spelling and wonder if the former ‘Happy Monday’ has diversified into gas, water and sewerage.  Neither team has really had a shot on goal worthy of the name and whilst Ipswich are playing pretty atrociously, Fleetwood are doing their bit too  to ensure that value for money is kept to a minimum; credit where credit is due.  Whereas in many football matches what is usually described as ‘the deadlock’ is ‘broken’ by a flamboyant, audacious, cheeky, or simply consummate piece of skill ,  Ipswich have now almost perfected the complete opposite.  With forty minutes gone Ched Evans plays a one-two with someone or other not far from the half way line, which allows the spritely 31 year old to trundle past Luke Chambers, take the ball a bit too wide for a shot and then surprise us all by kicking the ball against and over the out-stretched leg of Tomas Holy and into the Ipswich goal.  As Town fans shake their heads the ecstatic Cod Army joyously leap about like salmon in the Cobbold Stand.  “You’re not famous anymore” they chant, as if that goal was responsible, whilst also challenging the song’s validity by the very fact that they’re singing it.  All fame is everlasting – discuss.

As often happens, half time soon follows an opponent’s goal to allow us to reflect, seethe or just spend a penny depending on our individual needs.  I begin my well-earned break with a look at the programme, which leads me to regret the absence from the Fleetwood team tonight of Harrison Biggins and Barry Baggley, although Billy Crellin is on the bench and though I don’t know it yet, we are destined to see him and hear his name.  I also enjoy two photos of Fleetwood manager Joey Barton, one in which he looks as if he may have just lobbed a brick at someone and another in which his chin juts out menacingly from beneath a baseball cap as he gives the evil eye to a person or persons safely out of shot. 

Having spoken again with Ray as we passed one another heading from and to the toilet, the digital clock display on the Sir Bobby Robson stand strikes 2049 and the second half begins.  Town’s losing position gives rise to the usual unwelcome commentary and advice from assorted coaches in the stands “Look at all that fuckin’space”, “ We’ve got no one at the back”, “Second ball!”.  When Janoi Donacien misses the ball a legion of half-wits jeer because I assume they all have World Cup winning medals or at least play for Brazil and are perfect in every way and always have been.  Pat from Clacton is rightfully annoyed, “You shouldn’t boo your own players” she tells me and I agree and tell her that’s what the opposition are for.

Town are better this half although they still can’t get past Harry Souttar and when they do Ched Evans clears off the line or goalkeeper Alex Cairns makes a fine save; I try to think of another player whose surname is the same as the name of an Australian city, but I can’t; Derek Darwin sounds plausible but is pure fiction.  The crowd is announced as 15,678 of whom 88 are from Fleetwood and many of the home crowd turn and applaud them for their effort including me, Mick looks on slightly bemused. He has a point, such applause is a bit patronising; plucky little Fleetwood etcetera, but it might just be people trying to be nice in a world tainted by Donald Trump and Priti Patel .

Nearly half an hour remains and a chorus of “Come of You Blues” rings around the ground and then dwindles away.  “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Fleetwood eighty-eight and I am impressed by their volume, which I can only attribute to a diet of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges for coughs and sore throats, which are manufactured by Lofthouse of Fleetwood and taste disgusting.  My father was seemingly addicted to the things, although regrettably they couldn’t stop him spending the last ten years of his life mostly hitched up to an oxygen machine.

As the game descends into the final twenty minutes Pat from Clacton shows me her purse full of ‘lucky’ charms, which she has collected from around the world, but it seems none of them works anymore although apparently some of them used to. She’s particularly fond of one from Vietnam , which is in the form of a masturbating monkey.  Pat seemed surprised she hadn’t shown me him before, but I tell her I think I would have remembered.

I am more or less resigned to another defeat now and Pat from Clacton is too, but unlike on a Saturday she doesn’t even have a jacket potato to look forward to when she gets home, but, she tells me, she will have a Nespresso latte.  The unhappiness of sections of the crowd is growing, chants of “We want Evans Out” can be heard and this time I think it is Marcus they mean and not Ched or ‘Evans the Song’. In the corner of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand five banners appear all bearing a word beginning with the letter U and then N.  At first I wonder if Antonio Guterres is in the house but the banners read “ Unambitious”, “Underfunded”, “Underpants”, “Underachieving” and “Unacceptable” although the middle one is a bit twisted so I might have got that wrong. 

Somewhat inevitably, Ipswich do not score an equaliser and the game ends amongst much rancour and general displeasure.  The atmosphere will later be described rather predictably as ‘toxic’, a word which used to be reserved for clouds of gas, but is now applied almost exclusively to the air we breathe at Portman Road.   Mick and I stay to applaud the teams off, because, although I can’t speak for Mick , I didn’t not enjoy the game any more than I usually do when we lose, and I also have some time to kill before the next train home.

Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 1

Another Saturday and another football match;  having witnessed last Saturday’s victory over Burton Albion, as encouraging as it was, and having been to the mid-week game before that at Wimbledon and the Saturday match before that versus Peterborough I am feeling somewhat blasé about going to yet another game.  Today Ipswich will play Oxford United and therefore to set the mood it is with the sort of thoughtless, arrogant, complacent, condescending and contemptuous attitude associated with the most privileged people who go to the top schools and universities and end up as members of the government that I set out for the railway station. A warm, gusting wind blows me along and conifers waft and billow as I pass by.  The train is on time and I board it alone.

On the train I sit by a window, a man on the opposite side of the train slumps with his feet on the seats opposite, I give his shoes a stare worthy of Paddington bear.  “How do you think we’ll do today?” he says as he sits up and takes his feet down off the seat.  Oh crap, I think to myself, he’s seen my blue and white scarf and wants to talk about football.  As much as I like football, I hate talking football, the conversations are always the same.  This fella is one of “we need more investment” brigade.  I tell him the owner puts in 5 or 6 million quid each season and that most Championship clubs are technically insolvent, but he clearly finds facts too difficult.  I am saved when his phone goes off and he has a conversation about how he won’t be drinking much today as he was in the pub until 3 am, drinking Coronas, “I had about twelve” he says to the person on the other end of the phone “and I feel a bit fucked”.

The piazza in front of the railway station is deserted but there is a steady trickle of people sporting yellow and blue knitwear wandering up Princes Street towards the Station Hotel.  Portman Road is positively busy with people, many decked in yellow and blue. I follow a short woman and her two much shorter young children who each carry a yellow and blue back pack sporting a cartoon bull.  Disappointed that I fail to spot anyone who looks even vaguely academic, although the back-pack could be construed as school satchels, I continue on my way to St Jude’s Tavern.

In St Jude’s I find Mick looking up at the day’s beer list; together we choose Mad Dog brewery’s ‘Now in a minute’ (£3.60) of which Mick kindly buys a pint for each of us.  As he sits down Mick tells me that the barman let him have a taster because many customers thought it had an unusual taste.  It is slightly sweet, but it’s pleasant enough and reminds me a little of some of my own homebrew, on a good day.  St Jude’s Tavern is well populated today and we sit in a cramped corner of which the building seems to have several.  Our conversation includes the failings of Ipswich Town’s on-line ticket selling, the films of Sam Peckinpah, the new film of David Copperfield, not burning damp wood, avoiding air travel and Susan George, whose name I struggle to remember until Mick gives me a clue with reference to her surname being a common English regnal name, which is a bit ‘University Challenge’.  After I consume another pint of ‘Now in a minute’ and Mick has a Jameson’s whisky (£3.00) and the licensee reminds us of the time, we head off round the corner into Portman Road.

It’s about ten to three now and outside the stadium Portman Road is active with people scurrying to the turnstiles like charged particles.  “I can’t see any mortar boards or gowns” says Mick with genuine disappointment as if he really had expected Oxford fans to be a bunch of academics.  We enter the ground separately through turnstiles number five and six and after visiting the facilities beneath the stand clamber over our seats so as not disturb Pat from Clacton on the end of the row.  I wave to Ray down the front in his red kagoul and spot ever present Phil who never misses a game, who today has his young son Elwood with him, albeit an Elwood hidden beneath an anorak hood and obscured from my view slightly by the man with the heavily brylcreemed hair who sits in front of me.  With little further ado the teams emerge from the blue plastic concertina in the corner of the ground to the strains of Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, a mystifying 1980’s rock anthem.  I hate rock anthems.  The PA announces that the team is being led out by the club’s community chaplain. Mick says he didn’t know we had a community chaplain; the thought seems to amuse him and he wonders if the club also has a community Imam, which is a fair question, although I thought that professional football served only mammon.

The game begins a minute late at 15:01 with Ipswich playing in the direction of Mick, me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood, ever-present Phil, Ray, his grandson Harrison and the man with the brylcreem. Today, for a reason to which I am not party, Oxford United are wearing an unnecessary change kit of white shirts with a blue and yellow diagonal stripe or sash across the chest in place of their customary yellow shirts.  Their bottom halves are covered by Oxford blue shorts and socks.  The Oxford shirts advertise the name of Singha beer from Thailand, which seems a little exotic.  I imagine a multi-lingual Oxford don having incidentally arranged the deal with the Boon Rawd Brewery whilst on a short holiday to find a Thai bride.  Ipswich wear the usual blue and white advertisement for on-line gambling and, as they so often do, begin the game sparklingly well, running down the flanks under the bright blue sky and sending in low crosses which only the Oxford defenders ever reach.   “Yellows, Yellows” bellow the 1,365 Oxonians in the Cobbold Stand who are either colour blind or are simply ignoring the pointlessly white shirts of their team.

