Ipswich Town 1 Crewe Alexandra 0

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

What are you gonna do

Crewe

when we beat ya four-two

Crewe

We’d rather watch Scooby-Doo

Crewe

Than watch you

 Crewe

It explains why your supporters are so few

Crewe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bristol Rovers 0 Ipswich Town 2

The infection rate for Covid-19 is on the rise again and I am staying home, even though it’s Saturday and the prospect of either AFC Sudbury v Coggeshall Town in the Isthmian League or Ipswich Wanderers v Brantham Athletic in the qualifying round of the FA Vase is deeply enticing.  But my wife Paulene is in the extremely vulnerable category due to chronic asthma and given many people’s apparent inability to comprehend social distancing or the wearing of a mask I’m not taking any chances.  

After six months I have got used to this and my reality now is that football is a game witnessed on the television or followed on the radio, which sadly means non-league games are just results and all the footballers I get to watch are overpaid professionals.  But I can still follow the mighty Ipswich Town home and away, and because I would resent being charged ten quid for watching an hour and a half’s telly, I shall be listening to today’s match on the wireless, as I like to call it.

Today the ritual of the pre-match pint is partly a reward for a morning of productive pottering in the garden, although it’s actually a pre-match 440 millilitres in the form of a can of Adnams Ghostship (four for £5.25 from Waitrose). It’s such a beautiful afternoon that I decide to take advantage of the weather and listen to the game outside whilst bathed in soft September sunlight. Tuning into Radio Suffolk doesn’t prove as easy as I had expected and by the time I have made fine adjustments to the dial and the physical position of the radio itself in order to shut out brash, ill-mannered Radio Essex and its impending commentary on Colchester United v Bolton Wanderers, the game is about to begin.  I feel like I am twelve years old again, trying to find Radio Caroline and Radio North Sea International on my tiny Vesta V70 transistor radio (about £2 from Woolworth’s) in the early 1970’s.

As ever, Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley is the man (it’s never been a woman) to relay his commentary to an eager county of football fans.  But by way of a change Brenner is assisted today, not by the regular, dependable, steady Mick Mills, but by one of Town’s few 21st century heroes, Marcus Stewart, a man almost as famous for his goals as his gloves, a replica pair of which I am proud to still own, despite their being pretty much unwearable.  I first take notice of the commentary as an early Gwion Edwards header is easily saved by Bristol Rovers’ Finnish ‘keeper Anssi Jaakola. “What about that chance Marcus?” asks Brenner; he receives no response, it’s as if Marcus just isn’t listening or has drifted off into a world of his own; perhaps he’s bored already.  “He should have done better shouldn’t he, Marcus?” adds Brenner sounding a tiny bit anxious.  Fortunately for Brenner, Marcus returns from wherever he’s been and gives some answer or other; I have drifted off a bit myself now and am listening to the chimes of a passing ice cream van, “Boys and girls come out to play” is the jangly, distorted tune that the loudspeakers are blaring out.  I love ice cream van chimes, they make me think of Ray Bradbury’s novel “Something wicked this way comes”.

In the absence of any decent football to commentate on, Brenner tells us that the Town have had to change for the match today in the supporters’ club bar, which is something that would have been far too risky to have allowed back in the seventies or eighties if the reputations of some former players are to be believed.  Brenner continues by commenting on Paul Lambert having adopted what he calls a “Tony Pulis look”, by which he means his blue baseball cap, not a sour facial expression, although he can do that as well.

Some football happens and Brenner describes the player with the ball as “running into traffic”, which sounds a little bizarre and suggests Bristol Rovers need a new stadium more than most.  It’s now just after half past three and there is a drinks break which sounds as exciting as the game.  With everyone refreshed nothing seems to improve however, but Marcus raises his game making reference to “big Devon White”, the towering centre forward who scored twice for Bristol Rovers in a 3-3 draw with Town back in August 1991.  On his debut, Marcus scored the other goal for Rovers in that match, but seems reassuringly modest about his career, allowing the modern players credit and telling us how difficult many skills are to perfect, and it sounds like the two teams are demonstrating the proof of that today.

Half-time looms and Marcus tells us that “Both teams are not fluid”.  “They’re not, are they” says Brenner as if he really means “No, they’re crap aren’t they”.

