Ipswich Town 0 Barrow 0

When I first became interested in football at the tender age of ten, Barrow were in Division Four and had been in the Football League since 1921, when they were elected as original members of Division Three North.  In my Observer’s Book of Football, the one that has a picture of Bobby Charlton on the dust jacket, it states “Honours have always been elusive for Barrow” and it goes on to say that Barrow had just “one season of triumph”, in 1967 when they finished third in Division Four. Sadly for Barrow, by the time I first saw them play, at Layer Road, Colchester in 1990, they had been replaced in the Football League by Hereford United and were not yet half way through a forty-eight year stint in non-league football.  Thirty years on and today, through the wonder of the 2nd round of the FA Cup, Ipswich Town and Barrow meet for the first time ever. I’ve been looking forward to today’s game to some extent since 1971, but more tangibly since the Cup draw was made, and in reality since Idris El Mizouni’s cracking goal ensured Oldham Athletic wouldn’t be making an unexpected run to Wembley.

As befits an FA Cup Day, the sun is shining gloriously, although with little impact on the outdoor temperature as I stroll across Gippeswyk Park and up Portman Road beneath clear azure skies.     Portman Road is notable this afternoon for the atypical absence from the car park behind Sir Alf Ramsey’s statue of some of the usual vendors of chips and other grease-based foods sold inside spongy ‘bread’ products.  There is also a corresponding shortage of human beings in Portman Road today compared to other match days, and whilst you might infer from this that people only come for the grease-based foods, the sadder truth is that the FA Cup simply doesn’t attract football fans like it once did.  I can recall paying full-price to watch Town play fourth division Halifax Town and Hartlepool United in the company of about 24,000 other souls back in the late 1970’s, and now find it hard to understand why with reduced ticket prices the lure of Cup glory against such Northern exotics is no longer an attraction.  In this age of instant gratification and tv reality game shows, Cup football should be more popular than ever with its promise of advancement to the next round and the jeopardy of defeat and expulsion from the competition after just ninety minutes; Death or Glory as The Clash sang just a year after Town lifted the FA Cup. The tyranny of Sky tv and the Premier League is clearly to blame.

Having purchased a match day programme (£2), I head on to what was The Arboretum pub back in the days when 24,000 turned up to see Hartlepool United and Halifax Town at Portman Road,  but is now The Arbor House.  With a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) in my cold right hand I sit and wait for Mick in the garden.  Mick soon arrives with a pint of Mauldon’s Molecatcher, a packet of Fairfields Farm cheese and onion crisps and a cup of dry-roasted peanuts.  Mick explains that Molecatcher is brewed to the same recipe as Suffolk Pride but is less alcoholic; I can’t really see the advantage of that at the moment, but our conversation explores various avenues from last night’s Have I Got News For You tv programme to nuns before it is time to walk down the hill past Ipswich Museum to Portman Road.

Today, taking advantage of the reduced flat rate ticket price (£10 for adults and £5 for concessions plus £1.50 each for the pleasure of buying them, which goes to a parasitic organisation called Seatgeek) we are in the top tier of what was the West Stand, but is now the Magnus Group Stand. We are in Block Y where the seats are brown in colour, not because of any sort of unpleasant staining but merely because I imagine brown looked ‘classy’ in 1982 when the top tier was opened; the seats are also padded.  I bought our tickets soon after they went on sale and we benefit from being close to the stairway or vomitorium, and just two seats in from the gangway, so only two old men must rise from their seats for us to access ours.  With everyone in their winter coats it’s a tight squeeze nevertheless.

The teams appear to an introduction from stadium announcer Stephen Foster worthy of the occasion and with knees taken and duly applauded the game begins;  a strong Town team getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, formerly plain old Churchman’s.  Town are wearing their traditional blue shirts and socks and white shorts whilst Barrow are in an unexpectedly stylish pale pink shirt and socks with black shorts, vaguely reminiscent of Sicily’s Palermo or the now defunct Evian Thonon Gaillard, briefly of French Ligue 1.   The largely empty stadium is filled with a sense of expectation as the game starts and the murmur of a nascent chant can be detected from the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  Within a minute of kick-off however silence reigns.

From the start Town look as hesitant and short of ideas as their supporters are of rousing supportive chants. It is Barrow who show the first serious attacking intent as several players in pink break forward “They’re all offside, nine of ‘em; except him” says a man with a loud and annoying voice a couple of rows behind me as Barrow’s number eleven Josh Kay bears down on goal beneath the shade of the Magnus Group Stand.  The same voice is all too audible a short while later as Barrow break forward again. “Toto, Toto, leave him alone Toto” he calls as Toto Nsiala tracks a Barrow player into the Town penalty area and makes a tackle before he can fashion a shot on goal.  Had Toto Nsiala followed the spectator’s advice it is likely Barrow would have scored or at least had a shot on target. It’s not a good start by Town or their supporters.  But as a consolation the low winter sun is reflecting a sparkling yellow light back off the windows of the Guardian Royal Exchange office block on Civic Drive, so although the football isn’t, the backdrop is gently inspiring.

Over twenty minutes pass and Barrow earn two free-kicks in quick succession in the Town half and then win the game’s first corner.  Barrow come close to scoring twice as one free header hits a post and then one from Mark Ellis is saved by Christian Walton.  Barrow’s Josh Kay shoots and his shot is tipped over the bar by Christian Walton. “Come on Lambert, sort it out” bawls the ruddy-faced old boy sat in the seat next but one from mine.   Nobody reacts in the seats around me; I fear some of my fellow supporters might have died. I turn to Mick and dare him to shout “Robson Out”.

