FC Lorient 3 FC Nantes 2

To Ipswich Town supporters like me, FC Lorient is known as the club from which the Town bought Ulrich Le Pen, a slight winger who was injured just minutes after coming on in a match against Bolton Wanderers and only ever featured in one other first team game, an FA Cup tie which I can’t remember. To the wider world Lorient is France’s second largest fishing port and home of a French submarine dockyard which grew out of the massive reinforced concrete U-Boat docks built by the Nazis during World War Two.  Sadly for Lorient, the town was mostly flattened by allied bombs as the Nazis were pushed out of France in 1944 and whilst the re-built town is well laid out with buildings in a quiet, modernist style, it doesn’t have the architectural verve of Le Havre or Amiens, or even, come to that of Plymouth and Bristol.

Today however FC Lorient host their Breton neighbours from 170 kilometres away (1hour and 51 minutes up the E60 according to Google maps) FC Nantes, but my wife Paulene and I have travelled a mere 40 kilometres from the campsite where we are staying in Carnac.  Car parking in Lorient on a Sunday is a curious affair as most of the town centre car parks are closed as is much of the town centre itself, including the tourist information office. There is plenty of street parking however with the usual restrictions being suspended. The Stade du Moustoir, home of FC Lorient is in an eminently sensible town centre location much like Ipswich’s Portman Road, and it is somewhat remarkably within 50 metres of the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and just a short walk from the main shopping streets, railway and bus stations.  The purpose in closing the car parks would seem to be to make people travel responsibly by bus, train, bike or on foot, although some parking can be pre-booked by those signing up to a car sharing scheme.

Paulene and I have arrived in Lorient in plenty of time to nab a handy street parking place.  Our short walk to the Stade de Moustoir affords a sneak preview of the stadium with the already illuminated floodlights being visible between the gaps between the buildings in nearby streets.  Near the railway station a bar has been requisitioned by visiting Nantes fans; a group of police stand a discreet distance away but there is no hint of any bad behaviour and we see many Nantes and Lorient fans walking to the stadium together.  Reaching the stadium early, we are in time to see the home team alight from their team bus wearing their horizontally striped, Breton-style jumpers or training tops. A crowd are waiting to see the players arrive and a ‘welcome arch’ has been erected as the gateway from the bus into the stadium.  The frontage of the Stade de Moustoir is clad with vertical strips of timber and looks every bit like a modern office or block of flats.  Whilst outside the ground, I get my first glimpse of the unusual club mascot, Merlux le Merlu (pretty much ‘Hakey the Hake’ in English) as he welcomes the players off the bus.

With the team in the stadium, the turnstiles open and Paulene and I enter also, but are surprised to be lectured by an officious man who tells us that we cannot take a bottle of water into the stadium, although he can exercise discretion with regard to Paulene’s bag.  Paulene had had an asthma attack as we approached the stadium and the very kind security man on the door at the club shop had arranged to get me a bottle of water for her.  I had returned to the club shop to source vital souvenirs of our visit but found that some of the items I might buy such as a mug or cuddly hake would, like the bottle of water, not be permitted in the ground.  Had I seen the e-mail the club sent me this morning I would have known that the LFP (French football league) had banned the carrying of virtually anything into football grounds this season, presumably in response to Marseille’s Dimitri Payet (known by me as the Very Hungry Caterpillar due to his ‘haircut’) getting hit on the head by a plastic bottle at Lyon last season as he went to take a corner.

Having located our seats (20 euros each) in the Tribune Credit Mutuelle de Bretagne, a quite small single tier stand with a fabulous shuttered concrete roof and light steel and glass doors redolent of a 1950’s school hall, I set off to explore and perhaps look for beer.  I am quickly amazed and overjoyed to find that I can walk right the way round this stadium through the concourses of each stand. Behind the goal, the stand has access to the club shop which is now shut to the outside world.  The concourses are regularly punctuated with a variety of food and drink outlets and the club markets these as Les Corners du Moustoir.  Having passed by the Tavarn Lancelot, I stop at the Tavarn Morgana for an organic beer called Lancelot IPA (4 euros 50), brewed by the Breton Lancelot brewery. I mainly choose this beer so that I can pronounce Lancelot with a French accent (Lon-slow), something that has never failed to amuse me ever since seeing director Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du Lac on BBC2’s Film International one Saturday night back in the 1970’s. Having consumed my beer, I return to my seat clutching two free eight-page match programmes and a Breton flag; there were piles of them on the floor beneath the programmes with a sign urging me and everyone else to take one.

