Ipswich Town 2 Shrewsbury Town 1

The football aspect of my weekend has started well.  On Friday evening I logged into FFF tv, the free tv channel of the French football association, to watch one of my favourite French teams, FC Sete take on Stade Lavallois in Ligue National, the French third division; it’s sort of like watching ifollow, but without BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley or Mick Mills (Michel Moulins in France) , and not being English the FFF don’t charge for it.   Things didn’t immediately go well, Sete went a goal behind, a blow from which they never recovered but early in the second half I checked up on how my other Ligue National team, Red Star St Ouen, were doing; somewhat annoyingly, seeing as I wasn’t watching them, they were winning 3-0 away at Avranche. I soon switched feeds but not soon enough to see Red Star’s fourth goal, although at least I saw their fifth and sixth goals to create some welcome Anglo-French symmetry with Town’s recent thrashing of Doncaster Rovers.

This morning the sun continues to shine, literally, from a bright blue autumn sky.  It’s the sort of beautiful day that makes you feel glad to be alive.  I do the usual things, parking up my trusty Citroen on Chantry and strolling down through Gippeswyk Park, but by way of a change from routine I am going to buy my programme (£3.50) before my pre-match beer.  Having only a twenty-pound note in my wallet I decide to buy my programme from the club shop where I can pay by card; but stepping over the threshold I am witness to a sea of unmasked faces queuing at the tills. It looks like a cross between the January sales and the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.  Not wanting to even risk entering a scene of such thoughtless disregard for the health and safety of others in such a confined space, I make a hasty retreat and form a queue of one at the nearest programme seller’s booth.   Programme in hand, I proceed up Portman Road, along Little Gipping Street, across Civic Drive, up Lady Lane and St George’s Street to what used to be The Arboretum, but is now known as the Arbor House.  The bar is surprisingly empty and having purchased a pint of Nethergate Copperhead (£3.80) I make the short walk through to the beer garden where I am mildly surprised to find Mick already sat at a table behind a pint of Mauldon’s something or rather (he can’t remember exactly what), with his mobile phone in hand,  texting me to say “Je suis dans le jardin”, which I tell him is exactly what I was going to do if he hadn’t beaten me to it.   

Having discussed “new Labour”, Mick’s daughter’s recent wedding and his father of the bride speech, how we have been born in the wrong country, the utterly unbelievable ineptness of Boris Johnson, the whereabouts of mutual friends, and the Sheffield Wednesday game we find we have drained our glasses and with no time for more beer we head for Portman Road.  As we walk to the ground we share our bafflement over what appears on the front of Ipswich Town’s shirt. I think we both know it’s something to do with a tour by Ed Sheeran, but what does it mean?  I tell Mick that I don’t think it makes any sense in algebraic terms and we confide in each other that we had both wondered if the mystifyingly popular ginger recording artist was trying to say something obliquely about living in ‘divided times’, but we had both been a bit embarrassed to mention it to anyone else.⁹

Having bid farewell to Mick at the West Stand turnstiles in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, I proceed past checkpoint Covid on the Constantine Road gate to turnstile No 59, the portal to another world, the foyer to which is the men’s toilet beneath the Sir Alf Ramsey stand; relieved, I am soon making my first appearance this month in the lower tier seats.  Against the usual background of overly loud music, presumably intended to excite me as well as make my ears ring unpleasantly, stadium announcer and former Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster somewhat alarmingly speaks of Town having put Doncaster Rovers “to the sword” in the last home game.  Then, sounding like an entertainer at a child’s birthday party, Stephen asks the crowd if Town can do the same to Shrewsbury. The response is not an enthusiastic one and suggests that “probably not” is the consensus.

Following the taking of the knee, which we all applaud, the game begins with Shrewsbury Town getting first go with the ball, which they are mainly hoping to aim in the direction of the goal just in front of me.  Today, Shrewsbury are wearing an unusual kit of pink socks, black shorts, and black and pink hooped shirts; they look like a team of Denis the Menaces who are in touch with their female side.   There don’t appear to be any away fans wearing the replica shirts of this kit, although I think I can see a woman in a pale pink cardigan.  To my right Fiona and Pat from Clacton discuss the UEFA Cup celebrating musical ‘Never Lost At Home’ which Fiona is seeing at the Wolsey Theatre tonight and Pat saw last night.  “It brought back so many memories” Pat tells Fiona.  I share with them that I am going to watch it on-line this evening, and I am destined to discover that my experience mirrors Pat’s.

