Ipswich Town 1 Crewe Alexandra 0

I first saw Crewe Alexandra in January of 1983 in a Friday night fourth division match at Layer Road, Colchester. Crewe lost 4-3.  Watching fourth division football was a release from the tension of following a declining Ipswich Town in our first season without Bobby Robson as manager and without the saintly Arnold Muhren in midfield.  The fourth division was fun and my friend Stephen and I had adopted Colchester United as our fun ‘second team’, although Stephen also professed a liking for East Stirling, and as we drove down the A12 we would add to our amusement by making up deprecatory poems about Col U’s opponents.

What are you gonna do

Crewe

when we beat ya four-two

Crewe

We’d rather watch Scooby-Doo

Crewe

Than watch you

 Crewe

It explains why your supporters are so few

Crewe.

We were young and didn’t know any better, although I still believe beat poetry has a place in professional football.  Back in 1983 Crewe Alexandra were perennial strugglers and were destined to finish the season twenty-third in the twenty-four team fourth division, one place higher than they had finished the season before; they had finished bottom and second from bottom in 1979 and 1980 too, whilst Ipswich were making hay whilst the sun shone at the other end of the Football League. Times change.

Today it’s a grey, cloudy day and rain streaks the windows on the back of my house blurring and obscuring the views of the garden and turning every window into a bathroom window.  I log onto the ifollow in time to hear the names of today’s virtual mascots, it’s like Junior Choice but without Sparky’s Magic Piano, and Brenner Woolley has replaced Ed Stewart, which is just as well given that Ed died in 2016.  “Alongside me” says Brenner is Mick Mills. Good old Mick.

Kick-off is nigh, but the novelty of the new Saturday afternoon routine of football on the radio or the ifollow has begun to wear off and lose its lustre. Attempting to re-invigorate it I have foregone my usual pre-match ‘pint’ and today I am sticking up two fingers to those of the football licensing authorities who would crush our enjoyment and am pouring a ‘pint’ (500ml) of Adnams Broadside which I will proceed to drink during the game and in sight of the pitch.

The game begins with Brenner telling me that it is Crewe that are kicking-off and playing from right to left.  Brenner draws our attention to Omar Beckles because he used to play for Shrewsbury Town under former Town fuhrer Paul Hurst and alongside Jon Nolan and Toto Nsiala.  I recall the 2018 League One play-off final in which Beckles was terrible; but on the plus side his surname sounds like a Suffolk town and his first name reminds me of the marvellous HBO tv series The Wire.  The referee is Mr Trevor Kettle, which is also a great name, for a bloke with a whistle.  Brenner adds even more biographical detail for the Crewe team, telling us that number nine Mikael Mandron used to play for Colchester United.  Brenner surpasses himself referring to Mandron the next time he touches the ball as “The big Frenchman”. Mandron was indeed born in Boulogne and amusingly, on his Wikipedia page under the heading ‘Personal Life’ all it says is that he “…supported Real Madrid when growing up, while he also followed the results of Paris Saint-Germain.” What a fulfilling life he must have outside football.

 In the absence of any decent on-pitch action from Town Brenner reveals that Town manager Paul Lambert is stood with “…arms folded, in his black overcoat”.

Fifteen minutes pass and as an Ipswich supporter I am not enjoying the match; Crewe are selfishly keeping the ball to themselves most of the time, whilst Ipswich rarely have possession in the Crewe half of the field.  A caption appears in the corner of the screen revealing that possession of the ball is 57% to 43% in Crewe’s favour.  “Crewe the better side, at the moment” says Brenner honestly, but offering hope that things can change.  I don’t know if it’s the feebleness of Town’s performance that’s getting me hot under the collar or if I’ve got the radiator turned up too high but I’m feeling warm and am compelled to take off my jumper uncovering  my “Allez les Bleus” T-shirt beneath.

Crewe’s Ng has a shot which Brenner tells us Tomas Holy “throws his cap on”, although given the weather today he would have done better to have worn a sou’wester.  Over twenty minutes have passed and Gwion Edwards has Town’s first shot at goal, if you exclude Andre Dozzell’s hopeful punt which hits a Crewe player before it has travelled a yard, which I do; Gwion’s shot travels harmlessly wide of the Crewe goal.  Eight more minutes pass and Tomas Holy blocks a shot from Crewe’s Lowery who is unmarked about six metres from the goal; Lowery should probably have scored.  Such is the absence of any decent play from Town that Brenner and Mick begin to talk about the weather.  Mick starts it, making just a passing reference, but Brenner picks it up and carries on “…it has been terrible weather hasn’t it” says Brenner, sounding like a housewife chatting with her neighbour over the garden fence.

There are ten minutes until half time and the ifollow stutters, a quadrant of a circle flashes on the screen and play stands still.   The picture moves, and then stops again and does so three or four times more.  The feed returns in time for me to hear Brenner listing Town’s forthcoming fixtures, the last of which is against Crawley Town in what Brenner reveals is now called the Papa John’s Trophy, a sponsorship deal with the takeaway pizza provider having been announced by the EFL during the week.  Clearly the EFL have been holding out for a sponsor whose name does this hopelessly compromised and debased competition justice.

