Ipswich Town 2 Peterborough United 1

Henry VIII’s original ex, Catherine of Aragon died on the 7th January 1536 in Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire and was then buried in Peterborough cathedral, and indeed what is left of her still is.   This burial is perhaps the city of Peterborough’s main claim to fame, and I must admit to being quite impressed, although given that after Henry split up with her in 1533 Catherine lived in Hatfield, Enfield , Ampthill and a couple of other places too before rocking up in Kimbolton it seems like just a bit of luck for Peterborough that she finally conked out in the PE postcode area.  Peterborough’s other claim to fame is its football club’s impressive record in competitive fixtures against the mighty Ipswich Town.  In sixteen games since November 1955 Peterborough have won nine, drawn four and lost only three fixtures.  Amongst those victories for Peterborough were two FA Cup ‘giant killings’ as a non-league club in the 1950’s and then this century a stonking 7-1 thrashing live on TV, although this can excused by the fact that Town were at the time managed by Roy Keane, who if not insane is at the very least a bit odd and after ‘Hurst the Worst’ was easily Town’s most terrible ever manager.

Today sees the seventeenth competitive meeting between Ipswich Town and Peterborough United and just to make it memorable it’s kicking off at 12:30pm, presumably to ensure anyone travelling from beyond the Ipswich area can get home in time to watch England lose to France on the telly in the World Cup quarter finals.  For even more added interest, it’s a particularly cold day with a thick frost clinging to the windows of my trusty Citroen C3 and many other surfaces as I prepare to set off for what I now call ‘The Arb’ for my usual pre-match drink with friend Mick.  Having parked up the Citroen, the walk to Portman Road through Gippeswyk Park is glorious beneath a clear, pale blue sky across earth as hard as iron and frosted, quietly crunchy grass. The icy air feels clean and fresh as I breathe it in.  On Ranelagh Road I follow a man for whom the peculiarly low crotch on his trousers makes him look like he has very short legs and a long body, but then again perhaps he has. Constantine Road is quiet and what used to be Portman Walk is too. As usual I pause to buy a programme (£3.50) from the kiosk on the corner of Alderman Road.  The kiosk window is steamed up due to the cold and I can only see the middle third of the programme seller, who remains legless and headless.  To add to my retail experience, I go to pay by card, but the touch screen thing doesn’t work and I have to insert my card into the plastic contraption and tap in my PIN number.  “I hope I’m not charged twice” I tell the midriff, and a disembodied voice tells me to take it up in the shop if I am.

I cross the threshold of ‘The Arb’ at 11:15 and buy a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.95) which I take into the garden where I text Mick to tell him “Je suis dans le jardin”.  Mick soon arrives, pint of Suffolk Pride in hand, and asks if my sitting in the garden is still a reaction to Covid.  I tell him it is, but it also saves me having to take my coat off.  Our conversation as ever is about sex and death.  We finish our drinks by noon but hang on another ten minutes because we don’t want to arrive too early.

We join the match-bound crowd as we and it cross Civic Drive.  What used to be Portman Walk is full of people crossing paths and making beelines for their chosen turnstiles. The low chatter of the crowd, the purposeful walking and checking of tickets, the approaching kick-off, it’s all part of the mounting excitement.  There is a queue at turnstiles 59 and 60 to the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and I find myself behind a man called Kevin. I compliment him on the 1970’s vibe of his cap, donkey jacket, Doc Marten’s and turned up jeans, he says he’s come as a Council dustman.

I step onto the former terrace of Churchman’s as the teams form parallel crocodiles onto the pitch and the crowd rises to applaud, it feels like quite an entrance.  I edge past Pat from Clacton and Fiona to sit next but one to the man from Stowmarket. Two rows in front of me ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, but his son Elwood is not.  Phil and Fiona hand me Christmas cards and Stephen Foster the stadium announcer reads out the teams and then the match begins, with Peterborough getting first go with the ball. Town are rightfully in blue and white whilst Peterborough are sadly in black as if perhaps still mourning Catherine of Aragon, although apparently Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn both wore yellow to mourn her.  The Aragonese flag is of yellow and red stripes which would make a cracking away kit.  From up in the Cobbold stand comes the unlikely chant of “Peterborough, Peterborough FC, The finest football team the world has ever seen” to the tune of the Irish Rover.  As if in response the Sir Bobby Robson stand sing something a bit tuneless, which nevertheless ends with a joyful “Wo-oh-oh-oh-oh, Wo-oh-oh-ohh” and the melting frost that had been clinging to the roof of the stand drops in large, loud splashes on my SuperDry coat, which seems ironic. 

The first ten or fifteen minutes of the game are a bit frantic and formless. With half the pitch in deep shade the sombrely dressed Peterborough players appear as dark silhouettes in the gloom, a bit like the people in an architect’s conceptual drawing.  “Football in a library, de-de-de” chant the Peterborough fans tunelessly before going for the jugular with the Welsh hymn Cwm Rhondda, to which they apply the words “Your support is fucking shit”, just like everyone from every other club always does,  

Peterborough’s hefty looking, almost chubby, and extensively surnamed Jonson Clarke-Harris goes down in a very large heap. “Get Up!” bawls someone behind me not unreasonably, and with no one showing him much sympathy he does.   Peterborough get the ball to the by-line. “Come on Boro’, Come On Boro’ ” chant the away tribe supportively. “Addy, addy, addy-O” chant the home fans happily.  The flags on the Cobbold stand hang limply in the cold, still air.

It’s the thirteenth minute and it’s unlucky for Janoi Donacien who is laid low by a mystery injury, perhaps due to the extreme cold, and he is replaced by Kane Vincent-Young.  The first shot on goal arrives in the twentieth minute as Sone Aluko bounces a hooked attempt into the ground and past a post at the end of a move down the Ipswich right. Two minutes later and another move on the right ends with the ball played back and then crossed by Sam Morsy.  Running towards the ball Conor Chaplain leaps and twists his neck to glance the ball into the far corner of the goal and give Town the lead. It’s a beautiful goal, but one that unearths that tired cliché about the shortest player on the pitch scoring from a header, as if to say players under 1.8m in height aren’t allowed to jump.

