Weather /Covid – 19 1 US Boulogne/ Lyon Duchere 0

In April 2019 in a moment of brilliant optimism my wife and I bought ten crossings on Le Shuttle; they had to be used within twelve months but it was worth ‘buying in bulk’ for the discount ,and why wouldn’t we want to commit ourselves to getting away to continental Europe at least five times in the next year?  We say “Bugger Brexit”.  In April 2019 we went to Dijon, in July ,in the midst of the heatwave, we drove to Paris to spend a week looking after some friends’ dog and in September we were due to spend three weeks looking after a cat in Strasbourg.  Disappointingly, we never made it to Strasbourg; in a personalised prototype of the current global shut-down, my life was put on hold as I spent five weeks in hospital and the best part of six months recuperating.  But now I am at last repaired, and there’s a rush to use up our six remaining crossings.  At the end of January we  spent a few days in Belgium, foolishly departing early on the Saturday morning to catch Ipswich Town v Oxford United instead of staying to join the 4,423 who enjoyed KV Oostende v Sint-Truiden, and then a couple of weeks ago we arranged a long weekend in Boulogne and Calais, planned to coincide with US Boulogne’s Friday night fixture in Ligue National (the French third division) against Lyon Duchere.

Life is sweet we thought and with US Boulogne in third place it promised to be a lot of fun; but on the morning of our departure the game at the Stade de la Liberation in Boulogne is called off, supposedly because of windy weather; but all twenty games in the Ligue 1 and 2 programmes are already postponed because of Coronavirus and within a few hours the whole of the Ligue National programme is cancelled too.  To add to our disappointment we had thought we were blessed by having succeeded in booking into a hotel with free parking opposite, which is a mere 300m walk from the stadium, and this had had us fantasising about being able to comfortably stagger back from the match hi on frites and Kronenburg, fine wine and third division football.

Friday is a beautiful sunny day with Boulogne-sur-Mer looking at its best, aided perhaps by no one much being about as schools and colleges begin to close and people stay at home due to Covid-19.  We enjoy the street art on the gable ends of the town houses and telecom equipment boxes, I drink Chimay trappist ale at a street café whilst my wife drinks pastis, we walk the town ramparts and visit the cathedral crypt, I buy a postcard and we sit in the sun.  Our day ends with a pleasant meal in a small restaurant in the centre of the fortified old town.  I forget about the football but for a brief glimpse of a single floodlight pylon at the end of the road as we step from the hotel and cross into the old town. I sleep well and dream sweet dreams.

On Saturday morning the puddle of standing water on the flat roof outside our hotel room window ripples with falling rain drops.  After breakfast we will depart for Calais, but first I must give my regards to the Stade de la Liberation and head out into the fine drizzle that is coming directly off the English Channel and dropping on Boulogne-sur Mer.  Not wishing to provoke her asthma, my wife remains in our room watching the drama of the Corona virus unfold on French TV, when not looking for Les Lapins Cretins on the cartoon channel.  But I have to get a measure of what I missed last night and imagine what I might have witnessed under the beams of those four floodlights. 

The floodlights of the Stade de la Liberation peak over the roof tops around the ground, appearing between high gables and block of flats or hiding behind the spreading canopies of leafless grey trees.  A sign with an arrow says “Ribery” and points the way to a stand at the side of the pitch named after Boulogne’s famous son Franck, one of those players not greatly celebrated in England because like Zidane, Trezeguet and Thuram he was always just a bit too classy for the Premier League.

The main entrance to Stade de la Liberation is on Boulevard Eurvin where I peer through the railings across the pitch past the statue of a naked woman clutching a shell and standing on a fish.  How many clubs I wonder can boast such erotic statuary combined with references to seafood, not many I’ll wager.   Smiling to myself about what they’d make of such things in Grimsby and Fleetwood I turn into Rue de Dringhen and then Rue Leo Lagrange, which run behind ‘Ribery’ whilst tantalisingly offering no views of it at all.  Another right turn takes me in to Rue du Vieil-Atre and more sitings of the floodlights and the entrances to both the ‘Kop’ and the away supporters enclosure. Stickers adorn the signage outside indicating that at least one supporter from Creteil, a south eastern suburb or banlieu of Paris, has been here and that he, or she, was well supplied with Creteil related stickers. If the ultras from other clubs have stickers it would seem that Creteil are the only visiting supporters to have ventured this far north and they either went nowhere else or had stickers to spare.

