Ipswich Town 2 Peterborough United 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 1 Fleetwood Town 1

Back in the late 1960’s when Ipswich were climbing out of the second division and I was at primary school, I would walk home for lunch most days except on a Friday when, having checked with the head cook, who conveniently was my mother’s cousin, that fish and chips was on the menu, I would stay for a ‘school dinner’.  Like a lot of people of I’ve always liked fish and chips and for lunch today I had a polystyrene box of cod and chips with mushy peas at the Suffolk County Council canteen.  As much as I like fish and chips however, and savour those first few delicious mouths full, by the time I get to the end the batter on the fish and the oil on the chips is beginning to get the better of me; I feel a bit bloated and in a couple of hours it’s going to repeat on me.

Tonight, in a second bout of Friday night football at Portman Road in the space of six weeks, Ipswich Town are playing Fleetwood Town, from the Lancashire fishing port probably once responsible for most of the cod dished up on Fridays in East Suffolk primary schools.  The game has been moved to Friday because there is little hope that most people will be boycotting the Qatar World Cup, and had England qualified for the last sixteen by finishing second in their group, they would have been playing on Saturday afternoon.  Football at three o’clock on a grey winter’s afternoon is great, but an evening match under the bright white glow of the floodlights is always a beautiful thing; it seems to heighten and enhance the usual match day sensations a bit like listening to The Beatles’ best album Revolver whilst sucking on a sherbet fountain or having smoked something illicit.  A night game also provides the opportunity to go straight from work to the pub, which is really living.

I cross the Cornhill as the town hall clock strikes six o’clock and hit “The Arb” as I have decided to call the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum), no more than ten minutes later, seconds after Mick has phoned me to tell me he is already there, and is thinking that sitting out in the beer garden on what is a cold and intermittently drizzly and blowy December evening might be an overly hardy thing to do.  I point out that we are going to be sitting outside watching football for the best part of two hours anyway. Mick concedes that this is a fair point.  Ultimately, fate dictates that there is nowhere left to sit inside the building and so, having ordered a pint of Lacon’s Encore and a mushroom and chestnut burger with sweet potato fries for Mick and a pint of Tindall’s Ditchingham Dam (£4.10) and  a scotch egg (£4.00) for me, we step outside again into the beer garden,  where we are warded off sitting at one table by an elderly man who says he has reserved it for his family. When the man’s family do arrive, they all sit at the table he’s sat at.  The man then causes confusion by trying to accept an order for a full-stack burger and a half-stack burger with fries which aren’t his.  He manages to eat a chip before his family arrives from the bar and points out that they have only just ordered the food so it is unlikely to be here already; the food is quickly whisked away to the rightful diners.

As usual, our conversation is diverse and as usual includes death, as we speak of the demise a day or two ago of his former partner’s 20-year-old cat Archie, and how long ago it was that I had my dog Alfie put down.  Lightening up matters, I tell Mick that yesterday I had an electric charging point installed at my house and Mick tells me that his now deceased father once had an affair with the village post mistress.  Time passes quickly as we eat our food and then I buy a Dalwhinnie single malt whisky for Mick and a pint of Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog for me (£8.90).  Unhappily the Nog is on the turn, so I swap it for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride.

By the time we come to leave, we are the only people left in the beer garden, but we carry on our conversation as we head purposefully and full of expectation to the ground.  Crossing the Portman Road car park, I tell Mick of Decimus Burton the nineteenth century architect who planned the centre of Fleetwood and built the North Euston Hotel as a staging post for rail travellers on the way from London to Scotland, expecting that railway lines would not be able to cross the Lake District and that journeys would continue by steam ship. 

Mick and I part in what was Portman Walk where he enters the Magnus west stand and  I proceed to turnstile 61, the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the delights within.   Kick-off is imminent as I take my seat in the company of ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Fiona, and the man from Stowmarket. But Pat from Clacton is still wheezing having had covid and is staying home to watch the game on the interweb; Elwood is not here either.  Stadium announcer Stephen Foster reads out the teams, introducing Fleetwood as the Cod Army and the game begins with Ipswich getting first go with the ball and unusually for the first half, they are aiming at the goal at the Bobby Robson Stand end of the ground.   Town are rightly in our traditional blue and white whilst Fleetwood are impersonating Arsenal, or Stade de Reims if you are in France and Rotherham United if in South Yorkshire.  Quickly Town are on the attack, win a corner, have a Conor Chaplin shot blocked, have a Freddie Ladapo shot saved and then score from very close range as Luke Woolfenden appears heroically at the far post; the game is less than two minutes old.  As Fiona says,  almost complaining, we haven’t really got ourselves settled in yet, and in all the unexpectedly early excitement we forget to take a photo of ever-present Phil celebrating the goal to send to Pat from Clacton.