I use the half-time break to talk to my wife Paulene who is watching the Tour de France on the telly in the kitchen, it beats flitting down the steps to the gents underneath the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and staring up at the half-time scores on the screens in the under croft of the stand.  The respite from the game is all too brief and I’m soon sat at the garden table once again and Brenner reveals that Thomas Holy is “off to our right”.  In the first half I had drawn a little sketch plan of the pitch which I tried to use to keep track of where the ball was, but my plan was scuppered because I realised I didn’t know towards which end Town were kicking.  Interestingly, (perhaps) the very first BBC radio commentary for a match (Arsenal v Sheffield United in Division One on 22nd January 1927) used a system whereby the pitch was divided up into eight squares and the commentator Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam described the game whilst a co-commentator said which square the ball was in; a diagram showing the football pitch divided up into squares was printed in that week’s Radio Times.  I think Mick Mills has the perfect delivery for telling us what square the ball is in.

It’s five minutes past four and Brenner carefully describes the two teams’ kits as the second half gets underway; it’s a job well done and all Ipswich Town nerds will quickly realise that the red and blue ‘third kit’ has now been used three seasons running.  Nine minutes later and Brenner is perhaps more excited than he should be as he reveals that Norwood should have scored, although it would have been disallowed.  Marcus by contrast remains calm, I can only think he spotted the offside flag before Brenner.

Town seem to be on top now and at four- twenty two Brenner’s voice suddenly becomes louder and his words get closer together. “Edwards with a great chance!” he says, followed by silence.  I guess that he didn’t score.  Freddie Sears is replaced by Jack Lankester and a procession of Town players’ names follows over the airwaves as they take it in turns to get caught offside.

Time has moved on to half-past four and Brenner’s voice rises again in pitch and in volume. Nolan has a shot we are told and for a moment I think it’s a goal, it sounded like it must be, but no, it’s a corner.  A minute later and “Edwards goes round the goalkeeper!”, again I think we’ve scored, but no, it’s blocked on the line and Paulene sits down next to me to eat some crisps and Parma ham because she hasn’t eaten any lunch. 

Time is moving on apace; this is a good half for Town and Brenner’s voice is up and down in tempo and volume as he tries to convey what would be the waves of excitement if there was a crowd watching this game. It’s nearly twenty to five and Gwion Edwards shoots for goal again and then a minute later there’s a cross from Jack Lankester; a moment’s doubt from Brenner “It might be an own goal?” and indeed it transpires that Rovers’ German centre-half Max Ehmer has scored in his own team’s net, which is nice.   Marcus Stewart immediately starts a philosophical argument in my mind as he relates that the goal had been coming for the past twenty minutes.  I muse that had he been watching the game or listening on the wireless like me, the sixteenth century French theologian John Calvin might well have argued that it had been coming since the dawn of time, with all our fates being pre-ordained by God.  It’s not something Marcus picks up on and Brenner merely adds that after some earlier ‘last ditch defending’ from Bristol Rovers, this time it’s a goal.

There’s an interlude of sorts as Marcus Stewart expounds a theory that Jack Lankester should be awarded the goal if his cross was heading into the goal before Ehmer headed it; it’s not a wholly unreasonable proposition except that no one suggested Lankester’s cross was going towards the goal and the whole incident implies that once again Marcus may not have been paying full attention.  It’s a quarter to five and thirty years ago the game would have been over by now, but today there’s still time for the boy Dozzell to elicit the words “Lovely ball”  from the mouth of Brenner, and for Town substitute Ollie Hawkins to miss the goal, before quite suddenly I hear “ Here come Town;  Nolan, shoots, and finds the corner of the net”.  It sounds like it’s 2-0 to Town.  Brenner sounds less excited than he did when all those shots went wide earlier in the game, but eventually confirms that Town have “…strung together back to back victories”.

The referee Mr Hicks who thankfully has barely featured in Brenner and Marcus’s commentary calls time and the game is over.  I quickly turn off the radio to avoid being subjected to the stupidity of the post-match phone-in.  I have enjoyed my afternoon in my back garden in the sunshine and feel a curious ‘simpatico’ with my dead father, who would listen to cricket test matches on the radio on similar sunny afternoons.  Thinking back over the past hour and fifty minutes or so of radio commentary I have been consumed by the thoughts and descriptions from Brenner Woolley and Marcus Stewart, my one reservation being the illogical and groundless worry that every time Brenner Woolley said the name Marcus he was addressing Marcus Evans.

