Burton Albion 0 Ipswich Town 1

This morning I awoke, along with everyone else in eastern England who hadn’t died in their sleep, to the sight of streets and gardens, trees and roof tops covered in a reasonable, but not thick layer of snow.  I’ve seen plenty of snow before of course and it had been forecast so it was not a surprise, but I couldn’t help but stop and stare at it out of the bedroom window.  Snow is always beautiful, a bit like sunsets.

I have been looking forward to the match today having suppressed the memory of last week’s game and crushed it into a tightly knotted, dense ball of pain and suffering which is now buried deep within my psyche. That covering of snow has added to the sense of joy and hope that I now feel as it has made me thankful that despite Town playing in Burton-On-Trent, normally the kind of town I would be first on the bus for, I don’t have to leave the house today.

This morning my wife Paulene has finished a jigsaw that has occupied a table in front of our French windows for at least the past four months, possibly longer.  I have listened to The Byrds’ ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ album, because that’s how I feel, and I have also taped up the ill-fitting kitchen window to keep the draft out, hung out four fatballs in the garden for the birds, put the coffee dregs and vegetable peelings in the compost tip and washed up one of three Lapins Cretins (Rabid Rabbits in the UK) glasses which don’t go in the dishwasher and which were acquired in France as part of a special offer at the Intermarche supermarket chain.  Enthused in the wake of that completed jigsaw Paulene and I have also completed a 3D ‘jigsaw’ of the Eiffel Tower which Paulene’s brother gave us for Christmas. Time has flown by carried on the wings of our industry and it’s now thirteen minutes to three.  I have not even thought about a pre-match pint today and strangely it feels like the middle of the afternoon, which, if the evening begins at six o’clock I guess it is.

Leaving Paulene to watch Toulouse versus Grenoble Foot 38 in Ligue 2 on Serbian television courtesy of the wonders of the Amazon Firestick, I skulk off to the cool of the back bedroom and its Ikea Poang chair, where I fire up Radio Suffolk on the trustee Bush TR82/79 in time to hear unwanted word of Norwich City and their visit today to Cardiff.  As unpleasant as that is it soon passes, but I then discover that the clicky bit on the top of the ITFC branded ballpoint pen with which I intend to jot down a few notes for this blog has fallen off somewhere and now the pen is unusable.  The portents for this afternoon are so far not good, but finding a replacement Montpellier HSC branded pen I get comfy in the Poang and am aurally transferred to Studio 2 at Radio Suffolk from where Brenner Woolley is providing the commentary.   Brenner speaks of remote commentary positions at the San Siro and Bernabeu stadiums and how today’s commentary tops those because he is 160 miles away (256 kilometres) from the Pirelli Stadium, the location for today’s fixture.  Although it sounds like it’s in Turin, the Pirelli Stadium is of course in Burton On Trent.  At no time does Brenner let on that he will be watching the match on a tv screen, it’s as if he wants us to believe he has a superhero’s eyesight.

As the game begins I learn from Brenner that Town are in all blue and line-up against yellow shirts, black shorts and yellow socks; if we’re just playing a kit with no one in it this game should be easy. In the studio with Brenner is someone called Stuart, but I don’t catch his surname at first hearing and I don’t recognise his voice.  Brenner may have missed last week’s game through illness but is soon into his stride quickly telling us that James Norwood is wearing pink boots, and using new synonyms for kicking as the ball is “…clouted forward by O’Toole”.  There are several changes to the Town team today including Tomas Holy replacing Dai Cornell. “It’s an easy change to make” says Brenner’s accomplice who I learn is former Town FA Youth Cup winner and Felixstowe & Walton United captain, Stuart Ainsley.  “It’s a new voice at the back” says Stuart obliquely; a comment that has me imagining Tomas Holy shouting “Keeper’s!” as a cross comes over and the centre-backs turning to each other enquiringly and mouthing “Who said that?”.

Stuart has a light Suffolk accent, but it’s not a voice made for broadcasting, even on Radio Suffolk.   Brenner compensates however, with his command of football speak and unusual use of words to describe the movement of the ball.  “The ball rumbles into touch nearside” says Brenner and then, as Burton’s John-Joe O’Toole is substituted, he tells us that “ …it’s a setback for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink early doors”.  “Not a great deal of quality to report in this game so far is there Stuart?” Adds Brenner telling us more in one sentence than all of his other commentary has so far.  “Chambers; an early ball in, not the worst in the world” says Brenner, from which I infer that it was a better cross than Brenner expected.

