Ipswich Town 2 Bristol Rovers 1

Bristol Rovers, The Pirates, The Gas; I first saw them at Portman Road on a cold Wednseday evening in February 1978.  Although the 29,090 souls gathered there that night couldn’t have been certain of it at the time, it was an auspicious occasion that would forever be significant in the history of Ipswich Town as the one replay on the route to FA Cup glory.  I remember Bristol in their anaemic yellow shirts and black shirts and how we thrashed them by three goals to nil (Mills, Mariner and Woods). At the time, I thought it was an exotic fixture; Ipswich an established, top First Division club, albeit having an iffy season in the league, and Bristol Rovers the underdogs, perennial under achievers from one of England’s biggest cities and a club Town hadn’t played at Portman Road  since before I was born.  A little more than a decade after that cup tie and Town v Rovers was a Second Division fixture and now thirty years further on we meet in the third division again as we did in the 1950’s.  Time is round, there doesn’t seem much doubt.

I switch on my Lenovo lap-top, connect it to the tv set in the kitchen and log on to the ifollow.  “Sex or nothing for me” I think I hear Mick Mills say.  It’s not what I expected, even though with his fulsome moustache and mahogany tan, back in the 1970’s Mick would not have looked out of place in a porn flick.  I soon adjust my perception however and realise that Mick had said ‘six’ not ‘sex’ and was talking about the number of points Ipswich would take from their next two fixtures, which are against the two teams currently bottom and second from bottom of the third division table, Bristol Rovers and Rochdale.  Deciding that despite my admiration for Mick, what he thinks about how many points Town will amass over Easter isn’t very interesting I mentally tune out and don’t tune back in until the game begins and I hear Brenner Woolley explaining that Bristol Rovers are wearing their away kit of black with yellow pinstripes and flashing down the sides of their shorts.  I find Brenner’s attention to detail admirable and hope that the listeners to BBC Radio Suffolk who don’t have access to the pictures from the ifollow appreciate the picture he paints for them.

After about 50 seconds Town score; “A most bizarre goal” is Brenner’s description. “Well explain that one” says Mick in a challenge to Brenner, before admitting “I haven’t a clue what happened”.   It’s a goal that if it were a painting would be in the Tate Gallery or Pompidou Centre alongside the works of the abstract expressionists.  Marvelling at the thought of a goal that it is impossible to describe I can only attribute it to some sort of early Easter miracle.  The metaphorical stone that usually blocks the opposition goal has rolled away and let the ball in the net, and it’s still only Good Friday.  The caption on the ifollow screen attributes the goal to Rovers’ Luke Leahy, whose surname I imagine is pronounced ‘leaky’.  In my world I award the goal to Jackson Pollock.

“What you want now is a real response from Ipswich” says Mick, living in hope of seeing the current team live up to the benchmark he helped set forty-three years ago.  “This is the time of all times you want to get on your front foot” he continues, clearly believing that the current team has a front foot. As part of his usual rendering of mini-biographies of opposition players in the opening minutes, Brenner mentions Ed Upson, a former FA Youth Cup winner with Town who is today playing for Bristol Rovers. Meanwhile Mick doesn’t seem able to get over that goal. “A strange sort of opening to the game…we’re winning one-nil” he says, sounding bemused.

Ed Upson fouls little Alan Judge; “Upson, no stranger to the yellow card” says Brenner, introducing a turn of phrase I haven’t heard him use before.  Referee Steve Martin meanwhile is not swayed by the fact that Upson has ‘previous’ and doesn’t book him.  It’s the eleventh minute; Andre Dozzell shoots weakly, the Bristol goalkeeper Anssi Jaakola saves and according to Brenner, Alan Judge “finishes off at the second time of asking”.  It’s two-nil to Town.  “Andre’s shot was awful” says Mick tempering our excitement with a reminder of the reality, but the reality is also that Town have now scored twice. Simply unable to resist the pun, Brenner tells us that it’s “…a good Friday for Town”.  I sigh deeply with resignation but am shaken from my torpor as I hear Mick say “Inevitably going to be a win for Town”.  I can only think that Mick has adopted the attitude of Donald Trump and that if he says something, then he thinks it’s true. 

Egged on by Mick’s optimism I begin to dream of Town scoring five or six.  Brenner meanwhile returns to the world of using his words to paint a picture for the BBC Radio Suffolk listeners.  But figurative art isn’t wholly Brenner’s style and he likes to add a dash of surrealism’ “Paul Cook being rather noisy…he’s got his beanie hat and gloves on”.  Back on the field of play the Rovers’ goalkeeper receives the ball; “The Finn plays it out quickly” says Brenner, as ever ensuring that the ‘leave’ voting BBC Radio Suffolk listeners can single out the foreigners if they need to.  “I can’t quite decide what Bristol Rovers are doing” admits Mick suddenly, but perhaps still thinking about the opening goal.

It’s the eighteenth minute. “That was shocking from Dozzell” says Brenner. “Awful play from Andre Dozzell” says Mick as Rovers’ Luke McCormick robs the dawdling midfielder of the ball, advances and chips the ball over Tomas Holy and into the Town goal.  “First goal of the season for Bristol Rovers against Ipswich Town” announces Brenner weirdly.  My dreams of a crushing victory evaporate and Bristol Rovers instantly and miraculously become the better side.  Five minutes later Tomas Holy collides with a Bristol player outside the penalty area and is booked by referee Steve Martin, although Brenner implies that Rovers’ manager Joey Barton is advocating a sending off.  “Joey Barton not happy” he says of the vengeful Scouser.  “It’s an awful mistake by Luke Chambers” says Mick, pinpointing where the blame really lies.  “Paul Cook’s head in his hands” continues Brenner, adding a layer to his aural picture which now resembles something by Hieronymous Bosch.  Happily, Rovers fail to score from the ensuing free-kick.