I start to dream of another three points banked and more importantly a long-awaited victory over these upstarts with their medieval cathedral and royal tomb.  A third of the match has now gone to join the reformation and Catherine of Aragon in the past and a woman arrives in the gangway next to Pat from Clacton, who appears to be lost. It seems she went to the loo and hasn’t been able to find her way back to her seat. Helpfully, ever-present Phil, who has the ‘knowledge’ to be a Sir Alf Ramsey stand taxi driver, if such a thing were possible, gives her directions ‘home’.  Distracted by this incident perhaps, we have allowed Peterborough to win their first corner of the game and as a subsequent angled cross by Kwame Poku arcs towards the far post I spot Peterborough’s Frankie Kent lingering on his own and realise he is likely to score, and he does.  It’s almost exactly like one of the goals Town conceded against Barnsley; it doesn’t help that Frankie Kent sounds like he could have been an associate of the Kray twins if given the pre-fix ‘mad’.

The goal provokes chants of “E-I, E-I, E-I, O, Up the football league we go” from Peterborough which seems optimistic on the strength of one equalising goal, but you have to get your pleasures where you can.  “We should be shuttin’ ‘em down a lot quicker that what we are doin” says the bloke behind me by way of explanation for our disappointment.   “Fuck off you cunt” shouts a less philosophical character from further behind me as the Peterborough goalkeeper Lucas Bergstrom then takes his time over a goal kick after Sam Morsy has sent a pretty solid looking shot narrowly  wide of the goal.

Not unexpectedly the Peterborough fans now alter their words for Cwm Rhondda from ”Your support is fucking shit” to “You’re not singing anymore”, failing to spot the inconsistency in their song-based argument.

Seven minutes until half time and Sone Aluko produces a piece of skill worthy of the  great Clive Woods as he dribbles mazily to the by-line before pulling the ball back, only for Bergstrom to somehow get lucky and grab the ball as it is sent goalward by Wes Burns.  Bergstrom stays down on the turf to eke out some more time and I decide that with his short, lank hair and lanky stature,  from behind Bergstrom looks a bit like Gareth in ‘The Office’.   Sam Morsy has two more shots on goal, one at Bergstrom and one over the cross-bar before Stephen Foster announces that there will be 3 minutes of added on time.  A bit like the match versus Fleetwood, the game started quite well but has descended into uncertainty, but I take solace by chatting to Ray although his son Michael and grandson Harrison are absent today, having made one of their overly frequent visits to CenterParcs for rest and recuperation.  Ray tells me about his cruise to Madeira and Cape Verde and how he vomited in the Bay of Biscay.

The match resumes at 13:36 and Cameron Burgess lumps the ball up field.  Shadow now enshrouds most of the stadium and weirdly I have the sensation that I feel warmer when the ball is in one of the shrinking sunlit parts of the pitch.  “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” chants the crowd at the north end of the ground as if having resolved over a collective half-time cup of hot-chocolate to help the team to win today.  It seems to work as the ball now stays mostly in the Peterborough half.  Ten minutes into the second half and Town win their first corner courtesy of a nippy and busy Kayden Jackson. “Come On You Blues” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand just like in the old days, and a few of us join in around the ground. Down the right-hand side Wes Burns skips past one player and the crowd roars, he goes past another, and the roar is louder still producing a sound only ever heard when a wide player goes past a defender, and I’m reminded again of Clive Woods, Mick Lambert, Kevin O’Callaghan and Bobby Petta.  There is momentum building and Town win a second corner. The ball is crossed from the left, a Peterborough head glances it away but only to Conor Chaplin who instantly controls it and slams it high into the roof of the goal net to give Town back the lead. It’s another perfect goal from Chaplin and it’s the Town fans’ turn to sing “E-I, E-I, E-I -O, Up the Football League go”, and with some justification as the goal takes Town back to the top of the third division.

The pressure on Peterborough continues for a while and Sam Morsy gets his customary booking, unusually for supposed diving, which draws chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” directed not at Morsy but at referee Ollie Yates; sadly and perhaps surprisingly neither assistant referee is called Stan, but strangely one of them does look a bit like Lionel Messi.  Peterborough make multiple substitutions including bringing on a bloke called Jeandro Fuchs, a case of Fuchs on rather than Fuchs off.  Mr Yates then achieves the ironic cheer from the crowd as he finally gives Town a free-kick.  Behind me, the bloke who was displeased by Bergstrom in the first half has spotted what a big fellow Clarke Harris is. “Looks like he could be a scrum half, that cunt” he says, using his descriptive powers to the full.

Town make substitutions, bringing applause for departing Kayden Jackson and Sone Aluko, and this afternoon’s attendance is announced as 24,849 with 1,230 of those being from Peterborough. “Your support, Your support, Your support is roughly 5% of ours (numerically speaking)” chant the Magnus west stand, whilst the Sir Bobby Robson Stand quickly chant “Here for the Ipswich, You’re only here for the Ipswich” before the away fans get the chance to claim that anyone has only turned up exclusively to see the Boro’.  Incidentally, Catherine of Aragon came to Ipswich at some point between 1517 and 1522 to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Ipswich which was somewhere near where Lady Lane is now, so just a couple of goal kicks away.  On the Clacton supporters bus Kieron is today’s winner of the guess the crowd competition with an estimate of twenty-five thousand seven hundred and something. 

After the excitement of the Town goal and the pressure that led to it, the game has settled down and Peterborough, despite being behind, are slow to get forward as they pass the ball about amongst themselves.  “Let ‘em fuck around with it” calls the bloke behind me in a “see if I care” tone of voice.  Soon however, both teams are succeeding in frustrating their own supporters as Peterborough continue to “fuck around with it” whilst Ipswich fans are expecting their team to get the ball and go and score a third goal as insurance against the late disappointment witnessed at Charlton and versus Fleetwood.

Peterborough make a fourth substitution bringing on a bloke called Kell Watts, reminding me of the Australian TV series Kath & Kim in which Kim’s mother Kath has a metrosexual boyfriend called Kel who proudly owns a ‘man bag’.  Town ‘score’ with two minutes of normal time left, but I’d spotted the offside flag so remain seated as all around me people rise and cheer.  Pat from Clacton admits to feeling nervous. There will be five minutes of additional time Stephen Foster tells us, and Peterborough chuck in a couple of awkward looking crosses preferring to rely on barging and jumping more than incisive passing football to carve open the Town defence.  “Smash ‘im, smash ‘im” bawls the bloke behind me every time a Peterborough player has possession.  Town attempt to waste time making two final nihilistic substitutions and the game wanders off into a seventh minute of additional time, but then all of a sudden, it’s over, and Town have won.

