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.

LOSC Lille 1 Montpellier HSC 1

After a wet, drizzly afternoon enjoying an exhibition of marionettes at the Hospice Comtesse,

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

a rather groovy establishment called ‘The Beerstro’ and then the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, the Grand Finale is an eight o’clock kick-off at the Stade Pierre Mauroy where LOSC Lille meet Montpellier Hérault in the 29th Journee of Ligue 1. Montpellier sit in 6th position in the twenty-team French league, whilst Lille flounder uncharacteristically just one place off the bottom, battling against relegation. I am with my wife Paulene and after a relaxed, light meal we head for the Gambetta Metro station. It’s a little after six o’clock and as the streets begin to dry with warm air up moving up from the south, so the Lillois are venturing out to drink, to dine and to watch football. At Gambetta station the escalator is out of action and at the foot of the stairs a ticket man greets us; somehow he instantly detects that we are English and calls out over his shoulder “Alain! Ils sont Anglais”. A smiling, balding man in glasses walks over to us “Awright?” he says and we shake hands. He continues to talk to us in English with a strange hint of an estuarine accent; he must have learnt English in Dartford or Thurrock. He explains the system of rechargeable tickets and although the ticket itself costs 0.20E he lets us have one for free and on to this one ticket we add four journeys for the trip to the stadium and back (6.40E). Alain even validates our tickets for us before we thank him and bid “Au revoir” and descend down onto the platform. What a lovely bloke. The driverless trains on the Lille Metro are frequent and one soon draws up alongside the automatic doors at the edge of the platform. We step on and sit at the front of the carriage, a siren sounds, the doors close and we’re soon hurtling along through concrete tunnels beneath the cityOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA above. The stadium is the twelfth stop on our mostly subterranean journey, although it is possible to alight at any of the four stops from Villeneuve d’Ascq onwards and the stadium is still easily walkable. People board and leave the train along the route at Republique Beaux-Arts, Gare Lille-Flandres, Caulier, Fives and Marbrerie, some sport red and navy blue knitwear betraying their support for the local team. Before the end of the line at 4 Cantons

Stade Pierre Mauroy, the train rises out of the ground on to an elevated section and just like the last time I made this journey I am for a minute or two Guy Montag and my wife is Clarisse (Julie Christie) in Francois Truffaut’s film of Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. But it soon passes. From the Metro station it’s a ten minute walk to the stadium through a university campus and science park, past the student accommodation called residence Albert Camus; a much cooler name than Essex House, where I lived in my first year at university. It’s dusk and the stadium and its great neon name is visible throughOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the black branches of the trees that line our route. The path then opens out onto a wide bridge across Lille’s peripherique motorway and Stade Pierre Mauroy is directly in front of us. To the left a broad concrete piazza is filled with French football fans, and the smell of chips and hot oil. The sun sets behind the stadium to the left, turning the clouds a blurry red and casting ruddy reflections in the puddles; adding some late colour to what has been a grey day.

It’s northern France; Belgium with added je ne sais crois, but similar quantities of frites and beer. Low buildings face the stadium across the piazza, a parade of fast food outlets and bars. Further on the crowds diminish and we pass a large area set aside for cycle parking. Although the stadium is some way from central Lille, next to the motorway and has masses of covered car parking beneath and around it, the French planners were clearly optimistic for sustainable travel and there are two concrete canopied blocks of covered cycle racks in which I sadly count just two bikes and a bloke having a smoke. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt gate M my wife chooses to go inside, get comfortable and watch the warm ups before the match, but I want to wander about a bit and so we part. I walk around to the ‘front’ of the stadium where it faces the road and the retail park opposite. There is a trailer here from which more chips are being dispensed, the queue of ‘diners’ snakes out of the descending darkness and into the bright light spilling out from above the deep fat fryers.