Eight minutes pass and Wesley Burns receives a through ball, which he crosses low for the oddly named Macauley Bonne to hit into the Shrewsbury goal from close range, only for Macauley Bonne to have been offside.  The near miss provokes a burst of noise from the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and a fulsome chant echoes around the stands for at least a few seconds. Town are permanently ensconced in the Shrewsbury half. “Here we go” says Pat from Clacton trying to influence events as the ball is crossed from a free-kick; but Wes Burns’ header goes into the side netting.  Town win a corner. “Ipswich, Ipswich”, “Come On You Blues” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand with gusto and Matt Penney sends an angled shot whistling past the far post from 25 metres out.

“Nice to see the ball down here” says the bloke behind me contrarily as Shrewsbury make a rare foray towards Vaclav Hladky’s goal and Ryan Bowman heads over the cross bar. It’s an incident that causes excitement amongst the Shropshire lads lurking in the shadows at the back of the Cobbold Stand, who don’t sing but instead read from their books of poetry by AE Housman. Two minutes later and a left foot shot from Lee Evans is blocked.  A further minute passes and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a Matt Penney cross goalwards forcing  a flying save from Shrewsbury ‘keeper Marko Marosi.  But Marosi can only push the ball away and Conor Chaplin nips in to fire the ball into the net and give Town a deserved lead.   A little bizarrely, the reaction of the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand is to go all 1970’s and sing about endlessly fighting ‘the Norwich’ because of Boxing Day, I can only attribute this to a liking for the back catalogue of Boney M.

Relaxing, confident that we are on our way to another handsome victory, I think to myself how Town’s Cameron Burgess reminds me of Town legend Terry Butcher; this is mostly because of his height and the shape of his legs, but also extends to his ability to boot a ball up the left side of the pitch and curl it out into touch for a throw to the opposition.  Behind me one bloke asks the other if he thinks we might see another 6-0 win, but thankfully he doesn’t mention the use of swords.

Five minutes go by in which Town worryingly follow my ill-advised lead and appear to begin to relax too.  The inevitable result is that Sam Morsy loses possession on the edge of the Town penalty area, and the unfortunately monikered Shaun Whalley silences anyone tempted to call him a wally by lashing the ball into the net from 20 metres out.  The recurring pattern has recurred.  “Why don’t we ever shoot from there?” asks the bloke behind me; possibly because the opposition don’t give the ball away in that position I respond, but only in my head. Up in the shadows of the Cobbold Stand the Shropshire lads briefly chant “You’re not singing anymore” but oblivious to the irony, very soon they’re not doing so either, although for no particular reason such as Town scoring again.

With the scores level, Town seem to lose all memory of what they stepped out on to the pitch to do and the remainder of the half drifts away somewhat aimlessly, but with Shrewsbury Town spending more time in the Ipswich half of the pitch; at one point they even win a corner.  With ten minutes of the half remaining Shrewsbury’s number twelve Ryan Bowman is replaced by their number nine Sam Cosgrove. I think the scoreboard gets it the other way round, but it’s an easy mistake to make given that in a sensible world players would be numbered 1 to 11, and substitutes 12 to infinity.  Of course, I might have got that wrong, but it’s an easy mistake to imagine given that in a sensible world players would be numbered 1 to 11 and substitutes 12 to infinity.

The final ten minutes of the half see Cameron Burgess booked by referee Mr Will Finnie, who kicks his heels too high and has overly neat hair for my liking.  Three minutes of additional time are added on during which Pat from Clacton remarks on how nice Fiona looks in her new home shirt, which Fiona collected from the club shop today.  As ever Pat is right, the home shirt is a rich shade of royal blue and suits Fiona to a tee.  Half-time arrives and departs in the flurry of a toilet visit, a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar and a chat with Ray and his grandson Harrison.  The talk is of whether we can score another goal in the second half; I think we can and am hopeful for a third too.