At a quarter to three a ship’s siren sounds three times and the scoreboard tells us there are fifteen minutes to go until Coup d’envoi (kick-off); the build up to the match begins.  As an opening act in the pre-match ritual an enthusiastic woman strides about the pitch in front of the main stand and sings the Breton anthem, whilst the whole crowd wave their Breton flags and club banners in a show of regional, celtic pride.  On the fabulously named Tribune B&B Hotels (B&B Hotels Stand), where the central section of the lower tier is occupied by the loudest Lorient ultras, an orange and black tifo folds down from the top tier to cover the whole stand. As the teams process onto the pitch to stand before the Ligue 1 banner and club crests, fireworks are set off on the pitch, more banners are waved and the Nantes fans, who fill the away enclosure in the corner between the Tribune Mutuelle de Bretagne and the Tribune Lorient Agglomeration wave a few flares about, making me wonder if they managed to smuggle in any bottles of water too; it’s all rather thrilling.

With the pyrotechnics and flags cleared away the game begins with Nantes getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Tribune B&B hotels.  Nantes are in their signature kit of all yellow, whilst Lorient sport their traditional orange shirts, black shorts and white socks.  The atmosphere inside the stadium is wonderful, it has all the excitement of a ‘local’ derby game, but as well as the Nantes fans in the away enclosure there are plenty of them sitting with the Lorient supporters in all four stands and there are  dads with sons, and dads with daughters, and mums and dads with whole families and every family combination, and then there are the ultras standing on their seats and singing and mostly stripped to the waist showing off their rippling beer bellies. Brittany has its own cola called Breizh Cola, and my favourite name of one of the ultras groups is Breizh Tango.

Nantes start the match better than Lorient who look a little wobbly like a new-born foal or perhaps a young hake. It’s still a bit of a shock however when in the 13th minute a Quentin Merlin corner for Nantes is headed into the Lorient net from close range at the near post by Ignatius Ganago.  I have come to this match today to support Lorient and am wearing my orange Ipswich Town shirt in solidarity, they are supposed to win, but they are losing 0-1.

Lorient are fortunately stung into action by the goal as if Nantes had been a jellyfish and just six minutes later Stephane Diarra embarks on a dribble down the right and is literally ‘hacked down’ close to the edge of the Nantes penalty area by Andrei Girotto.  It takes a little while for the free-kick to be organised, but its worth waiting for as Dango Ouattara steps up to curl the ball beautifully over the defensive wall and into the top left hand corner of a stationery Alban Lafont’s goal.  It’s a goal that will be a joy forever and the score is one all.

The football flows back and forth and Lorient have grown into the game with their pacey wide and forward players constantly threatening, but Nantes are strong and well organised.  In defence for Nantes, the huge Nicolas Pallois strides about with his shorts hitched up showing off his massive thighs, which greatly impresses Paulene.  A 33rd minute corner goes to Lorient as a Stephane Diarra shot is deflected, but a minute later Ignatius Ganago runs onto an Evann Guessand through ball; he looks way offside, but he rounds the Lorient ‘keeper Yvon Mvogo and it is not until the ball is rolling over the goal line that the linesman puts his flag up.  It’s a ludicrous piece of assistant refereeing, although we then have to wait whilst the VAR people confirm that Ganago was offside – of course he was!

As Lorient begin to look more dangerous in attack, Enzo le Fee, who after the Arthurian theme with the bar and the beer makes me think of Morgan le Fey, and the incongruously named Bonke Innocent both have shots blocked for the home team.  Dango Outtara, a 20-year-old from Burkina Faso is also making some fantastic speedy runs for them too, inspiring repeated chants of “Allez Lorient, Allez Lorient” from the home crowd.  Five minutes of normal time remain in the first half and Nantes’ Moses Simon is the first player to be booked by referee Johan Hamel as he reduces Enzo Le Fee to a quivering heap on the turf with what appeared to be a well-aimed slap in the face.  The final minute of the half sees Nantes’ Ludovic Blas cut in from the right and have a decent shot tipped over the cross bar by Mvogo and then, as Lorient break way from the ensuing corner Pedro Chrivella scythes down Diarra to become the second Nantes player to have his name recorded by Monsieur Hamel.  A minute of time added-on is played and it is mi-temps (half-time).