In the row behind me someone has missed the kick-off. “Did you see the goal?” he asks. “Some of us got here on time” is the answer, “I’ve been here since the Buxton game”.   For the benefit of someone who missed the goal it is described as an eighteen-yard pile-driver.  A goal up, Town continue to be the better team.  Fleetwood briefly break away in a moment of confusion and the ball drifts past Christian Walton’s far post before Conor Chaplin and Freddie Ladapo hit shots straight at the Fleetwood goalkeeper whose first name is the same as Homer Simpson’s middle name, which I’d like to say is appropriate because they’re both big and yellow, but sadly it’s not true as the goalkeeper is wearing green.   Drizzle sweeps across the pitch and into the front of the stand and people sat at the front are offered transparent ponchos, which could be quite alluring on the right people in the right circumstances.

Freddie Ladapo forces a fine save from the goalkeeper and Fiona says “Quick, you can get your photo taken with Bluey” as the Town mascot moves amongst his people behind us.  Only 20 minutes have gone and Fleetwood substitute Penny’s brother Paddy Lane with Nora’s brother Dan Batty before referee Mr Sam Purkiss, who sounds a bit like he could be a character from a Charles Dickens’ novel, makes an appalling decision.   Wes Burns and Fleetwood’s Josh Earl both slide in on the wet turf to claim a loose ball, Burns gets to it first and races away, but Earl stays down on the ground and Burns is booked.  At this moment I take a strong dislike towards Purkiss and it’s not long before I’m turning to Fiona and asking if she would agree that he looks a bit like Matt Hancock MP.

The crowd had been in good voice when Town dominated and looked likely to batter the ‘Cod Army’, but they quieten down as Fleetwood have a spell of possession before the zeitgeist amongst the home crowd switches again to positivity and the occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “Blue and White Amy, Blue and White Army”, at least three times.   Town are worth another goal, but Fleetwood are taking an increasingly physical approach to play and the worst example is when Kyle Edwards is scythed down, but the Hancock lookalike referee doesn’t even give a foul, when a caution for the Edwards’ assailant looked the only possible outcome. 

Four minutes of time added on are announced by Stephen Foster and when Conor Chaplin is given a free-kick after being fouled, the decision is met with ironic cheers from the stands.   Town win a final corner of the half, but it comes to nought and at twenty-five to nine the first forty-five minutes of the game finish.  “You don’t know what you’re doing” chants the young bloke in front of me at Hancock’s double as he passes by and a bloke a few rows behind rants furiously and possibly in a foreign language whilst I boo enthusiastically. I love a good boo at the referee, especially when he looks like a former member of the Cabinet, and even more when he seems bent enough to be one.

After a short pause to calm myself down after all that booing, I take a trip to the front of the stand to speak with Harrison and his dad Michael.  Michael’s dad Ray is away on holiday, cruising somewhere in the Azores.  Harrison tells me he has now heard Robyn Hitchcock’s new album ‘Shufflemania’ on Spotify and his review is positive; I’m not sure I could have spoken with him again if it hadn’t been.  We speak of the World Cup, although I haven’t been watching it, and Michael makes the very good point that this World Cup doesn’t seem like a World Cup because it’s not summertime, and so there is still real Ipswich Town-based football to occupy our minds and to leave the house for.

At seven minutes to nine the game resumes and it’s Fleetwood who are the team who mostly have the ball at their feet, which isn’t what we’ve come to expect at all.  Faintly heard chants carry on the wind from the upper tier of the Cobbold Stand where the small, loyal band of Fleetwood fans are sat, no doubt sucking on Fisherman Friends lozenges to lubricate their vocal chords.  The easterly breeze that buffets the flags on the roof of the stand whispers something about a red and white army. 

“Filthy fucker” bawls a bloke from somewhere behind me as Josh Earl floors Conor Chaplin at thigh height and inevitably Mr Purkiss doesn’t think the foul worthy of a booking. “Shit referee, shit referee” is the verdict of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand before they simultaneously clear their minds of such negativity and worries about cultural appropriation with a burst of “I-pswi-ch To-wn, Ipswich To-wn FC, They’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” to the tune of the Irish Rover.   They must be in the mood for traditional music tonight as a short while later they’re trudging their way through the dirge version of “When the Town go marching in”, sounding like they’ve learnt it by listening to a 45 rpm record being played at 33 rpm.

Fleetwood are the better team this half without ever having a decent attempt on goal, a bit like they’re being managed by Paul Lambert.  Kyle Edwards is replaced by Kayden Jackson, and Fleetwood’s Dan Batty vainly dives in the penalty area, perhaps to test out just how bad a referee Mr Purkiss is; bad, but thankfully not that bad.  For his trouble Batty is serenaded with a chorus of “Who the fuck, Who the fuck, Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you?” by the Sir Bobby Robson stand.