Beating Peterborough feels like a much bigger thing than it probably should, but that’s no doubt because Town haven’t beaten them in more than a decade, not that we have met very often, and Town have also lost the last two games to Peterborough at Portman Road.  Elated, our little group wish each other a happy Christmas and head off into the cold mid-afternoon with a farewell that says “See you Boxing Day”.  As for Catherine of Aragon, well at least she was still breathing when she visited Ipswich.

FC Nantes 2 Olimpiakos 1

The Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes is a stadium I have long wanted to visit because on the telly it looks a bit different to your run of the mill English footie ground and certainly a cut above the diet of Portman and Layer Roads I grew up on, as lovely as Portman Road still is and the much-lamented Layer Road was.   Having missed out on tickets to see FC Nantes at home to Paris St Germain due to cost and lack of decisiveness, the opportunity to see the Breton club at home in the Europa League to Olimpiakos just five days later was not to be passed up.  To add further to the mix, historically FC Nantes is one of France’s most successful football clubs, with eight league titles and four Coupes de France to their name.  But until Nantes won the Coupe de France this year (1-0 versus Nice) they hadn’t won either of the major French trophies since 2001, which co-incidentally was the last time I was in Brittany.  Nantes’ return to European football and mine to Brittany seems serendipitous therefore.

Tickets for concerts and large sports events across France can usually be bought at the larger supermarkets but having had no luck at a branch of Super U on Monday, that evening my wife Paulene went on-line and acquired a couple of the last few tickets available from the club website.  Feeling flush after a recent cash windfall we also booked a hotel for the night, although we are actually staying at a campsite about an hour and a half’s drive north of Nantes.  Not surprisingly, being on holiday we don’t have a printer with us, but the hotel has kindly printed our tickets off for us.  Our hotel is just a ten or fifteen-minute walk from the Stade de la Beaujoire across a small municipal park.  The stadium and hotel are also conveniently situated at the end of Ligne 1 of the city’s tram network and the twenty-minute trip into town is a bargain at one euro seventy.

It’s been a warm but cloudy day with an ever-present threat of heavy showers, but thankfully we’ve avoided those and as had happened a week ago at Rennes, I had been in the club shop adding to my collection of petits fanions (pennants) and fridge magnets when the heavens had opened.  Now, at a bit after seven-thirty we queue to be patted down before entering the stadium.  I can’t help feeling that the security guy checking me out has decided I don’t look much of a threat and having tapped me about the arms a bit he looks bored and lets me through; it’s either that or my excited smile made him think I might enjoy a more thorough search a bit too much.  Either way, he wishes me ‘bon match’ and Paulene and I head for Access 02 of the Tribune Presidentielle, but not before we have met Riri the Nantes club mascot.  Nantes play in all yellow and are known as the Canaries, so as an Ipswich Town supporter it requires mental strength to be photographed with their mascot, but overcome with the spirit of liberte, egalite and fraternite I throw myself into the occasion and feel all the better for it.  But I am protected by my yellow 1970’s Town away shirt.

Like most of the bigger stadiums in France, Stade Beaujoire is a genuine piece of architecture, not just a feat of engineering, a box or a collection of individual stands clad in sheet metal.  Set into a gentle slope, its undulating roof arching above the two-tiered lateral stands and the two single tier ends, Beaujoire is an elegant essay in concrete and steel which seems bigger inside than out.  Our seats are at the side of the pitch but behind the goal line, nevertheless the view is excellent, aided by the stadium’s bowl-shaped floor plan.

People get to big matches early in France and make use of the many stalls providing food and drink that surround the stadium.  Equally, the stadium is full before the nine o’clock Coupe d’envoi (kick-off) and with good reason because the prelude to the match includes a stirring anthem, which supporters sing whilst twirling their scarves a la Leeds United fans of the 1970’s; I had wondered, given that it is a warm September evening, why the club shop was doing such a roaring trade in scarves.  Most impressive however, and possibly the most impressive thing I have ever seen at a football match is the raising of a huge tifo at the Tribune Loire end of the ground depicting Anne the fifteenth century Duchess of Britanny (a local heroine for resisting Brittany’s annexation by France) wearing a Nantes scarf and flanked by a pair of jousting knights. Beneath the tifo in Gothic script and in Latin it reads “It is better to die than to be disgraced”, which seems to be going a bit far, even for a Europa League fixture.

Less than an hour before kick-off the death of Queen Elizabeth II had been announced and most of the ground observes a minutes’ silence, although at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium there was never any likelihood of this happening given the levels of excitement, as witnessed by the ceaseless noise, flag waving and glow of flares.  I am sure many would say “Bloody French ‘ooligans”, but I don’t.

As the match begins it is Nantes who get first go with ball, aiming it at the goal through the drifting smoke at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium. Nantes are in all yellow whilst Olimpiakos wear red and white striped shirts with red shorts and socks. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” (Come On  Yellows) sings the crowd and then the Tribune Loire calls out “Allez Nantaises” and the Tribune Erdes at the far end of the ground echoes the shout.  Nantes have started at a fast pace and with the first promising looking attack it seems that everyone in the ground but for the couple of hundred Olimpiakos fans, is up on their feet and bawling encouragement.  Everywhere is just noise, it is absolutely thrilling. “Allez, Allez, Allez” rings out to the tune of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

On the field, Nantes are in truth struggling to get through the Greek defence.  In midfield Pedro Chirivalla is busy, but most attacks go through Ludovic Blas and Evann Guessand on the right, although the tactic of getting crosses into the lone forward Mustapha Mohamed isn’t coming close to creating a goal, only corners. Blas is set up twice, only to blast the ball hopelessly high and wide. Whilst the football isn’t always the best, the spectacle however is; but a little over half-way through the first half even the Tribune Loire has started to quieten down just a little. In front of us, a lone drummer with a massive bass drum tries to raise the crowd in the Tribune Erde and Tribune Presidentielle once more; he is wearing a Nantes kit over the top of what looks like silk pyjama bottoms; his face is smeared with green face paint and on his head he is wearing a lurid, long green wig.   Between rhythmic drum beats he claps his hands and sings “Allez Nantes”.  A middle-aged man to our right answers the call with a mad passion which belies his age, but mostly people just clap along almost out of politeness. 