Thirty-four minutes pass and Town win a corner. “This hasn’t been a great performance” says Mick. “Both teams very untidy” he adds in explanation.  Mick is on good form; “Just taking his time there Andre, like he does”.   Bristol Rovers are dominating possession, making Town play on the break.  There are seven minutes until half-time. Suddenly Luke McCormick swings a leg at the ball in the town penalty area; “He should’ve made that two-two” says Brenner as the snap shot bounces past Tomas Holy’s left hand post. “Possibly” replies Mick, providing the voice of reason to quell Brenner’s hysterical panic.  “I thought it was in, and so did Tomas Holy, he was rooted to the spot” opines Brenner unconvincingly. 

Town fail to improve, “It’s not good viewing at the moment; Bristol Rovers the better side” confirms Brenner before adding a dollop of symbolism to his aural picture with “They’re really knocking on the door at the moment Bristol Rovers”.  Two minutes of additional time are added in which Town win another corner which produces nothing to excite.  It’s half-time and Mick’s assessment is that “It’s been a very average performance”.  I put the kettle on.

The second half begins with Aaron Drinan replacing James Norwood.  The assumption would usually be that if not a tactical change Norwood is injured, after all, as Brenner himself might say “Norwood is no stranger to the treatment table”.  But today Brenner speaks obliquely about Norwood’s “health” as if he hasn’t been substituted because of an injury but something more sinister like an affliction with Tourette’s, Dysentery or Cholera.

The game begins anew. “Free-kick to Bristol Rovers early doors” says Brenner, using his favourite football commentary expression before it’s too late.   Quickly, Mick and Brenner establish for us that the portents for the second half are not good. “Everything seems to be coming from mistakes” says Mick, as if he’s never seen a third division match before. “This could be a horrible forty-two minutes to watch” adds Brenner with a mixture of fear and ghoulish optimism.

Seven minutes into the half and in a rare moment of actively trying to influence the result, Teddy Bishop has a shot on goal, but it’s very weak and straight at Jaakola.  Seemingly already losing interest in today’s match Brenner is looking ahead; “Three successive away games in a row for Town” he says, exhibiting a disappointingly poor understanding of tautology and how to avoid it.  Returning to the present, Gwion Edwards has a shot cleared; “off the goal line” according to Brenner, although in truth it hadn’t got that far.  In the aftermath Luke Chambers goes down clutching some or other piece of his anatomy and whilst he receives treatment Brenner asks Mick to summarise things so far this half.  Rather than comment on the use of colour and poetic licence in Brenner’s commentary, Mick answers with another question “Why aren’t we much better than these teams rooted down the bottom?”

Chambers recovers and play resumes. An hour has passed. “Still not comfortable viewing” says Brenner moments before Teddy Bishop breaks down the right to the by-line. “That was a terrific Teddy Bishop burst on the ball, he just went past people as if they weren’t there” declares Mick incredulously.  Sadly Teddy’s low cross is easily blocked.  Twenty five minutes of normal time remain, “A long way to go” remarks Brenner before telling us of “Parrott stretching his hamstrings” as the pssitacine-named player warms up on the touchline.  It makes me wonder to myself if parrots actually have hamstrings.   Back on the pitch Aaron Drinan is booked for colliding with an opposition player.  Troy Parrott replaces Kayden Jackson.  “How did they do?” asks Brenner of Mick referring to the Norwood and Jackson striking partnership.  “They didn’t do very well” is Mick’s considered response, although he does go on to describe the mitigating circumstances of an absence of any helpful passes from our midfield.

The sixty-seventh minute and Gwion Edwards wins a corner for Town; nothing comes of it.  “Still for the most part a very poor football team to watch, Ipswich Town” says Brenner trying to keep us in suspense until the end of his sentence to find out which team he is talking about.  A little over fifteen minutes remain of normal time. “I can’t believe how cold it is at Portman Road, there hasn’t been much to warm the cockles it has to be said”  says Brenner, possibly  hinting at some contractual obligation to mention either the weather or Town’s inability to make people feel good.  The seventy-fourth minute and Rovers’ Brandon Hanlon runs past Luke Chambers and strikes the ball across the face of the goal; it’s either a poor shot or a poor cross, but probably both. “Not the first time the Ipswich Town captain has been caught out for pace in this game, it has to be said” says Brenner telling us once again that there are just some things that he has to say, although presumably as a radio commentator if he didn’t say anything he wouldn’t get paid.

