Portsmouth 2 Ipswich Town 1

Today is the United Nations International Day of Happiness.  Looking out of my kitchen window I see that the International Day of Happiness is dull; the sky is grey and overcast; worse still, this afternoon’s match between Ipswich Town and Portsmouth at Fratton Park kicks off at one o’clock, when I should happily be enjoying lunch or a pre-match pint.   More pleasingly, because my wife Paulene supports Portsmouth, we shall therefore be watching the game together.  Over a cup of coffee at breakfast I ask her if she is excited about today’s game.  She confesses that she is not.  Portsmouth’s recent form has been as poor, even worse than Ipswich Town’s.  The appointment of a new manager has not inspired her, Paulene cannot get excited about an appointment known as “The Cowleys”, and the fact that they managed Braintree Town seems to trouble her.

The early kick-off will probably spoil my whole day,  it did when Town played at Gillingham a fortnight ago,  although the final score played a part in that.   Football needs to be at 3 o’clock, so at least I get a decent few hours to enjoy in the morning.  Sensing that my negative feeling towards today’s fixture mean that I’m not really entering into the spirit of United Nations International Day of Happiness I try to spread some joy and write a birthday card for my step-son’s mother-in-law’s partner Larry,  who is eighty years old today.  Happy Birthday Larry.  Larry is not really much of a football fan, he’s more into Far Eastern philosophy, although we did once go and watch Coggeshall Town play Witham Town in the preliminary round of the FA Cup.

With the Portsmouth v Ipswich fixture being our household ‘derby’ I am tuning into the ifollow to watch an away game for the first time.  This means that I shall not be able to listen to my usual source of knowledge and insight, the commentary of Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills from BBC Radio Suffolk, but will instead be relying upon Brenner’s equivalent at BBC Radio Solent, a radio station that I like to think broadcasts from the sea bed and therefore has presenters who look like the cast of Gerry Anderson’s Stingray.  We log-in just in time to hear the puppet presenters giving their predictions for this afternoon’s final score.  “Ipswich are terrified of the ball” announces someone, I don’t know who, as they justify why Pompey will win.  The predictions are 1-0, 1-0 and 2-0 to Pompey. 

Brenner’s underwater equivalent announces that this afternoon’s match sees the start of “… a new era against a team that will provide memories of an old one”.  Different club, different radio station, same old cliché-ridden, hackneyed drivel I think to myself.   The commentator’s side-kick is introduced as former Pompey striker Guy Whittingham, “Danny Cowley is an experienced man” says Guy, “so is Nicky” he adds as an obvious afterthought.  Any bloke over forty who isn’t a man because of recent gender re-assignment could probably be said to be “an experienced man” though.

The game begins and I learn that the aquatic version of Brenner is called Andrew Moon; he is soon describing Ipswich’s third choice shirt. “It’s what I am going to call maroon shirts with dark red stripes” says Moon, revealing straightaway that he is either colour blind or has no words in his vocabulary for dark blue.  Much like Brenner would, he soon proceeds to tell us that “Paul Cook is watching the game very casually, with a mug of coffee in his hand”.  Very quickly it is apparent that Moon has the same book of commentator’s words and phrases as Brenner.  “Naylor goes to ground” he says as the Pompey number four scurries into a burrow.  Minutes later Town earn a free-kick close to where the touchline meets the by-line; it’s“ a glorified corner” according to Moon; it’s not a phrase I’ve yet heard trip from the mouth of Brenner,  but it would be worthy of him.

Fourteen minutes pass.  “No significant opportunities at either end as yet” says Moon.  Four minutes later Jack Whatmough fouls the oddly named Keanan Bennetts. “Surely, has to be a booking” says Moon showing admirable impartiality and honesty worthy of the BBC and its Reithian values.   Craig McGillivray makes a decent flying save from little Alan Judges resultant free-kick.  Moon emulates Brenner by mentioning the weather, “Spring not quite here yet” he adds, giving closure to the subject.

Nearly half an hour has gone and the oddly named Keanan Bennetts wins the game’s first corner, excluding ‘glorified corners’ that is.  Four minutes later a fine passing move ends with an exquisite through ball from Gwion Edwards, which sends James Norwood into the Pompey penalty area where slightly unexpectedly he lashes the ball into the far corner of the net past a motionless McGillivray. Town lead 1-0, “… probably deservedly so, on play” says Guy Whittingham grudgingly and weirdly implying that there is another means to assess who deserves to be winning other than ‘play’.  I suspect the ‘Whittingham method’ may be based on which team is wearing shirts with a crescent moon and star badge or contains players with the surnames Harness, Cannon and Raggett.

