Kirkley & Pakefield 0 Wroxham 0


tramway hotel

Once upon a time Kirkley and Pakefield were Suffolk villages, but they are now suburbs of Lowestoft on the south side of Lake Lothing.  Up until 1931 Lowestoft Corporation ran trams down to Pakefield terminating at the appropriately named Tramway Hotel; it’s a pity they don’t still run today and if only Lowestoft was in Belgium or France or Germany they probably would.   That aside, it’s a lovely rural train ride from Ipswich to Lowestoft and then a walk of over 3 kilometres or a ten minute trip on the X2 bus and then another five minute walk to get to Walmer Road, home of Kirkley and Pakefield Football Club.  But that all takes the best part of two hours and today I’m in a hurry to get home afterwards so I am making the 60 kilometre journey up the A12 by car.  Despite the small pleasure of opening up the throttle on my trusty Citroen C3 along the dual carriageway past Wickham Market, driving is nowhere near as much fun as sitting on the train, for a start everyone else on the road either drives too fast or too slow.   Also, unless I opt to eschew normal road safety and not look where I am going there’s much less to see from a car on the A12 too, perhaps with the exception of a brief vista of beautiful Blythburgh church across the marshes.

A quick glimpse of Woodbridge Town’s floodlights and road signs pointing the way to Framlingham and Leiston are tantalising reminders of senior football in east Suffolk as I plough on up towards Lowestoft listening to BBC Radio Suffolk’s ‘Life’s a Pitch’ on the Citroen’s radio. With its mix of decades old pop music and football talk with Terry Butcher and an otherwise anonymous pre-pubescent youth known only as ‘Tractor Boy’, whose presence is never really explained,  ‘Life’s a Pitch’ is a gently weird preamble for an afternoon of football.  Speaking directly from West Bromwich where Ipswich play today, former fanzine editor Phil Hamm mixes his metaphors delightfully as he speculates on whether Ipswich’s cruel defeat to Reading last week will have “knocked the stuffing out of their sails”.

It’s a very windy early Spring day and a heavy but short shower of rain sweeps across the road as I head out of Wrentham resulting in my arrival on the edge of Lowestoft being announced with a rainbow.   Passing Pontin’s Pakefield holiday camp I leave the modern A12 at the Pakefield roundabout and head down the old one, past the splendid Tramway Hotel and then take a left turn into Walmer Road and suburbia before making a final left turn towards the Recreation Ground.

It’s about twenty past two and the main car park is full so I splash my way into the pitted, puddled field that is the overflow car park at the north end of the ground and reverse up against the hedge in a spot where I won’t risk drowning as I step out of the car.

There’s no queue to get in the ground and at  the blue kiosk that looks like it might once have served a municipal car park in the days before ‘pay and display’, I say to the grey-haired man inside “One please, and do you do a programme?” .  Apparently the programmes are in the clubhouse.  I hand over a ten pound note; entry is £6 for adults and £4 for concessions.   I take my change unthinkingly and I now realise that the man on the gate must have thought I looked like a pensioner; my Ipswich Town season ticket is taking its toll.

I head for the clubhouse, with its deep, green felt roof topped off by a cupola it resembles a village cricket pavilion; it’s probably the most characterful club house in the Eastern Counties League. 

The inside bears little relation to the outside however and the ‘Armultra Lounge’ is decked out in a trendy grey colour scheme with matching leather sofas and oak-look laminate flooring.  I see a club official with some programmes and ask him if I can buy one (£1), he begins to direct me to someone else but then very kindly just says “Here, you can have this one on me”; what a lovely bloke.  Touched with the knowledge that people being kind and generous to other people is what life’s all about I celebrate with a bacon roll (£2.30) from the food hatch in the corner of the room.  It’s a very good bacon roll too; at first I am fooled by the roll having been toasted, into thinking it’s the bacon that is crispy, but actually it is anyway. I sit at a glass table on what looks like a tractor seat on a stick and eat the bacon roll and read the programme; I resist having a beer however because sadly the hand pumps on the bar are naked and the afternoon is windy enough without the terrible burps that a chilled glass of Greene King’s East Coast IPA nitrokeg would induce.  The programme tells me that Wroxham’s Sonny Cary is a “…gifted young football”.   I search for other amusing mis-prints but can’t find any.