On the pitch things don’t improve “We’re just watching the game at the moment” says Mick, not of Brenner and himself, but of the Town team. Half-time arrives as a blessed relief but as the teams leave the field the ifollow pictures show that Paul  Lambert is not sporting an overcoat as Brenner had described earlier but is actually wearing an anorak or a parka.  This not only calls in to doubt Brenner’s knowledge of jackets and outer garments, but also for a man who earns his living from painting an aural picture of what he sees before him, his inability to accurately describe a coat has shaken my faith in the accuracy of his commentary.  Seeking solace in tea and nut based snacks I put the kettle on and unwrap a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar.

At four minutes past nine the game resumes on the ifollow.  The pictures are soon interrupted by buffering and I miss Town winning a corner and then another.  Six minutes pass “This is a different game so far second half” says Mick, not quite forming a proper sentence but making himself understood nevertheless.  Mick is right, as he so often is.

Andre Dozzell is booked for the fifth time this season, which is an incredible feat for a player of his supposed ability; he needs to learn how to tackle or not bother.   Oliver Hawkins has a diving header saved by the Crewe goalkeeper Will Jaaskelainen.  Town are no the longer the feeble team they were in the first half, but Crewe haven’t given up just yet and construct another intricate passing move “Almost gymnasium football that they play” says Mick. “Yes, almost 5-a-side” says Brenner clarifying the matter for those listeners who might be sat at home wondering what the hell ‘gymnasium football’ is.

It’s the 62nd minute. Town win a corner; it is taken short, little Alan Judge crosses the ball and big Oliver Hawkins heads the ball into the goal.  Despite having not played as well as Crewe for most of the past hour, Ipswich are winning.  My happiness is tempered within ten minutes however as without warning the ifollow goes completely berserk and transports me back to the 55th minute and I get to see Andre Dozzell being booked for a second time.  The only good thing is that he’s not sent off, but I quickly realise that I can fast forward to the present day and catch up in time to see Kayden Jackson replace Oliver Hawkins.

  Crewe make two substitutions replacing Owen Dale and the “Big Frenchman” with Daniel Powell and Chris Porter and the balance of the game swings back in Crewe’s favour. Town are forced to defend for much of the last fifteen minutes. “ McGuiness makes one of his customary leaps” says Brenner growing tired and Wintle shoots from distance, his shot going “…down the throat of Holy”.

The ifollow starts playing up again with more buffering and Brenner and Mick’s commentary takes on the character of a tribute act to Norman Collier.  Service is restored with the good news that  Leiston, Lowestoft, Needham and Felixstowe are all winning their respective FA Trophy ties.  It’s a quarter to five and I turn the kitchen light on to create my own little homespun version of floodlit atmosphere.  Keanan Bennetts replaces Freddie Sears, and Brenner refers to Tomas Holy as “The giant Czech keeper”.  Kayden Jackson is booked for idiocy and Gwion Edwards is booked too, but for Andre Dozzell style tackling.  Brenner adds colour to the grey afternoon and his commentary for the benefit of radio listeners describing “Ward just drying the white ball on his blue jersey”.

There will be five minutes of added time for assorted delays and possibly the ifollow buffering.  Crewe continue to press for an equaliser; “This is a bit awkward to watch Mick” says Brenner seeking support from his side-kick whilst audibly squirming in his press box seat.  More bad news for Mick is that Boris Johnson’s planned broadcast to a disinterested nation has been delayed until 6.30 and therefore the post-match phone-in will take place.  As Brenner unfeelingly tells him, Mick can’t go home early but must “…do a full shift”.

At last the game ends with Town blagging their way through the remaining minutes and even succeeding in retaining possession for a short while to frustrate their opponents.  Brenner asks for Mick’s summary “We’d not be telling the truth if we said Ipswich deserved to win the game” says Mick almost apologising for what he is saying as he says it.  But he’s right, even though trying to play decent football in the third division is possibly doomed to failure. 

Mick’s thoughts are abruptly cut short as the ifollow feed ends and I am left alone in my kitchen trying to think of words that rhyme with Brenner.

Weather /Covid – 19 1 US Boulogne/ Lyon Duchere 0

In April 2019 in a moment of brilliant optimism my wife and I bought ten crossings on Le Shuttle; they had to be used within twelve months but it was worth ‘buying in bulk’ for the discount ,and why wouldn’t we want to commit ourselves to getting away to continental Europe at least five times in the next year?  We say “Bugger Brexit”.  In April 2019 we went to Dijon, in July ,in the midst of the heatwave, we drove to Paris to spend a week looking after some friends’ dog and in September we were due to spend three weeks looking after a cat in Strasbourg.  Disappointingly, we never made it to Strasbourg; in a personalised prototype of the current global shut-down, my life was put on hold as I spent five weeks in hospital and the best part of six months recuperating.  But now I am at last repaired, and there’s a rush to use up our six remaining crossings.  At the end of January we  spent a few days in Belgium, foolishly departing early on the Saturday morning to catch Ipswich Town v Oxford United instead of staying to join the 4,423 who enjoyed KV Oostende v Sint-Truiden, and then a couple of weeks ago we arranged a long weekend in Boulogne and Calais, planned to coincide with US Boulogne’s Friday night fixture in Ligue National (the French third division) against Lyon Duchere.

