Ipswich Town 3 Leeds United 2


And so, in the words of what was reputedly Sir Bobby Robson’s favourite song, Ipswich Town face the final curtain of this singularly unsuccessful season in Football League Division Two.  There have been a few regrets, some too painful to mention or admit to, but we’ve seen the season through, we’ve  laughed and cried and not really succeeded in doing what we had to do; there have been a lot of doubts and we’ve had more than our fair share of losing.   I can’t imagine anyone would own up to it being their way of doing anything, unless they set out to get relegated.  It is with a sense of blithe resignation therefore that I set off for Portman Road beneath cloudy grey skies into the teeth of a cold northerly breeze.   It’s not even ten o’clock yet and I curse Sky Sports and their dictat on reality, which is that if something doesn’t happen on subscription television, it doesn’t really happen.  There are supporters of both Ipswich Town and Leeds United at the railway station and sadly, Chelsea.  The train is three minutes late although the electronic display claims it is on time; another example of the truth being what we are told it is.  The train is busy with Bank Holidaying passengers; middle-aged women dressed up to the nines cackle excitedly, one wears a semi-transparent wide brimmed-hat like a gossamer sombrero.  Legs apart blokes stand by the sliding doors and drink cheap lager from shiny blue cans.  An invisible cloud of acrid body spray creates a tickling sensation in my nose, it spreads and transforms itself into a stabbing pain in what feels like the root of a tooth, I reminisce about hay-fever.

In Ipswich a state of emergency has been declared and would-be passengers vie for space in the railway station booking hall with a platoon of police, all hand-cuffs and hi-vis. On the station ‘plaza’ more police; fashionable police in baseball hats with riot-helmets swinging casually from their utility belts.  Opposite in the garden of the Station Hotel the marauding Yorkshire hordes enjoy some drinks and a barbecue, the smell of charcoal smoke wafts across the river. I head for St Jude’s Tavern taking a detour along Constantine Road past the Corporation bus garage because Portman Road is closed. The Leeds United team bus sweeps by, it’s blacked out windows hiding its precious cargo from the gaze of the common people; a BMW waits where parking has been suspended; it’s always a BMW.  At the corner of Portman Road early diners wrestle with paper napkins of meat-based, bun encased lunches, jealously guarding their sauce and onions. I buy a programme, a souvenir of the end of a sixty-two-year-long era.

St Jude’s Tavern has been open five minutes, but already a bevy of fifty-something drinkers crowd around the bar.  “We’re all going on a League One tour” chants one before expressing his excitement at the prospect of an away match against Southend United.  I turn to the barmaid “It doesn’t get much better than a day out it Southend, does it” I say with a hint of sarcasm.  She looks confused, so I ask for a pint of the Match Day Special which is St Jude’s Elderflower Bitter (£2.50).  It doesn’t taste too good. “It’s the elderflowers” she tells me and swaps it for a pint of Nethergate Venture at no extra charge.  It makes me think of the ‘French’ John Cleese in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. I talk to one of the regulars about his replacement knee and elderflower cordial before Mick arrives; he buys me a pint of Elgood’s Plum Porter (£3.60), which is characteristically kind and generous of him.  Mick and I discuss his current affliction with bursitis (Housemaid’s Knee) and I wince at the size of the bump on his leg.

Time passes quickly and I am soon drawn down Portman Road by the beaming blue face of Sir Bobby Robson peering between the bright green foliage of the trees beyond Handford Road.  I enter the ground from Constantine Road past the array of planet-destroying, over-sized, show-off cars owned by the players and through the little used turnstile number 60. “It’s a quiet little number having this turnstile, isn’t it” I say to the young woman enclosed in her brick and mesh cubicle, she smiles nicely and doesn’t disagree.  I stroll to my seat via the WC facilities beneath the stand where I hear the recorded stadium safety announcement; “If you hear this sound  – wooooh, wooooh…” says the disembodied female voice with a faintly Irish accent.  I imagine a woman from Donegal called Sheila who is capable of creating the strange whooping sound with her natural voice, like some sort of gainfully employed banshee.

Emerging up the steps from beneath the stand my eyes are met by a long blue and white banner at the Sir Bobby Robson stand end of the ground.  “There is a light that never goes out” it reads.  I like the music of The Smiths and Morrissey as much as the next miserabilist, but wonder at the relevance of this random snatched lyric and also if Morrissey will be pursuing a royalty.  The lyrics of the Smiths are an odd choice if looking for uplifting words, and I would like to see the banner that announces “Heaven knows I’m miserable now”.  Recovering my joie de vivre I see in my mind’s eye a banner at Carrow Road which reads “Ha ya got a loight boy?” and wonder what other lyrics from popular song are suitable to ‘celebrate’ relegation. I decide that “Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave, no one was saved” sums up my feelings nicely and I imagine makes Morrissey jealous that it isn’t one of his lyrics.

As ever, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton are here today, but far fewer of the seats about us are vacant and I marvel at the increased level of support the club has garnered from becoming the plucky underdogs.  Town kick-off towards us in their traditional blue and white shirts, befouled by the hideous logo of a firm of on-line shysters.  Leeds United are also the lackeys of an on-line betting company, but with a nicer logo and they wear yellow shirts and socks with blue shorts, looking like Newmarket Town, but with more expensive and exotic haircuts and tattoos.

Having had first kick, Town quickly lose the ball to their opponents and struggle to get it back.  “Marching on together, We’re gonna see you win” sing the Leeds support presumptuously from the top tier of the Cobbold stand.  Below them in front of the executive boxes a couple of rows of Leeds fans sit with flags spread out on the seats in front of them, they look like they’re all together in a giant bed.  If they were Norwich supporters they would be.

Eleven minutes pass and I’m a little bored already,   Ipswich are sadly not doing much but chasing Leeds players and the ball. For a few moments Leeds play the ball around across their penalty area like a French or Brazilian team, confident in their ability to pass and control the ball, Town captain Luke Chambers looks on, mouth agape.  The Leeds United goalkeeper Kiko Casilla appears to be somewhat bandy-legged; I ponder the likelihood of anyone from sunny Spain suffering with rickets.

A smattering of Leeds fans swing their scarves about their heads like slingshots, recalling the Gelderd Road end of Leeds’ ground in the 1970’s whilst the Town fans in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand sing “Que Sera Sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Shrewsbury” which is a worthwhile boast because the Shropshire town is a one of the Football League’s loveliest, up there with Oxford and our very own Ipswich.  It is the nineteenth minute of the game and Town win a corner, bucking the trend of Leeds dominance. Andre Dozzell’s kick fails to travel beyond the Leeds defender at the near post however.  A conversation ensues behind me the final words of which are “We need a new team, mate”.  On the touchline Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa adopts his customary squatting pose.  The Argentine is sometimes considered to be an eccentric character and his moving to Leeds having managed Lazio and Marseille rather proves the point; he was a legendary figure at Marseille, adored by the Ultras and I am proud to say I saw him sit on a cup of coffee at the Velodrome, which may be why he is choosing to squat today.