It’s nearly twenty-five past three, the game does not sound entertaining.  “A little bit of football broke out there, Stuart” says Brenner sounding surprised.  Stuart chips in now and then but he’s not very interesting.  It’s left to Brenner to make up for Stuart’s inexperience in front of the microphone with startling commentary like “Bishop opens his legs and crosses the half-way line”.  Just before half past three Luke Chambers is booked by referee Mr Hare, who if he was German would be known as Herr Hare,  which is what the people in the posh seats at Carrow Road say when they agree with what someone has just said.

Brenner’s commentary is sounding more positive as half-time approaches and Town enjoy more possession of the ball. “Chambers seeing an awful lot of the ball, here he is with his left peg” says Brenner again using curious colloquialisms and making it sound as if Chambers doesn’t always have his ‘left peg’ with him.  Brenner continues in positive vein telling us that it’s great to see three academy players in the midfield today.  Stuart agrees but further explains also that it’s “…difficult for them out there with the pitch looking like it does”, making it sound as if they are all sensitive aesthetes.  Otherwise, Stuart sounds bored and nearly everything he says is punctuated with sighs.   It’s now twenty to three and we are told there hasn’t been a shot on goal, but Brenner remains up-beat. “Town turning the screw” he says, suggesting perhaps that Town are hoping to torture Burton into submission. 

There are minutes to go until half-time, “Town have always scored when they’ve been at the Pirelli Stadium” says Brenner, and almost immediately Burton hit the top of the cross bar and Brenner is saying “this has to be a tap-in”, but fortunately Luke Chambers blocks the shot. Three minutes of added on time are played and half-time arrives.  I put the kettle on, check with Paulene on the final score at the Stade Municipal in Toulouse (the home team won 2-0, Allez les Violets!) and eat a couple of Waitrose Stollen bites as a half-time snack.  At four o’clock Serbian tv moves its attention to Olympique Marseille v Nimes Olympique in Ligue 1 and I leave Paulene at the Velodrome as I climb the stairs back to the Pirelli Stadium, where the ‘action’ has already re-started and Town have conceded a corner. 

Burton Albion are “…sharper out of the blocks early doors in this second half” says Brenner mixing metaphor from an unrelated sport with football-speak; but nevertheless the view of Stuart is that Burton pose no threat except from set pieces.  Stuart is concerned however, that Town players are not chasing back when they lose the ball, but stops short of calling them lazy and overpaid, which is probably what many listeners are thinking.  But tuning into the need for honest assessment Brenner adds “…the game is really boring at the moment, it has to be said”, before telling us that , as he keeps emphasising, the Burton Albion goalkeeper is yet to make a save.

The sense of gloom builds and Brenner begins to speculate that “Burton will see this as a chance to build on their away win at Gillingham” before adding after a pause, having seemingly completed some swift mental arithmetic “Six points out of six”.   Stuart’s confidence has grown in the shadow of Brenner’s pessimism and he tells us that Town have “…no belief in what they’re trying to do, whatever tactics they’re trying to play”.  Stuart’s reference to “whatever tactics” makes it plain that he hasn’t been able to spot any.

James Norwood is replaced by Aaron Drinan with thirty minutes left to play and Tomas Holy concedes a corner. “Was that a shot we just saw there Brenner?”  asks Stuart as Burton’s Lucas Akins’ kick at goal is saved. Now Ipswich win two corners in quick succession and Aaron Drinan hits the Burton cross bar with a header.  “Drinan done well” says Stuart like a true footballer.  Town win another corner and then Mark McGuinness wins a free-kick. Oliver Hawkins replaces Teddy Bishop and the possibility arises that Town will play with two forwards who are actually playing up-front.   Little Alan Judge has a shot blocked before crossing the ball following a short free-kick. “Headed in by McGuinness” says Brenner, “His first professional goal”.   It’s the seventy-third minute of the match and Town lead 1-0. “Town had been on top for 15 minutes” says Stuart a little uncertainly, “Playing the right football in the right places”.