Thirteen minutes remain. Rover’s substitute Oztumer, whose surname sounds horribly like an Australian cancer, is booked for a foul on Stephen Ward.  “Three goals in eighteen minutes, a mad period really” says Mick reminiscing about happier times.  Six minutes later and Brenner tells us that Town have won “their fourth corner of this second half”.  Unusually, Luke Chambers makes it to the ball first and sends a near post header onto the roof of the net. “Decent effort” says Mick, “Not the best corner I would have said” he adds making Luke’s achievement sound all the more impressive.  A fifth corner soon follows, cleverly won by Aaron Drinan.   It’s just a shame Town are not very good at corners.  “My goodness it’s really been very poor” fires off Mick, “I don’t think Ipswich have performed at all…just so messy…nothing to excite you at all”,

Normal time has almost expired and for no apparent reason other than to use up time, Teddy Bishop and little Alan Judge are replaced by Josh Harrop and Armando Dobra.  Meanwhile, Bristol Rovers replace David Ayunga with Josh Barrett who, Brenner tells us “is very stocky”.  Four minutes of added time are played, and twenty-two seconds into the ninety-fifth minute, through the medium of his referee’s whistle ,  Mr Martin says enough is enough and Town win.  Mick was right.

Mick’s closing words before the ifollow broadcast rudely cuts him off are “Everything seemed to be messy and untidy; the performance again, it’s miles away from what you want.”  Of course Mick’s not wrong, how could he be?  But heck, on the bright side we have won.  During the week I watched a programme about Trappist monks in Leicestershire who set up a brewery; one of them said that people are happiest when living life in the moment not thinking of what’s gone or what the future holds.  Tonight Town have won, be happy, the future will look after itself, like it did in 1978.

Ipswich Town 0 Fleetwood Town 1

In spite of my enigmatic mix of eternal optimism and a passion for existential misery, and never having seen Fleetwood Town before, I am not overly looking forward to tonight.  It’s a bit cold and damp and there is a sad inevitability that a good number of the Portman Road crowd will be quick to moan now that Ipswich Town have embarked on a solid run of defeats made more impressive by how easily the winning goals could have been prevented.  It is without any sense of excitement or anticipation therefore that I leave work and step out into the late afternoon and its quickening rain drops.

In an effort to make a clean break from the past weeks and stop myself looking like a slimmer but greying version of Brian Wilson circa 1965, I am going to get my haircut.  As usual I take my custom to Francesco’s of St Matthew’s St, an establishment which was formerly by appointment to Sir Bobby Robson. The pleasant woman who cuts my hair tells me of a current Town player who always wore his Town tracksuit top when he came to get his haircut, but is seemingly no longer so keen to be recognised and now turns up in ‘mufti’, not that she uses that expression.  Lighter of wallet (£15.50) and head but enlivened up by a very welcome, complimentary espresso coffee I leave Francesco’s and step into a Beatles song as I start to roam, and then I’m in town.  The damp streets of down town Ipswich are largely deserted, there’s nothing doing, everything is closing, it’s like a ruin.  I’m killing time until, by way of another change to the usual pre-match ritual, I will meet Mick at the Arbor House, where we will both drink a pint of Young’s London Special (£3.80), Mick will eat Chicken Risotto whilst I eat a Scotch Egg, Halloumi Chips and Sweet Potato Fries (£10), and we will conclude our meal with a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.60) for me and a half of Shipyard American Pale Ale (£2.50) for Mick.

At about 7:15 Mick and I leave the convivial surroundings of the Arbor House and head down the hill towards Portman Road, where I stop off at one of the blue booths to buy a programme (£3.50).  I’m not sure if I get disorientated by the thought of paying £3.50 for a programme, or whether it’s just the dim, evening light but it takes me two goes to work out which window I need to go to, but at least it makes the programme seller laugh, and I laugh too ,just to make sure that he’s laughing with me and not at me.

Wishing the operator of turnstile number four a cheery thanks for letting me into the ground I make for the facilities with Mick before we take up our seats in the cheap seats between the goal and the players’ tunnel.  In front of us a crew of sailors in their ‘number ones’ hang about waiting to form an unexpected and unexplained guard of honour as the two teams enter the field.  If we were playing Portsmouth it might make some sense but Fleetwood’s seafarers are more likely to wear sou’westers, waders and thick jumpers smelling of fish than naval uniforms.

Tonight’s crowd is a bit sparse compared to recent weeks; ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, obviously, and so is Pat from Clacton, but the old dears who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me are absent , as is the bloke with the brylcreemed hair.   Ray walks past with a pie, and when I ask what sort of pie it is he points to what  appears to be a  letter ‘C’ written on top in pastry; my guess and Ray’s is ‘C’ for chicken or perhaps, as tonight’s game is against Fleetwood, Cod,  but Pat from Clacton says she thought the ‘C’ was for something else; she doesn’t say what.  Ray looks aghast and tells me he’s glad he doesn’t have to sit next to her, I know what he means.

The match begins, Ipswich in classic blue and white trying to get the ball inside the white, wooden frame just in front of us to our right.  It is Fleetwood Town who get first go with the ball however, although visually they are disappointing wearing an insipid all pale yellow kit rather than their first kit which is red with white sleeves ,like Arsenal’s. Ipswich’s sartorial superiority sadly doesn’t seem to count for much however, and they struggle to do the things that usually help us to distinguish football from other sports such as Eton Fives, Discus and Dominoes.  The likes of Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt, Andre Dozzell and Janoi Donacien all try to cross the ball to a centre forward who I can only guess we haven’t actually signed yet, but Fleetwood’s gigantic number six Harry Souttar simply bats everything away with his head or an extended leg; if Harry Souttar was a fish he’d be a whale shark, which in case you didn’t know is the world’s largest cartilaginous fish.