 It takes Town over half an hour to have a shot on goal worthy of the name as Scott Fraser eventually launches a shot over the cross-bar from outside the penalty box.  I remark to Mick that with the number eleven on the back of his shirt and his short brown hair, from this distance Fraser sometimes makes me think of Mick Lambert.  “I can’t think what Mick Lambert looks like” says Mick. “Well I expect he looks a bit different now” I respond.   Idris El-Mizouni is booked for a foul, a little harshly in my opinion and I wonder to myself whether referee Mr Sam Purkiss is a closet French nationalist in the thrall of Marine Le Pen.  As half-time approaches a rare moment of hope sees Conor Chaplin break away and from a low cross earn a second corner for Town, and then the oddly named Macauley Bonne strides forward to unleash an appallingly bad shot which results in a throw-in to Barrow. “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuckin’ ‘ell was that?” sing the Barrovians up in the Cobbold stand in the time honoured fashion. “Good question” mutters the old boy next to me to himself.

Half-time comes as a welcome relief and whilst Mick gains further relief using the facilities, I remain in the stand alongside the two old boys. The match resumes at three minutes past four as dusk descends to shroud Suffolk’s County town in chilly December darkness.

Half-time has brought change and Joe Pigott has replaced Idris El-Mizouni who hadn’t looked sure where he was meant to be playing, with Sam Morsy seemingly competing with him for the ball in midfield.  Within three minutes Joe Pigott has found space and strikes a post with a firm shot.  Pigott’s presence continues to make a difference as he seeks space behind the Barrow defence and controls and lays the ball off in a manner which the oddly named Macauley Bonne has so far appeared incapable of doing.  Things are looking up and the Sir Bobby Robson stand feels moved to sing a song which has quite a lot of words, few of which I am able to decipher, but then Kay scoops a shot over the bar for Barrow when it was certainly no more difficult to get his shot on target.

This is a much better half for Town and I sense a glimmer of optimism amongst the Town followers in the meagre crowd of 6,425, of whom a respectable 205 are from Barrow.  The mood hasn’t affected the loud man behind me however, who continues to provide a mainly sarcastic commentary, which sounds both smug and moronic in its delivery.  He clearly doesn’t like Toto Nsiala and bewilderingly urges him to chip the ball over Christian Walton as Toto turns it back towards goal, before saying “He was tempted”.  This man has the sort of voice that would make a more violent person than myself want to punch him in the throat.

Town now dominate possession and whilst still a little slow on the ball they are getting players down both flanks to put in crosses, an approach that is helped by bringing on the exciting Sone Aluko.  The Town  support has corresponding moments of enthusiasm and sing another song with plenty of hard to fathom words, but a simple chorus of “Addy, Addy, Addy – O”, which is the sort of thing heard sung by children in one of those black and white films from the early 1960’s such as A Taste Of Honey, and I half want to see Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan warming up on the touchline.

As the match winds down into its final fifteen minutes the support wanes, and as we enter six minutes of normal time the ground is once again silent.  As ever, there is a late flurry of goal attempts as the realisation dawns on the players that their failure to score a goal can only result in an evening in Barrow-In-Furness.   Corners are won but no booming chants of “Come of You Blues” or  intimidatingly repetitive calls of “ Ipswich, Ipswich, Ipswich” materialise from the stands;  even the score board seems apathetic as each corner kick is met, not with an entreaty to shout support for the team, but instead a message about how the Ipswich Mortgage Centre “corners all your home improvement and mortgage needs”.    The old boys beside me leave with a couple of minutes to go.  Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar from close range and substitute Cameron Humphreys heads against it , but Town don’t score and the breath saved by not shouting in support of the Town is expended in a chorus of sadly predictable boos and jeers.

Later this evening I will learn that the Town manager has been sacked and briefly I wonder to myself if the old boy sat next but one to me had been right; Paul Lambert had never actually left the club he’d just shaved the top of his head and swopped his Scottish accent for a Scouse one, but after nearly a season’s worth of games he’d finally been found out.   It’s certainly never dull being a Town fan, well except for the actual games that is. Try stopping me going through it all again in a fortnight’s time though. No, please, try.

Swindon Town 1 Ipswich Town 2

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

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

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

How embarrassing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 2 Doncaster Rovers 1

Today is a beautiful day; the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the birds are singing; February is not yet over but it feels like Spring is here.  I spend the morning in the garden.  It’s been a sunny week and an odd week of rumours about Ipswich Town being the subject of a takeover, a buyout, a sale.  What seemingly started as a joke on social media has grown into a rumour sufficiently credible, or at least prevalent, for the local newspapers to report it and the club owner to deny he is “actively looking to sell”.  To add a layer of complexity to the story, those calling for Town manager Paul Lambert to be sacked are now having to contend with the team having found some decent form, having at last beaten a team in the top six of the third division and having not conceded a goal in three games.  All this coincides with the buffoon who is ludicrously Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announcing  details of what he calls his ‘road map’ for the nation’s way out of lockdown and a hoped for return to normality in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Suddenly, optimism is the ‘new normal’, although as all Town fans know we must be careful what we wish for.

Rewarding myself for my morning’s work in the garden I sit outside and pour a pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (£13.95 for eight bottles direct from the brewery).  I am reminded of the song ‘Winter’s Over’ by the erstwhile Norwich band ‘Serious Drinking’, the lyrics of which read “Thanks God the winter’s over, December’s far away, let’s drink outside at lunchtime , on another sunny day”.   My wife Paulene has a gin with soda water and together we kick back and enjoy the warmth of the sun on our faces and bare arms; feeling like an Englishman at the seaside I roll up my trouser legs and top up on much missed Vitamin D. 

As we lose ourselves in the joy of being outside in the sun, time moves on and three o’clock soon approaches; I move to the kitchen and Paulene to the living room where separately we tune in to the ifollow, me to watch Town, Paulene to watch Pompey play Gillingham.  By the time I log on and hitch my lap top to the tv, today’s opponents Doncaster Rovers are on the pitch in their red and white hooped shirts and red shorts, hugging and forming a circle like new age weirdos crossed with a Rugby League scrum. Town trot on to the pitch and then together the two teams ‘take the knee’ to annoy all the people who deserve to be annoyed.  I feel like I’ve arrived in the ground just in time for kick-off, as you do when it’s been difficult leaving the pub.