I walk on, following four members of the Police National, who bristle with shields and kevlar armour. A neon display advertises a future event at the stadium, a concert by the Pink Floyd pensioner, Roger Waters; its title ‘Us and Them’ will seem fateful by the end of the evening. At the ‘corner’ of the stadium is the club shop, red letters spelling out LOSC glow in the windows and fans walking past are silhouetted in its light. Inside the shop, the colour of the club shirt, red, is overwhelming; the colour red is everywhere it seems,

WW2 night-time bomber pilots could have spent time in here to improve their night vision. But to me there is more than a hint of the subcutaneous, of viscera; this is the sort of place to give a sensitive person like me nightmares. Feeling queasy I head back outside for the fresh air and then re-trace my steps back to gate M where after the customary patting down I pass through the automatic, bar-code operated turnstile, pick up my free programme and head for my seat. Re-united with Mrs Brooks I study the sixteen-page A5 size glossy programme, which contains just three advertisements not directly related to the club. The programme is small and necessarily concise and all the more excellent for that, with everything you need to know, which is really just the squads, the league table and details of the next match. If you crave extraneous information such as forward Anwar El Ghazi’s recipe for lentil soup then there is a fortnightly club paper available in the club shop, ‘LOSC in the City’, which is also free. As I read, a superannuated looking band perform live from the side of the pitch. I think they’re playing the Sex Pistol’s ‘Problems’ but Paulene tells me it’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I’m a bit disappointed to be honest and they’re rocked-up version of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ doesn’t please me either , but to my possible shame in these modern times, they’re next number, Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, makes me smile. My reading and musical reverie however, is disturbed by a large bang and some chanting from outside the ground; I had seen on the local TV station that there was to be demonstration by supporters before the game because of the poor performance of the team this season, and this must be it. I walk out to the back of the stand to witness through the mesh wall and some acrid smoke a couple of hundred fans following a bloke holding aloft a red flare; more firecrackers go off and there is some chanting; excitement over I return to my seat. Many of the other seats in the stadium are still unoccupied, particularly those on the Virage Est (East Stand) that the Lille Ultras occupy. It is soon evident however, that the ultras were the protestors as the Virage Est sees a torrent of flag waving humanity flood towards the back of the goal.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Meanwhile a female announcer gees up the crowd with some disco music and a dance-camOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA shows supporters boogeying insanely on the big screen above the Virage Est. People seem to be enjoying themselves, at a football match, which hasn’t even started yet. On the pitch everything is being set up for the grand entry of the teams. Ball boys in orange shirts are camped across the centre circle, the Ligue 1 logo is carried out and put into place along with the sponsor’s logo (Conforama – a furniture retailer) and the match ball is placed on a plinth.

Banners featuring the club badges flank the ball and plinth and another banner displaying the Ligue 1 logo and then more banners are marched on to the field, these are red and bear the squad numbers and a photos of the players in tonight’s Lille team. As if all these banners aren’t enough a short film is played on the big screen which follows a journey around the city of Lille and shows images of LOSC players projected onto its most notable sites and buildings, culminating in all the players being projected on to the Stade Pierre Mauroy. It is a mightily impressive little film and conveys brilliantly the ideal of the club and the city and its people as one, I am not a little moved by all it all and wish for a day when I see something like it in Ipswich. We shouldn’t be leaving the EU we should be saying can we forget about ‘being English’ and instead be French, or German, or Italian or even Belgian. The final act of the pre-match rituals is the singing of the club song, to the tune of Amazing Grace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The words appear on the giant screen and the singing hasn’t finished before referee Monsieur Sebastien Moreira, a stocky bald man, signals the start of the game. Montpellier in all white with pale orange shoulders have the first kick, in the direction of the Virage Est but it’s as if they are mesmerised by the club song, they pass the ball about and then as the song melts away immediately lose possession. That strange musically accompanied start aside, It’s an exciting start to the game with both teams dashing towards their opponent’s goal at every opportunity. Montpellier’s 19 year old Jonathan Ikone, a loanee from Paris St Germain, leads the charge and his team dominate the early possession, understandably believing that against the team second from bottom in the league, they are bound to score if they keep pressing. A Montpellier shot is soon saved by Mike Maignan, Lille’s goalkeeper. Montpellier are good to watch, they’re fast and direct even if most attacks break down before anyone has a shot. Lille burst forward when they can, particularly through Algerian Yassine Benzia who has the facial hair of a swarthy Mr Pickwick and his arms look unusually long; he is also the first player to be cautioned by referee Monsieur Moreira. Montpellier’s Ellyes Shkiri is injured and replaced by Saloman Sambia, but their forty year old Brazilian captain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Vittorino Hilton