Brenner tells us that Town quickly come close to scoring a second goal with a header by Aaron Drinan that is well saved.  We learn that Paul Lambert is wearing a black beanie hat and snood before Gwion Edwards is replaced by Freddie Sears.   It doesn’t sound as if Burton are likely to score, but all of a sudden, out of the blue “ Oh, a slice by Nsiala” and Tomas Holy makes his best save of the afternoon from one his own centre halves.  Stuart has been impressed by Toto Nsiala this afternoon and generously blames the ‘dodgy pitch’ for his mis-kick.  Burton have a couple of shots which don’t trouble Tomas Holy and Brenner introduces yet another word to describe the ball being kicked as it is “…clattered up to half-way by Gallacher.”

Hopes for a second consecutive away win are now high. “Town upwardly mobile in terms of the table” says Brenner using lots of words to describe Town climbing the league table without saying in what position they will be.  It’s six minutes five.  Mr Hare blows the final whistle and Town win.  “Big victory this” says Brenner, as he usually does when Town win.  As nice as it is to be told that we have  ‘big victories’ I can’t help thinking that they wouldn’t be so big if it wasn’t for all the big defeats that come between them.  “Was that deserved overall, Stuart Ainsley? asks Brenner. “I think so, yeah” says Stuart, as convincingly as he can.

Personally, I’m glad the game is over; it’s not that I was nervous and on the edge of my seat, wondering if Town would hold on, more that I was bored.  Unfairly, I decide to blame Stuart Ainsley, he’s no Mick Mills, but who is?  Relieved and happy however, I turn off the radio and return downstairs to watch the second half of Marseille v Nimes where Paulene is happy too because her team Portsmouth has also won 1-0 away from home.   Like the snow and sunsets, away wins are always beautiful.

Coupe de France on Telly 5 Going to a Live Match 0

The world of football has stopped spinning on its axis, leather no longer strikes leather or skin or wood or nylon netting, whistles no longer blow, crowds no longer chant, turnstiles no longer click, the stink of frying onions no longer pervades the streets, people no longer gawp at the blacked-out windows of team buses, floodlights no longer shine, nobody leaps like a salmon, referees no longer brandish yellow cards, sniffer dogs no longer sniff for non-existent pyrotechnics, over-zealous stewards no longer hassle carefree supporters,  pre-match pints are no longer downed, blades of football pitch grass remain spittle free and no one listens to the results on their car radio.  Saturday has died, along with the occasional Tuesday and Wednesday evening.

Having spent most of this season experiencing dead Saturdays, unable to go to football because of illness and my subsequent convalescence, it’s somewhat odd that now no one can go to football because of the Covid-19.  Social media is awash with reminiscences of past games and goals as bewildered football fans search for something to fill the void in their lives.  I have few memories of this season to look back on having only seen eight games, but I may be fortunate that at least I have plenty of recent experience of coping without going to a match.  When Ipswich travelled to Tranmere Rovers for example, I could not go and so sought solace in my living room. I now find myself reminiscing about that January day when I watched live football on TV, cue eerie sounds and a wavy effect in your mind’s eye.

After a frosty start to the 18th of January the sun has risen as high as it will get in the clear pale blue sky. It’s beautiful, but it’s cold.  It is Saturday. Football. Ipswich Town are away in Birkenhead; I haven’t gone, I can’t, but according to the ‘little book’ that I keep I have been to Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers, nine times before, the last time being a 2-0 win in March 2000. I’ve paid my dues, I’ve done my time; I’m staying home unless I go to a local game. Coggeshall Town and Stanway Rovers and Colchester United are my nearest clubs and they are all at home.  I won’t be going to Colchester as a protest at the withdrawal of the shuttle bus to the ground, the only thing that made the far out of town location at Cuckoo Farm in any way viable; we should be cutting carbon emissions to save the planet after all and I bet Greta Thunberg isn’t a Col U fan.  I find it hard to get enthused about bank-rolled teams such as Coggeshall Town, and Stanway Rovers has never managed to capture my imagination, probably because of its hyper-boring suburban location; all net curtains and open-plan living.

Ideally, even in preference to Birkenhead, I would be in France, where today is the round of the last thirty-two teams in the Coupe de France, the French equivalent of the FA Cup.  Three Coupe de France games kick off at noon English time, which after 11.30 is normally my least favourite time for a football match to start; all games should of course start at either 3 o’clock or at some time between 7.30 pm and 8.00 pm.  The three 12 o’clock games are Nice v Red Star, Prix-les Mézières v Limonest and Epinal v Saint Pierroise, and after a bit of interrogation of the ‘interweb’ I discover that all three games are live on ‘Jour de Coupe’ (Cup Day) on the French speaking Eurosport 2 channel, which is available to watch on the roast beef-eating side of the English Channel through the magic of the Amazon Firestick.   At 2 o’clock English time a further two games kick off with Gonfreville playing LOSC Lille and Belfort playing AS Nancy Lorraine.