The flame of really noisy support is rekindled however, just before the half-hour Nantes win a free-kick on the right. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” is the theme once more and although the free-kick comes to nought the momentum is retained and four minutes later Blas’s through ball confounds the Greek defence and Mustapha Mohamed runs on to place the ball coolly and firmly into the far corner of the goal beyond the Olimpiakos goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.  The roar from the crowd is immense and Nantes lead 1-0.

Only a second Nantes goal can feed the desire of the home crowd, but it is Olimpiakos who now get to have their first shot on goal as a neat passing move ends with an overlap on the right and a shot that goes both high and wide of the Nantes goal from only about 10 metres out.  The be-wigged drummer makes a second tour of the area at the front of the stand, but the first half soon ends, unusually with no additional time being played.

Over half-time Paulene and I stay in our seats whilst many in the crowd drift out to the buvettes for food and drink. We reflect on the first half and agree that this is possibly the most fantastic atmosphere we have ever experienced at a football match and that on tonight’s showing the Nantes supporters are probably even more passionate than those of Marseille or St Etienne.

The game resumes at a minute past ten as the moon rises above the Tribune Oceane opposite. “Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Nantaises” sings the crowd to the tune of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Olimpiakos appear either to have been given a stiff talking to at half-time or they have simply decided to attack rather than just defend. Five minutes in and the Greeks win their first corner of the match.  The ball arcs across to the far post and Nantes ‘keeper Alban Lafont moves to punch the ball away but completely misses it, instead the ball strikes defender Samuel Moutassamy and drops feebly and apologetically into the goal net.  It is such a poor goal no one seems to believe it, not even the Olimpiakos players who can barely bring themselves to celebrate, making do with a few mutual pats on the back. Over in the corner of the stadium between the Erdre and Oceane Tribunes the travelling supporters are doing more than enough cheering and dancing for everyone.

The Olimpiakos goal gives them a lift and the balance of play evens out in the second half, but Olimpiakos are also much more combative and to prove the point Panagiotis Retsos is the first player to be booked, for a foul on Nantes’ Ignatius Ganago.  From the resultant free-kick on the right, Ludovic Blas is set up for a third time, but he boots his shot hopelessly high and wide again.  With a third of the match gone Nantes win a corner from which Andrei Girotto flashes a header just wide of the goal. Minutes later Olimpiakos win a corner, but Alban Lafont succeeds this time in punching the ball away.

With twenty minutes left, Nantes make a couple of substitutions and quickly win a corner after a cross from Moses Simon, who has replaced Ganago, is met with a header from the other substitute Moussa Sissoko which Vaclik tips over the cross bar. “Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez” sing the crowd to the Triumphal March form Verdi’s Aida as they hold their scarves aloft all around the ground, a spectacle sadly no longer seen in England.  The sense of the crowd willing the team to score is palpable, but Nantes are not significantly threatening the Olimpiakos goal.  When Nicolas Pallois strides forward in the eightieth minute to launch a shot from at least 30 metres, which travels a respectably small distance over the bar, it is as if he had simply got fed up with his team-mates’ patient passing and had decided to take matters into his own hands.

A minute after Pallois’ effort, Nantes at last break speedily down their right and the ball is crossed low before being laid back to the incoming Guessand who strikes a spectacular rising shot into the roof of the goal net.  It looks the perfect goal, the sort worthy of winning any match. The Nantes players celebrate wildly as does the whole stadium, with the exception of one tiny quadrant in the corner where the Greek fans sit.  The scoreboard registers the second Nantes goal, and the players walk back to kick-off again, but the Olimpiakos players are whinging to the referee who has a hand to his ear. We wait.  The referee then draws a square in the air and points to patch of grass level with the Olimpiakos penalty box and the scoreboard confirms that VAR says the goal is annulled for an earlier hors-jeu (offside).

The feeling of disappointment subsides surprisingly quickly and soon we are distracted by some pushing and shoving on the touchline. The ball has gone out of play and runs to the Olimpiakos coach who seems to hold it out for Nicolas Pallois to take, but then turns away; Pallois gives him a little shove for his trouble and then anyone nearby joins in with the melee and those further away catch a tram to come and join in.  The referee possibly cautions Pallois and the Olimpiakos coach, but it’s hard to say for sure.  Sadly, it’s the last real action of the half and all hope is to be squashed into four minutes of time added on or the more poetic sounding time additionelle

Additional time begins, two minutes in and Blas and Oleg Reabciuk are both booked after the former fouls the latter and the latter gets upset.   A minute remains of added time; Nantes again attack down the right, Ludovic Blas crosses the ball and the sizeable figure of Evann Guessand  hurls himself at the ball. Spectacularly, Guessand scores with what is arguably the best type of goal, a diving header.  The rest is near mayhem, with Stade de La Beaujoire erupting into scenes of unbridled joy and pride in the team and being Nantoises.  All around me people are just deliriously happy, whilst some have a look on their faces of vindication, as if to say it’s taken nearly twenty years, but Nantes are back like they knew they would be.

With the final whistle no one wants to leave. I don’t think I have ever been to a game where so few people, if any, have left before the end. The Nantes players gather in front of the Tribune Loire to salute and commune with the Ultras groups who have ceaselessly chanted, sung, shouted and waved their banners and flags throughout the match.  Riri the canary mascot runs across the pitch arms outstretched as if trying to take off and joins in with the players’ celebrations.  We, along with everyone else, wait for the players to break away from their love-in with the ultras and do a lap of honour to the rest of the stadium. As the players head back towards the tunnel we leave, joining the flood tide of happy, smiling people.  This has been a truly fantastic night.

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Ipswich Town ended a sequence of defeats and general under achievement with victory at Home Park, Plymouth on 6th December last year, just three months and a week ago.  It doesn’t seem a quarter of a year ago, let alone a third of a football season since that victory, but oddly it seems that time has simultaneously both speeded up and slowed down since the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns.  The experience finds me in reflective mood this morning and I dull the pain by steam cleaning the shower, ‘hoovering’ the kitchen and filling a  five year old hole in the kitchen ceiling, which was created when a new light fitting was installed. 