The game begins, Ipswich having first go with the ball and kicking towards what will always be Churchman’s, although the Sir Alf Ramsey Cigarette End sounds good, but I doubt Sir Alf smoked. “Doncaster lack a goal scorer; a bit like us” are the first wise words of the afternoon that  I hear Mick Mills say as side-kick to BBC Radio Suffolk’s commentator Brenner Woolley.  The Town team is unchanged from the beautifully unexpected 1-0 win at Hull on Tuesday.   “Bostock trying to pull the strings” says Brenner of the Doncaster midfielder, quickly settling into football speak.  Midfielders always ‘pull the strings’ in football and not only those on the waist bands of their shorts.  “Smith, on loan from Manchester City, the blond-haired player” continues Brenner, airing his interest in all things tonsorial and using his trademark back to front sentence construction.

Brenner tells us that it’s a “Fine Spring afternoon at Portman Road”; indeed it is and to make the point again Brenner describes how some player or other “…goes square into the sunshine”.  Doncaster have started ‘brightly’ we are told, it must be all that sunshine. Suddenly, “That was awful from Judge” says Brenner excitedly as little Alan Judge inexplicably turns and plays a perfect through ball for a Doncaster wide player to run onto.  “That was woeful from Town” adds Brenner just so we can be sure how bad it was.  “Doncaster, very lively on their feet” says Mick.  It’s a sentence that might suggest that they are not so lively on other parts of their bodies, but we never find out.  It seems likely however that  ‘lively feet’ are a pre-requisite for footballers, and for goalkeepers ‘lively hands and arms’ too.

Just eight minutes have elapsed since kick-off and Doncaster, or ‘Donny’ as Brenner is calling them, to show off his knowledge of local slang names, are dominant.   “The (Town) defence is working overtime, they really are” says Mick conjuring up images of Marcus Evans on the phone to his accountants checking that Luke Chambers only gets time and a half and not double time.  “Gorgeous weather over there” says Brenner of the far side of the pitch and thereby displaying a worrying perception that being in the shade means he is experiencing different weather from somewhere a hundred metres away.

Three minutes later and “Doncaster, the better side after eleven minutes” is Brenner’s assessment. “The tide will turn if you’re professionally about it” replies Mick, accidentally using an adverb and adding another natural phenomenon to the commentary to compliment Brenner’s interest in the weather.  Doncaster’s Joe Wright  ”… puts his foot through the ball” according to Brenner , who  then follows up with reference to what he had expected “early doors”.   We are not yet a quarter of the way through the game and impressively Brenner has used most of his football-ese vocabulary already.

Doncaster’s John Bostock is a frequent name in Brenner’s commentary as he continually links up play between Rovers’ defence and wide players.  Bostock is 29 years old.  “All these years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen John Bostock” admits Brenner, but then he hasn’t been commentating for local radio in Leuven, Antwerp, Lens, Toulouse and Bursa where Bostock has played 148 of his 200 odd club games.  Myles Kenlock wins the game’s first corner.  “If Town score it’ll be very much against the run of play, but we’ll take it” says Brenner magnanimously.   Why do people say “we’ll take it” ?  What is “it”? Has anyone ever “not taken it”?  If you take “it”, where do you put it? Thankfully in the circumstances, Town don’t score.

John Bostock is still the dominant presence in midfield and therefore it is Doncaster who have the ball most of the time.  “It’s Dozzell and Freddie Bishop we need more from” says Mick.  Town break down the right and win a free-kick.  “Judge not keen to put the ball in the painted crescent by the referee”  says Brenner  , unusually getting his trademark sentence construction all wrong.  From the free-kick Toto Nsiala sends a decent header across the face of the goal.

Town break forward again, this time more centrally and Teddy Bishop is adjudged to have been fouled by Doncaster’s Taylor Richards.  Mick isn’t convinced it was a foul, but presumably someone decides we should “take it”.  A knot of Town players surround the ball. “Norwood’s been told to do one” says Brenner, eliciting a stifled chortle from Mick.  Little Alan Judge takes the free-kick and arrows a superlative right-footed shot into the top right hand corner of the Doncaster goal.  “That was a fabulous goal” says Mick, and after twenty-four minutes Town lead one-nil.  “A cracking free-kick from the Irish midfielder” says Brenner characteristically reducing little Alan Judge to a nationality whilst also sounding a bit like Wallace from the Wallace and Gromit animations.

For a short while Town have as much of the ball as Doncaster.  Luke Chambers gets forward from his full-back position and earns a corner “ Yeah, good play” confirms Mick.  Then little Alan Judge almost scores again as Myles Kenlock makes a long run forward to pull back a deep cross to him. Town win a third corner and then a fourth. Brenner saying “Bostock with that bleached mohawk haircut” and “Bostock along the deck” announces Doncaster’s return to having more possession and Brenner’s continued interest in coiffure and his curious need to describe football using nautical terminology.

Ten minutes to half-time and Doncaster almost score, with Tomas Holy deflecting a shot away with his right leg and the follow-up shot from Josh Sims , who makes me think of Joan Sims, being blocked by the excellent Toto Nsiala. “Best attack from Doncaster if you’re talking about ending up with something on target” says Mick having clearly spotted that in spite of all their possession Doncaster have had very few decent attempts on goal.  Another Doncaster shot is on target but Brenner confirms that it’s “straight down the mouth of Tomas Holy, who drops on the ball for extra security”.  Mick thinks the Doncaster player should have done better, with “Control, finish” being his unusually succinct assessment of what he needed to do.