There is some excitement after a quarter of an hour when Fleetwood have to make an early substitution with Ched Evans, whose name makes me think of Shed Seven, replacing Callum Connolly.  Meanwhile Mick is staring into the Cobbold stand trying to count the Fleetwood supporters, but the back of the stand is too shadowy to make it possible to tell the difference between people and seats and people who look like seats. We console ourselves with the knowledge that the attendance, including the size of the ‘Cod Army’, as Fleetwood supporters are known, will be announced later.   Soon the Sir Bobby Robson stand are chanting “ Evans, Evans, you’re a cunt” but Pat from Clacton and I can’t decide if they are singing to Ched or Marcus; we eventually settle on it being a catch all for anyone called Evans, tough as this is on choirmaster Evan Evans (known as Evans the Song) in ‘Ivor The Engine’.

Twenty eight minutes pass and Fleetwood win a corner.  It’s about now that I notice that the Fleetwood Town players bear the message ‘BES Utilities’ on the fronts of their shirts and I allow myself to ignore the difference in spelling and wonder if the former ‘Happy Monday’ has diversified into gas, water and sewerage.  Neither team has really had a shot on goal worthy of the name and whilst Ipswich are playing pretty atrociously, Fleetwood are doing their bit too  to ensure that value for money is kept to a minimum; credit where credit is due.  Whereas in many football matches what is usually described as ‘the deadlock’ is ‘broken’ by a flamboyant, audacious, cheeky, or simply consummate piece of skill ,  Ipswich have now almost perfected the complete opposite.  With forty minutes gone Ched Evans plays a one-two with someone or other not far from the half way line, which allows the spritely 31 year old to trundle past Luke Chambers, take the ball a bit too wide for a shot and then surprise us all by kicking the ball against and over the out-stretched leg of Tomas Holy and into the Ipswich goal.  As Town fans shake their heads the ecstatic Cod Army joyously leap about like salmon in the Cobbold Stand.  “You’re not famous anymore” they chant, as if that goal was responsible, whilst also challenging the song’s validity by the very fact that they’re singing it.  All fame is everlasting – discuss.

As often happens, half time soon follows an opponent’s goal to allow us to reflect, seethe or just spend a penny depending on our individual needs.  I begin my well-earned break with a look at the programme, which leads me to regret the absence from the Fleetwood team tonight of Harrison Biggins and Barry Baggley, although Billy Crellin is on the bench and though I don’t know it yet, we are destined to see him and hear his name.  I also enjoy two photos of Fleetwood manager Joey Barton, one in which he looks as if he may have just lobbed a brick at someone and another in which his chin juts out menacingly from beneath a baseball cap as he gives the evil eye to a person or persons safely out of shot. 

Having spoken again with Ray as we passed one another heading from and to the toilet, the digital clock display on the Sir Bobby Robson stand strikes 2049 and the second half begins.  Town’s losing position gives rise to the usual unwelcome commentary and advice from assorted coaches in the stands “Look at all that fuckin’space”, “ We’ve got no one at the back”, “Second ball!”.  When Janoi Donacien misses the ball a legion of half-wits jeer because I assume they all have World Cup winning medals or at least play for Brazil and are perfect in every way and always have been.  Pat from Clacton is rightfully annoyed, “You shouldn’t boo your own players” she tells me and I agree and tell her that’s what the opposition are for.

Town are better this half although they still can’t get past Harry Souttar and when they do Ched Evans clears off the line or goalkeeper Alex Cairns makes a fine save; I try to think of another player whose surname is the same as the name of an Australian city, but I can’t; Derek Darwin sounds plausible but is pure fiction.  The crowd is announced as 15,678 of whom 88 are from Fleetwood and many of the home crowd turn and applaud them for their effort including me, Mick looks on slightly bemused. He has a point, such applause is a bit patronising; plucky little Fleetwood etcetera, but it might just be people trying to be nice in a world tainted by Donald Trump and Priti Patel .

Nearly half an hour remains and a chorus of “Come of You Blues” rings around the ground and then dwindles away.  “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Fleetwood eighty-eight and I am impressed by their volume, which I can only attribute to a diet of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges for coughs and sore throats, which are manufactured by Lofthouse of Fleetwood and taste disgusting.  My father was seemingly addicted to the things, although regrettably they couldn’t stop him spending the last ten years of his life mostly hitched up to an oxygen machine.

As the game descends into the final twenty minutes Pat from Clacton shows me her purse full of ‘lucky’ charms, which she has collected from around the world, but it seems none of them works anymore although apparently some of them used to. She’s particularly fond of one from Vietnam , which is in the form of a masturbating monkey.  Pat seemed surprised she hadn’t shown me him before, but I tell her I think I would have remembered.

I am more or less resigned to another defeat now and Pat from Clacton is too, but unlike on a Saturday she doesn’t even have a jacket potato to look forward to when she gets home, but, she tells me, she will have a Nespresso latte.  The unhappiness of sections of the crowd is growing, chants of “We want Evans Out” can be heard and this time I think it is Marcus they mean and not Ched or ‘Evans the Song’. In the corner of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand five banners appear all bearing a word beginning with the letter U and then N.  At first I wonder if Antonio Guterres is in the house but the banners read “ Unambitious”, “Underfunded”, “Underpants”, “Underachieving” and “Unacceptable” although the middle one is a bit twisted so I might have got that wrong. 

Somewhat inevitably, Ipswich do not score an equaliser and the game ends amongst much rancour and general displeasure.  The atmosphere will later be described rather predictably as ‘toxic’, a word which used to be reserved for clouds of gas, but is now applied almost exclusively to the air we breathe at Portman Road.   Mick and I stay to applaud the teams off, because, although I can’t speak for Mick , I didn’t not enjoy the game any more than I usually do when we lose, and I also have some time to kill before the next train home.