As 3pm approaches I venture outside but not before pausing by the door where a man is donning his coat, scarf and hat; he tells me that the main stand on the other side of the ground is the best place to watch from, because it’s out of the wind.  I thank him for this insight and tell him I suspect that is where I will end up then.  Outside, a man well into his sixties is sat on a bench with a microphone in hand announcing the teams; in the strong, gusty wind he struggles to hold onto the sheet of paper from which he is reading and the rattle of the paper in the wind competes with his voice over the PA system.  

I am already on the far side of the ground as the teams come on to the pitch behind the referee Mr Luigi Lungarella who has an impressive shock of swept back dark hair.  Handshakes follow before the Kirkley & Pakefield huddle in a moment of team togetherness and the Wroxham players stand waiting as if to say “ Oh come on. Can’t we get on with this”.  Huddling over, Wroxham, known as the Yachtsmen,  get first go with the ball kicking it in the direction of  Lowestoft town centre and the fish dock; they wear a dull change kit of white shirts with bluey-grey shorts and socks.  Kirkley and Pakefield, known for some reason as The Royals, play towards Pontin’s and far off Southwold and wear the same kit as Brantham Athletic; all blue with two diagonal white stripes across their stomachs, as if the shirts had been left lying on the pitch when it was marked out.

Wroxham settle quickly and pin The Royals back in their half, their “gifted young football”, the red-headed and slightly spindly number ten Sonny Carey has their first shot on goal, but it’s comfortably wide.   Despite most of the game taking place in the Kirkley & Pakefield half Wroxham don’t come close to scoring and in a somewhat solid way the teams are evenly matched,  which is to be expected as they are fifth and sixth in the Eastern Counties Premier League table, both  with forty-nine points but with Wroxham having a better goal difference.  The game is characterised by effort, but more so by lots of shouting; it reminds me of a windy day in a school playground.   “Squeeze, squeeze” shouts the Wroxham ‘keeper George MacRae, perhaps feeling a little left out.  “Higher, higher.  Switch” he adds, trying to get involved.  Wroxham appear to have won the first corner, only to be denied by a raised flag denoting offside.   “ We in’t had a shot on gool  yit” says an old boy, one of a half a dozen stood against the rail along from the stand.  He asks the time, it’s about twenty past three. Attention seems to wandering.  “I see Bodyshop is closing” says someone else, although it probably won’t affect his shopping habits too much.  “There’s not a lot happening here” says the old boy “Though there’s a lot of ‘em in that fuckin’ dugout”.

At last Wroxham win a corner, but they take it short and I feel a bit let down. All that waiting for a corner and then it might as well have been a throw-in.  Everyone hates short corners, don’t they?   Kirkley & Pakefield’s number five Jack Herbert is spoken to by Mr Lungarella and Wroxham keep pressing. “He in’t got a left foot” someone says of Wroxham’s Cruise Nyadzayo as he keeps trying to cut inside on the left wing.  A few minutes later Nyadzayo switches to the right.  As Wroxham threaten the penalty area the ball is booted clear; “Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring” calls a voice from the stand. “What’s your name, Pike?” says another, hopelessly and irrelevantly misquoting the famous lines completely out of all context.  People laugh nevertheless.

As the game edges closer towards half-time, Kirkley and Pakefield begin to frequent the Wroxham end of the pitch a bit more.  “We got a corner, bloody hellfire, but it took us half an hour to get et” is the assessment of one local. But all of a sudden real excitement breaks out as a header is cleared off the Wroxham goal line and then a shot from Jordan Haverson is kept out of the goal with a spectacular flying save from George MacRae, before play quickly moves to the other end and Cruise Nyadzayo dribbles through before having his shot saved at close range by Adam Rix, Kirkley & Pakefield pony-tailed goalkeeper

I move along the rail and stand near a couple of Wroxham supporters “ I think it could take me a couple of years to get the kitchen sorted” says the younger of the two as Kirkley & Pakefield prepare to take  a free-kick in a dangerous looking position, before winning a second corner.  It’s the final notable action and comment of the half and I return to the club house for a pounds’ worth of tea and to catch up on the half-time scores. Ipswich are losing but the tea’s just fine.