As I boldly begin to enjoy the game and imagine the name of Ipswich Town proudly ensconced in fifth place in the third division table Pompey win a corner.  The ball narrowly avoids the head of Toto Nsiala at the near post before Pompey’s Tom Naylor heads the ball onto the far post which in turn diverts it into the goal.  “Naylor scores the first goal of the Danny Cowley era” says Moon moronically in the style of some hack reporter.  “Portsmouth have a leveller they probably don’t quite deserve” he adds more intelligently.  Half-time arrives shortly after Pompey’s Ronan Curtis shoots wide with Luke Chambers struggling to get back and defend.

Half-time is busy.  A parcel is delivered by Hermes, or as I childishly call them Herpes.  It reminds me of an aircraft carrier-related joke which seems appropriate on a day when we are playing Portsmouth.  A man tells his friend he has Hermes. “You mean Herpes” says the friend. “No, Hermes” says the man “I’m a carrier”.   I pour myself a glass of Westmalle Dubbel Trappist beer, in part to celebrate James Norwood’s excellent goal and in part to blot out the disappointment of Pompey’s equaliser. I make Paulene a mug of hot chocolate.

Ipswich get first go with the ball when the game re-starts and are attacking the Milton End, where in normal times their followers would be sat, glumly supporting their team.  Town have two shots on goal within the first couple of minutes.  Five minutes into the half Pompey earn another corner, which Town fail to deal with comfortably as a Pompey player wins the initial header. The ball is eventually claimed by Tomas Holy.  Ronan Curtis becomes the second Pompey player to be booked, following a foul on Teddy Bishop.  “Probably the correct call” says Moon again showing the sort of fair, honest commentary you’d expect of the BBC, but for which Brenner Woolley would be criticised for being biased in favour of the opposition.  After the delay for the booking, little Alan Judge prepares to take the free-kick.  “The referee says off you go” is Moon’s slightly weird, imagined rendition of the conversation that precedes it.  

The second half is not as good as the first from an Ipswich perspective. We are no longer the better team as Pompey dominate down their left, and I am now beginning to miss the wise and plentiful words of Mick Mills who would have explained where Town are going wrong if this were a home game.  Guy Whittingham is no more a fitting substitute co-commentator for Mick than John Stirk was a fitting substitute full-back.  Andrew Moon however, is showing that he has all the peculiar commentating skills of our own Brenner Woolley as he speaks of a Pompey player “rubbing his face in frustration” (as you do) and “Portsmouth picking up the pieces in the shape of Naylor” which has my mind’s eye working overtime and imagining what a football match painted by Pablo Picasso would look like.  Moon then goes for his hat-trick of facile references to the perceived ‘new era’ with “The first substitution of the Cowley era” as Ben Close replaces Andy Cannon, moments after the referee creates his own hat-trick of Pompey bookings  with Andy Cannon’s name.

For Town Armando Dobra replaces the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts. James Norwood and Ronan Curtis argue like schoolgirls,  but according to Moon “Neither of them is stupid enough to be lulled in to doing something”.    It’s an odd bit of commentary that barely makes sense in relation to the on-screen pictures and there is every possibility that Moon means provoked instead of lulled, unless perhaps what looks like an exchange of verbal abuse is in fact the two players singing softly to one another .

More than once Moon refers to Tomas Holy as the “big Czech”, as if his nationality mattered,  and then with 20 minutes gone Town win their first corner of the second half.  Presumably having found a free page in his notebook, Mr Young turns his attention to Ipswich and books Gwion Edwards and Luke Chambers in quick succession.  Moon tells us that “A loud, gruff, Scouse accent shouts for the touchline”, which is quite reassuring for Town fans as long as Paul Cook is coaching the Town players and not just giving us his version of “Twist and Shout”.

Seventy one minutes have passed and Teddy Bishop becomes the equaliser in Mr Young’s private booking competition before we hear Moon excitedly say “…and Marcus Harness has turned it around for Portsmouth” and my heart sinks as  I watch Harness get two shots on goal, the second one of which tickles the net.  “Cowley’s certainly injected something into this team” continues Moon raising hopes that Town will be awarded the points when the Pompey players fail the post-match drugs test.  

Town are never in the game again.  “Step up” shouts a Cowley from the touchline; Pompey do, Town don’t.   Kayden Jackson and Kane Vincent-Young replace little Alan Judge and James Wilson, but to no avail.  Pompey’s Michael Jacobs edges the booking competition in Pompey’s favour.  With less than two minutes of normal time remaining Troy Parrott replaces Teddy Bishop.  Paulene answers the front door because Town have a free-kick and I refuse to leave the sofa; it’s my step -son calling to collect Larry’s birthday card.  The free-kick produces nothing.   Tomas Holy saves a header from James Bolton as another Pompey corner troubles the Town defence.  Five minutes of added on time raise my hopes “Five minutes!” exclaims Paulene “where did they get that from?”

