Ipswich Town 3 Oxford United 0

‘Boxing Day’, the first track on the second side of Elvis Costello’s 1984 album “Goodbye Cruel World”, albeit in brackets and with the letters TKO in front of it, but also the day after Christmas Day when it seems as if nearly everyone goes to football.  As I’ve got older, I’ve enjoyed Boxing Day football less and less.  There was a time when it would have been the opportunity to give a first airing to a new ITFC branded woolly hat or pair of gloves received as a gift the day before, but those days are gone and now I’d often rather sit at home and carry on revelling in my own Christmas crapulence.  It feels too much like hard work to brave an outside world devoid of public transport but clogged with Sunday drivers out visiting aunties and uncles or indulging in mass consumerism at the Boxing Day sales.

This year however, I don’t feel quite so miserable and lazy or drunk, perhaps because the football at Portman Road is likely to be more joyful, perhaps because today the sky is clear and blue.  It is with a spring in my step therefore that I leave my house, fire up the trusty Citroen C3 and head blithely into the two, or three-mile long tail-back on the A12.  Happily, the traffic does move, but only very slowly and not quickly enough for me to get to The Arbor House (aka The Arb’) to meet Mick at a quarter to two. “Such is life” I think to myself, which is pretty much what Mick says in reply to my text to give the bad news that I won’t make it for our Boxing Day pre-match pint, although his actual words are “…it goes like that sometimes”.  Mick is nothing if not philosophical, which I suspect is why we get on.  Having parked up the trusty Citroen, it’s a pleasant walk through Gippeswyk Park, beneath Ancaster Road bridge, along Ranelagh Road and over the Sir Bobby Robson bridge to the ground.  Although I don’t have time to get to the Arb, enjoy a leisurely drink with Mick, and walk back to Portman Road, I have nevertheless arrived long enough before kick-off to have time to kill, so I mooch about a bit taking in the big-match atmosphere of the Boxing Day game, watching people wearing novelty Christmas hats queue for burgers and then eat them perched on car park railings.  I buy a programme (£3.50) using coins of the realm.

Exhausted by my social anthropological research I head back into Constantine Road and turnstile 60, the portal to a world of football-based fun.  I thank the grimly smiling turnstile operator and head for the toilet, I might not have had that pre-match pint, but it’s a cold day.  Relieved, and with clean but still slightly wet hands because life is too short to wait for hand dryers to work fully, I hang about in the concourse beneath the stand.  Ever-present Phil who never misses a game finds me leant against a concrete stanchion, he says hello and asks if the pub wasn’t open.  I repeat some of the story in the above paragraphs, leaving out the bit about Elvis Costello.  Eventually, pining for sunlight I take the steps up onto the lower tier of the stand where to my displeasure I find I have arrived before Pat from Clacton, Fiona and the man from Stowmarket.  This arriving in the ground more than ten minutes before kick-off is very disconcerting and ever-present Phil detects as much in my uneasy demeanour. 

The good thing about time however, is that it moves on and it’s not long before the familiar faces are here and stadium announcer Stephen Foster is reading out the names of the two teams. I shout out the Town players’ surnames in the style of a French football crowd as Stephen announces them, and I hope my odd behaviour catches on; it makes a couple of people smile, possibly with embarrassment.   The ‘improved’ PA system then goes into overdrive with some very loud ‘music’ which I imagine is intended to whisk the crowd up into some sort of anticipatory frenzy but Pat and I just grimace and cover our ears, I think we’re too old for frenzy. “Why can’t we have some nice football music?” shouts Pat when the noise abates a little.  When Stephen Foster returns he tells us that we have again packed out Portman Road and, sounding a bit like Alan Partridge, that Boxing Day “… is always a special day in the football calendar”.