Yesterday evening I signed up to witness the third game of the Paul Cook era at Portman Road on the ifollow, and without crossing the threshold of my semi-detached suburban home, my Saturday afternoon is consequently mapped out for me, as every Saturday afternoon has been since some time back in August.  Not being a particular fan of television since the demise of Quiz Ball in December of 1972, I was surprised to find that at first I quite enjoyed the novelty of seeing the Town courtesy of the cathode ray tube in the corner of the living room, or it’s flattened, somewhat swollen, wall-mounted, modern equivalent.  Town had never been regular performers on the telly, even back when we was fab in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, but now all of a sudden we are; it’s just a shame we are no longer worth watching as entertainment but only as an exercise in eternal optimism, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.    Today therefore it now feels like mere habit that makes me log on to my lap top as three o’clock approaches.

By way of a change today I shall be watching the match against Plymouth in the kitchen.  It has been agreed that the living room is the room in the house that is most like Wembley Stadium, and therefore best suited to my wife Paulene watching her team Portsmouth play Salford City in last season’s final of what used to be the Associate Members Cup, but is now merely an occasional playground for the youth of the Premier League clubs and a vehicle for the peddling of takeaway pizza.  By Paulene’s own admission it is a particularly pointless fixture because whoever wins the enormous slice of tin-plated pizza or whatever the trophy now is, will get to keep it for just twenty-four hours because this season’s final between Sunderland and Tranmere Rovers is to be played the very next day.

As the ifollow transports me to Portman Road, the quality of the transmission is at first poor and creates the impression that the sound engineer, if there is one, is a devotee of the late Norman Collier. Happily the technical fault is only temporary and the airwaves are crystal clear as I hear BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley ask Mick Mills how he assesses Ipswich Town’s play-off ambitions.  Reassuringly Mick presents the argument that it’s best to finish sixth in the league table.   “If you hit sixth spot anything can happen from that position” says Mick raising the possibility that sixth position in League One is some sort of portal to another world where Luke Chambers captains England to the third-place play-off in the World Cup, Paul Cook has a head of hair to rival that of Carlos Valderrama, Marcus Evans offers Lionel Messi whatever he wants to see out his playing career at Portman Road and the Football Association is run by a race of highly intelligent squirrels.

The game begins and in making a minor adjustment to the position of my lap top I accidentally press the off button.  Quickly turning the lap-top back on the picture returns sans commentary just as an Alan Judge free-kick whistles over the Plymouth cross bar.  The resultant corner kick is cleared and sound is restored just as Brenner speaks poetically of a throw-in being awarded against a Plymouth player as the “ ..ball skims over the laces of his right shoe”.   Brenner has many quirks which make his commentary satisfyingly unique and his insistence that the players are wearing shoes and not football boots is just one of them.   Down on the touchline meanwhile, we are told that Plymouth manager Ryan Lowe is “…barking out instructions”, although there is no word from Brenner about his footwear, but we can guess he’s not wearing Hush Puppies.

It is only the fourth minute of the game and Town score courtesy of an ill-advised back pass by Adam Lewis. “Troy Parrott couldn’t believe his good fortune” says Brenner, obviously not really having any idea what Mr Parrott does or doesn’t believe but making something up which he thinks sounds plausible. “That is a dream start” says Mick, giving us an insight into how retired professional footballers still think about the game even in their sleep.

Without warning ,the ifollow pictures stutter and I imagine living rooms and kitchens across Suffolk in which Tractor Boys and Girls point at their lap-tops and TV screens as one and chant “ You’re not very good, you’re not very good, you’re not very, you’re not very, you’re not very good”  to the tune of Knees Up Mother Brown.  Back at Portman Road, Plymouth’s Panutche Camara does something to inspire Brenner to say “Camara, a bit of a live wire customer”.  Unusually for a player not from Britain, Brenner makes no reference to Camara’s nationality ; Camara  is from Guinea-Bissau; I can only guess that he can’t decide whether someone from Guinea-Bissau is a Guinean or a Guinea-Bissauan.

Plymouth Argyle are poor, their play consisting mostly of mistakes and passing to Ipswich players.  Sympathetically, Myles Kenlock makes a couple of mistakes of his own, which is thoughtful of him. Andre Dozzell is “…trying to pull the strings in midfield” Brenner tells us just as Dozzell turns attack into defence with an incisive 20 yard pass back across the half-way line to  centre-half James Wilson .  It’s the tenth minute and Kayden Jackson is clean through on goal, he must score!  He doesn’t.  “That was a real chance for Kayden Jackson” says Brenner “Was it” says Mick using a little heard affirming intonation   “Totally dominant, Ipswich Town – can’t remember the last time I said that in a game” says Brenner, and no one else can remember either, although if they can they should send their answer on a postcard to BBC Radio Suffolk or text 81333 and as Brenner would tell you, start the message with the letters SFK.

In an idle moment Brenner tells us of when Plymouth last won at Portman Road; it was eleven years ago and Paul Mariner was their manager and he gave his coat to someone in the crowd as a memento but left his glasses in the pocket and had to contact the club to get them back.  Remembering the story too, Mick tells it again but with more words and added superfluous detail.  When Mick has finished the story Brenner tells us that he remembers it too, almost as if he wasn’t the one to tell us about it in the first place and that we wouldn’t remember that.    A short while later Brenner once again tells us again that Andre Dozzell is trying to pull the strings in midfield.

The match is unusually enjoyable and Town’s attacking play gives Brenner the opportunity to try out some football-speak seldom heard in his recent commentaries.  “Trying to get Jackson on his bike” says Brenner as a long ball up the wing drops off the end of the pitch.  Another similar attempted pass on the opposite side of the pitch has little Alan Judge not getting to the ball either , “ …his legs weren’t going to get him there” says Brenner, perhaps implying that he should have borrowed Kayden Jackson’s bike.