Vittorino Hilton, a veteran even six years ago when Montpellier won Ligue 1, plays on. Although the early excitement dies down a little as defences settle into their roles the Ultras behind both goals never waver and give constant support, their beating drums being the beating heart and rhythm of the match. Each ends sings their own songs, and then call to one another down the pitch. It sounds marvellous, even though the Ultras make up no more than five thousand in a crowd of 28,609 in a stadium that holds nearly twice that number . With less than five minutes until half-time, Yassine Benzia surges forward again for Lille, running at the centre of the Montpellier defence. Leaving two, then three Montpellierians in his wake Benzia pushes the ball forward into the path of Nicholas Pepe who is sprinting into the penalty area. Pepe takes a touch and then sweeps the ball past Benjamin Lecomte in the Montpellier goal. A fast, incisive if slightly unexpected goal. Pepe runs to the corner of the pitch and salutes no one in particular in the way that players like to do nowadays, but then he’s only a young lad of twenty-two. Half-time comes and two teams of boys, one in all white and one in all black, take to the field to participate in something called the Orange Football Challenge; it’s a shoot-out which at first is a non-event as none of the boys is capable of scoring , but eventually one team wins, I think. Both teams get their photo taken in the centre circle before another competition takes place in the far goal as three blokes try to hit the cross-bar with a single kick of the ball from 20 metres. The first contestant steps up and casually succeeds, winning 500Euros in cash as a result. Predictably the next bloke doesn’t hit the cross-bar, although he’s not too far off, whilst the third slips over and shanks his shot along the grounds six metres wide of the goal. He may never be able to watch or participate in football ever again. As the players return to the field for the second half a camera man sets up in front of us to film people in the crowd who will then appear on the giant screen; as if being at the match isn’t enough you have to be able to see yourself and be seen at the match by other people at the match, although they have actually only come to watch the match; Jean Baudrillard might have something to say about it or may be Michel Foucault. Montpellier run at the Lille defence form the start with chunky Jerome Roussillon attacking down the left and Paul Lasne down the right. It’s about twenty minutes past eight and Roussillon receives the ball some 20 metres or more from goal; he reacts instantly and dispatches a hard, low shot between the outstretched arm of Mike Maignan and the right hand post of the goal. Montpellier have a deserved equaliser, which their small knot of fans high up in the corner of the stadiumOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA also deserve for having made the 972 kilometre road trip; it’s no wonder there aren’t many of them, but equally a wonder there are as many as there are. No one boos, despite the dire loss of a winning position and behind the goals the Ultras maintain their support. On the touchline the Montpellier coach Michel Der Zakarian looks thoughtful, stroking his chin in his skinny legged tracky bottoms and shapeless black coat. The Lille coach Christophe Galtier moves between his seat in the stand and the technical area, he wears shiny shoes and a dark suit; he steps out of the technical area and onto the pitch at one point when play has stopped for an injured player and is admonished by the fourth official. Galtier waves his arms about in frustration and as he turns to go back to his seat gestures at the official as if to say ‘fuck you’. My wife likes Christophe Galtier; he’s very French.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There are three minutes added on time in which both sides press forward seeking the winning goal, but neither finds it. Monsieur Moreira blows the final whistle and almost instantly supporters from the Virage Est begin to run onto the pitch and towards the players tunnel and the seats where the directors and officials are sat. More and more supporters pour onto the field; one or two approach Lille players with a look of complaint. The referee and his assistants are the first down the tunnel. A large crowd has gathered but a cordon of stewards has quickly formed creating a semi-circle around the mouth of the tunnel. Whilst most of the people on the pitch are facing the main stand and chanting something like “ If the club goes down , then you go down” at the club officials, there are a few who are taking selfies with the handful of Montpellier players stranded on the pitch as they went over to applaud their supporters. Scenes like this always look uglier than they are and whilst there are a few kicks and scuffles as stewards feel the need to man-handle some people, the cordon of stewards around the tunnel has controlled the situation. For a football tourist like me local difficulties like this just add to the entertainment, but I do wonder what the point is of these demonstrations. The supporters didn’t complain when the new regime at the club installed previously well-respected Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa and backed him with an overhaul of the squad. Bielsa had been a fabled legend at Marseille but his short tenure at Lille was a disaster and he was first suspended and then sacked as the newly assembled team failed to perform with Lille slumping into the relegation places from early in the season. Watching people stood on the pitch not playing football is only entertaining for a short while and not wanting boredom to spoil what had been an entertaining evening we decide to head back to the Metro of Montag, Julie Christie and Alain.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ipswich Town 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1

