Dijon Football Cote d’Or 2 Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace 1

The 570 kilometre journey down the A26, A5 and A31 motorways from Calais to the elegant and historic city of Dijon takes a good five hours plus stops, but it’s worth it.   The medieval city was the seat of the influential dukes of Burgundy and the modern city is still the regional capital with a population of about 155,000.   But that aside, tonight Dijon FCO are playing RC Strasbourg Alsace in Ligue 1 of the French professional football league and I am heading out with my wife Paulene to the Stade Gaston Gerard, to witness it.  If I hang out of the window of our hotel room in I can see the stadium and the lights are already on.

It’s been a day of gusty wind, sunshine and showers, of cafes and bars and the tombs of dead dukes and duchesses.  We have pre-purchased our joint ticket for the tram (5.60 euros for two journeys each) and are at Place Darcy in the shadow of Dijon’s triumphal arch, the Porte Guillaume, ready to ride out to the Parc des Sports wherein lies Gaston Gerard’s eponymous football stadium.  Gaston Gerard incidentally was mayor of Dijon from 1919 to 1935 and later a member of the French government.  But there is a problem, we want to catch a T1 tram in the direction of Quetigny but it seems they are not running the length of the line due to a ‘perturbation’.  We could catch the T2 and then walk to Auditorium to catch a T1, but the helpful man at the tram stop, who works for the transport company Divia, advises us to cross the road and catch the number five bus to Université, and then catch a T1 tram from there, so that’s what we do.  The bus soon arrives and with our ticket validated we are soon out of the city centre travelling through anonymous looking early evening streets in a bright pink, 18m long Heuliez articulated bus.  From the end of the bus route the tram stop is just around the corner on a windswept, open part of the university campus, but a tram arrives within a few minutes, almost as if the public transport services were somehow co-ordinated; we know from living in England however that such a thing is just not possible.  From the university it is just three stops to the Parc des Sports tram stop, which is but a nonnette de Dijon’s throw from the Parc des Sports itself.

A man in a ‘gilet orange’ checks our tickets and ushers us through the gate and into what seems like a leafy suburban park.  We follow a trail down between the trees; there are tennis courts off to our right, we round a couple of bends and then the stadium is before us.  Three sides of the Stade Gaston Gerard have been re-built  this century, the remaining part of the original stadium has its back to us; it’s a neat, classical looking concrete structure which dates from 1934  and is quite typical of pre-war French municipal buildings; it’s got style; it’s a bit Art Deco.   Over a fence there is a glimpse of the blue Strasbourg team bus.

We walk on and pass through the turnstiles which read our bar-coded tickets before we are patted down and wished “bon match”.  It amuses me that Paulene seems to be searched more thoroughly than I am, but then the French have a history of female villains; Madame Defarge, Madame Thenardier, Marine Le Pen.   At the back of the Tribune Sud (south stand), which is built into the hillside behind the goal, a couple of blokes who look a bit old to be Ultras are unfolding a tifosi banner in the form of a huge Dijon home shirt.  I half expect to see them plugging in an especially large iron. 

Our tickets (24 euros each) are in the top tier of the east stand at the side of the pitch, so we keep on walking, on past the ‘Le Bon Sucre’ stall selling crepes, gauffres and beignets, and bizarrely decorated with the figure of a busty woman, posed with her mouth slightly open and about to lick a dollop of cream from her finger.   France can be oddly schizophrenic with regard to women; seemingly ahead of Britain in the use of female football presenters and commentators and in appreciating women’s football, but still displaying the same casual sexism of the 1930’s when Gaston Gerard’s wife Reine impressed a well-regarded critic and gastronome with a new chicken dish, which thereafter became known as Chicken Gaston Gerard after her husband, not her.

Resisting the temptations of le Bon Sucre we walk on beneath the Tribune Caisse D’Epargne as it is known thanks to sponsorship from the bank of that name, where we cannot resist the lure of the club shop. 

Thankfully Dijon FCO do not have their own brand of mustard, and sadly their T-shirts don’t appeal so we restrict our purchases to a petit fanion (5 euros) to add to the collection in the upstairs toilet, a bear in a red and white scarf (10 euros) for Paulene’s cupboard of football related cuddly toys and a bib (6.50 euros) for the new grandson Jackson, because he needs more bibs.  Leaving the shop we pass by one of the buvettes, from which people are leaving with the best looking chips I have ever seen at a football ground, proper big chunky ones.  I collect a couple of the free match day programmes, which are actually more like 12 page newspapers, but they tell us all we need to know, listing the squads, tonight’s other fixtures and the up to date league table.

Our seats, we learn, are in the top tier of the stand;  it’s been a bit of a walk from the tram stop and Paulene’s asthma means she’s not feeling up to climbing two or three flights of stairs so I ask one of the many young women in gilets oranges if there is a lift.  I am directed to a man in a blue jacket with the words Besoin d’aide? (Need help?) printed on the back; he asks us to follow him and  having led us into a room from which he collects a set of keys he unlocks a white door hidden within the white walls of the concourse beneath the stand.  The blue jacketed man leads us down a long white corridor and round a corner, part of a hidden labyrinth within the stand; I think to myself that this is what near death experiences are supposed to be like.  The man then unlocks what seems like a secret compartment, but is in fact a lift, which takes us to an open concourse at the back of the top tier of the stand.  We thank the man but not before he shows us to our seats; what a helpful bloke.  From each seat projects a red flag at 45 degrees which bears the Dijon FCO club crest; it doesn’t do to sit down in a hurry; it could be painful.  We are in the second row at the front of the top tier and have a fine view of the pitch, but also, over the top of the stand opposite, a panorama of Dijon stretches out with an array of towers and spires, like a Gallic version of Oxford. Beyond the city, rolling hills and forests.