The programme is presented by the personable Gaëlle Millon who certainly earns her money on Coupe de France weekends as she presents the matches at lunchtime, in the afternoon and on into the early evening with a 5 o’clock kick-off and then the later evening match at 8 o’clock.  It doesn’t stop on Saturday evening for notre Gaëlle either, as on Sunday she will then present the afternoon games and an evening match and then possibly another evening game on Monday too.  Gaëlle is perched on a high chair or stool behind a small desk in a studio which is probably in the headquarters of Eurosport in the Paris suburb if Issy-les-Moulineaux, which incidentally is only a fifteen minute walk from Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint Germain.

I miss the starts of the games because I am making a cup of tea, but no one has scored so I am not overly bothered.  The coverage is of the ‘Multiplex’ variety so all three games are being covered and the broadcast flits between them according to where it seems most likely something interesting is going to happen. But in reality the coverage concentrates, to begin with at least, on OGC Nice v Red Star because on aggregate these two clubs have the best cup records of those playing today, Red Star with five wins and Nice with three, although Nice haven’t won the Cup since 1997 and Red Star not since 1942.  Nice, managed by Patrick Vieira dominate the game, but I am pleased and then foolishly optimistic when Red Star hold out for ten, fifteen, twenty, and then twenty-five minutes.  In the twenty-seventh minute however, Danilo scores for Nice and with indecent haste Ignatius Gonago scores a second, a mere two minutes later.  After that second goal the result is a foregone conclusion; despite doing well in Ligue National, the French third division, Red Star are something of a Gallic Ipswich Town and rarely manage to score more than one goal a game.

I lose interest in the Nice game as a result of that second goal and begin to only pay attention to the TV when the Multiplex coverage switches to the games at Stade de la Poterie in Prix-les Mézières and Stade de La Colombiere in Epinal.  The game at Prix-les Mézières is between two clubs in the fifth tier of French football, the National 3.  Prix-les Mézières is effectively a suburb of Charleville Mézières the principal town in the Ardennes département which borders Belgium and is about 330 kilometres and a three hour drive from Calais.  Epinal is further south and east and is the principal town in the Vosges département. Epinal football club is in the fourth tier of the French leagues (National 2), whilst their opponents are in the first level of the Regional leagues which is the sixth tier.

Sadly the coverage rarely switches to the ‘lesser’ two games. I miss the Epinal goal which wins the match and Limonest concede the only goal of the match at Prix-les Mézières after fifty two minutes.  The Stade de la Poterie and Stade de la Colombiere are typical of French grounds outside the elite of most Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 stadia, which are the only venues to host fully professional football. The grounds or Stades are owned by the local authorities and whilst they all have a decent main stand or ‘tribune,’ the other three sides of the ground often have no cover at all and sometimes no terrace.  Poterie and Colombiere possess some of the charm of the English non-league, with spectators stood on grassy banks, a terrace of houses forming a cosy back drop, and traffic passing by with panoramas of streets and landscapes beyond. With more to see than just football, TV coverage from non-league is so much more interesting to watch because if the football is rubbish at least there is still something to see.

In the 92nd minute of the game in Nice Yanis Hamache scores for Red Star and for ninety seconds or so I hope against hope for another Red Star goal, extra time and the lottery of penalties.  But hope is all I get and Nice win the day, although Yanis Hamache gets a second moment of glory as he is interviewed on TV; the money he spent on a weird haircut wasn’t wasted.   On Twitter @RedStarFC tweet “Focus desormais sur le championnat,” which is pretty much French for “now we can concentrate on the League.” 