Life is sweet we thought and with US Boulogne in third place it promised to be a lot of fun; but on the morning of our departure the game at the Stade de la Liberation in Boulogne is called off, supposedly because of windy weather; but all twenty games in the Ligue 1 and 2 programmes are already postponed because of Coronavirus and within a few hours the whole of the Ligue National programme is cancelled too.  To add to our disappointment we had thought we were blessed by having succeeded in booking into a hotel with free parking opposite, which is a mere 300m walk from the stadium, and this had had us fantasising about being able to comfortably stagger back from the match hi on frites and Kronenburg, fine wine and third division football.

Friday is a beautiful sunny day with Boulogne-sur-Mer looking at its best, aided perhaps by no one much being about as schools and colleges begin to close and people stay at home due to Covid-19.  We enjoy the street art on the gable ends of the town houses and telecom equipment boxes, I drink Chimay trappist ale at a street café whilst my wife drinks pastis, we walk the town ramparts and visit the cathedral crypt, I buy a postcard and we sit in the sun.  Our day ends with a pleasant meal in a small restaurant in the centre of the fortified old town.  I forget about the football but for a brief glimpse of a single floodlight pylon at the end of the road as we step from the hotel and cross into the old town. I sleep well and dream sweet dreams.

On Saturday morning the puddle of standing water on the flat roof outside our hotel room window ripples with falling rain drops.  After breakfast we will depart for Calais, but first I must give my regards to the Stade de la Liberation and head out into fine drizzle that is coming directly off the English Channel and dropping on Boulogne-sur Mer.  Not wishing to provoke her asthma my wife remains in our room watching the drama of the Corona virus unfold on French TV when not looking for Les Lapins Cretins on the cartoon channel.  But I have to get a measure of what I missed last night and imagine what I might have witnessed under the beams of those four floodlights. 

The floodlights of the Stade de la Liberation peak over the roof tops around the ground, appearing between high gables and block of flats or hiding behind the spreading canopies of leafless grey trees.  A sign with an arrow says “Ribery” and points the way to a stand at the side of the pitch named after Boulogne’s famous son Franck, one of those players not greatly celebrated in England because like Zidane, Trezeguet and Thuram he was always just a bit too classy for the Premier League.

The man entrance to Stade de la Liberation is on Boulevard Eurvin where I peer through the railings across the pitch past the statue of a naked woman clutching a shell and standing on a fish.  How many clubs I wonder can boast such erotic statuary combined with references to seafood, not many I’ll wager.   Smiling to myself about what they’d make of such things in Grimsby and Fleetwood I turn into Rue de Dringhen and then Rue Leo Lagrange, which run behind ‘Ribery’ whilst tantalisingly offering no views of it at all.  Another right turn takes me in to Rue du Vieil-Atre and more sitings of the floodlights and the entrances to both the ‘Kop’ and the away supporters enclosure. Stickers adorn the signage outside indicating that at least one supporter from Creteil, a south eastern suburb or banlieu of Paris, has been here and that he, or she, was well supplied with Creteil related stickers. If the ultras from other clubs have stickers it would seem that Creteil are the only visiting supporters to have ventured this far north and they either went nowhere else or had stickers to spare.

An uncovered mass of seating above a scaffolding frame looms above me as I approach the turn into Rue Hector Berlioz , another residential street that backs onto the stadium.  I like that every  French town has streets named after the same great French composers and writers and wonder why England is so different and why we choose not to remember Britten or Williams or Holst but to honour local councillors and dignitaries who no one has ever heard of and even less gives a toss about.  Between the buildings there are glimpses of the cream painted render of the art deco style Tribune ‘Honneur’ where the posh people sit; but in truth the ground is now largely hidden but for the occasional lamp of a floodlight poking over  or between the rooftops.   A few more steps up the slope between parked cars and my tour of the Stade de la Liberation is over and I find myself back on the Boulevard Eurvin.

To be honest, in my ten minute walk I’ve not seen a lot of the Stade de la Liberation ,but what I have seen has been a series of snatched, tantalising half views of bits of stands and floodlights and signs and traces of those who’ve been here before, added to which my coat, my trousers and my shoes are all a little wet.  I will now be sure to remember for posterity my visit to US Boulogne during the great pandemic of 2020, and I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I got wet watching a game that never happened, having not even got into the stadium.   But it’s of such tales of pointless folly that football legend is made and such suffering and stupidity is what following football is all about.