It’s been a long, beer-free wait, but finally the teams appear, and Town kick off in their correct kit of blue shirts and white shorts towards the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, whilst visiting Oxford United wear all white, perhaps in the hope that we’ll think they are Real Madrid rather than Newmarket Town who they might look like if they had worn their ‘proper’ kit of yellow shirts and blue shorts.  The pitch is completely in shadow now, but pale winter sunlight shines as if through a letterbox onto parts of the Cobbold Stand and casts a pinkie-whiteness on the girder over the roof of the Sir Bobby Robson stand.

As the match begins, the crowd is in good voice, so much so that at first I can’t hear if the away fans are singing too. The opening exchanges are indeed exchanges as possession swaps about.  “All the way, all the way” advises a voice from behind as Freddie Ladapo chases a through ball.  “Yellows, Yellows” chant the Newmarket Town supporters up in the Cobbold stand as the Oxford players demonstrate that for the time being at least they are the sharper team, and they even have a shot that misses the goal by not very much.  “All the way, All the way, Well done” I hear again from behind, where it seems that some bloke who can’t help but vocalise his internal dialogue is sitting.   

It’s the ninth minute and after the good start from the Town supporters the Oxford fans at last have the opportunity to sing “No noise from the Tractor Boys”.  Five minutes later and they are in their element singing “Football in a library, dur-dur-dur” which is precisely what you would expect from a team from the world’s foremost university city.  Ipswich win a corner as Oxford’s number five mis-directs a header intended for his goalkeeper and then proceeds to swing his arm and possibly klick his finger and thumb in the manner of a man saying “darn it”.  In the outfall from the corner kick an Oxford player stays down on the ground and the North Stand chant “Boring, Boring, Oxford” having clearly not forgotten the goalless draw that Oxford successfully played for at Portman Road last season.

Twenty minutes go by and then Oxford have the audacity to almost score again as a shot rattles the net from the outside, but making the Oxford supporters think their team has scored.  The usual jeering ensues prompting the Oxford fans to chant “We forgot that you were here”, although the evidence suggests they should be chanting “We forgot what a goal looks like”.  Either way, in the spirit of Christmas TV and Wallace and Gromit, which is appropriate for Boxing Day, it was a close shave.   The warning shot inspires a chant of “Blue and White Army” from the North Stand, but more annoyingly the bloke behind me with the vocalised internal dialogue starts giving tactical advice; “Switch it” he calls loud enough for only me to hear and not the players, and then “Get it down the channels”. He is getting on my nerves and I wonder if he’s trying to convince everyone around him that he is an out of work football coach, or is he just out to impress his son? I hope for the kid’s sake he is adopted and so hasn’t inherited the ‘berk’ gene.

A third of the game is nearly gone and Town have picked up and are dominating possession and winning corners.  “Come On You Blues” I chant and ever-present Phil joins in, so does the bloke in front who I think is called Kevin, and so does the out of work football coach who’s just trying to impress his son.  The stirring effect of our massed choir doesn’t work instantly, but Town soon win another corner and Freddie Ladapo and Leif Davis have headers saved, and Luke Woolfenden has a shot blocked. Town have momentum now and Conor Chaplin has a shot which the very solid and agricultural looking Oxford goalkeeper Ed McGinty cannot hold on to , the ball runs away from him and Freddie Ladapo boots it into the goal from close range. Town lead.

Hopefully, it will be one of those goals scored just before half time that sports commentators tell us are so important.  Perhaps feeling vindicated by the goal the bloke behind me gives up on tactical advice and switches to matey encouragement, “Come on chaps” he says and “On yer bike, On yer bike , Orrrrr”.  It works, successive corners follow and from the third, Wes Burns appears magically at the corner of the six-yard box and lashes the ball into the Oxford goal from an oblique angle. Town lead 2-0 and after five minutes of added on time that’s the half-time score.  The players leave the field to applause and referee Mr Finnie strides off, flanked by his assistants with the ball tucked neatly under his arm and looking a little bit camp.

I speak with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison.  Somewhat mysteriously Ray tells me he once went out with a girl who was probably in the same class at school as my sister, this would have been in in the early 1970’s and I can only think that Ray is planning a 50th anniversary celebration. At eight minutes past four the game resumes.