It doesn’t matter where the five minutes came from, because it goes and the game ends. Ipswich lose, Pompey win. There is no mention of any Pompey players failing the drugs test.  Paulene apologises for my disappointment.  We are told that this is the first time Pompey have come back to win after going a goal behind in nearly two years.  Frankly, the United Nations International day of Happiness has not lived up to expectations, but at least I can look forward to the company of Brenner again next week.

Ipswich Town 2 Blackpool 0

I am a little ashamed to admit it, but my record of seeing Ipswich play Blackpool is rather poor and weirdly, of the nine occasions on which I have seen Blackpool play away from home, six of them have been at Layer Road, Elm Park, Griffin Park or Fratton Park, not Portman Road.  Of course I have excuses.  Ipswich’s first nine fixtures against the Tangerines in the 1960’s and early 1970’s occurred before I attended my first game in April 1971. Town then didn’t play Blackpool at all throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s which were the years when I had the time, the money and inclination to rarely miss a game. When Town’s and Blackpool’s paths next crossed again, in the 2007/08 season, I am pleased to say I did make it to both Portman Road and Bloomfield Road; but one visit to the coastal town they forgot to close down was enough for me, and I haven’t been back since, despite the lovely trams.

In 2009 the home fixture versus Blackpool coincided rather inconveniently with my father’s funeral; I guess I could have sneaked away after the interment; he wouldn’t have minded I don’t suppose, particularly given that he was dead beneath a couple of metres of Suffolk sod, but some of the relatives and other folk left breathing might have thought it was a bit off.  Since then, due to disillusionment inspired by the appointment of Roy Keane, a four year spell on the committee of an Eastern Counties League club and then a sudden illness I have  made it to just two of the seven subsequent Portman Road fixtures.  Today therefore I am rather chuffed to even be ‘virtually’ at the game, courtesy of the ifollow and I have even ordered a programme, which I am pleased to say has arrived in this post this morning; well played Royal Mail.

The post isn’t the only good thing about today I find. It’s a beautifully grey, dank winter’s day and a pall of dull cloud hangs over the horizon as I take a walk along puddle strewn roads between sodden fields and beneath the gaunt, dripping trees.  It’s a lovely day for football.  Back in the warmth of my centrally heated home I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ of fennel tea; I awoke in the small hours with a terrible stomach ache and it feels like it might still have a grievance.  My wife Paulene is watching Troyes v Toulouse on BEINSports tv and I join her on the sofa for the top of the table Ligue 2 clash; Paulene kindly says she will forgo the second half so that I can watch the ifollow in the comfort of the living room; she’ll just sit and read.

Having left the Stade de l’Aube with second placed Toulouse enjoying a 1-0 half-time lead over first placed Troyes, I log into the ifollow in time to hear the names of today’s virtual mascots, Sheeran, Adolf and Brenner, being announced, or rather given their “Shout Out”, although thankfully no one actually shouts them out.  The mascots’ names may really have been Sebastien, Brodie and Zak, but I couldn’t say for sure and I like to think either set of names is equally plausible.  A brief excerpt of commentary follows from 2013 when a goal from the underrated but foolish Michael Chopra gave Town our last but one victory over Blackpool at Portman Road.  Finally the main event arrives, and the BBC Radio Suffolk studio hands over to “Mick Mills alongside Brenner Woolley.”

Brenner’s opening gambit is that defeat for Town this afternoon is “something that simply cannot be allowed to happen” although he doesn’t raise our hopes much as he refers to Town being “stuck in this malaise”, and I imagine a world in which Morrissey is a BBC local radio football commentator.  Brenner asks Mick what he makes of Luke Chambers being dropped from the team for today’s game.  Mick is not surprised but clearly feeling solidarity with another Town captain he admits to feeling “shameful” about it, which he shouldn’t because unless he’s not telling us something it wasnt his decision.  Mick explains how Chambers has been a “fabulous servant” and whilst he’s not a “10” each week, he’s never a “3” either, and is “…right in the middle of those”; which makes him a six and a half which is almost  on the sunny side of  solidly average.  Mick carries on with his monologue and I drift off before I am eventually shaken from my reverie by Brenner’s joyful sounding reference to a possible “Sears, Parrott partnership”.  I don’t suppose for a minute such a thing will happen and suspect Brenner simply liked the sound of those three words together, I know I did. Blackpool kick off towards Churchman’s in their “all tangerine” kit and Brenner ignores the white band across their shoulders.