An uncovered mass of seating above a scaffolding frame looms above me as I approach the turn into Rue Hector Berlioz , another residential street that backs onto the stadium.  I like that every  French town has streets named after the same great French composers and writers and wonder why England is so different and why we choose not to remember Britten or Williams or Holst but to honour local councillors and dignitaries who no one has ever heard of and even less gives a toss about.  Between the buildings there are glimpses of the cream painted render of the art deco style Tribune ‘Honneur’ where the posh people sit; but in truth the ground is now largely hidden but for the occasional lamp of a floodlight poking over  or between the rooftops.   A few more steps up the slope between parked cars and my tour of the Stade de la Liberation is over and I find myself back on the Boulevard Eurvin.

To be honest, in my ten minute walk I’ve not seen a lot of the Stade de la Liberation ,but what I have seen has been a series of snatched, tantalising half views of bits of stands and floodlights and signs and traces of those who’ve been here before, added to which my coat, my trousers and my shoes are all a little wet.  I will now be sure to remember for posterity my visit to US Boulogne during the great pandemic of 2020, and I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I got wet watching a game that never happened, having not even got into the stadium.   But it’s of such tales of pointless folly that football legend is made and such suffering and stupidity is what following football is all about.

Ipswich Town 0 Aston Villa 4

It is April 21st but today it feels like summer. The sun shines brightly in a cloudless blue sky and it’s warm as I catch the train to a Saturday match in Ipswich for the last time this season. The platform is busy with people of various ages and shapes. Young men show off their legs and women their bra straps. A grey-haired man with a crooked mouth wears polyester trousers and carries a rucksack. The train is on time. On the train a bare-legged man drinks Smirnoff vodka with tonic from a can and looks at his mobile phone. A smooth-faced, bald headed man wearing two hearing aids looks at his mobile phone and talks hoarsely to his grey-haired wife. At Manningtree five ‘lads’ board and share out a pack of Budweiser beers. They all wear knee length shorts with turn-ups. One wears a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and Ray-Bans, he picks his nose.
At Ipswich there are policemen in what looks like spongeable ‘battledress’ on the

platform and outside on the forecourt and on the bridge over the river and in Portman Road; the implication is that large numbers of people from the West Midlands cannot be trusted to behave nicely. In Portman Road huddles of stewards in hi-vis await the arrival of the Aston Villa team bus. Soft rolls and burgers get folded into mouths of will-be spectators and everyone is standing and waiting. I carry on and orbiting the club shop, Planet Blue, buy a programme (£3.00). Up Portman Road and round to the right St Jude’s Tavern is busy, I head for the bar, nodding hellos to the regular patrons. The Match Day Special today is Springhead Left Lion and I order a pint (£2.50). I take a seat next to the regulars, glance through the programme and talk a little with them; the regular next to me can recall Town being promoted from Division Three South in 1957, no one else here can. In a while I am joined by Mick, who treats me to another pint of the Match Day Special and I give him his birthday present, which I have wrapped in a page from an old road atlas of France, handy if he needs to travel from Chalons-sur-Saone to Dijon. It was Mick’s birthday three weeks ago, so I’m a bit late. After yet another pint of Match Day Special, which is now Wigan Junction (same price as before) it’s time to set off for the main event, the match which Mick will be listening to on the radio; he has said he is considering getting a season ticket for next season, but seems unsure. I can’t say I blame him.
Back in Portman Road people are scurrying to the turnstiles, kick-off is fast approaching. Aston Villa have a large following at the game today as their team chases promotion;

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there are several supporters’ coaches parked up behind Sir Bobby Robson’s statue, which looks as if he’s helpfully pointing the way from the coach park to the away fans enclosure. Entry through the turnstile to the Sir Alf Ramsey stand is swift, but as I leave the gents under the stand the strains of ‘My Way’ are receding and the game is set to begin.

