Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Braintree Town 1 Truro City 1

It’s a mild and blowy Tuesday night in November and there’s a ‘top of the table clash’ just eight miles down the road from my house as Braintree Town play Truro City in the Vanarama National League South. It might not be far from my house, but Braintree is a bloody long way from Truro, 343 miles apparently and as far as any club has ever travelled to play a league match against Braintree Town. In awe of such a statistic I am inexorably drawn to witness the occasion.
I could get to Braintree by train, but I’d have to change at Witham and I don’t want to do that. So I take the easy option, which is to drive. Parking up near the end of Clockhouse Way at about ten past seven, the streets are quiet, with no one heading for the match,

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drawn by the eerie glow of the floodlights through the now mostly skeletal boughs of the trees. L S Lowry would never have made much of his painting ‘Going to the match’ if he’d lived and painted in Braintree. Entering the car park of the Ironmongery Direct Stadium (formerly and more prosaically known as Cressing Road) I stop to snap a photo for this blog. “How many pictures of grounds have you got then?” asks a man heading for the turnstile. He thinks I’m a ground hopper. I am a bit embarrassed, but say “Oooh, not many, a couple of hundred”.
The admission price this season at Braintree has very sportingly been reduced from £16 to £14 following relegation and similarly the programme is 50p cheaper too, although it’s no longer glossy, I like it all the more for that. I enter the stadium to the strains of Amen Corner: “If paradise is half as nice as being here with you…” which makes me feel wanted. Sadly the welcoming choice of music does not last until kick-off as the two teams enter the field to Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Fanfare for the common man”. I say Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s; but it was only their arrangement of a piece written by American composer Aaron Copland, which your common man might possibly not know. It’s no less appropriate for work-a-day Braintree but it’s a bit naff too. But there’s nothing very exotic about the Vanarama National League South,

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as its name perhaps suggests; like a lot of non-league football it is the haunt of builders and ‘White Van Man’, which is possibly why Vanarama, purveyors of commercial vehicles, thought it worth their while to sponsor it.
I take up a position at the end of the low metal roofed terrace on the east side of the ground, known as The Shed. Three Truro fans are attaching flags to the back wall of the stand, one of which refers to Truro being the Tin Men.

There is a larger group of Truro fans stood behind the goal at the end of the ground that the teams appeared from; they have a big Cornish flag. Truro City kick-off the game towards those supporters, wearing all blue, whilst Braintree make it a colourful spectacle by wearing all orange. The three Truro fans immediately make one helluva racket repeating “Truro, Truro, Truro” over and over and over again to the tune of Amazing Grace. A larger bunch of Braintree fans stood just a few yards away look on slightly bemused or perhaps impressed; eventually they respond with some chants of “Iron, Iron, Iron” , but not any old iron, the Iron that is Braintree Town’s nickname. They soon give up in the face of Truro’s Amazing Grace however, which eventually ends abruptly with a little cough. The Truro fans then start to sing ”Come on Truro, come on Truro” to the tune of Auld Lang Syne which is predictably answered with “Fuck off Truro, fuck off Truro” to the same tune; the concept of terrace wit is grossly exaggerated.
Meanwhile, jet airliners from Stanstead soar overhead, the noise of their engines blotted out by three blokes from Cornwall under an echoing tin roof. On the pitch, Braintree look sharp from the start with their diminutive number seven darting about on the wing just in front of me and the Cornishmen. Both teams seem to be made up of three or four enormous blokes; at least two at the back and one up front. The remainder of the team look tiny by comparison, it’s as if the Vanarama National League South imposes some sort of combined height quota on its teams; the aggregate height of the team not being allowed to exceed the length of seven Transit vans placed end to end. Truro’s number four is possibly the most enormous man on the pitch, he sports a beard and although he is absolutely massive he doesn’t really deserve the ‘fat bastard’ epithet the Braintree supporters inevitably award him.
The three Cornishmen embark on an acapello rendition of “Come On Truro” in what is rapidly becoming an evening of K-tel’s greatest hits from the terraces . The Truro supporters behind the goal break into a rare song and the vocal threesome sing “We forgot that you were here” to Bread of Heaven. Intrigued by this I ask one of the Cornishmen why they aren’t they with the others behind the goal. He tells me it’s because they wanted to be under the roof. I ask if there isn’t some split between Truro supporters, “Don’t ask” he says, so I don’t. One of their flags is for the Truro City Independent Supporters Club so I just speculate that may be there is some sort of great Cornish schism much like the one that afflicted the Christian Church in the middle of the eleventh century. (1054).
Meanwhile it’s not a bad match, the blend of big blokes and smaller ones is an even one and the teams are well matched, but to the extent that the ball is rarely in danger of hitting either goal net. I am conscious that a man in a hi-vis jacket has been stood next to me for several seconds and I turn slightly to my right to face him. He’s a steward, and it’s as if he’s been waiting for me to acknowledge him, “Could you stand behind there please sir” he says, gesturing towards the chunky orange crush barrier. “Okay” I say cheerily, not wishing to cause a scene, although I had been quite happy where I was. The Beatles “Hey Jude” is now the vehicle for the latest chants of “Truro” whilst Braintree supporters weirdly and somewhat mournfully appropriate “Sloop John B” to chant “We know who we are, We know who we are, There’s one team in Essex, We know who we are”.
It’s about twenty past eight and suddenly the Braintree Town defence mysteriously melts away allowing Truro’s number ten Cody Cooke to run through and score a goal. The Truro fans are very pleased and inevitably have a song to celebrate the occasion as they tell us “ Cody Cooke is one of us, he loves Truro” although I thought it sounded like he loves Jesus, which of course he might. Half-past eight arrives and brings with it half-time and I move to the terrace by the players tunnel.