The berk behind me is back to coaching, “Channels, channels” he calls and Town win a couple of quick corners.  Oxford’s James Henry fouls Leif Davis and is booked by Mr Finnie who admirably stands still and beckons Henry towards him from perhaps ten metres away before brandishing his yellow card. Town are on top again and looking to add to their 2-0 lead, and the upbeat ambiance leads the berk behind me to add attempted humour to his arsenal. “Would you like ice cream with that scoop?” calls the berk as McGinty lifts a clearance up and into the stand. I roll my eyes and slap my forehead and hope that this is just this blokes one match of the season; his ticket a present perhaps from a long-suffering partner who is now luxuriating in his being out of the house for a couple of hours.

An hour has passed and Oxford indulge in a double substitution which includes replacement of the prosaically named Matt Taylor with the more exotically monikered Gatlin O’Donkur, if indeed that is his real name.  The crowd has become very quiet, all I can hear are conversations about people’s jobs, their families and what they did on Christmas day.  A song emerges from the silence at the North Stand end of the ground but then trails away as if the lyrics are half-forgotten.  “Second ball!” shouts the berk behind me.  Town are looking comfortable and clearly don’t need our support today, just a bit of coaching, so we just sit and watch and quietly appreciate.  The crowd is announced as 28,072 with 550 being Oxford supporters, but there is no ‘guess the crowd’ competition on the Clacton supporters bus today, because no bus ran and Pat came by car.

Time passes quickly.  Marcus Harness is replaced to much applause by the tricky Sone Aluko who will go on to perform a number of delightful tricks and flicks and turns perfectly gauged for a Boxing Day audience which craves TV Christmas Special-style entertainment.  Fittingly, with about ten minutes of normal time remaining Aluko supplies the pass for a third goal, the one that transforms the result from a win into a modest thrashing. The goal is a typical Conor Chaplin piece, one touch and then fired into the net. Today’s scoreline is now the same as that at my first ever Boxing Day fixture in 1972 when Town modestly thrashed Chelsea courtesy of Kevin Beattie and Trevor Whymark in the first half and a last minute John Hollins own goal.  “I don’t think we can lose now” says an ever-nervous Pat from Clacton, and I agree, although we both remember losing at Oxford  in 1986 when 3-0 up and Fiona chips in with our coming back from 3-0 down at Barnsley in 1996 with just five minutes to go.  Seems Christmas is a time for reminiscing. But today Town are just too good for Oxford.

With five minutes of time added on played, when the final whistle goes it is almost five o’clock. I would stay to applaud the players from the field, but the PA system suddenly fills the cold evening air with the sound of Status Quo “Rocking All Over the World”.  I might be wrong, but I imagine Stephen Foster is to blame.   A man has got to draw the line somewhere and as far as Status Quo are concerned I drew it around Boxing Day 1972,  a short while after the release of their album Piledriver, I therefore hurry back to my trusty Citroen leaving my team to enjoy the applause of others.

Despite its problems,  brought on by traffic delays and a lack of time spent in the pub, today has worked out just fine in the end and I am sure that come May we shall be saying the very same thing with regard to Town’s season. Up The Town!

Ipswich Town 0 Newport County 1

The first and second rounds of the Football League Cup are always an early season treat, a chance to play an interesting ‘lower league’ club and maybe visit a ground never visited before, in fact that was almost guaranteed back in the days of two-legged ties.  Added to that, summer isn’t over (if it has ever started) and a hot and sticky road trip precedes a balmy evening of lengthening shadows beneath a maturing, setting sun. Early season evening games are blissful, beautiful occasions and I fondly remember visits to Torquay, Exeter, Scunthorpe, Darlington, Brentford, Stockport, Bolton and Wigan.   Sadly, Ipswich Town are now one of those lower league teams, and a decade or more of abject failure has transformed cup ties from nights of wonder and joy into painful experiences to be endured like a trip to the dentist or having your car MoT’d.