Portman Road stadium

The stadium is looking good today, two-thirds full under a summer sky. Town kick off towards me in their customary blue shirts and white shorts, but Aston Villa disappointingly sport a dull and anonymous all-black kit that says the club has no imagination; such a pity when their first choice colours are tasteful claret and pale blue.
For one of the few occasions this season the home crowd are in good voice, but somewhat weirdly they sing “Hark now hear, The Ipswich sing, The Norwich ran away…” The song trails off before the end as ‘the choir’ seemingly becomes aware that the words go on to mention Boxing Day, which is somewhat unseasonal on a day like today; but they probably never got to sing it in December, numbed as they were by the dire goalless draw with QPR. Picking up perhaps on the Town fans’ choice of a Christmas carol the Villa fans then proceed to sing an equally unseasonal ditty, “Walking along, Singing a song, Walking in a Villa wonderland”. It’s all a little odd and smacks of football supporters no longer fluent in supporting their team through the medium of song.
On the pitch, Ipswich start quite well with an early corner and with Grant Ward and Jordan Spence progressing down the right to send in crosses to the big man up front that only they can see. Town’s Luke Hyam commits the first foul and Miles Kenlock has the first shot. Perhaps this inspires over confidence in the home supporters in the North Stand or perhaps they are just being ironic, but they sing to the Villa fans “You’re support is fucking shit”. Alternatively they could just be the type of people for whom something is always “fucking shit” as they so eloquently describe it, and with the loss of Mick McCarthy’s football they had to find something else to bemoan. Off their faces on their miraculous new found optimism, Town supporters applaud an offside. But Aston Villa look like they have a plan and they also have some very sharp haircuts and luxuriant facial hair, particularly number 15 Mile Jedinak whose enormous beard makes him looksMile Jedinak like an Imam. Villa’s number 19 Jack Grealish has calves the size of other men’s thighs and by twenty past three Villa are somewhat greedily beginning to keep the ball pretty much to themselves. They win some corners and then at about twenty five past three rudely score a goal as Conor Hourihane shoots when unsportingly close to the goal.
Unusually, the goal provokes a positive response from some Town supporters who chant “Blue Army”, although sadly these chants don’t build into a crescendo of noise that pushes Town onto quickly equalise and then take the lead with a display of scintillating short passes and powerful running. The singing soon dies away and normality returns as the Villa fans employ Guiseppe Verdi in the time honoured way to ask “Is this a library?”, although understandably it’s taken them a while to realise today. Buoyed by the discovery of their own razor sharp wit they eschew any reference to opera with their subsequent chant of “You’re fucking shit, you’re fucking shit, you’re fucking shit”. What is it with football supporters and “fucking shit”?