Disappointingly mi-temp fails to offer up the spectacle of supporters attempting to toss a hake into a yoghurt pot or any similar test of skill inspired by local sponsors, but happily I am on the end of the row and close enough to the stairs to make it quickly to the toilet before pretty much anyone else, and that’s good enough for me.  Paulene takes a chance on the queues for the ‘ladies’ having subsided with a couple of minutes to go until the game begins again.  She returns late for the re-start and asks if she has missed anything, but I can’t in all honesty say she has.

The match resumes and the first action of note sees Lorient’s current top scorer Terem Moffi delight the crowd with an excellent dribble into the penalty area.  Even more impressively, he wears the number thirteen shirt.  Denis Appiah becomes the third Nantes player to be booked after fouling Moffi and then just twelve minutes into the second half Lorient boldly make two substitutions with Julian Ponceau replacing Bonke Innocent and Stephane Diarra making way for Yohan Cathine. Three minutes later and the scoreboard announces that it is the 56th minute. “Faites un Bruit” it then says (make a noise) and at least some of the crowd do so, although to be fair it’s been pretty noisy all along.  As an Ipswich supporter this apparently random entreaty to the fans across the whole ground seems like a good idea.  In this case it seems to work too, because there is some response and four minutes later a superb passing move down the Lorient left climaxes with Yoann Cathline sweeping the ball majestically into the top right-hand corner of the goal net from about 20 metres out, and Lorient lead 2-1.

Stade du Moustoir is now a cauldron of noise as Lorient fans celebrate, and like the best supporters should, Nantes fans get behind their team too, when they need it most. “Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez” echoes around from tribune to tribune and it’s hard to tell if it’s the Lorient or Nantes fans singing it, but it’s probably both.  It is certain however who is singing “Lorientaises, Lorientaises”.  With the home crowd exultant, it feels like good timing when the scoreboard announces today’s attendance with the words “Vous etes 15,081” (literally “you are 15,081”). It’s a figure close to the capacity of this ground which somehow feels and looks bigger than it is, whilst at the same time feeling compact and intimate; the orange colour scheme and all orange banks of seats doubtless help to create this effect.   “Lorient, Lorient” shout the crowd, punctuating the words with three successive claps.

Less than twenty minutes of normal time remain, and Lorient make a double substitution, replacing Moffi with Ibrahime Kone and Laurent Abergel with Adil Aouchiche, a recent signing from St Etienne.  The impact is immediate as Kone and Outtara exchange a couple of passes,  the last one of which puts Ikone through on goal with just Alban Lafont to beat, which he does, side footing the ball left-footed into the far corner of the goal.  I can’t help it, but I leap up in the air along with everyone else wearing orange.  Lorient lead 3-1.  Surely Les Merlus can’t lose now, although an iffy pass almost gives Nantes a run on goal, resulting in Julian Laporte being booked for his efforts to recover the situation, and then Kone also lunges in and is booked too.  The crowd chant “Lorientaises, Lorientaises” to celebrate their lead and to give the team an extra bit of support; and they need it as Ludovic Blas produces an excellent dribble to the edge of the box before sending a shot against the foot of the goalpost, which rebounds out and is cleared.  The Lorient supporters remain joyful and confident however, even complacent, and a Mexican Wave begins, but fortunately not many join in and it quickly peters out.

Five minutes of normal time remain and Nantes are pushing forward all the time, but without success; they don’t really seem to have the guile to get through the Lorient defence.  If Nantes are going to score they will need some luck and that is what happens as Moses Simon seemingly mis-hits a shot which trickles towards the goal, appears to hit a post, roll along the goal line and somehow goes in.  The goal is barely deserved, and Nantes only come anywhere near scoring again once more as Ignatius Ganago’s header is saved by Mvogo.   Unusually for the losing team, it is Nantes who make the late substitutions, and if it is an attempt to give the team and supporters a late fillip by increasing the amount of time added on it doesn’t work as time additionelle of just two minutes is announced.

The two minutes pass without further incident and the final whistle confirms Lorient’s win.  Paulene and I both agree that this has been a very good match and we have been impressed and a little surprised by Lorient’s slick forward play in particular.  But the whole afternoon has been wonderful, not just the football.  From the Arthurian themed, locally brewed organic beer to the mingling of home and away fans in such a fine, small but spacious stadium under warm blue skies it has been a joy to be here.  Full of happy thoughts we head for the club shop to buy that cuddly hake.

