Crewe Alexandra 1 Ipswich Town 1

Ipswich Town had never played Crewe Alexandra in Crewe or anywhere else before 21st October 1997, and I am proud to boast that I was there that very day to witness the stultifying goalless draw that ensued.  Crewe were new to the second division back then, although they had enjoyed a brief dalliance with that most joyful of divisions where the teams are generally good, but not that good, back between 1892 and 1896.  But whilst the 1890’s were synonymous with La Belle Epoque in Paris and evidently Crewe in the middle years of the decade, these were nevertheless the days before Crewe Alexandra’s natural habitat of the Third Division North and its offspring the Third and Fourth Divisions of the Football League first saw light of day.  All this is mere pointless preamble however, because I first went to Gresty Road to see Crewe Alexandra play Halifax Town in April of 1988.  Ipswich were away at Oldham Athletic on the Saturday and my friend Steve and I travelled up the previous day in my trusty Toyota Corolla, which actually didn’t prove that trusty because the exhaust blew somewhere on the A500, requiring a pre-match visit to Kwik-Fit; to add further excitement to the occasion neither Crewe nor Halifax managed a goal that Spring Friday night. The following day Ipswich Town lost 3-1 at Boundary Park to crown a successful weekend.

Almost thirty-three years later and today of course the Ipswich Town players and their entourage are the only people travelling to Crewe and I am sat at home listening to the unfolding story of the afternoon on BBC Radio Suffolk in the company of Brenner Woolley and his sidekick Stuart Ainsley.   I decide to listen to the game with my wife Paulene rather than sit alone in the back bedroom and this means that courtesy of the magic of an earphone and the Amazon Firestick I can also watch a French Ligue 2 game;  either Troyes v Auxerre, which BT Sport would doubtless bill as the Champagne derby if it  deigned to show it, or  Toulouse versus Clermont. 

We plump for the game in Toulouse because we like Clermont Ferrand and once took a very long tram ride on a very, very hot day to visit the city’s Stade Gabriel Montpied ground, how we laugh as we fondly recall that Paulene came out in a nasty rash because of the extreme heat. I tune into BBC Radio Suffolk in time to hear some irrelevant tosh about something called the Premier League and the good news that Norwich City have not won today, although sadly they didn’t lose either. Some commentary follows from when Town last played a league game in Crewe, which was in 2006 in the years before Marcus Evans, and Alan Lee and Dean McDonald scored to give Town a 2-1 victory.

Brenner Woolley’s soothing voice arrives through the ether to bring news of the inevitable changes to the Town line-up after the latest ignominious defeat.  Brenner reveals that Freddie Sears will be playing “up top” today and that Miles Kenlock replaces Stephen Ward at left-back; he asks Stuart Ainsley what he makes of this.  “Obviously positive for Kenlock” says Stuart, stating the obvious but also reminding us of the importance of the word ‘positive’.  In modern football the ‘positives’ are something which managers look for in every losing performance.  In Ipswich’s case Paul Lambert finds so many positives in every defeat, there is no longer any need to win.

I’m not sure if my concentration doesn’t divide very well between tv and radio, but I seem to miss the actual kick off in Crewe although Brenner is quick to allay my fears that I might have missed much by quickly telling us that it’s still ‘early doors’. In Toulouse the game began an hour ago because it’s now four o’clock there and the second-half kicks off with the score at one-all.   Brenner continues to ask Stuart about changes to the Town team and what he thinks of Alan Judge’s return to the starting line-up.  “I think it’s positive” says Stuart.  As he’s not being a football manager right now he either simply can’t think of anything else to say or he is trying to develop his radio persona by means of a catch phrase.

“Playing with gloves on, the blond-haired number ten” says Brenner of Crewe’s Kirk before Stuart postulates his theory that Luke Chambers should play in the middle alongside Woolfenden or McGuinness in order to create a blend of youth and experience at the centre of the defence. “It may work better; it may not, obviously” adds Stuart, almost admitting it’s a crap idea before he’s finished telling us about it.   On the tv  meanwhile, Toulouse take the lead, scoring direct from a free-kick hit so hard by Branco Van den Boomen, who is Dutch,  that it scares the defensive wall into evasive action.

“A rare involvement for the Czech” says Brenner, presumably as Tomas Holy receives the ball, but possibly as he fills out and posts off his annual subscription to the Royal Society of British Football Commentators.  Quickly back from the post box Brenner updates us on Paul Lambert’s attire today; “Only the eyes of the town manager visible on the far side, with the beanie hat and the hoody pulled over his face”.  Getting into his groove Brenner tells us that Tomas Holy is in all black and appears “very nonchalant but very accurate” as he plays the ball out of his penalty area.

Confirming the venue for today’s match Brenner refers to somewhere called the Alexandra Stadium, which is a name that sounds very salubrious and I wonder what happened to plain old Gresty Road where Crewe used to play.  After 15 minutes Gwion Edwards has a shot which the Crewe goalkeeper has to prevent from going into the goal.  “Town on top at the moment” says Brenner.  It sounds like Town are doing okay. “Not a million miles away from being a good ball” says Brenner as Town almost mount an attack.  It still sounds like Town are doing okay, but then Brenner raises his voice “Blasted over the top by Mandron…..when almost certain to be 1-0 to Crewe”.    It transpires that Miles Kenlock has saved the day with a last ditch block, or a tackle, or perhaps a block and tackle. Town “…definitely weren’t playing the way they were trying to play” explains Stuart confusingly, but somehow logically too.

From what I can make out, Town soon recover from almost conceding and are still the better team. “No one’s in the middle but in it goes anyway” says Brenner of the ball as the nine Town outfield players turn finding their lone striker into a game of Where’s Wally.    Brenner then proceeds to show off his knowledge of football terminology as he describes the Crewe goalkeeper catching the ball “…on his back stick”, an odd expression,  which only makes sense if there isn’t a cross bar, which interestingly, back in the 1860’s when the game was first codified there didn’t used to be.