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The tannoy treats us to a rarely heard hit from 1970, Blackfoot Sue’s “Standing In The Road”; tonight at Cressing Road is proving to be a musical wonderland.
The second half begins and Braintree quickly hit their first decent shot on target and then they score as Roman Michael-Purcell easily turns in a cross from Phil Roberts who had made an exciting run forward. Restless as I am I am now sat in the box like main stand. Behind me a man who probably has a mental illness provides an occasional commentary announcing players names and incidents. His voice reminds me a little of the late John Arlot; he has a slight burr which lengthens the players’ names. He seems to have a love for the sounds of the names and is familiar with them all; he repeats some of them often such as Marcel Barrington and Christian Frimpong, who he calls Ping Pong. His ‘commentary’ is in in the style of John Motson as he announces substitutions for both teams but then Truro’s Andrew Neal flattens Frimpong in full flight. “Refereee, refereeee!” our commentator calls and then adds “Fucking cunt” . Then, to close this episode he says “Yellow card, Andrew Neal, the cheeky little fellow”.
The wind is getting stronger and swirls of willow leaves spiral down in front of the stand onto the edge of the pitch. More substitutions are announced behind me as is the fact that Matt Baxter does not come off the bench for Braintree, “ Not Matt Baxter, not Matt Baxter” is the refrain. The game remains tight and interesting as both teams play to win but don’t really come that close to getting a second goal. Truro substitute Tyler Harvey likes to run at the Braintree defence and creates a couple of half-chances and with his long tied back hair he looks like he might be found surfing on Newquay beach when not turning out on a Tuesday night for Truro City. I like to think there is a VW campervan somewhere in the club car park.
The match draws to a close with both sides going for goal unsuccessfully. It was tight at the top of the Vanarama National League South table when this game began and now when it ends at a bit after half past nine, it still is; a point for each team alters nothing. The home crowd are perhaps more disappointed not to have won than the travellers from Cornwall who have at least had a road trip and a jolly sing-song; and me, I’ve had a lovely time.

LOSC Lille 3 FC Nantes 0

Lille is in northern France, in Flanders, so close to Belgium that it also has Flemish and Dutch names, Rysel or Rijsel. The city of Lille has a population of about 230,000 but the metropolitan area, or agglomeration as the French call it contains over a million people, making it France’s fourth largest urban area behind Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Lille is only an hour and twenty minutes by car from Calais and it is served by the Eurostar, making it easily accessible from southern and eastern England. I’ve come to Lille with my wife because it is wonderful city full of fabulous things to see and because it’s a good place to watch football.