There is a still a while until kick-off so I return to the open concourse for some drinks, returning with a cup of orange Fanta for Paulene and a small beer for me (7 euros for the two). Both drinks are in re-usable plastic cups which celebrate Dijon FCO’s twentieth anniversary; Dijon had a club dating back to 1913 (Cercle Laique Dijonnais) but it remained resolutely amateur, like my own beloved Ipswich Town did unti 1936, before merging with Dijon FC in 1998 and the new club eventually turned professional in 2004.  Looking north-east from the back of the stand the sky is a menacing grey and in the distance it is clearly raining; a strong gusty wind is blowing it towards us, something wicked this way comes, but more probably something wet.  Walking back to my seat I begin to regret not having noticed until I had ordered beer and fanta that I could have had a cup of the vin chaud (2.50 euros).  The rain arrives in the form of stair rods, it is spectacular and I am thankful I am not in the Tribune Sud into which the wind is blowing, or on the open terrace opposite where an increasing and impressive following of Strasbourg supporters are gathering and getting soaked.  The deluge is mercifully brief and heads off into the hills of Burgundy leaving the fading evening sunlight to glisten and reflect off the roof tops of the city.

As kick-off approaches the public address system pumps out loud euro-pop, the teams are announced, their faces looming in technicolour on the scoreboard.  That tifosi shirt ripples across the lower tier of the Tribune Sud; the Lingon’s Boys Ultras at the north end hang out their banners.  The best display however is from the Racing Club Strasbourg supporters who celebrate making the 330 kilometre journey by waving white flags around a central blue cross with the letter RCS in the centre of that.  All around there is noise from the crowd of 13,105 and then the teams enter the pitch through a colonnade of giant Roman candles as the Ligue 1 theme tune plays over the public address system and everyone waves their red Dijon flags, me included; one of the many things they know how to do in France is put on a show and give everyone a free flag.

After handshakes and huddles the game begins with Dijon all in red and the words “Roger Martin” emblazoned across their chests, a sentiment I heartily agree with. Strasbourg unnecessarily wear all- white; their ‘proper’ signature kit of blue shirts with white shorts would not clash with Dijon’s home strip. Dijon are playing towards the Lingon’s Boys, with Strasbourg aiming in the direction of the Tribune Sud.  It’s the 36th journee of the 38 game season and Dijon are struggling in 19th place in the twenty team league.  Strasbourg are mid-table (10th) and have every right to feel smug and relaxed having qualified for the Europa League by winning the Coupe de La Ligue against En Avant Guingamp, the team bottom in Ligue 1, who by the end of tomorrow afternoon are destined to be relegated to Ligue 2.

Dijon are more eager because they have more at stake and they have the first shot on goal, from 39 year old Florent Balmont, a marvellous if unexciting, mostly defensive midfield player who simply keeps the team ticking over like a sort of bald-headed human, metronome.  Paulene and I reminisce about seeing him play a much more dynamic game for Lille against Copenhagen in a Champions League qualifier back in 2012.  This game is not dynamic.  Dijon struggle to play accurately whilst Strasbourg’s season has already finished, and they appear to lack motivation.   Lacking inspiration from the football I enjoy the architecture of the three re-built sides of the stadium; three individual stands linked by an arching, curving translucent roof; architect Michel Rémon has done a fine job and I get to thinking what self-respecting architect would put his name to the breeze block and tin sheet constructions that pass for provincial football stadia in England.

With only fourteen minutes played Florent Balmont is cautioned by referee Monsieur Hakim Ben El Hadj for complaining too vociferously when a free-kick is awarded against a team mate.  Dijon are ponderous and what shots on goal there are, are blocked or wide and no one looks much like scoring, that is until five minutes before half-time.  Tunisian international Naim Sliti pursues another mis-placed pass inside the penalty area, it’s running away from the goal towards the corner flag but somehow the chasing defender manages to clip Sliti’s heels, he goes down and Monsieur Ben El Hadj awards a penalty.  Paulene thinks it’s a bit harsh, suggesting that Sliti was moving so slowly towards the ball that the chasing defender, Adrien Thomasson, just caught up with him sooner than expected.  Monsieur Ben El Hadj ignores her pleas and Dijon’s Cape Verde international Julio Tavares gets the glory, booting the ball beyond the dive of Strasbourg’s Belgian goal keeper Matz Sels into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal;  Stade Gaston-Gerard is rocking all the way to mi-temps (half-time).

I make use of the break to use the facilities but haven’t got the will to wait at the buvette for another drink; I return to my seat and zip up my wind-cheater against the evening chill.  Small boys take part in a shoot-out and I feel very sorry for a particularly ungainly looking one whose control is so poor that the goalkeeper has claimed the ball before he even shoots, you just know he gets picked last in the playground.

The second half begins and Strasbourg are re-vitalised by their half-time espresso and now look much more interested, whilst Dijon are no better than before.  But time moves on, it gets dark and still Dijon lead but their Icelandic goalkeeper Runar Runarsson is busy, running off his line and making saves.  A corner from Strasbourg’s fabulously monikered Kenny Lala is sent goalwards by the Bosnian Stefan Mitrovic, the header is blocked by Dijon’s Roman Amalfitano but rebounds to  Ludovic Ajorque who has a simple ‘tap-in’ to equalise.   As Strasbourg celebrate a pall of gloom falls over most of Stade Gaston-Gerard.  Runarsson is called to make further saves from Thomasson, Da Costa and Goncalves, and Dijon manager Antoine Kombouare seems to be facing the prospect of both the Ligue 1 clubs he has managed this season being relegated; he was given the Dijon job in January having been sacked by Guingamp in November.