A quarter of the way through the game and with Town still “…by far the better side, completely on top” Brenner looks ahead to the forthcoming Town games at Portsmouth and Wigan, which he rather weirdly refers to as “Paul Cook derbies” on the basis that Paul Cook previously managed both clubs; it’s a disturbing insight into how the mind of a football commentator works.  Mick Mills meanwhile keeps his commentating firmly based in reality and rather than indulging in such nonsense he tells us how twice Myles Kenlock has saved Town by dealing with crosses in central positions that a mysteriously absent   James Wilson should really have cleared.  “Myles Kenlock has dealt with them really, really well” says Mick delivering praise which would smack of nothing more than solidarity amongst left-backs if spoken by any lesser man.

Almost a third of the game has passed and Plymouth win their first corner, which is played deep to what Brenner rather indelicately and peculiarly describes as “the backside of the box” .  The sun comes out in Ipswich and it sounds like Brenner refers to Troy Parrott as Troy Carrot, but it might be my hearing or the poor quality speakers on my Sharp Aquos television set,  which is connected to my Lenovo lap-top by an HDMI lead – or so I’m told.

After a flowing Ipswich move almost results in a second goal, Flynn Downes goes down injured. In the ensuing hiatus in play Brenner asks Mick what are his thoughts on Ipswich Town’s season.  “Ipswich?  This season?  Says Mick,  sounding somewhat incredulous.  Mick is about to take us on a footballing journey back to last August, but it quickly It transpires that Brenner hadn’t meant to ask about the whole season, only about this game.  “Oh goodness” says Brenner with a note of panic in his voice “Don’t start re-capping this season”.  It’s a moment that perhaps reveals that Brenner thinks Mick could have talked for England as well as playing football for them.  Flynn Downes goes off to be replaced by Teddy Bishop. “Downes looks really down” says Brenner  possibly but probably not making a mildly tasteless pun.

Three minutes of added on time are to be played, Brenner tells us that Plymouth are in white; it seems a bit late to be  telling his BBC Radio listeners that; without Brenner’s guidance they have probably all been imagining Plymouth in a range of materials, colours and designs from puce-coloured chintz to flesh-toned gingham taffeta.  It seems that Plymouth have also worked out which colour shirts they  are wearing and according to Brenner “ You wouldn’t rule out an equaliser”.  But they’ve left it too late and Mick’s half-time verdict is that “Yes” Town deserve their lead because of the length of time that they dominated the game.

Half-time tea and ginger Christmas tree biscuits follow.  Paulene appears looking sad and dejected; the Portsmouth versus Salford game is absolutely awful and she has had to turn the sound down to avoid the terrible commentary with its constant hackneyed, fawning references to the former Manchester United players who are bankrolling Salford City. For Paulene the weekend will only get worse with Pompey destined to lose a penalty shoot-out and their hamster-like manager Kenny Jackett resigning in a fit of self-loathing.

After scrutinising the half-time match statistics and enduring an advertisement for the ifollow which, if it were true, would make you wonder why anyone ever went to a real game because watching football on a lap-top or tv screen is clearly far, far superior, the game begins anew.  Kayden Jackson is soon hurt and is according to Brenner, “ on all fours”, it’s a pose that he seems to like to report whenever he can.  Mick then embarks on an extremely lengthy description of a cross-cum-shot from Myles Kenlock; Mick’s eventual conclusion is that Myles didn’t know what he was trying to do.

After seven minutes of the second half Town should be 2-0 up, but Kayden Jackson’s pass from the by-line is met with a simply awful attempt at a shot from little Alan Judge who is about 10 metres from the goal.  Six minutes later and completely out of character Brenner refers to a Plymouth player (Conor Grant) as wearing a boot, not a shoe.  Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is replaced by Luke Jephcott . “ Strong boy,  he knows where the back of the net is” says Brenner, now heavily into  ‘Ron Manager’ mode.

Amazingly, neither Mick, nor Brenner says it but the match gives every impression of being a game of two halves.  “Plymouth….are in charge of this game” says Mick.  Substitutions are made.  Hardie for Lewis for Plymouth; Skuse and Drinan for Parrott and Jackson for Ipswich.  “ Positive move by Plymouth, sensible move by Ipswich” is Mick’s well considered opinion.  Brenner asks Mick what he thinks of Cole Skuse.  “ I like Cole Skuse, I like Cole Skuse” says Mick repeating himself for emphasis and possibly because all he could think of to say was the same thing twice; but no one will notice, he’s on BBC Radio Suffolk, not Radio 4’s Today programme.  Mick speaks of the criticism that Cole Skuse receives from some sections of Suffolk’s football watching public.  “ I don’t understand; I do understand it”  he says, succinctly summing up the mind boggling complexities of the situation.

As Mick takes a rest Brenner tells us what Paul Cook is wearing, “ a hooded coat zipped up to just below his chin”, he’s also wearing a beanie hat . I feel reassured to know that our new manager is suitably dressed for a windy March afternoon  in which there have been occasional heavy showers.

Plymouth are dominating possession. “ Watts along the deck” says Brenner describing a pass along the ground in a manner appropriate to a team from the city that contains Western Europe’s largest naval dockyard.  Plymouth’s McCloud hits a half volley from 20 odd metres having received a pass form Town’s Luke Chambers; it’s an easy catch for Tomas Holy.  “ Wind and hail” says Brenner as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Town win a corner after a passing move started by Cole Skuse.  “ Skuse read it lovely” says Mick like a true footballer as he describes Cole’s interception which pre-empted the passing move.  “ I do worry about Plymouth getting themselves level in this game” says Brenner showing uncharacteristic bias to the home team.  Plymouth still dominate possession but Ipswich are winning corners on the break.  Camara is unmarked and heads wide of the far post for Plymouth.  “That was a let off for Ipswich Town” says Brenner ,not telling a word of a lie.  The oddly named Keanan Bennetts replaces little Alan Judge and Jack Lankester replaces Gwion Edwards.  Reeves and Lowe replace McCloud and grant for Plymouth. Twelve minutes of normal time remain.

Town win a further corner which is played short. “Strange corner” says Mick as the ball is passed around the box and crossed in from the opposite side.   Town continue to play ‘on the break’. “It’s a strange way for a home team to play “ says Mick, sounding a little baffled.   The game enters the four minutes of time added on for assorted stoppages and the substitution of nine of the twenty out field players. The oddly named Keanan Bennetts gets the chance to run at the Plymouth defence but concludes what is not much more than a gentle trot with a limp cross to no one in particular.  “ He just completely wasted it for me” says Mick sounding a little hurt.  “ Town in the top six as things stand” says Brenner triumphantly, before revealing a previously unknown interest in and implied knowledge of the larynx  “Paul Cook shouting, not doing his voice any good at whatsoever”.