In its time LOSC Lille has been a half decent football club, winning the league and Cup double as recently as 2011. It was from Lille that Chelsea took Eden Hazard. This season they have struggled and were in the bottom three early on and are now only eight points away from it in twelfth position in the table. Their opponents tonight for the final match of the season are FC Nantes, another big city club with an illustrious past but currently just jogging along. Nantes also flirted with the relegation places a few months ago, but a decent run has seen them climb to seventh in the table.

My wife and I are staying on the other side of the city centre and therefore catch a Metro train out to the Stade Pierre Mauroy which is located in the suburb of Villeneuve d’Ascq. Lille’s Metro only has two lines but it is fully automated with driverless trains. Whilst most of our Metro journey is underground, towards the end there are outdoor elevated sections and somehow it reminds me of the monorail in Francois Truffaut’s film of the Ray Bradbury book Fahrenheit 451; I sigh and think of Julie Christie before I am shaken from my reverie by our arrival at the end of the line.

It’s a ten or twelve minute walk from the Metro station to the Stade Pierre Mauroy, a massive structure with a closable roof it is a multi-purpose venue. Originally, and rather unimaginatively, it was known as Le Grand Stade, but subsequently and somewhat controversially it was re-named after a local politician. The stadium is like a lot of French stadia, a grand statement. It is sheathed in fluorescent tubes35032548265_3925b4c17a_o that are capable of changing colour and a little like the Allianz Arena in Munich it resembles an enormous rubber dinghy, or may be a slug. The walk from the Metro station is through a university research park; the final approach is impressive across a broad pedestrian bridge over the ring road and into a huge open area around the stadium where fans meet, mingle and munch on chips and baguettes from the food stands; there is beer too.

My wife heads impatiently for our seats at the other side of the stadium whilst I uncontrollably linger in the club shop. I just can’t help popping into club shops, there is something fascinating about them, it’s may be the fact that they are full of people eager to advertise their football allegiance through the clothes they wear, the mug they drink from, the magnet on their fridge, the pennant hanging from the rear view mirror in their car and the teddy bear they hug in moments of doubt.

Having left the shop I get thoroughly patted down by security and wished ‘Bon Match’ before heading through the automated turnstiles. Just inside I pick up a copy of the match day programme; sixteen pages of glossy A534899646781_c2c4496472_o which is absolutely free and tells you all you need to know about tonight’s teams and happily stops short of telling us anyone’s favourite holiday destination, whether they prefer tea or coffee or would read Camus rather than Stendahl or de Maupassant. Once again French football shows its superiority to English, reasonably priced seats (20 euros tonight) and free match programmes, which gives you more money to spend in the club shop. The programme has the title “reservoir dogues”; partly because LOSC Lille are known as the les dogues, a type of enormous dog, and partly it would seem because LOSC Lille can’t resist a not very good pun.

Up in the stand there are more freebies to be had; a smiling young woman is giving away giant foam hands, whilst under every seat is a red flag on a stick bearing the club crest. It may be the last match of a disappointingly unsuccessful season, against a team ranked as the 4th least entertaining in Ligue 1 by the sports paper L’Equipe, and it may be a meaningless match, but it will be fun! That is the point, because there are new owners at Lille and they have a vision for the club and they want to sell season tickets (abonnements). I buy a small low alcohol (0.5%) beer (Kronenbourg Malt), which I cannot recommend and take my seat.

As kick-off approaches the words of the club anthem appear on the giant screen set into the front of the roofOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and a good number of the 28,390 crowd sing heartily to the tune of Amazing Grace whilst waving their flags and giant hands; it’s almost moving. Nantes is in the far west of France some 600km away by road, so not many Nantoises have made the trip and the few that have are high up in the corner of the stadium; they mostly don’t bother to take their seats but stand at the top of the stairs, as if preparing for a quick getaway at the end of the match. From where I am sat their contribution to the match atmosphere is nil. The teams come on to the pitch behind large banners displaying the two club crests, as happens for all Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 matches. Lille wear their red shirts and navy blue shorts, whilst FC Nantes are in their traditional kit of all yellow with green trim, for which they are known as the Canaries (les canaris) and for this reason I can’t help disliking them slightly, even though to my knowledge they have nothing else at all in common with Norwich City. Whatever, I am supporting Lille tonight and have the fridge magnet to prove it.34187818524_1f7e6cca3f_o