Three minutes before half time Grant Ward is sent off by the shiny cue ball-headed referee Mr Simon Hooper for a poorly executed attempt at a tackle. Ward’s victim Neil Taylor recovers and is consequently booed thereafter for his trouble. It’s why we love the game. Ward receives generous applause from the Town fans as he walks to the dressing room.
Half-time brings some relief as the players hide in the dressing room for ten minutes or so and I talk to Ray who is nearby with his grandson Harrison who has cerebral palsy. Ray is of the opinion that Bersant Celina is not doing much, I agree and add the simple truth that overall Town’s players are not as good as Aston Villa’s. I re-visit the gents, eat a Panda brand stick of liquorice and look at the programme which contains a marvellous picture of the late Colin Harper in which he sports extensive sideburns and a moustache as if he was a member of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; it was a great look, in 1967. I recall attending Harper’s testimonial versus a Don Revie XI, I think the final score was something like 6-5, which is what the final score should be in all benefit matches. Also in the programme is a piece by a fellow supporter I know called Steve Cook in which he talks about his late mother’s dementia; I find it quite touching. Cookie is a lovely bloke.
The footballers return before I do and I miss the first minute of play but it doesn’t matter. A bit before a quarter past four Aston Villa score a second goal through Lewis Grabban, a former Norwich City player. As he runs behind the goal to celebrate in front of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand Grabban cups his hand to his ear, but quickly desists as if realising that he is in Ipswich so there wasn’t much noise even before he scored. Today’s attendance is announced as 20,034 and as if to torment Town fans further by reminding us of the year when Villa pipped us to the League Title, the number of visiting Aston Villa supporters is recorded as 1981.
Aston Villa are comfortably in control of this match and from the touchline theirSteve Bruce corpulent manager Steve Bruce looks on over his expanded waist, possibly affording time to imagine the enormous meal that he will perhaps later eat to celebrate the victory. I hope he has regular cardiovascular checks. Around him Villa’s coaching staff look like UPS delivery drivers in their dull uniforms. I admire the angles of the roofs of the stands at the other end of the ground.
With thirty minutes left to play, Martyn Waghorn has a shot for Ipswich and the Ipswich fans applaud, but honestly, not sarcastically as they had been doing a few weeks ago. In the 78th minute American, Cameron Carter-Vickers, one of Town’s inevitable cohort of loanees passes the ball rather carelessly to Villa’s Josh Onomah who quickly passes to Grabban, who scores for a second time.
The Villa fans, now feeling secure enough to gloat, once again ask if this is a library, but then something almost miraculous happens as a chorus of “I’m Ipswich ‘til I die” drifts up from behind the North Stand goal; it doesn’t last long, the team doesn’t respond and in the 82nd minute another former Norwich player (albeit a loanee), Henri Lansbury scores a fourth goal for Villa. I think of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Murder, She Wrote. Ipswich are well and truly beaten, soundly thrashed even and the dream that many people perhaps harboured that with Mick McCarthy gone the team would straightaway blossom into a creative, attacking force and would never look back is dashed. Nevertheless, Town fans rally and there is clapping and singing the like of which has not been heard almost since the days of terracing, or at least since 2001. It’s a bit late in the game, but the Town fans are giving vocal encouragement to a struggling team. Town are 4-0 down at home to a club managed by an ex-Canary and three of the goals have been scored by ex-Canaries, but it’s the happiest some supporters have been all season.
But I wonder if they are really supporting the team, or are they just covering their embarrassment that the football is actually no better despite Mick McCarthy’s departure? Sensibly it’s probably too soon to say, but we shall see if the same sort of support continues.
Summer is not here yet, even though the sun is shining.

Bluey at Portman Road

LOSC Lille 3 FC Nantes 0

Lille is in northern France, in Flanders, so close to Belgium that it also has Flemish and Dutch names, Rysel or Rijsel. The city of Lille has a population of about 230,000 but the metropolitan area, or agglomeration as the French call it contains over a million people, making it France’s fourth largest urban area behind Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Lille is only an hour and twenty minutes by car from Calais and it is served by the Eurostar, making it easily accessible from southern and eastern England. I’ve come to Lille with my wife because it is wonderful city full of fabulous things to see and because it’s a good place to watch football.

In its time LOSC Lille has been a half decent football club, winning the league and Cup double as recently as 2011. It was from Lille that Chelsea took Eden Hazard. This season they have struggled and were in the bottom three early on and are now only eight points away from it in twelfth position in the table. Their opponents tonight for the final match of the season are FC Nantes, another big city club with an illustrious past but currently just jogging along. Nantes also flirted with the relegation places a few months ago, but a decent run has seen them climb to seventh in the table.

My wife and I are staying on the other side of the city centre and therefore catch a Metro train out to the Stade Pierre Mauroy which is located in the suburb of Villeneuve d’Ascq. Lille’s Metro only has two lines but it is fully automated with driverless trains. Whilst most of our Metro journey is underground, towards the end there are outdoor elevated sections and somehow it reminds me of the monorail in Francois Truffaut’s film of the Ray Bradbury book Fahrenheit 451; I sigh and think of Julie Christie before I am shaken from my reverie by our arrival at the end of the line.