With Town in possession of the ball the game ends and victory is confirmed. “It’s been a fabulous day for Ipswich “ says Brenner getting a completely carried away.  A more cautious Mick Mills is “Happy with the result, but not the performance” and questions why Teddy Bishop “doesn’t do things in the game”.    It’s a good question and one which might be asked of nearly all Town’s midfield players and forwards.   We haven’t finished sixth yet.

Ipswich Town 2 Rochdale 0

It’s a grey, blustery Saturday in late September and despite the miserable nature of the weather there is a sense of anticipation and excitement.  Obviously, the normal, “traditional” Saturday of dossing about a bit, catching the train, sinking a couple of pints of fine ale and strolling on down to Portman Road is not going to happen today because of the continuing pandemic, but a fresh, new reality has taken root and after a morning of tidying my garage, involving putting up hooks and brackets on which to hang my garden furniture and my bicycle, there is now the prospect of logging onto the ifollow to watch the mighty Ipswich Town.  Today there is added excitement too as today is the first ever appearance at Portman Road of one of the Football League’s most resilient, remarkable and in most people’s eyes unsuccessful clubs, Rochdale AFC.  Rochdale’s survival as a professional football club for almost a century is simultaneously a great achievement and a story of fantastic under-achievement. No other club can boast thirty-six consecutive seasons in the fourth division or a home crowd for a league game of just 450.   That Rochdale have spent eight of the past ten seasons in the third division nevertheless makes them one of Britain’s most successful clubs, relatively speaking. As if that is not enough, Rochdale has a marvellous Victorian town hall, something it has in common with Ipswich, but it was also the birthplace of the Co-op, and Gracie Fields.

After a somewhat peculiar ‘lunch’ consisting of the remains of a bag of Gujerati Mix and leftover home-made chips that my wife Paulene didn’t want, I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ (actually 500 millilitres) of Adnams Ease-Up IPA (two for £3 from Waitrose) whilst logging-on to the i-follow.   Amazingly, I find the ifollow very easy to set up, connecting my laptop to the television with what I can only describe as aplomb.  The only thing I have difficulty with is getting the picture to fill the whole screen because the ‘expand’ icon is hidden beneath an icon that asks me if I want to chat about the EFL;  I can think of few things I  would want to do less.  I eventually discover that by scrolling down the page the ‘expand’ icon can be uncovered. Ready for the match I take up residence in an Ikea Poang chair, with my beer carefully positioned on an occasional table next to me, just an arm’s length away.

As an experiment, today I am not wearing the blue, Ipswich Town branded ‘button neck t-shirt’ that I wore when listening to last week’s win at Bristol Rovers, when watching the game versus Wigan Athletic the week before and when listening to the game versus Bristol Rovers in the League Cup the week before that.  Today I am wearing a grey Euro 2016 t-shirt that I bought at a Carrefour hypermarket in Tinqueux just outside Reims (pronounced ‘Rance’).  I need to know if Town can win on their own, or whether my ‘button neck t-shirt’ has special powers. 

The game has not yet started and I and my fellow viewers of the ifollow are treated to a Radio Suffolk preview of Needham Market’s match versus Stratford, the reporter Nick Garnham delivers his report in the style of a 10 year old who has been asked to read out loud in class; he’s very good.  The radio broadcast returns to Portman Road and resident Radio Suffolk commentator Brenner Woolley provides a precis of Town’s season so far before his side-kick and appointed expert Mick Mills magnanimously announces that “Most of what you’ve said I totally agree with”.  Undeterred, Brenner goes on to describe the two teams’ kits; I agree totally with most of what he says but disagree with his description of Rochdale’s shirts as ‘bottle green’, they’re a shade too light for that.  The Dulux colour chart has a shade called ‘Seaweed’ which is a much better match.

On the ifollow a caption appears that shows today’s teams and I am impressed with the use of the correct diacritical marks above the a, s and y of Tomas Holy’s name, something that our own match programme doesn’t even bother to do,  and nor do I because I can’t find them on my keyboard.   Returning from the caption to the pictures of Portman Road I feel a bit seasick due to some wobbly camera work but I am soon settled by the calming voice of Mick Mills, although he does then proceed to conjure some disturbing images when, talking about the advantages of a settled team, he claims that Sir Alex Ferguson would only ever “…mess about with three or four players”.   It’s not an accusation I’d heard levelled at Sir Alex before.

The match begins with the shrill whistle of today’s referee Mr John Busby and Rochdale kick off towards the North Stand in their seaweed green shirts with black stripes, black shorts and socks.  I am peering at my tv screen looking for a fat bloke with a Teddy Boy haircut after Brenner tells us that Paul McShane is playing at the back for Rochdale, but I then remember Rochdale’s penchant for players with famous names; well, Paul Weller played five games for them back in 2004 anyway. 

Town are very quickly looking good and only Freddie Sears and Jon Nolan deny them an early lead as they contrive to balls-up a two versus two breakaway in the seventh minute.  Mick Mills is almost as quick to tell us how Town are much the better team and are dominating, before Rochdale naturally enough then begin to pass the ball around with nonchalance and Chambers and Nsiala create a complete mess at the back just two minutes later. It’s Rochdale’s Aaron Morley who then has the first shot on goal, if it can be described as such.

Brenner tells us more than once than the rain is hammering down at Portman Road but we don’t need him to tell us that actually this isn’t a bad match at all.  Oliver Hawkins has a header saved, hits a post with a shot on the turn and then has another header cleared off the goal line.  Brenner tells us again that the rain is hammering on the roof of the stand and this time I’m glad he does because it sounds like applause, as well it might.   Brenner and Mick are almost purring over some the play but at the same time talking pretty sensibly in plain English. “Dozzell, using his quick feet there” says Brenner raising the question in my mind at least of whether a player’s feet can be quicker than his legs, and how, if they could, this would genuinely bamboozle the opposition.  “They’re decent; decent footballers, Rochdale” says Mick with a third of the match gone and sounding rather surprised. 