Tonight, our opponents are ‘little Newport County’, a phoenix club resurrected from the one that went bust in 1988, following relegation from the fourth division.  I recall seeing the original County play out a magnificently awful goalless draw at Layer Road, Colchester in that fabulously terrible relegation season, but I also recall their glorious 2-3 European Cup Winners Cup quarter final defeat to Carl Zeiss Jena at the same time as Town were cruising past St Etienne on our way to winning the UEFA Cup.  Again, like on Saturday when Morecambe played their first ever third division game at Portman Road sixty years after Town played our first ever top division game, it is somehow fitting that Newport and Town should meet forty years after both clubs’ finest moments in European competition. I visited Newport’s old Somerton Park ground back in 1988 and could only think how their opponents from the German Democratic Republic must have been glad to get back behind the ’iron curtain’, doubtless with renewed faith that Communism was far superior to Capitalism and produced much better football stadiums, which of course it is and did, if you do it right.  Communism is a bit like sex, a great idea but best only conducted between consenting adults.

Shamefully arriving by car and not public transport because of continuing Covid induced paranoia, I park-up in West End Road car park at a little after 7 pm; the tariff is £1.00 until 8.00pm, after which it is free.  Stepping from my trusty, air-conditioned Citroen C3 the warmth of the evening air hits me unexpectedly and stirs pleasant memories of going to night matches in more exotic locations such as Beziers, Nice, Marseille and Montpellier whilst on holiday in the south of France.  Musing that the stadium catering at Portman Road probably doesn’t serve espresso coffee or cheese and ham baguettes, I stroll to the ground where there are queues at the guichets (look it up). I buy a programme (£2.50) from a booth in which the gently smiling young female programme seller seems rather heavily made-up for the occasion, but then it’s nice that she’s made the effort.  Drinking in the pre-match ambience I pass by the back of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and enter Portman Road, which is strangely quiet.  I realise later that this is because the only people occupying the Cobbold Stand tonight are the 131 from Newport, many of whom will have travelled on the six-wheeled charabanc of Watt’s Coaches, which idles by the Portman Road bus stop; I ask one of the drivers how long the journey took; “Five and a half hours” he tells me stretching out his vowel sounds with his rich, lilting and somewhat tired sounding South Walean accent, which oozes Rarebit and Eisteddfods.

Returning to Sir Alf Ramsey Way the queues for turnstiles 43 to 47 are lengthening and beginning to snake, so I head for turnstile 49 where there’s hardly anyone ahead of me at all.  Inside the ground a line of Heras fencing separates the fanzone from those of us who have passed through the turnstiles. The back of the stand is a noisy place as a disco inside a shipping container seems to be operating from a corner of the fanzone, predictably no one is dancing, and I wonder what the point of it is.   Fearing that my hearing is being damaged I head for my seat which tonight is in Block H, so lettered I will discover because at the end of the match it’s difficult to get out of, like the prisoner cell block.

As I stand and flick through my programme, kick-off comes ever closer and the PA system which successfully scrambles any spoken word delivers a medley of tunes associated with the Town.  I enjoy the anthemic Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown from the 1970’s, but cringe at the dire Singin’ the Blues of the George Burley era, which sounds as if it is performed by Vic Reeves and Suzi Quattro, and the surreal and corny Sweet Caroline.  My only pleasure is from a childish giggle provoked by the name of a Newport substitute, Evan Ovendale. 

Finally, my torture by music is ended when the teams come onto the pitch, and I’m pleased to report are warmly applauded as they ‘take the knee’.  The match kicks off; Newport pointing in the direction of the Sir Bobby Robson stand in their traditional amber shirts and black shorts and getting first go with the ball.  Barely two minutes pass and an Armando Dobra shot strikes Newport’s right hand goal post. Within a further two minutes Newport lead.  One of Town’s many debutants, Sone Aluko needlessly concedes a free kick, from which a low cross is diverted into the net via the heel of Timmy Abraham, who rather wonderfully sounds like he should be, and indeed he is, the little brother of the Chelsea player, Tammy Abraham.