Coupe de France on Telly 5 Going to a Live Match 0

The world of football has stopped spinning on its axis, leather no longer strikes leather or skin or wood or nylon netting, whistles no longer blow, crowds no longer chant, turnstiles no longer click, the stink of frying onions no longer pervades the streets, people no longer gawp at the blacked-out windows of team buses, floodlights no longer shine, nobody leaps like a salmon, referees no longer brandish yellow cards, sniffer dogs no longer sniff for non-existent pyrotechnics, over-zealous stewards no longer hassle carefree supporters,  pre-match pints are no longer downed, blades of football pitch grass remain spittle free and no one listens to the results on their car radio.  Saturday has died, along with the occasional Tuesday and Wednesday evening.

Having spent most of this season experiencing dead Saturdays, unable to go to football because of illness and my subsequent convalescence, it’s somewhat odd that now no one can go to football because of the Covid-19.  Social media is awash with reminiscences of past games and goals as bewildered football fans search for something to fill the void in their lives.  I have few memories of this season to look back on having only seen eight games, but I may be fortunate that at least I have plenty of recent experience of coping without going to a match.  When Ipswich travelled to Tranmere Rovers for example, I could not go and so sought solace in my living room. I now find myself reminiscing about that January day when I watched live football on TV, cue eerie sounds and a wavy effect in your mind’s eye.

After a frosty start to the 18th of January the sun has risen as high as it will get in the clear pale blue sky. It’s beautiful, but it’s cold.  It is Saturday. Football. Ipswich Town are away in Birkenhead; I haven’t gone, I can’t, but according to the ‘little book’ that I keep I have been to Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers, nine times before, the last time being a 2-0 win in March 2000. I’ve paid my dues, I’ve done my time; I’m staying home unless I go to a local game. Coggeshall Town and Stanway Rovers and Colchester United are my nearest clubs and they are all at home.  I won’t be going to Colchester as a protest at the withdrawal of the shuttle bus to the ground, the only thing that made the far out of town location at Cuckoo Farm in any way viable; we should be cutting carbon emissions to save the planet after all and I bet Greta Thunberg isn’t a Col U fan.  I find it hard to get enthused about bank-rolled teams such as Coggeshall Town, and Stanway Rovers has never managed to capture my imagination, probably because of its hyper-boring suburban location; all net curtains and open-plan living.

Ideally, even in preference to Birkenhead, I would be in France, where today is the round of the last thirty-two teams in the Coupe de France, the French equivalent of the FA Cup.  Three Coupe de France games kick off at noon English time, which after 11.30 is normally my least favourite time for a football match to start; all games should of course start at either 3 o’clock or at some time between 7.30 pm and 8.00 pm.  The three 12 o’clock games are Nice v Red Star, Prix-les Mézières v Limonest and Epinal v Saint Pierroise, and after a bit of interrogation of the ‘interweb’ I discover that all three games are live on ‘Jour de Coupe’ (Cup Day) on the French speaking Eurosport 2 channel, which is available to watch on the roast beef-eating side of the English Channel through the magic of the Amazon Firestick.   At 2 o’clock English time a further two games kick off with Gonfreville playing LOSC Lille and Belfort playing AS Nancy Lorraine.

The programme is presented by the personable Gaëlle Millon who certainly earns her money on Coupe de France weekends as she presents the matches at lunchtime, in the afternoon and on into the early evening with a 5 o’clock kick-off and then the later evening match at 8 o’clock.  It doesn’t stop on Saturday evening for notre Gaëlle either, as on Sunday she will then present the afternoon games and an evening match and then possibly another evening game on Monday too.  Gaëlle is perched on a high chair or stool behind a small desk in a studio which is probably in the headquarters of Eurosport in the Paris suburb if Issy-les-Moulineaux, which incidentally is only a fifteen minute walk from Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint Germain.