With half-time approaching, Brenner adds a little incidental colour to his commentary telling us that Paul Lambert is “just screwing the top back on his water bottle”; it sounds like a euphemism but it’s probably not.  Half-time comes and Brenner tells us that it’s a case of “Town with that slender 1-0 lead” as opposed, presumably, to a huge 1-0 lead or even a slender 3-0 lead.  With Mick heading off into a long and convoluted explanation of the first half, the BBC Radio Suffolk transmission is rudely interrupted by the ifollow’s own commercial break , disgusted that Mick must play second fiddle to consumerism and capitalist greed, I get up to put the kettle on.

The second half begins with a cup of tea and a couple of ginger Christmas tree biscuits ,which are very tasty and which my wife Paulene acquired at a generous 70% discount due to Christmas having happened two months ago. Paulene incidentally has given up on Pompey v Gillingham and has turned to Dijon FCO versus Paris St Germain in French Ligue 1, where former Town loanee Bersant Celina is playing for the home team and is destined to have easily his team’s best attempt on goal,  but his team will lose four-nil.  Brenner meanwhile announces that if Town win this afternoon it will be “a huge feather in their cap and a right old boost”, whilst Mick summarises the game so far by stating “Bostock and Smith have been much better than Dozzell and Bishop”, and naturally Mick is right.

Just two minutes into the half and Myles Kenlock is booked for an unnecessary foul on Taylor Richards.  Mick tells us that Doncaster had 71% of possession in the first half, although personally I was more impressed with their 85% passing accuracy.  “A lazy leg in there from Okenabirhie” says Brenner as the Doncaster player fouls Andre Dozzell and I imagine Okenabirhie dragging his idle, recalcitrant leg about the pitch constantly committing fouls as other players fall over it.   Doncaster start the half well, but it’s Town who almost score as James Norwood bounces a shot off the ground and Joe Wright heads it off the goal line.   A minute later Wright concedes a corner;  the ball is headed on from the edge of the penalty area and James Norwood nips in to scramble it past the exotically named Doncaster goalkeeper, Ellery Balcombe who sounds like he might write pulp crime fiction when he’s not picking the ball from the back of his goal net.    Town lead 2-0; I let out a cheer, clap my hands above my head and kick my legs out in front of me.  “Goodness, gracious me” says Brenner mysteriously channeling Peter Sellers and making me imagine Mick as Sophia Loren.

Moments later little Alan Judge shoots a little high and a little wide or, as Brenner rather gruesomely describes  it,  “he opened up his body from 19 yards”.  “Greedy for me” says Mick and suggests Troy Parrott was free and better placed.  If Parrott was perhaps older, had been at the club longer and knew little Alan “as a person”, Mick believes he would have given little Alan Judge a “volley” of abuse.  It’s an entertaining insight from Mick.

An hour passes; Doncaster make two substitutions and win what Brenner refers to as a “rare Doncaster corner”.  Tomas Holy rather weirdly “pats the ball into the ground” according to Brenner, who goes onto speak, as he did last week, of a “bit of brown ground down this nearside”.   It’s a phrase that suggests Brenner has no concept of mud or bare earth and has me wondering if he otherwise thinks of the pitch as “green ground”.

Doncaster begin to recover from the blow of the second Town goal and in the 64th minute almost score. “That was close to a goal from Doncaster” says Brenner and Mick backs him up with “That was a big chance for Bogle, it really was”.  Three minutes on and Gwion Edwards and Flynn Downes replace Little Alan Judge and Andre Dozzell.  Five minutes further on and a Doncaster shot strikes an Ipswich goalpost.   A minute after that Taylor scores for Doncaster after a slightly desperate tackle from Flynn Downes sees the ball squirm away to Jon Taylor who is in space and strides forward to hit the ball across Tomas Holy and inside the far post.  “Maybe they deserve it” says Mick sportingly but resentfully, citing that Doncaster had hit a post.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain and Josh Harrop replaces the oddly named Keanan Bennetts. Eleven minutes of normal time remain and Aaron Drinan and Freddie Sears replace James Norwood and Troy Parrott.  Mick questions the wisdom of changing half the team.  “It’ll be awful if Town let a 2-0 lead slip in this game” says Brenner mischievously before going onto predict “an uncomfortable final eight minutes for Ipswich Town fans”.  Brenner is right and yet he’s not; Doncaster camp around the Town penalty area, passing the ball back and forth but seldom if ever threaten the Town goal.

With two minutes left Aaron Drinan breaks down the right. “Poor from Drinan” says Brenner as an over hit cross by-passes a Doncaster penalty area which is devoid of Town players in any case. “Still Town on top in terms of score line” says Brenner, reassuringly stating the obvious.  Four minutes of added on time will be played. “Stand by your beds, it won’t be easy listening” says Brenner, fulfilling his own prophecy before he’s said it; “All hands on deck for Ipswich Town off to the right”, although I think he meant starboard. In the ninety-third minute of added time the ball falls to Teddy Bishop who aimlessly and apparently in a state of panic lumps the ball away up field, provoking the sort of sweary outburst from me that would be frowned upon within earshot of the Family Enclosure at Portman Road.  But Doncaster are playing with only Omar Bogle up front and he’s not been by any means a prolific goalscorer at any time since he left Grimsby Town in 2017, consequently the score remains unaltered and Town win.

“You wait all this time for a victory against a top six side and then two come along at once” says Brenner, reprising, but mostly repeating his public transport based analogy from last week. I think to myself how you can wait years for a public transport related analogy in a football commemtary and then two come along at once. To the strains of “Hey Jude” the players leave the pitch; they have taken a sad song and made it better. It really has been a beautiful day.

Ipswich Town 0 Coventry City 1

Last night I went to a ‘gig’ in a very small music venue in Chelmsford called the Hot Box.  My friend Pete, who has never really got over being eighteen, invited me to see a ‘Psyche Rock’ band from Glasgow called Helicon, he thought I’d like them because some of their songs feature a sitar and I’m a sucker for a sitar, so he thought right.  It was when sitting in the bar chatting and listening to the trains rumble overhead (Hot Box is inside two railway viaduct arches) that we couldn’t help but notice all the reproductions of classic album covers of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that plaster the walls, and Pete spotted that for the Only Ones’ eponymous album released in 1978, my favourite year. Today I have realised how the lyrics to the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet describe my relationship with Ipswich Town “You get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating”.

