The Rouen metropolitan area is massive, with a population of over 700,000. It is a little surprising therefore that Rouen hasn’t had a first division football team since 1985. FC Rouen was that team, but the previously less successful Quevilly-Rouen Metropole is now the more ‘senior’ club in the city, this being their third season in Ligue 2 since 2017, with FC Rouen being in the amateur fourth division (Ligue National 2). Both clubs play at the Stade Robert-Diochon, named after a former FC Rouen player and situated in the suburb of Le Petit-Quevilly.
Returning from holiday in Brittany on a Saturday, a stop in Rouen was planned having seen that Quevilly-Rouen would be at home that Saturday evening and I’d always wanted to tread in the footsteps of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Staying in a city centre hotel, it is too far to walk to Stade Robert-Diochon, and Google maps tells us that tram line T4 runs from Vieux Marche to Zenith-Parc Expo. Disappointingly, there is in fact no tram only an articulated bus, although the bus stop, which is actually on Boulevard des Belges, does look like a tram stop having an elevated platform. The fare is 1 euro 70 and the journey takes about 15 minutes, crossing over the murky, swirling waters of the River Seine and on through the mostly rather dull looking suburbs. The Parc-Zenith Expo bus stop is less than 50 metres from the stadium and the guichets from which match tickets are sold are at the back of the Tribune Lenoble, which is directly on Avenue des Canadiens. Tickets in the two lateral stands are either 12 euros for the Tribune Lenoble, which faces west and therefore faces the setting sun, or 20 euros for the larger Tribune Horlaville where the posh people and ‘wags’ sit. Feeling flush, stretching for the hi-life and not wanting the sun in our eyes my wife Paulene and I opt for the 20 euro seats.
After the usual frisking by some very miserable looking stewards/bouncers I make my way to the club boutique, which is not so much a boutique as a bloke stood behind a lock-up counter with some shirts hanging up behind him. There isn’t much in the way of desirable souvenirs to be had unfortunately, although the colour A5 programmes is free of charge, as is the custom in France. To get to our seats we must have our tickets checked and walk behind the steel framed temporary stand behind the goal, we are about to head off when out of the corner of my eye I spot an emaciated looking furry, red shape sloping off towards the main stand. “Monsieur, un photo s’il vous plait?” I call to him and sportingly the creature stops and poses for a couple of snaps with my wife before heading on his way. He was very friendly and obliging, even if he was one of the most sickly-looking club mascots I have ever seen, with his mangy looking red fur flecked with yellow ‘spots’.
The main stand at the stadium is quite impressive; a tilted concrete deck with a row of red executive boxes seemingly suspended above it beneath a light and airy roof. There is a raised concourse where I find a buvette from which I buy 50cl of beer for 5 euros, a hot dog for 4 euros and a cup of Fanta for 3 euros. The man serving in the buvette speaks some English and we enter a reciprocal agreement in which he helps me with my French and I help him to add three, four and five and calculate the change from a twenty euro note.
Having found our seats and whilst consuming our drinks and my hot dog the teams are announced by the leather jacketed female stadium announcer ,who will watch the game leaning on the fence between the dug outs. The game begins, with Quevilly-Rouen or QRM as they are called, getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Laval supporters who are at the city end of the ground, the Tribune Erdre. Presumably, QRM’s red and yellow home kit is in the wash because they are sporting a boring, immeasurably dull all-black kit, with Laval in its polar opposite, all-white. As an opening gambit QRM simply boot the ball forward into touch as if playing rugby, a surprisingly direct, but aimless approach. Unfortunately, it is a precursor of what is to come, QRM are terrible and although they do manage a shot on goal it is blazed wide. In the sixth minute Laval’s number nine, Geoffrey Durbant, a man whose mop of dyed blond hair looks like a small fleece, falls in the penalty area under a challenge from the stupendously lanky Till Cissokho; referee Monsieur Remi Landry does not hesitate to award Laval a penalty kick. Durbant recovers from his fall to score from the spot as he shoots a little to the left of centre whilst World Cup winner Lilian Thuram’s cousin Yohann, the QRM goalkeeper, helpfully dives to the right. The knot of fifty or so Laval fans at the other end of the ground and the bloke sitting behind me celebrate wildly.
Four minutes later and Laval produce some excellent play down the right with an interchange of passing ending with Durbant crossing the ball. The ball is flicked on by Zakaria Naidji as Thuram flaps for the ball and it arcs across to the far post where Julien Maggioti places it simply into the middle of the empty net with that most humbling of goals, the stooping header. Laval lead 2-0.
It seems a matter of how many more goals will Laval score. QRM are abysmal, they have no apparent plan and some of them seem to lack basic skills; after just ten minutes Laval look likely to win, and win comfortably. But strangely the expected goals do not happen and ten minutes later QRM have found their mojo and are competing. Unfortunately, the first physical manifestation of this is not a goal but Garland Gbelle being the first player to be booked, as he fouls Maggioti. The booking is a good one though with Monsieur Landry somewhat alarmingly brandishing his yellow card as if making a Nazi salute.