At 1605 the second half begins, and the floodlights flicker on soon afterwards despite it being a bright afternoon, and sunset not being for almost another two and half hours.  I suspect our club’s new owners are just showing off how Americans have no qualms about the conspicuous consumption of energy, or wasting it.  Today’s attendance is announced as 19,256 with the 202 from Shrewsbury being made up of not only Shropshire lads, but Salopians of all ages and sexes.

The half is nine minutes old, and Town earn a corner. Lee Evans crosses the ball and the oddly named Macauley Bonne runs towards it, jumps, and sends a glancing header obliquely across the face of the goal and comfortably inside the far post to restore Town’s lead.  I love a glancing header, one of my favourite types of goal; the twist of the neck, the precise contact with the ball, the eyes following its path into the net, poetry that A E Housman might have appreciated.  “ He’s one of our own” sing the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the tune of Sloop John B, before going on to sing about beating up a Norwich City supporter (poor little budgie), this time through the medium of a top 20 hit recorded in 1979 by the Abbey Hey Junior School.

With the sun now hidden behind the West Stand, the temperature drops and the smell of the damp turf drifts into the stands;  I breathe it in deeply like an inhaling dope fiend.  Matt Penney whizzes in a low cross, which the oddly named Macauley Bonne fails by a matter of a fraction of a second to slide into the net.  Kyle Edwards replaces Wes Burns with seventeen minutes of normal time remaining.  Toto N’siala replaces Matt Penney with the game into its last ten minutes.  Three minutes remain and Vaclav Hladky rises imperiously to catch a cross and reap the applause of the home crowd.  Town haven’t managed to score a third goal, but it doesn’t look like they will need to.   For Shrewsbury George Nurse draws laughter from the crowd, firstly falling over as he boots the ball up field and then heading the ball into the ground and somehow managing to get hit by it as it bounces up again; the boy is a natural.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne is replaced by Joe Piggott and five minutes of added on time are announced.  There remains time for Scott Fraser to go down in the penalty area and to be booked by Mr Finnie for diving.  Predictably it’s not a popular decision amongst the Town supporters, but this Town supporter thought it was a blatant dive and Fraser deserved to be booked and possibly kicked when he was on the ground, which then would have been a penalty.

The final action sees the Sir Bobby Robson lower tier singing “Addy, addy, addy-o” for reasons unknown other than that they must be happy and seemingly this makes them reminisce about pre-school. With the final whistle Fiona and Pat from Clacton make a sharp exit, but I linger to applaud the Town players and witness the sadness in the faces of the Shrewsbury players.  It’s been a good day; the sun is still shining and I still have the joy to look forward to of listening to the analysis of Town legend Mick Mills, and the Radio Suffolk phone-in as I drive home. Sometimes life just keeps giving, but then it stops.

Swindon Town 1 Ipswich Town 2

 Swindon is by far the largest town in Wiltshire and is also home to the only Football League team in the county.  I like Swindon.  Despite being a long way from the coast, there is something a bit like Ipswich about it, particularly with its relationship to the county in which it is situated. Salisbury and Bury St Edmunds have their cathedrals, but whilst historically the locals there were poncing about singing psalms and reciting canticles Ipswich and Swindon folk were getting their hands dirty making stuff, or at least they were until the forces of international capitalism did for them.  Like Ipswich, Swindon is one of those rare, unpretentiously provincial towns that’s a decent size, is a respectable distance from London but isn’t ‘Up North’;  it’s like Northampton, Shrewsbury, Newport and, if you don’t count Staffordshire as ‘Up North’, Burton On Trent.    Added to that it’s got a Magic Roundabout, is only 20 kilometres or so from groovy places like Avebury stone circle (bigger and therefore better than Stone Henge) , Silbury Hill  and the Uffington white horse hill figure, and is home of the hard to pigeon-hole band XTC, although sadly they split up about fifteen years ago.  More recently, Swindon Town is the team supported by Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe in the wonderful BBC comedy series “This Country”.  Swindon also still has its own local brewery, Arkell’s, which has been fulfilling the town’s beer needs since 1843.