At least we probably still have 90 minutes to score a couple of goals of our own. But inevitably, given Town’s recent record in cup competitions, I have a nagging sensation that some writing is already being daubed on a wall somewhere.  Meanwhile, Armando Dobra has a shot saved and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads over the Newport cross bar.   When Newport are awarded the game’s first corner, the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you” to the taker, displaying a boastfulness of their own ignorance that is fitting in a town that voted for Brexit.

Town may be losing, but the game is nevertheless an entertaining one and despite the mostly empty stands the spectacle is enhanced by the fading daylight. With 21 minutes gone Sone Aluko claims the glory as the first player to be booked by the strangely competent referee Mr Neil Hair, or Herr Hair as he would be known if this were the Bundesliga.  Quite suddenly at about ten past eight I notice that all sunlight has gone and the ground is totally in the shade of whatever the Pioneer stand is now called.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne strikes the outside of Newport’s left-hand post with a shot and some childish banter ensues between him and the Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend, with Bonne clutching his stomach to indicate that that Townsend is not merely big-boned; you can take the boy out of Chantry High School but you can’t …etcetera.

Five minutes of the half remain, and Town produce a delightful passing move, sending the ball from Luke Woolfenden to Idris El-Mizouni (whose father incidentally drank a post-match coffee with me when AS Meudon played St Ouen L’Aumone in the Coupe de France in 2018) to Sone Aluko to Armando Dobra, whose cross is headed over by the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  There is still time for Newport’s short and dumpy, but wonderfully named and impressively numbered (he’s No 56) Aneurin Livermore to be booked, for Idris El-Mizouni to have a free kick saved, and for him to provide a deliciously whipped-in cross for the oddly named Macauley Bonne to head over the bar yet again.

Half-time brings relief from the claustrophobia of the oldest part of the stadium, as those around me leave to get refreshment; people genuinely were smaller in the 1950’s when the old West Stand was built, possibly because there was no stadium catering back then.  Tonight, I am seemingly surrounded by youths in their late teens and early twenties who are all about 2metres tall.  Two of them return with trays of chips and the game begins again.

My seat is closer to “Churchman’s” than the Bobby Robson Stand and perhaps that’s why I notice for the first time this evening that Tomas Holy is a vision in cerise, he’s quite a sight.  Five minutes pass and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a looping cross into the goal, the giants all around me stand as one, but I had already spotted the offside flag.  “You fat bastard” chant the North Standers, presumably at goalkeeper Townsend and not to the oddly named Macauley Bonne.

Tonight’s attendance of 6,154 is announced and a good proportion of that number applaud themselves like performing seals do after catching a fish thrown at them from a bucket.  Town’s Scott Fraser replaces Sone Aluko who looks like he knows he’s had a poor game.  “He’s weird in ‘e? He’s got funny little legs in ’e?” I hear a voice behind me say.  I think the voice is talking about Newport’s left-back Aaron Lewis, who indeed does have funny little legs; he also has hair like Grayson Perry; he’s not a bad footballer mind, and I like to think he might also be able to knock up some decent ceramics or tapestries.

Over an hour of the match has passed and a fine shot from Armando Dobra brings an equally fine flying save from the fat bastard in the Newport goal; James Norwood and Kayden Jackson replace Louie Barry and the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Newport mount a rare attack down the right and Town’s Corrie Ndaba, whose first name reminds me of the episode in series nine of The Simpsons in which Lisa becomes addicted to ringing the ‘Corey hotline’, spectacularly and miraculously slices the ball into the arms of Tomas Holy who is stood behind him.

With the match in the final twenty minutes Newport players twice clear the ball off their own goal line in the space of a few seconds and James Norwood heads a decent cross from Bailey Clements over the bar in a manner which I had thought was the preserve of the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Just a short while later Norwood begins to limp and then leaves the field of play to be replaced by no one at all because we’ve used all our substitutes.  The bloke next to me doesn’t notice for a further few minutes that we are down to ten men and when he does, he thinks we’ve had someone sent off; “What happened?” he asks; and I thought I was guilty of not paying attention.