The game is not living up to expectations and to pass the time the Sir Bobby Robson Stand goad the Leeds support by singing “Top of the League and you fucked it up” which is a bit rich from supporters of a team that has been bottom of the league virtually all season.  Compared with our own team’s performance this season Leeds United are world beaters. “One Mick McCarthy” sing the Yorkshiremen in response, which is fair enough, but easy to say given that he’s only ever bored them until they cried with his attritional, joyless football as manager of the opposition.

I’ve been watching this game for almost half an hour and all of a sudden a couple of passes send our angular on-loan German Collin Quaner through on goal with just Casilla to beat; Casilla comes out of his penalty area and runs straight at Quaner who pushes the ball beyond him and hurdles the Spaniard’s lunging frame before crashing to the turf.  The lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand bay for blood but referee Mr Gavin Ward proffers only a yellow card in the direction of Casilla, possibly because he couldn’t conceive of the current Ipswich Town team of having a goal scoring opportunity, let alone being denied one.  But the resultant free-kick proves Mr Ward wrong as the ball sails high into the six yard box and no one is able to send it decisively in any direction, so it drops to the ground and Town’s Flynn Downes is nearest and able to hook it into the goal net.  Ironically, it’s the sort of goal that owes a lot to the methods of Mick McCarthy.

“We’re winning a game, we’re winning a game, how shit must you be, we’re winning a game” sing the Town fans, once more invoking the sound of ‘Sloop John B’.  Surfing on a wave of a single Beach Boys tune the Sir Bobby Robson Stand ill-advisedly seek to push home their perceived advantage. “Premier League, you’re having a laugh, Premier League, you’re having a laugh” they chant to the tune of Tom Hark.  If only they’d stopped to think about the probable response.  “Championship, you’re having a laugh” is the inevitable short-vowelled response.  A battle of wits, it’s not.

Happiness reigns until the final minute of the half when Myles Kenlock omits to prevent Luke Ayling, who incidentally sports the day’s daintiest coiffure, from crossing the ball and Pole Mateusz Klich is allowed a free shot at goal, from which he scores Leeds’ equalising goal.  It’s disappointing of course and a little ‘out of the blue’ but not really unexpected.  What I have come to enjoy most about this season is how little it now hurts when the opposition score; I have perhaps achieved some kind of state of grace.

The half-time break allows time to relieve myself of more surplus liquid, consume a Panda brand liquorice stick and gawp up at the half-time scores on the TV screen beneath the stand.  Once again the statistics shown on the TV screen are inaccurate, with neither team apparently having had a player booked.  If that stat is wrong, and it blatantly is, I cannot trust the others.  Thwarted again in my search for truth I climb back up the steps into the stand and talk with Ray, a reassuringly honest man.  I tell him that next Saturday I shall be watching Dijon FCO v RC Strasbourg at the Stade Gaston-Gerard; Ray tells me that he’s heard good things of Dijon, “they’re mustard” he says without any trace of embarrassment.  In fact Dijon face relegation, so even Ray lied, albeit in the name of ‘comedy’.

The second half begins at thirty-four minutes past one, and before twenty-five to two the Towen are winning; Collin Quaner passing to Andre Dozzell in the sort of space usually only seen between Ipswich defenders.  Dozzell scores with aplomb; it’s the first time Towen have scored as many as two goals at home since New Year’s Day.   Leeds are quick and inventive but lack accuracy, although they still get chances they contrive to waste them. “That’s a ruddy good save” says the old boy behind me appreciatively, but with an odd hint of grudging reluctance as Bartosz Bialkowski dives to his left to tip a shot away for a corner.  “One Bobby Robson, There’s only one Bobby Robson” sing the overly nostalgic and sentimental supporters in the stand that bears the dead man’s name.  The Leeds supporters are not similarly moved to mention Don Revie OBE, despite the marvellous picture of the man in the match programme in which he looks a bit like Grouty (Peter Vaughan) in the TV sit-com ‘Porridge’.  It’s easily the best thing in the programme.

All is going well and I dare to dream of seeing Town win.  But I should know better by now.  Ayling of the hair crosses the ball; the weirdly named Kemar Roofe hits the cross-bar with a close range shot and the ball seemingly just bounces off Stuart Dallas and into the net.  There is a suspicion amongst Town fans that Ayling’s pony tail was offside and that Dallas handled the ball into the net, and to make the point ever-present Phil is off his seat and waving his arms in anger and frustration, but referee Mr Ward pays no heed; if he only knew how many consecutive Town games Phil has seen he might be more sympathetic. Heartless, ignorant git.  

As the Towen kick-off the game once again a long line of riot police string themselves out along the front of the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the disabled enclosure, sitting themselves down on the cold concrete floor.  To a man, woman and child, the occupants of the stand are bemused.  “Do you think they’ll get piles?” asks the old dear behind me, laughing.  Ever-present Phil may be disgruntled but he’s never been known to lead a pitch invasion, neither has Pat from Clacton nor Ray, nor the old boy behind me, despite his occasional vitriolic tone.  Ray’s grandson Harrison has got a pretty nifty new wheelchair so he’s not likely to throw it onto the pitch in a fit of pique, even if we helped him pick it up.  Perhaps Police Intelligence (ha-ha) has identified me; I do have previous after all, having fallen foul of the stewards on separate occasions for banging a tambourine, sitting in the seat behind my allotted one and taking photographs; I might be considered dangerous, I like to think so, but really, as my own Smith’s inspired banner might say “ I’m not the man you think I am”.

With my mind racing Town’s defence lose concentration too and after a corner to Leeds Kemar Roofe drops to the ground after contact, of a sort, with Town captain Luke Chambers, who appears to have tried to tickle him.   Mr Ward is decisive and doesn’t stop to think twice, or perhaps even once as he awards Leeds a penalty and sends Chambers off, which is a pity because it’s his name that features on the front of the match programme and he was also voted the supporters player of the year.  Mr Ward should really do some research before refereeing his next match; today he is just making social faux pas after social faux pas.    I doubt we’ll ask him back after this.

The ticklish Kemar Roofe dusts himself off before stepping up to take the penalty.  What happens next is probably the funniest most blissful thing I have seen at a game since Robert Ullathorne’s back pass at Portman Road in April 1996, as Roofe appears to cross himself and then deftly kicks his own leg away from under him and sends the ball high and wide, appropriately towards the roof of the stand; I can’t swear to ever seeing the ball land, perhaps it hasn’t.  If Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton had taken the penalty they couldn’t have bettered Roofe’s effort for pure slap-stick. I’d like to see it again in flickering black and white, slightly speeded up. If goals that go in are followed by Tom Hark or Chelsea Dagger over the public address system, moments like this deserve the Looney Tunes music and the scoreboard proclaiming “That’s All Folks!”

I feel satiated, enough has gone on this early afternoon to tide me over until next season.  It might be disappointing not to win having twice had the lead, but this is 2019 in Ipswich, it’s good enough.  But no, for the first time this season at Portman Road fate has something good in store and in the final minute of normal time Casilla and a Leeds defender both jump for a cross at once and succeed in knocking it on to Collin Quaner who has time and space to simply kick the ball into an open goal for another moment of high comedy and delirium.