Twenty minutes pass. Brenner makes reference to the “pony-tailed Woolfenden” as he does most games and Stuart tells us that “The game’s gone a bit untidy”, not unlike his use of the English language in that sentence.  On tv it’s the sixty-seventh minute of the match in Toulouse and the home team score again, this time a penalty from Stijn Spierings whom Brenner would call “the other Dutchman”.  “Terrible from Beckles, not much better from Gwion Edwards” says Brenner succinctly describing third division football and he does it again as he says “Crewe’s turn for some harmless possession”.  It sounds like the game has become rather uneventful, Brenner describes it as “A little bit cat and mouse”, in which case I hope Ipswich are the cat because in my experience of play between cats and mice it usually ends with the mouse being disembowelled or having its head left on the back doorstep.  “Ipswich have sort of sat off” is Stuart’s more nuanced assessment of the state of play.

The lack of excitement in the commentary leads me to notice the geographical nature of the Crewe back four with Lancashire, Pickering and Beccles (Beckles) creating some lengthy potential passes.  Meanwhile Brenner reflects on his liking for Crewe’s Charlie Kirk “I like Kirk when he gets the ball, very easy on the eye” purrs Brenner, adding an unexpected frisson of homo-eroticism to his commentary.

  With half an hour gone Crewe score, but happily the ‘goal’ is disallowed because the beautiful Kirk is offside.  Soon afterwards Miles Kenlock is booked for a lunge at Luke Murphy and Stuart speculates as to whether the wind is playing a part in the game. “Obviously you can’t tell from here” says Stuart, which is hard to contradict given that he’s 323 kilometres away in a radio studio.  His theory seems to be based on the fact that the corner flags are “blowing rapidly”. 

Beckles is booked for a foul on Sears.  “Goodness, that was awful from McGuinness” reveals Brenner of a separate incident, before back on the tv Clermont pull a goal back with a header from Jonathan Iglesias, who Brenner would probably describe as “the Uruguayan” if he was commentating on the French game .  Half-time is just a couple of minutes away and Freddie Sears shoots from some 25 metres from goal, which Brenner describes as “ambitious”.  Two minutes of additional time are announced at Crewe and four in Toulouse. The first half ends for Crewe and Ipswich and Brenner asks Stuart to summarise. “Are they playing without a number nine?” asks Stuart rhetorically “Quite possibly” is his not very conclusive answer too himself; perhaps he hasn’t noticed that Kayden Jackson isn’t even on the bench today, or perhaps he has. 

Half-time is illuminated by an espresso, a cup of tea and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar.  With the game in Toulouse over, the Firestick is switched to Serbian television where two of my favourite French clubs, Montpellier HSC and RC Lens are playing in Ligue 1; it’s a colourful spectacle with Montpellier in navy blue shirts and orange shorts and Lens in red and yellow shirts with black shorts.  So engrossed in the French game am I that I miss the first three minutes of the second half at Crewe.  Lens score with a fine shot from outside the penalty area from Cheick Doucoure who Brenner would refer to as “the Malian”. 

Almost an hour of the game has been played when Crewe score through Brenner’s favourite Charlie Kirk.  Stuart contends that Crewe do not deserve their lead but that Ipswich “Need more players up the pitch”, although one on the goal line might have been handy a minute ago.  Freddie Sears, who Stuart considers is playing well, is replaced by James Norwood and Teddy Bishop replaces Luke Thomas.  Brenner cracks a joke; “Town look to be legally obliged to play just one up front this season” he jests.  For a few minutes Town’s or rather Paul Lambert’s refusal to play two players in a forward position is the main topic of the commentary.  Teddy Bishop is then booked for cheating by referee Mr Joyce who is one of the few officials whose surname is also a woman’s first name; I bet he had a tough time at school, always being called Joyce by everyone.   “A good foul by Bishop” is Stuart’s assessment, although he might not have thought so if he had had the ‘gift’ of clairvoyance.

Aaron Drinan replaces Gwion Edwards. Paul Lambert has broken the legal agreement and within a minute Drinan scores his first goal for Town.  The scores are level and Brenner and Stuart ‘riff’ for a moment on the apparently instant impact of having two strikers on the pitch. Stuart suggests it is obvious and Brenner tells him “Don’t worry about saying the obvious on BBC Radio Suffolk”, which is astonishingly honest of him and all of a sudden I think I feel the same way about Brenner as he does about Charlie Kirk.  Charlie Kirk may be easy on the eye, but Brenner is equally easy on the ear.

The game resumes and according to Stuart, Crewe miss a “big chance” to re-take the lead when three players all go for the ball at once, just four yards from goal.  “It’s 1-1, if you’re just re-joining us again having given up at 1-0” says Brenner revealing more of his refreshing honesty.  Meanwhile “Norwood tried to Cruyff it” says Stuart, trying to invent a new verb, but simultaneously inventing a game in which you turn your favourite or least favourite players/managers/owners into verbs.    With eight minutes of normal time remaining Teddy Bishop becomes the new Kayden Jackson and bishops things or may be jacksons them by committing another foul and Joyce sends him off.  Town have eight minutes to hang on, whereas a moment ago they had eight minutes in which to score the winner.