The match continues to be worth the entrance money, if not a tenner to watch it on the ifollow, and Brenner’s detailed radio commentary is adding to my enjoyment , especially when he introduces the use of compass-points into his description pinpointing possession in one instance to “…just North of the centre circle”.  I can only think the lashing of rain and wind has stirred up some memory of the shipping forecast in his BBC radio presenter consciousness.   Speaking of the wind and rain I’m quite pleased to see that my seat in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is being kept dry by having a George Cross endorsed with the name of someone called Aaron draped over it.  It leads me to muse on whether I’d be so happy to have my seat sub-let to a cardboard cut-out of a complete stranger, I’m not sure I would.

Half-time is approaching and still the game flows like proper football should;  and even though a number of simple looking passes are going astray the emphasis is on attacking football. “We had bodies in the box, we had Luke Chambers in there” explains Mick, as if to say “even Luke Chambers”.  The Rochdale goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a 20 yard shot from Jon Nolan, Luke Chambers “…lumps the ball into touch” and a Freddie Sears cross is cleared off the goal line before notice of a minute of added on time is given and then half-time arrives.

With peripheral vision I glimpse an endorsement of the EFL by Screwfix as I leave the room and head for the kitchen to put the kettle on and seek out a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and endeavour to create an authentic half-time experience in my own home.  I return in time to see the match stats paraded before me on the screen at least three times along with a request to report the fact to the piracy@efl.com e-mail address if I am watching this in “commercial premises”.  I wait for another caption inviting me to report the charging of a tenner to watch EFL football on the telly to the daylightrobbery@efl.com e-mail address; oddly it doesn’t appear.

Fifteen minutes pass in the blink of an eye and the football returns, but not before I enjoy the avant garde views of wanderings of the camera man and lingering shots of Paul Lambert returning to the dugout in his large, rather shapeless, black Adidas coat, yet another addition to his burgeoning match day wardrobe since last season.  I can only think that in PL’s five year contract wily Marcus Evans included an ‘all you can wear from Planet Blue’ clause in lieu of hard cash.

Addressing the important issues of the day Brenner pumps Mick for his views on football without crowds and Mick is forthright, telling us in no uncertain terms that “This is not a proper game of football”; I can’t disagree, as much as I try to pretend that it is by creating my own ‘going to the match’ fantasy world by buying a programme on-line, drinking a pre-match beer and a half-time cuppa and singing to my wife that she’s a “dirty northern bastard” (she’s actually from Portsmouth).

Mick continues in honest vein suggesting that “Freddie might be losing his job soon” as another of Freddie’s free-kicks fails to make the opposition goalkeeper do anything more than raise his eyebrows.  Freddie’s free-kick shortcomings are soon forgotten however as just a few minutes later a good passing move down the left hand side of the pitch ends with Teddy Bishop scoring at the far post.  “Yay” I shout, not standing up and sending my Poang chair skittering backwards on the tiled floor as I look for someone northern looking to make obscene hand gestures towards.   “One-nil to the Tractor Boys” I don’t sing to the tune of the Village People’s ‘Go West.’

With the game re-started after the hiatus of the goal Brenner lapses in to a momentary bout of  footballese as he tells us that Gavin Bazunu “…puts his foot through the ball”, before more helpfully adding to the mental picture of the afternoon by sketching in Paul Lambert stood in his black coat with his hands in his pockets. The Town then make another decent passing move down the left hand side of the pitch and this time Gwion Edwards scores and Town lead 2-0.  “We’ve got hold of the three points” says Mick, causing Town fans everywhere to gasp at his most blatant, brazen tempting of fate.  Here is me thinking that a two-nil lead is the worst thing to have in football, should we go for a third goal and risk conceding or sit-back and risk conceding, letting the opposition back into the game either way.   Is it such confidence that separates Mick as a former captain of Ipswich and England from us punters? 

Twenty-five minutes of normal time remain and Jon Nolan is booked for a pointless trip of an opponent, but somehow Brenner hasn’t noticed it and seeing Mr Busby with his arm raised thinks it’s Hawkins who has been shown the yellow card by BT’s misspelt mascot’s namesake.  What could he have been doing to have missed that I wonder, checking his compass; practising putting his foot through a ball? 

The remaining minutes are illuminated by a wonderful pirouette with the ball at his feet by Gwion Edwards (it can only be a matter of time before someone says he’s a Welsh wizard), a full card of substitutions and more rain “hammering” on the roof.   Substitute Flynn Downes seems to want to pick a fight with Rochdale’s Matty Lund just seconds after entering the field of play and Mick is quick to call him out.  Downes is showing himself to be the idiot that we saw before when he was sent off in a pre-season friendly at Cambridge.  Fifteen minutes now remain and Brenner tells us that it is “…good Jack Lankester is involved again, and playing football”. It would have been a tragedy if he’d returned from injury only to play water polo.  With his predilection for short vowels Brenner can’t help not mispronouncing Lankester as Lancaster; I shall be writing to the radio equivalent of Points of View. Bloody northerners.

As full-time approaches Town become more and more sluggish and sit back, it’s not something I enjoy watching. As if echoing the drop in performance on the pitch, the sound quality of the broadcast suddenly drops too, with Brenner occasionally taking on the accent of a Dalek, as happened towards the end of the Wigan Athletic game.   My mood is lightened however when in the 90th minute Rochdale’s Rathbone (sadly Oliver not Basil), volleys a shot against one of his own players; you can’t beat a bit of slapstick. 

A good 2-0 win is imminent and taking Mick’s counsel I am not worrying that the last flickering embers of the game see Town continuing to do the bare minimum.   But Brenner has to try and make the commentary interesting, although whilst trying to suggest the prospect of a Rochdale consolation, he shows that he’s mentally in the car on the way home too as he says “A little bit sloppy from Ipswich, what can Rotherham do?”  A little bit sloppy indeed Brenner. 

With five minutes of added-on time played the games ends and I reflect upon an afternoon in which I have learned that Ipswich can win without the help of my blue, button-neck ITFC branded t-shirt, although it doesn’t prove that the t-shirt doesn’t have special powers and could mean that my Euro 2016 t-shirt might also be capable of influencing results.  Oh ‘eck, as Gracie Fields might have said.

Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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