Newport’s shaven headed forty-two-year-old, Kevin Ellison is substituted and hobbles off, clearly attempting to eke out the remaining time in a way which doesn’t involve football being played. “Get off you old git” I bawl at him despite being almost twenty years his senior. I’m not sure what came over me, although these West Standers seem rather dull and need livening up.  Unfortunately, Ellison and his team win the day with their time-wasting ways and despite five minutes of added on time Ipswich fail to score, and so once again leave the League Cup at the earliest opportunity, leaving Newport County and the likes of Forest Green Rovers, Barrow and Oldham Athletic to seek the sort of glory we can only dream of.

Despite the result it’s been an enjoyable match, with some fine performances from young players, particularly Bailey Clements, Idris El-Mizouni and Cameron Humphreys. As I stand helplessly waiting to get out of the slowly clearing stand, I applaud Newport and their intrepid supporters and reassure myself by believing that although the score reads as another Cup defeat I have simply witnessed the birth pangs of a Grand Projet that will one day see us reach the next round.

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 0 Hull City 2


As I prepare to leave my house and head for Portman Road my wife Paulene is watching Aussie Rules footie on her lap-top, Geelong Cats are playing The Demons and whilst we don’t know it yet, the Cats will win by a massive eighty point margin.  “Oh, are you going already” she says and I kiss her goodbye.  Spring is here.  It is the last weekend in March and as walk to the railway station the sky is a clear blue, it is sunny and verging on warm.  A black cat looks down at me from a tree; I guess that it has climbed up there to avoid running across my path and bringing me good luck.   Spicy smells waft from the local Indian restaurant; a man on the station platform is wearing sunglasses and shorts, which seems optimistic or foolish, perhaps both.  The train is on time and busy with passengers, heads bowed in the thrall of their mobile phones.  At Colchester a man in a Chelsea beanie hat picks his nose enthusiastically, gouging away at his left nostril with his index finger.  A young woman opposite me wears leopard print sneakers.  “Hold on Scarlett” says a big-chested woman to her young daughter as they pick their way between the seats and the train pulls away; she staggers a little and almost topples over “Whoops”.  Sheep graze on the meadows near Manningtree and a haze hangs over the river, blotting out all sight of Felixstowe.

I’m first off the train at Ipswich and away over the bridge and up Princes Street.  I look over the bridge parapet and in the beer garden of the Station Hotel a group of Hull City supporters all clad in black look like Goths, I photograph them and they wave; I wave back.  In Portman Road I waste three pounds on a match day programme because somehow it wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t.  I later regret my decision but am no doubt destined to repeat the mistake.  There is a sense of sluggish anticipation outside the stadium as people wait for the turnstiles to open; some queue to collect tickets, others stand and munch on fatty fast food lunches.  At St Jude’s Tavern the usual blokes in their sixties and seventies are drinking the usual beer. The Match Day Special is once again St Jude’s Goblin’s Piss (£2.50).  I provoke a certain amount of jealousy because my pint has a head on it whilst everyone else’s looks flat. In truth the beer is cloudy and yellow and I now realise how it got its name. What it has to do with Goblins I don’t know, but I guess they couldn’t just call it Piss, although oddly I did once hear the lead singer of Brighton’s finest  late 1970’s pub band The Piranhas (Boring Bob Grover)  ask for a ‘pint of piss’ at a Student’s Union bar. The conversation is of French cricket teams, what a strange and wonderful country Belgium is, Belgian beer and football.  I have a second pint of the Match Day Special and at about twenty to three depart for Portman Road.

The sun is still shining and walking down the hill towards the ground the huge, beaming face of Bobby Robson above the club shop seems to be peaking around the corner, as if he’s trying not to be seen.  I pick my way through the crowds past queues into the increasingly shabby looking Cobbold Stand with its peeling blue paint.