The game ends and the season ends and at last Ipswich have a decent win in front of the Portman Road crowd.  But I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Leeds; I grew up hating them like everyone else but they are part of the landscape of my football following life and I like them to be there looming large.   I hope they get promoted if that’s what they want; although they should be careful what they wish for.

So Town have been relegated and will be a third division club next season, but it’s been rather fun getting here and Portman Road is a far nicer place to come now than it was last season. I just hope it’s as good or better come Christmas.  Relegation isn’t so different to promotion really; we will still just end up playing a load of different teams to the ones we played this year.  As a fan of the Smiths might print on a large banner  “What difference does it make?” Norwich may have been promoted and we have been relegated, but let’s see who wins more games next season.

Ipswich Town 1 Birmingham City 1


Today could be an auspicious occasion; today could be the day that Ipswich Town confirms its transition from the second division to the third division of English football.     Towen ‘did their bit’ on Wednesday evening by losing at Brentford, but other clubs let them down by failing to win and make themselves un-catchable.  Today however, anything but a win will mean Towen will play next season in the third tier and pretty much no one who isn’t at least seventy years old can remember that happening before.  It’s nice that such a landmark can be achieved at Portman Road, in front of our own fans, and not on some ‘foreign field’ where mis-guided fools would only gloat.

I set off for the match in positive mood therefore, still believing in a miracle but also resigned to a fate that has been writ large on most walls since late October of 2018.  It’s been a morning of sunshine and showers and cotton wool clouds are now heaped up in a pale blue sky, a corny metaphor for the darkness and light of life and football.  The characteristic smell of settled dust on a damp pavement rises up with the warmth of the April sun.  The railway station platform is busy with all types of people, Ipswich Town supporters, women in their early forties on a ‘girls’ outing, an unhappy looking hippy, teenagers taking selfies and a family of Birmingham City supporters.   The train is on time. A poster catches my eye, “Delay, Repay, With Less Delay” it says, carefully avoiding to mention anything about ‘fewer delays’; it will prove prescient.

Arriving at Colchester, the train stops and the doors open.  “What? Sorry, it’s cancelled?” shouts a guard down the platform giving unintended forewarning of what has happened.  It transpires that a freight train has broken down further up the track; the train I arrived on disgorges its passengers and departs empty. Twenty minutes later the next train arrives and the same chain of events unfolds, although the guard doesn’t shout down the platform this time.  If there’s a good thing about train delays it’s that people talk to one another, if only to share their annoyance and anxiety.  People in club colours glance at other people in club colours.  With both Ipswich and today’s opponents both wearing blue and white those glances are asking “Is he one of us?”  A middle aged man with a monotone voice asks me how long it takes to drive to Ipswich.  I guess he’s thinking of getting a taxi, or stealing a car.  He’s a Birmingham fan who has travelled up from Torquay; he doesn’t go to home games, only away ones and it seems that he’s just as keen on visiting all ninety-two league grounds as following ‘The Blues’.  I would speak to him more, but he’s a bit boring.

When the 13:48 to Ipswich arrives on platform two; it’s not cancelled and it departs twenty minutes later with the track ahead now clear.  The voice of the lady train driver apologises for the delay and warns that a few more minutes are as yet likely to be added to the journey. “But we will arrive in Ipswich eventually, hopefully” she adds, with a final note of caution.  Arriving in Ipswich at about twenty-five to three it is too late to go to St Jude’s Tavern and I have already texted Mick to cancel our planned triste; as he says in his reply “ …it would not be a social interlude, just necking a pint…”

Ipswich is busy, but weirdly the Station Hotel, which is reserved for away supporters, is empty.  Outside a couple of bouncers relax and have a ciggy and talk to two of the unusually large number of police who are out on the streets today. I join the herd crossing the bridge opposite the station and heading for Portman Road.  On a banner attached to a lamp post a blue cartoon Octopus called Digby urges everyone to love their streets and not drop litter; so I don’t.  Birmingham accents assault my ears.  “Excuse may” I hear one say politely as a prelude to asking where the away supporters end is.  There’s nothing for me here so I move towards turnstile five where there is no queue.  The glasses-wearing turnstile operator doesn’t look up as I hand him my season ticket card, he scans its bar code and hands it back to me.  “Thank you” I say enthusiastically and with genuine gratitude, like I imagine Watch With Mother’s Mr Benn would, if he ever went to football match.

I speak with Dave the steward with whom I used to work and then make for my seat near ever-present Phil who never misses a game, his young son Elwood and Pat from Clacton.  Today Phil is featured in the programme because it is 25 years since he last missed a Town game.  Greetings, handshakes and presentations over, the game begins in brilliant sunshine beneath azure skies with Ipswich in their blue and white shirts besmirched by the naff logo of an on-line gambling organisation, kicking the ball in my direction.  Birmingham City are sporting a kit of bright yellow shirts and socks with blue shorts, they could be confused with Sweden, Newmarket Town or may be Sochaux-Montbéliard from French Ligue 2.  I am reminded of the first time I ever saw Ipswich play away (2nd April, 1977 at Maine Road Manchester), we wore yellow and blue; all away kits seemed to be yellow and something in the 70’s, except the ones that weren’t.  

The visiting Brummies in the Cobbold Stand are first to burst into song with a rendition of the maudlin Harry Lauder number ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’.  “That used to be our song, here at Ipswich” Pat tells me sounding a bit miffed and implying that Birmingham had pinched it.  According to the Birmingham City club website, it has been their anthem since 1956.   As if taking offence at Pat’s accusation, the Birmingham fans’ tone changes and they start to sing ‘You’re going down, you’re going down, you’re going down’, which is at once both a little uncharitable and a case of ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’.   There is no mention that Birmingham City have cheated their way to staying up by spending more money than league rules allow; Birmingham have been deducted nine points although even if they were re-allocated to Town it probably wouldn’t save us.

On the pitch Birmingham are already looking better than Ipswich and just to make the point, with little more than five minutes played Birmingham’s Lukas Jutkiewicz scores from very close range as if Ipswich were playing without any defenders at all, something they have practised all season.   I leap from my seat cheering, I’m not sure why, I think it was the excitement of the start of the game spilling over and perhaps a sense that I’m fed up with waiting to be in the third division.  Ever-present Phil and Elwood look at me disappointedly.

A goal down, Ipswich don’t improve and Birmingham look quicker, stronger and more skilful.  The old boy and girl behind me moan about Collin Quaner when he loses the ball and his boot “He int kicked anything yet, how the hell’s his shoe come off” says one of them nastily.  Myles Kenlock shoots not far over the Birmingham cross bar but it’s a rare foray forward for Town.   I pass the time wondering if Birmingham’s full-back Colin who crossed the ball for the goal is Brazilian like Fred, Oscar and Cris; in fact he’s French, his first name is Maxime and it turns out he was born in Ipswich’s twin town of Arras; he’s ‘one of our own’, sort of.  Despite early enthusiasm, the atmosphere amongst Town fans has cooled and the sunshine has been lost to cloud and rain showers.   “Is this a library?” sing the Brummies enjoying some Italian opera before showing their less artistically appreciative side and singing “You’re support is fucking shit”.  Eventually Town win a corner, Myles Kenlock again, and then another but we don’t do enough to puncture the Brummie fans’ sense of superiority as they chant in praise of Mick McCarthy and then claim they are relegating us.  Birmingham City fans indeed know all about relegation their team having achieved it eight times since 1979, double the number of Town’s seasons of utter and abject failure in the same period.