On the tv in Montpellier it’s half time, but back through the airwaves in Cheshire via St Matthews Street in Ipswich, Brenner tells of pointless and possibly dangerous bodily contortions as “Woolfenden wraps his foot around the ball”.  There will be five minutes of added on time and according to Brenner, who seems set on unnecessarily raising the tension, it’s “All hands on deck, everyone back”.  Happily from the remainder of the commentary it doesn’t sound as if the Town defence is overly stretched by Crewe and the five minutes pass quite quickly and comfortably.  With Joyce blowing her whistle for the final time Brenner asks Stuart to summarise. Stuart sighs and says “Ugh, neither team deserved to win it”.  Perhaps feeling that what he has said lacked the dressing room credibility which BBC Radio Suffolk is paying him for, Stuart repeats himself but incorrectly uses the past participle of do instead of the past tense, saying “Neither team done a lot to win the game”.  That’s better Stu mouths Brenner inaudibly, I imagine.

Happy that Town have not lost, but with a nagging sense that we should have done better I detach myself from my earpiece and turn off the radio.  I’m getting a little bored of listening to these games on the radio now, although at least there were two goals today, unlike the first two occasions when actually I went to Gresty Road; and it’s nice not to have not pay for a new exhaust too.

Ipswich Town 0 Peterborough United 1

This week I have thought very little about football. Until Friday night, when I checked, I wasn’t totally certain even who Town would be playing today.  I am not sure why this was; an unusual and very uncharacteristic fixation with work perhaps? Lockdown fatigue?  Disappointment with recent results? Or may be a suppressed subconscious knowledge that we will be playing Peterborough United and are therefore likely to lose.

It is not until Saturday morning therefore that I log onto the Ipswich Town website, copy my code down and then type that code into the ifollow.  Relieved that I have organised what I consider to be my foreseeable future I leave my wife Paulene at the piano and take a walk out into the cold and gloomy streets, because it is important that we exercise if we are not to become ugly and obese.  About half an hour later I return to find Paulene no longer at the piano and about to finish a twenty minute stint on her exercise cycle before tuning into the BEIN Sports tv channel, courtesy of the Amazon Firestick, to watch Clermont Foot 63 versus AJ Auxerre in French Ligue 2, a fixture which reminds me incidentally that Town’s own Sylvain Legwinski was born in Clermont Ferrand.  I witness Clermont ,who are playing with just Mohammed Bayo ‘up front’,  create numerous chances and then take a 13th minute lead through Jodel Dossou who is playing a sort of Gwion Edwards role wide on the right.  With a little over twenty minutes gone of the match I head to the kitchen to prepare a light salad lunch with Comte cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham.

Half-time or ‘mi-temps’ arrives at the Stade Gabriel-Montpied in Clermont-Ferrand with the home team still ahead by a single goal. I leave Paulene in the small part of the Auvergne that has become our living room and head to Portman Road, which is back in the kitchen with the dirty plates and cutlery from lunch.  I put the kettle on for Paulene and sensing that I might be in need of an alcoholic crutch, pour myself a pre-match ‘pint’ (330ml) of Westmalle Dubbel Trappist beer (£2.20 from Waitrose).  I enjoy the thought that a Trappist beer should be the beer of choice for the notoriously quiet Portman Road crowd – if there ever is one again.  

The ifollow broadcast begins, with commentary as ever from BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley, and his side-kick Mick Mills, who is straight into his lengthy pre-match soliloquy.  Mick believes that there is no longer a home advantage and that “…it levels off under the Covid situation”.  It’s easy to see why Mick would believe this given Town’s collection of four defeats from their last five home games. Brenner takes up the mike from Mick and I can’t help laughing when he reveals that Town’s new loan signing from Preston North End, Josh Harrop has tested positive for Covid before he’s even kicked a ball for us. If Marcus Evans sold our club, with our luck it would be to Donald Trump.

Town kick-off towards what used to be called Churchman’s and Brenner tells us he is trying to work out if Paul Lambert is on the bench today; apparently it’s difficult to make him out amongst  a dark mass of big black coats and beanie hats down by the touchline.  Sartorially obsessed, Brenner describes what colour kits the teams are wearing and it sounds like he enjoys the alliteration of the Peterborough goalkeeper Pym, being dressed in purple.  The kettle boils and I make a cup of tea for Paulene. Town win an early corner.  “It’s a good start” according to Mick “We’ve forced two or three throw-ins”.  Brenner follows up with “Pressure, early doors” unable to resist the temptation to break open his locker of football-ese expressions at the earliest opportunity, although ‘early doors’ is inevitably at the top of the pile.

The ball is mostly in the Peterborough half of the pitch, but seldom in their penalty area. “Again not good distribution from Chambers” says Brenner as the Town captain lumps the ball forward inaccurately. “He berates himself in the aftermath” continues Brenner, which doesn’t really atone for Chambers’ failings but produces a welcome mental image of the Town stalwart schizophrenically shouting and pointing his fingers at himself.  Town’s positive start has evaporated a little. “Nobody really taking advantage of the game at the moment” says Mick, not quite using all the right words to convey what he wants to say.  Feeling a soft blanket of disinterest creeping over me I glance out of the kitchen window at the two plastic shopping bags that I hung on the washing line yesterday evening. Mesmerisingly, the shopping bags waft back and forth on the faintest breeze.

Back on the ifollow and BBC Radio Suffolk, Brenner breaks my concentration. “He’s not done well at all so far, the captain” says Brenner as Luke Chambers makes a two-metre pass to an ungrateful opposition player on the edge of the Peterborough penalty box.  It’s not unusual for Brenner to make a statement and then only tell us who it’s about at the end of the sentence; I suppose it provides a little suspense when the football doesn’t.  Pleasingly Brenner soon has better news and reports that he has evidently spotted Paul Lambert who is wearing a snood, big coat and beanie hat.  I tick it off my list of things I need to know about this afternoon’s match. Having tuned into the theme of winter clothing Brenner then announces “Brown, another player with gloves on in the Peterborough side”. 