I miss the starts of the games because I am making a cup of tea, but no one has scored so I am not overly bothered.  The coverage is of the ‘Multiplex’ variety so all three games are being covered and the broadcast flits between them according to where it seems most likely something interesting is going to happen. But in reality the coverage concentrates, to begin with at least, on OGC Nice v Red Star because on aggregate these two clubs have the best cup records of those playing today, Red Star with five wins and Nice with three, although Nice haven’t won the Cup since 1997 and Red Star not since 1942.  Nice, managed by Patrick Vieira dominate the game, but I am pleased and then foolishly optimistic when Red Star hold out for ten, fifteen, twenty, and then twenty-five minutes.  In the twenty-seventh minute however, Danilo scores for Nice and with indecent haste Ignatius Gonago scores a second, a mere two minutes later.  After that second goal the result is a foregone conclusion; despite doing well in Ligue National, the French third division, Red Star are something of a Gallic Ipswich Town and rarely manage to score more than one goal a game.

I lose interest in the Nice game as a result of that second goal and begin to only pay attention to the TV when the Multiplex coverage switches to the games at Stade de la Poterie in Prix-les Mézières and Stade de La Colombiere in Epinal.  The game at Prix-les Mézières is between two clubs in the fifth tier of French football, the National 3.  Prix-les Mézières is effectively a suburb of Charleville Mézières the principal town in the Ardennes département which borders Belgium and is about 330 kilometres and a three hour drive from Calais.  Epinal is further south and east and is the principal town in the Vosges département. Epinal football club is in the fourth tier of the French leagues (National 2), whilst their opponents are in the first level of the Regional leagues which is the sixth tier.

Sadly the coverage rarely switches to the ‘lesser’ two games. I miss the Epinal goal which wins the match and Limonest concede the only goal of the match at Prix-les Mézières after fifty two minutes.  The Stade de la Poterie and Stade de la Colombiere are typical of French grounds outside the elite of most Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 stadia, which are the only venues to host fully professional football. The grounds or Stades are owned by the local authorities and whilst they all have a decent main stand or ‘tribune,’ the other three sides of the ground often have no cover at all and sometimes no terrace.  Poterie and Colombiere possess some of the charm of the English non-league, with spectators stood on grassy banks, a terrace of houses forming a cosy back drop, and traffic passing by with panoramas of streets and landscapes beyond. With more to see than just football, TV coverage from non-league is so much more interesting to watch because if the football is rubbish at least there is still something to see.

In the 92nd minute of the game in Nice Yanis Hamache scores for Red Star and for ninety seconds or so I hope against hope for another Red Star goal, extra time and the lottery of penalties.  But hope is all I get and Nice win the day, although Yanis Hamache gets a second moment of glory as he is interviewed on TV; the money he spent on a weird haircut wasn’t wasted.   On Twitter @RedStarFC tweet “Focus desormais sur le championnat,” which is pretty much French for “now we can concentrate on the League.” 

After a brief return to Gaëlle in the studio in suburban Paris, coverage of the three noon kick-offs quickly switches to the two ties which are beginning at two o’clock in Belfort and Le Havre.  The Belfort game sees ASM Belfort of National 2 play AS Nancy Lorraine of Ligue 2, whilst in Le Havre, ESM Gonfreville also of National 2 play LOSC Lille, runners-up in Ligue 1 in the 2018-19 season.   Whilst Belfort’s stadium, the Stade Serzian is another typical French municipal stadium with a single cantilever stand on one side, a running track and views of suburbia all around, Gonfreville, which is effectively an industrial suburb of Le Havre, are borrowing the modern and totally enclosed Stade Océane, the home of Ligue 2 Havre AC.  Stade Océane, which looks as much like a giant, bright blue rubber dinghy as a football stadium, has made recent successful TV appearances in the Women’s World Cup and today the attendance is bigger than Le Havre usually sees for its Ligue 2 matches. The magic of the cup clearly translates into French.

Most of the coverage of the latter two games centres on Le Havre, but it is in Belfort where the action begins and continues as after just seven minutes the wonderfully named Enzo Grasso puts Belfort ahead.  Disappointingly for the romance of the Cup, which pretty much means ‘giant-killing’, Nancy’s Malaly Dembele equalises a bit less than twenty minutes later.   Sadly, I miss the goal, partly because I had become distracted by my mobile phone and partly because the live coverage at the time of the goal was in Le Havre so there was no over-excited commentator to alert me to it by bawling “ Quel but!” (What a goal!). Meanwhile in Le Havre there are no goals at all, only the intriguing sub-plot of how Lille manager Christophe Galtier’s hair seems to have grown darker whilst his beard has become more grey. It could just be my imagination however, and according to my wife it is, but then, she always had a bit of ‘a thing’ for Monsieur Galtier, I think it’s because he’s from Marseille.