I like Antoine Kombouare, he has a kindly face and previously managed Strasbourg, Lens and Paris Saint-Germain, where he was sacked when they were top of the league. He looks on impassively in his grey suit and baseball hat.  With 15 minutes left Kombouare acts and replaces Florent Balmont with the Korean Kwon Chang-Hoon.   Balmont takes his place on the bench to great applause from the Dijonnais, he doesn’t look happy, not because he’s been substituted but because of how the game is going. 

Kombouare’s decision makes a difference however as Kwon seems to have far more energy than the rest of his team put together; he darts about, running at the Strasbourg defence and shooting on sight, he energises the crowd. But despite his efforts nobody scores for Dijon, although Ludovic Ajorque is prompted to even up the scores for yellow cards.  The ninetieth minute arrives and leaves; five minutes time added-on will be played and the home crowd urge their team on.  Dijon have to win to have a chance of avoiding relegation, their main rivals Caen are beating Reims 3-2.  If they lose Dijon will be five points behind with two games left, one of which is away to Paris Saint-Germain.  It’s the ninety third minute, Tavares has the ball, it runs on to Kwon in the centre of the penalty area, he takes a step and lashes the ball magnificently into the net past Sels. Kwon is engulfed by blokes in red shirts and in the stands everyone is on their feet cheering.  This is the way to win a football match, be ropey for ninety minutes and then get a last minute winner.  In the following day’s local paper “Le Bien Public” the game will be marked as a five out of ten, although the national sports paper L’Equipe will give it four stars out of six.   The stats will show that Dijon had fewer shots, fewer corners, less possession, won fewer duels and fewer tackles, made fewer passes and interceptions and their passes were less accurate.  What the stats cannot show however is that they never stopped believing they could win.

The full-time whistle soon follows and as we applaud the teams a man in a blue jacket appears from nowhere to take us back to the lift.  Paulene would be fine going down the stairs, but is mightily impressed that she has been remembered.  We are joined by two older men with gammy legs; the man in the blue jacket pushes the button on the lift control panel marked “-1” and leaves us.  One of the older men clearly thinks he knows better and pushes the button marked “0”; the lift descends and the doors open onto a darkened cupboard.  Fortunately the doors close again and we complete our descent,  and having negotiated a long white corridor find ourselves back in the concourse beneath the stand from where we step out into the night and stroll back to the tram stop.  Riding back into town on the packed tram I feel like Albert Camus in Algiers.  I love going to football matches in France.

Harwich & Parkeston 2 Benfleet 1

My mother was born and grew up in Shotley at the mouth of the River Stour. As a child she hardly ever went to Ipswich, and Saturday afternoon shopping would mean a boat trip with her mum across the estuary to Harwich and to Dovercourt. Her father was a mild-mannered man, but if someone did manage to annoy him he would not tell them to “Go to hell” but instead to “Go to Harwich”, by which I think he meant to go and jump in the river rather than any slur on the gateway to the Continent. My childhood memories from thirty odd years later were of going to Harwich by car, an ice cream cornet outside the town hall, Dovercourt Woolworth’s and having shrimps for tea.
With these fond family memories in mind I guide my Citroen C3 along the winding, undulating B1352 from Manningtree to Harwich, through Mistley, Bradfield, Wrabness and Ramsey. My wife Paulene and I have been to Ipswich to visit some of the historic buildings open to the public for the Heritage Open Days, but were a bit miffed to find two of the three buildings we wanted to view, which were advertised as open in the leaflet, were shut and only open next weekend. But arriving in Harwich our fortunes have improved, it is warm and it’s not raining, even if it is a bit cloudy and the Royal Oak

ground is open for this afternoon’s fixture in the tortuously titled Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties First Division South. We park up in the car park at the side of the stadium and cross the lane to the turnstile by the main stand. Entry costs £4 each and the-grey haired man operating the turnstile helpfully verbalises the mental arithmetic of £4 plus £430684736148_a5cac6de7b_o making a total of £8 and the addition of the glossy and groovily typefaced, 16 page programme “Black and White” (£1) making a total of £9. A few steps inside the ground an old boy in a flat cap relieves me of the final tenth of the ten pound note I proffered at the turnstile, in exchange for a strip of draw tickets (Nos 61 to 65).
The Royal Oak Ground , where Harwich & Parkeston have played since 1898 stretches out before us , a green panorama, the broad pitch sloping away across its width, down towards Harwich town itself. Beyond the far side of the pitch a terrace of 1950’s houses, one with a hideous loft extension overlook the pitch. To the left behind one goal a steep but shallow concrete stand with a rusting tin roof and faded red steel stanchions, a sort of truncated barn backing on to Main Road, where the Royal Oak pub stands, and which leads into Dovercourt High Street; to the right and set back some way beyond the other goal, the changing rooms in a building with gabled dormer windows and a small clock on the roof, like a 1980’s pastiche of a village cricket pavilion. Behind us the main stand is short in length but disproportionately tall with a steep, corrugated, pitched roof; a typical football stand from the 1950’s, sadly its top half is now closed off.

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It’s about twenty past two and the Harwich team are appearing from the changing rooms to warm up; we walk to that end of the ground to perhaps catch a word with their coach Michael, who we know from our previous mutual involvement at Wivenhoe Town.