The game has entered a mildly engaging phase as the two teams appear well matched, but no one is creating goal scoring chances.  “Cat and mouse” says Mick. “Even Stevens” says Brenner, not to be outdone by the expert.  “They’ve done well so far, Ipswich Town” adds Brenner using his back to front sentence construction again.  Gwion Edwards is awarded a free-kick on the left of the Peterborough penalty area after a foul by Frankie Kent.  After a lengthy description of the event Mick concludes that he’s not sure if it was a free-kick at all. Unperturbed, presumably because he’s not listening to BBC Radio Suffolk , referee Mr Coggins doesn’t change his mind.  The ball is played to little Alan Judge who shoots and misses.

Flynn Downes commits a couple of his trademark, pointless, petulant fouls but escapes a booking.  “Chambers on the left, Chambers on the right” says Brenner probably correcting himself, but possibly showing that he is confused about where Luke Chambers is, or about which is his left and which is his right. Nearly a third of the game has passed and Peterborough win their first corner and then a second before   Siriki Dembele gets the “first sight of the goal for Peterborough United” according to Brenner; Dembele misses and Mick launches into a long monologue about why the game is even.

 Out of the blue Siriki Dembele has a run into the penalty area in the company of Aristote Nsiala. Nsiala makes a tackle, Dembele falls to the ground and after initially giving a corner referee Mr Coggins, who shares a surname with the amusingly named American TV evangelist Pastor Randy Coggins the second, awards a penalty to Peterborough.  Peterborough’s top scorer, Jonson Clarke-Harris, who greedily has three surnames, steps up to blast the ball into next week and over the cross-bar.  “Brilliant!” says Mick enthusiastically as I simultaneously guffaw loudly.  “If you go that high, there’s a risk you can hit it over the bar” says Mick sagely, but apparently not realising that if you put it that high it will always go over the bar, because the bar is set at 2.44metres above ground and doesn’t move. 

In my back garden it’s snowing, and at Portman Road Mick advises that Peterborough are “starting to loosen up a little”, although I don’t think the two things are related.  Mick is having a good afternoon at the microphone and cheekily rivals Brenner with some superior football-speak as he pleasingly refers to Town’s new Covid-infected signing as “The boy Harrop”.   Sadly Mick goes on to state the obvious as he explains about footballers that “You can almost say they’re successful by stats”, proposing that the players who score most goals and make most decisive passes are the better players.

Back on the pitch Luke Chambers spectacularly slices the ball away and it travels high up into what I still call the Pioneer stand. Evidently the ball lands near the commentary position and Mick is moved to boast that had it landed just a little bit closer to him, he would have played it back to Luke Chambers’ feet, he probably would have too; he certainly wouldn’t have sliced it.  A minute of added on time is played once the first forty-five have elapsed and it’s half-time.

Grasping the moment I put the kettle on and grab a half-time snack consisting of a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar.   Back in the Auvergne, in the living room, Clermont still lead Auxerre 1-0; they almost double their lead in the dying moments of the game but don’t, but nevertheless climb to second in the Ligue 2 table above Toulouse, who don’t play until Monday.  On BEIN Sports tv attention moves north and east to Hauts de France and the Stade Felix Bolleart-Delis where RC Lens are playing Olympique Marseille in Ligue 1. 

Helplessly I return to Portman Road where I pour the tea into my TSV 1860, mug which my friend Mick (not ‘Millsy’ sadly) kindly brought me back from Munich in 2019. I still imagine Mick descending the steps from the aeroplane and announcing not “Peace in our time” but “Tea in this mug”. One of the things I like best about the mug is the word spulmaschinebestandig printed on the bottom, which is German for dishwasher-safe.

On the ifollow the action resumes, it is four minutes past four. Within seconds Peterborough win a corner but it comes to nothing.  “Lots of huff and puff” says Mick misquoting the wolf in the story of the three little pigs. “No real quality at either end of the pitch” he adds a little unnecessarily for anyone who’s watched Ipswich previously this season.  Brenner then refers to Mark McGuinness as “the teenage defender” and I think what a good title that would be for a super-hero, before Andre Dozzell makes a raking diagonal pass to no one in particular, apparently because that’s what he does. The ifollow has become staccato with frequent buffering and for a short while the broadcast becomes almost unwatchable. Weirdly for someone doing a live commentary Brenner seems to have the same experience “Time seemed to stop there for a second” he says as Teddy Bishop loses the ball, then pushes his opponent over rather than try and get it back.

“The passing isn’t very good” says Mick, confirming for the BBC Radio Suffolk listeners what the ifollow watchers have probably already noticed.  Over an hour has been played and a caption appears on the screen to tells us that the proportion of possession is 51% to 50% in Peterborough’s favour, which is mind blowing and proves that anything, even the impossible,  is possible in the EFL.

The sixty-ninth minute arrives, the ball is crossed into the Ipswich penalty area and with the grace of a giraffe that’s been stung by a bee, Mark McGuinness the “teenage defender” slices the ball into the Town goal to give Peterborough what will prove to be a winning lead. “Oh bugger” I say, sensing that the game is probably lost even with twenty minutes to play; and I’d had such high hopes.

Little Alan Judge, the sadly anonymous Aaron Drinan and Teddy Bishop are soon replaced by Luke Thomas, on loan from Barnsley, Freddie Sears and Jon Nolan.  Nolan quickly hits a shot over the cross bar from 25 metres.  “ Town have really come to life since that triple substitution from the bench” Brenner tells us, suggesting, but providing no evidence, that substitutions from other places are possible too.  Gwion Edwards has a shot which is apparently deflected away from goal by a Peterborough player but no corner is given by the tv evangelist’s namesake.  It is now snowing.  A close-up of the electronic scoreboard at Portman Road shows that the ifollow on-screen clock is twenty seconds ahead of the actual game, which implies Brenner was right and time really did stand still.  If only time had stood still a bit more and it was still 1981.  There are just ten minutes left of normal time and Brenner is clutching at straws on behalf of Town supporters as he speculates that there won’t be enough snow to have the game called off now.  More sensibly Brenner then plays with words saying  “Up goes Downes”.