It’s a ten or twelve minute walk from the Metro station to the Stade Pierre Mauroy, a massive structure with a closable roof it is a multi-purpose venue. Originally, and rather unimaginatively, it was known as Le Grand Stade, but subsequently and somewhat controversially it was re-named after a local politician. The stadium is like a lot of French stadia, a grand statement. It is sheathed in fluorescent tubes35032548265_3925b4c17a_o that are capable of changing colour and a little like the Allianz Arena in Munich it resembles an enormous rubber dinghy, or may be a slug. The walk from the Metro station is through a university research park; the final approach is impressive across a broad pedestrian bridge over the ring road and into a huge open area around the stadium where fans meet, mingle and munch on chips and baguettes from the food stands; there is beer too.

My wife heads impatiently for our seats at the other side of the stadium whilst I uncontrollably linger in the club shop. I just can’t help popping into club shops, there is something fascinating about them, it’s may be the fact that they are full of people eager to advertise their football allegiance through the clothes they wear, the mug they drink from, the magnet on their fridge, the pennant hanging from the rear view mirror in their car and the teddy bear they hug in moments of doubt.

Having left the shop I get thoroughly patted down by security and wished ‘Bon Match’ before heading through the automated turnstiles. Just inside I pick up a copy of the match day programme; sixteen pages of glossy A534899646781_c2c4496472_o which is absolutely free and tells you all you need to know about tonight’s teams and happily stops short of telling us anyone’s favourite holiday destination, whether they prefer tea or coffee or would read Camus rather than Stendahl or de Maupassant. Once again French football shows its superiority to English, reasonably priced seats (20 euros tonight) and free match programmes, which gives you more money to spend in the club shop. The programme has the title “reservoir dogues”; partly because LOSC Lille are known as the les dogues, a type of enormous dog, and partly it would seem because LOSC Lille can’t resist a not very good pun.

Up in the stand there are more freebies to be had; a smiling young woman is giving away giant foam hands, whilst under every seat is a red flag on a stick bearing the club crest. It may be the last match of a disappointingly unsuccessful season, against a team ranked as the 4th least entertaining in Ligue 1 by the sports paper L’Equipe, and it may be a meaningless match, but it will be fun! That is the point, because there are new owners at Lille and they have a vision for the club and they want to sell season tickets (abonnements). I buy a small low alcohol (0.5%) beer (Kronenbourg Malt), which I cannot recommend and take my seat.

As kick-off approaches the words of the club anthem appear on the giant screen set into the front of the roofOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and a good number of the 28,390 crowd sing heartily to the tune of Amazing Grace whilst waving their flags and giant hands; it’s almost moving. Nantes is in the far west of France some 600km away by road, so not many Nantoises have made the trip and the few that have are high up in the corner of the stadium; they mostly don’t bother to take their seats but stand at the top of the stairs, as if preparing for a quick getaway at the end of the match. From where I am sat their contribution to the match atmosphere is nil. The teams come on to the pitch behind large banners displaying the two club crests, as happens for all Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 matches. Lille wear their red shirts and navy blue shorts, whilst FC Nantes are in their traditional kit of all yellow with green trim, for which they are known as the Canaries (les canaris) and for this reason I can’t help disliking them slightly, even though to my knowledge they have nothing else at all in common with Norwich City. Whatever, I am supporting Lille tonight and have the fridge magnet to prove it.34187818524_1f7e6cca3f_o

The match kicks off and for fifteen minutes or so it lives down to expectations and not much happens. But gradually Lille start to look the better team. The crowd, who after that initial pre-match burst of orchestrated enthusiasm had begun to sound a bit lost amongst the cavernous spaces around the other 32,000 unoccupied seats, start to find their voices which fill those voids. The Ultras below our seats call to the support at the far end of the ground and they call back and the atmosphere builds. Thirty-six minutes gone and a through ball finds Nicolas de Preville who advances and passes the ball beyond Dupe to put Lille ahead. Yes! Not only am I seeing a team called the Canaries lose but I had spotted de PrevilleOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA playing for Reims last season and picked him out as ‘one to watch’. So I’m pretty pleased with myself. Lille continue to be the better team and retain their 1-0 lead as Monsieur Desiage the referee (arbitre) blows for half-time.