  It’s been a poor half from Town with four of our players also being shown a yellow card by the referee, Mr Jeremy Simpson, whose skin is sadly not also yellow like that of his cartoon namesakes. Half-time arrives as a bit of a relief and Ray stops to chat on his way to use the facilities.  He tells me that he will be seeing Rod Stewart here in the summer and hopes it’s more entertaining.  It’s Ray’s wife Roz who is the Rod Stewart fan, not Ray, he is more ‘into’ Jethro Tull and Yes.  I ask him if will be seeing Hawkwind at the Corn Exchange in November; probably not.  With no pre-match beer to drain off I remain in the stands and eat a Panda brand liquorice bar whilst enjoying the ornamental fountain-like display from the pitch sprinklers.  I flick through the programme and seek amusement in the names of the Birmingham City players.  Che Adams is a good name I decide and speculate that Mr and Mrs Adams are Communist Party members and have another son called Vladimir Ilich. The game resumes at six minutes past four.

Almost immediately Ipswich score, Gwion Edwards volleying in a cross from Kayden Jackson who has replaced the ineffective ‘boy’ Dozzell.  Birmingham have defended like Ipswich, it’s almost like the two teams have come out for the second half wearing each other’s kits and so it continues with Ipswich now the better team and looking more likely to score again, although of course they don’t.  The Ipswich supporters re-discover their voice and sing “Allez-Allez-Allez” or “Ole, Ole, Ole” I’m not sure which; personally I prefer the Allez, Allez, Allez version.  The sunshine returns illuminating the verdant pitch, billowing white clouds are heaped up in the bright blue sky above the stands creating a scene worthy of an Art Deco poster.  This is probably the most beautiful afternoon of the season so far, even if it is cold. “One Bobby Robson, here’s only one Bobby Robson” sing the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand slightly confusingly given that he’s been dead almost ten years.    There’s something almost Neolithic about this reverence for ancestors. There’s no mention of Sir Alf Ramsey, but then he’s been dead nearly twenty years.

Next to me Pat is pleading for Town to score, to win, in between trying to persuade me to travel to games on the Clacton supporters’ bus.  Today’s crowd of 17,248 with 1, 582 from Birmingham and Torquay is announced and Pat checks who’s won the sweepstake on the bus; then she checks again,  paranoid about getting it wrong.  Mr Simpson books Toto N’Siala who has replaced James Collins and for Birmingham City Jacques Maghoma replaces Kerim Mrabti meaning that probably for the first time ever there are two Congolese players on the Portman Road pitch.  With time running out Myles Kenlock and Gwion Edwards both have shots blocked and little Alan Judge has one saved.   Town ought to score, but it’s as if fate won’t allow it and finally Ipswich’s least favourite Simpson’s character calls time on the game and Town’s residency in Division Two.

There are emotional scenes before everyone goes home, with the players being applauded from the field after a few have sat down on the pitch in the traditional unhappy looking pose associated with defeat in defining games.  Relegation has been certain for months now, but the final confirmation is so final that my heart and the back of my throat still ache a little.   Ho-hum.  I never liked the Championship anyway, with all its wannabe Premier League teams.  I’m happy to return to our roots.

Ipswich Town 1 Nottingham Forest 1


Thirty-eight years ago today, give or take ten days, Ipswich Town played Nottingham Forest in the sixth round of the FA Cup.  I travelled up to Nottingham for the game, taking the train from Brighton where I was at university and then, having met up with three other Town fans in London, by Morris Minor 1000 up the M1.  We spent the night in Nottingham after the match, ate mushy peas and chips, drank large quantities of Home Ales bitter, slept on a floor of someone we knew at Nottingham University and drove back down south the next day.  Nottingham Forest were the reigning European Cup holders and in two months’ time Ipswich Town would win the UEFA Cup.  They were happy times.

Today, both clubs languish in the second division, Town awaiting inevitable relegation whilst Forest struggle in vain for a play-off place; but they meet in the day’s only match between the former winners of European cup competitions. It is a dull, blustery, mid-March day and layers of grey cloud are stacked up overhead as I walk to the railway station.  Blossom from the trees is blown into the gutter.  I pass by a newspaper recycling bin and feel perplexed that it is considered necessary to paint a sign on it advising people not to climb inside.  At the railway station I meet Roly; the train is on time.  Roly shows me a short video on his mobile phone of his eighteen month old daughter kicking a ball. Roly is nothing if not a very proud father.

Arriving in Ipswich the weather hasn’t changed; Roly gets some cash from an ATM whilst a group of Ipswich supporters struggle to get a car park ticket from an automatic machine. We head down Princes Street towards Portman Road and on to St Jude’s Tavern.  As usual people mill about aimlessly in Portman Road waiting for the turnstiles to open, they must retain the hope that one week they will open early, otherwise why get here early week after week after week?  There is always hope.

At St Jude’s Tavern Roly has a pint of Nethergate Bulldog (£2.50) and I have a similar quantity of the Match Day Special, which once again is St Jude’s own attractively named Goblin’s Piss (£2.50), a name that St Jude’s should really offer to Greene King for their IPA.  We sit at a table next to the usual retirees who meet here pre-match. We talk football.  Another clutch of retirees arrives, “What do you recommend” one asks looking at the beer list, “That you clear off somewhere else” is the response. Statler and Waldorf live. Not entirely satisfied by the ‘tired’ condition of our first pints, Roly and I switch to Nethergate Venture (£3.40) for our second; it’s okay but a bit too ‘floral’ for my tastes.

Jackson

At about twenty to three the pub begins to empty out and Roly and I leave too.  He doesn’t admit it but I suspect Roly wants time to get something to eat, that’s the kind of guy he is.  With fifteen minutes until kick-off Portman Road is busy but the club shop isn’t and I pop in, much as I might pop to the Co-op, and buy a programme, redeeming the 115 loyalty points I have accrued from previous purchases in the process.  In the past week I have now enjoyed two free programmes (at Kirkley & Pakefield and Colchester United) and a cut-price one, I am feeling blessed and if this carries on I will soon have saved enough to retire; hopefully Brexit won’t happen and I can go and live in the south of France, although if it does happen that is probably all the more reason to move to the south of France, or anywhere.

There is no queue at the turnstiles, I smile and thank the moustachioed turnstile operator as I pass through.   After a brief conversation with Dave the steward, a former work colleague, I use the toilet facilities and then take up my place alongside Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood.  There are a lot of Nottingham Forest supporters here today (the score board will tell us during the second-half that there are 1,691 in a crowd of 16,709) and Phil recounts how he visited his mum in Newmarket this morning and as he left he even saw one heading for Newmarket railway station.  The teams enter the field and my view is through the net of a practice goal which hadn’t been wheeled away before the concertina-like players’ tunnel was extended out to the corner of the pitch. 