After a brief return to Gaëlle in the studio in suburban Paris, coverage of the three noon kick-offs quickly switches to the two ties which are beginning at two o’clock in Belfort and Le Havre.  The Belfort game sees ASM Belfort of National 2 play AS Nancy Lorraine of Ligue 2, whilst in Le Havre, ESM Gonfreville also of National 2 play LOSC Lille, runners-up in Ligue 1 in the 2018-19 season.   Whilst Belfort’s stadium, the Stade Serzian is another typical French municipal stadium with a single cantilever stand on one side, a running track and views of suburbia all around, Gonfreville, which is effectively an industrial suburb of Le Havre, are borrowing the modern and totally enclosed Stade Océane, the home of Ligue 2 Havre AC.  Stade Océane, which looks as much like a giant, bright blue rubber dinghy as a football stadium, has made

recent successful TV appearances in the Women’s World Cup and today the attendance is bigger than Le Havre usually sees for its Ligue 2 matches. The magic of the cup clearly translates into French.

Most of the coverage of the latter two games centres on Le Havre, but it is in Belfort where the action begins and continues as after just seven minutes the wonderfully named Enzo Grasso puts Belfort ahead.  Disappointingly for the romance of the Cup, which pretty much means ‘giant-killing’, Nancy’s Malaly Dembele equalises a bit less than twenty minutes later.   Sadly, I miss the goal, partly because I had become distracted by my mobile phone and partly because the live coverage at the time of the goal was in Le Havre so there was no over-excited commentator to alert me to it by bawling “ Quel but!” (What a goal!). Meanwhile in Le Havre there are no goals at all, only the intriguing sub-plot of how Lille manager Christophe Galtier’s hair seems to have grown darker whilst his beard has become more grey. It could just be my imagination however, and according to my wife it is, but then, she always had a bit of ‘a thing’ for Monsieur Galtier, I think it’s because he’s from Marseille.

Half-time takes us back to Gaëlle in Issy-les Moulineaux to re-cap on what has gone before and  chat with ‘experts’ perched on stools like performing animals. The second halves begin and all the decent action remains in Belfort whilst the live coverage is in Le Havre.  With just ten minutes of the second forty-five played, karma gets even with Malaly Dembele of Nancy for scoring that romance-crushing equaliser and he is sent off.  I don’t know why Malaly is sent off because once again I have become distracted and miss the action, this time because I’m catching up on what’s happening in Birkenhead, which is nothing.  Having learnt my lesson, I put down my phone and concentrate on the games on the telly.  Lille are making hard work of getting past Gonfreville, a club three levels below them and I begin to notice the perimeter advertising; the usual multi-nationals are there such as Nike and Volkswagen but less expected in a country known for its love of haute cuisine is KFC, but some welcome novelty is present in the form of EDF the French electricity company and the French bakers Pasquier, whose industrially processed bread products can also be found in British supermarkets. My reverie is broken as coverage switches to Belfort in time to catch a Nancy player blowing his nose on his shirt. He might have got away with if he was playing for Norwich, whose kit is the colour of snot, but Nancy are playing in white shirts today.  

Back to Le Havre and with sixty-nine minutes played Loic Remy at long last gives Lille the lead, but the replays of the goal are not over before there is also a goal at Belfort where hopes of a ‘giant-killing’ are restored by Thomas Regnier and the TV screen divides in two to show two goals being scored at once, the excitement in my living room is now palpable.  Five minutes elapse and Belfort are awarded a penalty which gives the programme director time to ensure that the main action is being beamed from Stade Serzian and Thomas Regnier scores again to give Belfort a 3-1 lead with just twelve minutes left to play of normal time.  This is great, so good I almost fail to notice that in the Coupe de France teams do not carry their usual sponsor’s names on their shirts, but instead all the away teams display the logo of PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) a horse racing promoter and betting organisation, whilst home teams advertise the symbol of the Credit Agricole bank.  As if that’s not enough all players display the name of the Intermarche supermarket chain across their shoulders and club crests are replaced by the badge of the FFF (Federation Française de Football), the French football association. My mind begins to drift to thoughts of Vincent (Samuel L Jackson) in Pulp Fiction and his ‘Quarter Pounder/Royale’ conversation with Jules (John Travolta); “It’s the little differences…”.  But injury time, as it used to be known, has started and with two minutes of it gone Victor Osimhan brings some late excitement to my TV screen as he confirms Lille’s ‘safe passage’ through to the round of sixteen with Lille’s second goal, but Belfort still have six whole minutes left to play. 