I first saw Ipswich Town play at the County Ground, Swindon in December 1987.  Fresh from having failed to return to the First Division at the first attempt the previous season, Town played newly promoted Swindon Town and lost 4-2 after initially coming back to equalise from 2-0 down at half-time.  Mark Brennan and David Lowe scored for Town and Ian Cranson also scored, but for Swindon, with a spectacular header.   I didn’t remember any of that, I had to look it up, but having had my memory jogged I do recall that the game also saw the debut for Town of the least successful of our Dutch imports, the less than  legendary Ulrich Wilson, on loan from FC Twente.  Since then Swindon has mostly been a lovely day out, with four wins in our last four visits, although we’ve not been round theirs now since the turn of the century, which is another reason why I would have been looking forward to today’s fixture.

Spared a 3 hour, 275 kilometre trip along the motorways of southern England I nevertheless still rock-up late at the on-switch of my retro-style Bush radio, which is already primed in a state of preparedness being perpetually tuned-in to BBC Radio Suffolk.   It’s as if I’ve only just pushed through the turnstile after hurriedly finishing my last pre-match pint of Arkell’s 3B, as at almost 3 o’clock I am greeted with the news that alongside Brenner Woolley today is former Town player Ian Atkins. Despite his having played over ninety games for Town, some as captain, I always think of Atkins as one of the most inelegant players I’ve ever seen play for Town; he’d get in today’s team mind.  As Brenner Woolley sets the scene and tells us that Swindon are wearing red shirts, white shorts and red socks I can hear Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s  rip-off of Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ blaring out from the County Ground’s public address system.  With the common man still absent from its stands and concourses I wonder to myself to whom Swindon Town are playing this little burst of populist Prog-Rock.  I’m as partial to a bit of Prog-Rock as the next grammar school boy born in the 1950’s or early 60’s, but as grand entry music for the players at a football match I would place ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ somewhere up close to “The boys are back in Town” in the league table of all-time naffness.  Give me “Entry of the Gladiators” or the Toreador song from Bizet’s Carmen every time.

How embarrassing

“It’s Teddy Bishop, going to be kicking off” announces Brenner and the game begins.  Somewhat inevitably Brenner’s commentary for now is obsessed with Town’s having failed to score a goal in over ten hours.  “Goals change games” says Ian revealing his  Birmingham accent. Well duh.  The game begins well for Town as you would hope against a team who have already been relegated after only forty-four games and have conceded eighty-four goals.  “Dozzell’s had a very good start at the moment” says Ian cautiously.  “Town on top at the moment” says Brenner with the same note of caution borne from bitter experience as Town win the game’s first corner.  “Swindon….they’re letting Northampton play”  adds Ian, already confused about which game he’s watching.

Inevitably, there is something of an end of season feel to the game, what with it being the end of the season and Brenner is soon indulging in playful commentator-speak. “ …bit of a school-boy error, Dobra” says the BBC man triumphantly.  Ian meanwhile soon reveals the contents of his own locker of sayings to fall-back on when your vocabulary has otherwise been exhausted.  Ian’s stock phrase is “to be fair”, which, to be fair, seems innocuous enough but it’s also largely unnecessary. “…leaving the space to attack, to be fair” is Ian’s first use of the phrase and he follows this up with “… this is where they had a little bit of a problem against Northampton, to be fair”.

Meanwhile, Brenner entertains us as he always does. “Payne, who’s sprung to life in the last few moments” says Brenner summoning, in my mind at least, a vision of some sort of resurrection,  before he then says “It’s Norwood with his pink boots who’s been penalised” leading me to wonder if the referee has awarded a free-kick against Norwood because of the colour of his boots; I wouldn’t be wholly against the  idea.  The game moves on and Brenner is soon tempting fate as he loves to do, telling us that “Swindon have never doubled Ipswich in a league season”.  It’s the sixteenth minute and fate is nearly tempted; “Pitman inside the area” says Brenner with rising excitement “…puts it past the post”.  Brenner confides that he was convinced Brett Pitman was going to score, and having heard his agitated commentary of the incident, it’s hard not to believe him.

Ipswich win a second corner; it comes to nothing.  “Dobra up on all fours, now ready to continue” says Brenner making it sound as if Town’s number 36 does actually scamper about the pitch as if he were a quadruped.  Nearly a quarter of the game has passed; “Town under pressure” is the latest assessment from Brenner.  Ian’s view is that Town are giving the ball away because they’re not strong enough to hold off challenges from Swindon players.