The game begins with Nottingham Forest getting first go with the ball and playing towards the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and Alderman Road rec’, they are wearing red shirts, shorts and socks.  Town are in their customary blue and white kit, despoiled by an ugly advert for an on-line scamming organisation, a likely contributor to this season’s eventual relegation; they are aiming in the direction of me, Pat, Phil and Elwood, but hopefully a bit to our right.   The Nottingham supporters are in very good voice regaling us with a lyrically altered version of Land of Hope & Glory that tells of how they hate a number of other clubs but love Nottingham Forest, it’s an old favourite and takes me back to the 1970’s; the old ones are the best I think, sounding like my late father and his father and probably his father before that.  Enjoy your youth while you can Elwood, because one day you will be an old git too.

Barely five minutes pass and Town produce a quick move of short passes in front of the East of England Co-operative Stand and the lifeless souls that populate it; Gwion Edwards gets behind the Nottingham defence, delivers a low cross and like a magical genie the hard to hide Collin Quaner appears from nowhere to deftly stroke the ball into the goal to give Ipswich the lead.  It was a most beautiful goal.  I have heard so-called supporters say rude things about Collin Quaner but I like him, he’s German, he has the distinctive, exotic look of an Easter Island statue (minus the big ears), but most of all he plays for Ipswich Town and therefore he’s alright.

The goal gets the home crowd going for a short while, “Allez, Allez-Allez-Allez” some of us sing, enjoying the linguistic abilities that a meeting of two former European competition winners bring.  The noise of the crowd rises and swirls around in the strongly gusting breeze. But by and by the enthusiasm recedes and that goal is one of the last exciting things that happens at my end of the pitch as Nottingham Forest go on to un-sportingly monopolise the remainder of the first half winning four corners to Town’s none and having eight shot to our two.   It’s not long before the home crowd is quiet once again and the Nottingham Forest supporters can begin their goading. “One-nil, and you still don’t sing” they chant to the tune of the Village People’s “Go West”, but without the manly bravura of the original version.  Exasperated perhaps by the lack of a reaction the Forest fans invoke the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B to sing “We’ll sing on our own, we’ll sing on own”, which is probably the sensible thing to do in the circumstances, before their attention then turns to an obese Town supporter to whom they sing “Fatty, Fatty, give us a song”.  After enquiring through the medium of song if he has ever seen his own genitals they entreat him to “Get your tits out for the lads”, he duly obliges.  It’s hard to say if ‘Fatty’ enjoys his five minutes or fame, but he doesn’t return to his seat after half-time.   

The game carries on and Ipswich are denied what looked like a corner “That was literally in front of you, you Muppet” shouts a woman from behind me at the linesman.  Would that we could really have Muppet linesman I think to myself; the FA and The Jim Henson Company should forge closer links.  I note how many foreign players Nottingham’s are fielding and am impressed by the performance of Pele at number 28 which is remarkable for a man in his seventies, but I am surprised to learn from the tiny little Guinea-Bissau flag against his name on the back of the programme that he is no longer Brazilian.  My attention is also drawn to Forest’s number 29, Tunisian Yohan Benalouane who, with his completely bald head and pale complexion makes me think of Nosferatu; I don’t get a look at his finger nails.

It’s just gone half-past three and Nottingham Forest win a corner, the ball is directed towards goal, Bartosz Bialkowski dives to his left, Nottingham players raise their arms and the diminutive referee Mr Keith Stroud signals a goal, which the scoreboard attributes to the Malian number 13 Molla Wague, although it will later be said to be a Jon Nolan own-goal.  It’s a shame for Town, for Molla Wague and for Jon Nolan and given that the goal has brought so much disappointment I am surprised it is allowed to stand.   “Que Sera Sera, Whatever will be will be, You’re going to Shrewsbury, Que Sera Sera” sing the gloating Nottinghamians, revealing a hitherto unexpected admiration for Doris Day, although the earlier Go West song was perhaps a clue as to their preferences.

Half-time arrives and briefly Portman Road is once again back in the long lost 1970’s as the PA system provides an aural treat in the sound of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s  “You ain’t seen nothing yet”, a song which makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. I visit the facilities beneath the stand to drain off some more of that Goblin’s Piss; at the urinal I stand next to a man who is simultaneously either texting or checking the half-time scores on his mobile phone.  I find the scene rather disconcerting and leave as quickly as nature allows before consuming a Panda brand liquorice stick as a tasty half-time snack and to help me forget.

The second half begins and Trevoh Chalobah replaces Cole Skuse.  At ten past four Trev’ unleashes a spectacular shot that whistles just centimetres outside the right hand post of the Nottingham goal.  Sometimes such a narrow miss is more thrilling than a goal, particularly an opposition one.  The second half turns out to be much better than the first for Ipswich and Town dominate the attacking play, although admittedly without making too many clear cut chances to score.  Chants of “Come on You Blues, Come on Blues” burst from stands on all sides of the ground and with increasing frequency. The referee Keith Stroud, who ‘has previous’ as far as Town fans are concerned adds to his record of failure and bias by not awarding Town free-kicks whilst giving undeserved favour to Nottingham, whose fans are now largely quiet.  “Short refs, we only get short refs” sing Phil and I to the tune of Blue Moon. On the touchline Paul Lambert, as ever in his black v-neck jumper and black trousers, swings his arms about encouraging his team and the crowd.  Little Alan Judge crosses the ball and Jon Nolan heads wide of an open goal.

On the Nottingham bench Roy Keane at first looks his usual sullen self, but as Town dominate more and more and the game moves into its last ten minutes he stands in the technical area gesticulating, looking annoyed and filled with murderous intent.  The combination of the ‘enigmatic’ Martin O’Neil and psychopathic Roy Keane as a sort of latter day Celtic incarnation of the Clough/Taylor partnership can surely only end badly, but it could be fun to watch. I ensure that when the game is over I stay on long enough to boo Keane from the field for what he did to Ipswich Town.  I offered to my friend Mick to boo Keane on his behalf as he could not be here today, he said to feel free and he was happy for me to spit for him too if I wanted. I thought that was going a bit far, although I imagine it is the sort of protest Keane might respect as he would then feel justified in meeting it with extreme violence.

Ipswich deserve to score again but don’t and the result is yet another one-all draw.  This has arguably been the best game of the season at Portman Road and curiously despite being bottom of the league by several points for several months, with very little or no hope of staying up and only two home wins since August it has been the most enjoyable season for several years.  What is more, the crowd are at last getting behind the team; if this is what it takes perhaps Town should just go for relegation every year.

To the tune of Auld Lang Syne….all together now…

We’ve won the League, we’ve won the Cup

We’ve won in Europe too

Now every week we draw one-all

There’s f-all else to do.

Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

It’s been a cold, grey February day in northern France; it snowed last night to add to the snow that had been lying around waiting for the next lot to fall.