Ipswich Town 1 Wigan Athletic 0

In 1978 when Ipswich Town were winning the FA Cup, Wigan Athletic finished second in the Northern Premier League behind Boston United and were elected to the Football League in place of Southport. Today, as ever-present Phil who never misses a game will later joke, Wigan are Town’s peers and today we meet. That’s a good joke Phil, you are wasted teaching IT to the youth of Northampton. Wigan bobbed about in the ‘lower divisions’ for several years, I remember seeing them lose frequently at Layer Road in the 1990’s, but eventually the club had the good fortune to be adopted by millionaire Dave Whelan who built them a stadium and paid their way in to the Premier League (spit). I met Dave Whelan once in a professional capacity; he flew down to Ipswich by helicopter just to meet me, and my colleague (boss). As we talked informally to break the ice my colleague, let’s call him Steve because that is his name, offered him a million pounds for Titus Bramble (then a Wigan Athletic player) and he accepted. I’m still not sure what we would have done with Titus Bramble in our office.

Today is a gloriously grey mid-December day. The sky is dull, the wind is gusty and the cold is very cold; so cold it cuts against my skin like a knife as I walk to the railway station. There are plenty of people waiting for the 12:57 train; Christmas shoppers mostly, heading for the bright, twinkling lights of Colchester. The train is late. A freight train seems to be to blame; it crawls through the station belching thick, dark diesel fumes. “Bloody hell” says a youth out to his impress his mates before he breaks into a bout of ostentatious coughing. More mature people cover their noses with their scarves or hold their breath. I wander down the platform and wait near a man who has hair like a young Sid James. The train is nine minutes late, but arrives in due course. As it draws into the platform two men in their late sixties manoeuvre themselves towards the sliding doors. “Ooh, it’s one of the refurbished ones, have you been on one of these?” says one of the men who has an unfortunate squint to one eye. The other man doesn’t answer. I imagine he’s thinking “Twat”.

The Christmas shoppers and Sid James desert the train at Colchester and I  am left to contemplate a sign inviting me to recharge my lap-top, tablet or phone, but only my lap-top, tablet or phone, from a sealed up power point. It’s as if Greater Anglia railways had considered being generous, but then thought better of it.

Ipswich is as grey and cloudy as the station where I began my journey and the streets are cold and quiet. I stride over the Princes Street bridge purposefully in my overcoat and blue and white scarf, probably smiling slightly to myself because I’m looking forward to the match; surely we can win today, I’m thinking. A woman in a car waiting at the traffic lights catches my eye and gives me the thumbs up. Yes, we will surely win today. I see the banners on the lamp posts advertising the Rodin exhibition at the gallery in Christchurch Park and am further inspired; I really must go and see ‘The Kiss’. We’ve got it all in Ipswich. Seriously.

Portman Road is quiet for a match day but perhaps that is because the turnstiles are already open and the people usually here at 1.30 are all inside doing whatever people who arrive an hour and a half before kick-off do. I head for the Fanzone to deliver a bag of groceries to the FIND foodbank charity; I’m not going into the Fanzone but a steward tries to stop me nevertheless because I haven’t shown that I have a match ticket, I tell them not to fret, I’m only going ‘over here’. Hopefully FIND will have had a successful day and will make further collections on future match days.

I head on to St Jude’s Tavern past a steward walking a car along Sir Alf Ramsey Way, I call to him that he needs a red flag. St Jude’s is very busy but I quickly avail myself of a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which today is St Jude’s Thaddeus. I perch on a bar stool in a dark corner; it’s the only vacant seat left. I’m not quite half way through my pint when Mick appears at the door, the large fur-trimmed hood of his coat casts a deep shadow over his face and beard making him look a little like a slightly sinister polar explorer. Mick quickly acquires a pint of the Thaddeus too and we talk of car insurance, my recent weekend in Amiens, of Trappist beers (Orval and Chimay), Jules Verne, ethical candles, gilets jaunes and Emmanuel Macron. Finishing my first pint, I buy a pint of Mr Bee’s Black Bee (£3.40) and Mick has a half of the Match Day Special. Time flies by and it’s almost ten to three, I have to dash.

 I seem to be the last person to be making his way down Portman Road towards the glowing floodlights, in the nearing distance supporters scurry across from the car park and hurry through the turnstiles like people getting in, out of the rain. At the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand I greet the turnstile operator with cheery smile and proceed to the seats where as ever I will find ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and Pat from Clacton.