Half-time takes us back to Gaëlle in Issy-les Moulineaux to re-cap on what has gone before and  chat with ‘experts’ perched on stools like performing animals. The second halves begin and all the decent action remains in Belfort whilst the live coverage is in Le Havre.  With just ten minutes of the second forty-five played, karma gets even with Malaly Dembele of Nancy for scoring that romance-crushing equaliser and he is sent off.  I don’t know why Malaly is sent off because once again I have become distracted and miss the action, this time because I’m catching up on what’s happening in Birkenhead, which is nothing.  Having learnt my lesson, I put down my phone and concentrate on the games on the telly.  Lille are making hard work of getting past Gonfreville, a club three levels below them and I begin to notice the perimeter advertising; the usual multi-nationals are there such as Nike and Volkswagen but less expected in a country known for its love of haute cuisine is KFC, but some welcome novelty is present in the form of EDF the French electricity company and the French bakers Pasquier, whose industrially processed bread products can also be found in British supermarkets. My reverie is broken as coverage switches to Belfort in time to catch a Nancy player blowing his nose on his shirt. He might have got away with if he was playing for Norwich, whose kit is the colour of snot, but Nancy are playing in white shirts today.  

Back to Le Havre and with sixty-nine minutes played Loic Remy at long last gives Lille the lead, but the replays of the goal are not over before there is also a goal at Belfort where hopes of a ‘giant-killing’ are restored by Thomas Regnier and the TV screen divides in two to show two goals being scored at once, the excitement in my living room is now palpable.  Five minutes elapse and Belfort are awarded a penalty which gives the programme director time to ensure that the main action is being beamed from Stade Serzian and Thomas Regnier scores again to give Belfort a 3-1 lead with just twelve minutes left to play of normal time.  This is great, so good I almost fail to notice that in the Coupe de France teams do not carry their usual sponsor’s names on their shirts, but instead all the away teams display the logo of PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) a horse racing promoter and betting organisation, whilst home teams advertise the symbol of the Credit Agricole bank.  As if that’s not enough all players display the name of the Intermarche supermarket chain across their shoulders and club crests are replaced by the badge of the FFF (Federation Française de Football), the French football association. My mind begins to drift to thoughts of Vincent (Samuel L Jackson) in Pulp Fiction and his ‘Quarter Pounder/Royale’ conversation with Jules (John Travolta); “It’s the little differences…”.  But injury time, as it used to be known, has started and with two minutes of it gone Victor Osimhan brings some late excitement to my TV screen as he confirms Lille’s ‘safe passage’ through to the round of sixteen with Lille’s second goal, but Belfort still have six whole minutes left to play. 

In Le Havre the game ends and the victorious Lille players line up to applaud the Gonfreville team from the pitch; what with the late goal, the mass sporting gesture not to mention the ‘giant-killing’ I feel rather moved by it all and emit a small cheer when the game in Belfort finally ends with no further goals.  Back with Gaëlle in the studio I remember to check the half-time score in Birkenhead, I wish I hadn’t.

Happy times, perhaps not quite as good as the real thing, but looking back from this shut-in, locked down world I feel quite privileged to have had them. Please appreciate the moment and make the most of it. In the words of Country, Pop and Novelty songwriter Ray Stevens “Everything is beautiful in its own way”. Oh, and there was a happy ending in Birkenhead after all.

Coggeshall Town 2 Felixstowe & Walton United 1


It’s Easter and it is unseasonably warm. The mercury hit 23 degrees in my back garden yesterday and today could be warmer. In holiday mood and beneath a clear blue sky my wife Paulene and I set off in our trusty Citroen C3 on the short journey to Coggeshall to watch Coggeshall Town play Felixstowe & Walton United in the Bostik League, Division One North. We are taking the scenic route today in order to drop off Easter eggs for the grandsons; I feel like the Easter Bunny.