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Appropriately, page five of the programme has a small feature on Michael, from which we learn amongst other things that he drives a Citroen C4, his favourite food is curry and his favourite holiday resort is Acapulco. There is a photo of Michael stood with arms folded and looking quite butch, if a little overweight. After the game Michael will tell me that he likes to read this Blog whilst sat on the toilet.
“Well he should have some fresh milk, I put some in there on Tuesday, er no Thursday” we hear a man in a white shirt and black and white striped tie say to another man. At the corner of the ground a man with a Scottish accent asks us if we are from Benfleet, because, he explains, he didn’t recognise us. We tell him we are not but, are partly here to see Michael the coach, but also to just enjoy a Saturday afternoon at ‘the football’. Whilst Paulene watches the warm up, the Scottish man tells me how the club owns the ground and is debt-free. Harwich & Parkeston are playing at a lower level than they once did, but I am told that the club trustees saw that the need to simply keep the club alive was more important than trying to compete unsustainably in a higher league. The Scottish man bemoans the rise of ‘village teams’ into the semi-professional ranks, which he feels has fragmented local football and he’d like to see a league of clubs just from the main East Anglian towns. It’s a somewhat Stalinist approach, but I can see the attraction. The population of Harwich is about 18,000.
Kick-off is approaching and I buy two teas (£1 each) from the tea hut, a neat brick30685788148_87460e7c1e_o building probably dating from the 1950’s or 1960’s, which wouldn’t look out of place on a seafront esplanade. In the tea hut a woman is incredulous that an official has come from Norwich to referee a match in Harwich, she thought the point of the league re-structure was to cut travelling costs. “You can bet your arse that in Yarmouth they’ve got a referee from London” she says, and she’s probably right, although I’m not sure Ladbrokes would be interested in her or anyone else’s bottom as a wager. “There’s not many here today” she adds.
42747605380_9cc3b7bca7_oAs the game begins we take up a spot at a Yogi Bear–style picnic table in the corner of the ground by the bar and backing onto Main Road. Harwich kick off towards us, the River Stour and Shotley beyond. Harwich are wearing black and white striped shirts with black shorts and socks, completing a hat-trick of clubs along with Newcastle United and Grimsby Town that span the length of the east coast and wear black and white stripes. Benfleet are in a rather boring all red kit, although their home kit is a much more interesting light blue shirt with dark blue shorts.
From kick-off the ball is almost instantly hoofed into touch and early action sees the Benfleet number five take out both the Harwich number nine and one of his own team mates with a lunging tackle. The free-kick produces nothing of note but at least the tackle made me laugh. The football is scrappy but the passes that do get strung together are mostly strung together by Harwich or ‘The Shrimpers’ as they are known, a nickname which no doubt has to do with what I had for tea as a child. The neighbouring picnic tables are occupied too and on one of them some young women, possibly ‘wags’, talk about an away game they went to recently. “There was no bar” one of them says “Just a bottle of Blossom Hill in the fridge”. At another table a middle aged woman calls out “Come on ‘arridge”.
Despite Harwich’s dominance, at about twenty past three they almost fall behind as the centre-half misses the ball and Benfleet’s number nine Ben Foord is gifted a clear run at goal; he runs, looks up and shoots, but the Harwich ‘keeper Sam Felgate makes a fine diving save to his left. Stung by that near miss Harwich soon produce the best move of the match so far as number three Jake Kioussis overlaps into the penalty area, but loses his composure and blazes the ball high over the goal and onto the vegetation covered bank in the corner of the ground. Distraught at his failure to do better, Jake appears to try and garrotte himself in the netting behind the goal. Michael the Harwich coach leaves his post in front of the dug-outs to fetch the ball. The entertainment is improving and Benfleet win a corner but hit the ball straight to an unopposed Sam Felgate.
Just before half past three The Shrimpers take the lead as Sean Gunn dinks the ball into the net from close range as three Benfleet defenders look on admiringly; it’s what Harwich deserve in what has so far been quite a one-sided game. Paulene and I decide to get a different perspective on the match and wander further round behind the goal