Phil hands me a Christmas card, which is nice  and after the referee Mr Scott Duncan poses for photos with the team captains and mascots the match is soon underway. Town get first go with the ball and are trying to send it in the direction of me, Phil and Pat. Town as ever wear blue and white shirts despoiled by the ugly advert for on-line betting whilst Wigan are obviously the away team because they are all in yellow.

The game is a bit of a mess. Town start slightly better than Wigan and mill around their goal for a bit, but without threatening to score. Not really making the best of the Latin rhythms of Guantanamera, the 310 Wigan supporters in the Cobbold Stand sing “Down with the Wanderers, You’re going down with the Wanderers”. Presumably they are addressing their song to Ipswich and not to their own team, but you never know. At the North Stand end of the ground the ambience is less Cuban and South American and more Spanish, although the chants of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” are swept away on the icy wind above the muffled sound of drums. Wigan begin to have more of the ball, but are as ineffective close to Ipswich’s goal as we are to theirs.
The game settles down into scruffy mediocrity but the hope that everyone is drawing from the realisation that Wigan are as bad as we are is palpable; at times that hope congeals into belief and the vestiges of long lost vocal support ripple through the stands. “We’re going to see Tina Turner the musical on Friday, in London” I hear Pat say. “I’m not” says Phil.

There are several free-kicks and the Wigan players seem keen to hold proceedings up whenever they can by feigning mortal injury and clutching various limbs before skipping off to kick or shove someone in blue and white. Frustrated by another delay the old dear behind shouts “Keep it goin’, we gotta get home tonight. It’s obviously not cold enough for ‘em.”

With a half an hour gone a tuneless, droning chant of “Wigan, Wigan, Wigan, Wigan, Wigan” makes a succinct commentary on the type of game it is and makes me think of the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” and I mourn the death of Pete Shelley quietly to myself whilst waiting for something good to happen. A page from a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times dances its way across the pitch, blown and buffeted by the wind. Then another page floats by and another. “ It’s coming across a page at a time” says the elderly voice behind me and she chuckles ,enjoying the sight of paper blowing about more than the match it seems. A serious looking steward with a head wrapped in earphones steps forward to grab a piece of the newspaper and dispose of it. “Underground, overground, Wombling free” I sing. It’s twenty-five to four and Freddie Sears breaks free of the Wigan defence, he bears down on goal, he shoots over the cross bar. Five minutes later Wigan’s, or more accurately Everton’s Callum Connolly misses the goal too after a corner, “Crikey, you’re worse than us” is the verdict from behind me.
Half-time is a blessed opportunity to thaw my hands beneath the warm air blowers in the gents’ toilet; it’s a cold day and I’ve drunk two pints of beer so I take the chance to use the other facilities too. Outside on the concourse I eat a Panda brand liquorice stick and then, back in the stand chat with Ray, who also hands me a Christmas card. It is starting to rain and it’s getting dark.
The second half of the match begins and the break has made me more conscious of the cold easterly wind; even Paul Lambert has a coat on this afternoon, even if he has left it not done up. For now, despite slowly numbing fingers due to fingerless gloves, I feel warm. My woolly socks, cosily fitting boxer shorts bought in an Amiens supermarket (Auchan), a T-shirt bearing the words “Allez-les bleus”, long-sleeve cotton 1950’s Ipswich football shirt, chunky woolly jumper, beneath a heavy overcoat, and a woolly ITFC badged hat and scarf seem to be doing the trick. I was worried about the boxer shorts because they have the word ‘Athletic’ all around the waist band, but have decided that like sticking pins in a wax effigy having a part of the name of our opponents printed on my pants will put a hex on them.