Ipswich Town 0 Swansea City 1


Despite being fortunate enough to grow up and go to school in Suffolk, I was born in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where I lived until I was a few months old and my parents moved to my mother’s home village of Shotley  and took me and my sister with them, like the good parents that they were.  The nearest Football League club to Haverfordwest is Swansea City, (still Swansea Town when I was born) and there is an argument that says I might follow their fortunes, but I don’t.  The dual nationality comes in handy when Wales do well in the rugby and I like leeks,  cheese on toast, Ivor the Engine, Sgorio  and daffodils; but that’s as Welsh as I am see.  I wouldn’t normally mention it but today Town play Swansea City, and I’ve written this first paragraph in a Welsh accent. 

At the railway station it’s another gloriously warm, cloudless day and sunlight glints off the tracks.  The only travellers are all bound for Ipswich and the match; the train is on time.  The carriage is sparsely populated and I share it with a hard looking woman and two young children, a girl and a boy.  As the train arrives into Colchester she scolds them in a harsh voice that sounds like a man’s. “Drake, McKenna get away from the door”.  I can’t help but derive amusement from the names of children nowadays, it’s my age.  The children seem almost to roll their eyes as she speaks.  Pleasingly they leave the train at Colchester and twenty five minutes later I arrive peacefully in Ipswich.

Ipswich is best under a blue sky and everything is beautiful as I walk up Princes Street and past the peeling paint of Portman Road with its ragged club flag to St Jude’s Tavern, which is dingy and the customers are reassuringly as old and ugly as ever. I order a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50)  Nethergate Venture.  At the bar I meet Kev’ who I know from my days with Wivenhoe Town.  Kev’ is wearing a dark flat cap which in the gloom of St Jude’s looks like a beret.  I am wearing my “Allez les bleus” T-shirt today and tell him I thought the French had come to take me “home” to where I imagine I belong  –  that’s France, not Wales.   I sit with the regular old gits who assemble here on match days.  I talk to one of them (Phil) about statues of footballers and tell him that even Carlisle United has one, although I can’t remember who it is a statue of. Phil suggests it’s not a footballer but one of the Hairy Bikers because he knows one of them is from Cumbria.  I tell him the Hairy Biker he’s thinking of is from Barrow In Furness, where the nuclear submarines come from.  I drain my glass and fetch a pint of Butcomb Gold (£3.60), which seems livelier than the Venture even though I can’t help thinking Butcomb might be a West Country word for anus.

With the big hand heading up the clock face towards the figure eight, the pub empties and carried on a gentle human tide I soon find myself back in Portman Road.  A selection of people are hawking copies of the Turnstile Blue fanzine where Portman Road meets Sir Alf Ramsey Way and I buy one (£1);  it’s issue 20 and it’s much like the previous nineteen in its tone, but it’s nice when things are familiar.  Unusually there are queues to get into the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand; not because of weight of numbers but because not all the turnstiles are open.  Nevertheless, despite my desire to be French I like a good queue to get in the ground; it carries a faint hint of the ‘big match’ atmosphere, which is the best 17,247 people can really hope for in a 30,000 seat stadium.  I enter turnstile number seven and wish the bespectacled female operator a happy Easter as she returns my freshly scanned season ticket card to me.  She looks up, surprised as if she’d forgotten about the resurrection.

Bladder drained, I occupy a seat near ever-present Phil who never misses a game and just along from Pat from Clacton.  Pat is fed up because a large man in a red hat is sat directly in front of her today and she’s only short; whichever way she looks a big red head is in her field of vision.  We sit and wait for the teams to appear from the tunnel.   

Town have been officially relegated for over a week now and today’s match is amongst the most pointless they have ever played, childishly I live in the hope that  they will therefore treat it as a bit of fun, a bit like testimonial games  are supposed to be.  Would anyone be bothered if the two teams each agreed to play a 2-3-5 formation?   I am not optimistic for this however as professional football tends to take itself much too seriously, like many of the fans, as the drivel that appears on social media testifies.   The teams are announced and my hopes of football for fun are dashed. 

The flags of tiny mascots and larger furry mascots sway to an amplified soundtrack of swirling music giving an undeserved aura of grandeur to the two teams as they walk out for this meaningless encounter, but I stand and applaud nevertheless, swept up with the lie that this match is bigger than really it is. As the game begins the noise level simmers down and a degree of reality returns. Town are hopefully aiming at the goal just to the left of me, ever-present Phil and Pat from Clacton; they inevitably wear blue and white shirts adorned with the unwelcome red adidas stripes and that nasty sponsors’ logo. In crisp white shorts and black shorts Swansea look like Germany, they are the Teutonic Taffies.

“One Dylan Thomas, There’s only one Dylan Thomas” sing the male voice choir from Swansea from the top corner of the Cobbold Stand, or perhaps they don’t. A serious looking steward collects blue and white balloons that have drifted from the stand, thereby  suppressing someone’s expression of joy; no doubt the balloons had strayed dangerously close to the pitch. I like to think that as part of the club’s Community programme the balloons will later be released at the birthday parties of deprived children. Next to me Pat from Clacton continues to glower at the big red hat on the big head of the big man sitting in front of her. On the touchline Paul Lambert is celebrating Easter with a new jumper, a grey one, an infinite number of shades lighter than his usual black one, and people still accuse Scots of being dour.

