The Breton coastal town of Concarneau is apparently best known as a successful fishing port and for its walled Ville Close, a quaint and historic medieval fortified town transformed into an appalling tourist trap full of the sort of shops or pristine buildings you find in places like Lavenham or Bourton-On-The-Water in England. In its favour however, Concarneau is also home of the Brasserie de Bretagne (Britanny Brewery) and Union Sportive Concarnoise, its local football club, which plays in the third division of French football known as Ligue National.
US Concarneau, as they are commonly called, are relatively recent arrivals in Ligue National and have aspirations to reach Ligue 2; tonight, they face Association Sportive Nancy-Lorraine, more usually known as AS Nancy, a club which has twice won the French FA Cup and spent twenty-five seasons in Ligue 2 and thirty in Ligue 1. Today however, Concarneau are second from top of Ligue National and Nancy seventeenth, albeit after just three games.
The Stade Guy Piriou where USC play their home games is at the edge of town in that nether world of retail parks, Zones Industrielles and feeder roads inaccessible to pedestrians. I had asked in the Tourist Information Office where is a good place to park and the pretty young woman there had rolled her eyes with a look that told of chaos, but then said we could park in the car park of the LeClerc supermarket which is about 100m from the ground through a tunnel beneath the main road. After getting a bit of shopping and an evening picnic, which my wife Paulene and I eat in the car, we make for the ground.
Having had difficulty trying to buy tickets on-line we had visited the ground earlier in the afternoon on arrival at Concarneau. Although there are guichets open at the entrance to the ground selling tickets, these were shut when we arrived earlier and I had gone directly into the club office where I had selected our seats on someone’s lap-top and stood by his desk as he printed out two tickets for the main stand (12 euros each). The stadium sits on the top of a small hill and the main entrance delivers us up a slope through an inflatable arch to the corner of the stadium; I don’t know if I’m in a football ground or a bouncy castle, but there is a main stand in front of us and to our left. Pleasingly there is a club shop where for 5 euros I add to the collection of petit fanions (pennants) that adorn my upstairs toilet at home, and also purchase a mug (9 euros) and acquire a match day programme which, like at every French club that produces a programme, is free. The ground has three excellent buvettes which remind me of stalls at a fairground; they serve huge sausages piled on top of massive heaps of chips, and the very tasty local ‘Britt’ beer. After visiting what is possibly the smartest and sweetest smelling toilet I have ever encountered in a football ground; it’s all stainless steel and shiny coloured tiles, I change euros into tokens worth a euro each and buy a beer for me (3 euros) and a cola (2 euros) for Paulene, which surprisingly and disappointingly is not Breizh Cola. I then join Paulene in the main stand for the pre-match entertainment of observing everyone else arrive, search for their seats or eat sausage and chips, before watching a fastidious man organise three pairs of youths into holding banners displaying the Ligue National logo and the two club crests. Off to our left the match ball sits above a plinth in front of the players’ tunnel and appears to be hovering in mid-air.
At half past seven the match kicks off, with Nancy in their all-red kit getting first go with the ball. Concarneau are in blue shirts and socks with white shorts and the first chant of the evening surprisingly emanates from the main stand; “Allez les bleus, Allez les bleus” confirms that I am not suddenly colour blind. On the far side of the ground, in the long, low, basic but well maintained partly seated, partly terraced stand a knot of supporters sing “Allez, Allez, Allez” to the tune of The Beatles ‘Yellow Submarine’.
Perhaps because of the backing of the home crowd, USC quickly settle into the game and their number 24 Ambroise Gboho soon threads an excellent diagonal through ball into the path of Antoine Rabillard, who has made an overlapping run, but Rabillard hits his shot straight into the body of Nancy’s goalkeeper. USC’s Amine Boutrah then wins the games’ first corner and Tom Lebeau wins the second. “Allez les bleus, Allez les bleus” sings the home crowd again. Lebeau crosses the ball and Rabillard heads over the bar. Low, evening sunlight falls across the pitch illuminating the grass vividly where it doesn’t cast a lengthening shadow of the main stand. The sky is gun metal grey in the distance; there have been heavy showers inland throughout the day and a rainbow extends up then fades away beyond the opposite stand. Behind the left-hand goal, on the steep concrete terrace below the hospitality area people appear to be putting their coats on; it doesn’t seem to be raining but briefly there is a faint rattle on the metal roof of the stand.