With time running out Brenner gets to use his “..runs into traffic” phrase as Jon Nolan runs into two opponents at once; five minutes of added on time are announced.  Tomas Holy goes up for a corner but the ball is carefully directed away from him, and although Toto Nsiala gets to volley it spectacularly in to the Peterborough net, it had gone out before it was played back to him.  Coggins calls time, Ipswich lose at home, again.   “A better performance than a week ago at Burton” concludes Brenner. “A fair result would have been a draw” says Mick.  

I turn off the ifollow and draw down the blinds to shut out the gloom.  I think I shall pretend this never happened. There’s another game on Tuesday, perhaps we’ll win that.

Burton Albion 0 Ipswich Town 1

This morning I awoke, along with everyone else in eastern England who hadn’t died in their sleep, to the sight of streets and gardens, trees and roof tops covered in a reasonable, but not thick layer of snow.  I’ve seen plenty of snow before of course and it had been forecast so it was not a surprise, but I couldn’t help but stop and stare at it out of the bedroom window.  Snow is always beautiful, a bit like sunsets.

I have been looking forward to the match today having suppressed the memory of last week’s game and crushed it into a tightly knotted, dense ball of pain and suffering which is now buried deep within my psyche. That covering of snow has added to the sense of joy and hope that I now feel as it has made me thankful that despite Town playing in Burton-On-Trent, normally the kind of town I would be first on the bus for, I don’t have to leave the house today.

This morning my wife Paulene has finished a jigsaw that has occupied a table in front of our French windows for at least the past four months, possibly longer.  I have listened to The Byrds’ ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ album, because that’s how I feel, and I have also taped up the ill-fitting kitchen window to keep the draft out, hung out four fatballs in the garden for the birds, put the coffee dregs and vegetable peelings in the compost tip and washed up one of three Lapins Cretins (Rabid Rabbits in the UK) glasses which don’t go in the dishwasher and which were acquired in France as part of a special offer at the Intermarche supermarket chain.  Enthused in the wake of that completed jigsaw Paulene and I have also completed a 3D ‘jigsaw’ of the Eiffel Tower which Paulene’s brother gave us for Christmas. Time has flown by carried on the wings of our industry and it’s now thirteen minutes to three.  I have not even thought about a pre-match pint today and strangely it feels like the middle of the afternoon, which, if the evening begins at six o’clock I guess it is.

Leaving Paulene to watch Toulouse versus Grenoble Foot 38 in Ligue 2 on Serbian television courtesy of the wonders of the Amazon Firestick, I skulk off to the cool of the back bedroom and its Ikea Poang chair, where I fire up Radio Suffolk on the trustee Bush TR82/79 in time to hear unwanted word of Norwich City and their visit today to Cardiff.  As unpleasant as that is it soon passes, but I then discover that the clicky bit on the top of the ITFC branded ballpoint pen with which I intend to jot down a few notes for this blog has fallen off somewhere and now the pen is unusable.  The portents for this afternoon are so far not good, but finding a replacement Montpellier HSC branded pen I get comfy in the Poang and am aurally transferred to Studio 2 at Radio Suffolk from where Brenner Woolley is providing the commentary.   Brenner speaks of remote commentary positions at the San Siro and Bernabeu stadiums and how today’s commentary tops those because he is 160 miles away (256 kilometres) from the Pirelli Stadium, the location for today’s fixture.  Although it sounds like it’s in Turin, the Pirelli Stadium is of course in Burton On Trent.  At no time does Brenner let on that he will be watching the match on a tv screen, it’s as if he wants us to believe he has a superhero’s eyesight.

As the game begins I learn from Brenner that Town are in all blue and line-up against yellow shirts, black shorts and yellow socks; if we’re just playing a kit with no one in it this game should be easy. In the studio with Brenner is someone called Stuart, but I don’t catch his surname at first hearing and I don’t recognise his voice.  Brenner may have missed last week’s game through illness but is soon into his stride quickly telling us that James Norwood is wearing pink boots, and using new synonyms for kicking as the ball is “…clouted forward by O’Toole”.  There are several changes to the Town team today including Tomas Holy replacing Dai Cornell. “It’s an easy change to make” says Brenner’s accomplice who I learn is former Town FA Youth Cup winner and Felixstowe & Walton United captain, Stuart Ainsley.  “It’s a new voice at the back” says Stuart obliquely; a comment that has me imagining Tomas Holy shouting “Keeper’s!” as a cross comes over and the centre-backs turning to each other enquiringly and mouthing “Who said that?”.

Stuart has a light Suffolk accent, but it’s not a voice made for broadcasting, even on Radio Suffolk.   Brenner compensates however, with his command of football speak and unusual use of words to describe the movement of the ball.  “The ball rumbles into touch nearside” says Brenner and then, as Burton’s John-Joe O’Toole is substituted, he tells us that “ …it’s a setback for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink early doors”.  “Not a great deal of quality to report in this game so far is there Stuart?” Adds Brenner telling us more in one sentence than all of his other commentary has so far.  “Chambers; an early ball in, not the worst in the world” says Brenner, from which I infer that it was a better cross than Brenner expected.

It’s nearly twenty-five past three, the game does not sound entertaining.  “A little bit of football broke out there, Stuart” says Brenner sounding surprised.  Stuart chips in now and then but he’s not very interesting.  It’s left to Brenner to make up for Stuart’s inexperience in front of the microphone with startling commentary like “Bishop opens his legs and crosses the half-way line”.  Just before half past three Luke Chambers is booked by referee Mr Hare, who if he was German would be known as Herr Hare,  which is what the people in the posh seats at Carrow Road say when they agree with what someone has just said.