It takes Brenner less than 47 seconds to use the phrase “early doors”, which is a new record; the doors are clearly getting earlier, very much Light My Fire rather than Riders on the Storm.  Brenner quickly ploughs on through his regular obsessions, telling us that Luke Woolfenden has had his haircut ; “ gone is the alice band” he says, before revealing that the ball has been given away by the  “Australian Dougal”, who sounds like a character in an antipodean version of the Magic Roundabout.

Town have started well. “A lot to like about that attack” says Mick as Myles Kenlock and the fabulously monikered and on-loan Troy Parrott link up.  Nine minutes pass. “Very little in the way of goalmouth action so far” says Brenner bringing us back down to earth.   Another Town attack flounders before getting inside the Blackpool penalty area. “Parrott lost his footing “ says Mick and childishly I laugh imagining a tropical bird falling off its perch.

“Corner kick in the rain” says Brenner coming up with what sounds like a song title as he combines commentary with a weather report.   The corner comes to nothing, but it keeps on raining.  “We’re quite strange to each other, this line-up” adds Mick having difficulty finding the right words to tell us that the Town players won’t be very familiar with each other as team mates.  As if to prove Mick’s point the play immediately becomes a little messy, “Harum scarum” is how Brenner describes it, delving into his supply of slightly archaic expressions that most people no longer use.  Myles Kenlock is booked for what Mick rightly labels an “unnecessary challenge” on Jordan Lawrence-Gabriel; Freddie Sears was covering but it was as if Kenlock had just wanted to kick Lawrence-Gabriel anyway, perhaps because of his unnecessarily extravagant surname.

The nearside of the pitch beneath the shadow of the West Stand is very wet and the ball doesn’t run freely here. “Held up in the brown ground” says Brenner finding a of saying mud without mentioning awful 1970’s pop bands.  Blackpool are now having a bit more possession and have had a couple of decent opportunities from free kicks wide on their left. As another passing move breaks down Mick resorts to helpful homily, “They often say in football the simple ball is the most difficult one” he says, but taking care not to quote his sources.

Luke Thomas shoots wide for Town after another decent passage of play.  “Blackpool have never ever won here” says Brenner, acknowledging that he is tempting fate but suggesting it’s okay if he says it very quickly, although I’m not sure that makes a difference unless fate is a bit hard of hearing.  But Mick raises our spirits with what doesn’t sound too much like faint praise “We’re close, we’re close to playing some good stuff here”.

Thirty-eight minutes have gone since kick-off; Freddie Sears has a ‘goal’ disallowed for offside after some excellent play by Troy Parrott who is living up to his name and playing like a Trojan; “Really like Parrott” says Brenner, understandably.  Mick’s only quibble with Town’s first half performance is the centre halves, of whom he says “They’re a bit easy-ozy”; it’s an expression that not even Brenner would use.  Half-time is looming, it’s the 43rd minute and Brenner gets the opportunity to say “Town get a rare first half goal” as little Alan Judge strikes the ball with the outside of his right boot from at least 20 metres out.  “Wa hey!” I shout, a little disbelievingly. But it’s true, and when half-time arrives Town are in the lead, although the ifollow half-time scoreboard still says the score is nil-nil, but I don’t expect any better of the EFL.

In the half-time break I drink another cup of fennel tea and eat a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar. I muse about how Blackpool were a top club in the late 1930’s through to the mid 1950’s and how back then their fans probably never imagined that they’d one day be playing a league fixture against Ipswich, certainly not one in the third division. Coincidentally, Town fans no doubt thought the same in about 1981.  At 16:07 the game resumes and Brenner is soon saying “That would’ve been a fabulous goal from the home team” as Freddie Sears’ shot is saved by Chris Maxwell in the Blackpool goal. From the corner it‘s a matter of “…nodded down by Woolfenden and in” from Brenner after a Blackpool player obligingly heads the ball on at the near post.  Town lead 2-0 and I’m cheering again, releasing that inner cheer which has been welling inside me in recent weeks with nowhere to go. Mick is so excited he can barely explain anything anymore “He just dinked it in to the, err empty sort of, not an empty net, but into the net, you know” he says incoherently.

Town look very good for the lead and are plainly the better team with the best players.  Brenner starts getting clever. “Here’s Parrott, dropping off the front line” he says, clearly winning a bet to get the words ‘parrot dropping’ into his commentary.  Mick meanwhile revisits his favourite lesson about the third goal being important; today he explains it succinctly and with crystal clarity, as if he’s been practicing.  Town win a corner from an errant Blackpool pass “Corner from 40 yards, love it” says Mick, revelling in Town’s dominance and almost collapsing into laughter at Blackpool’s  mistake.  Within seconds he’s as giddy as Brenner and is talking about “gymnasium football” once again, the sort of football everyone else knows as 5-a-side.

