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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 1 Sheffield United 1

The first time I saw Ipswich Town play Sheffield United was in April 1972; the result was a goalless draw but I remember the game not just because Sheffield had a character from Beatrix Potter playing for them (Len Badger), but because it was also the first time I had suffered the pain, shock and hurt of seeing a Town player sent-off. The late Colin Harper was that Town player; he had protested too much to the evil Gordon Kew who had awarded a penalty to Sheffield United; but Colin laughed last as Laurie Sivell saved the kick, because back then right was on our side, sometimes. At the end of the game the pitch was pelted with cushions by spectators in the West Stand who were aiming at Mr Kew and his police escort. It is now hard to believe that such passion could be shown by people in what is probably Portman Road’s most comatose of stands. The up-shot of this reminiscence however, is the admission that I have never much liked Sheffield United.

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But today is a beautiful, bright winter’s day and it’s almost Christmas, so in the spirit of goodwill towards all men it would be very bad manners not to put my ill-will towards The Blades on hold. Feeling better for that loving feeling I arrive at the railway station to find that the 12:57 to Ipswich is delayed by six minutes due to ‘signalling problems’. I text my wife Paulene because she likes to know of all the small misfortunes that befall me and because she likes to have her already low opinion of Greater Anglia railways reinforced whenever possible. Paulene texts me back with a series of emojis; her interpretation of potential ‘signalling problems’.

simplicity creations

As I wait for the train I enjoy the low winter sun; on the railway platform a sign advertises the services of The Samaritans, they are “in my corner” should I need them; but I’m not a boxing fan and the words don’t really work as a footballing analogy. The arrival of the train soon shakes me from my reverie. I sit on the grey moquette by a window and look about the carriage. The face of an ugly old woman with a big nose leers down at me from a poster advertising Simplicity Cremations, their strapline being ‘making funerals less of an undertaking’. I’m not sure when humour became ‘a thing’ in advertising for undertakers; I think of an alternative strapline with more of an accent on the ‘simple’ cremation “Light the blue touch paper and retire”. It is interesting that an undertaker would think that train passengers’ thoughts should turn to their own deaths, although when delays are really bad I guess people do begin to wonder if they will ever make it home and therefore begin to make plans.

christmas club shop display

Arriving at Ipswich there are two Christmas trees on the railway station concourse and two policemen guard the doors. A string of lights fail to make the Station Hotel look very festive; I hurry on towards Portman Road where there is little festive feel but for one steward in a red and white hat. For a reason I find hard to explain I buy a programme in the club shop, but it was worth it to see the display of Christmas themed soft toys and assorted tat.

Round the corner in Sir Alf Ramsey Way I pause to hear the Salvation Army band strike up with ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’. Beginning to feel a lot as if it’s Christmas I head for St Jude’s Tavern to enjoy a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50), which today is Maldon Brewing Co’s ‘Five Gold Rings’. I sit and read the programme, occasionally joining in with the conversation of the match-day regulars who are sat around the table next to me. I enjoyed the Match Day Special but variety is the spice of life and from my second journey to the bar I return with a pint of Maldon’s ‘Winter’s Ale’ (£3.20) and finally I drink a half of Earl Soham Brewery’s ‘Sir Roger’s Porter’ (£1.70). Glass drained I walk down Portman Road with one of the St Jude’s regulars with whom I had been sitting, I think his name is Ian; he is a bald man who currently has a limp, I discover that like me he has a penchant for French and Belgian football. I silently envy him his visits to Royal Antwerp and Aalst.
Portman Road is not overly busy, it’s close enough to 3 o’clock for most people to be already inside the stadium and by now only those who have struggled against Christmas crapulence to leave the pub are making their way through the turnstiles. I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile No3 and bid the operator a cheery Christmas greeting. I make my way, via the gents, to my seat next to Elwood and ever-present Phil who never misses a game and just in front of Pat from Clacton. I ask Pat if she enjoyed Tina Turner The Musical, which she went to see yesterday, in London. She did; although it was the understudy who played Tina. I hand a Christmas card to Elwood, to give to his dad, who tells him to put it in their bag.
The game begins with Ipswich as ever in their blue and white kit, which this season has sadly been tainted by the ugly logo of an organisation peddling on-line gambling. Without good reason, unless they are showing solidarity with France’s gilets jaunes, Sheffield United eschew their proper colours of red and white striped shirts and black shorts in favour of luminous yellow shirts with black shorts. I keep a look out for piles of burning tyres and pallets but fortunately there are none to be seen as Town get the ball rolling towards me, Pat, Phil and Elwood. Another good afternoon’s work from Zero the sniffer dog.