The standard of football doesn’t improve. “It’s probably better on the radio” says the old girl behind me. The cold intensifies with the rain and my feet start to feel like blocks of ice. Dean Gerken the Ipswich goalkeeper draws disapproving moans and groans from the crowd as he hurries a clearance, which screws away into touch. He glowers back at the crowd. Perhaps he senses and even resents the loyalty in the crowd to Bartosz Bialkowski. The wind and rain are making it difficult for players who like to hoof the ball, but I think we are right to expect better on this occasion. I begin to wonder if this game might not become the win we are waiting for, but despite that minor ‘altercation’ with “Gerks” there is still a prevailing atmosphere of hope and support. We know we aren’t here to be entertained, we are here to see a win and people are sensing that they have some part in making that happen because perhaps the team might not be able to do it alone. Every now and then a string of on-field events will cause an eruption of supportive sounds from the stands and belief is restored. Even when a shot from Wigan’s Reece James strikes the Ipswich cross bar it seems to galvanise the support, not make them depressed and scornful as would have happened last season. It’s gone twenty past four and an Ipswich ‘attack’ takes ‘shape’ in a random manner on the right. The ball is hit hither and thither and into the box where there is more bagatelle until Freddie Sears half volleys the ball into the ground and towards the goal, it strikes Everton’s Callum Connolly and, as Wigan goalkeeper Christian Walton looks over his shoulder, the back of the goal net. Ipswich Town are winning.
The remaining twenty four minutes are both awful and utterly enjoyable. The referee Mr Scott Duncan, despite having the name of a former Town manager whom the supporters respect, unlike the last four managers, makes a catalogue of dubious decisions many involving granting Wigan free-kicks around the edge of the penalty area. But this only draws everyone together, if we have to beat both Wigan Athletic and the referee so be it. Town manager Paul Lambert is equally gung-ho and has now discarded his coat like some sort of footballing King Lear challenging the wind and freezing rain to do its worst.  Wigan’s last chance is the ludicrous addition of seven minutes of time added on, it’s as if Wigan have benefitted from their own time wasting earlier in the match. But thankfully Wigan are not good enough to make anything of it. If it was a Friday in the 1960’s it would be time for Crackerjack by now, but at last Mr Duncan’s whistle draws its last and Town have won at home for the first time in just over six months and for just the third time this year.
This has  been the worst brilliant match I have ever seen and certainly the best terrible one too. The foul, freezing weather has just made it more marvellous, more memorable. This is what being a football supporter is all about, days like this. I have learned again the joy of a single win. The wait has been worth it. I feel sorry for those supporters of clubs who have never been bottom of the league in mid-December without a home win, they don’t know what they’ve missed. Today our souls have been enriched.
Tonight my wife and I shall drink champagne.

SC Amiens 4 Gazelec Ajaccio 0

Amiens is an hour and a half by car from Calais and about half way to Paris; that makes it a handy place to stop when travelling between the two and that’s partly why I turn up there on a freezing cold afternoon in early February. The other reason is that due to meticulous planning my visit coincides with SC Amiens’ Ligue 2 home match with Gazelec Ajaccio, a club born out of the Corsican town’s gas and electric company a bit like Colchester’s own Gas Rec’ Football Club, but more successful.
Amiens is an interesting town with plenty to enjoy including some rather fabulous post war concrete buildings including the Tour Perret , named after the architect, which is opposite the also impressive Gare du Nord (main train station). But with another five hours until the match, I pay a visit to Amiens’ fabulous Gothic Cathedral. There’s barely another soul in this wonderful, soaring, spiky building,32839459925_b577c835ea_o which may be because the draft blowing through the west door amplifies the cold, which the towering ancient stones store, chill and radiate so that stood in the centre of the nave it feels even colder than it does outside. Chilled to the bone, but spiritually enriched the only thing to do is find out about buses to the stadium and then may be find a bar.