With the game into its second quarter Brenner starts feeling oddly compelled to say things:  “Jaiyesimi actually did very little against Ipswich a few weeks ago, it has to be said.” “Swindon the better side at the moment in this game, it has to be said”.  “Still Camp not had a save to make, it has to be said”.  It’s as if we’ve now reached a point in the game where Brenner can no longer carry on unless he gets these things off  his chest. It’s either that or he now feels that his audience has been listening long enough to be able to stand these harsh truths without bursting into tears.  I feel myself welling -up a little but pull through.

Five minutes later and things look up.  “Saved by Camp; are Ipswich Town ever going to score another goal?” asks Brenner after an “Almighty chance for Town” sees Camp divert a shot from Teddy Bishop, who is through with just the goalkeeper between him and glory.   As Brenner has told us in previous games “Paul Cook, screaming his heart out”, which as any cardiologist will tell you is not advisable. Shaken perhaps by hearing a grown man scream, Brenner seems to panic and when Swindon’s Christopher Missilou under hits a ball he tells us that “The Frenchman didn’t have enough air on that pass”.  It’s an odd description of what you’d normally expect a commentator of Brenner ‘s experience to call a ‘hospital pass’, added to which Missilou is Congolese, not French.

Armando Dobra shoots wide. “Dobra’s head is in his hands” says Brenner with such conviction that I half expect him to confirm that yes, Dobra’s head has actually come off and is in his hands.  A James Norwood shot is saved by Lee camp and Mark McGuinness heads the ensuing corner kick over the cross-bar.  It’s evident that Town are continuing to attack and Brenner is in positive mood. “Kane Vincent-Young over-hits that cross, but quite a lot” says Brenner trying to play down the full-back’s error. The same player then has a header saved by Camp “ I thought he was going to score there, Young” says Brenner, deceiving himself once again.  Ian assesses Vincent Young’s forays forward, “…like a wing-back, to be fair”.

With Town sounding like they are creating chances, the mystery remains why they have not scored and Ian enlightens us by telling us that what Town are missing is “someone of real presence in the box who can upset defenders”.  It’s an analysis that suggests to me that over the summer we should sign either a sort of Joan Rivers character capable of reducing defenders to tears or just put a ‘big bloke up front’.

“It’s now eleven hours without a goal” announces Brenner polishing the glass on his stop watch, but his words soon lose their meaning as “ Bishop goes down inside the box, the referee says penalty” and I somehow imagine the referee Mr Johnson turning in the direction of Brenner up in the stand and mouthing the word “penalty” to him .   “Please James, do not miss this opportunity” implores Brenner.  Norwood scores, “…the goal-drought is over” confirms Brenner.  “He deserves his goal at the moment” adds Ian introducing the slightly tantalising possibility that he might not deserve his goal later on and suggesting possibly that Ian believes undeserving players should have their goals taken away from them.  There then follows some blokey banter about Paul Cook having said he would do a lap of honour if Town scored. “Typical scally” says Ian “saying they’re going to do something and not doing it”.  I will admit to being a little surprised by Ian’s comments and can only think he is unaware of the risk of becoming the subject of a Liverpudlian version of a fatwa.

The first half ends with a chance for Gwion Edwards to double Town’s goal tally. “ Edwards shoots!” says Brenner excitedly “ …and the flag’s up” he continues with well-practised resignation.  Brenner asks Ian what he made of the first half. “A bit like a practice game” says Ian honestly.  “They’ve had chances that the players have missed” he adds un-controversially.  Ian’s advice for the second half, which sounds a bit like an extract from an instruction manual for something purchased in an Ann Summers shop is  “Rather than just sit on it, go and enjoy it”

Half-time is the familiar blur of kettle, tea and Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar.  For the second-half I am joined by my wife Paulene who, as I listen to the wireless through my earpiece will be watching the Ligue 1 game between Paris St Germain and Racing Club de Lens on the telly.  As I re-join the broadcast from BBC Radio Suffolk Brenner ‘advertises’ his forthcoming commentaries and explains that he will once again be with Ian for Tuesday’s match at Shrewsbury. “ Is that basically because Mills’ car doesn’t go to the other side of Colchester?” asks Ian, evidently still in banter mode and also daring to take Mick Mills’ name in vain.

