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.

Colchester United 0 Forest Green Rovers 3


It’s been a foul March day; blustery, wet and cold; at times the word very has been in front of those adjectives.  Now it is gone seven o’clock, the sun has gone down and it’s mainly miserable and dark, particularly at the Colchester Park & Ride car park, an exposed expanse of dimly lit tarmac next to the A12, adjacent to a petrol station and a McDonald’s. Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded town.

Across the A12 the lights of the Colchester Community Stadium, currently known as the Jobserve Community Stadium and formerly the Weston Homes Community Stadium, which I like to call ‘Layer Road’, shine, but not enough to satisfactorily illuminate the ticket machine at the edge of the car park.  The machine  asks for at least three digits from my car number plate, then changes its mind and asks for all of them and then tells me to pay with coins; I don’t have any.  I trudge the 70 odd metres to the typically streamlined Park & Ride waiting room building and change a fiver into coins with the help of another machine. I ignore the queue of other people buying tickets at the machines there and trudge back to the dimly lit machine.  A kind man illuminates it with his mobile phone and after the machine first claims ignorance of my car registration it eventually allows me to purchase a ticket (£3).  

I walk to the football ground between bright lights planted into the ground that don’t actually illuminate the path only give me a clue where it might be.  I turn left onto Boxted Road and traverse the bridge over the A12 with its high metal sides presumably there to prevent suicidal football supporters from jumping down onto the highway; I turn left into United Way and arrive at another open expanse of tarmac upon which here and there are painted the words BUS STOP.  A white Mercedes Benz is parked partly across the word STOP.  I shed a tear for the shuttle buses which no longer ply their way to the stadium and were the only thing that made this god forsaken location for a football ground even faintly viable. I have probably watched Colchester United play well over 300 times in the last 35 to 40 years but have not been to ‘Layer Road’ since the shuttle bus service stopped running, until tonight. Tonight I have come to see Forest Green Rovers play Colchester United because I want to see Forest Green Rovers, the Football League’s only vegan football club, the only Football League club owned by a former ‘New Age’ traveller.  The irony that I have had to drive to watch this club famed for its ‘green’ credentials is not lost on me.

The Community Stadium is as bleak and lonely as it ever was, surrounded by a car park and nothing much else.  The Forest Green Rovers team bus sits up a corner by the main stand, disappointingly it looks like a regular team bus, not powered by methane or biofuel or anything other than dirty old diesel. I take a look in the well-stocked club shop, where trade is slow; toy bears stare out into the car park but no one is buying.

I queue at the turnstile for what feels like seconds wishing I had a bag for the steward to look into to make this experience more interesting.  Inside the ground however things look up, the programmes are free! This is like being in a civilised country like France where free football programmes are de rigeur and fleetingly I am transported to the imaginary Rue de Layer where Unifie de Colcestre are about to take on Nomades de Foret Vert in the Ligue National.   The sight of Pukka pies not baguettes and Carling instead of espresso coffee returns me from my reverie.   I spot a former work colleague called Mark, which is nice, and we shake one another warmly by the hand; he introduces me to his friend Darren who like me is really an Ipswich Town supporter.  Mark tells me this should be a good game, although Colchester United tend to either ‘do alright’ or lose 3-0.  Up in the South stand I take my seat,  I am sat behind a man and woman who I recognise from the Barside at Layer Road from over thirty years ago, they look much the same, just slightly shrivelled with age.

The U’s soon kick off towards me in their customary blue and white stripes, although from behind their shirts are all blue with white sleeves as if they couldn’t really decide if they want to be in stripes or not.  Their white socks have just two blue hoops as if they couldn’t decide if they should be hooped or not either.  There are no such uncertainties with Forest Green Rovers’ kit of overly dark bottle green with lurid day-glo green trim.

Colchester dominate the start of the game taking on the role of 6th placed promotion hopefuls eager to cement their place in the play-off positions, as someone on Sky Sports TV might say.  Ninth placed Forest Green defend capably.  “It’s a long way on a Tuesday, innit?” says the bloke behind me and is not fully understood by his companion.  He explains that it’s a long way for Forest Green supporters to travel from wherever it is that Forest Green is, “Somewhere down Portsmouth way, I think”.    Forest Green Rovers actually play in Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, so they’re more Laurie Lee than Lord Nelson, but I don’t turn round and tell him that.