The Stade de la Licorne (Unicorn Stadium) is on the edge of town and has masses of car parking all around it, but I need to atone for driving to Paris and back so I choose to catch the bus in order to help save the planet.
The bloke in the Tourist Information Office tells me that the Football Special leaves the Gare du Nord at five past seven from Quai D. How do I find that I ask, and he tells me to just follow the crowds of football supporters. I get to the Gare du Nord at about ten to seven, but where are the football supporters and where is Quai D? I’m buggered if I can see either. With an increasing sense of panic I find Quai B and Quai C and then Quai E but not Quai D. I ask where is Quai D but either no one understands my French or they just won’t say because they don’t want to share their Ligue 2 football with someone from the land of Brexit; I see their point. But then an English voice says that the number 7 bus to Saleux goes close to the ground and leaves from Quai E where we are stood; the stop to alight at is called Megacite. The Englishman is going to the match too and having paid my fare of 1.30 euros I sit with him on the bus where he reveals that he is a scout, for of all clubs Norwich City. Most of the Ametis (a sort of Amiens Corporation Transport) buses stop running at about 8 o’clock, but the football special is special for a reason and it runs back to the Gare du Nord at 10pm. The last time the Norwich scout watched Amiens he had to get a taxi back to the city centre because he didn’t know about the football special (snigger), but in the spirit of détente I share the secret.
After a twenty minute journey the bus itself rather cleverly and very helpfully announces our arrival at Megacite. Over the road from the bus stop, the Stade de La Licorne is a beautiful thing; four uniform ‘trays’ of seats beneath four graceful, transparent, gently arcing metal framed, glazed rooves, which reach up high over the seats, perhaps like the windows of a certain nearby Gothic cathedral. As is usually the case in France, the stadium is owned and was built by the municipal authority and the French still possess the civic pride once known in England that forces them to make a statement with their architecture. Stade de la Licorne33382528815_00e896d699_o is a wonderful structure. Sadly the beauty of the architecture was perhaps not altogether matched by either the construction standards or the ongoing maintenance budget. Although the stadium only opened in 1999, the glazing of the roof has failed and has all been removed, leaving the stadium skeletal and open to the elements, but nevertheless on a dry evening it is still a thing of beauty.
One of the greatest things about French football, particularly Ligue 2 football, and proof of France’s cultural and moral superiority over England is the price of tickets. It is just 25 minutes before kick-off and I purchase a seat in the stand behind the goal for 10 euros. Had I planned ahead and bought it on-line it would have cost me just 8 euros. The best seats in the stadium can be had on the night for 21 Euros. Pick the bones out of that Ipswich Town and Colchester United; and the rest of the over-priced Football League.
Security getting into French stadiums is tight nowadays and everyone is frisked and asked to reveal what, if anything might be concealed under their bobble hat, beanie or beret. Before going up in to the stand I seek out a souvenir of my visit and spot two young women flogging stuff from behind a trestle table under a gazebo. “Avez-vous un petit fanion?” I ask, which might sound somewhat risque if this were a Carry On film, but the French are much more grown-up about such things than the English. Sadly they had no petits fanions (pennants), only replica shirts. My ticket allocates me a seat, but tonight there are about six and a half thousand people in a stadium that currently seats twice that number so I just sit where I fancy, although there is a dense group of supporters immediately behind the goal. these are the Amiens Ultras.
After giving me time to absorb the atmosphere, the referee Monsieur Sylvain Palhies signals kick-off with Amiens attacking the goal just in front of me. There are a series of tendon snapping challenges and a good bit of diving about early on and Mr Plahies struggles to get to grips with it all, leaving some of the worst assaults unpunished and booking players whose crimes were doubtful. But, the malice nevertheless starts to leave the game and it settles down into a stale boring contest. I don’t envy the Norwich scout trying to spot latent talent amongst this lot.
The Amiens Ultras are enjoying it all it seems however, with their two ‘cheerleaders’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA elevated at the front of the stand, stood with their backs to the ‘action’ as they lead the crowd with their chants. The noise from the Ultras is pretty much constant and doesn’t rise and fall at all to reflect events on the pitch; but then not too much is happening on the pitch to excite. The Ultras’ drone is in some ways the perfect soundtrack for what isn’t happening on the pitch.
My attention is drawn by the Gazelec supporters at the far end. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a row or two of about twenty people near the front of the stand and then at the very back of the stand, fifteen or twenty rows back, sitting on the very end of the row is a single person who looks like they’re wrapped in a duvet. The Amiens support at the other end is not without interest either; directly behind the goal is a panda; or may be a person in a panda costume. The panda just sits there looking bored and doesn’t appear to be a mascot, it really is just a panda;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA okay, or a person in a panda costume. It reminds me of a book by French writer Pascal Garnier entitled The Panda Theory, although only because the word Panda is in the title, it’s a French book and I happen to be in France. Good book though, you should read it, it’s only short. But it’s a bit surreal isn’t it? A panda at a football match, although to be fair we’re not that far from Belgium.