Despite not playing very well at all in the second half, Ipswich nevertheless retain the ability to make one match-winning opportunity and with thirteen minutes of normal time remaining Sam Morsy moves forward and passes wide to Wes Burns who releases an overlapping Janoi Donacien and his low cross from the goal line is met by Cameron Humphreys, who bounces the ball wide of the goal.  I clutch the sides of my head like the bloke in Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’.  John Wark would have scored, Tommy Miller would have scored, Matt Holland would have scored; but that was then and this is now, I don’t know why I mentioned it.

Smothering our regrets, Stephen Foster delivers tonight’s attendance figure which is 22,801, of whom a stonking 66 are from Fleetwood, although the bloke behind me doesn’t think there are that many and I will admit to having tried to count them and I came up with barely fifty. It seems that about sixteen ‘Codheads’, for that is what natives of Fleetwood  are known as, have gone AWOL, caught in a net somewhere perhaps, or victims of diminishing fish stocks.

Ten minutes to go and Freddie Ladapo makes way for the rangy Gassan Ahadme.  “This is fucking embarrassing  ,I tell ya” says the bloke behind me as Mr Purkiss makes another characteristic non-decision when Conor Chaplin is pushed over from behind.  But at least Fleetwood don’t look like scoring, even though they are still the ones with the ball at their feet most of the time.  They can pass, but they don’t create any chances, although one goal line clearance has been needed.

Town make their final substitutions and for Fleetwood Dan Batty suffers the ignominy of being a substitute who is substituted. There will be six minutes of added on time and for five of them the same pattern continues. It’s a bit frustrating that Town don’t seem able to keep the ball themselves, when we’re usually so good at it, but it seems pretty safe letting Fleetwood have it because if they don’t shoot they wont score and if we don’t have the ball Fleetwood can’t attempt limb threatening tackles that they won’t get punished for.   Then Cian Hayes seems to realise there is no time left to do anything but shoot, so he strides forward a couple of paces and does so, it’s not a great shot, it shouldn’t be a worry, but it hits someone and arcs up and over Christian Walton onto the far post, off which it deflects into the goal in exactly the way that Town shots that hit posts never seem to.  Fleetwood have equalised.

It’s not much of a consolation, but as the Fleetwood players celebrate wildly there’s one who goes too far, and it happens to be Josh Earl who is sent off by the hopeless Mr Purkiss, perhaps in a mis-guided attempt to atone for his earlier leniency.  Enough time remains for Purkiss to wave away appeals for what seems from the nearby Sir Alf Ramsey Stand like a clear penalty as Kayden Jackson looks to be barged over, but that’s all the time there is, and the appeals are still being heard as Purkiss blows the final whistle.

As I leave the ground I see the disappointment etched on supporters faces.  What had started out like cod and chips with that delicious first mouthful of an early goal has ended like cod and chips, feeling a bit bloated and uncomfortable and knowing it’s going to repeat on me.

Colchester United 2 Harrogate Town 1

It’s the first day of the second weekend in October and in the space of a week the leaves on the trees have begun to turn to shades of yellow and brown; it’s autumn and it’s cool.  I had wanted to head north to Morecambe today following Ipswich Town, but fate conspired to leave me without a car this morning and a hoped-for message that would have seen me ‘get a lift’ never arrived.  But like Ray Davies I like my football on a Saturday and so I have sought my fun elsewhere.  Local non-league football is always an attraction and Halstead Town, both Stanway Rovers and Stanway Pegasus, Little Oakley and Coggeshall United are all at home this afternoon but sticking two fingers up to the cost of living crisis I choose Colchester United versus Harrogate Town.  As some people collect vinyl records, Smurfs or infectious diseases so I collect Football League teams (well sort of) and I’ve never seen Harrogate Town.  It should be an “interesting” match, with the teams being third and fourth from bottom of the fourth division, but at least Col U should have a chance of winning.

Since Colchester United stopped running shuttle buses to their ridiculously remote stadium at Cuckoo Farm I have only been to see them there once, I used to be a regular. The Colchester United website now makes no reference to getting to the Community Stadium by public transport, the implication being that you can only get there by car, which is scandalous given the urgent need to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.   We are all doomed, but nevertheless I book a space on-line for my trusty Citroen C3 at the ‘Park and Walk’ car park (£3.00), which is over the A12 from the stadium, and make the short drive towards oblivion.   