At two minutes past four Mr Lungarella blows his whistle for the start of the second half and Wroxham’s George MaCrae shouts “Squeeze” before the last note from the referee’s whistle is scattered by the wind.  Grey clouds are heaped up behind the main stand hiding a pale, milky sun.  Rooks are nesting high in the trees beyond the club house and a golden Labrador puppy is showing a keen interest in the game as he stands on his hind legs to watch over the rail.  I think to myself what a fine back drop to the game  the water tower at the  southern end of the ground makes.

The second half is played out more evenly across both halves of the pitch rather than predominantly in one half but neither goalkeeper has to stretch himself too much with virtually every shot being blocked or speeding past  the far post, as several low crosses do also.  The ‘star’ of the second half however is the referee Mr Lungarella who succeeds in making himself  equally disliked by both teams with a catalogue of unpopular decisions and a handful of bookings for Kirkley & Pakefield players.  “It was a corner ref. Ref! Ref! That was a corner” shouts one man from within the Russell Brown Community Stand behind the goal at the Lowestoft end of the ground after a goal kick is awarded. It’s almost as if he expects the referee to say “Oh, was it? Sorry. Okay then”.   It was a corner.  At the other end of the ground a Wroxham supporter is just as perplexed. “Fuckin’ guesswork” he says of Mr Lungarella’s decisions, before asking the linesman “Have a word with him will ya?”   The linesman replies, asking if he’d like him to speak about anything in particular.

– “About the rule book”

-“Well there isn’t one is there?” says the linesman mysteriously.

Mr Lungarella saves the best  until last and his piece de resistance comes with only a few minutes remaining.  As Kirkley & Pakefield’s Miguel Lopez stoops to head the ball, Wroxham’s Harley Black attempts to kick it with the inevitable and unfortunate consequences.  As the Kirkley & Pakefield ‘keeper discusses with a Wroxham fan behind the goal it was not intentional or malicious, just an accident. But not for the first time this afternoon Mr Lungarella’s interpretation of events differs to that of most people watching and Harley Black is sent off. Happily Miguel Lopez is not hurt and after a bit of TLC from the physio he carries on to see-out the end of the game, which soon arrives.

Despite some doubts surrounding some of the referee’s decisions the game ends amicably and Mr Lungarella leaves the field unmolested with his two assistants.  Equally, despite there having been no goals, it has been a very entertaining match.  Kirkley & Pakefield Football Club exists in the shadow of Lowestoft Town, perhaps more so than Ipswich Wanderers and Whitton United exist in the shadow of Ipswich Town, because both Lowestoft clubs are non-league, but it’s a fine, friendly little club nonetheless.  I have had a grand afternoon out at Britain’s second most easterly senior football club and one day, when I am in less of a hurry, I will use the train and the bus to get here; whilst also hoping they bring back the tram.

World Cup 1 Ipswich 0

Oh how I love the World Cup. For a month every four years football is somehow reinvented; transformed into something more magical, intriguing, strange and joyous and I just want to wallow in it.

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The World Cup is not just sixty-four football matches in a month on the telly; for the first two weeks it’s thrice daily football on the telly and this year on the first Saturday there were four matches to watch in one day. But it’s not just the overdose of football that excites, we’re not exactly short of televised football anymore; what makes the World Cup so different, so much better is that it’s a celebration and it’s all so exotic. It’s not the same-old boring diet of Premier League and Champions League that gluts the airwaves the rest of the year, with the same boring, conceited, miserable clubs playing each other over and over and over again. Some of the players are the same, but lots of them aren’t and for a month they are released from prostituting themselves for filthy TV money and they play for something higher, for the glory (okay, there have been a few exceptions, step forward Togo2006 for example).
Just the idea of Japan v Senegal, Serbia v Cost Rica, Iran v Spain, Panama v Belgium, Australia v Peru and Iceland v Argentina is thrilling; such diversity of geography , weather, indigenous wildlife, people and culture is mind boggling and it’s all united for a month by football and a desire to hear each country’s national anthem at least three times, and of course the national anthems are marvellous. The South American countries have anthems that are like mini-symphonies with an overture and then what follows is so grand and so passionate. Then there is the wonderful Russian national anthem and of course the Marseillaise, in my opinion the finest of all national anthems. If you are ever