“Oh when the Reds, Go marching in” sing the Yorkshiremen in the Cobbold Stand “Hark, now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” is the riposte from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and I wonder if the Salvation Army have been co-opted into the Blue Action supporters group. The football is fast and furious but it’s Sheffield who are fastest. Town may have to bide their time this afternoon, Sheffield United look quite good despite their poor choice of shirts. In the Sheffield corner of the Cobbold Stand the Okey Cokey breaks out and all around the stadium is a sprinkling of Santas and people dressed as elves. At seventeen minutes past three Sheffield United ‘score’ but the ‘goal’ is disallowed, something to do with a breach of the offside rule it would seem. “Down with the Wednesday, you’re going down with the Wednesday” sing the Sheffielders, presumably not to their own team, although if not it doesn’t seem a very charitable thing to sing, given the time of year.
It’s almost twenty five past three when Town at last have a goal attempt of their own as a cross from the right is met by the head of Ellis Harrison, a man who until today I did not realise had such impressive calf muscles. The header is caught easily by the Sheffield goalkeeper Dean Henderson. Six minutes later a deep cross from Town’s Gwion Edwards drops into the edge of the Sheffield penalty area, Freddie Sears is running onto it, there is an audible gasp of expectation from the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but Henderson gets there first, giving him cause to dance and sing. Town then win a corner; Luke Chambers launches himself towards the goal like a human missile and heads the ball solidly into the roof of the net. The ‘goal’ however is disallowed by referee Mr Woolmer. “What the hell was wrong with it?” calls the old boy behind me, showing admirable bias towards his team. Unfortunately, the human missile took out a few too many Sheffield players in the course of its rather flat trajectory.
Having disallowed a ‘goal’ Mr Woolmer seemingly develops a taste for enraging the home crowd and awards a free-kick against Ellis Harrison when it’s likely he was the player who was fouled and when Town are heading towards the Sheffield goal. The crowd is at once energised. “Who’s the wanker in the black?” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand in a rare display of unified voice. I volunteer the information that the wanker in the black is Mr Andy Woolmer, a short balding man who every other step has to skip or jump to keep up with the longer strides of his assistants as they walk on and off the pitch…like Private Baldric on the opening credits of Blackadder Goes Forth. This is the fourth consecutive home match for which Town have been given a ‘short ref’. I think its about time we had a lanky one.