It takes some effort though to imagine what it must have been like in Flanders’ fields just over a hundred years ago. But I’m born lucky, there’s no march to the front for me, just a walk from my hotel to the République/Beaux-Arts Metro station in Lille. My grandfather came to France in 1914 to fight for king and country and get hit by shrapnel; I’m here with my wife Paulene to watch Lille OSC play OGC in Nice in Conforama Ligue 1. It seems very unfair on him really, but who knows, things may change; half the population seem oblivious to the fact that the EU and the longest ever period of peace in Western Europe are not a coincidence.
Down in the Metro station at about 7:25 pm we recharge the tickets we had last time we were here back in March of last year; it’s the responsible thing to do and it saves 0.20 euros per ticket too (3.30 return instead of 3.50). Ligne 2 of Lille’s two line, driverless metro system will take us on the twelve stop journey to the end of the line at 4 Cantons Stade Pierre Mauroy in a about fifteen minutes, from where it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk through the university campus to the stadium. As metro systems go, Lille’s is the most fun of any I’ve travelled on; the rubber-tyred trains make a whizzing, whirring noise and with no driver you can sit up front and watch the tunnel and the lights of on-coming trains hurtle towards you. I’ve been on worse and more expensive funfair rides which have failed to take me anywhere near a football ground; one-nil to Lille.
The train is hot and busy with football fans and Friday night commuters; the heat aggravates Paulene’s asthma so we alight three stops early at Villeneuve d’Ascq Hotel de Ville, which is no further from the stadium than the dedicated station. This walk to the stadium takes us through the local shopping centre, but we get out and walk through outcrops of slushy snow across the car park where the air is much fresher, and more breathable. Across the car park supporters in ones and twos converge on a point in a corner by a roundabout where we join the throng of Lillois on their march to the ground. Up Rue de Versailles we head, past the Picwic toy shop, Saint Maclou flooring shop and the ubiquitous Leroy Merlin DIY store, this is the wonderful world of out of town French retailing. A number 18 bus, which we would have caught from République Beaux Arts if the Metro hadn’t been so enticing, disgorges passengers; above the front windscreen the digital display alternately reads the destination and ‘Allez LOSC’. Behind us a man and his young daughter are part of the marching crowd in their red and white scarves; the girl talks excitedly to her father; she has the endearing, soft voice that many young French children have; she sounds as if she’s lost her big white dog, Belle.

Reaching the top of Rue De Versailles, the Stade Pierre Mauroy hoves into view like a huge neon-lit slug. With its curves and strip lights it’s not immediately recognisable as a football stadium but happily it doesn’t look like a DIY store either, as it might if it was in England. It seems England and France have a different language of architecture as well a different spoken language. The French like to make a grand statement; the English would seem to like to save money.
As much as I want to visit the club shop to delight in what it has to offer, Paulene is still struggling due to her asthma so together we make our way directly to our seats. We bought our tickets on-line a month or so ago (16.65 Euros each) but there are queues at the guichets tonight with a special promotion for students, including those at the lycées (secondary schools for 15 to 18 year olds), who can get in for just five euros. Eventually there will be a crowd of 32,849 watching tonight’s match, which is also live on satellite/cable TV. Kick-off is half an hour away and we do not have to queue for our tickets to be checked, or to be ‘searched’ and patted down; it makes me and the steward smile when he pats me on the head to see if I’m hiding anything under my Ipswich Town beanie hat, I’m 1.87m tall. At every turn we are wished “Bon Match” by the polite, helpful, friendly and efficient security and gate staff. At the turnstile I collect a copy of the A4 sized, glossy and completely free match programme. On our last visit the programme had the title Reservoir Dogues, a weak and nonsensical pun on the club nickname of Les Dogues. This season the heading is ‘In The City’ above a silhouette of some Lille’s most outstanding buildings, including the Stade Mauroy. The title shows understandable civic pride and a fine appreciation of the oeuvre of The Jam. We make for our seats which are on the back row of the bottom tier of the stadium and the view is excellent, particularly given what we paid for them; about what it would cost to watch Colchester United.

With kick-off time (8:45pm) nigh Lille introduce their new signing from Belenenses the interestingly named Reinildo, possibly the only Mozambique footballer I have ever seen. Greetings for the new boy over, the teams file onto the pitch side by side and we are treated to a display of giant Roman candles and the Ligue 1 theme music; the excitement is building and in the Tribune Est (East Stand) red and white scarves are held aloft. The western end of the stadium mirrors the east and then supporters all around the ground join in as they sing the club song, somewhat weirdly to the tune of Amazing Grace. It’s impressive nonetheless and far superior to anything likely to be seen or heard from supporters of any English club nowadays.

The game begins courtesy of Lille who are aiming towards Rue de Versailles and the Auchan supermarket and are wearing their customary red shirts with navy blue sleeves and shorts. Nice kick towards the multi-storey car park behind the Tribune Ouest and wear all-white. Lille quickly take the initiative as expected of the home team; and so they should, being second in the league table behind Paris St Germain and nine points ahead of seventh placed Nice. But Nice look the better team because they are all in white like Real Madrid; it’s a kit that sets off their Cote d’Azur suntans; they also have the majestic Brazilian Dante at centre half and at number seven Allan Saint-Maximin who, with his blond dreadlocks and headband is the coolest looking player on the pitch.

With nine minutes on the scoreboard the stadium erupts into spontaneous applause for Emiliano Sala the former Nantes player lost in the English Channel due to a plane crash; it seems there is very high regard for Sala amongst supporters of all French teams and it is a very moving sixty seconds.

Nice whose first choice kit is the same as that of AC Milan continue to look good in their all-white change kit but sadly for them, Italian and Mediterranean style count for little and it’s not even five to nine before Lille’s Jonathan Bamba hares away down the left and a cross finds 19 year old Portuguese Rafael Leao with little else to do but kick the ball into the goal. The already ‘up for it’ crowd are even more ‘up for it’ as more Roman candles ejaculate white sparks behind the goals and the Lille players enjoy a group hug.