On the pitch referee Mr Darren England, which seems a good name for a football referee, makes himself unpopular with the home support by seemingly giving fouls against Ipswich players and not Swansea ones.  “You’re not fit to referee Subbuteo, you tiny little bugger” bawls an incensed voice from somewhere behind me, failing to notice that being tiny is actually one of the main requirements of being a Subbuteo referee along with being made from brittle plastic and glued into a circular base.   The game is rather boring and Swansea are hogging the ball; like every other club that has been to Portman Road this season, they have the better players, the better team.  Forty minutes pass and Town’s Flynn Downes gets into the Swansea penalty area and wins a corner. Will Keane misses a header and scuffs the ball against a post, the ball bounces about like it’s made of rubber bands before Trevoh Chalobah sends it flying past the other post into the stand.  Sixty seconds later, give or take, another corner is won and Toto N’siala heads Alan Judge’s kick solidly over the cross bar. The supporters behind the goal are getting almost as much possession of the ball as Andre Dozzell.  Pat and I are breathless at the sudden burst of attacking football from Town and are glad for the rest that half-time soon brings.

I use the facilities beneath the stand, eat a Panda brand liquorice stick and catch up on the half-time scores.  A young man in a shirt and tie and smart trousers compliments me on my ‘Allez les Bleus’ T-shirt, “Cool T-shirt” he says brightly. He’s not wrong.  The match stats on the TV screen above the concourse are blatantly wrong however, claiming Ipswich have had eight shots to Swansea’s six; it’s as if the stats are being reported by Donald Trump or the Brexit campaign.  I return to the stand to talk to Ray who confesses to being underwhelmed by the first half.

At six minutes past four the game resumes.  I laugh when Gwion Edwards stretches to head the ball by the touchline then tumbles out of sight over the perimeter wall; “well for me” to quote Mick Channon, it’s the best move of the match so far.  Happily, Gwion quickly bounces back up and plays on, but that’s the sort of entertainment end of season games need.  Minutes later Dean Gerken makes a  quite spectacular low,  diving, ‘finger-tip save’ from a Daniel James shot before the very tiny, thirty-four year old Wayne Routledge, whose shorts almost reach his calves, runs the ball over the goal line and is met with jeers and guffaws from the appreciative crowd in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.   But Wayne has a friend in fate today and within a few minutes a shot rebounds off Town’s right hand post and straight onto the turf in front of Wayne who is quick enough not to miss an open goal and Swansea are winning.

The attendance is announced as 17,247 with 557 of those being from Swansea; Collin Quaner and Kayden Jackson replace Andre Dozzell and Will Keane.  Wayne Routledge is replaced by Nathan Dyer.  “I can’t believe we’re losing again” says Pat from Clacton.  I make a sympathetic humming noise in reply, I couldn’t think of any proper words to say.   Behind Pat sit two large middle aged women. “We don’t really get the sun here, do we” says one obviously engrossed in the game, before adding “Coronation Street’s on tonight”.

Town struggle to equalise and Pat and I are a little despondent, “I don’t really enjoy coming here anymore” she says “It’s not like it used to be”.  We are Ipswich’s spoilt generation who remember the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  But Pat is already planning to renew her season ticket and might get one for her young niece too.   Of course I am going to renew mine as well as will ever-present Phi who never misses game; I’m looking forward to the big discount when the other 13, 996 sign up.  Pat takes a photograph using the 20x zoom lens on her compact Sony camera and picks out her brother stood in the North Stand, it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen all afternoon. 

Time drifts by under a hazy blue sky and at last the stadium clock turns nine minutes to five.  It’s been a disappointing hour and a half of football and to add insult to injury we are forced to sit through six minutes of time added on; as if relegation wasn’t bad enough we are now all in detention.  Hopes are raised with a last minute corner and Dean Gerken leaves his goal to join in the penalty area melee at the far end; I stand up and lurch forward as if to join him too, but realise just  in time that that sort of commitment is generally frowned upon nowadays.  Little Alan Judge’s corner kick is poorly judged and sails away over everyone’s heads anyway.  Finally Mr Darren England makes a belated and vain bid for popularity by blowing the final whistle.

Normally the team does a lap of honour or appreciation around the pitch after the last game of the season, but because the last game of this season will be against Leeds United that lap is occurring today.  Having been relegated the Town players don’t want thousands of oafish Yorkshireman flicking v’s at the them and screaming at  them from the Cobbold Stand to “Fuck Off” as they wander round clutching assorted  babies and toddlers and waving nicely.   The players re-emerge from the tunnel without delay and I slavishly applaud as they drift by beyond a wall of stewards; within a couple of minutes I go home for my tea.

Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.


In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAany one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.
Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in dueOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.
Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.
The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of twoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.
Early on Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.
Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead Fire United fail however, to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requiresOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.
I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.


From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.
It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnited still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.
I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.
It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.