Perhaps it is just Ipswich’s good fortune, perhaps the Sheffield players are unnerved by the better than usual vocal support for Ipswich or by the use of the word ‘wanker; perhaps they have heard about the cushion throwing incident in 1972, but they proceed to muck up several passes leaving Ellis Harrison with a run on goal and space to shoot. Ellis shoots, Ellis scores. I get a perfect end on view of the ball swerving wonderfully inside the netting just behind the goal post; it’s a thing of beauty, it’s bloody marvellous. Joy abounds.
There are eight minutes until half time. “I hope we get to half-time without…..” says the old boy behind me, his voice trailing off as if he cannot bear to utter the words to complete the sentence. Half-time arrives and Town are still winning. It has been a struggle but in the last ten minutes we came good, in part thanks to the diminutive Mr Woolmer’s ability to stir up the supporters with his abject refereeing.
I visit the gents, I talk to Ray and hand him a Christmas card; a very small brass band play Christmas Carols in the centre of the pitch. On the concourse below the stand what looks like a soil pipe is decorated with a twist of blue lights, some rather feeble strings of lights dangle from the roof and a Christmas tree decorates the entrance to the upstairs hospitality area. The stadium announcer tells us that the Premier League half-time scores will be on the scoreboard, “should you wish to see them”, which I think is a nicely condescending touch, richly deserved by those who do wish to see them.
All is well until the second half begins and within a minute Sheffield equalise through Billy Sharp a man who despite his thirty-two years has a name which will forever sound like he’s a young scamp of an eleven year old who’s just stepped out of a Barry Hines novel. He should perhaps call himself Bill or William now he’s a bit older. “Well, we’re gonna see plenty of the ball this half then” remarks the old boy behind me looking on the bright side, sort of.
It turns out that whilst we do see quite a lot of the ball being passed between the gilets jaunes in our half of the pitch, they don’t manage to create many certain chances to score and Dean Gerken makes hardly any saves; far, far fewer saves than he did against Wigan last week. Sheffield’s dominance of possession leaves the Ipswich crowd quiet for long periods but no one moans to fill the void. Everyone outside that one corner of the Cobbold Stand is of course hoping for another Town goal, but a draw will be alright. The crowd is announced as 17.942 (1,292 from Sheffield) which is pretty good for a Second Division team bottom of the league on the Saturday before Christmas, and shows that people do still care and still believe that relegation will be avoided. At twenty-five to five a chorus of “Come On Ipswich, Come on Ipswich ” ringing around much of the ground is strong enough to prove the point.

Mr Andy Woolmer

This is an enjoyable game and the old dear behind me is getting her kicks from Mr Woolmer’s lack of height, “I don’t know how he can see the fouls, he int tall enough is he?” she says before querying how he can manage to measure out ten yards at a free-kick with “… his little legs”. Happily for those of us satisfied with a draw, only three minutes of added time are called and whilst Mr Woolmer books Jordan Spence and gives Sheffield United a free-kick just outside the penalty area in that time, his efforts to let Sheffield score come to nought. The game ends and a warm applause flows from the stands. “That was bloody brilliant” says the old boy behind me getting a bit carried away with it all. I wait to applaud the team from the field and of course boo the referee. If I had had a cushion I doubt I would have hurled it at Mr Woolmer, possibly because we didn’t lose, but probably because I’m quite mild-mannered really. It’s odd that we think we live in a more liberal society than we did in 1972, but hurling a mere soft cushion would probably see me tracked down and banned for life from Portman Road now.
It has been a grand afternoon at Portman Road and Town are well worth their point against a superior team. We seem to be successfully assuming the role of plucky underdog, which in a league rammed full of Premier League pretenders will allow us a wry smile come the end of the season when only three of them get what they wished for…..and of course they should be careful of what that is. As for Town, we’re bottom of the league at Christmas, but I’m happy……or as happy as one can be.

LOSC Lille 1 Montpellier HSC 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vittorino Hilton

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

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

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

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Montpellier Hérault SC 0 Paris St Germain 0