Brenner’s commentary is sounding more positive as half-time approaches and Town enjoy more possession of the ball. “Chambers seeing an awful lot of the ball, here he is with his left peg” says Brenner again using curious colloquialisms and making it sound as if Chambers doesn’t always have his ‘left peg’ with him.  Brenner continues in positive vein telling us that it’s great to see three academy players in the midfield today.  Stuart agrees but further explains also that it’s “…difficult for them out there with the pitch looking like it does”, making it sound as if they are all sensitive aesthetes.  Otherwise, Stuart sounds bored and nearly everything he says is punctuated with sighs.   It’s now twenty to three and we are told there hasn’t been a shot on goal, but Brenner remains up-beat. “Town turning the screw” he says, suggesting perhaps that Town are hoping to torture Burton into submission. 

There are minutes to go until half-time, “Town have always scored when they’ve been at the Pirelli Stadium” says Brenner, and almost immediately Burton hit the top of the cross bar and Brenner is saying “this has to be a tap-in”, but fortunately Luke Chambers blocks the shot. Three minutes of added on time are played and half-time arrives.  I put the kettle on, check with Paulene on the final score at the Stade Municipal in Toulouse (the home team won 2-0, Allez les Violets!) and eat a couple of Waitrose Stollen bites as a half-time snack.  At four o’clock Serbian tv moves its attention to Olympique Marseille v Nimes Olympique in Ligue 1 and I leave Paulene at the Velodrome as I climb the stairs back to the Pirelli Stadium, where the ‘action’ has already re-started and Town have conceded a corner. 

Burton Albion are “…sharper out of the blocks early doors in this second half” says Brenner mixing metaphor from an unrelated sport with football-speak; but nevertheless the view of Stuart is that Burton pose no threat except from set pieces.  Stuart is concerned however, that Town players are not chasing back when they lose the ball, but stops short of calling them lazy and overpaid, which is probably what many listeners are thinking.  But tuning into the need for honest assessment Brenner adds “…the game is really boring at the moment, it has to be said”, before telling us that , as he keeps emphasising, the Burton Albion goalkeeper is yet to make a save.

The sense of gloom builds and Brenner begins to speculate that “Burton will see this as a chance to build on their away win at Gillingham” before adding after a pause, having seemingly completed some swift mental arithmetic “Six points out of six”.   Stuart’s confidence has grown in the shadow of Brenner’s pessimism and he tells us that Town have “…no belief in what they’re trying to do, whatever tactics they’re trying to play”.  Stuart’s reference to “whatever tactics” makes it plain that he hasn’t been able to spot any.

James Norwood is replaced by Aaron Drinan with thirty minutes left to play and Tomas Holy concedes a corner. “Was that a shot we just saw there Brenner?”  asks Stuart as Burton’s Lucas Akins’ kick at goal is saved. Now Ipswich win two corners in quick succession and Aaron Drinan hits the Burton cross bar with a header.  “Drinan done well” says Stuart like a true footballer.  Town win another corner and then Mark McGuinness wins a free-kick. Oliver Hawkins replaces Teddy Bishop and the possibility arises that Town will play with two forwards who are actually playing up-front.   Little Alan Judge has a shot blocked before crossing the ball following a short free-kick. “Headed in by McGuinness” says Brenner, “His first professional goal”.   It’s the seventy-third minute of the match and Town lead 1-0. “Town had been on top for 15 minutes” says Stuart a little uncertainly, “Playing the right football in the right places”.

Brenner tells us that Town quickly come close to scoring a second goal with a header by Aaron Drinan that is well saved.  We learn that Paul Lambert is wearing a black beanie hat and snood before Gwion Edwards is replaced by Freddie Sears.   It doesn’t sound as if Burton are likely to score, but all of a sudden, out of the blue “ Oh, a slice by Nsiala” and Tomas Holy makes his best save of the afternoon from one his own centre halves.  Stuart has been impressed by Toto Nsiala this afternoon and generously blames the ‘dodgy pitch’ for his mis-kick.  Burton have a couple of shots which don’t trouble Tomas Holy and Brenner introduces yet another word to describe the ball being kicked as it is “…clattered up to half-way by Gallacher.”

Hopes for a second consecutive away win are now high. “Town upwardly mobile in terms of the table” says Brenner using lots of words to describe Town climbing the league table without saying in what position they will be.  It’s six minutes five.  Mr Hare blows the final whistle and Town win.  “Big victory this” says Brenner, as he usually does when Town win.  As nice as it is to be told that we have  ‘big victories’ I can’t help thinking that they wouldn’t be so big if it wasn’t for all the big defeats that come between them.  “Was that deserved overall, Stuart Ainsley? asks Brenner. “I think so, yeah” says Stuart, as convincingly as he can.

Personally, I’m glad the game is over; it’s not that I was nervous and on the edge of my seat, wondering if Town would hold on, more that I was bored.  Unfairly, I decide to blame Stuart Ainsley, he’s no Mick Mills, but who is?  Relieved and happy however, I turn off the radio and return downstairs to watch the second half of Marseille v Nimes where Paulene is happy too because her team Portsmouth has also won 1-0 away from home.   Like the snow and sunsets, away wins are always beautiful.