Nearly an hour has been played. Troy Parrott is fouled by Chris Maxwell, who charged out of his goal to get him, Maxwell is booked and, Brenner tells us, is wearing a “washed out light green kit”, he’s the tangerine that hasn’t ripened. From an Andre Dozzell free-kick Mark McGuinness misses the goal with a header when he should score. “Definitely, the better side, Ipswich” says Brenner, once again using his trademark sentence construction of placing the subject at the end.  Gwion Edwards replaces Luke Thomas.  “The final 27 minutes” says Brenner, adding unexpected gravity to a random, and still quite lengthy amount of remaining time.  Josh Harrop replaces Andre Dozzell and Oliver Norwood replaces Troy Parrott, whose name I will miss in Brenner’s commentary.

Twenty minutes remain. Oliver Norwood wins a corner from a low cross.   Flynn Downes has a long conversation with the referee “… as he’s entitled to do” says Brenner in an oddly defensive way.  “All very mannerly” continues Brenner, as if he would normally expect Downes to have head-butted him.  The game resumes with a “corner-kick to Ipswich in the rain” as if somehow it’s not raining on all parts of the pitch, or it’s optional whether it is taken in the rain or not.   In a slightly bizarre turn of events the referee then finds that the goal net at the North Stand end is not properly attached to the goal post; “He needs help from a handyman” explains Brenner.

Former Town player Grant Ward replaces Kenneth Dougall, who sounds like a composite of 1960’s and 70’s BBC newsreaders and Luke Garbutt, who also played for Town (on loan), replaces James Husband who was called Jimmy in the 1960’s and 1970’s and played for Everton and Luton Town.  These are Blackpool’s fourth and fifth substitutions of the game and it’s all too much for Mick “It’s hard to keep up with all this” he says playing the old duffer card, which Brenner might tell us he is entitled to do.

With seven minutes of normal time remaining Freddie Sears has a glorious chance for a third goal deflected away for a corner and then Mr Busby the referee has to be substituted because of  what looks like a pulled hamstring. “I think all the substitutions have been made” quips Mick, sharp as a tack.   The upshot is seven minutes of added on time, which passes without incident as Town continue to exercise control over the game.  Asked by Brenner for his verdict at the final whistle Mick is clearly not getting carried away, as good a performance as this was, “A result that almost keeps us in touch” he says.   Personally, I think this has been the first time we’ve played like a proper, half-decent football team all season, with everyone playing in a position that suits them. I don’t expect us to lose another game.

AS Béziers 0 USL Dunkerque 0

The roadtrip from Marseillan on the coast to Béziers takes about thirty five minutes; it’s Friday evening and the roads are busy with people going home from work and others heading for the coast for le weekend. Generally however, we seem to be travelling in the right direction because it’s not quite so busy; it’s just a shame more people aren’t on their way to tonight’s match in the Ligue National at the Stade de Sauclieres in Béziers.  Then again, it is only half-past six and the game won’t start until eight.

The stadium is on the edge of the ancient town, beyond the railway tracks and the River Orb; our final approach is down rough riverside roads lined with massive plane trees whose boughs arch over it both beautifully and a little threateningly. There is a large concrete framed red brick factory for a valve manufacturer (Cameron’s) from which a railway runs out across the road and over the river via a metal lifting bridge squeezed between the trees. Factories in rural settings are another of so many things the French do well.

Having negotiated a roundabout decorated with a large steel valve we see the stadium looming up on our left, although it doesn’t look so much like a stadium as a castle wall,20170908_183641.jpg minus crenellations. I swing the car round to park at an angle between the road and the high grey wall. We walk in the road past the ends of other parked cars to the main entrance to the stadium. There’s no one much about, just a few Dunkerque fans waiting around outside and they are outnumbered by the security people; hefty blokes in navy blue uniforms and one blonde and not at all hefty woman. The guichets (ticket booths), which look like arrows might be fired from them, are not open yet, but soon one does open and once the bearded man inside has finished his conversation with someone who remains invisible to us from the outside, I hand over €20 for two tickets, children are admitted free, but we haven’t brought any of those with us.

Before entering the ground we are frisked by security. A tall stocky bloke in his late twenties asks me to spread my arms out. It’s been a warm day and it’s a warm evening and I can smell his stale deodorant as he pats down my t-shirt and shorts and then bizarrely my bare legs. I laugh, but not because it tickles. What did he suspect I would be concealing amongst the hairs on my legs? Perhaps he was checking for flares.