enjoying the cascade of greenery in the corner of the stand and an abandoned roller. Non-league football just wouldn’t be the same without the atmosphere of decay and the implied memories of better days long ago; the Royal Oak has that beautiful faded glory in spades.
All of sudden a bit of ill-temper erupts on the pitch and the Benfleet number four squares up to the Harwich number two and shoves him backwards, not just once but three times. A melee ensues and Michael is on the pitch to help break it up. The referee Mr Harvey looks uncertain about what has happened and he consults his version of the VAR, the linesman Mr Arnot. 30686126038_1dc5f53e29_oUnusually both linesman are called Arnot, although if they are related the relationship looks like grandfather and grandson, with one being stocky and totally bald and the other lanky and very youthful. The referee consults Mr Arnot senior, who talks to Mr Harvey with his hand over his mouth, like players do on the telly. I’m not certain why he does this; even if Mr Arnot has a strange paranoia about lip-readers what can he possibly be saying that is such a big secret? The result is a free-kick to Benfleet and bookings for both players, although I’ve seen players sent off for shoving before. A short while later the match breaks down again into confrontation as Benfleet’s number five tackles horizontally at knee height and a Shrimper hits the turf clutching a leg. This time Mr Harvey sorts it out on his own, but again appears lenient as he doesn’t even show a yellow card. Happily, half-time soon arrives and everyone can go for a lie down.
Paulene and I continue our wander around the ground and I picture how the bank42747580570_69889cf102_o behind the dug- outs was perhaps once a grassy ‘terrace’. Beneath the vegetation a path can be discerned which runs up to a large pair of metal gates onto Main Road, I feel like some sort of football archaeologist, and as I look across at the terrace of 1950’s houses that overlook the ground I am struck with a sense of deja-vous. The layout of the Royal Oak with the houses on one side, the rickety main stand opposite and the club house up the corner is a lot like that of the Stade Municipal in Balaruc-les -Bains in southern France, where Paulene and I watched a Coupe de France (French FA Cup) game last September (see the archive section of this blog for an account of our visit and the match) . I buy two more teas (£2) and am served at the tea hut by the Scottish man who is helping out with the half-time rush. Paulene and I take a look in the club house where a display on the wall recalls Harwich & Parkeston’s appearance in the 1953 FA Amateur Cup final before a crowd of 100,000; The Shrimpers lost 6-0 to Pegasus (a combined Oxford & Cambridge University team) and it was probably Pegasus that drew the crowd rather than The Shrimpers, but it’s still an impressive piece of history nonetheless.
The game begins again and Benfleet are playing a bit better, although Harwich still get opportunities to score again. But at just gone twenty past four the Harwich defence recreates the error they made an hour ago. Harwich’s number five mis-reads the flight of the ball and fails to play it back to the goalkeeper who is a long way off his goal line; they are both left helpless as Benfleet’s number ten Rob Lacey nips in to lob the ball over Sam Felgate and into the goal to equalise. Quickly some of the Harwich players turn on one another to apportion blame. One of them stands with arms outstretched and says “If are going to make mistakes…” but sadly I don’t catch the end of the sentence. For a little while Benfleet are the better team and they seem to have broken up the link between the Harwich midfield and forwards. Benfleet’s blond-haired number six Martin Lacey has moved to left back and snuffed out the Harwich attacks down this flank; added to which his haircut has a hint of the 1960’s Mod about it.
Benfleet now look the more likely team to score again and we walk round behind the goal that they are attacking. We arrive in time to see the game again erupt into an unseemly mess as a Harwich player scrambles about on the ground and then a scrum of pushing and shoving and angry faces develops from seemingly nothing. Michael again appears to break things up. I don’t have a clue what happened or who was involved and sadly it seems neither does referee Mr Harvey who once again consults the human VAR Mr Arnot senior. The decision from Mr Harvey is to send off Harwich’s number five Ben Hammond and Benfleet’s number two Lewis Hunt and to book Harwich’s number four Shaun Kioussis and Benfleet substitute, number twenty Stephan Adeyemi , who hasn’t even come on to the pitch yet. Lewis Hunt and his team mates, manager and coaches protest his innocence and he certainly didn’t appear to be involved in the ruckus. Lewis heads for the dressing room and walks past us, I ask him what happened. He didn’t know but said he didn’t do anything, he tried to separate people and got hit in the mouth and then stepped away. He seems like a really nice bloke, which is what the Benfleet team were telling Mr Harvey. During the mayhem the Harwich ‘keeper takes to time to relax and have a lie down, adopting the pose of a gentleman-player in one of those photographs of a Victorian football team.
The break in play seems to have affected Benfleet more than Harwich, possibly because of the sense of injustice that Lewis Hunt has been wrongly sent off; perhaps whoever was guilty, and someone was, should have owned up and said “Send me off Ref, Lewis is innocent”. Never before has my wearing of my Albert Camus philosophy football T-shirt been so poignant, with its slogan “All that I know most surely know about morality and obligations I owe to football”. Benfleet have lost concentration and at a bit past four thirty The Shrimpers number eleven Sean Gunn breaks through the middle and places a low shot wide of Florent Gislette in the Benfleet goal. Understandably after all that has happened the Harwich team celebrate somewhat.
The final fifteen minutes play out without too much sense that there will be any more goals, although Shrimpers substitute Nicky Palmer sends a shot out towards the North Sea when nicely set up by number ten Michael Hammond, who had passed up on a chance to have a shot of his own. Hammond also becomes the eighth player to be booked before Mr Harvey eventually closes proceedings and the crowd of 160 give appreciative applause for what has been a thoroughly entertaining afternoon of football and brawling, but mostly football.
Paulene and I retire to the bar for a pint of Greene King Abbot Ale (easily Greene King’s best beer) and a Bacardi with Soda (£5.25) and a chance to reflect on a very enjoyable (and cheap) afternoon. We might have been disappointed not to sample the Heritage of Ipswich earlier today, but the sporting heritage of Harwich and Parkestone’s Royal Oak ground has more than made up for it. We’ll be back.

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LOSC Lille 1 Montpellier HSC 1

After a wet, drizzly afternoon enjoying an exhibition of marionettes at the Hospice Comtesse,

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a rather groovy establishment called ‘The Beerstro’ and then the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, the Grand Finale is an eight o’clock kick-off at the Stade Pierre Mauroy where LOSC Lille meet Montpellier Hérault in the 29th Journee of Ligue 1. Montpellier sit in 6th position in the twenty-team French league, whilst Lille flounder uncharacteristically just one place off the bottom, battling against relegation. I am with my wife Paulene and after a relaxed, light meal we head for the Gambetta Metro station. It’s a little after six o’clock and as the streets begin to dry with warm air up moving up from the south, so the Lillois are venturing out to drink, to dine and to watch football. At Gambetta station the escalator is out of action and at the foot of the stairs a ticket man greets us; somehow he instantly detects that we are English and calls out over his shoulder “Alain! Ils sont Anglais”. A smiling, balding man in glasses walks over to us “Awright?” he says and we shake hands. He continues to talk to us in English with a strange hint of an estuarine accent; he must have learnt English in Dartford or Thurrock. He explains the system of rechargeable tickets and although the ticket itself costs 0.20E he lets us have one for free and on to this one ticket we add four journeys for the trip to the stadium and back (6.40E). Alain even validates our tickets for us before we thank him and bid “Au revoir” and descend down onto the platform. What a lovely bloke. The driverless trains on the Lille Metro are frequent and one soon draws up alongside the automatic doors at the edge of the platform. We step on and sit at the front of the carriage, a siren sounds, the doors close and we’re soon hurtling along through concrete tunnels beneath the city