Back on the pitch, Nancy’s defending is effective but becoming more desperate and Lucas Pellegrini is the first player to see the carton jaune (yellow card) of the referee after he knocks over USC’s Amine Boutrah, who I am not surprised to read in the programme is the player of the month for August. Within sixty-seconds Nancy’s number eight, Lenny Nangis follows the bad example that has been set and is booked for a foul on USC’s Georges Gope Fenepes. If Lenny Nangis has any defence, it is that he has a great name. The resultant free-kick is deflected over the cross bar for another corner to Concarneau. A third Nancy player is booked five minutes later when Baptiste Mouaza fouls Ambroise Gboho. The supporters on the far side of the ground sing the na-na-nas from The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and then Mouaza provokes a sharp intake of breath as he trips USC’s Gaoussa Traore and we await the consequences. Like a not very good magician the referee holds up his yellow card and then with a distinct absence of sleight of hand replaces it with a red one. Mouaza hangs around for a bit, seemingly discussing his misfortune with anyone who’ll listen as most of the other players crowd around the referee and the prostrate Gaussa Traore. When the melee clears and Traore has risen from the dead, Mouaza seeks clarification from the referee that he is no longer required on the pitch and his worst fears are confirmed with a wave of the referee’s arm.
A minute of the first half remains, and USC win another corner; the ball is crossed from the left and having evaded everyone else, falls in front of captain Thibault Sinquin who appears to do little more than absent-mindedly stick out a leg, and thereby scores. After two minutes of added on time, the teams retreat to the dressing rooms for mi-temps (half-time) with Concarneau in possession of a well-deserved lead, although having failed to score for the first forty-four minutes the eventual goal came as a bit of a surprise. Half-time sees a flood of people towards the buvettes and I get up from my seat to stretch my legs and peer down on them through the scratched Perspex screen at the end of the stand.
The game resumes at 8:32 and although Nancy have some early forays down the flanks it is USC’s Ambroise Gnoho who comes closest to scoring but for an offside flag and Lebeau shoots past the post from all of 30 metres. With just ten minutes gone of the new half Georges Gape Fenepes, who might be the first player from New Caledonia I have ever seen, is substituted by Faisal Mannai. I don’t think it’s Mannai’s fault but within a minute of his appearance a passing move down the left for Nancy ends with the sort of cross commonly known as ‘inviting’, and Lenny Nangis accepts the invitation, heading firmly into the Concarneau net to unexpectedly equalise.
Despite having lost their lead, Concarneau will surely still go onto win having a man advantage and they continue to press forward with Robillard, Traore and Boutrah always looking the most likely to conjure up a decent chance. With a third of the match remaining USC win another corner after a flurry of activity around the Nancy goal. A low cross from the right is just too far ahead of everyone to allow anyone to touch it into the net. “Merde” says the bloke behind me through gritted teeth as a pass by substitute Faisal Mannai is intercepted by a Nancy player who breaks forward into the Concarneau half. Nothing comes of it however and Thibault Sinquin in turn breaks forward for USC from his centre half position, but his low cross from inside the penalty area is cleared.
The game is into its last fifteen minutes or normal time and Gaoussa Traore lashes a shot somewhat desperately, which travels high and wide of the Nancy goal. Nancy substitute Lamine Cisse for Isaak Umbdenstock, but not before Cisse looks confused as to which direction he must run to leave the pitch; after initially running away from the benches he checks and runs back and Umbdenstock runs on. Concarneau replace Adrien Jouliex with Alec Georgen but are coming no closer to scoring a second goal.
Ten minutes remain of normal time and Nancy win a rare corner; Diafra Sakho meets the ball on his forehead and Nancy are suddenly winning as the ball bulges the net with the Concarneau goalkeeper and defenders static. Even now I can’t bring myself to believe that Concarneau won’t equalise, but as Tom Lebeau is replaced by Pierre Jouan there are just seven minutes left and Nancy are taking every opportunity, and creating more to eke out that time by winning free kicks and staying down on the ground. When a player goes down ‘injured’ on the far side of the field the slow-moving physio who looks about seventy-five can only trundle across the pitch. Nancy make use of their penultimate substitution before six minutes of added on time are announced and then make the final one as they control the end of the game, not in terms of active football but in terms of frustrating Concarneau by fragmenting the remaining time into useless moments of nothingness.
Full-time arrives too soon for Concarneau and Nancy will make the 920 kilometre journey back to Alsace with an unexpected win, which in the context of modern football they deserve, but it wasn’t always much fun to watch and many would say they had ‘stolen’ the points. Nevertheless, Concarneau is a great place to come to watch a match and is reminiscent of an English fourth division ground but with better beer, better food and cheaper admission prices; Paulene and I therefore have had a splendid time.