We walk on into the stadium through the car park, behind another high grey stone wall. A sign warns not to park under the trees when the wind is strong. We reach the corner of the stadium where there are two buvettes, a large one serving drinks and a gazebo serving chips and baguettes. Payment is by plastic orange jetons (tokens) which cost a euro each. I buy two jetons and exchange them for two bottles of water. There is an area reserved for ‘VIP’s’ behind the main stand which is fenced off from the hoi polloi. The main stand 20170908_184900.jpgis the only stand, a tall steel and concrete structure with a steep pitched roof. There are eighteen stanchions (I counted them) evenly spaced along the stand supporting a network of struts that in turn support the roof. The other three sides of the ground consist of wide sweeping terraces

closed off from use behind chain-link and Heras fencing.  It’s nevertheless an impressive arena, evocative of a bygone era, but still acceptable (with the exception of the toilets) in the context of a club that draws crowds of no more than a couple of thousand. It’s a pity at least some of the terrace behind the goal is not open however.

The stand fills up as kick-off approaches and we play ‘Spot the Wag’ as a number of slender women with perfect hair and makeup totter up the stands in tight trousers. Between her dad and her mum a little girl clutches a Barbie doll, still in its box.   The banners of the two clubs and the Ligue National are trotted out onto the pitch by six young lads20170908_195621.jpg who turn and face the stand and wait a good five minutes for the teams to appear. Meanwhile the pitch sprinklers briefly come on, first in one half, then in the other, making the boys squirm and laugh as they get wet. The public address system stutters into life as the teams are announced in the style of a French Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies. The small band of ultras, the Kop Biterrois20170908_185050.jpg , whose logo seems to be a monkey in a hat and sunglasses, are at the end of the stand and one of them beats a drum. After a minute’s silence the referee Monsieur Benjamin Lepaysant begins the match and AS Béziers kick -off towards the Cameron’s factory end of the ground. Straight from the kick- off we are treated to a cameo of how the match will pan out as Béziers indelicately boot the ball toward the Dunkerque goal, where the visiting full-back heads it weakly back to his goalkeeper, but it spins out comically for a corner to Béziers.

The Dunkerque number six, who sports Zlatan Ibrahimovic-style hair, looks quite good as he plays a couple of difficult but accurate passes and then makes a surging run forward from the back. After that however, he seems to be singled out by Béziers as a threat and is left in a heap a couple of times before he begins to feature less. Béziers’ wide players make runs forward and cross the ball to no one in particular and a Dunkerque forward shoots wildly over the crossbar and the game settles down to something less than mediocrity. At times the gaggle of ten to twelve year-olds kicking a ball about on the cinder track in front of the stand play no less entertainingly.

My wife says she sees a bat fly under the eaves of the stand, I say I think I see one too, but she claims mine was just a dragonfly or large moth. I watch the coaches of the two teams; the Dunkerque coach wears a t-shirt and jeans and has glasses and floppy hair, he looks and moves a bit like Jurgen Klopp, bouncing about the technical area, folding and unfolding his arms. The Béziers coach squats at the corner of his technical area and rises slowly, he is clearly suffering from some sort of an injury, perhaps to his hip, and he walks stiffly; I think I catch him looking enviously at his lithe opposite number.

The first yellow card of the game is shown after thirty-two minutes to Béziers’ number seventeen who has left the Dunkerque number six on the grass nursing his jaw. Nine minutes later some of the crowd, other than just the ultras raise some enthusiasm as Béziers’ win a free-kick and rythmic clapping to a 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4 pattern, followed by a shout of “Béziers!” is heard. It’s a false alarm however, as the free kick is easily caught by the goalkeeper’s grandmother.

The clock at the end of the ground shows just forty-four minutes played, but half-time is called as Monsieur Lepaysant says enough is enough. A human tide flows to the buvette and the toilets, which my wife joins only to return after the match restarts with a terrible memory of perhaps the most unsanitary khazi20170908_184645.jpg she has ever had the misfortune to visit. Worse than the North Stand toilets at Fratton Park back in the early 1970’s apparently, and no wash basin. A French girl refused to enter one cubicle. I hear the half-time scores from the other Ligue National matches over the echoing tannoy and I might be wrong, but it sounds like they are all nil-nil. I like to think they are.

Béziers begin the new half with a flourish as their number three folds in a deep curving cross; their number twenty one reaches it but cannot direct the ball at the goal. The mediocrity returns and my attention is won by a surreal sight at the top of the long, empty terrace opposite the main stand, 20170908_200252.jpg where a man is sitting at a desk.  I can only assume that this is the location for the Délègue Principal for this game, Monsieur Roger Lefebvre;20170908_200306.jpgnevertheless, I cannot help imagining my vision zooming in on him whereupon he looks up and says “…and now for something completely different”.