It’s a pleasant walk from the car park beneath pale blue afternoon skies punctuated with fluffy clouds, over the roaring A12 to United Way and its vacant expanses of tarmac haunted by the ghosts of terminally delayed shuttle buses.  At the ground I visit the club shop to marvel at the pencils, mugs, cuddly toys and fridge magnets; this is Colchester’s Fitzwilliam Museum.  I pick up a programme in the shop and am pleasantly surprised to find that these are still free, “It’s like being in France” I tell the woman at the counter.  Mysteriously the cover of the programme is printed with the words “£3.00 where sold” and I wonder where that might be. Outside, I take a wander, easily resisting the temptation to pay £4.00 for a plastic cup of fizzy ‘IPA’ from the Legends Bar, although the alfresco Yogi Bear-style tables look inviting and £4.00 a pint is actually very cheap for a football ground.  Up a shaded corner sits the Harrogate Town team bus, provided by a local company with the fabulously Yorkshire name of ‘Murgatroyd’; it’s a name straight out of “Last of the Summer Wine”, and I imagine the Harrogate team running out to the theme tune at home games.

My fascination with the outside of the Community Stadium is soon exhausted and I head inside the stadium, successfully scanning my ticket and pushing through the turnstile at the third or fourth attempt; computer technology frequently succeeds in belittling me like this and I expect I shall meet my eventual demise at the hands of artificial intelligence.  I drift past the poorly patronised food stand beneath the stand, with its alluring smell of hot cooking oil and grease and find my way to my seat, which is sufficiently close to the foot of the stairs for the safety rail to be annoyingly in my field of vision.  Over the PA system, ‘Lost in music’ by Sister Sledge is followed by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ and I wonder if I’m not back at Layer Road in 1979 waiting to see Mick Packer, Steve Leslie and Trevor Lee strut their stuff.  Some of the people sat around about me look as if they would have been getting the benefit of a ticket at the concessionary price even back then.

“The teams are in the tunnel” announces the voice of the PA system excitedly to no reaction whatsoever from the crowd.  The teams soon emerge and as they line up for the usual pre-match pleasantries my view of them is almost totally obscured by the rail and the steward zealously guarding it.  Quickly, a couple of old boys sarcastically ask him if he’s going to stand there for the whole match, whilst also telling him to retreat into the stairwell, which he obligingly does; but I think he’s here to see the match as much as we are.

Colchester United get first go with the ball as the match begins and they attempt to aim at the goal closest to the town itself, which is over 3.5 kilometres away.  The U’s are wearing their traditional kit of blue and white striped shirts with white shorts and blue socks, and very smart it is too, particularly with just three broad blue stripes, although the red numbers on the backs of their shirts are mostly illegible.  Harrogate are regrettably one of the increasing number of teams that feel compelled to wear a funereal all-black away kit, despite there being no colour clash whatsoever between their yellow and black home kit and the U’s blue and white.   On the plus side, today is the first home league game for Col U’s new manager Matt Bloomfield, who joins the long list of former Ipswich Town players and managers at ‘Layer Road’, albeit that he only played one game for Town

“Col U” bang-bang-bang is the noise off to my right as the heirs to the Barside and Layer Road end get behind their team with a chant and the aid of a drum that sounds like a large cardboard box.  “Oooh, they’re in black, another bad sign and we’re kicking the wrong way” says the old bloke behind me cheerily like some soothsayer who might have told fortunes for Queen Boudicca.  “Only about bloody ten of ‘em” he continues, commenting on the Harrogate supporters in the opposite stand. “Got bloody cars in Yorkshire in’t they?”  He then proceeds to count them coming to a total of twenty-one.  Regrettably, I can’t resist doing the same and make the total twenty-five, although I don’t tell him.

“Blue and white army, de-de-de-de-dur” chant the home fans behind the goal as if they’ve either forgotten half the words or just couldn’t be bothered to think up any more.  “Hit the bloody thing” calls the old bloke behind me as Col U get into the Harrogate penalty area.  So far, so scruffy, it’s hard to  believe Col U beat Ipswich in the  League Cup earlier in the season.  “New manager’s made a difference, don’t you think” says someone behind the bloke behind me, perhaps only half in jest.  “Give him a chance, we’ve only had five minutes” says the voice of reason next to him, not quite getting the ’joke’.   “Who’s the wanker in the black” chant the Col U fans behind the goal, which is as close to wit as most football chants ever come.

When football is not of a high quality there comes a tipping point where this increases the likelihood of goals due to mistakes or ineptness, and happily this is what happens next.  A punt forward by Tom Dallison sails over the head of a Harrogate defender, who was either stood in the wrong place or didn’t jump high enough, and lands at the feet of Kwesi Appiah who is left with an unimpeded 20 odd metre run towards goal; he easily evades the Harrogate goalkeeper and runs the ball into an empty net whilst looking slightly surprised and possibly embarrassed.  Col U lead 1-0.