As far as I can make out from the commentary the second half is much like the first. “Comes to Downes” calls out Brenner with rising excitement “…who skies it”.  Ian begins to add “ at this level” to the end of most of his explanations of what Town need to be doing. Nearly an hour has passed since kick-off.  “…gives it back to Norwood, Norwood prods it in, Ipswich now lead Swindon 2-0” exclaims Brenner. “He’s tucked that ball away well” adds Ian, whose analysis has otherwise increasingly come to depend on the phrase “bodies in the box”.

Troy Parrott replaces Teddy Bishop. “He looks like a nice little footballer” says Ian of Teddy, when asked for his opinion of the departing player’s contribution.  But it quickly transpires that Ian doesn’t really think there is a place for nice little footballers “at this level.” Brenner meanwhile advises us that it’s a case of “Town getting the job done, for what it’s worth”.  More substitutions follow. “Harrop and Bennetts both coming on to play a bit more football” is Brenner’s reassuring statement before they replace Edwards and Dobra.  As a rule it’s best when the substitutes come on to play football rather than just paint over the white lines or do a  bit of weeding.  Ian’s assessment of Edwards and Dobra is that they have “Been lively, without ever having any end product”; I believe it’s what seasoned commentators and sports hacks call ‘flattering to deceive’.

Less than twenty minutes of the basic ninety minutes remain. “Goodness me” says Brenner channelling Peter Sellers, almost. “Terrible goal-keeping from David Cornell” exclaims Brenner and Brett Pitman scores.  I had sort of hoped Pitman would score, I liked him as a player at Town; my impression is that managers don’t think he runs about enough; perhaps he doesn’t , but he still scores goals, which is what forwards are supposed to do.  “A Sunday league howler – no disrespect to the Sunday league by the way” says Ian of Cornell’s error and for some reason affording a respect to the Sunday league that he previously hadn’t afforded Scousers or Mick Mills.

A couple more minutes pass. “Surely a penalty, it’s a penalty” cries Brenner unable to contain his excitement as Troy Parrott is fouled.    James Norwood steps up to claim his hat-trick.  “Forward he comes, he’s missed it, unbelievable” says Brenner of a situation which in reality is all too believable.   The only good thing to come of the incident is Ian’s lugubrious West Midland’s pronunciation of Parrott.

“Kenlock’s had a decent game” says Ian generously. “Town holding on for a win” says Brenner and meanwhile Neymar puts Paris St Germain one-nil up at the Parc des Princes.  News arrives on BBC Radio Suffolk of scores in other matches; Peterborough United have pulled back to trail two-three having been three-nil down. “Well, some excitement there in that game” says Brenner with a hint of jealousy.   Perhaps losing his enthusiasm Brenner mis-pronounces the surname of Swindon’s Tom Broadbent, so it sounds like Broadband. Flynn Downes is booked for a foul. “That’s like a booking for the team” explains Ian, but strangely he doesn’t say “to be fair”.

The final minutes of the game drift away. “Typical end of season game” says Ian. There is still occasional excitement. “Fabulous defending from Woolfenden” says Brenner one minute, and then “lovely little ball to Parrott in the area!” says Brenner expectantly the next.  “ …ball up in the air, Parrott goes after it” continues Brenner and I imagine a blur of brightly coloured feathers taking flight.  The first half ends in Paris.  “You’d like to think they can see this one out, you’d like to think” says Brenner half-repeating himself for no apparent reason.  Time added on runs out. “There is the full-time whistle, at the ninth time of asking Paul Cook get his first away win” concludes Brenner.

Mentally exhausted, I switch off the radio and prepare to turn my attention to the game in Paris.  Later, I will journey down to the south of France courtesy of FFF tv to watch FC Sete, who have scored just twenty-eight goals in thirty-one games (a goals per game record even worse than  Ipswich’s)  beat  Orleans 1-0 and secure their place in the French third division.  Finally, this evening, to complete my  virtual tour of some of my favourite places I will tune in to watch Lille versus Nice in French Ligue 1, it’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do driving back along the M4.