The Forest Green number 23 Joseph Mills is the first player to make an impression; he is wearing his hair in a bun.   “You’ll never make it Ward” says a voice at the back of the stand, seemingly attempting to goad the Forest Green goalkeeper Lewis Ward who is dressed all in pink.  From the middle of the stand directly behind the goal a chorus of “Ole, Ole, Ole” rises or perhaps it’s “Allez, Allez, Allez”; it’s hard to tell, it could be both.  After twelve minutes Colchester win the game’s first corner.

Twenty minutes have passed, Colchester are doing okay just not scoring.  Forest Green cross the ball from the left to Lloyd James, he quickly shoots and scores from a good 18 metres or so from goal. No one was expecting that, it’s probably the first shot on target.  “Come on Col U” chant the understandably disappointed but not unduly upset occupants of the South Stand.  But things change, the crowd becomes more vociferous, less happy, more angry.  Colchester win another corner to no avail and Forest Green players spend time sat on the turf looking pained.  “Get on with it, you bloody…” shouts an angry man so irate that he can’t think of a word to finish his sentence.  It’s nearly twenty past eight and Forest Green break away down the right, one pass, another pass and number ten Reece Brown side foots the ball past Colchester’s slightly exotically named goalkeeper Rene Gilmartin.  Forest Green lead 2-0. Colchester’s number forty-five Frank Nouble kicks Lewis Ward out of spite and becomes the first player to be booked by the slightly portly referee Mr Alan Young. Colchester rather pointlessly win a third corner and Lewis Ward is booked for mucking about.

After three minutes of added on time comes the half-time whistle and I head downstairs for a pounds worth of PG Tips in a plastic cup and to check the half-time scores, but mysteriously all the TV sets are on their sides; perhaps the Sky subscription is cheaper like that; it would be okay if you could lie down on a sofa to watch it.  Ipswich are losing.

The second half is much like the first, just a bit colder.  The breeze is getting stronger and there are a few spots of rain in the air.  In the West Stand a man in a blue and white wig and bath robe reclines against his seat looking bored.  Perhaps like Bobby Ewing he will later step out of the shower and find it was all a bad dream. Colchester press forward but Forest Green defend well, blocking every shot, thwarting every move, frustrating the spectators.   The crowd begin to blame Mr Young for a lack of free-kicks to Colchester or too many free-kicks to Forest Green.  “You are kidding” shouts an exasperated man at Mr Young and drawing out every word.  “What is wrong with you referee?” asks someone else.  “Show some flair referee” says another rather more obscurely “Show some bollocks” replies yet another, a little crudely.  I for one want Mr Young to keep his shorts very definitely on.  A few rows in front of me a young woman, or very high pitched man shouts viciously, rendering herself or himself incoherent with vented spleen.   The atmosphere is unpleasant and it’s no wonder Boudicca sacked the place back in AD60 if the inhabitants were as narky as this.

Despite Colchester’s dominance of possession and shots it takes until gone ten past nine for Lewis Ward to make a decent save as he dives away to his right like a flying raspberry blancmange to give Colchester another pointless corner kick.  The final ten minutes begin and Forest Green show that they can keep and pass the ball very neatly, so much so that they end up passing to an unmarked Christian Doige who despite a suspicion of offside amongst the home supporters scores a third goal.  The names Shephard, Brown, Doige appear as verse on the scoreboard.

With the game lost its time for two youths to run onto the pitch, probably as their tribute to recent televised pitch incursions at Arsenal and Birmingham.  They only look about fourteen.  One of them makes a break for it trapping himself at the back of the East Stand having athletically vaulted over several rows of seats. “Wanker, Wanker, Wanker” shout the South Stand. “Wanker!” shouts an angry man behind me a little belatedly, and sounding a bit stupid as a result.  He should have saved his shout for the equally silly Frank Nouble who rounds off an entertaining evening by committing a needless foul, getting booked for a second time and consequently sent off.

The crowd of 2871 are already heading off into the dingy car parks and wasteland outside before five minutes of added on time are announced.  A wildly bearded man in patched double denim rails at the team as others shuffle past. “Worst game of the season” a man says to me unintentionally referencing Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons as he raises his eyebrows and edges past me. I wait until the very end to get my money’s worth (£18.50) before also heading off into the damp and dark to walk to my car and travel home alone fondly remembering the days when we left the ground together sharing our misery in a crowded shuttle bus.

Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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