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above. The stadium is the twelfth stop on our mostly subterranean journey, although it is possible to alight at any of the four stops from Villeneuve d’Ascq onwards and the stadium is still easily walkable. People board and leave the train along the route at Republique Beaux-Arts, Gare Lille-Flandres, Caulier, Fives and Marbrerie, some sport red and navy blue knitwear betraying their support for the local team. Before the end of the line at 4 Cantons

Stade Pierre Mauroy, the train rises out of the ground on to an elevated section and just like the last time I made this journey I am for a minute or two Guy Montag and my wife is Clarisse (Julie Christie) in Francois Truffaut’s film of Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. But it soon passes. From the Metro station it’s a ten minute walk to the stadium through a university campus and science park, past the student accommodation called residence Albert Camus; a much cooler name than Essex House, where I lived in my first year at university. It’s dusk and the stadium and its great neon name is visible through

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the black branches of the trees that line our route. The path then opens out onto a wide bridge across Lille’s peripherique motorway and Stade Pierre Mauroy is directly in front of us. To the left a broad concrete piazza is filled with French football fans, and the smell of chips and hot oil. The sun sets behind the stadium to the left, turning the clouds a blurry red and casting ruddy reflections in the puddles; adding some late colour to what has been a grey day.

It’s northern France; Belgium with added je ne sais crois, but similar quantities of frites and beer. Low buildings face the stadium across the piazza, a parade of fast food outlets and bars. Further on the crowds diminish and we pass a large area set aside for cycle parking. Although the stadium is some way from central Lille, next to the motorway and has masses of covered car parking beneath and around it, the French planners were clearly optimistic for sustainable travel and there are two concrete canopied blocks of covered cycle racks in which I sadly count just two bikes and a bloke having a smoke.

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At gate M my wife chooses to go inside, get comfortable and watch the warm ups before the match, but I want to wander about a bit and so we part. I walk around to the ‘front’ of the stadium where it faces the road and the retail park opposite. There is a trailer here from which more chips are being dispensed, the queue of ‘diners’ snakes out of the descending darkness and into the bright light spilling out from above the deep fat fryers.

I walk on, following four members of the Police National, who bristle with shields and kevlar armour. A neon display advertises a future event at the stadium, a concert by the Pink Floyd pensioner, Roger Waters; its title ‘Us and Them’ will seem fateful by the end of the evening. At the ‘corner’ of the stadium is the club shop, red letters spelling out LOSC glow in the windows and fans walking past are silhouetted in its light. Inside the shop, the colour of the club shirt, red, is overwhelming; the colour red is everywhere it seems,

WW2 night-time bomber pilots could have spent time in here to improve their night vision. But to me there is more than a hint of the subcutaneous, of viscera; this is the sort of place to give a sensitive person like me nightmares. Feeling queasy I head back outside for the fresh air and then re-trace my steps back to gate M where after the customary patting down I pass through the automatic, bar-code operated turnstile, pick up my free programme and head for my seat. Re-united with Mrs Brooks I study the sixteen-page A5 size glossy programme, which contains just three advertisements not directly related to the club. The programme is small and necessarily concise and all the more excellent for that, with everything you need to know, which is really just the squads, the league table and details of the next match. If you crave extraneous information such as forward Anwar El Ghazi’s recipe for lentil soup then there is a fortnightly club paper available in the club shop, ‘LOSC in the City’, which is also free. As I read, a superannuated looking band perform live from the side of the pitch. I think they’re playing the Sex Pistol’s ‘Problems’ but Paulene tells me it’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I’m a bit disappointed to be honest and their rocked-up version of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ doesn’t please me either , but to my possible shame in these modern times, they’re next number, Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, makes me smile. My reading and musical reverie however, is disturbed by a large bang and some chanting from outside the ground; I had seen on the local TV station that there was to be demonstration by supporters before the game because of the poor performance of the team this season, and this must be it. I walk out to the back of the stand to witness through the mesh wall and some acrid smoke a couple of hundred fans following a bloke holding aloft a red flare; more firecrackers go off and there is some chanting. Excitement over, I return to my seat. Many of the other seats in the stadium are still unoccupied, particularly those on the Virage Est (East Stand) that the Lille Ultras occupy. It is soon evident however, that the ultras were the protestors as the Virage Est sees a torrent of flag waving humanity flood towards the back of the goal.

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Meanwhile a female announcer gees up the crowd with some disco music and a dance-cam

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shows supporters boogeying insanely on the big screen above the Virage Est. People seem to be enjoying themselves at a football match which hasn’t even started yet. On the pitch everything is being set up for the grand entry of the teams. Ball boys in orange shirts are camped across the centre circle, the Ligue 1 logo is carried out and put into place along with the sponsor’s logo (Conforama – a furniture retailer) and the match ball is placed on a plinth.

Banners featuring the club badges flank the ball and plinth and another banner displaying the Ligue 1 logo and then more banners are marched on to the field, these are red and bear the squad numbers and a photos of the players in tonight’s Lille team. As if all these banners aren’t enough a short film is played on the big screen which follows a journey around the city of Lille and shows images of LOSC players projected onto its most notable sites and buildings, culminating in all the players being projected on to the Stade Pierre Mauroy. It is a mightily impressive little film and conveys brilliantly the ideal of the club and the city and its people as one, I am not a little moved by all it all and wish for a day when I see something like it in Ipswich. We shouldn’t be leaving the EU, we should be saying can we forget about ‘being English’ and instead be French, or German, or Italian or even Belgian. The final act of the pre-match rituals is the singing of the club song, to the tune of Amazing Grace.