With Col U winning I relax and realise I haven’t seen the Col U mascot Eddie the Eagle, I hope he hasn’t succumbed to bird flu.  Col U are the better team with more attacking ideas, I hesitate to call it ‘verve’. “Go on push him” shouts the bloke next to me as Appiah chases another punt forward and the Harrogate defender who is ahead of him. Unfortunately, Appiah takes the bloke at his word and physically pushes the defender, inevitably conceding a free-kick.   The game is 25% gone and Frank Nouble heads a cross against the inside of a goal post, but it defies the laws of physics, and the angle of refraction somehow falls short of the angle of incidence and the ball stays out of the goal.  “There’s been more action in this first twenty minutes than in the whole season” says the bloke behind me sounding uncharacteristically positive.

I count the Harrogate fans again and it looks like there are thirty of them now, if they go on like this there might be forty of them by full-time; it seems unlikely though.  Perhaps aware of their swelling support, the Harrogate team begin to get something of a game together and win a corner and then another as Harrogate’s Armstrong, a bearded man with his hair tied back dangles a foot at the ball by way of an attempt on goal.   At first referee Mr Hicks give no decision and looks to his linesman. When the linesman signals goal-kick Mr Hicks awards the corner. “That’s teamwork” says the bloke next to me.

With ten minutes to go until half-time, Harrogate’s Joe Mattock has the honour of being the first player to be booked as he fouls the mouthy and theatrical Appiah.  Col U are strongest down the flanks and two minutes later a low cross from Junior Tchamadeu evades everyone in the penalty area expect Frank Nouble who is lurking beyond the far post and strikes the ball firmly into he goal to give Col U a 2-0 lead.  “Ole, Ole, Ole” chant the crowd behind the goal, simultaneously celebrating the goal and re-living holidays on the Costa Brava.

Four minutes of added on time are announced. “Where’d he get that from?” asks the bloke behind me but no one answers.  “You officials are a joke” shouts someone else when a possible handball is ignored and then Harrogate have their first shot on target, but it’s easily caught by Sam Hornby in the Col U goal.

With the half-time whistle I stand up to stretch my legs, and devour a Nature Valley Canadian Maple Syrup Crunchy bar as I check the half-time scores and discover that Ipswich are losing 1-0 at Morecambe. 

With the re-start of the game Harrogate replace Joe Mattock with Warren Burrell, I agree with the bloke beside me that Mattock had looked like he might get sent off if he wasn’t substituted, such was his enthusiasm.  Harrogate’s kick-off for the second half doesn’t show much hope for their approach as the ball is tapped back from the centre spot and then launched straight into touch as if just trying to gain distance from their own goal.  The other half-time substitute for Harrogate, Josh Falkingham fouls Appiah and quickly becomes the second player to be booked by Mr Hicks. “You dirty northern bastards” chant the Col U fans behind the goal, to my shame it’s a chant which, as someone who has never lived north of Ipswich, I have always found enjoyable.

Col U soon win another free-kick, but in the Harrogate half;  Mr Hicks sprays a line on the pitch ten yards from where the foul was given but  there is not a Harrogate player within ten yards of it. When Col U come to take the kick, they play it backwards.  “Go on boy, open your legs” cries the bloke next to me as Tchamadeu breaks forward again down the wing, I try not to look. Behind the goal the home fans have moved the choice of music in the stadium from the 1970’s to the 1980’s as they launch into a rendition of Depeche Mode’s ‘I just can’t get enough’.  They switch to ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ as Mr Hicks brandishes his yellow card in the direction of Col U’s Cole Skuse.  As the sun goes down,  over half of the pitch is now in shadow and I’ve got cold hands.

Not quite an hour of the match has gone and as happened when Col U scored their first goal, a moment in which any ability a player has suddenly deserts him occurs again.  This time Hornby’s seemingly easy clearance barely leaves the ground and travels directly to Harrogate’s Daniel Grant who strides forward, and slips the ball through to Pattison who shoots the ball into the far corner of the Colchester goal, the score is 2-1.  Weirdly, the Harrogate fans do not appear to celebrate; if they do they do it quickly and quietly, but then, it might not be possible to hear them because they are so well spread throughout the away fans enclosure in groups of no more than two or three, it’s almost as if they don’t get on or are embarrassed to be seen with one another.

Harrogate win another corner from which McArdle heads over the cross-bar and then they make another pair of substitutions.  When a Harrogate player is injured and stays down he’s attended to by the physio who is a woman.  At least one person in the stand behind the goal feels it’s appropriate to produce a wolf whistle and the bloke behind me suggests that the injured player will be looking into her eyes and telling her the pain is in his groin area.  It is sobering to find there are people who still think like this.