The relief brought on through the carefree joy of watching non-league football at Coggeshall last night was brief and within twenty-four hours I am back to watching “Championship” football by which I mean Football League Division Two football at the theatre of the un-dead that is Portman Road.
But today’s game is against top of the league Wolverhampton Wanderers, a club that as much as Leeds United reeks of 1974, smells of the 1950’s and the scent of the Beverley sister who married Billy Wright. The Wolves have done very little of note in the last sixty years, but for a couple of League Cup wins in the 1970’s and even Norwich have won the League Cup; but they still have a certain je ne sais quoi, as well as old gold shirts and black shorts.
It is a dull, grey January day as I walk to the railway station; there are spits of moisture in the air, the portents of more to come. I arrive at the station about a minute before the

train, which is on time, I board a freshly refurbished carriage which has a faint smell of new car given off by its grey upholstery; the theme is grey, with a white ceiling; it’s bright but dull, but heck, it’s not my living room, just a train. On the opposite side of the carriage sits a man with a beer belly, he is slumped with his head resting against the window, a blue cable leads from his trouser pocket to the electrical socket beneath the window; it’s as if his loins are on a life support machine. He has hair like the late Reg Varney. Opposite him an unnaturally blond woman of a similar age is engrossed with a mobile phone. They both cough and get off the train together at Colchester. As the train pulls into a Manningtree a man is sat on a bench on the platform for London, he is wearing a large set of earphones and is eating a sandwich from a tin foil package spread open on his lap. Five people get onto the train, one is a man with a bald head and three rings through his left ear lobe that look like he could hang a curtain from them.