During half-time the entertainment switches to a shoot-out between a couple of boys teams and there is also a performance by some dancing girls with pom-poms, which is more or less in the tradition of French Saturday night TV where variety, which in France includes bare-breasted show girls, is still popular. For all its philosophy and sophistication France often still seems oddly sexist. I take a trip downstairs to the gents’ and enjoy the figure painted on the door34992387426_ce06889e21_o of a male in a baggy shirt and shorts with knees bent and fist clenched, which is probably meant to convey that he is celebrating a goal, but he looks like he may be just farting loudly, it is a toilet door after all.

A minute into the second half and Lille fans have every reason to fart loudly in the direction of les NantoisesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and celebrate as my protégé Nicolas de Preville scores a second goal, a simple tap-in, for les dogues. Les canaris are looking suitably sick as parrots. Seven minutes later and de Preville claims his hat-trick after Lima holds back a Lille player in the penalty box and a penalty is awarded. Lima is sent off. FC Nantes have developed into a full-blown surrogate Norwich City for me with les canaris 3-0 down and with a player sent-off, it’s the sort of thing I dream of seeing.

Just past the hour Lille replace Benzia with Naim Sliti a skilful Tunisian international midfielder and another player who I have to take the credit for spotting last season, this time when he was playing for Ligue 2 Parisian team Red Star. This evening is getting better and better. Apparently however, Sliti is in dispute with Lille because they are not giving him enough games and he has said that if “a door opens” for him he will move. I hope you are you reading this Mick McCarthy.

It looks like it could be a complete rout, but Lille don’t press home their advantage and it’s Nantes who have some half decent chances on the break, but the score remains unaltered. Nine minutes from time Monsieur Desiage books Nantes substitute Kacaniklic with style as some time after he commits a foul he calls him over, speaks with him and then in one very swift and quite angry movement brandishes his yellow card at him.
There’s very little additional time to play, what’s the point? Lille’s win sees them rise a place to eleventh in the final table, leapfrogging Toulouse who play out a goalless draw at home to Dijon; Nantes remain seventh as both St Etienne and Stade Rennais, their nearest rivals in the table, also lose. So that’s it for another season, or is it? We are asked to stay in our seats and meanwhile as the Lille players milk applause for their season’s work a tractor and trailer drives on to the pitch, sheets are laid across the turf and boxes and things are heaped up on the sheets. The players thank the UltrasOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the bloke who stands on the step ladderOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA in front of the Ultras to orchestrate their chants makes a short speech to the players. Applause follows, so he evidently hasn’t told them what a useless bunch of overpaid gets they are, or maybe he has. No one seems to take offence however, and as the celebrations die down we sit and wait. Suddenly the stadium lights go out; then begins the loud beat of Euro-disco, the flash of lasers and then the explosion of fireworks. Quite a spectacular display follows and goes on for the next twelve minutes or so. If this is how they celebrate the end of the season when they finish top of the bottom half of the table, what do they do when they actually achieve something? But it’s great; this is what football clubs should be doing, thanking their supporters at the end of the season. I had only seen Lille once before this year, but they seem to care that everyone here has bothered to come to the last match of the season.

We finally leave the stadium at about 11.20pm and head for the Metro which is of course still running; night buses begin to run in about an hour’s time. It has been a fun night at the Stade Pierre Mauroy with defeat for a team called the Canaries, a sending off, a hat-trick for a player I had ‘scouted’, a fireworks display and a free flag. I shall hopefully return some time next season. As it says on the illuminated destination blinds of the buses outside the stadium Allez Lille!

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