The last twenty-five minutes of the match play out in a series of free-kicks, the occasional corner, the evening up of the number of yellow cards shown and some more substitutions, three for Col U and one for Harrogate.  Col U’s defending gets more desperate with Luke Chambers hoofing the ball inelegantly even when he doesn’t have to, like he did for Ipswich in his latter days. When Col U win a free-kick the bloke behind me suggests they bring on Freddie Sears who has already been substituted. “It’s what they do in America” he says, attempting to justify his stupid comment, with an equally stupid one. 

In the final ten minutes of normal time Luke Chambers is booked, almost wilfully it appears, and Alex Newby and Luke Hannant miss simple looking chances in quick succession that could have secured the win for Col U. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the afternoon is the nine minutes of added on time that is to be played, but this might just be because in previous years four minutes has always been what we’ve come to expect.

With the final whistle there is applause, the crowd has clearly enjoyed the win even if it wasn’t the greatest game ever played. Often however a game between two evenly matched teams will be perfectly watchable regardless of how good they are; Col U and Harrogate were evenly matched today but Col U were the better team and deserved their victory.  I head off back over the A12 to the car park and learn that Ipswich have come from behind to beat Morecambe 2-1 and all is right with the world.

Quevilly-Rouen Metropole 1 Stade Lavallois 3

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.

FC Lorient 3 FC Nantes 2

To Ipswich Town supporters like me, FC Lorient is known as the club from which the Town bought Ulrich Le Pen, a slight winger who was injured just minutes after coming on in a match against Bolton Wanderers and only ever featured in one other first team game, an FA Cup tie which I can’t remember. To the wider world Lorient is France’s second largest fishing port and home of a French submarine dockyard which grew out of the massive reinforced concrete U-Boat docks built by the Nazis during World War Two.  Sadly for Lorient, the town was mostly flattened by allied bombs as the Nazis were pushed out of France in 1944 and whilst the re-built town is well laid out with buildings in a quiet, modernist style, it doesn’t have the architectural verve of Le Havre or Amiens, or even, come to that of Plymouth and Bristol.

Today however FC Lorient host their Breton neighbours from 170 kilometres away (1hour and 51 minutes up the E60 according to Google maps) FC Nantes, but my wife Paulene and I have travelled a mere 40 kilometres from the campsite where we are staying in Carnac.  Car parking in Lorient on a Sunday is a curious affair as most of the town centre car parks are closed as is much of the town centre itself, including the tourist information office. There is plenty of street parking however with the usual restrictions being suspended. The Stade du Moustoir, home of FC Lorient is in an eminently sensible town centre location much like Ipswich’s Portman Road, and it is somewhat remarkably within 50 metres of the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and just a short walk from the main shopping streets, railway and bus stations.  The purpose in closing the car parks would seem to be to make people travel responsibly by bus, train, bike or on foot, although some parking can be pre-booked by those signing up to a car sharing scheme.

Paulene and I have arrived in Lorient in plenty of time to nab a handy street parking place.  Our short walk to the Stade de Moustoir affords a sneak preview of the stadium with the already illuminated floodlights being visible between the gaps between the buildings in nearby streets.  Near the railway station a bar has been requisitioned by visiting Nantes fans; a group of police stand a discreet distance away but there is no hint of any bad behaviour and we see many Nantes and Lorient fans walking to the stadium together.  Reaching the stadium early, we are in time to see the home team alight from their team bus wearing their horizontally striped, Breton-style jumpers or training tops. A crowd are waiting to see the players arrive and a ‘welcome arch’ has been erected as the gateway from the bus into the stadium.  The frontage of the Stade de Moustoir is clad with vertical strips of timber and looks every bit like a modern office or block of flats.  Whilst outside the ground, I get my first glimpse of the unusual club mascot, Merlux le Merlu (pretty much ‘Hakey the Hake’ in English) as he welcomes the players off the bus.

With the team in the stadium, the turnstiles open and Paulene and I enter also, but are surprised to be lectured by an officious man who tells us that we cannot take a bottle of water into the stadium, although he can exercise discretion with regard to Paulene’s bag.  Paulene had had an asthma attack as we approached the stadium and the very kind security man on the door at the club shop had arranged to get me a bottle of water for her.  I had returned to the club shop to source vital souvenirs of our visit but found that some of the items I might buy such as a mug or cuddly hake would, like the bottle of water, not be permitted in the ground.  Had I seen the e-mail the club sent me this morning I would have known that the LFP (French football league) had banned the carrying of virtually anything into football grounds this season, presumably in response to Marseille’s Dimitri Payet (known by me as the Very Hungry Caterpillar due to his ‘haircut’) getting hit on the head by a plastic bottle at Lyon last season as he went to take a corner.