Today the sky is blue with a hint of wispy cloud.  I stepped out of my back door a bit earlier and it felt flippin’ freezing; so, it is cloaked in a thick woolly jumper, overcoat and muffler that I set off for the railway station having flagrantly ignored the threat of COVID-19 and kissed my wife goodbye. The train arrives on time and the twelve minute walk has left me hot and a bit sweaty; life is not always what you expect. Naturally, the sun is shining in Ipswich and behind the Station Hotel in its beer garden the scarves and shirts of Coventry City fans mimic the colour of the sky; surreally the Eton Boating Song drifts up over the pub car park and the murky waters of the River Orwell, I half expect to see Boris Johnson and his cronies burning £50 notes in front of the rough sleepers who doss down at the front of the railway station.

In Portman Road the six-wheel, slate grey Coventry City team bus arrives at the same time as me, but the bus reverses into Portman Road, turns round and is re-directed to the Constantine Road entrance. Unlike the coach driver I know exactly where I’m going and walk on through, past a man who appears to have a metal bollard stuck up his anus, and the usual pre-match panorama of people munching low-grade meat product between slabs of low grade bread product.  The flags on the Cobbold Stand fly strongly in the breeze and I walk on towards St Matthews Street and St Jude’s Tavern where Mick is already a good way through a pint of Iceni Brewery Partridge Walk (£2.50).  I buy a pint of the same and once sat down we discuss the end of my phased return to work after illness, our weight , today’s team selection and, after Mick reveals how he can’t stand people going on and on about their dogs, dogs. Neither of us owns a dog but I used to have two Lurchers called Alfie and Larry, until they were put down.  I drink another pint of Partridge Walk whilst Mick sinks a Jamieson’s whisky and with fifteen minutes or so until kick-off we depart with the licensee wishing us luck as we don our coats.

Turnstile 5 is my portal into another world today and as usual I smile and thank the operator for letting me through. With bladders drained and hands washed Mick and I take our seats, stepping over them from the row behind so as not to inconvenience Pat from Clacton who is already ensconced at the end of the row.  Of course ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here too, along with his young son Elwood and there’s a welcome return of the old dears (Doug and Sheila) who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me; the only absentee is once again the man with the Brylcreemed hair; that’s two games on the trot he’s not been here, I fear we may have ‘lost’ him and Pat from Clacton says as much.  I won’t miss him, I found his thick hair furrowed with Brylcreem somewhat distracting.

The two teams soon emerge from the shiny, blue, plastic tunnel and Crazee the mascot waves his flag like Liberty leading the people in Eugene Delacroix’s painting. “L’étendard sanglant est levé” I sing to myself, in my head, whilst wishing this game was in Ligue 1 and not League One.  The sky is no longer blue, but grey and cloudy.  The game begins and Ipswich are wearing their customary lovely royal blue shirts and socks with white shorts whilst our guests Coventry are in a somewhat avant garde ensemble of white shirts with a black and white chequered band across the chest, black shorts and white socks; they look as though they are either the 2-Tone Records works’ team or the Metropolitan Police, but it’s quite smart in a un-football-kit-like sort of way. The 2-Tone connection is in fact used to market the kit and in my mind I take things a step further imagining the players on the team bus all in dark suits, pencil ties and pork-pie hats before stepping off the bus in a line like Madness or skanking to The Selecta.  If Ipswich Town was to go for a dress style based on that of a famous, local, popular music artist the players would have to have haircuts like a 1980’s Nik Kershaw, and indeed Frank Yallop did.

Five minutes pass and Town’s Jon Nolan falls theatrically in the penalty area, it’s a blatant dive and I express my disgust with outspread arms and disbelieving expression whilst those around me bay for a penalty.  Town looked okay for a short while, but Coventry are now dominating possession and seem like they have a plan. Up in the Cobbold Stand the Coventry supporters sing Tom Hark (originally a Ska song by Elias and his Zig-Zag Ji-flutes, but not on 2-Tone) and something about ‘going up’, which my ears won’t let me decipher.  The away following today is impressive, even if their annunciation is poor; we will later learn that there are 1,740 of them and in forty-nine years of coming to Portman Road I have never seen so many Coventry City supporters, but then this is the first time in forty-nine years that a Coventry team has come to Portman Road that is at the top of or even anywhere near the top of a league.  These people have been very patient, their team having previously only ever been models of mediocrity, although most Town fans would kill for a bit of mediocrity right now.

As seagulls soar overhead and perch on the cross girder of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand roof, Coventry win the game’s first corner, but the ball is sent directly behind the goal line. The match looks like being one of attrition, but then Coventry score; the uninspiringly named Matt Godden turning very cleverly and shooting inside the far post. No one saw that coming, least of all Luke Chambers and his chums in the Ipswich back-four. Fifteen minutes have passed. “Super, Super Matt” sing the Coventry fans as if advertising a local launderette, but then clarifying the matter by adding “Super Matty Godden”, all to the tune of Skip to My Lou.

The Sir Bobby Robson stand, who had been in reasonable voice fall quiet and the pall of gloom that had seemingly been blown out to sea after the defeat to Fleetwood on Tuesday returns.  “Fucking dog shit this” opines the roughly spoken gentleman behind me.  “Fuckin’ sums it all up” he continues, as a Town player is out-jumped for the ball, “How was he beaten in the air? He’s not even trying to win the fuckin’ ball”.  Pat from Clacton rolls her eyes at the coarseness of the language whilst owning up to me that she sometimes says “shit”.