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The words appear on the giant screen and the singing hasn’t finished before referee Monsieur Sebastien Moreira, a stocky bald man, signals the start of the game. Montpellier in all white with pale orange shoulders have the first kick, in the direction of the Virage Est but it’s as if they are mesmerised by the club song, they pass the ball about and then as the song melts away immediately lose possession. That strange, musically accompanied start aside, it’s an exciting start to the game, with both teams dashing towards their opponent’s goal at every opportunity. Montpellier’s 19 year old Jonathan Ikone, a loanee from Paris St Germain, leads the charge and his team dominate the early possession, understandably believing that against the team second from bottom in the league, they are bound to score if they keep pressing. A Montpellier shot is soon saved by Mike Maignan, Lille’s goalkeeper. Montpellier are good to watch, they’re fast and direct even if most attacks break down before anyone has a shot. Lille burst forward when they can, particularly through Algerian Yassine Benzia who has the facial hair of a swarthy Mr Pickwick and his arms look unusually long; he is also the first player to be cautioned by referee Monsieur Moreira. Montpellier’s Ellyes Shkiri is injured and replaced by Saloman Sambia, but their forty year old Brazilian captain

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Vittorino Hilton

Vittorino Hilton, a veteran even six years ago when Montpellier won Ligue 1, plays on. Although the early excitement dies down a little as defences settle into their roles, the Ultras behind both goals never waver and give constant support, their beating drums being the beating heart and rhythm of the match. Each end sings their own songs, and then call to one another down the pitch. It sounds marvellous, even though the Ultras make up no more than five thousand in a crowd of 28,609 in a stadium that holds nearly twice that number . With less than five minutes until half-time, Yassine Benzia surges forward again for Lille, running at the centre of the Montpellier defence. Leaving two, then three Montpellierians in his wake Benzia pushes the ball forward into the path of Nicholas Pepe who is sprinting into the penalty area. Pepe takes a touch and then sweeps the ball past Benjamin Lecomte in the Montpellier goal. A fast, incisive if slightly unexpected goal. Pepe runs to the corner of the pitch and salutes no one in particular in the way that players like to do nowadays, but then he’s only a young lad of twenty-two. Half-time comes and two teams of boys, one in all white and one in all black, take to the field to participate in something called the Orange Football Challenge; it’s a shoot-out which at first is a non-event as none of the boys is capable of scoring , but eventually one team wins, I think. Both teams get their photo taken in the centre circle before another competition takes place in the far goal as three blokes try to hit the cross-bar with a single kick of the ball from 20 metres. The first contestant steps up and casually succeeds, winning 500 Euros in cash as a result. Predictably the next bloke doesn’t hit the cross-bar, although he’s not too far off, whilst the third slips over and shanks his shot along the grounds six metres wide of the goal. He may never be able to watch or participate in football ever again. As the players return to the field for the second half a camera man sets up in front of us to film people in the crowd who will then appear on the giant screen; as if being at the match isn’t enough you have to be able to see yourself and be seen at the match by other people at the match, although they have actually only come to watch the match; Jean Baudrillard might have something to say about it or may be Michel Foucault. Montpellier run at the Lille defence from the start, with chunky Jerome Roussillon attacking down the left and Paul Lasne down the right. It’s about twenty minutes past eight and Roussillon receives the ball some 20 metres or more from goal; he reacts instantly and dispatches a hard, low shot between the outstretched arm of Mike Maignan and the right hand post of the goal. Montpellier have a deserved equaliser, which their small knot of fans high up in the corner of the stadium

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also deserve for having made the 972 kilometre road trip; it’s no wonder there aren’t many of them, but equally a wonder there are as many as there are. No one boos, despite the dire loss of a winning position and behind the goals the Ultras maintain their support. On the touchline the Montpellier coach Michel Der Zakarian looks thoughtful, stroking his chin in his skinny legged tracky bottoms and shapeless black coat. The Lille coach Christophe Galtier moves between his seat in the stand and the technical area, he wears shiny shoes and a dark suit; he steps out of the technical area and onto the pitch at one point when play has stopped for an injured player and is admonished by the fourth official. Galtier waves his arms about in frustration and as he turns to go back to his seat gestures at the official as if to say ‘fuck you’. My wife likes Christophe Galtier; he’s very French.

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There are three minutes added on time in which both sides press forward seeking the winning goal, but neither finds it. Monsieur Moreira blows the final whistle and almost instantly supporters from the Virage Est begin to run onto the pitch and towards the players tunnel and the seats where the directors and officials are sat. More and more supporters pour onto the field; one or two approach Lille players with a look of complaint. The referee and his assistants are the first down the tunnel. A large crowd has gathered but a cordon of stewards has quickly formed creating a semi-circle around the mouth of the tunnel. Whilst most of the people on the pitch are facing the main stand and chanting something like “ If the club goes down , then you go down” at the club officials, there are a few who are taking selfies with the handful of Montpellier players stranded on the pitch as they went over to applaud their supporters. Scenes like this always look uglier than they are and whilst there are a few kicks and scuffles as stewards feel the need to man-handle some people, the cordon of stewards around the tunnel has controlled the situation. For a football tourist like me local difficulties like this just add to the entertainment, but I do wonder what the point is of these demonstrations. The supporters didn’t complain when the new regime at the club installed previously well-respected Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa and backed him with an overhaul of the squad. Bielsa had been a fabled legend at Marseille but his short tenure at Lille was a disaster and he was first suspended and then sacked as the newly assembled team failed to perform with Lille slumping into the relegation places from early in the season. Watching people stood on the pitch not playing football is only entertaining for a short while and not wanting boredom to spoil what had been an entertaining evening we decide to head back to the Metro of Montag, Julie Christie and Alain.