Having located our seats (20 euros each) in the Tribune Credit Mutuelle de Bretagne, a quite small single tier stand with a fabulous shuttered concrete roof and light steel and glass doors redolent of a 1950’s school hall, I set off to explore and perhaps look for beer.  I am quickly amazed and overjoyed to find that I can walk right the way round this stadium through the concourses of each stand. Behind the goal, the stand has access to the club shop which is now shut to the outside world.  The concourses are regularly punctuated with a variety of food and drink outlets and the club markets these as Les Corners du Moustoir.  Having passed by the Tavarn Lancelot, I stop at the Tavarn Morgana for an organic beer called Lancelot IPA (4 euros 50), brewed by the Breton Lancelot brewery. I mainly choose this beer so that I can pronounce Lancelot with a French accent (Lon-slow), something that has never failed to amuse me ever since seeing director Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du Lac on BBC2’s Film International one Saturday night back in the 1970’s. Having consumed my beer, I return to my seat clutching two free eight-page match programmes and a Breton flag; there were piles of them on the floor beneath the programmes with a sign urging me and everyone else to take one.

At a quarter to three a ship’s siren sounds three times and the scoreboard tells us there are fifteen minutes to go until Coup d’envoi (kick-off); the build up to the match begins.  As an opening act in the pre-match ritual an enthusiastic woman strides about the pitch in front of the main stand and sings the Breton anthem, whilst the whole crowd wave their Breton flags and club banners in a show of regional, celtic pride.  On the fabulously named Tribune B&B Hotels (B&B Hotels Stand), where the central section of the lower tier is occupied by the loudest Lorient ultras, an orange and black tifo folds down from the top tier to cover the whole stand. As the teams process onto the pitch to stand before the Ligue 1 banner and club crests, fireworks are set off on the pitch, more banners are waved and the Nantes fans, who fill the away enclosure in the corner between the Tribune Mutuelle de Bretagne and the Tribune Lorient Agglomeration wave a few flares about, making me wonder if they managed to smuggle in any bottles of water too; it’s all rather thrilling.

With the pyrotechnics and flags cleared away the game begins with Nantes getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Tribune B&B hotels.  Nantes are in their signature kit of all yellow, whilst Lorient sport their traditional orange shirts, black shorts and white socks.  The atmosphere inside the stadium is wonderful, it has all the excitement of a ‘local’ derby game, but as well as the Nantes fans in the away enclosure there are plenty of them sitting with the Lorient supporters in all four stands and there are  dads with sons, and dads with daughters, and mums and dads with whole families and every family combination, and then there are the ultras standing on their seats and singing and mostly stripped to the waist showing off their rippling beer bellies. Brittany has its own cola called Breizh Cola, and my favourite name of one of the ultras groups is Breizh Tango.

Nantes start the match better than Lorient who look a little wobbly like a new-born foal or perhaps a young hake. It’s still a bit of a shock however when in the 13th minute a Quentin Merlin corner for Nantes is headed into the Lorient net from close range at the near post by Ignatius Ganago.  I have come to this match today to support Lorient and am wearing my orange Ipswich Town shirt in solidarity, they are supposed to win, but they are losing 0-1.

Lorient are fortunately stung into action by the goal as if Nantes had been a jellyfish and just six minutes later Stephane Diarra embarks on a dribble down the right and is literally ‘hacked down’ close to the edge of the Nantes penalty area by Andrei Girotto.  It takes a little while for the free-kick to be organised, but its worth waiting for as Dango Ouattara steps up to curl the ball beautifully over the defensive wall and into the top left hand corner of a stationery Alban Lafont’s goal.  It’s a goal that will be a joy forever and the score is one all.

The football flows back and forth and Lorient have grown into the game with their pacey wide and forward players constantly threatening, but Nantes are strong and well organised.  In defence for Nantes, the huge Nicolas Pallois strides about with his shorts hitched up showing off his massive thighs, which greatly impresses Paulene.  A 33rd minute corner goes to Lorient as a Stephane Diarra shot is deflected, but a minute later Ignatius Ganago runs onto an Evann Guessand through ball; he looks way offside, but he rounds the Lorient ‘keeper Yvon Mvogo and it is not until the ball is rolling over the goal line that the linesman puts his flag up.  It’s a ludicrous piece of assistant refereeing, although we then have to wait whilst the VAR people confirm that Ganago was offside – of course he was!

As Lorient begin to look more dangerous in attack, Enzo le Fee, who after the Arthurian theme with the bar and the beer makes me think of Morgan le Fey, and the incongruously named Bonke Innocent both have shots blocked for the home team.  Dango Outtara, a 20-year-old from Burkina Faso is also making some fantastic speedy runs for them too, inspiring repeated chants of “Allez Lorient, Allez Lorient” from the home crowd.  Five minutes of normal time remain in the first half and Nantes’ Moses Simon is the first player to be booked by referee Johan Hamel as he reduces Enzo Le Fee to a quivering heap on the turf with what appeared to be a well-aimed slap in the face.  The final minute of the half sees Nantes’ Ludovic Blas cut in from the right and have a decent shot tipped over the cross bar by Mvogo and then, as Lorient break way from the ensuing corner Pedro Chrivella scythes down Diarra to become the second Nantes player to have his name recorded by Monsieur Hamel.  A minute of time added-on is played and it is mi-temps (half-time).