In Le Havre the game ends and the victorious Lille players line up to applaud the Gonfreville team from the pitch; what with the late goal, the mass sporting gesture not to mention the ‘giant-killing’ I feel rather moved by it all and emit a small cheer when the game in Belfort finally ends with no further goals.  Back with Gaëlle in the studio I remember to check the half-time score in Birkenhead, I wish I hadn’t.

Happy times, perhaps not quite as good as the real thing, but looking back from this shut-in, locked down world I feel quite privileged to have had them. Please appreciate the moment and make the most of it. In the words of Country, Pop and Novelty songwriter Ray Stevens “Everything is beautiful in its own way”. Oh, and there was a happy ending in Birkenhead after all.

Racing Club Lens 3 Chamois Niort 1

Lens is a town of about 37,000 people and is just an hour’s drive from Calais; as a town it’s not much to look at, but then it was virtually annihilated during World War One, although that had an upside as it now has a fabulous 1920’s art deco railway stationOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA featuring four beautiful mosaic friezes depicting the heavy industry made possible by the coal that was hewn from the ground below this town and those around it. This is the land of Emile Zola’s Germinal, a fabulous book which you should all read when not reading this blog. Staying with the arts, Lens is now possibly more famous for having an outpost of the Louvre museum, built to help regenerate the area, the economy of which was devastated by the closure of its coal mines in the 1980’s. Although we can’t blame Thatcher for these mine closures, she probably would have gladly taken the credit seeing as she didn’t seem to care much for coalminers or the French. But most of all, Lens has a football club with a large and fanatical fanbase. Racing Club Lens is in Ligue 2 and this season their average home attendance has been 28,966, making them the fifth best supported club in France behind only PSG, Marseille, Lyon and Lille, all of whom are Ligue 1 clubs.

Tonight is the last match of the league season and Lens, along with RC Strasbourg, SC Amiens, ESTAC Troyes, Stade Brestois and Olympique Nimes have a chance of getting into the promotion/relegation play-off with the team placed third from bottom in Ligue 1, or they could get automatic promotion by finishing second or as Champions. Lens are currently fourth in the league table or classement, two points behind first placed Strasbourg, but they must win and hope that at least one out of Strasbourg, Amiens and Troyes does not. Tonight’s opponents at the magnificent Felix Boleart Delelis stadium are Chamois Niort, placed 10th in the league and as journalistic cliché tells us, they have “nothing to play for but pride” and are likely to be “at the beach already”; but they are a half decent side having hauled themselves up to mid-table after occupying the bottom places earlier in the season. This is surely the most exciting end of season scenario of any professional league in Europe.

Kick-off is not until 8.30 but my wife and I arrive at the stadium at about five o’clock where there are oceans of free car parking, which also serve the Louvre museum. Already the place is busy with bars and food stalls doing a good trade, but not as good as the club shop which is absolutely heaving. I can’t resist getting a T-shirt and scarf34739197331_67aa8da030_o to help me join in with what could be a momentous evening; my wife rolls her eyes. Leaving my purchases back in the car along with the wine and beer I’d already bought from a nearby Intermarche supermarket, we make the short walk into town to take a look at that marvellous railway station. On the way we pass Chez Muriel, a small bar decorated with red, black and gold balloons, the colours of RC Lens, it’s a popular pre-match haunt for Lens fans and there are several people stood out on the pavement drinking beer. Opposite the station another bar also already seems to have standing room only. Having taken my fill of those mosaics rather than any beer, I watch a TGV (Train Grand Vitesse) pull away and think how much like the HS2 it probably is, the only difference being it actually exists and has done for years; French Republic 1 British Monarchy 0.

Strolling away from Gare de Lens we head for the town hall (Hotel de Ville) and then turn left along the main street, which leads down directly to the Stade Felix Boleart and provides a perfect view of the top of Le Stade34830837016_33c3eed68a_o. That’s another thing the French understand, vistas at the ends of streets. There are more bars along the length of the main street, particularly at the stadium end. Many of the bars are decorated in club colours, most of the drinking is taking place out on the street. Some tables have ‘beer engines’ on them34706922842_06291a0e94_o clear towers of beer with a dispenser at the bottom that looks like a football; this is beer drinking that is dedicated to football. This is France, but it is northern France, and it shares the beer drinking culture of Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia and Britain; we are all northern Europeans together, but your dumb Brexiteers wouldn’t have known that. Lens and the towns around it could have been transposed from the coalfields of South Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire or the Ruhr valley in Germany. For a boy from Suffolk some of this lot seem a bit rough and they probably are, brutalised as they or their forefathers were by that hard industrial heritage. Football was the escape from the brutality of the mine and along with a belly full of beer it still is the escape from whatever gets us down, life for instance.