I think some of the problem with this match is the team kits; Béziers in their weird all aquamarine coloured kit look like the away side and Dunkerque in red and white stripes with red shorts and socks look like a plausible home team. Why that should be a problem I don’t really know, but it just doesn’t seem right. Another Béziers player is booked (number 19) after sixty two minutes, but two minutes after that they should score as a fine move, which seems to unfold in slow motion before our very eyes ends, as we knew it would, with the Béziers number nine heading over the cross bar as he seemingly attempts to not let the ball smack his forehead too hard. With twenty-three minutes remaining, Béziers’ number twenty-five performs a very smart turn indeed, before trickling the weakest shot imaginable a metre wide of the goal. Ten minutes later he surpasses this as he receives a low cross on the edge of the penalty area, controls, deftly makes a yard of space, and then completely misses the ball as he goes to shoot. Continuing this rich vein of form he then ends a rare decent flowing move with what looks like an aimless swing at the ball disguised as a terrible lofted pass, before hobbling away to conceal his embarrassment. But it’s been that kind of a match; the players have not necessarily been particularily bad, it’s just that the ball won’t do what they want it to.

Just before the three minutes of added-on time is actually added on, Béziers’ number ten heads the ball directly into the arms of the Dunkerque goalkeeper and then in added time Dunkerque twice cause confusion close to the Béziers’ goal, but are as confused about where the ball is as Béziers.

Sadly this game hasn’t turned out to be a particularily good advertisement for the third tier of French football or its toilets. Nevertheless, it has been a beautiful warm evening in a lovely evocative setting and I wouldn’t have missed it for much.

NEWS! After the game I emailed AS Beziers to ask if they  would clean the toilets in time for the next match. They replied to say that as the stadium belonged to the town of Beziers it was the local authorities responsibility; but they had in turn written to La Ville de Beziers asking them to follow up the matter. I later received an email from La Ville de Beziers letting me know they would be cleaning the toilets.

 