Plymouth Argyle 1 Ipswich Town 2

I am a little ashamed to admit it, but I have only ever been to Home Park, the sensibly named home of Plymouth Argyle, twice.  The first occasion was in August 1987 for an evening fixture, when after a seemingly interminable coach journey from Portman Road I witnessed a goalless draw.   Then, at the start of 2005 I returned, this time by car, to enjoy a 2-1 victory courtesy of Darren Currie as Town went top of the league but, as ever, ultimately failed to achieve promotion.  My memories of Plymouth therefore are on the whole not disagreeable, although if the city has memories of me they might not all be as positive. My very first visit to the city of Plymouth was in the summer of 1966 when on a family holiday. My father was in the Royal Navy and serving on HMS Tiger at the time and the ship happened to be in Plymouth dockyard; he took us aboard and I vomited on the wardroom carpet.  Given that the eleven thousand ton cruiser was in harbour I can’t blame sea sickness, it was more a surfeit of free peanuts from what I remember.

Today, I have not eaten any peanuts but for a pre-match snack enjoy a handful of Nairn’s ‘naturally nutritious’ rough oatcakes with some Cheddar and Port Salut cheese. My pre-match ‘pint’ is a 440 ml can of Brewdog Double Punk, today’s offering from my beer advent calendar; a different beer every day until Christmas.  Feeling sociable, perhaps because the beer has alcohol by volume of 8.2%, and having half an eye on Troyes v Paris FC in French Ligue 2, which my wife Paulene is watching on tv using an Amazon Firestick, I settle down on the two-seater blue leather sofa in the living room.  With a plastic earpiece in place I tune into Radio Suffolk on my Sony 310 transistor radio in time to hear the tail end of a pre-match summary of this afternoon’s encounter between Stowmarket Town and Eynesbury in the FA Vase.  My attention is grabbed by the fact that former Ipswich Town starlet and Bermudan international Reggie Lambe is appearing for Stowmarket.  Reggie Lambe has always retained a high profile in my football memory, possibly not because of his on-field exploits so much as the fact that he sounds like he could also be a cuddly character from an undiscovered episode of Watch with Mother.

The reportage from Home Park begins with a replay of commentary from 2008 in which commentator Brenner Woolley became very excited about two goals from Owen Garvan and one from Kevin Lisbie; as well he might.  After reference to the 976 kilometre round trip from Ipswich, although Brenner archaically quotes the distance in miles, we are introduced to the glorious West Country burr of this afternoon’s co-commentator Marcus Stewart; in the week that David Prowse died it seems a fitting tribute.  Brenner sarcastically speaks of the receding sound of the ‘loudest PA system in the country’ as Town’s goalkeeper, who he refers to as “Dai” Cornell, leads the Town team on to the pitch.  Marcus Stewart meanwhile says that it is time for everyone to “get onside and support the club and get behind the club”.  I will admit that I did not know that as well as being closer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent, it is also possible to be offside by not being behind the club.

Very quickly Marcus tells us that he is going to put his “head on the block” as he predicts that there will be goals in this game.  I can’t help feeling that he is sounding hopeful when he suggests that if he is wrong it might be the last time he is asked to ‘appear’ on Radio Suffolk.  The opening minutes of the game sound entertaining as Brenner relays to us that there is “Good play from Town”, that Home Park is “sunny but blowy” and that “Woolfenden seems to have had a haircut”.   “Wrong decision” says Marcus in the assertive style of tv’s Kirtan Mucklowe as an Argyle player picks the wrong pass.  The commentary briefly takes the form of a conversation “Very open, Marcus” says Brenner. “End to end” replies Marcus, who a short while later provides some interesting tactical analysis about full-backs having more time on the ball when playing against a 4-3-3 formation, and being able to push forward.    Brenner meanwhile talks up the promise of goals for Town against Plymouth. “Only Swindon and Burton have conceded more goals” he says.  It’s a fact that shows Brenner has been assiduous in his research again, but personally I just love to hear the names of un-related English provincial towns in the same sentence; it makes me think of railway lines and town halls, local papers and building societies.

The thirteenth minute passes and seemingly out of not very much Plymouth score through Luke Jephcott.  “Good finish in terms of build-up play” says Marcus a little confusingly “ Plymouth again pinging the ball around” he adds.  Disappointed that what had sounded like a reasonable start to the game has taken the familiar wrong turn I take a mouthful of my beer, which because of its alcoholic strength has lived beyond it’s original ‘pre-match pint’ billing.  “Mmmm” I say to Paulene “This is a very fruity beer”.  What sort of fruit?” she asks.  Caught off guard by this question I make up something   “Oh, just a generic sort of fruit” I say, but she demands more detail. “Pineapple, banana?” She asks. “Yes” I reply “and apple, pear, mango, raspberry, kiwi fruit, lychee”.  “What about grapes, cherries and star fruit?” asks Paulene. “Yes”, I say “and strawberry, tomato, orange”.  “Melon, plum, papaya?” asks Paulene, “Yeah, and cranberry, blackberry, damson, even a hint of brazil nut.” 

Our listing of the world’s fruits is interrupted as I hear Brenner say “any fixture at the moment seems to be tricky for Ipswich” before mentioning “mitigating factors”.   Then all of a sudden Kayden Jackson is through on goal. “No excuses, should be 1-1” says Brenner as Kayden is tackled “We’ll be looking back on that through very painful eyes” continues Brenner, all too easily imagining the scenario in which Town fail to score and adding un-diagnosed medical problems to the mix for good measure.  “Just as he cocked his leg to take the shot – good defending” adds Marcus trying to describe what happened, but making Jackson sound a bit like a dog beneath a lamp post.

Despite the current score line I remain optimistic.  “Ward invited to come forward” says Brenner of Town’s left-back , creating an image in my head of Plymouth players ushering Ward along or handing him little cards with RSVP on the bottom.   Brenner soon engages Marcus in conversation again, “Jephcott’s a strong boy isn’t he Marcus?”  “Like a little bulldog” replies Marcus clearly still trying to develop his canine analogies.  Despite a lull in play around half past three which forces Brenner into telling us that there is very little happening, the consensus between the two commentators seems to be that it’s an entertaining game.  “ Town don’t look like a team short on confidence” says Brenner before unleashing a combination of stats upon the listeners about how many wins Town have had in the past five games (one) and how many points they’ve taken from the past ten games (nine).   The criticism remains implied, but Brenner is careful to explain that this is a “…very young Ipswich Town side” and “needs must at the moment”.