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Ipswich Town 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0

The walk from Portman Road to St Jude’s Tavern in Ipswich is gently uphill, enough so to hone your thirst, especially if you’re slightly desperate for a pint anyway. The walk back to Portman Road is happily downhill, which is encouraging. If it was uphill some people might not bother because watching Ipswich Town this season is an ‘uphill’ experience.

This evening St Judes Tavern, which is a very small friendly pub specialising in proper beer, or ‘real ale’ as I believe it is called is ‘rocking’. The first couple of tables inside the door on the right are occupied by ten or so blokes, mostly in their 50’s and 60’s who have London accents. They talk about Wolverhampton Wanderers, loudly, as if they have been drinking. I am a little intrigued and once I have acquainted myself with a pie and a pint of Nethergate Suffolk County bitter (a bargain fiver for the pair) I step over to them. Etiquette in the 1970’s would have been to throw a glass and a bar stool at them, but football has changed and today I opt for polite questions relating to why they sound like Arthur Daly rather than Benny from Crossroads. They are the London branch of the Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters club and seem very happy to explain that they have been Wolves fans since they were nippers. One of them followed Wolves because all the other kids in the playground supported Chelsea, whilst another had seen them on the telly in the 1950’s. I tell them that I admire them for sticking by Wolves through so many turbulent seasons and that I hope they enjoy the match and lose very heavily. It is appropriate that of all the pubs in Ipswich they should patronise, they chose St Jude’s Tavern; St Jude being the patron saint of lost causes. Mind you, it’s equally appropriate that as a Town fan that’s where I should take my pre-match libation.

A couple of pints of mild and another pie later it is time to make that downhill stroll to the match. Descending Portman Road the stadium lights glow like a beacon, portman road stadium drawing me to them. Seriously? Do I want to do this? Return to the scene of so much disappointment and suffering? Of course I do!

Inside the ground I am greeted by a fellow supporter, older than me and keen to appraise last Saturday’s game versus Brentford. Chambers having a terrible game and the wing backs not getting forward was the explanation for yet another drawn game. Buoyed by this tactical insight I take my seat and the game begins, Ipswich kicking towards the end where I am sat. There’s no great roar of excitement or enthusiasm as the ball starts to roll, which is normal for Ipswich, but in a little while a drum beats in the corner of the North stand and there is some muffled chanting; it only lasts into the seventh minute however and the brooding silence is restored.

To be fair to Ipswich’s spectators, the game soon turns out to be the sort of contest that only inspires brooding and quiet contemplation. Very little at all exciting happens. Ipswich earn a corner and Crazee the slightly weird ‘urban’ Suffolk Punch mascot seemingly tries to rouse the crowd by rhythmically drumming, but he gives up after three short bursts as he does every week; Crazee? More like Crapee. Ipswich have a couple of shots, one of which has to be saved by the goalkeeper and Wolves have a couple too. But by and large it’s dull, with players of both teams struggling to convince anyone that they have previously been acquainted with any game that might be called beautiful.

Half-time under the stand and the video screens show clips of last season’s equivalent fixture, a 2-2 draw. Not sure why they do this; to prove that things haven’t always been this bad or to fool you into thinking that’s tonight’s match up there on the screen and you have amnesia? People sip hot drinks and fizzy beer unhappily and the tannoy plays 2-4-6-8 Motorway by the Tom Robinson Band to get the Wolves fans in the mood for the drive home; an odd choice in 2017 nevertheless.

The respite of half-time is brief and the players file out so that the game can begin afresh. The cheery stadium announcer plays the nauseating “Singing the Blues” over the tannoy to try and stir up some life. “I never felt more like killing myself, ‘Cos watching the Town is bad for your health; Oh Ipswich, sweet death will be a relief”. The half begins and now the match is probably even worse than before. It’s as if the ball is made of slippery wet soap and the match proceeds as a random series of loosely connected events. Boot, header, header, tussle, boot, header, throw, boot, barge, whistle, flick, boot, pass, pass, foul, whistle, free-kick, header, throw, boot, boot, etcetera, etcetera….. Wolverhampton gradually begin to establish themselves as the better of the two teams and whilst not exactly launching wave after wave of free flowing attacks they seem to know roughly that the aim of the game has something to do with the big white sticks joined across the top by a bar.

Despite the drudgery of the Town performance, time is passing quite quickly. The crowd are not encouraging the team, they rarely do unless they’re already two or three goals up, but there is a constant thrum of conversation. It’s no wonder they don’t get behind the team, they’re too busy nattering; are they even watching the game? portman road stadium

In the 84th minute Ipswich bring on substitute Keiffer Moore to signal their desperation. Moore is an enormous centre forward signed for £10,000 from non-league Forest Green who will ‘add height up front’, much as the Post Office Tower did in Tottenham Court Road in the 1960’s.  portman road stadiumA late free-kick for Wolverhampton hits the cross-bar and the relief of this for Town fans is matched by the announcement that there will only be two minutes added time.

Looking back I bloody well enjoyed that. I will be able to say I was there when Ipswich’s season ticket holders committed mass suicide. Gloom, despondency, pointlessness, aimless endeavour from a bunch of grossly overpaid blokes who turn up in flash suits and even flashier cars; they must feel confused. They are paid thousands every week and thousands of people come to watch them and the whole sapping event is a hopeless waste of time. You wonder why all footballers aren’t existentialists. Of course, Albert Camus was, but then, he was French.