On 28 minutes a ball drops over the top of the Coventry defence and Town’s Jon Nolan is on to it with just Coventry’s Slovakian goalkeeper Marko Marosi between him and glory. Nolan opts for abuse as he tamely heads the ball into the goalkeeper’s hands. “We’re gonna win the League” sing the Coventry supporters, sounding a little unsure of the words, having never sung them before this season.   Half an hour has passed and the wonderfully named referee, Trevor Kettle, whistles for a foul on Town’s Teddy Bishop and then gives his yellow card its first airing of the afternoon, brandishing it in the direction of the perpetrator Liam Walsh.  Town win their first corner five minutes later and Luke Woolfenden’s shot is sent wide of the goal.  It’s nearly half-time and seizing their opportunity to deliver ironic humour as Town supporters head for the toilets, the Coventry fans sing “Is this a library?” Time enough remains for Nolan to be through on goal again and send his shot over the cross bar and a few rows behind me some unusually posh sounding people talk to one another very loudly ,as posh people often do, about something completely unrelated to football.

Half -time brings boos for Trevor ‘The Whistle’ Kettle as he leaves the pitch with his two side-kicks in their unpleasant yellowy-green tops and the air is one of despondency.  Mick asks if I thought we should have had a penalty near the beginning when Nolan went down; I tell him I can’t remember the incident. “Well, you were very animated at the time” says Mick, and then I remember and have to explain that actually I was annoyed that Nolan had dived.  I speak with Ray who bemoans the absence of decent full-backs at the club and the fact that once again the goal Town conceded came down the left hand side of the pitch.

At 16:04 the second half begins, but the blokes behind don’t return for a good few minutes; they don’t miss much and we don’t miss them.  As time passes inexorably it becomes apparent that the second half is better than the first from a Town supporting perspective, we have more of the ball anyway, which makes it feel like we’re doing okay.  Godden misses a good opportunity to confirm the win for Coventry, but otherwise his team doesn’t look that much better than ours, just a bit more confident due to a fortunate habit of winning rather than an unfortunate one of losing.  Pat from Clacton tells me that she’s going to Yarmouth next weekend for a week of playing whist, but she’ll be back on the Friday, the day before the Portsmouth game.   She won £28 last year.

An hour of football has passed and as he turns towards goal Town’s Freddie Sears is hacked down by Coventry’s Kyle Macfadzean who is consequently booked by Mr Kettle, who I imagine must have asked “Would you spell that please” as he reached for his pencil and his notebook. With the help of her compact Sony camera and its zoom lens Pat confirms that Ed Sheeran’s is here again today and she snaps him. I tell her that I saw on Twitter that Rick Wakeman is here too, and she gets a really good picture of him in the directors’ box, in which he’s looking right down the camera.   Watch out for the Patarazzi.  Pat’s sister Jill wins the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus.  “Oh please let them score” entreats Pat as another cross is sent into the Coventry penalty area, but the team is in need of some luck and Pat gets out the masturbating monkey charm who introduced himself at the Fleetwood game; she rubs his head but nothing happens.  I learn that the monkey actually came from Cambodia, not Vietnam as I said before.

Neither Mick nor Pat from Clacton, nor I notice how many minutes of added time there are, so engrossed are we in the match and so strongly are we willing Town to score, but at 16:53 Mr Kettle whistles for the last time and it’s all over bar the booing, of which, thankfully, there isn’t as much as there was on Tuesday.  Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil and who never misses a game and Elwood make a sharp exit for their respective coach and car but Mick and I stay to applaud the team.  They haven’t all played well, but we don’t doubt that they tried to, who doesn’t want to do their best except nihilists and they probably want to be good at being nihilists.  If we don’t applaud them that can only make them feel worse; we’re Supporters, it’s what we do.  Something tells me the masturbating monkey would say it’s just fate.

Dijon Football Cote d’Or 2 Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace 1

The 570 kilometre journey down the A26, A5 and A31 motorways from Calais to the elegant and historic city of Dijon takes a good five hours plus stops, but it’s worth it.   The medieval city was the seat of the influential dukes of Burgundy and the modern city is still the regional capital with a population of about 155,000.   But that aside, tonight Dijon FCO are playing RC Strasbourg Alsace in Ligue 1 of the French professional football league and I am heading out with my wife Paulene to the Stade Gaston Gerard, to witness it.  If I hang out of the window of our hotel room in I can see the stadium and the lights are already on.

It’s been a day of gusty wind, sunshine and showers, of cafes and bars and the tombs of dead dukes and duchesses.  We have pre-purchased our joint ticket for the tram (5.60 euros for two journeys each) and are at Place Darcy in the shadow of Dijon’s triumphal arch, the Porte Guillaume, ready to ride out to the Parc des Sports wherein lies Gaston Gerard’s eponymous football stadium.  Gaston Gerard incidentally was mayor of Dijon from 1919 to 1935 and later a member of the French government.  But there is a problem, we want to catch a T1 tram in the direction of Quetigny but it seems they are not running the length of the line due to a ‘perturbation’.  We could catch the T2 and then walk to Auditorium to catch a T1, but the helpful man at the tram stop, who works for the transport company Divia, advises us to cross the road and catch the number five bus to Université, and then catch a T1 tram from there, so that’s what we do.  The bus soon arrives and with our ticket validated we are soon out of the city centre travelling through anonymous looking early evening streets in a bright pink, 18m long Heuliez articulated bus.  From the end of the bus route the tram stop is just around the corner on a windswept, open part of the university campus, but a tram arrives within a few minutes, almost as if the public transport services were somehow co-ordinated; we know from living in England however that such a thing is just not possible.  From the university it is just three stops to the Parc des Sports tram stop, which is but a nonnette de Dijon’s throw from the Parc des Sports itself.