Half-time arrives at fourteen minutes to four and Marcus repeats that “There is goals in this game” which he has found “thoroughly entertaining”.  It’s left to Brenner to encourage me to return for the second half, “This game could be anything.  There could be a comeback for Ipswich Town, or it could be 3-0 to Plymouth”.  As insightful summaries go it fits well into either of the “Hedging one’s bets” or the “Why the hell are you asking me?” categories.

I enjoy a half-time of putting the kettle on, shutting and locking the garage door, drawing the blinds and closing the curtains.  Troyes have beaten Paris FC 2-1 with Paris having a spectacular volleyed ‘goal’ in the seventh minute of time added-on disallowed for dangerous play (jeu dangereux).  Troyes replace Paris FC at the top of Ligue 2 on goal difference and Paulene re-tunes the Amazon Firestick for the Ligue 1 game at Parc Roazhon between Stade Rennais and Racing Club de Lens.  I reflect that Home Park is only 402 kilometres from Rennes by sea and road, which is almost 90 kilometres closer than it is to Portman Road. 

Carelessly, I miss the re-start at Home Park and re-join the game just as little Alan Judge makes a “suicidal pass”, which almost gives Luke Jephcott a second goal.  Brenner moves on to speak of Newport County, Cheltenham Town and Exeter City all doing well in the fourth division this season and the prospect of further trips west next season,  clearly suggesting he has already given up on hopes of Town being promoted. “Cambridge would be a nice short trip” he adds, adopting the outlook of the Radio Suffolk accountant.

It doesn’t sound like Town are having many shots on goal ,but the game remains open and Brenner is moved to tell us that “ There is still no way of knowing what the full-time score will be”, which is frankly somewhat obvious unless he has access to some sort of Old Mother Woolley figure who has a crystal ball.  “Strong young lads” says Brenner of Jephcott and McGuinness, introducing an unexpected frisson of homo-eroticism as the game enters its final 25 minutes.  Jack Lankester and Brett McGavin are replaced by the weirdly named Keanan Bennetts,  and Oliver Hawkins.

It’s the seventieth minute and I am told that Plymouth’s Danny Mayor has “kicked the feet away” from Town’s Armando Dobra, a player who is Albanian and whose name incidentally rhymes with Enver Hoxha the former Communist leader of Albania.  Mayor is booked for a second time in the match and is therefore sent off.  Quickly following on, former Town player Frank Nouble is booked also, but only for the first time; “Getting a yellow card for verbals” says Brenner , incorrectly using the word ‘verbals’, which actually refers to different forms of verbs rather than bad language; we should expect the BBC’s broadcasters to know this sort of thing.  Marcus or Brenner, I’m not sure which, now tells us that against ten men we are going to have a lot of the ball, we just have to do something with it.   Seconds later, Paulene cheers as over in France Lens take the lead through eighteen year old Arnaud Kalimuendo Muinga and then in what is turning out to be a very busy three minutes Town take those words about doing something with the ball to heart and equalise. “Nolan shoots, he scores says Brenner succinctly.  “A great volley” confirms Marcus.  Within a minute I am hearing Brenner say “Hawkins chests it down and Jackson scores” and Town lead 2-1.  “Yay” I shout from my reclining position on the blue leather sofa.  This is the most fun I’ve had since last February.

To add to my enjoyment Brenner tells me that the 1800 Plymouth fans who have been allowed into the ground are “really aggravated” and in the background I hear them bawling and moaning in a real life version of people in supporters groups on the interweb.  The final fifteen minutes and injury time pass in a parade of observations from Brenner and Marcus.  “ … keep playing forward like they ‘ave been doing” is Marcus’s recipe for success as he turns up his West Countryness a notch . “ Ill-discipline from Watts” says Brenner revelling in another booking for a Plymouth player. “Fans getting disgruntled” adds Marcus picking up Brenner’s theme before sounding a note of caution with “Dangerous times now”.   Marcus’s voice is becoming increasingly gravelly, as if he’s been chain smoking Woodbines and slugging whisky all afternoon; he sounds like a Somerset Jimmy Durante.

It is evident that Plymouth are succeeding in getting back into the game. “Decent effort on goal from Hardy” says Brenner before ramping up the tension and pessimism with “This‘ll be a massive disappointment if Town draw this one”.   He carries on in similar vein by validating those listeners surprised that Town aren’t losing with “Town ahead; if you lost faith earlier in the game and thought here we go again”.   It doesn’t get any better; “Plymouth close – over the bar” and “Not pleasant viewing at the moment” before Brenner perhaps tries to lighten the mood with “Two players with similar pinkie-orange footwear on the far side” as full-time approaches.  The pretty-much statutory four minutes of additional time will be added.  The four minutes pass and Town win.

I am elated. After foolishly depressing myself by reading the ‘opinions’ of people on social media in the wake of two recent defeats and a draw, I am now ecstatic that Town have won and this afternoon I feel like I have travelled to Plymouth and back, played the match and wilfully thrown up on the wardroom carpet of every warship in Plymouth harbour.

Perhaps Town will lose again next Saturday, perhaps they won’t, but that’s what football teams do, they win, they lose and they draw and the margins between those three outcomes are small.  This season Ipswich Town have won more than we have lost, today we won, life is sweet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

recent successful TV appearances in the Women’s World Cup and today the attendance is bigger than Le Havre usually sees for its Ligue 2 matches. The magic of the cup clearly translates into French.

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

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

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

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

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