Portsmouth 0 Crewe Alexandra 1

Portsmouth is one of the smaller cities in England (Population 200,000ish) but it is also one of the best, probably the best. What other city has a port, a naval dockyard, an historic seaside resort, two piers, a ferry service, a concrete viewing tower, a hovercraft service, four tides a day and most importantly a supporters owned football club. If you don’t think those are all things worth having then you can only be a hopeless misery or from Southampton.0The upshot of this glowing first paragraph in praise of Portsmouth is to show that for footie fans a fixture at Fratton Park is wonderful thing and far better than any of the traditional long weekend attractions of away games at seaside towns such as Blackpool, Brighton or Torquay. Incidentally, why anyone would want to stay in Blackpool I cannot imagine, what a dump! A sleazy, greasy, grubby, outside toilet of a town.
Back to Portsmouth. My prelude to the match took in a Friday evening in the Meat n Barrel pub in Southsea, a trendy establishment, which felt like a Student Union bar and had a hipster-friendly décor of bare brick walls and girders, metal light shades and school canteen style tables and chairs. It made for harsh acoustics and was reminiscent of a 1980’s New York loft apartment or squat, but the beer was good, although at £3.95 a pint it needed to be. Saturday morning brought breakfast in the shadow of the Spinnaker Tower and then a trip at 4metres per second up said tower to take in the views over Portsmouth, the Solent and the Isle of Wight,which are bloody marvellous. The sun shone, clouds swirled and scudded, rain fell over the English Channel and the water sparkled. It’s only the existence of Manchester United, Chelsea and Robbie Savage that stops me believing in God when confronted with such beauty.
With my soul and spirits still soaring I arrived at Fratton Park, a wonderful football ground which isn’t that much altered from when I first attended a game there in 1979. The ground’s character comes from the two lateral stands which both date from the 1920’s, the North stand is cranked towards the pitch a third of the way along and inside is a warren of steel girders and wooden floorboards perched on an earth bank. There is still an advert for Brickwood’s beers at the back of the stand, ales that haven’t been brewed for the best part of forty years, but a part of Pompey’s heritage.
My seat was in the South Stand, a similar structure in some ways to that opposite, but designed by the illustrious Archibald Leitch, ‘architect’ of football stands all across Britain in the early years of the twentieth century. One of the joys of watching Pompey is Fratton Park itself; it is a museum piece, but that only adds to the atmosphere once the stands are occupied as the noise of the crowd echoes beneath the low roof and bounces off the wooden floorboards and staircases. Not that Pompey needs helpful acoustics, because Portsmouth supporters are arguably the most passionate and loyal of any in England. What other club would get larger gates in the Fourth Division than in the Second Division; only a few thousand down on when they were in the First Division?
It was visiting Crewe Alexandra in their boring all-black away kit who started the game brightest as they strove to quell the atmosphere that had built with the approach of kick-off. But Pompey very quickly began to behave as the home team should and soon the ball stayed mostly at the Fratton end of the ground where the Crewe goalkeeper stood. But despite there being 16,810 people in the ground, the majority wearing blue, they weren’t getting behind the team like they normally do. Expectation was high, a win for Pompey and defeat for Carlisle United would see Pompey climb into 3rd place in the league table, an automatic promotion position. But that rain I’d seen over the English Channel in the morning was now over Fratton Park and seemed to dampen spirits and the supporters weren’t their usual noisy, committed selves. There was a chill breeze too which blew away the warmth of the morning’s sun. Not good. On the pitch Pompey were like a superior life form from another planet, probing and prodding the Crewe defence as if they were hicks abducted by UFO from mid-west America, but they got nowhere; the Crewe defence was unfathomable, like why those Americans chose Donald Trump as their leader.
Despite being ‘on top,’ Pompey were not really performing. Gary Roberts, the slow-paced former Ipswich Town winger was running the midfield, but up front Kyle Bennett, whose parents may be watched South Park, skipped around a lot but was ineffective showing no inclination to kick the ball at the goal. Crewe’s defenders were big blokes and Kyle has the frame of a pasty-faced teenager and a haircut which looks like he has a small fish on top of his head; he was no match for them. Meanwhile, Pompey’s former Ipswich defender Matt Clarke could only lump the ball forward aimlessly; I can’t imagine where he learned to do that. Shocking.
In the stand I was growing frustrated like my fellow spectators, but mainly because of a teenage girl and boy who kept wanting me to stand up so they could pass by and go down onto the concourse to buy coke or burgers or some such crap. The lack of space is the drawback of a 1920’s football stand; it wasn’t built for well-fed, strapping 6ft 2 inch smart arses such as me; it was built for weedy, flat capped, malnourished tuberculosis sufferers, traumatised by their experiences in the First World War . I felt conflicted. When those youths asked me to let them by I wanted to say “ No, it’s not half-time yet” but I wasn’t going to do that. I felt guilty for having such curmudgeonly thoughts, but also for not actually telling them to go back , sit down and watch the match; added to which I was an Ipswich Town season ticket holder watching Portsmouth and secretly wondering how the Towen were doing at home to Brentford. I was a seething mass of internal conflict, but fortunately it was half-time before I knew it, although there were plenty of clues with loads of other people now going downstairs to the concourse to beat the queue for the khasi, beers, teas and burgers, which are what people really go to football for after all.
Despite the relative disappointment of the first half there was still a tangible air of optimism for the second half. Pompey had had more possession and more clearly wanted to win, rather than not lose like their opponents, so surely that would count for something. Well, it didn’t. Crewe Alexandra, if anything, played a bit better and although they won a few corners and somebody fell over in the penalty area Pompey were probably less threatening towards the Crewe goal than they were in the first half. Such was their ineffectiveness, that my thoughts turned to how much Pompey centre- half Christian Burgess, with his pony tail, looked like an 18th century sailor; all he really needed was a ribbon and perhaps a tricorn hat. He could have “Mr Christian” printed on the back of his shirt like those Brazilians do who don’t play under their real names. I also mused on whether Crewe’s curly blonde-haired striker Alex Kiwomya was a relative of former Ipswich Town waif Chris Kiwomya; Wikipaedia tells us he is his nephew.
Crewe were now so much improved on their first half showing that they had the cheek to score a goal; a bout of pinball ending with a header in to a far corner of the Pompey goal which they seemed to have forgotten about. Although there was in theory plenty of time for an equaliser, the goal caused of mass exodus of Pomponians who deserted ship as if they’d got wind of an imminent torpedo attack. As large numbers made for the lifeboats Pompey continued to flounder and despite desperate substitutions their play deteriorated to the point that they could barely string two passes together. The now predictable outcome was that Crewe Alexandra emerged victorious, but I was still a trifle disturbed to hear a chorus of “What the fucking hell was that? “ from a phalanx of disgruntled Pompey fans as they headed for the exits after the final whistle.
The Pompey team had disappointed this afternoon, but unusually so had the Pompey supporters who had failed to get behind their team when they most needed it. I left Fratton Park somewhat disillusioned. Pompey is normally the antidote to miserable, moany Ipswich for me, but something had gone wrong today; I think it was perhaps that there was expectation. As a football supporter you can only ever have hope, expectation is a step too far and you will be punished for having it. Oh, but if you support Manchester United or Chelsea that is a good thing.