From now on the Lille supporters are in good voice, as if they weren’t already. “Lo lo, lo lo lo, lo lo-o-o, L-O-S-C” they sing and other catchy chants. At the Tribune Ouest, the two guys stood on the raised platform at the front of the stand who are conducting the ultras are joined by an older man whose long white hair makes him look worryingly like Jimmy Savile; happily however his enthusiasm for supporting Les Dogues does him credit and he waves his arms encouragingly to good effect.
The game progresses and Nice don’t look like scoring; they have some decent players but they don’t look happy to have left the Cote d’Azur to spend a cold evening near the Belgian border. With less than ten minutes to go until half-time 23 year old Ivorian Nicolas Pepe breaks away down the right; he shoots unexpectedly and the ball goes across Nice ‘keeper Walter Benitez and inside the far post. More out-sized Roman candles, more joy, more chants, less likelihood of Nice not losing this match. In front of us two ten or eleven year olds who look like they are here with their grandfathers behave annoyingly, tearing up their programmes and lobbing the screwed up fragments onto the people sat below and then jumping about aping the ultras in the Tribune Nord. “Petites merdes” I think to myself. Another boy with blond hair is constantly fed sandwiches, cakes and biscuits by his dad who at other times has the childish grin of the two petites merdes.
Half-time arrives and I ‘nip out the back’ to the buvette for an espresso coffee (2 Euros) and a hot chocolate (2 euros), although after a long wait in a not particularly long queue the hot chocolate proves to be only a lukewarm chocolate, but it is a cold night. The guy serving in the buvette immediately detects that I’m not French and asks where I’m from; I tell him England and oddly he asks me if I’m British; I tell him I’m from Ipswich just to confuse him.
I get back to my seat just in time to see the teams return for the second half. Nice manager Patrick Vieira has evidently failed to galvanise his team who remain disappointing, as perhaps one might expect from a manager who has failed to nurture the mercurial, damaged and flawed but fabulously entertaining Mario Balotelli and instead allowed him to join French Riviera rivals Olympique Marseille. The second half is like the first, but a little colder, even though the roof to the stadium is closed. When anyone opens one of the doors behind us that lead out onto the concourse there’s a helluva draft. With fifteen minutes left twenty-two year old Jonathan Bamba evades the Nice defence to score a third goal for Lille and the fireworks explode again and the ultras erupt into an orgy of flag waving. The game is won and the crowd celebrates with more songs and chants which echo across the pitch from one Tribune to another, scarves are held aloft again and then a Mexican Wave begins; I think it’s called joie de vivre, we don’t really have it in Ipswich.
The game may well be won and lost but there is more fun to come as Nice substitute Pierre Lees Melou is fouled by Lille’s Luiz Araujo. Lees Melou steps across Arujao to get the ball and catches Arajao on the leg; he collapses to the ground. Referee Jerome Miguelgorry consults the VAR and we wait; he returns to the scene of the ‘crime’, reverses his decision and shows a red card to Lees Melou, apparently for violent conduct; it all seems rather ridiculous and everyone seems a little stunned. I sense Nice just want to head back down south where it’s a good ten degrees warmer and who can blame them; sadly for them they don’t make it before Lille score a fourth goal in time added on when Loic Remy dashingly diverts a cross from Jeremy Pied past Walter Benitez with the use of his head. For Lille it’s the ideal way to end a successful evening, for Nice….well, they are past caring.
The final whistle just brings further celebrations for the Lillois as everyone salutes their team with generous applause before turning away and off into the night, filling the dark, deeply cold streets with the hum of excited conversation and hurried steps. It’s been a lot of fun.

Paris St Germain 4 Stade de Reims 1

It has been a warm, sunny day in Paris beneath a clear blue sky. I have spent the afternoon in St Ouen, now a northern suburb of the city, but a town in its own right.

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I have visited Stade Bauer, the home of France’s second oldest football club Red Star, founded by no one less than Jules Rimet, in 1897. Sadly Red Star are not permitted to play there this season because it does not meet the standards of Ligue 2, and I am not surprised, it is quite alarmingly dilapidated and I am sure many people would consider it to be an absolute ‘dump’. But it has character, albeit the sort of character that means only one stand can be used and the long terrace at the site of the ground is a virtual ruin. Nevertheless, this club is clearly at the heart of its local community and whilst I was there children’s games and coaching sessions were taking place on the synthetic pitch and on the pitch behind the ground.
In total contrast to Stade Bauer and Red Star FC, tonight I shall be at Parc des Princes to see Paris St Germain (PSG) play Stade de Reims; Reims by the way is pronounced “Rance”, not “Reems” or “Reem” and as you say “Rance” go to put your tongue behind your top front teeth to make the “n” sound, but then don’t; you will hopefully end up with a satisfying nasally growl; one example of why French is such a beautiful language. BT Sport television commentators would do well to pay particular attention to the above.
The journey from Meudon Val Fleury , where my wife Paulene and I are staying, to Issy Val de Seine is a short one; just two stops on the RER suburban railway (1.95 euros each, each way). We sit at the back of the lower deck of the train, recreating the feel of ‘sitting up the back’ on the bus to school, although Paulene actually walked to school from her

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house. From Issy Val de Seine train station it is a 20 minute walk or so to the Parc des Princes, crossing the river Seine over the Pont d’Issy des Molineaux with its view of the Eiffel Tower and then through back streets. The walk to the ground is not like the one to Portman Road that I am used to. There are no tantalising glimpses of floodlights and no smell of frying onions and nasty looking processed meat products. Parc des Princes, as large as it is, is not visible from far away; it squats or perhaps nestles amongst the expensive apartment blocks, offices and hotels of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Nearing Parc des Princes, security is conspicuous with ‘road blocks’ to check tickets and direct us along specific streets according to which tribune (stand) one’s seat is located. The red team bus of Stade de Reims is guarded by a cordon of police in Kevlar armour.

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The stadium is on our right across a park and all that is visible as we approach are the concrete ‘fins’ that cantilever the roof and make the stadium look like a huge decorated concrete pie which has slumped in the middle. Being France it is entirely possible that the design was inspired by a large pastry or fruit tartelette. Despite now being forty-five years old the stadium is still an impressive one, and I am with its architect Roger Taillebert in believing that it should not be expanded in size; the integrity of the original design should be preserved.

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After a visit to the club shop (boutique) in which I particularly enjoyed the serried ranks