Half–time arrived as half time does and I thought I’d have look around, may be get something to eat and a drink. I looked for a food kiosk in the stand but didn’t find one, so I went out of the stand and round the back. It was here that I was surprised to find the scruffiest, dirtiest looking burger van I think I had ever seen. Inside were what looked like three rather obese heavy metal fans in jeans and black tee-shirts huddling over a griddle. There was a clutch of unhealthy looking scruffs forming a small scrum around the counter. This was not what I had expected. This was not haute cuisine, it wasn’t even pommes frites, it was greasy chips. Northern France is chip country, it can put your greasiest, nastiest British chippy to shame; their near neighbours the Belgians invented chips and Northern France is a lot like Northern Britain. It’s grim up north and don’t you forget it.
After a stroll back into the stand I settled for a coffee from the club’s own buvette; an espresso of course, which was a blessing because I wouldn’t have wanted a filthy great mug full of the stuff, it was an instant espresso but it only cost a euro. I decided to settle down for the second half on the other side of the Ultras. Carefully sitting down, so as not to spill my hot drink, I looked down the near touchline and spotted a unicorn. Okay, so it was a person in a unicorn costume.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA He was a sad unicorn, he trudged along the edge of the pitch, head down watching each step he took; his horn drooped morosely and swung a little from side to side. As he approached the corner flag the unicorn/ person raised his arms and what happened next was horrifying; he removed his head. I was aghast. I have read that to remove your head in public is simply not permitted if you are a club mascot. It would result in instant dismissal. But this Unicorn clearly didn’t give a shit. I watched him, as in no hurry he went through the security gate and up into the stand; he was a slightly stooping, grey-haired man in his sixties and he sat down next to a younger blond woman, may be his daughter, may be not. He had no shame, a unicorn from the neck down he sat and watched the second half like everyone else, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. A group of three men about the same age as the unicorn could clearly read the surprise and shock on my face; they laughed and shouted across to me and laughed again. I think they said it was the only job he could get or no one else would do it, I’m not sure, my French is crap.
Traumatised, I was pleased beyond words when the second half started, although the night was now growing increasingly cold. Fortunately, I had just twelve minutes to wait before Amiens brought life to the Unicorn with a goal from Bakaye Dibassy. From there on Amiens didn’t look back and seemed transformed from the team who had slogged out the first half. Nevertheless, it took until the final ten minutes of the match, when the cold was really biting, for Amiens to confirm their superiority through the traditional medium of goals. Substitute Harrison Manzala lead the way with ten minutes left and Aboubakar Kamara followed suit two minutes later whilst Guessouma Fofana left us waiting until the final minute for his contribution to the scoreline.
As the game draws to a close the half-man, half-unicorn gets up, moves down the stand, puts on his head and shuffles along the touchline to stand between the dugouts. With the final whistle the unicorn trots on to the pitch uncertainlyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA to do the best an ageing man in a baggy costume can to celebrate Amiens’ climb to second place in Ligue 2, without frightening the younger people in the crowd that is. Sadly I cannot hang about long to watch the post-match fun because it’s ten to ten and the Football Special back to town leaves at 10 o’clock. I hurry out from the stand and down the stairs where a young boy is kissing the unicorn on the club badge that is painted on the landing wall; his mother drags him away with a horrified expression on her face. I hasten out of the gates and across the car park boarding the Ametis bendibus with five minutes to spare. The Norwich scout isn’t far behind and the bus sets off a good 90% empty with only about ten or so people on board. I can only think that les amienois have stayed behind to celebrate with the unicorn or check up on the panda, or may be their backsides froze to their seats and they are stranded inside the stadium.
The journey back to town takes no more than ten minutes and bidding my new found Norwich chum adieu and bon chance, I get off the bus just round the corner from my hotel. Back in my hotel room I find my wife drinking wine and eating olives in the recent company of Adrien Rabiot, Marco Verratti and Edinson Cavani who have been on the telly beating Girondins de Bordeaux 3-0; so it’s nice to know we’ve both had a lovely time. Allez Amiens!

PS.
France is a republic and has had almost as many revolutions as we’ve had Labour governments, so it is obviously superior and it’s a country that respects intellect and loves a grand statement; Britain and more especially England just can’t compete with that. England is home to too many small minded bigots, who can’t see further than their garden gates unless there’s a drink in it, and if they do, they try and make what’s beyond into an extension of their boring little suburban gardens with their neat little lawns and poxy bedding plants. That’s why we got bloody Brexit. May be it’s not our fault, may be it was the ruling class, who closed ranks behind the monarchy in the time of Napoleon and somehow made you all Royalists, whilst the rest of Europe left feudalism behind and embraced social democracy.
This in a manner of speaking explains why I love France and French football and why I rocked up in Amiens on a freezing night in February at a stadium with a broken roof whilst my wife, who is not as angry and disillusioned with the world as me, stayed back in our hotel room watching Bordeaux v PSG on the telly and drinking wine.