The match is entertaining and it can only be a matter of time before Ipswich score as the ball continues either to be just out of reach Town players shaping up to shoot or to be blocked by the ubiquitous Oxford defenders.  The flags on the back of the Cobbold stand are blowing in the strong wind and seagulls hover like drones.  The visiting fans have brought an array of flags with them which are not flying but are draped over the front few rows of seats in the Cobbold Stand.  One flag, a cross of St George appears to have the words “We all live in a Oxford wonderland” printed on it; I am shocked by the poor grammar, which might not be so surprising in some backwater like Swindon or Norwich, but Oxford?

I am still enjoying the match and the football is good to watch but for the absence of shots that the Oxford goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is required to save.  The bloke behind me sounds confident and says he wouldn’t mind Town “…meeting these in the play-offs”.  In the Sir Bobby Robson stand the normally more vocal supporters in the corner (Action 1878) seem quiet today and are not displaying their banners and flags.  In the corner of the Cobbold Stand a group of Oxford fans are standing and goading Ipswich supporters in the bottom tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand.  Pat from Clacton wonders how they managed to get the seats closest to the Ipswich supporters and we decide that the Oxford ticket office must ask supporters if they are would-be hooligans who want to goad the opposition and allocate them seats accordingly.  With the price of tickets nowadays this seems fair enough.

Despite Ipswich’s dominance it’s not until nearly half past three that they win a corner and then win another as Luke Chambers’ header is deflected over the cross bar.  The corner affords a close-up of Oxford number three Josh Ruffles who seems to have quite a large head which, with his muscular upper chest gives him the look of a very big clasp nail or tack as his body tapers down to a point around his ankles.  More minutes pass and an unexpected chorus of “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” lives then dies around the ground.  Pat from Clacton offers Mick and me sweets; I have one of those green metallic looking ones which fizz with sherbet. “We’ll score now I’ve got the sweets out” says Pat “Well, that’s what used to happen”.  Town don’t score.  Pat eats a “nice piece of fudge” left over from Christmas.   “They can’t pick a pass this lot” moans the bloke behind me as Town’s Gwion Edwards misplaces a pass for the first time in the game.  Paul Lambert runs up and down his technical area excitedly in what look like deck shoes.

Town still haven’t scored and it’s nearly half-time, so Oxford string a few passes together, the Ipswich defence melts away and Oxford’s number 9 the diminutive Matty Taylor scores instead.   Paul Lambert waves his arms around as if winding a huge key, which he sort of is metaphorically speaking.  Seizing their opportunity to either indulge in some half-time swatting in the event of an affirmative answer or turn up the goading quotient whilst utilising their knowledge of opera, the Oxonians sing “Is this a library?” to the tune of La donna e mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto.  “What are they singing?” asks Mick. “Is this the Bodleian?” I tell him. The game begins again but not for long as it’s time for another visit to the facilities beneath the stand and a chat with Ray.

The second half begins, the blue skies have been replaced by grey cloud.  The match proves to be one of those that has two distinct halves.  Oxford United continue to thwart Ipswich’s attempts on goal which become ever more inaccurate, but also start breaking away and threatening to score again themselves, which seems a bit cheeky. Oxford win a corner and their number fourteen Anthony Forde holds up a hand to indicate where he intends to kick it, which would seem to be onto the head of Ipswich’s nearest defender and a good yard or two from the nearest Oxford player.

It’s nearly twenty five past four and the Oxford supporters spell out the name of their club to show the benefit of a university education but on the pitch the play descends to the level of the kindergarten.   Josh Earl and Matty Taylor  push each other around and salmon pink clad referee Mr Scott Oldham, who most unusually appears to be the tallest man on the field and sports a GI haircut, has to tell them to grow up, particularly Matty Taylor who is only 176cm ( 5’9”) tall.

Seventy two minutes have passed and Pat from Clacton admits to me that she might soon start to think about the jacket potato she’ll be having for her tea.  Oxford have adopted a more spoiling approach to the game this half although only their  Marcus Browne and Town’s Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt have seen Mr Oldham’s yellow card, and  Ipswich  now begin to vent their frustration with some pointless fouls.  Pat and I look forward to the announcement of today’s attendance which we will soon learn is 19,367; the nearest in the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton coach is Calum with 19,476.  Pat is disappointed again that no one’s pet cat or fish has won the prize.

The old dears who now sit in front of me but used to sit behind me leave early; I tell them I will let them know all about the goals they are going to miss. The bloke behind me leaves.  Ipswich’s Kayden Jackson leaves at the request of Mr Oldham after he is apparently spotted stamping on an Oxford player and is shown Mr Oldham’s red card.  There is a melee down by the corner flag in front of the Oxford supporters which could have been avoided if Mr Oldham had acted more decisively and given a free-kick to Ipswich instead of Oxford and  Town’s Luke Woolfenden is booked before the game stutters to a halt and the final whistle sounds. 

 I’d like to say that Luke Chambers either accidentally or ironically produces his trademark fist pump, but he doesn’t and instead the crowd dejectedly melts away into the night, apart that is from those who stay to boo.  Ipswich drop to eighth in the third division table which means they will be happy to meet any club at all  in the play-offs.