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of soft toy renditions of Neymar (reduced to 16.90 euros from 24.90) and the 3D model of Parc des Princes (29.90 euros), we enter the stadium itself. Unlike on the previous two occasions when we had been to Parc des Princes, and at the French Cup Final in the Stade de France, we do not need to show our passports. I am patted down and wished ”Bon match” by a man who looks as if the job is getting him hot and bothered and as I move on, he wipes his brow. Our seats (28 euros each) are in the lower tier to the right of the goal in the corner between the Auteuil and Borelli Tribunes; it’s a pretty good view but the electronic advert boards at pitchside mean we can’t see the near goal line and the guy ropes attached to advertising banners for Nike hanging from the roof of the stand annoy me. These things are sadly symptomatic of the sort of modern football club that is forever maximising its income and consequently forgets that its raison d’etre is so that people can watch live football in its stadium; without supporters in the stadium what is the point? Worse still, PSG does not produce a programme, free or otherwise, which sets it apart from most top French clubs and even the two Paris clubs in Ligue 2, Red Star and Paris FC; shame on PSG.
As the teams line up the public address announcer calls out the first names of each of the PSG players and the crowd call out their surnames in response. It’s a bit like the versicles and responses in an Anglican church service, but more shouty and not so boringly pious. They do this for every player including the substitutes until the announcer reaches the name of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, when after calling out “Eric” the rejoinder from the supporters is somewhat mumbled and muted. Eric needs to get himself a snappier surname if he’s going to be a success.
The teams line up before the usual banners showing the club crests and that of Ligue 1 and its sponsor Conforama, a large, national furniture retailer. The crowd behind the goal to our left is in full voice backed by two drummers who are at the front of the stand. “P-S-G, Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez!” they sing, to the tune of Yellow Submarine. These are the Ultras, of which there are several groups; they wave huge flags, one of which has been given a ragged appearance as if to channel the spirit of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions or the Paris Commune. With its seething mass of humanity it’s a scene Eugene Delacroix might have painted, had he not died in 1863.
The game begins with PSG kicking off and playing towards me, Paulene and the Ultras and in the rough direction of the Arc de Triomphe. PSG are wearing their kit of all navy blue with a fuzzy bib of red down the front of the shirt, whilst Reims are in their traditional kit of red shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and red socks. It might be said that Stade de Reims look a bit like Arsenal, but unlike the Gunners they have played in two European Cup finals. Stade de Reims are historically one of France’s greatest clubs with a rich history of Cup and League titles, which is perhaps why the fans of nouveau riche PSG boo them so unsportingly. Tonight, Reims are kicking in the direction of Meudon and the house where we are staying, and within two minutes they score as the Argentinian Pablo Chavarria charges down the left wing and pulls the ball back to Xavier Chavalerin who in one precise movement places the ball low beyond the outstretched figure of Gianluigi Buffon and just inside the far post. It is Reims’ first goal in four games. The Ultras carry on as if nothing has happened and in my head I punch the air and whisper Allez Reims.
Predictably PSG don’t waste time in going for an equaliser. Within seconds of the re-start Thomas Draxler’s 20 metre shot is saved by Reims goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and soon afterwards Edinson Cavani turns on a loose ball and strides forward of the nearest Reims player before producing the most spectacular and magnificent chip from outside the penalty area, which sails over Mendy’s head and into the far corner of the goal. It is a thing of beauty and a worthy equaliser.
PSG now dominate producing nothing less than an exhibition of mesmerising passing and running, but Reims are keen to attack on the break clearly realising that if they don’t score, PSG will. Edinson Cavani is a fabulous sight, with his long, dark hair flowing behind him he could be a central character from the French 1960’s children’s TV series known in Britain as The Flashing Blade (Le Chevalier Tempête in France). The imperious young Adrien Rabiot in midfield cuts a similar dashing figure, and likewise a lot of it is down to his hair; it is so hard to believe he was not a first choice for the French World Cup squad.
Meanwhile, the Ultras and their drums don’t let up as they produce a variety of rhythms and songs including, slightly bizarrely, ‘Yankee Doodle’, ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ and ‘My Darling Clementine’. It is now about twenty five minutes past nine and Edinson Cavani falls dramatically in the penalty area. Thomas Meunier replaces the

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injured Colin Dagba in the short wait before Neymar scores from the penalty. Neymar places the ball casually to Mendy’s right whilst the goalkeeper goes left. Now that they lead, there seems no way that PSG will not win this match and they assume almost complete control, although Reims manage to hang onto the one goal deficit by defending stoutly. Despite appeals from PSG players and fans it takes until almost twenty to ten before the first Reims player is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thuai. Monsieur Thuai’s first victim is Alaixys Romao, predictably for a foul on the waifish Neymar who a little while beforehand had treated the crowd to one of his multiple rolls, this one at high speed. I can’t decide if Neymar dives or if he really is fouled more than other players. At times he makes the most of the challenges he receives, as most forwards do, but significantly Neymar is much quicker and much more skilful than most, if not all other forwards.
The first half is close to ending as Neymar wins another free-kick and drops the ball to the far corner of Mendy’s six-yard box. Mendy fumbles as he climbs to catch the ball and Cavani reacts instantly to lob the ball into the unguarded goal from an acute angle; it’s not a particularly beautiful goal but it’s a very skilful one nonetheless. Three minutes are added on to the original forty-five for stoppages, which gives Xavier Chavalerin time to send a shot over the PSG cross-bar, but he was really only trying his luck.
Half-time brings a visit to a small but recently refurbished and well-appointed toilet and a brief time spent queueing for two 600ml bottles of water (3 euros each), a coffee (2 euros), and a recyclable branded PSG cup for one of the bottles of water (2 euros); I juggle these items back to my seat . It is noticeable that many of the people here are tourists, like me and Paulene if I’m honest, although for us it’s really just another football match and Paulene is enrolled as a member, primarily to get tickets perhaps, but she is also enamoured of Cavani, Rabiot, Verrati, Di Maria and Buffon. The bloke behind us sounds Scandinavian, whilst in front a couple from the Far East make themselves conspicuous with their photography. For myself I am slightly mesmerised by the electronic advertising hoardings in front of the stands and between the tiers. The boards operate in such a way that the same advert appears all around the ground and the changes in colours and brightness with each change of advert is quite distracting as a different light is cast onto the pitch.
In due course the game begins again and the noise from the Ultras is so loud it vibrates the sides of the plastic water bottle I hold in my hand. This atmosphere is how I remember football back at home in the 1970’s, but better. If PSG dominated the first half then in this half their two goal advantage gives them the confidence to simply entertain. The Brazilian central defenders Marquinhos and Thiago Silva pass the ball between themselves across the penalty area, but in particular Neymar starts to show off his ability. Less than ten minutes into the half he runs at the Reims defence, passing two or three players with swift acceleration. A few minutes later Neymar does much the same again before passing cross field to Moussa Diaby whose low cross by-passes Mendy in the Reims goal to give Thomas Meunier a straightforward tap-in.
For the rest of the match I wonder what the French for “PSG go nap” is, but miraculously the fifth goal doesn’t come. Instead, Neymar provides a masterclass in flicks and turns and two-footed dribbling; with him to watch goals aren’t really needed. Anyone who doesn’t rate Neymar is an idiot, he is a marvel. I saw George Best play in a goalless draw against Ipswich in 1973 and he was hopeless, but that proves nothing. Neymar like Best is an entertainer and in essence we go to football to be entertained, although of course we must enjoy the misery too if we support a club like Ipswich Town has now become. I would go so far as to say that Neymar is nearly as good to watch as Frans Thijssen was and he is definitely quicker.
The second half passes in a blur of exhibitionism the like of which I can honestly say I have never seen before, and all for the price of a ticket pretty much equal to the cheapest available at Portman Road to watch Town struggle to a goalless draw with Bolton Wanderers. The match ends with Neymar putting Cavani through on goal only for the Uruguayan to clip his chipped shot against the cross bar and with Neymar having a free-kick well saved by the diving figure of Mendy. I’m not sure I like PSG, in fact I know I don’t, they are just a French Manchester City or Chelsea, the sort of club that has ruined football for the majority of football supporters and destroyed real competition; this match marks the first occasion on which PSG have won all of their opening seven league fixtures. But despite the way in which the ‘big’ clubs like PSG have commodified football and tried to appropriate it and its best players all for themselves, the rough and untamed Ultras still exist and there is a bond between them and the players as evidenced at the end of the match as all the PSG players run to each end of the ground to commune with the fans and have a bit of a general love-in.

I cannot deny I have enjoyed seeing Neymar, Rabiot, Draxler, Di Maria, Cavani et al tonight, but those players would all still be as good if they all played for different clubs and the league would be more interesting for it. But heck , what am I going to do but write about it?

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