Close to the ground amongst some trees a bunch of blokes who look old enough to know better are setting off some very loud firecrackers, people flinch but take no notice; the police aren’t bothered and four of them on massive white horsesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA that look like their antecedents were at Agincourt (it’s not that far away) just stroll on by up toward the main street. If this was Alderman Rec’ in Ipswich there would be pandemonium “Oooh, you can’t do that here.”

There is still plenty of time to go until kick-off and we return to the car for me to slip on my pristine RC Lens T-shirt. We finally head for our seats, which cost just 17 Euros each and are at the far end of the stadium behind the goal, in the stand called Trannin. We wend our way through the ever increasing crowds. As I walk on I am handed a political leaflet about forthcoming local elections . At the top of the steps that lead to the Trannin there is a promotion by the Pasquer bakery company and attractive young women hand us little packets containing a small brioche roll34685538902_8d5fbce14f_o with a stick of chocolate stuffed through the middle. It’s a new product from Pasquer called “Match” and the packaging tells me it’s given away free and is not for re-sale; another business plan down the tubes. Having acquired a dessert I need a main course and there is a big friterie truck right in front of me at the back of the stand, so chips and beer it is34060006543_f74d4c6aeb_o. Like I said, this is northern France, chips and beer is what these French people want and it’s what they get. Also, weirdly, the beer outside the stadium is alcoholic, inside it’s not; no wonder it’s busy out here. I go back to get some mayonnaise to put on my chips, as is the custom in these parts. I pump the dispenser and nothing happens, so pump it five, six, seven times more and then it sprays out all over the place accompanied by a nasty farting noise. I get mayonnaise on my sleeve, but there is some on my chips too so it’s not all bad and the bloke stood next to me doesn’t seem to notice that he has mayonnaise splattered down the side of his coat. Sniggering stupidly, but at the same time apologetically, I make a strategic withdrawal.34739078831_2c325b0136_o

Full of chips and beer we enter the stadium through the automated turnstile and I pick up a copy of the free match programme; it’s just a folded A3 sheet but it gives you the two squads, the table and the permutations that will see Lens promoted, and that’s all anyone needs; save the vacuous interviews for the football papers. We climb up to our seats in

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the the second tier from where the view is fantastic because the stadium is fantastic. The Stade Felix Bolaert Delilis consists of four steep stands that tower over the pitch, they are all painted white, with white metal mesh cladding at the back and sides. When I last came to a game in Lens in 2005, as big as they were some of the stands had amazing wooden roofs; a lesson in sustainable construction, but the refurbishment for the 2016 European Championships sadly did away with those, although the result is nevertheless breath-taking. Each corner of the ground is marked by a soaring spike which looks like it might be a floodlight pylon, but isn’t, the spikes are there to unify the four stands. Once again the French demonstrate their clear ability and desire to make an architectural statement with a football stadium, something desperately lacking in Britain; although Ipswich’s Sir Bobby Robson stand is a happy exception, they just need to tie the other three stands in with it.

Once inside, predictably the stadium is rocking; it is full with the attendance announced as 37,700. From every stand the thrill of the occasion is palpable. Scarves are held aloft and the club anthem is sung with gustoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. Flares are lit amongst the ultras who occupy the lower tier of the Marek Xerces stand at the side of the pitch; they wave banners and flags ceaselessly. We all have coloured A1 paper sheets beneath our seats which we hold aloft and the stadium is a sea of red and gold; the blood and the gold (le sang et or); it’s loud, very loud and it’s bloody brilliant, like blood and gold, naturellement. The stadium announcer tells us the team, announcing each player’s first name and then pausing as in unison the crowd shout back his surname. Lens are kicking towards Trannin and at 37 minutes past eight they are top of the league as the brilliantly named Kermit ErasmusOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA (middle name Romeo) smashes the ball home after an initial shot is blocked. Man, this is good! The railway line from that marvellous station runs behind the main stand and the trains hoot their horns as they go past,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA sounding “Allez Lens” as best they can. Five minutes later and it’s not quite so good, the word is Amiens have scored at Reims and are now top, although Lens remain second and therefore still in line for automatic promotion. At a quarter to eight the mood shifts a little again, a corner is nodded on at the near post and Cristian barges through to head in a second goal for Lens, but as he does so Strasbourg score at home to Bourg-en-Bresse and Lens are knocked back in to the play-off (Barrage) position. But Erasmus and Cristian are the goalscorers, God must be on Lens’ side tonight.