Having arrived on holiday in Languedoc on Monday, on Tuesday tickets for this match went on general sale. With no secure internet connection acquiring tickets required a forty-five minute drive to Montpellier, to the Odysseum complex just off the A9 motorway where Montpellier Hérault SC has its’ club shop. Joining the queue outside in the blazing sun at about 12:15 we emerged from the shop clutching a pair of 35 euro tickets at about 13:45. By the time we had reached the front of the queue the only tickets left had been in the upper tiers of the stands behind each goal. We chose seats in the Tribune Petite Camargue above the Montpellier Ultras at the opposite end of the Stade de la Mosson to the Paris St Germain supporters.
Two weeks and four days later we park up in the dedicated football car park near the37399307972_eb9bb2373d_o park and ride tram station in Mosson, or La Paillade as it is colloquially known. It costs just 2 euros to park. It’s early, not much after 3 o’clock and the game won’t kick off until 5 pm. We dawdle out of the car park towards the stadium enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I am supporting Montpellier today because like a lot of football supporters I despise clubs like Chelsea, Billericay Town and Salford City that are bankrolled by people with too much money. But also I first saw Montpellier in 2011 against PSG (they lost 0-3) and followed their results for the rest of that season, in which they ended up winning the Ligue 1 title. I like their navy blue and orange kit too and added to which Montpellier is a very attractive and exciting city. The upshot is today I am wearing a Montpellier Hérault SC t-shirt, and as we cross the car park I exchange glances with a PSG fan who is stood with two women under the shade of a tree enjoying a snack and a drink. He rolls his eyes at my T-shirt and smiles and so I decide to stop and try and talk with him. Happily neither his English nor my French are so inadequate that we can’t make ourselves understood to one another. I tell him that I really support Ipswich Town and he rolls his eyes again, although he agrees that they had a good team a long time ago; he believes that Chelsea and Liverpool are okay, but then I’d expect as much from the sort of person who supports France’s most hated club. My wife tells him her team is Portsmouth, which he doesn’t understand until she pronounces it ‘Ports-moose’. He is in his fifties, a scruffy looking bloke in a denim jacket with a beard and long hair; he and his wife and daughter live in Béziers but he is a PSG ultra; he grew up in Paris and his dad took him to watch PSG at the Parc des Princes as a boy. Having both shared our deep disappointment over Brexit (every German, Belgian and Frenchman I have spoken to seems as upset as me) and probably exhausted our respective vocabularies in each other’s language we wish one another well and my wife and I carry on towards the stadium.
There is a lot of hanging about going on because the road to the stadium is closed off. But there are a number of gazebos selling food and beer to help while away the wait.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A blacked out Mercedes minivan is guided through the road block behind two police motor cycles and an army of policemen look on, some in full Kevlar riot gear, one or two with sub-machine guns, including one who looks a bit like the late John Le Mesurier.37397661451_31eb220131_o Later we learn that former president Nicolas Sarkozy was at the game and it is likely it was him in the Mercedes.
Eventually, having enjoyed a beer in the shade of some trees we are allowed through the barriers and approach Stade de la Mosson at about twenty to four. Unusually perhaps for a stadium that was used in the 1998 World Cup, Stade Mosson is not particularly spectacular looking; in fact it is a fairly basic cantilever roofed design, which forms an angular horseshoe around three sides of the pitch. The steel stanchions from which the roof hangs are painted in the club colours of orange and blue. It does have one striking looking stand however,

a triple decker with a massive top tier but no roof, supported on streamlined, sloping concrete legs. Bizarrely however, the top tier is closed; something to do with the club’s average attendances and its licence from the French Football Federation, which is explained on the website, but I don’t quite follow.
There is a mobile club shop out in the road and a bar run by one of the ultra groups is built into the back of a stand by the roadside. After the usual pat down we enter the stadium and entering the stand pick up one of the glossy, A5 size, 28 page and free match day programmes entitled ‘L’Echo de la Mosson’, which are left in cardboard boxes at the top of the stairs. I buy another beer (4.50 euros but this price includes a club–branded reusable plastic 500ml ‘glass’).37399326532_c0479ae95c_o The guy who serves me at the buvette instantly detects that I am not French but sees my Montpellier T-shirt and so I explain that I dislike PSG; not as much as he does he replies.
It’s a good view from our backless plastic seats and we watch the players warm up. The PSG players are roundly booed as they come onto the field. We watch the stands fill up and are interested by the eclectic mix of spectators. Montpellierians tend to be keener on rugby than football and the average attendance at Stade de la Mosson last season was only 12,356, although the team were mostly struggling, finishing fifteenth out of twenty in Ligue 1. It is inevitable that there are a lot of people here today who probably rarely come to Mosson; many will have been drawn by the anticipated presence of Neymar, the world’s most ludicrously expensive footballer. Fortunately for the club, the tickets sold out long before PSG announced their squad would be minus Neymar. There are many families here but also a group of four young women who seem to be dressed more for a night out rather than a football match; they perhaps want to look their best for PSG and its millionaires. A happy looking man works hard up and down the aisles and staircases selling packets of cacahuètes andOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA crisps from a tray; I buy a packet of the locally made crisps (2 euros) which are in a plain bag which carries no branding whatsoever, very good they are too.
Before the teams come on to the field there is a display of flag waving and then with much fanfare and the playing of the Ligue 1 theme music the teams take to the field led by Monsieur Clément Turpin possibly Europe’s finest current referee.