FC Sete 0 Stade Bordelais 1

The town of Sète is a fabulous seaport, fishing port and resort in Languedoc, it nestles by the sea where a rocky outcrop meets a saltwater lake. It has trawlers and its own network of canals and narrow streets, which give it the character of a cross between Venice, Naples and Lowestoft with a bit of North Africa thrown in thanks to its ferry links to Morocco. It has a population according to Wikipedia of about forty three thousand. Of all the places I have ever been I think Sète is one of my favourite towns anywhere.

FC Sète were early members of the French professional football league, winning the title in both 1934 and 1939 and the Coupe de France (French FA Cup) in 1930 and 1934, being the first club to win ‘the double’ in France. After 1960 the club declined and then, having been in Ligue 2 as recently as 2006, were relegated to the regional leagues in 2009 due to financial problems. But promotion to the second amateur tier (CFA2) in 2013 was followed by promotion to the top amateur tier in 2015. The club remains at the amateur, fourth level of French league football, which is now known as League National 2 and is divided imto four regionally based leagues with sixteen clubs in each.

So far this season Sète have won just one of their four games but are undefeated; their opponents today are Stade Bordelais from Bordeaux20170909_173047.jpg near the Atlantic coast, some 380 kilometres away by road; they have won one and lost two of their four games so far. Kick-off is at six pm and we arrive about a half an hour beforehand, parking in the spacious gravel topped car park at the side of the Stade Louis Michel, although other spectators prefer to park in the road outside. Entry to the stadium costs €6 and we buy our tickets from the aptly porthole-shaped guichets 20170909_173102.jpgoutside the one gate into the ground. Just inside the gate a cardboard box propped on a chair provides a supply of the free eight-page, A4 sized programme ‘La Journal des Verts et Blancs’. Also today there is a separate team photo and fixture list on offer.

The Stade Louis  Michel was opened in 1990, but its pre-fabricated concrete panels somehow make it look older, but in a good way; 20170909_173348.jpgthe brutal angular concrete of the main stand, the Tribune Presidentielle, could be from the 1960’s or 1970’s, channeling the inspiration perhaps of Auguste Perret or even Le Corbusier. The concrete panels on the back of the stand are lightly decorated and sit above wide windows; a pair of curving staircases run up to the first floor around the main entrance, 20170909_175009.jpgabove which is a fret-cut dolphin, the symbol of the town and the club. The stand runs perhaps half the length of the pitch either side of the halfway line and holds about twelve hundred spectators, as well as club offices and changing rooms. Opposite the main stand a large bank of open, 20170909_173643.jpg‘temporary’ seating runs the length of the pitch, it is built up on an intricate lattice IMG_20170909_223051_287.jpgof steel supports. Behind both goals are well tended grass banks; there is a scoreboard at the end that backs onto the carpark.

There is now not long to wait until kick-off and the teams line up; 20170909_175652.jpgSète in green and white hooped shirts with black shorts and socks, Stade Bordelais with black shirts with white shorts and socks. There is a ‘ceremonial’ kick-off before the real one, taken by a youmg woman with a green and white scarf draped around her shoulders.  Eventually, referree Monsieur Guillaume Janin gives the signal for the game to start in earnest.

Its a grey, overcast afternoon, but not a cold one and the game quickly settles down with both teams enjoying attacking bursts in turn. The visiting team perhaps look slightly more accomplished, a bit more knowing, particularly at the back where their number four is the only player to have a tattooed forearm. He has long, lank hair and a beard and looks like he might have ridden into town on a Harley-Davidson rather than travelled over from Bordeaux with the rest of the team. The Bordelais number two is a 20170913_130330.jpgman mountain with a wide shock of bleached hair on the top of his head, and thighs the size of other men’s waists.

There’s not much of a crowd here today, three or four hundred perhaps and I count just eleven people on each of the grassy banks behind the goals and about the same number looking lost amongst the expanse of empty seats opposite. A few spectators stand and peer through the metal fence below the main stand, but most are up in the plastic, backless seats where we sit in the company of greyhaired men, idle players, club volunteers, wags and their children. A man in front of us wearing double denim reminds me of a petit Yosser Hughes, not that Yosser Hughes ever wore double denim.

The first real scoring opportunity falls to Stade Bordelais after seventeen minutes as a ball over the top of the Sète defence puts their number nine through on goal with just the goalkeeper between him and glory.  But he must have been dazzled by the dayglo yellow kit of the bald and bearded goalkeeper, who makes a startling, even dazzling save from close range.