 

Paris St Germain 2 Les Herbiers 0

For an Ipswich Town supporter FA Cup ties have become something of a rarity, and more than that, a disappointment. Despite winning the FA Cup itself, albeit forty years ago, (incidentally, only thirty-six of the current ninety-two league clubs have ever won the Cup, and Norwich City are not one of them) Town have failed to honour their past and have not even won an FA Cup tie since 2010, when they triumphed away at Blackpool. Starved of cup glory therefore, the opportunity to go to the final of the French equivalent of the FA Cup, the Coupe de France, is not to be missed. This year the final tie is between the current holders Paris St Germain and Vendee Les Herbiers Football (VHF) a semi-professional team who currently play in the Ligue National, the third tier of French league football. Francophile that I am I ‘signed up’ for e-mails from the Federation Football Française (French Football Association) a couple of seasons ago and my wife, who I shall introduce to you by name shortly is on Paris St Germain’s e-mailing list, so we both received invitations by e-mail to buy tickets for the final. For just 19 Euros each, yes, 19 Euros, about £16.50, we have tickets at the Stade de France for the show piece, end of season finale. I have paid more this season to watch Colchester United versus Morecambe.
My wife, Paulene and I arrived in St Denis in the north of Paris at lunchtime and from

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Basilica St Denis

our hotel room at the Novotel it is possible to see the Stade de France in one direction and in the other the Basilica Cathedral of St Denis, where nearly 1,600 years-worth of French kings and queens including Clovis, Dagobert, Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were all buried. As if that is not enough this is considered to be the building where in the twelfth century all the elements that make up Gothic architecture were brought together for the first time; it is a most beautiful building of remarkable historic significance.

 

After a leisurely visit and a picnic in the nearby Parc de Legion d’Honneur we rest up back at the hotel before making the short walk to the Stade de France. In the hotel lobby Les Herbiers supporters are checking in and making use of the bar.
Today is the May 8th, a national holiday in France marking the liberation of the country from the Nazis in 1945; it is a glorious sunny day with temperatures up in the mid-twenties; one digital display says the temperature is 35 degrees but I’m not sure I believe it. Our approach to the Stade de France is at the end of the stadium where there is a sea of Les Herbiers supporters of all ages dressed up in red and white. Les Herbiers is just a small town with a population of about 16,000 situated in the Vendee department, some 50 kilometres south east of Nantes and almost a four hour journey by road from Paris. Today Les Herbiers and a good few places all around it must be completely empty.
Last night on French TV sports journalists were debating whether this cup final between Paris St Germain, with an annual budget of 340 million Euros, and a semi-professional third division team with an annual budget of 2 million Euros was a good thing or not. Seeing the excitement and joy on the faces of the Les Herbiers supporters leaves me in no doubt that it is a good thing. It does not matter that it is the final and it is a mis-match. Paris St Germain will win because they now win everything, but it will still be the show piece event of the season and both sets of supporters will love every minute of it; also in the scheme of things it doesn’t matter much because there will be another cup final next year, and another the year after that, provided Donald Trump hasn’t finally caused Armageddon.
Security at all the bigger French football matches is reassuringly tight and once patted down we head up the ramp to the concourse that surrounds the Stade de France, a stadium that feels much more spacious and is much more beautiful than Wembley, although it is now twenty years old. Unable to resist acquiring souvenirs of the day, I buy myself a T-shirt (20 Euros) and Paulene a scarf (20 Euros) for which Paulene also learns the French, which is écharpe. There is a while to go before kick-off at five past nine so I get into the spirit of things joining the Les Herbiers supporters with a pint of Carlsberg (8 Euros), the price of which makes me feel that the T-shirt and scarf were massive bargains and I should buy more of them, but I don’t. The beer comes in a re-usable plastic “eco-cup” (2 Euros) of a type seen at many French stadiums and makes me feel much better in the knowledge that even though I have been robbed blind I am helping save the planet. Paulene has a bottle of water (3 Euros).
Paulene is keen to get in the stadium to watch the warm ups and pre-matchOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA entertainment and because she is a chronic asthmatic and will need to recover from the long climb to our seats. For Paulene visits to large stadiums such as Marseille’s Velodrome and the Stade Felix Boleart in Lens have in the past come with near death experiences after ascending staircase after staircase after staircase on a sort of stairway to Heaven. Whilst Paulene climbs, I callously hang around outside, slowly drinking my beer, savouring it as best I can and soaking up the ambiance with smiling, excited and inebriated French people. Eventually I head for the turnstile where I must show both my ticket and passport, the French show their identity cards. The steward seems pleased to see a “Rosbif “ and summons up his best English to say “Welcome”, which is nice. Inside the stadium I am patted down again and wished bon match before being offered a complimentary Pitch choco barre courtesy of a promotion by Brioche Pasquier an industrial French bakery whose products can be found in English supermarkets too.
Our seats are in the third tier of the stadium but are not together, Paulene sits in the second row from the front whilst I am another three or four rows back and off to the right. As I arrive at my seat, on the pitch the final ten minutes of the French FA Youth

 

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Cup for Under 19’s, the Coupe Gambardella, between ESTAC Troyes and Tours FC are being played out. Troyes are winning 2-1 and hang on to lift the trophy amidst scenes of much excitement and generous appreciation for these young players. Although fully professional, Troyes and Tours are relatively small clubs, but in France this is no barrier to producing successful youth teams, a fact illustrated by Auxerre, a town a third the size of Ipswich having won the Coupe Gambardella a record seven times. I sit on the steps next to Paulene and after the presentation of the trophy and ensuing celebrations we watch the stadium gradually filling up until the steward just in front of us asks me to take my seat.
We are amongst the Paris St Germain supporters, although the hard core ultras are in a seemingly dedicated area in the lower tier where a platform is positioned in front of