The match kicks off and for fifteen minutes or so it lives down to expectations and not much happens. But gradually Lille start to look the better team. The crowd, who after that initial pre-match burst of orchestrated enthusiasm had begun to sound a bit lost amongst the cavernous spaces around the other 32,000 unoccupied seats, start to find their voices which fill those voids. The Ultras below our seats call to the support at the far end of the ground and they call back and the atmosphere builds. Thirty-six minutes gone and a through ball finds Nicolas de Preville who advances and passes the ball beyond Dupe to put Lille ahead. Yes! Not only am I seeing a team called the Canaries lose but I had spotted de PrevilleOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA playing for Reims last season and picked him out as ‘one to watch’. So I’m pretty pleased with myself. Lille continue to be the better team and retain their 1-0 lead as Monsieur Desiage the referee (arbitre) blows for half-time.

During half-time the entertainment switches to a shoot-out between a couple of boys teams and there is also a performance by some dancing girls with pom-poms, which is more or less in the tradition of French Saturday night TV where variety, which in France includes bare-breasted show girls, is still popular. For all its philosophy and sophistication France often still seems oddly sexist. I take a trip downstairs to the gents’ and enjoy the figure painted on the door34992387426_ce06889e21_o of a male in a baggy shirt and shorts with knees bent and fist clenched, which is probably meant to convey that he is celebrating a goal, but he looks like he may be just farting loudly, it is a toilet door after all.

A minute into the second half and Lille fans have every reason to fart loudly in the direction of les NantoisesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and celebrate as my protégé Nicolas de Preville scores a second goal, a simple tap-in, for les dogues. Les canaris are looking suitably sick as parrots. Seven minutes later and de Preville claims his hat-trick after Lima holds back a Lille player in the penalty box and a penalty is awarded. Lima is sent off. FC Nantes have developed into a full-blown surrogate Norwich City for me with les canaris 3-0 down and with a player sent-off, it’s the sort of thing I dream of seeing.

Just past the hour Lille replace Benzia with Naim Sliti a skilful Tunisian international midfielder and another player who I have to take the credit for spotting last season, this time when he was playing for Ligue 2 Parisian team Red Star. This evening is getting better and better. Apparently however, Sliti is in dispute with Lille because they are not giving him enough games and he has said that if “a door opens” for him he will move. I hope you are you reading this Mick McCarthy.

It looks like it could be a complete rout, but Lille don’t press home their advantage and it’s Nantes who have some half decent chances on the break, but the score remains unaltered. Nine minutes from time Monsieur Desiage books Nantes substitute Kacaniklic with style as some time after he commits a foul he calls him over, speaks with him and then in one very swift and quite angry movement brandishes his yellow card at him.
There’s very little additional time to play, what’s the point? Lille’s win sees them rise a place to eleventh in the final table, leapfrogging Toulouse who play out a goalless draw at home to Dijon; Nantes remain seventh as both St Etienne and Stade Rennais, their nearest rivals in the table, also lose. So that’s it for another season, or is it? We are asked to stay in our seats and meanwhile as the Lille players milk applause for their season’s work a tractor and trailer drives on to the pitch, sheets are laid across the turf and boxes and things are heaped up on the sheets. The players thank the UltrasOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the bloke who stands on the step ladderOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA in front of the Ultras to orchestrate their chants makes a short speech to the players. Applause follows, so he evidently hasn’t told them what a useless bunch of overpaid gets they are, or maybe he has. No one seems to take offence however, and as the celebrations die down we sit and wait. Suddenly the stadium lights go out; then begins the loud beat of Euro-disco, the flash of lasers and then the explosion of fireworks. Quite a spectacular display follows and goes on for the next twelve minutes or so. If this is how they celebrate the end of the season when they finish top of the bottom half of the table, what do they do when they actually achieve something? But it’s great; this is what football clubs should be doing, thanking their supporters at the end of the season. I had only seen Lille once before this year, but they seem to care that everyone here has bothered to come to the last match of the season.

We finally leave the stadium at about 11.20pm and head for the Metro which is of course still running; night buses begin to run in about an hour’s time. It has been a fun night at the Stade Pierre Mauroy with defeat for a team called the Canaries, a sending off, a hat-trick for a player I had ‘scouted’, a fireworks display and a free flag. I shall hopefully return some time next season. As it says on the illuminated destination blinds of the buses outside the stadium Allez Lille!

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