On arrival at their house, their father Colin is slouched watching Tottenham Hotspur on the telly, he responds mono- syllabically to our attempts at conversation. Tottenham are losing, I quietly hope that they continue to do so. Grandson Harvey is as loquacious as his father, but does let Paulene know as economically as possible that it’s the same type of Easter egg we bought him last year.

With Easter eggs delivered we obligingly pop to the Co-op as their advertisements tell us to, so that I can draw some cash and Paulene can buy chocolate of her own; non-dairy chocolate, white vanilla by i-choc; Paulene is dairy intolerant. Leaving the treasures of the Co-op behind us we complete the third leg of our journey, heading along West Street before turning left in to the bouncy car park of what was once known colourfully as ‘The Crops’, but has boringly been re-christened the West
Street Ground; how dull. Our Citroen C3 wishes it was a 2CV. A steward directs me to pull up close “to that one over there” a large Vauxhall. We disembark and a car load of Felixstowe followers park up next to us in another, smaller Vauxhall. At the turnstile I hand over two ten pound notes and receive £3.50 is change (Adult £10, Pensioner £5, programme £1.50). “Enjoy the match” says the turnstile operator “You too” I tell him “If you get to see it”. Oddly, the cost of entry has gone up a pound since I last was here for the FA Cup tie versus Witham in August last year, maybe FA Cup ties are just cheaper

We walk along the concrete path to the clubhouse, looking down upon the pitch on to which water sprinklers gently play. The path along the ‘top of the ground’, behind the main stand is one of the things I like best about “The Crops”. In the clubhouse Tottenham are still on the telly and they’re still losing. To celebrate I order a glass of Rose and a pint of Adnams Ghostship (£7.90 for the two); disappointingly the Ghostship is of the fizzy variety, but at least it’s not Greene King.

Drinks in hands we step back outside and sit at a “Yogi Bear–style picnic table”, I order a sausage roll (£3.50) from the ‘tea-hatch’. £3.50 might seem a lot for a sausage roll but there is more sausage meat in this sausage roll than in all the sausage rolls ever sold by Greggs put together; and this is real sausage meat, not a weird pink paste. I exaggerate perhaps, but not much. In truth, there is perhaps so much sausage meat that I would recommend bringing a small selection of pickles to help it down and add further to your enjoyment.

A steady stream of locals and visiting Felixstowe supporters make their way to the clubhouse from the turnstile and car park beyond, along the concrete path. Eventually I finish my sausage roll and we decide to take shelter from the sun in the shade of the main stand, which the Coggeshall Town website tells us was erected in 1964. We find seats near the middle of the stand at the very back, two seats behind Keith and Jim, who are in the front row and kindly share their team sheets with us.

Keith and Jim went to watch Colchester United play Grimsby Town yesterday; Keith nearly fell asleep he tells us. A friend of Keith and Jim arrives and hands out bars of chocolate, explaining that he won’t be at the game next week.

The teams are announced over one of the clearest sounding PA systems I have ever heard at a football ground and the teams line-up for the ritual shaking of hands; “See, home team on the left, away team on the right” points out Paulene, giving closure to a conversation we had over dinner a few days ago. It’s something I had never noticed, perhaps because I don’t care enough.

Coggeshall kick-off in the direction of the clubhouse and Braintree far beyond, wearing their red and black striped shirts with black shorts and red socks; it’s a fine looking kit. Sartorially however, Felixstowe do their best to match them with an attractive away ensemble of pale blue and white striped shirts with white shorts; if the two-teams swapped shorts and Coggeshall bleached their socks it would look like AC Milan v Argentina. Felixstowe, known as The Seasiders, aim in the direction of the car park and downtown Coggeshall, with its clock tower and the Co-op. Coggeshall, or The Seedgrowers as they are known informally are swift going forward and dominate the early stages.

Felixstowe don’t look much good. The play is rough and the Felixstowe No3, Henry Barley goes down two or three times, much to the disgust of some of the home crowd. “Pussy” shouts one, “Watch him, he doesn’t fancy it anymore” says the man next to me, “It’s a man’s game” calls another. “Erm no, Aussie Rules is a man’s game” says Paulene as a quiet aside, just to me. So far the game has mostly been Coggeshall’s Nnamdi Nwachuku and Michael Gyasi harrying the Felixstowe defence with their speed and nifty footwork. Seventeen minutes pass, Coggeshall piece together a few passes down the right and a cross finds No8 Tevan Allen; he is on his own at the near post. With time on his hands Tevan kicks the ball up in the air and then, as it drops back down to head height, executes a spectacular overhead kick sending it into the far corner of the goal. It is a remarkable goal, even more so if the initial kick up in the air was intended rather than being a case of not quite controlling the ball, but the latter sadly seems more likely. Tevan celebrates appropriately.