A man in a ‘gilet orange’ checks our tickets and ushers us through the gate and into what seems like a leafy suburban park.  We follow a trail down between the trees; there are tennis courts off to our right, we round a couple of bends and then the stadium is before us.  Three sides of the Stade Gaston Gerard have been re-built  this century, the remaining part of the original stadium has its back to us; it’s a neat, classical looking concrete structure which dates from 1934  and is quite typical of pre-war French municipal buildings; it’s got style; it’s a bit Art Deco.   Over a fence there is a glimpse of the blue Strasbourg team bus.

We walk on and pass through the turnstiles which read our bar-coded tickets before we are patted down and wished “bon match”.  It amuses me that Paulene seems to be searched more thoroughly than I am, but then the French have a history of female villains; Madame Defarge, Madame Thenardier, Marine Le Pen.   At the back of the Tribune Sud (south stand), which is built into the hillside behind the goal, a couple of blokes who look a bit old to be Ultras are unfolding a tifosi banner in the form of a huge Dijon home shirt.  I half expect to see them plugging in an especially large iron. 

Our tickets (24 euros each) are in the top tier of the east stand at the side of the pitch, so we keep on walking, on past the ‘Le Bon Sucre’ stall selling crepes, gauffres and beignets, and bizarrely decorated with the figure of a busty woman, posed with her mouth slightly open and about to lick a dollop of cream from her finger.   France can be oddly schizophrenic with regard to women; seemingly ahead of Britain in the use of female football presenters and commentators and in appreciating women’s football, but still displaying the same casual sexism of the 1930’s when Gaston Gerard’s wife Reine impressed a well-regarded critic and gastronome with a new chicken dish, which thereafter became known as Chicken Gaston Gerard after her husband, not her.

Resisting the temptations of le Bon Sucre we walk on beneath the Tribune Caisse D’Epargne as it is known thanks to sponsorship from the bank of that name, where we cannot resist the lure of the club shop. 

Thankfully Dijon FCO do not have their own brand of mustard, and sadly their T-shirts don’t appeal so we restrict our purchases to a petit fanion (5 euros) to add to the collection in the upstairs toilet, a bear in a red and white scarf (10 euros) for Paulene’s cupboard of football related cuddly toys and a bib (6.50 euros) for the new grandson Jackson, because he needs more bibs.  Leaving the shop we pass by one of the buvettes, from which people are leaving with the best looking chips I have ever seen at a football ground, proper big chunky ones.  I collect a couple of the free match day programmes, which are actually more like 12 page newspapers, but they tell us all we need to know, listing the squads, tonight’s other fixtures and the up to date league table.

Our seats, we learn, are in the top tier of the stand;  it’s been a bit of a walk from the tram stop and Paulene’s asthma means she’s not feeling up to climbing two or three flights of stairs so I ask one of the many young women in gilets oranges if there is a lift.  I am directed to a man in a blue jacket with the words Besoin d’aide? (Need help?) printed on the back; he asks us to follow him and  having led us into a room from which he collects a set of keys he unlocks a white door hidden within the white walls of the concourse beneath the stand.  The blue jacketed man leads us down a long white corridor and round a corner, part of a hidden labyrinth within the stand; I think to myself that this is what near death experiences are supposed to be like.  The man then unlocks what seems like a secret compartment, but is in fact a lift, which takes us to an open concourse at the back of the top tier of the stand.  We thank the man but not before he shows us to our seats; what a helpful bloke.  From each seat projects a red flag at 45 degrees which bears the Dijon FCO club crest; it doesn’t do to sit down in a hurry; it could be painful.  We are in the second row at the front of the top tier and have a fine view of the pitch, but also, over the top of the stand opposite, a panorama of Dijon stretches out with an array of towers and spires, like a Gallic version of Oxford. Beyond the city, rolling hills and forests.

There is a still a while until kick-off so I return to the open concourse for some drinks, returning with a cup of orange Fanta for Paulene and a small beer for me (7 euros for the two). Both drinks are in re-usable plastic cups which celebrate Dijon FCO’s twentieth anniversary; Dijon had a club dating back to 1913 (Cercle Laique Dijonnais) but it remained resolutely amateur, like my own beloved Ipswich Town did unti 1936, before merging with Dijon FC in 1998 and the new club eventually turned professional in 2004.  Looking north-east from the back of the stand the sky is a menacing grey and in the distance it is clearly raining; a strong gusty wind is blowing it towards us, something wicked this way comes, but more probably something wet.  Walking back to my seat I begin to regret not having noticed until I had ordered beer and fanta that I could have had a cup of the vin chaud (2.50 euros).  The rain arrives in the form of stair rods, it is spectacular and I am thankful I am not in the Tribune Sud into which the wind is blowing, or on the open terrace opposite where an increasing and impressive following of Strasbourg supporters are gathering and getting soaked.  The deluge is mercifully brief and heads off into the hills of Burgundy leaving the fading evening sunlight to glisten and reflect off the roof tops of the city.

As kick-off approaches the public address system pumps out loud euro-pop, the teams are announced, their faces looming in technicolour on the scoreboard.  That tifosi shirt ripples across the lower tier of the Tribune Sud; the Lingon’s Boys Ultras at the north end hang out their banners.  The best display however is from the Racing Club Strasbourg supporters who celebrate making the 330 kilometre journey by waving white flags around a central blue cross with the letter RCS in the centre of that.  All around there is noise from the crowd of 13,105 and then the teams enter the pitch through a colonnade of giant Roman candles as the Ligue 1 theme tune plays over the public address system and everyone waves their red Dijon flags, me included; one of the many things they know how to do in France is put on a show and give everyone a free flag.