In Ipswich the weather is the same. As I cross the road a group of blokes smoke cigarettes outside the front door of the Station Hotel, which is where Wolves supporters and only Wolves supporters have been directed to drink. On the back of a traffic light there is reminder of Town’s last home fixture against Leeds, a sticker that saysOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“McCallister,Strachan, Batty, Speed, Last Proper Champions”. It is a view I subscribe to because the Premier League is an abomination, but I worry about the omission of the other seven players in the Leeds team of 1992, particularly Lee Chapman.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Portman Road is being blocked off whilst supporters stand about waiting for the turnstiles to open. I follow a man up Portman Road who is wearing a grey tracksuit with a hood, he looks like an enormous toddler in a romper suit, the seat of his tracky bottoms is baggy like he’s forgotten to put on his nappy. I open the door St Jude’s Tavern; bloody hell, the place is heaving. Most of the clientele are Wolves fans with a love of real ale. Having worked my way to the bar I order a pint of St Jude’s St Mary Stout (£3.60) and then work my way back to sit at a table where three blokes in their sixties are sat; they seem to be together but they’re not talking and even seem to be avoiding eye contact. I turn to one and say “Are you all Wolves fans then, or are you just here for a quiet drink?” . They’re Wolves fans and they’re up from London, they go to every game. They tell me that there are branches of Wolves fans from London, Daventry and Cheltenham in the pub. I remark that they are all men of a ‘certain age’ and they laugh agreeing that if you haven’t got a bus pass you probably don’t follow Wolves.
A friend of mine, Mick, soon arrives and we talk of blood pressure, the Hairy Bikers, tielles, sciatica, this blog, holidaying in Corsica and Marseille and the difficulty of choosing where to visit from so many wonderful places across Europe. I drink a pint of Irvin Ruby (£3.60) and we both have a half of St Jude’s Darkest Blessings (£3.80 a pint), which is very strong (9.5%) but smooth and delicious with a hint of hazelnuts and vanilla.
All the Wolves fans have already left when we leave the pub at about a quarter to three, Mick heads home and I head for the match. It’s raining properly now. Whilst I may tire of the present incarnation of Football League Division Two, I never tire of the sight of

Portman Road with its proper floodlights at each corner and all the activity outside on match day as kick-off approaches, it’s what being is all about, especially when it’s raining. Martin Heidegger would have understood, although by all accounts he was a bit of a nob.
I pass through the turnstile and am approached by a steward who asks me about the photos I have taken out in Portman Road, I explain that they are for a blog and flick through a few of them for him. He seems happy with that, but I can’t imagine he knows what to say; what did he expect to see other than photos of Portman Road? I suppose my camera might have really been a water pistol, not a camera, I had one like that when I was about eight years old.
The teams are walking on to the pitch and in the stand I am surprised to find a man and a woman occupying my seat and the one next to it. They’re not doing anything rude, just sitting. I go and sit in the next seat along, I don’t care. One of them says something about not being able to see from their allocated seats and a steward had told them to sit anywhere where there was a space.
The game begins and it’s okay, a fairly even contest to start with and Town’s Callum Connolly has a shot after about 11 minutes. It only takes the Wolves fans eight minutes however to announce that “You’re support is fucking shit” and no one is arguing; no one even cares except perhaps for John Hughes who wrote the tune Cwm Rhondda; but that was in 1907, so he must be past caring by now. In the fifteenth minute it’s not only the support that is so scatalogically poor as the Town defence dissolves into the rain, the ball is crossed and a bloke called Matt Doherty heads it unchallenged into the Town net; Wolverhampton Wanderers have, it turns out, won the match…and it had all started so well.
The Ipswich crowd do not react at all and make no effort to help raise their team’s game through vocal encouragement; I do though and throw myself into a few rounds of “Lo, lololo lolo, Allez les bleus” as Town win a couple of corners. There is not the slightest hint that anyone wants to join in with my efforts on behalf of the team and in a fit of pique I get up and leave my seat. I go to sit with Phil the ever-present supporter at the other end of the stand, who at least understands and will sometimes even join in with me, a bit.
The game carries on and Town play reasonably well in an unspectacular sort of a way, but Wolverhampton are good, they’re several points clear at the top of the league table and we are seeing why. A little short of 1,900 Wulfrunians are following their team today, but I’m a little disappointed by them. For a team who wear such a distinctive kit there is very little of the lovely old gold and black on display and they’re singing is mostly of a negative nature. But when I think I hear them sing “Wanky wanky, wanky wanky Southerners” to the tune of Chicory Tip’s ‘Son of my father’ it raises a smile, even though Ipswich is not in the South, it’s in the East. Bloody Brummies.
At half-time I stay where I am and enjoy the occasional drip of rain through the leaking roof on which I can see buddleia growing; I’m not sure that makes it a ‘green’ roof, but it’s a start. I have no half-time snack and don’t visit the toilet, but Phil does and I guard his bag whilst he’s gone. Town stalwart Tommy Smith appears on the pitch in a smart overcoat to say farewell to the crowd before he heads off to play for Colorado Rapids in Denver; he waves, I wave back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I then muse upon the names of the Wolverhampton team and feel strongly that Ivan Cavaleiro should be wearing a wide brimmed hat and a cape, or he should at least walk out onto the pitch in such attire, even if he doesn’t play in it. Wolverhampton Wanderers are owned by Guo Guangchang, one of China’s wealthiest people and in Helder Costa and Ruben Neves have the two most expensive players in League Division Two; midfielder Neves cost a colossal £15.8m and both players are clients of football agent Jorge Mendes who is an advisor to the club. Read more about Wolves’ attempt to buy success in the editorial to the February edition of the always excellent When Saturday Comes magazine.
The teams return, Phil returns and play resumes. Ipswich aren’t so good this half, I reckon Wolves have sussed us out and they control the game completely, because they have much better players, some of whom, as you now know have cost obscene amounts of money. They also have a manager called Nuno Espirito Santo who, with a name like that, you would always back against plain old Mick McCarthy. I have a theory that people voted to leave the EU mainly because they feel inferior to all these clever, stylish Europeans and they are. Town have two new players in their team today, a free transfer called Gleeson and a thick-set monster of a man on-loan from Tottenham Hotspur, who rejoices under the seven syllables of the name Cameron Carter-Vickers. They do okay, but Bartosz Bialkowski is the star for Town as he makes a succession of essential saves to stop Wolverhampton scoring more goals. The Wulfrunians in the Cobbold Stand again sing coarsely of the execrable Ipswich support and look for the geography section of the library. Meanwhile, I continue to sing ‘Allez les Bleus’ very loudly and have a most enjoyable time. Singing is proven to be good for you and even though Town lose I am as happy as I can be given the pointlessness of it all. Watching Ipswich Town is what you make it.
The three minutes of added on time offer hope, but that’s all and soon the final chirrups sound from beneath the shiny and completely naked pate of referee Mr Simon Hooper. Unusually, I stand and applaud the teams today; all my singing has made me high as a kite.