With the breakthrough made, Coggeshall will surely go on score more. But no, with the breakthrough made Felixstowe improve and begin to get forward themselves, often on ‘the break’ with their No9, the heftily built Liam Hillyard, a sort of non-league version of former Ipswich Town player Martyn Waghorn, making the runs into the penalty area. The game stagnates a bit as it becomes more even, with neither side playing particuarly well. The referee Mr Karl Sear makes himself unpopular with the home supporters because he doesn’t book any Felixstowe players, only talks to them, whilst also awarding Felixstowe several free-kicks, seemingly for not much at all.

My attention wanders and I admire a rusty hole in the corrugated iron roof of the stand; ventilation is just what’s needed on a warm day like today.
With a fraction more than five minutes until half-time, Liam Hillyard breaks down the right for Felixstowe, he confuses the Coggeshall defenders sufficiently to pass the ball across the penalty area to Henry Barley who looks to have taken the ball too close to goal before booting it high into the net from an acute angle. After the comments made towards him earlier, Henry Barley might allow himself a wry smile (geddit?).

Things look bleak for Coggeshall; having failed to make the most of their advantage they have now lost it. But football as a game apart from being old is nothing if not funny and soon The Seedgrowers win a free kick. The ball is struck hopefully into the penalty area, players jump and the ball hits random body parts, boots are swung in the direction of the moving ball but none makes proper contact, a Felixstowe player sends the ball towards his own goalkeeper, two Felixstowe defenders go to aim a kick but politely leave it to one another; tired and bemused by its long journey across the penalty area the ball gives itself up to a surprised Nnamdi Nwachuku who happily scores a close-range goal as ropey as the Seedgrowers’ first goal was spectacular. The goal is greeted almost with jeers and laughter, but it still counts and it makes Nnamdi and this little corner of Coggeshall very happy.
Half-time soon follows and we leave our seats; Paulene to use the facilities, me to take our coats back to the car, we really won’t need them today. “Are you leaving?” asks Keith. I reassure him that
I’ll be back for the second half.

Returning from the Citroen I meet my next door neighbour Paul and his eldest son Matthew on the concrete path as they head to the car park end that Coggeshall will be attacking in the second half. Paul has captured the glory of Coggeshall’s second goal on his mobile phone, I think the best bit is where the two Felixstowe defenders let each other boot the ball and neither does. On the grass bank below the concrete path is Colin with his wife Tessa and grandson Harvey and Paulene; I join them in the sunshine and eat a coconut based flapjack that I bought at the Co-op and on which the chocolate has melted. I get just four out of ten in the “Seedgrowers’ half-time quiz” in the programme; how is any one supposed to know that Jamie Carragher has the middle names Lee and Duncan? The second half begins.

The expectation amongst those around me is that Coggeshall will score a third goal, but it doesn’t happen. The game becomes niggly and fractious with lots of swear words; Coggeshall Town is the place to come for sweary football. I kick back and stretch out on the grass enjoying the warmth of the Spring sunshine and the stillness of the afternoon, the peacefulness only punctuated by angry curses from players and supporters and frantic scribbling in his notebook by referee Mr Sear who books six players, three from each team including both Coggeshall goalscorers. Some decent chances to score are missed by both teams and Felixstowe perhaps have the best ones, but if you’d never been to a football match before and had come along because you’d heard about “the beautiful game”, you’d think Pele was a liar. The final act sees Felixstowe’s Callum Bennet sent off by Mr Sears for a poorly thought-out tackle, although conveniently for Bennett he didn’t have far to go because he committed the foul quite close to the corner of the field and the steps to the changing room; so it wasn’t all bad.

With the final whistle I reflect upon what has been a beautiful afternoon in the sun before we head back to the clubhouse for another drink; it’s that kind of a day. I look out for Jim and Keith as the ground empties but don’t see them, I worry that Keith thinks I didn’t return for the second half, which would make me no better than Pele.

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.