 

them for the use of the two ultras who will lead and orchestrate the chanting. On the pitch the preparations are being made for the start of the final of the Coup de France and the celebration of French football that this represents. The teams warm up; the PSG players looking comfortable and familiar with the huge stadium, the Les Herbiers players looking slightly in awe of the setting and the vast numbers of their own supporters decked out in red and white; their home crowds in the Ligue National average about 1,300. Les Herbiers wear simple hi-vis jackets over their red tracksuit tops and look every bit the modest, provincial club that they are. The players warm up in a corner in front of their fans as if at a much smaller ground.
At last the scene is set and amidst two teams of drummers behind each goal, four separate formations of flag wavers, a huge circular FFF Coupe de France logo and two similarly massive club badges that all look like they could be used by the fire brigade to catch people jumping from high buildings, a marching band in French blue trousers with tunics decked in gold braid, a suspended image of the Coupe de France trophy and pitchside pyrotechnics the teams emerge from the tunnel. I join in as best I can with the singing of the Marseillaise, which is truly glorious and then the teams are introduced to President Macron who is roundly booed. I exchange amused smiles and raised eyebrows with the white haired bearded man stood next to me who admits he is not really a football fan, he prefers rugby and has just been brought along to the game by his two friends; he is however supporting Les Herbiers and so am I. It’s all absolutely brilliant and the game hasn’t started yet.

 

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We sit and Les Herbiers kick off the match wearing all red and playing towards central Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower; PSG are in their usual all navy blue kit and kicking towards the Cathédrale Basilique St Denis. Les Herbiers start well and within two minutes Joachim Eickmeyer breaks down the left, crosses the ball and Sebastien Flochon’s shot is deflected wide of the goal resulting in a corner from which Valentin Vanbeleghem shoots wide from some 25 metres out. The white-haired man and I applaud conspiratorially. But it doesn’t take long before PSG have two shots from Giovanni Lo Celso and Kylian Mbappé that hit a Les Herbier goal post, the second shot defying physics as its angle of incidence blatantly fails to equal its angle of reflection, instead the ball just bounces right back at him.
Satisfyingly for my white haired friend and me it is PSG’s Yuri Berchiche who is the first player to be booked by referee Mikael Lesage. But such events become crumbs of comfort as PSG predictably dominate and miss chance upon chance with Lo Celso again hitting a goalpost with a shot , although Les Herbiers are in fact playing extremely well, they’re just not as good as PSG. The Ligue National team do not ever resort to aimlessly booting the ball away in blind panic, but always attempt to play the ball from defence by passing it, certain Ipswich Town defenders could perhaps benefit from some coaching from Les Herbiers’ Stephane Masala; does he know there is a job going? He is perhaps one of the few successful managers of a lower league club not so far linked with the job.
Off the pitch, the far end of the stadium is a noisy, constantly choppy, but joyous sea of red and white flags, even when on 26 minutes Giovani Lo Celso surprises me at least by scoring with a low shot from the edge of the penalty area to inevitably give PSG the lead. PSG continue to dominate play but still only lead 1-0 at half-time, when I pop downstairs to buy a bottle of Evian (2.50 Euros) for Paulene.
The second half picks up where the first left off, but for the usual change of ends. Within five minutes it seems PSG have scored again as following a sequence of remarkable deflections and rebounds Mbappé sends the ball into the goal net. The PSG fans and ultras have celebrated the ‘goal’ but apparently under false pretences as following some sort of video conference at the side of the pitch Monsieur Lesage disallows the goal and awards Les Herbiers a free-kick. It is the first time I have witnessed the use of video technology at a match and it feels very odd because of the hiatus it creates; I don’t like it, it doesn’t feel right, although my neighbour and I gleefully cheer the decision nevertheless.
PSG probably dominate the second half more than ever and despite some fantastic saves from Matthieu Pichot in the Les Herbiers goal it eventually all becomes too much and a bit after twenty five to eleven he can’t help but knock over PSG’s Edinson Cavani whoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA scores for the resultant penalty. Pichot is booked by Monsieur Lesage for his efforts but shakes his hand to acknowledge his mistake and show he has no hard feelings; what civilised people the French are.
PSG come close to scoring again more than once in the final minutes but pleasingly Les Herbiers have a late flourish too and both Diaranké Fofana and then substitute Clement Couturier almost beat PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp with a snap shot and a run into the penalty box. Finally, after five minutes of time added on however, Monsieur Lesage calls time on the 101st final of the Coupe de France and PSG have won it for a record 12th time. No one seriously thought they wouldn’t, but some of us hoped.
After an overlong wait, the presentation of the trophy follows with much jumping about and littering of the pitch with red, white and blue fluttery material. A massive scrum of photographers surrounds the players who are barely visible in the unseemly melee and the players make their way to the ultras to thank them for their support and to celebrate together. Nobly the vast majority of Les Herbiers supporters stay on to watch also; this is all part of their big day out. With their celebratory juices running dry the players leave the pitch which is covered by protective sheeting in preparation for the finale to the finale a display of fireworks, lights and lasers which says thank you to the 7,160 clubs who entered the Coupe de France this season, almost ten times the number that enter the English FA Cup. Reminders appear on the scoreboard of when the last metro trains leave the two nearest stations to the stadium.

 

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The fireworks display is a fitting end to the evening, although Paulene and I actually thought the one put on by Lille Olympique at the end of their final league match last season was better, but we can be picky like that sometimes. It has been a terrific night for PSG, the Coupe de France, French football and most of all Vendee Les Herbiers Football and its supporters and we didn’t half enjoy it too. Vive La France!

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