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in Marseille then I can thoroughly recommend the

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museum in Rue des Arts which is devoted to the Marseillaise and its history. As the anthems play we get to see the supporters in the stand, many in fancy dress or national costume, singing and holding on to the moment.
On the pitch there are players of different creeds and cultures representing those creeds and cultures that define their country, and whilst those things are beautiful and fascinating and really matter, and each team is driven by national pride and the essence of what identifies them as a nation, at the same time these things do not matter because the World Cup is actually all about the football; football is the common language and it unites. So whilst we cannot help but be aware of all this diversity of race, beliefs, attitudes, cultures and national anthems which matter to individuals from each country, at the same time we can ignore it and get on with just playing football. This is how not being racist really works, being aware of race and respecting it but simultaneously paying no attention to it at all, so that you don’t actually notice what race a person is; we are all just people.
Enthused by the melting pot that is the World Cup therefore, when I saw a Tweet from Ipswich Town saying that the fanzone would be open for people to watch England World Cup matches on a big screen I re-Tweeted it with this comment:
“Here’s an idea, what about showing Poland’s games and Portugal’s games in the fanzone too? Not everyone in Ipswich supports England. In fact, why not show every game?”
It wasn’t long before someone Tweeted a two word response; “Terrible idea” they Tweeted, which I thought was rather rude and a bit arrogant. If you want to disagree at least explain why. A polite person would surely have begun their Tweet with “Sorry, but I do not agree that that is a good idea, for the following reasons…” Foolishly rising to the bait, I replied to the rude tweet asking in an innocent and curious tone “Why’s that then?”. The ‘answer’ to my question was soon Tweeted, although it wasn’t really an answer but rather an unnecessary question, which suggested that the other Tweeter hadn’t really read and understood my initial Tweet properly; his question was “Where would it stop?”. I replied that it wouldn’t and that the whole of the World Cup could be shown. A further reply was soon forthcoming, once again in the form of a question, but with a couple of statements at the end.
“You want the whole of the World Cup shown in a fan zone, in a sleepy suffolk town. Columbia vs Japan? Azerbaijan vs Kazakhstan? There’s just no market for it Martin.” There were plenty of things wrong with this response beyond the absence of a capital ‘S’ in Suffolk and the mis-spelling of Colombia I thought, but the final sentence of this Tweet sent this exchange of tweets hurtling into the abyss with what I can only describe as the ‘punchline’; “Lets not forget brexit means brexit” it read. Despite the missing apostrophe I was particularly amused by the use of the words “Lets not forget… ”, but nevertheless, the overall effect on me was one of disappointment and incredulity. What was this bloke on about?
I didn’t reply to the Tweet because of the whiff of xenophobic nutcase that it had released. I had however desperately wanted to reply so that I could point out that neither Azerbaijan nor Kazakhstan are in the World Cup finals, that the Tweeter had seemingly confused Ipswich with Wickham Market or Eye (sleepy Suffolk Town?) and to ask for the evidence that there was no market for showing all of the World Cup in the Portman Road fan zone. But of course mostly I wanted to know what the heck the World Cup, Colombia, Japan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan had to do with ‘Brexit’. In fact what does anything have to do with ‘Brexit’, a composite word for something that doesn’t exist and which to date no one can define.

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At the very beginning of Simon Critchley’s book “What we think about when we think about football” he quotes nineteenth century American philosopher William James who wrote “I am sorry for the boy or girl, man or woman who has not been touched by the spell of this mysterious sensorial life…with its supreme felicity”. I know exactly what William James meant. It is so sad that people have such a blinkered, joyless perception of the world around them, that their worlds are so closed. I hope that the Tweeter I have quoted was the exception and not indicative of the general opinion of Ipswich Town fans, but later two other Tweeters ‘liked’ the “Terrible Idea“ response to my initial Tweet and I died a little inside.
But I’m alright again now, for the time being, until August when Championship football comes home to Portman Road once again.

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LOSC Lille 1 Montpellier HSC 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vittorino Hilton

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

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

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

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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.