Disappointingly mi-temp fails to offer up the spectacle of supporters attempting to toss a hake into a yoghurt pot or any similar test of skill inspired by local sponsors, but happily I am on the end of the row and close enough to the stairs to make it quickly to the toilet before pretty much anyone else, and that’s good enough for me.  Paulene takes a chance on the queues for the ‘ladies’ having subsided with a couple of minutes to go until the game begins again.  She returns late for the re-start and asks if she has missed anything, but I can’t in all honesty say she has.

The match resumes and the first action of note sees Lorient’s current top scorer Terem Moffi delight the crowd with an excellent dribble into the penalty area.  Even more impressively, he wears the number thirteen shirt.  Denis Appiah becomes the third Nantes player to be booked after fouling Moffi and then just twelve minutes into the second half Lorient boldly make two substitutions with Julian Ponceau replacing Bonke Innocent and Stephane Diarra making way for Yohan Cathine. Three minutes later and the scoreboard announces that it is the 56th minute. “Faites un Bruit” it then says (make a noise) and at least some of the crowd do so, although to be fair it’s been pretty noisy all along.  As an Ipswich supporter this apparently random entreaty to the fans across the whole ground seems like a good idea.  In this case it seems to work too, because there is some response and four minutes later a superb passing move down the Lorient left climaxes with Yoann Cathline sweeping the ball majestically into the top right-hand corner of the goal net from about 20 metres out, and Lorient lead 2-1.

Stade du Moustoir is now a cauldron of noise as Lorient fans celebrate, and like the best supporters should, Nantes fans get behind their team too, when they need it most. “Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez” echoes around from tribune to tribune and it’s hard to tell if it’s the Lorient or Nantes fans singing it, but it’s probably both.  It is certain however who is singing “Lorientaises, Lorientaises”.  With the home crowd exultant, it feels like good timing when the scoreboard announces today’s attendance with the words “Vous etes 15,081” (literally “you are 15,081”). It’s a figure close to the capacity of this ground which somehow feels and looks bigger than it is, whilst at the same time feeling compact and intimate; the orange colour scheme and all orange banks of seats doubtless help to create this effect.   “Lorient, Lorient” shout the crowd, punctuating the words with three successive claps.

Less than twenty minutes of normal time remain, and Lorient make a double substitution, replacing Moffi with Ibrahime Kone and Laurent Abergel with Adil Aouchiche, a recent signing from St Etienne.  The impact is immediate as Kone and Outtara exchange a couple of passes,  the last one of which puts Ikone through on goal with just Alban Lafont to beat, which he does, side footing the ball left-footed into the far corner of the goal.  I can’t help it, but I leap up in the air along with everyone else wearing orange.  Lorient lead 3-1.  Surely Les Merlus can’t lose now, although an iffy pass almost gives Nantes a run on goal, resulting in Julian Laporte being booked for his efforts to recover the situation, and then Kone also lunges in and is booked too.  The crowd chant “Lorientaises, Lorientaises” to celebrate their lead and to give the team an extra bit of support; and they need it as Ludovic Blas produces an excellent dribble to the edge of the box before sending a shot against the foot of the goalpost, which rebounds out and is cleared.  The Lorient supporters remain joyful and confident however, even complacent, and a Mexican Wave begins, but fortunately not many join in and it quickly peters out.

Five minutes of normal time remain and Nantes are pushing forward all the time, but without success; they don’t really seem to have the guile to get through the Lorient defence.  If Nantes are going to score they will need some luck and that is what happens as Moses Simon seemingly mis-hits a shot which trickles towards the goal, appears to hit a post, roll along the goal line and somehow goes in.  The goal is barely deserved, and Nantes only come anywhere near scoring again once more as Ignatius Ganago’s header is saved by Mvogo.   Unusually for the losing team, it is Nantes who make the late substitutions, and if it is an attempt to give the team and supporters a late fillip by increasing the amount of time added on it doesn’t work as time additionelle of just two minutes is announced.

The two minutes pass without further incident and the final whistle confirms Lorient’s win.  Paulene and I both agree that this has been a very good match and we have been impressed and a little surprised by Lorient’s slick forward play in particular.  But the whole afternoon has been wonderful, not just the football.  From the Arthurian themed, locally brewed organic beer to the mingling of home and away fans in such a fine, small but spacious stadium under warm blue skies it has been a joy to be here.  Full of happy thoughts we head for the club shop to buy that cuddly hake.