I enter the ground through turnstile number seven where there is no queue, smiling broadly as I cheerily thank its moustachioed operator. After a visit to the gents I take up my usual place near Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood.  Pat tells me about how she spent the week before last at the Burlington Palm Hotel in Great Yarmouth, playing whist in the afternoons and evenings but seeing the sites, including Burgh Castle and the seals of Horsey Beach in the mornings; she tells me she enjoyed it a lot more than coming here.

The game begins with Town aiming for but not hitting the goal just to the right of me, Pat, Phil and Elwood.  Town get first go with the ball. Today’s opponents Hull City, known as the Tigers wear their traditional kit of amber and black striped shirts with black shorts and amber and black socks.  In the opening minutes Town look keen and push forward; “Paul Lambert is a Blue, He hates Norwich” sing the North Stand touchingly raiding their collective childhood memory of nursery rhyme tunes and re-purposing “London Bridge is falling down.”  It’s ‘early doors’(!) but Ipswich are on top and the North Stand are getting carried away with it all, goading the 485 visiting Hullensians with a chorus of “You’re support is fucking shit” which seems a bit rich.  It disappoints me; good humour and humility are called for when supporting a team as bad as Ipswich Town is currently.

Inevitably Hull’s revenge is swift and three minutes later the Ipswich Town defence clear off to that place that they go at least once every match, where no one can see them, but they leave the ball with  Hull City who score; a nicely placed shot by Kamil Grosicki formerly of Rennes, who like a true artist makes full use of the space offered by an open goal.  “How shit must you be, we’re winning away” is the questioning and not unreasonable retort from the Humberside 485, although in fact they have already won as many as four away games this season. But the answer to their question has to be “very”.

Four minutes later and Jon Nolan who is the subject of the “One to One” feature in the programme and has his name on the cover, retires hurt. Nolan is replaced by ‘the boy’ Dozzell.   With Hull leading, Ipswich fade a little; they still have lots of the ball but don’t do much with it that might result in  a goal. “It’s all nice knocking it about, but….” shouts an exasperated voice from the stand not needing to finish his sentence to convey what he means.  The Ipswich defence evaporates again and Hull nearly score a second goal and at half-past three  Myles Kenlock has a shot which sweeps above the cross-bar and the brief spurt of excitement inspires an unexpected burst of support “Come On Ipswich! Come On Ipswich! Come On Ipswich!” sing what seems like several people all at once.

A large, bright, luminous presence appears to my right hand side; it is a hi-vis coat and inside is a steward who after listening to his ear piece proceeds to ask me if I am in possession of a camera.  Thinking naively that he just wants to talk about photography, I rather proudly tell him I am; well, it’s quite a good one and wasn’t that cheap.  He asks me not to take any more pictures.  I think it’s rather unfair to single me out when virtually everyone in the crowd is carrying a mobile phone and many of them are being used to take pictures and videos.  I tell the steward so and he says “Yes, it is a bit of a grey area”.  Football Association Ground regulations state that photos or videos captured on mobile phones must not be published or shown on social media sites.  Yeah, right.  It reminds me a little of the first and second rules of Fight Club.

1 Notwithstanding possession of any ticket the Club, any police officer or authorised steward may refuse entry to (or eject from) the Ground any person:

1.1 that fails (or in the Club’s reasonable opinion is likely to fail) to comply with these Ground Regulations or any reasonable instruction issued by a police officer or authorised steward; and/or

1.2 whose presence within the Ground is, or could (in the Club’s reasonable opinion), constitute a source of danger, nuisance or annoyance to any other person

16 Mobile telephones and other mobile devices are permitted within the Ground PROVIDED THAT (i) they are used for personal and private use only (which, for the avoidance of doubt and by way of example only, shall not include the capturing, logging, recording, transmitting, playing, issuing, showing, or any other communicationof any Material for any commercial purposes); and (ii) no Material that is captured, logged, recorded, transmitted, played, issued, shown or otherwise communicatedby a mobile telephone or other mobiledevice may be published or otherwise made available to any third parties including, without limitation, via social networking sites.