Montpellier wear an all navy blue kit with orange names and numbers on the back; oddly but fashionably the shoulders are a different colour too, a sort of burgundy. Paris St Germain wear an all yellow kit and they remind me of Leeds United of the 1970’s, not just because of the kit but because of how obvious it is that everybody in the ground except their own supporters loathes them. Like in most countries there is much antipathy between the regions and the capital in France, but Montpellier is deep in the south of the country just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean coast and that dislike of all things Parisian is even greater down here.

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The game begins, Montpellier kicking towards the Tribune Petite Camargue, and predictably PSG don’t let go of the ball; they pass it around effortlessly and endlessly but Montpellier are not going to be a pushover, they chase and they tackle and every success is cheered wildly by the fiercely partisan home crowd. A couple of bangers are let off to our right somewhere and a fire cracker burns in the PSG goalmouth down in front of us. PSG’s Brazilian defender Marquinos is booked after just twelve minutes and the home supporters cheer like a goal has been scored; to please them that bit more PSG’s Italian hard-man Thiago Motta has a free-kick awarded against him and seems to hurt himself in the process of committing the foul.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
There is a lot of football being played in this game, PSG are great to watch. There is the incredible speed and quickness of thought of Kylian MbappéOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA, the sheer presence of the rugged Edinson CavaniOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the elegance of Adrien Rabiot with his pre-Raphaelite looks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The atmosphere is intoxicating with constant noise from both sets of ultras; the PSG fans ceaselessly waving flags and banners at the far end;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a short while before half-time the PSG fans together raise their scarves aloft as English fans once did. The perpetual threat of a possible goal from PSG at any time is its own form of excitement, enhanced by the tension of 20,000 of us willing it not to happen. But as PSG go on longer without scoring, Montpellier get more into the game and come forward; there is a belief that they could grab a goal themselves which only adds to the churn of emotions, hopes and fears.
Half-time brings respite and a visit to the ‘toilette’, which is a bit dark and a little grim but there’s no queue, unlike for ‘the ladies where as is often the case there just aren’t enough cubicles. The bars are busy so I return to my seat to enjoy the scene and the warmth of this beautiful bright, late September afternoon. Looking out across the pitch it is plain to see that it isn’t in a very good condition; it is almost bare in places and if they don’t win PSG can always use that as an excuse.
As the second half begins the Tribune Minervois behind the far goal now casts a shadow over the penalty area at that end. The same pattern of play resumes with PSG dominating possession of the ball. The Montpellier defence is playing brilliantly however, and their captain, 40 year old Brazilian, Vittorino Hilton,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a veteran of the 2012 title winning side is outstanding. At different times both Mbappé and Cavani look sure to score but don’t, but now Montpellier also get the opportunity to spurn chances. As much as most of us in the ground would love Montpellier to score, it is enough that PSG do not. For the impartial, if that is possible in this atmosphere, or for journalists, this game is probably not the best and indeed the following week’s France Football magazine will only give it 8 marks out of 20 in its summary of matches, although no match will get a mark higher than 14. But football matches are not just about the football. On 74 minutes the whole crowd breaks out into applause for Louis Nicollin the wealthy industrialist and former chairman of Montpellier Hérault SC who died on his 74th birthday during the summer. Nicollin was a legend in Montpellier and across France having led the club from the regional amateur leagues in the early 1970’s to Ligue 1 in the space of just eight years. Nicollin was affectionately known as ‘Loulou’ and this name adorns the team shirts this season and that plastic cup that I drank my beer from before the game. Despite the divisions between the ultras of Montpellier and PSG, Loulou succeeds in uniting them.
By now the shadow of the Tribune Minervois has lengthened to shroud the whole pitch and the four minutes of added on time are a final test, creating a terminal tension which explodes with joy and relief and pride with Monsieur Turpin’s final whistle. This has been a fantastic afternoon, a classic example of the underdog winning through, one of the very best things in football. As much as people love to hate clubs like PSG the pantomime villain has his place and if he didn’t exist he would need to be invented…as indeed he has been.

 

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