It’s only a quarter past six, but the floodlights are coming on; every now and then there is a metallic rattle and rush behind us as a passenger or freight train speeds by on the track between Montpellier and Perpignan, which is just the other side of the road behind the Tribune Presidentialle. Sète win their first corner of the match and I am surprised to hear rythmic clapping rise from the ‘posh’ seats at the centre of the stand, but Sete has no Ultras so someone has to get behind the team; it’s a lesson that would be well learned by many club owners and officials in England.

It’s now half-past six and a ball forward is headed down to the feet of the Bordelais number ten; he feints one way and then the other to shake off the defender and shoots past the luminous Sète goalkeeper to give the away team the lead. Before the game resumes the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper is given timeout by the referree to throw a ball back to a bunch of children who have been playing their own game on the grassy slope behind his goal.

It’s six-thirty seven by the scoreboard clock and Sète win another corner to elicit more rythmic clapping from the centre of the stand; sadly it doesn’t produce an equalising goal only spiky, bitter shouts of disappointment. In the final minute of the half Séte’ s number five is booked for a trip, which leads to a Stade Bordelais free-kick within striking distance of the goal, but the opportunity is spurned.

I can’t deny I’ve been looking forward to half-time as I nimbly nip down the stairs to the buvette, 20170909_173408.jpgFC Sete.jpgwhich is close by at the corner of the stand where we are sat. The reason for my eagerness is that Sète is the home of the tielle, a small, spicy, calamari and tomato pie, with a bread like case. I love a tielle, and I love that they are specific to Sete, and are served at the football ground as a half-time snack. I only wish there were English clubs that served local delicacies. Middlesbrough has its parmo, but I can’t think of any others. Do Southend United serve jellied eels or plates of winkles? Do West Ham United serve pie and mash? Do Newcastle United serve stotties? Did the McDonald’s in Anfield’s Kop serve lobscouse in a bun? I need to know. Sadly, I don’t think my town Ipswich even has a local dish. Many English clubs don’t even serve a local beer; Greene King doesn’t count because it is a national chain with all the blandness that entails.

Having eaten my tielle (€3) with relish, by which I don’t mean some sort of pickle, but rather enthusiasm, I wash it down with a small beer (€2) and I treat my wife to a bottle of cold water (€1).

Reflecting my sense of tielle induced well-being, sunshine floods the stadium some time after the start of the second half. I look out across the pitch to the backdrop of the tree covered rocky outcrop that is Mont St Clair and all is right with the world, except that Sete are still losing; they substitute their number ten for number fifteen, but their opponents counter ny swapping thier number eleven for a thirteen.

Sète don’t look particularly like scoring, despite the change in personnel, and Stade Bordelais almost double their woe as a corner kick is headed firmly but deftly against the far post from an unlikely distance by a player whose shirt number I didn’t quite catch. The Stade Bordelais number nine is very quick and slaloms between two or three Sète players before being outnumbered. Sète’s eight becomes a fourteen. There are twenty minutes left and a free-kick to Sète is saved at full stretch by the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper. Sète’s eleven is replaced by their thirteen, a player and father of a little girl who calls and waves to him as he warms up in front of the stand, and he waves back. But undaunted by familial pleasantness Stade Bordelais replace their number seven by number fourteen. Stade Bordelais’ number nine breaks free down the left; he gets behind the Sète defence and delivers a low cross which is perfectly placed to meet the incoming run of the number ten who, from a position near the penalty spot, embarrasses himself with a shot which misses the goal in two directions. Two minutes later ten’s failure is compounded as his time under the unforgiving glare of the floodlights is terminated and he is replaced by twelve. There are still ten minutes left, but the final act of any note sees Sète’s number nine head the ball past the post from a corner. Stade Bordelais’ defenders hold firm to win the game. No one is a match for their huge full-back, their very own, very mobile rocky outcrop.

It’s not been the best game I’ve ever seen, but it’s been an oddly calm, measured one. Was anyone booked? I don’t recall. Stade Bordelais have won with greater guile and knowledge and strength, but Sète will always have their tielle, although they’ve run out of them in the buvette today.

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