19 Save as set out in paragraph 16 above, no person (other than a person who holds an appropriate licence) may capture, log, record, transmit, play, issue, show or otherwise communicate(by digital or other means) any Material in relation to the Match, any players or other persons present in the Ground and/or the Ground, nor may they bring into the Ground or use within the Ground (or provide to, facilitate or otherwise assist another person to use within the Ground) any equipment or technology which is capable of capturing, logging, recording, transmitting, playing, issuing, showing or otherwise communicating (by digital or other means) any such Material. Copyright, database rights and any other intellectual property rights in any unauthorised recording or transmission is assigned (by way of present assignment of future rights) to the Club and the EFL. You further agree (if and whenever required to do so by the Club and/or the EFL) to promptly execute all instruments and do all things necessary to vest the right, title and interest in such rights to the Club and the EFL absolutely and with full title guarantee.

Peeved and wanting to begin a revolution I stand up, face the crowd behind me and  try and encourage everyone to get out their mobile phones and take pictures, predictably I fail, but it strikes me as funny how cow-eyed and mindless everyone looks.

Town have a couple of shots cleared off the line in the closing minutes of the half but so what. Half-time arrives and I vent some more Goblin’s Piss, look at the half-time scores and have a chat with Ray who today is here with his wife Ros as well as grandson Harrison.  This is Ros’s third game this season; she doesn’t seem to be enjoying it that much, nor am I anymore.

The second half is much like the first but probably less exciting.  Hull score almost immediately as Jarrod Bowen makes a speedy, jinking run from the middle of the Hull half, all the way down Town’s left flank and then passes to Kamil Grosnicki who hits a precise shot off the far post and into the net.  It’s a good goal but most teams would have got close enough to Bowen to knock him over before he got to the penalty area.

After that the Tigers seem largely happy to let Ipswich rain in a series of inaccurate crosses and mis-place their passes whilst they wait to run away down the wings again when they get the chance.  Referee Mr John Brooks shares his name with my grandfather, but disgraces it with a series of unwelcome decisions.  Had the late John Henry Brooks been in charge I am sure Ipswich would have won, not because he was an Ipswich supporter, he grew up in rural Oxfordshire, but because he would have had a bet on the game beforehand and would have backed the team with the longest odds.

Pat shows me some of the pictures she took of the seals on Horsey Beach; it’s a second half highlight.  With an hour played the large and angular German, Collin Quaner replaces nippy Kayden Jackson, who has played quite well considering the standard of the overall team performance.  Paul Lambert urges his team on, prowling the ‘technical area’ in his Marks and Spencer v-neck jumper whilst Hull’s manager is less animated and wears a jacket and tie and looks a trifle staid.  On seventy four minutes eighteen year old French-Tunisian Idris El Mizouni from Meudon just outside Paris makes his first appearance at Portman Road.  As I tell Pat, I met Idris’s dad in Meudon last September when I saw Meudon play St Ouen in an early round of the French Cup.  I very much hope Idris does well, we need more foreign players, they’re better than the British ones, they tend to be able to control the ball and pass to their own team mates.

There are moments where Town ‘come close’ but never close enough.  The old boy behind me isn’t happy “ We pay good money to see this” he says .  It’s Hull that come closest to another goal in time added on as a Marc Pugh shot curls against a post. With the game in its final minutes the crowd show a bit of life with some rhythmic clapping and a few supportive chants from the North Stand, which is unusual after a not very-good performance. Nevertheless, such support is a good thing even if the team could perhaps have done with it earlier in the game, rather than as a show of sympathy at the end.  The final whistle is greeted with a bit of a love-in at the North Stand end of the ground despite abject defeat and the fact that Paul Lambert’s record as manager is now worse than Paul Hurst’s.   Relegation is as good as certain but a lot of supporters remain simply satisfied that Mick McCarthy is no longer manager, or that’s what they’re saying.

On the train home I speak with three Hull supporters who are saddened that Ipswich should be going down and surprised that we have never played in the national third tier.   They add that they know from experience that third division football is bloody awful, we should do well.

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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