Ipswich Town 3 Wigan Athletic 0

An evening in early April and Ipswich Town’s last mid-week match of the season will follow an after work beer with a friend, a beer with my tea (a pie) and a pre-match beer with some bloke who I talked to about why he generally only ever goes to evening matches; he owns horses. About 7.30 I set off down Portman Road from St Jude’s Tavern.
Evening matches are best. They make a grand punctuation mark at the end of a day and the creep of dusk and darkness is a lovely thing, particularly when its shot through with bright, white floodlight. As I approach the corner of the ground where that light spills over the tops of the stands I hear an unfamiliar accent and encounter two big blokes excitedly but carefully composing a selfie with the stadium in the background. They must be football tourists, and I ask them where they are from. “We’re from Norway, there’s lots of us here tonight and loads of Swedes too”. Those Vikings just can’t break the habit can they? Coming over here in their long boats and now courtesy of Scandinavian Airlines. Just for something to say I tell them I nearly ended up heading for Trondheim once when trying to drive out of Ostersund towards Karlstad. It’s a story I like to tell all Scandinavians. “I’m from Trondheim” and “He’s from Trondheim” they said simultaneously. I shake their hands; meeting football supporters from abroad almost brings a tear to my eye, we love them and they love us. They’re a friendly bunch, our European neighbours, and so are 48% of British people who voted in that there referendum (OK, so Norway isn’t in the EU, but Sweden is and Denmark, and Finland). As I dream of the entente cordiale, the Scandinavians meet up with some fellow countryman to clap and chant “Ipswich, Ipswich”,33818399246_5021c20e48_o clearly misunderstanding the local custom of being very quiet in Portman Road.