In the Tribune Lenoble the bare-chested QRM ultras are likely to be feeling a little chilly as the sun sets behind the Tribune Horlaville, but they’re not letting on but they’re chants are at best repetitive. To be honest the atmosphere inside the ground isn’t exactly fervid but the app on my mobile will later record that Paulene and I are two of three-thousand souls here tonight in the 12,000 capacity stadium, so body count-wise it’s similar to watching Colchester United on a slightly better than average day. Suddenly a shrill, piercing shout from somewhere behind me to my left penetrates my ear drum. It happens again and again and sound like a small yapping dog. In fact, the shrieks are emanating from a small boy, probably about eight or nine years-old, and he is screaming “Allez QRM”. Sadly no one tries to throttle him, but I do admire his passionate support for his team and can sense his frustration with them and that he is a lone voice in the Tribune Horlaville. If there were any more voices like his however I might have to tear my ears off or beat my brains out on the concrete steps of the stand.
With twelve minute to go until half time Laval record their first booking of the evening as Djibril Diaw attempts to remove the legs of Mamadou Camara, but is spotted doing so by Monsieur Landry. The evening is now coming on and as the light fades and the warmth of the day subsides I can smell the lush turf, probably for the first time this season, although this is in part due to the pitch having seemingly been heavily watered, as evidenced by the spurt of spray flicked up from the grass as the ball travels across it.
A minute later Gbelle’s shot from a free-kick is saved by Alexis Sauvage in the Laval goal but he can’t keep hold of the ball and it is inelegantly bundled into the net by Christophe Diedhiou from embarrassingly close range. Laval have a goal back and the nearby squealing child simply won’t shut up. The half plays out in a series of cheap free-kicks and Laval take a two bookings to one lead to match the actual score line as Dembo Sylla’s attempts to steal Gustavo Sangare’s shirt provoke more dubious arm action from Monsieur Landry.
Half-time brings no particular delights, although out of a total of nine advertisements in the programme I count two for boulangeries and patisseries, two for restaurants and one for retirement flats with a restaurant on the ground floor.
The second half begins at a minute past eight o’clock and continues as the first half ended with a succession of fouls and attempts to win free-kicks almost as if the players are challenging the referee to make wrong decisions. Six minutes into the half and Laval’s Anthony Goncalves is the next player to see the yellow card after he clatters Sangare. A minute later Bryan Goncalves dithers for Laval rather than booting it clear or seeing a pass and is robbed of the ball by Camara, but before Camara can shoot, Goncalves recovers brilliantly to hook the ball away from him, it’s an exciting piece of play but only serves as the prelude to a run of several consecutive fouls which see three Laval players booked in the space of seven minutes. After Bryan Goncalves’ booking, Naidji beats two players to get himself inside the penalty area before tumbling to the ground and being booked for ‘simulation’, a term that might refer both to the act of simulating diving from a high board and simulating being fouled. The final booking for the time being, of Antony Goncalves for tugging a shirt, leads to a free-kick from which, after the ball is booted and headed back and forth for a bit, is eventually volleyed wide of the goal by Camara with a shot which is spectacularly disappointing in its accuracy.
Substitutions, including the appearance of the beautifully named Balthazar Pierret for QRM ensue for both teams as both conformation of the result and an equaliser are desperately sought by the respective coaches. QRM are pressing and have two players up front now, a decision which if nothing else might help the half-naked ultras warm themselves with hope and expectation. But QRM’s luck is out as the ball is pumped forward by Laval. Till Cissokho looks to have it under control as he gets to it first and flicks it around Naidji and steps around him, but Naidji falls to the ground and Monsieur Landry adjudges this to be because Cissokho has pulled him back or tripped him; he promptly salutes Cissokho with his red card in the practised fashion and the towering centre-half trudges off.
From the resultant free-kick, Magiotti directs the ball over the cross-bar after another player first wastes his time and energy by running up as if to the kick the ball but then steps over it; no one was fooled, except perhaps Maggiotti. Immediately, even more substitutions are made as both coaches seek to either exploit the imbalance in the number of players on each team or negate it. Just four minutes after the sending off a decent passing moving by Laval is crowned by a smart overlapping run by Maggiotti who sweeps the ball into the corner of the QRM net to effectively seal the result. 3-1 to Laval.
Sixteen minutes remain of normal time, but QRM don’t look the sort of team capable of pulling back a two-goal lead when the opposition have one more player than they do, and this indeed proves to be the case. Even the ultras have fallen quiet, although this is only temporary as either boredom, amphetamines or a sudden realisation that standing half naked beside a damp football pitch on a late September Saturday evening is all they have , and they burst back into life with some more repetitive chants of “Allez, Allez, Allez”. Happily for me, the screeching child to my left has possibly lost his voice altogether and may require surgery to get it back.
The addition of just two minutes additional time is a sensible and pragmatic decision in the circumstances and once it has elapsed, without undue incident, Paulene and I depart the Stade Robert-Diochon as we entered it. We head for the bus back to town, which we will be impressed to learn from the bus driver as we try to tender our fares is completely ‘Gratuit’; this is the ultimate indication of being in a truly civilised country and therefore not something ever likely to happen in Liz Truss’s United Kingdom. We reflect as we wait for the bus to depart the stop that oddly, given how ineffective QRM have been for much of the time, this has been a quite entertaining match and one which, with a few thousand more people in the stadium might have been even better still. Neither QRM or Laval are going to make it into the not particularly select band of ‘French teams that I like’ but I will nevertheless always remember tonight fondly, for the mascot if nothing else.