After handshakes and huddles the game begins with Dijon all in red and the words “Roger Martin” emblazoned across their chests, a sentiment I heartily agree with. Strasbourg unnecessarily wear all- white; their ‘proper’ signature kit of blue shirts with white shorts would not clash with Dijon’s home strip. Dijon are playing towards the Lingon’s Boys, with Strasbourg aiming in the direction of the Tribune Sud.  It’s the 36th journee of the 38 game season and Dijon are struggling in 19th place in the twenty team league.  Strasbourg are mid-table (10th) and have every right to feel smug and relaxed having qualified for the Europa League by winning the Coupe de La Ligue against En Avant Guingamp, the team bottom in Ligue 1, who by the end of tomorrow afternoon are destined to be relegated to Ligue 2.

Dijon are more eager because they have more at stake and they have the first shot on goal, from 39 year old Florent Balmont, a marvellous if unexciting, mostly defensive midfield player who simply keeps the team ticking over like a sort of bald-headed human, metronome.  Paulene and I reminisce about seeing him play a much more dynamic game for Lille against Copenhagen in a Champions League qualifier back in 2012.  This game is not dynamic.  Dijon struggle to play accurately whilst Strasbourg’s season has already finished, and they appear to lack motivation.   Lacking inspiration from the football I enjoy the architecture of the three re-built sides of the stadium; three individual stands linked by an arching, curving translucent roof; architect Michel Rémon has done a fine job and I get to thinking what self-respecting architect would put his name to the breeze block and tin sheet constructions that pass for provincial football stadia in England.

With only fourteen minutes played Florent Balmont is cautioned by referee Monsieur Hakim Ben El Hadj for complaining too vociferously when a free-kick is awarded against a team mate.  Dijon are ponderous and what shots on goal there are, are blocked or wide and no one looks much like scoring, that is until five minutes before half-time.  Tunisian international Naim Sliti pursues another mis-placed pass inside the penalty area, it’s running away from the goal towards the corner flag but somehow the chasing defender manages to clip Sliti’s heels, he goes down and Monsieur Ben El Hadj awards a penalty.  Paulene thinks it’s a bit harsh, suggesting that Sliti was moving so slowly towards the ball that the chasing defender, Adrien Thomasson, just caught up with him sooner than expected.  Monsieur Ben El Hadj ignores her pleas and Dijon’s Cape Verde international Julio Tavares gets the glory, booting the ball beyond the dive of Strasbourg’s Belgian goal keeper Matz Sels into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal;  Stade Gaston-Gerard is rocking all the way to mi-temps (half-time).

I make use of the break to use the facilities but haven’t got the will to wait at the buvette for another drink; I return to my seat and zip up my wind-cheater against the evening chill.  Small boys take part in a shoot-out and I feel very sorry for a particularly ungainly looking one whose control is so poor that the goalkeeper has claimed the ball before he even shoots, you just know he gets picked last in the playground.

The second half begins and Strasbourg are re-vitalised by their half-time espresso and now look much more interested, whilst Dijon are no better than before.  But time moves on, it gets dark and still Dijon lead but their Icelandic goalkeeper Runar Runarsson is busy, running off his line and making saves.  A corner from Strasbourg’s fabulously monikered Kenny Lala is sent goalwards by the Bosnian Stefan Mitrovic, the header is blocked by Dijon’s Roman Amalfitano but rebounds to  Ludovic Ajorque who has a simple ‘tap-in’ to equalise.   As Strasbourg celebrate a pall of gloom falls over most of Stade Gaston-Gerard.  Runarsson is called to make further saves from Thomasson, Da Costa and Goncalves, and Dijon manager Antoine Kombouare seems to be facing the prospect of both the Ligue 1 clubs he has managed this season being relegated; he was given the Dijon job in January having been sacked by Guingamp in November.

I like Antoine Kombouare, he has a kindly face and previously managed Strasbourg, Lens and Paris Saint-Germain, where he was sacked when they were top of the league. He looks on impassively in his grey suit and baseball hat.  With 15 minutes left Kombouare acts and replaces Florent Balmont with the Korean Kwon Chang-Hoon.   Balmont takes his place on the bench to great applause from the Dijonnais, he doesn’t look happy, not because he’s been substituted but because of how the game is going. 

Kombouare’s decision makes a difference however as Kwon seems to have far more energy than the rest of his team put together; he darts about, running at the Strasbourg defence and shooting on sight, he energises the crowd. But despite his efforts nobody scores for Dijon, although Ludovic Ajorque is prompted to even up the scores for yellow cards.  The ninetieth minute arrives and leaves; five minutes time added-on will be played and the home crowd urge their team on.  Dijon have to win to have a chance of avoiding relegation, their main rivals Caen are beating Reims 3-2.  If they lose Dijon will be five points behind with two games left, one of which is away to Paris Saint-Germain.  It’s the ninety third minute, Tavares has the ball, it runs on to Kwon in the centre of the penalty area, he takes a step and lashes the ball magnificently into the net past Sels. Kwon is engulfed by blokes in red shirts and in the stands everyone is on their feet cheering.  This is the way to win a football match, be ropey for ninety minutes and then get a last minute winner.  In the following day’s local paper “Le Bien Public” the game will be marked as a five out of ten, although the national sports paper L’Equipe will give it four stars out of six.   The stats will show that Dijon had fewer shots, fewer corners, less possession, won fewer duels and fewer tackles, made fewer passes and interceptions and their passes were less accurate.  What the stats cannot show however is that they never stopped believing they could win.

The full-time whistle soon follows and as we applaud the teams a man in a blue jacket appears from nowhere to take us back to the lift.  Paulene would be fine going down the stairs, but is mightily impressed that she has been remembered.  We are joined by two older men with gammy legs; the man in the blue jacket pushes the button on the lift control panel marked “-1” and leaves us.  One of the older men clearly thinks he knows better and pushes the button marked “0”; the lift descends and the doors open onto a darkened cupboard.  Fortunately the doors close again and we complete our descent,  and having negotiated a long white corridor find ourselves back in the concourse beneath the stand from where we step out into the night and stroll back to the tram stop.  Riding back into town on the packed tram I feel like Albert Camus in Algiers.  I love going to football matches in France.