Tonight Ipswich Town will play Wigan Athletic, a coming together of the town on the river from which George Orwell took his name, with the town about whose residents George Orwell wrote in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier.33732085891_dcc1d00bde_o With both clubs floundering at the crappy end of Division Two, it’s appropriate that his book dealt with the hardships and suffering of the great depression, though I may be guilty of losing perspective there.

To celebrate my wealth compared to the poor devils of 1930’s Wigan I splash out £3 on a programme. Tonight the cover features Jordan Spence who squints at the camera and I think looks a bit like Tyrone Mings, which could be why Town signed him. 33475150710_19166e7098_o(1)Bart Bialkowski and David McGoldrick peer over his shoulder and stare at the nape of his neck respectively, poised to step forward should he fall forwards off the page.

I have a choice of turnstile to get into the ground tonight because there’s nobody much here and I pick number seven, “ Lucky number seven turnstile tonight “ I say to the operator “Ha ha. Yes” he says humouring me. Inside the ground I have a brief chat with a steward with whom I used to work, before taking up my seat near the back of the stand. With the game soon to start I am a little surprised to see the same steward walking up the steps towards me a few minutes later; he tells me there was a complaint the previous Saturday about a supporter banging a tambourine. That supporter was me and I am asked not to bang the tambourine.33475148820_e2be0eb189_o I stand up and announce to everyone around me that I have been banned from banging a tambourine in support of the Town. People laugh, and indeed it is laughable. I am not allowed to make a noise at a football match. Then again, this is Ipswich, which has clearly never recovered from its 17th century position as a stronghold of puritan killjoys where playing sport was banned on Sundays.
Seditiously, I invite others to bang the tambourine on my behalf, which a couple do half-heartedly, but there would be no revolution. One would have hoped the club would have censured the complainer for being a ridiculous arse and sided with me. I should have complained first of course, saying I would like to complain about anyone who might complain about my banging a tambourine. Then, when the complainant complained they could have told him that they’d already received a complaint about him and he should desist from complaining forthwith.

The game begins. Ipswich are better than Wigan and score. I can’t bring myself to celebrate. When Crazee the mascot appears by the steps into the stand to bang his drum, yes; bang his DRUM, much noisier than a tambourine, I expect a steward to tell him to stop. Nothing happens, so I skip down the steps to Crazee and explain my situation to him and most obligingly he rattles the tambourine to the cheers of the crowd. Feeling a little better for this small victory, this two-fingers to my oppressors I cough up a cheer and bang the tambourine naughtily when Ipswich score a second goal.
At half-time I consider moving to another seat but I’m a broken man and instead contemplate throwing myself off the top tier to make a statement, but I think better of it in case the referee abandons the game when we’re 2-0 up and heading for a rare victory. I’d never forgive myself, although may be I wouldn’t have to. Anyway, I stay sat where I was and console myself by sniggering at the name of the Wigan Athletic No 6 who is called Max Power.

The football resumes and Ipswich Town are playing okay tonight, although Wigan Athletic are not at all good and have been the architects of their own downfall (or as it subsequently said in the report on the ITFC website, the “victims of their own downfall”…well durr) , but at least Ipswich look like they know they must score goals. Wigan Athletic come close to scoring a few themselves however, even though they are rubbish, and despite Town eventually winning 3-0 it is Ipswich Town’s goalkeeper, Bialkowski who is the man of the match. Satisfyingly Max Power is booked for tackling too strongly; he probably needs some sort of resistor, although at least he doesn’t blow a fuse and get himself sent off.

The final whistle blows and Town have won at last; I look up at the slogan placed by the club at the top of the North Stand. “What is a club?” it asks, and rather cockily answers its own question: “The Noise, The Passion, The Feeling of Belonging”. Yeah right. You can probably make your own conclusions about that.