Despite having dropped from top to third Lens are still better off than they were at the start of the night and a bit after ten to eight our mobile phones tell us that Troyes are losing at Sochaux and by half-time they are losing 2-0. The mood remains confident, 2-0 up and even if that means a play-off match, what team is going to fancy coming to Lens? This is the most fun I have had all season, this is football as it should be with a slightly lairy, almost insanely passionate crowd doing their all to support their team, willing them to win. I remember football like this in the 1970’s with scarves held aloft and twirled above our heads; Lens fans still do this and a banner at the far end reads “ Magic Fans”, that is so 1970’s, the age before things were awesome or cool, when they were “Magic”. Bringing things up to date however, one banner reads “Bollaert Boys” whilst a short distance away another reads “Girls 2009” showing that sexual equality has reached the spectators. Mai ’68 wasn’t in vain. Incidentally, the French clubs take their women’s teams much more seriously than we seem to in Britain. Nevertheless, sexism still seems to be alive and well as dancing girls adorn the pitch at half time and an all-male shoot-out takes place, although sexual politics don’t seem to affect the raffle of a new Nissan car amidst a minor display of non-gender specific pyrotechnics.

The fervour of the crowd remains strong as the second half begins and a pair of rather drunk young lads make a spectacle of themselves whilst trying to urge even greater support from the crowd. A female steward instructs them to go and sit down and obediently they walk away, but as soon as she is gone they joyously and amusingly return, skipping with puckish delight.34738977411_d2f8d1f6ce_o They stagger and wave and entertain looking like a pissed-up Ant and Dec whilst the rest of the crowd hurl screwed up programmes and those coloured pieces of paper at their heads.

Back on the pitch and within a quarter of an hour Kermit Erasmus alarmingly tries to cancel out his goal as his under hit back pass leads to a penalty for Niort; the team from the far west of France score to add further to the tension and then they begin to show some of the form that took them away from the relegation zone and Lens start to look nervous. Lens manager Alain Casanova doesn’t hang about and makes changes, the first one of which is to replace Kermit Erasmus with Abdelrafik Garard. But then a wave of joy crashes through the crowd as we learn of a Reims equaliser against Amiens and Lens are back into second place; and there they sit until just three minutes before full-time when the news is that Troyes have come back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 at Sochaux and Lens are once again in the play-off position. It’s not ideal, but it will do and Cristian adds another goal in the second minute of time added on just to be sure that Niort won’t be emulating Lazarus. A minute later the referee Monsieur Letexier calls time on what has been an enthralling game and we are left to wait for the final score to come in from Reims. All the other teams in the top six have won but Amiens are drawing at seventh placed Reims, which leaves Lens in third and the play-off. The Lens players remain on the pitch.

Noooo! The man in front of me holds his head in his hands and curses incomprehensibly. Jaws drop all around, there is sadness, there is anger, there is disbelief. In the sixth minute of time added on Emmanuel Bourgaud has scored for Amiens pushing them up into second place, sending Troyes down in to the play-off place and condemning Lens to another season in Ligue 2. Mon Dieu! I am shocked,although I had half wanted Amiens to go up having seen them earlier this year, I feel like I have been folded into the heart of the Lensoises tonight; I have cheered and gasped and drank and eaten chips with them, I have worn the T-shirt and squirted mayonnaise at them; I feel their pain, their numbness. Je suis un Lensoise! This is awful. How can something that was so good so quickly feel so hollow?

Most of the crowd stay in the stands to applaud their team, in spite of their disappointment. These people are true supporters. They show no need for recriminations, they love their club. We leave them to their grief, we were Lensoises for an evening only and a Pompey fan and an Ipswich fan cannot authentically share that grief, we are frauds really; they have our sympathy but we must leave them to it. We slip away, back to our car. It’s 10:30 but we are staying 40 minutes away in Lille and we have another match to go to tomorrow night and it’ll take a friggin’ age to get out of the car park. Stay tuned for the next not quite as exciting instalment, Lille v Nantes.

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